Before them, the veils cradling that ill-wrought tumour of a world grow thin at last. Behind them, it stalks closer, stealthy and chill as ice crawling across stone, that unknown force, questing through the verse, seeking freedom. Such a wealth of power in it; it will be their ally. They have promised it such delights, such horrors, such magnificent victories.
Betwixt and between, they wait, gathering power, gathering strength, impatient to reach their mother. Faintly now, through the weakening veils, they feel her spirit below, it calls to them: a foul humour curling upon tainted breezes. And they long to go to her, to show her how strong they have become. Bring to her their new ally, this darkness flowing like a river through the verse.
Melisante spins her parasol, overwhelmed with boredom. Of course the park is delightful, of course her companions are lively and full of larks, of course she could honestly drop dead from the sheer tedium of it all. Life in Londinium has proven unrelentingly dire since her two new friends Lucian and Alexander returned to the Front.
At least they, of all these new Londinium friends, understood her need for something more toothsome than the usual bland social whirl. The loss of Lucian’s banter and Alex’s dependable, and lately rather edgy, strength, leaves a vast hole. She’s not foolish enough to think she knows them, but there was none of this false gaiety with them; they understood life. Like her, they were shaped by hardships, though they are free in ways she can only envy.
Melisante is shaped by grief after grief, loss after loss. Her dear, sweet sister Charlotte, only four summers old, and then, of the same fever, her youngest brother Gabe. The younger of her two elder brothers, Adlington, lost his life at the front and, after news of his loss reached them, the greatest loss of all, her beloved mother, Georgiana, dead of a broken heart, the sudden loss of too many of her children.
Melisante was but nine summers at the time, left with only her eldest brother, Bartolemew, and her twice widowed father to care for her. Despite the enforced entry into maturity, the loss of childish innocence, that left her luckier than most girls. Her father’s grief turned to indulgence, and left her free to run the grounds of their country home like a wild thing; learning to hunt, to shoot, to fence, all those pastimes to which ladies are not often introduced, and would be discouraged from trying should they show an interest.
However, it is not her father’s doing that her time in Londinium has been rendered dull by the lack of these activities. She has known since her thirteenth year that this would be expected of her, that she should learn to endure the ennui of social responsibilities. She’s been only too aware that her ultimate fate, no matter the indulgence of her beloved father, would be marriage to the highest bidder. A woman in her position has little say in her fate.
Presented at court two weeks ago now, she knows not which of the vast array of Lords have shown an interest in taking her dowry, but hears from friends, whose fathers deal in such matters, that competition has been fierce. It is not only her financial worth that makes them fight for her, but her beauty. These men are moths to a flame, but in a twisted fate such as hers, it is only she who will be burnt and lose her wings, for they were merely illusion.
A distant ring of laughter awakens her to the fact that she’s fallen far behind her companions. She should run to catch up but doubtless one, or all, would feel it necessary to chide her. In Londinium, ladies are supposed to glide across the ground as if their feet were borne upon clouds. It’s insupportable. Dear Mithras, even Imalia, whom Melisante cannot bear, is a less rigid companion than these, with their well-meaning adherence to stifling social codes.
A touch fleets upon on her shoulder, sharp but light. Melisante whirls, one of her concealed daggers in her lace-covered hand. Behind her are two rather tall vagabonds, a male and a female. They’re standing there, beaming with delight at the dagger in her hand. One is clearly Gypsy despite her fair looks and the other; she doesn’t know what he is. He’s not human, for a start, not with those extraordinary golden eyes, the sharpness of the teeth in that smile.
‘Why does my dagger seem to delight you?’ she asks, cocking a brow. Because, really, that’s not the usual reaction it engenders.
The female’s eyes spark up, and her smile grows ever wider. ‘Because, Margo, my dearest, dearest friend, only you could end up in an entirely different mind and yet still, by some miracle, be yourself!’
Melisante steps back, her dagger dropping. ‘I think you have me mistaken for another,’ she says. ‘My name is not Margo.’
‘Not here, my dear,’ the Gypsy replies, entirely confounding Melisante.
‘Have you ever,’ asks the strange looking man, ‘felt like you didn’t belong?’
At this Melisante tucks her dagger away. It’s not that she finds these vagabonds harmless, indeed they look more than ready to commit serious harm. Just not to her.
‘Every single day,’ she replies. Suddenly exhausted. Done in by obligation, and pomp, and ceremony, and marital expectations to which, were she ever permitted, she would object most strenuously.
‘Then, my dear lady,’ he tells her, baring those really rather beautiful, dagger sharp incisors. ‘You’re in luck.’
Everything they are is in accord. Black shoes, polished to a high shine. Purple dresses, worn just above the ankle in daring Continental fashion. Military-style pelisses with black braiding. Box bags in brushed velvet. Dashing top hats with bobbing peacock feathers. Shining kiss curls gathered beneath. Long, black Malacca canes. And dark glasses. Small, round, dainty, dark glasses.
They are a duo, a duet; walking in precise harmony, arm in arm, canes tapping, faces remote. The street silently opens for them. Flows aside like water in the wake of a ship. And they pass through without comment, as if they barely notice the concession. Canes reaching to and fro, they walk onwards with delicate purpose, their feet leading them on an inexorable path.
They turn into the palace courtyard. The guards move to stop them, but falter, as though confused and stand aside instead. Perhaps these voiceless matching maids disarm them, but that is not the emotion they express, it is something more like confusion. More like fear. Their torsos twitch as if uncertain whether or not to bow. But by the time they have decided to bend low at the waist, the pair are gone from sight.
Small steps taken in absolute concert have carried them through the courtyard to the gardens. There, bright and gay against sky the colour of roughly hewn sapphire stands a marquee. About it, proud as a parade of peacocks, the bustle of a Royal tea party is in full flow. Ladies flutter fans, gentlemen preen, and children weave and dance through the chaos, drunk on sugared treats and too little adult supervision.
The two wander through the colourful throng until they stand directly within her line of sight. There, they stop in unison, feet square, the blank, black circles of their glasses fixed expectantly upon the floating pennant of her purple veil. It is mere moments before she notes their presence. The court stands, breathless, awaiting her wrath. Instead she drops her glass; it’s sharp shattering is loud as a thunderclap upon the air.
‘My daughters,’ she breathes, and falls to her knees amongst the wreckage of her glass. ‘My most precious daughters. Where are your sisters? Where have they gone?’
The taller of the two, though none who watch could tell the difference, bar Imalia herself, steps one neat pace ahead of her sister, pulling her hand free and folding it atop the other on the head of her cane. The twin left behind copies the movement as if she is but a reflection.
‘They are waiting, mother,’ the taller sister says, her voice a dreaming, a hush, a lullaby upon the air. ‘They are waiting for you to call them home.’
© Ren Warom 2012