Colin often wonders whether insanity is contagious. He drums his fingertips on a tabletop, his knuckles sharp and their movement fluid, and waits for the echo to still in the musty air. He has learnt to breathe dust and fog without choking, and now it is the air outside that tastes toxic when it glides across his tongue. Having grown accustomed to darkness, his eyes sting and water in the summer sun.
He thinks that madness is probably a quiet seductress. If she takes him, it will be in a morning, draped in the shadows and wearing his aunt’s dark eyes.
Colin dreams of long hallways. He walks endlessly, time-softened sandstone at either side. Sometimes, he thinks that there are faces at the cobwebbed windows, but he can’t turn his head to catch their red-lipped smiles. It is bright. The floorboards beneath his feet are old and bleached and they smooth into a blur of beige, stretching into the light. The hallways never end. Colin does not tire.
Colin’s father is taken in the summer. Colin watches from a window as Lucas stands stiff and proud in the shadows cast by the setting sun. His hair glints with lights of crimson and gold as the king’s soldiers wrap green twine around his wrists and mark his forehead with the waxy red cross of treason. They touch him with reluctant hands, wary of his power. Lucas smiles and waits.
Colin learned years ago that the most important wars are won under the cover of failure. He thinks of death, as his fingernails press white curves of hatred into the palms of his hands. Vengeance wields a slow magic. Colin counts his enemies in sneers and scorn, forever his father’s son—even now.
Each of his shoulders held in the grasp of an accuser’s hand, Lucas turns to face the castle for a moment, his eyes rising to the windows on the second floor. Colin raises a hand and smiles. His father nods quickly, tightly, a mere flicker of his head, and steps backwards as though there is nothing else to say. A tempest of movement and magic carries him into the dawning night and Colin watches the sun set over the stretch of the castle grounds as his mother wails in the entrance hall below.
Colin’s first memory is of his aunt tossing him high into the air. She is pale. Perfect. Dark glossy hair and shining white teeth. She catches him as he drops, her laughter rising loud and pure into the space where once he’d flown. In memory, she is beautiful, but the bright shards of madness have always dwelt within her eyes.
He soars, higher and higher, until the anxious tears of his mother are like the fall of distant rain.
Olivia lives in a house built from shadow. Colin arrives in the silent hours before dawn, with his mother clinging to one arm and a small case hanging from the other. The women circle like dogs, Rosemary pale and faded beside the black tangles of Olivia’s hair. Colin kisses his mother’s cheek before she leaves and tells her that he will be home before leaf-fall begins to colour the castle’s stone. He believes it then, but the darkness of his aunt’s parlour is already gathering at his feet.
On the first night, Colin sleeps without dreams, watched by staring paintings on the bedroom walls. He is nineteen: too much a man to be safe at home.
Breakfast is in the dining hall. Colin and his aunt sit at opposite ends of a table that goes on for miles. The wood is dusty and knot-holed and Colin’s toast is cold. He eats it anyway, marmalade sour upon his tongue, and Olivia drinks tea from a rose-print cup. She takes it black and far too sweet; later, Colin will learn the taste from her kisses, growing to love it as he would any vice. For now, he watches her across the length of the table, fascinated by the pallor of her skin against the deep greens of her dress. When she sees him watching, she laughs with a thousand teeth.
The grounds of the Stanley holding are overgrown. Colin follows twisting paths that allow glimpses of a far off village, ducking beneath the wild roses that overhang the trail. Even at noon, the garden seems to be in the grasp of twilight, the sun stretching across the few splashes of grass as though it is forever setting. The shadows collect even in the brightest corners of Olivia’s realm, clustering beneath hedges and perennials and unfurling towards an ever-nearing night.
Colin carves his name into the flesh of a rotting oak, taking care with his letters and underlining the ‘o’. For when I am gone, he tells himself, brushing bark from the palm of his hand.
Colin sleeps with one hand curled beneath his pillow, knees bent and his ankles crossed. He puts on his left boot first, but parts his hair on the right side of his head. He prefers melancholy music and has an unspoken phobia of small creatures with too many legs. He appreciates routine and order. He loves his parents. The first time he brings himself to orgasm, he is staring at a portrait of his aunt.
Roger appears twice during the summer. He is thinner even than his wife, moustached and bearded, his hair hanging in lank strands about his face. Colin cannot see his father in this brother who seems so small. Roger speaks of storm clouds at the dinner table and weaves the king’s army into every sentence that passes his lips. Olivia paints her mouth red when her husband is home and twists her hair into piles of curls atop her head. They retire early, and Colin can hear their passion from the far end of the hall.
He is not fond of his uncle. There is no room for three within the ivy-covered walls of his new home. He waits to hear news of his uncle’s death in battle and is disappointed when it fails to come.
Colin’s mother writes often, long letters filled with anxiety and pleas for Colin to remain strong. Olivia reads them after he does, the corners of her lips twitching with unshed mirth. Rosemary is already fading in Colin’s mind. She is weak—Olivia says so—and Colin has little time for her fears. He thinks of his father often, but he doesn’t worry. Lucas has many enemies, but the power of kings is fleeting.
His dreams are of forests, trees towering high above his head as he moves barefoot though a floor of rotting leaves. The sun forms starpricks in the foliage, and bright eyes peer from the circling shadows that ooze beneath the trees. Colin walks in an ever-dwindling spiral. The air is dank and musty against his cheeks.
The first time, Colin is summoned to Olivia’s room. She asks him about his studies, a teacup full and steaming on the night-stand and the bedclothes puddled about her in snaking, swelling folds. Her nightdress is thin and dark and Colin watches the movement of her breasts as she speaks. He waits as she sips tea from morning-pale lips, shifting his weight from foot to foot. When she has drained the cup, it clatters in its saucer, and she pats the mattress beside her thigh.
She tastes of tea and sugar and her lips move over Colin’s as though she has kissed him before. Beneath the gauzy fabric of her nightdress, Olivia is strangely cool, heavy and full within the curve of Colin’s hand. “You kiss like your father,” she says as her lips draw patterns on Colin’s chest. He arches his spine, unsurprised, and clutches at the angles of Olivia’s back.
He hates her, then. He understands that he is a reflection, a creation of her will. Colin bites at his own lips until he can taste nothing but blood and the faintest hint of tea. She wraps winter-white legs around his waist, pulling him closer, deeper, into the dusty swirls of her hair and the scrape of her nails over his back. He wants to hurt her as much as he loves her, but she sighs happily at his harshest touch.
It is the first time. It will not be the last.
Colin prefers winter to summer, the white of snow and ice caught in the bark of naked grey trees. He burns in the summer, but winter is painted in Stanley hues. Summer is to be endured, spent within curtained rooms that seem to reek of sunlight and too-long days. It is always summer in Colin’s dreams.
Rosemary’s letters ignite as the summer fades. She pleads for his return and for reassurances that Colin remains unchanged. But he is still his father’s son, more so now than ever, and he has grown darker in his aunt’s house of blindfolded windows and dusty air. He discards the pages with an uncaring eye. Olivia tears the final letter into thin strips of parchment, destroying the remains in a flash of orange flame. Colin closes his eyes and lets himself fall.
They arrive at the throat of the smouldering palace beneath the first gold of twilight. Colin kneels before his father as Olivia watches from one side. Lucas’s hands are as cold as death as they draw Colin to his feet. “I have been waiting,” Colin says, and in his father’s eyes he can see the dark reflection of his aunt’s gaze.
He stands within a circle of Lucas’s men, smoke-haze floating like countless spectres above his head. Lucas is proud and bear-headed, while his sister-in-law is a collection of shadows, draped in shapeless robes. The king’s eyes shine black within his sunken face and when he takes Colin’s wrist, it is with fingers that move like naked bones. “Mercy,” he begs, his voice a desert wind. He is silenced with a wave of Lucas’s sword, and his remains join those of his soldiers, outside the broken palace walls.
The sky glows, coppery-pink, as Lucas lifts the fallen crown onto his head. Colin cannot be sure whether the laugh that splits the silence is Olivia’s or his own.
—Tara Calaby’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Grimdark Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Aurealis, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and she is an Assistant Editor for Luna Station Quarterly. When not writing or editing, she can be found researching her family tree or attempting to learn Welsh.
Learn more at http://taracalaby.com