Harmon arrived in the city with little more than the clothes on his back and the female secretary’s words echoing in his head. With the last dregs of his savings he rented a studio in a unusually quiet tenement just beyond the business district which occupied the center of the sprawl and took up work at a nearby butchery.
A month later he recieved a package in the mail. A small square box, addressed From: Partridge Publishing. To: Harmon Kessel. He removed a recently purchased scaling knife and pared the container, opened it and found a small book with his initials upon the cover and a note on a sheet of bone-white paper, written in tar-colored ink, which read:
Let me know if the design meets your satisfaction.
He set the book upon the small, square wooden kitchen table, pride swelling in his breast.
Two months later he recieved another missive, inviting him to Synnefo Isle, an artificial island several miles to the east of the port, Lynder’s primary residence.
The gleaming towers of the corporate district shaded his passage to the docks, where steam-strewn air and humming neon illuminated the salt-smattered dusk, and from there to the ferry that led to a small, artificial isle to the north-east.
After disembarking, he traversed a smooth drive that let out before a elegant manse of considerable size and no familiar style.
He rapt upon the ornate and well-polished door and waited.
No sound save the roiling of the wind and the gulls turning pirouettes above the spray.
Shortly, a eye-level latch slid open, unveiling amber eyes surrounded by olive skin.
“Harmon Kessel. I’m expected.”
“Obviously. Otherwise you’d not be here. One moment, please.”
The latch slid shut. Half a minute later there came the sound of a keyhole’s turning.
The door swung open.
The monolith’s gloam beckoned.
The dapper, olive-skinned doorman beckoned Harmon into a spacious, well-lit foyer, sparsely furnished with dynamic metal sculptures of men and machines and two divans to the immediate left and right of the doorway. Harmon was taken with the aluminous idols, which looked, when taken together, like the relevatory tableau of some future religion, and strode to the middle of the checker-floored vestibule, appraising the singular creations.
“Who made these?”
“I’d no idea he was a sculptor.”
“That and many things besides. Ah, how rude of me, I’ve not introduced myself,” the man extended his hand to the new arrival, “Luka Celik.”
Harmon straightened and firmly shook Celik’s thick and calloused hand, “Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Celik.”
“This way, sir.”
The doorman lead Harmon down the foyer, up the left side of a U-shaped double stairway that let out to a red-carpeted landing where three hallways diverged left, right and straight ahead and polished wall-speakers of jagged brass effused the chamber with a chimerical waltz. The duo moved through the main corridor, lined to the left with various works of art; paintings, photographs and sketches; to the right, portraits of various individuals, young and old, male and female.
“Who’re they?” Harmon asked above the low whir of the speaker-spawned gramophone recording, nodding towards the portraiture.
“Alumni of Mr. Partridge’s galleries. Its a memorial wall, to commemorate their endeavours.”
The area at the end of the hall upon the right-hand wall was bare, save a empty silver frame which hung at eye level.
“Expecting a new inductee?” Harmon queried, gesturing to the picture frame.
“You’ll have to speak with Mr. Partridge about that.”
From the hallway they turned right and strode into a spacious study that seemed like an archived compression of a hundred disparate centuries. The walls were replete with ornate mahogany bookshelves and ancient seaxs, rapiers, foils, sabres, epees and messers and mail in glass cases and elaborate city maps and architectural plans in a hundred different styles, from a hundred different decades. All manner of artifice arrayed the adjacent space; plaster busts of men and women of varying ages, a meticulously detailed globe, a gilded bronze astrolabe, and a nude woman lounging upon a garish white divan, who sat so still that Harmon, for the briefest of moments, thought her a part of the surrounding statuary. Harmon averted his eyes from the woman and turned his head left, sighting another woman standing but twelve feet before him, lounging in the corner, a Leica M4-P raised in her pale and delicate hands. The photographer smiled, snapped a shot and lowered the camera.
“You must be Harmon Kessel.”
“Must I be?”
“I’m afraid so.”
He smiled faintly and gestured to the woman’s face, “I remember your voice. We spoke on the phone. Ariadne Campbell, right?”
“That’s me. And that’s Monica, one of our in-house models,” she replied, motioning with her camera to the woman on the divan in the middle of the room. Monica languidly waved and then slid into a thin, scarlet-silk robe and rose, tying back glossy hair with a similarly sanguine strand.
“Where is Mr. Partridge?” Harmon wondered aloud.
Campbell gestured to the doorway at the far side of the room, opposite the memorial hall.
“Practicing with Anders.”
“Come, I’ll show you. Thank you, Mr. Celik, Monica, that will be all.”
Celik bowed to the woman and left off abruptly; Monica following shortly thereafter.
Campbell and Kessel made for the opposite doorway and passed through it into a large room, curiously unfurnished save for a series of antique French and German fencing illustrations which adorned the walls. In the middle of the expanse, two men clashed, one of middling height, garbed in a form-fitting obsidian gambeson, the other taller and broader, garbed in white. The white duelist, after a short absence of blade, lunged powerfully, but was swiftly feinted into blocking air by the black swordsman who closed the match with a sudden and decisive thrust to his opponent’s chest. The white fencer paused and looked down at what would have been a mortal wound, save for his gambeson and the flexile dullness of his foe’s blade, and laughed, stepping back and bowing in defeat.
“You win again, sir.”
The obsidian swordsman curtly bowed in respect, straightened and removed his wire-mesh helm to reveal a sharp, keen, alabaster visage.
The triumphant fencer turned to his guest and smiled broadly.
“Ah! Mr. Kessel. So pleased to see you could make it.”
“Evening, Mr. Partridge. I appreciate the invitation.”
“Think nothing of it. Tell me, do you fence?”
“Would you like to?”
“Its settled then. Anders, bring our guest a blade.”
Alarm registered on the white fencer’s face. Campbell smirked. Harmon looked from the woman to the tall blond and then back to his host with perplexity.
“You mean now?”
When Harmon did not respond, Lynder spoke up pointedly, a subtle mockery ringing in his dulcet tones.
“To the uninitiated, the sport can be quite intimidating. No shame in backing out.”
Harmon was quiet for several seconds and then turned to the man in the white gambeson.
“Anders, was it?”
“Bring me a sabre.”