Place: Vienna, Austria
Date: August 2011
The day after the Collective Unconsciousness spat us back out, I went online and bought myself a first-class ticket to Vienna. Ostensibly it was my birthday present to myself -- the sort of decadent thing anyone who knows me would expect Tatsuya Sudou to buy to commemorate another year of inexplicably cheating death at the hands of whatever entity took it upon themselves to hustle him off this mortal coil.
In actuality, I just wanted to get away from Japan. I'd had enough of- of everything, really. Of playing the hero, of revelations from gods and men, of feeling betrayed, of the Dark Hour that had had the audacity to invade my home, of seeing my best friend in and out of the hospital. I'm sure the kids were booking vacations of their own, using whatever resources Suzuno and Nanjou and Kirijo have at their disposal to whisk themselves away to Yakushima, or Hokkaido, or some more distant tropical paradise where they might squeeze summer out to the last drop. I have never been much for the beach, myself. Now, even less so.
Oh, don't get me wrong: It's just the social aspect of "going to the beach" I dislike. I love the sun; the ocean wind; the way the horizon and the sky stretch on forever, their blue curve a promise of distant shores. Donne had been fascinated by the idea of exploration, I recalled while waiting at the gate; of voyages to wild lands where spices and gold flowed like water, and had birthed a new style through his use of the language of geographic discovery as metaphor for lovers' play. The idle thought awakened an intense thirst for his poetry, and I spent the first several hours of the flight immersed in my Kindle. Only once did I remember, drinking in the verses with my eye, that I'd quoted a few lines of "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" to Anna in my desperate fumbling attempts to get her to believe it was me and not another impostor, and I felt a brief prick of compunction for leaving her so precipitiously.
But I needed to do this, to get away, to be alone for a few days or weeks or longer -- to go somewhere else and let all the horror I'd witnessed leach out of my bones and too too solid flesh and leave me empty, empty the way I'd never been. Clean. It's different from the rank bilious surety of worthlessness that eats away at one's soul and leaves a void in its place; or, at least, it must be different. I wanted to be scourged like a dying forest is scourged by levin fire, burnt clean of rot and disease to let new growth peek up through the ash; to be melted down like base ore is melted, rising again from the flames with all the dross purged away; to be thrust glowing like a new-forged blade into thrust into water to temper it, and this time to remain whole instead of cracking into the brittle shards that are the hallmark of inferior steel. This leave of absence was to be alchemy of the spirit, Vienna the final retort through which I would be distilled after being poured from the white-hot crucible that was the last two months, or longer.
So I'd left her at my (our?) newly-refurbished penthouse, given her one of my credit cards and a not-insignificant amount of cash and told her I'd call. It wasn't a lie; I meant it. But neither did I expect her to notice, or care, if I forgot or got too busy or simply wished to spend my days walking in the shadow of ancient pines on the rippling banks of the Danube and pretend Japan didn't exist for a while. I love her, but I've never quite been able to convince myself my romantic dreams were more than fantasy -- even less so now than formerly. I wanted a princess to rescue, once; I wanted to sweep her off her feet and perch her over my saddle-bow and ride off into the sunset -- into a gold-limned, rose-painted paradise. I wanted the tenebrous scales to fall from her lake-blue eyes so she would see me, finally see me. I wanted her to love me.
I don't know what we have instead. At least, I don't know if it's better than what I wanted.
I can take comfort in the fact that, at least, whatever it is that Anna wants from me isn't the vapid nonsense common to the sort of women I've had before. They were largely the sort of women who will do anything to taste wealth and power, whether to fill some yawning emptiness in their psyche or simply because they enjoy the savour of it; either way, they tend not to care what they have to do to obtain that taste.
I was reminded of this after I checked in at the hotel and, luggage deposited in my suite and a change of clothes obtained, descended to the bar for a martini. It was long and low and dark, a world away from the balmy summer afternoon that lurked outside and agleam in places with brass and old gold; I found could see my reflection in the highly-polished pine of the bartop. The bartender gave me a brief glance as he took my order, but made no move to question me or engage in small talk, a fact I appreciated.
I was not so fortunate with the women. They sidled over to my seat, largely fair and attractive, all smiles and inane questions. They asked me my name, if I was with anyone, why I was alone, their blue or green or hazel eyes flicking between my face and the drink in my hand while they carefully arranged themselves to display their assets as enticingly as possible. I bought none of them drinks, and that was enough to dissuade some. The rest clung more tenaciously for whatever reason, drawn I suppose by the quality of my dress, the golden sparkle at my left wrist, and the commensurate wallet that assuredly lay somewhere about my person. Even the ones that bend Clytie-like to my solar charisma have their own desires at heart, and these were no different. I laughed, inwardly.
One let her eyes linger too long on my face, and I turned to give her more than the curt glances I'd been serving all evening. I said nothing, but I've been disfigured long enough to perfect that particular stare that immediately tells invasive watchers you've noticed they're eyeballing whatever turned you into a freak show. When I do it, they usually blanch and flee, or get this look like they're steeling themselves to eat a bucket of live beetles before pasting a smile over it and persisting. The latter tends to result in unpleasantness, if they were trying to get something out of me.
This one, though, simply inquired after the peculiar shape of my eyes. Well, eye, but it's so natural for people to pluralise it that I doubt they notice when they do it. They (it) were (was, damn her) beautiful, she said, and gave me an exotic look -- was I...? The prompt rankled, but another sip of scotch and I decided I didn't care. "Half-Japanese," I grudgingly admitted; "on my father's side." She cooed something more about my exoticism and ordered herself a beer.
We talked for another half-hour or so, and in that time I discovered my name meant nothing to her. To be perfectly honest, it was pleasant to not be recognised -- soothing, if it can be believed, to know that I had achieved even a measure of the anonymity with which I have for so long had a vicious love-hate relationship. Eventually, enticed more by the taste of freedom than by her looks or flattery, I almost took her to bed.
But I then remembered the Ya'ir Kamen who had given themselves to me back in the beginning, wooed not by my witty converse or my exotic looks but by my name and my title and my mad charisma, and felt fundamentally disgusted with myself in a way that even the knowledge of her blessed ignorance could not wipe away. I left her in the bar.
The next day was Sunday. Still disgusted with myself and stinging with memories of my mother, I decided to spend it being a good Catholic.
Vienna is a gorgeous city, full of wondrous architecture; arguably, the bulk of the most impressive is comprised of churches and palaces. While the latter concerned me in the abstract sense (and I won't pretend I didn't pass by the old Habsburg palace and felt no forlorn genetic envy clutch at my heart), it was the former I was most concerned with. There are three major cathedrals in my mother's city; of them, I chose to visit the Votivkirche. Not as old nor as vast as Stephansdom or Karlskirche, it nevertheless resonated with me by virtue of the man in whose honour it was built.
It was another breezy summer day, the wind rising off of the Danube fresh and just enough to cut the heat (which may have seemed oppressive to some), but I barely noticed before I ducked into the dark, neo-Gothic interior and tried with negligible success to be as inconspicuous as possible. I didn't stick out as badly as I do at home, at least; my height and colouration weren't unusual, but I still garnered some looks thanks to the eyepatch and mane of white-blond.
Nevertheless, I reached my destination without incident. The array of votive candles in their red glasses glittered like a field of rubies, anointing the feet of the Blessed Virgin with their flickering light. I lit three, shoving a fifty-euro bill into the nearby box before holding the tealights to another candle, one by one. They were for the dead, these candles; for my mother, for Kashihara-sensei, for myself. The memory of that particular memento mori, of the Dark Hour invading my home on the birthday I hadn't expected to live to see, was still sharp, as were the memories my death and of Hell -- if Hell it was. I thought God might perhaps forgive me for sending up a prayer on my own behalf; I've done worse, and I don't have anyone else to pray for me, after all.
I crossed myself, murmuring "in pace requiescat" before looking up and meeting the sky-blue eyes of a woman who looked startlingly like my mother. She looked at me for a heartbeat before something like recognition began to gleam in her eyes, but I found I couldn't face whatever was about to fall from her rose-petal lips. I ducked past her, threading my way out of the side chapel and through the ambulatory towards the doors. Exiting the church was like entering Heaven, so bright it was outside, and I spared only a moment to enjoy the sun on my face before hustling off. No confession, no communion, but I've never been a good Catholic. Not even when the pageantry and ceremony of propitiating God and His agents was one of the many, many bricks in the walls I'd so carefully mortared between myself and sanity.
Besides, the last few months raised certain...issues. The last thing I needed was to tell a priest I'd killed hundreds of people and injured more for essentially no reason, or that I'd died and rose again, or that humanity was being used as chess pieces by entities who seemed to have very little concern for any faith. And why should they, if they can so easily bestow gods upon humanity?
I added it to my list of things to think about.
Once, I tried to stay around others as much as possible to distract myself from the din in my mind; now, I relish the chance to be alone with my thoughts. The next few days were no different, blurring together in a haze of long, contemplative soaks in the tub in my hotel suite. I always run my baths and showers as hot as they'll go, and have for years -- since before my Awakening, even. The water might scald another, but I love it; it makes me feel clean. I laid in that tub, a blanket of damp flax floating on the surface around my head and shoulders, for hours on end as I willed every last memory to slough away and leave blankness, tabula rasa, in their place. The aggregate of harsh truths and pain-darkened experience mantled over me with a very physical weight, but inhaling the steam curling up from the heat-whitened water purged my lungs and unknotted the tension in my breast, cleaning away that weight like stripping grime from marble.
In that heat, I felt the shards of something begin to seal together -- could almost see them, there in the roiling steam. It was as though the pieces of me that had been shattered by the past few months, brought together by necessity and shattered again by Nyarlathotep, were finally on the verge of making a true, cogent whole. Only time was wanting; time, and purpose.
Time was easy. Purpose would be harder.
Later, packing for my return flight, I straightened a pair of trousers over their hanger and recalled the first time I'd stood in front of my bed in precisely this manner, folding clothes to put away. I'd just been released, turned out into my new flat like a lion moved from its cage into a larger pen -- still confined, but reveling in the feeling of the metaphorical grass at my feet. I think I must have spent thousands on my new wardrobe, desperate for cashmere and silk and starched shirts and the weight of worsted wool. I wanted to look as far from sweat-stained hospital rags as it was possible to look; wearing attire commensurate with my new standing had been a concern, yes, but reinventing myself had taken precedence before even that.
It was because of Joker that I had even seen the light of day, been granted all that territory and all those resources. My father would never have done it himself, never. Now, with Joker gone, there would be no aegis between me and his whims -- and being forgotten would be too much to hope for. No, I had too much to live for, really live for, now. I needed something that would give me purpose, restore my income, and gain back that aegis in one fell swoop. And..some way to take care of those who'd stuck with me, too. What kind of leader would I be if I didn't repay their loyalty?
I dug into a compartment in my suitcase and my hand hit a crumpled piece of paper. Unfolding it revealed an old memo from Kandori, some short pretentious command I vaguely remembered reading and tossing aside. God knows how it got in my luggage. I made to set the damn thing on fire, mood thoroughly ruined by the reminder of the hold that man had had over me, when a particular set of kanji caught my eye.
"Sumiyoshi-kai," they spelled.
A smile spread across my lips, then.
It was no Philosopher's Stone, but it would do.