I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul.


    ** And hereafter she may suffer--both in waking, from her nerves, and in sleep, from her dreams.

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    Tariq
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    ** And hereafter she may suffer--both in waking, from her nerves, and in sleep, from her dreams.

    Post  Tariq on Thu May 31, 2018 3:22 am

    “Is it a dog?”

    “Of a kind.” She frowned pointedly at the sketch on her lap before applying a deliberate stroke with the tip of her pencil. The book her brother had been pursuing had been abandoned on the table, its pages splayed to hold his place. His hands were now occupied in the earnest fidgeting of a button he had produced from an unseen pocket.

    “You should draw more dogs,” he declared, rolling the button across his fingers. The paint on its face was worn, but the branching arms of forest trees were still visible. “That stupid cat does nothing but sleep all day. If we had a dog we could take it out to the country, aller chasser.”

    “Madame Bianca is a lady who needs her rest,” Colombe sniffed. “And dogs stink. Take another guess.”

    He chewed contemplatively on the inside of his cheek. “I give up, what is it?”

    “It is finished anyway. Tu veux voir?”

    He sprang up from his seat in a flurry of long leg. Colombe made a show of turning the page around to reveal the subject of her drawing. Sketched out in an untrained but steady hand was a passable imitation of the boy himself, frowning at the book in his hand. The light from the window behind him cast him in half-silhouette. His dark hair was drawn out in careful lines to his ears.

    She gauged his reaction through dark lashes. “I will call it “L'érudit Bouleversé.”

    “Oh,” he said, peering at the sketch with interest. “This is…” The corners of his lips quirked up. “Ma sœur, this is quite bad.”

    “Jace! Tu es tellement-”

    What promised to be a good tussle was prematurely ended by the appearance of a light-haired woman in drab dress who promptly waved them apart.

    “Children,” she sighed, confiscating the pencil Colombe had clutched in her hand like the hilt of a dagger. “Ton père wants to present you in the hall. Please, for his sake, at least pretend you know what “presentable” means.”

    The pair begrudgingly disengaged from their mock battle and Colombe dusted off her skirt with exaggerated care. Jace’s brows furrowed. “He is home so early. Present us to who, Eléonore?”

    The housekeeper licked a finger and attempted to wipe a smudge of graphite from his sister’s cheek. “The foreign gentleman who has kept him away from the house all month. Dieu voulant this will be the end of the late hours. Suis moi.”

    This piqued Jace’s interest. After clothes were properly adjusted and dirt suitably removed from faces, the pair followed Eléonore through the corridor and down the winding staircase. The late afternoon sun poured liquid gold through the large window and illuminated their faces as they passed.

    “-of dont je suis reconnaissant, as it hasn’t been the most lucrative - ah! - and here come the hellions.” She could hear her father’s boisterous voice before she saw him. Eléonore shepherded them into the room before disappearing to tend to her ever-expanding list of tasks.

    Colombe’s gaze immediately found the familiar, stocky figure of her father. He was seated with a steaming cup in one hand, and when their eyes met his face lit in a smile. His glasses did little to conceal the circles of fatigue that darkened his eyes.

    Across from him was an individual that she took an immediate dislike to. The stranger had chosen to remain standing, and something of the way his tall figure loomed over her seated father was faintly menacing. Her first impression was that he must have been quite old, to have hair so pale - and so long! Did he not have anyone to tell him to cut it? - but the features of his angular face cast doubt on this premise. In the light streaming through the windows his hair had the same ghostly pallor as his curious eyes. His cloudy gaze was vague and unfocused and did not shift when the pair entered. Both palms rested on the head of the staff that bore most of his weight.

    Her father stood when they entered and strode to meet them. “Monsieur Tariq, it would be my pleasure to introduce you to my children.” He clasped Jace by the shoulder. “This is my eldest, Jaseur.” Her brother was gazing at the stranger with rapt interest. He bowed at the introduction, and the stranger returned the formality with a nod of his head that struck Colombe as discourteous.

    Et ma fille, Colombe.” She hesitated but at her father’s prompting she curtsied stiffly.

    “Oh?” Humour raked across the stranger’s tone. “I thought I had heard the fluttering of wings.”

    Her father laughed. “Yes, they are unique names, aren’t they? Their mother was quite the avid bird-watcher. Elle aimait les animaux, you know. Our Colombe must have inherited that.” He turned toward the children and Colombe glimpsed the distant sheen of sorrow that silvered his gaze at the mention of their mother.

    Mes chéris, this is Monsieur Tariq. He’s the one who has been stealing all my time as of late.”

    “And I hope to steal a bit more before I am through,” the stranger replied, bold as a serpent.

    The idle pleasantries between the two of them went on, punctuated occasionally by a hearty laugh from her father where surely a chuckle would have been sufficient. Jace seemed eager to engage with their guest but demurred to his father’s apparent attempts to keep the conversation moving. Colombe found the stranger’s blank gaze distracting. She was relieved when they were finally dismissed.

    Once comfortably out of earshot, she rolled her shoulders. “I didn’t like that at all. Why is he here?”

    Jace shrugged. “Papa said he is from Arabia. Something to do with herbs - or resin? De toute façon, he must have a lot of money.”

    “Je suppose. Do you want to go feed the pigeons?”

    He seemed distracted and shook his head. “No, I am going to finish my book.”

    He left up the stairs, his shadow distended behind him, and Colombe was alone. The muted sound of her father’s conversation with the stranger buzzed like a fly through the walls.

    **

    As Colombe had metamorphosed from half-savage girlhood, events in her memory took on significances they hadn’t had before. When she was young, she had thought all households dismissed their servants for one week of the year. She had thought it common for all houses to have a week of darkness during the full glory of summer, in which lamps went unlit and food went uncooked.

    It had been Jace who illuminated her as to this illusion. Anniversaire de la mort, he had called it. The one week where her mother’s ghost was allowed to haunt them all. When her father, who usually retained a jovial, if fretful, demeanour, secreted himself away in his bedroom at the top of the stairs and did not emerge save the brief forays to stumble about the darkened house in a foul temper.

    She watched for this strange holiday with a blend of anxiety and strange excitement. It was an unusual time, in which the usual rules of conduct no longer applied until Eléonore and the others returned from their family visits and flooded the house with light and noise and the familiar scent of baking bread. In some ways, it was freeing. The look of silent pity in Eléonore’s eyes as she packed her bags to leave was not.

    It was a week after the stranger’s visit that the household had been thinned to the three of them, although Colombe had mostly put the encounter with the visitor out of her mind. Now the house was cast in unfamiliar shadow and uncommonly silent. Melancholia had begun to creep into her thoughts and she sought refuge in the attic.

    The attic had been a favourite hiding place for the children for as long as she could recall. None of the servants ever bothered with the dusty space and her father certainly never made the trek up the narrow stairs that reeked of onions from the kitchen pantry. It was their personal kingdom and, when they were feeling particularly daring, they took advantage of the roof access it offered and would clamber out to watch the stars.

    Tonight she climbed the stairs with a heart like a stone in her chest. The unmistakable scent of smoke twanged in her nose and she paused, startled, her pulse beating a wild rabbit rhythm. Recognition dawned and filled her with relief, and she continued her ascent. Jace’s silhouette filled the window. Tendrils of smoke trailed in wisps that caught in his dark hair.

    “Papa will kill you if he finds out your spending money goes to tobacco,” she said pragmatically as she settled next to him at the window.

    Her brother exhaled a stream of smoke into the cool night air. “Il ne saura pas.” His voice was gravelly and she unwittingly wondered if he had been crying. She did not reply.

    They gazed together out into the nocturnal street. From here they could just make out the gloomy spires and silvery tiled roofs of the city. The trees conspired together in their whispered tongue.

    It was her brother who broke the silence. “I think I’m leaving soon, Colombe.” The words crawled up her spine like a hook-clawed spider. She turned to look at him but in the unfamiliar light his face was shadow-dappled and strange, his dark eyes gleaming and bruised, and she cast her gaze away.

    “What do you- là que?”

    She felt Jace’s shoulders move in a shrug. “School, I think. Somewhere. Anywhere. I will run away, live on the street if I must.” He flicked the ash from his cigarette and they watched the spark fall to the ground; a drifting, dying star. “Things are changing. Il y a des choses qui se passent, but not here. This house is a prison.”

    She felt she ought to reply to this, but she did not know with what words. She suddenly felt very tired.

    “Do you remember that man - that Monsieur Tariq?” Jace was warming to the subject now that it had been broached. Colombe shook her head, but he continued without taking notice, “He has been places I have never even heard. I saw him and realized I know nothing - I’ve been nowhere! We both know this house is, it was meant to separate us from the world. We are too hidden here. When maman died -” He broke off and took a quick inhale of the cigarette between his fingers, turning away from the window to pace across the room. She watched him through her dark lashes.

    “I know that I ca-” he begin, but Colombe cut him off with a heated, “Je ne veux pas l'entendre.” She found her hand was shaking and that her brother was looking at her with naked dejection, but could muster feeling for neither of those facts. “If you want to go, then go. I will not be the one to tell papa you left us.”

    Jace tried to protest, but she did not hear it as she fled the room. She raced down the stairs, loathing every step as she crossed the dark house, and collapsed in her bed. She did not cry. She did not return to the attic. She merely laid still, and memorized the pattern her heart made on the inside of her ribs.

    **

    There was something in the house.

    It was the cat that had awoken her - Colombe had been in bed, drifting in that thin world somewhere between watery sleep and anxious contemplation of her brother’s words when the comforting heat of Bianca on her hip vanished. She blinked awake and was startled by the low growl from the tabby’s chest.

    “Sh, sh,” she whispered blearily, hands reaching out, seeking to comfort. The cat hissed and spat like a thing possessed. Its fur was standing up in spikes. When Colombe’s hand reached for it, she swatted hard enough to draw blood with the catch of her claws and, with a deep groan, raced out of the room.

    Colombe exhaled sharply and brought the back of her hand to her mouth. She tasted copper on her tongue. One-handed, she lifted her blankets and put her feet to the floor, intending to pursue the feline.

    From the silence on the floor above her came an cry that abruptly cut short, followed by a soft thud.

    She froze. Fear buzzed with chitinous wings against her skin. She listened with quiet desperation but all was silent.

    After a moment of intense listening yielded no results, her breath came a little easier. It occurred to her that Jace might have only been encouraged by their discussion and could be attempting to flee, or, perhaps worse, might have been discovered in the act by their father. Although either scenario wilted the air in her lungs, she stood and carefully picked her way through the gloom to the stairs.

    The stairs creaked and groaned beneath her naked feet despite her cautious pace. Silver moonlight from the window leeched the colour from everything it touched. She reached the landing and turned toward her brother’s room, praying under her breath that she would find him asleep in bed, but as her eyes adjusted to the shadows she saw her father’s door at the end of the hall and her heart froze in her chest.

    It was ajar. Nothing but the inky black of night poured from the exposed sliver.

    Every step in the hall was painstaking and it took longer that it had ever taken, but she finally made it to Jace’s bedroom. The crevasses of her mind were alive with dreadful possibilities, but they paled to the scene that awaited her when she carefully nudged open his door.

    Later, the details of this room would shift and she would not be certain of what had been reality and what was her own lurid fabrication, made twisted by the horror of what she saw.

    She saw Jace’s hand, the fingers - and she was sure there was still a smudge of ash on his index finger, she was sure of it - curled loosely as though he had fallen asleep on the floor by his bed. Even in the shadows, the palette was not right. The flesh of his arm was waxen and pale, the skin beneath his fingernails coloured a soft blue. There was a stain like spilt ink growing beneath the lazy curl of his hand. In a flash she saw the dark mar of his throat spilling over onto his light shirt and then something moved, a quick motion in the blackness and she let go of the door and backed away.

    Through the crack of the door she glimpsed what might have been a face, although with eyes and teeth like the moon, and for a wild, impossible moment she thought of the man her father had introduced to them not a fortnight ago but then something electric sparked in her belly and she turned and fled with a swiftness she did not know she possessed. She bounded like a deer down the stairs. Her feet hardly touched the floor. Her only thought was to reach the front door and get outside, into the night, to freedom, but as she slammed into the door it jostled on its frame and did not open. She scrabbled at the handle. Panic was rising like a black bird trying to fly from her throat.

    The decision to run to her bedroom was not a conscious one. She found herself in her own room and slammed the door shut. Her eyes felt hot. They darted from item to item as though hoping to stumble across a miracle. Finally, in a fit of desperate panic, she threw herself to the floor and crawled on her belly under the bed.

    It did not take him long to arrive. The door opened slowly. She could see his boots.

    “Oh, little bird,” he breathed, and the throaty rasp of his voice set her hairs to prickle. “All things are born to die. N'ayez pas peur de moi.”

    The floorboards creaked when he took a step forward. Colombe was choking on her own heart lodged in her throat.

    There was a pause. And then the bed above her began to lift.

    She tried to run but there was no place left to go and he had her, his hands like iron bands. It was then she found her voice and it was a scream, the words forming “What are you? What are y-” before a hand clamped over her mouth. She thrashed like a fish on a line.

    “Hush,” the creature said in a low tone, the delight seeping from every word. “Be still now, be still. Il y a une bonne fille.” Her struggling slowed. “I have need of you. Be still, be still. I am going to take my hand from your mouth and you are going to maintain proper decorum and answer my questions. Comprenez-vous?” Her head bobbed in a nod.

    “Very good. Now-” He removed the palm from her mouth and after the first gulp of air she began shrieking. Her screams echoed through the empty house. Ivory teeth flashed in his smile and his hand once more stifled her cries.

    “Oh, my dove,” he breathed. His breath was copper. “What fire in your belly. I still have need of you but- perhaps not all of you. Be still, be still.”

    His hand shifted but before she could resume her screams she felt his lips press to her mouth. Her eyes were squeezed shut or perhaps she had simply lost the ability to see. There was confusion, a great clamour of sensation and then a sudden, vivid bloom of pain, as clear as a single red poppy in a field of white heartseed.

    And then, blessedly, she lost consciousness. She had just enough sense left to feel relief that the torment was over before slipping headlong into the soothing embrace of those deep, dark waters.

      Current date/time is Wed Aug 15, 2018 7:14 am