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Authors: Richard Ford

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Kultus

 

 

KULTUS

 

Richard Ford

 

 

 

Solaris Books

For Dad.

 

First published 2011 by Solaris an imprint of Rebellion Publishing Ltd, Riverside House, Osney Mead, Oxford, OX2 0ES, UK

www.solarisbooks.com

 

ISBN (.mobi): 978-1-84997-302-1

ISBN (.epub): 978-1-84997-301-4

 

Copyright © Richard Ford 2011

The right of the author to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owners.

CHAPTER ONE

 

He was so very proud of his tower; it was one of the highest in the Spires, and a soaring monument to solitude.

From far below wafted the sounds of the streets, the hustle and bustle of the Manufactory with its pumps and its gears and its engines. The window to his spacious study was kept closed most of the time to guard against the pollution that would ride up on the ether and creep into the sanctity of his domain. He would only open it to vent out the smoke from his calabash pipe, an indulgence he seldom allowed himself. Strangely, he found that the murky stench left by the city’s air was far preferable to the pungent miasma left behind by his spicy Latakian weed.

Earl Beuphalus placed his book down on the wide, dark-oak desk and reclined in his worn leather armchair. He ran a finger and thumb up the bridge of his nose, loosening the wire-rimmed spectacles that sat there, and gently rubbed the spot where they pinched his flesh. Damn his eyes for their reliance on eyeglasses, they were a curse to all vain men. He peeled the fragile metal and glass from his face and flung it down on top of his book.

Stretching, he looked around his wood panelled study, glancing in turn at the paintings that hung on every wall, each depicting a key noble of House Westowe. In the corner was great uncle Hannibal, a well-known raconteur and carouser. It was rumoured the old sot had nearly demolished the Westowe fortune before he died. If it had not been for his brother, Duke Cresto, who took over after Hannibal’s untimely demise, there would be nothing left. Cresto’s image hung on the opposite wall, as far from Hannibal as was possible, and next to Cresto was Earl Beuphalus’s father, Gaius, glaring down, red faced and furious as he had been in life. The artist had managed to capture him perfectly; a little too perfectly for Beuphalus’s taste.

The Earl could only wonder what his own portrait would look like as it hung in this ancient study. Would he appear regal, or merely pompous? It mattered little, as long as they got his raiment correct. Beuphalus was a man who enjoyed smart dress at all times. Even now, reclining in his private study, he wore a green satin suit, bespoke made by the finest tailor on Kraken Street. His brown waistcoat was moleskin, made from real moles, and his silken shirt and cravat had cost more than the rest of his attire put together. At the moment he wore leather slippers, but the shoes that matched his current accoutrements had been specially imported from the colonies, hand-crafted and polished to a mirror sheen. It was important, nay imperative, to Earl Beuphalus that he looked his best at all times, even when, as now, he was in private repose. Well, one never knew when one might have visitors.

Outside, the sky was beginning to darken and the ambient glow of the gaslights on the streets below would soon permeate upwards, penetrating the thick smog that hung over the Manufactory. The view would be tremendous, as it always was. From his lofty tower, Beuphalus would look down onto the gaseous pall, lit from beneath by a myriad of colours. It never ceased to take his breath away.

But that would be some time yet. For now he would have to content himself with his books. Or perhaps one book in particular.

Rising from his armchair he walked towards the tall shelf that took up most of one wall. It stretched from floor to ceiling, packed with tomes both ancient and modern. There was no rhyme or reason to the order these books were stacked, but Beuphalus knew the location of each one instinctually. He could close his eyes and reach out, knowing that his fingers would easily find his copy of
The Scatological Scientist
, by Castigan, or if he wanted something a little more light hearted he could reach down for
The Torturer’s Gambol
, by Shrike. But it was not scientific journals or canonised comedies that the Earl was looking for. He wanted something much more forbidding.

With a slender hand, he reached up to the top shelf. A thin layer of dust had formed across it – the top shelf was reserved for books he seldom spared the time to read – and he gently pressed the spine of
Getty’s Almanac of the Bestial
with one long finger. At his tender touch the book slid inwards, just an inch, then sprang back into place with a click.

Beuphalus stood back and waited. After the gentle purring of cogs from behind the shelf, a wood panel on the wall quietly slid open with a whooshing sound reminiscent of a lover’s gasp. Almost ceremonially, the Earl reached inside the hidden alcove and reverently retrieved the ancient codex within. Cradling the tome in one hand he pushed the panel back across the small alcove until it clicked into place.

Carrying the book like a newborn baby, Beuphalus returned to his desk, pushing the clutter aside and laying the codex down as though returning it to the cradle. Then he sat and stared at his most precious possession.

The cover was plain and leather bound, though it had faded from years of wear. Round its edge was stitching of fresh cord, where Beuphalus had painstakingly replaced the previous hemp that had grown frayed over the decades.

Tentatively, the Earl reached out and laid his hand on it, feeling it, breathing it in. He knew he shouldn’t really open it until the dark hours but he couldn’t wait. It was like the book was calling to him, whispering sweet temptations like a back street doxy gently beckoning him from a night-darkened alleyway.

He curled his fingers around the cover and opened up the leather, revealing the crisp yellow pages within. The first page bore a simple sigil; a stylised V. Beuphalus caressed it, tracing the faded ink with his fingertip. He turned another page, cringing slightly as he heard the fragile leaf of the ancient tome crack. The age-worn pages only served to remind him of the book’s profane history. It was a reminder that what he was doing was wrong. It was forbidden, his secret vice, but it would be its own reward eventually… he had been promised.

As he reached to turn another page a tremendous banging sound echoed along the hall outside. Beuphalus froze, his eyes suddenly wide with fear. The heart in his chest was pounding and a sudden cold sweat began to bead beneath the cravat at his neck.

He was alone, his retainers had been sent home for the night. Who could possibly be in his tower at this hour? Perhaps a burglar, a footpad off the streets below, come to help himself to the Westowe fortune. Perhaps the Judicature, come to investigate him and his vile ‘hobbies’, bringing their chains and their billy clubs and their thumbscrews. Perhaps it was something far worse.

Quickly, the Earl concealed his precious tome back in its secret alcove. It almost hurt to hide the codex away so soon after its unveiling but it had to remain secret. He kicked the slippers off his feet and moved towards the door. Beuphalus reached for the handle, noting that his fingers were trembling as he did so, but before he could reach it he had a second thought. After stealing barefoot to the fireplace, he grasped an iron poker, then returned to the door. It creaked noisily as he opened it, revealing the long dark corridor beyond.

On one side of the passage was the same style wooden panelling that adorned the study, on the other was rough-hewn stone, interspersed with high windows that reached to the ceiling. Intermittently the dim grey light of the city encroached on the dark corridor, lighting the Earl’s way. He could see nothing ahead but an empty passage stretching out for twenty feet until it turned to the right.

‘Hello?’ cried Beuphalus. ‘Is anyone there? Mrs Rooney, is that you?’

There was no answer. If Mrs Rooney, the cleaner, had decided to work late she was not answering.

There was another sudden bang, this time louder and a lot nearer, and the Earl almost jumped out of his tailor-made attire. It seemed to come from just beyond the turn in the corridor.

Steeling himself against the fear, Beuphalus stepped out into the dark. He was the sixteenth Earl of the House Westowe after all. Besides that, he was guardian of the codex of the President Valac, Lord of the Eighth Gate, Master of Serpents and Keeper of Hidden Secrets. He had seen things that would make an ordinary man shit himself. It was stupid to think he should fear noises in the dark. And yet Beuphalus
was
afraid, there was no getting away from it.

His bare feet made little sound on the wooden floor. Occasionally his soles squeaked on the polished wood, or one of the boards creaked under his weight, but otherwise he moved like a spectre. When he had crept to the end of the corridor he stopped, raising the poker high above his head before peering around the corner.

As soon as he saw the source of the sound, Beuphalus let out a sigh. A window had sprung open, clearly blown inwards by the wind. It must have banged heavily against the stone wall, echoing its sound down the passageway to his study. It was a wonder the glass had not shattered within its frame.

The curtains to either side of the window were billowing in the wind, and the smells of the Manufactory were beginning to waft in on the evening breeze.

The Earl leaned the poker against the mahogany panelled wall and strode forward, his confidence fast returning. He should have felt just a little foolish at being so spooked, but then again he was right to be cautious; any number of intruders would love to encroach on the great tower of the Westowes, and it always paid to be careful, as great uncle Cresto had often said.

Before he shut the window, Beuphalus paused, gazing out onto the Manufactory below. The sun had all but set, and he could see that, far below, different coloured beacons were beginning to wink into life as the lamplighters went about their work. There was the chatter on the streets, and the sounds of engines and horses moving along the vast scribble of roads that entwined the tall towers of the Spires. Above, the droning sound of an airship peeled down as the vast machine cruised between two soaring towers, black smoke billowing from its vents as it went.

He closed the window and fastened the latch. Pausing a second more to look out at the vast metropolis, he suddenly caught sight of his image reflected in the glass. Beuphalus had never been a handsome man but he had always prided himself on personal grooming. Alas, the years were beginning to catch up with him and soon no amount of preening and trimming would be able to halt the onset of age. It was in that moment he saw that his own reflection was not the only one caught in the window. Someone was standing behind him, just visible in the shadows. Someone… or something.

The Earl froze, clutching the curtain that was still in his right hand. As he watched, gripped by sudden terror, the figure moved out of the dark. It was hooded, wearing a long cowl that shadowed the head and ran down a pair of broad shoulders. When it drew closer, Beuphalus could discern more features of the face; bestial, with a long pointed nose and black shadows for eyes.

There was no point trying to confront the thing, he had left the poker behind and, besides, he was no pugilist. With a girlish yelp of terror, the Earl set off at a sprint down the corridor, away from his study and the hooded intruder. As he ran he gave a quick glance over his shoulder. The cloaked figure merely stood, watching him from the darkness as he ran.

Beuphalus turned a corner, then another. If he could get to the entrance hall there were several exits from his lofty rooms. At least if he made it out of his front door he could call for help. But who would there be? This was a tower of House Westowe, there were no neighbours to speak of; he would have to race all the way to the base of the tower before he would see another soul. Silently he cursed himself for his stupidity in not hiring a minder, or five minders, or ten. But it had not seemed necessary at the time, the security of his tower was second to none, it could not be scaled and the locks that barred the great doors were beyond the skill of even the most proficient intruder.

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