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The parrot watches me distrustfully with tangerine-colored eyes.
"This is Maury," Damien says. "He belongs to Laraine. This is his private room."
I'm returning the parrot's gaze, wondering just how strong that shimmering steel beak is. I'd rather not cross a cybernetically-enhanced creature if I can help it. Animals are unpredictable enough as it is. He is a sort of striking thing, though, with a natural green-feathered body crowned by a bright red feathered head. His feet and talons are the same disconcerting steel as his beak.
"Hello, Maury," Damien addresses the bird.
Maury is still watching me, unsure.
"Hello, Maury," I say, feeling foolish.
Some inexplicable recognition lights the parrot's expression and, to my amazement, he speaks. The voice is oddly familiar.
"Whatta ya want, Maury?" he asks, bobbing hopefully on his perch.
"Look at that! He wants you to pick him up. He must really like you."
I feel flattered in spite of myself.
Mrs. Hudson's food is _very_ good.
I'm shoveling down mashed potatoes, one eye on my father, who seems as intent on eating as I am, and one eye on Laraine, whom I have just met. Seems like a nice girl. She doesn't speak, Damien tells me. Something to do with her mother's death. Except that that happened eight years ago. You'd think she'd be talking, at least, by now... She sees me looking at her and smiles slightly. I turn my full attention back to my heaped plate.
Well, if Laraine doesn't talk, Maury vocalizes enough for both of them. She brought him to the supper table with her, and he has invited himself over to my chair, up my pants leg, and onto my lap. From this vantage point he keeps up a commentary on my food.
"Whatta ya want, Maury?" the bird asks quietly, surveying my plate.
"Mn-n." I say. "No. Be a good bird." I hesitate to ask the mysterious Laraine to remove him, and whenever I look at that beak I know I'm not about to get in a fight with him myself. I think he's beginning to see the advantages of this situation.
"TTTToast?" Maury inquires carefully. He's pulling himself up onto the edge of the long table.
"No!" I try to say it quietly, but Damien and Mrs. Hudson, who eat with the family, chuckle at me in my predicament.
"Need a hand, Nathaniel?" Damien asks me. My father pays no attention.
Upon hearing Damien say that, Laraine smiles at me, rises and comes over to remove Maury. He goes willingly. No doubt he expects a reward off her plate. My father and Damien have filled me in on the recent history of Uranenborg on Hven.
Laraine's mother married Manfred Clavius, my father Oskar's great-uncle, when Laraine was four years old. Laraine really is a beautiful woman. About my age, actually. Too bad she's lost her senses. Too bad she's from Earth.
The painting on the wall in Oskar's favorite room is of Manfred Clavius. My father looks very much like him, and, if you discount being rather skinny and having the thin D'Yangelo nose, I closely resemble my father. His hair has some grey now, but you can tell it used to be a silvery walnut brown, like mine.
It occurs to me that maybe Maury learned to talk from Manfred Clavius.
Manfred died in an institution in Norway, and although Laraine had lived there (yes, with the bird) since her stepfather's commitment, Oskar decided to bring her home to Uranenborg. He tells me that he feels the family should be together, and that he feels responsible for Laraine since inheriting the castle. Maybe he has a point there. I'm certain he's being sincere, for to him Damien and Mrs. Hudson, hired help, are truly members of the family. Since Laraine's old nurse was dead, and Manfred had dismissed all the other servants, there was no place for Laraine but Norway. For eight years. Until Oskar brought her home.
Something about this seems unsettling. Something besides the thread of werewolf stories that Oskar seems to be trying to feed into me. Oh, well. Tonight I'll get a good rest, tomorrow finish exploring the place, and then I can start arranging for return passage to Luna.
But there is that Observatory...
I'll be sure and get my fill of that before I go home.
When I've eaten all I can possibly hold of the good food, and listened idly to a few minutes of quiet after-dinner conversation, I excuse myself from the table. But Oskar stops me.
"Nathaniel, we need to talk."
I just stare at him. We talked for hours when I arrived. What is there left to say? If he thinks we're going to have some sort of father-son bonding thing, he's got another think coming. As if I'm going to befriend someone who keeps inundating me with "facts" on "lycanthropy."
He tries again. "Son, Nathaniel, please. I don't think you've been getting the gist of what I've been trying to tell you."
I look sideways at Damien. He gives a slight nod, not looking at me, but I can tell he means that I should try to communicate with my father. Well, I suppose I am a guest in his house.
Swallowing doubt and perhaps a little pride, I say, "Well, Oskar, if I can just have a short time to look around by myself we can certainly talk later tonight. I'd like to see the Observatory."
"Good, that's fine," he says, and I think I sense a mixture of relief and nervousness in his attitude. "I'll come find you in the Observatory later on."
As I leave the room, I hear the click of Maury's steel claws as he clambers to the floor from Laraine's chair.
"Love ya," he says.
I close the door.
Besides the Observatory, there is one other
thing in the center section of the castle that
captures my attention.
Off the concourse, in a shadow cast by the structure of the spiral staircase, is a flat object covered in velvet-- obviously a painting, but why covered? I wonder. I approach shyly, as if approaching a person, and flick a corner of the velvet up and away.
Yes, a painting, an oil painting, and evidently a nicely-done one too. The smell of the paints, captured under the velvet, reaches the fringes of my senses as I remove the cover completely.
Looks like Laraine.
Long, curly blonde hair, large, round blue eyes, even a white dress-- Laraine was wearing a white dress at supper tonight. But this woman looks older. Not _old_, just older. It must be Cassandra. Manfred's wife.
Again that sense of foreboding makes me shudder, and even though the portrait is perfectly pleasant I let the velvet drop and feel relieved when the lady's gently smiling face is covered.
I wonder where Damien took my things when he put them away for me. I want to touch my computer, maybe send a note to Mother, just to feel like I have some ability to reach home. I was raised on Luna, thank God, and not initiated into such a questionably sane society as that of Earth, but still... I could become too comfortable here... No. That's impossible. My home is at the Luna University, and nowhere else.
Nonetheless, I climb the spiral staircase to the Observatory.
Oskar finds me there later as I lounge in the
padded chair that allows me to face the Earth's
night sky. The clouds of afternoon have
dissipated and the view is stunning. I am so
engrossed in my own new thoughts, in the view of
Luna which I have never experienced before, that I
don't hear my father come in. When he speaks, I
startle, leap from the chair, and quickly situate
myself so that I have the chair and telescope
between myself and Oskar.
"Hello, Nathaniel," he says in that grumbling, yet friendly tone. "Is this where you'd like to talk?"
I nod and answer, "But I don't know what it is you want to talk about."
He sits in the chair which I have just abandoned, immediately affording me a little more comfort with the situation. I'm at home with the open sky over my head, and with Oskar below me, where I can watch him, I'm willing to consider a more relaxed interaction.
"Nathaniel," he says, and I notice that he is purposely refraining from using the appellation 'Son', for which I am grateful, "Nathaniel, I don't think you've been understanding what I've been trying to tell you."
"And what might that be?"
He folds his hands, biting his lip. I scratch my nose and wait. He speaks. "Your mother..."
And it is at this moment that I notice, for the first time, the gold ring worn on his left hand...
"Your mother left me because of the very information which I am trying, in a more delicate manner, to impart to you. At the time of our marriage, I assumed a lot of things about Christina that later proved to be untrue.
"In a way, it was my fault that she left. The differences between Lunar and Earth beliefs should not have been a barrier to what was a-- a--"
I feel a stirring of something... for some reason I see a vision of my mother...
"At any rate," Oskar continues after a pained pause, "I assumed that she would consider certain facts of my existence to be, well, mere inconveniences. As indeed they truly are. But she-- called me insane and left for Luna. So I've been trying to be more careful with you, knowing how you, too, have been raised in a Lunar environment..."
She wears a ring! That's what I'm thinking of... a _wedding_ ring... Were they never divorced? After twenty-one years? But surely she never _loved_ him...?
There _is_ a certain dignity to my father that I would not normally attribute to a madman.
"Listen to me carefully, Nathaniel." Now Oskar fixes me with a gaze I can't escape. I'm listening. I'll be darned if I'm going to look away first. "I want you to get this into your head. I'm certain that, given the heredity in my family, you have experienced things which will bear out the truth. Have you not experienced memory loss on the full moon or, in your case, the full planet?"
I nod and strengthen my gaze. His is more powerful than ever.
"In those cases of memory loss, has your mother ever made an attempt to explain them?"
He sighs. "If only she would admit--" again a sigh, still with his eyes holding mine, "In your case, Nathaniel, I find myself again with no recourse but to be straightforward and honest.
"I am a werewolf. As far as I know, you, my son, are also a werewolf. Most of those in our family have been so, ever since the appearance of the Fissure. I want very much to be a friend and father to you. But first we have to establish that one minor fact. Can we do that?"
If he would let go my gaze! Look away, damn you! I manage to speak. "You're telling me that not only do you have some delusion of monthly transformation, but that I, too, suffer from this hereditary mental disorder and that you _withheld_ knowledge of this hereditary disorder from Mother when you were married. Am I right?"
"Nathaniel, it is not a mental disorder. It is who we are. I would never have lied to your mother. Never. I could not. But I forgot that to a woman from Luna, the prospect of lycanthropy might be... Frightening."
"How could you _forget_ something like that? What did you expect, that she'd listen to your mad 'confession' and just blithely accept it? Well, if you think _I'm_ accepting it any easier, you are gravely mistaken."
"Nathaniel," he grumbles, "It was not a _confession_. It was merely a statement about my condition, a condition passed down for generations in the Clavius family. I am not a monster. Nor am I mad. I simply have special needs on nights of the full moon. So do you. Let me introduce you to this truth. You are a different animal than you believe you are, Son-- Nathaniel. I've thought about you so often. Please, let's get to know each other."
"I think I know enough," I say coldly, and as I turn away I note with satisfaction that Oskar's stare broke at the same instant. If he's staying in my Observatory, I'm going to bed.
I step quickly from the starry room and go to find Damien. Odd glove-changing habits or no, he seems to be one of the saner Earth humans.
Damien is all the way downstairs, helping Mrs. Hudson in the kitchen. He slowly, meticulously dries each piece of new-washed crystal she gives him. The old mechanical dishwasher is busy at the less fragile supper dishes. I stand in the doorway and clear my throat.
Damien looks up, and Mrs. Hudson smiles. "Why, Nathaniel!" she says as if I've reappeared after a week's absence. "Have some cookies and coffee. Sitting out right over there."
No need to invite me twice. I take a small plate and pile it with shortbread and sugar cookies. I might get hungry later. I'll take the plate with me to my room.
"Um," I begin, sipping my coffee, "Damien? I was kind of wondering where I'm supposed to sleep. You know, where you put my stuff."
"Oh, sorry," he nods and puts down his towel. And puts on a pair of gloves. It is now that I notice something else about him. I'm beginning to question the veracity of my observances on this planet, but...
I'm almost certain that every time he clenches his jaw, such as now when he takes a cookie... and begins to lead me out of the kitchen to my room... there-- every time he chews. And at dinner too. Not any other time. Just when his temple tightens as his jaws clench.
That is the _only time_ Damien blinks.
And he blinks every time he chews.
Curiouser and curiouser.
It's the little details of odd behavior that get to me. Make me want to go the Hell home. But not yet. What am I thinking? Of course I want to go home as soon as possible... the very air here must carry insanity. I'm tired. I follow Damien to the bedrooms.
"Here," he says, opening an oak door on the castle's third level, "Is my room. If you need anything, just knock. Mrs. Hudson's room is just off the landing, one floor down. Closer to Laraine's room. Don't hesitate to contact either of us."
I scent the air emerging from the immaculate bedroom and feel my skin crawl slightly. It's completely suffused with that inexplicable antiseptic smell, the same one I've almost gotten used to on Damien himself. But I am glad to know where he's going to be at night. Never hurts to be fully aware of one's surroundings.
"This is your father's room." Damien unlatches another, heavier oaken door and as the air inside seeps out I go completely stiff. The plate of cookies in my hand almost falls, then I steady myself and push past Damien into the room. What is that smell? Where do I know it from? So strong...
It is just as I am beginning to recognize the scent that I see the bars. Blocking access from inside the room to the glass window.
Not looking at Damien, unconcerned about intrusion on my part, I cross the dark, masculine room and peer past the bars-- out the window. I can see the dock from here. I turn to Damien.
He anticipates the question and says, "Your father will tell you all you want to know about these rooms. Suffice to say the bars are a safety measure. They've been here for generations. Come with me now and let me show you your own room. You're tired."
I trust Damien. As I leave, the smell reminds me of its presence and again I categorize it, unsure of whether the recognition is disturbing or comforting.
My father's bedroom smells like the Observatory at Luna University.