There were no armed ghouls or muscle-bound monsters outside Aidan’s studio door. Nobody hovered over his shoulder, and he was no locked in. In fact, for all he knew, Peter and Sir Hugo might remain blissfully ignorant of his conversation with Eve and Eastling and their plan to expose The Masque for what it was. However, every time he dared to venture beyond the confines of his “floating island,” as Alexandre had once put it, someone inevitably appeared in the hallway, preventing any attempt to meet up with his co-conspirators.
He had also received extra work. Not only was he still required to complete the backdrops for that stoic playwright, but now dozens of old canvases took up the back of his workspace, waiting to be touched up and restored. Obviously he was meant to keep busy, but his work had become impossible to concentrate on.
Even worse, neither Eve nor Eastling had been to see him for two days. There had been no word at all. In fact, now that he thought about it, nobody had stopped by in all that time—not even Giselle or Alexandre. It was half past three in the morning on the second night when Aidan’s impatience finally turned to full-on fear and he began to expect the hand of Sir Hugo to strike him down.
He sat hunched over on his four-legged stool in front of the night field’s enormous canvas. It was still as incomplete as it had been days ago. A paint brush lolled listlessly in his hand, dripping thick black drops onto the tarp beneath. What would happen, he wondered, if he simply refused to work? Would Sir Hugo’s deceptively pleasant voice come floating out of the walls to threaten him? What could he be threatened with? Banishment, he supposed, like the artist before him. It sounded like an easy way out, but upon reflection Aidan decided that whatever had become of his predecessor was most likely much worse than simple excommunication.
With a heavy sigh he straightened and began to dab at the canvas once more. Black highlights blossomed here and there at his command, slowly bringing the painting to life. But there was not the same surge of excitement as before. No hurricanes of artistic fervor swept through his mind as he painted; all was methodical, calculated, and although the results were full of exquisite detail and pain-staking attention, they were artless.
Minutes passed. Long, tedious, horrible minutes. Unrest echoed impossibly loud in his head and he wished the thin crack in his skull would split open to let out all the drowning din. Water dripped from the sink where other brushes and palettes were soaking. The studio lights hummed in the distance. Finally, he could take it no more.
Aidan had learned that his nature was not a particularly violent one. He was far too timid to let his mounting frustration wreck any real destruction and far too cautious to do anything rash, no matter what visions of stress-relieving chaos danced before his eye sockets. In his imagination he over-turned the stool, pulled down all of the canvases and tore them to shreds. He flew up to the top of the paint loft and kicked every can of paint over the side and watched in breathless satisfaction as hundreds of colors cascaded in thick rivers onto the floor.
In reality he flung his paintbrush at the studio door.
He expected to hear a quiet, ineffectual “tink” and clatter as the harmless projectile hit, but instead there was a wet impact and a sharp intake of breath as it struck the person standing in his doorway.
“I’m sorry!” Aidan said, jumping up from his stool.
It was a girl, close to Giselle’s age, perhaps seventeen or so. She was pale and sickly-looking, with a mess of black hair trying desperately to escape from its bun. A simple grey dress and unlaced black boots made up her outfit, which would have made her totally indistinguishable from the average human being…if not for the feather sticking out of her left eye.
Aidan had just enough time to realize it was a quill, rather than an ordinary feather, and that the eye it had pin cushioned was no longer so much an eye as a bloody mess of dried up ooze, before the young woman smiled and began to laugh. “Hello,” she said, poking at the thick blot of black on her dress. “I’m bleeding ink.”
“It’s paint,” Aidan replied, going to grab a damp cloth from the sink. “You’ll be all right. I’m sorry about that.” He began to dab at her dress. The paint mark was shaped like a bullet wound. “Oh, sorry,” he added after a moment of fumbling with the stain. “I think I’m just making it worse.”
“No fear.” She stooped and retrieved Aidan’s brush from the floor. She carried it carefully to the sink and let it slip into the water with the other soaking items. Once it had disappeared, she smiled again. “I’m the poet.”
Aidan started to say that he knew, but decided it would be safer to nod. No need for her to know that the quill in her eye was the only reputation she had.
“I’m Aidan Lawrence,” he said instead.
“If you say so. I’m glad you’re back.”
She leaned against the ladder to the paint loft, twirling a stray bit of hair. “You’ll sort things out, won’t you? We’ve been terrible, playing around with death. But you’ll set it all right. You and Evelyn, and Liam Eastling….” She stroked the smooth black feather between two of her fingers and sighed. “We’re all counting on the three of you. You’ll sort it out.”
“All of you?” Aidan asked. “Who exactly…?”
“Why, the Company, of course. Do you suppose we all want to remain Sir Hugo’s puppets forever?” She smiled a sickening smile and licked the corners of her lips. “We aren’t all as far gone as Evelyn thinks, you know.”
Aidan begged to differ, but he kept his mouth shut. The poet bit the end of the piece of hair she was holding and began to chew it.
“There are some people who can uproot him, you know. My father, I mean.”
“Who’s your father?”
“Sir Hugo, of course. Sir Hugo Averick.”
Aidan had no idea how to respond to that. The theory that The Masque’s disembodied director had prospective company members murdered might very well suggest that the horrible wound in the poet’s face was his fault, too. Had he ordered Peter to kill his own daughter? Perhaps he had done it himself. Even if he hadn’t, there was still the fact that Eve had mentioned—that the poet was kept locked up. What sort of a monster was capable of treating his family so? Aidan’s thoughts flew, painting one grisly picture after another.
The poet was giving him an odd look. “Well?”
“Sorry. Um, who can uproot him?”
Aidan waited for her to elaborate, but all she did was smile. “Death. Fear. Wickedness. Darkness.” For a long, tense moment she smiled at him. Her arms were folded across her chest and her one good eye seemed to be trying to draw understanding from him.
“Goodbye,” she said suddenly.
“What? Wait!” Aidan called after her, but she was gone; the only sign she had been there at all was the sound of her boots echoing down the corridor. He stood where he was for a moment, waiting for his mind to catch up on their bizarre conversation. But before it could make it past her cryptic comment about madness, Peter Grey appeared in a flurry of blue coattails.
“Where is she?” he demanded. Aidan had never seen him so upset. It was almost as if he was afraid of something, though surely it wasn’t the poet. As odd as she was, Aidan hadn’t exactly felt threatened.
“Who?” he replied.
“Hell’s hammock, you’re an idiot,” the fool hissed. “The poet! The girl with the quill in her eye!”
“I haven’t seen her.”
Being a skeleton had its advantages. For one thing, it was practically impossible to tell if he was lying or not. All he had to do was be careful of his tone and not do something stupid with his body language, and the rest would take care of itself. Peter’s hands were clenched at his sides as he stared in frustration at the artist.
“You know,” he said, a statement which made Aidan’s figurative heart jump for a moment. “Sometimes I wonder why I bothered to bring you here,” he finished.
“Because Sir Hugo told you to?” Aidan offered. The fool’s perfect makeup creased at his forehead as he frowned.
“Yeah, that’ll be why. If you see that girl, send word.”
Without bothering to explain how exactly Aidan was supposed to do that, the fool vanished, unknowingly following the poet’s path back into the bowels of the theatre.