Chapter 1: Blue O'Clock in the Morning
Put your hands down, Henry.
Take it like a man.
Look at me—
Look at me when I ’m talking to you.
And put. Your hands. DOWN.
I wake in slow spurts, my consciousness struggling forward one step at a time until I’m fully in the light of cognizance. Following my head comes my body, realization seeping in. I’m… lying on something with a give to it, but… with a hardness underneath? Perplexing. And the dream… it's already leaving me even as I grasp for it. I let it go—the dream and the soft-hardness both are a conundrum that I’m reluctant to untangle. My head hurts. Aches. Pounds. Intense mental computation seems like such an arduous task at the moment. It’s an obstacle, certainly.
Unfortunately for me, such a task seems unavoidable. Whatever it is I’m lying on is not very comfortable, and I need to organize my limbs in order to sit up properly, which, as you might have guessed, also requires quite a bit of mental computation. I manage to get my hands underneath me and push myself up into a sit, perched on my folded legs. My head pounds worse for a second once I’m there—ugh—but closing my eyes and putting a hand to the painful spot helps. I manage to blink my eyes open just a moment later, looking down at the carpet under me.
Ah. That would explain the hardness. Floorboards are not generally used for bedding material for a reason, and a rather good one at that. I squint my eyes, staring down. There’s something on the carpet. Is that… a spot?
I lean closer, despite my aching head telling me to be still. Whatever it is, it’s dark, reddish in the dim light. It has an odd scent to it, something metallic that I struggle to place. And it’s right where my head was just resting.
I lower my hand from my head, slow and careful. Ah. Okay. Again, an explanation—there’s blood, some fresh and some not-so-fresh. It’s coming from me.
I… it would seem as if I’m in need of some assistance. I push myself up to my feet, wincing against a whorl of dizziness, and…
It’s here that I discover my second obstacle. I realize it when my vision clears and I’m left blinking at an unfamiliar room. It’s large, a sitting room if I’m not mistaken. The furnishings are nice, all meticulously kept except for that spot on the floor. There isn’t a mote of dust to be seen. The window to my left is covered by a thick curtain. When I pull it back, careful to use the clean hand, I wince at the intrusion of early morning light. As my eyes adjust, I look out, down to the ground and across the lawn and on and on and on, all the way to the tall fence and the street in the distance, and to rows of buildings far beyond them.
I haven’t the slightest clue where I am.
Okay. Okay. That’s okay. I step back, letting the curtain fall back into place. It’s not so strange, is it? Waking in a foreign place bleeding from the head? It seems a nice place, after all—so neat and tidy—so—
It’s here I pause, discovering my third obstacle. Because while the thought came so swiftly that I didn’t have time to think about it until after it had made its merry way across my mind, I’ve now stopped and thought about it and I… I haven’t a single solid reason to think that it’s not so strange. Because I can’t—and I cannot stress this enough—I can’t remember ever being in such a situation. Because I cannot remember anything at all.
Chapter 2: The Devil Doubt You
Monty stumbles upon a baby, a nursemaid, a young lady who introduces herself as his sister, and... Percy, you say? What a lovely name.
Wandering around a seemingly empty house in the hour just after dawn is a fascinating thing, I’ll be honest. There’s just something about getting that small, private glimpse into someone’s life. I keep my hand pressed to my head—the bleeding has nearly stopped now—and wonder what kind of people live here. And if they do indeed live here, then… where are they? It’s been fifteen minutes according to the clock in the sitting room and I haven’t yet found another human being. I’m beginning to think I’ve actually made up the fact that there are, in fact, other humans on the face of this Earth. I certainly can’t remember any—whenever I try to conjure up any specific masks or faces all I come up with is a headache.
The first human I find is no help, seeing as they are, uh… miniature?
I stare. The baby gurgles as if in response. It must be young, because its mask is still soft and solid gray, though with perhaps the lightest tinge of rosy pinkness to it. It’s little gums peep through the mouth hole as it coos up at me.
I’m startled from my staring when I hear footsteps coming up to the door behind me. It opens and I hear a gasp.
“Master Henry! Oh, you gave me a fright,” says a voice. I turn around to find a woman in the room with me. I can’t see if she’s masked—she’s already bustling toward a table in the corner, holding a tray in her hands, still talking. “I swear, I never see you in here. I thought you were an intruder! Now, it’s Master Adrian’s feeding time. He eats better when there’s no one here to distract him, but you never come to visit. Did you want to help me—?”
Oh. Oh god, no. Feeding? Babies? No, thank you. “Sorry, I… I’m actually looking for someone to—”
“Oh, come now.” The woman fiddles with something on the tray. “It isn’t so hard, Master Henry. I’ll get you all set up in a chair so you don’t have to be afraid of dropping him or anything. It’ll be right easy. Why, even my brother Willy can do it, and he’s not the brightest lad in all the lands. Here—”
By the time she turns around I’m already backtracking, nearly out the door. “Sorry, I must be going,” I say, hoping I don’t sound rude, before I all but bolt.
God. Okay. That was a close one. I run a hand through my hair, wincing as the strands pull over the painful spot. My hand is still bloody, and I think about cleaning it off, but all I’ve got are the clothes I woke up in and they seem a tad fancier than blood-rags.
I consider this. Just judging by my clothes I guessed that I wasn’t a servant here, but now I’ve got a real hint—Master Henry. Who is, perhaps… me?
The next door I open is to a library. It’s not extraordinarily vast, but it is the largest room I’ve yet seen, and I nearly miss the figure sitting in front of the window.
She’s young, younger than the nursemaid but certainly not a baby. She’s got a book in her lap and a magnifying glass perched in front of it, and from her reflection in the window I can see that her mask is smooth and metallic, something light like silver but less gilt. She doesn’t look up as I close the door behind me, but she does heave a great sigh. “Go away, Monty,” she says.
Master Henry, Monty… That’s a lot of names for one person. I’m not sure if these people know who I am or if they’re assuming I’m someone else. Still, if she does know me… or at least where I came from… maybe she can help?
“Sorry to intrude, I was just… could I ask you a question?”
The girl—or is young woman more accurate? I can’t quite tell—raises her head, still facing the wrong way. “Did you just… apologize to me?” she asks. The tone of her voice is somewhere between unsure and perturbed.
I take a few steps further into the room, glancing around as I go. “Was I not supposed to? Sorry.”
She sighs, beginning to turn around. “…Did you get into the rum again? Your brain is going to rot by the ripe age of—oh! Monty! What did you do to your mask?”
“My mask?” I ask at her gasp, raising a hand to my face and then dropping it again. I haven’t a clue what my mask is supposed to look like, nor what it looks like now. One thing I haven’t yet encountered is a mirror, oddly enough. I laugh, an odd and high-pitched noise that doesn’t match the calmness of my voice. “I don’t… um. Well, straight to the point, I guess. I have no memory.”
The young woman glances around, her shiny mask—I suppose it’s polished steel, actually, now that I’ve seen the front of it—turning about the room as if to catch me in a lie. “…You’re selling me a dog,” she says, disdain in her voice. “You haven’t got amnesia—this is one of your stupid jokes. Where’s Percy? Having a good laugh about it in the hall? God, you are the worst. Did you paint your mask for the joke? It’s going to rot off, you know.”
With that tirade out of the way, she hauls her book back up to her face, turning away again.
My chest constricts, my hand rising and reaching out of it’s own volition, and I realize all at once that I’m actually quite concerned that she’s made up her mind about this. The first human who can help me and I’ve been spurned, turned away.
…No. Not yet. I can still get her help, I can—I can convince her yet. “I’m not selling anything, I promise you I’m not,” I say. I’ve been hovering near the doorway, unsure about the propriety of entering this person’s space, but now I walk right up to her and place a gentle hand on the book, guiding it down. She raises her head indignantly and I see a warped reflection of what I assume is myself in her steel mask. My mask is blank, white, but I can’t see any details. “I don’t… I don’t know where I am,” I say, and the laughter now is a touch hysterical, wheezing from my chest. I’ve kept it together for this long but suddenly, acutely, I think I’m about to break down. Down the hall the baby lets out a cry and despite myself I flinch, drawing my hand back. “Please. I’m begging you,” I say.
It takes a moment, a long one, during which I assume she’s studying me from behind her mask. Though I can’t see her eyes I can imagine them boring into me. Finally she lowers the book, setting it down on the table beside her and rising to her feet.
I can’t help it—I flinch again, my nerves all drawn tight like the strings of a violin.
“I’m not… I won’t hurt you,” she says, and her voice is less sharp, now. She doesn’t quite seem to believe me, but she doesn’t seem to not believe me, either. “Is that blood on your hand?” she asks.
I look down. It’s nearly all dried now, beginning to flake off.
She breathes out slowly. “Where are you bleeding from?”
I open my mouth to say, and find that I seem to be unable to speak for the moment. Non-verbal responses it is, then. I raise a hand—and is it shaking?—to the place where my head is hurting so badly.
She comes a little closer, the mirror image of my mask warping from the curvature of hers. “Let me see,” she says, a demand. I almost want to say no, to draw away and protect myself, but… I trust her. I think. She doesn’t sound familiar and I haven’t a clue what her name is, but there’s something about her that just feels… safe.
I bow my head, allowing her to examine it. She’s careful, I’ll give her that—she doesn’t pull or prod as she parts my hair.
“…It looks like you were hit quite hard,” she says finally. “It’s not actively bleeding anymore, but it’s swelling something awful.” She pauses, thinking, for a moment. “I want to clean it up a little. Stay there a moment, I’ll be right back.”
My shoulders, tenser than I’d realized, relax as she strides from the room, her skirts swishing about her ankles. Someone who knows what’s going on is on it now. I take a breath—still shakier than I’d like—and fold myself into a chair. My hand goes to my head again, palm pressing gently against whatever wound is there, and wait. It only takes the young woman a moment to come striding back in, just as she left. She’s got a wet cloth and a small bowl of water in her hands, which she sets on the table beside me.
I wince as she starts to dab at my head. The water hurts rather more than fingers did. I resist the urge to smack her away. She’s only trying to help, after all—I don’t want to be rude.
“All right,” she says, a moment later. “I don’t think you’re in need of stitches. Now… you really don’t know where you are?”
I shake my head.
“Or who I am?”
Another head shake.
“Or the baby, or…?”
Shake, shake, shake. “Nothing. Not the year, nor our current location, nor… well, anything?”
The young woman tips back on her heels. She can’t be more than fifteen, but she seems to know so much. It must be due to the reading she was doing before I arrived. “Well, that’s… not ideal,” she says.
“Yes, seems that way,” I respond, despite how much of an understatement that really is.
She folds her hands before her. “…I suppose some introductions are in order. I’m Felicity. Your sister.”
Sister? I’m thrown for a loop for a moment, looking her up and down. I was expecting something familiar by the way she addressed me, but sister?
“Nice to meet you,” I say after a moment, reaching forward. “And I am…?”
“Henry Montague the fifth. We call you Monty.”
Ah. So those names are all mine after all. “Great! Now what year is it?” I ask, eager for more.
“…1900. We just hit the turn of the century a few months ago.”
“And… where are we?”
“Cheshire, England. Disley, to be exact. The Montague manor house, by the… are these words meaning anything to you?”
I frown behind my mask, trying desperately to make the words form a map in my head. It doesn’t work. “No, I’m afraid not.”
At that she seems to come to a decision. “I suppose there’s nothing else for it,” she says. “We’ll have to call the doctor. Here, come along and I’ll—”
It’s then that the door opens, someone else entering the room. “Ah, there you are,” says a voice, this one belonging to a young man. Older than Felicity, if I’m guessing right—perhaps my own age, though I haven’t yet asked that so have nothing to compare to. As one, Felicity and I turn. “You’re running late, darling. I understand that you had a fun night mafficking about but—”
The figure who has just walked in is tall and gangly, the skin of his hands and neck a rich brown. His mask is a middling gray with a spiderwebbing of cracks on one temple and a rather large chip on the upper lip. It has a few bright spots of color high on the cheeks and temples that become clearer as he comes toward us. I see the moment that he realizes that something is off, as he stops abruptly mid-sentence and mid-step, staring at me.
I glance from him to Felicity. “Should I introduce myself?” I ask. I’m actually quite eager to do so, now that I’ve been informed of my own name.
“What? Introduce yourself? What?” the man asks.
I walk forward, meeting him in the center of the room and extending a hand to shake. From here the light hits his mask just right to show off a shimmery sheen, all pale pink and green like the inside of a seashell. “Sorry, I don’t… um. Hello. Whoever you are. I’m Henry. Or, Monty?” I glance backward at Felicity for clarification.
She rolls her head back, sighing. “Monty, this is Percy. Percy, this is Monty sans memories. Now you’ve met.”
The man is still standing there, staring. “…What,” he says again.
“Yeah, that’s what we’re trying to figure out. Come on.” Felicity grabs us each by the elbow, starting to guide us toward the door. I’m not expecting her hand and therefore flinch once again. She hesitates a moment, and we pause there, her hand on my elbow and neither of us moving, before she clears her throat. “Right. It’s… I’ll take you to father, now. If that’s all right.”
“Right,” I say back. “Right. Yes. Meeting more people! Fantastic! Let’s go!”
And with that, we all three sweep from the room.
4) Medicine: There is an entire branch of medicine having to do with faces that is almost exclusively practiced by the blind. Anyone can get into this field in modern times but back in the day it was actually reserved for the blind. All examinations are done via touch because you Literally cannot see someone's face unless they've taken off their mask For Good. Dentistry is also a blind profession.
Medicine is WILD honestly. In addition to the blind branches of medicine, there are also specialized x-rays/MRIs/scans to scan people's faces beneath their masks. Some people can't do x-rays or MRIs, however. There are, for instance, people who have masks made of bone that confuse the x-ray machine.
For cases like that, the wearer will often be coached through a self-examination or a self-done procedure. People are also taught in school to do self-examinations (it's like self-done breast cancer exams) and to bring up anything strange with their doctor.
Optometry is another special case—only people who have taken their masks off For Good can get glasses, so the rest of the world uses magnifiers and specialized goggles designed to go over the mask. Detecting eye anomalies is very hard, as well, since you cannot look someone in the eye.
The good thing about masks is that they protect the wearer from a lot of harm. Sunrays can’t get through so the chance of getting skin cancer on the face is very low. Also masks will often take the damage that would have occurred to the face during an accident or not-so-accident.
In Masked, set in 1900, x-rays are fairly new, as well as electricity and cameras. They’re just learning that you cannot take a photo of your face, but they’re also well on their way to developing self-done and blind x-raying. Fun stuff!
Chapter 3: Large-Sized Scare
Talking to Monty and Felicity's father... is a very bad idea.
Father, it turns out, is on the lower level of the house. We take a stairwell that I hadn’t yet discovered, and I ask questions the whole way down. I've learned a lot by the time we reach the ground floor—I’m eighteen years of age, went to Eton for school, and the three of us are scheduled to go on tour in barely twenty-four hours, after which Felicity and Percy will be delivered to finishing school and law school, respectively, and I’ll be sent home to help take care of the estate. The baby is my—our—little brother, separated from Felicity by fifteen years. Our mother and father also live in the house, and Percy lives next door, with his Aunt and Uncle. He and I have known each other since we were literal babes.
Fascinating stuff, really.
I’m just asking what we planned to do today that I so rudely forgot when we come up to the study on the ground floor. There's a door, and through the door I hear a voice, and that voice freezes my heart in my chest.
It’s not familiar. It’s as foreign to my ears as Felicity or Percy’s were. I could swear that I’ve never heard it before in my life, and yet right here, right now, my body has decided to go rogue upon hearing it. The fact that I couldn’t place the voice to save my life makes it all the worse. I don’t even know who it is that has struck me so profoundly terrified. It could be anyone.
“Monty?” Percy asks, looking back to where I’ve stopped short. After a moment where I’m fairly sure my heart has stopped altogether, it suddenly starts beating again, pounding against the inside of my ribs in a wild, staccato pattern. I flatten a hand to my sternum, curling up around it as suddenly my breath grows short. My skin feels clammy, sweat starting to cause my clothes to cling to me, my feet and fingers growing numb. I open my mouth, intending to say… well, something, I’m sure, but absolutely nothing comes out. I can’t breathe.
“The dining hall and the sitting rooms will all need wiring,” says the voice on the other side of the door, heedless, driving the knife-blade of fear straight through me and twisting further with every word. “I’d like lightbulbs in the main bedrooms, as well. If you’re to start today I want the common spaces done first—”
I’m so entirely absorbed in this voice and the fear it’s stirring within me that I startle when Felicity raises a hand and snaps her fingers before my mask. “Wake up, Monty,” she’s saying, annoyed. “Could you focus for two minutes, please?”
She then gestures me forward, toward the door.
I don't go. I physically can't. I swallow, then swallow again, as if I can gulp air down the tube of my throat and into my lungs. My vision is blurring a little bit—I stare at the door, the only thing between us and the voice, and I can’t—I can’t—oh, god—
“Fine. I’ll do it myself. Fa—” Felicity starts, raising her voice and turning as if to knock on the door.
Percy, bless him, stops her. “Come here,” he says, his voice low, pulling her back. He then takes me—gently, so gently—by the hand and starts to guide me backward, away from that awful, awful voice.
The first step I take makes my head swim, and I nearly fall backward. Percy keeps a secure hold on me, however, and after a moment I get my feet under me, stepping back and back, retreating away, watching the door all the while, dreading its opening.
It doesn’t open. The voice falls away as the distance between it and us grows, and then we’re turning a corner, Percy leading me into another sitting room. He pushes me gently until I’ve collapsed onto a couch. He then heads back to the door, clicks the lock into place, and turns to Felicity, his shoulders squared.
“We’re not taking him to your father,” he says.
“What? Why not? Father can call the doctor and—”
My head is still swimming, and I’m not following, either. “Don’t… don’t I need…?” I ask. My breath is still wheezing in my chest, and Percy plants a hand on my back, rubbing up and down.
“Monty,” Percy says, his voice grim. “Your father is the one who did this to you.”
My mouth opens in an O. I don’t have a face or a mask to connect the voice to, but it clicks together all at once, a puzzle I didn’t realize I was struggling with. Father… that voice… they are one and the same. And Percy was the first to realize exactly what that meant.
Felicity, meanwhile, has puffed up, her arms crossed across her chest. “What do you mean, father did this? You’d better explain yourself, Percy Newton. Father wouldn’t—”
Percy glances at me, his mask just barely angling toward me before focusing again on her. “Do you remember when he came home from Eton?” he asks, voice low, as if he hasn’t quite decided whether he wants me to hear him or not. I can hear him anyway.
Felicity rolls her head back. “That was a fight! A bar brawl or the angry boyfriend of some girl he was flirting with or—”
Still low, still careful. “It wasn’t. You know it wasn’t.”
It takes her a moment, but then her shoulders wilt. She looks over at me, and I see that blank white mask again, reflected back from hers. “…No, you’re right. It wasn’t,” she says.
And just like that, the spring day outside the windows seem that much chillier.
I shake my head. I’ve heard enough to understand that this… whatever it is that’s happened to me was not a singular event. I huddle up into myself, drawing my knees to my chest. “So… what do I do now?” I ask, my voice small. The two of them seem to know the situation better than I do. I look for the answer in their masks.
It doesn’t come straight away. Even with their knowledge, they stand there and exchange a rather long look as if they, too, are uncertain what to do.
“…The police,” Felicity says, at long last. “We’ll ride into town and tell the police.”
Percy is already shaking his head. “They’ll think we’re playing a prank.”
“The doctor, then.”
“He might help, but he’d also just as likely return us to the house. He’ll tell your father.”
“Then we’ll run away to a town that doesn’t know us by mask and talk to their doctor!”
Percy considers this, still rubbing my back, slow and soothing, as if he’s forgotten he’s doing it. “Or… we wait until tomorrow and leave on our tour, and then run away and find a doctor. Your father won’t know that we’ve gone missing until word reaches him that we've run off.”
“Yes,” Felicity says. “Brilliant. We’ll take the carriage as far as Greater Manchester and—”
“…Wait, wait, hold on,” I say, raising a hand. It’s still shaking slightly, and I frown at it. “Aren’t you forgetting something important?”
The both of them turn to me at once, as if remembering in sync that I’m here. Percy’s hand stills on my back. “What?” he asks.
I reach up and tap my mask. The blank white mask that gave both of them such a start to see.
“Oh,” Percy says.
That stumps them for another few minutes. I’m starting to recover from the fit of terror that had taken me at the sound of the Voice, so while they pace around and think hard I take off the mask in question to look at it, giving them a warning not to look at me as I do.
It’s white, matte, with a texture like fine dust when I touch it, not smooth but not rough. There are a bunch of hairline-fine cracks running diagonally from one temple to the opposite jaw, like coal ores cut through marble. It’s not hard, like marble, but has a little bit of give to it. Not as soft as fabric, but something in-between.
And it is utterly, utterly foreign.
“…What if we painted it?” Felicity asks slowly. She’s facing respectfully away from me, but her body is angled toward mine, letting me know she’s talking to me. “It’ll rot away eventually, but it should buy us enough time to get out of here.”
I swallow. My mask… it’s a part of me, a reflection of my soul. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to look like, but it definitely should not have paint on it. Even I know that that feels wrong. Covering my mask with something that shouldn’t be there makes my skin crawl. Even if it’s just temporary, even if it’s for my own safety.
“…We could find another way—” Percy starts, once my hesitation has dragged on a little long, but I shake my head.
“No, no…,” I say. “Felicity is right—it’s not permanent. Let’s do it.”
“…All right,” Percy says. He doesn’t press about the waiver in my voice.
Felicity nods. I return my mask to my face, and we head to the door of the sitting room, turning the lock. Percy goes out first, checking that the hallway is clear before he takes me by the hand once more and leads me back upstairs and to a room that I’m guessing is my own. Felicity breaks away from us at the stairwell, heading toward the dining room in search of our mother to ask that they go into town to get something for Felicity to do while on tour with us boys.
…I hope she finds what we need.
“Here,” Percy says. He pulls a chair out from the small table in my quarters for me. I don’t sit down—my entire being is vibrating with a nervous energy. Knowing that the Voice is just downstairs, that my father could call on me at any moment… I can’t help the shudder that runs through me. My brain may have no memory of what he’s done, but my body sure does.
“…We ought to figure out what you remember,” Percy says, taking the chair himself.
I frown. “One problem with that. I can’t remember what I can’t remember.”
Percy fiddles with a candlestick for a moment, his head cocked to the side as he thinks. “Um. Well. Let’s try… can you name this?”
I follow his finger. “You’re pointing at a pillow, right?” I say, suddenly questioning myself.
“Right! Good. Well, not good, but… it’s something, at least.”
I nod along.
“Do you… is there anything you can’t name?” Percy asks.
“I couldn’t name you,” I say.
“Right. And you’ve got the knack of English, as far as I can tell. So where’s the line between what you can and can’t remember?”
An interesting question. I think hard for a moment before sighing. “I haven’t a clue. I know what a baby is but I didn’t recognize Adrian, so I—what’s funny?”
Percy snorts a second time, planting the chin of his gray mask in his hand. “Nothing, nothing. It’s just… you’ve never called him by his name. He’s always the Little Goblin or The Menace. You’re not very fond of him.”
“I’m not? That’s odd. I should think I’d be quite fond of having a baby brother. I mean… not enough to feed him or anything, but…”
Percy laughs again. It’s a bright sound, still unfamiliar but delightful all the same. The moment I hear it I feel as if I’ve known it all my life. Which I suppose I have, if what he’s told me is true. It’s the polar opposite of the Voice downstairs, soothing instead of terrifying.
“Can you recall the king?” he asks then, leaning toward me.
“I know what a king is, but no, cannot recall any one in particular,” I respond.
“Hm. What about… a horse?”
“Do I even know any horses?”
“Well, maybe not intimately, but you’ve definitely ridden one before.”
“Don’t recall that either.”
“Do you remember how to ride?”
That one gives me pause. “…I can’t say for sure. I know what stirrups are and what a saddle is but I can’t remember learning to ride. Maybe I’d remember if I were to get on a horse?”
“Hm.” Percy studies me for a long moment before rising to his feet and going to one of the drawers in the desk on the corner. I follow curiously, wondering what exactly I’ve got stashed away in my things. What kind of person am I? What secrets are hidden away in this room? I lean over eagerly as he opens the drawer, anticipation soaring through my gut, and—
It’s paper. I deflate.
“Here,” Percy says, handing off a piece to me, along with a fountain pen and a bottle of ink. “We’ll do a test. You know what writing is, right?”
“But you can’t remember learning how to write?”
“…I see where this is going,” I say, a smile breaking across my face under my mask. “If I remember how to write then I probably remember how to ride, and that part of my recall is functional. Right?”
Smart. I settle down at the desk, draw the paper toward me, dip my pen in the ink, and—
“Help. I don’t know what to write.”
“My head is empty.”
Another laugh. God, if I could make him laugh forever I would happily do it.
…And then I blink. What an interesting thought. I have… no idea where that came from.
“Well?” Percy prompts, bringing me back into the moment. “Just… write what you’re thinking right now.”
Oh, no. Nope. No way. “I have a better idea,” I say, leaning over my paper. I shield it from his eyes, using my hand as a barrier.
I intend to draw a picture. It goes… not so well. I dearly hope Felicity or Percy has steady enough hands to paint my mask because as it turns out, mine are quite stupid. I figure out that I like my left more than my right, but still, by the time I’ve scrawled out the caption the entire paper is ruined. I can’t help it—I take one look at the effect of the whole thing together and burst out laughing.
“Let me see,” Percy says, leaning over. I show him the paper, and then he, too, is belly-laughing at the stick figure in a cradle with the words ‘The Goblin’ scribbled beneath it. We laugh and laugh and laugh, bracing ourselves on each other to hold ourselves up, and for one fleeting moment I feel like I’ve done this all before.
Chapter 4: Mind the Paint
Percy paints Monty's mask, and Monty discovers some secrets in his room.
“Will this work?”
Felicity sighs deeply at Percy’s question. She’s perched on my bed, skirt folded around her, a brand new set of paints in her hands. It’s hard to tell, but I think I detect a tinge of worry in the set of her shoulders as she says, “It’ll rot away within a week for sure, but exactly how fast it will go depends on a lot of things. It should last long enough to get us out the door, at least. Just focus on getting the patterns right.”
Percy, sitting on the chair across from me, studies me for a long moment. I try to resist the urge to get up and go poking about the room. We’ve got things to do. Important things. Things that need to be done, despite or maybe even because of my intense desire to figure out just who on earth I am.
“…His mask had ridges. The shape was different,” Percy says after a long moment.
“Do I look like I have anything you can use to fix that?” Felicity asks.
“No, I suppose not.” Percy takes a deep breath. He seems more nervous about this than I am. I’ve come to terms with it. It’s just another insight into whoever I used to be, after all.
By this point I’ve been told all about my mask, the original one that they’re attempting to recreate. Bright and colorful are the words the two of them have used most to describe it: bright and colorful like the venetian carnival masks that Percy showed me in a book in the library to explain what he was going to paint on. Gaudy, Felicity called it, shaking her head, but the venetian masks don’t look gaudy to me. They look fun and happy.
Was I fun? Was I happy? I’m not really sure, my sense of whoever I was before tarnished by the Voice of my Father, but right now, with Percy and Felicity, I feel happy enough.
“Alright,” Percy says. “Are you ready?”
I nod, resting my hands on my knees. Percy leans over, hunching down so we’re face to face. There was so much to take in when I first woke up, a whole world of sights and sounds and weird carpet stains, that I didn’t notice right away exactly how tall he is. Or, rather, how short I am. I’m barely taller than Felicity, who is three entire years younger than I am. It’s a delight to stand beside Percy and look all the way up to his mask—it’s like looking at the sun up in the sky. Or more like the clouds up in the sky, due to the gray of his mask.
I blink myself away from that thought to find the mask in question focused on me. It’s less than a foot away, the speckles on its cheekbones very clear. They look like little freckles. The cracks on his temple, on the other hand, look like spider webbing, and I wonder what happened to hurt him so.
“Okay,” Percy says from behind the mask. “I’m going to start now.”
I nod, then make a valiant attempt to still myself. I don’t do a very good job. My fingers drum against my knees, the anticipation hiking up higher and higher as he raises the paintbrush before me, until—
The first stroke makes me want to pull back, partly because I want to look in the mirror and see every moment of the transformation into whoever it is I used to be and partly because it kind of… tingles? I don’t know how to explain it, exactly, but I feel it somewhere deep inside me, like something is stirring in my gut. It’s not a bad feeling, just… odd. I laugh.
“You all right?” Percy asks, pausing there and watching me closely.
I nod. “I’m… great, actually,” I say. “Keep going!”
So he does. It’s painstaking, all the little patterns, and he has to wipe off a fair bit of paint in order to get them just right, but he’s got a knack for it. Nimble fingers and an eye for detail. Me, on the other hand… I’m barely sitting still. It’s hard to talk while he’s working, and Percy himself is too focused on his work to really respond to the few questions I manage to get out, so I fall quiet, forcing myself through the task by watching him tilt his head just so. I’m not sure how long I’m going to last.
Finally he pulls back, examining me. We’re not done—he hasn’t quite finished the sweep of my chin and jaw—but he pauses for a long moment with the brush poised before me.
I make a questioning noise, glancing between him and Felicity. Felicity has conjured up a book from god knows where—the cover is a beautiful painting of two lovers entwined, their noses just barely touching. I don’t know what I expected her to be reading, but it certainly wasn’t amatory novels.
Percy, meanwhile, has lowered the brush, shaking his head. “…You seem distracted,” he says.
“I do?” I ask. I thought I was keeping myself rather contained, actually.
He leans back, tilting his head toward my hands. I glance down. Ah. The traitors have wandered to the pockets of my vest, as if in search of any scrap of my past they can get their fingers on.
I pry them free and fold them between my knees. “Go on, I’m ready,” I say.
“Are you sure? You’ve been squirming an awful lot.”
Damnit. Betrayed by my own body. “I’m fine,” I insist. “We’ll be done soon, won’t we? I can sit still for a few more minutes.”
Percy agrees, and brings the brush back to my mask.
…Only to pause a few minutes later, sighing a little. “Do we need to take a break?” he asks.
“No! No, I can do this, I swear—”
“Just take the mask off so he can paint it and you can go snooping about, this isn’t that hard, Monty,” Felicity says, cutting me off. She turns a page of her novel, not looking up.
Fine. I ignore the smug aura coming from her corner of the room—are we always so rude to each other?—and untie my mask. Percy looks respectfully away as I do, a pure gentleman. I set it carefully in his hands once it’s off. Don’t break it, be careful, I want to say, but I’ve known him for four hours and I already know he’ll be more careful with my mask than he’d be if he were holding a teeny baby bird. I trust him. More than anything, I trust him.
As he gets back to work, I set about sticking my nose into every nook and cranny the room has to offer, working through the energy that has built up inside me. In my dresser there are clothes—fine things with subtle embroidery and gilt, the kind of things that an upper class lad would wear. There are books, as well, neatly lined up on the top, but they all look brand new, as if they’ve never been cracked open in their lives. Something something business and history and finances. I open one and read the first page before getting distracted by the drawers of the desk and leaving it behind. Paper, pens, ink… some scratched notes that look almost like the hand I wrote in with Percy earlier, though slightly more organized. I read through them, too—they appear to be from a time when I was taking lessons with a private teacher, if the doodles scrawled in the margins are any indication.
I don’t find anything more personal than that. The deeper I go the older the school notes get, and the funnier the doodles become, but I haven’t yet found anything that’s really… me. No letters or nick-knacks or god forbid some raunchy literature.
I run a hand through my hair. If I were me, what would I have done with all my personal effects? There has to be something—I don’t strike me as the type of man who lived such a shallow life, with nothing but school and home and—
It’s then that I discover the envelope affixed to the underside of the drawer, carefully hidden from prying eyes. “A-ha!” I say, pulling it free.
I’m… not sure what I expect, honestly. There is some raunchy literature, some of it obscene enough that I laugh nervously and look around the room to make sure its other occupants are quite occupied. A list of names and addresses, some letters from a rather condescending lad named Richard Peele, and…
I pause, my hands stilling. The photograph is carefully cradled in its own separate envelope, about the size of my hand. It’s me and Percy, sitting on a sofa that I do not for the life of me recognize. Percy has one foot up on the cushions, and I’m slouched down with one foot tucked under the opposite leg. Our legs, the ones stretched out, cross at the ankles.
It’s not intimate, not anything that I feel should be hidden, but the care I took to hide it away anyway… I bite my lip. There’s something here that I haven’t yet pieced together. Why would I need to hide this? Or perhaps… perhaps I didn’t do it to hide it, per se, but to… keep it to myself? Like a precious memory, all my own. Something for no one else’s eyes.
“Found something interesting?” Percy asks. I turn to find him hovering at my elbow. He’s looking away, still respectful of the fact that I haven’t got my mask on, holding out the painted mask so I can take it.
I slip the photograph back into its envelope, putting everything away back where I found it. “I suppose,” I say. I take my mask back and examine it for a moment. “Just some letters, really… ah. You did a beautiful job with this.”
“Thank you,” Percy says, rubbing the back of his neck. He’s got paint all over his hands and sleeves, and now some on his neck, as well. “I was just thinking… if you want to read some of the letters you sent me from Eton I can bring them over. I don’t have all of them but I kept a few.”
“Yes, please!” I say eagerly. I fasten my mask back on, going to look in the mirror. When I relax my shoulders and neaten up my hair a bit from a state of ‘slept on the carpet’ to ‘roguishly tousled’, I look like the lad in the photograph. It’s an odd transformation—like I’m wearing the mask of someone I sort of know.
“…I’ll go get those letters,” Percy says, and I detect something in his voice that I can’t quite place. He claps a hand to my shoulder and turns abruptly, leaving the room. The door closes behind him just as my stomach growls, and I press a hand to it. I haven’t a clue when the last time I ate was. I missed whatever breakfast that Felicity and our parents shared, and it’s nearing lunch-time now. I was so invested in everything going on around me that I rather forgot to consider the state of things inside me.
“Ah, Felicity?” I ask. She hums, still not looking up from her book. “Would it be all right to ask you to fetch some food? I’d do it myself, but I’m still in yesterdays clothes, if I’m not mistaken, and I should probably change before the servants get an eyeful.”
“…I suppose, since you asked nicely,” she says. She carefully marks the page of her book with a slip of paper and stands up, examining me. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to you acting polite. It’s even odder with your old mask.”
“Am I not polite?”
“No, not particularly.” She sighs, a woeful sound. “You’re rather crude, actually. I don’t know how Percy stands you. He’s like a saint compared to you.”
And with that she, too, sweeps from the room.
Hm. I do need to change, but I’m alone for the first time since I found Felicity all those hours ago. I’ve got a lot to think about. My mask, and Felicity’s breakdown of my character, and the photograph hidden under the desk drawer… I feel slightly overwhelmed with everything I’ve learned so far today. It’s not a bad kind of overwhelmed, but it’s… just… a lot to take in?
I breathe out, the weight of my mask suddenly heavy on my face. I want to know everything. I want to remember. I want to know who I was, who I am. Who is Henry ‘Monty’ Montague? Who was the lad who saved a single photograph of himself sitting with his best friend like it was the most precious thing in the world?
I sit down at the desk, reaching carefully for the envelope one more time. The second envelope is exactly where I’d tucked it moments ago—I open it and pull out the photograph. It’s still, silent, naught but a moment frozen in time. It could not tell me my secrets even if I were to cry and beg.
Still… I return it to its envelope, but instead of returning that envelope to the first I set it on the desk. I find that my hands are quick and sure on the buttons of my clothes, and I change quickly out of the wrinkled vest and shirt I’ve been wearing all morning and likely all the night before that. I don a new set of clothes, admiring the tailored fit in the mirror for a short moment before I return to the desk. I pick up the envelope… and with all the care in the world, I slip it into my pocket, hoping that soon enough all will become clear.
The first real test of Percy’s paintbrush skill comes at dinnertime that night. I’ve successfully avoided both lunch and breakfast, intentionally or not, but I can’t reasonably avoid dinner, as well, especially with our impending departure so close on the horizon.
I stand before my closed door, taking deep breaths as the hour approaches. Felicity has already gone downstairs, in order to do what she can to distract everyone during my arrival. Percy is off fetching his violin from next door. I am alone. It’s just me. Just little amnesiac me, with no memory prior to waking this morning and a painted mask and a set of jitters that’s making my hands twitch horribly at my sides.
It would be fine, I think, if not for one simple fact: Father will be there. And all I know about Father is that his voice threads pure dread between my ribs. That he hurt me. That he’s hurt me before. And that I’ll have to face him in order to get out.
Well. There’s no time like the present, as they say. I quickly shake my hands out, press them to my thighs for one long moment, and then reach for the door.
The dining room is dim when I arrive, lit by an ornate candelabra. The light bulbs, I’ve been told, are still being installed—they won’t be finished with all the wiring until we’re well on our way. Assuming we get on our way, in any case. Five places around the table are already set, one waiting for me and another, I assume, for Percy. The food is already dished out, and the three members already at the table appear to be waiting.
I step slowly into the room, giving Felicity a small wave. She’s seated on the far side of the table, and immediately tries to strike up a conversation with the two other party members, one of whom is a pale, maskless woman who I assume is our mother. The other…
“How many times have I told you to stand up straight?”
My spine snaps into place as if drawn taut by a hand on either end. It’s instinctual. Instinctual, it seems, like the fact that our father has his eyes focused on me the instant I walk in.
He’s… not what I was expecting. He’s maskless as well, his face handsome despite the frown lines around his eyes and mouth. His hair is dirty blond, just like mine, and neatly oiled down. His eyes are a cutting blue.
I swallow. He's the spitting image of an older me, but by the way he's looking at me I can already tell that I'm not living up to my potential.
“Uh… I don’t know,” I say, when his stare continues to grow more and more pointed, as if he’s actually waiting for an answer. I can see him seething, and the idea that I'm his eldest son comes unbidden to my mind. I don't even know the man and I feel like I've let him down.
Felicity again makes an attempt to entice him into conversation, something about the uses of electricity, but he brushes her aside as if she’s nothing more than a buzzing fly, his only words to her a sharp, “Book off the table.”
She pulls the book into her lap as I take my seat. A moment later Percy appears, apologizing, and takes his place at my elbow.
“Blindfold, my lord?”
I start, jumping at the voice of the servant on my other side. He’s holding a tray of black blindfolds. I hesitantly take one. Then I watch as he heads around the table, offering one to each of the occupants of the room. There’s some cue that I miss, and Felicity begins to undo the steel buckle holding her mask in place. I look over at Percy—he’s untying his mask, as well. I fumble for the tie of my own mask, watching as Mother and Father slip their blindfolds on. I close my eyes before pulling mine over them.
I then feel for the utensils at my place, drawing a fork toward myself, discovering at the same time that I… don’t remember anything about dinner etiquette. There’s a rather alarming chunk of my memories that has apparently gone missing right in the middle of my manners, and I haven’t a clue what to do about it.
Breathe, I tell myself, then reach to my left until I’ve found Percy’s arm. His chair creaks as he leans in toward me. “Something wrong?” he whispers.
I nod without realizing that I’m nodding. The jitters are back—my hand is shaking on Percy’s forearm. I swallow hard. God. He’s only a man, I think. You’ve seen his unmasked face—your father is human, just like you.
I open my mouth, and I could swear the entire table is listening in. I can’t—I can’t. I’m stuck, frozen. Trapped like an animal. I’m suddenly tempted to throw up.
Then Felicity makes her third attempt at striking up a conversation, and the third time must be the charm because our dearest Mother responds in kind and I finally manage to choke out an abridged version of the issue to Percy. He reaches over and squeezes my fingers, before murmuring from the corner of his mouth what to do, which utensil to use for what. I follow along like a little blind puppy, barely tasting the food in my mouth.
The good news is that though I’m still shaking a little, and have developed a hell of a headache, by the time dinner is over and we’ve replaced our masks I’m no longer terrified. I haven’t said much of anything except when strictly addressed, and then only two or three-word answers, and no one has made any comment on the state of my head. I bid goodnight to Mother and Father and then I’m free, able to walk away from our parents with the knowledge that we’re just that much closer to getting out.
I start when we turn the corner and Percy slips his hand into mine.
“You went quiet during dinner,” he says, voice low, leading me back to the staircase.
I glance back—Father’s study door has closed behind him, and Mother seems to be admonishing Felicity about having her books at the table. “It seemed better to keep my mouth shut,” I say.
“…That may be the first time I’ve ever heard you say something to that effect.”
I remove my hand from his in order to give his shoulder a good whack as he laughs. Then I wince, raising a hand to my head.
Percy stops laughing immediately, reaching for me. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I’m just… my head hurts.”
“I imagine that you must have been hit fairly hard.”
“If only I could remember.”
He breathes out, tilting his head down toward mine. “That’s all right. I’m sure your memories will come back soon. Perhaps by the time you wake up tomorrow you’ll be back to normal.”
I hum. “Did we have plans for tonight? I can’t recall them.”
“Nothing dire. We go out most nights but I think it’s better to stay in for once. Unless…”
There’s a thread of hope in the tone of his voice, one that he’s very obviously trying to squash down. “Unless what?” I ask.
“Well… I was thinking a night out might jog your memory. But if you’re not feeling well I think it would be best to settle in for the night.”
“Oh,” I say.
He leads me to my door, focused on me the entire way. “Are you disappointed?” he asks.
I shake my head. “Only a little. I do feel pretty lousy.”
“We’ll compensate for tonight another time. Besides, with you out of commission I’m not sure we could get into any of our usual haunts.”
He laughs again, and this time I laugh with him. Then I wince a second time, my head pounding harder. I prod at my memories, the missing ones, like I’m tonguing at a missing tooth. If I could just—just remember—
Alas, I cannot, and trying only makes the headache spike higher. We reach my room and I move as if in a trance, fetching my bedclothes and donning them with my eyes barely open. Percy stands behind me, facing the opposite direction as he dons his own pajamas. I’m barely functional, all the cogs of my brain grinding to a halt, but I manage to slip the envelope with the photograph from the pocket of my trousers and set it on the dresser before I collapse into my bed, letting loose a small groan.
It’s then that I realize that Percy has paused at the edge of the bed, standing there awkwardly. I make a questioning noise.
He clears his throat. “Is it… I usually sleep in bed with you, but I can sleep on the floor if—”
It takes me a long moment to sort through the not-quite-a-request before it alights that he’s asking if he can sleep with me. Well, not sleep with me, but… you know what I mean. “No!” I say, probably far too forcefully. “No, it’s fine, just—here—”
I roll over, settling myself on the far side of the bed. The sheets are caught up under me and it takes me a moment to untangle them, but then I raise them up, enticing Percy to come under with me. He gets in, sits a moment, and then hesitantly starts to reach over. “Here,” he says, soft and low. “Let me hold your mask for you so you can untie it. It won’t be comfortable to sleep in it.”
“Do we usually take them off to sleep?” I ask.
I can’t tell what he’s thinking as he says, “We do. And then we usually stumble around blind in the mornings because we forgot we’ve taken them off and looked at each others’ faces by accident.”
It’s simple, plain-spoken, and it ignites an ache deep in my chest to hear him say it. “…I wish I could remember that,” I admit, untying my mask for the second time tonight.
“You will,” Percy says. He takes the mask from me to set it on the bedside table, angling his face away.
I close my eyes so he can take off his as well, my lips pouting. “But what if I don’t?” I ask. It feels like peeling off a scab to say it aloud, to voice the idea that I’ve lost an entire life and I may never get it back.
Percy sighs. It’s not an exasperated sound, the kind of sound I can clearly imagine on Felicity’s lips. It’s dear, and fond, and I ache to see his face just once, to see if his expression is as soft as that sigh leads me to believe. “If there is one thing you are, Monty, it’s stubborn. You’ll get your memories back, just you watch.”
“…But if I don’t. If this is my life now. What then?”
“I should hope it’s not. I’d hate for you to have a headache for the rest of your life.”
I flail a hand to the side, whacking him on the chest. “Be serious,” I grouse, though my mouth is twitching into a smile against my will.
He rolls over on the bed, turning toward me despite not being able to look at me. “You’re right,” he says. “This is something we should think through. Though I think it should be noted that I never imagined I’d see a day where you were more serious than I, but here we are.”
I blow out through my nose, rolling my closed eyes. “Yes, yes, I understand, I was a crude jokester who couldn’t be serious to save his life. Get on with it.”
“…I wouldn’t use the word crude.”
“Now back to the point—if I never do regain my memories. What then.”
Percy pauses for a long moment, thinking. I hear him shuffling a little under the sheets, and then there’s the sound of him blowing out the candle by my bedside. I open my eyes again, though I can’t see much of anything. “Well…” Percy starts, then pauses again.
“Go on,” I say.
“I suppose… it’s a bit of a disappointing answer, but I suppose at some point you’d have to shift focus from regaining your memories to making new ones?”
Hm. I flop over onto my back, staring at the near-indecipherable hangings on the bed frame above me. I’ll admit that the memories I’ve made today haven’t been the worst. Painting my mask, discovering the photograph, laughing with Percy… it’s been nice. I wouldn’t mind having another day, another week, another month, even another year just dedicated to enjoying my days, talking and laughing with Felicity and Percy and learning new things the entire way. I wouldn’t mind this life.
I just have to get out first. And I will. With Felicity and Percy’s help, I’ll get out and whether or not I ever regain my memories I know I’ll have the two of them at my side.
5) Culture: Kissing is almost exclusively for soulmates and people post-demasking. It's just... not a thing. Some cultures have symbolic alternatives (mask locking) but for the most part it just doesn't factor into anything.
There are 'no sight' spaces where people can go and take off their masks. Often public spaces with a no sight space will provide blindfolds in case you don't have your own. It's not required, per se, because you'd just go blind for a bit if you tried to look at someone's face, but it's a nicer alternative than having to deal with temporary blindness that may or may not go away in a timely manner. Cafeterias tend to be no sight spaces. Or seating is divided into private rooms so people can take their masks off in peace.
Honestly this entire society is very good at being blind. There are a lot of accomodations that we don't have.
In some cultures it is EXTREMELY RUDE to talk about someone's mask, while others will casually use them as identifying markers.
...Of course it's not always That Deep. There are kids with animal masks and teens with fucking Scream or Jason masks.
Signaling: As for expressing emotions, most people rely on hand signs called ‘signals’. Somewhere between talking with your hands and an actual formulaic sign language, the aristocracy and the working class both have their own take on these signals.
Speaking of sign language… actual sign languages developed without using facial expressions. They incorporate the more common signals to indicate tone.
Now as for fashion: Masks have both followed and created fashion trends. Depending on what materials are common in a society, the general trends of mask materials change—a community that hasn’t discovered steel yet won’t have steel masks, for instance, only iron or other materials. There have been noticeable trends of low-complexity and high-complexity in mask design, though of course, it depends on the individual first and foremost. The Victorian era was a time of high-complexity, masks often adorned with lace and frills, especially among the upper class. Additions to masks were also in during the Victorian era, despite their tendency to rot off—adorning your mask with gold only to have it rot away signified that you had the gold to spare and was seen as a status symbol.
Chapter 6: Dose of Locust
Breakfast with Mother and a talk with Father... oh boy.
I just learned that victorian aristocrats (at least the men) did not have pockets, or had their pockets sewn shut. Just a fun fact that I will NOT be including in this fic just because I don’t want Monty shoving a photograph down his trousers.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Put your hands down, Henry.
Put. Your hands. DOWN.
I wake in slow spurts. The dream is already slipping through my fingers, even as I grasp sleepily for it—I groan to myself, rolling over. Before I go very far I find something in my way. Something, or rather someone, who is in bed with me.
I yelp, flinching backwards before I recognize the dark hands holding my mask. It’s only Percy. Hear that, you traitorous pounding heart? Only! Percy!
Heedless of my admonishments, my heart only seems to pick up faster in my chest.
“Good morning,” Percy says, as if he hasn’t noticed the scene I’m making of myself.
I huff, pulling the sheets up about my face as if I can hide myself away from the day. It’s early, if I’m correctly reading the light coming around the edges of the curtains. “You scared me,” I say, accusatory.
“Sorry. I was just thinking that I didn’t do a very good job with your mask…”
I sit up a ways, propping myself up on an elbow to take a look at the mask in question. “It looks fine,” I say.
“How would you know?” Percy asks. Then, after a pause, he starts to ask, “Have you…?”
I shake my head, scrubbing a hand down my face. “No memories. Well, none prior to yesterday. Nothing new. Or… nothing old?”
“I get it,” Percy says, a laugh in his voice, before I can confuse myself further. I make the mistake of tracing the sound of his voice to his lips, which are still uncovered, his mask sitting demurely on the bedside table. Instantly there’s a rush of visual static and then my vision goes completely black.
I wince back, clapping a hand to my eyes a moment too late. “…You weren’t lying about us going accidentally blind most mornings, were you,” I say.
“I was not.”
Ah. Regret tastes very bitter before you’ve even had a decent breakfast. I put on my mask, sparing poor Percy the same fate. We stay in bed like that, our masks on and the two of us lounging, until the butler (Sinclair, I’ve been told his name is) comes in to ‘wake’ us. My sight returns to normal a few moments after he opens the blinds and I wince back, the last of the headache still dogging me.
“Feeling all right?” Percy murmurs once Sinclair has gone on his way. He touches a hand to the wound on my head, hidden beneath my hair.
I nod, butting my forehead against his fingers. “I’ll live.”
“Ready for today?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
Percy nods seriously, then slides out of bed, stretching his long arms above his head as he goes. I watch closely, my eyes drawn to the curve of his back, tracing his spine down toward—
Ahem. I am a gentleman, a lad of high class and higher expectations. It is not my prerogative to examine the backsides of my close friends. Though I do have to admit that I am very, very tempted.
I tear my eyes away, focusing instead on the clothing the servants have left out for me to wear today. Shirt in a pale blue, trousers and vest a nice cream, coat a deep blue. I admire the subtle embroidery on the vest and the silk lining of the coat before pulling them on. Then, while Percy is fiddling with his hair in the mirror, I take the envelope from the dresser and press it again into my pocket.
There. I’m ready. I elbow Percy aside to get a look at my own locks, and a small scuffle ensues, leaving us laughing. We are almost free, and I have a feeling it will be a good day.
Of course, first we must get past a certain Lord Montague, the Duke of Disley.
Percy and I arrive at breakfast just after Felicity. The table is set for six, two of which are a pair of stiff-looking folks that Percy greets fondly, after first bowing to my mother, who has a single poached egg in a cup before her. Our guests must be Percy’s Aunt and Uncle. I greet them as well, shaking the gentleman’s hand and bowing before the lady. Felicity rolls her head back. I bow to her, too, theatrically as I can, feeling bright and quite excitable. I’ve taken heart in the fact that Father has taken his breakfast in the study, before observing the blindfold ritual and tucking into my own food.
That’s when things begin to go downhill.
“You and Percy were up early this morning,” Mother says. There’s something in her tone that I can’t quite parse without seeing her, something that encourages me to tread lightly.
“Indeed,” I say, forking eggs into my mouth. “We had a nice night in and went to bed early.”
I get the impression that she doesn’t quite trust my word at face value. I can’t imagine getting up to an incredible amount of trouble just before leaving on Tour, but it seems as if she was expecting something of the two of us that we failed to deliver.
“…Well,” she says, after a moment. “I’m glad that you seem to have yourself sorted out today. Though it still makes me anxious to think of you two boys out on the Continent on your own for a year.”
“There’s no need to worry,” I promise. I try not to cough as the lie exits my mouth, itching all the way across my tongue. She seems sincere enough, a mother worried for her son. I almost wish we could come clean to her about this whole memory business, that I could relearn a mother’s touch. It would be nice, I think. The shadow of my father is omnipresent, however, and no matter how much I wish things were different this is the lot we’ve been given. I endeavor to give her a long hug before we’re off, as this may be the last time I see her.
Just as long as we can get past Father. He is the one thing, the only thing, standing between us and freedom. We just have to get past Father and—
“Master Henry, your father has requested your presence in the study,” Sinclair says at my elbow the exact moment I’ve gotten my mask back in place. I wince, swallowing hard. My egg and sausage are suddenly sitting oddly in my stomach, and I catch Felicity and Percy exchanging a glance across the table. Unfortunately for me, I can’t see a way out of this. If it’s a question of whether or not to go, then there’s hardly a question at all, seeing as disobeying a direct order from Father is likely to result in exactly the kind of conclusion that we are all desperately trying to avoid.
“Well,” I say, and my voice is thankfully steady. “I suppose I’d better go see what he wants.”
I can feel Felicity and Percy staring at my back as I head out of the dining room. I appreciate the concern, but there’s nothing to be done. I just have to get through this. I’m already standing as straight as I can when I approach the door to the study. I take a moment to neaten myself up—no creased clothes, not a hair out of place—before I knock and enter.
The first thing I notice, besides Father sitting behind the desk, is a man standing rather awkwardly to the side of the door. He’s got a scholarly look about him, all red hair and patchy beard and spectacles.
“Ah, good morning,” I say, hoping that I’m not expected to remember him.
“Good morning, my lord,” the man says. “We’ve met once before, though I doubt you’ll remember. Clarence Lockwood. I’m sure we’ll become better acquainted in the coming months, as we travel together.”
“Right, of course,” I say, extending a hand.
We finish with the pleasantries and I turn to find Father frowning over at me. His eyes are as unnerving as ever—I struggle not to swallow visibly as they sweep over me as if in search of defects.
I stand up straighter, fighting not to slouch even an inch. This seems to please him, at least for the moment, for he turns away from me again, folding together a leather skin with papers inside it. He hands it over to Mr. Lockwood, and I gather that it has all our necessary travel documents. I watch in silence as it changes hands.
Then, of course, comes the part I’m dreading.
“What do you think I wish to speak to you about, Henry?” Father asks.
It’s a trap, I know it instantly. It’s less about the words themselves than the way he says them—daring me to say something wrong or stupid. If I tell him the honest truth—that I haven’t the slightest clue what he’s looking for from me—then I’m an idiot and a simpleton. If I come up with an answer and the answer turns out to be wrong, then I’m disrespectful, a smart ass. If I wait too long to answer, then I’m wasting his precious time. And if I somehow, against all odds, find the right words in a timely manner, then he’s only satisfied until the next pointed question, at which point the whole affair starts all over again.
I shift where I’m standing, my shirt suddenly sticking to my chest as I start to sweat. What would the original Monty have done? What is the right answer? God, Monty, hurry up—you’re running out of time.
“Well?” Father asks, his eyes narrowing. “Speak up, Henry.”
I do swallow this time, my heart starting to pound in my chest. “I…”
…It’s no use. I probably couldn’t come up with the right words even if I had all the time in the world. I close my mouth as his eyes go harder than ever, the frown etching deeper into his cheeks. Even with him sitting and me standing he seems to loom. “For god’s sake, boy, have you gone deaf?” he demands.
I shake my head mutely.
“Then your head is as empty as ever, I see. You’re here to discuss your bloody Tour, or have you forgotten that, as well?”
Shake, shake, shake. My hands are starting to tremble—I press them to my thighs, desperately hoping that he hasn’t noticed. I can barely focus as he goes on, something about my expulsion from Eton and indulging me and one year to get a hold of yourself. There’s a lot to unpack there, least of all the expulsion bit, and I struggle to comprehend the words as they grow ever sharper.
“…Do you understand me?” he finishes, and I start, realizing that I have, in fact, absorbed next to nothing.
“Yes, sir,” I say anyway, hoping against hope that agreeing with him will get me out of here sooner rather than later.
It doesn’t work. Father speaks again, and then Mr. Lockwood starts to pitch in, and I’m struggling to follow the conversation and also keep track of my heart rate and stand up straight and—god, I wish I had something to take the edge off. It’s all so much.
And then, to put the cherry on top, I hear from the tangled mess of sounds assaulting my ears the words, “Mr. Lockwood, may I have a moment alone with my son?” and that’s it—I’m going to die. Either he’ll beat me to death, or my heart will stop in anticipation of a beating to the death, and whichever way it goes I hope that Percy and Felicity manage to escape unscathed.
Father wastes no time once Mr. Lockwood is out the door. The threats he voices mean nothing to me—disownment hardly impacts me when I haven’t a clue what I’m being disowned from—but the tone of his voice changes and if I thought I was scared before it is nothing compared to the sheer terror that goes through me at the sound of softening vowels.
“Indicate that you understand me, Henry,” Father snaps, after a moment of silence.
I am frozen. I am trapped. I am a rabbit, caught fast, with legs in a tangle as it struggles in the looped wire of a snare. I see his hand rising and it feels like a dream, a nightmare. I’m not sure what’s real and what’s not, not sure where I am—am I in the sitting room? The study? The kitchen? Is my shirt blue or is it yellow, lilac, white? Is there blood in my hair, on my hands, on my chin? Has he hit me once? Twice? A dozen times?
“Henry,” comes the voice, booming in the hollows of my chest. My head hurts, aches. I want something to take the edge off. I am frozen. I am trapped. I am a rabbit—
And like the rabbit caught in the snare, I stare, wide-eyed, as the hand descends.
The strike rattles my mask, nearly knocking it askew. My ears ring, and I raise my hands—
—Put your hands down, Henry—
—and then, just like that, it’s over. I choke out some semblance of a yes, sir, I understand and with one final warning that goes in one ear and out the other, I’m allowed to walk from the room. It’s beyond me how I manage to get any words out at all, how I get my feet moving, but a moment later the door closes behind me and I’m—I’m out, I’m—walking—I have to—to get away—I’m—
—I’m going to throw up.
I stumble, clapping a hand to my mask. My stomach heaves. Somewhere to my side, I hear Percy’s voice, barely recognizable to my ringing ears, and I manage to get out a, “Look away,” before wrenching my mask off and losing it all over the rug.
So much for a nice breakfast.
I gasp, my breath thick in my wheezing chest. I’m so dizzy that I nearly trip myself into the sick on the floor, and probably would have if not for Percy’s arm around my waist.
“Easy,” he says near my ear. His voice sounds like it’s underwater. Are we in the house? Out in the garden? In a muggy room smelling of cigars and alcohol? Where have I heard his voice before? “Easy. Deep breaths, Monty.”
I try. I’m trying. It’s not working. I cough, retching, as my lungs heave. I don’t—I don’t understand what’s happening. All the flashes of—are those memories? Were those memories? Memories of times Father has hit me before? It was like watching a thousand photographs flash before my eyes, too many to decipher. I shudder, my stomach twisting. All he did was raise his hand and—and—
I suck in a breath, as deep as I can. My mind is still swimming with half-there things, memories like flitting fish that shy away when I try to grasp them. The pain in my head spikes from a low, easy-to-ignore ache to an acute agony. I feel like I’m coming apart at the seams.
And all the while there’s Percy, holding me tight and murmuring to me in his sweet, low voice, encouraging me to breathe in, breathe out, come on, Monty, you can do this.
It takes me a long moment, but I slowly come back to myself, the hellish storm in my head abating. The memories, what fragmented pieces I can decipher, settle slowly like silt on the bottom of a river. I prod at them, almost afraid that they’ll hurt when I do, or that they’ll disappear again just like that, but they’re—they’re really there. Not many, not much, but… it’s something.
By god, though, if this is what regaining my memories is going to be like, I’m not sure if I want them anymore.
“…Okay,” Percy breathes. He’s still holding most of my weight, his arms wrapped around my middle, keeping me upright. “You’re okay. You’re okay.”
“I’m okay,” I say back, my voice quiet and scratchy. I hesitantly slip my mask back on, all it’s contours pressed perfectly into my skin. I feel like crying. A lot, actually. Percy gently hauls me away from the vomit on the floor and I can’t help it, the tears come hot and fast and—
“It’s time to go,” says Felicity’s voice, from somewhere up ahead. I wipe at the tears as they escape the bottom of my mask, unsteady on my feet.
“Here,” Percy says, handing me a handkerchief. I hesitate a moment before taking it, cleaning myself up. I have so much to tell them but Felicity is right—it’s time to go. We need to go. Now. While we still can. Telling them about the memories will have to wait.
I feel like I’m barely inhabiting my body as we finish the last of our farewells. We say goodbye to Percy’s Aunt and Uncle, and the nursemaid, and the baby, and Mother hugs me and it’s just as nice as I imagined, and then we’re getting into the carriage and my head is falling to Percy’s shoulder and though I put up a great deal of resistance I find myself nodding off. I slip away as the carriage hits the highway and just like that I’m gone again, lost to the dreams, the memories, Percy’s voice and Father’s hands all mixed up together in a great whirlpool of static static static.
6) Religion: There are some religions where the masks are viewed as Sinful and/or devil magic, and people will sometimes wear niqabs or niqab-like garments to keep their masks off at all times. There are other religions where masks are viewed as a direct gift from God or gods, where masks are holy objects. One of the more common myths is that humanity developed masks as a punishment for Eve eating the Apple in the garden of Eden—masks exist parallel to the concept of original sin. Of course, that’s a very christian view of things—in Islam masks are considered idols of the soul, and are hidden away. Islamic men and women often cover their faces for this reason.
Death rituals regarding masks are often linked to culture and religion. Most cultures have different views about what to do with a mask once its wearer is dead—some burn them, some bury them with the wearer, some keep them and/or put them on shrines. Ancient egyptian Death Masks, for instance were people's literal masks, and people were mummified and buried in their masks, with their organs in jars beside them.
Chapter 7: Getting Behind Yourself
Attempt #1 to get away.
“Monty… hey. Wake up. We’ve stopped for the night.”
Ugh. My head. As I blink my way into consciousness, groggy and out of sorts after sleeping the day away, I find that it becomes much more obvious how much it aches. I fumble for Percy’s shoulder to stabilize myself, stumbling from the carriage on legs that haven’t been stretched in hours. I was awake for a bit around noon-time in order to eat a light lunch despite having no appetite for it, but other than that I haven’t managed to stay conscious for very long, apparently exhausted by the events of the morning.
“We’ll be staying here for the night,” Mr. Lockwood says, as I survey the inn in front of us. It’s a fancy establishment, meant for traveling aristocrats as far as I can tell. With the servants and our embroidered coats, we’ll fit right in. “We’ve reserved a room for Miss Montague and her attendant in the ladies’ quarters and two rooms for us in the men's. We’ll share dinner in one of their private dining rooms at seven. Until then you’re free to wander as you please, though of course with the restrictions your father and I have already outlined for you.”
Here he looks at me, pauses, comes closer, and, to my utter mortification, raises a hand to touch my mask. He pulls back and looks at his finger, disgust gracing his face.
“Is your mask… rotting?” he asks.
Percy’s head whips toward me, and I can feel the panic in his hidden gaze. I raise a hand myself, carefully feeling the paint on my mask. It is indeed starting to rot, and rather faster than I’d hoped, at that.
Thankfully Felicity comes to my rescue. “You know how boys are. He’s… uh…”
“Had a change of heart!” Percy says, coming to her rescue as she flails about looking for a suitable excuse about what, exactly, boys are like.
“Yes! That!” Felicity says. Then the two of them bob their heads, one on either side of me, until Mr. Lockwood shakes his head.
“Hmph. Well, make sure you wash the rest of it off before we get to Paris,” he says, turning to our attendants to assist in the unloading of our luggage.
“Yes, sir,” I say, and then Felicity is dragging me away, Percy and his violin close at our backs.
We convene in the room Percy and I are to share, waiting until the servants are done hauling in the luggage before we take to a huddle by the bed. “Alright,” Felicity says, her steel mask focusing directly on me. “Out with it. Something happened this morning, and I want to know everything.”
I groan, pushing my hands into my mask so that my mask pushes into my face. The rotting paint sticks to my fingers, and I groan again, disgusted. “Must I?” I ask, picking some of the rot off. I’d actually rather just go back to sleep. Though I suppose I should at least eat something first.
“Something happened,” Felicity insists. “Something with Father. Vomiting is not a normal reaction to having a nice pleasant chat, Monty. Now tell me.”
“He’s tired, don’t push,” Percy says, halfway into the private bathroom, but Felicity is already pushing, so intently focused on me that I can’t see anything but my own rotting paint in the reflection of her mask.
I sigh. “Fine. Just… let me gather my wits a moment.”
She acquiesces, sitting herself down on my bed to wait while I sort everything out. I’m not keen on the idea of her staring at me the entire time, but I’ve no real choice in the matter. I sigh.
“Here,” Percy says, emerging from the bathroom with two wet towels. I take one, attending to my hands, and he raises the other to my mask. I close my eyes, trusting him to gently wipe away the decomposing paint one careful stroke at a time. That odd sensation lights up again inside me, that tingly odd feeling that simmers deep in my gut, but this time I ignore it in favor of rifling through my memories.
There aren’t many. Five or six of them, starting with one where I stumble backward into the kitchen of the Montague house. I don’t know where I was before the kitchen, where I came from—all I know is that my legs are barely holding me up. The servants around me, prepping dinner if I’m guessing right, all start expressing concern and outrage as I intrude on their space. I don’t stop. At least not until my back hits the table in the center of the room, all the utensils on it rattling. A moment later my father follows me in, shouting, ordering all the servants out before his hand rises. He grabs me by my mask and wrenches me forward. “Richard Peele? You and Richard Peele?” he spits into my face, hauling me toward him. I grab his wrist, holding on for dear life. I’m thirteen years old. I’m shaking.
The memory ends there, sudden and disorienting, the snippet beginning and ending just like that. I blow out air through my nose, letting the memory go again. The only clues I have about who Richard Peele is are a few condescending letters hidden under a drawer in Cheshire. What happened between me and him? What did I do that was so wrong?
I don’t know. I move on to the next memory, feeling sick to my stomach once again.
This one is just as bad. I’m standing in a dormitory room, letters scattered around me, all torn and bent. Father is holding a handful of them. He reads aloud a line—“Your eyes are the dearest blue, the blue of a summer sky,”—with the utmost contempt before he crumples the letter in his hand and hurls it at my chest. It hits with a thunk more weighty than paper. The same thing, for the next two letters—a line and then a projectile—before he seems to grow too incensed to read aloud what I gather is correspondence between me and another lad. The final letter he grinds beneath his boot heel, striding toward me. He raises his fist.
He beat me that day until each fall of his fist blended with the one before it. Until my ribs felt like glass in my chest. Until I could barely see straight.
I shiver, following the thread to the next memory.
Again, my father. Again, his sharp words, and again, his raised fist. We’re in the sitting room this time, and he’s angry about… I’m not even sure. His words all blur together, my head already swimming. I can’t recall what he’s mad about. I can’t—I can’t recall anything else. Just the sitting room, and my father, and his fist. My head strikes the edge of a chair and I’m gone.
But Percy… I remember Percy, too. Not then, not that night, but a different night. I remember… I remember a barroom, I think. Someplace dim and smoky, muggy. There’s alcohol on my tongue, so much of it in my system that I can hardly stand straight. And there’s Percy, bent over with my arm drawn over his shoulders, laughing and guiding me home.
I remember a fight, sharp words between me and him. I remember starting to walk away, my head clouded with anger. I remember his hand grabbing my arm, an apology on his tongue, and I remember my tense shoulders relaxing, realizing that I wasn’t mad at him, not really.
And I remember… I remember a morning. I remember hurting, so bad so bad, bruised all over. I remember vomiting in the garden. And then there was Percy lying on the grass with me, making me laugh. His voice, shouting, “WE HATE RICHARD PEELE!” and birds taking flight all around us. I remember feeling so, so grateful for him.
I remember terror, and I remember love, and of the two I find I really rather prefer the latter.
I open my eyes. Only a few moments have passed, though it feels like much, much longer. Percy is still in front of me, his mask angled toward me as he focuses on cleaning the last of the paint off. The more I get to know him the more I realize that he means more to me than just a friend, even a good friend. I suddenly understand the me who hid away a photograph. The memories with Percy… they are precious things. I’d do anything to protect them from prying eyes. I study him, his mask and his hands, his dark skin, the curly hair that defies pomade, every stitch of clothing clinging to him, all of it together making up the person that I love most in the world.
“There,” he says, backing away. I touch a hand to my mask—it’s clean and blank once more.
“Thank you,” I say. Then I turn to Felicity, crossing my arms. I still don’t feel very well—my head aches distantly, and my stomach is still vaguely unsettled, but she asked and I’m going to answer. I’ll hate every second of it, but by god, I’ll do it.
It's only once I've powered through an abridged version of what went down with our father this morning, and the memories I’ve regained, that I realize I've incriminated myself. From what I've gathered, writing love letters to another boy is a big no-no. I bite my lip as I finish, waiting on Felicity and Percy's verdict.
They’re both silent. I’ve hunched over my upset stomach, holding it gingerly. The fact that I’ve got those small fragments of Percy helps, and a lot at that, but I still must look a sight because Percy has shuffled closer, rubbing a hand up and down my back in that way he has.
“We have to find a doctor,” Felicity says finally, thoughtfully, skipping straight over the part about the letters. “Tonight. After dinner. It’s good that the memories are coming back, but that reaction to them worries me.”
Percy and I nod in sync. Then I yawn widely behind my mask and Percy pats the bed for me to lay down.
I don’t sleep this time. I’ve done too much sleeping in the past twenty-four hours to do more. I instead go limp where I’m lying, my arms drawn to my chest and my knees bent, mask on the bed beside me, listening as Percy lowers his voice and asks Felicity what she’s been reading lately. Felicity hesitates for a long moment before she starts talking about something that is decidedly not an amatory novel—it is, instead, the work of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who is apparently the first woman to obtain an official license to practice medicine in Britain. She was the mayor of Aldeburgh and the founder of the London School of Medicine for Women, I learn, as well as being an idol of Felicity’s. Felicity talks about the obstacles she has faced and her achievements despite them with increasing excitement all the way up until we’re called for dinner.
“How are you feeling?” Percy asks me as I tie my mask back on. Felicity is waiting by the door, pawing through the bag that she hasn’t yet set down. It’s full of nothing but books as far as I can tell.
I hum, tilting my head and honestly considering Percy’s question. He’s been so achingly gentle with me the past two days, a solid shoulder to lean on. From the few memories I’ve regained it seems he’s always been this way—always willing to give exactly what I need. I feel an exquisite fondness for him, and I smile so wide I swear he could see it straight through my mask. “…Better than this morning,” I say. “Much better. Still a little out of sorts, but it’s nothing I can’t handle.”
“Good,” Percy says, and I swear I can hear a responding smile in his voice.
Dinner is a neat affair, served in a small private dining room. Mr. Lockwood tells us about the scheduled starts and stops of our coming days, most notable of which will be crossing the English Channel by ferry. I’ve almost forgotten that we’re planning to defect before that time comes and spend a good ten minutes asking every question that comes to mind about the ferry and the channel and anything else I can possibly think of. Mr. Lockwood seems to be enjoying the questions if the increasing length of his answers is anything to go by, but Felicity keeps hitting me in the arm which I take to mean “Shut up and stop drawing attention to your damn amnesia, Monty”.
I’d like it noted that I have not once in living memory, no matter how short that memory is, accidentally or on purpose given myself and my amnesia away. At least to anyone who was not Felicity or Percy. So there.
The good news is that Mr. Lockwood doesn’t seem any the wiser as to my condition when we separate to turn in after our meal. Or at least I don’t think he’s any the wiser—not until we’re silently moving about the room by the light of the moon, packing our bags and whispering about meeting Felicity by the front entrance, and suddenly the door opens.
“Is there a particular reason I’ve been woken by the attendants?” Mr. Lockwood asks, his nightclothes rumpled and his face sour. Felicity is standing at his elbow, arms crossed. He’s got her bag in one hand.
I drop the bag I’m holding, clothes and coins that were shoved haphazardly inside ejecting themselves and spilling across the floor. I curse, then marvel at the fact that I’ve recalled that part of my vocabulary with such little effort. Wonderful.
Less wonderful is the fact that we were apparently being loud enough to alert the servants. We’re going to have to work on that. Well… either that or the servants were given the job of watching us, something I really wouldn’t put past my father. Though I’m rather of the opinion that Percy and I weren’t the offenders here—Felicity doesn’t particularly strike me as the type to be sneaky.
I straighten, ignoring the mess around me, and wish desperately that I could cast a winning smile at Mr. Lockwood. “Well!” I say, intending to spin my best tale.
He’s already shaking his head. “I won’t tolerate this sort of nonsense for the duration of this trip. You’re to uphold the title gifted to you by your father, and doing… whatever it is you’re attempting to do is not the way to do that.”
I wilt. Percy, beside me, starts to speak as well—he’s cut off just as swiftly. We are in for one hell of a lecture, it seems.
And what a lecture it is. All about propriety and status and respect, all of which are rather news to me. I soak in everything he has to say, bobbing my head along. Mr. Lockwood frowns at me as if he can’t tell if I’m being sincere or not, but all this, I find, is very fascinating.
Finally, one lecture later, Mr. Lockwood winds down again. “…I will see you all at a more respectable hour. Now off to bed, all of you,” he says. He hands Felicity’s bag off to her attendant, who curtsies, then he’s off to his own quarters, muttering all the while.
“Well that could have gone better,” Percy says.
“Indeed,” Felicity sighs. She then turns to her attendant. “Wait outside, would you? I’ll be just a moment. I need to talk to Percy and my brother in private.”
“I’ll just be a moment.”
Cowed by the sharpness in Felicity’s tone, the poor masked girl curtsies again, backing out of the room. Felicity sighs, tugging at her plait. Percy bends over and begins to clean the mess from the floor, and after a moment I join him, asking, “So… what now?”
“We’ll have to wait,” Felicity says. “It’s not ideal, but you don’t seem to be degrading at an incredible rate so the situation isn’t too dire.” She thinks a moment, her shoulders tense. “Paris,” she says at last. “Paris is our best shot. We’ll disappear once we reach Paris—that’s only a few days from now, and you’ll be able to rest while we travel. From there we’ll decide what our next move is.”
“We’ll be on foreign soil,” Percy says. “We’ll need our travel papers.”
“So we’ll steal them.”
Percy sighs. “I don’t like the idea of waiting.”
“Well, we haven’t got a better plan!” Felicity snaps. She then turns on her heal to stalk from the room, her mask reflecting the moonlight across the walls as she goes. She closes the door behind her with a thunk, leaving me and Percy alone in the darkness once again.
7) History: Back in the days of cavemen, masks were usually made of bone, grass, reeds, stone, wood, hides, furs, etc. From there they developed to include clay, and then metal, and eventually rubber and plastics, following humanity’s discovery of said materials. Some ancient trends can still be seen in modern-day masks—the Inuit people, for instance, are known for fur-lined masks with built-in snow goggles, which they’ve had for millennia.
Tutankhamun's mask is one of the most famous of all masks, as it was discovered upon examination to be made of meteorite, the same material as a knife found in his gravesite. It is the only known example of a mask made of extraterrestrial materials.
Edit: fORGOT THE CHAPTER TITLE BUT IT'S UP NOW.
Chapter 8: Adante in Shaded Violet
Percy plays for Monty.
Breakfast the next day is a subdued affair. Mr. Lockwood is still upset with our attempted rule-breaking, Percy is upset for the state of my head, Felicity is upset about not being able to see the doctor, and while I’m not really all that upset about anything in particular the mood of the room is dragging me down.
I eat in mostly silence, humming a little to myself when the quiet gets too omnipresent. I don’t know any songs in particular, or if I do they have no names nor memories attached to them, but the notes come easily all the same. It gets me through the meal, and then I remask myself. I stand in front of the mirror, fixing my hair one last time before we leave. My mask…
I lean closer, examining it. The black cracks, so stark against the white, have faded just slightly. A few dots of color have started to crop up on the cheekbones, breaking the monotony of the black and white. I wonder what that means. If I’m healing, maybe. I run my fingers over the color before pulling back from the mirror.
Percy is standing beside me, his mask pointed toward me and his head tilted to the side. “What?” I ask.
“I… where did you hear that tune?” he asks. “The one you were humming at breakfast?”
“I haven’t. It just came to me. Oh, did you know it? Is it something you’ve played before?”
Percy tilts his head further. “No, not exactly. It’s—”
“Enough talking! It’s time to go!” Mr. Lockwood calls, cutting him off, and we’re swept off toward the carriage. Percy hesitates, as if he’s debating continuing our conversation despite our guide’s surliness, but then Mr. Lockwood calls again and he shakes his head, moving along.
Our trip from there on is fairly ordinary, as far as I can tell, though I’m not particularly clear on what is or isn’t ordinary due to my current condition. Still, no one complains, and no one has had cause to stare at me strangely while we go from inn to carriage to ferry. Felicity, Percy and I aren’t left alone together again—not until we reach the ferry and our attendants are sent below decks and Mr. Lockwood is immediately and violently cursed with the desire to vomit over the edge of the railing. We congregate on the far side of the ferry, where Felicity spends all of ten minutes with us before she grows bored enough to stuff herself into the driest cranny she can find in order to continue her reading, leaving me and Percy mercifully alone.
I lean over the railing, head tilted toward Percy. “So… tell me about us,” I say.
Percy starts, his head rising from where it was settled on top of his two stacked fists. “Us?” he asks. “What—”
“Oh, you know. Two young masked lads of a desirable age, who often attract trouble like bloodhounds to the scent of the hunt—tell me about us!”
“Ah,” Percy says, and laughs. He then opens his mouth and out flow the most wonderful stories—all about us, as requested, but also about our haunts and the boys we used to hang out and play billiards with and our adventures with and without them. Percy tells me about the pure bastard who is Richard Peele, a lad who he assures me I did not like, despite my dalliances with him. About the time that dear Richard was being more of a dick than usual, and Percy serendipitously caught him right in the mask with a pool cue. About drinking together, and crashing into bed together, and about once during our short stint at public schooling, which we were sent to in a misguided attempt to socialize us, when we played a prank on the teacher and were thereby banned from the school house for the rest of our lives.
Getting to hear all these things… I couldn’t have asked for a better afternoon. Percy has a nice voice, and he’s a good storyteller. He seems to enjoy weaving the words together. He makes me laugh with a story about nicking a bottle of gin from the local distillery and drunkenly climbing a tree together on a moonless night, cawing like birds from the higher branches. It’s nice, listening to him. It’s nice that he doesn’t have that look of ‘shouldn’t you know this’ that Mr. Lockwood has started sporting every time I ask a question. It’s nice to be on the ferry crossing the channel, with the spring air crisp as it comes up off the choppy water. Nice to feel better in my skin than I have since first waking on the sitting room floor. Nice to be with a close friend. Nice.
And it’s even nicer when we finally reach Paris, for the first thing out of Mr. Lockwood’s mouth as we arrive at our accommodations is that we’re just in time for the symphony.
“Oh, a symphony? I’ve never seen a symphony before! What’s it like?” I ask, shucking my coat and handing it to Sinclair. On Mr. Lockwood’s other side Felicity and Percy both shake their heads at me. Mr. Lockwood doesn’t notice, for he’s already started to expound upon the symphony and it’s cultural merits, starting with a list of famous composers that I cannot for the life of me place face, name, nor overture to.
I sidle up beside Felicity and Percy. “Am I wrong?” I whisper.
“No, but you should probably act a little less enthusiastic about it if you want to keep your cover,” Felicity whispers back, shaking her head.
“I have part of an Eton education, I can be enthusiastic about whatever I want,” I say, sniffing, laying on the theatrical disdain. It’s mostly to elicit the head roll that Felicity seems so fond of.
“You were thrown out of school,” Felicity says, huffing in annoyance. A good kind of annoyance, if I’m reading her right. She seems to enjoy quick witty banter, banter that I’m more than willing to provide. It’s a brother’s pleasure to wheedle his sister, I’m finding, especially when she responds in kind.
I grin behind my mask. “Yes, I gathered. Though I haven’t a clue why. By all accounts, I was a charming young man.”
It’s Percy’s turn to shake his head. “Well…” he starts, and then falters. He and Felicity exchange a look, the significance of which I miss entirely. Finally he coughs, saying, “The enthusiasm you picked then was gambling. And, ah, boys.”
“…Ah,” I say back. “Too charming, it would seem.” I then occupy myself with Mr. Lockwood’s symphony speech, tuning in just as he announces that we’ll be on our way a bit early so we can perhaps catch some of the musical enthusiasts to chat before the performance, seeing as I’m so curious about it.
Felicity turns her mask on me in a withering look. I shrug back. It’s fine by me. And Percy seems delighted at the idea of talking about music, so really, win-win. Especially if it gets me out of our apartments without further discussion of my love of boys.
We haven’t talked at any length about my wayward flirtations with the same sex. I get the feeling that Felicity doesn’t quite understand attraction, if the way she shakes her head every time Mr. Lockwood mentions marriage or wives is any indication. I don’t fully understand the whole thing myself—I mean, arousal is fairly straightforward, I just don’t get why some arousal is acceptable and some brings an angry mob down on your head. Especially when it’s between two consenting parties. By all means, hoist the pitchforks for the man who forces himself on a lady, but why must there also be pitchforks for two lads having a good time? Is there something I’m missing?
I’m pondering this as we take a carriage to the symphony hall. During the chats that I’m supposed to be following. Through finding our seats and the tuning of the instruments. All the way up until the conductor walks onstage and commands our attention I ponder, and then, as the music starts, I find my pondering lost to the sweeping introduction of a single violin, rapidly growing into a wave of half a dozen, a dozen, more, flutes and harps and percussion and—
I don’t think I breathe until the final cello has ceased its vibration, the conductor lowering his baton and leading the performers in a bow. I clap enthusiastically, Percy at my side doing the same, until Felicity climbs to her feet and starts herding me down the aisle, muttering all the while.
By the time we reach our apartments, I’m all but bursting with questions. They itch inside of me, creating a vast pressure behind my tongue. “Where did you get your violin?” I all but demand of Percy, the moment we’re alone.
Percy takes my question in stride. “I’ve had it all my life. It was my father’s—he died when I was a baby,” he says, halfway through taking his vest off.
I barely take the time to let that sink in, uttering a quick sorry about your father before I dive into my next question. “How long have you played?”
“I’ve played since I could hold a fiddle.”
“And what do you play?”
“Plenty of things. Ysaye and Bach and—”
“Like the music at the symphony?”
“Sometimes. I also know some folk songs—”
“Folk songs!” I say in wonder. I can’t imagine what that would sound like, how different they might be from the symphony we just heard. It feels like a whole other world that I’ve hardly scratched the surface of, like a great underground city that I’ve only just stumbled on. I press my hands to my mask, my mouth open in an O as I try and contemplate the enormity of the idea of music.
Percy, beside me, laughs. “Here,” he says, and to my great delight goes and fetches his fiddle from its case. He sits me down on the bed and then perches beside me, raising the fiddle to his shoulder and the bow to the strings. “Here’s Bach. It’s meant for more than one violin, but I can give you the idea,” he says, beginning to play a piece. It’s light and quick, with soaring highs and meandering notes that make me feel like I’m walking through a meadow. I clasp my hands in my lap to keep them from reaching for the violin as if I might absorb the notes through my skin. I can’t help it—I feel so overwhelmingly soft, listening to him play. It’s as if I’ve done it before, a dozen times, a hundred—as if I’ve sat right here and listened to this song so many times that its notes ring through my blood, bringing up emotions buried so deep that I couldn’t tell you where they came from if I tried. He finishes the song by lifting the bow from the strings, letting the final note ring in the air. I gape, breathless, before I start clapping.
“That was amazing!”
He ducks his head as if shy, adjusting his mask with an almost nervous twitch of his fingers. “You liked it?”
“Very much. Do another! Oh, do a folk song next!”
He nods, catching my enthusiasm. “Alright, alright. This one is from America.”
I lean closer, unable to help myself. This song is brighter, more playful, with a little more repetition, a verse and a chorus rather than one long length of melody. And, just like before, up rises that feeling—as if I’ve done this before, as if I’ve been conditioned to look upon him with the utmost fondness as he draws bow across string, his fingers flying over the neck of the violin and his body moving with the melody. He gets so into his playing, it’s as if he feels the music with his entire being. He feels the music and I, in turn, feel him, feel the electricity between us, and I want, more than anything, to reach out and touch him.
Before I can give in to the impulse, Percy finishes this song, too, lifting his bow from the strings again. I clap again, an ovation of one. Before I have to ask he starts on another, and with delight, I find that he’s playing the tune I hummed at breakfast all those days ago. I still haven’t a clue where it came from, but it sings through me, merry and sweet, and I can’t—I won’t be able to hold myself back much longer.
I manage to keep my hands to myself, biting my lip, until Percy finishes the song. I don’t clap this time. He lowers the violin and turns his mask toward me. “Did you like that one?” he asks.
I lick my lips under my mask. My breath is suddenly heavy in my chest—my fingers tingle with the effort of keeping still. “I think…”
“I think I was in love with you,” I breathe. I find that I’m leaning toward him, barely an inch of space between my knee and his thigh. I look up toward his mask, all semblance of propriety gone. He swallows, and I trace the movement with my eye.
“Was?” he asks. He’s hardly breathing, either.
“…I think I could be again,” I admit. I’m betting a lot on this one hand, I know I am—I’m gambling that Percy won’t be disgusted by me admitting a desire for him, that he’ll return said desire, that this won’t ruin the friendship I hardly remember. I want him, though—I want him so badly, the ache—echoing back from the memories I cannot access—so strong in my chest that I can feel my heart beating around it as if it’s a stake that has been punched through my ribs.
“I…” Percy swallows again, his voice soft, trailing off. His hand rises, slowly and carefully, reaching forward until his fingertips touch my mask. I’m so close to him that I can see the chip on his mask in vivid detail, the spiderwebbing cracks at his temple, the colorful speckles on his cheeks. I raise my hand as well, stroking a finger down them. It strikes me all at once that the spots of color blooming on my own mask are more like Percy’s speckles than my own original color.
I lean closer, until our masks are but a hair-span away. I’m so close that I nearly go cross-eyed trying to keep him in view. I close my eyes and press forward, waiting to hear the clack of our masks touching, locking—
—and just then the door opens.
We jerk apart, our hands falling back to our sides. “Come on, Lockwood is asleep and we need to get out of here,” Felicity whispers, gesturing to us as if she hadn't noticed exactly how close we're sitting. “It’s time to get Monty to a doctor.”
8) Crime: Criminals often commit crime without masks on as no one would be able to give a good description of them afterward NOR do much to stop them since they're all temporarily blind. In modern day, specialized infrared cameras are utilized to track criminals, and police officers are fitted with computerized goggles and/or visors that blur out people’s faces, allowing them to chase perpetrators without going blind.
Chapter 9: Go on the Aeger
Monty finally gets to a doctor.
We don’t pack up this time, just gather our coin and sneak out the front door as quietly as possible, trying not to trod on each others heels in our haste. It’s a warm night, brilliant with stars and cheery with moonlight, and for the first time in a while things go exactly the way we hope they will. No one stops or questions us on the way out, and we make it to the unseeing physician that Felicity found in the local directory with nary a scratch on us. Despite the late hour, it only takes a few minutes for him to answer the door and hear our story, and then I’m inside sitting on an examination table with my mask off while the blind man feels about my head.
“This injury… has it caused any other symptoms besides the amnesia? Dizziness, pain, vomiting…?”
“I’ve been getting headaches,” I admit. I also admit that I’m quite fascinated by the collections of medical implements decorating the counter tops in the little examination room. Felicity snaps at me to focus. She seems fascinated, too, however, so I don’t really feel as if I need to heed that command.
“And how many days has it been since you first awoke?” the blind man asks. His face is masked, and his mask is a blank white, similar to mine. Unlike mine it seems to be textured with a series of small bumps.
I count on my fingers. “Uh… perhaps seven? Does that sound right?”
“Eight,” Percy corrects me. He’s sitting on the far side of the room, face carefully angled away from my indecency. “Today makes eight.”
“Right,” I say.
“Are you having a hard time with numbers?” comes the next question.
I frown. “I don’t… I remember them well enough. Basic arithmetic is still there. And I remember what long division is, but I couldn’t explain it to save my life.”
“You said a few of your memories have started to come back, yes?”
“Just a few.”
“Hmm.” The man pauses, his fingertips prodding gently at the scab beneath my hair. I wait anxiously for his prognosis. It’s a long time coming—he crosses to the other side of the room to consult a great blank-looking text that I figure out after a moment of squinting is also covered in small bumps. He runs his fingers over it for a few minutes, feeling what I suppose must be words that were punched rather than inked onto the page. After another moment spent consulting the anatomical model of a head, his wizened hands feeling all over it, he returns to me.
“I suspect,” he says, voice somber. “That you’re suffering from pure retrograde amnesia. It’s—”
“Oh! That’s a behavioral syndrome characterized by the inability to retrieve remote information in the face of a normal ability to learn new information. I guessed it was something like that but without a reference I wasn’t entirely sure,” Felicity says, cutting the poor man off.
He harrumphes. I stare at her. “And how long have you been holding onto that?” I ask.
She shrugs. “I found a book about abnormalities in the brain last year. Father threw it in the fire when he caught me reading it but I retained a bit of information.”
I shake my head. “Well, what does that mean? Is it permanent?”
“That’s a good question,” Felicity says, turning toward the doctor. She has a small notebook in her lap as if she’s preparing to take notes. “What would you say?”
“I’d say… if the boy hasn’t had any other adverse effects he likely won’t. The headaches may persist for a while—it may take weeks or months to fully heal the bruised brain tissue. I suggest getting a lot of rest, and to do activities that you used to do to assist in recall. There is a fair chance that your memories will be returned to you yet, though I wouldn’t count on all of them coming back.”
Felicity nods along, as if she was expecting just that answer. The doctor then gives me a small bottle of pain medication, with instructions to take it and rest when the headaches get bad. We pay for the visit, coin passing from hand to hand, and then, just like that, it’s over.
“If you recall but one thing, recall this: the body remembers what the mind does not,” the unseeing physician intones as we’re on our way out.
“What does that mean?” I ask, turning back around, but the door has already closed behind us.
Felicity tilts her head, thoughtful. “I think he’s talking about the stress reaction you had when you talked to father. You didn’t remember but your body reacted.”
“Oh,” I say. I don’t want to think about that—it makes my stomach hurt. But neither do I want to think about our next move, which Felicity and Percy seem intent on discussing. I shuffle along beside them as they discuss how we’ll acquire our travel papers from Lockwood, who keeps them on his person or in his room. One of us will have to break in and nab them if we are to get out. And then there’s provisions and coinage to think of, and the question of where to go from here, and by the time they’ve started arguing about whether or not to go back to England or to stay abroad my head has started to ache.
It’s then that I decide, as I always do, to put a wrench in things.
“I don’t… I don’t want to go,” I say, coming up short. I don’t feel like walking back to the lodgings anymore, not if it’s just to collect our things and leave again.
“We—what?” Felicity asks, pivoting around to stare at me.
I shake my head. “I don’t want to go.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” she demands.
I hunch over my stomach, my face pinched beneath my mask. The headache, always there, is beginning to spike again. It feels like a sliver of ice, so cold as to burn, embedded behind my eyes. I think of the envelope in my pocket, the photograph inside it, and I can’t—I don’t know what I’m talking about, just that the idea of losing the routine we’ve slowly built and being pitched back into the darkness of unfamiliarity is more terrifying than anything I’ve ever known. Not that I’ve known much.
“Are you alright? You look peaky,” Percy says, worried. He presses his hand to the side of my neck, feeling for a fever. I’m not sure what he finds, but whatever it is must be fairly worrisome, for he wraps an arm around me, drawing me close.
“Monty,” Felicity says from my other side, speaking as if to a child. “If we do not go, you will be returned to father at the end of our Tour. You understand that, don’t you?”
I nod, miserable.
“So we need to go,” she says. She’s clearly waiting for me to give in, and I know I should—it makes more sense to leave sooner rather than later—but my heart is palpitating and sweat is starting to gather on my skin. I want to say yes. I can’t. I am stuck, frozen, a guileless automaton who has run out of words to say.
It’s Percy who comes to my rescue. “Don’t push,” he says to Felicity, before turning to me. “If you’re not comfortable then we won’t force you. Besides, it’s true that we need a better plan before we depart. We can keep up this charade for a bit longer.”
“We can?” I ask, my voice small.
“Of course! You can focus on healing and we’ll focus on planning. How does that sound?”
“…It sounds good?” I say tentatively. Percy hugs me tighter for a moment, his chin resting on the top of my head, before he pulls back and looks at me. There’s a look to him that I can’t quite put my finger on, something mischievous. I’m just about to ask what he’s thinking when he plants a hand on his hip.
“So,” he says. “Since we’re already out. How about we go have some fun? You know, to help get your memories back? We’ll be back to Lockwood by morning, promise.”
“Fun?” I ask.
Percy tilts his head, and I can only imagine the grin that’s stretched across his face as he takes me by the elbow and starts heading back toward the center of town.
I’ve started to think that both Percy and Felicity have been going rather easy on me recreation-wise due to the whole ‘no memories’ predicament. My suspicions are confirmed when we get downtown and Percy veers straight for what I can only assume is a bar. I wave a nervous hand at the gruff fellow leaning outside the door, but Percy shakes his head and drags me past and into the establishment, Felicity close on my heels.
“I don’t think this is the best way to go about recollecting his memories,” she says as we walk past a very drunk man playing a piano very enthusiastically. The entire establishment is alight with noise, and she has to lean in to be heard. “Alcohol is likely to give him more amnesia rather than less.”
Percy shakes his head. “The doctor said to do what he used to do, and, well… this is it.”
The first order of business is, apparently, to get at least passably tipsy. Percy seats us down at a table and then disappears to the bar for a moment before coming back with three drinks.
“Here,” he says, placing one in front of me. “I got your favorite.”
“Thank you,” I say, slipping the straw under my mask to take a sip. I then rear back, shaking my head. “God, I drink this? What even is this, rubbing alcohol?”
Percy laughs, the sound beautiful. “You’ll get used to it. At least, that’s what you’ve always told me.”
Beside me, Felicity takes a more hesitant sip, though her reaction is nearly as dramatic as mine. I can nearly taste her disgust as she shakes her head, staring down at the glass with revulsion. “God, men actually like this?” she asks.
Percy hums. “It’s less about the taste and more about the feeling it gives you.”
I look down into my glass, gauging how to get the liquid inside me as fast as possible so that I don’t have to taste it. After a moment of calculation I say “Look away,” raise my mask, and down the entire cup in one go.
Percy snorts a startled laugh. “Did you really just do an entire glass like a shot?” he asks.
I nod, shuddering in my seat. God, but it tastes vile. “How long until I feel it?” I ask.
“Give it a few minutes.”
So I do, waiting as Felicity and Percy slowly make their way through their own glasses. A few people look over at us curiously—most of the clientele here are older and unmasked, though there are a few exceptions. Percy seems to have paid off the bartender to allow Felicity in without a fuss, as she’s very clearly under the legal drinking age. I watch as people pass our table, eyes roving over us and commenting to each other.
“I don’t feel any different,” I say, when at least ten minutes have passed. Percy is just about done with his drink—Felicity still has a few sips left of hers.
“Stand up,” Percy suggests.
I do. And whoo, I sure do feel it then, the world swimming around me before righting itself. I reach a hand out to the table to steady myself and instead find Percy’s arm. I cling to it, wobbling a little on my heels before I steady. Everything is warm and soft—it’s a nice feeling.
“Ah,” I say. “There it is.”
“Told you. One more round of drinks and then we’re playing a game of pool,” Percy says.
This drink goes down easier. I still do it like a shot, but the acrid taste on my tongue is less intense this time around. I laugh as Felicity stares down her second glass. If this is what it feels like to be tipsy it’s a wonder that people ever stay sober. It seems to me the more prudent choice to drink every moment of every day.
“Are we playing a game now?” I ask. Percy laughs and nods, standing up. We leave Felicity alone with her drink, though I keep an eye on her from across the room as Percy teaches me the rules and we begin to smack about the balls on the table. It’s a delightful game—Percy has the advantage, of course, what with his prior knowledge and his long limbs, but I don’t do too badly myself. We stop after two games for another drink or two, and the world is starting to spin a little around me. I feel loose-limbed and slow, a grin on my face.
“This was a great idea. Past me had excellent taste in venues,” I announce to the table after my fourth drink. My headache has all but disappeared, though I suspect it’ll be back later. Felicity stopped after her second drink, but Percy and I are evenly matched at four, and I like the way he’s started to lean against me. I don’t remember ever feeling quite this content.
At the end of the night I’ve had five drinks, played six games of pool, touched Percy’s arms and shoulders much more than necessary, and I don’t even care. I’m falling in love with him all at once, tumbling head over heels, and I can tell that he cares for me, too. He’s so sweet, so good to me as he asks sincerely if I’ve regained any memories as we head on our way back to our lodgings. When I say no, he asks if I at least had fun. I lean into him, my head resting against his shoulder and his hand in mine, and tell him the honest truth—that I want to remember this night for the rest of my life.
He wraps his arm around me once again, and I am safe.
So you may have realized that Monty’s headache is only partly caused by the head injury. Another part of it is alcohol withdrawal. Go figure.
Chapter 10: Fishy About the Gills
The ball is coming up--what is a man to do?
The next morning—or rather, as I come to realize, the next afternoon—I wake in bed beside Percy. For a disorienting moment, I cannot for the life of me recall what we did last night.
I sit upright, wincing as it dislodges a wad of phlegm in my throat. I cough, tasting rancid gin on the back of my tongue. Percy, beside me, still has all his clothes on from the day before, albeit most in neither the state nor the location they were in when originally donned. His mask is cockeyed as if he got halfway through taking it off but then fell asleep, and he’s got an arm thrown over his head. As for me, well… I’ve got nothing on but my waistcoat—by some sorcery now buttoned back to front—and one shoe. My mask, I find, after quite a bit of rolling about in a panic, is on the floor beside the bed. I stare down at it. I feel, more than usual, that I’m missing something.
It’s then, of course, that I remember the bar, and the drinks, and playing pool, and… waking in the early morning hours to a massive headache and a deep, overwhelming sense of shame?
It’s an odd thing, really. The taste of alcohol had no particular emotions attached to it, but the waking up afterward definitely did. An image drifts up, sudden and unbidden—a foggy forest, and the sound of dogs in the distance barking, and a girl laid out below me with her hands over her mask. Amelia, I think. There is shame, and fear, and then more shame, and then it’s over.
I squirm, uncomfortable, but my brain is not finished yet. Following on the heels of that comes another image—one of a boy’s mask, fine-carved mahogany and dark metal accents. It’s so close that I can hardly see anything else, and it’s coming closer and closer every second. Richard, I think, and my hands are slipping down the waistband of his pants. I can hear his panting breath just on the other side of his mask, and he leans forward, pressing our masks together with a clack, locking them. My heart beats with desire, and my head swirls with alcohol, and I have just enough wits about me to feel a deep sense of shame, and—that’s it, the image is gone just as quickly as it came.
Huh. Fascinating. It seems as if getting drunk managed to dredge up some memories after all. Just not any of the ones I was hoping to get. I sway backward, rubbing my face and trying to head off the disappointment. There’s nothing with Percy, though perhaps I should be glad that I have no associations between Percy and that thick, sticky sense of shame.
“God, you’re still in bed?”
Percy gives a start beside me, and I look up to find Felicity in the doorway. She’s looking away from me, which is a blessing because I’ve yet to find my trousers. “Yes,” I say, belatedly answering her question as Percy groans and rolls over. “Yes, we are. Is there something I can help you with?”
“Do you recall the ball at the Exposition Universelle that we’ve been invited to attend in less than a month’s time?” she asks, entering the room all the way and closing the door behind her.
“The ball at… oh, is the exposition in Paris? I was under the impression that it was its own city.” I scratch my head. “Marseilles, Universelle… it’s hard to keep all these things straight.”
She huffs, rolling her head back. Then she straightens, stalking across the room to grab my trousers off the table. She holds them out to me, still dutifully staring the other direction. “I’ll give you a pass this once because you’ve got a major head injury, but you really must learn to pay more attention, Monty.”
“It’s not as if I don’t try. I do try,” I say earnestly, taking my trousers. “It’s just… there’s so much going on all the time. Have you any idea exactly how much information you throw casually about, all day long? Grand Palais this and the king that—”
“Why do you bring it up, anyhow?” Percy asks, sitting up before we can get a proper start on the sibling squabbling.
Felicity plants her hands on her hips. “The ball, and the greater fair about it, is going to be a test for all of us. If we want to stay undetected we’ll need to be prepared. You need to be prepared.”
“Me?” I ask.
“As a member of the peerage, Monty, you’re supposed to know all the mannerisms and customs of the peerage. Not to mention the ranks, names, and faces—”
“Zounds, that’s a lot of things. I’ve got how long to do this, exactly?” I ask, leaning over to fish my mask off the floor.
“Twenty-three days,” Felicity says critically. “And knowing you, it’s going to take us nearly all that time to get you a passable knowledge of the peerage.”
And so it begins, my transformation from random amnesiac to Lord Montague, Viscount of Disley. The days are long, the trials hard—my memory, what little of it I’ve got, is pressed to its absolute limit. I despair that I will never reach the ball, that I will pass beyond my mortal coils, never to become the member of the peerage I must embody. Hour after hour, day after day we spend waist-deep in notes and diagrams and family trees, all scrawled in the journal in which Felicity is supposed to be learning how to paint. But slowly… slowly it all begins to click. I learn the proper greetings and deferences, how to address someone higher ranked than I, how to introduce my friends and peers to one another. By the time the ball comes around, I think, though I hardly dare say it, that I’ve got a decent grasp of my station.
“Are you nervous?” Percy asks, helping me into my coat the day of the ball. We’re to spend a few hours being shown around the fair itself before we’re taken to the more exclusive Grand Palais for the ball.
“Not currently. Should I be?” I respond.
He hums, running his hands over my shoulders and pressing out the wrinkles. “I suppose not. We’ve only been over your comport about a million times.”
Nodding seriously, I cross to the mirror to fix up my hair. I wonder as I do how Felicity is fairing with her handmaid—she showed me one of her corsets the other day when I expressed curiosity, and I haven’t yet recovered. I couldn’t imagine wearing one of the contraptions. It seems awfully unfair to me that a lady is expected to wear so many different apparatuses when a man may walk free in nothing but a coat, collar, shirt, and trousers. Well, and shoes, I suppose. Spats. Maybe a tie and hat. Still, none of this petticoat/crinoline/hoop nonsense. We aren’t sculpted from the ground up every time we wish to appear in public.
“Is everybody ready?” Mr. Lockwood calls from the hall. He frowns as we appear, looking us over critically. Felicity has foregone wearing a secondary make-up mask or any fancy additions to her plain steel mask, but her hair is twisted in a very fancy up-do, and her dress is beautiful if a bit plain. Mr. Lockwood shakes his head. “I’ve turned a blind eye to your impropriety thus far on this trip, but tonight is a very important night and I beseech you to treat it as such. You will address one another properly—no given names, please, or these pet names of which you seem fond.”
We nod dutifully along, though I suspect Felicity is struggling to contain a head roll. “Mr. Newton,” I say experimentally, turning to Percy with a smile on my lips. His name tastes wonderful no matter how I say it. “How was that?”
“Fine,” Mr. Lockwood says. Then he gives me an odd look. Slowly he says, “From what your father said I was expecting to need a heavier hand to deal with your antics, but you’ve behaved yourselves fairly well for the last month. I expect there to be no difference tonight, am I understood?”
“Yes, sir,” I say enthusiastically, and then we’re off to the carriage and, beyond that, the exposition.
Things start off well enough. We meet the lord ambassador and his wife at the grand entranceway to the fairgrounds, and I take the two of them in all at once like I’m taking a shot of alcohol. I have never in my short, short memory seen people such as these. They’re both masked, and the lady is wearing a make-up mask on overtop her general mask, an accessory that is only outdone by the massive train on her dress. The lord, meanwhile, has so many half-rotted adornments on his mask that I can hardly tell what the original is made of. It’s very in, mask adornments, I’ve been told—but nobody flaunts them quite like the French do. I try very hard not to gape as the ambassador takes me firmly by the hand and begins to pump it up and down. I return the enthusiasm as closely as I can as he says, “Well met, my lord, very well met. I’ve heard so much about you from your father.”
“My father?” I say, startled. I’d nearly forgotten that we were here on his behest.
“Ah yes, but of course!” the ambassador says. He then proceeds to ignore Percy’s hand when Percy extends it, turning instead to Felicity and leaving a sour taste in my mouth. I do not like this man very much at all. But I know my place, the role I must play, and so I swallow it down, introduce Percy properly (and rather insistently), and then allow the ambassador to pay our entrance fee and start leading us into the fair proper.
“Oh, we’ll be sitting in the Palais if you need us,” the ambassador’s wife says, and as she catches Felicity’s elbow I catch Felicity’s eyes. For a moment it's just us and our frantic insistence that she should accompany us around the fair, but unfortunately for the both of us, the lady is pushy, dragging Felicity along and leaving me with only one buffer between the amnesia and the rest of the world.
I swallow, turning my attention to the vast fairgrounds before us.
I needn’t have worried. In seconds I’m utterly captivated by absolutely everything on display—technological innovations and art and architecture and aquariums and—god, I have a feeling that I’d be completely out of my depth even if I were in full possession of my mental faculties. I swear I nearly walk into Percy when I catch sight of the Ferris Wheel, stark against the sky.
“We’re coming back here again, aren’t we?” I demand of Percy as we pass by a pavilion showcasing grand works of art nouveau, twisting my head to catch a better look inside.
He laughs. “Yes, of course. We can come here every day until we leave Paris if you’d really like.”
“Oh, I would, I really really would,” I say.
We pay for some street food and retreat into a no-sight amphitheater to shed our masks and eat it. There are musicians playing inside, and I grab excitedly for Percy’s hand. It’s nice, being where no one can see us—I don’t have to let go again, not until we’ve eaten our fill and head back out to the Gare de Lyon, and the Pavilion of Furniture and Decoration, and the Palace of Machines.
And then, much too soon, we’re upon the Grand Palais, where we leave our coats in a grand coatroom at the door and are led into a great hall filled to the brim with important people. The ambassador leads us around, introducing us to everyone who is worth being introduced to, which, it turns out, is just about everyone. Faces and masks begin to bleed together as I go, chattering about this and that with embellishments from Percy. I listen, rapt, as a man talks about an island in Venice that is sinking into the lagoon. It sounds unimaginable, but then again, I suppose that’s just because I myself am currently so limited. We leave the conversation on a high note, and I’m doing fairly well, I think, when we come upon the Duke of Bourbon.
“Do try and be civil,” the ambassador says, referencing some political gossip that goes right above my head. Still, I promise him that I’ll do my best, and then the ambassador is darting into the path of the duke, offering a short bow.
The duke… he's taller than me but not by much, masked in a velvety purple mask adorned with three gold fleur-de-lis. From the moment we start our small talk he and I do not get along, but I get the feeling that it’s less because of me and more because of… well, I’m not really sure. Even Percy seems taken aback by the swiftness at which the conversation sinks, one light joke from my lips derailing the conversation completely. I’ve hardly said six sentences to the man and suddenly I’m being accused of being, and I quote, “a delinquent son who enjoyed drinking and boys more than he did his studies at Eton.”
I verbally flail, my hands shaking at my sides. God, but this man reminds me of Father in all the worst ways. The trick questions, the blatant elitism—I think, for a moment, that I'm going to need to throw up.
Percy, thankfully, comes to my rescue. As he chats about politics I cast my gaze about with a touch of panic. Where is Felicity? Where is my sister? When, oh when can we get out of here?
“Well,” the duke says finally. “It was a pleasure talking to you gentlemen, but I have important business to get on with. Do take care.”
It is the single most insincere sentiment I’ve heard in the last month of my life, and it takes everything in me to say a genial goodbye. Once I have, however, Percy takes me by the elbow and begins to walk me away. “We’ll be right back,” he says to the ambassador, tipping his head to the man. “Just going to… get some refreshments.” Then he drags me off to the far side of the ballroom, stationing us behind a pillar as he looks me over.
“That,” he says, “was the single most horrible thing I think I’ve ever witnessed.”
I hum. “Seems my father and I really left an impression on the man, don’t you think?”
Percy stares at me for a long moment before he raises a hand, fingers hovering over my shoulder. “It’s weird to see you taking this so calmly,” he says.
“Yes, and I don’t like it.”
I hum again. “Well. I’m hardly going to be rude on purpose, even when people are rude to me. Maybe we ought to actually get a few drinks and—hey, where are you going?”
“Nowhere, just… follow along and don’t draw attention to yourself,” Percy says. I do as instructed, though I’m sure my body’s interpretation of ‘don’t draw attention to yourself’ is to act like one of the mechanical creatures on display in the hall of machines. I nod my head to everyone who looks at me all the way up until we reach the front entrance of the Palais, where Percy leads me past the coatroom attendant and, when the man is looking off into the ballroom, ducks into the coatroom itself.
“What are you doing?” I hiss, following close behind.
“Looking for the duke’s coat,” Percy responds, voice low. “It’ll have his name and rank embroidered in the collar.”
“…I don’t like this,” I say, mostly to myself, but Percy must hear me because he chuckles.
“You’ve done worse,” he reassures me, which I’m not actually sure is reassuring at all.
“I have?” I demand, turning on Percy, but he’s busy peering through the hangers in search of the duke’s effects. I set about to searching the other side, hoping against hope that going along with this… scheme of Percy’s will get us out of here all the quicker. “So what’s your plan?” I demand, squinting at lapels.
“Simple. Steal his coat. He’ll be annoyed for the rest of the night and he’ll have to pay for a new one,” Percy says. I stare. This… this is a new side of Percy, a devious side, and according to him… well, according to him I was even worse. I shudder to myself, and then, as luck would have it, I find the damn coat.
“Must we?” I ask, voice low, as Percy approaches. He hefts the coat up, examining it. He’s just reaching into the pockets, though what for I have no idea, when I hear voices at the entrance of the coatroom.
Percy’s eyes go wide. “Hide!” he says, pushing me toward one of the rows of coats. I slip between two coats and come up against a wall, where I duck my head down and pray to god I’m not discovered. Percy, meanwhile, has returned the duke’s coat to the rack and disappears on the other side of the chamber just as the attendant comes back. The man searches around for a moment before picking up two coats, one of them the duke’s. As he leaves I raise my head and lock questioning eyes with Percy.
Percy, in response, just raises a hand—and in that hand, a box. A box that, as far as I can tell, came straight from the duke’s pockets.
So this chapter is an odd mix of Versailles--very real--and the 1900 Exposition Universelle--also very real. I'm not at all sure that there would have been a ball for the peerage at the Exposition, but hey, artistic liberty.
Chapter 11: Flung Away
Monty gets angry, and he and Felicity have a talk.
Percy and I come to an agreement in the coatroom—we cannot hang around here, at the scene of the crime. The moment the duke realizes something is amiss we’ll both be in for it. Taking this in stride, Percy takes lead again, guiding me out past the coatroom attendant and back into the fray of the ballroom. Here Percy goes to the ambassador to plead a headache and an early night, issuing our goodbyes. I, meanwhile—jittery mess that I am, hands shaking and sweat breaking out across my chest—scan around for Felicity.
She finds me before I find her. “There you are,” says her voice behind me, and I turn with relief. “I swear, I’ve been looking everywhere for you and Percy. You won’t believe the kind of night I’ve had—” Felicity begins, but I grab her about the elbow and start to drag her from the room before she can get on with telling me. I feel like the entire ballroom is staring at me as I walk at a measured pace out toward the grand entrance of the Exposition and the carriages beyond it.
Percy, already out there, waves us over. He helps Felicity and then me into our carriage, letting the driver know that we’ll be heading off now.
“You didn’t have any problems getting out, did you?” he asks as the carriage begins to roll along. When I shake my head he leans back, and I swear I can smell the smile forming on his lips behind his mask.
“Getting out?” Felicity asks, her voice dangerously low. “What do you mean, ‘getting out’? What did you two do?”
Everything is silent for a long moment. I do my level best to not meet Felicity’s gaze as she angles her mask between me and Percy and back again. I’m sweating through my shirt, however, and it only takes a moment before I break and blurt out, “I can’t believe you stole something from the coatroom of the Grand Palais!”
Felicity gasps, turning on Percy. “You did what? Percy, what on god’s green earth convinced you to go to the coatroom and steal something?”
He shrugs. “Some duke was being a dick to Monty, so I thought to myself, ‘What would Monty do?’”
“And the answer was steal?” I demand, aghast. My headache, previously just a low, easy-to-ignore ache in the back of my mind, is starting to spike again. I rub my knuckles against my temple.
“Well, no. The answer was ‘to exact petty revenge’, which I did.”
God, he sounds so pleased with himself. I can’t help it—the fear is slowly seeping from my system, leaving room for anger to rear its ugly head. “I never asked you to do that for me,” I say, my voice low.
“Oh, come off it,” Percy says, though he’s starting to sound a little uneasy. “I’m just trying to bring your memories back.”
I grind my teeth. “Have you stopped to think that if that was the kind of person I was then maybe I don’t want my memories back?”
That takes him aback. He flinches, raising a hand up as if he wants to physically cross the distance between us. “I… but you…”
The headache spikes higher. “I might not be the Monty you know and love but I’m still a person, and I didn’t ask you to steal for me.”
I’m not done. “Don’t,” I say. “Don’t tell me that I want this, because I don’t. I don’t want to be the Monty who worries his mother sick and has no regard for anyone. I don’t want to be the Monty who calls the baby a ‘goblin’ just because he can’t stand the idea that someone might have greater needs than he does. I don’t want to be the crude, ill-mannered version of myself that everyone just tolerates. I want to be a good man, Percy—and if losing my memories is what it takes then so be it. I’d rather lose who I was completely than be someone I can’t stand.”
In the wake of my outburst he falters, the hand falling back to his lap. Felicity, rendered speechless, is leaning back so far into her seat that I fear she’ll mess up her hair-do. Not that it really matters at this point in the night—not now that the excitement is over and we’re heading back to the flat and Mr. Lockwood. I don’t feel good about yelling at Percy, but I feel even less good about stealing the duke’s box. I cross my arms, hunched up around my stomach, my heart beating in my throat, the anger pressing up against my tongue. My hands shake where they’re pressed against my ribs, and my head hurts, and—
I wince, slowly raising a trembling hand to my head. It shouldn’t—it shouldn’t hurt this much, should it? My vision wavers, and I realize what’s happening just before it does. The pain arcs across my head and down my neck and I moan, curling up against the window of the carriage just as—flashes, flashes of anger and frustration, of digging my nails into my palms, of downing a shot of alcohol and slamming the glass onto the table before me, of seeing that mask again—that carved mahogany and dark metal mask, Richard Peele’s mask—and wishing I could slam it into the edge of the bar, of watching Percy drive a pool cue into that mask in my stead, sick vindication and a burning, rabid joy.
I remember. I remember. And I hate that I remember.
I come back to myself to find Percy’s mask inches from my face. My hands are digging so hard into my scalp that I’m afraid I’ll draw blood. My lungs are hitching in my chest, and my blood feels like it’s boiling under my skin. Percy reaches forward, his hands hovering just above my wrists as if he wants to pry my hands away from me but doesn’t quite dare. “Monty?” he says, and his voice is high and scared.
I wrench my jaws apart and from between my teeth crawls a moan. I curl my hands tighter, pulling my hair.
“Hey, just—just breathe, okay?” Percy says, and I want to laugh and I want to scream and I want to cry. I am crying, I realize after a moment. Tears are streaming down my face and I didn’t even notice. I can’t contain the anger, I can’t—there’s so much crammed inside me that it feels like I’m going to explode.
Percy, though. Percy has gotten over his hesitancy and has begun to thread his fingers through mine, loosening my grip on my hair and drawing my hands away from my head.
“Deep breaths,” he says, and I clutch at him, holding on so tight that my knuckles go white. I practice breathing, the air harsh in my chest, until my hands relax in his, until the wave passes and the anger begins to dissipate, simmering down until it’s nothing but scum on the bottom of my psyche. It’s still there, though—the memories are still there, forever onward a part of me that I wish I didn’t have.
“You’re okay,” Percy says. I nod, taking back one hand so I can wipe away the tears dripping down my jaw. He’s still so close to me that I could lean forward and touch our foreheads together. I can imagine him looking at me, eyes focused so intently on my mask.
I don’t think I’m imagining the remorse evident in the wilt of his shoulders.
“What just happened?” Felicity asks then, breaking our moment over her knee. The carriage has stopped, so I assume we’re back at the flat. I don’t feel like moving, however, and instead huff a laugh that’s mostly disgust.
“The world is mocking me,” I say. At her questioning noise, I tell them—not all the details, but the general gist of the memories that have come back. And then, once I’m done with that, I scoff and mutter, “Because of course, that’s what comes back. Anger and violence and—”
I’m cut off by Percy wrapping his arms around me and pulling me into a hug. His palm cups the back of my head as he draws me into his embrace. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Monty, I… I just… I’m sorry for not thinking about you. And I’m sorry about your memories. I’ve gone and made this about me when it should be about you.”
“It’s not your fault,” I say.
“It might be. I just…”
I close my eyes as he lets out a breath, his arms still folded around me. My hands have been hanging limp but as he searches for words I slowly raise them, curling my fingers around the lapels of his coat. I’m tired, exhausted—I don’t have the energy for this conversation right now, and Percy must understand that because after holding tighter for a long moment he sighs and lets go. He takes hold of my shoulders, and I’ve got hold of his coat, and we look at each other mask to mask as he says, “Tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll return the box to the duke. Then we can talk about all of this and figure out what to do about it. Is that… would that be alright?”
I nod, sagging where I sit. It’s been a long, long day, and I’m more than ready to fall into my bed and sleep for the next century.
Which, of course, means that I’m wide awake come midnight, Percy curled up on his side beside me, his breathing loud in the silence of the room. I can only listen to it for so long before I’m sure that I will completely lose my mind. Another breath in and another breath out and I need to get out of here.
My solace comes in the form of the small dining area, where I light a candle and sit, maskless, with my head in my hands. I keep prodding at the new memories as if they’ll disappear if I look at them closely enough, but they keep being there and keep being there and I’m just about ready to scream when I hear a creak behind me.
“Who’s there?” I demand, whipping around.
It’s Felicity. Felicity, who has both hands planted over her mask. Not quick enough, I gather, as she says, “Goddamnit, Monty. I just wanted a glass of water and now you’ve gone and blinded me.”
“Sorry. I didn’t think anyone would still be up,” I say. Taking her by the elbow, I guide her over to the chair beside mine. Once I’ve sat her down I go to grab the water for her, setting it down in front of her. “Here…”
She lets out a harrumph, feeling for the glass. She doesn’t say anything else, but just by the set of her shoulders in the dim light, I get the niggling sense that she wants to ask a question of me. She tilts her mask in the dim light, the candlelight reflecting off of it, as if she’s contemplating some existential conundrum and is just waiting for me to weigh in.
“…What is it?” I ask, wary, after a solid minute of this.
She doesn’t disappoint. “Were you being honest when you said you didn’t want your memories back?”
I sigh, scrubbing a hand over my face. “Sort of. Mostly. I think that if I never regained any memories I’d be forever wondering what the good ones were, and that’s a pain, but I’d rather have nothing than all the pain and suffering and whatever else that made me into the person that I was.”
Felicity shifts, shaking her head as I finish. “Pain and suffering are part of life. You can’t possibly think that there won’t be anymore. You may be missing your memories but you’re not naive.”
“What am I supposed to do, then? Let myself become someone horrible?”
“You weren’t horrible, Monty.”
“You couldn’t stand me, just admit it.”
Instead of doing any such thing she chooses to dodge by changing tact. “Your memories don’t have to dictate who you are. If you want to be good then be good.”
I sigh again. “It’s more complicated than that, though, isn’t it?” I ask. “I became who I was for a reason.”
“Yes, you did. And Percy liked you for who you were for a reason. You can’t blame Percy for trying to help you recall your memories. He wants his friend back.”
“What about you?” I ask.
“What about me?” she asks right back.
I flick her on the arm. “Don’t be like that. Who do you like better? The old me or the now me?”
“That hardly matters, does it?” she asks, artfully dismissive.
Still, I’m insistent. “I want to know,” I say.
Now it’s her turn to sigh. “Monty…” she says.
“Fine.” She plucks up her straw between two fingers and leans over to drink, buying herself a moment or two before she clears her throat and says, “I’m not into psychology as much as I’m into physiology, but there’s a paper I read a while back called The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology, which makes an attempt to rationalize the connection between the mind, the soul, and the body. It was a response to the general theory of psychology, which—you’re not following this at all, are you?”
I blink. “I… made an attempt? In my defense, you’re talking very fast.”
“Okay. Let me try and break this down further.” She sips on her water, tilting her head this way and that as she thinks. “Alright. Let’s try this: depending on who you talk to, a person is made of three separate but overlapping components—the mind, the body, and the soul. The soul shapes the mind, the mind powers the body, and the body houses the soul. Still with me?”
I hum a yes.
“Good. Okay. So the mind, the body, and the soul, up until this paper, were separate entities. But Professor Dewey proposed that this was an erroneous assumption and that the neural circuitry of the reflex arc—”
I shake my head. “You’ve lost me again.”
“Ugh. Okay, how about this: the mind, the body, and the soul work simultaneously together to perform actions, and are each influenced by each of the others continuously. The soul is affected by the body and the mind, the mind is affected by the body and the soul, the body is affected by the soul and the mind. All of this happens constantly, a constant stream of back and forth. When you were hurt…” Here she falters, but just for a moment. “When you were hurt, your body experienced trauma that was then reflected back to your mind and your soul. But that isn’t the end all be all. You as a person are always evolving—your body, mind, and soul are continuously talking, exchanging new facts and interacting with new stimuli. So I think, in the end… who you are is informed by many things. Your memories are only one part of what makes you you.”
I try to make sense of this. She waits patiently as I muddle my way through it. “So… you think that I’d be able to be a good man no matter which memories I have or don’t have?”
“Essentially, yes. And I think… I think I really didn’t know you at all before you lost your memories. I was… that house… it was a nightmare for both of us, just in different ways.”
There’s an apology in her voice, an ‘I’m sorry I never realized how much you were hurting’ that makes my chest hurt. I don’t know that I ever realized that she was hurting, either, however. There’s no evidence that I thought of anyone but myself and maybe Percy, heavy on the maybe. I feel, retroactively, that I’ve failed her. It’s not a good feeling.
And it’s an even worse feeling to realize that we both have failed baby Adrian, leaving him all alone in that house with no chance of support.
“We shouldn’t have left Adrian there,” I say, hugging myself.
“No… maybe not.” Felicity sighs. “We were so occupied with getting you out that I didn’t stop to think about the baby.”
“It’s not your fault. Neither did I.”
“You were suffering from a major head injury, Monty. I can hardly blame you.”
“I can’t blame you, either. You’re incredibly smart, Felicity. And very wise for your age. You got me out of there and I’m so grateful. Thank you.”
“…You’re welcome,” she says.
I’m not done. “And all that psychology stuff. How did you learn all that?”
“You’re not going to mock me, are you?”
“What? No! Of course, I’m not.”
“Right. Well, it’s… I’ve been studying medicine.”
She waits while I process this. It’s not entirely unexpected—I’ve suspected something like this for a while now. It makes an awful lot of sense, really, now that I think about it.
“…Say something,” she says.
Instead of saying something, I reach into my pocket and pull out the envelope with the photograph. “Here,” I say, handing it over. “You told me about something precious to you, so here’s something precious to me. Both me’s. Before me and now me.”
With careful fingers, Felicity takes the photograph. Her vision must have returned while we talked because she raises it to her face, looking closely at it. “You…” She pauses. “You really love him, don’t you?”
She sounds doubtful, as if she doesn’t quite understand how I could. Still, I nod, folding my hands together nervously. “I love him more than I thought I could love anything,” I admit.
“…What an odd pair we are,” she says, and I can’t help but agree. Still, we’re together, me and her and Percy—and even through this misunderstanding with the box, we’ll be just fine.
At least… that’s what I think.
*Takes 19th century psychology and adds Masks to it.* Also this is an awfully long chapter to have next to nothing happen in it, haha.
Also check out this cool mask I just saw: https://slam-african.tumblr.com/post/189958635065/cma-african-art-helmet-mask-early-1900s
I stand, sweating in my shirt, staring straight ahead at the man pacing before us. I have never been so nervous in my life. Or maybe I have. I wouldn’t know. I’ve certainly never felt this nervous in this phase of my life. I’m nervous enough that my head is aching with it, the pull of distant memories threatening to take over but nothing quite coming clear from the murk. I wince behind my mask, standing up straight and pressing my hands to my thighs. They’re shaking just slightly.
At my side, Percy’s elbow brushes against mine. It’s a comfort, knowing that he’s standing with me. That I’m not doing this alone. I swallow and stand as tall as I can, though that isn’t very tall at all.
Finally, Mr. Lockwood pauses in his pacing, pinching the bridge of his nose. I wait nervously for the verdict.
“…I’m very disappointed that you boys would steal anything, let alone from such an important man. I’ve been tolerant, I’ve tried to teach you better ways, and to see that thrown back in my face…” He sighs. “But at least you’ve come clean. There is that. We’ll send a missive to the duke with an offer to return his box to him and to give him a proper apology, and then we’ll be on our way.”
Oh, thank god. I’d thought for a moment that he was going to return us to Father. I was getting ready to object despite my nerves. This, it seems, is the best possible scenario for all of the people involved. The duke gets his box back, Percy and Felicity won’t be punished, and I’ll not have to face Father once again. Everybody wins.
It takes but a few minutes to write out the missive and send it out with a messenger, but the return response will take some time. While we wait, I spend my time pacing about our bedroom, past Percy and to the mirror on the far side and then back again. As I go I cast a glance over at Percy. More specifically at his mask.
It’s… different. Not so much as to be incredibly obvious, but… I pass him by, turning on my heel and crossing the room. On my next pass, I again look, taking him in, quantifying the change. It’s the color on his cheeks, I think. The speckles have grown more voluminous, each spot growing in size. They’re less like freckles now and more like moles, overlapping in places.
It makes me wonder what my own mask looks like.
The next time I cross the room I stop before the mirror, bending over to look at myself. Silently, I compare my own mask to Percy’s. The spots of color on my own cheeks… they’ve started to grow, too, taking on edges like little parallelograms. It’s not quite the same as Percy’s mask, but it’s similar enough to cause me to double-take. I run my fingers over the cheeks of my mask, noticing a shimmer on the color that wasn’t there before—like the color is cut from shards of stained glass embedded in the material of my mask.
If we keep going the way we’re going… I laugh a little to myself. If we keep going like this, then we’ll be matching in no time at all. It causes butterflies to take flight in my stomach to think of it. I don’t know if I was a romantic sort of person before I lost my memories, but I know I sought out touch. Was I also looking for the person who would someday match masks with me? Did I ever imagine that it would be someone so close? I’m not sure. Still, it’s thrilling to think about.
And then, interrupting my thoughts, comes a knock on the door. The messenger is back, and he has news. The duke has already left the city, traveling onward to Marseilles to conduct some business he has there. If we want to catch him before he leaves again we’ll have to leave today.
I help out as best I can, contrite, as Sinclair directs me. Packing up our luggage still takes a good couple of hours, however, and by the time we leave I’ve all but forgotten about our masks. At least until I’m sitting across from Percy, watching him as he watches the landscape through the window. I sigh a little to myself, resting my hand on my fist, thankful that my mask disguises my gaze.
We go on like that for a few days, riding hard and seeing few people and stopping for the night at little inns along the way. Mr. Lockwood deals with lodging—I’m just grateful to roll into bed at the end of every day, Percy beside me. It isn’t until the sixth day, just outside the city, that we encounter anything out of the ordinary.
It comes as the sound of clomping hooves overtaking us from behind, and men’s voices calling. The horses whinny, and the carriage stops so short that Percy has to brace himself on my knee.
“Sorry,” he says, and I’m just about to give him a breathless, “It’s no problem,” when the sound of angry, persistent French begins to stream in from outside. The carriage dips as our coachman climbs down.
“Out!” a voice barks. “Tell your passengers to disembark or they will be made to.” The carriage bounces again, then there’s a crack. A moment later, one of our trunks drops past the window and smashes against the ground.
“What’s going on?” Felicity says quietly.
“Out, now!” someone shouts.
Mr. Lockwood peers through the gap in the drapes, then snaps back into his seat. His face is white. “Highwaymen,” he says under his breath.
I gasp. “Highwaymen? Are they common? What do we do?!”
“Don’t panic,” Mr. Lockwood instructs, though he looks quite panicked himself. “I’ve read what to do.”
“Oh, good,” I say. “Do tell me.”
“We will comply with all their demands,” Mr. Lockwood says. “Most highwaymen are simply looking for easy money and to get away quickly. Things can be replaced.” There’s a loud thwack on the side of the carriage like someone’s slapped it. We all jump. Percy’s hand, still on my knee, tightens. Mr. Lockwood blanches, then straightens his coat. “I shall reason with them. Do not leave this carriage unless I instruct you to do so.”
And into the breach, he goes.
The three of us stay statued inside, the silence between us a very loud thing. The carriage shakes as the highwaymen unfasten the rest of our trunks from the roof. Muffled French finds its way in and after a moment rattling around in my head I realize I understand what they’re saying.
“Oh! I remember that!” I say suddenly. I don’t mean to speak aloud but in my astonishment, it comes right out. I regret it a moment later as both Felicity and Percy turn to shush me. I slap both hands over my mouth just as the carriage door bangs open and the business end of a hunting knife is thrust in.
“Out!” a man yells in French. “Sortez! Get out!”
I’ve started shaking, but I have enough wits about me to obey. Outside, across from the carriage door, Lockwood is on his knees with his hands on his head, one of the highwaymen holding a pistol to the base of his skull. Our luggage has all been gutted and the contents are strewn across the ground like a down of autumn leaves. I spot Mr. Lockwood’s toilet case, drawers all wrenched open and bottles smashed into glittering sand. Pieces of our backgammon board are scattered amid stockings and garters and snarled neckwear. One of the men kicks a pile of Felicity’s petticoats and they blossom like upside-down tulips.
It’s then that I spy our coachman, spread-eagled in the ditch, the soil around his head dark. I’m not sure if he’s dead or just insensible, but the sight stops me in my tracks. My eyes flit to the highwaymen, and I count five on this side of the carriage, all dressed in riding gear. Two of them have kerchiefs over their faces, and I manage to see an impressive array of weaponry before my sight catches on one with a bare, maskless face and everything goes black.
“On the ground!” the highwayman shouts at me, and at the sound of a man shouting in French my entire body freezes halfway out of the carriage.
It’s like the reaction I had outside Father’s study door the first day I awoke. Instantaneous and all-encompassing. I can hardly breathe until I feel Percy pressing his fingers into my spine from behind. I fall more than step from the carriage, hitting my knees, hands rising without my meaning them to.
One of the highwaymen shoves Percy to his knees at my side, Felicity on the other. Another ducks into the cab where we were just sitting. I hear him clattering around, then the toothy snap of a knife splitting upholstery, before he emerges again. He has nothing but Percy’s fiddle case, which he tosses onto the ground and kicks open.
“Please, it’s only a fiddle!” Percy cries. I can imagine him reaching out like he might stop the man, and I grasp hold of him, clutching his arm tightly. The highwayman, however, handles the instrument gently, even as he shucks out the felt and tears open the rosin drawer like he’s looking for something.
“Rien!” he calls.
“Please put it back,” Percy says quietly. ““S’il vous plaît, remettez-le en place.” And, to my great surprise, the highwayman does, the clasps clicking into place.
I squeeze my eyes shut and listen as the men move around us. It’s hard to tell, but I think there’s one man standing in the middle of it all who seems to be in charge. If I remember correctly he’s the one with a pistol hanging loosely at his side. As I contemplate this, someone grabs the collar of my coat from behind and hauls me up, but the leader calls, “Attends, ne les tue pas tout de suite.”
Don’t kill them yet.
Oh, god. Oh, god. I shake where I’m crouched, my heart beating frantically in my chest. There’s a click as the leader jerks his pistol in my direction and I stop breathing.
“Où est-ce?” he demands. Where is it?
Felicity, Percy, and Mr. Lockwood are all silent, and I desperately hope they weren’t blinded as well. I’m shaking like a leaf but I manage to stammer out a, “Quoi?”
“La boîte. Ce que vous avez volé. Rendez-le.”
I’m starting to feel light-headed, my hearing going in and out, the pure terror in my chest threatening to knock me flat. I translate only a few words this time. The something, what we’ve something, hand it over. “Volé, what’s volé?” I ask, shaking hard. My voice is thready, barely there.
“La boîte volée.”
No good, no good, I understand even less this time around. I blink my eyes open and realize that I can see again—with my newfound sight I look wildly to Felicity for some sort of linguistic assistance. Her reflective mask gives me nothing.
“Il n’y a rien!” one of the men calls from the other side of the carriage.
The man holding me flings me to the ground so I’m on my back, looking up. The sunlight blots as the highwaymen’s leader steps over me, pistol swinging lazily at his side. I stare at the pistol in lieu of looking at his undressed face. My panic is a living thing. “C’est où?”
“I don’t know what you’re saying!” I cry.
He takes a step forward, his heavy black boot landing straight on my hand and easing down. My bones start to protest. “Do you understand me now, my lord?” he says in English.
I’m shaking and terrified and out of the corner of my eye I can see our coachman’s body on the ground, blood seeping from his forehead. I know I’m going to die or get my fingers broken off like dry tree limbs. I don’t know what they want from us. I’m clueless and helpless, but as the highwayman presses his foot down on my fingers I grit my teeth. It’s time to be brave, I think.
Then, with all the strength I can muster, I strike out at the back of the highwayman’s knee, making him stumble.
It doesn’t do much. At least, not at first. He finds his feet in less than a second, his boot swinging around to strike me in the head. Time splinters around me, the past and the present shattering into pain unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I scream, and as I do Percy bursts into motion, grabbing his fiddle case from the ground and swinging it like a bat. It connects with the skull of the leader and he topples to the ground. Felicity seems to take her cue from this, for she snatches up one of her petticoats from the soil, flings it in the face of the man with his gun on her, then slams her elbow between his legs, so he’s down for the count. A gunshot rocks the world around me, rattling my brain inside me. I roll over, clutching at my head, and narrowly avoid vomiting straight down my own chest. A man is bearing down on me, intending to pin me to the ground, but Mr. Lockwood, however, comes to my rescue. His fist connects with the man’s face, and I stagger to my knees, coughing up another mouthful of vomit from behind my mask.
I can hardly hear, hardly see, hardly feel anything but pain, but through it all, I hear Mr. Lockwood’s voice shouting, “RUN!” and then someone is grabbing me about the waist. I fight at first, until I recognize the grip as Percy’s and allow him to pull me along. He lets go just before there’s another gunshot, and I stumble, not turning around to see what’s happening. Behind us, the horses scream, and there’s a clatter of coach wheels. I don’t dare look back—it’s all I can do to keep going forward, tripping over my feet as I go. I hear Felicity crashing through the brush to my right, Percy taking up the rear, and the highwaymen cursing and following along.
At least, I think that’s how it goes. Time has gotten odd and sticky, and every time I blink the ground before me is different, like flipping through a series of photographs. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know who I’m with. I just know I need to keep moving, need to keep running, need to keep placing my feet in front of each other.
Until I’m gasping.
And my chest is heaving.
And I stumble, and fall, and hit the ground hard. A bolt of pain courses through my head and I think I’m crying but I’m not sure. I roll, the foliage tearing at my clothes before suddenly the ground drops off from underneath me. I fall, helpless, like a doll thrown by a tantruming child.
I feel it when I hit the ground again. It’s like fire scorching through my head, a burning insistent agony—and then, mercifully, everything goes black.
Much of this chapter was lifted straight from the book. I trust you to tell what I’ve written specifically for the AU and what belongs to Ms. Lee.
I wake in slow spurts, my consciousness struggling forward one step at a time. Following my head comes my body, realization seeping in. I’m lying on something grainy, my face pressed against it. My head hurts. Aches. Pounds. I’m uncomfortable but everything hurts too much to do anything about it. Moving seems like an incredible obstacle. I lie still for a long moment, drifting slowly back out.
It takes what feels like a century before I blink awake once again. My face itches. I know in some distant way that I need to move. If I just… hhhh…
It takes a moment, but I manage to get my hands underneath me and push myself up into a sit, perched on my folded legs. My head pounds worse for a second once I’m there—ugh—but closing my eyes and putting a hand to the painful spot helps. I manage to blink my eyes open just a moment later, looking down at the dirt and leaves under me.
Ah. That would explain the graininess. And the itch. I’m absolutely covered in dirt. Dirt and mud and leaves and… I squint my eyes, staring down past my muddy knees. There’s something else there. Something white like egg-shells, half-hidden by a ferny plant. I lean over just far enough to snag one of the ties, bringing it closer and turning it face-up as I go.
I’m met with a blank white face, like marble but softer, with a series of black cracks like coal ore running across it. It’s… a mask. Sitting demurely just beside me. As unfamiliar as anything.
I look around as if someone will pop up and claim it. When no one does I hum and, with no other ideas, raise it to my own face. It fits perfectly.
Well then. Clearly it must be mine. I huff a laugh, dropping it again and looking more closely at it. It just seems so odd that I wouldn’t recognize my own mask. I run my fingers over the cracks. There’s a sticky, dark red something on one side, matching a sticky dark red something on the hand I had pressed to my head. I pick at it, letting it flake off under my nails. When I raise my hand back to my head I feel more of the stuff, under my hair and sticking to the side of my head and my neck. It has an odd scent to it, something metallic that I struggle to place.
It comes after a long moment of mental contortion. It’s blood. Dried blood.
Huh. I’ll need to clean that off somehow. Can’t wear a bloody mask. I sigh and raise my face to the canopy above. The motion makes my head throb. I breathe through it, closing my eyes for a long moment and swaying where I sit.
…Wait. There is something off about all of this. The blood, the pain… there is something very wrong and I’m just sitting here at—at—where am I?
I realize with a start that I haven’t the slightest clue where I am, a belated sense of alarm starting to ring through my chest. I’m clearly outside, though how far into the wilderness I am I have no idea. There is no indication of civilization, no nearby buildings or sounds of distant trains or smoke rising through the trees or—or—anything, really.
Where am I? How did I get here? What happened?
And, slightly more pressing, who am I?
I swallow, hard. I don’t know. I don’t know who I am or how I got here or what’s going on. All I know is that I’m hurt and I need help.
The thought drives me into motion. I’m too unsteady to rise to my feet but I do manage to look around me, calling a feeble, “Hello?” Nothing responds to the sound of my voice except for the flutter of wings as a bird takes off from a nearby branch. Wind rustles softly through the leaves all around me.
Okay. Okay. I’m all alone, bloodied and hurt and alone and in the wilderness, and that’s—that’s okay. I’ll just—I just have to—
I paw at a nearby tree branch, trying to haul myself to my feet. The pain, ever-present, turns absolutely blinding for an impossible moment and I fear that I’m going to throw up. My breath is harsh in my throat as I lean over my knees, eyes squeezed shut, waiting it out. You’re okay, I think to myself. You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay, ohhh god—
It takes a long moment before the pain recedes far enough to focus again. My stomach flips one last time before it settles. The mask, my mask, is still sitting on the ground, so calm and unassuming. I slowly reach down to pick it up, rising to my full height and blinking. The landscape around me slowly comes into focus. To my right are trees, dirt, and more trees. Ahead of me—the same. And behind me, the same again. The only difference is to my left, where there’s a low rise, dirt and tree roots all tangled up in a five-foot drop that I must have fallen down if the state of my clothes is any indication.
I stare at my mask for a long moment. Then I wipe it off as best I can with the torn sleeve of my coat and affix it to my face. I straighten my clothes, feeling down my limbs for any other injuries besides the one on my head. I find sore spots and bruises but nothing more.
Okay. Okay. That’s fine—I can work with this. I touch my mask once again to make sure it’s in place, run my fingers once again down my mussed clothing, and… find that there’s something in my pocket. Something that sounds an awful lot like paper.
A note, I think at first, my hopes soaring. When I pull the envelope out, however, all I find inside is a single crinkled photograph. There’s no note, nothing written on it—it’s just a picture of two boys sitting side by side on a sofa. One of them I recognize by the shape of the mask—though the patterns on it look different from the blank whiteness of my own I can clearly tell that it’s meant to be me. The other, however…
The idea forms slowly in my clumsy mind. The boy in this picture… he knows me. If I can find him, then he will tell me who I am. All I have to do, and this is key, is find him.
With that determined, I turn to my left. I suck in a deep breath. And then, holding my head as still as I can, I take my very first step toward the dirt rising before me. I crest the low rise, digging in my toes and propelling myself up an inch at a time until—
It’s just more trees. I sigh, my shoulders slumping. Still, I’ve picked a direction—I start walking forward, the sunlight streaming from straight ahead.
It takes a while, but eventually, I find something beyond the rise besides the trees and dirt. It is, more specifically, a road. It’s the first glimpse of civilization I’ve yet had. I stare at the ruts formed from dozens of carriage wheels as if they’ll disappear under my feet.
Thankfully, they don’t. I turn my aching head this way and that, trying to calculate which direction to go. Both directions look exactly the same to me. There are no people to direct me, no indication of the nearest town. Nothing at all, except…
I kneel down, touching the stick that’s planted in the mud on the far side of the ditch like a little flag. Next to it is a small pile of rocks. But no, not anything as random as a pile… it’s an arrow, pointing to my right.
I glance that direction. Walk a few paces down the road, and… another stick, another arrow. This one is in the center of a small patch of bare earth, and someone has taken the time to scrawl out a message in the dirt.
Monty, it says. Go this way.
I don’t know who Monty is, but if these people thought that was the direction to go then I’m pretty sure that’s my best bet. I lift my mask, glancing around once more just in case there’s some other indication of civilization. There’s still nothing, but that’s all right. I rub my aching forehead, replace my mask, and start following the arrows.
For several hours, that’s all there is. Rutted highway and an arrow every now and again. The sun rises overhead, growing hotter and hotter, and I shed my coat. My limbs don’t seem to be used to so much exertion, because before long my calf muscles are burning and I start listing to one side. I’m desperately thirsty but find no water to wet my throat. My breath is loud against my mask. I want, more than anything, to stop. I want, even more than that, to cry. I do neither, forcing myself to keep walking. At one point a cart rattles past me and I try to hail it, only to miss the mark and watch it continue on beyond me. At least I know there’s something in this direction.
One hour, two… I lose track of time, measuring my pace by the pounding in my head. I put my head down and focus on one foot in front of the other, one step and one step and one step until…
The sun has already set by the time I look up and spot buildings. I must have been walking with my eyes nearly closed because I’ve passed a fair bit of them already. I stumble, my head aching, and steady myself on a low wall. There are people, I see, when I manage to uncross my eyes. I reach out, trying to catch their attention, but they’re moving too fast or I’m moving too slow and they all pass me right by.
I keep going, deeper into the town, calling out. I have the photograph in my sweaty hand and I hold it out, asking in a hoarse voice if they’ve seen this boy, if they can lead me to him. The ones who don’t ignore me look on in pity, commenting to each other about the dirt decorating my fine clothes. More than one tells me to sober up or get a job.
Still, I keep going. Until the town turns into a city, and the people turn into crowds, a fair pushed up against the bank of a river. I can hardly catch people’s attention with the noise, and I cough behind my mask, desperate for some water. Someone takes pity on me and offers me a cup and a straw, which I greedily sip up, thanking them all the while. Then it’s onward, searching, forever searching, for the boy in the photograph. At some point, I reason, I’ll have to give up on finding him tonight and look instead for a place to sleep. For now, however, I am stubborn. I’ve walked all day long and I’ll walk all night more in search of answers.
I’m trying to talk to a pair of ladies with prim little parasols who seem insistent on passing me right by when I spot a group of men wearing black riding gear. Most of them are masked, and the one in front has a rich, purple mask adorned with gold. Even from a distance, I can see it’s inscribed with a crest bearing the fleur-de-lis in triplicate. I start walking toward them, but as I do I grow more and more uncertain. There’s something in the leader’s stance that sets me on edge. He turns away from me, scanning the crowds with intent, and I hear him say something about ‘finding those damn kids’ and ‘teaching them a lesson’.
With my heart in my throat, I turn the other direction, forcing myself to limp along faster than before. I don’t know who those men are but I do not like the look of them, not in the slightest. I want to be wherever they are not.
Thankfully, the crowds are thick enough that I lose them fairly quickly. I breathe easier as they melt back into the wall of people, returning my attention to the task at hand. “Please,” I say. “Please help, please—”
“Votre masque est faux,” a voice calls behind me, speaking in French. Your mask is wrong. How I understand the words I don’t know. I turn, and in front of me is a wooden stand with a purple awning, set up against the edge of the pier. The word Apothicaire is stenciled over a slop of red paint on the front. There’s a maskless man with coarse graying hair behind the counter, leaning against it on his elbows.
“Pardon?” I say. “Are you talking to me?”
He nods, grave, and speaks in accented English. “Yes, you. There is something very wrong with your mask.”
I touch a hand to my mask and then drop it again. I know my mask is wrong—the photograph tells me so. Ignoring that quandary for now, I instead focus on the man. He’s the first person who has interacted with me directly without provocation, or at least the first who wasn’t obviously trying to sell something, and I latch on like a lost little duckling latching onto anything that vaguely resembles its mother. I step closer to the booth, raising the photograph in a shaky hand. “Can you help me find this person—please—” I say.
To my utter relief, the apothecary takes the photograph and looks at it seriously. I see a spark of recognition in his eyes. “You’re in some trouble, my boy,” he says. “Lucky for you I know someone who’s looking for you.”
“You do?” I ask, hardly able to breathe through the relief as he hands the photograph back.
“Yup. Come this way.” The man waves over a young boy, seating him in the booth before he steps away from it. His pace is measured, slow and steady—I keep close to his side, my tired limbs just this far from collapsing out from under me. We head toward the river, walking away from the pedestrian traffic and into a sea of tents. I stumble around ropes and stakes until the man offers his arm, and then I cling to it, feeling the weight of the past god knows how long, until we come up behind two figures who are sitting near the water sharing a bun of some sort with their masks perched halfway up their faces.
The first to look up is the figure on the right, a girl a few years younger than I am who is wearing a shiny metallic mask. The instant she sees me she slips the mask back into place and jumps to her feet, rushing over and saying, “You found him! Oh, thank god. I’m so glad you decided to head South, I was afraid you’d wind up back in Paris—”
This is not who I’m looking for. I tense up, my hackles rising as she approaches. “Who are you?” I demand.
The girl stops short. She raises one hand as if she wants to touch my mask. “Oh, Monty…” she says, and there is dread in her voice.
I focus on the familiar name she called me. She must have been the one who left the note for Monty—me, I suppose—on the side of the road. “You know me?” I ask, making sure.
“I do,” she confirms.
My heart picks up in my chest. This is a lead, this is—“If you know me then you must know who this is,” I say all at once, holding up the picture one last time.
The girl nods, gesturing behind her. “He’s right there.” I immediately try to peer over her shoulder, but she demands my attention once again. “Before I introduce you would you… would you let me take a look at your head?”
I hunch my shoulders. “Why?” I demand, staring at my reflection in her mask.
“You’re bleeding,” she says simply.
I almost want to say no, to draw away and protect myself, but… I trust her. I think. She doesn’t sound familiar and I haven’t a clue what her name is, but there’s something about her that just feels… safe. She comes a little closer when I don’t respond, the mirror image of my mask warping from the curvature of hers. I flinch back when she raises her hands, but her hands are slow as they come up to my head. I resist a bit, still trying to peer over her shoulder at the second figure, who has stood and started ambling up the riverbank toward us, but at her insistence I bow my head, allowing her to examine it.
She’s careful, I’ll give her that—she doesn’t pull or prod as she parts my hair. She’s silent for a long moment before she finally says, “You were hit quite hard. This looks bad. Does it hurt?”
“A lot,” I admit. I’m starting to sway a little where I stand, but just then the other figure appears behind the girl, standing at her shoulder.
I’m nervous, I find, as I finally come face to face with him. Or face to chest, as it happens. He’s so much taller than me—I didn’t realize how short I am until just now. “Is everything alright?” he asks, and I swallow. I shake my head.
“What do you remember, Monty?” the girl asks.
“Nothing,” I say, my voice hoarse. “I don’t remember anything, but I—I have a photograph of you. Can you tell me who I am?”
Chapter 14: Poultice-Mixer
The first thing I learn is that my name is Henry ‘Monty’ Montague. I am eighteen years old. The boy from the photograph is named Percy, the girl—my little sister—is named Felicity, and the apothecary, who they met earlier tonight, is named Pascal. We have, I learn on the tail of that, nothing to our names besides our names. We were separated from our chaperon by highwaymen, and have no means to contact him until tomorrow at the earliest, as all the banks have closed for the day.
Percy, who is turning out to be a perfect gentleman, offers me his half of the gibassier bun that he’s been picking at as I digest this new information. “You’re not hungry?” I ask as I hesitantly take it.
He shakes his head. “I’m mostly just tired. You have it.”
I eye the food. I haven’t felt hungry all afternoon, battling an intermittent sense of nausea as the pain in my head ebbed and flowed, but as soon as I take a bite my appetite comes rearing up like something alive. I scarf down the bun as I listen to Felicity ponder the situation out loud.
“We’ll need coin sooner rather than later,” she’s saying now. “We need to get you to a doctor.”
“Oh,” I say. “A doctor like…?”
I turn to Pascal, who has seated himself beside me. His excuse for staying with us is that the fireworks will be beginning soon anyway, and he never gets sales during the fireworks. His lined face folds into a frown. “I’m no doctor, but I’m as close as you’ll get with no coin,” he sighs.
“You’ll really help us?” I ask. “I haven’t anything to offer except my gratitude. I know that must mean nothing to you, but—”
Pascal shakes his head. “You lot are trouble,” he intones.
“We’re in trouble,” I correct.
He harrumphs, but he stands, all the same, beckoning us after him as he sets off down the riverbank. “Come along.”
Felicity stands and helps me up, careful of my head. It takes Percy a moment to climb to his feet as well, but he manages and a moment later we’re walking single-file after Pascal, Felicity then me then Percy and his fiddle. We walk past tents, and then past boats, and then we stop and I realize we’re going to get on a boat and I falter.
“Have I ever been on a boat?” I ask, slowing to a standstill just beside the place where Pascal jumps lightly aboard.
“You’ve been on the ferry,” Felicity assures me.
“Hm,” I say. I’m not sure how assured I actually feel about that assurance, but Pascal is holding an expectant hand out to help me on and Percy is nudging me forward and I think, unbidden, it’s time to be brave.
I take Pascal’s hand.
It’s… not as bad as I feared. I manage to keep my feet under me even with the gentle rocking of the deck. A smile sneaks up on me as Pascal leads me to a minuscule cabin with a single bed in the center of the deck—the motion of the water is delightful. I sit on the bed where Pascal directs me, paying close attention to the hangings and trinkets spread about the small room. Percy and Felicity perch uncertainly on the floor near us as Pascal rolls up his sleeves and then asks me to please take off my mask.
I do, pulling it off and setting its blank white expanse on my lap. The cracks are as dark as ever as Pascal, eyes now closed, goes about feeling my head. My eyes are growing heavy and I’m hardly keeping myself awake as he pokes about. I hear Percy set down his violin, his low voice coming to me almost like a dream as he says, “Do any of you mind if I take off my mask for a moment?”
“Is everything all right?” Felicity asks, distant.
“…I’m feeling kind of faint.”
I hum as Felicity offers to take Percy out on deck for some fresh air, blinking my sleepy eyes open just in time to see them exiting the cabin. Somewhere nearby there’s a boom and I flinch where I’m sitting, my eyes flying open.
“Just the fireworks,” Pascal says gently. He’s handing me a small bottle from which to drink.
“Oh!” I say, as I sniff it. “It smells like pine! I remember that!”
“It’s made from an herb called arnica. It should help with the swelling, especially the swelling in your brain,” Pascal says, eyes still closed. His words are punctuated by more booms. One sounds particularly close to us as if something heavy has dropped on deck, and I flinch again.
Then, between the fireworks, comes the sound of Felicity’s voice. High and scared, she cries out for Pascal. I haven’t know her long, but the sound of her voice tinged with panic drives a bolt of electricity straight through my spine.
Pascal turns, opening his eyes as he goes. “Wait here, I’ll see what’s going on,” he says to me, and strides across the small room and out the doorway at the far end with quick steps.
I’m frozen for all of one moment, before I decide to hell with waiting. I fasten my mask back on and follow the others out to the deck.
The first thing I see is the fireworks, starbursts of colored fire blazing against the velvety backdrop of the night sky. The second thing I see, once I’ve torn my eyes from the sight, is Percy’s mask, lying on the deck—it shimmers under the dim light of the lanterns littering the boats all around us. And then, as another firework goes off behind me and illuminates the scene, I spy a tall figure lying on the deck, two others crouched around him.
My breath sticks in my throat. Percy—he’s there, lying on his side. But he’s not just lying—it’s hard to tell in the intermittent light but as I come closer I realize that he’s moving, jerkily, like a fish out of water. Convulsing.
And then, just like that, I accidentally draw my eyes up to Percy’s face. Darkness falls and I see no more. I can hardly hear for the boom of the fireworks—I have but one useful sense at my disposal, and I use it to feel my way down the deck until I reach a shoulder which must be Pascals. I feel my way down until I get my hands on Percy, on the muscles jumping and contracting beneath his skin. I can’t tell if he’s breathing but I think he’s not. It’s been less than five seconds total but it feels like it’s already been an eternity. I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t—I don’t know anything. I’m lost, I’m useless—I swallow hard, my chest constricting.
“Get something beneath his head so he doesn’t hit it on the deck,” Pascal commands, leaning close enough to be heard over the fireworks. With shaking hands, I let go of Percy and strip off my muddy jacket, balling it up with jerky motions. I feel slowly for Percy again, going from shuddering shoulder to flexing neck to jerking head. When I feel his hair under my hands I try to gently lift his head and get the coat underneath.
Twenty seconds. Twenty seconds and the convulsive motion slows and then stops under my hands. Percy goes limp. His breathing starts up, thick and heavy. Then he hitches forward just slightly, vomiting up what little was in his stomach. He is wholly unconscious.
The fireworks taper off as my vision comes back to me—I blink, staring down at my knees until I can see properly again. “What was that, what just happened—” I ask, breathless.
“A seizure,” Pascal informs me gravely.
“Oh. Seizure,” I parrot back. I think I know that word. My voice is tinny to my ears.
Pascal takes hold of my arm, bringing me back from the brink just a little. “I’ll need to look at him in the cabin. Can you help me carry him?”
I nod. Stand. Stagger. Sit down hard on my knees. Shake my head.
“It’s okay,” Felicity says. “I’ll help. Just take some deep breaths, Monty.”
I nod again, sucking in air. I’m light-headed, the weight of the day pressing insistently down on me. It may also be partly the tonic that Pascal gave me, I think dizzily. I don’t know what’s going on. I know my name, I know where we are, I know that Percy just had a seizure, but it’s not enough. I can’t make sense of everything that has happened since I woke this morning, no memories to my name and nothing but a photograph as my guide. My head pounds, the pain insistent.
I manage to stay awake until Felicity comes back for me. She has a medical kit with her. I don’t need stitches, but she’s going to bandage my head, she says. I nod along. It’s all I can do. It doesn’t take long, but by the time she’s done I’m listing heavily, my limbs mostly asleep. I’m barely able to fold the blanket she hands me around myself before I literally hit the deck, succumbing to the pull of the medication in my system. The last thing I see before I sleep is Felicity gently picking up Percy’s mask.
Put your hands down, Henry.
Take it like a man.
Look at me—
Look at me when I ’m talking to you.
And put. Your hands. DOWN.
I wake with the sun on my face. My dreams… I was so sure of them just moments ago, but already they’re slipping away. I am an empty vessel.
Well… not quite empty. I jerk into a sitting position, my eyes going wide behind my mask. My head… it still hurts a little, but the ache is down to something that sits low in the back of my mind. It’s still a little fuzzy, all the details running into each other, but I remember—I remember. Not everything, not nearly everything, but far longer than the last twenty-four hours. I remember the Exposition and the box, and Mr. Lockwood and his lectures, and Father and—
And the last time I woke up like I did yesterday. Waking up all alone with blood under my hair, knowing nothing at all… it’s a frightening thing, a thing that I’ve now experienced twice. The next time it happens, Felicity may not be there to help me, and then what will I do?
I can’t let that happen. I can’t.
“Oh. You’re awake.”
Felicity. I stagger upright, coming mask to mask with her. She’s been my saving grace twice now: twice now she’s come to my rescue when I had nothing and no one else. She’s still talking, saying something about how much better my mask looks this morning and asking if I’ve remembered anything and I—I can’t help it. It’s pure instinct to wrap my arms around her, pulling her against me and holding on tight tight tight.
She lets out a breath, patting me awkwardly on the back. “Alright, alright… you’re okay,” she says. I get the sense that she’s putting up with the physical contact more than enjoying it but I don’t care—I’m choked up about the fact that I remember.
And Percy. I remember Percy, too. Remember him playing his violin for me and rubbing my back and—and—
—having a seizure under the boom of fireworks.
I separate myself from Felicity, clutching at her shoulders. “Percy—?” I ask, fright and hope all tangled up in my vocal cords.
“He’s awake, too, if you want to talk to him,” Felicity says.
It takes me but a moment to digest that, and then I’m crashing into the boat’s cabin, feet all in a tangle, like a madman.
Percy is alone. I don’t know where Pascal is, but that’s alright because Percy is here, and he’s awake, and his mask rises to meet my gaze.
“Oh, thank god,” I say, raising a hand to my heart.
“You’re feeling better?” he asks, catching sight of my mask as I come closer. “Your head is… better?”
His voice is still shaky, and he’s barely sitting upright if the tremble of his muscles is anything to go by. I nod and respond, because it’s all I can do. “Not all the way, but back to the state I was in before, more or less,” I say. I then sit down on the bed next to him, feeling him tense just slightly. I make sure to keep my distance, to give him room.
“You remember the last month?” he asks.
I nod. “I remember most of it.”
“But you… you still don’t remember anything before that?”
I shake my head. Then I clear my throat. “Do you know… could Pascal tell you why you had your seizure?”
Percy swallows. I can see him working on an answer so I wait, patiently and then a little less patiently, as he thinks it over. “I… it’s not anything new,” he says at long last. “It’s epilepsy.”
“Epilepsy,” I repeat. I wrack my brain for a moment, searching for that word and finding next to nothing cataloged beside it. “You’re, ah… going to have to explain that one to me,” I admit.
He breathes out slowly. “…It’s an illness. A lifelong illness. I have seizures. No one really knows what causes them or how to treat them.”
“Ah. And… how long have you known this?” I ask.
We sit silently for a long moment as we both roll this over in our minds. It begs to be said, so after that moment has passed I clear my throat and say, “I get the feeling that you hadn’t… told me.”
“No, I… I had not.”
Percy turns his mask away from me, picking at the blanket pulled over his lap. He’s not wearing his coat or vest, just his shirt, the collar stained a little with blood. “I…”
“You don’t have to tell me,” I say quickly. “I’ve hardly known you a month. I’m not the friend you’ve been missing. I don’t know why you didn’t—” My voice hitches but I press onward. “Why you didn’t tell him, but you must have your reasons. Right?”
“No! It’s fine. I just… you must have told someone. I can’t imagine doing that alone. Not that I can imagine much of anything about life with a functional recall,” I say, and the bitterness takes over.
“You’re not alone, I’m here,” Percy says, facing toward me once more.
“Were you alone?” I ask, and I hate that my voice is beginning to really waver now, my eyes starting to water. “Were you… did I leave you with no one?”
“My aunt and uncle knew, and a few of our servants—”
“But your friends. Our friends. You must have told some of them.”
“I didn’t. I told no one.”
I can’t help it—a tear slips from my eye, trailing down my face until I wipe it from the bottom of my jaw. “So you were alone. I did nothing to help you.”
“I hid it from you, it’s not your fault—”
I can’t take it. “But it must be,” I say, sharper than I mean. “Why else would you hide it from me? I couldn’t have been a very good friend if you couldn’t even tell me something this important—”
“No, I’m sorry. I’m making it about myself again.” I laugh, a sick squelch of a sound. “I’m sorry. Maybe it would be better if I’d died out in the forest. Or when my father hit me. If I’d died instead of just—losing my memories and becoming even more of a burden on you—”
I’m cut off by Percy’s arms, which wrap around my shoulders. I can feel him shaking just slightly as he hugs me, so fierce that I can’t help the sob that wrenches from my throat. I clutch back at him, folding into the sobs until his muscles fail him and he’s forced to lie down. I go with him, still holding on like I’m adrift at sea, which I might as well be for all the vast oceans of indistinct emotions flooding up behind my eyes. I hate myself, and I love him, and I am so, so scared but there’s also relief in knowing that he’s given me the truth and—god, I’m a mess.
“Here,” Percy says, reaching for my mask. “I’ll hold it so you can take it off. It can’t be comfortable.”
He’s so gentle that if I weren’t already crying I’d have cried again. I untie my mask, closing my eyes. I do the same for him, holding his mask while he unties it and then I set them both down on the floor behind me. We lie face to face on the narrow cot, eyes closed, Percy’s arms wrapped around me, and I cry until I’ve got nothing left inside me.
Percy has dozed off, his breathing steady, when I come back to myself. I wipe my cheeks, my eyes still closed, and nuzzle closer to his chest to hear the beat of his heart, strong despite everything. “I’ll be better for you,” I say softly into the darkness, whispering to him just before sleep takes me again. “I’ll be good and you won’t have to worry anymore. I will take care of you, Percy Newton, and that is a promise.”
Chapter 15: Europe on the Chest
Some facts about the duke's box come to light.
I wake up an hour or so later, tangled up in Percy. As always seems to happen, I immediately glance up at his face and, just as immediately, go completely blind.
Feeling better than I have in a long time, I extricate myself from his long arms and feel around for my mask in order to spare him the same fate. He groans softly as I move, hands clinging to me. I laugh, and in response, his fuzzy, sleep-addled voice goes, “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, darling, go back to sleep,” I say.
He does not. Instead he groans again, stretching his limbs. He can’t go very far before he hits the side of the cabin. “Did you just call me darling?” he asks belatedly, as I fasten my mask on and hand him his.
I hum. “I did.”
“Where did you learn that?”
I laugh. “From you. You said it the very first time we met, before Felicity introduced us. I remember that—it’s one of the very few things I remember.”
“Hm.” Percy is silent for a moment before he draws back. I can only assume that he’s looking at me, though I can’t see so I don’t know for sure. “So you… you sound like you’re feeling better than you were.”
“Oh, I certainly am,” I say. “It’s not every day that I wake up in the arms of the most handsome lad on this earth.”
It’s bold, and I don’t mean to say it. Well, I mean… I do mean it, I just didn’t mean to put it out into the world like that. I freeze, my voice dying on my lips, as I wait for his response.
He only laughs. “I’m glad to help,” he says, and then there are footsteps and I reluctantly sit up, blinking my eyes until they consent to see clearly again.
“There’s food if either of you would like some,” Felicity says.
I tap on Percy’s arm. “I can bring you some?” I offer.
He shakes his head. “I’m still not feeling very well, I don’t think it’ll stay down.”
“You should still try,” Felicity says. “Just a little bit.”
He gives in, nodding, and I butt my head against his shoulder before I stand up to go and fetch a plate for each of us. I’m about to go back into the cabin when Pascal catches my elbow to examine me again.
I want to put up a fuss but I know Percy will feel less pressured to eat and make himself sick if I’m not hovering over him, and I do need to get my head checked again. I drop Percy’s food off with him before coming to sit around the smoking iron stove, using bits of bread to shove beans and rice into my mouth. There are no blindfolds here—you’re expected to keep your eyes to yourself, and if you fail then that’s your own problem.
Pascal, eyes closed once more, crouches beside me and feels about my head. “I think another dose of arnica would be prudent,” he says in his light accent, running his fingers through my hair and over the lump on my head. “It’s a wonder you regained what you did at all.”
I hum. “Do you… you’ve done so much for us, but if there’s a way to regain the rest of my memories I’d do anything to get my hands on it. Is there anything you have that can do that?”
“Unfortunately no,” Pascal says. “I have tonics for the swelling and tinctures for the pain, but I do not have a miracle among my wares.”
I bite my lip. “So Percy… there’s nothing to be done for Percy, either?”
“I’m afraid not. I have something that should help with the muscle aches but that is all I can do.”
With a sigh, I nod. I wasn’t expecting much, but to hear it spoken aloud still hurts in a way that I can hardly quantify. I want to be healed, yes, but I can live like this for a while yet, assuming I keep my head safe. Percy… I don’t want to ever have to see Percy go through the awfulness of having a seizure even one more time.
“The men who are after you…” Pascal starts.
“The men—oh!” I drop my plate, grabbing for Felicity’s sleeve and nearly causing her to drop hers as well. It didn’t occur to me until now to think about the men I saw last night in the crowd of the fair, but now that I have I retroactively recognize them as the highwaymen who assaulted us on our way from Paris. More than that, however, I realize that I know the mask with the purple velvet and the triple golden fleur-de-lis—it is a mask that is very clear in my memory even now. The mask of the Duke of Bourbon.
“What, what is it?” Felicity demands, and I choke out the gist of it, realizing all the implications of this as I go. Implications such as the fact that the Duke has followed us all the way from Paris and is at this very moment in the same city as we are, searching for us in an attempt to—to what? Acquire his box?
“But we were about to give it back!” I say, haughtily. “What kind of person would know that we were on our way to give it back and still drive us off the road brandishing guns and knives?”
“Perhaps the kind that doesn’t believe in the honor of thieves?” Felicity asks, and the question is pointed.
At this point, I feel the need to defend Percy’s honor. Instead, I’m interrupted by Pascal, who says, “What box is this you’re talking about?”
“We haven’t tried to open it,” I say, standing up and slipping my mask back into place. “All I know is that it’s about this big—” I gesture with my hands. “—and it came from the duke’s coat pocket.”
“So it’s stolen,” Pascal says. “You stole it.”
“We were going to give it back!” I say.
Pascal sighs. “Trouble,” he mutters, the frown etched deep into his cheeks.
“We’re in trouble,” I correct again, a smile playing at the corners of my mouth. I’m so glad I remember that. Remembering all the little things, the jokes and quips, is a beautiful blessing. I then lead the group of us to the cabin to fetch the box from Percy.
“This is not an ordinary trinket box,” Felicity says, the first to take hold of it. She turns it this way and that, examining it.
“It’s some sort of puzzle, right?” Percy asks, pushing himself up slowly to take the box next. “When you put the letters in the correct alignment, it opens. There’s a word or cipher you have to spell.” He spins the dials a few times, then makes a trial of the latch, like his first guess might be right. Nothing happens. He sighs and flops back to his pillow. “Obviously it’s meant to hide something or keep it safe.”
The box passes to Pascal. “It looks quite old. There are two women who travel in our company who made their living in antiques. They deal mostly in trinkets now—little things that sell at carnivals. But they may know something about it, if you let me show them.”
“Oh! That sounds good,” I say, taking the box last. I haven’t yet had a chance to look at it closely, and now that it’s in my hands I find that it’s lighter than I thought it would be.
Pascal nods, turning away to pick his way across the deck. He returns half an hour later with a woman on each arm, both old and bent and dressed head-to-toe in black, complete with thick veils like they’re in mourning. He climbs onto the boat first, then helps them each across. Felicity and I go out of the cabin to meet them.
“Senyoretes Ernesta Herrera”—he inclines toward the taller of the two—“i Eva Davila. They are the grandmothers to our company—les nostres àvies.” He smiles fondly at the two when he says it. “I told them about your situation and they believe they might be able to help.”
“Thank you,” I say, leading them back to the cabin and Percy.
Ernesta laughs softly when she sees Percy in bed and says over her shoulder to Pascal, “You have a menagerie of these unfortunates, mijo.”
Pascal mutters something under his breath, staying out on the deck while Ernesta and Eva settle themselves on cushions tossed across the floor. Felicity perches on the end of the box bed and Percy pats the space beside him until I sit, squished, between them.
Ernesta holds out a hand. “Let us see.”
We surrender the puzzle box. She turns it over in her hands, then passes it to Eva. “You have stolen this.”
Felicity, Percy, and I all exchange a look. There’s no point denying it, so I nod.
“You must return it.”
“The men we took it from are trying to kill us,” I say.
“Not to them.” She waves a hand. “It does not belong to them.”
“How do you know?” Felicity asks.
“This is a Baseggio puzzle box. They are expensive and rare. And they are not used to hold things of worldly value, like money or jewelry or the wants of common thieves.” She spins one of the dials with the tip of her finger. It makes a soft ticking sound, like a clock winding. “These boxes were designed to carry alchemical compounds over long distances and keep them safe if stolen.”
Eva taps the end of the box and says something in a language I don’t understand. Ernesta translates. “The name of the owner is carved here, on the rim.” She holds it up and points to the thin band of enameling along the hinge, inscribed with gold letters that I hadn’t noticed before. “Professor Mateu Robles.”
“I know him,” Felicity says. Then she adds, when we all look to her, “Not personally. I attended a lecture on his work in Paris. He studies panaceas.”
“What’s a panacea?” Percy asks.
“A cure-all,” Felicity explains. “An item or a compound that is a remedy for multiple ailments, like a bezoar or ginseng.”
“Robles is well known in Spain,” Ernesta says. “One of the last great alchemists in the court before the revolution, though of late better known for killing his wife.”
Felicity lets out a small squeak at that.
“He killed his wife?” Percy says hoarsely.
“An experiment gone wrong,” Ernesta says. “An accident, but she died by his hand all the same.”
“But the box didn’t come from Mateu Robles,” I say. “We got it from the Duke of Bourbon.”
“What’s in it?” Percy asks. He’s got his arms folded around his knees and leaning forward for a better look, like the box has changed since last he held it.
“Something with alchemical properties most likely, which makes it valuable,” Ernesta replies. “Or dangerous. Or both.” She shakes the box lightly beside her ear, like it might announce its own name. “Not a compound, though. It sounds to be a single item.”
“Couldn’t someone break the box open?” Felicity asks. “It doesn’t look very sturdy.”
“The boxes are often lined with vials of acid, or some other corrosive substance. If the box is broken, the object inside is destroyed.” Eva says something, and Ernesta nods. “She says that it must be returned to its owner.”
And then they both look at me.
“Ah,” I say. “You think we should do it.”
Ernesta nods, explaining that they cannot do it themselves, no matter how much they might wish to. They’ve been expelled from Spain for ‘indulging in practices outlawed by law’ and cannot return without consequences. The Robleses are an old Catalonian family, now residing in Barcelona.
I glance between Percy and Felicity. Percy has slumped against the cabin wall and Felicity has her lip pinched between her teeth.
“…We did say we needed a plan in order to defect. This is a plan,” she says softly.
I open my mouth to respond, but I’m interrupted by a sharp rap at the cabin door, followed by Pascal flinging it open. He’s flush-faced and breathing hard, like he’s been running. “Soldiers,” he pants. “Marco ran down—they tore apart the fair and they’re headed this way.”
My heartbeat stutters. It’s rather clear who in this room they’re after. Percy casts a wild look to me, and I grab the hand that reaches out for me.
“You’re sure,” I say to the grandmothers. “You’re absolutely sure that this box belongs to the Robleses and not the French duke.”
That’s all the confirmation I need. “Then we don’t give them the box,” I say, squeezing Percy’s hand. Felicity nods, and Percy nods, and then we’re scrambling to disguise ourselves as hordes of soldiers begin to board the boat. We manage to cover ourselves head to toe in drapes and sheets, lighting sticks of incense just before the soldiers, tossing around words like fugitives and harboring, arrive at the cabin.
“You were instructed to disembark.” The Duke of Bourbon strides in, dressed up like a soldier, with a rapier at his side that looks like it could do a fair amount of damage if swung about. He’s distinctly more ruffled looking than he was when I saw him at the Exposition, the gold of his mask rotting slowly away.
I suck in my breath as Pascal addresses him with an excuse about how we’re not allowed on deck. I’m mostly focused on keeping the fabric wrapped around my waist in place, but a good deal of my attention is also focused on Percy beside me as he sways on his feet. I have to restrain myself from reaching out. If I reach out to him I will most definitely give us away. Pascal is saying something about the pox, some disease that requires us to keep our faces covered for the safety of the city, and the duke is reaching for the cushion cover hanging over Felicity’s face, and Percy is definitely falling now, and as I grab him the swaddling over my head begins to slip and—
Just then Ernesta lets out a high-pitched wail. She seems to be really going for the theatrics, for she falls to her knees before Bourbon and clutches his boots, which successfully diverts his attention from Percy’s sincere collapse. Eva follows her lead, face pressed to the ground as she pleads to him in keening Catalan.
Bourbon shakes them off, then signals to his men. They’re tripping over themselves in their haste to get back into the open air.
In the doorway, we hear him say to Pascal, “You Spaniards are to be cleared out of here by tomorrow morning or you’ll be arrested. We will not have you cluttering up the river with your filth. And if we find you’re hiding these criminals, the punishment will be severe.”
Pascal bows his head. “Yes, sir. We want no trouble.”
As soon as they’re gone, Felicity is at Percy’s other elbow, and together we help him to the bed. He sits down hard on the bare mattress, then slumps onto his side and pulls his legs up to his chest. “Are you alright?” I ask, hands fluttering about as if I’ll be able to help by wafting energy toward him. I’m afraid for a moment that he’s about to pitch into another fit.
He doesn’t, thank the lord. Just nods, breathing a bit hard, and says, “Yes, I’m fine. Just faint.”
Hesitantly I sit down beside him, placing my hand on his back and beginning to rub up and down in the manner that he always does for me. As soon as Pascal is back to let us know the coast is clear I pry the veil off my face. Felicity and I begin apologizing for the fair at the same time, tripping over each other, and Pascal tries to reassure us through he looks pained.
Someone puts a hand on my arm, and I look around to find Eva standing beside me. “Vosaltres passeu la nit amb nosaltres. Nosaltres farem la nostra pel matí.”
“You stay the night with us,” Ernesta translates. “We go our own ways in the morning.”
Then the grandmothers and Pascal go to clean up the mess of the fair. We offer to help, but the duke’s men might spot us so instead we stay hidden away inside. They return at dusk, and we have supper on the boat, the five of us on the deck while Percy sleeps in the cabin. He’s still ill and unsteady, and I’m starting to wonder how we’re going to move on if he can’t stand straight. I want to go sit with him as soon as I’ve finished my food but Ernesta intercepts me, sitting me right back down.
“I’ve heard you’ve lost a great deal more than just your chaperone,” she says.
I touch a hand to my head. “It’s true.”
She settles down beside me, her joints cracking, and pulls a deck of tarot cards from a velvet bag slung at her hip. “The cards may be able to help you with that.”
“You think?” I ask. I’m not sure if I believe in this, but then again I hardly know anything at all about this world. Who am I to judge.
She shuffles the cards, and they make a sound like wind slithering through tall grass. Then she holds out the deck. “Shuffle,” she instructs, and I do, with significantly less grace than she, then return them. She fans the cards on the ground between us. “Choose your first.”
I let my fingers walk over the cards, surprised when a warm hum quavers at my fingertips. I stop, without quite knowing why, and touch one. “Five cards,” she prompts, and I select the rest of my set.
Ernesta eases them ahead of the others. “The first is a representation of you,” she explains as she flips it. “The nine of wands. Perseverance, stamina, resilience.” That sounds quite good until she pins on: “But, as you’ve drawn it upside down, you are the inverse. You are physically and mentally weak, a man who frets over the past.”
Which is less good.
She flips the second card, which is thankfully right side up. “The four of cups,” she says. “A dissatisfaction with life.”
And the next, “The eight of cups. Leaving things behind. The heavy things that cling to us and weigh us down, but we grow accustomed to familiar weights and cannot let them go.”
And after that, “Death reversed.”
“Does that mean—”
“You’re not going to die,” she says, like she read my mind, though I suppose it’s a common question when the specter is flipped. “Death reversed is a transformation. A new life, or a new view on the one you have.”
She peels my last card from the deck without looking at it and sets it so it overlaps with the nine of wands. The King of Wands. She doesn’t explain this one. Just stares at the pair of cards with intense scrutiny. I can’t tell if she has a mask on beneath her veil but I imagine her eyes would be piercing either way.
“In the east,” she says after a time, her gaze still downcast, “there is a tradition known as kintsukuroi. It is the practice of mending broken ceramic pottery using lacquer dusted with gold and silver and other precious metals. It is meant to symbolize that things can be more beautiful for having been broken.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I ask.
At last, she looks up at me. “Because I want you to know,” she says, “that there is life after survival.”
I don’t know what to say to that. My throat feels suddenly swollen, so I simply nod. Ernesta gathers up her cards and leaves me alone to mull the reading while I drink some sharp-edged spirits Pascal gave me that’s so acidic it’s likely meant to be medicinal. I tip my head back against the railing and look up at the stars.
Come morning, we part ways with the grandmothers and Pascal as the fair packs up to head out. We’re about to set off for Spain, or at least to see about acquiring some funds in order to do so, when I decide to throw a wrench in the gears once again.
“…I don’t want to go,” I say.
Percy and Felicity stop to stare at me. “Pardon?” Felicity asks.
I sigh. “I said it before and I meant it. We shouldn’t have left Adrian at that house. We just—we shouldn’t have done it. I don’t want to go to Spain until we’re absolutely sure our little brother is in safe hands.”
Felicity breathes out. “…Fine. Your conditions are acceptable. We’ll just have to hope the duke doesn’t get to Spain before we do.”
I nod. Then I stand, offering a hand to Percy. “Let’s go see if we can find our chaperone. To the bank!”
This chapter is so long, rip... ah well. I hope y'all enjoy!
Chapter 16: All-Fired
The great baby heist of 1900!
It takes us a bit of trial and error to find the right bank, but once we do, the bank teller hands us a note. At the top is written an address, then below it, in a hasty scrawl:
We have secured lodging at this location and, God willing, you will meet us here.
Beneath is Mr. Lockwood’s signature.
“Oh, thank god,” I say. I’m nearly tempted to hug the bank teller, a rather flustered-looking boy. I instead settle for hugging the note to my chest. I don’t know when it happened but I’ve become fond of Mr. Lockwood. It’s been weighing on my mind, the question of whether or not he made it out alive, but it seems he has and is awaiting our arrival.
We waste no time in heading to said address. Mr. Lockwood, looking haggard, answers the door on the second knock and, upon seeing us, breaks into the widest smile I think I’ve ever seen. “Praise be,” he says, nearly tearing up. “I thought you’d been killed.”
I shake my head. Our entourage, unfortunately, didn’t all make it—Mr. Lockwood tells us about his escape with the coachman, who died later that night in a surgeon’s house. He sounds absolutely wretched about it, and I lean in to give him a short hug, patting him reassuringly on the back. Then, with the four of us reunited, we make plans to cut our Tour short and head back to Cheshire. “As I’m sure you’re all desperate to see your families again after this whole ordeal,” Mr. Lockwood says, as we sit down for lunch. We all pretend to nod.
The journey in reverse is a very different thing from the journey out. Instead of meandering through the countryside, we cut straight across France to the crossing of the English Channel. Everyone is on edge the entire time, watching out the carriage windows for signs of highwaymen or soldiers, though we encounter no trace of them. Not until we reach the ferry, anyway—as Mr. Lockwood is again plagued with seasickness the three of us are drawn toward a conversation between two high society ladies who seem to have nothing better to do than gossip. What they’re gossiping about, however, sets my teeth on edge.
“I’ve heard that the Duke of Bourbon and the Duke of Disley are having a row,” says one, fanning herself lazily. “It’s all the locals are talking about.”
“Oh dear,” says the second. “What’s happened exactly?”
“Lord Montague’s son has stolen something from the Duke of Bourbon, apparently on the behest of his father. The two dukes go back a long ways and apparently this is a continuation of a feud that goes back nearly thirty years.”
“What reason would Lord Montague have to ask his son to steal for him? He’s a decent man, I can’t imagine he intended this to happen. That son, on the other hand… always been a bit of a rogue, hasn’t he?”
“Oh, no doubt, no doubt. The son must have gotten it in his head somehow that this is a way to get back into his father’s favor. I can’t imagine that his father will take kindly to behavior like that.”
Dear. Lord. I wince, feeling sick. Father… he’ll be absolutely pissed that the entire country is talking about this, though he’ll be happy to know that the people are still on his side. Felicity, shoulders hunched, takes me by the hand and guides me away as the ladies continue talking about my fate in scandalous voices.
Leaving the ladies behind doesn’t help, however. It seems that no matter where we turn there is some variant of that conversation being held. The people of England really have nothing else to talk about, it seems—and the closer we get the more gossip there is, and the madder Father must be.
“We could just hand over the box and hope for the best,” Felicity says when we’re one day away from the manor house. We’re taking dinner without Mr. Lockwood in a private room, and I’ve taken to picking at my food, my appetite having long since fled the premises.
I shake my head with a sigh. “We promised we’d get it to its rightful owners.”
Percy, who had been dutifully shoveling potatoes into his mouth, hums at my side. “That’s true. And your father will hurt Monty whether or not we return the box to the duke. Our best shot is to try to sneak in and sneak back out again.”
“But Mr. Lockwood will be with us. There will be no sneaking with him around,” I point out.
That stumps the two of them for a moment. Finally, Percy leans forward, setting his fork down. “We’ll have to try and find a way to separate ourselves from him,” he says. “Have you any ideas?”
I think hard on it for a few minutes before something comes to me. “He hasn’t a mask,” I say slowly. “Do you think that means he has a wife?”
Felicity snaps her fingers. “A wife! Brilliant. He must be as desperate to see her as he thinks we are to see our families. We’ll just have to drop him off at his own residence before heading to the Manor.”
And so it goes. Mr. Lockwood is at first hesitant to leave us alone to finish our journey, but we promise we’ll be going straight home, and after a bit of reassurance he consents. He’s positively fidgeting in his seat as we pull up to a townhouse some ways from the Montague Manor and let him out.
I hope his early return isn’t too much of a surprise for his wife, and that he has a good night before the news of our dissent reaches him.
We reach the Manor soon after that, sending our new coachman on his way as soon as we’ve disembarked at the far end of the drive so as to keep our coming a secret. We have a quick huddle and then sneak in through the servant’s entrance, eyes peeled all the while for signs of life.
It’s a miracle that we run into but one maid, who is easily convinced that we’re attempting to surprise Father and that she must keep quiet. We then tiptoe upstairs in search of Adrian.
The nursemaid is in the baby’s room when we arrive, her back to the door. We aren’t about to knock the woman out, so we retreat to my empty room to discuss our next move. We have several options—to wait until night falls and hope we’re not discovered, to cause some commotion and take the baby in the chaos, or to take our chances with the nursemaid and see if we can possibly talk her into letting us take the baby for a stroll outside, a stroll which we’ll never return from.
It’s decided, after a sincere and rather heated debate, that the commotion is our best bet.
“It’ll be a two-part heist,” Felicity says. “Part one will be done inside—as soon as father exits the study we’ll sneak in and break into his safe for the money stashed in there. Then, once everyone else is outside, we’ll sneak out as well and in the pandemonium, we’ll pick up the baby and head out to the woods on the West end of the property.”
I frown. “I’ve never broken into a safe, have I? How are we meant to do that?”
Felicity taps her mask, and I can imagine the wicked smile it’s hiding. “I know the combination,” she says.
“I was in the study one day looking for a book that Father took from me when he came in. I wasn’t supposed to be there so I hid under the table. I saw him open the safe.”
Incredible. I’ve never been more proud of my sister than I am at this moment in time.
“That just leaves one question,” Percy says. I nod for him to continue. “What kind of commotion can we cause that will get everyone out of the house?”
Apparently Felicity has this already figured out as well. “Stay here,” she says, slipping out the door before I can question her. She returns a moment later with a bottle of pungent-smelling spirits, which she dumps all over the rug on the floor of my room. “Anything you need, grab it now,” she says. Percy and I share a look, then turn to the closet to grab some of the clothes there, plus a bag to carry them in. We return to Felicity’s side, nodding our readiness.
Felicity lets out a shadow of a laugh. Then, with a decisive flick of her wrist, she pulls a tinderbox from her pocket and strikes it.
The spirits catch immediately, thick black smoke beginning to stream up as the rug lights up. I stumble back, throwing my hands up over my mask. Thankfully, Felicity doesn’t let me flounder much further than that. She grabs hold of my collar and hauls me from the room, screaming, “FIRE!” at the top of her lungs.
I am, in case anyone is unclear, related to a bona fide madwoman.
The effect is instantaneous. Servants come out of the woodwork, maids and footmen streaming out about us. The fire is already licking its way toward the doorway, which we’ve left open—a few quick-thinking servants have come up with buckets of water from the kitchens but they’re not nearly enough to deter the inferno. I watch, frozen, as the nursemaid runs past us with baby Adrian cradled in her arms. Downstairs, the house is in an uproar as news spreads about the fire spreading in the upper levels. Felicity watches the people running about with a shrewd eye, keeping the other one on the fire in the meantime. She gestures for us to cover our mouths and noses as she does.
The fire reaches the open doorway and begins to feel its way out into the hallway, thick black smoke rising all the while. I’m thankful for the fabric of my sleeve over my mouth, but my eyes have started watering. The heat is intense, and I glance desperately at Felicity, wondering what she’s waiting for.
“We need to get out of here!” Percy says, reading my mind.
“Wait,” Felicity says. “Just… one more… moment…”
I lean over the railing with her, watching as the butler crosses the landing below us to knock on the study door. A moment later our father comes out, carrying a file full of likely important papers. He strides down toward the front door, pausing only once to glance up toward the second story landing.
We pull our heads back just as his eyes cut up toward us. I’m not sure if he saw us or not, but he most certainly saw the flames which are beginning to tumble out of my room and spit against the ceiling. “Now!” Felicity yells above the roar and pop of the fine wood of the walls going up in flames.
We waste no time in stumbling downstairs, all piling one after the other into the study. Father’s safe stands, a monolith in the far corner of the room. Felicity immediately sets to it, turning the dial this way and that as she counts under her breath. I stay by the door, watching through the crack to make sure that we’re still safe from peeping eyes and licking flames alike.
“How long is this going to take?” I ask, panicky, as she curses and cranks the dial around once again.
Felicity doesn’t grace me with a response until there’s a loud clunk and she says, “It’s done.”
Percy and I dive for the safe, shoveling anything and everything inside of it into the bag at my side. It’s mostly bundles of banknotes, but there’s also deeds and letters and god only knows what else. We shove a rather heavy box into the bag—what’s inside, gold? Jewels?—and then Felicity is slamming the safe shut once again, leading us out of the study and around the back of the house to the far door.
Thankfully, there’s no one on this side of the house when we make it outside. They all must have congregated in the front. We hear the sound of a horse and rider taking off down the drive, hooves clopping heavily on the gravel. “They must have been dispatched to call upon the firemen in town,” Felicity says.
We take a moment to pause there, staring up at the house. From this angle, we can clearly see the flames in my windows. There’s smoke clogging up the second story, pressing up against the other windows of the upper levels like something living.
I think, for a split moment, that I should be sad about losing this place. It holds so many secrets of my past—so many lost memories were made here. But then I think about my father raising his hand to me, the spot of blood on the sitting room floor, the pain and fear I felt and… I don’t think I mind after all. Let it burn.
And it does. There’s a great crashing sound from inside, as if the floor of my room has given way and the furniture has fallen through to the ground level, and a series of shrieks sound from the front of the house. In the pandemonium, we sneak around toward them, cutting through the gardens and ducking behind hedges until we come up behind the crowd, gardeners and cooks and maids and footmen and Mother and Father all standing on the drive and staring at the house as flames begin to eat their way up the side.
“Where is he?” Percy whispers, getting my attention. I stare hard at the crowd until I spot the pram near the rear of the group, the nursemaid standing beside it staring slack-jawed at the smoke beginning to pour out of the side of the house. Felicity sets her shoulders and begins to pick her way over, the noise of her shoes hidden under the wails of shocked voices. The nursemaid is all but fixated on the destruction of the house, allowing Felicity to come up around the side of the pram and slowly, ever so slowly, reach in and pick up the baby. She snags a blanket as well, clutching our little brother to her chest as she backs slowly away.
My heart is beating like the pounding of a hammer in my chest as she comes up to where we’re hidden behind a hedge with the bag of stolen supplies. The instant she’s out of sight of the crowd she turns and, with a meaningful jerk of her head, begins to run toward the woods West of the estate, clutching Adrian close all the while.
We don’t need to be told twice. I clutch the strap of the bag close to my chest with one hand, grab Percy with the other, and set off right on her heels. The plan, we decided a while back, was to head this direction through the woods until we stumbled on the town just West of Disley. We’d buy some food and supplies, hide through the night, then pay for some sort of transportation to take us toward the coast come morning. From there we’d catch a ship heading toward Spain. Hopefully, we’d get out long before the chase for the baby caught up with us.
My breath is loud against my mask as I follow Felicity’s lead through the trees. We just have to get through the woods. We just have to get away. We have to. We have to.
We stop when we’re all out of breath and wheezing. “We must be far enough away to stop for a few minutes,” Felicity says, around gasping breaths.
“Sounds good to me,” I say, collapsing onto my back. My heart is still pumping much too fast, and my head is spinning. Percy kneels next to me, bracing his hands on the forest floor. I’m worried for a moment that we’ve triggered a seizure, but then he laughs.
“We just… we just stole a baby,” he says.
And it’s true. We’ve stolen a baby. In the most dramatic way possible, at that! I start to giggle, as well, and Felicity exhales behind her mask, and Percy is belly-laughing so hard he can’t catch his breath, and for the first time in all this mess, I think that things might go our way.
GO BIG OR GO HOME, AMIRITE?
Chapter 17: Milk-Bottle
From Disley to Barcelona.
FORGIVE ANY HISTORICAL INACCURACIES SEARCH ENGINES ARE NOT MY FRIENDS TODAY.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Running away from home with a baby… it’s a bit of a production. By the time we reach the edge of the woods, we are blessed with full-bodied wails that drill into my head. Percy, who we’ve agreed is to be saddled with carrying little Adrian for the time being, tries to tempt him with his pacifier. I’d offer to help but when Felicity passed the baby to me I nearly dropped him, forgetting momentarily that babies move. Felicity, meanwhile, is incredibly awkward once we stop running, holding the babe as if he’s a jar of corrosive acid that she doesn’t want pressed to her chest in case it breaks open. Percy isn’t a great choice either, seeing as he’s an untreated epileptic who is prone to fits, but as long as someone stays nearby to grab the baby if Percy feels a seizure coming on we all agree that this is the best we’re going to do.
The news is all over the county by the time we make it to the main street of High Lane, the next village over. The Duke of Disley, Lord Montague, has lost his house and all three of his children to a house-fire that they’re saying was caused by the newly installed electrical lightbulbs. A town crier is just announcing the reward for our safe return to Disley—apparently set at fifty pounds a head, and twice that for the baby—when we come up upon the village square, Felicity on one side and me, Percy, and Adrian on the other.
Our saving grace is that there was no mention of Percy, nor my new mask. I exchange a look with Felicity across the square, who nods back to me. She then heads off with a handkerchief tucked round her face like a veil to find something to hide her distinctive mask. Percy breaks away from me soon after to hide away with the baby. In the meantime, it’s my job to find provisions and, if possible, figure out the fastest way to the coast from here. We’ll meet back in an hour to find a place to spend the night.
“You’ll be alright for an hour?” I ask Percy, just before he goes.
He nods. “I feel fine,” he assures me. I trust him, I do, but I still endeavor to complete my tasks as quickly as possible just in case.
My first stop is the grocer that’s getting ready to close his shop. I pause beside a display of strange fruits, listening to the grocer’s wife talking to a patron. Such a pity, to lose a baby, they’re saying. But then again, they say, only if the baby is truly lost. There’s a bit of a split, it seems, between the people who think we perished in the blaze and those who think we ran away in terror and are lost in the wilderness.
“Either way,” the grocer’s wife is saying. “I can’t imagine the pain and fright of losing three children at once, even if they’ll be found again. It must have been a major blow to the family.”
I just barely manage to stop myself from snorting. Yeah, sure, it’s a blow to my father… or, more likely, his reputation. What they don’t know is that Adrian is here, just under their noses, safe and sound.
“Shop’s closing in ten minutes,” says the grocer, to my right. I stop dawdling and go to pick up some powdered milk, bread, fruit… uh. What will last for our journey?
It takes me nearly the entire ten minutes to puzzle out a list of decent food, and then I head to the grocer to pay. “So about that baby,” I say, after offering a price for the goods. The grocer just grunts a higher number, haggling me back up toward the listed price as if missing babies from the next village over are no concern of his. We settle on a price. I pay. I then sidle back out onto the street with a nod to the grocer, watching the darkening sky.
It’s there that I see a man pinning up a series of posters on a pole next to the fountain in the center of the village square. I walk over.
“Missing persons?” I ask.
The man nods without looking up. “Yes, sir. From Disley, just ‘cross the way. There’s a hefty reward for seeing any of these three.”
I hum, leaning close to the photos like I’m interested in the reward. I instantly recognize a photograph of my old mask, and one of Felicity perched in a chair with a book reflected on her distinctive steel mask. The third is a picture of our mother, with a newborn baby Adrian cradled, sound asleep, in the crook of her elbow.
I wait until the man climbs astride his horse and begins trotting down the road toward the next town before I reach forward and pull the posters off the pole. I fold them and, with nothing better to do with them, slip them into the bag hanging at my side, amid the clothes and valuables and now food that we’ve shoved inside.
It’s then onward to meet up with the others and secure lodging. As dark descends on the little village, I manage to buy a room for myself at the inn just down the way. Once the inn keeper has turned in for the night I smuggle in my partners in crime. It’s cramped, with the four of us, but if I curl up with a blanket on the floor and Percy and Felicity sleep on either side of Adrian on the bed it works out all right. We spend a few minutes counting up the spoils from Father’s safe as Percy feeds the baby—we’ve got nearly two hundred pounds, a collection of important documents including the deed to a house in Essex, an unmarked and sealed envelope that contains a series of letters that I haven’t yet read, and the box, which, we find out, contains a set of heavy jewels that Father was clearly intending to give to Mother.
“We’ll sell the jewelry once we’re farther from Disley,” Felicity decides, and then I’m drifting off, curled up on the floor. I’m only woken once during the night, when the baby starts fussing, but Percy is quick with a bottle of watered down powdered milk formula. I watch him holding Adrian with my eyelids drooping until he tells me to go back to sleep.
We’re gone by the time the inn keeper is up in the morning, hitching a ride on a farmer’s cart up toward Manchester. Adrian is cranky, unused to so much stimulation so early in the morning, but Percy seems to have a knack for babies. He’s quick with another bottle and a bit of mashed up apple, sating the little imp and putting him to sleep.
“It’s seventeen kilometers from High Lane to Manchester,” Felicity informs us when the farmer drops us off on the side of the road. She has a lace veil obscuring the shine of her mask. “We’ll be there by noon if we can catch another ride into the city, and then it’ll be the train to the coast and a ship to Spain.”
I nod, trying to figure the length of a kilometer in my head. It doesn’t work, but thankfully we’re spared having to walk the distance as another cart comes rattling by. For a few coins we’re on our way once again.
Manchester, I find, is unlike any of the few cities I’ve yet seen in my singular month of consciousness. It’s not got the traffic of Paris, nor the cleanliness of Marseilles. Its architecture is sturdy but not particularly fanciful, not like the wonders at the Paris Exposition. It’s an industrial sort of place, full of trains and bridges and brick everywhere you look.
The good news is that the farther we get from Disley, the fewer reward posters of our own masks we find. We take down the ones we see between bartering for food and other supplies and avoiding the police officers who come patrolling through the streets. As the afternoon wears on Percy is put in charge of changing the baby and Felicity, as the only woman in our little unit, in charge of washing the few cloth diapers we have at the public washhouse. I, meanwhile, work on acquiring transport from Manchester to Liverpool.
I have to ask directions of three separate people before I find the ticket office of the Manchester Central railway station. Once there, I shuffle uncomfortably in my shoes. It’s difficult to not be intimidated by the massive lines of people waiting to buy tickets or board trains. They all seem to know what they’re doing, with no time for nonsense. I haven’t seen many other masked people among the working class here—it seems common in the lower class of the city to match early, marry early, and eventually die early. The good news is that the few masks I see are often just as damaged as mine—from work in the factories with the big machines, most likely. Machines like the trains.
I stare, watching the giant mechanical behemoths ease in and out of the station. There are mechanics spilling about, tending to one in particular, and I watch, rapt, as they run around with their tool belts clanking.
I wonder offhand if this is what my life will be, someday. This journey will only take us so far, and the money from Father will only last so long, and after that… well, who knows what our lives will be like after that?
In all likelihood I wouldn’t be a mechanic. I hardly know what a train or automobile looks like, let alone what parts they’re made of. Could I be a factory worker? A farmer? What skills do I have? Not many, I’m sure—the memory issues aside I’m not convinced that I was an especially knowledgeable person.
I’m thinking about this when I return to our designated meet-up spot. I spy Felicity trudging toward me from the other direction and wave her down, smiling at the grunt she lets out once she gets close. “Baby diapers are disgusting,” she says by way of hello, throwing herself down beside me. “Oh, and by the way? It’s completely unfair that it’s ‘womens work’ to do all the laundry. I’d rather sew someone together than scrape my hands raw on a washboard.”
“That makes one of us,” I say, laughing. “I’ve been thinking about household jobs and I think I’d enjoy washing laundry if I had the chance.”
“Of course you would,” she sighs. She rubs at a wet spot on her dress, shaking her head.
We wait together, talking about this and that, until finally Percy and Adrian appear at the end of the street, as neat and tidy as you please. Adrian is dressed in a little cream-colored dress and has Percy’s collar in his mouth. Percy, who seems to have given up on keeping his clothes spit-free, hikes the baby up a little higher and comes to stand before us. “Have we got tickets to the coast?” he asks.
“Three of them,” I say. “We’ll have to be at the train station by six tonight.”
Adrian stops gumming the collar and turns his head at the sound of my voice, his little hand reaching for me. “Bah?” he says, and Percy laughs, leaning toward me so I can take the little goblin. He makes sure to keep his hands out and ready to catch the baby should he fall, but I’ve learned my lesson about keeping hold despite the squirming.
“Hello,” I say, leaning down to touch my mask to Adrian’s. His little baby mask is definitely taking on a rosy hue now, which Felicity has told me is an indication of an affectionate personality. He certainly seems affectionate as he leans toward me. “How are you doing, little one?” I ask.
“Bah!” Adrian says, patting at my lapels. He’s quite fascinated by the fabric, cooing and pulling at it in an attempt to get it in his mouth. I steer him away, offering his pacifier instead. He opens his mouth for it and then sits happily in my lap, sucking contently.
It’s sweet. Almost as sweet as watching Percy take care of the babe in the middle of the night. We can’t laze about all day, however. We do have a train to catch. Soon enough I have to pass Adrian back to Percy, pull our bag of supplies onto my shoulder, and set us off walking toward the railway station.
The train to Liverpool is crowded. It’s a steam train, I learn from a man sitting next to us—one of the fastest in the country. He tells me all the ins and outs of a steam engine as Percy keeps Adrian occupied and Felicity reads a book that she picked up god knows where. By the time we get off in Liverpool my head is spinning with all kinds of mechanical facts. I’m completely amazed by the idea that humans have created such large and complex things as locomotives.
“Here,” Felicity says, after a quick carriage ride to the docks. “I’ll secure us board. Hand over your bag.”
I offer it strap first, allowing her to take it and stalk off toward the pier. Then I settle beside Percy, stroking Adrian’s short, fuzzy hair. The baby is asleep on Percy’s chest at the moment, tuckered out from traveling and curled up against Percy’s heartbeat. It’s absolutely bloody adorable.
I spend a bit of time watching all the various people walking up and down the docks as the evening wears on. I, myself, am barely keeping my eyes open. I’ve nearly dozed off by the time Felicity comes back, almost fifty pounds lighter. “I had to pay extra for the baby,” she says with a sigh. “And for the short notice. And for the fact that we haven’t got travel papers.” She huffs, setting the bag down beside me. “The ship leaves in two days, so we’ll have plenty of time to find the best price for Father’s jewelry. We’ll be set to get to Spain and survive there for a few weeks, though if this nonsense goes on much longer than that we’ll have to figure something else out.”
“Understood,” I say, hefting myself to my feet. I help Percy up and then we’re off again, in search of a place to spend the night. Come morning we start the search for a decent pawn shop, one that won’t ask too many questions but still offer a competitive price for our stolen merchandise. We get three pounds for the necklace and earing set, which we stash away in our bag with the rest of our cash. Another night, another morning, and then we’re on the SS Wyatt heading for a three-day voyage with stops in a few port cities along the way and an end destination of Donostia, Basque, Spain.
Then, three days and countless baby-vomit incidents later, comes the train, another eight hours of crying and fussing and everyone being too cranky to look at each other as we travel from Donostia to Zaragoza to Barcelona.
Then it’s a carriage to the Robles house in the Barri Gòtic, the old quarter of the city with medieval structures masquerading behind classical facades.
All sweltering heat and bright colors.
An unadorned gray house.
One pull on the bell cord.
The ring of chimes.
A creak of hinges…
And then the door opens, a masked woman with olive skin staring out at us. “Bona dia,” she says, stiff as starched sheets. She’s hardly got the door open wide enough for us to see her. “Us puc ajudar?”
“Do you speak English?” I ask, leaning hopefully forward.
…And then, six days after we kidnapped the baby… two weeks after being run off the highway on our way to Marseilles… a month and a half after I woke in the sitting room with no prior memories and this entire journey began… after all of that, we have a door slammed in our faces.
…All prices in this are estimations based on 10 minutes of googling. Also just learned that Cheshire is the county and Disley is the village. Who knew! Not me!
Chapter 18: Coming Bye-and-Bye
Helena and Dante Robles.
Okay, so she doesn’t quite manage to slam the door in our faces. She certainly tries, a stream of Catalan pouring from her lips as she does, but I, ever resourceful, manage to get a shoe between the door and the jam, preventing it from being closed properly.
This results in approximately thirty-six seconds of absolute agony as we all shout at each other and the baby starts to cry, the entire lot of us making absolutely no progress toward reconciliation whatsoever until, finally, Felicity manages to dig the box out of the bag I’m holding and shoves it in the crack between the door and the jam that I am valiantly holding open.
The woman freezes. “Where did you get that?” she says in English as Percy bounces Adrian and I lean heavily against the door, breathing slowly through the pain.
“We were told to return it to Professor Mateu Robles,” Felicity says from behind me. “Could we see him?”
“He isn’t here,” the woman replies.
“Will he be back soon? And could you let Monty’s foot go?”
She doesn’t answer, nor does she let go of my foot. All she says is, “I’ll take the box for him.”
Felicity hands the box over, and I watch it go like a puppy watching a piece of food trade hands. Then the door opens barely far enough to release me. I take my foot back and just like that the door closes with a snap.
“That could have gone better,” I say over the sound of Adrian’s hiccups. “I think she broke my toes.”
“What now?” Felicity asks, cross, not paying a single mind to the state of my foot bones.
I pout. “I don’t know. I was really hoping we could talk to the professor. I want him to tell us about the panaceas.”
“Perhaps if we wait here long enough the professor will return?” Percy suggests, hefting Adrian a little higher in his arms. His short, curly hair is sticking to the sides of his neck with sweat, wincing from the heat. I myself am probably in a similar state. I sigh, nodding, and sit myself down on the stoop with Felicity and the violin on one side and Percy and the baby on the other.
It’s highly unpleasant. The sun, a terrible beacon in the sky, mocks us as it slowly begins to descend toward the horizon. Percy seems to be feeling it the most, as he’s using his body to shield the baby from the unforgiving rays, but I fear for the state of my exposed skin. I’m going to turn red like a lobster if I’m not careful.
We make it about an hour in the heat before Percy nudges my arm. “I don’t think this is good for the baby,” he says. “We should try to find somewhere cooler to stay.”
I sigh, looking up at the monolith of the house behind me. “Let me try one more time,” I say, rising to my feet (ow) and pulling the bell pull once again.
Helena opens the door a moment later. “What are you still doing here?”
“The baby,” I say. “Do you happen to have anything to help us cool him down?”
“Thank you for returning our box,” she says, stiffly. “But I think you should go now.”
“We’d really like to speak to the professor,” I say sincerely, rubbing my neck. I look at her mask, taking it in—it’s regal-looking, inscribed with beautiful patterns, with spindly protrusions that resemble a wrought iron fence. It’s made of metal like Felicity’s, but instead of steel, hers seems to be made of silver, tarnished about the edges. “It’s just… we came here to give his box back, yes, but we’re also interested in his work. We’d love the chance to talk to him. And… well, to be quite frank we haven’t anywhere else to go.”
The woman sighs. Then, dipping her head, she backs up and holds the door open for us.
The house, unfortunately for everyone involved, is stifling. It’s dark and narrow, thick drapes blotting out all the windows and giving the room an angled, smoky light. I follow Helena into the kitchen just as she sighs and says, “The professor is dead.” She picks up a cloth rag and runs it under some water, handing it off to Percy for the baby. “But… you can speak to my brother. He’s here. Mateu was our father—I’m Helena Robles. The box belongs to my brother Dante now.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say.
“Yes,” Felicity says. “Me as well. Thank you for letting us talk to your brother.”
“I’m sorry to ask, but… whose child is that?” Helena asks then, gesturing to Adrian.
“Well!” I say, launching into my spiel. We knew this question would come up eventually, and discussed the parentage of the babe on the first train ride to Liverpool. The official story is that he’s the son of a late cousin who came into my custody because the only other family members there were to take the little tyke in are now old and infirm. I throw in a few embellishments, just to give it some flavor. Helena looks a little dazed as I come to the end of the sordid tale, nodding along.
“I see,” she says. “Well. I’ll take you to my brother now if you’d like.”
“Yes, thank you.”
Without another word, Helena leads us down the hallway, past a pair of armless classical statues, bodies wound into the twist of a swan’s neck, then stops before a door at the end, a death’s-head etched into the baseboard. She reaches for the latch, then stops and turns back to us.
“My brother does not do well with strangers,” she says.
I laugh, though her tone is serious. “Neither do I. I haven’t the memory for names and faces.”
Someone, probably Felicity, pokes me in the back. “We’re sorry to intrude,” Felicity offers.
“No, you’ve done us a favor. We didn’t think we’d see it again, once it was… stolen. But don’t be put off by Dante.”
She knocks on the door, pauses a moment, then cracks the handle, and we file through the door after her. My foot catches on a loose rug near the threshold and I nearly pitch forward into her, which would make for a rather ungentlemanly impression upon our gracious hosts. Percy clearly doesn’t learn from my error, for three seconds after I right myself, I hear him stumble.
Beyond the door, we are enveloped by a thick incense smell that makes little Adrian cough. The maroon-papered walls are almost entirely blotted out by things—there’s no other word for it. Three walls are shelves stuffed with books, interrupted by bell jars sheltering fungus, canopic urns and gold-leafed death masks, and a stone trefoil knot that looks like it was recently dug up from some ancient ruins, red clay still clinging to its crevices. On one wall is a papyrus scroll bearing an etching of a dragon coiled in a circle, swallowing its own tail. Someone’s scribbled Eastern-looking characters in paint along a panel of the wainscoting, and an actual tombstone is resting against the desk. A heart-shaped locket hanging from its curlicues at first glance appears carved from obsidian but upon closer inspection proves to be transparent glass filled with blood.
I begin to slightly regret bringing Adrian into the room with us.
Wedged into one corner of the room behind a musical instrument so large it nearly obstructs him is a man—a young man, I realize when he looks up, probably younger than Percy and me. He’s thin, with a library pallor and a bookish stoop; his mask is made of soft leather like the covering of an old book, designs similar to the patterns on Helena’s mask scorched around its rim. His arms are full of what appear to be scrolls covered in pictorial glyphs, a seeing glass in one hand, which he nearly drops when he sees us.
“I’m so—I didn’t—so sorry.” He speaks French as well, with a bad stammer that bottlenecks his words.
“Dante, greet our guests,” Helena says in English. She’s behind us, one hand still on the doorknob like she’s blocking our way out. I blink, feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
He switches to English as well, though it’s hardly any more clear. “You should have—I could have—why’d you bring them here?” He thrusts the papyrus into an open desk drawer like he’s trying to tidy up before we can get a good view of the mess.
“They’ve brought Father’s Baseggio Box,” Helena says.
“What?” Dante sets down the seeing glass and clambers around the desk, tripping over the headstone in his haste. “You—you got it back? I mean, you—you found it? You have it?”
Helena holds it out, and he accepts it. He then proceeds to hold it very close to his face.
“Dante,” Helena says, sounding like a stern governess. “I told them it’s yours, as our father is dead.”
He turns his mask toward her, then back toward the box. Then he looks up again and seems to see us for the first time. “My—my God.” He doesn’t look entirely happy about his reunion with the box any longer—a bit more shocked, with a shade of panic, though that might be more due to our presence than to the delivery itself. “Thank you, I didn’t think we’d—we’d see it… Thank you. Would you…? Thank you! Can you sit down? Would you like to?” He kicks at a chair before the desk, and a stack of books topples off. They land with their spines cracked upward and pages spread, like birds shot from the sky.
There are two chairs, and I take one, Percy and Adrian the other. Felicity has become distracted by a cabinet near the door; it contains seven ampules in varying shades from basalt black to a pearled pink like the inside of an oyster shell.
“Don’t touch those,” Helena snaps, and Felicity drags her hand back.
“Sorry. I was interested in the compounds. Are they medicinal?”
“They’re cure-alls,” Dante says. He can’t seem to face Felicity fully, even when she looks at him. “Panaceas being the most—the scientific term, though they’re not—not entirely—”
“They’re antidotes that work for most poisons,” Helena says, finishing for him. “Activated charcoal, magnesium oxide, tannic acid, elephant tree sap, ginseng, tar water, and Atropa Belladonna.”
Dante clambers over a stack of crates and swings himself into the chair behind the desk. It’s so low and the desk so large it looks as though he could rather comfortably rest his chin upon the tabletop. He feels for the seeing glass, fiddling with it. “They’re our father’s. He is—he was. He was an alchemist.”
“Was he the author Mateu Robles?” Felicity asks. “I went to a lecture on one of his books.”
“The same. He has—quite a following.” Dante keeps his mask turned toward the floor and the box between his hands as we talk, all the while twisting the dials in an absent way that suggests it’s a familiar habit. “Very sorry about the…” He waves his hand vaguely at the room. “It’s all his.”
Helena has edged around to stand behind her brother. “You said you were from England. How did you come to be in possession of the box?”
“I stole it,” Percy admits. The Robles siblings both turn their masks toward him, looking at him strangely. He sighs. “It was… a rash action. We meant to give it back, only we realized that the man I stole it from wasn’t its true owner. So… we came here. There are dangerous people looking for it. They were ready to kill us for its possession.”
Neither Dante nor Helena seems particularly surprised by this news. “Likely the same men who stole it from us,” Helena says.
“What’s inside?” Felicity asks. “If you don’t mind. We were told about its make, but that’s all.”
Dante sets the box on the desk, then immediately picks it up again. He looks to his sister, and they seem to conduct a silent conversation using only the tilt of their masks. Then Dante says, “We don’t know.”
“His work was panaceas, wasn’t it?” I ask. “Is it anything to do with—”
“Our father had many theories,” Helena interrupts.
“Could we ask you—” I start, and Dante looks ready to answer but Helena shakes her head before he can.
“His work died with him,” she says. “If you’ve read his book, you know as much as we do. We can’t help you if you’re looking for information.”
Ah. My heart sinks. Felicity, though—she’s scrutinizing them both as if she’s picked up on something not quite right.
“Can you open it?” she asks slowly. “There’s a cipher—a word that unlocks it.”
Dante shakes his head. “He never told us. But thank you—thank you for returning it—for bringing it back to us. It is—was—sorry, it’s so…” He pushes his mask into the bridge of his nose, and I think he might start to cry. Then he looks up and, voice steady, finishes, “Important to our father. So it’s important to us. He told us to protect it and we… But now you’ve brought it back.” He turns to Felicity, and she nods her head. He lets out a noise that sounds like a constricted giggle.
An uncomfortable silence then falls between us. Dante kicks his legs against the chair like a boy, then says, “Well, it was very nice to meet you all.”
“Oh, yes, we should leave you be.” Felicity stands from her perch on the arm of my chair and picks up Percy’s fiddle case. Percy, taking her lead, adjusts Adrian and makes to stand. I sigh, resigning myself to a dead end.
But then Helena says, “Don’t be absurd. If you came all the way from England, you’ll stay here, at least for tonight.”
“Oh, they don’t—” Dante looks up at her, but she ignores him.
“You’ve done us a great service.” She taps a finger toward the box, of which Dante still hasn’t let go. “It’s the least we can do in return.”
“I don’t think—” he says at the same time Felicity protests, “We don’t want to impose!”
“Just for the night,” Helena interrupts, sort of to both of them. “We can feed you and the baby, at least. Get you into some clean things. Give you a proper bed. Do stay, please.”
I breathe out. “Do you mean that? We really—we haven’t anywhere else to go, and I know it’s an imposition—”
“No imposition,” Helena says. I’m beginning to think that Helena’s intentions toward us are not entirely innocent, but the truth is that I’m also willing to bet that there’s something in this house that can help with Percy’s epilepsy or return my memories. If staying the night gives us time to ask more questions, then why not stay?
Helena gives Dante a little encouragement with the tips of her fingers on his shoulder. “Dante, could you show them abovestairs?”
“Right. Yes.” He clambers to his feet, trips over the drawer he opened earlier, and catches himself on the edge of the odd musical instrument. The glasses in it clink together. It’s an eerie, haunted sound.
“Do you play?” Percy asks him.
Dante makes another uncomfortable noise. “Oh, um, no. It was—”
“Your father’s?” Percy fills in for him.
“Part of his collection,” Dante mumbles.
“What does music have to do with alchemy?” I ask.
“Not alchemy—death, and burial practices. Before he… died, he became… quite obsessed.”
“Dante,” Helena says quietly, her tone a bowstring drawing back a poison-tipped arrow.
Dante dips his hand into the bowl of water and runs his finger along the top of one of the glasses. It releases a wobbling note, more vibration than sound. “There’s a song… If played on the crystallophone,” he says, “it is believed to summon back the spirits of the dead.”
And some fun stuff about african masks. This is a hint about the pirates, btw.
The house is small in spite of its height, and with the three of us added, there aren’t enough beds. Felicity takes the only spare, while Dante gives Percy and me his apartments to share, a second-floor chamber with meager furnishings and walls that may have once been red, but have faded to the coppery brown of blood dried into linen. The baby is provided with an ancient cradle that comes down from the attic, which we set in Dante’s room.
We share a light dinner and give the baby a bottle before we retreat to our respective rooms. Percy occupies himself with the washbin and the mirror while I gently rock Adrian back and forth. The babe has his fingers in his mouth, gurgling softly. When Percy’s finished, I take his place before the dressing table and get to washing up.
“Monty… I wanted to ask you something,” Percy says. I can hear him shuffling about the room, making ready for bed.
“Go ahead,” I say.
“If nothing comes of this. If there is no cure-all to get your memories back. Do you… what do you suppose will happen?”
I get the sense that it’s not the question he means to ask, but I’m not yet so accustomed to him that I understand the message underlying it. For all that it feels like I’ve known him all my life, it’s still been only about a month and a half. I hum, my eyes closed. For a moment I weigh whether to admit how scared I am of losing my memories again, permanently this time. Maybe, if I’m hit hard enough, I’ll stop being able to form memories at all—and then where will I be?
Still, I don’t want to worry Percy about that just now. “Well, it’s like you said, isn’t it?” I say instead. “I’ve got to get into the mindset of making new memories. I’m more concerned about you, anyway.”
“Me?” Percy says.
I breathe out, remasking myself before I turn back toward him. “It’s hard, isn’t it? The epilepsy?”
“I’ve lived with it this long. I can live quite a bit longer with no intervention,” he says.
He’s being as cagey as I am. “Yes, well. So can I,” I say back. “I’ve lived without my memories for as long as I can remember.”
There’s a moment’s pause where we stare at each other, and then, just like that, we both start laughing. And then Percy is right in front of me, and his hand finds the cheek of my mask, cupping it, and he says, “Still. You know I’d do anything to help you, don’t you?”
“And I you, love,” I say, and he leans in, and for one glorious moment, I think it’s going to happen, finally, that our masks are to finally lock—
—only Adrian decides this is the perfect moment to spit out his fingers and start making little soon-to-be-cries at the fact that we’ve stopped rocking him.
The two of us break apart. “He sure is insistent,” Percy comments. I sigh a laugh. Then, rocking the baby once again, we finish making ready for bed, our respective minds on whatever it is, exactly, that we’re worried for.
The next morning comes early. We’ve already been woken twice by Adrian, as is customary, and he’s up and fussing by the time I disentangle myself from Percy’s long limbs and roll from the bed. We’ve taken to alternating feedings, and I’ve found that the nursemaid was right—it isn’t so hard after all.
A spacious kitchen with scuffed floors and high windows juts from the back of the house like a broken bone. Clusters of candles are stuck with wax along the table, and copper pots dangling above sway in the breeze filtering through the open window. It’s not yet eight and already hot as yesterday afternoon.
Dante, we find, is crouched in the hearth, trying to coax chalky embers into flame. Helena is at the table, flipping through a stack of letters, her thumbnail between her teeth. A kettle filled with cold chocolate, waiting for the fire, sits beside her, alongside an amber cone of unnipped sugar and tongs. It’s somewhat odd to see the pair of them, lord and lady of the house, in the kitchen preparing their own breakfast.
They both look up as we enter. Dante stands quickly, bangs his head on the lip of the hearth, then wipes his sooty hands on his trousers, leaving two black palm prints. “Mr.—Mr. Montague. And, and Mr. Newton! Good morning. How did—Did you sleep well?”
“As well as we ever do with the baby,” I say. “I hope we didn’t keep you up at all.”
Dante holds one of the candles to the kindling and blows until it catches, then tosses a log over top for the flames to curl their fingers around. “Oh, no. The baby was—well, the crying—but it was fine.”
“Well, that’s… good?” I say.
He nods, and I nod, and Helena says nothing, and the sort of silence that makes a man want to talk about the weather falls between us. I take a spot at the table, Percy sliding in beside me, and help myself to a crusty bread roll off a tray in the center, just for something to do with my hands. It’s staler than it looks.
Helena’s eyes narrow at the letter she’s reading, face pinched until she catches me watching her and composes herself. She refolds it and tosses it onto the stack on the table, then stands to hang the chocolate pot over the fire. “Sorry that we haven’t much to eat,” she says, tilting her head wryly across the table. “You don’t expect a trio to show up on your doorstep looking like someone dragged them from the sea with nothing but stolen property, a baby, and a violin.”
“Oh!” Dante laughs. “The violin. I’d forgotten.”
“Do you play?” Helena asks, looking between us.
“I do,” Percy says, half his attention on Adrian as he squirms and reaches for the candlesticks.
“Do you play well?”
“Oh. That depends upon your standard.”
“He plays very well,” I interject. Beneath the table, Percy knocks his knee into mine.
Helena sets a jar of grape molasses between us, spoon clanking against the crystal. “Our father was a musician.”
“I thought he was an alchemist,” I say.
“A hobby musician,” she qualifies.
“Mine as well,” Percy says. “My fiddle was his.”
Dante, still crouched at the hearth and poking at the flames like a boy, pipes up, “I have some of his music in the bedroom. My bedroom. The bedroom you’re… I saved it. If you’d like—if you want—you might—”
“I’m sure he’s not interested, Dante,” Helena says. She’s fetched mugs from a cabinet and is spreading them around the table before each place. When she bends over, the neckline of her dress dips so low I can see all the way to her navel. I cough and look away.
Dante makes an embarrassed sort of gestures with his hand, but Percy, bless him, says kindly, “I’ll take a look at it. It’d be good to play some.”
“He played mostly the—the glasses. So the songs, the music, I mean, it’s meant to be performed on the crystallophone. But they might still—”
“If you’re planning to depart this morning, there are diligences that will take you from the city center to the border,” Helena interrupts. “And you can take a train from there.” It seems she’s really shoving us out the door, but then she tacks on, “Though if you’re in no great rush, you’re welcome to stay with us for a time.”
Clearly there was no consult on this subject, for Dante drops the fire poker with a clatter. “Wh-what?”
Helena ignores him and instead says to Percy and me, “You’ve come so far, it seems a shame to leave so soon. And if you’re touring, you should see Barcelona. Not many English tourists make it this far, and there’s so much to do. The fort, and the citadel—”
“We can’t impose on you like that,” Percy starts, but Helena cuts him off.
“We’re going to the opera on Friday night—you should at least stay until then. I’m not sure we can compete with Paris, but it’s grand to us.”
I haven’t a clue what that means, or what Helena intends to do with us for the next few days. Still, Percy and I exchange a look and I can see his resolve in the tension in his shoulders just as I’m sure he can see mine in the tilt of my mask. We want to know about the cure-alls, each for the other and, perhaps, a little bit for ourselves. We’ll stay until we have our answers, that look says, and not a moment longer.
Then Dante squeaks, “Boiling!” and we all look over as the kettle lid clatters, foam spilling over the sides. The fire spits. Helena curses under her breath, whipping her skirt over her hands so she can hoist the kettle from the fire. Percy leaps up too, lifting Adrian away from the spitting chocolate. A thin line of chocolate splatters from the spout as Helena pours into the serving pot, leaving a dark splotch along the linen. A few drops make it as far as the letter she tossed down the table, and I feel compelled to assist in some way, so I scoop them into a pile, out of her way. “Should I—”
“There’s a box on the study desk,” Helena says, still focused upon the chocolate pot. “Dante, please don’t sit there. Fetch plates and the cutlery.”
I pad into the study, tripping yet again on that damned loose rug. The room is dark after the bright kitchen, windowless and all light swallowed by those bookshelves and that dark papering. The death masks seem to stare at me, empty eye sockets sunken into shadows.
The tabletop is buried, same as the rest of the room, both with papers and with more of the paraphernalia, but there’s a single box shuffled into one corner. I shift off a few layers of papyrus and a plaster casting to find a smattering of letters, the top one addressed to Mateu Robles. They must be quite piled up if they’ve still post for their dead father. I close the lid and go to pull back, only then realizing that I’ve closed my sleeve in the hinge. The entire box tumbles over.
I curse, grabbing for the mess of letters. Tax letters and typed missives and unopened envelopes and—amid the chaos is a sheet of fine creamy stock with a green wax seal broken in one piece, the crest imprinted on it the fleur-de-lis in triplicate.
I nearly drop all the letters I’m holding. It’s the crest of the Duke of Bourbon.
For a long moment, I’m frozen there, on my knees behind the desk with the letter in front of me. Then I shake my head, hurriedly shoving it back into the box. “Not my business,” I say.
Unless it is. If the Duke is sending correspondence to Helena and Dante, if he’s threatening them because of our theft…
I dither, picking up the letter once again.
“Did you get lost?”
I whip my head up. “Helena! I’m so, so sorry—I didn’t mean to—god, what you must think of me. I must look like I’m snooping about.”
“What have you got?” she asks, and I can’t tell what tone her voice has taken nor what expression her face bears under the looming silver of her mask.
I meekly hold out the folded letter. “Helena… please be honest with me. Has the Duke of Bourbon come after you, threatened you?”
She says nothing, taking the letter slowly. Her hands are still, expressionless, as she turns it over just as slowly.
I, meanwhile, am vibrating so fast that I swear I’ll pop open like a bottle of fizzy soda. “If the Duke has threatened you because of us, please tell me and we’ll find a way to make it right. We’ll… well, we can’t exactly offer ourselves to him, not now that we’ve taken guardianship of Adrian. We can offer you money, though not much. Or if it would be best for us to disappear and leave your residence for good, we can do that, too. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it—”
Helena holds up a hand, halting the flood of words coming from my throat. I quiet immediately, still sitting on the floor before her. I feel, for the first time since we came clean to Mr. Lockwood about the theft, like I’m a disrespectful child awaiting punishment. It’s not a good feeling—it makes my near-empty stomach churn and my head ache.
But she doesn’t punish me. Instead, she kneels down beside me, her dress pooling on the floor. “Mr. Montague… if I tell you something, can you keep it a secret? And I mean secret from everyone, from your sister and Mr. Newton and even from Dante.”
I frown, my arms crossing over my stomach unbidden. “I… I can certainly try, but—”
“No. You must promise me that you won’t tell,” Helena says. I hear Felicity moving about upstairs, and Percy sharing a stilted conversation with Dante in the kitchen.
“Surely the others could help—” I try.
Helena is already shaking her head. “It has to be you. Just you.”
My mind is a veritable storm, whirling with a ferocity that I’ve never before encountered. I feel dizzy and disoriented, and place a hand to the desk beside me to keep myself upright.
“Why?” I ask. “If you could just tell me why—”
“Because we’re in this very deep, Mr. Montague. Deeper than you can possibly imagine. You have no idea how hard… and as the elder child, I’ve been trying to keep my spine straight for Dante’s sake, but you have to understand that there’s no one I can turn to for help. If you don’t help me I don’t know what I’ll do.”
I stare at the door of the study that she’s closed behind her, blocking my line of sight out into the hallway. I don’t like this, I don’t like this at all, but I promised her that I’d do whatever I could to help her. I slowly nod, fear and regret already singing through my blood.
She takes a deep breath, the hand not holding the letter coming to take mine. “Thank you,” she says. And then, on the tail of that, she breathes out and…
“Our father isn’t dead. He’s very much alive. And you can help me save him.”
I walk from the room five seconds later, reeling. I run into Felicity as she comes down the stairs and hardly manage a good-morning. I can feel Helena’s hand on my back, pushing me forward, and Felicity has her head tilted at me oddly, but there’s nothing I can do except breathe slowly and wait for the feeling to pass.
It doesn’t go away before I reenter the kitchen, my arms crossed over my chest and my shaking hands tucked against my sides. “Are you okay?” Percy asks immediately, as I take my seat beside him and the baby.
“Fine,” I manage.
He’s not convinced, for he reaches to press his palm to my neck, checking for a fever. I shake him away, channeling a smile through my mask. I’m not sure if he can tell or not, but he stops pushing, instead focusing on bouncing the baby. I breathe out.
The rest of the day goes by fairly quickly. We spend a good deal of it feeling awkwardly out of place, strangers in a stranger's home. We sleep when Adrian sleeps, catching up on lost rest, until dinnertime comes and we again cram ourselves into the kitchen to eat. I feel better after resting, but I'm still unsettled and I swear Percy has been watching me all afternoon. I just… I can't quite put my finger on what's got me so wound up about all of this.
…Until that night, as I lay in bed beside Percy, that is. It occurs to me all at once as I'm nearly asleep that Helena never did tell me what exactly the Duke of Bourbon has to do with all of this.
I drew Helena's mask! https://a-ghost-named-k.tumblr.com/post/190335327516/a-quick-drawing-of-helenas-mask-from-my-fanfic
Also some more Medicine:
Baby masks: all masks are alive to some extent, but baby masks are the most clearly living, as they actually have cartilage and skin. These are eventually replaced by other materials as the baby grows and learns new things. An individual’s mask is a reflection of their development, including how they interact with the world.
Disease and disorder: masks can reflect any number of diseases and disorders that affect the flesh. From pock marks to cleft palettes, masks often take on out-of-the-ordinary physical ailments. Certain neurological conditions may result in the mouth-hole of a mask not properly closing, for instance. Also, incidence of facial scars early in life is very very low—usually masks will absorb and then incorporate the damage. As such, when you first de-mask yourself in the event of a match you are said to be presenting your ‘perfect face’, aka a face that has never seen damage.