They had been convinced, not unreasonably, that their way would be full of pitfalls. They expected to hide from company members at every turn and assumed that the entire theatre would be at arms awaiting their arrival. But evidently they were not as important as they had assumed.
There was no one. Not a single soul to be seen. They could occasionally hear voices filtering from vents or behind walls in practice rooms, but they met no one in the corridors. Everyone, it seemed, was in their place. The seam-makers were busy in their shop, the scene-changers were lurking in the wings, and everyone was else was either in the house rehearsing or else sequestered away in their respective workshops or rooms to practice their craft. Even Peter was impressed by this sudden show of dedication.
“I don’t get it,” he said with a shake of his head. “No security, and no one slacking off? This is wrong.”
“Maybe there’s a big performance coming up?” Aidan offered.
“Or maybe it’s a trap,” Lori said.
“Probably,” Peter agreed. “But until it rears its ugly head, we ought to take advantage of it. Let’s start with the poet. Bare Bones thinks she can help, so let’s flush her out. We’ll start with her room and go from there.”
“Wow,” Lori smirked, “an actual plan.”
Aidan hoped they both felt as nervous about all this as he did; it was hard to tell underneath the banter. For his own part, he was afraid his bones might leap apart from each other at the slightest sound. He brought up the back of their little group, not wanting Lori to get stabbed from behind. At least if someone decided to ram a knife through his ribs they would strike nothing but empty air.
Still their trip went without incident. Aidan’s anxiety levels were threatening to send him trembling to his knees by the time they reached a dismal door at the end of an after-thought of a hall. It was wedged into a corner between the dressing rooms and the stairs that led to the stables. Peter dealt with the lock and switched on the light.
“Damn,” he sighed.
The room was empty. Literally. There was nothing at all inside—not even a bed. The walls were grey brick, the floor nothing more than a concrete slab. The only breaks in the monotony were old smears of scattered poems written in blood.
“…what did you do to her?” said Lori.
“This was never my fault,” Peter replied. “She was here before I; I’m certain of that. Sir Hugo was always very specific about how she should be treated and what she was allowed to do.”
“Sure, but you could have done something about it. It’s your fault.”
“Why would he treat his own daughter like this?” Aidan said before the argument could escalate.
“Who knows?” Peter shut the door. It gave a soft little “click” as it closed, accompanied by the most delicate of coughs. The three of them stared at it in horror for a moment before the sound of laughter made them spin about.
“Oh,” the poet grinned, “your faces.” She was with Giselle, who was smiling just as widely.
“…cute,” Peter said. “We need to talk.”
She nodded, the quill in her eye bobbing along. “Absolutely. Please, step into my office.” She led them back into her room. Aidan would have thought that it would be the last place she’d want to hold a secret meeting, or indeed spend any time at all…but then it occurred to him that this was exactly why it was the best place to hide.
“We should be quick,” she said, sitting cross-legged on the floor. “My father isn’t all-seeing, but he isn’t slow, either.”
“Where is everybody?” Peter asked. He settled across from her and spread his coattails behind him like a fan.
“They’re busy,” she replied. “Giselle is in charge now, since Alexandre left. She’s a hard task-mistress. I’m rather proud of her.”
The fool arched an eyebrow at the young singer in her crisp, cream-colored dress. “You’re the next me?”
Giselle nodded solemnly. “For now. Sir Hugo asked for a company meeting. He said he wanted to place one of us in charge until Alexandre came back, and that our only duties would be to oversee and coordinate rehearsals and performances. None of the…extra things he had you doing. I…I volunteered, so that nobody who actually believes in his work would.”
Peter considered her words for a moment and then nodded in approval. “Well done.” Aidan shot him a surprised glance before remembering that he didn’t have any facial features with which to communicate such things. Lori’s expression did the job for him, though; apparently she found this helpful coincidence neither helpful nor coincidental. Peter ignored them, and so he looked instead to the poet, who gave him a smile that was distant, distracted, and not at all reassuring.
“Have you found Madness yet?” she asked.
“Um, no.” The words lefts his mouth with confidence, but when they hit the air they crystalized into cold shards of realization. He sat in dumb silence, his jaw hanging, and knew at last what she had meant that day in his studio.
“Despernot,” he whispered.
“I don’t know who he’s wearing,” the poet admitted. “What is this Despernot like?”
“Why are we talking about him?” Lori interrupted. Her hands were clasped patiently in her lap, but their knuckles were going pale.
“We…I think we needed him,” said Aidan. She gave him a worse look than the one usually reserved for Peter, and he hurried to answer the poet’s question. “He was insane. Completely insane. Blue eyes, dark hair, no shoes…oh, wait, no, you said it doesn’t matter. Um. He kept going on about his muse? He was fixated on hunting down Lori, and-”
“We may have left him behind in a fiery train crash.”
The poet’s smile faltered. A painful silence filled the space between them until at last she gave another delicate cough and went to stand in front of one of the empty walls. With practiced precision, she removed the quill from her eye. It departed with a squelching sound, and she began to write with it.
“Death, Darkness, Wickedness, Fear, and Madness,” she said, spelling out each one. “The things mankind dreads. The things they wish they could purge from the world. One day, long ago, they decided they would do just that. They summoned them, as you would a demon—as you would anything proud and ignorant of man’s venom. But how do you kill such things? How do you kill Death? Darkness?”
Her tone was growing furious, her hand shaking as she continued to write, scrawling words she was no longer saying. “You gather them. Imprison them in something you can kill. Something flesh and blood and bone and vulnerable. You give your enemies a face and break it into bits. If you can,” she added, giving the wall a vicious stab. “For all its bravado, mankind is weak. It gave them forms, and with that it granted them new ways and reasons to fight. Things that were once natural and indiscriminate became twisted out of shape. Vengeful. They resented what was done to them and laid waste to their summoners until they were locked away in little silver boxes and left to rot, or to be used by men who know nothing of consequence. And that,” she said with a final smear of blood, “applies to you, Tristan Hathaway. You and your friends murdered the only one of them that is free! The only one who can do anything about this place or its idiot master!”
She stepped away from the wall and shoved the quill unceremoniously back into her eye. They stared at the jagged smears of blood and found that her anger had become a mess of words in various languages and scripts that comprised an unintelligible poem. Her gaze was livid and wild, and in that moment it would have been easy to believe that she herself was Madness.
“So,” Peter said tentatively. “Assuming we believe any of that…which one are you?”
Her shoulders sagged a bit. Blood was trickling down her cheek. “I’m not,” she sighed. “I’m what I am, and nothing more. But my father…my father has one of them. All those ships he made you send, all those countries he drained of corpses…he couldn’t have cared less about the dead. It only takes one buried body to make a place of Both. He wanted the boxes. Specifically one of them. Death.”
“You’re telling me that Sir Hugo has Death trapped somewhere in this theatre?”
“Exactly. It can’t get out; none of them can get out of those boxes without help. But they can influence. It’s why all the company members forget. It’s why people like you kill themselves, or become complacent with killing others. It’s why I took my own life. I heard it, whispering to me, from the moment my father brought it here. It killed me, as leverage to make him let it go, but he didn’t. He…he just left me here.” Her voice broke, her hands falling limply to her sides. “This place is infected with death,” she said tearfully, “and you destroyed the only thing that might have helped it get what it wants.”
“He did have a box,” Lori spoke up. “Despernot had a silver box. It was open, and empty.”
“Do any of these…embodiments have silver eyes?” Aidan asked.
The poet shrugged. “Like I said, I don’t know who they’re wearing. But as far as I know, only Madness is out. Was,” she added pointedly.
“…what are we going to do?” said Lori. It was the question of the day, but instead of an answer she received a cheerful cry of “Hi, Giselle!”
William had pulled open the door and stood there now with his little sawdust-filled dog, grinning up at them all. “Sir Hugo told me to take you backstage.”
Giselle began to look panicked, but before she could open her mouth, Peter spoke for her. “We’ll be right along. Did he tell you anything else, Will?”
“Nope.” William trotted off with the Colonel at his heels, leaving them to enjoy the sinking of their hearts.
“What are we going to do?” Giselle whispered. “That message wasn’t just for me, or William would have been surprised to see you. He’s going to destroy us before we get a chance to-”
“We’ll go with him,” said Peter. “Like you said, it’s not as if we have the element of surprise. We’ll play along until an opportunity presents itself.”
“…to do what, exactly?” the singer insisted. “We have nothing!”
“Just a minute,” Aidan spoke up. They all turned to stare at him, and with a jolt of guilt he realized they were hoping he had thought of something helpful. “I was just wondering, why we have to do as he says? What happens if we don’t?” He directed his question towards the poet, Giselle, and Peter, but none of them could seem to reach an answer. At last the poet gave him a small smile.
“I always liked you, Tristan Hathaway. Always so level-headed. You’re right, of course. We don’t have to do anything he says.”
“That’s even less of a plan,” Peter argued. “He’ll send the wings after us, and probably a fair few company members. We won’t be able to rebel for long.”
“So we make the most of it,” said Lori. “There are five of us; why don’t we split up?”
The fool rolled his eyes. “Oh yes, that always ends well.”
“We could create distractions,” she pressed. “Something to keep the company members busy while we track him down.”
“But does he have a body?” asked Aidan.
Peter snorted. “Obviously.”
“Well, I’ve only ever heard him in the walls and empty rooms.”
“So of course a body can’t exist.”
“I just meant-”
“He’s got a body,” the fool growled. “He’s somewhere in this damned place. But it may take days to search. We don’t have that sort of time! If you’re going to waste it trying to think, at least attempt to come up with something that isn’t completely insipid!”
“Peter,” Giselle interrupted, putting a restraining hand on his arm, “calm down. He’s just trying to-”
With a violent shrug, Peter tore himself away from her. “You’re done. All of you. It won’t matter if you send this place up in flames or if it buries you beneath it. You’re finished, either way.”
“Hey, you’re part of this,” Lori frowned.
“You owe us!”
“I don’t!” He waved a hand at the poet, his voice rising. “You heard her! It’s Death! Death has taken our memories, Death has made me murder the lot of you! I’m as much of a victim as you are, and I’ve got just as much right to walk away now before things get worse.”
“I’m not really sure that’s possible,” the poet muttered.
“Well, I’m not sticking around to find out.” Peter pushed past them, bumping into Aidan’s nub of a shoulder on his way out. They could do nothing but stare at the back of his coat as it vanished down the corridor.
“…I’ll go backstage,” Giselle said after a crushing moment of silence had passed between them. “You were right to say we should split up. I’ll talk to Sir Hugo, keep his voice busy as long as I can. Come with me,” she said to the poet. “If you aren’t accounted for, he’ll start tearing the theatre apart.”
The poet nodded and linked arms with her. “Look for him,” she said to Aidan.
“Who? Sir Hugo or Peter?”
“Both, if necessary.” With that, they were gone.
“Maybe we should just leave,” Aidan suggested. “We definitely don’t owe anybody here. And it’s not like they’re really in danger,” he added as Lori began to glare again. “I mean, they’re already dead, and the worst thing that might happen to them is boredom.”
“What about when he starts recruiting more company members?”
Lori wandered over to read the blood smears. She folded her arms across her chest, frowning up at the unintelligible scrawls. “Maybe we don’t need to worry about Sir Hugo at all.”
“What? Why not?”
She turned to him with the beginnings of a smile. “Maybe we just need to find the silver box. We can steal it. Even if we aren’t able to open it, we should be able to lift it. Once it’s out of here, maybe Sir Hugo won’t be able to tap into Death.”
Aidan felt a swell of pride towards her. “Great idea.” The endings of his words faltered a bit. He hoped she wouldn’t catch it, but he ought to have known better.
“What wrong?” she asked.
“It’s just…I wish Peter had stuck around long enough for this. We might not have lost him, then.”
For a brief moment, he thought she was going to argue, or yell, or tell him to forget about the treacherous fool. But she swallowed whatever vitriol was rising within her and shrugged. “Not much we can do about that. Are you ready?”
He nodded, and together they set off to hunt for Death.
(TCOS continues next Monday!)