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Flesh, Skull

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Although the poet was paid to say otherwise, the clocks do not stop when the Duke dies.

The new Duke's name is Antonio. The Duke before him was Lussurioso, and the old Duke Lussurioso's father before him had ruled so long that his name was lost in the dukedom.

The old Duke's story was tortuous. In the court poisoner's day book, it was noted for its ending: murdered, this duke died from a corrosive poison administered via the skull of a woman he had once raped. The dead woman had been his murderer's fiancée. The murderer's name was Vindice, he of the dark curls and the laughing eyes - although that was earlier, when he loved and was loved. The fiancée's name was Gloriana.

Very shortly afterwards, the old Duke's son Lussurioso the heir was also killed, followed apace in death by the old Duke's younger sons from his second marriage. Also, various lords of the court, the old Duke's murderer Vindice, Vindice's brother Hippolito ... remained only the wise Antonio to take the dukedom, his sense of justice empowered by his wife's death. Before the old Duke's murder, in the day book, the poisoner recorded exactly proportioned the poison Antonio's wife Thomasina had used to take her own life. She had been raped by the old Duke's younger sons. Should the poisoner's day book with its exact formulations be read by eyes for which it was not intended, Thomasina's death could be put down to compassion, but not the corrosive used to kill the old Duke: that was treachery, and went unrecorded.

Here are only bones. To flesh the story out, to cover this ambivalent grinning skull and light it, to understand this post-apocalyptic murder scene - ah, there's the rub.

The very first Duke's name was John. He had been born in the Old World, before the apocalypse of flood and the fire, and for him time stopped and began with the end of one life and the beginning of another. For John when he was twenty (and for every student, every teacher in the university where he studied: for John's family and friends, and their family and friends, and for every single human soul in the Old World), the sun went out. The stars blackened. He, lived, although his time - what he had thought was his time - had been and gone, and thus he learned that time is not forever, although the poisoner's day books will list day in and day out like the ticking of a clock. Much later, the old Duke thought forever was in his grasp, and was wrong. His time was instead the devil on Vindice's back - hurry, hurry, hurry. (Ay, to the devil indeed.)

It was John, the first Duke, who laid the bones of power held in the dukedom: he, wise, thoughtful, resourceful, who set their unbounded limits. He who took title with no more than a dismissive laugh, when the word Duke was cipher for his outstanding courage and not the corrupt brute power the word became in later times. The old Duke - the old Duke was no fair ruler.

The second Duke, after John, was Lucia, who had been born eleven years before the end of John's world and remembered sunlight like a gift on the skin. She came to power amidst the rats and the scavenged ruins of a library once famous, in darkness. It was Lucia, who had dragged herself from the ruins with her mother's rosary in her hands, who started the cult of the engineer. Although if you'd asked her a hundred years later, two hundred - she would not have recognised the cult's brutal initiation nor the staged recitation of fragments culled from necessity.

"The circumference of a circle is equal to-"

"The sum of mass-"

"To lag a pipe. First-"

In Lussurioso's childhood - a hundred years after Lucia, two hundred - there were thirty children in the schoolroom and he, the old Duke's firstborn son, the king of it golden-haired and blessed. There was a blackboard, and desks, and under the shadows of the electric light lessons to be learned in formal declaration. Lussurioso, impatient in this as he was in all else ("Fuck me. Now. Now!" he said, and Vindice would, although that was later, after he had fallen in love elsewhere and Lussurioso's passion had turned to possession) refused to learn as he should. It was the pages who wielded the cane. The old Duke his father had no patience for small boys.

It was, in Lussurioso's time, Thomasina who had patience. Quiet Thomasina, Antonio's wife, who as a child and as an acolyte sat in the darkest corner of the classroom with her head bent over her primer. Pius Thomasina, who took her textbooks to bed and woke in the morning with the imprint of sooty ink tattooed across her cheeks, who dead would bring the old Duke down and his family with him. It was Thomasina's rape, and the pursuance of it - for the old Duke under pressure could not bring himself to convict his guilty younger sons, the children of his second wife, for a rape he had himself condoned if not committed - which would lay bare the cruelty of the court. With the stripping of any guise of justice from the old Duke, her husband Antonio's honour shone clear, and thus gained him the dukedom after the old Duke's death.

After Lucia, it was the third Duke's Duchess who built the first classroom and wrote the first set of lessons taught therein. Helena, she of the patient smile whose sepia portrait now hangs faded and gilted in the inner alcove of the engineers' guildhall. What would you call it? Chapel? Mausoleum? The connotations of sanctuary are blooded out. The eighth Duke killed his father there, although his mother being dead he did not fuck her over the laboratory bench with its candle and books.

- Did you draw in a breath? In the absence of light, who was to know if the flesh rutting in the tangled corridors was mother, brother, sister, daughter -

The old Duke's revenger Vindice spied on his sister Credenza - she who would later take up the poisoner's knife - bathing, seen through the ceiling tiles. Guilty and enflamed by pink skin and softened nipples he laid this vision open to the lascivious gaze of his classmate, his lord. After, Lussurioso stroked himself to completion, his knees spread across the struts of a skylight years darkened, and Vindice watched black-eyed and panting. In the early years of Vindice's life, when he was young and easy and his smile did not show all his teeth, golden Lussurioso was all the sum of his loving, and this was before - boys coming to men - before the fumbling, awkward sex, before Vindice's hands ever reached out to the buttons of Lussurioso's doublet, before either one of them gasped and sighed and spent under the other's touch.

It was John who first claimed the Duke's house. Small as it was then - look at it now, and it's a steaming behemoth - it was he who set the first roof and set the first chimney in place: he who lit the first fire set there by hand while the smoke of the world's demise still hung in the air. It was his first wife who birthed in the room where the dons had met for afternoon tea and macaroons.

For childbirth, no anaesthetic. (Consider Lussurioso, whose mother died in the birthing of him: would he have had less need for love if his mother's death had not left him so hungry for touch?) There were drugs, once - aspirin, paracetamol, a little coke, a little weed - not enough for oblivion, although the eighth Duke tried. Poison grew, as if the Old World's demise bred out of the land. Hellebore sprouted twisted in the ruins of the physic garden, and along with it laburnum, nightshade and the foxglove which grew only where the soil had been disturbed: venom enough if there was time and desire. The ninth Duke was a chemist, he who had grown up under the shadow of his father's murdering hand. It was the ninth Duke who bred the ersatz rice and the stunted corn and grafted the apple trees: he who trained and used in secret the first court poisoner.

The old Duke's poisoner was so old he had lost his name with his master. They had been lovers once, for the old Duke was flushed with lust and the poisoner's bones under the cobwebbed wings of his robe were fine and beautiful, but in Lussurioso's time that was twenty years ago and more. Time holds its own hostages. The old Duke forgot. The poisoner did not.

For the Duke's poisoner there is a chamber with all the usual accoutrements. Vindice's sister Credenza, she of the bath, will years later find them as familiar the pages of her predecessor's day books: jars with jellied spiders and foul-smelling brews, a stuffed hare, singed, a cauldron, a chopping board and a small knife with a blackened handle. Crucibles, a graduated set of pestle and mortars, a locked casket with a skull and crossbones on the lid embossed in blackened silver. Not books, but notebooks, filled with the crabbed writing of words scratched under inadequate light with their tales of treachery unacknowledged and love unmet amongst the formulae and receipts for acquired death. The decor was medieval: the skills those of this brave new world. Poisoning is an art, not a child's brew of dandelion tea or buttercup lemonade. The old Duke's poisoner's skill could curdle the flesh from your bones and leave you still screaming: palsy your limbs into a stuttered and brief eternity, or send the blood bleeding out from every twitching organ with never a bruise to show.

It was not wise, to insult a man with death at his fingertips, although this was not something the old Duke took to account.

"My Lord?" The old Duke's poisoner had asked once, when they were both young.

The Duke had turned to him, wet-lipped and bright with desire, but blind. There was a new girl with flame-red hair in the court.

"Not tonight."

There was never another night, for the poisoner had pride to go along with the urgent lust of his younger years. He'd lose that later, although the red-headed girl died quite suddenly of the kind of argue one could so easily catch anywhere in the city, in winter.

The Duke forgot. His servant did not which, years later, will mean that when Vindice (afraid, excited, mad) brought the browned bones of his lover's skull and a treasonous request to his door the poisoner did not turn away. Instead he listened, tapped his fingers, frowned - and his eyes strayed to a corrosive not yet tried on the skin of a man.

It was not Thomasina's skull Vindice brought. Dead, after the rape, she burnt with all due ceremony as did every paid up and privileged initiate of the engineer's guild. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: like her mother before her, Thomasina's body was fed to the great furnace at the heart of the city and belched out in steam and smog.

The first fire - the first fire after the fire that turned the Old World to nothing more than memory, John's Fire - was small. Inasmuch as any fire can be it was tame, confined to a stove gerrymandered together from half an oil can and fifteen beaten out tin cans. It grew. The Great Fire now powers the Duke's house that rules the city. It feeds the turbines that heat the greenhouses and the blacksmith's forge and the everlasting flame on the engineer's altar. It is the great cleanser, the maw into which every flammable item - wood, charcoal, corpses, all the past and half the present - is fed perforce.

The scavengers and the stokers, the black gang who feed the flames ("Watch the wall, my darling") their god is not the raddled, dried up husk of the duke but the living flame of the furnace. The court stands by the will of the fire alone, and by the skills of the learned men and women of the engineer's guild who send its heat through the pipes and valves of a madman's dream. The city, the fire, eats the land. There is nothing left of what was burnable for forty leagues, fifty: what was once in sunlight the wooded slopes and vales and suburbs and schools and roads and gardens and playgrounds of a city greater by far than the Duke's. The Duke governs the fire: the Duke rules the people. To say other is capital treachery. Yet in the darkness, under the lash of the burning embers of the dead, who can say if it is the Duke who rules the fire or the fire who rules the Duke?

Outside the city, mud, only mud remains, mud and the human rats that scour outwards, onwards, greedy for fuel. This was Vindice's country. After the first death, here was his exile. He spent ten years here, in the outer darkness. Here he lost what remained of innocence. From here, he came back only with death: the devil, the Duke, his revenge laid out before him in blood.

"Do you love me?" Vindice had asked. Twice. Before the first death.

This fatal, foolish question. He was young then, although not so young as he had been when Lussurioso's sun filled his eyes, but still vital: caught in the stirring of lust for the soft skin (muscle, and the velvet soft skin over it) and smell of a woman (a man), eyes diamond-bright in candlelight.

"Of course I do."

But it was a careless phrase. When Lussurioso answered, it was man to man, with a hard clasp on the shoulder and the raise of an eyebrow. From his lady Gloriana it was a reply softer and lingering. (Vindice's lady - do I need to say she was beautiful? When she smiled, the candles dipped their flames. And the old Duke saw.) The wrong question. A question that should never be asked. Vindice doubted - else why the cost of asking? - here, Vindice felt not love but the sickening jealousy that marks the treachery of the beloved and counts the cost in obsession. It will consume him, eating him up from the skin out, marking the hours of the night with the beat of its heart in his chest.

Yet the old Duke's court is not chaste. How can it be? The old Duke lusted bright and fierce as tissue paper held over a candle, false and fair, and his court followed where he led.

The Duke's first wife was a foreigner from beyond the waste, pale-skinned and dark-eyed and almost silent, and what she thought of the Duke's court - the servers he fucked in closets, the sloe-eyed malicious pages, the heaving velvet of his court corrupt as a rotted ermine - she did not say. But it was she who birthed the Duke's heir, the bright Lussurioso. When the news was brought to him the Duke was drunk and luxurious in his chambers, one hand up his chambermaid's skirt and the other on the heaving rise of his own flesh. His spittle was red with wine.

The wife died. He took another for himself alone, much later.

"I have waited for you." The new Duchess said to the old Duke, and opened the door to her chamber wherein were -

Straps, and velvet gloves; a string of beads; a jade dildo; a peahen's feather; a paddle lined with leather; several canes - one split - a chest of masks, a gag; three pairs of shackles in different sizes; a bench; a soft whip and a stiffened one, and amidst these toys the Duke's dry and weary cock rose to the pain and pleasure of her hands. She was not beautiful, the Duke's second Duchess. She was dangerous with sex and covetous with it, an appetite that ate up the Duke's flesh and his wealth alike and asked for more. It was her three sons, fruit of the Duke's aged seed killed each other by sword and ambition after Lussurioso's death.

The Duke both hated and wanted at the same time.

Vindice's lady was too young for games, new-come to court. A country lady, Gloriana, if the town that grew ramshackle and huddled outside the gates of the court could be called country. She was white-skinned, red headed: in Lussurioso's bed, Vindice thought of the delicate spread of her fingers and the rush of curls down her back gold tipped in candlelight. Lussurioso's hands left bruises on his hips.

"She is all fire" he said once, amid the strewn furs of the heir's bedchamber, and stopped. But Lussurioso, staring unblinking at the ceiling, said nothing.

Vindice had dammed them all.

Lussurioso, who had been careless in affection, became unsure. Suspicious. Suspecting love misplaced, he asked for more: "Kiss me. Spend the night with me. Tell me, do you like this? This?" Splayed heaving on furs, Vindice had no breath left to reply. Lussurioso spread his nets: golden son, he was accustomed to adoration. When he set out to captivate - as he did - the effect was irresistible: and it was for Vindice's lady he spread his plumage.

"What think you of the Duke's son?" Gloriana asked. Vindice demurred (for how can he say, we have been lovers since we were children? Or that he knew the taste of Lussurioso's sweat better than the smell of his own?) He wondered, and saw his lady for the first time look beyond his own eyes. She had jewels he did not buy for her and a new velvet gown with silver trimming that would have cost the sum of a year's guild fee. There was a silver chain he had seen on the Old Duke's desk around the tender white curve of her wrist.

"Come here." Lussurioso said to Vindice. In public. During the day, and under the eyes of servants and court alike. "Fuck me." For the first time, he let Vindice's fingers spread him open over the Duke's great desk, eyes locked as their bodies would soon be.

"Do you love me as you love him?" Vindice's lady asked him. She was already doubtful. In public, Lussurioso was careful to be to her as he always had: in private, he was the courtly lover of her dreams, a prince in starlight, his words sweet and wicked. "He is not rich," Lussurioso said to her. "He cannot give you what I can give you." She was not meant to know that under his cloak Vindice's seed flaked on Lussurioso's skin: that his hands were scented with the smell of his lover's most secret places.

Later, grubbing in the dark and filth of the wastes, Vindice will think it through over and over again, time running in circles: Lussurioso watching him, himself watching Lussurioso, his lady's gaze too bright, the old Duke watching all of them.

The Duke's heir. Should he not have considered that there would be a price to be paid?

There is always a price. For John the first Duke, all his dreams of tenure, his own students, his laboratory. For Helena the educator an unwanted and misplaced canonisation. For Thomasina, lust forced, as if all her unfelt sins of the flesh were visited upon her in one single moment. For Antonio, his wife's ennobling spirit. For the old Duke, pain. For Vindice, death.

He had not thought Lussurioso could be so cruel. Vicious in heat, yes, and known. Cold, no.

What Vindice saw that sent him out to the wasteland -

What he saw -

What he saw was -

After the months of loving: after Lussurioso's desperate lust and his lady's gentle courtship: after the doubts, after the message that came by a page who had it from a lord who had it from - who knew? - Vindice went as he was directed to the room where he will find his lovers betrayed. He saw, first, the red gold of his ladylove's hair sweat darkened. Her white buttocks spread, her spine arched, her hands splayed on parquet. At her back the old Duke, clothed, the palsied jerk of his hips and the dry grip of his hands witness to his aged lust. At her mouth Vindice saw his lover - his other lover - Lussurioso naked, one hand twisted in her hair and the other holding his wet cock ready for her mouth. Her dress was torn open, her skin chafed. Hers was not the voice of a woman in ecstasy (the second Duchess will send the sound of herself in heat echoing through stonework) but the whimper of a woman assailed beyond repair.

For Vindice, it was a double betrayal. He cracked.

For the old Duke's court, it was hardly the first rape, nor the last.

By nature chaste, Thomasina wed early. Antonio held his tastes discrete and his appetite gentle, and so Thomasina bore her children in stoic silence and removed herself as soon as pride allowed from her lord's bed. She was not a woman who felt passion for anything other than the texts of her calling. After the old Duke's younger sons had had their way with her, ten years after Vindice's lady died, she took poison. It was her own misjudgment she could not live with, misled by her own pale desire to discount the rapacious lust of a man who had always taken - and discarded - everyone and everything he has ever wanted. The flesh that forced her body was young, but the eyes watching were old and so far gone in power her fear meant no more than titillation. Like Vindice's lady before her, she was plaything only to the eyes of the old Duke.

Thomasina, betrayed, despaired.

Vindice, betrayed, killed.

Of all the ladies of the Duke's court, Credenza is wisest. Vindice's sister, she grew up in the shadow of the court, eyes wide and veiled in silence. The smell of money, the smell of sin: she was a child born knowing the gleeful malice of the Duke's pages and their wicked gossip. Pursued, ten year's after Gloriana's death and under the eyes of her maddened brother, by Lussurioso in heat, it she who read bawd and brother alike and survived. Credenza will not compromise. Credenza does not suffer rape. Credenza's story is other.

Vindice's ends over and over. The first kiss, the first betrayal, the first death, time ticked off in diminishing episodes. The second death, the third -

When he came in from the dark, ten years after his lady's death, he had days to live.

He had changed, in the darkness. His shoulders had broadened, his skin coarsened. He had lost the full head of hair which had delighted Lussurioso in the heady moments after loving when promises were made to be broken. He had learnt violence as a way of life, for although the court is subtle in malice, the black gangs of the Great Fire are not.

His brother knew him. His mother did not. His lover the old Duke's son, schooled hard in the court, will not say. His lady love Gloriana cannot although Vindice, her skull fixed unblinking before his eyes, would wish her speech.

After the poison she had screamed, whilst she yet lived, this woman loved by Vindice whose skull rested ten years after her death in his hands with corrosion staining the cusp of teeth and the white of bone. She did not, in her death, as the old Duke and as his son Lussurioso would do not much later in time, point to her murderer, gasp her accusations, nor turn her betrayed eyes to her lover. She did not know whose hand had slipped murder into her cup.

Vindice did. It was the Duke, he said, over and over. Whispered in the night. Screamed out. Told, embellished with hate, to his sister and his brother Hippolito, when he came back from his exile with murder in his hands and revenge in his heart. The Duke: the Duke: the devil on Vindice's back. The reason he returned: the man he will murder, soon, with a skull wickedly, vengefully poisoned. The man whose son, his own lover, he will kill: whose family he will destroy, whose death once achieved will leave him empty as a hearth without fire (for Vindice, revenge accomplished, will empty out sense and volition at Antonio's feet and thus condemn himself and his brother alike to justified execution).

Years later, Credenza will turn the page in her predecessor's - her - day books and find the formula that killed her brother's love Gloriana. Gloriana, whose death so hurt Vindice that his revenge brought down Duke, Duke's heir: sons, lords, mother, brother, himself.

And with the accounting of Gloriana's death, the name of her murderer. It was not the old Duke, who killed Vindice's love, nor the old Duke's son.

Credenza will weep then as Vindice never did for the ruin of all that was good in the laughing-eyed boy of her childhood, and then she will gather up her tears and put them aside with all passion else.

For Credenza was wise, and lived long.

Fin