The evening of Giselle’s concert, Aidan was halfway done with the daylight field. He was so heartened by his success and so caught up in the re-discovered joy of his craft that he completely forgot she was set to perform at all, until her voice came floating into the studio, echoing from the stage in crystal glory.
With reluctance he brought a halt to his work and began to pack up the paints and brushes he had been using. She had supported and encouraged him so much already that it would be grossly unkind not to return the favor. Besides, he consoled himself, it would take much more than a short break to hinder his progress at this point.
The wings were almost as packed as the house when he arrived backstage. Many of the company had come to watch; they stood in dozens among the scene-shifters, who were perpetually at hand even during such simply staged affairs as this. They were a curious lot, the scene-shifters. Dressed all in black, they wore expressionless black masks that covered their entire faces, with no holes for either mouths or eyes. Their necks and heads were further obscured by tight hoods, and their feet wore soft black boots that made no sound when they walked.
Aidan sidestepped a few of these odd persons to reach a secure vantage point where he could easily see the stage while still keeping out of the audience’s sight. Giselle was lost in her performance, just as he had been lost in his art only moments before. He was struck again with how impossibly young she looked, in comparison to how wonderfully rich her voice sounded. In a flowing blue dress and with her wispy hair all done up in loose curls, she was perfect. The company was just as enraptured as the audience. If Aidan had had more than a bare skull for a face, he would have given her the proudest of smiles.
The piano was on stage, but without its stooped musician. Giselle was alone for this aria and, try as he might, Aidan couldn’t see either the pianist or his mysterious dark-haired woman. This was rather disappointing. Bit by bit his attention wandered from the song and his gaze probed the wings on the opposite side of the stage.
“Vissi d’arte,” Alexandre’s voice whispered behind him.
“…is that French?” Aidan whispered back. He did not turn, unwilling to give up his search.
The dancer laughed, “Italian. It is the name of her aria. ‘Vissi d’arte,’ from Tosca. Don’t worry, Mr. Lawrence; you will have an eternity to learn these things. You will learn music and languages, poetry and–”
Aidan was no longer listening. Giselle had reached the end of the aria, to thunderous applause. While she bowed and curtsied, the musicians in the pit were changing their sheet music…and two familiar figures were crossing the stage.
“There!” Aidan exclaimed, too startled by their sudden appearance to realize that he had spoken aloud, until Alexandre gave his shoulders a knowing squeeze.
“Ah, you are badly infected, Mr. Lawrence,” he smiled. “I see what you were looking for.” His blue-tinged lips parted mere inches from Aidan’s neck as he lowered his voice. “Her name is Eve. Be careful, though; there are rumors. Many have loved her at first—Peter Grey among them. But she is like Shakespeare’s dark lady. Those who have sworn her fair and thought her bright now think her black as hell and dark as night.”
Aidan couldn’t see anything of hell in Eve. He resolved to reserve judgment until he could meet her himself—an opportunity which came sooner than he would have expected. For close to half an hour he watched her accompany Giselle on the violin. Her skill was flawless, her focus stern and impenetrable. He could have spent all of his time merely watching her hands; they flew up and down the strings on spider wings, impossibly firm and graceful. When the concert ended and Giselle, Eve, and the pianist took their final bows, Aidan found himself clapping hard enough to rattle all of his bones. He also found that, sometime within his distraction, Alexandre had vanished from his side. The other company members had also begun to disperse, and as the dark velvet curtains fell scene-shifters crept silently out from the wings to cart away the piano and bench.
Giselle caught Aidan’s eye and picked up the corners of her dress to run to him. “You listened!” she cried.
“It was the best I’ve ever heard,” Aidan replied as she clasped him in a sisterly hug. He meant the compliment, even though he supposed it would have to be the best he had ever heard, considering none of his memories remained.
“Your accompanists were perfect, too,” he added. “Do you think you could introduce me, if they’re friends of yours?”
He was worried she would be insulted to have the focus drawn from her, but she beamed and took his hand of bone in her tiny, frail one. She led him out onto the stage, just as Eve was helping the pianist up from his bench so the scene-shifters could take it away.
“Eastling! Eve!” she called.
Both of them turned, but they stood as still as deer and exchanged solemn glances at Aidan’s approach. When Giselle introduced him, the pianist was the only one who offered to shake his hand, though in Eve’s defense both of hers were occupied—one with her violin and the other with steadying her companion.
“Liam Eastling,” the pianist said. His voice rang with his age. “Welcome to The Masque.”
“I’m glad to meet you both,” Aidan replied, suddenly nervous. He glanced in Eve’s direction, but only managed to procure a skeptic frown. In fact, while he and Eastling held what amounted to the briefest of conversations, her expression never faltered and he began to fear that this had been a mistake.
“I’ll be sure to look for your work in the next production,” Eastling said at last. This signaled the end of their meeting, and Aidan knew better than to do anything other than shake hands and part ways. But just as he had begun to do so, Eve spoke.
“One moment.” She beckoned Giselle forward and slipped the young singer’s arm under Eastling’s, in place of her own. “I’ll walk our new artist back to his studio.”
Aidan floated off to a cloud of elation. Eve walked alongside him back into the wings. He restrained himself from staring at her too much, although being a skeleton meant he was basically always staring. She didn’t look at him. She was silent until they reached the hallways and eventually the side door to his studio. Then all of his dreams of pleasant conversation and companionship were squashed as she turned on him, a cold light blazing in her eyes.
“What cellar did Sir Hugo drag you up from?”
“Aidan Lawrence. The skeleton they brought out of the closet days after the last artist, my friend, vanished. Did our esteemed director put you here to keep an eye on me?”
“N-no,” Aidan stammered. He wished she wouldn’t look like that. It made the empty hollow of his chest realize exactly how empty it was. She seemed to consider him for a moment. The intensity of her gaze lessened, but the layer of suspicion remained.
“You may not know that he’s using you,” she said. “But he probably is.”
“All I’ve been told to do is paint,” Aidan replied. “I don’t think he’s using me for anything other than that.”
She smiled, and that was worse. It was a cruel expression, one that told him he had missed something completely obvious while simultaneously deeming him below her interest. “I’m willing to bet Peter Grey was there when you woke up,” she said. “You found the lid of your coffin open, with blue sky overhead and him leaning over your body, blinking those ridiculous crosses at you. Am I right?”
“No,” he replied. “I didn’t have a coffin, and Peter didn’t turn up until I got stuck In-Between—”
“That’s not important. What matters is that Peter is always there. He was at my grave, he came for you…ask anyone here to tell you their story. It will always start with him. He’s ferried every single one of us past the last lamppost and down Lyle’s Way.”
“We’re dead anyway,” Aidan shrugged. “Better this than rotting in the ground or wandering around Out-shift forever. It doesn’t bother me that he and Sir Hugo are keeping an eye out for potential company members to wake up.”
“Would it bother you if they were also the ones putting them to sleep?”
Eve took his arm and pressed him against the wall. The mockery had gone, replaced by urgency and seriousness. “Listen to me, Aidan. We can’t leave the theatre. We’re prevented, if we dare to try. Sir Hugo selects every single one of us before we’re dead, and Peter goes to collect. You were selected. They needed a replacement scene-painter and here you are a few days later, murdered and ready to go.”
“I wasn’t murdered,” he protested.
“No? How do you know? Remember anything before your afterlife?”
“No. Neither do I. Neither does anyone. Not even Peter. What did you headstone say?”
The memory was less clear than it had been a week ago, but he fought to bring it back into his mind. “It said my name.”
“Anything else? Dates? How old were you?”
“Thirty-six,” she repeated with a sigh. “Giselle was only nineteen. I was twenty-four. There are children in the company—gifted little actors who died well before their time. There are several babies, brought her in case a play or scene required them. There are pregnant women, for the same reason. Imagine what that must be like, to be dead and carrying a dead child that will never, ever be born…all so that you can appear onstage for a moment.”
Aidan began to avoid her eyes. He didn’t want to believe her. He didn’t want any of that to be true. But in that same hollow place, he knew with a sinking certainty that it had to be.
“It’s barbaric,” Eve nodded, watching him. “Everything Sir Hugo needs, he gets.” A lone seam-maker was approaching, gliding along the hall with a heap of colorful scarves clutched carefully to her bony chest. She had been whispering to herself beneath her long black veil, but as her path brought her closer to them she fell silent.
“…come on,” said Eve. She dragged him along and held the door open as they slipped inside his studio. They stood together on the paint-stained concrete, and she fixed him with a gaze that was twenty shades more compassionate than it had ever been. When she spoke, her voice was still just as passionate, but she traded in the accusatory note for one of calm.
“Some of us have died of natural causes,” she admitted. “Eastling, the pianist, is pretty sure he did. But the rest of us…some bear the marks of murder. There’s a boy named William with hand-prints bruised onto his neck. Have you met the poet yet?”
“She’s got a quill through her eye.”
Aidan had to admit, that was a pretty severe sign. Poets didn’t just doze off and impale their retinas. And then there was Peter. She hadn’t mentioned him, and perhaps she didn’t know, but Aidan couldn’t forget the terrible scar that ran all the way around his neck. He wondered exactly how long the fool had been working for Sir Hugo, and if it had really been his choice.
“We’re trying to prove it,” Eve said, interrupting his thoughts. “Eastling and I have been searching for some way to wake up the company—something Sir Hugo and Peter can’t deny. Nobody will listen to us yet. Most of them have been here far too long.”
“What happened to the other artist?” Aidan asked, dreading the answer almost as much as he desired it. “Your friend?”
Her voice faltered and, for the first time since their conversation had begun, she looked away. “The last time I saw him, he was arguing with thin air. I assumed it was Sir Hugo. He kept saying he knew what was under us. Two days later, Peter brought you. Listen,” she said, which was rather redundant since Aidan was hooked on her words, “I have to go. Sir Hugo isn’t omni-present. He’s not god, despite what he likes to think. But he’s not slow, either. He’ll find out we’ve talked.”
“We’ll just have to be careful. I’ll send word, and when I do, promise you’ll come and meet me. I want to show you some things.”
Aidan wanted to say, “Why are you dragging me into this? I don’t want to be obliterated by an invisible megalomaniac. I just want to paint and pretend this is fine.” Unfortunately, it came out as, “I promise,” with a nod attached.
Eve smiled. “Good. You’d better not be a spy, Aidan Lawrence, or I’ll break every single one of your bones.”
With that, she left him. He stood staring at the door for a moment, and then he sank onto a drum of paint and put his skull in his hands.
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