There was a cluster of dark-clad persons shifting silently in the hall, moving slightly on their feet as if they were a feather on a breeze or a ghost not touching the floor. Others had quietly entered the parlor.
Two waifish, lovely women sat draped on either side of Lavinia, having entered silently while I'd been reading the letter. Their legs were tucked up on either side of the settee but fabrics trailed down to the floor. Lovely heads rested with a preternatural stillness on Lavinia's shoulders. One was raven-haired and the other was dark brown–haired. Their expressive eyes were kohl-rimmed and their lips were painted a dark red. And then I realized what was slightly scandalous about one of the women. She was in trousers. A fine riding suit coat and trousers. And I didn't think she was, like I had recently been, participating in espionage, and so this was simply her choice of evening wear rather than a choice of safety and subterfuge.
"Natalie, please meet my best friends, my kindred spirits," Lavinia said softly, gesturing to the compelling persons at her side. "Raven and Ether."
"Hello, Miss Stewart," Raven replied, in a voice that was a lower register than I'd expect of a rather consumptive-looking woman, and then it occurred to me that Raven and Ether weren't women at all. But young men. I took this in a moment.
They were the ones in my dream. These two were the women outside the White Horse Tavern. I looked at them, one to the other, trying not to stare, trying not to be rude, simply trying to take them in as they would wish to be considered.
I had lived most of my life with a disability. I knew the precise look I did not want to give them, a look of confusion or pity, a look that made them feel as if they were just as much the outsider as I'd always felt, a look that they were somehow wrong… No, I was better than that… This whole company was better than that.
As a child, all I'd wanted was simply to be accepted for who I was, without others' demands of what that might be. If I had never begun talking again, I would still want to live a full, whole life. Not a half-life. Not a cast-off life. Being my own person ran contrary to the idea and expectation that I was to give myself over entirely to the stronger sex and a more dominant will… Clearly these two didn't want to give themselves over to that idea either and instead were presenting quite an uncommon alterative. It was bold. It was something I had never encountered. But lately, the world saw fit to throw me new challenges.
Nathaniel Veil's Association was a safe haven for those who wished to buck society's expectations in an increasingly dramatic number of ways. Raven and Ether could surely see me puzzling through this, over them, and their choices in presenting to the world. They merely returned my gaze with a gentle patience that was admirable, considering that when people had given my inability to speak a similar baffled and pained, pitying expression, I was far quicker to scowl. Their gracious attitude made me want to be more generous in how I looked at others, most especially when surprised.
"Raven, Ether, a pleasure," I finally managed to reply, and smiled a genuine smile. Ether's sallow face suddenly transformed as he returned the smile, all without breaking the wistful pose against his friend's shoulders. Raven's darkly stained lips curled up in an engaging smirk.
"We saved each other's lives," Lavinia murmured. "We'd had a pact, all of us, that if we couldn't see the light, then we'd all die together in the dark."
"But he stopped us," Ether whispered lovingly, nodding toward Nathaniel, who was greeting Associates at the door with handshakes and kisses on cheeks to each and every one, filing them into rows and places.
"He was known as the Dark Angel around
," Lavinia explained. "He'd
find out who in our social circles were at their wits end and try to rally them
back, by his sheer force of will. Or, if they went ahead and attempted to take
their life, if they were unsuccessful but injured, he brought them to Lord
Denbury, who would dress the various wounds of the afflicted, and any other
family members would be none the wiser, or none the poorer for the service. I
came from wealth, but not many of our Association do, and your gracious Lord's
clinic saved many a life that London
could have cast aside without a second glance." London
My heart swelled with pride at this, and I ached for my valiant Jonathon, who had done so much for this world in his young life thus far. I wished so dearly he was by my side, especially as our reconnection after our bit of espionage had been so...passionate. In this place, with these people, we could simply be ourselves and not worry about censure or propriety. We could simply be loving creatures who had become our own Dark Angels to one another.
It was inspiring, the emotions these quiet and sometimes awkward persons around me exhibited merely in their expressions, their choice of dress, tone of voice, movement, words, the interesting weight of their souls, some lighter, some heavier, depending on their inner burdens. We said so much to one another without even saying a word. From years without speaking, I could read bodies, expressions, attitudes and energies, gestures and physical quirks like I were reading books. The stories that these bodies and faces told were amazing novels in and of themselves. And every beautifully dressed person that entered, each with their own distinct style yet all adhering to the mourning dress as a unifying characteristic, was a new story.
But before I knew it, the room was utterly filled with eager-faced persons of dramatically different class, race, creed, and age. The binding factor was the fashion, and the figure before us, and his themes. And Veil, the master, was ready to put on a show.
"My Darling Ones," he boomed, accentuating a
when his own was slightly less defined. "We are gathered here today to
reaffirm that we are the masters of our own destiny. You shall not give over
that mastery to any other thing, person, rule, substance, or vice. You may only
give it over to spirit, to love, to something vital, not something draining or
cruel. You may only give over to that which makes you better. Never something
that makes you less. My Dark Stars, take your place in the sky. Shall we
Applause, cries of happiness, gasps, and murmurs, the joy of anticipation launched him into his natural place: center stage of life.
He took stage in the front entrance foyer, visible by all those who had gathered in the parlor, and visible by those waiting on the stair, an impromptu gallery and balcony, concentric circles of dark colors and black crinolines, velvet bands and heaps of ribbons and bows, veils and cloaks.
The keening strain of a violin came from atop Mrs. Northe's grand staircase. From the chair where I sat I could see the musician at the top of the proscenium frame that the parlor pocket doors made. One of his associates, a tall, sturdy woman with skin nearly as dark as the clothing she wore, was playing, her dark limbs, swathed in black lace, moving the bow as if gently raising and closing wings. Her eyes were closed, but now and then when a note hit a resonance that vibrated in our bones, she would flash a slight smile, a bit of white teeth a glint against dark skin, lips, and fabric. That little twinge of joy was the ebbing and flowing crux of Veil's show, and we the audience were caught up in all the sparks of life amid talk of shadow and death.
Veil began to sing, soft and sweet; a melancholy Shakespearean sonnet on themes of pining love. With the violin wafting down to us as if it were from on high, it was like it breathed with Nathaniel's beautiful and resonant voice, vocal and strings equaled one living thing. Several of the audience members clutched at their hearts. Some reached out for Veil with trembling fingers as they knelt in pools of lace and tulle. Some leaned toward him from the banister as if tethered to him by invisible strings.
I must have been more sensitive, far more raw, than when I'd last seen Nathaniel's show, for it touched down deeply within in ways I hadn't allowed it to before. The Gothic themes of his shows, composite pieces of existing text, poetry, and popular fiction dealing with the natural, the unnatural, the supernatural, the veil between life and death, and all the great mysteries, it simply hit too close to home. I think it did for all present, everyone raw and on edge.
But it was just what we needed.
He coursed through his show. I'd never seen the same show twice; he plucked different texts from Walpole, Shelley, and Le Fanu, from the great romantic poets, and of course, a running threaded theme of Edgar Allan Poe, my personal favorite and that of this crowd. If I'd found this Association earlier in my life, perhaps I'd never have had such terrible nightmares, as all my darknesses could have found a healthier home in this circle.
But then again, we are granted the friends we need exactly when we need them. Mrs. Northe had instilled that particular confidence in me. I needed my loneliness; it was how I knew I could survive against other odds. It was how I knew I couldn't just wait for someone or something else to save me. But knowing that I could get by with little else but my own wits and company and then finding community; that was a long overdue comfort.
I could feel the group dynamic breathe and shift like a woman adjusting to the stays of her corset and arranging her skirts, sitting poised and on the edge of delight and discovery, all of us gazing at our captor, Nathaniel Veil, who paced the space at the center of the packed circle like a great and graceful wild animal, clutching us all by the throat with his captivating presence—at one point he did clutch a few people directly by the throat in one of his stints as Vampir—and making every one of us swoon, whether for him or for the gentleman or lady in our hearts, he brought out all the passions within us and exorcised them exquisitely.
And then suddenly the quiet, seductive, safe bliss of the show was shattered by the door flinging open and a flailing form tumbling into the foyer, blowing past Nathaniel, and nearly trampling a few of the youngest Associates who were clustered upon the floor.
A tall, round-cheeked man, marked as older than many of Nathaniel's Association by his graying hair, but similarly dressed in mourning finery, seemed in the throes of agony, droplets of red—blood, surely—staining his face and throat, shining stains upon his black waistcoat, the sight of him evoking gasps and screams from Associate members. He raged and snarled and made a move to overturn the fine table, vase, and mirror near the door, but Nathaniel, who was a head taller than the struggling man, charged up to him and clamped a hand on his shaking shoulder.
"George," Nathaniel said sternly. "This is not you. You've been affected by a toxin." The man, George, gurgled a cry.
"The city can't be safe," George snarled. "For the city is the toxin. Chaos the only cure."
George tried to struggle with Nathaniel, but the imperious actor was stronger than he looked, or he was channeling his presence into brute strength; perhaps seeing that he was the protectorate of this fascinating coven was its own enhancement.
George cried out in pain again before peering a head around Nathaniel's broad shoulder and eerily piercing me with a darkly reflective gaze.
He dropped to his knees, dust flying up, a red dust. Perhaps it wasn't blood all over him but powder that had mixed with his perspiration. I thought of Poe and the Red Death coming into the party...
And then the man spoke. But as he looked up at me with oddly reflective eyes, something green and violet shining in them, reflected in them, the light of my own aura and power, I knew he was no longer a mere man. But something terrible had taken him over.
George flung himself across the open space between us and crumpled before me in a heap of red powder. Before he lost consciousness, he spoke.
It was a voice I knew all too well. The voice of a demon. He pierced me with a phrase the demon had once used to address me:
And then his eyes closed and his head struck the floorboards, unconscious or dead.
(End of Chapter 10 -- 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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