athelbert, a gentleman of imposing lineage, immense wealth, impeccable taste, and inquiring mind, planned an elaborate dinner for some select friends.
he did nothing hastliy, and planned the affair for several years before issuing his invitations.
all who were invited were asked to bring an original artwork to the dinner, in order that the conversation could have some starting points that could be reasonably be considered interesting and civilized.
athelbert was immensely gratified when all who had been invited, accepted.
all who knew athelbert at all well, and many who knew him only by reputation, knew that he did not care to be upstaged or outdone in any endeavors. therefore all who had been invited fully expected that he would himself have a work to display at the dinner, of the most ambitious concept and most spectacular execution.
the first to accept was the countess zorine de z-------, his oldest friend. athelbert and zorine had been introduced to each other when they were two years old.
athelbert at that time had been in the care of his uncle, cardinal a------------, who was serving as the pope's ambassador to the kingdom of antarctica, at the time of the most intense negotiations prior to the outbreak of the hostilties of may, 1------.
zorine was the natural daughter of the comtesse albertine de z........., one of the foremost natural philosophers and explorers of that vanished age, who had accepted the invitations of the holy roman emperor and the son of heaven to investigate the possible existence of an ancient civilization buried under the south pole.
the sudden outbreak of hostilities effectively isolated the inhabitants of antarctica for the duration of the war.
cardinal a-------, disheartened and disquieted by the turn of events, which seemed to contradict the prophecies of a golden future which he had been promulgating for decades, retired to his book-lined study, and spent the war perusing his matchless collection of ancient manuscripts.
the comtesse albertine effectively became ruler of antarctica, and used the occasion to exercise those qualities of despotism and capriciousness which had simmered unchecked in her soul since birth.
with the cardinal locked in his library, and the countess traversing the icy wastes of the continent in search of humans and other living creatures to regiment and torment, the two children were left to their own devices, and to each other's constant company.
antarctica was now isolated from the wider world by the impenetrable blockade of the navy of the kingdom of g------------. but such were the existing supplies of food, clothing, fuel and servants that athelbert and zorine not only suffered no privations in the first years of the conflict, but were able to indulge themselves in any and all such amusements and games as they could devise.
artistic productions and games became their lives.
they would remain athelbert' s chief preoccupations even as he grew older.
zorine, even at a tender age, was more interested in power, and in the cruelties and humiliations that power could indulge. athelbert, along with her nursemaids - who under the circumstances were in no position to resign their offices - became one of the first creatures on whom she could test her abilities.
zorine never scrupled to avail herself of those subtle powers and privileges assigned by convention to the fair sex.
athelbert, more diffident, and solely concerned with his arts and games, made little or no use of his masculine prerogatives.
fortunately for athelbert, as they grew older it became apparent that he was quite immune to the heaviest weapons that zorine, or any other human female, could train on him.
not that he was immune to love itself. but cupid's rays manifested themselves from another direction, and from what many would consider an unseemly early age athelbert's glazed gaze lingered upon the martial forms of those guardsmen and soldiers fortunate enough to find themselves in the frozen continent, safe and bored, but far from the maelstrom of war. in particular, the fabrics of young athelbert's dreams were woven almost nightly with the mighty musculature and swirling mustachios of lieutenant m......, the commander of the cardinal's guard.
but that , dear reader, is another story, which we may embark on later, time and our supply of paper permitting.
thus were the trajectories and priorities of athelbert's and zorine's existences set.
athelbert's, on art and love.
zorine's , on power and cruelty.
but they always remained the best of friends, through the vicissitudes of war, and the longueurs of peace.
we return now to the morning after news of the declaration of war had reached antarctica.
cardinal a............, having announced to his staff his intention of spending the war in his library, was attending to the details and logistics of his move.
the first consideration was his sleeping arrangements. the ambassadorial palace had a differently carved and decorated four poster in every bedroom, and the cardinal had heretofore considered it as beneath his dignity to sleep in the same suite every night as he would have to be served the same dinner every evening.
now, in the straitened circumstance of his withdrawal from the world, and because he did not wish to displace any of his beloved books or artworks, he had resolved to move one, and only one, of these humble pallets to his library floor.
but which one?
his favorite, and the oldest, which had adorned the blue suite, had the disadvantage of being the largest. it was reputed to have belonged to the b-------- family, of immortal infamy, and the artworks on its posts and panels told a tale which might be all too illustrative of the sad fate which had overtaken the cardinal and his world.
the tale it told was as follows.
oswaldo, a powerful duke in the days of the second two hundred year's war, was courted by all the sides of that conflict because of the strategic importance of his magnificently appointed castle. magnificently appointed, that is, for the art of war, as the duke had no interest in any other art.
duke oswaldo had no sons, but four beautiful daughters. it would be difficult to say, whether he was more humiliated by the lack of a son, or exasperated by the conduct of the four fair ones.
one dark evening, as a storm was raging in the valley beneath the castle, a lone horseman was spied coming up the pass by one of the duke's sentries...