Directly behind the stage, separated by a thick wall of stone, were the costumes, set, and property shops. There were also several lofts for storage; a green room; and various other rooms with indistinct purposes. Aidan received a hurried tour of this intricate little settlement and was then whisked into the costumes shop. He was getting much better at keeping up with the fool, and it only took him half the time it would have to reach the musty din of fabric.
There were rolls of cloth everywhere. Scissors and measuring tapes lurked under an eclectic array of costumes in various stages of completion. Some were pinned to mannequin-flesh, while others lay on long, wide tables. Stooped over these, their faces and bodies hidden behind draping black veils, were the seam-makers.
Peter handed his coat off to one of these creeping people. It extended a pair of gnarled, yellow-nailed hands from underneath its veil and took the garment, whispering in a silken voice, “Dear boy, what have you done?”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Peter sighed. Aidan couldn’t see what was wrong with his coat, aside from perhaps being a little wrinkled in places, but the seam-maker shook its head disdainfully and carried the coat off to a table. With a pronounced gentleness, it bent over it to begin applying needle and thread to some miniscule flaw.
“Why don’t we find you something to wear, while we wait?” said Peter.
They wandered the room, dodging seam-makers who moved here and there on missions of their own. They seemed to float over the floor in their long veils, soundless except for the occasional whisper beneath fabric. Peter riffled through rack upon rack of finished costumes, grunting his disapproval now and then. “Can’t give you anything fancy; you’re just going to ruin it. Frills? No, you don’t seem the sort for frills. Tweed! No. Hm….”
“I won’t ruin things,” Aidan protested.
Peter ignored him. Clothes littered the floor as he threw them off their hangers. A small group of seam-makers had begun to follow him around like a flock of pathetic ducklings. As the fool discarded their precious garments, they bent and rescued them from the dust.
At last, with a triumphant cry, Peter presented Aidan with a generic pair of black slacks, a plain black dress shirt, and a grey blazer. He helped Aidan into them and grabbed a belt and suspenders from a table nearby to secure the slacks around Aidan’s non-existent waist. He buttoned the shirt buttons for him and all but forced his arms into the blazer. Then he stood back and eyed the result critically.
“Well, it’s a start,” he said after a moment. “Here.” He led Aidan to a standing mirror and let him gaze for a while.
“I look….” Aidan fell silent, unsure of the words he wanted. He looked wrong. Horrible. The skeleton in clothes before him raised a hand to its head, to the jagged crack in his skull.
“You look exactly as you ought to look,” Peter reassured him. “Dead.” The fool patted him on the back and drifted away to check on the progress of his coat. When he had gone, one of the seam-makers crept over and laid a grizzled hand on Aidan’s arm.
“We think you’re just fine, dear,” it whispered.
An orchestra had begun tuning. Aidan heard them through the stone wall of the costumes shop. Though eerie and discordant, the mingled warm-ups of the instruments released his curiosity from beneath the heavy net of self-doubt and disgust it had fallen under. He cast about for Peter with no success and so made the decision to wander. His new clothes felt bulky and uncomfortable and did nothing to help him slip by unnoticed, but thankfully none of the seam-makers seemed to care.
He followed the sounds through the back halls and rooms until they deposited him in the shadows of one of the wings, where tall velvet curtains rose into monolithic blackness. Metal ladders stretched to dizzying heights. There were lofts at the ends of many of these ladders, stocked with props and costumes from the shops. He couldn’t imagine climbing to any of those places; the costumes loft seemed reachable only by sheer willpower.
Overhanging shadows of the lofts soon gave way. Aidan crept tentatively forward and peered out from behind one of the curtains. The stage was a vast oasis of black; not a single scuff-mark marred its smooth wooden surface. The orchestra he had heard was down in the pit, their heads and shoulders barely visible from where he stood. The instruments gleamed with polish and shine, waiting only for their masters to strike chords and sound notes upon them which would let their bodies tremble with the music they had been born to make.
However, not all instruments were in the pit; onstage was a magnificent grand piano. An elderly man was seated at its bench with his back to Aidan. He looked a solid seventy years old and was otherwise everything Aidan imagined a pianist should be. He sat hunched over the keys in his crisp dress suit, talking in a hushed voice with the woman who stood at his side.
Aidan found himself paying far more attention to her than to the stooped pianist. She looked…alive. There were no scars like Peter’s; no gaping wounds like those belonging to the doctor on the train; and no unnatural paleness to her skin. She was healthy, even down to her figure, which Aidan felt filled her modest black dress in a sensible way. Her hair was dark, her nose narrow and perhaps a bit too long, but it hardly mattered. In the brief instant he looked at her, Aidan was sure she out-did all of Peter’s yellowing photographs.
“A very pleasant view, this side of the stage, no?” said an unfamiliar voice. Aidan jumped, embarrassed. Behind him was a tall man in a dancer’s uniform. He would have looked rather like a catalogue model, had his blonde hair not been going green around the tips and were his skin not a faint blue. He smiled at Aidan and spoke again in an accent sprinkled lightly with French intonations,
“You are Aidan Lawrence?”
“Ah…yes, I am,” said Aidan.
“I am Alexandre.” The dancer held out a hand, which Aidan shook with a wince; the skin was damp and clammy.
“Nice to meet you, Alexandre.”
The dancer smiled again, in exactly the same manner. He took Aidan by the arm and led him across the stage, saying something about the theatre. Aidan wasn’t sure quite what it was, for they were passing very close to the piano just then. Both the pianist and the woman lifted their heads. The older man quickly returned his gaze to his music, but the woman narrowed her dark eyes at Aidan while her face clouded with wariness and tension.
“Your studio, Mr. Lawrence,” Alexandre urged, tugging on him a bit. “Do you hear me?”
“What?” said Aidan. He couldn’t remember the moment when he had stopped walking, but there he was, standing still as a statue in the middle of the stage. “Studio?”
The dancer frowned. “You will not get far in this company, Mr. Lawrence, if you don’t pay attention to the right things.”
“Sorry.” With a small effort, Aidan turned away and let himself be led into the wings. It took ever more of an effort not to glance back over his shoulder; he was sure he could feel the woman’s gaze piercing holes into his coat.
Alexandre brought him to a massive white room full of giant canvases and back-drops. Some were half painted while others rested against the walls, blank and waiting. There were small lofts inside the room—wooden constructions with paint-stained ladders that led up to vast collections of every artistic supply imaginable. Paints of all colors and shades, paint brushes of every size and function, rollers, pans, stencils, chalk—everything was there. His heart—his figurative heart, rather—leapt almost painfully at the sight of it.
“You like it?” Alexandre asked, touching Aidan’s shoulder.
“I do, yes!” Aidan replied enthusiastically. “It’s wonderful, but….” He looked around the studio once more, awed and trying not to miss a single object. What he wanted to ask was why it was so wonderful, but Alexandre had plastered on his practiced smile and headed for the door.
“I am glad,” he said. “It is yours. Now I must go; there is always rehearsing to be done. You stay and enjoy your studio. It is your domain…your floating island in our wide ocean.”
The sudden solitude in the studio was comfortable. For the first time since he had climbed out of that horrible pit, Aidan felt safe. He had come where he belonged.
“Where the hell have you been?”
Aidan jumped and nearly slipped on one of his own pant legs. Peter had come from nowhere and brought fury with him. The danger written in his painted features was tempestuous and terrifying and the light in his eyes had taken on a sinister sheen that made Aidan feel like a piece of meat dangled before a mad, half-starved dog.
Peter swallowed what looked like the urge to pounce on the trembling bag of bones before and said in the softest, most polite voice he could manage, “However did you find your way here?”
Whatever surprise Aidan might have felt at the fool’s abrupt presence vanished in a twinkle. He seized his hand and dragged him over to the wall of blank and half-finished canvases.
“You have to tell me,” he exclaimed, “why is this all so familiar? I’m sorry I didn’t wait, but I didn’t see you and I heard…it doesn’t matter. Anyway, I met Alexandre—I think he’s a dancer? He brought me here. He said this was all mine, but I know I’ve never been here before. I think.” He finished breathless and held the fool’s gaze with imploring eye sockets. For a moment, the anger lingered, but then it dissipated and Peter clapped Aidan on the shoulder.
“Of course it feels right,” he said. “You had a real flair for brushwork before your skin and eyes and things burned up.”
The slightest of hesitations. “Of course. How else? I saw a couple of your works myself, you know. Brilliant, genius stuff. Yes, enjoy that compliment; I don’t dole them out often.”
Aidan was looking around the studio again with a far different eye this time, in awe of the memories it held just out of reach. He saw his life ending in a tragedy of smoke and flame, saw Peter coming to collect him after he was dead…saw the fool standing over his grave. Perhaps he had even been the one to dig Aidan up.
But still, where had the fire come from? Was it an accident? Purposeful? Why hadn’t he had a coffin? It didn’t seem so bad to be here; it was good to have a purpose. But regardless of how secure the corner of afterlife was, the questions were many.
“All right, that’s enough of that.” Peter took Aidan by the back of the neck and escorted him from the studio. “You’ve got a very important person to meet.”
“But can’t we–”
“No, no!” the fool gave a strained laugh. “You’ll be back, don’t fret. But for now, Sir Hugo is waiting.”
They left the canvases, paints, and brushes behind, passing down dimly lit, carpeted hallways under the watchful gaze of company members who went wandering along their own paths. Peter joked and smiled and spoke of nothing serious, while Aidan nodded in silence. They abandoned the most inhabited parts of The Masque, neither of them ever catching sight of the pair of dark eyes that watched with piercing interest, or the lithe form in the black dress that followed in the shadows.
(A bit of a late post this week, due to traveling out of town, but tune in next Thursday, December 21st, for the first bit of Chapter Three! In the meantime, please follow us on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook @companyofsouls! )