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Of Light And Shade

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Of Light and Shade

A Crimson Peak fan fiction by xahra99

AU written for the prompt ‘they should have sold the house and travelled around the capitals of Europe taking turns being the black widow.’

 

“I don’t like him,” Lucille said at breakfast.

“You don’t have to,” Edith said.

Thomas took Edith’s hand in his. “The more you despise him, the easier it will be.”

Lucille placed her right palm lightly on their clasped hands. “The count is positively dreadful. I shall not suffer him a moment longer than I must.”

“He’s very rich,” Edith observed.

Lucille smiled. “Of course he is. What would be the use if he was poor?”

They ate breakfast by the large window on the piano nobile that overlooked the Grand Canal. Gondolas skimmed past silently against a backdrop of spires and copper-clad domes. A breeze rustled the brocade curtains and brought the scent of the lagoon into the palazzo.  Edith wrinkled her nose. They had been in Venice for five weeks, three of them at the Palazzo Dario, and she was still unaccustomed to the smell of Venice at low tide.

Despite the odour of mud and rotting seaweed, Edith rather liked Venice. The city’s melancholic air was undeniably romantic. It would be, she thought, a wonderful setting for a novel. 

She glanced up at the view, and saw the ghost.

Edith had thought she was used to the phantoms, but this one was a stranger. The sun passed behind a cloud and the lamps flickered. The light grew dim. The ghost crawled after its shadow across the floor towards Edith.  Clawed hands scrabbled at the tiles. The ghost baring tiny, pearl-white teeth as it whispered words she could barely hear, much less understand.

Edith threw her teacup at the apparition’s skull. Porcelain shattered on the tiles. The ghost disappeared.

Lucille frowned. “My dear,” she asked, “are you quite well?”

****

The ghosts could often be obscure, and usually unhelpful. They never went away. And they were not to be taken lightly.

But few places were less haunted than the Grand Canal in spring.

Edith almost forgot the ghost as she waited with Lucille by the palazzo’s water gate. The tide was high, and the water was two feet deep at the foot of the stairs.  Waves sucked at the striped poles that marked the landing stage.

Edith adjusted her hat to shade her eyes from the sun. Lucille sheltered beneath a ridiculous fringed parasol. Like all of Lucille’s fashions, the parasol was at least ten years out of date, but striking all the same. Boats full of tourists stared at Lucille as they floated past, resting uneasily on piles of paint-boxes.

Lucille dug her nails into the doorframe and pulled away a strip of wood. She dropped the splinter into the canal and watched it float away. “This city is dying,” she said to Edith. “It feels like home.”

But even Lucille’s predatory patience was exhausted by the time Thomas arrived with the gondola. “Goodness,” she said irritably as she snapped her parasol shut. “You took your time.”

“It was hard to get a gondola. I had to offer more than I expected.”

Lucille used her parasol as a cane as she climbed into the boat. “They are all such thieves.”

 “I don’t think so.” Thomas said uneasily.

Edith laid a hand on his arm. “We can afford it.”

Thomas seemed not at all convinced as he settled back into the boat beside Edith. Edith perched on the narrow seat as Thomas slipped a notebook from his coat. The water parted like oil as they slid into the canal.

Edith turned to gaze at the retreating building. The Palazzo Dario was little but perfectly charming. Like most Venetian buildings, it listed decidedly to one side. Gothic balconies dripped from each of its three floors and small round windows gave a nautical air to its façade. Edith watched Thomas as he sketched the building. His pencil flicked across the paper as he drew the motto carved on the palace’s first floor.   

VRBIS.GENIO.IOANNES.DARIVS

Thomas underlined the sentence again and again; incorporating the heavy line into the shade beneath a lintel. 

“Giovanni Dario, patron of the city,” Edith slipped on her spectacles and examined the drawing more closely. “Who is that?”

Thomas raised his eyebrows. “The man who commissioned the architect, I suppose.”

Edith glanced back at the palazzo. The marble façade gleamed pallidly in the sun. She imagined that the patterned oculi scowled at her disapprovingly. A shiver snaked down Edith’s spine for a moment. Then the gondola turned a corner, and she lost sight of the building.

They skimmed past piazzas and flag-draped palazzos. The splash of water as their gondolier steered mingled with conversation and snatches of music. They passed beneath an arched bridge and Edith reached out to touch the crumbling mortar. Plaster flaked away on her fingers as shadows stretched up from the water. Edith flinched, but the stains were nothing more sinister than damp.

Lucille trailed one hand in the water nonchalantly. As Edith rose she caught her wrist and demanded “What is it?”

“It’s nothing.”

Water dripped from Lucille’s fingers. Her eyes narrowed. “You seem pale.” She turned to her brother. “Does she not seem pale, Thomas?”

Thomas raised his eyes from his drawing. “Edith seems well enough to me. Perhaps it is merely the prospect of more shopping that dismays her.” He turned to a fresh page of his notebook, pale eyes fixed upon the view. “Choose your masks. I’ll wait here in the gondola.”

Lucille smiled. “Please yourself,” she said.

They crossed the narrow pavement to the shop, pausing at the window to admire the display. An assortment of masks hung against a screen of moth-eaten red velvet. Ribbons, lace, scraps of leather and bone needles were scattered artistically below.

Edith pushed the door open. It was Carnival week and the shop was crowded. The harassed shop-girl nodded once in greeting before leaving Edith and Lucille to their own devices, which suited them and Lucille perfectly.

They both agreed on a white leather bauta for Thomas. The bauta had a square jaw and a flat top, and Edith was surprised how comfortable the mask was when she tried it on. She picked a gilded domino for herself. 

“Perfect,” Lucille said, pronouncing the mask both elegant and simple.

Edith held up mask after mask to Lucille’s narrow face. Nothing suited her. They scoured the shelves, choosing classic or wildly theatrical styles by turn. Neither feathers, nor ornaments nor lace was right for Lucille. Edith was on the point of despair when she dug beneath a pile of beaded full-face volta and her fingers touched soft velvet. She pulled the mask out. It was perfect.

Lucille took the mask from Edith’s hand.

The shop-girl sucked in her breath. “It’s very old-fashioned. Outdated.” She held out another mask. “Surely this-“

Lucille rejected the proffered mask and held up Edith’s find. “No. This one.”

The shop-girl shook her head but she took Lucille’s money. She wrapped their purchases in tissue paper, one by one, in layers that reminded Edith of Lucille’s dresses. A velvet bow of arsenic green completed the parcel.

Rain swept down like a curtain as they paddled back to the palazzo. Venice sank into the mist, shrouded with an air of lingering sorrow. Gaslamps cast pools of amber light onto the canal water. Edith clutched a shawl around her shoulders and felt the hard edges of the masks press against her chest.

She should have been glad to reach the palazzo, but felt only well-founded apprehension. As they stepped onto the mooring stage, Edith heard a creak echo from the stone façade. A chunk of stone fell from the third-store balcony and plunged into the canal, missing the gondolier by inches. The fog swallowed any sound. Green water swirled as the brick vanished from sight in a shroud of tiny bubbles.  

The gondolier dropped the mooring rope and jumped back into the gondola, shouting something in Italian. The boat rocked alarmingly. He nearly followed the stone into the canal before he mastered his balance and poled himself away, churning the canal as fast as his arms could carry him.

Edith looked up at the roof. She saw nobody. It was as if the house itself had chosen that very moment to collapse. She searched for shadows, but there was no trace of any spectre.

Lucille pressed her lips together. “Let’s go inside.” She turned precisely and ducked beneath the arch. From her demeanour, one might have thought that houses toppled ever day in Venice. Perhaps they did. 

Thomas frowned as he brushed pale dust from his suit sleeve, but he followed Lucille into the palazzo.

Edith stood on the landing stage for a long breath, listening to the suck and splash of the waves against the steps. She leaned out over the water, hoping to spy the gondolier, but he had disappeared.

She followed the siblings inside. Tonight was Carnival, and she had no time for more questions.

***

They met Byronically at dusk in the Piazza San Marco. The square was too large to be ever truly crowded, but there were more people than Edith had ever seen gathered in one place, even New York. Everyone was beautiful. Everything was beautiful. There were fire-dancers and orchestras; puppets and masked players. The smell of mud was veiled by kerosene and cotton-candy. The scent reminded Edith of the crumbling bricks hidden beneath Venice’s painted plaster. She glanced around and saw pox-scars near-hidden beneath makeup or masks. Lucille was right. Venice was rotten.

Edith loved the city anyway.

She wandered from spectacle to spectacle with Thomas at her side. Her husband cut a striking figure in his white bauta and black velvet cloak. More than half the participants wore the same combination, but in Edith’s opinion nobody looked as well in the costume as Thomas. It was fun to lose themselves in the crowds, with no thought of slander or society.

The crowds were at their height when Lucille entered the square. She always had known just how to make an entrance.

Her dress was a poisonous confection of black lace and razor-pleated satin. The gown left her shoulder bare, but her hands and arms were covered by long black velvet gloves.  She wore a muta, a featureless black circular mask that left a finger’s width of flawless skin around the edge of Lucille’s face. The mask had no mouth. Lucille’s teeth gripped a jet button on the inside of the mask. Her unblinking eyes stared through the round eye sockets. The effect was sincerely unsettling. Somebody gasped.

Lucille walked over to the count and took his hand.

Thomas leaned down to murmur in Edith’s ear “He hasn’t a chance.”

Edith hardly had any breath to agree. Lucille was a sable panther, a Venetian lioness; the count her natural prey. He did not seem devastated by the prospect.

Lucille and her partner departed, hand in hand. The crowd dispersed, distracted by other novelties. Lucille never looked back.

Thomas took Edith’s hand. “Let her work,” he said to Edith, voice a little rough.

Edith did not trust herself to speak. She nodded, allowing herself to be drawn through the crowds towards the canal, where people had erected floating platforms for dancing on the water outside their front doors. A shadowy orchestra struck up a tune that reminded Edith irresistibly of her first dance with Thomas.

“They’re playing our song,” she said.  

He pushed his mask up onto his forehead. “There’s no piano.”

“We’ll improvise,” Edith said. The planks swayed beneath her feet as she stepped onto the dancefloor. Any candle would have guttered out within a second. The dancers made no space for them. Thomas’s hand pressed into the small of Edith’s back. Her gold dress crumpled as they pressed tightly together.

There was no room to waltz, but they danced nonetheless. Everything around them faded as they spun together. The dance dragged her down like a whirlpool. The lights and costumes blurred. Edith had never moved so lightly.

“I should take you to waltz in Vienna,” Thomas said into her ear.

Edith was not thinking of Vienna. People were her home, not places. As long as she had the siblings, she was home. “I’d like that,” she whispered.

Thomas loosened the velvet ribbon in Edith’s hair. Her mask fell away as they spun. As they parted, hands still clasped, the music stopped.

As the spell of the waltz faded Edith became slowly became aware of the space all around them. They stood at the centre of a ring of masked, inhuman faces. At first Edith accepted the attention as their rightful due.  Then she saw the stares, and heard the whispers.

***

The next morning, Lucille rose early. She walked naked to the window and left the count in bed.  She’d left her mask on the table, next to her silver-backed hair-brush. Lucille picked up the brush and untangled her hair, wincing a little at the tug of the bristles on her scalp. When her hair hung loose she glanced down and saw her mask lying in two pieces on the tiles.

Lucille raised her foot and ground the mask beneath her bare heel. The ceramic plug shattered. A pottery shard cut Lucille’s skin. Her blood stained the floor.

“Really,” she said to thin air. “You must do better than that.”

****

Edith woke late. The mattress next to her was creased, the sheets crumpled, but there was no sign of Thomas. Edith rolled to the far side of the bed, where Lucille usually slept. She pressed the pillow to her cheek and wondered if Lucille had snared her count last night.

The pillow still smelled of Lucille’s skin. Edith shivered. She wrapped the sheet around her and wound a silken strand of Lucille’s hair around her fingers like a talisman.

Thomas’s sketchbook lay open on the bedside table. Edith reached for the journal, leafing through drawings of canals and caravanserais, vaulted halls and fallen angels.  She paused on Thomas’s sketch of the Palazzo Dario, eyes drawn to the inscription engraved upon the facade.

VRBIS.GENIO.IOANNES.DARIVS

Edith did not speak Italian, but she understood Latin. The languages were similar, and she had a passing familiarity with puzzles.

She picked up a pencil and began to work.

***

Thomas visited the gondolier’s district at dawn. The houses in the Accademia pressed close around their courtyard wells like wagons drawn up around campfires. The sky above his head was crisscrossed by a hundred washing-lines. Laundry flapped and dripped onto his coat. The air stank of sewage and sweat. There were people everywhere. Privacy was not an option for the poor.

Thomas’s guidebook called the neighbourhood picturesque. In truth it was dilapidated, and there were water-marks upon the staircases that hinted that the streets spent at least part of the year submerged. Thomas knew what it felt like to live in a house that was falling down around your ears. He had some sympathy for the district’s denizens, although by the time he had located the gondolier both his coin and patience were at low ebb.

The gondolier took Thomas’s money and answered his questions. When Thomas’s Italian failed-a frequent occurrence-he resorted to sketching in the margin of Il Gazettino. He wished he hadn’t left his notebook at the palazzo.  

He didn’t understand at first, but with time he was able to make some sort of sense of it all.

***

Lucille divested herself of the count as soon as she was able. After he had left she dressed and made her way to the lower floor. The candelabras were lit despite the early hour, and the opulent gold-damask wallpaper and bright morning light seemed entirely inappropriate for such dark news. Her brother sprawled in a chair by the window, a pile of books at his elbow. Edith was bent over a notepad. She wore her spectacles pushed up onto her forehead and there was a smudge of ink on her nose.

“There’s something in the house,” Lucille said.

Edith looked up. “I saw a ghost.”

Thomas nodded in agreement. Lucille, who had expected more of a reaction, tightened her lips and took a seat herself.

“I know,” she replied. “The question is, what do we do about it?”

Edith and Thomas exchanged glances. Edith pushed her book across the table to Lucille. “Look at the inscription. VRBIS.GENIO.IOANNES.DARIVS. It’s an anagram. If you reorder the letters, it says Sub ruina insidiosa genero.”

“Which means?”

“I bring treacherous ruin to those who live under this roof.” Edith said flatly.

“There’s a legend that anyone who stays here more than twenty days dies untimely,” Thomas said. “Twenty days. We’ve been here just three weeks.”

 “Ghosts never go away,” Edith said. “It was a warning. There is something here. Something monstrous.”

“You forget that we are monsters too,” Lucille said lightly.

The sudden silence was broken only by the ticking of the clock. Lucille ran her tongue over her teeth. “Does it always kill them?”

Thomas shook his head. “Not always. Sometimes people kill themselves. Sometimes, others.”

Lucille’s tongue flicked out to moisten her lips. “That can be arranged.”

She sat back in her armchair, listening to the sound of the old house groaning as it settled inch by inch into the mud of the lagoon.

“My dear,” she said to empty air, “why didn’t you just ask?”

***

Lucille married the count three weeks later. He died a month later in a fall from a gondola. After a suitable period of mourning, Lucille restored the Palazzo Dario. She added chimneys and ordered a great deal of stabilisation to the house’s façade, replacing the inscription with plain marble in the process. A year later she rented out the palazzo and announced her intention to tour the Continent. The widow left Venice in the spring with her brother and his young wife, to whom she was said to be unusually attached.

Nobody could say where they went. Some said New York; others, Vienna. There were no more deaths. No ghosts were ever seen. This was, in a way, not surprising or remarkable. Few places were less haunted than the Grand Canal in spring.