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L'optimisme by Aphoride
Chapter 6 : Württemberg
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 9


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*

Württemberg

When I wake, the frost has crystallised all the way around the bars of my prison cell, decorating each one in spirals of blue and white and clear gems, the faint hint of silver winking at me through them. Beyond the prison, the wind whips up the small, glittering dots, plucking them from the air and the ground, and plasters them all over the bars, over the edge of the walls, before dancing away again, leaving behind swirls and stars and ferns written in falsified jewels; nature’s Christmas decorations.

I ignore the way the wind reaches for me, picking at my skin and my eyes and my mouth, desperate to leech any moisture out of me and take it for its own, and stand by the window. The snowstorms come every year here, in the mountains, and yet they have never bored me. It is likely they never will.

There is something beautiful about them, something beautiful and wild and free and utterly, wonderfully deadly which I cannot help but love. A snowstorm does not answer to anyone, it cannot be tamed, cannot be contained, will destroy rather than be destroyed.

You know all of this, of course, with the snowstorms you will have seen in your school, watching from the safety of your warm tower, looking down on the world below. Oh, Albus, you will never have seen them like this, though; will never have felt them the way I have.

The cold comes first: it creeps up from the floor when the sun is hidden under the cover of the clouds, grey and slowly dying, and gathers, grows and strengthens until it is tough and dry, making your breath come in rattles and your fingers freeze. It goes right down into the bone, cutting right to the quick; shivering is useless with this, you cannot fight it, and truthfully I do not want to – the cold reminds me I am still alive. I am still here, my breath visible proof of that.

Then, the wind comes. It screams around the mountains, biting and scratching in all its twinned fury and glory (but then the two have never been far apart, as any historian could tell you), fierce from birth. It is a hungry wind, angry and hungry, and it digs around, whipping its tail across your face, sucking what was left of the moisture from the air, stealing it as soon as you lick your lips in a kiss, of sorts.

When the first snows fall, they are delicate things: each snowflake a wet, heartfelt sigh, meandering down from the heavens, sparkling and glimmering in the beams of light poking through the clouds. These are nothing like them; instead, these are half-formed things, plain and damp, and they refuse to melt on my fingers when I catch them, balancing them on a fingertip. Underneath their bodies, my skin freezes, and they bow down slowly before collapsing all at once, undone by the heat of my blood.

The heat of my blood may destroy the snow, but the wind is far crueller than I: it throws them about, little and weak, spinning them about in the air, helpless in the face of such power. If ice could scream… ah, but that is a strange thought, no?

Strange things breed in Nurmengard, though; it is not unexpected. After a decade or two, I expect I shall be quite mad. Let us see how you wear that on your conscience when it comes – I suspect that, as with all things, you will wear it as a hair shirt; the tears it brings to your eyes the only visible penance you will do for it.

Württemberg – it was the start of all things, that you know well enough. They will have documented it by now, will have written it down and labelled it as ‘the start’, as though everything truly began there and not in our haven by the brook in Wales. It is only fitting, then, that it should also be the end.

Outside my window, the snow keeps falling, beautiful and wild and free and deadly, and I cannot help but be reminded of what I once was; and I was all those things, once, Albus, for that is why you loved me, yes?

As the cold sinks into my bones, the frost creeping into my cell bit by bit by bit, I lean back on the narrow bed and close my eyes, dreaming even as I shiver, of the old days, before I held the key to the world’s problems, when I was simply young and the world was mine for the taking.




30th January, 1901; Heiligenberg, Germany

It was a light smell at first, reminiscent of lemons and limes – sharp and strong and clean – and it made me think of my childhood, out in the wilds of Hungary, climbing up trees and picking fruit in the fields. Then, slowly, it faded and gave way to something darker, something less clinical and nice and far, far more seductive; heady and sweet and deep, it was the kind of scent that stuck in your throat and filled up your lungs, cloying and over-powering.

I loved it: it spoke to me of drama, passion and longing – the desperation of a lost lover who does not have the strength to fight any more. It spoke of darkened rooms, of hushed, secretive conversations and a love hidden from society, hidden from daylight for fear, perhaps, or for the flair of quick, passionate romance such things often inspire.

The flowers themselves, of course, were unremarkable: common purple lilacs, arriving late on morning with a yellow ribbon tied around them in a neat bow. Around them, the faint tingle of magic – a preserving spell, I assumed, to make sure that the gift (for they were, no? After all, people do not generally send flowers and expect them returned) did not fade or die.

Sitting on the windowsill, feeling the breeze from the mountains reach down to ruffle my hair and send ripples through my clothes, I twirled a lilac between my fingers and wondered who could have sent them.

The meaning was somewhat clearer: in romance, in courtships, lilacs symbolise first love, beauty and youth and pride.

It did not help, though, insofar as selecting candidates for the sender was concerned: I could not think of people who had loved me, for whom I would have been their first love, and certainly no one who would have sent me flowers anonymously, in the middle of the day by an owl I did not know. There is a sense of distance in sending unspoken messages, a sense that words could not do it, that words are both not enough and yet too much; perhaps that speaking would be impossible, that such a confession would be mocked or ridiculed.

I confess that the idea that it had been you who had sent them, you who loved me, did not ever cross my mind then. Now, with the blessing of hindsight, I see that perhaps I should have, and I wonder sometimes why I did not.

Seeing the clock – a cuckoo clock from the home of my heart, Schwarzbald in Württemberg, carved to show a pair of stags crowning it, hedgehogs and rabbits and leaves worked into the sides, all in burnished oak; a present from my father for my seventeenth birthday – chime eight, I sighed and set aside the lilac, slotting it neatly back into the vase with the others. Work was calling; no doubt there would be time to ruminate on declarations of love made by silent admirers once I had installed a new world order.

Rising and straightening my robes, I made my way to the fireplace, tossing in a handful of emerald powder. I stepped into it, turning on my heel in a swirl of red and green, before vanishing and spinning out into another room, taller and larger and richer.

It is a fact of this world that political buildings – whether palaces to celebrate monarchies, cathedrals to celebrate archbishops and popes, or parliamentary buildings to celebrate the revolution of the masses – are designed to impress upon every person who passes through them a sense of awe, of observing grandeur they could never hope to possess, of intimidation in the face of power and wealth and glory, be it real or literal. The Württemberg Ministry was no different.

Outwardly, it appeared to the world to be a dilapidated church, moss growing over stones and bell broken in the tower, but inwardly it was something of a marvel of renaissance architecture. I confess I have never been much of a fan of architecture, truly, but if there were ever a building to convince me, then perhaps it would be this one (though, in the end, it was another which converted me, much later on, of the beauty that could be found in static things).

The hall was large, high-ceilinged, the borders decorated with nymphs and cupids and harp-playing angels, all cast in marble and decorated with gold leaf; the centre of it all, flat and long, was a fresco of Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor, crowned and anointed as Kaiser, with the sceptre in his right hand and the orb in his left. Around him were angels, messengers from Heaven, and his people knelt in supplication before him. Even I, unlearned in the ways of art as I was, could tell that it was a true marvel, the work of a lifetime immortalised in colour.

Antique fireplaces lined the walls, pokers and tongs in bronze vases next to them, paintings of former Ministers, of great citizens of Württemberg, hung above them, each one with a small plaque bearing their name. I did not need the plaques to know who they were; I had studied them all, each one in turn, to know alongside whom I would one day stand.

At the end of the hall, in a smaller chamber just beyond it, a statue of gold and marble stood, wand in one hand and sword in the other, clad in the armour of a knight, the feathers on his helmet waving gently in the breeze, yellow and black, with the motto of the state carved into the base: Wir können alles.

It is, I think, a good motto: short, sweet, and undeniably true for people like you and I. The world is our oyster – we could have any career we wanted, be the best at whatever we wanted to do; for those like you and I, excellence comes naturally, and perfection comes with time. All we can do is accept our place in the world, embrace it, and live up to and beyond the expectations carved out for us by our predecessors and our mentors.

Oh, Albus, the people there were nothing like you or I. Ambition they had in spades, and wit – or what some of them thought was wit – but they focused far too much on petty, personal disputes; spending time batting back and forth across tables, exchanging sneers down the corridors with the attitudes of kings. There was nothing instinctive about the atmosphere, nothing truly killer or aggressive; all of that, the passion of power, the passion for power, for glory, had been lost under pure addiction – reminiscent of addicts in morphine’s tender embrace, limp and lacklustre as they lounged about.

I hated them all, without exception, for how passive they were, how they, who did not care for politics, did not care for the nation, for the future, for the people, sat in offices all day and defined the laws and the life of the country – while I, who desired only to give my life to my country and to progression, was confined to the dusty galleries of the law halls, sorting acts and finding documents for the Ministry lawyers. Naturally, I am aware life is cruel and God sends these things to try us, to test our resolve and our strength, but with the Elder Wand in my grasp, I could not help but imagine how easy it would be to walk into the Minister’s office and force him to obey me, or to take the power he held for myself. No one would defy me; no one would dare challenge me.

Unfortunately, such wishes are impossible. To truly change a nation, to forge a future and send a continent, even a world, hurtling down the road to progression and freedom from oppression, one has to change the will of the people, and the will of the people is not so easily persuaded as the mind of a single man. A single man, under great enough pressure, cannot cope; he must yield, must bend and break and fade. A crowd… ah, now, that is a different challenge, for the mind of a crowd is simplistic, like that of a child, and it will not believe what it thinks to be fantastical.

The will of the people is a powerful thing, Albus, as no doubt you know now. On it, empires rise and fall, politicians cast their souls, and the whims of God are made clear.

Oh, the thought of it always excites me; I can never resist a challenge, and this, truly, is perhaps the greatest of them all.

So it was that I spent hours upon hours – having started what was supposed to be my wonderful, glittering political career – wandering long, silent corridors, replacing scrolls on shelves and fetching them for pompous rats who looked down on me, young and with no qualifications to my name, with disdainful, patronising smirks. It was dreadfully boring; the cataloguing system was simple, so I was mostly left alone in the room, with nothing more to occupy me than a thousand years of legal history and my own mind.

With my plans still fresh in my mind, though, it was something of a blessing, this gift of solitude. Squishing myself onto the windowsill, gazing out at the countryside and the town sprawled below, I would close my eyes, tip my head back against the stone and think. The cold allowed me to relax, to concentrate fully and let my thoughts fall into place, arranging themselves neatly into hard, logical lines.

(Perhaps, just perhaps, there were occasions I would get stuck, repeating the same point over and over in my head until it would drive me half-mad with frustration, and perhaps then I would think of you, and wish you were with me, and regret that you were not.)

Even as my plans crept closer and closer to finalisation, to the utopia we had dreamed together, I found myself becoming nervous. I would run over them in my head – every single step, from the beginning of the revolution to the end of the transition and the start of the new, glorious future – and catch myself biting my lip so hard I left imprints in the skin or running my hand through my hair. This anxiety was not like me, not like me at all, and knowing where it had sprung from, that it was born of irritation at being invisible in what should have been my aspirational home, did not make it any easier to deal with.

You, I think, will recognise this in your self-imposed cage: the feeling of being useless, of having been given wings by God but never allowed to use them, of being ignored and mocked and patronised when you know, know beyond any other certainty, that you are better than them all, cleverer than them all, and that, truly, it should be they who bowed to you. For me, invisibility was worse than almost any other foreseeable punishment; that I did not matter cut deeper than any blade could. I felt it in my heart, in my soul, in the very fundament of my being.

I was not made to be ignored.

Arrogant, ja, but true. I thrive under scrutiny, being watched and admired, studied and confronted; I need interaction, people, as others need air to breathe and water to live. People enthral me, and so do I them in turn. Invisibility, though, cripples me: it makes me restless, sets my mind to spinning wheels, turning ever faster, and my muscles to jumping, aching with the need to do something – anything.

Loneliness, the painful separation of man from the pack, may be what kills me in the end, I think.

It grew worse as winter came; ice frosted over on the windows in flattened snowflakes, and my fingers froze even in gloves, as there were no lamps in the hall of legal records, no candles or magic permitted, for fear of razing the whole thing to the ground. As I sat on the windowsill, I would see my breath turning to smoke with the cold, and if I rested my head against the wall, my hair would be damp when I left.

It was there, one day, that he found me.

His name was Mathaus Adenauer, a lowly legal clerk in the Ministry’s ranks, though even he was deserving of more attention and less disdain than I. You will recognise the name – and for good reason – but at this time, he was merely another customer, another pen-pusher who curled his lip when he saw me and hated waiting around for documents.

With a cigarette in hand, I was watching as the heat from the smoke from my mouth melted small holes in the frost on the window, making it thinner and thinner and thinner before breaking apart crystallised spiders-webs and clearing the glass completely; my mind was elsewhere, lingering a little on Freud’s theories on hysteria, not long published, and how it might be possible for me to work such ideas to my advantage. I was not, however, doing what I was supposed to be doing: sitting still and straight at the desk at the front of the hall, awaiting the next self-important imbecile.

There was a cough – small, polite – but I did not turn to look. I was bored, bored of living that ridiculous pretence, bored of running around like a servant, and bored, more than anything, of being invisible, and so a fire was beginning to burn in my stomach, a fire of sparked by resentment and loneliness and genuine upset.

“Was?”

I was blunt and rude; he noticed this, and did not think much of me, as he later told me. In that moment, the impressions we made of each other and upon each other were identical, even down to the finer detail.

“I require the Codex Alaricium,” he informed me, speaking with the clipped, rounded accent of Swabian German I still found strange; my time at Durmstrang having accustomed me far more to the sounds and rhythms of High German.

There was a pause, and in the silence I felt the pressure, the anger, growing and travelling inside me, moving up and up my throat to my mouth until it opened and I could not stop, could no longer hold back.

“No, you do not,” I snapped at him, my tone harsh and deeply bitter, still staring out of the window; a robin had landed on a nearby tree and was adjusting the feathers on a wing, bright eyes happy. “You do not need the Codex Alaricium. No one needs the Codex Alaricium. It is useless and outdated. I do not know why you people bother to ask for these things.”

To his credit, Mathaus stayed calm and composed, as unflappable as you at such times.

“I do not think you really understand –”

“I understand that you are a sheep, capable of nothing more than following previously set rules and customs. Why else would you ask for an old code? Why else would you have no more wit than that?” I replied, my voice icy, and my fingers white and slender around the cigarette. I felt almost as though I were shaking, irritation and rage spiking within me.

Why was I nothing? Why was I the useless one, when men like him, sheep to the last man, ruled the roost in the name of tradition and nothing more? Why was I doomed to waste away, the forgotten and failed revolutionary, when he would flourish without talent or gifts?

In the hall, silence was deafening: it seemed to swell around the two of us, lawyer and nobody, swirling and dancing, wrapping us up in layer after layer until the air grew thin and sparse and our throats dry, making it painful to swallow.

“You know the law?” Mathaus was surprised – it was evident in his voice that he had not expected me to be clever; he had expected a lazy simpleton. I could not truly blame him, though I did not like the assumption, as any potential power it held was cancelled by my useless position.

“What else is there to do here but read?” I said simply, giving a half-hearted, elegant shrug – Gallic, I have been told, though I cannot imagine why it would be so.

My eyes closed, I took another drag of the cigarette, suddenly empty of emotion and only left with an old weariness which sank right down into my bones. I was not miserable or lonely or no longer certain, but exhausted. To sleep sounded then like the greatest pleasure the world could offer, and I longed for my bed, for my room at home, blankets and sheets to cocoon me warm and safe from the world.

His footsteps were loud as he left, the heels of his shoes clicking on the stone floor, and then, the slam of the door as it shut behind him, one last swish of his robes as he stepped through it.

I knew then that he had gone, that he would not come back to see me there again – I had offended him, it was only natural he should not want to visit a boy, not long of age and without any confirmation of ability, for mere pleasure. This did not surprise me, nor change anything within me; it was a fact, and not one I was inclined to do anything about, I admit.

I was not looking for friends; I was looking only for success.

Three weeks later, when a representative of the Ministry came down to ask me, through pursed lips and with an expression so purple and incensed he did not need to tell me he thought it absurd, that I had been offered another job, as a legal clerk, I looked at him, looked through the veil of hatred and the no doubt grovelling coward who stood behind it and the answer to me was obvious.

On Mathaus’ desk, I left a copy of the Codex Alaricium, gilt-edged and bound in leather – a resurrected first edition, formerly property of Herman Mester, who had written it – and watched as he laughed, out loud, in the middle of the office. The clerks all around us glared, but he smiled.

It would be months later, the seasons having rolled into a long, wet summer, before I would discover the papers in his desk, ideas and plans for a new law, for a reimagined legal system – for Germany, for the International Confederation, for the world. They were extraordinary, though, in their scope and in their depth, their detail and, most notably, their purely revolutionary nature. These were not laws for the old world; these were dreamed for a new one, a fresh one.

When he spoke about his ideas, about his new laws, I saw in him, in his heart and in his soul, the same fire which drove me: fierce and wild and something altogether original in this dull, repetitive world. We were of a kin, he and I, bound by the same yearning for change, to do something and be something, to see the world forged anew into a better one, a brighter one, and we knew that we could do it, that this was our destiny.

He was the first of our conquests, Albus, though we did not need to conquer him – he fell willingly, already inflamed.




A/N: Wonderful CI by the ever-talented nyx @TDA

Translations:

Kaiser = King
ja = yes
was = what
Wir können alles = we can do anything. This is the actual motto of Baden-Württemberg state in Germany, so it is not my property.

The Codex Alaricium is a German legal code of my own invention. Please don't actually try to use it in a court of law :P


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