Mirrors are my only friends nowadays.
I rarely remove the thick black curtains from them. My domain needs to be kept safe from things from beyond the glass: boundaries between the real and unreal are dangerously thin here. But in fact, I just don’t want to lock eyes with my reflections.
Regardless, sometimes I work up the courage to pull off the dusty drapery. The feeling is almost akin to disappointment. What did I expect? My face has remained unchanged for dozens of centuries. It certainly wouldn’t have second thoughts today.
...But although it still has the same features, the man who looks at me is a stranger.
I scrutinize it, trying to figure out the trick. Is the lighting to blame? Or some Parabolan mischief? Or my tired eyesight at the end of a workday?
Suddenly I can’t recognize myself, as if I was wearing a mask from the Calendar Council’s external meetings.
"See, May, you don’t even need it," I say to my reflection. "Nobody cares who you really are. Call yourself whatever you want, it will change nothing. You’re just a decommissioned museum piece, ancient and forgotten and boring."
"But I must live on," it protests after a thoughtful pause. "For the Liberation. For the Hotel, at least."
I don’t like being argued with. I reckon August is a bad influence on him.
"Why do you care about this Hotel anyway? It will never replace your ruined temple. A pale imitation, a gilded illusion. And the Manager’s uniform makes you look like a runaway from the Carnival."
I fail to suppress a smile: actually, it is ridiculous. Just like all these desperate attempts to pass for a proper English dandy. This obscenely scarlet cravat turns any respectable social event into a corrida. These shiny brass buttons are far too many. And this beard is only good for playing a caricature villain in some amateur theatre. Should I start practicing my evil laughter?
The multiplied reflection breaks into what sounds close enough, if a little off-key:
"Are you joking, old chap? What do you mean 'why'? My splendid, charming Hotel will make everyone happy! All the poor darlings with their broken minds and hearts and hopes. They all will be safe and warm and well-fed and looked after. No one will be sad or lonely. Everybody will always smile. Just like me. And I will love them, and they will love me in return — for all of this. And they will never, never leave. Not like those who perished in lacre. Not like that one who spurned me after everything I’ve done for him."
"But what if they don’t want it?" asks May skeptically.
The Merry Gentleman’s jovial grin distorts into something between a forced grimace and a manic leer.
"I know, at first they are afraid. Nobody thanks me for watching over their sleep at night. Nobody even greets me back when they pass me on the street — not on the second, not on the third, not on the tenth in a row! But there’s no hard feelings. They’re just so unhappy. They need a bit of cheering up and care, and someone to take away all their bad memories and bad dreams..."
"You’re doing it wrong!" I lose patience. "You inspire nothing but suspicion and fear. You can’t be me. I am the Manager, the Hotel’s true face. A serious and respectable man who can be trusted. Because everyone knows that, despite the ominous reputation, the Royal Bethlehem is impeccable, and..."
"...That you are as much of a fake saccharine disguise as he is," notices May. "And see, you can’t manage even yourself."
"Nonsense. I’m their host, and he’s their unwelcome guest. I’m true to my duty to ensure my customers’ security, and he — he’s clearly a threat."
"Even you don’t love me!" The Merry Gentleman turns into a mere shadow, if shadows can be so offended. Fades down to his usual self: a door’s creak in the silence of the night, an echo of a cane tapping on cobblestones (closer, closer) in the ticking of a clock. But I know that he’s still here, watching from the dark. He always does.
"Madman. And a fool. Who else thinks that everything is about love?" says May, too weary and cynical to choose his words considerately.
"Don’t pretend like you don’t know that it is — at least, for me."
I don’t understand why I defend him despite having blamed him myself just a moment ago. Perhaps, after all, I do enjoy seeing recognition and superstitious dismay in the passersby’s eyes. A reminder of who claimed this wretched place long before their city, as doomed as my own.
...I shouldn’t have thought about it. Here he is, the one whom I avoid the most. White clothes instead of my black frock coat. Quiet sorrow that makes my smirk disappear.
"Look what you’ve turned into," the Priest-King reproaches. "There was a time when they were willingly coming to me for healing and consolation. And now you weave a web of vile cunning, catch them while they’re most defenceless and prey on their shattered minds. There was a time when the greatness of my reign was evident to everyone. And now you hide beneath ingratiating servility. I despise you."
"But I release those who regain their sanity. And nobody will harm them here — neither the society that would have outcasted them, nor the Masters of the Bazaar, nor..." I stumble. "Anyway, why must I be accountable to you? From the beginning, everything was your fault!"
"Not again..." sighs May.
"Alright. Seek out the guilty between you two," I suggest. "I’m a very busy man."
"Oh, no, no, we won’t get along." May stares at me meaningfully from the mirror. "He’s a ruler, I’m a revolutionary. He’s a priest, I’m a godslayer. He’s the past, I’m the future."
It sounds almost like he considers me the odd one out.
"The future. Of course. The fifth of the twelve who will plunge the universe into lawless madness and eternal night. Compared to you, the Merry Gentleman is little more than a paltry spooky tale for gullible unruly children. Besides, I’ve been him for just a few decades, but you... much longer, it seems. Even before I’ve joined the Council, in fact. Why aren’t you the one to blame then?"
"Because it’s the Manager’s duty to receive complaints," he grins. Not at all like the affable dapper nightmare of the London streets. Instead of unsettingly causeless cheerfulness, there’s only hatred and pain.
Indeed, what have I become?..
I bury my face in my hands. White gloves on them are but a pathetic shred of the Priest-King’s fair mantle: they are no longer pure of vice, and there is no more light in the chaotic darkness of my heart. But he, too, is still here for some reason, not yet fallen into oblivion along with the First City — and not going to.
...When I look up again, I am alone. As I was. As I have been for thousands of years.
The clock strikes midnight, waking me from pensive abstraction. Work doesn’t wait. I close the ledger and blow out the candles.
Having put on my overcoat and taken my hat and cane, I step into the mirror.