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Chapter 10 : Switzerland
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For nearly twenty years, I have sat here now, alone in this place, surrounded by stone and metal and the colours of the sky, the earth far down below, and I begin to wonder if my eyes have dimmed or if it is simply that my world is so reduced that I see nothing other than greys, pale blues I can barely distinguish from the colours of clouds, the darker strains running like veins through the stones which surround me.
It is a fanciful imagining, I know; but it is born from a worry and a fear which I cannot avoid, however misguided or foolish it is.
When it has been so long since colour – true colour: bright, vibrant, bold – has flashed across outside my window, has flared up in front of my eyes, almost blinding, how can you expect me not to wonder otherwise? For these thoughts, however irrational, are impossible to avoid, and impossible for me to stop or contain; they simply happen and I am their unwilling, helpless victim.
It is a strange inversion: for life to be so dull and blank, playing out in a thousand and one variations of grey, and for memories, those moments which feel almost like another lifetime, to be so colourful, filled with soft, warm oranges and reds, and bright splashes of blues and golds. There is a wrongness about it, but there is a blessing in it too: unlike others, as I age, the difference between reality and the past has never been clearer for me. The latter burns all the brighter, all the gentler with age, and the former fades even as it happens.
An odd way for the end of my days to come to pass. I never thought it would be this way, when I considered it at all. After all, we much wanted to believe we would have immortality, eternal youth – beauty, wit, wisdom and all the rest from the time we came into the world to the day the globe entire is consumed by fire.
The rest of time, grains of sand to drift through our hands; such a wonderfully beautiful dream, is it not?
Now, as it is, that is all I have left – old dreams, broken dreams, and handfuls of pretty words which mean nothing, as perhaps they always have done.
I am useless these days: an old relic from a bygone age, the last remnant of a failed revolution – or so I think, since I do not know of the others, if Hans is dead now, if they ever caught Agathe after she fled, if Joachim and Torsten have gone. There is a certain irony in that, if it is so; that I should be both first to stand and last to fall, in the manner of the kings of old.
Truthfully, there are times – though I will never admit it, not to you, not to anyone (though who would ask?) – when I am almost glad of my imprisonment. The world has changed around me, steering away from the way I had envisioned it, and I am at a loss to say what I would do now, how I would fit in. My opinions, my theories, all my carefully acquired, honed skills are for nothing, wasting away in this cell you had them put me in, rotting away along with my flesh and my teeth and my bones, bit by bit, so that when, eventually, I die, there will be nothing of me left save a skeleton.
Perhaps then I will be neutral at last, when all that is left is gleaming white ivory, though I like to think you would look on me, on the wraith I had become and still see me and all that I ever was. For neutrality does not suit me, Albus, it never has done, as you know well.
In the here and now, it is dawn, or it is approaching, and I shuffle over to the window, wrapping my fingers around the bars to feel the wind press against my skin, breathe into my ear as it passes, whispering words I cannot hear. It is cold, harsh and I cannot help but shiver as it seeps through my clothes into my flesh, into the depths of my bones. I do not move, though; I will not move.
The first blinking, stuttering rays begin to break over the horizon, lighting up the mountains with a pale, faint glow, as though someone had lit a candle behind them, and I find myself holding my breath, staring intently through the bars.
I think I can see Switzerland then, the mountains on the other side of the border, the deep green hills they shield, with the tall spired churches and the goats, beards wagging in the breeze. If I close my eyes, I could imagine it, see it so clearly, but I do not – not this time, not this morning – and instead I keep watching, waiting for the colour to seep back into it, like ink onto a faded painting.
In the end, it does not come, not quite, but there will be other mornings and other sunrises, and in prison I have as much time as I need for them, do I not?
22nd November, 1908; Berolle, Switzerland
The air out on the balcony was cold, bitter almost, as it swept through my hair, brushing curls into my face, the ends of them strangling around the end of my cigarette with a single toss, but it was a welcome blessing from the hot, muggy interior of the den.
Tipping my head back, I blew smoke out into the night, watching it twist and turn in mid-air, a lazy dance even as it faded and broke away, vanishing from sight. There was something beautiful, ghostly and delicate, about it: a pale hint of danger, of a hidden, internal fire, deceptively plain to look at.
Fanciful words, perhaps, but then I have always been a little more fanciful than others might suspect. When I was a child, I would see my father breathe out smoke from his pipe, and imagine fire in his belly, curdling and growing, tips licking up towards his throat, towards his mouth. The few times he was angry with me, I would watch him, fascinated, waiting for a glimpse of the flames as they jumped up into his mouth, reaching for me.
I told my father this, of course; he simply laughed and gave me a copy of the tale of St George and the Dragon, a gift from Tante Bathilda when he himself had been a boy.
I had, of course, never then been able to decide if I would rather save or be saved, love or be loved – and, ah, but you know how it is, these things grow and grow until they reveal the secrets within them, ugly or beautiful, and only then do we understand in truth.
(It is a truth in part, to say that I wanted to be St George, to be strong and valiant, for these were what my father was, what I admired. It is equally as true to say I wanted to be the beautiful damsel, perhaps not distressed, but waiting for someone to brave the flames of a dragon for me and me alone, all to win my heart. In the end, I suspect I was most the dragon, fearsome and fearless and powerful beyond measure, fury in beauty, and ultimately slain by the just and noble hero. Only you were anything other than just and noble, then, yes?)
Then and there, before I had spread my wings and learned truly how to breathe fire, how to set the earth to trembling with a single roar, I watched as smoke left my lips, pulled up and out of my lungs, a teasing hint of what would come later.
“Gellert?” Mathaus called me from behind, and I turned to see him standing there, prim and neat as always, one hand against the doorframe. “You should come in – we’re getting a second round.”
With a nod, I stubbed out the cigarette on the balcony edge, letting the butt fall away off of it, away down into the darkness, down onto the street perhaps, crunched underneath someone’s shoe, and followed him back inside.
The air was close and thick, the charms on the windows keeping the heat and the sweat and the perfume of the place – spices and alcohol and the scent of woody coffee and cinnamon from the smoke of the shisha pipes in the next room, lending it an air of relaxed depravity, of slow and steady decline into pure pleasure with no care for the consequences. It had become familiar, though, over so many visits, that to me it spoke only of calm, of a tranquillity and a sociability I could only get there.
There, in dens of that sort, no one cared who you were or what you did, no one cared if what you said was not for polite company or if what you did broke laws and boundaries society would blush to know even existed – this was not polite company; in a way, it was outside society, a little house of rebels tucked away in the deepest, darkest part of the Black Forest.
You would have liked it, I think, Albus – it was full of artists and artistes, writers and painters and new, bold free thinkers, half of them young and passionate, and half of them old, alone except for the drinks on the table in front of them and lamentations of lost opportunities. It was a study into the human persona; a study in opposites, in extremes, in reaction to the freedom to simply be.
In the dim lighting, you would have glowed, your hair like phoenix feathers, and I would have kissed you, held your hand, and promised myself to you forever with Riesling and chocolate-coated raspberries.
Ah, but romance is for those who are made for it, and I have questioned many times if I ever was, or if it was all merely a craving for something I was never meant to have.
There were bottles on the table when I arrived – six of them, already opened – and as I sat down, slipping into a divan next to Hans, Margit reached up and passed me a glass, murmuring something under her breath as she smiled at me, slow and flirtatious.
It was dark, the liquid in the glass – a deep, cherry red, like a good wine should be, but there was a shimmer about it, in the light bouncing off the top of it, streaming through it, which lit it up like a furnace, like the last remnants of a fire just before it dies. The glass felt warm in my hand; a comforting warmth, reminiscent of lying on the fur rug in front of the fire in my father’s house, or the pleasant stickiness as I had lain with you, exhausted after the night.
The first sip told me everything about what I was drinking, even if I had not already guessed – though the one thing I was not certain was how Otto had managed to get it, for six bottles of Eiferwein is a request people notice – for it slid down, like a molten, fading flame, and it fed into my system quickly, so quickly my head swam.
I could taste chocolate, dark and rich and bitter, on the front of my tongue, mingling with something faintly buttery and the familiar wooden crunch of almonds. Then, a hint of candied oranges, of rum and whisky and port; a whirlwind of red fruits, all blended together, and a faint strain of rosewater and honey, light and sweet. It was captivating, utterly breathtaking, and I knew immediately why it was illegal, and why, oh why, it should not be.
Have you ever wondered, up in your tower as you wear away at yourself day by day, what it would be like to drink love – to taste passion and lust, longing and adoration, from the very first, sweet trickles of it, to the final blare of the trumpets before it crumbles into nothing?
No, I do not need to ask, for I know you have, I know you do, but you have not and you will not. You should, though, if only to let yourself be swept away, out of your life and into another’s, to feel without feeling, to love without loving.
As I sat there, I wondered, foolishly, vacantly, if this was how you felt about me, if this was how you could have felt about me, if I had stayed with you after the girl died. Would you have been breathless at the sight of me, at the feel and the smell and the taste of me? Would you have run hot, so very hot, because of me, so that I was the only person who could still your blood, could cool you and unwind your muscles even as I felt your heart beat in time with mine.
I wanted to replace you, then, I wanted to find someone else who would burn for me and me alone, and it unnerved me how hot I felt myself burn when Mathaus’ side pressed against mine, when his hand squeezed my thigh and he smiled at me.
There were words on his tongue, words of politics and utopia and perfection, but I did not want to hear words then, I wanted only love, and so I kissed him.
He kissed me back, though he will deny it until he dies. I remember, though, every moment of it: how he leaned into me, how he rested a hand on the divan behind me all the better to kiss me harder, how he did not protest when I wrapped an arm around his neck to keep him in place.
It was over soon enough, though – I pulled away, meaning only to take a breath and kiss him again, but he recovered himself then, and jerked back, up and away from me, up and away from the table.
“I must go,” he muttered, the words swallowed up by the noise around us, barely glancing at me, and then he fled.
It was disappointing, that I must admit, that he ran from me, as though I had tried to kill him, to slice open his jugular, fear capturing him, when there was nothing to be afraid of, only love to enjoy.
So it was that, though the histories of me in the libraries and the bookshops will not say this, I arrived in Switzerland with my mouth tasting sour and a vengeful beat in my heart. I would not let him ruin this opportunity for me, I would not let him damage my plans – mine before they had ever been his, even with his schemes for legal reform, for new laws and systems – I would succeed only the faster so that he could not be rid of me.
I wanted him to remember. I wanted it to be that he had to look at me every day, and every day remember what I had offered and what he had almost taken: that he had kissed me, that in those moments he had wanted me, however ashamed he felt about such things.
Ruthless and cruel of me, yes, but I do so hate to be denied.
(You would say, if you knew of this – of the truth of this – that no doubt I fancied myself in love with him, that emotion ran deeper than I understood, but you have always been the romantic, yes?)
It was snowing when I arrived there, the sky white and the land white, the odd brown speck visible where a house sat, or where the wood of the trees poked through, their branches umbrellas to keep them free from covers. In the distance, there were glimmers of light through the clouds, slender golden beams, and they set the snowflakes to glittering, so that the ground looked like a carpet of crushed diamonds, each one carefully laid and sprinkled into a smooth, endless blanket.
There was something beautiful about it, something hard and delicately strong and cold, which I loved; even after so many years at Durmstrang, living seven months of my life surrounded by frozen lakes and snow on mountains, it still made me smile without thinking.
If nothing else – if the people were dull, if the work was dull, and life there was dull – I knew that at least I would enjoy the landscape. A small insurance, it is true, but for me, it is perhaps enough.
See, Albus, as much as you insist otherwise, I can be patient when it suits me.
Conquest is a difficult thing, a slow thing, if one does it by politics, by conviction and by persuasion, rather than by might alone. It requires patience, careful planning, and an understanding, deep and real and human, of what and whom you face, of what they believe and how they think; you must be every enemy’s closest friend, every friend’s silent enemy, the spy everywhere watching everyone and learning, knowing every unspoken truth behind every lie.
You must know your enemy better than yourself, after all. Fortunate, perhaps, for me that in the end, it came down to you and I.
I tell you all of this because now, I think, you will see and remember that we are not truly that different in the end. You have your vigilantes, I had my revolutionaries, but the method of working, the mechanics of it all, are very much similar, in that sense.
(Now you understand why I laugh when I see the papers, where they compare Voldemort to me, his ambitions to mine. The little people, though, they do not see these distinctions, and so we must all forgive them their ignorance.)
In Switzerland, though, then and there, I had none of those things – I had only plans, nearly finished, nearly ready to put into action, and an impatience I could not quite hide. It is always the same, though, whenever things are being finished, polished so that they shine even when there is no light, I feel my blood thrum and my heart race and everything in me murmurs, ‘now, now, now’.
The famous German efficiency, so impossible to deny in me.
It is strange to think that for all my efficiency, for all my struggles with patience, with accepting that I can do nothing save wait, Switzerland did not foil me, nor unmake me. Perhaps it was the long rest before the storm began, but I cannot understand in truth even now; all I remember, all I can describe is the way it made me feel, how unnatural it was for me, and then, dear Albus, maybe you can tell me what it was in my soul which allowed this.
While there, I had a house: wooden, like all the others, brown and plain and simple, like the others, with a single door and a window in the top floor like a Cyclops’ eye, shutters framing it on either side, painted a deep green. It looked like it had sprung up out of the earth, readymade, tugged and shaped by magic and imagination, more than human hands and skill, put there by God’s design at the beginning of time.
From the window at the top, I could look out over the mountains, down slopes of rock, layered over with trees and grass and snow, a treacherous fall lying in wait, to the little village at the bottom – muggle and so different in style, in feeling, that it seemed almost a world away, as though two separate universes had collided along one line, leaving no trace of a scar save perception of those who looked through it.
It reminded me of Durmstrang, and yet it was completely different. Here, there was nobody ordering me to class, throwing insults at me in the corridors (never spells, never; the looming penalties for magic in the corridors were enough of a deterrent for that at least), no wind whistling through the corridors, or sense that if you walked and walked away in one direction, you would never manage to find your way back, footsteps covered over in seconds by snowflakes you could not even feel on your hair and neck.
All there was, was a neutrality I could not understand, which I had never before managed to achieve for myself, creature of fire and want and ideals that I am, and a peacefulness and security it seemed almost sacrilegious to disturb.
Soon enough, I found myself watching people, watching my counterpart here – Nico Diaque, dark haired and dark eyed, and who spoke German to me, even as he insisted on teaching me French – and trying to see if it showed on them, if there was perhaps some secret to how they could be so relaxed, so calm and content, and yet so prosperous without any kind of zeal to drive them.
I never discovered it – I think now it is written in their souls, in the very fabric of their selves, a way of life which cannot be duplicated – but still I looked and I looked, and I discovered something else, almost by accident, tangled up in sheets in a bed identical to mine.
“You are watching me again,” I murmured to Nico, one of my hands trapped up next to my head by one of his, our fingers interlaced, my body warm from the fire and him, and I could not help but smile at the idea that perhaps he could not help it, that perhaps he found me, found my soul and spirit, as fascinating as I found his.
There is something captivating in the excitement of being matched in curiosity, in interest and a lack of understanding, with the temptation to learn together. Even if there is no success, if nothing is learned or found and everything is lost, the experience remains a pleasure.
“Yes, I am,” he replied, and he smiled this time, his eyes running over my face and my chest, a hand running along my thigh, pausing at my hip. “Do you mind?”
He knew, even then, that of course I did not mind, that I would not stop him, even if I did not encourage him, but still, he waited for my response, the only thing in the room which moved the flames in the fireplace, merry and bright, sending shadows to dance across both of us, creating dips and ridges where I knew, in truth, there were none.
“No, I do not mind,” I whispered, feeling him lean down, hair brushing over my neck, to scrape his teeth along the underside of my jaw, making me breathe out a sigh and press his head closer.
You see, he did not understand me any more than I understood him. We knew each other – we knew each other well, intimately – but there was no understanding of the deeper things, no revelations of the secrets we both kept, of the ambitions we both held, and nothing more than that was necessary for me to keep him with me, for him to keep me.
Mystery, perhaps, I learned, was just as tantalising a prospect as the thought of knowing everything; differences do not have to be merged, or destroyed, only acknowledged in order for things to work; and if this works for people on their own, it could work for people together, for people as a whole.
Time is, of course, the ever-present beat to which all things must march, and on this it beats quicker than the tune I want to set to it, but then, as I learned that waiting, calm and collected, and accepting current limitations could lead to greater pleasure, I thought that I might not mind letting time have his way.
A/N: the proverb 'you must know you enemy better than youself' is a quote from a translation of The Art of War by Sun Tzu, and so is not mine.
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