Londonium seethes. The rich having long since fled, only those who have no means to escape remain, and they are everywhere. More numerable than the vermin beneath in the vaulted sewers, dressed in ragged imitations of finery, they mill the streets in vague discontent. Their silence, when Margo and company enter through the gates, is ominous and pointed.
Ceasing their restless wandering they line the streets, faces dull with anger under layers of grime. There’s an air of withheld violence, as though they blame these returning soldiers for the war being fought on Great Brittania’s shores. They cannot see the hand of their Queen in the woes they face daily; they are too distant and too resentful of her wealth to see beyond it to her machinations.
Margo walks at ease amongst it all. She’d never harm these people, but she’d remove them in a heartbeat if it became necessary. Understanding though she is of their anger, their confusion, and their fears, she needs these men for what comes. Not necessarily the fight with Imalia–that she will face alone–but for the fight that comes before that. The darkness flowing.
She will need them to face what the darkness creates.
From her vantage point on the apex of her castle, Imalia watches the chaos afflicting the streets of Londinium with unparalleled delight. Cruelty is her natural state of being, malice her personal indulgence. If she had time to spare she would play it out down there in all that delicious mayhem, stoking terror and feeding on it. Gorging herself. Such wicked indulgence.
The whimpering of her twin daughters continues. This also amuses her. They have seen her face many times, yet it never ceases to horrify them. In part, it is because the damage truly is appalling, but there is also the fact of their horror in becoming the same. They are the only daughters she has who remain the way they were when she found them in a time and place beyond this tiresome prison of a world, countless decades ago. She’s aware they live lives steeped in terror for the moment she tires of their unchanging perfection.
Little do they know how ugly she finds them, her vain little twins. To Imalia such damage as found upon her face is the definition of beauty, yet she understands and exploits the horror others derive from it, and if she were inclined to beautify her twins, she would do so, but she has no need for beauty in these two. They are her well. Her fountain. Her vessels. And how she loves that ability in them. Beauty would despoil it. For what resides in them would not live within such beauty as she can lay claim to.
‘Do you see it, my daughters?’ she asks them, looking down at them and holding them hostage with her gaze, delighting in their cowering. ‘Can you see the wonderful madness we have orchestrated?’
They nod, one movement of two heads, Evangelista and Angeline, two bodies and yet it would seem only one soul, which uses Evangelista to communicate. They fascinate her. She’s often wanted to damage one, just a very little, perhaps a limb, or a single eye, to see if the wound would be reflected in the other, but they are too valuable as they are, these twins of hers, more valuable than they know, more valuable even than her other daughters. It is why she took them.
She’d been in a London similar to this but so very different and so very long ago. She’d sensed them from the other side of the city and tracked them down, following the ripe stench of their potential to the bright window of a clothes emporium, to two small girls, so neat in matching dress coats and straw hats, their faces so perfectly identical they could be the selfsame face drawn meticulously on two separate canvasses.
The wail of their mother’s grief when she found them gone Imalia locked away in her heart to savour. It still remains, echoing through empty chambers, feeding her, giving her joy. She touches Evangelista’s head, smiling as the girl flinches.
‘Look,’ she urges. ‘Delight in our victory, my daughter.’
Evangelista nods dutifully. ‘It is glorious, mother.’ She turns to her sister. ‘Do you see it, Angeline?’
Angeline turns her empty gaze from the streets to her sister’s face. Through her connection to them, Imalia feels what she has come to recognise as Angeline, a sort of cool breeze running through the colour of Evangelista. Something like a memory of life. She would not be surprised if Angeline had been fated to die in the womb and her sister, afraid to be alone, had somehow kept her alive.
‘Angeline says there is a man coming. A man who is an angel.’
‘Vespesian.’ Imalia hisses. ‘What does he want?’
Evangelista looks at her sister, leaning in to study her eyes as though rather than asking she is simply recording what her sister has seen direct from the source.
‘He is not here for us. Not yet. He has something with him. Something powerful. He’s after the woman and her companions.’
‘I know what he has and I know what he’s after.’ Imalia smiles, and it is a terrible thing, more terrible to gaze upon than her face in repose. ‘Perhaps I shall enjoy more sport after all, my daughters. Let us unleash the Shadow upon them.’
Gliding through the crowds, immersed deep in the music of the mobs’ anger, Vespesian stalks the company of vagabond soldiers, fools and empowered human filth. One human in particular is caught in his crosshairs, the perfect vessel for the Radiance. Just as its equal and opposite power the Absence, or any lesser power forged from either source, the Radiance covets beauty, and this human is as beautiful a thing as mere humanity is capable of producing, both inside and out. And so very powerful. So very vulnerable.
Vespesian feels the eager hunger of the Radiance as it senses their prey and cups it to his face. ‘Patience, my love. We must not gain the attention of the woman. She is dangerous to us yet. Until you are settled within your new shell.’
He moves closer, sliding toward them with deadly grace. Closer. Closer yet. The ebony curls passing before him mere meters away. Then feet. Then his fingers, outstretched, stroke through the hair at the nape of Rolf’s neck, and Vespesian is forced to withhold a laugh at the stutter in that beautiful creature’s stride, the shiver that travels visibly up his spine. He reaches out again, fingers twitching…
So immersed is he in his game of cat and mouse, he catches the warning too late. Hears the Radiance scream only once in his mind, before the sound is drowned by roaring, as if water, unleashed all at once from a dam, were raging down the street. Darkness surges into view, slamming through from a street adjacent to the line of marching men. In its wake lies carnage. Bodies rent asunder. Houses reduced to rubble. Cobbles torn and flung like missiles.
He has only a moment to realise its direction before his victim of choice is gone, snatched from the very tips of his fingers. Rearing up, a tower of black standing tall against vicious blue sky, the shadow slams into the ground and disappears as suddenly as it arrived, leaving behind it blood and ruin and the roar of grief too close to agony that comes from the man with eyes like drops of melted chocolate.
© Ren warom 2013