Decay and Temptation In the Midst of Opulence

I am walking up a tall, steep set of stairs in a tower or old house - it's not entirely clear which. At the top of the stairs is a glassed-in sunroom, awash with sunlight. The light makes it hard to see, but I can make out the figure of an old man, standing straight and tall in dark robes. He is standing with his back to the windows, facing the stairs but he is not watching me.

As I approach him and my eyes adjust, I see that the robes he is wearing are like those of a Roman Catholic cardinal - but black, rather than red. His black robes are punctuated with moments of red - his cap, a open-tunic-like outer garment, and his gloves - but they do not make him seem any less ominous.

The man's expression is stern and he barely notices me as I enter the solarium. He gestures impatiently with his left hand at a door I hadn't noticed, leading out of the solarium and back down towards the ground, set perpendicular to the staircase I had just climbed.

Through the door, I can see a large hall, lavishly furnished in an eighteenth century style. The walls are hung with mirrors, and the furniture is much given to gilt, carved wood and brocade. I realize that there is something I have to do down there - I think I am a message runner for the cardinal-like man - and I descend into the opulent hall to perform my task.

Initially, I marvel at the lush furnishings as I walk through the hall, noticing doors that lead to yet more rooms - large and small - that are also crammed with gorgeous, ornate furniture and fine paintings, but my wonder is overtaken by a sense of urgency. There is something I am supposed to be doing, an errand I have to run. I need to find someone within this lavish complex, but I'm not sure who.

As I walk briskly - almost running - through the apparently unending building, I see more figures dressed like the first man I had seen. They are very old men, their black robes marked with caps and sashes of either royal blue or deep crimson. They are all decrepit, but obviously clear-minded, and they walk and work without noticing their beautiful surroundings. This is just another office for them, it seems.

Their decreptitude and manner frighten me, more so as I sense that I'm getting lost in this rich labyrinth. I don't want to stay here if it means becoming like these dry, dusty men and I fear it does. Abandoning my errand, I turn around and start running back the way I came, desperately hoping that I can find the solarium tower and an exit out of here.

Surprisingly, I manage to find my way back to the first hall that I had entered. Ahead of me, I see the short set of stairs leading to the solarium, and a small office at my left, leading off the hall. Inside that office is another aged man - this one clad in black and blue - hunched over a beautiful mahogany desk, writing by the light of a crystal chandelier and he's frowning like a thundercloud. I feel horrified and depressed that these men are not taken by their wonderful surroundings and it renews my desire to leave.

Also on my left, is a group of strangers - a half dozen or so - young and laughing, seated comfortably around a large teak table. The table is laden with food and many small objects that I don't recognize. Some of them look like runestones, but I'm not sure.

The apparent leader of this small group attracts my attention. He is a tall, rather androgynous man who appears to be in his late thirties. He is very tan, his head is shaved and he's not wearing very much - some kind of filligreed mantle and a short linen kilt - his garb reminds me somewhat of ancient Egypt. I can see a flash of blue at the end of his fingers, and I see that he is wearing metallic blue nail-polish. I'm rather surprised to see that it's heavily chipped, as he is otherwise immaculately turned out, as are his companions.

They see me, wave at me and beckon me over towards them, inviting me to join them. I find their strangeness alarming and beguiling, and my mind labels them Tempters. These are beings who exist to prey on man's weakness, I tell myself, but I am not quite able to take my eyes off them. Unlike the ancient men who wander in solitude through these halls, these people blend in and belong, despite their slightly alien manners - or perhaps because of them. But I should not go near them - a small voice warns me that they are to be avoided, and I change my path to steer clear of the group.

My changed path brings me towards another one of the cardinals, the most decaying of all that I've seen. He is slowly walking towards me, but his resemblance to a dessicated corpse cannot be ignored. His eyes are half closed, and his mouth is half-open, reavealing a few crumbling teeth. Even at some distance I can hear his wheezing breath and he frightens me badly.

I realize that either I will have to pass by him - too close for my squeamish comfort - or pass by the Tempters. I have had my fill of dispassionate men, and I circle around to the Tempter's table.

Their ringleader - the shaven-headed man - smiles with welcome and bids his fellows to clear a space for me at the table. I am terribly nervous and do not trust myself to speak, and I stand silently as the surface of the table is uncovered. It is not teak as I had thought, but many small, rectangular blue-glazed tiles that are decorated with strange symbols, none of which I recogize. The stranger waves his hand - I notice his nail polish matches the blue glaze of the tiles - and tells me to make myself comfortable, that I have nothing to fear. Still nervous, I do not sit down.

I am suddenly overwhelmed with an unfamilar - yet compelling - feeling. It's a mixture of anticipation and fear - the very knife-edge between them. I want to stay perfectly balanced between them as this sensation is giddying and almost addictive. But I believe that any action I take at this moment will push me to one side or another. I don't know which way I want to go, never mind what potential actions I might take and so I remain silent and standing.

I examine the man's hands again. He has laid them flat upon the tiled tabletop, the similarity between his nails and the ceramic tiles fascinates me. How did he manage that? But I don't dare ask.

I want to touch his hands, to feel if that tanned skin is warm and soft, or hard like the tiles they move upon, but I can't bring myself to do that. Again, the group smiles at me and tells me to do something, anything.

I can sense his amusement throughout, and the slight sharpness beneath it. The smile on his face does not touch his eyes, and I wonder why the group beckoned me over. I can feel a mixture of harmless delight and unspoken danger moving through the group, keeping me balanced on that knife's edge. That edge is where I want to be, so I remain silent.

I reach out and brush my fingertips over the tabletop. The slick coolness of the tile delights me and soon I am running my hands over the slippery surface, pushing my palms down and twisting along the slight furrows between the small tiles.

The stranger seems pleased by that, and I don't know if I should be gladdened or frightened by his reaction. His hands mimic mine and he stands next to me tracing patterns across the table. I feel like if I could just feel the tiles correctly, I would understand the esoteric symbols painted upon them. Sensing my curiousity, the ringleader leans closer to me and whispers something in my ear. I can't understand his words, but I understand the gist - that he could teach me the meaning of these strange things and more, besides.

I sense the danger in his words, but I ignore it. I don't want to leave this marvellous table that makes my hands feel so cool and makes me feel so strangely wonderful - teetering on an edge I never knew existed. I turn my head to face the Tempter, trying to find words that will lead me out of this sudden unnamed threat, but leave me near these fantastical strangers, but none come to me. I am staring at his face, neck, shoulders, inches away from me, noticing that his skin is perfectly taut. His body is as close to perfect as I have ever seen... I want to touch him, to run my hands over that taut skin as I have over the tiled tabletop, but I cannot bring myself to do it. I don't have the courage for such an enormous act.

My fear again clamors for attention and I finally stutter something about having to leave, that I have an errand to run. The Tempters laugh and tell me that if I keep running these errands, I will become like the men that have frightened me so badly. Why on earth would I want that?

I don't want that, but I know that I should not want to become like one of these strangers at the table. There is something unidentifiably alien about them, something I cannot and should not know. I feel trapped between these two possibilities, like a bird in a snare, and I wonder how I am going to get free. There is so much I want, but it is wrong for me to want it...

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