“Do you know anything of emotional preoccupation?” the consultant said.
She surely knew the meaning of the words individually, but never thought to envision them as one concept.
“There was once a great philosopher from my country. He studied emotions very closely, and stated something quite like this: ‘The only human who will ever make good from the burden of emotion is the therapist, who writes emotions into their checkbook and takes it to the bank.”
Mary’s gaze deepened. She swirled her cocktail.
“But because the philosopher never saw the potential sitting right in front of them during the countless years he studied emotions, I will swear that he was a fool. Always gawking at the ‘wonder’ of emotions, the feeling and the taste of them and cataloging them instead of seeing the fine lines holding everything together…” The consultant cleared his throat and adjusted his tie. “But I digress.”
Mary had known herself to be discomforted by stillness her whole life- especially in rooms as small and dark as this! But her blistering nerves hushed themselves; she was entranced. She observed something between tobacco smoke and incense emanate from the smoking room beside her, and her finely trained ear heard relentlessly clever chords of Brubeck on the piano across from them. Mary hadn’t thought of what feelings looked like, and certainly never thought of how they connected. Even when rambling, the consultant was enthralling to her.
She felt a deep, heartfelt desire to please him.
“When we compare ourselves to another, for the slightest moment our attention exists in an intriguing place. It is a limbo, a point that exists solely in the space between the comparing points A and point B.” The consultant adjusted the smolder-dark ruby ring on his left hand. It gleaned with quiet tenacity.
He had no wedding band, Mary noticed. Everything about him bristled with superiority.
“We can entice another into a sense of wonder, or a sense of fear by the sentiment born from comparison. When we do this, we can exert ultimate control for a moment.” The consultant said.
Like so many others before Mary, his illusory magic was beginning to make its mark.
“Have you ever heard of the great DeMonte’s Gambit?” he pressed. “It’s a captivating tale of quiet assassination, of the queen of a faraway land. Quite the curious circumstance indeed. This story happens to be the reason why we came here tonight.”
Mary inhaled deeply. He knew what he was doing.
“All of this lively storytelling and you haven’t even given me your name,” Mary said, her words like a honey-coated dagger.
“Harold.” The consultant said. It felt like the entire room trembled with the warm force of his forename.
“Please, go on,” Mary instructed. She felt coy.
“Feel free to look at the painting behind you, Mary.” The consultant said. She hadn’t noticed it until then. The darkness made it hazy, but she could make out the forms of a wary-looking woman on the edge of a coast, her back and buttocks arched like a feline. A stone-faced man was approaching her, palms outstretched. There was some intangible presence about this man that even in portrait, captured a power, not unlike Harold’s. It took her a moment realize there was a foreground, and it only seemed to fade into obscured chaos.
“It’s rather hard to see what’s behind the man, isn’t it?” Mary said.
“Indeed, very perceptive of you. It’s one of the brilliant qualities of this portrait, how well it tells you what you ought to know. How it leaves the rest that makes you wonder. It fits the story quite perfectly.” The consultant said. Everything about him was glowing like liquid Amber, and Mary was an elegant insect on the verge of being crystallized.
“Is this a depiction of DeMonte’s Gambit? I can’t say I’ve ever heard of it before.” Mary said.
“Well, I can’t say I’m surprised by that. Yes, it is. I was only so fortunate to come across it in a library I was forced many years ago to take shelter in. It’s encapsulated me ever since.”
“Please, tell me your story,” Mary said, her eyes beady with delight for the first time in years. There was a trace of something else behind her delight, the room was too dark for Harold to see.
“It starts with a war, not too different from the war that caused me to find this library in the first place. This war, fought on a steep cliff off the coast of Mediterra, was the final stand of a militia long oppressed by the Queen’s dominion. The militia sailed long to lay siege to the Queen’s stronghold, with balls of pitch and resin from their cursed forest that set the city ablaze. However, their guns and munitions paled in comparison. Their forces were exterminated, the resistance was as good as over. The Queen stood upon her favorite tranquil spot by the coast to breathe and collect her thoughts, when a man walked up to her. This man was enchanted, like a magic mirror to the soul. Behind the man, flames across the coast billowed and death made its presence known, but she couldn’t see any of the carnage going on behind this man.”
“Just like how the painting is so obscured as to what’s behind him?” Mary asked, intently following. She began to fidget once again in her seat, but her eyes were steely.
“Precisely, my dear.” The consultant replied. “He was so dazzling, dressed and filled from head to toe with such excellence, that her Majesty felt humbled to the point of instant obsession. Having stolen her fascination, the lustrous man stepped closer with inviting arms, closer and closer to embrace the Queen. The mystery emanating from this man was all-consuming, the Queen had to know what his name was.”
“Well, what was it?” Mary asked.
“This man was DeMonte. He was an albino man from this oppressed nation, thought to be magical and cursed. After the army was decimated, he walked up to the Queen using his force to subjugate her on first sight and plunged a knife into her chest. He was the one to kill the Queen with nothing more than a dagger and a fascinating ruse.”
And as the last syllable dripped off of Harold’s tongue, Mary saw every bit of the danger this consultant possessed, at once.
He revealed his bundle of tricks for the first time. Terrifying as they were, she saw her opportunity.
Harold felt a sharp corner in the soft of his thigh pierce his ego. Looking down, Mary was holding a knife inches from his loins. He exhaled a gasp that brushed against terror.
“I quite like you, Harold.” Mary said, her eyes still as glassy as they ever were. “You’re magical. You may be the one. I want you to make me a promise.”
She tapped on the hilt, sending a wave of emphasis across Harold’s leg that made him groan.
“Promise to teach me the ways you so elegantly trap people.” She crooned.
He had no other choice. All of the power he so carefully constructed was now in her hands.