Debt

Bob Johnston


Wyld FLASH – 23 October 2020

The stinking beggar was at the hidden gate again last night and my father went out to meet with him. Again. I have spent my life watching this degenerating wretch appear every year or two. And every time he appears my father throws off the dignity of his high station and meets him by the kitchen outflow trench. And there in the stenches of the castle, carefully placed downwind, they talk quietly and laugh sadly and touch one another’s shoulders in offensive displays of comradeship.

I watch them each time, just as I have since I first spotted these trysts. I lie out on the ruined southern tower, where I can view the night sky with no obstructions, and try to listen but their conversations are always broken and whispered. Just words, none unusual, until my father inevitably hugs the wretch and then slinks back into the kitchens. I imagine him making his way past the servants who are so bound to him, so in love with him, so bound to him that I could spit.

There is a smell from people that is unpalatable and quite intolerable. Washing deals with it but it is clear my father’s visitor has little notion of hygiene. And my father quite forgets himself for a time afterwards as well. The smell hangs about him as he sits brooding on the ducal throne he normally occupies with such strength and dignity. There he sits and goes away to some thoughtful place within himself, noble chin resting on beautifully manicured hands, and the smell of the beggar slowly fills the throne room.

I ventured to speak of these visits only once, a year ago. My father’s reply was extreme and for a moment his anger overwhelmed him to such an extent that I thought I was being attacked by one of the guttersnipes who clean the chimneys and latrines. His voice changed and in that loss of control I found the strength to stand against him. I thought then, as I do now, that this was a face and demeanour that he would not wish for the King to witness. I have not felt the same about my father since that night.

The chamberlain told my father that the beggar had returned this evening and I was waiting in my broken tower by the time my father left the castle. The chamberlain strives to be discreet but his airs and ermine cannot disguise a vulgar background and I always know when he is carrying secrets to my father. The drapes behind the throne are a fine place to hear these two old men speak and, again, there is that loss of accent and bearing in them both. Like two gossiping foot-soldiers.

My cheeks still flush when I think of some of the things my father said during our fight last year. He compared me to the perfumed fops who seem to make careers out of attending the city theatres. He scorned the uniform I wear, which is the uniform he put me into when I was still a child. The flush always fades, though, when I think of his closing words. “If you had the remotest understanding of real life, boy, then I would continue this discussion. As it is, get out of my sight!”

Boy? I am what I have been given and what I have been made. If I adopt a style of walking, a mode of speech, and have a genuine fondness for bathing then it because that is what His Grace, my father, wanted for me. If I am dressed like a toy soldier it is because he dressed me that way. Oh, I am all the Duke’s creation except in my own thoughts and they will be mine and only mine.

But more and more I find myself on this ruined tower because it is the only part of the castle that is never teeming with people. More and more I find myself seeking out the sweet cool air from the mountains to the north. Downstairs I am engulfed in the sounds, the business and the smells of other people and their activities. Every sensory experience says something but it is in smell that any image is completed.

When the king visits the place is decorated from dungeons to attics. His majesty must think the world smells of fresh paint. When our scouts bring news from the frontiers they smell of their horses, but also of mud and dust. Their smells are overpowering but any disgust I feel is dampened by the excitement of their travels and the dangers of their work. Even the daily cycle of smells from the kitchens tells a tale, one of a vibrant castle where many people live and work.

But I prefer the fresh air high on the tower and often I long to just saddle a horse and run away to the places that air comes from. Tonight, though, I am only interested in the sky which is gently lit up by the city below the Duke’s castle. The light wash is faint and Orion stands out clearly with Sirius so bright it seems to be burning. I have come to this place since childhood and it has always been a place of the greatest safety in a castle that is all I could want from life. And yet below me now, barely twenty paces below, my father again has that filthy wretch by the shoulders and is bidding him farewell.

The beggar’s tone suggests gratitude for the bulky but palm sized bag that my father has handed over. Only words but a brief wisp of spring air brings my father’s reply clear to my ears.

“I will always be in your debt.”

And the silent night adds a momentary sight of the beggar as he turns away from my father under the light-washed sky. Beneath the stinking cloak I catch a glimpse of dulled and tarnished chain-mail. A pattern long out of date but the very same that my father will wear tonight as he sits on his ducal throne and ponders something I am beginning to suspect is beyond my comprehension.

Perhaps I should speak with my father again about the beggar but there will still be that smell if I come down from my tower and visit the throne room. So tonight I will stay where I am under the beautiful washed out blue sky, and my father will stay where he is, both of us quite alone in our own ways.

The Duke is on his throne and the future Duke is on his tower. Things will be very different when I become duke.

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Author Bio: Bob Johnston lives in Scotland, and when he gets a day off and decent weather (very rare there) rides a big silver motorcycle into the hills. He has been an avid science fiction and horror fan since he was a kid. Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour out of Space’ scared the hell out of him but left him desperate for more, and Michael Moorcock got him into science fiction through his Oswald Bastable stories. Both prompted him to start scribbling his own stories which he has done to this day, decades later.

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