For his meeting with Sir Hugo, Aidan had been abandoned in a lonely room several hallways from the studio. There was nothing in it as far as he could tell. No shadows bulged out of the darkness. The few tentative steps he took into its center echoed off empty walls and wood paneling.
“Hello?” he called. “Sir Hugo?”
Just as Aidan was beginning to accept that he had been the victim of some sort of practical joke on Peter’s part, a soft voice spoke near the back of the room.
“Good morning, Mr. Lawrence.”
Aidan turned several full circles, trying to see where Sir Hugo was, but there was no one there.
“I trust your journey went well enough, all things considered?”
“Um, yes,” Aidan said nervously. “That is…there was a little trouble. I ended up In-Between, but Peter got me out.”
A frown crept into the formless voice. “In-Between?”
“I got pulled in,” Aidan explained. “There was this man with silver eyes….”
There was a pause, in which Aidan wondered if he had been left alone again. It was impossible for someone to be this silent; not even the tiniest shifting of garments or scrape of a toe over carpet gave Sir Hugo’s position away in the dark corners. “Thank you for telling me,” the voice said at last. “Something will need to be done about that. But for now…has anyone explained who I am, Mr. Lawrence?”
Aidan thought about it, but shook his head. “No, sir. I know you…own the company? But that’s really all.”
“Yes. I am also the director. I did not have The Masque built, but I have been responsible for it for over two hundred years, both in life and in death. Do you know why you are here?” Aidan didn’t reply at once, but the disembodied director went on, “You were one of the finest artists of this current age. Unrealized, but brilliant beyond a doubt. When you died, I could not resist sending Peter to rescue you from the grave. I apologize for him being a bit late,” he added. “He was meant to escort you.”
“This is what I do, you see,” Sir Hugo went on. “Every soul in this company has been chosen for a reason. Each of them was the best at what they did—whether the world paused to notice makes no difference. You may not find the faces of renowned singers, actors, or musicians on my stage, but you will always find truth in artistry. Do you understand?”
“I think so,” said Aidan, although he felt a little uncomfortable being told that he had been an artistic genius when there were no such memories to back it up. Something else bothered him, too: maybe the fact that the fool and Sir Hugo were, in effect, grave robbers. But then again, what was the point of leaving a perfectly good artist to rot in the ground?
“Let us hope so,” Sir Hugo said. “Our last scene-painter left us recently, and I am counting on you to take his place.” He paused, and when he spoke again his words were careful. “Do not think of your fate as macabre, Mr. Lawrence. Instead, think of it as a pleasant alternative. Which is better? Eternity in the dark ground, or unfettered years of inspiration and creativity? You can call this paradise, if you like.”
“That’s just what I was thinking,” Aidan admitted. “Thank you, really. I’m grateful to be here. I just wish I remembered…well, anything. I’m not sure how much help I’m going to be.”
“Rest assured,” said Sir Hugo, “you will remember what is important.”
The lights went out. Aidan froze, terrified to move and silently complaining about the unnecessary dramatics. But then a gloved hand found his shoulder, and Peter pulled him from the room.
Lori was faced with a man and a woman, both young, both lying together on a bed soaked crimson. They themselves were just as blood-stained. The man was dark-haired and had the smooth, lightly-browned skin of someone who spent a good deal of time outdoors, while the woman had vibrant red hair that cascaded over her fair shoulders. The ruined blankets were drawn modestly up to her chest and her head had been propped up on several pillows. She would have seemed almost angelic, but the porcelain skin was turning sickly yellow and both her cheekbones—which had the appearance of formerly being very fine—had been broken, along with her nose.
The man lay on top of the covers with his hand resting in the woman’s. Unlike hers, his severe, narrow features were unbroken, though he was just as bloody as she. His skin had not yet begun to yellow.
How was that possible? For that matter, even the woman should have been more of a mangled corpse than she presently was. It wasn’t exactly air-tight in here—not nearly enough to preserve their bodies so well for so long. There should have been damp and mold. Lori backed away. This was worse than finding the mummy. That, at least, made some sort of sense. This was wrong.
The man sat up. His eyes, the wild blue of ice, flew open and stared at her in alarm. Lori screamed and ran for the door. She got halfway down the corridor before she realized that he hadn’t followed.
Now, from what she understood, one generally wanted to run away from zombies, ghosts, or whatever he was. She certainly did. But the urge writhed under the crushing heel of this impossible quest she had dragged her missing godfather on—the urge to learn. With her hands clenched and shaking at her side, Lori turned and went back to the bedroom.
“Go away! Fiend!”
The man had scrambled from the bed in an effort to put himself between her and the woman. His arms were flung wider than his eyes, which was saying something. If he hadn’t just been lifeless a moment ago, he wouldn’t have seemed at all intimidating.
“I’m not a fiend,” Lori said. “Are you?” He seemed to seriously consider her question and then shook his head. “That’s good,” she went on, hardly knowing what she was saying. “Neither of us are fiends. I thought you were dead, though.”
A tense moment passed. The blood-caked ghoul ran a hand anxiously through his crop of raven hair as the ship rocked viciously beneath them, its beams groaning in weary chorus. Then, without warning, the man burst into laughter. It was the type of sound you worried would stay with you for a long time. It began soft and timid and then leapt high, growing loud and unhinged. Shivers ran down Lori’s spine as he seemingly lost all sense and let his lunatic cackle fill the cabin.
“Sorry, I’m sorry,” he gasped at last, wiping tears from his eyes with a final chuckle. “I am dead, of course. More’s the pity. We are still on track, aren’t we? No, no, you wouldn’t know.” His cold eyes settled on her again and he raised a speculative eyebrow. “What’s your name?”
“…Foxe,” she said.
He smiled. “Clever. I am Despernot. This is my muse.” He rested a slender hand against the edge of the bed, looking fondly at the corpse.
“What’s her name?” Lori asked, trying to be polite.
“She had one, yes.” The madman crawled back onto the bed and bent over his companion. He forgot Lori and twirled a few locks of the lady’s fiery hair through his fingers. Then he kissed her twice, full on the lips with an almost childish sweetness, and stood again with a sigh. “Would you like to walk the deck with me?”
It took Lori a moment to recover from her disgust. “What? There’s a storm….”
“No there isn’t.”
The ship stopped rocking. The boards fell silent, and the wild sound of rain melted away. Despernot held out a hand to her. “I’d be glad if you would. I haven’t seen the stars in a very long time. She doesn’t ever want to see them.”
Lori did not take the hand, but she nodded. She followed him up to the deck, sick with questions, suppressed terror, and possibly the motion of the sea. She couldn’t remember the last time she had prayed, but she sent up an earnest one begging for Foxe to be reunited safely with her…and for the icy-eyed lunatic not to decide he wanted a second muse.
(TCOS continues on Thursday evening! Thanks for reading and happy haunting!)