‘Come one, come all!’ The distant cry reverberates across the muddied grass as a straggling crowd moves toward the mouldering yellow and green stripes of the big top at the centre of the park. ‘Come to the Preternatural Circus. Such delights, such horrors, await your disbelieving eyes. Be charmed and terrified, astounded and repulsed, amazed and demoralised. Oh the sights we will show you!’
As the crowd approaches the big top, the owner of that distant voice appears from the darkness, suddenly too close for comfort, his white face leering, painted like a skull, his black silk top hat ragged and mouldy. He grins at them, sharpened teeth glittering in the moonlight, the light of sputtering torches. The crowd shrieks fear, delight, and flinches away, ladies clutching the arms of their escorts, children hiding in their mother’s skirts.
He sweeps off his hat, revealing hair striped as a badger’s, tangled and long enough to touch the middle of his back, a cloak of moth-eaten dreadlocks. ‘Welcome one and all to my circus,’ he cries, his rich voice cutting the night like a scythe. ‘I am Archibald Thorn. I bring to you a bevy of beasts from all the corners of this benighted earth. Mouth boy, the Tentacled Lady, The Horned WolfMan, the Tiny Men, Tojo the Dwarf, Cathmaran the Undead, the Sleathes of Moldav, vile and dangerous to behold, Gerth the Whip Handed, Helva Charoon, the walking corpse, the dagger-tongued Children of Arthracor, so many more sights to derange and enchant you. Come one, come all and be forever changed.’
His eyes, calculating and sneaking as a rat’s, dark as the deepest sewer and all as filthy, follow them as they pass on to the ticket office. He places his hat back onto his head just so, pats it into place and strides off, cane swinging a jaunty arc, pulling the darkness with it as it goes in eddies and swirls like dispossessed ghosts.
Into the jumbled mass of their caravans he strolls, pulling pieces of the night in his wake. They flutter like bats across campfires and lanterns, before shadowed faces, carnies, his people, all ill at ease and wary of eye as he passes them. Not one of this ragbag crew trusts him and he knows it, smile sneaking ever wider across ghoulish, painted cheeks.
‘Saleth, my love, have you fed the Sleathes?’ he asks as he passes a red-painted caravan.
A woman peers out the window, dark blue eyes and gypsy-wild hair, sensual and furious as all hell. ‘Not my job, Thorn. They can go hungry for all I care.’ Her accent is exotic, flirts with her words as she speaks them, caressing the vowels, running silken notes along consonants.
He tuts. ‘Wouldn’t do for us to have a repeat of the Nottinghame incident, would it, my love?’
A sleek brow curves upward, she licks her lips. ‘I wouldn’t say that.’
He chuckles. This woman, this one member of his dark little family, does not fear him at all, fears none of the creatures under his command. She’s a wicked one, almost too talented to keep, but he wouldn’t be without her and so she lives. He idly wonders, as he often does, if she’d die easily. He doubts it. Vicious wench would likely cut out his heart and feed it to that rank moggie of hers. He likes that. It makes his teeth tingle.
‘I’ll have the twins do it,’ he flings over his shoulder as he strolls away. ‘It amuses me when they scream.’
A stockinged leg flips over the balcony wall. A silk shod hand follows, then a corseted torso, a masked face. A sharp hiss of annoyance and, for a moment, the gloved hand tugs at mountains of hooped skirts and brocaded silks.
‘Blast these ball gowns.’
Skirts handled, she drops lightly to the polished marble floor and hurries along on the toes of her court shoes, skirts held high from the floor to keep them from whispering her presence. It’s not necessary, even the servants are all downstairs, either serving or behind the scenes assuring there are ever more things to serve, but over-cautious beats not cautious enough.
Down dark, abandoned corridors she sneaks, following her nose, her instinct, until she comes to a pair of ornate doors. A grin flashes beneath the swan-shaped mask adorning her head. She drops her skirts, grasps the handles, and sweeps inside. Her grin widens as dazzling cat-green eyes alight on the dresser. She rustles over and begins to pull out the drawers.
Gloved fingers curl around the magnificence of a ruby drop collar adorned with at least a hundred flawless one-carat diamonds.
‘Hello beautiful,’ she says softly, running it through her fingers.
‘And hello to you, too, beautiful,’ drawls a voice at the door.
She spins, narrowed eyes falling upon a louche figure reclining against the frame and scornfully sweeping him from bejewelled heels to powdered wig. ‘A popinjay?’ she sneers. ‘How unexpectedly dull.’
The popinjay lifts his shoulder from the frame in a fluid movement, strides across lush Aubusson carpet to face her. ‘A thief,’ he says, mimicking her tone to the last note, ‘how unexpectedly diverting.’
His hand rises to grasp her wrist but she pivots, effortless, lifting her skirts as she does, and slams a slippered foot into his gut. He crashes to the floor, skidding into the base of the bed. Snarling, he flips back up and begins to circle her. She stands in place, head to one side. Smiles. A wicked sharp little dagger jumps from her sleeve to her delicate gloved hand with a casual flick of her wrist.
‘If I were you, little popinjay,’ she says, ‘I’d think twice.’
He stops moving and chuckles. ‘Ever more diverting. An armed thief in finery no less. Is that your only one?’
Snagging the dresser chair, he sits, crosses his legs and leans back, positively riveted. ‘Really? How many in all?’
She leans her bustled behind against the dresser. ‘In all? Seven.’
He looks her over. ‘Would I be impertinent to ask where?’
A smile twitches across her lips. ‘As a matter of fact, you would.’
‘Hmmm. Well, thief, you have me at a disadvantage, I’m afraid I’m not up for hand to hand combat with someone so well armed. I might destroy this waistcoat, which would be a damnable shame. It’s Liberton’s finest work.’
She waves a hand; the dagger disappears back into her dress. ‘This is not theft,’ she informs him calmly.
If she could see his face behind the ridiculous construction of his mask, an outlandishly over-decorated tiger face, she’d swear he was grinning, she wants to slice his face off, but she really can’t be bothered. ‘No indeed. The lady of the house, one Araminta Carmichael, happens to be the unfortunate possessor of light fingers in this instance. She attended our soirée during Hunt season, and this delightful collar of mine ended up in her purse.’
‘Is that so?’
Her elegant gloved hands flip the collar to show the inside. Embroidered in delicate gold silk on the velvet interior is a name that does not match the fair lady Araminta’s: Melisante Foyle.
He chuckles. ‘Oh dear.’ He pulls off his mask, revealing an obscenely handsome face, piratical yet angelic, and runs a gloved hand through silky, black hair. She tries not to vomit as his rich chocolate eyes twinkle rakishly at her. He’s such a cliché. ‘It appears I have an apology to offer on my sister’s behalf,’ he says, not sounding the least bit apologetic. ‘I’d thought my last little chat with her scuppered her rather tiresome kleptomania habit.’
Her grin is sharp as a rapier, all as deadly. ‘You call this kleptomania? This collar is worth at least twenty thousand.’ She stows the collar securely in her purse, smoothes it back behind her skirts and says gently, ‘No matter. I have it now. I thought better to take it back than call her out before the entire ball. I rather imagine our fathers would be most displeased.’
He sketches a low, graceful bow. ‘You have my thanks.’ He replaces his mask and offers his elbow. ‘Can I escort you back to the ball?’
She nods graciously, ‘that would be delightful… er… which brother are you?’
‘My pardon,’ he says hastily, sketches a smaller bow and says, his free hand rested on his chest, ‘Lucian. Lucian Amaryllis Carmichael. The youngest.’
‘Well, Lucian,’ she drawls, visibly amused, ‘let’s be getting me and my belongings back before anyone notices we’re missing.’
‘Brigadier-General Blythe, I’m honoured you could make the time to see me.’ He bows from the waist.
Sunlight pours into Blythe’s office, gleams off matched walnut panelling, dazzles as it hits the glass of the many portraits lining the walls. Not a humble man, the Brigadier-General, but a great tactician with a career so stuffed with military victories and Royal honours one might forgive his touch of self-importance as a natural by-product.
Blythe is a large man thick with muscle still present from countless forays on foreign soil. His face is ugly but warm, bestowed with the most magnificent handlebar, frosty white and waxed to knife-sharp points.
He stands and offers a small bow in return, his moustaches twitching as he responds with obvious pleasure, ‘Alexander, my boy, I always have time for my finest men, and by thunder if you aren’t one of the finest boys I’ve had pleasure to command.’
Blythe takes his seat and Alexander all but drops into his. He’s still exhausted. Arrived to his room at one of the less salubrious hotels in Londinium to find a missive from Blythe already waiting, requesting his presence within the hour. What with no sleep and no food since he left his home almost two days ago, and barely time to bathe before racing to the war ministry, he’s on his last legs.
Blythe stares at him for a long time. ‘You’re in a fine old pickle, my boy,’ he says eventually, holding up a hand when Alexander would speak to defend himself. ‘No, I won’t hear excuses from a man such as you. It’d be dishonourable to ask for them to my mind.’ He leans over the table toward Alexander. ‘No one expected you to find it easy, you know. They expected you to do your duty, right enough, even knowing what you’ve done for Queen and country, but not to find it easy. Some of them would have you sent back this very second, left you to rot beneath that millstone of land, stone and obligation.’ Blythe leans back into his chair, thumps his chest. ‘Not me, though, my boy. I’ve been saddled with one of the blasted things meself. Thought it to be an honour till I realised what tyranny I’d let me sons in for. There’re voices of dissent against you, no doubt, but I intend to speak on your behalf, you hear me? I’ll petition her Royal Highness, see if we can’t get you out from under that millstone. That’s all I can offer, because there’s a chance she’ll listen to those voices of dissent and send you packing, my boy. Will you go willingly?’
Alexander bites his lip, head bowed, almost faint with relief, it’s so much more than he expected. ‘I’ll not shame my family further,’ he says quietly.
Blythe nods, ‘As I suspected.’ He breathes deep, his barrel chest straining against the fine brocaded silk of his jacket. ‘I’ll do my darndest for you, Alexander. Her Majesty could do with another such as you on her side. There’s plenty a landed gent been called back to service in times such as these and I know of the perfect placement,’ he raises a brow, looking craftier than Alexander has ever seen him. ‘It’s just leading her to think the idea was hers all along, by my reckoning. Now then, you get yourself back to your hotel. Sleep. Eat. Try not to tangle yourself in too many knots. This may take a while and you’ll have to show your face about, pretend you’re here for the Season till I tell you otherwise, eh?’
Alexander tries for a smile. ‘I’ll do my best.’
Blythe leans in again, this time he’s deadly serious. ‘Do better. These voices of dissent I spoke of. They’re predators, my boy. You show them a crack in your demeanour, they will tear you apart. Chin up, stiff upper lip, shoulders back and, by all that’s holy, don’t ever let the bastards smell your fear. There’s worse lurking in the Palace walls than you ever faced on battlefield or war march, you mark my words. Silk-dressed savages, the lot of them!’
© Ren Warom 2012