This story begins with a woman.
I am not a man of letters, and I had hoped that after my account of the investigation of Prince Franz Drago's death, I might put aside the pen forever. Yet these recent events force me back; I must record them, lest I forget her words, and her voice, and the dreams --
But I am ahead of myself, and I have misspoken besides. This story begins not with a woman but with an event we had not anticipated after the Franz Drago bungle: a visit to our house at Baker Street by one of royal blood. We were seated in the sitting room, my friend preparing his newest astrophysical essay and I engaged in cleaning my revolver, when we heard the tell-tale sounds of a Hansom cab arriving at the door. My companion barely registered the sound, as such things had long since become routine; indeed, they were the simple sustenance of the consulting-detective trade. It was not until our landlady gasped and began her obesiances that we had any sign of the nature of our visitor.
As he stepped into the drawing-room, followed by the still-apologetic Mrs Hudson, our visitor's nature was impossible to mistake. Even under the hat, cloak, and other layers of heavy clothes, the faint shapes of his limbs remained, and he walked with a liquid gait that could never be mistaken for a human's. I rose and bowed; after a moment, my friend followed me and began to speak. "Your Highness, Prince Oktavian of Bohemia, if I might presume. Has your time in Albion proved pleasant?"
I had never heard of any traveling Prince Oktavian, and I could not help a glance at my friend in hopes of an explanation, but the Prince merely nodded nonchalantly. "You are as clever as I have been told, sir detective," he began, in a voice nearly unaccented but still touched by a brackish, oozing tone. "My aunt speaks well of you. I should hope you will offer your assistance in my troubles."
"Certainly," my friend replied. "Do you appreciate the English breakfast, Your Highness? Mrs Hudson should soon have sausages ready."
"I have already eaten," said the Prince, and I barely suppressed my tiny shudder at the sinuous satisfaction in his voice. "Let us proceed to business. You have, I trust, heard of the production of 'The King In Yellow' being prepared for this coming operatic season?"
"It would be difficult not to have heard of it. You are here to assist the Princess Beatrice in her adaptation, are you not?"
"This is my purpose here, although my beloved cousin is so skilled as to scarce require my help. Mostly, I am here to enjoy the fruits of her labour. Still, there is one unpleasantry that has arisen. You are no doubt familiar with Miss Irene Adler?"
"A celebrated New Worlder contralto," my friend replied, "who has toured the continent extensively, as I recall, to remarkable reviews. So the rumours that she has been retained as the production's Cassilda are true?"
"Yes, yes. She is a remarkable woman, with traits that make her ideal for the role. Unfortunately, with Miss Adler reside our troubles. She has begun receiving death threats -- ones rather more elaborate than those so often received by entertainers, I am led to understand -- and she fears greatly for her safety. As the production opens in one month, the Princess wishes to take no risks... and Miss Adler is irreplaceable. The Queen Herself would see her protected and those who threaten her made to regret their temerity."
"So I see," my friend replied. "I hardly need to state that I live at and serve the mercy of the Queen; my existence as a man of Albion is proof of that enough. What would Gloriana have me do?"
"It is simple. You shall investigate the threats, find their source, and retrieve him for... as you say, the mercy of the Queen. Your manservant, whose health the Queen has so graciously returned, shall serve as Miss Adler's bodyguard. Is this suitable?"
It was not, not really, but I had no place to object, and neither did my companion. "Very well," he said. "We shall begin immediately."
The first step, of course, was to speak with Miss Adler herself about her predicament, and Prince Oktavian saw to our escort to the Royal Opera House. While I had never been a man of the theatre, I had spent many a happy afternoon in the Covent Garden markets before Afghanistan, and so the building was a familiar and friendly edifice to me. Nonetheless, in the late-autumn chill, there was an unsavoury air about the building's swooping curves and shadows.
Waiting at the door to greet us was a tall, earnest-looking man dressed in black, and he led us silently through the lobby and into the darkened recesses of the opera house. I had imagined the back hallways of a theatre as a busy place, teeming with sound and life, but these were empty and quiet, save for the sounds of tools and the occasional strange, gibbering sound not unlike a laugh.
"Never mind the crew," said our guide, as if to answer my fears. "They keep to themselves and have orders not to disturb you." He paused in front of a plain, unmarked door, then opened it upon a dressing room, cluttered with clothes and women's effects of all descriptions. "Sirs," our guide said, "may I present to you Miss Irene Adler."
In the course of the morning's travels, I had developed an image in my mind of the woman we were to meet -- a beautiful and bewitching figure, perhaps bearing the marks of the New World's sang royal. That Irene Adler did not live up to my expectations was only the result of this overelaborate phantasm. She was beautiful, certainly, and graceful, with the poise that surely came with a life lived on the stage, but it was in a completely human and disarmingly simple way. Had she changed clothes, removed her makeup, and put a kerchief over her hair, she could have been any woman on the street. In some ways, it was a relief.
"Gentlemen," she said, and it was then that I recognized her allure. Even with the trace of New World accent left there, her voice was rich and strong. "Please, sit down. How may I help you?"
"I was under the impression, Miss Adler, that you were the one in need of help," said my companion, taking a seat and bidding me to as well. "Tell me about these death threats, if you would."
Miss Adler blanched, ever so slightly, and for a moment there was a tremour in her face. "They've been sending them to me at the opera house," she replied, her tone a bit more hushed. "They go into... some detail as to what will be done, and they are disturbingly frank. Normally, with this sort of letter, there are demands about quitting the stage or joining the writer in marriage, but this time there's nothing like that."
"I see," my friend said. "Miss Adler, if I may ask frankly, have you made enemies?"
At the question, Miss Adler looked aghast, as if her honour had been challenged. "Precious few, sir, and none who would do this sort of thing!"
"Very well. Do you have an understudy on this production?"
Miss Adler nodded. "Lavinia Whateley -- a pleasant girl and a classmate of mine from my college days. Why do you ask? You don't really think she could be behind something like this, do you?"
"In a situation like this," my friend stated gravely, "one must consider all possibilities for both the malefactor and the motive, and jealousy is always possible. Be careful, Miss Adler. Now, if you will excuse me, I must consult with my companion on the matter."
She simply nodded again, and we stepped out of the dressing room and back into the empty corridor. My friend's face was troubled, and I knew immediately that the conversation with Miss Adler had left him with more questions than answers. "What do you make of this?" I asked him.
"What I make of it, primarily, is that Miss Adler is concealing a great deal of fear from us, and not entirely successfully. It is of course reasonable to fear the unknown, but Miss Adler is a well-traveled woman and seems free of the nervous hysteria that so often afflicts the fairer sex. That she is afraid means that this is a legitimate danger, and she knows as much.
"Furthermore," he continued, "I suspect Miss Adler's nerves are aggravated by the condition of confinement. I base this observation on three facts. First, she mentions Miss Lavinia Whateley as a classmate, which confirms to me what her reputation already suggests -- that she is an alumna of Miskatonic University, the most well-known center of archaeological research and esoterica in the New World. No Whateley would attend any other institution. From this background, and from her effects and known history, it is impossible to doubt that Miss Adler is worldly wise and well-traveled, no doubt capable of finding lodgings anywhere in London she might choose. Nonetheless, observe that the effects in her dressing room are more substantial than we would expect of one housed elsewhere; it would seem she is staying in the Opera House or quite nearby, and I expect your presence is in part to complete Princess Beatrice's protective custody arrangements."
"And what does this all mean?"
"It means, my friend, that you will soon spend most of your waking hours with a woman worldly enough to have secrets but who soon may be in no mental state to keep them. I would suggest that you avail yourself of this fact, as it may shorten our investigation considerably."
I frowned. There was something unsporting about his advice, but I couldn't deny that it seemed to be for the best. After all, it was my duty to see to her safety, and the sooner the investigation was concluded, the sooner she was safe. I nodded, gravely. "Very well. I'll do what I can."
"Thank you. I shall begin my investigation, then. Best of luck." With that, my friend turned on his heel and stalked back down the hallway, expression already that of a man intent on his hunt. I returned silently to Miss Adler's dressing room, there to begin what would prove to be a most unusual guardianship.
When I say the situation was unusual, I do not mean that it was necessarily busy. Indeed, the several weeks in which Miss Adler was my ward were quiet ones, punctuated primarily by her strange, fragmentary rehearsal schedule. In the times between rehearsals, there was little to do but sit in her dressing room and talk.
The strange part of the situation was how comfortable the process came to be. I had expected a sort of stilted dance between Miss Adler and I, all formality and fragility; instead, we came to share stories of our travels. As my friend had suspected, she was well-traveled, both in the course of her career and during her education, and she listened with careful attention to those stories of Afghanistan I found myself able to share. That we settled so quickly into such intimacies, and even into the use of our given names, surprises me to this day.
It was about a week before the performance that the incident I recall mostly clearly took place. It was early evening, and I was watching the rehearsal restlessly. Each night, the rehearsals had grown longer and more grueling, and I could hear the strain in Irene's voice. How cruel it was, I thought, that she should be burdened with a military man's familiar mixture of fatigue and fear.
There was a crash from backstage, and abruptly the performers on stage fell silent. Shambling from the curtains was one of the human stagehands, his face ashen, mouth moving silently in some grim parody of speech. When words finally emerged, they were in one long, desperate exhalation: "N-N-Norton says -- he tells you -- be on your guard!" With that, he collapsed, and the silence resounded for a moment before one of the younger actresses had the presence of mind to shriek. A moment later, Princess Beatrice took the stage, great and shapeless under her silks and flanked by two of the wrinkled, shambling things that made up her Royal Guard.
"Thiss is enough for the day," she said. "We will speak to thiss one and have the story of thiss Norton." One of the guards hefted up the blessedly-unconscious stagehand by the collar. "Go, go, go," said Princess Beatrice, and we all obeyed.
As Miss Adler and I walked down the now-familiar corridor leading to her dressing room, she stood unusually close to me -- so close I could not miss the subtle, floral notes of her perfume. When she spoke, there was a quaver to her voice that was not simple fatigue. "That man... to have taken the Princess's attention..."
"Don't worry," I said, more quickly than I intended. "If anyone can sort the matter out, it is a member of royalty."
"You're right, but I certainly hope you can forgive my worries nonetheless. The way things have been... the only respite I find, Sebastian, is in my dreams."
"Truly?" The concept of finding respite in dreams was alien to me. Even before the screaming nights of Afghanistan and beyond, my dreams had rarely been pleasant, and I had found myself grateful lately that so much of my sleep had been only oblivion. "I can't imagine it. I confess, I don't sleep well."
Something in Miss Adler's bearing changed, as if fear had fallen away and comfort returned. She looked at me with a sympathetic, pitying smile. "That's a shame," she said. "I find dreaming to be most... refreshing. Have you heard of the theories of Herr Freud, the Austrian scholar?"
Indeed, I had, from my friend's secondhand recountings -- no small amount of nonsense about the unconscious, he had said, and the nigh-traitorous suggestion capacities simply not possessed by the frail human mind. "Yes," I said, deciding to pretend ignorance of my companion's opinions, "but I don't know much, I'm afraid."
"It's a subject I would suggest you explore, Sebastian. The power of dreams is illuminating. You have spoken to me of Afghanistan; perhaps you might find attention to your dreams useful in fighting back those days? I so often find my only time to reflect is in my sleep, and I know that it's helped me."
I nodded, unsure of what to say, and silence reigned for a few moments until it was broken blessedly by the news that my regular evening cab had arrived. I said my pleasantries and departed, but all the ride home I tried to make sense of the conversation. Why, of all things, would she mention dreams? What of this Freud, of whom I had only heard rumours of seditionist claptrap? What in the world did she mean by it?
When I arrived home at Baker Street, my friend was at his desk, poring over the letters and papers in front of him. "Hello," I said hesitantly as I entered. "I don't mean to disturb you."
"Think nothing of it," he replied. "Please, sit down. I have, thankfully, had some long-overdue insights into this case."
"Yes?" I took a seat, grateful for the news. The performance drew close, and there was no doubt that the risk of an attack was increasing by the day.
"It has been quite a feat tracking them down, but I have found two likely suspects. The first is a barrister by the name of Godfrey Norton who has apparently taken an unusual interest in the production --"
"I should say so!" I interjected, describing that night's encounter with the ashen stagehand and his message. My companion frowned.
"This is disturbing, but hardly surprising. Mr Norton has been kept away from the Opera House via the Princess's guards, but they report that he has been persistent in his desire to see Miss Adler. Given that Mr Norton is not on record as being a particular fan of the opera, and that it would seem his intent runs to rather dramatic and disturbing messages..."
I nodded; he hardly needed to finish that thought.
"More than that," my friend continued, "I have noticed a recurring figure in the course of my investigations. He is always in different guises, but each time I see him he is a touch closer, as if taunting me. There is something in his eyes I cannot help but recognize: a spark of sedition, and the glow of dangerous intelligence." My friend's voice took on a dark and steely cast, as if for the first time the matter of Irene Adler had become something more to him than a parlour game. "I would bet my reputation on that man being the despicable traitor who calls himself Rache."
Rache? A panic grew within me. What could he want with Miss Adler? "I don't understand," I stammered. "Irene-- Miss Adler isn't of royal blood. Why would he want to kill her?"
"Because this opera will be a triumph of the Royal Family, and having its lead singer messily killed will send a message of fear not only to the royals but those who hoped to witness it. It is not the plan of a sensible man, perhaps, but what Rache has lost in sense he makes up for in cunning. You will be careful, I trust, you and... Irene both."
It was impossible not to read his subtle insinuation of impropriety, and I feared I could not answer it to his satisfaction. All I could do was plead fatigue and adjourn to my bed, there to have one of the least restful nights of sleep in some time. The caverns of Afghanistan, the sinuous shapes of royalty, and the flash of knives in the night arranged themselves in disquieting tableau -- and it all was scored by the beautiful voice of Irene Adler, singing her haunted arias.
The days went by tensely and slowly, but no danger made its appearance, and the opening night drew closer and closer. Finally, the evening before the opening, the last rehearsal had ended, and I walked Miss Adler to her dressing room with only the faint regret that my vigil would soon be nearing its end. The performances would be the most dangerous time, I knew, but Princess Beatrice would have her full cohort of guards out and waiting, so perhaps I could rest and even enjoy the show --
There was the sound of hurried footsteps in the darkness, and then a gunshot, far wide and grazing the curtain-ropes above. Miss Adler screamed, and I spun around and squinted through the darkness. In the distant catacombs of the theatre, I could just barely make out the silhouette of a thin man, his gun already drawn.
The instincts of a soldier never leave you. My attention was instantly affixed on the distant figure, and before he could adjust his aim I had my revolver drawn and fired. The shot took him in the chest, and he staggered, but he did not fall. He fired a shot, and another, and another --
And then there was a great rush of wind, and swooping in between us and the assailant was a creature I can hardly describe even now. It was shaped like a man in its most gross anatomy, black-skinned and glistening with some slick slime; on its back were huge, membraneous wings, like those of some monstrous bat. It was clearly no creature of our world, but it resembled no royal minion I had ever seen, nor any of the foul things of Afghanistan. I am grateful that I did not see its face.
Those bullets that did not stray into the curtains collided wetly with the creature, but it remained unbowed, and it charged the shooter with a speed beyond normal. He screamed... and it was only then that I heard the last, departing footsteps of Miss Adler.
"Irene!" I turned in their direction and gave chase, fearing that she had startled and charged into a trap, but she was already lost in the corridors. When I finally emerged at the back exit to the theater, all that met me was the darkness, the distant sound of leathery wings... and the letter lying at the threshold, addressed to me in a woman's careful hand.
Perhaps I should not have picked that letter up. Perhaps I should have waited for my friend and for the royal guard to set the matter to rights. What I did I cannot now account for -- but, in truth, I picked it up, and I strode out into the waiting night and its empty sky. I knew that my job was done.
Sebastian, began the letter, once I had silently slunk back to my room on Baker Street to read it:
I am sure you must have many questions about tonight, and I believe I owe you an answer for all of them. First, though, allow me to reassure you: if you are reading this, than I am both alive and safe. My flight was sudden, but I hope you will come to understand once you have read the account that follows.
To explain what has happened, I must return to that ghastly night when Mr Norton sent his message. When I spoke to you about dreams, it was not merely the idle chatter of a desperately frightened woman.(The fright, I hasten to add, was real enough.) It is instead that I believe that dreams are the last hope for man's survival in this world gone mad. In my time at Miskatonic, and in my travels, I have read and learned extensively from those with experience in the ways of royalty and their worlds beyond our world, and I have been left in large part to draw my own conclusions -- conclusions, I fear, that do not allow me to be loyal to the Royal Families of Europe.
I know what you are thinking, but no, I am no Restorationist. While their motives have their worthy elements, they are intensely deluded if they truly believe the world of men is capable of holding its own against the vast universe of other powers. No, my position -- and that of my fellow believers, for I am not alone -- comes from an understanding that man's hope comes from channelling those extraworldly forces which we are capable of comprehending. There are beings who are more receptive to the world's needs than the Royals, and they are more generous as well; the gateway to their worlds is dreaming.
This stance, even with the power it grants, leaves me and my fellows in an uncomfortable position. The Royal Families treat us the same as any other seditionists, and the Restorationists consider us a sort of half-blooded monstrosity, tainted by our contact with the inhuman. Both sides would cheerfully destroy us, if they could. It is for that reason that I have kept my studies in secret... but when I received the invitation to perform, I knew that my confidence had been betrayed.
I should clarify, Sebastian, since I know you are not a patron of the stage. 'The King In Yellow' is uncommonly produced not simply because it is challenging, but because its vision of Carcosa is unusually persuasive. There is a long tradition of its performers, and frequently its audience, being driven to a transcendent madness, and the most vulnerable role in the production is that of Cassilda. By offering it to me, Princess Beatrice sprung a clever trap. If I declined, the story of my rejecting the honour of the Princess's invitation would spread quickly across the continent, and soon my career -- and the freedom it offered me -- would be at an end. If I accepted, singing the role of Cassilda would most likely leave me either a staunch Royalist or catatonic. Either way, whatever threat I posed would be dissipated.
Hoping that I could stave off the madness, I accepted the role; the death threats began not long after. What the Princess saw as the elimination of a threat, the Restorationists saw as an escalation of one, as well as a chance to one again prove a distracting thorn in the Royal Family's side. I suspect, as well, that Rache saw this as a chance for revenge; our paths have crossed before, and usually to his detriment. He knew I was a captive, and it was his intention to prove to me once and for all what powers he held. I fear that your and your friend's presence may have only aggravated the problem, as Rache saw you both as targets as well. It was then I knew that, even with my career forfeit, it was better to flee with my life than to be left to the mercies of enemies on both sides.
My salvation is in equal part due to two men: you and Godfrey Norton. Your presence alone may have served as greater encouragement to Rache, but your patient company has been a great palliative for my state of mind. I would have no doubt succumbed to Royalist madness without your friendship, Sebastian, and I am grateful for it. As for Mr Norton, he is a long-time comrade and bosom friend of mine. As the incident with the stagehand showed, he is less subtle than he should be, but his companionship is true, and it will be by his actions that I hope to effect my escape. He has always been rather more persuasive to the Shantaks and Nightgaunts than I, and my hope is that he will bring this force to bear when the time is required.
In closing, know that my hopes are with you, and I apologize for the shock of my departure. As my gift to you, I will offer this token of my esteem -- and, I should hope, release from the fate the Royal Family intends for you. If what you see interests you, you will no doubt know the way to find me.
Under her signature was a strange inked rosette. I initially took it for a flourish, but as I looked at it, I felt a peaceful drowsiness building in my mind. The letter was barely secreted away in my desk before I was driven to my bed, there to fall into slumber.
And how shall I begin to describe that slumber? It was like none I had experienced before, and I suspect no sleep shall ever be more than a shadow of it again. I dreamed vividly -- but not of the nightmares that usually plagued my sleep, but of vast and shining alien landscapes. The cities of glass, the beaches of porphyry, the clarity of the skies and oceans... they evade my power to describe. Over it all, I flew, airy and free as I had never been before in my life.
Through it all was Miss Adler's voice, itself freed from the shackles of Cassilda's songs: the words alien, but alive with joy.
When I awoke from my marvellous dreaming, my companion and Mrs Hudson were at my bedside, frowning. My voice, when it began, had the hoarse quality of a man who has forgotten how to speak. "... where..."
"Here on Baker Street," my friend said. "You have been asleep for over a week, presumably as an effect of the mental shock of the attack on Miss Adler. How are you feeling?"
"It must have been," I admitted. "The attack? Miss Adler? What happened?" It was not a question from ignorance; even as I struggled to orient myself back in the world, I could still see the gunman's panic as the creature swooped for him. Nonetheless, ignorance seemed a better approach than that of too much knowledge.
My friend cleared his throat. "You likely cannot yet remember, but Miss Adler was attacked by an assassin the night before the performance. The Princess's guard and your bullet quickly brought down the man -- neither Rache nor his doctor, I regret to say, but some other accomplice. Still, Miss Adler is missing and feared lost to the Restorationists."
"I'm sorry," I said, stalling as I untangled my memories and the Royal Family's lies. I had seen the creature that brought down the assailant, and it was no servant of royalty. "I tried -- I didn't mean to --"
"Think nothing of it," he said, almost too breezily. "You will no doubt be pleased to note that Miss Whateley, the understudy, proved a stunning Cassilda. While Miss Adler's loss is tragic, the opera went on... it is only a shame that you have missed it. A show so fragile closes quickly, and you could not be roused." He smiled at me then, a smile that chilled me. "You should have only have heard Miss Whateley sing, Sebastian. You should have seen her dance." It was that smile that assured me that Miss Adler's letter told the truth -- that 'The King In Yellow' in its entirety was an experience I was better off without.
In the weeks since my awakening, things have been quiet. The Royal Family has congratulated us on a job well done, but whatever victory they think us to have won is hollow. If the intent was to protect Miss Adler long enough for her to be undone, we have surely failed, and if the intent was merely to see the Princess's opera staged, I cannot bring myself to believe that it was worth the doing. My friend grows quieter, and he focuses on more and more esoteric topics in astrophysics; I fear what conclusions he may draw. The situation in Russia grows no better, and I am no more certain of mankind's survival than I was when I penned the account of the Franz Drago investigation.
Nonetheless, there is one balm: I sleep better than I have since my boyhood. My rest is uninterrupted, peaceful, and usually dreamless... but I still dream, perhaps one night in a fortnight, of the glass cities and sparkling seas. One night, I hope, I will find Irene there.