Read an Excerpt
Castle Of Days
By Gene Wolfe
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1992 Gene Wolfe
All rights reserved.
How the Whip Came Back
Pretty Miss Bushnan's suite was all red acrylic and green-dyed leather. Real leather, very modern — red acrylic and green, real leather were the modern things this year. But it made her Louis XIV secretary, Sal, look terribly out of place.
Miss Bushnan had disliked the suite from the day she moved in — though she could hardly complain, when there was a chance that the entire city of Geneva and the sovereign Swiss nation might be offended. This evening she did her best to like red and green, and in the meantime turned her eyes from them to the cool relief of the fountain. It was a copy of a Cellini salt dish and lovely, no matter how silly a fountain indoors on the hundred and twenty-fifth floor might be. In a characteristic reversal of feeling she found herself wondering what sort of place she might have gotten if she had had to find one for herself, without reservations, at the height of the tourist season. Three flights up in some dingy suburban pension, no doubt.
So bless the generosity of the sovereign Swiss Republic. Bless the openhanded city of Geneva. Bless the hotel. And bless the United Nations Conference on Human Value, which brought glory to the Swiss Republic et cetera and inspired the free mountaineers to grant free hotel suites in the height of the season even to non-voting Conference observers such as she. Sal had brought her in a gibson a few minutes ago, and she picked it up from the edge of the fountain to sip, a little surprised to see that it was already three-quarters gone; red and green.
A brawny, naked triton half-reclined, water streaming from his hair and beard, dripping from his mouth, dribbling from his ears. His eyes, expressionless and smooth as eggs, wept for her. Balancing her empty glass carefully on the rim again, she leaned forward and stroked his smooth, wet stone flesh. Smiling she told him — mentally — how handsome he was, and he blushed pink lemonade at the compliment. She thought of herself taking off her clothes and climbing in with him, the cool water soothing her face, which now felt hot and flushed. Not, she told herself suddenly, that she would feel any real desire for the triton in the unlikely event of his being metamorphosed to flesh. If she wanted men in her bed she could find ten any evening, and afterward edit the whole adventure from Sal's memory bank. She wanted a man, but she wanted only one, she wanted Brad (whose real name, as the terrible, bitter woman who lived in the back of her skull, the woman the gibson had not quite drowned, reminded her, had proved at his trial to be Aaron). The triton vanished and Brad was there instead, laughing and dripping Atlantic water on the sand as he threw up his arms to catch the towel she flung him. Brad running through the surf ...
Sal interrupted her revery, rolling in on silent casters. "A gentleman to see you, Miss Bushnan." Sal had real metal drawer-pulls on her false drawers, and they jingled softly when she stopped to deliver her message, like costume jewelry.
"Who?" Miss Bushnan straightened up, pushing a stray wisp of brown hair away from her face.
Sal said blankly, "I don't know." The gibson had made Miss Bushnan feel pleasantly muzzy, but even so the blankness came through as slightly suspicious.
"He didn't give you his name or a card?"
"He did, Miss Bushnan, but I can't read it. Even though, as I'm sure you're already aware, Miss Bushnan, there's an Italian language software package for me for only two hundred dollars. It includes reading, writing, speaking, and an elementary knowledge of great Italian art."
"The advertising package," Miss Bushnan said with wasted sarcasm, "is free. And compulsory with your lease."
"Yes," Sal said. "Isn't it wonderful?"
Miss Bushnan swung around in the green leather chair from which she had been watching the fountain. "He did give you a card. I see it in one of your pigeonholes. Take it out and look at it."
As if the Louis XIV secretary had concealed a silver snake, one of Sal's arms emerged. With steel fingers like nails it took the card and held it in front of a swirl of ornament hiding a scanner.
"Now," Miss Bushnan said patiently, "pretend that what you're reading isn't Italian. Let's say instead that it's English that's been garbled by a translator post-processor error. What's your best guess at the original meaning?"
"'His Holiness Pope Honorius V.'"
"Ah." Miss Bushnan sat up in her chair. "Please show the gentleman in."
With a faint hum of servomotors Sal rolled away. There was just time for a last fragment of daydream. Brad with quiet eyes alone with her on the beach at Cape Cod. Talking about the past, talking about the divorce, Brad really, really sorry ...
The Pope wore a plain dark suit and a white satin tie embroidered in gold with the triple crown. He was an elderly man, never tall and now stooped. Miss Bushnan rose. She sat beside him every day at the council sessions, and had occasionally exchanged a few words with him during the refreshment breaks (he had a glass of red wine usually, she good English tea or the horrible Swiss coffee laced with brandy), but it had never so much as occurred to her that he might ever have anything to discuss with her in private.
"Your Holiness," she said as smoothly as the gibson would let her manage the unfamiliar words, "this is an unexpected pleasure."
Sal chimed in with, "May we offer you something?" and looking sidelong Miss Bushnan saw that she had put Scotch, a bottle of club soda, and two glasses of ice on her fold-out writing shelf.
The Pope waved her away, and when he had settled in his chair said pointedly, "I deeply appreciate your hospitality, but I wonder if it would be possible to speak with you privately."
Miss Bushnan said, "Of course," and waited until Sal had coasted off in the direction of the kitchen. "My secretary bothers you, Your Holiness?"
Taking a cigar from the recesses of his coat, the Pope nodded. "I'm afraid she does. I have never had much sympathy with furniture that talks — you don't mind if I smoke?" He had only the barest trace of Italian accent.
"If it makes you more comfortable I should prefer it."
He smiled in appreciation of the little speech, and struck an old-fashioned kitchen match on the imitation marble of the fountain. It left no mark, and when he tossed in the matchstick a moment later, it bobbed only twice in the crystal water before being whisked away. "I suppose I'm out of date," the Pope continued. "But back in my youth when people speculated about the possibility of those things we always thought of them as being shaped more or less like us. Something like a suit of armor."
"I can't imagine why," Miss Bushnan said. "You might as well shape a radio like a human mouth — or a TV screen like a keyhole."
The Pope chuckled. "I didn't say I was going to defend the idea. I only remarked that that was what we expected."
"I'm sure they must have considered it, but —"
"But too much extra work would have had to go into just making it look human," the Pope continued for her, "and besides, a furniture cabinet is much cheaper than articulated metal and doesn't make the robot look dead when it's turned off."
She must have looked flustered because he continued, smiling, "You Americans are not the only manufacturers, you see. It happens that a friend of mine is president of Olivetti. A skeptic like all of them today, but ..."
The sentence trailed away in a shrug and a puff of smoke from the black cigar. Miss Bushnan recalled the time she had asked the French delegate about him. The French delegate was handsome in that very clean and spare fashion some Frenchmen have, and she liked him better than the paunchy businessman who represented her own country.
"You do not know who the man who sits by you is, mademoiselle?" he asked quizzically. "But that is most interesting. You see, I know who he is, but I do not know who you are. Except that I see you each day and you are much more pretty than the lady from Russia or the lady from Nigeria, and perhaps in your way as chic as that bad girl who reports on us for Le Figaro — but I hope not quite so full of tricks. Now I will trade you information."
So she had had to tell him, feeling more like a fool each second as the milling crush of secretaries of delegates, and secretaries of secretaries, and unidentifiable people from the Swiss embassies of all the participating nations, swirled around them. When she had finished he said, "Ah, it is kind of you to work for charity, and especially for one that does not pay you, but is it necessary? This is no longer the twentieth century after all, and the governments take care of most of us quite well."
"That's what most people think; I suppose that's why so few give much any more. But we try to bring a little human warmth to the people we help, and I find I meet the class of people I want to meet in connection with it. I mean my co-workers, of course. It's really rather exclusive."
He said, "How very great-hearted you are," with a little twist to the corner of his mouth that made her feel like a child talking to a grown-up. "But you asked the identity of the old gentleman. He is Pope."
"Who?" Then she had realized what the word meant and added, "I thought there weren't any more."
"Oh no." The French delegate winked. "It is still there. Much, much smaller, but still there ... But we are so crowded here, and I think you are tired of standing. Let me buy you a liqueur and I will tell you all about it."
He had taken her to a place at the top of some building overlooking the lake, and it had been very pleasant listening to the waiters pointing him out in whispers to the tourists, even though the tourists were mostly Germans and no one anyone knew. They were given a table next to the window of course, and while they sipped and smoked and looked at the lake he told her, with many digressions, about a great-aunt who had been what he called "a believer" and two ex-wives who had not. (History at Radcliffe had somehow left her with the impression that the whole thing had stopped with John XXIII, just as the Holy Roman Empire had managed to vanish out of sheer good manners when it was no longer wanted. On the teaching machines you filled in a table of Holy Roman Emperors and Popes and Sultans and such things by touching multiple-choice buttons. Then when you had it all done the screen glowed with rosy light for a minute — which was called reinforcement — and told you your grade. After which, unless you were lucky, there was another table to be filled — but Popes had disappeared and you put the Kings of Sweden in that column instead.)
She remembered having asked the French delegate, "There are only a hundred thousand left? In the whole world?"
"That is my guess, of real believers. Of course many more who continue to use the name and perhaps have their children wetted if they think of it. It may be that that is too low — say a quarter million. But it has been growing less for a long time. Eventually — who knows? It may turn about and grow more. It would not be the first time that happened."
She had said, "It seems to me the whole thing should have been squashed a long time ago." ...
The Pope straightened his shoulders a little and flicked ashes into the fountain. "At any rate, they make me uncomfortable," he said. "I always have the feeling they don't like me. I hope you don't mind."
She smiled and said something about the convenience factor, and having Sal shipped in a crate from New York.
"I suppose it's a good thing my predecessor got the government to take responsibility for the Vatican," the Pope said. "We couldn't possibly staff it now, so we'd be using those things. Doubtless ours would have stained glass in them."
Miss Bushnan laughed politely. Actually she felt like coughing. The Pope's cigar was the acrid, cheap kind smoked in the poorer sort of Italian cafés. Briefly she wondered if he himself had not been born into the lowest class. His hands were gnarled and twisted like an old gardener's, as though he'd been weeding all his life.
He was about to say something else, but Sal, reentering on silent wheels, interrupted him. "Phone, Miss Bushnan," Sal said at her elbow.
She swiveled in her chair again and touched the "On" and "Record" buttons on the communications console, motioning as she did for the Pope to keep his seat. The screen lit up, and she said, "Good evening," to the office robot who had placed the call.
The robot answered with an announcement: "Her Excellency the Delegate Plenipotentiary of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Comrade Natasha Nikolayeva." The image flickered and a striking blonde, about forty and somewhat overblown and overdressed, but with a remarkably good complexion and enormous eyes, replaced the robot. The Russian delegate had been an actress at one time and was currently the wife of a general; gossip said that she owed her position at the conference to favors granted the Party Secretary.
"Good evening," Miss Bushnan said again, and added, "Comrade Nikolayeva."
The Russian delegate gave her a dazzling smile. "I called, darling, to ask if you like my little speech today. I was not too long? You did not find it difficult, wearing the headphones for translation?"
"I thought it was very moving," Miss Bushnan said carefully. Actually, she had been appalled by the Russian delegate's references to Hitler's gas chambers and her cant phrases about restoring economic value to human life. It came to saying that if people had no value alive they should be made into soap, but she had no intention of telling the Russian delegate that.
"I convinced you?"
Brad made into soap. It should have been funny, but it wasn't. One of Brad's fingers slowly exposed as she scrubbed herself with the bar. The Russian delegate was still looking at her, waiting for her to reply.
"It isn't necessary that you convince me, is it?" She smiled, trying to turn the question aside. "I'm merely an observer, after all."
"It is necessary to me," the Russian delegate said, "in my soul." She pressed a hand flashing with diamonds against one upholstered breast. "I myself feel it so deeply."
"I'm sure you do. It was a wonderful speech. Very dramatic."
"You understand, then." The Russian delegate's mood changed in an instant. "That is wonderful, darling. Listen, you know I am staying at our embassy here — would you have dinner with us? It will be Tuesday, and nearly everyone will be there."
Miss Bushnan hesitated for a moment, looking briefly at the Pope, seated out of range of the Russian's vision, for guidance. He was expressionless.
"Darling, I will tell you a secret. I have sworn not to, but what is an oath when it is for you? The French delegate asked me to invite you. I would have in any case, of course, but he came to me. He is so shy; but if you come I have promised him I will seat you beside him. Do not say I told you."
"I'd be delighted to come."
"That too is wonderful then." The Russian delegate's smile said: We are women together and I love you, little one.
"Tuesday? The day after the final vote?"
"Yes, Tuesday. I will be looking forward so much."
When the screen went dark Miss Bushnan said to the Pope, "Something's up."
The Pope only looked at her, as though trying to weigh what might be behind her attractive but not arresting face and brown eyes.
After a moment Miss Bushnan continued, "The French delegate might buy me a dinner, but he wouldn't ask for me as a dinner partner at an official function, and that Russian woman has been ignoring you and me ever since the conference opened. What's going on?"
"Yes," the Pope said slowly, "something has happened, as you say. I see you hadn't heard."
"I was more fortunate. The Portuguese delegate confides in me sometimes."
"Will you tell me?"
"That is why I came. The delegates caucused this afternoon after the public session. They decided to ask for our votes at the final meeting."
"Us?" Miss Bushnan was nonplussed. "The observers?"
"Yes. The votes will have no legal validity, of course. They cannot be counted. But they want total unanimity — they want to get us down on the record."
"I see," said Miss Bushnan.
"Church and charity. People surrendered their faith in us to put it in the governments, but they're losing that now, and the delegates sense it. Perhaps the faith won't return to us, but there's a chance it might."
"And so I'm to be wined and dined."
The Pope nodded. "And courted too, I should imagine. The French are very enthused about this; their penal system has been at loose ends ever since they lost their African colonies over fifty years ago."
Miss Bushnan had been staring at her lap, smoothing her skirt absently where it lay across her knees; she looked up suddenly, meeting his eyes. "And you? What are they going to offer you?"
"Not the lost sees of eastern Europe, you may be sure. Mostly flattery, I suspect."
Excerpted from Castle Of Days by Gene Wolfe. Copyright © 1992 Gene Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.