“I want to show you a project I’m working on at the moment.”
The staircase wound up around the turret, its murky, twisting darkness ruptured by strips of blazing Sicilian sunlight through the arrow-slits. Frederick walked in front of me, his cloak rippling behind him as he negotiated the narrow and uneven steps.
“What is it?”
“You’ll find out.”
The Emperor stopped at a thick, dark door, where a Saracen guard waited, his weathered hand resting on the glinting hilt of a scimitar.
“You see, I never managed to discover the language of Adam and Eve.”
I made a vague noise of acknowledgement.
“The problem is, when you deprive infants of all human contact, they don’t learn anything at all. They need to be shown attention and affection just to survive. So that one ended up as an abject failure.”
I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t really want to know what had happened.
The guard bowed. Frederick said something to him in stern and abrupt Arabic, prompting him to stand to attention once more. The King pushed on the door and it slowly swung open.
“My guards are all Saracens.” Frederick explained to me as we walked inside. “You see, the problem with Christians is that they’ll just do what the Pope tells them. He says I’m getting excommunicated and I’m taking them with me, and they’re gone just like that. I mean, it’s understandable. Nobody wants to spend eternity getting prodded by a demon with a pitchfork.”
My eyes wandered around the room, bathed in the Sun’s dusty rays. There was a row of books on a shelf at the far end, and there was a table with pieces of a huge range of plants lined up, most of which I’d have no chance of identifying. There was a row of glass bottles next to them, distorting and magnifying the light coming through them, casting it into golden patches on the back wall.
On another table, beside an unlit candle with stacks of old wax rising up and surrounding it, a book was open, written in black ink in a precise, practical Arabic hand. I could not read Arabic, but I could make out diagrams of lines meeting and intersecting with circles in deep, black ink against blotchy parchment.
“What I am working on has the potential to either prove or to disprove the very foundations of Christian thought.”
A lizard lay on the window-ledge, its tense and sleek body soaking up the Sun. Hearing our footsteps, it scampered adeptly up the wall and into a crack between two stones.
“This way.” The King of Italy said, briskly, leading me round behind a bookcase. A pale, greasy-haired servant boy was sitting, hunched over, on a low stool next to a large, oak barrel, with an array of ropes holding it firmly against the ground. There was a noise from inside it. Something scraping against the inside, and letting out a strange whimper.
“This is what I brought you here to see.”
“What are you keeping in there?”
“Take a closer look.”
I bent down towards the barrel. There was a hole drilled in one side of it, about big enough to fit two fingers through. I peered in.
There, faint in the dark, was grey and clammy skin.
As my eyes got used to the dark inside the barrel, I made out more features. There, naked and emaciated, crouched in the barrel, with his knees pulled right in under his ragged and tangled beard, was a man.
He slowly began to turn his face towards the hole, and I recoiled at the mere thought of those sorrowful eyes, pleading to be released.
“What do you think?” The King asked, smiling.
“What are you doing?” I replied.
The King of the Germans turned to the servant.
“How’s it going?” he asked
“It’s going fine.” The servant replied, timidly.
“How long do you think we have left?”
“I think it’s probably a couple more days yet.”
Frederick continued, nonchalantly turning back to me. “You see, my purpose is to observe the soul of a man.”
He saw my surprised expression and smiled to himself.
“To that end,” he continued, “a man, like you saw, is deprived of food and water. Lacking such necessities, after a few days, he will perish. At that moment, if there is a soul departing for Heaven or for Hell or for wherever it goes, it will be forced to leave through the small hole in the barrel. My servant will inform me when the moment is imminent, and I will be ready to observe.”
Frederick bent down and stared through the hole, with a big grin. There was an incoherent groan from inside, and the ruler of half of Christendom stood up once more.
“Make sure you keep watching closely,” he said to his servant.