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IX. CASTLE OF ILLUSION


Chapter 4

“There I was, hanging to the rock with one hand,” Skip said. “I didn’t want to drop the huge expensive camera but I couldn’t reach the ropes. But that wasn’t the scary part.”

“It wasn’t? Sounds like you could’ve gotten yourself killed,” Cindi said.

“The scary part was the irate eagle. But yes, that was one of my closest calls in a long time,” he admitted, staring into his drink. “It made me think. A lot.

“Anyway, I shielded my face with the equipment. The guys reached me in time,” he said.

“But I wasn’t afraid of hurting myself. No, it was the powerlessness, subject to forces over which I had absolutely no control which terrified me.” Skip smiled, embarrassed. “Sorry, shouldn’t be rambling like this. I decided that’s it for me, but it was already too late for my wife, or ex-wife, I should say. She didn’t believe I could give up the thrill of danger. She might not be wrong.”

Cindi shook her head with an ironic smile. “Oh, because you didn’t die? Please, don’t act like a bully superhero for me. I’ve seen far too many and I’m not impressed.”

She picked at the bowl of nuts between them. “Now, I love brave men. I have no use for either weaklings or fearless idiots like my exes. But men who face death, looking into the abyss with level heads despite fear and pain – those are truly worth admiring. The rarer few who taste their existential powerlessness and still go on are the bravest and best.” She spoke with a shy smile. “That’s what I admire in people like Christ, astronauts, warriors… and maybe you.”

“Nice company,” he chuckled. “But I’m no miracle worker or much of a fighter either.”

“Facing death is often a turning point; sounds like it was for both of you,” Cindi said with sympathy, “you just reacted to it in different ways. You said your marriage was in trouble already.” She gently touched his hand. “I’ve been there too.” He didn’t move, as if not wanting to startle her.

Skip said, “Let’s go somewhere. You may be used to the stares, but I’m not.” They had moved inside, but the many eyes and closeness of the Great Hall felt claustrophobic.

“Oh? Any place in particular? And the crowd?”

“We can ditch them,” Skip proposed. “Bodyguards too: they’ll be okay. Let’s go up on the castle’s walls. With the moonlight, the view should be pretty grand, and safe.”

Cindi smiled but hesitated. “Really, I don’t bite,” Skip said.

“Too bad but it’s not you that worries me,” she said. “It’s getting away from the fans here. But I think I can order us up a distraction.” She waved at a group at another table.

A man dressed as an artist in color-spattered blouse and huge floppy beret slouched over. It was the band’s drummer, a cigarette hanging lopsidedly from his mouth beneath his dark, droopy mustache. He was absently tapping paintbrushes together.

“Do us a favor, Davey?” Cindi asked. He spread his hands and pointed the brushes in different directions as he bowed. “Yours to command, my love.”

Cindi sighed. “I want to leave now. Without the band.”

The world-famous head of Barefoot Left had obviously indulged himself. “Could be done, yes, I believe indeed so, milady, just give the word.” He gave an exaggerated wink.

“Consider it given,” she said. “Davey, since the security people insist I shouldn’t go alone, Skip will escort me. We need a break from this zoo.”

“Not going to the vigil, are you? Good. You really shouldn’t go to church in that outfit, it’s disgraceful. Anyway, I’m going back to the room, not the vigil. A bloody nun roundly chewed my ass off last year,” he said, “and I wasn’t anywhere near as toasted as I am now.”

“No, we’re heading up to the roof,” Cindi said, pulling a sheer shawl around her shoulders. “Skip, what’s the plan? If we get mobbed, I’m holding you responsible.”

“With this kind gentleman’s help, no problem,” Skip said.

Native David bowed, gallantly stumbling against the table. “Always ready to make an utter ass of myself for the cause,” he said, “any cause, when asked so nicely.” After Skip explained the idea, he said, “Okay, I’ll see you at the hotel, Mistress.”

Turning to Skip, he wagged a finger, slurring, “Don’t worry about me, captain, just you be careful. Take care of our Mistress now, or she’ll take care of you. Ha!”

He staggered off. By the time the drummer assembled his band mates and herded them noisily to the exit at the far end of the hall, Skip and Cindi reached the mirror. David craned his neck until he saw they were in place, and with assistance, mounted a chair.

“Ladies and gentlemen, thanks and good night!” Native David announced, wobbling. “Love to stay, wonderful time, sorry to go, blah blah blah. Be sure to attend our free reunion concert tomorrow night! Yes, in the ambi- amphi-, in the big round thingy across the road, night after tomorrow, Barefoot Left featuring Cindi Salvage! One. Night. Only!”

As the room burst into wild applause, Skip pulled Cindi around the mirror and they ducked under the tablecloth of the head table.

“It’s the least we can do for this wonderful crazy town,” the drummer continued behind them as they crawled, “and you lovely, bizarre creatures, the finest mutants anywhere! Many, many thanks, thank you, thank– whoops!” and the chair broke as he fell.

By this time, the couple crawled the entire length of the head table and slipped giggling out the side door. A brief climb up the staircase, and they found themselves upon the battlements. The cool air washed over them, lush with the perfume of flowers everywhere. Cindi in her silver sheath shone like a vision herself in the moonlight. Like a knight of old, Skip knelt and kissed her hand. She gently lifted him with both hands. Yet her eye patch decorated with feathers like a mask somehow made her more unearthly until the moment their lips met.


Not far away physically, but in a different world altogether, Nigel’s night continued to be an endless hell. He stumbled from one bizarre encounter to another, hoping ever afterwards it was all hallucination but fearful it might be real.

To get away from the pounding music, the demonic, and the damned, he finally crawled over a vine-covered wall into a flowery garden bower. In this windless paradise, the vegetation did not writhe around too much or glow. In the midst of this oasis of sanity, the still-tripping writer found someone silently standing guard.

He was a tall, stoic fellow, standing his post and leaning upon a sword, a jaunty feather in his cap. But though he would not speak a word, neither did he judge him. So Nigel pulled his cowl over his head, and curled up at his feet. His rest was fitful. He passed the witching hours watching the sweet-smelling plants sway and dance. Finally a troubled sleep came.

As he came to, the larks joyfully announced a glorious midsummer dawn. “Bloody hell, what a night!” Nigel said, stretching. “Where am I? Whoa!” He sat up abruptly, noticing the stone legs and the return of his voice at the same instant.

Looking upwards, he realized it was a gray statue of Manuel I, the great savior of Vieux Poictesme, who had befriended him.

“Thanks, mate, you’re okay,” he said with a grateful smile, rubbing his throat. He drank in the cool dawn air, listening to the birds singing their praises to the Sun warming his skin. Nigel returned to the world unharmed but none the wiser.

 


 

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“Even I,
who with my Ampliospectus did behold mountains on the Moon and creatures sporting in the dew,
have no mirror which can bedazzle the soul.
That art belongs to another age as yet undreamed of. ”

Testimony of Magister Ieronimus to the Inquisition,
1337

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