- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
There came a knock at the door. The woman took a last look out of the window at the street below and, in the most refined way, seated herself on the high sofa. Beside her, a girl sat fluttering a willow-patterned fan. She was slight with Middle Eastern features, and though her face was encased in many layers of makeup, she appeared underfed and ill. Like a fragile porcelain doll, she wore an absurdly curved corset of ivory and teal and similar dainty gloves. Her eyes, unfocused, stared into the middle distance, seemingly unaware of anything around her.
"Enter," the woman called.
The double doors opposite the sofa swung open.
A butler, clothed from head to foot in an ornate tailcoat, waistcoat, trousers, shirt, and cravat, cleared his throat. "A Mister Frederick Goodwin, of Goodwin Construction Limited, madame."
"Bring him in."
The butler bowed and backed out.
The woman took a moment to ensure everything was in order. The floral wallpaper clashed horribly with the decorated drapes. The carpet, so detailed with diamonds and leaves, offended any possible sense of aesthetics. Behind her hung a dull portrait of an austere old man, barely discernible against a muddy backdrop. A glass of water, three- quarters full as if the occupant had actually been drinking, occupied a small wooden table to the porcelain girl's left. Yes, everything was in order.
The doors opened a second time, now to reveal an enormous middle-aged man. The butler held out his hands and received a face full of hat and traveling cloak as the guest strode in. His cane, alabaster white, clipped the carpet with every step he took towards the armchair. Receiving a nod of invitation from the woman, he seated his vastness upon the overstuffed cushions and laid his cane on the table next to him.
"Lady Osborne, so glad that we could finally meet face-to-face." By the manner in which he leaned forward, he evidently expected her to offer her hand. When she did not move, he reached into one of his pockets and produced a pack of papers. From another pocket he drew a monocle, which he affixed to one eye. He leafed through the documents. "I must confess, Your Ladyship, I was surprised at your letter. The components you have requested are, ahem, quite unusual."
"As I explained in my letter, Mister Goodwin, His Lordship was explicit in his instructions."
"Yes ... have you any idea when Lord Osborne is due to return?"
The woman pursed her lips. "No, I am afraid not, Mister Goodwin. He may be indisposed for quite some time."
Mister Goodwin found the correct document and pulled it out of the stack, placing it on the low coffee table. He set a fountain pen next to it, indicating the space she was meant to sign. "I must ask again, Your Ladyship, if it is not too much of an impertinence, whether you require these very specific components ..."
"Yes, Mister Goodwin," the woman replied coldly, scribbling her signature on the line.
He took back the sheet, giving her a long, appraising look. "Very well," he said finally, tucking the sheet and pen into the pack and replacing them in his pocket. He popped his monocle out, slipped it into his waistcoat, and cleared his throat fussily. "Again, if it is not too much of an impertinence, I must ask if you intend to extend your visit here—"
"It is too much of an impertinence, Mister Goodwin." The woman rose. "And besides, my daughter and I are late for an important engagement. Nicolas"—the butler reappeared at the door—"please show our guest out."
Mister Goodwin stood as well. He did not attempt to kiss his hostess's hand this time but nodded at her coolly. "We shall contact you once the bank has accepted the payment, and we then may proceed."
She returned his nod.
He glanced at the girl. She had heeded neither his arrival nor his presence during the entire visit, her gaze fixed firmly in the middle distance. Mister Goodwin did not quite know what to make of this engagement. In his professional experience, Lord Osborne was not the kind of man to take on an immigrant ward. Mister Goodwin had not even known His Lordship was married.
Clearing his throat yet again, he retrieved his alabaster cane from the table and marched out. The door swung shut behind him.
The woman waited for the footsteps to recede down the hallway, then sagged into her seat. Her concentration ebbed, and she let out a sigh that misted as it entered the air. The temperature of the room was dropping rapidly. Claws of frost grasped at the wallpaper, the sofas, and the tables—every particle of moisture solidified. The contents of the glass froze within seconds. A moment later the glass itself had cracked. The slab of ice shattered on the tabletop.
The signee had also changed. Gone were the ridiculous frills and neurotically patterned flowers. She now wore a black cloak curved to fit her body. Her hair, freed from that ridiculous bun, now hung freely, slanted over one eye. Gone too was the stuffed sofa; she now reclined on a throne of carved ice. Released from the sensory illusion, various arcane devices were now positioned in symmetry around the room, all humming dimly with Dark energy.
She glanced over her shoulder. The painting had vanished, and in its place stood a tall, thin mirror in a gothic arch. The glass was frosted, distorting the reflection of the room and the woman. Only one thing was completely visible. Ghostlike on the other side of the glass, the dark-skinned porcelain girl stared into the middle distance.
The Emperor decided that he was to lead the midnight prayers himself that night, a rarity in itself. As sunlight no longer visited Nexus, the concept of midnight was somewhat defunct, but the times of day were observed nonetheless.
Having blessed the congregation, he left the nave via the screen and proceeded to the crossing. He moved between the pews, gazing upwards at the dark stone archways of the vaulted ceiling. The stained glass windows set high into the walls each depicted a religious scene in candle-reflecting crimson. His boots clicked on the marble floor, the massive rose pattern at the center scattering ornamental thorns into every corner of the room. Incense wavered on the breeze, and the austere notes of the organ resounded behind him like a funeral march.
The imperial throne was mounted on a pedestal behind the altar, flanked by ranks of flickering candles. It was here that the boy had been commanded to wait and, to the Emperor's amusement, he had done exactly this.
The leader of the Cult of Dionysus settled upon the throne and, placing his ceremonially robed arms upon the wings, regarded the figure before him. Even after cleanup the boy looked dishevelled: unruly dark hair spread over his scalp, and red welts marked his limbs and neck from where he had been chained. Nevertheless, he had been given an acolyte's tunic to wear, and those emerald eyes were alive and fierce with resistance.
"Would you consider yourself a religious man, Mister Steele?"
Alex narrowed his gaze but said nothing.
"I take it, then, that you do not."
The boy swallowed and leaned back on the altar. His feet ached from standing up for so long. "I've seen alchemy work. I've seen Light and Darkness battle each other across the universe. I've even seen into the Darkness. But no, I haven't seen anything to suggest a god at work."
The Emperor smirked, and Alex thought he saw grey smoke wisp across those yellowed teeth.
"But you lot worship a dragon, don't you?"
The Emperor followed Alex's gaze. The wall against which his throne was mounted was indeed a stone carving of a titanic black dragon, colossal wings spread symmetrically, flames pluming from its mouth, clawed feet planted either side of the seat.
"The Dragon is the essential representation of Darkness: amongst the fluid collective, a single anchor point. Despite our pretensions, this world is still part of the Light— scarcely. Worshippers need a tangible individual icon to focus on." The Emperor grinned. "And incidentally, you have seen nothing of the Darkness. Yet."
Alex exhaled, dragging his gaze from the stone dragon's face to the malevolent humanoid one upon the throne. "So why am I here? What's this 'offer'?"
"I am not going to conceal my aims for you, Mister Steele. By the time we are done, you will have changed sides in this war."
"What?" Alex scoffed, equally amazed and amused. "You think you can make me abandon the Apollonians and join the Cult?" At this point, he actually laughed, for the first time since he'd arrived on this planet.
"What makes you think there are only two sides?"
Again Alex thought he saw grey smoke trace about the Emperor.
"I'm a prisoner of war. You're the one keeping me here. Why should I help you?"
The Emperor raised himself from the chair and turned to ponder the candles. "Because I know you better than you do. You are in denial about your past. You've convinced yourself that you belong as a minor agent for a group of vigilantes. I can show you your true potential."
Alex leaned back farther, skeptical. He wasn't about to trust this creature, the leader of the organization he'd spent over a year fighting, and he certainly wasn't taken in by the talk about destiny. But back in the cell, the Emperor had known something he'd never disclosed to anyone still living. If nothing else, he needed to discover how the Emperor knew so much. And he might come across information important to the Apollonians in the process. He would be a double agent, just not the sort the Emperor had in mind. "Okay, I'll humor you. What were you thinking?"
The Emperor smirked and took Alex by the shoulder, steering him around the altar and onto the main flooring of the crossing. They passed under the vaulted arches and over the black rose, the organ music echoing high above.
Excerpted from The Black Rose by James Bartholomeusz Copyright © 2012 by James Bartholomeusz . Excerpted by permission of Medallion Press, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 31, 2012