Venom Pies Part 11

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Cousins, uncles, aunts, and various other relatives by blood and by vow all greeted the heir of the House of Lorwynne and his people as they were taken at point of sword and spear. Eseus knew it wiser not to fight, though every vesicle throbbed in him to take a blade to the complacent faces of his relatives. They sneered as he was stripped of his sword and rendered powerless. The looks upon their faces reminded him of the same arrogance present upon their faces at the feast wherein Kareth’s father died, except now they were one and all peacocked out in plumage and armor which ill-suited them.
“How could they know where we would emerge?” Iadne said. “We did not know ourselves.”
“Kareth is a sorcerer,” Eseus said. “I doubt there is much she does not know.”
“You are correct in your assumptions, traitor,” one of his cousins said; a dandy with a golden helmet and a purple plume. “She sees all. She knows all. Your treachery had no hope of success.”
The fop sneered, then raised the mouthpiece of his helmet and sneered again so Eseus could this time see it.
“If Kareth can see all,” Eseus said, “then she knew of the imminence of her father’s death, and did nothing to prevent it. Thus she wished for his death. Do you deny this?”
“Silence, traitor!” the fop said. He raised a gauntlet, as if to strike Eseus, but even the silver gauntlet could not steel his nerve toward violence. “It is ill luck to strike a relative,” he said, relenting and lowering his hand.
Eseus shook his head slowly, ruefully. “No, you fear to strike me because Kareth does not wish me harmed,” he said. “That much is easily seen.”
“True,” said another relative; a grandaunt stepping forward with as haughty a voice as her plumed son. She was one of his grandfather’s younger sisters. Her son— the dandy— was ten years Eseus’s senior. She walked like a woman possessed of years and power, and unrivaled arrogance. She spoke as someone who had never been brought to suffering by the pomposity of their tongue. “But that does not hold true of others in your treacherous number. Do you wish to tempt harm upon them?” She looked meaningfully at Iadne. “Those ill-bred peoples of the moor are not afforded the same mercies obligated to those loyal to a House. Wherever they go, they go with the shadow of a blade above them, eager to fall.” She gestured toward the women and children following behind Eseus. “And even your peasants can find themselves afoul of a noble temperament should they prove unworthy of Queen Kareth’s magnanimity. Loyalty is expected above all else, and the very whisper of disobedience is merit enough for a culling of their sniveling multitude.”
Eseus did not hide his sarcasm. “Loyalty seems a fickle thing in our family,” he remarked darkly.
“Indeed,” his grandaunt said. “Especially with your recent betrayals. Did you think she would abide your alliance with the Spider clan, let alone the assassination of Lord Oxenford?”
Eseus could not muster even a frown of incredulity. His grandaunt seemed rehearsed in the narrative that Kareth wished to present, and so, likely, the rest of his extensive family. Thus, he knew that Kareth was scheming beyond the House of Lorwynne and the domination of the moorland provinces. Her ambitions were doubtlessly exuberant, and reached elsewhere and afar.
“Lord Oxenford had my father assassinated,” Eseus said. “That he should be assassinated in turn seems divine retribution. And I am eternally grateful to the one responsible for that comeuppance. Had I the chance, I would have slain him myself and served his fat flanks at the feast in his honor.”
“But you did not slay him,” his grandaunt said simply. “Your ally did.”
She did not indicate Iadne beside him. She did not have to. The hateful glares that followed the Spider clan girl informed him, and her, that all present knew who she was and for what she was responsible.
“And,” his grandaunt continued, “you know as well as I that there was nothing divine in Lord Oxenford’s death, except, perhaps, that his daughter should reign afterwards as an ascendant Queen of the All Ways.” She threw her hands fussily in the air, as if shooing them all away. “Enough chatter now. We march. See where your words will take you while in judgment by your esteemed cousin. She will likely be more merciful than I would be, but I think she will nonetheless exact recompense from you, in some form or fashion. I eagerly await that judgment, too.”
“As do I!” her son said with childish glee. She gave him a withering look, but he was too gleefully spiteful to notice.
Eseus, his mother, Iadne, Percevis, Edea, and the remaining women and children of Lorwynne were all conducted through a passage walled by blades on either side, led to the military caravan already arranged along the Oxenford Road. They began the long march toward the House of Oxenford. Eseus glanced back in the direction where he thought lay the House of Lorwynne, but could not see anything. Above them, the Gray was as thick as ever, and beyond them, too. Much of the Oxenford army was concealed in the fog. Eseus could not see anyone among the Crow clan.
“Where are your allies?” Eseus asked. “I do not see them.”
“Your cousin feared for your safety,” his grandaunt said, her voice one of mild amusement. “She wished that they stay and hold the castle, weeding out whatever worms remained among its nooks and crannies.”
“They are pilfering and butchering,” Eseus said. His hand went to his hilt, but they had already taken his sword from him.
“Crows have their uses,” his grandaunt said. She stank of glamor-laced perfume. “As do peasants. So long as you surrender to Queen Kareth’s forces she will spare all those remaining. As I have said, loyalty matters to her. Her plans require many more forthcoming soldiers. The boys remaining will be trained to be obedient to her and to serve loyally in her army. The women, too, shall have their uses. No one will be squandered, and those unhelpful will find themselves unnecessary.”
Eseus looked to Iadne, to his mother, to all of the women and children sobbing behind him. He saw Percevis’s grim, blood-drained face, and the anger there, but also saw the illegible look upon Edea’s face. The old Spider clanswoman gave no feelings away at all, and Eseus knew wisdom in that.
“I will plead for mercy from my cousin,” Eseus said, sighing. “On behalf of all my remaining people.”
“Her remaining people,” his grandaunt said. “Otherwise we would round them all up like sheep and slaughter them as we did their treacherous husbands and sons. Be thankful, thus, that you have all been allotted mercy by being inducted into the Queen’s ownership. All that was yours, is hers. Your people, your castle, your mother, your soul. All belongs to Queen Kareth.”
“As you say,” Eseus muttered.
The Oxenford soldiers did not bind him, nor any of the others. They saw them as no threat. Only Iadne did they watch sidelong with suspicion and wariness. So far as they knew, she was something of a sorcerer in her own right. This was not entirely true, but also not entirely a misreading of her capacities. She kept the clew close to her heart within her hooded robe, next to the dragonrock.

***

It was a long march, protracted by the length of the caravan, the loads of supplies, and the prisoners of war thronging between it. The whole company crawled along like a lethargic dragon suffering an illness. This frustrated many among the nobles— in particular, Eseus’s foppish cousin— but there was no effective remedy for the circumstance.
Eseus was offered to ride in a guarded wagon, but declined. His mother also declined this dubious hospitality, though she grew faint with each passing day until she had to swallow her pride and climb aboard a wagon. Eseus insisted that the elderly and the young be given places among the wagons also. This request was granted by his relatives, but not, in fact, out of kindness; rather, it was obvious that everyone— from low Oxenford soldier to highborn noble—feared losing Queen Kareth’s newly gained subjects. Thus, the elderly and the young had their burdens lessened, many choosing to stay on the wagon wherein the Lady of Lorwynne resided.
Eseus felt Kareth’s presence always. While she was not among the convoy, her eyes and ears strained everywhere. At night when they slept, and Iadne refused to part from Eseus, he could feel a hateful glare upon the two of them. Iadne seemed to sense it, too, for she insisted with a spiteful delight that he share her robe with him. As they held each other, she smirked at the unseen intruder eavesdropping upon their moments of intimacy.
“He is mine,” Iadne whispered. “You cannot have him. He is mine. Always.”
The prisoners were fed hardtack that stank of skunk and given water every day. Eseus would not have deigned to eat, but Iadne admonished him to do so. Often at night she would supplement their poor diet by Willing grubs up from the moor, as she had done weeks prior while on the trek to the House of Lorwynne. Eseus ate all begrudgingly, knowing that she was correct: he needed his strength. His people needed him to be strong. Moreover, they needed his mind to be clear and well fed.
Yet, Eseus felt hollow. Shame had withered him from within, and alongside that shame was a restless beast; a creature caged by circumstance which sought fanciful means of salvation for his people as he imagined miraculous escapes and impossible moments of vengeance against the forces that had bereft them all. But he remained impotent, raging silently within his own skull as he awaited the inevitable arrival at House Oxenford. Disgraced and powerless, his mind reached back toward the Bull beneath the Labyrinth. Iadne sensed this stagnating rage. When he succumbed to such moods she would clasp his hand in hers as they walked, squeezing when the fury in his heart pitched downward into desperate fury, like a seaship diving headlong into a whirling maelstrom.
“Do nothing reckless,” she told him, “or all will be truly lost.”
“It is a fury I have never known in life,” he confessed, “and so it is a steed that throws me from within. It bucks and leaps and I feel the violence in its hooves. It wants to trammel everything. Foremost, myself. The shame is unbearable. The rage overwhelms when I think of all that could yet be lost because of my incompetence.”
“Do not let it overmaster you,” she said. “I know it is hard. Believe that. I know better than anyone what it is like to lose everything.”
Eseus felt a sudden shame of a different kind. “I am so sorry, Iadne,” he said. “For what happened to your people. For what has happened to you.”
She smiled at him sadly, and tears were in her eyes. “I feel shame, too, Eseus. For in all this misery, I feel hope. And happiness. Our daughter will come. I have read it in the web. She will make things right, as things should be. And I am ashamed because this happiness I feel would not have been had my clan not been extinguished. Without their deaths, I would have never known you. And you are mine. That, no one can take away. Not even you.”
Eseus shook his head sadly. “Nor would I. I promised you my life, and you shall have it.”

***

The caravan came to a stop, the prisoners kept in tight groups overseen by spearmen. In turns the women and children were allowed to make water upon the moor. While Iadne took her turn, Eseus saw to his mother. She sat among several women and children, all of whom had the looks of frightened rabbits as wolves prowled nearby.
“They have treated me no worse than anyone else,” she told him. “It has been a bumpy ride in the wagon, but worse would it be to walk. The soldiers have been more or less courteous; more so than to the other women.”
“They would not dare harm you,” Eseus said. He said it mostly to reassure her and himself, and feared only half-believing it.
“You have lost weight,” she said, touching his face. “You must eat, Eseus, and stay strong. Your people need you.”
There came an angry volley of voices from the other side of the Road. Two men shouted, one Percevis and the other an Oxenford soldier.
“Keep off her, you brothel-born by-blow!” Percevis roared. “Or I’ll split your head like an overripe pumpkin in want of mushing!”
“Search the woman,” the soldier ordered, ignoring Percevis. “She was doing something suspicious out on the moor.”
Percevis hobbled toward the soldier, meanwhile clutching the wound at his chest. “Yeah, she was pissing, you leaking bucket of hog-water! Didn’t get enough of an eyeful then, hm? Want to see where I keep my other sword while you’re at it? You filthy tree-peeper!”
The soldier ordered two other soldiers to bind Percevis, then grabbed Edea by the wrist, pulling her roughly to him. Inspecting her garments, he began to strip them off of her, one by one, until she was left with only her undergarments. He nearly stripped these, too, but for the eyes upon him. Instead, he stuffed all of the Spider-silk cloth into a large pouch and hooked it to the saddle of his horse. He looked quite pleased with himself.
Eseus rushed forward, even as the spears closed in around him.
“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded. “Stealing from an elderly woman? Have you never a mother of your own?”
Red-faced, the soldier stiffened and snarled. “I am confiscating these items lest they be used for witchcraft.”
“There is no witchcraft in human decency!” Eseus cried. “Nor in warming oneself from the moor! Would you have her freeze to death?”
The soldier snorted as he mounted his horse. “What loss would it be to for an old witch to die on the moor?”
Percevis pulled at the reins of the horse, turning it aside and flipping it down upon its flanks. The soldier rolled from the saddle, scrambling to find his feet. The horse was unharmed, but startled, and righted itself up and fled from the scene, startling other horses with other soldiers upon their backs.
Before Eseus could intervene, the thrown soldier came at Percevis and struck him a harsh blow across the face that sent him reeling. The old man’s chin was streaming crimson before he collapsed to the ground. Edea screamed, but was held back by the other soldiers. Eseus leapt forth and struck the soldier so hard that his helm went spinning off his head, joined in short order by the man himself. Straddling the downed man, Eseus beat him near to death before another Oxenford soldier knocked him aside with the hilt of his sword. The world spun and plummeted into darkness. All was darkness.

***

And then there were stars. Mesmerizing stars. Countless stars above and beyond. And he was a man staring out from a balcony upon a tower in the Southerlands around which white sands stretched seemingly forever, horizon to horizon. He saw the stars above his barren world, and marveled at them, yearning to pull them down and bind them, under yoke, to his will. More than anything, he coveted the twin Bulls that drove across the heavens, chasing even the moon itself in its arching path. The power of the Bulls pulled at him, like a madness, and so he sacrificed much to work miracles with his magic. He sacrificed whole forests and swamps and generations of creatures to harness the yoke whereby to call down the Bulls from the sky. He knew they were the beasts with which he would build a kingdom upon the misty moorlands.
A great road he furrowed, forking upon forks to create many paths to many castles. These castles he built up with magic, stone upon stone. Below them he cut a great labyrinth wherein to house his coveted beasts so no one might take them from him.
A woman came to him in time— a sorcerer of aspiring talent, and unequal beauty—and he longed for her companionship. But she feared the Bulls— not the beasts themselves, but the glimmer in his eyes when he thought of them— and so he gave unto her one castle over which she had dominion, and he kept his own castle, over which he had absolute dominion, and so he halved his power to double his love for her, visiting her in her castle whenever he was not dabbling in darker arts and studying the Bull beneath Oxenford. Her castle— Eseus’s ancestral home—was a cage for her, as it was for the Bull entombed beneath it. Like the Bulls, she felt separate from him, and so divided, and paced restlessly above or below the earth.
***

Iadne watched over the man she loved, tending to the wound dealt to his head. She cleaned the bloody contusion with hot water and honey, then bound it with fabric cut from her own robe. She gave him water and watched him for signs of fever. He did not wake, but he did not weaken, either. He merely slept.
When she was not tending to Eseus, she attended his mother, reassuring her the best she could about their circumstances. She also tended to Edea, though she knew that in moments of grief there was merit to solitude also, especially those among the Spider clan. Meanwhile, she also assured herself of the future of her clan. The clew remained, pregnant with promise, and so, too, the dragonrock. She did not know when an opportunity would present itself for escape, but she knew she and Eseus would need to take it. Yet, he was so stubborn. She knew how he felt about his people— she knew better than most. However, he would not be able to free those remaining. They would be inducted into slavery to his vile cousin, and if he and Iadne did not escape they would be tortured and humiliated and executed. Or so it seemed to her.

***

When Eseus roused he felt the world swaying and rattling violently. He thought it an earthquake at first, then saw his mother leaning over him, and Iadne, and the cloth backdrop behind them. He was in one of the caravan’s wagons. Disoriented, he lay still, listening as his mother and Iadne spoke to him. He had been struck half-dumb, but slowly regained his wits. Words resumed meaning in his head and he could at last understand what they were saying.
“Do not exert yourself,” his mother said. “Or your wound may bleed again.”
There was a spider-silk bandage across his forehead. He reached toward it curiously, but Iadne stayed his hand with her own.
“Leave it be,” she said. “Or you will be twice the fool you were earlier.”
“Percevis!” he said with a start, suddenly remembering everything.
The look upon their faces revealed all, grave and wan as they were.
“Where is Edea?” he asked, holding back his tears.
“She is here, in this wagon,” his mother said. She glanced toward the corner of the wagon, where Eseus could not presently see. He heard a woman’s sobs, faint above the rattle of the wagon wheels. His mother wiped a tear from her eye. “She grieves. They wished to bind her, but I would not let them. She is now our responsibility.”
“And Percevis?” Eseus whispered. “Did they…did they bury him?”
His mother and Iadne exchanged concerned looks.
“The moor will see to him,” Iadne said. “Do not rise up in a furor over it or you will be joining him. His burdens have been…eased. Relinquish yours, for a time at least.”
Eseus clenched his teeth, but did not rise. He knew it would do no one any good. The world rattled on, noisy and unfeeling as ever before. He closed his eyes and listened to the cacophony of the caravan pass along the Oxenford Road; the snorting of horses, the japes of soldiers, the weeping of the women and children, and the wobbly wheels of the wagon upon which he lay. The commonplace sounds were transformed monstrously in the wake of so much death and destruction. It drove the spark of his anger like a fire in the fields, burning bounty and blight alike until there was only the flames, and the desire for it to burn the unjust world to ash.
“Are you not angry?” he said.
“Of course we are angry, Eseus,” his mother assured him. “But we can do nothing now.” She looked wan and weary, her auburn hair graying. She trembled as she spoke. “We are are at the mercy of circumstance. It is not resignation…but we must abide. Your father would not want you to throw your life away in a noble, but futile, gesture. Nor would I. It would kill me to lose you.”
“Had she wanted me dead I would be dead. She has other proposals in mind.”
“‘Proposals’,” Iadne said, her pale lips creased at one corner; neither with amusement or anger. “That is the choicest of words for the matter.”
Edea sighed, her sobs subsiding. Then her sobs renewed. Eseus turned his head just enough to see her crumpled form in the corner. Her children and grandchildren huddled around her, comforting her, and themselves, in their loss. Eseus’s rage was suddenly overcome with pity. Pity gave way to outrage once again and he vowed revenge. Yet, despair undercut outrage, and the realization that he was powerless was as a bloodletting upon his anemic soul.
“I am useless now,” he groaned. “What a shame it is to be the last living man of the House of Lorwynne.” He shook his head, a tear streaming down his cheek. “What shame I feel. What disgust…”
His mother laid a gentle hand on his cheek, and Iadne rubbed his chest with her palm. In this way did the women of his life comfort him until he fell asleep once again. He dreamed of Labyrinths of Time, and a wall-less Labyrinth without Time, and the Celestial Bull, and all that would come to pass before the end of the world…

***
The witch looked out from her tall black tower overtopping the trees of Beggar’s Bog. She sat in a rocking chair, slowly rocking back and forth upon the balcony. She sipped from a tea made of mushroom caps and spider-grass, and occasionally nibbled from a biscuit flavored with gingerweed and sugar rushes. The dark canopies that stretched beyond her tower appeared like the moor itself—solid and traversable by foot. Below the foliated mirage of the trees, however, were plummeting depths and strange songs and drowning waters. Hungry mouths rummaged everywhere for meals. Aqueous throats gurgled, and guttural croaks deepened into growls. The trees of the Bog stretched outward forever, disappearing into the Gray that lay heavy upon the sky, occluding the heavens like a malevolent miasma that hoarded covetously the Northlands.
And because of these things, and many more, the witch considered her tower one of the safest places in the whole of the All Ways. It was safe enough for her, anyhow. The tower had stood for thousands of years, and she had lived in it for hundreds. Waiting. Watching. Wondering. Even when she could glimpse in her scrying glass the world beyond the Bog, she wondered at its machinations. Something foul was afoot. The House of Lorwynne had fallen, and now a great imbalance threatened not only the moorlands, but the entirety of the world. She feared it was the same power that had enthralled and ruined so much so long ago.
Yet, she calmly sipped at her tea and nibbled at her biscuit. She knew the threads would weave their way to her soon enough. Inevitability reigned here, as it did everywhere else. Not even the Master— whoever he or she happened to be nowadays—could overpower inevitability. Fate had its say, regardless of whether it accorded mankind cruelty or kindness. In the witch’s estimation, kindness and cruelty were often the same thing. And if she ever forgot such a thing, she would look down upon the Bog and be reminded of how the world was.

***

Eseus lay on his back, brooding. The ache in his head had departed, but the ache in his chest remained. His mind turned back often to the Celestial Bull beneath the House of Lorwynne. He envisioned himself driving the gigantic beast out over the moor and toward the various Houses that had conspired against his people. He saw the Crow clan scattering before its earth-shaking hooves, trammeling them to dust. With its horns lowered, the Bull charged the various castles, smashing them to ruins, the bodies of his duplicitous kin strewn among the fallen stones.
But he saw, too, the cost of such a vengeance. The House of Lorwynne would collapse as the Bull rose from its tomb, for its tomb composed the foundation of the castle. To free the Bull would mean to forfeit his ancestral home. He saw, also, that the Bull would not stop until all tall towers upon the earth were razed to the ground, for the Bull wished to refute all aspirant towers arrogantly thrusting themselves toward the stars. It was not that he could not have driven the Bull away from such a destructive path, but that he knew— deep down in his blood—that he would also have wanted to level the earth of all conceited enterprises accosting the heavens.
It was no use, all this wishful dreaming. Eseus sat up, steadying himself with his hands upon the wagon bed. The women and the children were asleep now. He could hear their restive breaths. He could not see in the dark of the wagon. Night roosted upon the world and the caravan had stopped. He wished to step outside, and relieve himself, and so carefully crawled toward the back of the wagon. Nights upon the moor were as black as chthonic passageways, but he could see the fires from the camps of the soldiers. An Oxenford soldier approached him as he climbed down from the wagon.
“I need to relieve myself,” Eseus said.
“I will relieve you of your head,” the soldier said, “if you do not return to the wagon.”
“Then I shall relieve myself here,” Eseus said. He fumbled with his britches, still feeling dizzy from the blow to his head.
The soldier stood guard meanwhile, his sword in hand. When Eseus had finished, the soldier shoved him up into the wagon.
“Animal,” the soldier said.
Eseus wished to kick the soldier’s helm off his head, but refrained. He sat at the end of the wagon, looking out at the soldiers and their many campfires. He felt dizzy and wished for water. Someone approached. To his surprise, Iadne appeared from around the wagon’s wheel, climbing up into the bed, unseen by the soldiers.
“They possess poor eyesight at night,” she said. She sat next to Eseus at the back at the wagon, her pale face cut softly from darkness by the faintest flicker of a nearby fire.
“Where have you been?” Eseus asked.
“Your mother was taken for questioning by some of your kin. Do not fear. She is safe and will be returned shortly. I crept about, finding the tent and listening to their questions.”
“What did they ask of her?”
Iadne glanced around, briefly, to see if any soldiers were within earshot. She whispered. “They asked what we had found in the crypts. She told them we had found many generations that would be ashamed of them all. They did not take kindly to that answer, but did not strike her either. They threatened to kill a peasant child for every turn she took at balking. She told them of the beast beneath the castle. This pleased them and they prepared to have her returned here. I left, naturally, before they could observe me.”
Eseus could only nod.
“We must escape tonight,” Iadne said. “I have a plan. It will require haste. How do you feel? Can you run?”
“I cannot run,” Eseus said. “I cannot leave the other women and children here.”
“They will be fleeing with us,” she said.
“Not all of the women and children would escape,” Eseus countered. “Many would be recaptured. Many would be slain. I cannot forsake them.”
Iadne scowled at him, and the darkness did not soften the spite.
“I have lost one daughter once before,” she said. “I will not lose another.”
“That is why you must take my mother and flee together,” Eseus said. “So long as I remain, the heir of House Lorwynne, they will be satisfied.”
Iadne’s scowl hardened. Her wild white hair, paired with her red-eyed glare, made her appear like a gorgon in the dark. “You would abandon me? You would abandon our child?”
Eseus looked away from her. He heard the multitudinous breaths in the darkness of the wagon—the women and children whose fathers and brothers lay heaped upon his ancestral grounds. When he spoke, his voice was soft and slow and full of memory.
“When I was a boy I wished to play as the peasant children played. I saw them from the stone towers of Lorwynne and wondered why I could not indulge as they indulged in mirth and sunshine and games. But my father dedicated me to training and education, instructing me about the world and the moor and governance. Whenever I bemoaned my lot my father would take me to the fields where the peasantry toiled. There I saw the children toiling, too. I saw how bent they would become, as their fathers had, and I saw how gnarled, and some broken by the hard labors of the fields. The children played but a few hours a day, whereas their chores lasted long hours, grinding them with its stooping and digging and planting and reaping. I saw their present lives, and I saw what their future lives would become. My heart ached for them, and when I confessed this to my father he said that wisdom began with a lent heart. By lending my heart to others, I could understand their lives. When I asked why we should allow the peasants to break themselves in the fields, he told me it was a necessary evil. He said that leadership must also including stepping beyond the immediate empathy to think of tomorrow’s plights. Small pain presently was better than greater pain— perhaps even deathly pain— later. Famine, he said, was the demon driving us forward beneath the yoke of necessity. As for me, he said I could not play as other children because there were too many lives ever upon my shoulders. Innumerable deaths, he said, would be the harvest of such play. And so, thinking of those small boys and girls, I dedicated my life to the role set before me. Even now I see those children in my mind, playing innocently for a handful of hours and then toiling endlessly in the field. Those little boys are all as one dead, strewn among the green in the House of Lorwynne, and those little girls are here, older now and weeping for the fallen while clutching little boys and little girls of their own to their hearts lest they be stripped from them and lost forever in the silence hereafter. All of my years training and learning— what good did it do any of them? What good would it do any of them if I abandoned them now? It would be a worse betrayal than that of abandoning their men to die on the green. I cannot do it. I will not do it.”
Iadne opened her mouth to rebut him, but he spoke quicker.
“And that is why I want you to take my mother and Edea and escape. Please. Save my mother. Save our daughter. Raise her to be a child of the moor. Do not tell her of me. Do not thread her path to the House of Oxenford. Take her South. Go to Gran Stone, or even the Southerlands. See the Silver-Scale Sea. Let her know freedom. Let her know happiness beyond all this misery.”
“You can go with us to the Southerlands,” she said. “Leave all of this behind.”
“Kareth will not allow it,” Eseus said. “You do not know her. Her heart is a cold, immovable thing. Glaciers would melt ere her heart would change. The retribution against the women and children…it would be of terrible cost to them. I must remain. You must leave, and take my mother with you. But I am bound by fate now.”
Iadne leaned toward him, her pale lips curdled angrily, but her red eyes sad. She grabbed his shoulders and stared into his eyes. “But you owe me your life,” she said. “It is not your decision to make.”
“I do owe you a debt of life, Iadne,” he said. “But my greater debt was always to my people. Had I a thousand more lives, Iadne, I should give each to you. I love you.”
Iadne said nothing. There was nothing left to be said. She felt the world churning irrevocably— the great millstone of Fate grinding what was into what could never be again—and it tore at her heart. Yet she remained silent, though she wished to scream.
Presently, a trio of soldiers came to the wagon, the Lady of Lorwynne between them. Eseus and Iadne leaned upon one another, pretending sleep, erstwhile listening to the soldiers.
“She’s a pretty one,” one of the soldiers said. “For her age.”
“No touching, you fool,” another soldier said, “or they will gut you for sure. That’s a Lady, even if she is a traitor.”
“A little pinch is all I want,” the other soldier said. “Never pinched a Lady before.”
“And I am telling you your neck will be in a pinch if you try it!”
The two soldiers argued quietly while the third soldier helped Lady Lorwynne up into the wagon.
“Go to sleep,” the third soldier said. “And don’t try anything unwise.”
“Of course,” the Lady of Lorwynne said.
The three soldiers left, the two grumbling amongst themselves. When their gripes died at a distance, Iadne and Eseus sat up once again.
“We must leave,” Iadne said. “It is our one chance.”

***

The dragonrock sparked, setting the spidergrass alight. Three sparrows carried the flaming wisps in their beaks, diving into the wagons wherein some of nobles resided. The canvas bloomed aflame, and many voices screamed as soldiers scrambled. The night became as dusk with the flames.
Iadne clasped the Lady of Lorwynne’s hand tightly, leading her urgently away from the conflagration and the chaos at their backs. Edea followed also, her eyes no longer grieving, but hardened and flashing like the sharp points of vengeful daggers. Her family members, too, followed her, and so their throng fled over the moor.
Soldiers shouted for them to stop. Naturally, the women did not heed them, but hastened their flight through the darkness and the mist. Arrows flitted past them, whining near their heads in futile fury.
“Where is Eseus?” the Lady of Lorwynne asked.
Iadne remained silent.
“Eseus?!” she called. She tried to stop, looking about for her son. Iadne yanked upon her wrist, hastening her.
“He will come,” she lied. “Now, run for your life!”
Iadne was too disoriented with emotions to know which direction she was fleeing. She was upset, and her eyes burned, and she wished the world to burn, too, for all seemed a ruin of what it should have been.
And then there came a light; a shimmer in the darkness. The woman beckoned to them from the edge of the swamp. She was fair-haired, her skin lustrous like starshine, and her dress was as black as the darkness between stars. Her neck was long and slender, and moved with a precise, almost unnatural deliberateness. The women and children followed her, surrendering their fates to her as they came to the edge of Beggar’s Bog. Iadne hesitated but briefly, fearful that she was being led astray by a wisp or some other malevolent creature. The radiant woman saw the doubt in the young woman’s eyes. She held up both hands, and therein were stars like the guiding stars of morningfall.
“Fear not,” the radiant woman said, “for thy deliverance I grant unto thee.”
The woman’s voice was soothing, devoid of malice, and renewed Iadne’s faith in her intentions. Thus, she followed, pulling the Lady of Lorwynne along while Edea and her family kept close behind. Soon they disappeared into the swamp. The soldiers of Oxenford were loath to follow.

Venom Pies Part 10

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Iadne and the Lady of Lorwynne were sitting by the hearth, surrounded by peasant women and children. The explosion shook the whole castle to its bones. Women and children cried out and clung to one another. The Lady of Lorwynne paled and instinctively grabbed Iadne’s hand.
“They have breached the castle!” she gasped.
They rose to their feet unsteadily, expecting Crows to come flooding into the dining hall at any moment.
“The Crows will not spare women or children,” Iadne said. “Where can we go? There are too many for the men to repel for long!”
Lady Lorwynne glanced about in a fright. “Perhaps the crypts will be of some protection. They are as a maze beneath the castle, and we may lose them below for a time. My husband once said there was an escape route through the maze, though he had never ventured far enough to find it.”
Iadne remembered the thing she sensed down in the dark; the thing that was neither animal or beast. “Is there no other way?” she asked.
The Lady of Lorwynne shook her head. The screaming of war cries and death shrieks made her quiver. “My son!” she said. “I cannot leave without him!”
“I will fetch Eseus,” Iadne said. “He is mine now. He will come with me, or I will kill him myself.”
While the women and children followed the Lady of Lorwynne out to the crypts, Iadne sprinted toward the fray. What she saw upon the main stairs gave her pause.
The outer wall smouldered. It had been an unnatural explosion that destroyed it, the stone strewn out amidst malodorous black smoke that reeked of fetid death. A hemorrhage of Crows bled inward, slaying all those who stood before them with their ugly blades of butchery.
“The breach!” Eseus cried. “Stitch the breach!”
Iadne watched as Eseus threw himself upon the breach, staunching the hemorrhage with his sword and shield, bleeding the Crows that rallied within that fissure. Loyal men bolstered his fury, overwhelming the forces that had attempted to fight their way to the winches of the drawbridge and the portcullis. Yet, though they staved the flood, it was not destined to last.
Meanwhile, the peasant men scrambled to regain their weapons. The Lorwynne soldiers scrambled to issue them. Those that took possession of a blade or axe immediately engaged in battle. Their frantic flailing was dangerous, however, and Iadne feared that Eseus would just as soon fall to a peasant’s undisciplined blade as much as the wild frenzy of a Crow. She had to help him survive as the windmills of blades tightened around him.

***

The Crow clan did not fight with honor. They were a tribe of the moor, and a tribe of the moor did not dabble in luxuries like honor. Their crows swooped down upon the Lorwynne men, and the Lorwynne men—erstwhile distracted—were shredded by the Crow clansmen’s cruel weapons. Eseus saw this unworthy tactic befall many of his men, and so did not succumb to it himself. Left and right he hewed through the Crows like a woodsman through saplings, ignoring the crows as they squawked above his head.
Yet, however well he fought, Eseus could not fight forever. His injured shoulder ached, and soon betrayed him and his shield. It slowed him, and distracted him with pain, and so became an enemy also. He flung the shield into the face of a Crow woman, braining her, while he cut the legs out from beneath a Crow man vowing vengeance. It was all a butcher’s work, however reluctant he was to do it. And death-dealing wearied him emotionally as well as physically. So many lives ended by his bloody hands— he could scarcely face the enormity of the generations he had severed with the thrusts and slashes of his sword.
Eseus feared death. He was not so taken away with the steel song of battle to not fear such an absolute thing. But he feared more the death of his mother and of Iadne than his own. He feared more the failure to serve the memory of his father. And so he fought on, and on. He saw his men fall, and he saw the violation of the castle was his home. He saw enough bloodshed to slake the monsters of a thousand nightmares.
And then he saw the worst nightmare come true. Iadne was running in amongst the death-dealing madness of the green. She ducked and slid and fell and rose, scrambling to get to him. At first, the Crows did not notice her— so enthralled were they with killing other men—but when they recognized the Spider clan girl a great rage overtook them. No superstitious fear would restrain them now, for they had the bloodlust upon them.
Eseus fought his way toward Iadne, and away from the breach. She was surrounded by Crows by the time he reached her. He stabbed one Crow in the back, and beheaded another who was raising his taloned blades against her. The final two turned as one toward him. But before the two of them could overpower Eseus, Percevis met the second, and so Eseus took the first. Eseus slew the first, but the second scored a severe slash upon Percevis’s chest. The Crow raised his talon for the killing slash, but Iadne grabbed hold of his black-feathered cloak and pulled him back with a savage yank. The Crow toppled backward and Eseus drove him to the ground with a downward thrust.
Iadne helped Percevis up to his feet. His wound bled between his armor plate. Iadne supported his weight beneath her shoulder.
“Eseus, we must go!” she pleaded. “Retreat to the crypts!”
Eseus turned stubbornly toward the breach once again.
“No!” he said. “I will not forsake my men!”
“You can do them no good dead,” Percevis said, groaning. “Come, lad, the castle will be overrun before long. We need a leader. Save their women and their children. Lead them to safety!”
Eseus oscillated between conflicted duties. All around him he saw his men falling. Peasant, soldier— their blood mingled together amidst the carnage. The Oxenford forces had not yet entered through the breach. All was doomed. His preparations were for nought.
“What hope have we in the crypts?” he demanded, sneering with rage. “To die in the dark like rats?”
“Your mother says there may be an escape passage below,” Iadne said. “Please, Eseus. We need you. I need you. Come with us!”
Eseus looked upon his dying men, and the Crows still entering the fray. He killed two more Crows, and felt no victory in their deaths. It was all meaninglessness against the gods of inevitability. Sighing in defeat, he hurried alongside Iadne, helping her support Percevis as they headed to the crypts and entered the innards of the earth. The massacre behind them, Eseus wondered how much of a failure, and coward, he would be in the eyes of his father.

***
The crypts were dark, dusty and smelled of Time. They ran like a maze beneath the House of Lorwynne, their twisting walls peopled by the dead. Each corpse was swaddled in moldy fabric, grim with their silent secrets. Eseus saw them in the flickering light of his torch and felt as if they were judging him; damning him for his cowardice as he passed.
“How large are these crypts?” Iadne asked. “They seem to go on forever. Or are we walking in circles? It is confusing. Perhaps I should have let a spider thread follow after us so we would know where we have passed and where we haven’t.”
Percevis laughed— a weak, painful laugh unlike his usual guffaw. “The walls of the Labyrinth always seem large to the young, but they narrow as you grow older. The corridors press upon you, little by little, and you begin to crack. That’s what wrinkles are. Eventually, the Labyrinth entombs you. For it is Time.”
Iadne felt Percevis’s forehead with a hand, thinking he might be suffering a fever.
“I’m not out of my wits, girl,” Percevis said, not unkindly. “Just waxing lugubrious and philosophic. That’s what happens when bad things happen around you. You try to salvage some worth from so much wreckage. Structure the ruins with some kind of meaning. And there aren’t any ruins like those of the dead, both above and below.”
Whatever carnage was being wrought above, it was deafened by the thickly packed earth. The passages descended along angled ramps beneath the earth, spiraling out wider. It seemed to Eseus that it was an underground ziggurat spiraling down into the earth, tiers unto tiers expanding upon their descent. Yet, as it descended, the corridors narrowed , as if to strangle all the very idea of light until extinguished.
At last, they came upon the women and children in the chthonic maze. The throng was as a subterranean river, flowing hesitantly in the crowded darkness and narrowing catacomb corridors. The flow ceased, then parted, letting Eseus and Iadne and Percevis pass through to the front where the Lady of Lorwynne awaited them. In the torchlight Eseus saw the pale, troubled faces of his remaining people, and the tearful fear manifested there mirrored what Eseus felt. Terror, hopelessness, grief. Yet, there was a defiance, too, in this last desperate plunge into darkness. They had now buried themselves alive in the crypts rather than let their corvine enemies pick among their corpses. At the very least, a greater feast would be denied to the Crows, lest such creatures dared to fly belowground.
“Eseus!” Lady Lorwynne exclaimed. She rushed to him in relief, but did not embrace him. He was the Lord of Lorwynne now, and so had to stand apart as Lord. “I feared I had lost you!”
“All may be lost,” Eseus said, “but I remain, for whatever consolation may be found in such an impoverishing exchange.”
“Eseus, do not assume the guilt as if it was your own…”
His mother attempted to console him, but Eseus would not accept it.
“As heir it all falls upon me,” he said. “And even if I somehow throw every one of those carrion-feeders out of the House of Lorwynne, they will have yet glutted themselves overmuch on our dead. Were I to purge the All Ways of them, they will have accomplished more against our people than I could ever avenge were I to kill them a thousand times over, for but one of our men is worth a thousandfold more than their whole misbegotten bloodline.”
He was in a fervor, the hateful bloodlust rising in him anew. He relinquished his aid to Percevis—letting Percevis’s wife, Edea, support her husband—and preoccupied himself with leading the throng through the subterranean maze. Meanwhile, Iadne explained to Edea her husband’s wound, and Edea saw to it immediately, bandaging it with a spider-silk cloth. Another woman—stouter than Iadne— came forward to help shoulder the old man’s weight as he limped along. He was the only remaining husband among either peasantry or soldier.
Eseus raised his torch and continued through the labyrinth, his mother to one side and Iadne to the other; his remaining people following close behind them in a whispery bustle of shoulder-to-shoulder silence. Eseus said nothing, his mouth shut like a dragon-trap. No one else spoke, either, for many of them feared the dead and wished not to disturb their slumber. The curve of the maze began to unwind as it descended, becoming a long corridor without corpse or coffin. It was a long hallway made of stone. Eseus knew, instinctively, that it cut beneath the moat and extended out into the moor. But the passage did not rise yet, but was even, cut as flat as any castle hall might be. The floor was cobbled darkly with obsidian.
There was a wall— a spiteful wall promising only despair. It permitted no one further passage, its rebuff as deathly silent as the grave. This was the end of hope. The wall was the accomplice of the Crows and the Oxenford men in their slaughter of the remaining survivors. Women wailed while children sobbed. They all knew what the wall meant.
Yet, there were runes upon the wall. They were runes Eseus had never seen before, but somehow he understood them. He read them aloud, his tongue speaking the self-evident translation without his mind comprehending the means which bestowed this newfound talent.

“To ford the stars enfolded
in their abyssal depths
pass the door herein molded—
by daring, by words, by breaths.”

Eseus did not understand the riddle, but more puzzling was his own comprehension of the runes. He was ever more confused when the wall rumbled, breathing dust from its corners, and began to slide noisily to the side. The way was now open.
The corridor continued its descent, and the remaining people of Lorwynne had no choice but to follow. At length, the corridor came to a post-and-lintel end, opening unto a vast, circular room. At first it seemed an empty darkness inhabited this cavernous room, but something moved within the shadows. It was massive, and as it moved the whole of the crypts shook with its rousing power. Iadne trembled as she held onto Eseus’s arm. His mother gasped.
“It is the thing I feared,” Iadne warned.
Deep within the manifold darkness there emerged a broad, horn-crowned head. The face was furious, its large nostrils looped with a glowing ring the size of a shield. Behind the head came a neck—thick as an ancient tree trunk— and beyond that neck a massive body with pale flanks that were wide and powerful, like the bulwarks of a great ship. Taken all together, it could be comprehended as a large ox, and it stood before them in the center of that circular expanse. The size of a dragon, it stepped forward, its hooves shaking the earth and making the throng of women and children cry out. Its dark eyes gazed upon them like the swallowing depths of Night. Within its eyes were stars— countless stars that shone like a memory of the stelliferous sky. It snorted, and the force of its exhalation resounded through the crypts like a gale from a seastorm.
“That is what I sensed beneath the castle,” Iadne shouted, striving to be heard beneath the bellows of the Bull. “We must turn back!”
“We cannot turn back,” Eseus said. “To turn back is to die! To stay is to die! We must press forward! There is a way around the beast! And if not, much can be improvised when the will provides!”
The Bull bellowed again, as if to challenge Eseus on the matter.
“Be ready to flee to the other side,” he said. “Seek egress as soon as I distract the beast.”
“This is deathly foolishness!” Iadne said, holding him by the wrist. “You mustn’t…”
“I must!” he shouted.
Could Iadne have paled more, she would have. The Lady of Lorwynne paled enough for the both of them.
“Son,” she said, “this is not the path to take. We can…we can all rush to the other side. Together. It will be like taking lots. Drawing straws. A game of chance and knuckle-bones…”
“No, mother,” he said, gravely. “It will be fixed in my favor. How could it not be? I am faster than all of you. And how many would die were that beast to trample through them? I will not allow it.”
Eseus, undaunted, stepped toward the post-and-lintel threshold. He was too determined to be thwarted now, for if he did not help the wives and children of the men that had died, then he had truly failed at everything. Closer to the threshold now, he saw that the runes carved into the lintel above his head. For some strange reason he knew what they meant, even if he could not read them for what they were.
Iadne pulled him back, pleading with him.
“I will try to Will it away,” Iadne said. “Please let me try!”
Eseus was too astonished by the runes to argue with Iadne. He nodded and waited while she closed her eyes. The struggle to reach the mind of the beast was written with tremulous wrinkles upon Iadne’s high brow. Swooning, she opened her eyes, leaning now on Eseus.
“I cannot touch its mind,” she said. “It is not something of this world, but a creature beyond. Perhaps not even a creature. It is something much older…much more…elemental.”
Eseus told his mother to see to Iadne.
“Be prepared to run,” was all he said as he stepped beyond the lintel. He did not unsheathe his sword. He knew that such a weapon would do little against a beast that so easily dwarfed a manmade blade. But he nonetheless had his torch, and this he held aloft, wondering if the preternatural creature would fear flames, or light, having been condemned to the darkness for so long. Perhaps he might blind it so that his people could scurry past it silently without being trampled to death.
“Eseus, come back!” his mother pleaded.
It was too late. He approached the ox. The words of the runes echoed in his head. And he felt himself drawn toward that gigantic beast. He felt the power of that elemental creature threading its way through his own being, pulling at him like a spool winding round tightly.
The ox snorted and stomped. The gales nearly knocked Eseus to his feet. The stomp brought him to his knees while flames sparked from the obsidian cobblestone. Yet, Eseus stood and steadied himself, holding the torch aloft. As he approached the beast he spoke the words on the runes. These words bound him and the Bull together. Somehow, they were like the words of Fate herself. Irresistible. Irrevocable. Inescapable.
“By the threads I found you. By the fabric I bound you. By the threads I found you. By the fabric I bound you…”
The Bull bowed its head. For a moment Eseus feared it might charge him, but instead it awaited his command. Dismayed, Eseus motioned for his people to pass. Iadne entered the vast, cavernous room first; then the Lady of Lorwynne, and soon the rest of the women and children. Percevis, Edea, and the stout midwife hobbled lastly, moving like a three-headed chimera with its legs all wrongwise. The survivors circled around the room, allowing a wide breadth between themselves and the Bull. The Bull paid them no mind. There was another post-and-lintel aperture upon the other side of the room. The throng of women and children entered it, following the Lady of Lorwynne. Iadne stayed behind, waiting for Eseus. But Eseus was mesmerized.
“Eseus!” she whispered, loudly as she dared for fear of startling the Bull. “Please! Hurry!”
Eseus had stopped speaking the binding words, and yet he and the Bull were as mesmerized as before. Iadne went to Eseus, taking him by the arm, gently, and leading him from there. The Bull watched them leave from within its rounded tomb. It was as patient as the stars.

***

Having seen the Bull, Eseus felt a great power within him. It was maddening, this power. It beckoned him to plow the world with his Will. Leaving the Bull behind made his heart ache. He sweated as he fought off the impulse to run back through the dark corridors and return to the Bull once more; to release the Bull upon the world. It had a hold on him— a yoke which he could not shrug off. Yet, he had Iadne and his mother beside him, and the women and children afore him, and he had to continue on, farther and farther from the Bull, even as the yoke of urgency grew heavier upon him with the distance. His stride began to falter. He stumbled along, Iadne helping to steady him.
“What is the matter?” she asked. “Are you injured?”
“It is the Bull,” he said. “It…it has a hold on me, as I have a hold upon it.”
“It is not a natural beast,” she said. “I do not know what it is. Whatever it is, you must resist it. We must escape to the moor.”
Eseus rallied himself, though his heart was rent with the rigor of his efforts. The darkness of the labyrinth pressed closer than ever to him, regardless of how close he held his torch to his face.
“Eseus!” Iadne growled. “Wake up! You are behaving as thick as bog peat.” She grabbed the torch from him before he could burn himself. “Give me the torch lest you turn yourself into a swamp wisp.”
They continued on, though Eseus’s stride slowed. Eventually he began to hesitate, sweating and breathless. The farther from the Bull they ventured, the more arduous the struggle to continue.
“Hurry, Eseus!” Iadne commanded, yanking on his arm. “Your people need you! I need you!”
“The Bull…” he said. “With the Bull I can destroy all of our enemies. The Crow Clan. House Oxenford. Even the Valorian Empire to the South. It is only a matter of time before they aspire to conquer our lands. They must be stopped, and the only means by which to expel them will be to exterminate them. The Bull…it has the power to do that…and more.”
Iadne’s hand slapped Eseus across the face so sharply that the throng of women and children paused, gazing back as the echo resounded sharply all around them.
“I need you, Eseus!” Iadne said. “Our daughter needs you!”
The revelation struck him harder than her slap ever could. He could scarcely speak.
“Our…daughter?”
“She will come,” Iadne said, “if you help all of us through this darkness! Please. Hasten your feet! She will need both of us, and I will need you!”
The reins of power were abandoned; the yoke thrown off. Eseus took the torch in hand once more and hurried to the fore of the throng, leading them once again. The corridor ascended slowly— at a lax incline— and they walked what seemed miles in the dark. Soon their torches began to fade, having burned overlong, and now extinguished, and the women clutched the children to them, fearful they might lose them in the dark.
“Join hands!” Eseus shouted. “Everyone join hands and do not leave anyone alone beneath the earth!”
Through darkness they walked, hand-in-hand, and, in time, Eseus came to the end of the ascending corridor. Still holding Iadne’s hand, he felt a cloak of grass brush against his face, and fall aside, and then the moors expanded all before his eyes as he emerged from the side of a hill. The Gray was there to greet them. The Oxenford army greeted them also.

Mute Melody

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The lampposts along the boardwalk pinned back the heavy, wet curtain of night, the rainy darkness swelling against their small, sketchy dots of light. He stepped into the seaside bar, shrugging off the rain and the shadows from his yellow raincoat. The bar was deep-sea dark. Jarred candles lit glasses here and there upon the round tables, their little blooms of fiery illumination hinting at anglerfish duplicity. Bodies slumped around the tables, slouching in chairs or littering the floor in careless sprawls. Others laid face-down on the bar, or had tumbled off their stools. The bartender was behind the bar, awash with spilled beer. The scene looked like a forsaken opium den. All of the men’s and women’s faces were surrendering gradually to eternity, their eyes closed and their smiles lax on their euphoric faces.
The speakers on the karaoke stage were silent. No one stirred at the bar, even at the thrum-drum beating of the winds against the outside deck’s awnings. The hammering of rain on the windowpanes was like restless claws tapping on glass. Waves crashed against the poles on the boardwalk, shaking the planks. Nothing else could be heard in the bar except the faint sound of a lullaby song.
He approached the karaoke stage. The woman did not move. She used no microphone and the lilt of her soft song scarcely hinted at itself upon the sounding chaos of the sea. When she saw the man her song did not cease, but hastened, a defiant scowl upon her pale face. She had oily black hair that hung down her back and over her breasts. She wore nothing and her body was as pallid as a fish’s belly in the murk, glowing blue in the dreamy blacklights of the karaoke stage. A disco ball turned above her. Shattered-and-scattered stars glinted off of its silver mosaic sphere, reeling as the waves rocked the boardwalk and the bar.
To see such a scowl, and hear such a song, would have driven most men mad to appease her in any way they could, but he paid neither any mind. He could only see the long scar that split her lips to the right corner of her mouth. Guilt snagged in his heart, but he dismissed it as he raised his hands. Silently, he signed to her to come down. She snarled, revealing a jagged jigsaw of shark teeth between her lips, and continued singing. Some of the people sprawled out in the bar lolled in their chairs; those on the floor groaned in ecstasy.
Stepping closer to the stage, he signed again to her, imploring her from within the revolving twirl of the disco stars. He held his hand up toward her. Reluctantly, she took his hand into her webbed hand, its six vaguely humanoid fingers cool and wet. She stepped down from the stage, but she did not stop singing. He gestured toward the dark room with its multitude of limp, listless bodies, and shook his head, pointing to himself. A resentful frown curled her pale lips, and the ragged scar darkened to a sullen crimson. He touched her face, gently tracing the scar with his finger. He was a tall man with big hands, his fingertips calloused by a life at sea, but his touch would not have woken a baby from its sleep. Her eyelids fluttered at his touch, the dark gleam of her black eyes losing focus. She quivered, then shoved him angrily with her small hand. He stumbled upon a table, knocking over glasses and spilling beer into the laps of a man and woman. They roused briefly before nodding off into surrender to her song once again.
He signed urgently to her, but she turned her back to him, folding her arms. Slowly he approached her again, stepping over a man spreadeagled on the floor. Cautiously, he enwrapped her in his arms, hugging her from behind; tenderly. She quivered furiously, but did not pull away. He tried to sign again, his hands in front of her face, but she caught his big hands in her small ones, halting them and interlocking them over her heart. She smelled of seaweed and fish and brine— all smells familiar to him since he was a boy; smells beloved to him. For he loved all things of the sea: its smells, its vistas, its touch. But he had never heard the sea’s song, and for that reason he sometimes wept at night. He could feel the sea in her body when they made love. It tickled in his toes like the playful froth, and it relaxed him like wavelets upon an arid day. Her lips were as soft as wet sand on his chest and her teeth were sharp as coral on his fingers. Her tongue lapped deeply at his own when they kissed, an eel seeking his heart from the grotto of her mouth. Her fingers— long and lithe and fast— were as an octopus subtly scurrying across his skin. When they climaxed together it was a painful joy after which they both lay inert, his nerves stinging sweetly as if encoiled in jellyfish tendrils.
The sea had taken his father with its passions. It giveth and it taketh away. Of course the sea would claim him, the son, in time. To love her was to drown alive. And he had needed a break; a moment to catch his breath. A return to dry land. No one could love the whole of the sea without it sweeping them away with its riptides and dragging them below with its undertow. And its daughters were the same as their mother. They gave much, and they took away everything.
Like father, like son. Like mother, like daughter.
She continued singing. Her song was not a song in the meaning that most humans knew for a song. It was not a thing of aesthetics to please, but an instinctive tool. As a squid using its beak to crack shells and shred the flesh within, her song pierced the hearts of her prey so she, too, could feed. But her song had not worked on him when he had reeled her up from the sea, and she was human enough to want what was difficult to chase. He was so astonished when she emerged at the end of his marlin fishing line that he forfeited the fight. Yet, the hook had caught in her mouth, and she could not free herself. Kneeling beside her on the deck of his boat, he attempted to unhook her mouth. She fought him, flailing and clawing at him as he tried not to hurt her more than the hook already had. Even now his scars were tiger stripes along his forearms.
When he finally withdrew the hook, she hissed at him, then leapt away onto the railing of the ship, squatting there like a cat ready to pounce. The sun shone down upon her with unsquinting luminosity, yet the stygian depths remained in her eyes and in her oily hair. She had opened her mouth, revealing her teeth, and he had flinched to see their sharp edges. She then began her song, singing to him with the currents of the wide oceans. He could not hear them. Clearly perplexed by his immunity, and angered, she dove into the sea. He ran to the railing to look over larboard side, but did not see her.
She visited him every night thereafter, singing her song with a torn mouth. He remained immune to her song, but not to her dangerous beauty. He fed her from the fish he caught with his nets, and she ate his offerings raw. Eventually there came a night when she crept below deck, finding him asleep on his bed. The jagged fissure in her mouth had almost sealed itself shut. Laying atop him, they spoke to each other in rapturous silence— with limb and loin and wordless lip.
He had taught her to sign, and she had taught him more about the sea than any man had a right to know. He had recoiled from her truths, eventually, and stayed ashore. She remained in the sea, and felt the longing of his song in her heart; that song of silence that he carried with him. His mute melody. It called her ashore, and so she went. Now he was here. Now he would leave with her. He promised he would be with her forever if she would free the others.
So they walked to the door, and out into the thrashing storm. It subsided as they went together down to the shore, leaving the human world behind. The winds died and the rains lessened to the playful pitter-patter of fairy feet. The waves sighed and then loosened in their thrashing clashes. Like a great herd of beasts after a stampede, they slowed and came to an exhausted gait, gradually laying themselves down to sleep. The two figures disappeared into the still waters, taking with them her song and his silence.

The men and women began to rouse, sitting up in their chairs or sluggishly rising from the floor. The storm, the sailor, and the siren were gone. The world was drawn up and hauled out of the fathomless night and into the wakeful glare of daylight— wet, half-drowned, and shivering sickly. A fog thickened around the bay like a vague feeling of sorrow, and the people in the bar wept openly, though they did not know why.

 

 

The Naturalization Of Lady Aeron

 

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The Naturalization Of Lady Aeron

“Teach the sweet coquette to know
Heart of ice in breast of snow…”
—Thomas Pennant, Ode To Indifference

It was midday and the thunderheads dragged their pall across the earth, making midnight of the afternoon. Mr. Thenton and I were in the coach, quietly awaiting our arrival at the manorhouse of that infamous poet, Lord Aeron. Mr. Thenton had been trying to scratch ink on parchment, to no avail, and I busied myself with ignoring the dread I felt as we entered that Welsh province. The road was rugged and unruly. It rattled the coach as a toddler might a music box that refused to play. Nothing boded well for this misbegotten adventure.
While attempting to wet his quill, Mr. Thenton spilled the inkwell onto the butchered scrawl that marred the parchment’s surface. With a disgruntled sigh, he set aside his ruined parchment and covered his inkwell. He once again opened Lord Aeron’s poetry collection, The Gale Between Passion And Pain and read through another of its poems. At length, he closed the book.
“Certainly, he is a confessed bacchant,” he said. “These poems are superb in execution and style, yet shameless in subject. His poem ‘Caligula’s Reins’ celebrates so many depravities that I should think Ovid would demand restraint.”
Much to my relief, he extinguished the candle that burned nearby on its holder. I had feared for the last hour or so that the candle would topple and set flame to the coach’s interior, and to ourselves.
“I have always adored Wales,” Mr. Thenton continued, attempting optimism against his frustration. “Were it a woman it would be a belle with a disposition towards leisurely activities outdoors. Indeed, a comely nymph given to quiet walks and tending to the roses. And, of course, the flora and fauna are endearing. There is much to admire in these prospects.”
“It is idyllic,” I agreed, though it was difficult to see anything in the darkness beyond the window of the coach. “A perfect place for a stroll.”
“It would have been lovely to bring my wife with me,” he said, “but it is the unfortunate nature of a man’s work that it is woefully impaired by the presence of the fairer sex. That is, of course, unless the man in question happens to be the esteemed Lord Aeron. It is the happy situation of poets, novelists, playwrights and the like to always find inspiration in the company of women. Alas, a Naturalist’s office is one of minutest observation concerning explicit detail and not expressed emotion, otherwise Emma would have been a welcome adventurer in our party.”
“Gossip suggests to me that a young lady should not wish to visit Lord Aeron’s castle,” I observed.
“Of course,” Mr. Thenton said, adjusting his powdered wig. “I would not invite the rumors on my wife. Everyone is well aware of Lord Aeron’s scandalous reputation as a debauchee. If not for my national reputation as a gentleman among English society I would not have requested an audience with such an infamous rogue.”
“You did not hesitate to invite me,” I noted, watching impassively as the golden cuffs on his overcoat’s sleeves gleamed in the shadow-shrouded coach. “Were you not concerned with the effect on my reputation?”
The coach was tossed slightly to one side and I heard the coachman admonishing the horses with a few select profanities.
“Mr. Sheridan,” he said, “you are my esteemed colleague. True, you are Irish, and so are not afforded the defenses of English rank such as are privileged to my station, but you are protected by association. Moreover, what good would my best observations be in writing without your keenly drawn illustrations? The English audience demands word and image, the two working upon one another like two wizards conjuring wonders in the cauldron of their imaginations.”
“I have noticed you always become verbose when you are nervous,” I said.
“Indeed?” he said, surprised. “I never knew myself other than a very succinctly spoken man. It hardly conforms to my humble ego, such a revelation. Were you not my colleague, and thus known to me from profession, I would think it a captious assertion.”
“I do not theorize or opine,” I said. “I report what I see.”
“Verily?” he said, with a smile. “Then, may your keen observation skills prove their worth in this endeavor.”
He said no more, but smiled out the window at the passing scenery which, like his parchment, was a messy pool of inky blackness.

When I first saw the manorhouse— in the dim distant light of that dark day—I thought it a castle, for it was so large and constructed of such grandstanding stone masonry that a castle could well be its claim. Beneath the umbra of the clouds the red stone appeared almost vermilion, like dried blood on a healing wound. From the bottom of the hill I saw the terraced gardens, staggered like the steps of giants up a hill crowded with flowery bushes and strangely-pruned yew trees. Indeed, the latter were a bizarre multitude of abstract shapes growing together heedless of human considerations of geometry or form. To walk those layered terraces would be to suffer vertigo, I was certain, for there was such a tumult of abnormal undulations in the greenery that a perambulator’s feet could hardly convince his eyes of level ground or walkways.
“It is a strange place,” I remarked.
“As natural as they come,” replied Mr. Thenton. “Natural for the residents, truly.”
“I may be a simple man,” I said, “but even I am aware of what is unnatural by human estimations.”
“I would say you are simply prejudiced by your vocation,” Mr. Thenton said. “An artist is always seeking to better the aesthetics of another man, especially when he cannot understand such aesthetics. And you condescend from what you presume to be superior sensibilities.”
“Beg your pardon, sir,” I said, “but your being a Naturalist prejudices yourself as well. You wish to think everything natural, even when it is not. And this place is not natural. Nor are its tenants, if rumor proves true.”
“Then we must naturalize,” he said, with his dauntless child-like smile. “That is what we do, is it not? Record the natural world, in word and in picture, so England can familiarize herself with it. And Lord Aeron’s otherworldly visitor shall be naturalized. You will see. At the end of the day the most unnatural thing we will have encountered will have been the Welsh accents. Nothing more.”
I relented and so we rode the rest of the uphill journey in silence. At length, the coach halted and the coachman called out to someone. There was the rattling of iron gates, the shriek of hinges, and the coach continued along its path, though now the wheels rolled easily over a cobblestone road. A few moments later the coach stopped and the coachman opened the door. Mr. Thenton, being most eager, stepped out first, and I followed after a moment of hesitation. My misgivings abounded as I saw Lord Aeron’s majordomo approach. He was an old man, senile and frail and leaning upon a cane, trembling as he spoke to my congenial patron.
“We only have a few effects,” Mr. Thenton said, “but they are crucial to the enterprise. My associate’s art supplies and my parchment and ink. Take especial care with the latter, for I am afraid I have ruined a considerable amount on the way here.”
“I will see that they are taken inside with care, sir,” the old man said. “For now, please enter and wait in the parlor. Lord Aeron will be with you shortly.”
Thus bidden, obeyed. We sat in the wainscoted parlor and patiently awaited our host. Or I should say, I patiently waited our host, and dreaded him. Mr. Thenton was anxious, his hands restlessly fidgeting with his collar and cravat and wig. I was grateful for being a tradesman, then, and thus simply attired in accordance to my vocation. Even were I more renowned as an artist I would shun a gentleman’s elaborate trappings. It has been my observation that such trappings do nothing but cause endless fuss and frustration.
“A lovely parlor,” Mr. Thenton remarked. “Indeed, fit enough to receive royalty, I believe. Or, I should say, provincial royalty. His Majesty would expect better, but this is a summering home, after all.”
The room was dark at its corners, and otherwise lit vaguely by candlelight. If there was finery to be admired it was obfuscated by layered shadows. My colleague’s nerves were speaking through him. His nerves were afire for excitement, and my blood was cold for fear.
“Do you really believe she is of the Fay?” I said.
“Or some other manner of visitor, to be sure,” returned Mr. Thenton. “The original Lady Aeron died years ago. It is rumored that she succumbed to some complication resulting from syphilis. God knows the two of them were notorious for their rampant promiscuity, often indulging in brothels and scandalous trips to Amsterdam. For years following her burial, Lord Aeron disappeared from society and ceased writing his renowned poetry. His closest friends were shunned and he refused to admit any visitor, including those representing his Majesty. I dare say, his Majesty would have been insulted had Lord Aeron not continued paying his taxes. Practically minded, our king.”
I merely nodded, harboring no love for that imperial tyrant. Mr. Thenton continued.
“And then, quite unexpectedly, the reclusive Lord Aeron arrived at a ball with none other than a woman whose features and semblance were, to all authorities on the matter, an exact doubling of his deceased wife. Either she is a resurrected phantasm, or she is a changeling using glamor to mirror his memory. Regardless of origin, we shall naturalize her to the rest of England’s consciousness. For, as you know, being the Irishman you are, that all realms belong to England, and the first step toward domestication is to understand a species or race in natural terms.”
I should have refuted Mr. Thenton’s errant rationalizations outright. The Lady in question was neither wildlife nor wilderness to tame, nor some primitive peoples disadvantaged by technology or numbers. But I was well aware of my colleague’s character and how singularly affixed he was in this misguided endeavor and his patriotic fealties. At his heart, Mr. Thenton was a harmless jingoist. Thus, I forgave him much.
“Did not the Lady Aeron have a twin?” I asked, trying to be more reasonable about the matter.
“No, she did not.”
The voice came abruptly from the inner door. There, standing with a determined and grim expression upon his face, was a man of obvious standing in the house.
“Nor would I have disgraced her memory with such a mundane substitution,” he said. “Indeed, you wrong me, sir. I am a man of greater imagination than that.”
Mr. Thenton stood up and bowed. “Lord Aeron! Allow me to apologize on the behalf of my colleague,” he said. “He is a simple Irishman unaccustomed to the social graces of higher status. Yet, you will see that his skill with a pencil and a brush can compensate for what he lacks in etiquette.”
“It is all well,” Lord Aeron said, “for I jest, of course. As a poet, I am naturally inclined in kinship to any artist dedicated to his craft.”
Not knowing what to say, I imitated Mr. Thenton with a bow. Even so, I looked upon the famous, and infamous, poet to discern his attributes and winnow the reality from the chaff of fiction. Lord Aeron was a tall man, as pale and handsome as his reputation. Dark black hair hung slackly over his high forehead. His overcoat was a dandy’s shade of violet and his cravat was as black as his hair, his overcoat trimmed with arabesques of gold and his waistcoat beneath it in likewise scheme. I have known artists, poets and authors of eccentric tendencies, but Lord Aeron’s expression was less the madness of a man given to poetic passions and more the jaded indifference of a cynic aloof from his own soul.
“I have the privilege of owning many of your books, Mr. Thenton,” our host said, “and I notice that you are given to poetic exaggeration. While such embellishments inspire greater interest in the reader, I believe no embellishments will be needed in the subject you seek today. To the contrary, it would rather impoverish the subject. Know that I do not say this lightly, for, being a poet, I know the temptation toward hyperbolic adornment, and so I must insist that it would be mistakenly implemented. As mistaken as an Epicurean at Communion.”
“I will be as strict as a Mamluk with his blade,” Mr. Thenton said, bowing yet lower.
“An apt comparison,” Lord Aeron said. “Though I believe the Tawashi would be more appropriate.”
“I am afraid I am unacquainted with that term, my Lord,” Mr. Thenton said, smiling through his ignorance.
“You will come to know it in due time,” Lord Aeron said, mysteriously.
“Can you please elaborate on your wife’s…condition? I have heard that the inspiration of your new literary works has come in the form of what some would deem unnatural, or, dare I say, supernatural sources.”
“Mr. Thenton, I was of the belief that you were a Naturalist. Why would you come here when you suspect it to be anything other than natural?”
“Because I do not believe anything is unless it is natural,” Mr. Thenton said, “including what superstitious minds would deem the ‘supernatural’.”
A thin smile then spread across Lord Aeron’s face, almost imperceptible in its expanse and yet overbearing in its suggestion. “In that are we of the same mind,” he said. “For, as you will see, should you prove so brave, my Lady Aeron is the most natural of all things on this or any other plane of existence.”
He gestured that we follow him. He led us out of the parlor and into a long hall whose windows provided scarce light on account of the overcast day. Along the walls there were candelabrum punctuating the darkness with their ghostly haloes. The floor was hardwood, yet I felt my boots stick to it every now and again as if it was splattered with drying plaster or seeping sap. Not wanting to be rude, I said nothing of it, but noticed Mr. Thenton lifting his boots with abnormal effort as well.
“We are to see the Lady now?” he asked.
“My wife is not herself today,” Lord Aeron said, “so you must pardon her for now. Until she has regained her composure, I will lead you on a tour about my home.”
“That is an excellent notion,” Mr. Thenton said.
Feeling it incumbent upon me to sound agreeable, I also said it would be a pleasure. Truth be told, I did not know how successful such a tour would be with such scant light. Had we lanterns it may have been more feasible an idea. Nonetheless, our host was undeterred and so led us through that large palace that he called a “manorhouse”.
What I could see of the interior was decadent. There was a Baroque style molding, all bold brass and gold scrolling thickly around the most banal door. Thick marble coated much of the window recesses and the tabletops, the house being as much marble as brick and wood. The walls were frescoed and richly illustrated by what must have been a legion of master painters, all depicting gods ravishing women. Zeus and Leda. Zeus and Europa. Bacchus and Ariadne. Eros and Psyche. Apollo and Daphne. Yet, more surprisingly, there were in other rooms other frescoes that depicted the roles of victim and attacker reversed: men being ravished by women. Hippolytus being stripped by Phaedra. Adonis being pulled apart by Aphrodite, Persephone, and Artemis. Echo mounting Narcissus. The Maenads tearing King Pentheus and Orpheus apart and employing their mutilated bodies for…depraved passions. Lord Aeron had spent no lesser expense in assuring that the painters had captured these images with as much skill and detail as the others. Violence and sexual conquest were important to him, it seemed. I would have ventured to believe him an aspiring protege of that infamous deviant, the Marquis de Sade, if not for depictions of women in dominant roles.
We arrived at the inner courtyard and found that it was, curiously, not open to the sky, as courtyards often are. A dome had been constructed to cap its airy heights. Corinthian pillars remained arrayed around the spacious expanse, and each was neighbored by a brazier whose flames burned fiercely in the gloom. The ceiling itself spiraled with stucco ridges, all converging upon the glass-eyed oculus in the center of that large dome. Directly below the oculus was a bed large enough to accommodate a sultan’s harem of concubines.
“What is the purpose of this bed?” Mr. Thenton asked.
Lord Aeron offered a humorless smile. “The usual purposes of a bed,” he said.
“You sleep here, then?” my naive colleague asked.
“Among other things, yes.”
“It is quite unusual.”
The latter Mr. Thenton whispered to me with his habitual discretion. Naturally, Lord Aeron overheard him, but said nothing of it. I found it more than unusual. It’s implications were disturbing. Whereas many beds furnished their occupants privacy with a canopy and a thoughtful array of curtains, this bed flaunted no promises of privacy. There were a few pillows and a sheet, but no blankets for comfort or cover. Furthermore, it estranged expectation with long-bodied mirrors placed around the bed in a five-pointed star formation. The purpose of these expenses baffled me. Perhaps had I been more of a libertine I should have deduced the purpose more swiftly.
Lord Aeron paused at the door leading out onto the terrace and down into the garden, for his majordomo intercepted us at the threshold. His servant whispered a few words to his master.
“It is time for dinner,” Lord Aeron said, grinning at some secret amusement. “The tour of the garden grounds shall have to wait until after we have eaten.”
My patron, being always amiable to a fault, said that a walk outside after dinner would do his digestion good and that we would be glad to oblige Lord Aeron’s schedule.
“Will Lady Aeron be joining us for dinner?” I inquired.
I saw, then, Lord Aeron’s thin smile play about on his lips again. In all outward respects it was friendly, and yet it seemed in import to hint at mischief, and malice.
“My wife never feeds in the dining hall,” he said.
This I thought strikingly odd of our host to state, yet before I could question him further, my friend replied with his customary friendliness.
“My wife has very much the same reservation,” Mr. Thenton said. “Emma would prefer to dine where no one may observe her, for she is ever afraid that she may ruin her reputation with neglect of the most obscure rules for proper dining etiquette. No doubt it is a fear thoroughly haunting the minds of many among the fairer sex, including Lady Aeron.”
“To the contrary,” Lord Aeron said. “She is of a predilection that is wholly indifferent to observation while feeding. Mores and etiquette hold no sway over her, for her intelligence is unencumbered by such arbitrary conventions of Man.” Here his thin smile widened, though whether due to mirth or menace I could not discern. “She is simply not hungry at the present moment. Please forgive her this small disappointment.”
“But of course!” rejoined my friend, dauntless and doubtless in his amiability. “May we all be so faithful to the modesty of our appetites!”
We proceeded into the dining hall and found a rather exquisite meal awaiting us. It consisted of lamb and roasted vegetables with a fine wine, though I must confess that my appetite was not sufficiently agreeable at the time to enjoy it. Mr. Thenton, conversely, enjoyed it as readily as a beggar invited to a kingly banquet.
“Splendid,” he said, increasingly buoyed by the treatment and the prospect of a new book. “An excellent meal! Truly, I can see that you are a man of exquisite appetite, sir, and taste. These indulgences would induce a gourmand to question the reach of his education and experience.”
Lord Aeron regarded my friend’s praises coolly, sipping faintly at his wine and abstaining from much of his own plate. Lord, like Lady, seemed to be possessed of insufficient appetite. After sipping at his wine, he spoke in a rather complacent tone that betrayed condescension, which struck me disagreeably.
“The passions of a man may well begin in the stomach,” Lord Aeron said. “For the basic necessities of life must be appeased before the basic drives of life may be indulged. Yet, that is not to say that necessitated appetites cannot be foregone in favor of satiating less needful appetites. And, indeed, a seemingly inferior appetite may well define and prolong our species more than what is most needful for our immediate survival. I have myself known pangs of hunger that were sharply eclipsed by what many rationalists would consider trivial compulsions. Thus, I believe that until Man conflates his myriad appetites together as a unified compulsion these drives will always vie with one another for dominance, often at the cost of the species and its experience on this plane of existence. Thus, every act is as a feast. Every verse of my poetry is a banquet that feeds and sates. Every breath drawn is in pursuit of devouring the world and its variegated pleasures.”
I did not know what he meant by this long lecture, and he did not elaborate, nor do I believe that elaboration would have elucidated his perspective. It all seemed pretentious verbosity designed to impress rather than enlighten. Mr. Thenton, however agreed whole-heartedly, as was his inclination in all things concerning individuals of higher wealth and rank. That said, I doubted his understanding in the matter as much as my own. Had a duck been crowned King of England, and proceeded to quack vociferously in my friend’s ear, Mr. Thenton would have nodded his head in ready agreement with the waterfowl’s nonsensical noise, despite his vast reputation as a respected Naturalist.
Dinner concluded and Lord Aeron led us away from the dining hall, delivering us to the terraces on the South side of his manorhouse. The portal there opened onto the side of the great hill upon which the mansion stood, its terraces cut from the stone of the hill itself. The dark clouds thinned and relented for a time, allowing an early twilight to illuminate our jaunt down the terraces and into the lavish greenery and flowers sprawling on that side of the hill.
The garden grounds were paradisaical, the hedges and the yew trees primly shorn while the flowers bloomed in a jealous competition for attention. Marble statues adorned the grounds as well, standing high on elevating columns and pedestals. Yet, whereas most statues of gods were modest, even when nude, these unashamed figures boasted priapic endowments unfit for a vestal virgin’s eyes. Verily, many such Dionysian figures had become bereft of their phallic adornments due to their own hefty largess and the merciless barbarism of gravity. Thus, for every Aristophanean figure there was a eunuch in need of repair, his loins shattered upon the cobblestoned paths. Lord Aeron noticed my gaze and chuckled humorlessly.
“It is a lesson we all should take to heart,” he said. “Urchin and king alike, when we engorge ourselves on pride we may find ourselves soon emasculated by the expansion. It is only…natural.”
The clouds converged once again, like a routed army reforming its ranks, and prepared for a violent display of arms. Rain came upon us hard and we had to retreat into the manorhouse ere they hurl their fulgurous spears down upon us.
As we sat in the great hall— drying and warming ourselves by the hearth— Lord Aeron surprised me again while stoking the fire with a poker. He stared into the flames and spoke to us with more open candor than was his habit that day.
“Tragedy can change a man,” he said. “The confession shames me, but I became spiritual after the death of my wife. Not religious, certainly, but I did read religious books. The Torah, the Bible, the Koran. The Vedas, or as many as I dared, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Each proved useless in its own turn, but I did not recant hope. Obscurer books I sought and bought. Holy scriptures from around the world. I entertained any text, no matter how esoteric or illegitimized it was by what is known of the natural world. I learned cuneiform simply so I could read Babylonian tablets and translate them with my own understanding. These, too, disappointed me, and it seemed that the earth was too small to provide me the gateways of knowledge I sought.
“In time I grew more desperate. Arabia became my home for a year; a year of restless searching. I discovered there what would be the salvation for my wife. I purchased, at great cost, a book which owns as much as it is owned. A book of skin. A book of heresies, not only to Man’s religious pretensions, but to his premises for the natural world. This book I deciphered with grueling dedication. I ate little, and I slept less, but at last I came to understand the necessary spell. And when I performed it, a gateway opened to an icy plane. My wife awaited me there. She came back to me from beyond the shadowlands. My Malia returned to me, ageless. Deathless.”
“That is what we wish to document,” Mr. Thenton said, nearly losing his wig with excitement. “This new dimensionality of the natural world. The undiscovered country that would expand the British Empire to a new frontier, superior in resources and land than even that of the rebellious Colonies.”
“You said she came from an icy plane,” I said, ignoring my colleague’s impetuous patriotism. “Were there any others near her? Did you hear angels…or demons? Did God speak upon returning her to you?”
“Many Gods spoke,” Lord Aeron said. “The Old Gods. They returned her to me from the stars, and I received her with a grateful embrace.”
“Is she phantom or Fae?” Mr. Thenton asked.
“She is the Lady Aeron,” he answered, a dazzling light in his eyes. “She is my wife, my mistress. My raison d’etre.”
It was then that the majordomo entered, his cane clacking in front of him. “Master,” he said. “You must…see to your lady’s needs.”
Lord Aeron stood, then, and walked to door. He paused. “A while longer, sirs, and I will invite you further into my confidence. I am eager for your…shared intimacy. It would please each of us, assuredly.”
Lord Aeron left, then, but the majordomo tarried a moment longer. He spoke to us with words of courtesy, but a tone of gruff intolerance.
“I have had your effects taken and placed in the main bedchamber. Forgive me if I did not arrange your easel to your satisfaction, but I have little experience with them.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I am sure it is satisfactory.”
“And my parchment and ink?” inquired Mr. Thenton.
“They are prepared as well,” the old man said. “I have had a small writing desk fetched for you, and a chair.”
“That is most thoughtful,” Mr. Thenton said.
The majordomo bowed and then turned to leave. In the flickering light of a nearby brazier I saw, with no small astonishment, that the old man’s eyes were milky with cataracts. It seemed odd, truly, that a half-blind man with a cane should be the only member of the staff present. Stranger still was the realization that I had seen no other servants throughout the mansion, though I was certain this old, crippled man could not have prepared our effects or our meal without assistance. The absence of Lord Aeron’s staff puzzled me. Indeed, their absence crowded that dark palace with an emptiness pregnant with apprehensive misgivings. Disturbed, I voiced my concerns to my friend. He dismissed them outright, albeit in his unfailingly friendly tone.
“The best servants are never seen nor heard unless needed,” he said. “Just as the best subjects of Great Britain are to be devoted to orderly industry in the pursuit of the empire’s betterment without all that utterly French rabble and rebellion.”
“So we are to be as children,” I said, offended. “Neither seen nor heard, but always at beck and call?”
“With gratitude, too, of course,” my friend said. “That is the best arrangement, yes. But if you dislike that comparison, you may think of your Ireland as being a wife to the empire. Ever devoted to the King and awaiting his loving embrace with her domestic duties quietly fulfilled.”
“It is no wonder,” I said, “that Emma attends so many balls during your prolonged absences.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, utterly oblivious.
“Nothing,” I said, “except that the Natural order of things must take precedent.”
“Indeed!” he said, blithely and oblivious. “For I am a Naturalist.”
“And so is Emma,” I said, “in her own way.”
Mr. Thenton and I sat thereafter in silence until Lord Aeron returned. I felt that I had sufficiently been dried by the fire, and that my wit had never been drier. But irony is always lost on the patriotic, so I felt it a futile enterprise to endeavor it anymore. And, to the point, the gleam in Lord Aeron’s eye sobered me of my resentful jests soon enough.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “my wife is ready to meet you now.”
With a sense of great foreboding I followed Lord Aeron through his manorhouse. Once again I was confronted by those strange murals on the walls with their predatory gods and goddesses. I felt myself shrivel as a man and shrink away inside myself, not unlike a mouse in the looming shadow of a cat.
The winds bellowed through the halls like restless spirits. Lightning clapped and crackled. Thunder boomed like the angry roar of a god. Lord Aeron escorted us again to the central courtyard, that strange bedchamber with its spiraling stucco ceiling and glass-eyed dome. It seemed to somehow have grown colder in that palace, despite the warm gales invading the halls with their summer-storm breath.
Arriving into the domed room, we were met by a startling and improper sight: a woman standing denuded near the large bed. Propriety demanded that I look away, and yet the woman’s command of my gaze was stronger. Seeing her there was to see Botticelli’s Venus standing upon her clam, ensorcelling the mind with her nymphal figure. Her skin was unnaturally pale and her eyes wholly black— otherworldly black. Her hair was long, trailing like a black and silken veil down her back, undulating as if alive. She was comely, I could not deny; perhaps the comeliest woman I had ever beheld. Nor do I say that lightly, for I am ever faithfully fond of my wife and her pretty make. Yet, the Lady Aeron was of another class of beauty, frankly one which she inhabited in unrivaled solitude. The old masters would have wept for her embrace—philanderers, sodomites and pederasts alike. Even I found myself hungering for her embrace, hot beneath my clothing while a bitter coldness emanated from her pale, lissome form. My whole being wished to warm her flesh with my own flesh, to entwine her frigid essence with my warm-blooded body, even while I instinctively sensed the mortal dangers therein entailed. Her whole being was a siren song sweetly beckoning me toward the craggy rocks. I knew of the rocks and yet my flesh did not care to be shredded if it meant caressing that pale bosom, however briefly.
Clutching me back from the impulse was the image of my wife and my children. My Irish temper, ironically, was the vice that proved my virtue, and I ripped my eyes from her body with a violent jerk of my head, resentful that I should be tempted to the brink of my character. So weak was I afterwards, however, that I had to lean against a column, shivering as I recovered my self-control and my steady pulse.
As to my colleague, Mr. Thenton, I dared not look at him for fear of an eye alighting again on that carnal sorceress; that Snow Queen.
“This is my wife, gentlemen,” Lord Aeron said, his eye gleaming in mad triumph. “She is whom I lost and won from a cold and indifferent star beyond the light of our own. She is the love of flesh. She is the pain of loss. She is the queen of meaning in the barren womb of existence. I call her desire. I call her bliss. You may call her Malia, for her love is a ‘bitter sea’. Now tell me, and tell me true— do you sincerely believe you can capture her beauty by ink or paint or word or song?”

***

We retired from the Lady Aeron’s bedchambers in distraught retreat. I was distressed to my core as we left that blasphemous bordello. Lord Aeron assured us that we would eventually inculcate ourselves to his Lady’s overwhelming effect, given time and exposure. I did not believe this. A man may acclimate himself to the icy bite of winter, or the balmy kiss of summer, but not to that season that exists within and apart of the two: desire.
Mr. Thenton and I were shown to our rooms. The guest rooms were comfortable and pleasant, each with a fire stoked in their hearths and a few candles lit on their holders. I assumed that the fleet-footed servants of the manor had prepared everything while we were otherwise preoccupied. A decanter of wine awaited me on the table next to the canopied bed. This I gratefully drank from, albeit sparingly, and then readied myself for bed.
Through the window I noted that the clouds had parted and the moon appeared in her full white glow, disrobed of the storm like Lady Aeron of her modesty. I used the lavatory to wash my face, but the splash of cold water did not awaken me from the enchantment of the Lady’s black eyes. She haunted me even then, and I worried that she would haunt me for the rest of my life.
I laid myself down in bed and stared out the window at the cold, indifferent stars. Had I been more an Irishman, and less a man of the Age, I might have prayed. Then again, I wonder even now whether I would have prayed to the Trinity or to that bewitching creature with her pale skin and black eyes. One deity seemed more real than the other, and that was not simply because I was an apostate who valued what his eyes shown him more than what any holy man might postulate. My eyes closed, I could see her still, her visage unbroken behind my eyelids. She was branded upon my mind, a scorched scar in the more bestial region of my brain. My thoughts sought her like the Holy Grail, and dreaded her like the kiss of Circe.
For an hour or more I tossed and turned, and to no avail. I sat up in bed, blinking my eyes in earnest, and yet never dismissing the image of Lady Aeron…Malia…from either eyelid or waking eye. I stood up and drank a draught of wine. It burned hot and sweetly and my anxiety only intensified. I had to exercise this possessive demoness lest it overrule my restraint with her goatish passions.
My easel and paints remained in the domed courtyard—with a canvas covered in my preliminary painting—but my bag of sketching materials had been brought into the guest room by the unseen servants. I rummaged through the bag for adequate materials. I required something dark and menacing and strong in its contrasts, so I fetched out the charcoal and the parchment. Then, with a memory branded unto scarring with her image, I attempted to exorcize the demoness and capture her upon the page. I translated her physical features with dutiful accuracy, but found I could not capture her exotic expression. Upon further reflection I realized that the eyes were rendered incorrectly. Indeed, I had failed to record the eyes with the same hollow, alluring depth of hunger that burned so lividly within Lady Aeron’s black orbs. I set aside the sketch and drank again from the wine decanter. My brain was afire with intense restlessness. There was something akin to hysteria upon me, and it would not abate nor could I abide it. I knew I would not sleep restively that night; not without hurling myself into the sea and cooling those lusty fires with cold, suffocating saltwater.
Suddenly there came, with startling clarity, the sounds of groans through the mansion. They were a strange, bestial volley of sounds, not unlike goats or horses in rut. I would have deemed the sounds aberrations of my fevered mind had not they come again, more loudly than before.
Disturbed, I went to my door and pressed my ear there, straining to hear. To my dismay, I could hear something akin to beasts given to the breeding season. Cautiously, I pushed the door open and peered out, listening to the grunts and snorts echoing down that dark hallway. Stepping out of my room, I crossed the hall and rapped on my colleague’s door, knowing that I would be less fearful in seeking out the source of the ruckus while accompanied. But Mr. Thenton did not answer me. I assumed he was fast asleep. He was, after all, a man known to sleep better than dead men, however inhospitable the conditions. In the midst of an Indian expedition he had slept a whole night without ever rousing, despite the jungle’s otherworldly sounds and discomforts. A tiger had roared in the night, and set the locals to trembling, and yet, as we all huddled near the fire for mutual protection, he remained in his tent, oblivious to the dangers stalking between the trees.
Nonetheless, I knocked at his door once more, hoping that he was as restless as I and so disturbed beyond his normal routine. But he did not answer. Unheeded, I turned away.
The manorhouse was eerily silent except for the voices. The voices redoubled, their urgency frightening. Alone, I followed them through the hall, coming to the domed courtyard at its center. I stood by the door to that expansive room, my eyes once again enchanted by that perfect female form as it gyrated in the moonlight shining down through the oculus; moonlight showering her figure and the figure pinned beneath her on the bed.
Merciless illumination! Maddening revulsion! Shameful fascination! My mind was at war with my loins. Lady Aeron was straddling Mr. Thenton in amorous congress, and Lord Aeron stood to the side of the bed, feverish in his onanism.
I felt horror, and I am ashamed to confess that I felt lust, too, and the hollow ache of envy. How I yearned to be the one beneath her! To be conjoined to her beauty, however briefly! She was desire itself. She was lust and appetite and base instinct unified. Yet, even in my ardor for her I noticed, with some bafflement, that her face was utterly devoid of expression. There was no ecstacy or pleasure, in either human or animal form, nor did she make the same bestial noises that Mr. Thenton and Lord Aeron issued in their passions. She was as unfeeling as the winter’s snow, and as horrifically cruel. A sumptuous paradox of
There came a nausea as I watched her, and a dawning terror, for my keen eyes were meticulous in the minutiae of form, even while my conscious mind had yet to observe and recognize the transmogrification that was taking place. It was Mr. Thenton’s reaction that corroborated my leaping fear. His mad smile of joy and his groans of pleasure abruptly exploded into a howl of pain. He fought to push Lady Aeron aside, and yet he could not. She held him fast beneath her quivering thighs like the talons of a hawk upon the sparrow.
And then the change came. There unfolded from her womanly form a monstrous array of corpulent tendrils belying her lithe dimensions, spreading profusely with a serpentine elasticity. These appendages wrinkled as they writhed, the smooth skin spoiling like curdling milk, and there arose a terrible odor that both aroused and repulsed my most primitive instincts. It permeated my rational mind and infected the deeper folds of the brain, arresting the fight or flight response that Nature has given all animals with the sufficient evolutionary adaptations.
Immobilized, I stood as if struck to stone by a chance glance from Medusa. I was unable to look away and so bore unwilling witness to her terrible transformation atop her wretched victim. What she became invoked conflicted images of a beast of unknown fathoms and even more mysterious heights. The appendages coiled about my patron and were working beastly contortions upon him while the great maw fed upon his yet-living body. His howls of pain were choked with hemorrhaging from his mouth. Elsewhere he hemorrhaged likewise, the white sheets of the bed stained crimson beneath Lady Aeron’s vestigial thighs.
And all the while Lord Aeron watched eagerly from the side of the bed, engaged in onanism while his nightmarish wife coiled about the helpless man and fed.
I must have screamed— surely I screamed— for Lord Aeron looked to me while still engaged in his self-gratification.
“She is a gift of the Old Gods,” he said. “Commune with her. Become one with her!”
I fled then, running through that dark country manor, heedless of where I went so long as it was far away. So swept away was I that I took a wrong turn and found myself along the terraces. The open air restored to me some semblance of clear-eyed sanity as I stared down the disorienting pathways into the gardens.
Then came the servants of the Aeron household. They stumbled together, like a gaggle of blind geese. They were boys, their lolling heads sightless as they listened for me. Each had been scarred across their foreheads and noses with wounds consistent with frost-bite. They moved as one, as if puppeteered by a single mind. Their mouths opened, as one, and uttered my name with an inhuman voice.
“Sheridan…”
I hurled myself down the paths and the terraces, fleeing past those strangely shorn yew trees and those gleefully unmanned statues. I came to the hedges and flung myself through them. Onward into the night I ran, like a dog stricken mad by moonlight.
By the time I stopped running I was on the rugged country road that led into the village. This I followed until I came to the town’s inn. I awoke the innkeeper by pounding on the door and told him what I had witnessed. Thinking back on it, I doubt he understood half of the words I sputtered, but my affrighted condition must have informed him enough. He told me that all of the villagers knew of Lord Aeron’s unholy visitor. Many of them had lost children to the house, each child branded by the Lady’s touch. Many more feared that their older sons would be selected for the “honor” of her congress. I asked them why they had not slain that terrible creature.
“What can we do,” he asked, “when it fears neither fire nor blade nor bullet nor holy word?”
“Then send word to Court,” I said, made too desperate by what I had witnessed to think rationally. “Notify the authorities. Notify the King if you have to!”
The innkeeper merely shook his head. “You are an Irishman, sir,” he said. “Do you truly think anyone of rank in Great Britain would care for us in our time of need?”
I relented, then, though my mind was frenzied with fear. The innkeeper allowed me to stay in one of his unoccupied rooms that night. I could not sleep, and every shadow seemed to roil with protean horrors.
On the morrow I left that cursed province and returned home, to Dublin, as swiftly as the winds could usher me by boat. Upon my return, I kissed my wife and hugged my children and strolled through my beloved countryside to ease my soul. I did not report the incident to anyone for fear it would not be received credibly, and would impugn my reputation and, by extension, damage my family’s well-being. I sought only to cleanse myself of the terrible encounter. To forget, I thought, would be to save myself.
Yet, the thing that was Lady Aeron haunted me. I could not appease that horrible recollection except in rendering her monstrous visage in inks and paints. Even so, there have been times when no amount of exorcism could rid me of her nightmarish assemblage. I have seen her with my eyes closed, in the dead of night when the shades lay heavy on my house. I have seen her with my eyes open, in the glow of midday while my children play and my wife kisses my cheek. I see her still, even now. I cannot escape the image of her.
This is the account you have asked me to write. I must confess that I did not think you would believe me, yet I am compelled to chronicle it regardless of the credence you lend it. You have seen my paintings, and I swear that my paintings cling to truthful representation. Hang me, if you so desire it, but know that I did not kill my colleague, Mr. Thenton. Know that you hang an innocent man and that you leave my children fatherless and my wife a wretched widow. And know that Lord Aeron is a liar. People disappear daily in his province and yet the Crown does nothing to depose him. He mocks you all in his poetry and rejoices in the iniquities of his home, yet you refuse the confessions written boldly in his own hand; his boasts of peopling the earth with his wife’s offspring. I hope it comes to pass that you are readying yourselves for bed at night and you pick up one of his books and you remember my paintings as you read his verse. I hope you see the ink writhe and the letters crawl and you glimpse Lady Aeron’s pale face haunting you inescapably within the margins. I hope you see her black eyes and her alabaster bosom and her quivering thighs and you feel the hunger of her embrace!

Teacups, Collars, And Petticoats

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Disclaimer: This story is rife with sordid things meant for an adult mind…and likely a puerile mind, too.  Manners are herein detailed, as well as etiquette, and many a Victorian pretense.  And nudity.  There is nudity, both textual and illustrated, though mostly for comedic effect.  This is a short story concerning juxtaposition and contrasts between overt behavior and latent compulsion.  Consequently, it is a story about Freudian suppression and the “return of the repressed”.

The rain fell heavy and the Thames breathed its fog in heady sighs through the glistening gaslight murk of London. Despite the dark, misty labyrinthine streets, her red dress and overtopping hat exploded with colorful distinction like a crimson carnation bountiful with bloom in a wet grotto. She was a walking fire embodied and emboldened by her own self-regard. The rain itself struck her umbrella but apologetically. Perhaps it knew better than to provoke the grudge of Jane Augusta Petticue. Most Londoners seemed to know such things.

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Jane entered the restaurant with her hoopskirt swishing left and right, such was her haste to meet Sarah at the dining table. Brusquely, she shoved her small umbrella into the unprepared arms of the nearest waiter, ignoring the waiter’s protests and bounding buoyantly toward the usual corner of the restaurant where she and Sarah exchanged their fruitful gossip. Her demoness stood upon her shoulder; a small, impish pinkish creature with a large-lipped mouth, always puckered in relish of wry mischief. At that moment the demoness was wringing her taloned hands in excitement, eagerly eyeing Sarah as Jane navigated the other tables in the crowded restaurant— tables clustered with patrons and their own demons— and sat down in her habitual chair. Her cup of tea awaited her obediently, its steam swaying as if a cobra mesmerized by the piping of a flute.
Jane’s eyes, and the eyes of her demoness, glimmered with glee. A very fine, thin, and long silken thread laced the demoness’s neck, tying her to Jane. Diamonds gleamed there, studded like stars.
“You will never guess what mayhem I have accomplished today,” Jane said, sipping from her tea. She was an older woman, and graying, whereas Sarah, sitting across the table from her, was to her a protege—young, pretty, unmarried as Jane once was.

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“Do tell me it was of the provincial sort,” Sarah said, eyes sparkling in near equal sheen to her idol’s. Her demoness was sitting upon the floor beside her chair, chained to the garter high upon her thigh. Her demoness was voluptuous and tempting, as if following the precedent that was herself, despite horns and naked disregard for convention; which is to say, a literal naked disregard for the convention of clothing. As men glanced toward Sarah, her demoness spread her legs in a most vulgar display while tugging at the lacy hem of Sarah’s petticoats as if to invite them in for a grand show. Several men looked away, talking amongst themselves at their table, yet their own demons sported priapic extravagances, standing in a circle around the table to compare and measure the most manly among the present competition.

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“It is mayhem of the lordly sort,” Jane said, smiling broadly with deep satisfaction.
Sarah gasped in pleasant shock. “You do not mean Lord Clovenhill?”
“The very same,” Jane said, her smirk so taut it could hang a man in its noose. “It will come out soon enough, but for now there are only four individuals who are aware of his great misfortune. Him, myself, yourself, and the young lady Anna Lynn Maywell.”
Sarah’s eyes were agape. Even her demoness ceased spreading legs and sat up, listening intently.
“Have you spoiled that courtship through…bold means?” she asked. “I should have liked portion of such a delicious endeavor. Lord Clovenhill, for all of his stuffy and stiff bearing, is a handsome man, and I do not doubt, when coaxed sweetly enough, a beast abed.”
“No, it is not a carnal matter of drama,” Jane said, shaking her head and thinking her protege too hedonistic in some ways to be proficient at true sin. Her graying ringlets brushed against her demoness, who was too pleased with their accomplishments to notice.
“Then did you induce him to take liberties with Lady Maywell? Surely not. The innocent little creature keeps her demoness in a canary cage, feeding it on crackers, instead of vice, and teaching it choir songs. It is the cutest of things, for a demoness, and so…unfailingly harmless. Why, it is almost as small as your demoness, Jane.”

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Jane nodded only once, but did not afford her own demoness an appraising glance, knowing the smile on her small face the selfsame smile upon her own.
“Nor is it in that particular area of interest,” Jane said, “though the broad topic is keen to the happenings I have devised and set into motion.”
Before she elaborated she raised a gloved hand, signaling a waiter hereto.
“A bit of crumb cake, please,” she said to the waiter. His demon’s head was bowed, but muttered discourtesies and insolence toward all of the patrons in the room. When the young man turned to inquire after Sarah’s wants, however, and upon seeing the bulging bosom heaving up and down within her bodice, his demon sprouted his own absurd priapism.

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“And the young lady?” he said, blushing.
“Nothing so delicious yet, dear sir,” she crooned with a coy smile.

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The waiter hesitantly went to fetch the cake. Jane’s demon, taking umbrage at the waiter’s choice of distinguishing Sarah with the pretense “young” and not herself, whispered in Jane’s ear. Jane smiled, less pleasantly than before, and waited until the waiter returned with a plate of her cake, and a fork. She accepted it with a broad, beaming smile and inquired after his name.
“Jonathan, ma’am,” he said.
She nodded, once, dismissing Jonathan from the table, yet her small mouse-sized demoness glared balefully after him until he receded to the other side of the restaurant. Jane began to vengefully eat at the cake, cutting it spitefully with her fork and chewing as if relishing her own vexation.
“Why would you seek such ploys to undermine a pillar of London society?” Sarah asked, hoping to press Jane toward unforthcoming details. “Why, Lord Clovenhill is praised every day for his charities. There has yet to be a philanthropist in measure to him. And the legislation he has put forth in the House of Lords is famous for its social reforms. Truly, even I know of their commendable nature, though I find politics exceedingly tiresome and banal. Moreover, he is neither arrogant nor a boor. I have met him upon multiple occasions, in balls and soirees and such, and never had a disagreeable word with him. True, he is, as I have stated, stiff in his manner, but so are many young men of his rank. He is…”
Sarah fell to a sudden, embarrassed silence, noticing at last Jane’s icy smile of patience, which, like ice, could crack and dunk the unwary traveler at a moment’s glance. Jane set her fork down, next to the half-eaten cake, took a deep breath through her nose and exhaled.
“But that is the precise reason for my plot,” Jane said quietly. “He is praised for so many superficial services to society, and to the Crown, but I know his embosomed secret. I know what poison grows in the bloom of his heart.”
Sarah leaned forward, rapt. Her demoness stood beside her, leaning forward, too, their bosoms swelling against the edge of the table. “Do enlighten me, Jane.”
Jane glanced about the room, seeing that they were unattended by unwanted ear or eye from the overcrowded restaurant. There were too many conversations for eavesdroppers. Even the rain was speaking to itself as it splattered loudly against the windowpane, chatting away in inane elemental jabberwocky. When Jane was satisfied that the dining hall was too clamorous to overhear her, she spoke. Her eyes glittered like a wildfire happily betaken to woodland.
“Lord Clovenhill is beholden to a massive personage,” she said. “Indeed, his demon is positively gargantuan. It is the ugliest, foulest, most infernal creature I have ever seen. Jack the Ripper would give pause to witness it. It is so dangerous in its appetites that he has partitioned half of his countryside estate to imprison it.”

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Sarah gawped in incredulity for the longest moment. The men at the nearest table grinned to one another, to see such an expression upon her visage, and their demons scrambled to satisfy themselves to the wanton image.
“But he seems such a fine gentleman!” Sarah remarked. “How does he retain servants in his manor if such a creature resides there?”
“They seem to not fear it,” Jane said with a lax shrug that made her demoness sway indifferently. “I suppose they are foolish enough to believe he can contain it forever, and I suppose they can somehow separate the man they know from the demon they should rightly fear. But I saw in it the truth. However strong the shackles placed upon it, it exists, and so the man is owed needful comeuppance.”
“And how did you manage such divine retribution?”
“By simply calling on him,” she said, her smile broadening again, “while in the company of Lady Maywell.”
Sarah gasped. “Surely you did not.”
“Surely I did. I could see it chafed Lord Clovenhill considerably, that breach of etiquette, but moreover I could see the fear behind his stoic mask while he hastily bid his servants to ‘prepare the house for guests’. As if any preparations could be made to spirit away his unsightly secret! My delight was devilish and deserved, especially when—in the Lord’s fleeting absence to see to a domestic matter—I led Lady Maywell to the secret he so feared in its discovery. The poor delicate girl was a crumpled pile of fright by the time Lord Clovenhill retrieved us. He attempted to console her, and chastise me, but the revelation proved beyond his powers of excuse or explanation. It was a triumphant hour, and my greatest pleasure. All of London knows he has long been courting Lady Maywell in the hopes of ascertaining the childish-minded girl as his bride. She has no fortune, but she has infinite prospects to resettle her to her advantage. After all, where wealth is wanting, beauty and obedience may suffice. Now she will assume the worthier bond of another attachment and all will be happier for it. Except Mr. Clovenhill, of course.”
“Pardon me, Jane,” Sarah said, “but they have been the talk of town of late. The men all wish to be Lord Clovenhill and the women all envy her natural, innocent charms. Nor is he bereft in endowments. She will not overcome the attachment easily. It was only a month ago that he startled the Wickfield Circle by holding Lady Maywell’s demoness in his hands, stroking it affectionately as no one ever has another’s demon. The darling little imp purred in his care. As a cat. No one has ever seen the like!”

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“Yes,” Jane said irritably, “but had his demon been there I assure you he would have devoured her little imp, the Lady herself, and all among that presumptuous gathering. Forgive me, Sarah, but you are ignorant of his truer nature. You have never seen his demon. And I would not allow him the pleasure of parading about, lauded by everyone, while he hides his demon from the light of day.”
“But Jane, even you leash your creature,” Sarah observed. The scowl rewarding this observation was twofold— madam and demoness, both— and Sarah cringed, but yoked her tongue to truth. “I only mean to say that is it not commendable that he should take such precautions? Is that not what we all do?” She lifted the golden chain that bound her demon to her garter. “That his demon is so large and frightful, as you say, should he not be applauded for countering its potential transgressions with such elaborate means? Sometimes to acknowledge one’s foibles is as divine as not possessing them in the first, for you may remedy them with greater exercises of volition.”
“That it exists at all is proof enough of his wickedness,” Jane said, snorting in contempt. “But even so, I should have done as I have done were he not beholden to such a large demon. It passes the time, you know, in this widowed age. Errors and etiquette can only do so much to entertain me in my waning years. At times it requires a bit of mischief to embolden the flavors of life.” She reached down under her petticoat and produced a flask, the contents of which she poured into her tea. The aroma of liquor wafted across the table. “The milk of human kindness cannot spice my tea. It only dulls and dilutes, and produces in me a most awful stomachache.”
She set her teacup down on the saucer abruptly, porcelain biting on porcelain sharply, like teeth clamping shut upon bone. She lifted the plate upon which her half-eaten crumb cake sat.
“Excuse me, Sarah,” she said. “I must do something about this cake. It is…too sweet.”
Rising from the table, she walked the length of the restaurant, navigating the crowded tables with her hoopskirt. The other patrons in the restaurant naturally avoided her gaze, and inched their chairs away from her expansive garments. She came, briskly, to the manager of the restaurant. He was an older gentleman, his demon sitting upon his shoulders, one leg to either side of his head, in piggyback fashion, while its protuberant belly pressed down upon his nape, bowing his head forward under the unwieldy weight of its appetite.
“Sir,” Jane said.
“Mrs. Petticue,” the proprietor said, bowing lower while steadying himself with a hand on a window sill. He always stood next to the window, commanding a view of both his restaurant and the bustling London streets. “How is your evening seeing you?”
“Most inhospitably,” she said, tucking a curly tress behind her hair with the affectation of unrest. She set the cake down “Indeed, one of your waiters has been uncharitable in his service. When I asked him for a slice of cake he saw it a happy mischief to bring me but a small, worn morsel of which he had taken liberty to satisfy his own stomach. As you can well see, there is scarcely a mouthful left.”
The old man reddened instantly upon the charge, his eyes flaring spitefully as if to catch his white whiskers aflame.
“I see,” he said, in a tone belying his ire. “Do tell me the scoundrel’s name.”
“Jonathan,” she said.
The old man nodded once, then took the proffered plate of half-eaten cake from Mrs. Petticue. “I will have a fresher slice brought out to you, my dear, of more generous portions. And Jonathan will be brought out, as well. He shall be made to apologize.”
“Oh no, no!” Jane said, affecting a flight of swooning. “I cannot abide the sight of him, even were he groveling to me as Judas to Christ. He has already abused my good nature with his supercilious airs. When I asked him, begging his forgiveness, what happened to the cake he assumed a derisive tone and told me…” She affected to wipe away a tear. “…told me I was of figure not in want for cake.”
“This is an outrage!” the old gentleman said. “I shall have him flogged through the streets!”
“No, I shan’t have his bruises on my heart,” she said. “Just…just show him to the streets, if you could be so kind, and in the Christian fashion. I should like to forgive him, in time.”
The old man nodded fervently. “You are a dear sweet lady, Mrs. Petticue,” he said. “Such sweetness is rare in this world.”
“Indeed, sir,” she said. “As rare as cake, but not so easily crumbled when engaged.”
He escorted her back to her table, sending another waiter to fetch a larger piece of cake, untouched, and two waiters to fetch Jonathan. Jane sat and ate her new slice of cake silently, relishing the sweetness and the view as she watched the old gentleman reprimand a perplexed Jonathan by the door, shortly before shoving him beyond its threshold and out into the misty, cold, dark London street. Jane’s demoness waved goodbye, a serrated grin between her lips. Sarah, whose back was turned to the whole incident, asked Jane if the cake was truly so good as to have second servings.

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“Absolutely, Sarah,” Jane said. “And a third serving, and a fourth, and endless until my time is done and my eyes, and mouth, close forever.”
A tremor abruptly shook the restaurant, rattling plates and teacups and constitutions. In the ensuing silence the patrons at the restaurant gawped toward one another for an explanation, only for another tremor to seize that fine establishment. After its echoing tremble, all visages were nervous, quivery, their demons jumping up and down like disquieted apes in a zoo. Only Jane sat still, and her demoness, too, a self-satisfied smile slowly spreading across her face and giving it dimples such as she had not donned since a young woman.
“No doubt lightning,” the proprietor of the restaurant said, chuckling nervously. His demon nearly tore his whiskers out at the roots in fear.
Another tremor and several patrons stood.
The proprietor raised his hands, trying to calm his patrons. “Just a disgruntled storm,” he tried to reassure them. Another tremor shook him and he steadied himself with a hand on a chair. “My, but they do seem to strike close, do they not?”
The tremors followed one another in rapid succession, drawing closer to the street. The rain had stopped and the windowpanes were rattling themselves dry in the quakes. A decisive concussion to the earth caused the lights in the restaurant to flicker, blinking ominously. Another tremor struck, stronger than the others, and rattled teacups and teeth alike, echoing through the restaurant and the patrons. A few patrons rushed to the door in a frantic crush of struggling bodies, shoving and scrambling out into the misty tumult of night. Others looked to one another, oscillating in indecision and the demands of properly comported etiquette.
“My word,” Sarah whispered. “What is that?”
Jane’s eyebrows arched as the corner of her mouth twisted with wry humor.
“Why, Jane, I do believe that is the true Mr. Clovenhill come to call.”
A roar, like that of a tempest’s gale, rent the uneasy silence, deafening the cries of panic as the patrons in the restaurant fled to the door, crushing together in a struggle to exit and flee down the street. Another tremor shook the clog loose at the door, and so the trickle of patrons became as a gush. Even the waiters and the proprietor joined the exodus. Only Jane and Sarah remained, Jane clutching her demoness in her lap as she watched through their corner’s window, seeing a river of people hastening helter-skelter down the street.
“Do not fret, Sarah,” Jane said calmly. “He would never condescend to visit this establishment. It is, as you know, beneath him.”
The gigantic demon stomped down the street, roaring and rattling the bones of London. It was only as it passed by the window that Sarah realized that there was a bewailing tone to the creature’s roar; as if it was in great pain.
“The poor creature is wounded,” Sarah remarked.
“Quite,” Jane said. “And perhaps it is a mortal wound, though I dare say I would rather it live on, enthralled to its suffering.”
As the demon stomped and moaned, buildings and streets crumbled around it. It was as if another terrible fire was destroying London.

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“What devastation!” Sarah said, her face a paler shade than any French makeup could ever accomplish. “What mayhem!”
“Thank you, my dear,” Jane said quietly. “Being the busy socialite that I am, it is my greatest pleasure to introduce London to the true Lord of Philanthropy in his most esteemed form. Mark how destructive he is. Mark how self-conceited with his woes. What an utterly bestial personage. What catastrophe in his wake. What a monstrous demon with which to share a heart.”
But as Sarah looked from the clamorous devastation beyond the windowpane to the quiet satisfaction on Jane’s face—and the selfsame smile imprinted upon her imp—she marveled at how so much mischief and mayhem could be wrought by such a small, petty demon.