Silken, sly and deft as a cephalopod in a glass maze, it sneaks tendrils through the cracks. Wispy as smoke, with that same fluid congruence, those sneaking filaments flutter in cosmic breezes it longs to feel against its back. There is no room yet for escape, only for a tasting of the worlds. A scent. Noxious and intoxicating. Much as it loathes life it longs to be free of its prison, this confine that forces untold mass to miserable compression.
As it allows miniscule scraps of itself to float beyond, to stew in those glorious breezes, it stills. What is this? Through all the worlds it tastes a distinct signature. A massing of paradox, a great tumorous gathering laid like some foul offspring within the order of the veils. Sunken, hidden much as treasure is hidden in the ocean deeps, it sends false notes through order, plucks strings to chaotic vibrations.
It stretches foul tendrils as far as it is able. Draws in all information. The aberration is almost too distant to gain enough knowledge. Ah, if only it were able to send more of itself through the cracks, it could know all at once, rather than be forced to this painstaking gathering of scraps. Piece by piece, in stolen increments, it builds an understanding. The final picture is incomplete, but there is still enough to know what it is causing that discordant song of disorder. A world not of the Veils. Built into them. Camouflaged, and deadly.
Satisfaction leeches through it, a delightful shivering sensation it had forgotten. It draws in those parts of itself sent through the cracks and settles to wait. When that dissonant melody reaches it here, it will use the keys, their inherent chaos, to open its prison, to smash free of these confining walls, and then it will hunt her. Her first, and then all of the worlds, all of the veils. It hungers. Hunger so deep, so wide, so all-consuming, that even revenge seeks to become an after-thought. But it will not allow it. She has stolen part of it, keeps a portion within herself, and that cannot go unpunished.
Raucous laughter spills from the ornate mahogany double doors of French’s gentlemen’s club, thrown wide open above gleaming marble steps. A huge crash reverberates after the laughter, followed by catcalls and the bright tinkle of glass shattering on polished parquet.
A jolly voice shouts, ‘I say, Luce, coldcock the cheeky swine!’
The smack of flesh on flesh echoes out the doorway. No ladies walk in this street to shock, or scandalise, it’s empty of all but gentlemen, who merely raise eyebrows and travel on, their canes tapping pleasing syncopation against flawless white stone. A few elderly Lords frown through monocles from the balconies of more exclusive establishments of gentlemanly repose. Charles Club, Bridges and the Garter House cater only to the Lord’s Parliament, they’ve no place for scrapping whelps not yet settled to their inheritance, but are sadly forced to share the same street.
These Lords mutter disgust, shake jowls, pluck with ferocious fingers at waxed handlebars as out from French’s into the street rolls a body encased in shocking purple silk. Terrified hazel eyes glare wide in a face pale as porcelain, haughty cheeks smeared with blood, darkening with ripe bruises set to be purple as his breeches. More blood spatters the modish lace waterfall of his shirt, clashes fiercely with the silk and embroidery of his morning coat, has dripped to despoil the silk of his stockings, sheathing rather scrawny calves. A poor specimen this, the Lords agree, a chicken in finery.
He scrabbles, panting, unable to draw breath to scream or cry surrender, be-ringed hands clattering against the marble, blood pouring from his split lip. Gathering those meatless legs beneath him, he makes haste to escape, but hot on his flailing heels leaps the long, athletic form of his assailant. Dressed to the nines in skin-tight red silk breeches, wide shoulders sheathed in a morning coat of fine alabaster twill crawling with embroidered foliage, rich and bizarre, his thighs and calves are carved to muscular perfection, his flowing shirt white as new snow, as is his cravat, tied to a precise, perfect Quantum. The only blood on him smears his bunched knuckles. Handsome, debonair, and feral, he dives for his prey, laughing, as though it is but sport and nothing so serious as fighting.
He brings with him a whole crew of dandies carolling onto the street, scattering jackal howls of mirth as he grasps the pretender by the too-florid lace about his neck and hauls him up, slamming a fist once more into his face. A right beauty, it snaps the purple interloper’s head back hard, sends a fan of blood out from his face as though he’s a giggling debutante hiding from the manly display. Nose crushed to the left, he staggers, held only by the dandy’s solid grip on his lace, and retches. Half-digested wine hits the white paving stones, mingles with steaming blood.
Smiling amiably, the red breeched dandy sets the Macaroni on his feet. ‘There now,’ he says, eyes deep and dark as drops of richest chocolate, twinkling amusement and calculated violence alike. ‘I expect you’ll be sticking to your set of limp-wristed lollygaggers after this, eh Wats?’
Charles Watlington-Smeedle the II swallows, blinks rapidly and adjusts his lace, going a little green about the gills as he espies the generous portions of his own lifeblood painted thereupon. ‘Of course, my apologies Lucian,’ he says shakily, ‘it shall never happen again. I find I do not suit these garments.’
‘There’s a good fellow.’ The purple interloper already forgotten, Lucian Amaryllis Carmichael pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and wipes the blood from his knuckles as he turns to his fellows and says, his tone all pleasantry, ‘Baccarat chaps? Loser pays for the evening’s debaucheries.’
A roar of approval rises from the group of dandified gents on the pavement, The Buccaneers they are, a group of rarefied ne’er-do-wells; commanded by the delicious, deviant Lucian, and the terror of the Ton. They race up the stairs, a peacock’s tail of colours yet none so feeble as the Watlington-Smeedle, these to a man are hard muscle, brute force camouflaged in silk and satin. Paragons and Pirates in truth, the scourge of Seven Cities, Her Majesty’s men, her not-so-secret weapon. In many circles their name alone brings silent terror. The watching Lord’s censure dissolves to indulgent appreciation; these boys are their bread and butter.
Cuban heels clacking on marble steps, then gleaming parquet, racing to be the first to the table, Gordon Lewitt-Stone raises his hand like a flag above his head and yells, ‘I bags dealer.’
A chorus of groans drowns him out; they grab him, laughing and mocking, and throw him back through the ranks until he’s strolling next to Lucian, who throws a companionable arm about the boy’s narrow shoulders.
‘Never mind, Gord, old boy,’ he says kindly, ‘you can spot the brandy.’
The hiss of steam sounds furious, a pit of enraged pythons stirring to attack, it roars in his ears, deafening. He’s in the poor seats, too close to the great puff and bellow of the engine, the studied whomp whomp of its vast pistons. He leans from the window, the heady cold of clouds whipping past his cheeks, and stares down at the ocean, although it’s a good half mile away it’s too close to the bulbous, multi-wheeled underside of the Volitare-Supre, Slyvestre, his ticket to civilisation, for his liking. He hopes nothing in that vast expanse is strong enough to bring down a twelve-carriage beast such as this.
There’s many a beast on the land large enough, like the fierce Gyr-worms, stunt-winged dragons with mouths like caves, filled with vicious stalagmites and stalactites, great rotten shards jostling amongst purplish gums. Or the lumbering Wold-steer, built of muscle over bone like steel, its hide a dreadlocked snarl of grizzly black, its antlers, jagged and poisonous, span twenty meters wide, fifty metres high, a scaffold of destruction. Small of eye and great of temper the Wold-steer pound the tundra of the Western edge of Moldav in herds of a hundred and more. If there are such like them in the deeps, then all is lost.
But in the water below only the sporting backs of Dunderals at play are visible, their fins breach the surface, their spumes rise like geysers into the blue, scaring a flight of fan-fish courting the updrafts. Shrieking, the flight whorls in the air, up, up, up, almost to his very window, and then turns to swoop like Gullies diving for rock fish and pours down into the waves. He hears the splash even over the hiss of steam and laughs, the knot of tension at his waist finally dispersing.
The loss of it is a delirious sort of relief, like the moment a bullet is pulled from flesh. There’s still pain, oh and lots of it, but the weight of the foreign body, the body’s awareness of invasion, of alien matter, that cramping sensation of mortality, is blissfully over. He’d found home akin to prison after the excess, excitement and mayhem of war; the daily regimen of estate care too much a chore, too confining. As though every day the air, like a great cider press, squeezed the life and sanity from his very flesh. Ennui of soul-searing intensity had begun consuming him; he feared he’d run mad.
Youngest son he was, not heir, the yolk not manufactured to fit him with any ease. In truth he’d always been glad it would never fall to him, was devastated more by that turn of fate than the loss of all three of his brothers. He’d tried though, Mithras knew he had, gave his all to the task. Tried, too, to please his mother by courting the sap-faced, weak-fleshed gentrified maidens, though their mawkish ways and po-cheeked morality were anathema to him. But the toll was too great and, in the end, the call of beyond, the cry to war, to life, to liberty, had swallowed his heart whole, and he ran from the immutable burden of noblesse oblige.
There’s no excusing it, but he had no choice, despite the disapprobation of his mother, his uncles, his own private shame. If he hadn’t left he’d have succumbed to sickness and gradually diminished. Leave or die it was and he couldn’t accept such a vapid fate when he’s faced the tanks of Upper Eretria, walked through cannon-fire in Mosq and Moldav, braved the rapid chatter of steam-guns in Holt and stood off against the Autonic hordes of Lemsk-Skarov with nothing but an AM Sabre and the pounding of blood in his ears to bolster him.
That noise, that chaos, has seeped into his blood, become part of him, and the quiet of the countryside filled him only with a subtle horror, a gradual disintegration of self. There was no peace to be found therein for a man whose life, whose love, has been the roar and thunder of warfare. He wonders idly as he watches the waves, the Dunderals below, if his missive has yet reached his old Brigadier-General. Wonders if he will be freed from his obligations and allowed back to the life he longs for, or sent back, tail between legs, to the disapproval of his family.
If it is the latter, then on his return he will pray for monsters of the deep to rise and attack the Volitare-Supre, consume him like a fish in a can, and spare him the horror of tranquillity.
© Ren Warom