(A day late because of Memorial Day, but here we are….extra long chapter! Enjoy!)
It took everything in Lori’s power to walk out of the theatre side by side with Despernot. He was calm again, as polite and pleasant as he had been for the first short while she had known him. He even smiled kindly at her as they pushed past a couple of company members trying to jam playbills down each other’s throats and tried to take her hand.
“It feels unpleasant, doesn’t it, Foxe?”
She snatched her hand away. “Yes.”
“Are you going to kill yourself from grief?” he asked hopefully.
“To be, then,” he said with a shrug.
They stood on the front steps of The Masque, facing the rising of the sun. Lori supposed she should cry or something to show how much her “father’s” death had affected her. But the emotion was not there, and it was probably safer not to force it. She was sad, of course, that Tristan had sacrificed himself because of her, but it had worked. Not only that, but he would be back; she had no doubt. They hadn’t really lost anything at all. Except maybe Peter. And all the company members who had sent each other back to the road out of insanity. And Sir Hugo still had Death. But other than that…all was well.
“I have a present for you,” said Despernot.
“What is it?”
“I left it in the costumes’ loft.”
“Awesome, thanks. Are you going away now?”
He smiled and took her hand before she could stop him this time, planting a small, chaste peck on the back of it. “I will see you again, Foxe. After I find my muse. And when I find her, I’ll give back your father.”
She gave him a grudging grimace and he let her go. One wave later and he was gone, making his way across the square before the stretching sunlight caught up with him.
It took Lori a while to reach the costumes’ loft. She had glimpsed it earlier during her trip backstage, but the theatre was still feeling the effects of Despernot. Everywhere she went, people were locked in various states of insanity. There was a woman in the foyer licking each of the paintings. There were two actors roaming the halls looking for Constantinople. When they saw her approach they lapsed into Latin and shot dirty looks until she was gone.
People had begun to congregate in the house when she got there. There was a motley play going on onstage, accompanied by a few musicians who were desperately trying to keep up and remember how to play their instruments. Various bodies lined the aisles, tucked between seats, slumped in the middle of rows, all mumbling and staring up at the ceiling. Most of them were talking about stars.
Lori shoved her way past a group of scene-shifters who were trying to move people off-stage as if they were props that had strayed out of place. When at last she stood alone backstage, safe in the quiet of the curtains, she allowed herself a sigh of exhaustion. It was up to her, now, but she had time. The company was occupied, Despernot was gone…all she had to do was find Death and leave. God knew what she would do then.
She scaled the ladder to the loft and pushed through the trapdoor. It was a sea of clothing chaos. Someone had been here and wrecked havoc, tossing costumes everywhere. She reminded herself again that there was time and set about digging through the mess. No corner was left untouched. She fought her way to the bottom of every massive pile, but always came away empty-handed. And then she heard footsteps.
They came from above, and as her eyes followed the sound, she found the second trapdoor. It was already open. She crept carefully over costumes, back to the ladder, and hauled herself up just enough to peer onto the loft’s top level. In the dim glare of a blue emergency light, she could just see a hunched figure sitting with its legs dangling under the railings. There was a rope around its neck that extended up into the darkness.
It didn’t noticed her as she climbed the rest of the way. Not even when she had drawn close enough to see clearly the spikish hair and draping blue coat-tails. It’s head remained bowed, its hands firmly clenched around something in its lap.
“Peter,” Lori said at last.
“Sure,” she replied, and sat down beside him, sliding her legs under the railing next to his. “You kind of abandoned us anyway. I don’t care if you take a dive.”
He turned his head slightly to look at her, one fiery eyebrow raised. “Then what are you doing?”
She nodded at the thing in his hands. “I want that.”
They both looked down at the silver box. It was covered in scuff marks from a thousand unsuccessful attempts to open its lid, despite there being no lock. Bathed in the blue light, it looked like a battered slice of the moon.
“I don’t know how I found this,” Peter said. “I got it wrong, at first. I went to find Sir Hugo—that’s why I left you so abruptly. I didn’t want him overhearing.”
Lori nodded. “I figured it was something stupid like that. You realize Tristan died thinking you betrayed us. Again.”
“I hope you don’t talk like this to all suicidal ghosts.”
A faint smile tugged at her lips. “Just the ones who murdered my dad. But go on,” she added a bit more seriously. “What happened then?”
Peter sighed. “I did find him. I found a box, too, like this one, but it was a trap. I thought for certain I was headed back for the road, but then…the scene-shifters just went mad. They started ripping each other’s hoods off and trying to gouge their eyes out. One of them tried to dance with me while her eyes spat pus.”
“So I ran. And then I…I think I went a little mad, too. I don’t remember anything after getting past the stables. I woke up here, with this box in my hands and this damn noose around my neck again.”
“Despernot,” Lori said quietly. “He helped you find it. How do we open it?”
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t still be sitting here.”
She nodded, frowning, trying to go back over everything she could remember from her conversation with Despernot to see if he had left any clues. But there wasn’t much. Beside her, Peter had gone quiet again, his eyes wandering far away. In the split second between heartbeats, Lori felt sorry for him for the first time. And then she knew what they had to do.
“He gave us the key.”
“Despernot. I know how we can open the box. I think.” She looked at him, allowing some of the brief pity she had felt to leak into her gaze. Peter’s own face turned ashen as he saw it.
“You don’t suppose…?”
“The box on his ship was opened because the crew went insane. It probably prompted them to it, but…it took a mad person to free Madness.”
“So it will take a dead person to free Death.”
“Not just dead. Anyone here could have opened it, if that were true. Dying.”
The fool frowned, “But I’m already dead. Shouldn’t it be you taking a dive, by that logic?”
She gave it some consideration and then shook her head. “You may already be dead, but there will still be a moment right before you get forced back to the road. That’s when you need to open the box. If it doesn’t work,” she added before he could protest, “I’ll do it. But you should at least try, first. I don’t want to die if I don’t have to.”
“Satan’s hooves,” the fool swore, “you really are terrible at talking people down.”
“Sorry,” she smiled bitterly. “I….” her voice trailed off. The space between heartbeats seemed to be getting longer. She felt, for a moment, truly terrible for him. Not just for this, but for everything. She fumbled for words, her mouth half open in readiness for them, but nothing would come.
She hugged him. Her arms wrapped tight around the fool and she leaned her head against his shoulder and bit back tears. For a moment he seemed too stunned to do anything, but then he set Death’s box aside and returned her embrace firmly.
They said nothing; it would have been too dangerous. Had she said “I forgive you,” it would not have been true. Had she told him she was sorry again, it would have meant even less.
At last he let her go and leaned back a bit to get a good look at her in the blue light. “You’re fairly impressive, you know that?”
Lori frowned, wiping at her eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I admire you, and I hope we can be friends, despite….”
She nodded. “I think we can.”
Peter drew his legs out from under the railing and stood, retrieving the box from where it sat in the dust. He adjusted the noose around his neck until it fit the blueprint of his old wound. Then he gave her a wry smile that was much more like his old self. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m a pro at this.”
He climbed onto the railing, balancing precariously with the box in his hands. And then, before Lori could even muster a “goodbye,” he jumped.
The rope went taught immediately. There was a strangled gasp, and by the time Lori leaned over the railing to look, Peter was hanging in mid-air twelve feet above the wings. He neither kicked nor struggled, but calmly pulled at the lid, fighting with it until the strength ebbed from his fingers. Then, as his eyes rolled backwards into his head and his jaw slackened, the box slipped from his grip and fell. It hit the black boards of the wings and burst open.
Lori was in danger of falling from the loft herself as she leaned over to see the strange, small object that had been freed from the box. It was pale white and curved, almost like a…bone. It was a bone. She didn’t know enough to know which bone it was, but there was no mistaking it. Then Peter’s rope snapped and he plummeted to the ground, landing on top of the small bone. There was a definite ‘crunch.’
She fled down the ladder, past the first level, back down to the boards of the wings where the fool’s crumpled body waited. His eyes were still looking in places they shouldn’t and his mouth was stuck grotesquely gaping, but Lori didn’t hesitate to push him onto his side and search for the bone. All she found were bits.
“Damn it,” she swore, “what now?”
“It wasn’t important.”
She couldn’t help a short scream as Peter sat up. She clamped her hands over her mouth to muffle the rest of it, but she wanted very badly to run. “You’re…you’re okay?” she asked. And then he turned, and the sight of his eyes answered her question. They were empty and black.
“People have their oddities,” said the person who wasn’t Peter. He moved as he should, except for his hands, which seemed more expressive somehow, more graceful. He spoke as he should, but his words were softer, the ends of them half-threatening to vanish into whispers. “They assign significance to things that often have none. That’s how we get superstitions,” he added. “That bone was unnecessary. It belonged to my first companion, and they assumed they would need to confine a piece of her, too.”
“…companion?” Lori managed. “Like, Doctor Who?”
“Um, what do you mean, companion?”
“A partner. My brothers call them hosts.”
“Oh. So you’re….”
“Death,” said Peter’s voice. “I thought you knew this.”
“Yeah,” she stammered, “but I just–”
“Find it difficult to believe.”
The smile Peter gave her would have been gentle, if it hadn’t been stuck beneath the deep blackness of his eyes. “I owe you a debt,” said Death. “Tell me what you want.”
“Oh, no, I’m good,” said Lori. “I’ve read too many books where people make deals with you.”
“Reconsider,” Death said. “My brothers and I make it a point never to serve mankind. You have a rare opportunity.”
She thought about it. “Can you get rid of Sir Hugo? Make sure he’ll never come back?”
Death sighed. “I had already planned to do so. Ask for something else.”
Lori fell silent, frightened and conflicted. She had no idea what she wanted. When all of this started, with Peter’s photograph and Foxe’s help, she would have simply said she wanted the people responsible to pay for what they had done. Well, now they had; Peter was suffering enough for his crimes, and Sir Hugo was as good as finished. “One question before I decide,” she said at last. “Is my dad okay? Is he…happy, wherever he is?”
Death took a moment to consider, its black eyes staring off into the curtains. “He never crossed the bridge,” it said at last. “He moved on. Whether he is happy or not, I have no power where he is. I cannot bring him back.”
“No, that’s okay.” Lori looked down at her hands, her heart beating as quickly as her decisions were running out. Far be it from her to pull her father out of the afterlife, even if she could. What if he hated her when he came back? He hadn’t exactly been fond of her while he was living, or at least his lack of motivation in providing for her had shown that. Perhaps it was time that she, too, moved on.
“I think,” said Death, “that perhaps you should consider what is to come. I will deal with Sir Hugo, but he has had centuries to spread his influence throughout the shifts. He has men and women, dead and alive, who would continue his work. Who would bridge the shifts and use my domain for gain. We are lucky that all he wanted to do was live forever and create a theatre company. Perhaps one of his disciples will not be so benign.”
“He wasn’t exactly benign,” Lori frowned. “This theatre cost a ton of people their lives.”
“Exactly. Do you wish someone worse to succeed in their plans?”
Death nodded, brushing a patch of dust from Peter’s shoulder. “I always have good points,” it said matter-of-factly. “I suggest that you ask me for something that will help you work against these people.”
“I leave that to you.”
Lori hesitated, her heart racing. “Can I…can I have two things?”
Death gave her a wry smile, and for a moment she was afraid again, but then it borrowed Peter’s laugh and nodded. “Of course. Brave girl.”
“There was a man. Samuel. He was sort of dead, but not really. Frost-bitten. He wore a belt of bones. I’d like him back, just as he was, if you can manage it. He could help me.”
“That is well. I know of Samuel. He is one of the old kind…one of those dedicated to worshipping me through respect rather than greed. I will have him to you. What else do you wish?”
Lori’s hands were trembling. “I don’t want to die.”
Death raised one of Peter’s eyebrows. “Life is not meant to be a permanent engagement. Any Ithen will tell you that. Even Samuel would.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to be undead or anything like that. I’m okay with living, growing old, all of it….I just want to leave life on my own terms, when I’m ready. I…I want you to take me when I ask. Not a moment before.”
“I see,” said Death slowly. “Dying is inconvenient to you.”
Lori dared not say anything else. She simply waited, and at last, with a sigh, Death nodded.
“So be it, then. When you give the word, I will come for you. Not a moment before.”
Death looked about the theatre with a critical eye. “Goodbye now, I think. I have no desire to remain in this theatre a moment longer than I need.”
“Are…are you taking Peter with you?”
In answer, Peter’s body burned with spasms, driving itself to its knees until his eyes lost their blackness. Fear took its place, mingled with bewilderment, and for a moment all he seemed able to do was stare at her. Finally, hoarsely, two single words broke free from his throat.
Lori managed a smile. “You’re okay. Well, you’re still dead. But Death is gone. It just borrowed you.”
“Death said it was going to take care of him. I guess…I guess we’re done here.”
“Maybe.” The fool let her help him to his feet. He was unsteady, even paler than usual. She thought about saying something comforting, but decided against it; speaking with him still felt dangerous.
Together they took the stairs down from the stage and wandered into the house. Lori kept one arm around him in case he stumbled, but by the time they reached the house doors he was walking on his own. His eyes, although back to normal, had gone somewhere else entirely to busy themselves with questions she didn’t dare ask.
At last they stood in the foyer, quite alone. Lori cleared her throat awkwardly. “What now?”
“I have to explain things,” Peter said. “To the company. They need to know what has happened, what has been happening for all these years…and that they can leave. Who knows, after tonight we might not have a company anymore.”
She shrugged. “That will be the least of our worries. I’m going to wait here for a bit. Death said it would bring Samuel back to me. He’s going to help us stop anyone out there who’s still working for Sir Hugo.”
Peter grimaced at her. “Us?”
“Sorry. Me, I guess. You do what you need to do.”
They lapsed into an uncomfortable silence, interrupted now and then by the walls creaking ever so slightly. Lori was just about to give up on him and head off to find a room to rest in until Samuel’s arrival when shuffling footsteps echoed into the foyer. They were coming from the hall that held the offices, trudging steadily closer. It was a mark of how tired they both were that neither of them bothered to hide.
The man who hobbled into view had skin so thin, so stretched and pale that Lori thought she could almost see the bones beneath. His hair was stringy and wispy white, his hands trembling and old. He walked towards them, and as he crossed into the foyer she saw his eyes—deep, relentless black.
“Is that Sir Hugo?” she asked.
Peter nodded. “Is that Death?”
She nodded, and together they stood aside to let him pass. Death glanced but once in her direction, and she thought she saw it wink.
“What’s it going to do with him?” Peter whispered.
“Nothing good, probably.”
The bag of bones pushed with all its strength and opened the foyer doors. It stepped out into the light, blinking and frail. They saw it cast its glance around with mouth agape, and then the doors swung shut and it was gone.