Another little fiction for you, Gentle Reader. This is the first chapter of my finished novel, BECOMING, the first in a trilogy entitled The Cassandra Redux Cycle. Let me know what you think!
(BOOK ONE: THE CASSANDRA REDUX CYCLE)
AMY L. MONTZ
“I present the public with my latest discoveries in the slight Sibylline pages. Scattered and unconnected as they were, I have been obliged to add links, and model the work into a consistent form. But the main substance rests on the truths contained in these poetic rhapsodies, and the divine intuition which the Cumaean damsel obtained from heaven.”
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, The Last Man
“For the rest—a mystic moaning
Kept Cassandra at the gate,
With wild eyes the vision shone in,
And wide nostrils scenting fate.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Wine of Cypress”
VOLUME I, CHAPTER ONE
On a Friday night in October, during the year of Our Lord, 1885, in the Glorious Reign of Our Beloved Queen, there was a small theatre which attracted two sorts of persons. The first sort had money, and leisure, and a desire to be dazzled. The sort that was somewhat weary with the weight of the world and their believed importance in it. The second sort had little money but fewer obligations, often young bachelors just beginning their careers on the ’Change, or in speculation, or in the finer class of retail. Not the sort to hobnob with the first, but well enough to stand in the same room comfortably. Both sorts had come to this small theatre, tucked away near Covent Garden, to see the acclaimed Mentalist, Mr. Mercury, Messenger of the Gods, and his lovely assistant, Regina the Extraordinary, Princess of Darkness and Light.
Mr. Mercury was neither the first nor the second sort, yet admitted he depended on the first sort for his financial success. The second sort he did not speak of much at all, to anyone except his assistant. In that sort, the single professional male group, he and Regina the Extraordinary were looking for someone very particular indeed.
Mr. Mercury had performed at this particular stage in London for the past month. Before that, his posters assured the audience, he had performed for royal audiences in France and Germany, and for rich and successful audiences in America. The posters further proclaimed that he had studied in the darkest reaches of the Empire to learn the intimate secrets of the lost and arcane arts.
As to his past performances, the posters spoke the truth. As to his training, they did not.
On this evening, the posters also proclaimed that this was to be Mr. Mercury’s final London performance.
Regina the Extraordinary peeked around the curtain and watched as the audience trickled in. There were plenty of both sorts, and while she watched those of the first as they shuffled to their seats, her interest was speculative. To the second sort, she paid far closer attention. Mr. Mercury had decided that London had no answers for them. If they did not find what they were looking for, they would leave tomorrow for Edinburgh.
She did not like Scotland. Not after the last visit.
The seats were nearly all occupied. There were a few clusters of empty seats toward the middle and the back of the theater, but almost the entire first half was filled.
“First sort,” Regina the Extraordinary said to herself. “So predictable.”
She pulled away from the curtain with a sigh and tiptoed back to Mr. Mercury’s dressing room. She entered without knocking. “No sign yet.”
“Have faith,” he told his assistant. He contemplated his reflection for a moment before he plucked a final stray hair from his beard. “There are dozens of cities left to try.”
Regina the Extraordinary could not hold on to faith much longer. She wanted to find the man they were looking for tonight, so that tomorrow, there would be no trip to Edinburgh. “They used to desecrate graves,” she said, “in Edinburgh. For the medical schools.” She shuddered with a delicate twist of her shoulders.
“And they did far worse in London, I can assure you.” The two stared at their reflections in the mirror. Mr. Mercury looked only a few years older than she. Their eyes were the same shade of gray-blue, but the two bore no other resemblance, familial or otherwise. Where her hair was auburn, his was so blonde it was almost white. While she was tallish for a woman, he was rather short for a man. His face was narrow and jagged, with a thin nose and pointed chin. Her face was round and cherubic, her lips and cheeks flushed a constant pink.
But there was familiarity there, around the eyes. Around the corners and creases of the eyes. They the both of them looked older than their apparent years, around the eyes.
“Give us a look again,” Mr. Mercury said, and returned to his ablutions.
She nodded and spun away, practicing her pirouettes to the door.
It was not until well into the second volunteer that Regina the Extraordinary made a cry.
All murmuring in the audience stopped, and then resumed with increased intensity.
Mr. Mercury gave his assistant a sharp glance, but when he saw her face, his smoothed out. “My dear, are you quite all right?” He used his stage whisper so that the entire theatre could hear.
The hush resumed over the crowd. Even the volunteer on stage—a matronly first sort desperate to speak to her son lost to the Boer—ceased her crying to hear.
Regina the Extraordinary spun wild from the back of the stage where she had resumed her watchful vigil to the front of the stage where Mr. Mercury sat. When she reached him, she collapsed to the ground in a graceful bow, her arms arched over her head and touching the ground. “My apologies, Messenger, for disturbing your work. But the spirits are restless tonight. They clamor around you to speak, and, finding you unavailable while you selflessly assist Mrs. Darcy—” a hand flitted out to gesture at the woman to her left, “they contacted me, instead.”
Mr. Mercury feigned disgust. “Tell them they must wait! This woman’s son will not be denied his voice.” He turned to take both of Mrs. Darcy’s hands in his. “We cannot apologize enough, Madam, for the rudeness of our Spirit Friends. One often finds that manners are the first to be abandoned in the Afterlife.” The last was said, faux sotto voce, to the crowd.
An appreciative chuckle rose up among them, and even Mrs. Darcy smiled.
“Now, let us return to our work at hand. Please, Madam, resume your comfortable state. I need you to—”
A gasp from the audience interrupted him. He glanced down at Regina the Extraordinary, who was now sitting up, shaking, her eyes rolled back in her head.
Mr. Mercury later would compliment his young assistant on her ability to situate the gyrations of her body in the bodice region, which did not go unnoticed by the male members of the audience.
Mrs. Darcy was already to her feet, edging away from Regina the Extraordinary. She shook her head, twice, and tramped down the stairs, back to her seat. Regina the Extraordinary took the opportunity to stand, a well-practiced series of maneuvers that made it seem as if she were being pulled by several invisible strings. She sucked in a deep breath and stopped her gesticulations, standing frozen on her tiptoes, bosom pressed forward, arms bowing behind her arched back, just long enough for the crowd to become even more restless. Then she released her breath, opened her eyes, and spoke in a voice so different from her own that more than one member of the audience screamed.
“Nicholas Goodhart,” that voice said. “Nicholas Goodhart, we spirits long to speak with you.”
Somewhere about two-thirds of the way up the rows, a young man’s jaw dropped.
Nicholas Goodhart’s companions elbowed him in the ribs. “Go to it, man!” Justin Harris, a fellow clerk in Nicholas’s office, did not know Nicholas well, but the two had worked together for about a month. “Come on, then. Go see what the spirits want.”
They had come for a lark. They had invited Goodhart out of camaraderie. They were delighted that he proved so entertaining.
Nicholas nodded once before he unfolded himself from the seat, and unfolded, and unfolded. Well over six feet, the young man was very conscious of his extraordinary height in such a crowded room of seated attendees. Worse still, he was seated in the middle, so he had to climb past several men, and a few questionable ladies, before he reached the aisle.
“Nicholas Goodhart,” the woman on the stage intoned again in that odd masculine voice. “Nicholas Goodhart, are you here?”
“I am here.” He arrived at the stage and blinked against the hiss and fumes of the gaslights.
“Please, son.” Mr. Mercury gestured to the stairs to his left. “Join us. The spirits desire it.”
As soon as Nicholas Goodhart stepped foot on the stage, Regina the Extraordinary collapsed into a heap of tulle and chiffon. Nicholas did not quite understand how her tight lacing could withstand such sudden movements. Perhaps, he thought, she did not feel pain when the spirits inhabited her body.
Nicholas sat down in the seat just vacated by the matron, Mrs. Darcy. “I do not know why,” he said to Mr. Mercury, not understanding how the acoustics of theatre amplified his whisper.
Mr. Mercury looked up to meet the young man’s eyes, and for a moment, his mask dropped. He saw what his assistant must have seen, with that keen eyesight of hers. The boy’s eyes were blue, a startling brilliant blue. So blue that they seemed to glow like Circe’s cauldron must have glowed: magical, tragic, intense.
Mr. Mercury also knew that the rest of the audience, were they to look into those same eyes at the same moment, would not see the intensity of the color he could see. He doubted the boy himself could see it. And he knew they had found their man.
“Sir?” Nicholas asked again, a bit louder. “I do not know why the spirits would have contacted me.”
Mr. Mercury heard the twang in his accent, knew this boy had less than reputable roots and had clawed his way further up the vicious social hierarchy, into that nebulous second sort. Well done, boy, he thought. Well done indeed. He took another moment to compose himself and to give his assistant a near imperceptible nod. Then he resumed his persona. “We must ask them, then,” Mr. Mercury replied. “The spirits do not summon idly, as we know, but sometimes, they are wicked or treacherous. We must make sure it is you they want, and not merely to distract us from the news dear Mrs. Darcy’s son would impart.”
Mrs. Darcy sniffled, somewhere deep in the third row.
And so Mr. Mercury performed, just flamboyant enough to convince the audience, just informative enough to convince Nicholas’s companions—“that is Nicholas exactly!” Justin said at one point during the performance, much to the amusement of the audience—and just deep enough to almost convince the young man before him. But that would be another sign pointing to the young man’s sincerity. He would not trust magic, after all.
So Mr. Mercury offered one more piece, dangling the necessary lure before the young man, while a part of him regretted the cruelty of this final bait. “There is one other who wishes to speak with you,” he said. He gestured Regina the Extraordinary forward. She spun toward him, offered him just the briefest of confused glances, and curtsied.
“I need a name,” Mr. Mercury said. “Regina, would you oblige?”
Regina seemed to start, a movement imperceptible to the crowd, but noticed by the two men on stage. Nicholas, curious, observed the woman before him, trying to ascertain why she would be so startled. Mr. Mercury, however, did not need to. He knew the reason, after all.
Mr. Mercury took a deep breath. He used Regina the Extraordinary only in the rarest of circumstances. “Please,” he said to his assistant. Nicholas thought his voice sounded different, not as deep. More conversational.
There, a set to her jaw, but she twirled forward to hover her hand next to Nicholas’s head. Then her hand closed and pulled away in the same gesture, as if she had clutched something from Nicholas’s mind.
And she had. She fell to her supplicant’s position before she spoke. “Sarah,” she said, soft enough only the two men on the stage could hear her.
Mr. Mercury nodded his thanks. “Sarah Goodhart, are you with us?”
“No,” Nicholas said in a soft voice. “No.”
Mr. Mercury pressed on. “Sarah Goodhart? Sarah, please come forward. We have one here who would—”
“What’s this, then?” A thick lower-class accent spilled out of Regina the Extraordinary’s lips. “Who calls me from sleep, eh? What’s this?” Regina stood up in the same jerky motions, but these were, somehow, more convincing. Her eyes opened and only Mr. Mercury and Nicholas were close enough to see. The color had changed from their gray-blue. They were now a liquid brown.
Unbidden, one tear rolled down Nicholas’s cheek. He could not look away from the woman before him. Mr. Mercury’s eyes bore into his. And his glowed as if on fire. “No,” he said again, his voice even softer. “Do not do this, sir. Please.”
But Regina the Extraordinary could not stop now. Her body turned to look at Nicholas, but it was not that young lady who looked out. “Nicky?” The voice was a whisper. “Oh, my baby boy, what happened? Has he hurt you, m’heart? Has he?” A snarl came to the lips. “Did that bastard hurt you? Did he? Did he?” Then, a look of sheer terror came over the face. “No. No, m’own, I did no such thing, I…. He is gone. He….” Regina the Extraordinary’s body rocked back two feet and now several members of the audience screamed. “No!” The woman inside of the lovely assistant struggled against an invisible force. “No, you son of a bitch, no!” More gasps from the audience. “Run, Nicky! Run, m’boy. For gods’ sake, RUN!”
And then, as a dark red stain began to penetrate the white front of Regina the Extraordinary’s pristine costume, the crowd went wild.