(A bit late in the continuation, as I’ve been out with the flu, but here we are again!)
When dawn broke over The Masque and the sounds of morning rehearsals began to filter in from the stage, Aidan was deep in thought. He had climbed to the top of the paint loft, leaving his dirty brushes and unfinished work behind. Perched on a few cans of unopened green, he had lost himself. But now, the need to talk to someone was strong.
Ideally, he would have like to have caught the poet again, but by now that ship had probably sailed clean off the map and into whatever miserable place her father kept her locked away. The dialogue floating in from the stage belonged to the playwright’s bitter work of art. Aidan paused in his brooding long enough to listen for Peter’s voice; the fool was a part of the play. If he was occupied on stage at the moment, Aidan might just be able to sneak off and find Eve or Eastling, at the very least.
Just as he had made up his mind to spy from the wings, his studio door began to open. He looked down, careful not to make a sound, and saw a long-fingered hand appear, followed by an arm in the sleeve of a flawless dress suit. The door was pushed all the way open and Eastling stepped inside.
“Aidan?” the silver-haired pianist called. His voice was urgent. “Where are you?”
“Up here,” Aidan replied. It was a good thing that Eastling was already dead; there was enough surprise on his face to make Aidan fear for his heart. He shut the door and stood aside while Aidan climbed down from the paint loft, casting nervous glances at the far end of the studio which backed up against the wings.
“Eve is missing,” he said as soon as Aidan’s feet had touched the ground.
Cold settled at the base of Aidan’s spine. “Missing?” he echoed.
Eastling’s hands trembled as he braced himself against the sink. “She didn’t come when she ought to have, yesterday. We were going to practice….I went looking for her, but she’s gone. It’s taken me this long to find an opportunity to see you.”
The thought of Eve being gone forever, banished to oblivion like the artist before him, sent Aidan’s mind drumming into a panic. Eastling took hold of his arm with a grip far stronger than his anxious shuddering suggested. “We can’t look for her. If that’s what you’re thinking, forget it. We don’t dare, or we’ll go missing, too.”
“Then…what do we do?”
“We finish her work. Our work.” He paused to let his words sink in, but when Aidan showed no signs of understanding he let go of his arm and put both hands on Aidan’s shoulders instead. His gentle eyes were red with strong, unshed emotion; their dignified crow’s feet hardened his look into one of earnest persuasion.
“She was digging,” he said. “She found something. Go to the door under the stage in the east wing of the theatre. It’s past the stables; you’ll see it. You’ll need a code, but I–”
“Wait,” Aidan interrupted, “you mean you’re not coming with me?”
“I…” the pianist faltered. “I am not young anymore.”
Not brave anymore, more like it, a voice at the back of Aidan’s skull muttered. He couldn’t help feeling a bit incredulous; why should he have to do everything? He would have volunteered to help out of respect for Eve and her fate, but the pianist was making it feel like a suicidal mission. It was one thing for the poet to decide that he was responsible for solving everyone’s problems—that was insanity talking. But he doubted Eastling had such an excuse.
However, it appeared the pianist was prepared to fish for one. “I’m sorry, Aidan,” he said, “but I don’t dare press my luck with Sir Hugo.”
Aidan shrugged out from under his touch. “So why should I? Is that what you told Eve, too?”
Eastling stared at him. “Eve’s disappearance isn’t my fault. She knew what she-”
“What about the artist before me? Did you tell him it was up to him, too? Besides,” Aidan went on before the pianist could interrupt, “you’ve already turned against Sir Hugo. I mean, here you are, spear-heading escape attempts.”
“Yes, but he doesn’t know that.” Eastling’s fingers had gone back to the sink again and were threatening to drum right through its ceramic surface. “Coming to see you like this is the most visible action I’ve ever taken against him. I’m…I’m meant to stay in my practice room when I’m not on stage or needed elsewhere. If I were to go so far as to continue our work myself….”
His point was becoming crystal clear.
“I will be caught, won’t I,” Aidan said. “That’s why you won’t be the one. You know it won’t work. The last artist started it, Eve got a little farther, and now it’s my turn. Whatever I don’t finish will be picked up by whoever you decide to use after me. Isn’t that right?”
Eastling looked down, and Aidan knew that it was. There was a hint of Peter’s trademark sarcasm to his voice when he spoke again. “Why can’t I just stay here, on this ‘island,’ and forget? Why shouldn’t I just become part of the scenery, like these,” he gestured to the drying canvases, “and never have to worry about being un-made, sent away, destroyed, or whatever happened to Eve? Why can’t I spend the rest of my afterlife in peace?”
The pianist’s jaw tightened. He chose and formed words without voicing them, mouthing for a moment before his frustration became too much. “Because you can’t! You know what this place is! You can’t just stand by and do nothing!”
Aidan folded his arms across his chest. He would have raised an eyebrow if he could have. “Exactly. Can you?”
Fear drained from the old man’s face, and his whole body seemed to sag. “It’s astonishing,” he sighed at last. “You knew Eve so briefly, but already you’re acting like her. Tristan was the same.”
“The last artist?”
He nodded. His fingers had ceased to drum.
“Maybe you should take that as a sign,” said Aidan.
“I’ll come with you,” the pianist agreed, “but we need to leave now. The longer we wait, the less chance we have.”
Aidan had nothing to take with him, but he cast one last glance back at the studio. Whether it was some trick of the theatre’s or simply a natural twinge of guilt, he found himself wary of leaving his work. His paints, brushes, and canvases—finished and half-finished—tugged at imaginary heart strings and reminded him that they had done their part to make The Masque feel like a paradise.
He shut the door quietly on all his protesting memories and the thought that he might never come back. He might never make another master stroke across blankness—might never breathe life into anything again. Eastling had already begun to inch down the dark hallway and, with a sigh, Aidan followed, keeping an eye socket out for spies.
When they had almost reached the end of the halls containing shops and studios, they found their way blocked. Eastling stopped short and put a hand out behind him, motioning for Aidan to halt as well. The two pressed themselves up against the cold brick wall and kept deathly quiet, knowing they teetered on the edge of discovery.
The entire hall was crawling with seam-makers.
Some of them were literally crawling. They stooped and bent and crouched among heaps of discarded, jumbled costumes. Feverish whimpers and half-breathed words hissed from under their dark veils as they lifted each piece of clothing in their rotting hands. They pressed the costumes to their covered cheeks and tried to soothe them as if they were children who had fallen and scraped their knees.
Aidan stepped away from the wall, ignoring Eastling’s frantic look of warning. Careful not to tread on any gaudy vests, dusty slacks, or Victorian-era dresses, he picked his way through the midst of the commotion and arrived safely on the other side. None of the seam-makers had even glances his way. One of them was struggling to put together a rack on wheels which had mysteriously lost all of its screws. The others were far too busy tending to their cloth babies to pay a wandering skeleton any heed.
When Eastling joined him on the other side of the fabric mess, a small smile was tugging at the corners of his lips, betraying what Aidan hopped was a shred of recovered bravery. Though he could not return the smile, Aidan touched his shoulder briefly and let him lead the way.