The Iron Count: or The Solemn Subjects of Zarltivania and Their Uncle Rati Who Was Loved and Feared or, Rather, Loved Because He Was Feared.

‘The Iron Count’ inspired by concept art from the Dishonored videogame.

Pictonaut short story challenge effort for November 2013.

Dark. Dreary. Dusty. Dull silence. The staff stood shock still, standing to attention ever-formal and ever-fearful.

They waited patiently. He was unusually late this evening. That was odd. This regime was built on rigidity. Punctuality. Stability. Certainty. The unbending iron will. They could depend on Uncle Rati though no one would dare call him Uncle Rati out in the open. The loving-and-fearing cult of Uncle Rati was something they kept confined in their own home, whispered around the hearth in reverential tones. Outside life was all about solemn respect.

Outside life was all about discipline and service. The staff of the palace were the patriotic national paragons of discipline and service.

Count Ratimir Gvoždević of Zarltivania: the Iron Count. Loved and feared, or rather loved because he was feared.

All at once the air rushed out of the room as the assembled inhaled in unison. The Iron Count had arrived. His pale majesty entered the musty ancient hall at the top of stairs.

The stony face surveyed his familiar surroundings. The chandeliers dimmed with fright and the backbones of the attendees straightened, the only movement the slight respectful lowering of heads.

All obedient and tilting with deference: his personal sabre-bearing guards, his lower palace guards, his retinue of soldiers, his maids, his private envoy and his secretary. The evening mist and the grave silence gave the moment and, indeed, the man even more potency. Without saying a word the grim Count started to take slow, exaggerated steps down the red-carpeted stairs.

His countenance suggested nothing. It was inexplicable, severe in its blankness. For all his subjects knew there was no feeling, weakness or human frailty beneath the bone-white skin, the hook nose and the hairless flesh. It was assumed that the Iron Count was something other: exceptional, infallible, invincible.

The truth was that Uncle Rati was more than a mere mortal man. They believed this. They knew this. They were reminded of it every time they beheld his likeness on their stamps, their coins, their official documents. They were reminded of it by his statues and by the banners in the streets. They were reminded every time they kneeled before their domestic shrines.

The people of Zarltivania enjoyed regarding this great figure they feared and loved or, rather, loved because they feared him. Many of them would, thus, frequent the Palace Square at sunset every day to see him when he made his expected appearance on the balcony. The Iron Count was on his way to observe that quotidian ritual right now, his pronounced strides propelling him towards the vantage point from which he gazed out over his dominion.

But then he halted. Halfway down the stairway his feet came to a rest and he clicked his boot heels together sharply. A muted echo troubled the tranquillity for a moment before fading away to return the room to its typical harsh noiselessness.

The staff waited and waited. Something was awry yet none of them registered any sign and acknowledgement of the fact. Inwardly, however, all of them were perturbed. The prolongued pause continued to stretch out, ratcheting up the suspenseful sense of strangeness. Still, they just stood there and remained motionless. No raised eyebrows. No utterances aloud. No movement of any kind. Just awaiting their master – the master who had suddenly rendered himself inert in the middle of the red carpet.

Minutes that felt like decades past. Standing still, standing to attention, all awaiting a sign from the Iron Count.

But he refused to make any kind of sign. Frozen. Timeless. Apart from the world and, beneath the frightened candle lights, enclosed in an unreal aura. He was there looking like a spiritual vision, preserved in an amber glow in the midst of dark fog. They all observed worshipfully, the more-than-man they feared and loved or, rather, loved because they feared him.

Then the Iron Count’s eyes flickered. He affected an intense piercing gaze, a stern expression. A nasal creak shattered the silence and it croaked: “Ridiculous“.

No one responded.

Ridiculous,” he repeated, this time a little louder. “Ridiculous, ridiculous, ridiculous.

No movement at all. A few suppressed the itches, strains and aches that came with the uncomfortable forced posturing. Some made cursory blinks though their lapses were quickly concealed and no one else clocked them. All the staff in the hallway remained rigid, disciplined and in formal order. They feared being anything otherwise.

Ridiculous,” intoned the Iron Count another time with elevated anguish, his ominous pronouncements acquiring greater resonance through repetition and lack of response.

He turned around, eyeballing his personal envoy over his left shoulder.

Is it not ridiculous?” he asked, an acid bite underscoring his inquiry.

Your greatness…” stuttered the envoy, his words dry and whiny out of a nervous, dry and underused mouth. “I beg you, if you would explain and enlighten us, your humble servants…”

As the envoy doubled over, lowering himself right down to the carpet the Iron Count unleashed a violent hiss of revulsion. Disgust coursed through every sinew and it coursed even stronger as he stared at all the static servants around him.

Iron-grey eyes rolled around soulless sockets and the Iron Count let out an audible sigh that ricocheted all the way around the space, reaching right up to the ceiling and spreading itself into neighbouring chambers.

You creatures. You pathetic lowly creatures. You cowardly, hopeless wretches…

He drew in his cheeks then opened up his lips into an O shape. The Iron Count bared his teeth and ground them together, vicious loathing written into his pallid visage.

I am now going to die,” he stated with decisive simplicity. “I will no longer rule over you. You are going to have to find someone else or something else to fear…

A white froth formed at the left side of the Iron Count’s mouth and dripped down his ceremonial jacket. The cadaverous form crumpled and collapsed in a heap on the floor. The lifeless body rolled down the last few steps and then came to a rest at the foot of the stairs, spittle streaming from between lockjaw teeth and a small gush of blood emerging from somewhere inside his shirt.

The Iron Count was dead.

Every stayed perfectly still. They maintained their fixed, formal positions. They stayed that way in perpetuity because they were too afraid to do anything else. They stayed that way because they feared and loved or, rather, loved because they feared their great leader, Uncle Rati.

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  1. Pictonaut Short Story Challenge: ‘The Iron Count’… | ENTER... JAMES CLAYTON

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