Kara stood in a new perfumed room with her parcel of stolen goods clutched in one hand. The purple hooded woman was making her wait this time. Kara frowned and shifted from foot to foot. Her palms were sweaty. The room was bright and open, but something about the air felt vaguely ominous. She was in a different part of town now, where the houses weren’t stacked one against the other and there was no speck of rubbish left in the streets. Kara felt like someone might toss her out into a bin or the lockup just on account of her tattered coat. It wasn’t just the unnerving cleanness, though. The house didn’t feel clean. It felt as though things were writhing within the pristine walls and windows.
Kara calmed herself by reviewing her exits: three tall windows with cross-hatched panes of frosted glass, and two doors, one to a hall and then out the servants’ entrance, and one leading further into the house.
A robed figure finally entered the room, but it wasn’t the lady this time. The new person was both hooded and masked—a white mask, almost featureless, with dark eyeslits, a hint of nose and closed and expressionless lips. “You have brought the artifacts?” the new figure asked. This voice was not a woman’s but a man’s, cold, and a little high.
Kara nodded, set her packet on a table, and took a step backward, away from the man. “Where’s my reward? I don’t want gold. I hope lilac-breath said that.”
“Open that parcel first, please. I want to see what you have brought me.” The man’s voice came soft from under the mask. Kara, having unpleasant memories of a cloaked figure last summer, put the table between herself and the man before unwrapping the treasures.
“Isn’t there something missing, child?” the man asked, blinking through slits at the little mound of gleaming items.
Kara felt chills, but refused to shiver. Warnings shot through her senses. “That’s all of it. It was in a locked secret drawer. This was everything there.”
With sudden speed the man stepped around the table and grabbed Kara by the wrist. The man’s hand was small and clammy, with neatly manicured nails. Kara had half expected it to be rotting.
“You’ve touched it,” the man said, his voice catching. “You have held the seal.”
“Get off.” Kara pulled, but the man’s grip tightened painfully. “I’m warning you, I can kick very hard.”
“You have touched the seal. The aura of its might marks you. And something else as well. You are very interesting.” The man’s voice was strange. “You were marked by darkness before the master’s seal. I thought the time of the abominations had passed. But here you are, so young and so like unto a child, yet not quite human. Whose sins crafted you, I wonder? I will sift you later, grain by grain, to learn of your maker. You may prove a worthy host for a lord of the growing legion.”
Kara was trembling now. She pulled away as hard as she could, but her arm didn’t have the strength she could normally call from it.
From the next room there came the mundane sounds of laughter, a door closing, and voices. Kara opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She felt strange and stifled. It was hard to move, hard to breathe. She couldn’t keep her feet any longer and fell over, held up only by the man’s iron grip on her wrist.
“I shall have to leave you here for now,” the man said, sweeping the treasure into a voluminous pocket, and hauling Kara effortlessly over to the wall beneath the window. “But we will talk later. You will tell me all you know about where the seal is, and I will learn of your blood.” The man pulled down one of the curtain ties and bound Kara’s strangely weak hands and feet together. “Stay here. Do not move. My will binds you,” he commanded. Kara blinked back tears as he shut both doors and left the room. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t even swear.
* * * * *
“Of course he’s late,” Varden complained to Anna, looking coldly around the parlor. “I’m sure he plans to make an entrance.”
Anna glanced around the heavily ornamented room, hiding a giggle at an urn covered in vacant-eyed, naked muses and babies. It was a good thing poor Tam was stuck outside minding the carriage. The parlor was very purple and black, sparkling with crystals, and positively dripping with huge, aromatic, lavender-colored flowers. The group gathered for the séance stood idly around a table at the center of the room. On the table lay candles and incense, ready to be lit, and some chalks and a board that Anna was barely resisting playing with.
Varden inspected the urn nearest him with disgust. “I see no evidence whatsoever of antiquity or taste,” he said under his breath. He ran one hand surreptitiously through the contents of the urn. “No hidden wires or noisemakers, though. We ought to examine the underside of the main table.”
“What are we looking for?” Anna whispered.
“Anything that could make it appear to levitate, or change temperature, or just thump about. Usually there is also something meant to create mysterious sounds: steam whistles, or playing on a wine glass, or sharp little cracks made with a clapper or a tin box.”
“That’s quite devious,” Anna said. “Perhaps I should pretend to have one of those fainting fits so common in literature, to give us an excuse to sit and have a closer look.”
Varden muffled a laugh. “Just give me a bit of warning first, so that I can catch you properly and transport you there in a gentlemanly fashion before a servant can instead bring a chair to you.”
“Good thinking. Perhaps I should attempt a brief dizzy spell rather than anything too like a swoon.”
“As the lady wishes.” Varden bowed.
“Well, then. Let us move toward the table, and I shall be struck with a touch of faintness when we pass that woman with the fuschia hat with the dead bird on it. If that’s her perfume I smell from here I really might.”
They executed the plan perfectly. Anna, feeling a bit like one of the actresses in the play she’d attended with Lady Hellin, put a limp hand to her brow and wilted lightly just as they passed the fuschia hat. Varden made a concerned sound and supported her upon one strong arm, saying something about space and air as he guided her to a chair on the far side of the table, near which, he explained in a whisper, the medium would sit. Anna obligingly swooned down into it, dipping briefly to see under the table, while Varden lifted the table cloth subtly to assist her view.
Anna recovered quickly, thanking Varden for finding her the seat and professing that it had just been a little light-headedness, nothing to worry about.
“There’s nothing there,” she whispered. “At least, nothing like you described. But Varden, there are chalk symbols and writing all across the bottom of the table. I think perhaps some of them are hieroglyphs.”
Varden frowned, confused. “How do you mean?”
“I think you should look. You might faint next.”
“Don’t be silly, gentlemen don’t faint. Look, you might drop your handkerchief, or handbag or something.”
Anna sighed. “Why is it that the lady always has to look like a goose?”
“Never a goose,” Varden said. “A swan perhaps.”
Anna dropped her handbag. “Oh dear, I feel I’m being such a trouble today.”
“Let me retrieve that,” Varden said, correctly, and this time Anna lifted the tablecloth while Varden got a chance to examine the table. Anna glanced briefly at the others in the room, but none of them were looking in their direction.
Varden was frowning as he rose. “This is puzzling,” he said. “There are two languages, and one is a script used in Narmos. It seems to be a replica of one of the tablets of the hall of rites, but with some distinct differences.”
Anna felt a chill. “No one put those there for show.”
“Or that’s just what they did, to put off any skeptics like ourselves.”
“But why text from Narmos? There’s nothing romantic or benevolently mysterious about Narmos, is there? Didn’t they invoke spirits for war and smiting and possession and things, not for enlightenment?”
Varden pursed his lips and gave her a sharp look. “I say, have you studied my subject?”
“Not really, but Varden, I have a nasty feeling about this. I don’t think we should be here when the séance starts.”
“Whatever are you talking about? Don’t you want to unmask Pumphrey as a fake?”
Anna looked at the people, all taking seats around the table now. Some of them she recognized as part of Pumphrey’s usual glittering crowd. Others were strangers, giggling women and earnest looking gentlemen, a threadbare scholar, some dreamy-eyed girls, a man in mourning clothes. “They shouldn’t be here either,” she said.
“The more fools them, for being led about by this.” Varden shrugged. “If we reveal Pumphrey publicly, they’ll scatter off and be the wiser for it.”
Anna frowned and shook her head. Varden might not believe in real supernatural occurences, but she still had her good Shandorian sense and besides, she’d seen a walking dead man last summer. She stood and put a hand on Varden’s arm. “I’m not staying here in this room. I hope you’ll come with me.”
Varden looked at her in puzzlement. “Did you wish to investigate elsewhere, then? There might be something set up in an adjoining room.”
Anna smiled quickly, grateful for the idea. “Let’s look into that.”
“We shouldn’t be noticed while everyone is distracted with the mumbo jumbo,” Varden said.
Just then Pumphrey entered, looking ridiculous in a starry robe and a silly hat. “Welcome, friends, fellow travelers in this earthly realm. Tonight you have come seeking for a deeper truth, a better understanding about the universe, and perhaps answers about what lies beyond the great veil.”
“That is our cue to leave this nonsense,” Varden whispered, guiding Anna around the table toward a side door, while the room’s attention stayed on Pumphrey as he rounded the table on the opposite side.
Pumphrey took his place and lifted his hands to the air. “I ask that everyone open their minds to the spirits and release all strong, unyielding, or negative emotions. These will only interfere with the spirits’ resonance and block the flow of energy within our spectral guests. Know that we humans are not alone.” Upon this pronouncement, the already dim gas lights flickered and lowered further, amid gasps from the crowd.
“And that certainly wasn’t the effect of a servant outside turning the key on the gas line,” Varden murmured. “No one shall see us slip out.” Together they fled into a side corridor. The lights here were lit. No servants or gas lines were visible, though more rooms opened off the hall further along.
Anna drew a breath and let it out slowly. Maybe it was the lack of perfume, but the air here seemed cleaner. “I’m glad to be clear of that room. I was beginning to feel quite uneasy.”
“And who wouldn’t, hearing that absolute rot from a man in a shiny tin hat?”
“Tin covered felt I think.” Anna ventured a shaky smile. “Purple felt, to match the robe.”
“I confess I am trying to forget the robe.” Varden matched her smile with a firmer one, and she felt heartened. There were moments when his easy arrogance made her wince, but now was not one of those times. In the midst of strangeness, she was glad to have him near, though she would have been even happier, she realized, to have Tam about, with or without his mallet.
Moving softly on her toes—not an easy feat in these ladies’ shoes—Anna explored down the hall to the first door, and listened at it. She tried the handle and found it unlocked.
“That’s probably a maid’s quarters,” Varden said. “I think we’re in the servant’s wing.”
Anna eased the door open and found the room dark. Light from the hall fell on the dim shapes of a bed, a cabinet, some other furniture further back in the shadows. An odd pattern of dark marks on the walls seemed out of place.
“I think I have a light.” Anna fumbled at her skirts and remembered with annoyance that her new frocks did not have the large, useful pockets of her dig clothes. How did ladies make do without having pockets?
Varden produced a match case from an inner pocket, and struck one.
The walls, visible in the brief flickering light, were scrawled over with lines of symbols, some in chalk, and others in something dark and reddish. Dark liquid filled the washbasin, and a strange smell mingled with the fresh sulfur from the match.
“These are pictograms, from Narmos.” Varden leaned closer to look, and frowned. “If it was meant for a rite of supplication they got it quite wrong. These aren’t even proper words.” He gestured to a line of scrawling marks that stretched down one wall toward a cracked mirror. The mirror still hung in place, reflecting Varden’s face in odd fractured slivers.
Anna draped her hands in a fold of her skirt, lifted the mirror, and nearly dropped it at the sight beneath. The image of a screaming face had been scorched onto the wallpaper.
“That looks almost like a photographic transfer, don’t you think?” Varden asked after a long tense moment. “It must have been done with some sort of chemical.”
“You’ve better nerves than I,” Anna said, admiring. “That is a chemical scent, probably from what’s in the wash basin. Did they press a fresh washed negative to the paper, and perhaps use a perfume bottle or orchid mister to transfer the image there? I wonder how they managed to not leave any drips.”
“They probably used cotton absorbent,” Varden said.
“But why put on another show like this, somewhere no guest could be expected to see it?”
“We’re seeing it,” Varden pointed out. “But you’re quite right. This is going rather far to overcome wandering skeptics. This must be meant for some particular audience or event.”
Anna replaced the mirror, feeling an odd lurch in her stomach, as she had when the lights at the séance had first dimmed. “I think he’s up to no good,” she said.
Varden was still frowning at the letters. “What I don’t understand is how a man in that hat could set up a lurid freak-show like this. Narmos’ mythology seems utterly inappropriate for Pumphrey’s, ah, rather sparkling sensibilities.”
Anna nodded. “I agree.” In fact, that was exactly what she’d been saying earlier. “Blood sacrifices for power aren’t terribly benign or full of deeper truth. Nor is calling down plagues and things on one’s enemies, or becoming possessed in order to wreak destruction in time of war—”
“Now I’m quite worried that you’ve read my papers,” Varden said apologetically. “Such things are hardly fit—”
“If you say ‘for a lady’ we shall have a quarrel,” Anna interrupted. “Let’s leave this room. The smell is enough to give one a headache.”
“As you like.”
They left the room and continued on through the hall, finding nothing more sinister than a set of stairs going down.
“The gas lines will be that way, most likely,” Varden said, just as the lights flickered and dimmed up and down the corridor. “Quick! Down the stairs at once and catch them at it!” Varden dashed to the stairs, and Anna followed. Halfway down, disoriented in the wavering light, Anna felt a terrible plunge of vertigo and nearly sat down on the stairs to avoid falling. The feeling passed, and she bolted out through the door on Varden’s heels. She nearly ran into his back. He had stopped dead, frowning in confusion down a hallway lined with windows. Anna looked out the windows and saw why. There were clearly on the second story. Outside, Anna could see the lights of the city beginning to gleam, and the line of carriages waiting down on the street. She could pick out the hotel’s borrowed carriage among them, but saw no sign of Tam. Turning toward the stairs they had just left, Anna saw only steps going in entirely the wrong direction, down instead of up.
“Something is gone quite wrong here,” she said to Varden. “I think we should get out.”