Chapter 26 : Turkey
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Slowly, languidly, the world baked, bit by bit, heat shimmering off the tiled floor in wave after wave of shaking, transparent lines, sucking the moisture from the ground, those thin veins in between squares of painted enamel, in long, gulping breaths which never seemed to end. Rays forced their way under arches, through elaborately carved doors and windows covered over with silk curtains, turning everything white to blinding, reds and browns to pinks and faded, chipped golds, stealing water from small, curved glasses, from lips and mouths and eyes.
Slowly, languidly, I baked too: you told me once I was golden and fair, Ganymede reborn, but laid out and stripped bare in the face of the furnace, I burnished halfway to bronze and my hair lightened to a delicate white-gold, glittering and soft.
Cotton sheets beneath me and the azure sky above, the gentle swish of trees swaying in a light breeze skating far above my head, and I could believe that there was something of that left: something fragile and innocent, something which begged for protection.
There, hidden away beside a secluded pool, the edge of it ragged and decorated with rocks and smooth, oval pebbles in shades of terracotta red, sprawled on a wide divan bed, I sank into the earth and the heat scorched my soul bare, tugging at my muscles until they unwound, coming undone like a knotted string. I remembered, there, what it was so breathe – what it was to vanish, cut off from the world and isolated, spinning through the sky in a world entirely your own.
Loneliness is a joy man cannot live without, after all.
There, nestled in the Turkish hills, the horizon stretched out in front of me, a watercolour picture with the haze lingering around as the clock ticked over to two, a pair of sleek, tanned fingers slid the first seed of betrayal into my mouth, sweet and sickeningly sour.
The irony: that such an ugly thing should have been born in so beautiful a place.
It is almost biblical in its way – betrayal crouched behind pillars to strike me when my back is turned, just as the serpent, poisonous and swift, coils beneath the spread, arching leaves of bedded flowers, and waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike, true and deep, into the flesh of the innocent standing before it, shocked and wounded, blood pooling around the bite marks even as venom floods into the veins, the heart plodding along, pumping poison around the body, from limb to limb and up to the brain, unknowing and constant.
Verdant and bright, the villa was engulfed in tall, slender trees which rose above the roof, hedges and ferns pushing up against the edge of the pool, sprays of yellow, bell-shaped flowers cascading over balconies and rails and trailing through the water in a slow, lazy sway. Somewhere, in its heart, betrayal grew and festered and smiled, polite and mild, hidden beneath silk awnings and amongst the orchids and clusters of wild flowers, orange and pink and chalk white.
Free and indolent, I surrendered in the face of the sun himself, giving myself over to rest, to laziness, thoughtless and insensible to the sly whispers in the shadows, the calculated cunning which stalked my every move.
It is the way all great men die, no? In the daytime, as fate clicks into place and the future becomes certain, where the heady scent of wine clouds the taste of poison, the gleam of gold around necks and on fingers hides the glitter of a dagger being unwrapped; where the lithe, sleek glitter of the snake’s scales belies the stink of death which lingers on its fangs, the flowers which shield it bobbing gently in the still air, purple and glorious against the dust of their surroundings.
Beautiful, we would think, naïve and sweet, such beautiful flowers – and we would be consigned to history, then, in beauty’s name.
Oh, but beauty is a weapon in and of itself – is it not, my Albus?
You should have known – anything which blinds is dangerous, anything which delights so much is unholy, anything which is craved so completely is addictive; is it not the way of things? What we want, we can never have; and what we can have, we never want.
A tragedy, Albus, and one which never ends.
To betrayal, then – it is the natural progression, from beauty to tragedy to the sting of betrayal, yes? – and the storm it conjured up, ushered in from the edges of the horizon and screamed out by the sky in a single, long howl.
The first I knew of it was the lightning – a flash of a fork, spiked and twin-pronged, plunging into the ground thirty miles out west, close to the coast and the sea, in a burst of gold-white, to announce its arrival, a threat and a warning at once. The thunder came after, low and growling, heavy and setting my stomach to lurch, shaking something down in the depths of my soul. Heat was replaced by a fierce cold, the pressure of the air beating down by the drumming and battering of rain onto flagstones and seeping through awnings, thudding into my arms and my head.
Within minutes I was drowning in it, shivering and freezing and overwhelmed.
The thunder grew louder, the lightning grew closer, brighter, and the rain threatened to submerge me, to push me to my knees and force me to shatter.
Once, that summer, I told you, fierce and bright and untested, I do not bend and I do not break. You smiled, indulgent and fond even then, twisting your fingers into my hair, and told me that while I certainly did bend – and you blushed as you said it, your eyes dark and sparkling; the double meaning a giddy secret hovering between us – you did not believe I could ever break.
Now, Albus, now I may say that I have faced the full force of the sun and the sky, the fury of a storm and I did not break; I stood and waited, and when they came for me, I reminded them that I too, am a force of nature – terrible and furious and imperial.
When the sun and the sky and the storm come to beat you into the ground, will you have the strength to stand?
19th June, 1930; Denizli, Turkey
All through the air, voices sighed, soft and gentle, silver-grey butterflies darting out of sight as I passed, tempered by the heat of the day as it thrummed, drumming into the flat stone floors and the tiled walls, making the Egyptian blue paint gleam, three shades lighter, and the thin gold lines here and there glitter, blinding in sleek, slim bursts. Everything wavered at this time of day, the whole earth shuddering and panting, vision shaking, and it had me permanently teetering on the edge, waiting for an image, a sight which never came.
Along the corridors, as I walked, Agathe following as always, the heat of the sun battled with the cool, fresh air conjured up by the endless temperature charms laced into the fabric of every building and sheltered by awnings and trellised ceilings as it wafted out of doorways and windows, skirmishing up and down my spine and the length of my face. Half of me burned, cream-and-white-gold, and the other half froze.
If outside, they battled, inside, they had merged and solidified into a boiling, blistering fury which gnawed at my ribs and bubbled through my blood in curling, coiling winds.
Beneath my skin, magic pulsed, static crawling up my arms, prickling and sparking, and I longed for the days I could simply breathe and fling it all outwards, see it whip and crash into mountains and the sides of valleys, sending cascades of rock tumbling into the water, avalanches of snow trembling and rumbling – setting the sky to grumble and darken, storm-clouds gathering like vultures overhead, and the power in my blood singing, revelling in the thrill of it all.
Anger has always suited me, where it never did you – has it not, my Albus?
In you, it is the slow, yawning awakening of a Titan, lumbering and deadly and awkward – the first stirrings of it, deep in the heart of the ocean’s soul, will have passed long before it reaches the top, before your conscious mind rouses itself to action, fury visible in springing, darting shows like flares to say stop, that is enough.
In me, it is the descent of a storm, incited by a clash of friction somewhere out over the plains and sped on its way by a howling, scratching wind, a monochrome tempest which spins fire out of drops of water strung together, drowning and burning and destroying at whim because passion is poisonous with the right spice.
We are matches, floating on a sea of oil, and waiting, always waiting, for a single, flickering spark.
(And so it is always violent when we clash – we carve scars into the earth around us, delving deep until she bleeds dry; we bruise bones and stinging bursts of white and dove-blue leave marks, black-and-purple blooming under skin; casualties tumble from the sky, shudder on the ground where they hide under bushes and behind trees; and in all of this, magic cries and begs and sings, a symphony of want shrouding us in a hazy flutter of gauze, and when we are breathless and stumbling, our hearts stuttering and knees crumbling, it is all too easy to fall into each other, exhausted and furiously tender, and remember how it is we were made for each other.
You did not come to me after the duel, bathed in glory and guilt; compassion then would have killed us both.
The memory of it haunts you every night, and it will never let you go.)
Before me, the door swung open, silent and slow, and I pushed it, quick and hard, the crash it made as it slammed back into a table, the vase on it teetering and smashing on the tiled floor in a second, smaller sound, sending a flicker of pleasure up my spine, soothing something hot and dark in my chest. Inside the room, its occupants jumped, heads snapping to look at me with identical nervous, solemn expressions.
“Herr Kanzler,” Meinrad was the first to speak, his hands crossed over his stomach where he sat behind his desk, drops of sweat glistening on his forehead and cheeks – it had been cruel to send him out here; the heat was suffocating him, slowly but surely. “We had not expected you so soon – although, of course, you are most welcome.”
As he spoke, Agathe, quiet and sensible, slipped past me to close the door with a soft click, the brief flash of the locking spell lost in the glare of sunlight streaming through the carved windows.
“What has been taken?” I ignored the greeting – useless, empty words; puffery to blossom in the air and squeeze out all others, all necessary others – and flung the question at him quickly. “And what is being said; your messenger, it seems, could not say.”
Beside him, his assistant – a young woman this year with a curled bob, her gaze darting between his mouth and his hands, slid a sheet of parchment onto the desk when he gestured, giving me a quick, frightened glance, before resuming her silent, stiff pose, fingers linked in front of her.
“We are double-checking what has been taken, but so far we believe it is merely a handful of personal letters, to at least three individual persons,” Meinrad informed me, pushing the sleeve of his robe – bell-shaped and loose, as was the local custom – up his arm, and consulting the parchment. “So far, we suspect there were no state secrets contained within them – nothing which would compromise either your safety or that of the recipients, or the government itself – but, unfortunately, there may have been things of a delicate nature. Of course, they were your letters, and so we have no doubt that we will have a complete answer to what in a matter of minutes now that you have arrived, should you be willing to assist.”
“Consider it done,” I said, taking a seat on a divan – low and flat, the blue cotton of it warm to the touch. “I will make a list of what should be found.”
“We will be most grateful for it,” he nodded, his face remaining grim and unsmiling. With a second, longer series of gestures I could not follow – there was a rhythm to it, a language to it – he directed the young woman to levitate a stack of rolls of parchment over to me, holding them in front of me like a floating library. “As to what is being said…”
He trailed off, weak and leaking a grimace, raising a cream handkerchief to dab at his forehead with a sigh.
“You ought to read it for yourself – after all, Herr Kanzler, it is about you.”
So, one by one, I read what the newspapers intended to write, to publish in four days’ time in every major publication from Ireland to the eastern tips of Russia, and what a story they had found!
They painted pictures of expensive, smoke-filled dens, with laudanum served in martini glasses, alcohol and Eiferwein, that heady drink, sipped from brandy glasses and champagne flutes and licked off the backs of handsome young men, seconds before they would turn and smile, coquettish and sultry in shirts open to their navels and black-lined eyes, ties and robes long forgotten. They spoke of how I would lie there, on a bed or a chaise longue or a sofa, drowsy and drunk and floating on a cocktail of narcotics, and summon them to me, reprobates and Ganymedes all, demanding that they kiss me, that they slide their hands over my skin, down to run along my hips, through my hair, along the creases of my thighs.
They screamed scandal and poison, and promised destruction.
(Albus, my Albus, what would you have done – if it had been you in my place?
Something different, you would say if I asked you, something different, something less cruel, something kinder and simpler and cleverer.
You would lie because it is easier, simpler, and far crueller to claim you are so much better than me, and so necessary to calm your own conscience.)
Buried somewhere in all of the gaudy, decedent images, was a handful of grains of truth, plucked out of lines and paragraphs of writing, platitudes and compliments and cruder, sweeter phrases, and arranged delicately, coral roses and crimson poppies mixed in a slim glass vase, among wild imaginings, to better set the people’s minds on fire.
The weakness of humanity – how easy it is to twist a mind or a thousand, until they believe what it is you want them to believe, even when it goes against all proof, all reason and sense!
How very fortunate for me, no?
“Has the person responsible been found?” I asked, replacing the last of the rolls of parchment back into the grip of the spell the assistant was holding, watching Meinrad as the parchment floated away and out of sight.
Two days later, when it was all over, I would burn them all – a twitch of my hand conjuring a dancing, leaping spark of teal blue at their heart, eating them up quickly, greedily, in feverish, inky gulps – and the letters which had been scribed in them would linger on in the back of my mind, charcoal-black and smudged by anger, but clear enough.
“Jawohl,” Meinrad gave a short, clipped nod to confirm; another hand signal and the assistant handed him another piece of parchment. This time, there was a letterhead, bearing the insignia of the Turkish magical government, and a name at the bottom I recognised well. “He is to be tried in a week, but the decision is certain – the evidence is overwhelming. That is, of course –” he cleared his throat here, flapping a hand uselessly in the air, and I waited, impatient and silent, for him to continue. “Assuming that you intend to deny the, ah, accusations?”
The words hung in the air for a moment, as he sweated and shifted in his seat, painful in their lightness, their careful, poised phrasing.
A shame – I had been almost looking forward to hearing him say it out loud, stumbling over the terrible, shameful words: stuttering out five syllables, graceless and afraid, his voice nothing more than a whisper. Still, his discomfort was visible: the reality of it all was choking him, a noose around his neck slowly tightening on his narrow, primitive mind and squeezing hard, opening his eyes and shattering his blissfully ignorant existence.
(History will remember little of this scuffle, even though for a clutch of hours infamy and disgrace loomed large in the doorway, their twinned shadows brushing over the back of my hand in a cold, damp caress.
I am certain – after all, I am the victor, historian of my own image, and I have buried it deep enough it will rest untouched for long enough that it will drift out of memory.
It stings, sometimes, to hide so much, to bind your own wings and cover over your own scars, but it is the burden of power – a necessary sacrifice for the greater good.)
“The government of Germany is worth far more than a dozen obscene articles,” I replied softly, a trickle of laughter sneaking into the room through the windows – it was three o’clock in the afternoon and the guard were changing, oblivious and naively content to the biting, clawing tension inside.
“It is a defamation suit,” Meinrad began, hesitant, but with a shred of bravery I had not anticipated – not from him, at least. His eyes, dark and muddy, studied me closely, cold and hard. “Truth matters in these things – to defend something –”
“Truth does not exist,” I interrupted him, quiet and harsh, and from across the desk my eyes bored into his. “It is merely a matter of perception and nothing more – and perception can be altered.”
For a moment, the room was silent as we watched each other in a silent, unspoken battle, and then he nodded, his expression unreadable, and conceded, pulling out his handkerchief again in a wave of surrender and mopping at his forehead and hairline.
“Of course, Herr Kanzler – I will instruct the lawyer as you say,” he said.
“I will expect to be kept informed,” I told him, rising and giving a flash of a smile to his stiff, nervous assistant; she only blinked and looked away.
“Should the decision go badly,” Meinrad almost murmured the words just as I reached for the handle of the door, my fingers grazing the polished wood, but I did not turn around. “Perhaps we should prepare for the likely uproar?”
“That would be unnecessary,” I replied, light and genial. “I have every confidence the right decision will be made, and justice will be served. There will be no uproar.”
When people talk about history, when they remember it, they always ask: where were you? Where were you when the war ended? Where were you when the ship sank? Where were you when the empire fell?
It bears a kind of weight – a solemnity in the innocence of your actions.
The judge thumped the gavel down on the nameless, faceless accused at half past one in the afternoon, on the twenty-sixth of June, the sound of it reverberating throughout the chamber, thudding into old, carved walls, his voice loud and strong and flat: for all the nature of the crimes, there is no passion in law, no spirit to give it life and colour.
As the gavel fell and the accused slumped in the hands of his guards, I too gasped and choked back a moan, the silk sheet scrunched in my grip, crumpling and creasing, white and sleek and so appropriately ironic. Fingers pressed against my back, my side, as hips pressed, hard and fast and sharp, against mine, ruthless and fierce; there were words drifting about the room, phrases in Arabic slipping from his lips – things I did not understand – but what did they matter when language was irrelevant: the hand he slipped around my stomach and the way he tilted his hips against my body spoke far more eloquently and robbed me of speech quicker than any words could have.
(I wish I could say this to you in person – how you would blush, my Albus, even after so many years and so many bodies!
English, always so stoic and tautly refined, pretending you are unburdened by ordinary, coercing passions – and yet, when protected by nightfall and the warm glow of candlelight, your morals collapse like a house of cards and the words you utter then are damnable every one, sinful and wicked and so wonderfully enticing.
Those have always been our best times, have they not – nights?)
The storm had passed, the threat had been nullified, and the world was set to rights, smiling and blissfully lethargic as I lay on my back on the bed, watching Ilkay as he leaned down to kiss me, flushed and dishevelled, the assurance of lust gone.
I had proven myself unassailable to the tens of attentive eyes around me, around my government, even if the outside world would never truly know what it meant.
Meanwhile, in the corners of rooms and the cracks and holes in streets, things were beginning to stir, waking and sniffing the air, testing it and smelling it ripe and ready – out they prowled, bringing with them discontent and unease, a growing sense of something coming, something blooming in the shadows, taking root in minds and hearts, jet-black and malevolent, soaked with an icy surety faith could not beat.
You will smile now, I know – knowing and patiently anticipating the next words I will recite to you. You will not laugh, as others might, and you know it is not generous.
We could all feel it, then, those of us who directed history, the way the wind was changing, the seasons shifting and reforming, the vultures gathering one by one overhead. There was a restlessness and a discomfort everywhere – an edge to every conversation, a bite on the end of every action.
It had been festering for years, waiting to gather its strength, and now it poked its head out of its den for the first time in decades, beginning the crawl out into the sunshine.
Germany was rocking, shivering and listless, and it was only ever a matter of time.
Later on the day history would forget, Ilkay leaned against the headboard, his side pressed flush against mine, our legs tangled together, a newspaper abandoned on top of the blanket, and stared as the rain flattened the flowers and the bushes outside, stripping leaves off trees and dyeing the light buttercup-yellow awnings a deep, rich amber.
“Two storms in a week – it is not normal,” he said in slow, halting English. “Unless, I suppose, you are English. My sister says they have many storms; a lot of rain, day after day. It makes her sad.”
I did not watch the storm – absently, delicately, I traced the ‘A’ in your name, printed in strong, bold type on page four, next to a strapline I have only ever remembered as blurred.
I had not thought about you in months, and then, there you were.
Once, that summer, there was a storm outside: heavy and humid, the air thick around us, leaving us tangled together, sticky and violently, hopelessly awake as the rain beat down on the roof of the house, sounding every moment as though the next hit would be the one to crash through the thatching and into the floor, earthing itself in the belly of the house. We were on your bed, half a sheet draped over us in the name of decency, your fingers in my hair and my arm wrapped around your waist, loose and lethargic.
I forget what I said, then, in the roar of the rain outside – whatever it was, I murmured it into your skin, a lick of salt pressing against my lip, cool and wet.
You did not reply for a while, but time did not matter then – we were lost in our own sanctuary, the rain like beads strung together on string creating out own tempestuous bower, blocking us from the world, keeping us hidden and safe away from prying eyes and the demands of family and duty – and when you did, it was soft, confessed to the reflection of candlelight in the glass, fuzzy and orange-gold.
“My father would sit up through the night,” you began, tentative and wistful, your words half-lost to a sigh. “Every time there was a storm. I used to hide at the top of the stairs and watch him – I thought perhaps he liked it, wanted to watch how it blustered and the way the lightning flashed. Now, I think they made him sad, and so he sat, awake in a house asleep, and so alone.”
(In my mother’s country, it is said in the folklore that wizards could control the sky, summon up whirling hurricanes or smatterings of rain, even raising a storm from dead air, holding out a hand and catching a fork of lightning in their palms.
Meaningless, perhaps, but beautifully wild.
Then, as now, as it did that summer, a storm was forming out to sea – the first wisps of thin grey cloud peaking over the horizon, tinting the edge of the world dark and desolate – and I held my breath, the thrill of anticipation setting my heart beating half a beat quicker, lighting a fire in my eyes, and I pressed myself against the glass, waiting impatiently for the glory of its fury when it came.
You said your father; did you lie, then?)
I had not thought of you in months, and then you came with the rain and I was soaked to the bone in seconds, floundering at sea as the sky darkened and clouds fattened.
As my father would say, in a puff of smoke: vom Regen in die Traufe, mein schatz.
A/N: I do not own any references to Hungarian mythology ('my mother's country...').
Jawohl - yes
Herr Kanzler - Mr Chancellor, a formal address
schatz - dear/darling
vom Regen in die Traufe - literal translation: out of the rain and into the eaves. ie. going from an unpleasant situation to one which is even worse.
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