I light a fresh cigarette off the butt of the dying one before crushing into the tray set in the door of the car. My companion's sigh is so complex at this that I don't bother with an attempt to divine it's true meaning. I simply take a long, cleansing drag and exhale the smoke out the window. I mask the sodden desperate air of the ruins we've left with the taste of nicotine, but it is only temporary. Since the war, every corner of Europe smells and feels like the sodden aftermath of a fire. The air is heavy with drown smoke, land with charred dirt.
As usual, Marcella begins the conversation in the middle. “He's such a reputation, you know, Albrecht. They say he's the devil.”
“If I was the devil, I wouldn't be holed up in a drafty old mansion in Scotland.” I murmur. I suppose I should be cheered by the breathtaking green of the rolling land we travel through. Perhaps not every corner of Europe has been blacked after all. But it is still bone cold. My hands ache from it, and it is as though I'm still in winter, no matter the season around me. Scotland could be no different.
Marcella smiles her cat-sharp smile and says, “I'm curious to see what you make of him.”
My eyebrow raises at her tone. “Is that all?”
“Herr Christian, whatever can you mean?” Behind her lilting teasing tone hides a bully.
“I'm not your escort, Marcella, not really. I know that. I want you to stop playing with me and tell me what my task will be once we arrive.”
“You're no fun at all, Albrecht, are you? I told you, we were invited. To watch you puzzle him out, what more could I want?”
She snuggles against me, and I feel my own body steal warmth from hers. Warmth, and nothing more. I shan't ever dare feed from Marcella, the only being alive that knows my secret. She is as precious to me as she is repulsive.
Our relationship started as business. I was cast adrift by war, my family's fortune had crumbled, and I was on the street as a young man. Marcella was a seller of such young men.
In time, as I became aware of my special talent, she also became aware. And she saw an opportunity where I only saw a monster.
Yes. I am the monster in this tale. I was the Prince, when I was very young, but survival made me a monster.
Macella gives another sigh, this one more contented. “You may as well close your eyes, Leibling, it's a bit farther.”
But I don't. I don't need sleep, not when I'm well fed, and the boy I had in the hotel last night was sufficient to see me through. I can feel him in my blood, my skin, but I can not remember what he looked like now. Sometimes they come back to me, angry, or still in love, or pitiful and sad, but he did not seem so sorry to give me his life. Perhaps he was looking for darkness.
He had nothing in his pockets for Marcella, which did not please her. I feel the rhythms of her body slow, her muscles slacken and I smoke my cigarette to the filter, and then another, and another, watching the beautiful, lush green of the countryside spin by. I play my favorite game with myself, wondering what I would have been if it had been this land that had shaped me, and not the ravaged fortunes of Austria. It is a useless endeavor, since I am the hard and dark creature I am, and will never be changed, but it passes the time.
“Your first time to the Loch, then?”
I start, and it takes me a split second to realize the driver is speaking to me. I take my eyes from the scenery. “Yes. First time. It's beautiful here.”
He gives a snort. “It's an evil place.”
“Because of Herr-Mr. Crowley's activities?” I prompt. For all I pretend indifference, I'm a bit interested after all. It's so rare to find evil instilled in another. Most evil I've found is imposed upon men. I begin to allow myself to wonder if this “Devil” could be....
“What? Him? Playin' dress up and buggerin' anything that wanders by?” Another snort. “Faker, that one is. No, sir. The real evil's in the land, in the water. It's black as pitch.”
My scalp prickles, the sunlight outside fails, curtained by a thick gray cloud. “Everyone has heard the story of the monster in the Loch, yes.” I smile, just a fraction. “But no one truly believes such things in this day and age, surely.”
“Have it your own way.” the man retorts.
Rain begins to spatter the windshield and I roll up my window. We take a turn off the main road to a narrower one, that is barely wide enough for the car. The ruts jounce Marcella awake again and she stretches prettily. “Goodness, that was a lovely nap.” She leans forward to speak close to the driver's ear. “We're nearly there, then?”
She grins at me now. “Perhaps we'll go straight down to the Loch. They say it's ever so much more likely to see the monster in the rain.”
Despite everything, I begin to relax. Was the monster her real interest? Was that too much to hope? I feel myself leaning in that direction anyway. I let my smile become less guarded. “Marcella, won't you ruin your dress?”
“Be adventurous, Albrecht.” She giggles and it's such a foreign sound from Marcella that I start a bit. She is still playing with me, and I steel myself, determined not to fall into the game. If she would only stop using me as a tool, I think, before I can stop it. To wish Marcella different is as useless as wishing it for myself.
We turn into a graveled courtyard. There is a fountain in the middle that only holds rain water, and the house, a lodge of sorts, sprawls around the drive.