Chapter Nine, Checking It Out
The duke was waiting for them in the main foyer of the Heaven, standing by the registration desk. The Winslett family entered via the smaller yet still beautiful side door of the building, immediately finding themselves finding themselves standing upon plush red carpet, the room illuminated by bright tallow candles. Like an ant's nest, people moving to and fro seemed to give the Winsletts a generally wide berth, allowing them to feel like intruders into another world. The place was bustling and alive inside, servants, fighters and plain visitors alike scurrying around to make the final preparations for their departure. The room was stone and quite echoey, but the cold was dispelled by the light of the fires and heartily warmed, also warmed in a similar way by the presence of the industrious, moving people.
Somebody pushing a trolley filled with weapons slid past Kaitlyn, some looking a little familiar to her and others seeming completely foreign. She watched the trolley get pushed away with growing curiosity. A few she had seen in picture books and her father's historical reports, but the one other weapon there she stared at intently, for she had seen it before. "What's that, Daddy?" She asked, pointing towards it innocently. By the time Clive had looked the trolley had already disappeared into a corridor, so it confused him a little more. Kaitlyn decided to drop the question then, she'd ask it if she could at a later date, probably.
The duke swept up to them, a congenial smile on his face. The Winsletts were an attractive family altogether, a learned and scholarly father, a stunning yet down to earth mother, and a gorgeous blonde little girl. How lovely. The duke thought. He was regarding the wife in particular, and at how people seemed to stop and notice her as she went by. It was simply wonderful.
"A pleasure to see you all, truly!" He exclaimed, taking Clive's hand and shaking it vigorously. Clive almost shrunk away from the older man's touch, remembering Ortega's story about the wife and two children, but then relaxed and obligingly shook the man's hand again. He was an uppity son of a bitch, but as long as he would show courtesy to his family, then Clive was prepared to do the same. "However, I was expecting you slightly later in the day." The duke continued, his tone dropping a little.
"Yes, my apologies regarding that." Clive replied cautiously. "We left earlier because we were anticipating a delay that did not come, and didn't wish to keep you waiting any longer than you desired to. The horses you leant us were very useful, thank you for that. This is my family." He gestured towards the two girls. "My wife Catherine, and my daughter Kaitlyn. I am sure they are more than pleased to make your acquaintance." And if they weren't, they sure were good at hiding it well, Catherine even trying to pull off what she considered to be a grand curtsey.
Changing his tune rather fast, the duke shook his head and let go of Clive's hands. "No, no. It is of no consequence, really. I was merely talking out loud. As you can see, departure preparations have yet to be completed. This is our busiest time. Mrs. Winslett," He bowed gracefully to her, almost seeming to be about to kiss her hand, "I do hope that you enjoy your stay here. Our kitchens are the finest on the continent, I expect that they will meet your standards. The cook shall be more than obliged to show you around," He sniffed, "I daresay he knows more about the subject than I do."
"I look forward to it, sir." Catherine smiled in reply. To be honest, anything with a stove, a pantry and a sink would be good enough for her. She was still a little overwhelmed at the sheer size of the place and the knowledge that they would be taking care of it for over three months. She hoped that Kaitlyn wouldn't get lost in such a huge expanse of building. She hoped the same thing of herself, too. Benevolent owner or not, this place was still dangerous.
Duke Begucci turned to Kaitlyn. Solemnly she shook the older man's hand. "Well, my dear. What do you think of my Heaven so far?" He asked.
"It's very big, your highness." She answered quietly, looking up at him carefully.
Cain found this excessively funny and began to chuckle. "'Your Highness'? Not quite, but an interesting concept nevertheless. What a polite little girl. This little room is the only the beginning, there is much, much more to my kingdom, I assure you. I would like to show you as much as I can, time permitting. Is there anything you have specific questions about at the moment? I would be more than happy to explain."
"What's on those trolleys that the people keep on pushing through?" Kaitlyn asked him, becoming reminded of her query as another load of weapons were carted through the foyer. Outside they were being loaded onto a small wagon and being moved to the large storage shed at the back of the Heaven, where they would gather dust until the fighting arena would be reopened again. The gunpowder and ammunition was being stored separately in the basement, rending the weapons useless for current use. It was just as well, for who knew what kind of lunatic would steal a loaded weapon when they had the chance?
The duke put a hand on one of the passing trolleys and the servant stopped pushing it, so Cain could point to any weapon that he wanted. "Assorted weaponry that is usually used during gladiatorial matches. Generally we allow a participant to select one had they not brought their own. It happens more often than not, but we charge for ammunition and ranged weaponry because they are spent or destroyed during the match." The duke continued to explain proudly. "We have swords, claymores, scimitars, rapiers, zweihanders and daggers. Spears, pikes, maces, flails, javelins, combat claws, axes, staves, slings, old-fashioned bows and arrows and most prominently, just about every gun in existence."
"What's that one?" Said Kaitlyn, pointing to a weapon that she recognised. It was a large gun with a big black tube with glass over a longer metally tube, the part that a person holds onto made from a rich dark wood, capped with metal on the end. It was nestled near a few other weapons on the trolley, but stood out because of its size and gleaming black metal finish. The other weapons seemed pale and translucent in comparison. The last time she had seen it, it had been covered in blood and booming, booming all around her.
Clive took over. "That is a bolt-action Gungnir .35 rifle, I believe. It has a two shell capacity when unmodified, four at the most if it has been tinkered with. Any more than that might jeopardize the balance of the weapon. I used to have one of those back when I was younger. The two hundred and fifty meter flyshoot was my specialty…" He adjusted his glasses, "I thought it best to give it up after my eyes lost their edge. There was no point anymore. They are superb for sniping from a long distance, but for things like close-range combat matches, I don't think-"
"Indeed, that is why they are not employed too often. Yet we keep then available should an inexperienced newbie wish to try it out. It is," The look on the duke's face showed mischievous satisfaction, "A good way to flush out participants who should not be here in the first place."
"It all sounds so barbaric." Catherine murmured disapprovingly, looking at Kaitlyn. She was listening to the conversation of the two men, but she wasn't sure just how much Kaitlyn understood of it.
"Be that as it may, my dear lady," Duke Begucci said graciously to Catherine, "Barbarity is my trade. I seek excellence and perfection in all my endeavors. I cannot tolerate too coarse a material to work with in my art. Those belong in the scrap heap."
"I suppose…" She replied lowly, not wanting to see through the duke's point of view. "But why bring more pain and suffering into the world in the name of recreation and art? I know I should not question, but I cannot help it, I do want to question…"
"Catherine…" Clive muttered, annoyed. "Stop it."
"No, I like this conversation." Cain said to Clive, to calm the green-haired man down. He spread his hands a little, like a scale trying to weigh two different units of mass. "Let me see, how can I best put this…" He paused for a few moments. "This is indeed for the purpose of recreation and art. Art attains beauty by breaking the boundaries of human interest and introducing something new into the life of the viewer. Whether the material is paint, clay, words or the spilling off blood is irellivent, the audience will always applaud at a fantastic scene in the end. I do not force these men to enter the arena and fight for their lives and for glory. They travel across the face of this planet and pay me to stand on my stage and act out the most ferocious of performances. Their triumphs are real, etched into the minds of those who witness them! Their pains are deified! When the spectators cheer, they are alive! They live within the promise of death!" The duke's smile was almost shark-like. "And their victories, they are mine also. They are my art."
Catherine bit her lip and looked away. She didn't want to agree with him, but she didn't want to argue anymore either. The duke was clearly a better orator than she, and all this talk of bloodshed was making her anxious.
Kaitlyn sensed that the duke was not in essence a bad man, although he had done terribly bad things, like an old piece of silk that had been tied up into a knotty, tangled mess. There was also a shadow across him though, the shadow of inevitable responsibility. Kaitlyn could see that the duke had been running from it, as far and as fast as he could. That was why she didn't like him, it was something she couldn't really help.
"Be heartened that you will not have to deal with anything more than feeding the monsters, Mr. Winslett. It should not be too difficult for you to-" A flourish of voices rose from behind the mahogany curtains near the registration desk. Somebody yelled out in pain and there was a general scuffle, Catherine instinctively putting her hands over Kaitlyn's ears before the swearing began. The curtains were ripped aside and a heavily muscled fighter burst in, roaring about there being a piece of twisted metal in his shoulder. Indeed they could all see it peeking out from the bloody gash in the flesh, a piece of shrapnel that must have burst during the last gladiatorial match. Kaitlyn's head was turned by her mother so that she would not have to see the injury. "Is there a problem, Andrew?" The duke asked, plainly seeing that there was.
"Get this fucking piece of metal outta me!" The fighter yelled angrily, raising a meaty fist.
"You know the infirmary is to your left. Please take your injury there, you are making a scene. I am sure that nurse Cheville would be more than happy to see to you." Said Cain, turning towards the wounded man. He was talking slowly and very carefully, like he was dealing with either a drunk, a very stupid person or a child. He did not seem disturbed by this intrusion into his conversation, he merely seemed irritated by it. It must be good PR tolerance, Clive thought, knowing that had his family not been here and had he been in the duke's shoes, he may have reacted in a drastically different way.
"Fuck that! I ain't letting that lunatic look at me! Uhngh, I think this things is made of lead or something! Get it outta me now!" The fighter was beginning to look scared. Lead poisoning was a serious thing. If left untreated, it could lead to death. As uneducated as the thug was, Clive could clearly see that he knew this. Most likely it was nothing more than a piece of iron or steel, as they held their shape better than a more malleable substance like gold or lead, but try telling that to somebody who looked like they could easily break you in two if they so desired. Duke Begucci looked like a twig with a moustache in comparison.
"…Very well. Come with me and we shall find a medipack to use." He turned back to the Winsletts. "I am so sorry, but a pressing duty stays me. Please be patient and I shall return as promptly as I possible can. I will just excuse myself now…" He guided the bleeding man out of the main hallway and into the direction of the infirmary, the fighter moaning all the while.
Now that they were gone, Catherine removed her hands from Kaitlyn's ears, relieved. The little girl shook her head a bit, freeing her golden curls from where they had been trapped. "I don't like these people." Catherine stated, "I'll feel a lot better once they get going away from here."
"Just be patient, dear." Clive told her. "Perhaps I should not have been so adamant about arriving on time. We have indeed gotten here too early. However at least this place is not as empty as a morgue just yet, right? I rather like the air of a place with purpose." He took in a deep breath. It smelt slightly of monsters, the ones hidden far down in the basements below their feet, but there was also the smell of musky flowers, fresh cliff side air, the ancient dust trapped within the blood-red rugs, the smell of age itself. It smelt somewhat of accumulated memory.
"That man didn't want to help the other man." Kaitlyn mentioned out loud. "He only helped because we were watching him. It was for his… rep… repoo. Reputation."
"More often than not people are like that, Kaitie honey." Clive said soberly, putting a hand to Kaitlyn's back. "Not everyone is nice to everybody else. It is because of tolerance-, no, that is a bad analogy… It is more like… Hmm." Clive came up with something and he smiled. "Do you remember back when you were in preschool, and sometimes you would come home with a picture for mommy and me? One that you drew all by yourself? That is always a nice thing to do and it makes your mommy and daddy happy, right?"
"That's right." Kaitlyn said, remembering.
"But if you had drawn us a picture everyday that you were in school, what would have happened? Indeed we would have loved every single one of them, but after a while it would be understandable if our zeal for the gift would diminish. Not only that, but we would have had run out of places to stick them on the walls." He said carefully, explaining it in a way that Kaitlyn could understand.
"Oh, I get it now. My hand would really start to hurt after a while, too!" She exclaimed brightly, nodding.
Clive smiled sadly at the mention of the pain in her hand. "Yes, like that. People can be nice to other people, and people can be happy and be nice back, but for some people, like the Duke, they only have a limited amount of nice in them before it begins to hurt. It depends on the person, I suppose, but if everybody was nice to each other all the time, then being nice would have no value, I believe."
Kaitlyn looked at the reception desk. There was a big ink bottle there with a large yellow feather resting inside the short stubby neck of the bottle, filled with thick black fluid. She wanted to pick up and play with the feather, but was afraid that she'd tip over the bottle and get yucky black ink all over her pretty blue dress. She looked back towards her parents solemnly. "I want mommy and daddy to be nice to each other forever. I wish…" She said, closing her eyes.
She wished it would be true.
Clive patted her on the back gently. "Granted." He said, and smiled.