The room was large with a staircase leading to an indoor balcony directly ahead of me. The crowd that milled about seemed enthused with giddy expectation.
I was uncertain about what this place was or why I was here.
The floors were marble. The paneling a rich heavy wood that may have been oak. Every member of the crowd was dressed in jazz-era garb, but after the European fashion, including myself.
A woman with neatly arranged hair and a long white glove tugged at my sleeve. Her hair was flaxen, but her eyes were brown, bright brown. They glowed with excitement despite the dim light of the chandelier.
“Isn’t this fantastic!” She exclaimed searching my features for a kindred response.
As I said. I had no recollection of what all this was. It was as if I’d awoken from a dream or into a dream. Like someone had flipped a switch and I’d assumed a new reality. Past and future seemed veiled. I could not penetrate them.
She must have caught my hesitation. Because her eyes began to dim, and a crestfallen, yet oddly threatening aspect overtook her delicate features. There was a definite air of danger. Not so much from her but from the air and the crowd. She was merely a pilot light.
“I can’t wait for it to start!” I exclaimed, trying as best I could to hide any note of affectation that may have slipped through.
“I know, I know! Every time it’s better and better!”
I felt another tug at my jacket. This time it was a man with a strong jaw and resolute eyes. He stood a head above me and was older. The shocks of white that streaked his hair when paired with rounded spectacles produced a stern and fatherly effect.
“Harry. Come here, Harry. Let me look at you.”
I turned around to face the novel conversation.
“Oh, dear. That’s no good. See how pallid you are. You must drink. Come on then!”
He wheeled round and led the way to a table that sat against the wall.
There was something about being called Harry that I really disliked. It wasn’t my name. Or at least shouldn’t be. But then again I remembered nothing. So maybe it was my name. But there was something beyond the possibility of mistaken identity gnawing at the periphery of my consciousness.
“See here. Look at it, look at how it sparkles, such a cheery thing, yes. Marvelous, we shall have you sorted out here and quick.” He said as he ladled some sort of soda from a crystal punch bowl into a port glass.
“Bottoms up.” It was more command than encouragement.
I hesitated. Something I was afraid to do though I didn’t know why. There was this overwhelming sense that questions were strictly forbidden. But, I had to know what was up.
“Where’s the guest of honor?” I inquired. Forming what was the most innocuous sounding question I could muster. It did, after all, seem like we were waiting for something. Or rather someone. It did seem like expectation had been ratcheted up to fever pitch. So long as I didn’t ask who the guest was…
“He’ll appear in due time. Punctuality never fails in the House of Hours. But in the meantime, precisely for this reason, drink Harry! For God’s sake…DRINK!”
There was no resisting the command. I downed the silvery green sparkling liquid in a single swig. It wasn’t unpleasant. There was a strong, bracing sort of citrusy aspect, and a hint of gin.
Then I felt it. The effervescence seeped into my bones, into my very soul. I felt as one with every motion of every limb in the hall. Excitement overtook me. I too was ecstatic. I felt the urge to spring and dance.
“There’s a lad!” The tall stranger said, momentarily resting an iron grip on my right shoulder.
With this, he disappeared back into the foppish crowd. I didn’t follow.
“Lucy!” I exclaimed approaching the brown-eyed lady. “Let’s have a kiss, Lucy.”
She turned her face away rebuffing my advance with a light hand against my chest. As soon as she made contact something felt wrong.
“Not yet! Harry!” She giggled though with a tad of cold behind the mirth. “Have you forgotten the etiquette?”
“But you look so beautiful! I want to taste your sweet lips to hold you close to my heart.”
When I uttered the word heart I realized what had felt wrong. Though why or how I knew it was beyond me.
“Why hearts Harry? Why would we need such things as hearts when we have such fine spirits!” She said raising the sparkling port glass up to her lips and drinking.
I was confused again.
She looked at me and smiled coquettishly and with what seemed like a twinge of pity. Before I could say anything she gave me a quick peck on the cheek and disappeared into the crowd.
I stood for some minutes my mind racing. Though it felt like an eternity my frantic search was quickly interrupted.
One of the swing players had produced a comically medieval note. At this, all the revelers stood still. From somewhere on the balcony which was now to my left a loud and triumphant voice called out.
“His Majesty, the chief of alchemists, the king of Bohemia!”
From a great door directly opposite the balcony, there came a mellow creaking, as it swung open to reveal a beturbanned man of moderate stature.
He walked briskly and wordlessly into the silent crowd. Brushing shoulders, tapping elbows, nearly twirling round his congregants. All of whom were absolutely thrilled by his strange, fleeting, though purposeful caresses.
As he approached I grew yet more surprised. The turban sat atop an English face. The upturned nose, the stiff thin lip, and those peculiar broad cheeks. ‘Bohemia, more like Bristol.’ I thought to myself. ‘An Anglo with a turban has usurped Prague?’ I was on the verge of a giggle.
He flicked against me. It did feel good, sort of invigorating. But I felt that he had noted the inner slight I had just had at his expense.
Because he stopped and eyed me cooly with pale blue eyes which were no longer friendly.
“We’ve got a spy, my friends!”
He pulled a mirror from behind my lapel. In the brief moment that my eye rested on the smooth glass surface, I beheld a revolting sight. All the pretty gentry that were gathered round were rotted. Flesh sunken into bones, denuded sinews, they were all cadavers!
I ran and pulled down a drape. The mirror was huge and all the circumspectly attired ghouls got a good look at exactly what they were. This sent them into a panic.
“Cover it up, o God cover it up!” A woman shrieked between frightened sobs.
“Why do we have those damned things in the first place!”
“It’s alright, it’s alright.” The ‘king’ proclaimed as he produced an evil looking ceremonial saber from the sheath at his side.
Before I could respond he had run me through. As I lay bleeding on the shockingly cold marble he knelt down and dipped his finger in my dwindling life force.
With this crimson ink, he wrote upon the horror holding mirror a number of characters which I was surprised to find intelligible.
‘Ad va el ho ata.’ The syllables sang out in my brain.
With this, he redrew the drape and the last thing I heard was his triumph.
“We’re gonna revel forever! This perfect moment! This house in time. Its timbers so strong! And stronger with each prayer. His angels can’t hold us. They can’t hold us. No. We won’t bleed out into the inky stars to be rewrapped by His whim! Michael is bound!”
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