Two horses thunder over the lawn, their hoof beats like the deafening approach of an army at speed in the silence of early morning. Alexander closes his eyes, allows the sound to travel into his bones. He travels with it to the plains of Mosq, seeing the billowing dust cloud of a hundred thousand men ploughing the desert toward him, feels the same bright flare of adrenalin, the rush as he raised his sword, roared into the sun, and charged.
He opens his eyes to emerald swathes of close-cropped lawn, hemmed by avenues of majestic Lime trees, to the haunches of a pureblood bay bunching and stretching a short distance from the flared nostrils and wild eyes of his steed, a warmblood roan.
He yells, ‘Damn you, Luce, you sneak!’
Lucian’s laugh flies behind him like a banner, rippling on the breeze. ‘If you weren’t daydreaming,’ he throws over his shoulder, ‘you would have seen me.’
‘I was not daydreaming. I was remembering. There’s a difference,’ Alexander replies, spurring on his steed to pull alongside and playfully swatting Luce with his crop.
‘Now, now, Alex, let’s not get carried away with that thing, I might have to retaliate.’
Alexander grins and takes the lead, holding it by a few lengths until they come to a frothing halt in the drive of Lucian’s manor house. It still astounds him that this glorious house and its grounds are bang in the centre of Londinium, but the spires of the Cathedral in the distance serve to remind him, as does the monotonous tolling of its fourteen bells.
‘Five of the afternoon,’ he cries in horror. ‘We’ll be late for our dinner appointment.’
Luce raises a brow. ‘Don’t be such a bore, Alex. You need to learn to relax. No one will be at Lady Peaveys until at least eight. Fashionable tardiness is all the rage, you know. We compete to get there last.’
Alex sighs, melancholy. ‘I’ll never get used to this. It’s not my world.’
‘Nonsense,’ Luce scoffs. ‘You were born to it; the instinct’s in you somewhere. A decade in the scrubs can’t have removed all of it.’
Alex finds himself sporting a wicked smile. It happens more and more these days. Lucian has been more than a friend; he’s been a foundation to stand upon. Unfailing. Slowly, over the past week and three days, Alex has felt more and more alive, more his old self. The relief is heady, it’s making him reckless, but he can’t find the means to deplore it.
‘Care to place a wager?’ he asks.
Lucian leans in close, those dark, dark eyes brimming with mischief, and deeper yet a flickering emotion Alexander feels both discomfited and strangely warmed by. ‘Always,’ Lucian enunciates. ‘What shall we wager, hmmm?’
Alexander licks his lips, wrong footed by the intensity in Lucian’s face, and feels his skin begin to prickle as Lucian’s eyes latch on to his mouth and follow the movement. ‘I’m on borrowed funds, Luce, you know that.’
Lucian leans back, freeing Alexander from his presence. ‘Then we’ll just have to wager something else,’ he says lightly. ‘Let me think on it.’ He grins then, all roguish charm. ‘Race you to the stables!’
Alexander howls sheer delight as Lucian, cheating as ever, kicks his horse to a gallop from standstill and takes off before he can reply.
‘Go get him, Kestrel,’ he yells, and gives his roan the rein.
Outside the paradox they’ve wailed and waited, watching their Mother, railing at their helplessness. They’ve screamed their fury into the veils, grieved and plotted, but something has changed. The paradox is changing. It writhes within its twisted web, alters its own shape, seeks to become something it was never intended to be. It seeks to be real.
The Sisters have quit their anger, their grief. They bide their time, now. They know that soon the paradox will achieve completion of its redesign, then it will open to them and they will be able to enter it, to find their Mother, to re-awaken her, and then, oh then, there will be such suffering, such joyous agonies to unleash.
They feel, too, the calling Darkness from afar. It has observed the paradox from its hiding place, seeks to use it to find a way into the world, a pathway. They will lend it their strength soon and, when it follows them into this self-realised world, they will find it where it conceals itself and make use of it, make it their weapon.
And the world will cower before them.
‘War is coming, Mershent,’ Chorley says coolly, sipping on a grenadine syrup. ‘It will not pass us by and move on to the New World as some have so naively insisted. It is bound directly for us. We are losing on the continent. Our resources are dwindling, our men outnumbered.’
‘Surely there is a contingency plan.’ Mershent is a picture of outrage. ‘Her Highness would not leave us undefended.’
Chorley smiles, swirls his grenadine. ‘Really? Imalia is a scavenger, a cuckoo Queen. She has set herself in the best position to profit from the devastation she wreaks upon her chosen enemies. She uses our armies as pawns and it is her hand that draws the war ever closer to us. Mark my words, Mershent, she plays this game with greater cunning than you or I. The best we can do is profit from her leavings.’
‘But it will be carnage.’ Mershent is pale, trembling, his greed only surpassed by his crawling desire to protect his worthless flesh. ‘The forces we fight on the continent are barbarians, savages. They will murder us in our beds, rape our wives, burn our children.’
Chorley unleashes the devil of all grins. ‘Ah, the tragic loss of one’s heirs. But, think of it this way my dear friend. No damnable hands grubbing at your fortune, your assets. No blasted ungrateful mouths to feed and backs to clothe. Freedom, Mershent. Freedom from ruinous, burdensome obligation. Is that not worth a little loss and ruin?’
Mershent thoughtfully sips his brandy. ‘Putting it like that,’ he says, greasy with avarice, ‘it sounds perfectly delightful.’
‘Then let us drink to profit built upon the back of destruction.’
Mershent raises his glass. ‘To profit.’
Chorley raises his. ‘But most of all,’ he drawls quietly, teeth shining in a hungry little smile, ‘to destruction.’
Melisante strolls in to Lady Peavey’s saloon at precisely quarter past nine, raising her chin with self-satisfied grace as she encounters the glaring eyes of every other attending dinner guest, including Lucian Carmichael. Excellent. Fifty guineas richer, and all the more delicious for it, she allows Lucian a small smile of triumph, only to be arrested by the sight of his companion.
Casual, subtle as a steam-tram, she forges across the room and plants herself in the seat next to this sight for sore eyes. Lucian’s eyes throw daggers, swords, spears and cutlery of varying sharpness, but she ignores his proprietary air, and snaffles his companion to escort her into the dinner that, with her arrival, can finally begin.
‘I’m Melisante,’ she informs him as she all but wrestles him from the room.
‘Alexander Du Pois,’ he responds formally, unnerved by her forwardness.
‘I know. That is, I know of you. Any gossip worth her salt knows all about you, dear man.’ She gives him an assessing glance, brimming with approval. ‘If I’d known how pretty you were, I’d have endeavoured to meet you sooner.’
‘For a virgin she’s quite the alley cat,’ drawls Lucian from behind.
Melisante throws a barbed smile over her shoulder, ‘Says the Tom who only plays in alleys with other Toms.’ She leans in to Alexander. ‘He’s bent as a butcher’s hook, darling. Probably wants to get into your breeches. I’ve known him a maximum of three weeks and I’ve seen him seduce no less than four straight up and down, died in the wool skirt chasers. If I were you I’d get your buttocks sewn together.’ She speaks up then, so Lucian, who’s eavesdropping anyway, will know she’s speaking to him, too. ‘Get a tattoo saying ‘Exit only’ on your buttocks. I know a sailor that will.’
As he passes, Lucian pinches her breast where it spills out over her rich, velvet corset. ‘Not with you, he won’t, my dear,’ he says viciously.
‘Envy,’ she calls after him, with cutting exactitude, ‘is an ugly vice.’
Lucian turns on his heels and offers them a rapier grin. ‘But it looks ever so pretty on me.’
Melisante’s laughter follows him into the dining hall. She turns dancing green eyes to peruse her silent, doubtless unwilling companion. Finds his gaze fixed to where Lucian stood, a peculiar brightness lighting periwinkle blue to sun-drenched verdant skies.
‘Oh dear,’ she murmurs softly, ‘You’ve already put out the welcome mat.’
Alexander frowns. ‘Pardon?’
She pats his arm. ‘Never mind,’ she says, more than a dash of silk-dressed cruelty in her husky tones. ‘I’m sure he’ll wipe his boots before he tramples all over you.’
Alexander offers her a small smile. ‘Envy, my dear,’ he replies, ‘is an ugly vice.’
© Ren Warom