“My goddaughter is suffering from what you will, no doubt, think but an extraordinary delusion. Namely, she is under an ancestral curse.”
“‘An ancestral curse?’” I said.
“Well, it’s first generation, rather freshly minted, but it was inflicted upon her according to birth. All ancestral curses must have a start somewhere, you know.”
The man to whom I was speaking was hoping to obtain my services as the tutor for his goddaughter the princess. He was well dressed in a frock coat, boots gleaming from a fresh blacking, and a shirt and pants tailored to fit his powerful, straight form. His forehead was high, the hair atop it golden tinged with red as was his full beard.
I noticed the tender skin beneath his eyes was remarkably puffy. Small wonder, I thought, if he regularly lost sleep. Serving as regent-guardian for a future queen with a mental disorder, one whom you could never be sure wouldn’t drop the reins to the kingdom once you passed them into her hands, was enough to take its toll on anyone.
We were sitting in the regent’s vast study in the summer palace of the small Scandinavian kingdom of Aarastad. The window was open, for it was an exceptionally warm morning on the fifteenth of June, 1844. That day, the wind was blowing in from the coast. Usually, things were kept pleasingly cool this far inland from the breeze coming off the nearby glacier.
That frozen mass, left over from the recent little ice age that had almost wrecked the fourteen American colonies’ 1777 revolution, was largely responsible for Aarastad realizing its own declaration of independence.
“My Lord Melchior,” I said, “I don’t believe in curses, ancestral or otherwise. So, yes, this notion of hers can be nothing but a mental aberration, and whatever else she may suffer from it is purely psychosomatic, assuming there is a physical manifestation.”
“There are no physical manifestations, at least not as she believes there to be, but neither is her problem entirely psychological, Master Aurelianus. Her mind is held captive by another’s will, but this bondage of her psyche has its origin is in a most definite physical event.”
“Lord Melchior, this ‘curse’ sounds all quite peculiar, and I understand why you felt the need to apprise me of it, but I assure you that this belief of your ward’s is inconsequential in regard to the performance of my duties. Mathematics and grammar are the same whether one enters my classroom with a bane to call her own or not.
“Master Aurelianus, while I appreciate your confidence in your abilities, you have yet to feel Freyja’s sting the first time. Nor do you realize how especially difficult she can be. She has managed to run off four tutors so far.”
“As I said, I stand ready and willing.”
“That is exactly what all your predecessors said. I do not wish to be pulled away from affairs of state for a sixth time to conduct yet another round of interviews. You already know more going in than the others have. In fact, I am about to reveal her circumstances in full, something I have not done before with any applicant for the position. So, if you will….”
He nodded at the confidentiality document that lay on the table between us alongside a pen protruding from its well.
“Oh,” I said, “of course.”
As I reached for the pen, my gaze momentarily shifted to the statue on his desktop of the goddess Ithunea in the eagle talons of the Jotun Thiazi. She was desperately imposing her back between him and the apples she grasped to her bare breasts.
It was the only indulgence in the entire room of unadulterated décor –or unadulterated decadence, if there is such a thing. I had expected much more of the latter, for the summer palace had been built by the previous dissipated ruling house, the Serapions.
Only the image of a topless Ithunea seemed in in their style. Otherwise, the study was both stately and austere.
I sat under enormous exposed beams, which, like the paneling, were made of oak. So was the large desk behind which Lord Melchior now sat enthroned in a leather upholstered chair. I, on the other hand, sat on a backless stool.
On the opposite wall, the only one without bookshelves, hung the floor-to-ceiling oil portrait of King Olaf Ifguter, the founder of the current Aarastad dynasty, the house of Asger.
He had been a true Viking of a man in life. His abundant mane of golden red hair and full beard meant one’s initial impression of him was inescapably leonine, but the aquiline nose was more redolent of a bird of prey.
Olaf Ifguter’s eyes had been painted in that fashion which made you feel that they were following you around the room. Add to that a trace of mirth at the corners of his mouth, and one could not help but feel, once you looked away, that he was laughing at you behind your back.
I felt his painted eyes on me as I pulled the dip pen from its well, scrawled my name in the allotted space beneath the regent’s (“Bärt Melchior”), then returned the stylus to its place.
“Thank you,” Melchior said, as he examined the signature. He looked up at me. “Your middle name is ‘Kai?’ You do know that sounds like a girl’s name.”
“Yes, well, in my defense, in my native England, ‘Kay’ is masculine and was, in fact, the name of King Arthur’s foster brother. My middle name is actually ‘Gaius,’ which is related to the modern ‘Kay,’ and of which ‘K-a-i,’ pronounced ‘Ki,’ as in my case, is an accepted diminutive form.”
He nodded. “So, is ‘Kai’ legally binding?”
“Then we can continue. The ink should be firmly dry by the time I have finished my tale. At which point, if you are still agreeable, I shall take you to Freyja’s private hofgarten, and introduce you to your potential tutee before we make it official.”
“My lord, really,” I said with a smile. “I do, of course, wish to meet her future royal highness immediately, but that isn’t necessary before we finalize the agreement.”
I was, you see, at this time a starving artist whose starving was disproportionate to the art he was producing. In fact, it was becoming counterproductive. The dark hair of my beard covered cheeks that had of late become sunken. I was eager, therefore, to secure a source of income both regular and reliable.
“No, trust me,” he said, “it’s necessary. There is nothing like an encounter with Freyja herself. Just hearing her story alone is insufficient to our securing the arrangement, and that, in itself, is rather extraordinary.
“If anywhere in my narrative this baggage appears too much for you to lift, raise your hand, and I will send for the next applicant. In such an event, you will please remember that the confidentiality agreement remains in full effect. What you are about to hear is tantamount to being privy to secrets of state. It goes with you, unspoken, to your grave.”