I'd done this before: dressing in men's clothing in order to investigate a scene.
Last time I'd ended up in a part opium den, part brothel in the Five Points, on the trail of a murderer, trying to protect innocent victims. It was certainly one of the braver things I'd done.
This time, simply donning men's clothes so as not to be questioned or accosted while I examined a mere tavern near
Village after dark seemed like far less dangerous quarry. Still,
upending my gender and pretending to be something I'm not has its anxieties.
I stared at myself in the mirror, dressed in one of Father's plain brown cast-off suits that I'd had secretly tailored down to fit me during my first foray into subterfuge, back in the days when saving Lord Denbury's soul was a methodical process.
Looking at the youthful creature in the mirror, my auburn locks tucked and pinned up beneath a newsboy's cap, I felt far less certain about the exact right course of action. Though my instincts were strong, I now had experienced more trials and errors by which to second guess myself.
The fact that I'd survived against all odds with the help of God, mentorship, love, and some benevolent spirits didn't make me feel much better about tempting fate once again. At what point would God deem me foolish and stop watching out for me when I was obviously putting myself in situations where I might need divine intervention?
The danger of crying wolf seemed a distinct possibility here, and yet I didn't know any other way to confront the clues granted to me in my dreams but this. If I did nothing, I was a coward without a gift. This was a way of taking my knowledge into action without dragging anyone else along with it, in case my dream world was entirely wrong. I didn't want to make anyone else liable for my mind's unpredictable eye. Along with any sort of power, a great responsibility comes hand in hand. That was surely a certainty for the ages.
I stared at myself in the mirror in the same way I'd done when I'd first donned men's wardrobe for the sake of espionage; surprised at the young boy before me, I knew that I was me, and yet here I was certainly not as society would have me. It was a nice blending wardrobe, nothing too fine, nothing too shabby, brilliantly and forgettable in the middle-class range.
I snuck out of the house by ten, blessed by early and heavy sleepers on Father and Bessie's count. I was far more the night owl. Watching men's gaits to try to embody their strides, I went out to
Lexington Avenue to hail a cab. My
allowance for penny candies, ribbons, and newspapers had been increasingly
co-opted for spy-craft. I corralled a downtown-bound hansom cab, and the small
compartment clopped and bounced down cobblestone blocks until the streets went
at odd angles, and old
streets took over, donning family names and early histories, banishing the
numbered grid to the uptown streets it had served since the beginning of the
century. New York
The White Horse was as you'd expect of any tavern: loud, raucous, filled with liquor and men. I sidled up to the wooden bar and ordered a drink in a low voice, whatever I'd heard the man a few steps ahead of me order. I knew nothing of liquor or beer; I'd sip the glass and not drink it as I scouted for my target, not wanting any substance to make me any less sharp. It didn't take terribly long to find the man in question.
I nearly physically recoiled at the sight of him. Somehow my dreams had foretold enough about the man that even though the description hadn't been clear, my gut knew exactly who it was. The predatory nature about him, his stance, his eyes, the way he seemed to sniff more than breathe, all of it had the air of animal more than human that spoke of a possessed body. His behavior wasn't overtly so, otherwise no one would entertain his presence, but it was subtle enough for me to feel and see that something was a bit off. But obviously the man was targeting those with little to lose, easy prey, who tended to overlook such things as eyes that shined a bit too oddly and movement that was a little too much like a puppet.
He was holding court, it seemed, looming over a table of bleary-eyed young fellows who were considering the man's words, one with skepticism, another with hope, one with desperation, and one who seemed a bit too intoxicated to focus. I wondered if somehow I could distract them, break the spell this man seemed to be casting over them like a pall. But then directing the man's focus onto me seemed like a bad idea, considering the dream. I knew I was staring at all of them a bit too intently, rudely, but hopefully from the shadows I kept to, no one would notice.
And then I felt arms slide around me from behind, and just as I jumped, about to cry out, I heard a familiar, delectable British accent purr my name. The whisper in my ear stilled me immediately.
"Shh... Natalie. I know it's you," came Jonathon's murmur and the action of his arms and the murmur of my name made me weak in the knees. "The trouble with disguises," he continued with a bemused chuckle in my ear, "is that, when it comes to me...I can always see your light. You can't hide the vibrant color of your soul. Not from me."
I drank in his words. We'd had such awkwardness, such distance, I was afraid the kind of dreamlike words and intense passion our relationship had been built upon had been banished to the world of his painted prison, I feared our poetry was lost in the '"real'" world. It would seem he still had fine words for me. Perhaps it took a bit of unexpected espionage for them to return. Thankfully we had magic to bring us home. He could see the colors of my aura, the clue that had allowed his soul the agency to communicate with me even in his prison. And it would seem I was illuminated by magic still...
"I love it when you find me, Jonathon," I whispered back to him. "And I always want you to…"
He kissed my temple, breath hot against my ear as he murmured: "You ridiculous thing, you, what on earth are you doing here?" My body thrilled from head to toe. I relaxed in his hold and leaned against him.
It was good that we were wholly in the shadows, considering how I was dressed. The bohemian freedom championed by such circles as Nathaniel Veil's Association had no precedent here, and so two men embracing in this sort of intimate manner was simply not allowed in society at large.
Maybe someday it would be. For my part I didn't see anything wrong; love was love, a soul was a soul, I'd learned first hand that the spirit defines the person, not the body it was in. But society, I knew well enough from the disability that still cast its occasional silent shadow over my life, didn't like things to be anything but '"normal'," expected, traditional, unquestioned. But considering paranormal had become my normality, all things had to adjust accordingly. I could only consider my own spiritual, psychological, and physical well-being and say my own prayers, knowing I'd gotten this far by a faith that was larger than the time and the constraints in which I lived. I couldn't count on society to know how to adapt alongside me.
"How did you know to come here, Jonathon?" I murmured, turning my face to graze my nose against his fine cheekbone, warmed also by the fact that he wanted to touch and be close to me no matter the clothes I was in, a reassurance that reached across myriad boundaries.
"I asked you first," he countered.
"A dream. Foretold," I answered. "You?"
"I followed him." Jonathon indicated the man in question, who was ordering a round of drinks for his captive audience. "From one of Brinkman's addresses. He was coming around from the back of the building. I saw a sparkle of the red and gold of the demons' light bounce about him, the color flashing out of the corner of my eye. No other addresses seemed to wield anything of particular interest or note. I'd watched each for many hours. I didn't really think, I just came this way."
"Same, once I put the pieces of the dream together enough to evince the clues as leading to this location, I donned this disguise and made my move."
"Is this what you wore the last time you went someplace a lady shouldn't go on her own?"
I nodded. Jonathon held back a laugh. Whether I was or wasn't convincing, he didn't say, and I didn't get the chance to ask before the man we were watching pulled a few glass vials out from his long, pale coat pocket and put them on the table, where the youthful audience stared at them with a mixture of hunger and apprehension.
Jonathon seized my tall glass of stout and a second glass of ale that had been abandoned upon a nearby ledge. Gesturing for me to stay put, he then suddenly he stepped out from the shadows. I noticed he'd dressed down considerably, to mere shirtsleeves, suspenders, and trousers like a regular factory worker. A grubby cap with the brim pulled low concealed his fine black locks and a bit of soot was smudged over a chiseled cheekbone. It's true that his more lordly appearance might have given him away, and in this case he didn't seem to wish to play the demon to this Stevens fellow, just in case he was being sought as such. We both had come in covert costume, it would seem.
Jonathon stumbled artfully forward, careful not to tip the glasses, until he jostled toward the table. He ran right into Stevens, first spilling the dark stout onto the man's beige coat, then spilling the second glass over the glass vials, overturning them, sending a tiny puff of red powder near Jonathon's face. He batted the particles away with a faux drunken movement. I wasn't sure how potent or volatile the substance was, and I hoped there was no effect from his proximity to it.
Disrupting the whole scene rather brilliantly, causing far greater hubbub and commotion around him, Jonathon fumbled over an apology—in an impressive New York–styled accent—before stumbling on to say he'd go get someone to help clean it all up. Stevens barked after him not to bother, the man's dark and troubled eyes flashing, his drawn face scowling as the youths at the table blinked and reacted.
Jonathon circled round the tavern, I lost sight of him in a cluster of bodies for a moment, and suddenly he returned to me in the shadows. Upon his return, he was sans cap and wearing a dark black jacket, blending into the shadows with me.
"Where did you..." I gestured to the coat.
"Hung upon a coat tree in the back of the bar," he replied. "Brinkman wrote me a note with a few tips. Useful things, really." Before I could ask further about fresh communication from the spy, Jonathon continued. "Watch for any changes or anything to do with those vials or the content. I'm going to speak to the management about someone coming and trying to make sales of products that were not sold by the tavern itself, something that might keep Stevens watched, and hopefully reported to the authorities." He stalked off, and I watched the unfolding reactions at the table.
The four youths seemed to have broken from a trance. They stared at Stevens and at the dripping mess before them alternately, their brows furrowing. Three of them stood to clean themselves off and walked away as if they weren't exactly sure of themselves; one just turned from Stevens but remained sitting, using a kerchief to wipe down the surfaces directly around him, his shoulders hunched, either tired, drunk, miserable, or all three. Stevens clenched his jaw and turned to pace in the dim light of the tavern lanterns, thinking no one was watching.
Just as the group dispersed and the moment was foiled, I noticed two young black-clad women in short black cloaks and hats with net veils peering in through the tavern window from the street beyond, arm in arm. They waved at one of the young men within, and his visage brightened at the sight of them.
My heart pulled, as all of them reminded me of the characters in my dream. In my dream, there had been screaming as young men were turning into monsters, transformed by insidious means, dehumanized to wretched experiments meant to keep the victims in fear. Here, there were only smiles. I wanted to cry out in triumph. We changed the fate of the night...
Inside, Stevens turned, his sallow face hard and haunted. I wondered what drove that man. Was it as misguided as it had been with Doctor Preston, reanimating out of love? What made Stevens want to alter a person so? Or was he merely a possessed body, the actual original researcher having long ago been dispatched?
He stole a glass from a ledge where a few smart-looking fellows were hotly debating politics and downed the beverage. His fist clenched and his arm raised, seeming ready to throw the glass before he then thought better of it as one of the staff approached him. I overheard the manager gruffly ask about whether he'd been trying to sell products in their establishment. Stevens was immediately contrite and ordered more alcohol. I wished in that moment this '"doctor'" of questionable repute would have picked a fight so that a local police officer would have been called to take him in. I thought about throwing something to seek escalation, but escaping a bar brawl wasn't in my particular expertise.
Confident the doctor wasn't going anywhere as he sat back at the table now wholly abandoned, defeated, a glass of liquor in each hand, I took my eyes off the man and searched for Jonathon. Feeling so vindicated by Stevens's failure to incite another incident, I turned to Jonathon upon his return to the shadows surrounding us and nearly threw my arms around him. Instead, I merely stood very closely, hoping to regain the scorching intimacy we'd had from the moments our souls had first met within the magic of a canvas...
"Let's not be strangers, Natalie," he said, reassuring my foremost concern as if he'd read my mind.
"Let's not," I replied eagerly. "I've been so worried, can feel you withdrawing—"
"I've a lot on my mind," he interrupted, his voice hard. "Dark things, Natalie. I don't want to burden you—"
"I want—need—to know everything. I want to bear the weight of that burden with you, just like when your spirit kept darkening that painting."
He sighed heavily. "Home is calling me, Natalie. I'm going to have to return to the estate at some point. I can't avoid it any longer."
"I'm coming with you," I declared.
He just gave me a pained look.
"I don't want us to be apart," I insisted. "I want us to be together and for everything to be perfect, never pressured, never looking over our shoulders, but just perfect."
He stared at me, and I could see the flicker of doubt in his eyes. "So you will accept me? If I were to ask...again?"
My heart jumped at this, but it still had to be for the right reason. "If you ask for no other reason than for your own desire. Not because anyone forced you to. I've never wanted to say yes to anything more," I whispered, achingly. He nodded, biting back a smile, seeming in part placated, in part still nervous. "Besides," I added, "don't you think the forces at work would like to see us split apart? We can't give them that opportunity."
"True," he agreed. "Tonight, I do think a crisis may have been averted."
We had intervened before further victims had been ensnared for Stevens's experimental purposes, sowing seeds of chaos. I felt a proud surge flood my body. We were clever, resourceful, and gifted. We were more than the enemy would expect of us.
As we left, for we could not stay out into the night indefinitely, we had to step from the shadows and into the brighter gas-lit entryway. I cast one look back over my shoulder. The man, Stevens, was staring at me. Right at me. Through me. His eyes flashed oddly, unnaturally.
And suddenly I didn't feel so clever anymore.
(End of Chapter 8 -- Copyright 2013 Leanna Renee Hieber, The Magic Most Foul saga - If you like what you see, please share this link with friends! Tweet it, FB, + it! The Magic Most Foul team really hopes the audience will continue to grow and it can only do so with YOUR help! If you haven't already, do pick up a copy of Magic Most Foul books 1 and 2: Darker Still and the sequel: The Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewart and/or donate to the cause! Donations directly support the editorial staff.
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