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Here Be Dragons

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In the summer of my eighteenth year, at the high and low of far too many things and periods to name, my mother sent me to stay with Trudy Arden.

Trudy used to be a singer - "still am a singer, darling, just because I'm resting my vocal chords at the moment doesn't mean I'm down and out forever," she said sharply, when I raised this point with her - on the club circuit. She didn't really want to have some grotty kid hanging around, that was obvious from the moment we met, but she'd known my mother back when they were both kids and my mother had a way of forcing people to honour their promises. Perhaps that's why we never got on all that well, I always wanted to be some bright flittergibbet with the habit of casting people off like coats but one look from those eyes and-

...Anyway. This story, at least, isn't about me. And I have to remember that, if I'm gonna tell it right.

Trudy, despite what she said, was on the down and out. She'd had a throat injury a year or so before I met her, the extent of which varied depending on whoever was telling me about it, and hadn't been able to sing properly ever since. She always said she was on the mend, always growled it stubbornly while rubbing yet another concoction into her uncooperative flesh, but that didn't really matter as such. She'd still been out for a year, and that'd kill anybodies career no matter how big a star they were.

I still don't really know how big a star Trudy actually was, but she was apparently big enough to survive on the lingering goodwill left from the radiance of it. I never had to want for anything, while I was with her. I had three square meals a day, all the booze an eighteen year old like me could want and a new set of clothes for every single club we frequented.

Oh yeah, her star had definitely been big enough to still get us into clubs for free. And wasn't that a heady bonus.

We went to a lot of clubs in the time I stayed with her. All were unique in their own way, and maybe I'll tell you some of the stories I gathered in that time one of these days. There was The Court where everybody wore long ballgowns and tinted their drinks red, there was The Eerie where everybody wore black and grouped close together all the damn time, there was The Country Club where all the young bucks came to parade in front of the ever so willing ladies... And there was The Paradise.

The Paradise is the one I'm going to tell you about tonight. And before you start looking all disappointed at me, I'm going to tell you now that it's probably the most interesting one of all.

Inside it was a fairly regular club. It wasn't strictly themed, like so many of the others, but did vaguely resemble a slightly outdated cabaret. There was an actual stage, which seemed a little outdated even then, and a lot of slightly faded chairs set around slightly faded tables. When Trudy brought me there the first time, I must admit that I was slightly unimpressed...

But then I saw Eva for the first time. And let me tell you, impressive was not quite a big enough word for her.

"I know you're less than impressed," I recall Trudy saying, as we settled down in a table just secluded enough to be attractively mysterious and thus draw every wandering eye in the room, "but trust me, the unimpressive nights here are far more pleasant than the impressive ones."

"But that makes no sense," I replied, doubtlessly sounding petulant. I always was in those days, some eighteen year olds are effortlessly mature but I - despite my very best efforts - never really picked up the knack, "don't you want to impress me?"

"Why on earth," Trudy asked, looking a mixture between amused and disgusted, "would you think that?"

"My mother said-"

"To keep you out of trouble, and out of her hair until she was done with her latest political run," Trudy told me. I recall a cloud of smoke around her scornful face, but can't quite remember where it came from now. Maybe she had desperately started to smoke, in yet another scheme to restore her to her best, or maybe it was just the atmosphere or the club, "nothing about impressing you at all, as I recall... And anyway, it is a kindness."

"A kindness?" I asked, probably petulant again.

"Try to overcome your attention span of a gnat, and think back five seconds. The unimpressive nights here are far more pleasant than the impressive ones," I recall her triumphant sneer, the expression of a woman who is still capable of asserting herself over at least one powerless minion, "trust me, if I'd brought you here on a Saturday as opposed to a Sunday you'd be having a far less pleasant time-"

"But Trudy!" To be honest I recall very little of what I did that night, almost nothing of what I wore or how I looked or the numerous and doubtlessly dazzling expressions that crossed my face, but I do recall the sudden vicious surge of my own triumph that rose up within me at that moment, "it is a Saturday!"

Trudy, you see, was obsessively focused on getting her career back. She had been forced out of the limelight, rather more literally than I thought at that moment, and she had thus dedicated her every moment to clawing her way back. She had little use for keeping track of such petty things as dates or times, and that use had grown even littler with an all too eager eighteen year old there to receive every delivery and blather incessantly at every person.

She had not meant to go to The Paradise that night. She had not meant to be seen, she had not meant to look casually mysterious where anybody who actually knew her could witness it. She had not meant me to meet Eva.

...She had not meant to see Eva again herself.

She froze, with a glass full of what I vaguely recall as wine halfway to her lips, and then surged jerkily back to life. Slammed her glass down so hard on the table that I heard a muffled splintering noise, and reached out to grab my arm, "we have to leave."

"But nothing impressive has happened yet," I said, possibly whiny or possibly still riding high on the force of my triumph, "come on, Trudy, I want to see what you're so worried about."

"No you don't, you little brat," Trudy said through gritted teeth, glancing around hurriedly like she expected a disaster at any moment. And not just an everyday human disaster, like walking in on your sweetie with your best pal or discovering that you're going to be spending an awful lot more time in hospital than you first thought, but something on the level of a hurricane or an asteroid, "and if you don't move right now, I swear that I'll-"

I never found out what she was about to swear, though with the gift of hindsight I can make a few guesses. The curtain came up, Eva stepped on stage, the crowd leaned forward expectantly...

And the disaster started to happen, in glorious slow motion.

 

--

 

Eva sang. It is ever so tempting so say that I could not put the experience into words, could not capture the majesty of her presence with anything so simple as a sentence... But I've lived on the strength of my words for years, and there's hardly any point in stopping that now.

Her hair was the red of autumn leaves, her lips were the red of blood. She wore a long, shimmering dress that looked - at least to my admittedly overawed eye - like it was entirely made of diamonds. Her poise was absolute, that of a queen lowering herself to make pretty with her subjects. Her voice was purring, pouring out of her mouth like smoke.

I've seen many things over the years, and I'm only slightly boasting here. I've seen woman with hair so red that they looked like Celtic spirits, lips so red that it was like they'd just raised their head from a man's throat. I've seen dresses actually made of diamonds, ones that it would've taken a lifelong athlete to wear without just toppling over onto their face. I've met actual queens, seen actual royals consorting with their subjects. I've witnessed singers who can shatter glass with the force of their lungs, or charm an entire audience to tears with just one breathless note.

...But.

Despite all those things that I've seen, nothing has ever been quite as captivating to me as Eva on that stage. Magic flowed through her veins that night, and she shared it liberally with all.

It was a long while, after several songs both strangely obscene and terrifyingly beautiful, that I thought to glance over to Trudy again. I must admit, I expected her to be exactly the same as me with that certain arrogance that all eighteen year olds share - I was captivated by the music so surely she would be, I was transported helplessly away on a cloud of song so surely she would've been carried with me.

Trudy's face was like a skull. She had sunk back to her chair, obviously resigned to the fact that she wouldn't be dragging me away any time soon, but she was not taking it with good grace. Her cheeks had gone hollow, her skin had gone pale. Her eyes were fixed on the stage, accompanied by an expression that was loathing and loving all at once.

It was the only thing that could've dragged me away from Eva. In hindsight, I'm kinda glad that it did, "what?"

"You're a rude brat," Trudy said, but her insult was absent. Her eyes remained fixed on the stage, and I could've been a stranger patron or a member of staff or even a discarded chair for all the attention she paid me in that moment, "do I tell you that enough?"

"That isn't fair!" I snapped, only moderated my tone when even that failed to get a reaction. I acted out in those days mainly for attention, and wouldn't the psychologists have a field day with that, "I meant what's wrong? You've gone all pale, like you've seen a ghost or something."

For a long moment I didn't expect her to answer, and then she let out a laugh so hollow that I shuddered like somebody was walking over my grave, "what do you think of her?"

"She's..." I hesitated, somewhat taken aback by how unrelated that question was to my brattiness. If she'd been distracted from me in the manner of my mother, a pat on the head and an absent admonishment while she focused on higher matters, I would've sulked and refused to answer on principle. As it was, with the obsessive tint to her eyes and Eva's voice still siren singing over the room, I could only settle for confusion, "beautiful. And charming. And possibly the best singer that I've ever heard."

"Everybody says that," Trudy said, a faint and humourless smile curving her lips, "that is, until they get to know her."

If I had been ten years older, at that point, I would've heeded the warning in her words and shut up immediately. If I had been the age I am now, I would've heeded the warning in her words and pressed carefully for more. But at eighteen years old... Well, idiot is probably too nice a word for me. I gasped, and gushed helplessly, "you know her?"

"Maybe, once upon a time," Trudy, luckily for me, did not react angrily. Only kept her eyes always on the stage. As if longing for Eva to look over, as if fearing it, "or, at least, I thought I did. The thing is, kid, that you can't pay attention to only the outsides all your life. Eva may look good, sure, and sing well and own the hearts of every man in the room like she's some sort of queen over them all... But she's rotten inside."

"Rotten?" I frowned, unable - at that oh so innocent point - to countenance the idea of somebody so beautiful being rotten, "what, like an apple or something?"

I was too young at that point to realize what good advice she was giving me, what a wonderful boon she was dropping on my head. Don't trust what you see, she was saying, always keep in mind that urge to dig just a little deeper. If I had heeded it then, if I hadn't waited so many years in the shadows to grasp that vital information...

It doesn't matter much now, I got there eventually.

"Like an apple," Trudy laughed, another one of her oh so humourless laughs, "like a banana, like a cake that still looks perfectly iced on the outside but has maggots crawling within. Open your eyes, kid. Look close and the perfect layer of paint will crack, look closer still and the poison will strike your heart."

I remained silent for a long moment. Absurdly sullen, that Trudy had ruined this experience for me when I just wanted to sit there and let Eva's voice rush over me forevermore "...I can hardly look close at her when she's across the room and on a stage, can I?"

"You are less smart than you think you are," Trudy said flatly, accurately at that time, "by far."

"If you introduce me to her maybe I'll understand what you're on about," I continued stubbornly, so convinced that I was perfectly graceful as opposed to an eighteen year old fool nowhere near as subtle as intended, "as opposed to thinking that you're just a crazy old bat bitter that somebody is a better singer than you."

Trudy only gave me an unimpressed glance, unprovoked in the face of my deliberate provocativeness.

"Come on," I said, allowing my voice to turn whiny again. For Trudy was right about that, at least, I was rather a brat in those days, "if I don't meet her, if I'm never introduced to her ever..."

"I wouldn't worry about that," Trudy huffed, a touch bitterly. Glanced across the room again, just in time for Eva to look our way... And smile, the smile of a housewife holding a knife over her husband's bleeding corpse, "I'm sure that she'll introduce herself, as soon as she can."

 

--

 

Eva sang one final song, her eyes fixed on Trudy all the while. It was beautifully obscene like all the others, but carried a somewhat personal note that I now realize had been lacking throughout. It wasn't quite a love song, but also wasn't quite a hate song. It was something special, something aimed purely at a person who knew her better than any other and who she had known better than anybody else too.

...Of course, at the time I was somewhat incapable of understanding the nuance of the song. I simply regarded it as a strong finish, rose to my feet with the other drooling patrons and clapped my little heart out.

"I have no doubt that she'll be here soon," Trudy said, watching me with a certain - understandable, in hindsight - note of disgust in her eyes, "she does so like to be prompt. Just remember to be careful what you wish for, alright?"

"That's a stupid thing to say," I replied promptly, arrogantly I will admit. I was still high on Eva's performance, the lingering aftereffects of something that felt so much greater than myself, "why would you ever need to be careful for what you wish for? Why would you wish for it, if you didn't want it?"

Trudy stared at me, slightly aghast. And I can tell you, at the age I am now I can entirely understand the feeling, "you-"

Whatever she was about to say, whatever doubtlessly deserved insults she was about to spew, was lost on a cloud of perfume. Eva glided from the back right on cue, resplendent in a white dressing gown with her autumn hair thrown carelessly over her shoulders.

"Trudy," she said, and there was a possessive tone to her voice. A possessive glint in her eyes, transforming her into something that looked an awful lot like a predator.

"Eva," Trudy replied, coolly. Or, at the very least... She so wanted to be cool. At the time I heard only frost, and pursed my lips at her rudeness to so beautiful a visitor. Now I dare say that there were cracks underneath, the faint wobble of a woman barely keeping it together, "may I introduce you to the child of a friend-?"

I opened my mouth in response to that. Doubtlessly seeming like a rather overenthusiastic puppy, all ready to slobber over her nice silk and effortless poise.

"Charmed, I'm sure," Eva dismissed me like a pro, without even a glance in my direction. I've always kinda longed to emulate what she did in that moment, such complete politeness combined with such obvious disinterest, "Trudy, darling, how have you been?"

"Well," Trudy said shortly, too tense to even drum her fingers against the side of her glass.

"But you've been out for so long!" Eva crooned, the possessive light in her eyes growing more prominent. I had, in the haze of my youth, thought her some sort of romantic predator like a wolf. From that point on I started seeing her as a low-down snake, and nothing but, "the gossip rags are all a tizzy, the boys are a mess and the girls are talking."

"Are they?" Trudy asked tightly, trying so desperately to sound as if she didn't care a bit. Even to a dumb eighteen year old, it was a paper thin ruse, "and whose fault is that, then?"

"Trudy," Eva pouted, but couldn't stop a brief flash of triumphant amusement from showing in her snake eyes, "you wound me."

"And you stabbed me in the heart. And then, for good measure, stabbed me in the throat and walked away laughing," Trudy snapped, and abandoned her vague attempt at poise. Leaned forward violently, so the scarf she'd been wearing around her slim neck fell away and revealed an ugly mess of thin white scars, "what do you really want here, Eva? Because trust me, your holy nun act ain't gonna work on me anymore."

The thing was, up until that point I had always thought that Trudy was kinda a crank. My eighteen year old self had just assumed that she was perfectly capable of singing, but pretended not to be because she liked the fawning and sympathy. She rubbed ointments into her skin for effect, wore scarfs around her neck all the time to keep up the sense of mystery, acted the invalid because it stroked her ego.

But those scars...

"Any more?" Eva asked, that amused glint still in her eye, and then moved on. So quickly that I barely had time to gawp, and Trudy barely had time to narrow her eyes, "maybe I just wanted to say hello, reminisce about the good old days."

Trudy let out a bitter bark of air, even now I hesitate to call it anything close to laughter.

"Maybe I wanted several important folk to see my sense of charity, maybe I wanted to inquire closely about a former rival..." Eva tilted her head a little, leaned in. Her perfume, before pleasant, suddenly became cloying. I can smell it even now, a choking scent taking ahold of my nostrils, "maybe I just wanted to remind you."

"Remind me of what?" Trudy snapped bravely, but her sudden rage had given way to a sudden misery as surely as the sun does set.

"That I'm still on stage, while you're reduced to scurrying around clubs and begging for scraps," Eva said smoothly, now so close that she didn't have to pretend at humanity, "that I'm still the belle of the ball, while you've been forgotten by everybody that you once so desperately courted. That I'm a dragon, and you're just..."

Trudy drew in a sharp, furious breath. I clenched my hands on the arms of my chair, disbelieving in the way that only a naive kid can manage.

"A whore," Eva tilted her head briefly, seeming to assess the impact of her words. Smiled venomously, and leaned back like a queen triumphant, "it was so nice seeing you. Do linger, if you wish. I've got so many old friends who are just dying to see you again."

And so she left, sashaying away without even a glance back. Her white dressing gown gusted out behind her and made her look like some sort of angel, her hair was so red that it couldn't help but draw the eye and she was so graceful that you half felt like weeping at the very sight of her balletic movements.

I was speechless, speechless in a way that you could've cut my tongue out and I would've still had more to say. I shifted in my seat, toyed with the arms of my chair, wet my lips. I indulged in every awkward act that I could think of, while still sitting down... And then I gave in. Allowed my impatience, and maybe some of my guilt, to swallow me - and glanced over to where Trudy was sitting.

Her face was a picture in devastation.

You're young enough that you've never had the chance to be close to a viper, and maybe young enough that you've never really experienced the urge to be so. But let me tell you now, when that urge does come knocking don't spare it even a moment of thought. Just run from it. Run, like your legs will be cut off if you don't.

 

--

 

"That was..." I started after Eva had left, struggling to find the words. I wasn't quite as good at keeping up my cool under pressure in those days, wasn't quite as practiced at keeping the patter running even after a truck had ploughed right through the middle of my equilibrium.

"Terrible, awful, the worst few minutes of your life?" Trudy attempted a smile. Even now, I have to repress a wince at the memory of her rictus grin, "I'd say I told you so, I really would, but..."

I stared at her for a long few moments, in that emptying club with Eva's cloying perfume still lingering on the air. And in that moment, as unlikely as it may well seem considering all you know of me at that time, I actually felt pity for her, "how do you know her?"

"We're around the same age, if you'd believe it," Trudy answered, for once not trying to dart away under the cover of bitter insults. The honesty should've been refreshing, it felt kinda like a bath in acid instead, "I'm maybe a year older, I'll admit, but we were still contemporaries. We burst onto the scene at the same time, started working our way up together."

"Together?"

"Well, close to each other," she gave another rictus grin, "neither of us were very good at cooperating with other people, even then."

I inclined my head, feeling pity for her but still not entirely willing - selfish as I was - to soothe her ego. Waited her out, as patiently as I could with my fingers fidgeting on the arms of my chair and the tension probably abundantly clear on my face.

"When I say close to each other, though, I mean very close to each other," Trudy rewarded me for my uncharacteristic effort, though probably not consciously. Her eyes were entirely lost in the mists of time, as she sat back in her own chair with a thoughtful expression, "We met in this very club, you know? When they had pre-singers, before they relied on one star to carry their box office, and we hit it off right away. Soon we were talking all the time, exchanging make-up tips, sharing an apartment when Eva's old lease ran out..."

I held my breath, leaned forward eagerly. Even before she said it, I knew what sordid detail was coming.

"...Sharing a bed," Trudy looked right at me for the first time in ages, as if checking my reaction. Smiled a little, a proper one that time, when I only gestured impatiently for her to go on, "it was a real nice time. Might be only the mists of memory making it so, but I'll take whatever keeps me warm at night."

"But it didn't remain a real nice time?" I asked, perhaps a touch pushily. Even then desperate to get right to the juicy details.

"However did you guess?" Trudy sighed, rolled her eyes at me like I was an idiot. As I recall I was annoyed, but kinda soothed - if she was responding to my endless probing like that, she was gaining her health back, "we were both ambitious. It's tempting to say that she was the more ambitious one, and paint me as the innocent saint caught up in her ruthless rise to power, but you actually know me. We both wanted to reach the top, and nothing was gonna stand in our way of getting there."

I preened a little over that implied compliment, though now I realize that she meant it more along the lines that even a wall could've seen her levels of ambition, "you started to compete?"

"Darling, we'd been competing since the moment we met each other," Trudy said with another roll of her eyes, but couldn't quite keep up her level of sneering superiority. A certain sadness had creeped in, an old bitterness curling around the edges, "we just started to get nastier about it, that was all. We started cosying up to crime bosses, spreading nasty rumours. We stopped sharing make-up tips, singing the same songs. We kept sharing an apartment and a bed, of course, but what had once been nice and sweet very quickly turned..."

I drew in a sharp breath, despite myself. I regret that now, it would've been another thing to keep me warm at night in the long years to come.

"Well, I'm not gonna - ah - bore you with the details," Trudy said, and very neatly shut that intimate line of inquiry down, "we started fighting all the time. Properly fighting, screaming at each other. Did you hear what she said to me, before she sashayed off back to her perfect life? 'I'm a dragon, you're a whore'... She used to say that to me all the time, sneer it at me when she felt that I'd grabbed too much of the limelight."

We remained mutually silent for a long few moments, thoughtful. I kept playing with the arms of my chair, she kept staring into space like lost in something that I still can't entirely grasp even now.

"But then," she continued eventually, so softly that I had to strain to hear her, "did you also hear what she sang to me, just before she clambered down off stage? 'Need you, baby, like I breathe you, baby'. She used to say that sometimes too, when I had my face buried in her hair."

"She stabbed you!" I snapped, young enough to still be somewhat - passingly - horrified by the idea, "you can't go reading romance into somebody's words when they've taken a knife to your throat-"

"It was a bottle, actually," Trudy sniffed in reply, her face closing down slightly. Dreamy reminiscence fading to businesslike scorn, in a way that I flatter myself I would've been narrowly able to avoid if I had been just a little older, "and what would you know about it? Love isn't simple, love isn't kind. Maybe love does feel like a bottle to the throat, a screaming fight over a drive neither of you can control, sometimes and you just haven't realized it yet."

"I don't think-" I said, a little stung.

"Well, I knew that already," she retorted, just as stung, and we both lapsed into sulky silence. Sitting all alone, in a dark and empty club that still somehow carried the imprint of Eva's scent.

"...Hey, Trudy," but that pity still lingered in me, like a stone lingering at the bottom of your shoe. I waved the scent away for a moment, lent towards my mentor instead, "you were right about at least one thing, you know. Up close she wasn't all that perfect, her lipstick was a little sloppy."

Trudy looked up suddenly, her eyes gone wide. I wouldn't have taken the risk as I am now, but... Maybe that says something for the boldness of youth. A moment, and then her face blossomed into an actual grin, "was it?"

"There was a bit on her teeth," I said, almost honestly, "and everything."

"...Maybe there's hope for you yet, kid," Trudy said, almost fondly, and finally rose to her feet again. A swaying moment, and then she set off towards the door of the club like a queen reborn, "come on, if we leave quickly The Court might just still be open."

The summer of my eighteenth year was certainly interesting, but maybe just a little better than I remember it as now.