Clara woke up with a start at the sound of a clock chime. The confusion quickly gave way to panic when she realized that she was alone.
“Surec?” Clara called out, sitting up from the tangled mess of clothing and bedsheets on the hard chapel floor. “Surec!” she called again, more loudly this time.
Clara breathed a sigh of relief when she heard the door open, but froze in fear when she saw who was walking towards her.
“Do you have any idea of the shame you have caused your mother?” Prospero asked, storming down the center aisle. Clara quickly grabbed fistfuls of fabric to keep herself covered, but Prospero snatched her arm. “Do you? ANSWER ME!” he roared, digging his fingernails into her arm. He jerked it upwards until she was on her knees.
“M-m-my lord, this isn’t-“ Clara wasn’t able to speak as the prince shook her arm, which caused the pressure from his nails to open wounds underneath them.
“You’re lucky if I don’t throw you out entirely. I inquired with that name you gave. There has never been any Surec of any sort in this court. If you want to stay alive, you will give up the name of your companion.” Prospero gave another jerk of her arm, pulling her to her feet and towards the door.
Clara shook her head violently as tears streamed down her face. “That is his only name, Your Highness, I swear on my life!” She dug in her heels in an attempt to slow Prospero down, not wanting to be dragged naked through the abbey.
“Ha! Your life? Your life is nearly over.”
“I swear on my father’s grave!” Clara screamed, pulling back harder.
Prospero stopped and let Clara’s arm go. The sudden release made her stumble backwards. She quickly crab-walked backwards and threw on her chemise before Prospero could make another move. He watched her, stunned.
“Your father’s grave? Clara, don’t you know who put him there?”
Clara’s mouth went dry. She was suddenly very cold, even though it was fairly warm in the chapel.
Prospero marched back towards Clara and bent over her as she huddled further into her pile of clothing.
“You will join him if you give me any further grief. Get dressed. Go straight to your apartments. Speak to no one.”
Clara nodded quickly, not meeting the prince’s eyes. After he left, Clara began to think as she put on her heavy evening clothes as best she could without help. She found herself ruminating on what Prospero had said, and wondering if it was true that he had somehow murdered her father. Her father had always been ill. He needed a cane to walk at all, and could only do so at dusk in fair weather. He wasn’t able to digest anything particularly heavy, a trait that Clara had inherited. It hadn’t been a shock when he died. In fact, it was nothing short of a miracle that he had lived long enough to go grey haired.
She was still pondering this as she prepared to leave the chapel. She swallowed the urge to sob, or to waste time wondering where Surec was. It was irrelevant, given that he certainly wasn’t here to defend her.
“You weren’t kidding. It’s disgusting.” Dempsie said.
We family of Death Elves were perched on the roof of the abbey, over the large skylight overlooking several rooms in the imperial suite. The fact that night had fallen and the rooms were dimly lit meant that we were hidden from view.
“Which one is Clara, Surec?” Father asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t see her.” In fact, this troubled me. I knew all of her dresses, and couldn’t see any of them. From this height, it was the only way I would know her. Not only could I not see anything she owned, there were no black or grey dresses at all. Prospero had apparently decided to hold a masquerade tonight. Ladies twirled around in every color of the rainbow, many around Clara’s height and shape, and several of those with red hair.
“How in love can you be, not even knowing which is her?” Mother asked from the other side of Father. She was always a bit testy when they were going to be dealing with this many spirits.
“I don’t think she’s there.” I replied, too distracted with my quest to rise to Mother’s level of annoyance.
“She must be. There’s exactly one thousand and three bodies there. All are accounted for. “ Dempsie replied gently, touching my arm. I shrugged her off.
“We have barely an hour. I should get down there. I still have to change.” I turned and carefully began to walk down the roof.
“We’ll be watching, Surec. Behave yourself.” Mother warned with her face still pressed flat to the skylight. In spite of everything, it amused me to see them so engrossed in the scene below. While we Death Elves certainly had our share of festive occasions, they usually involved less food and clothing and much more in the way of mood altering substances. Mother and Father were introduced at one such festival, and now they get to travel happily with their near-Peak daughter and their rare, yet chronically sullen son. They didn’t have to kill one another.
I walked down and across the edge of the roof to the chapel skylight. For whatever reason, this was the only window in all of the abbey that opens widely enough to allow me to pass through. The other option is to enter through the stables, but then my human clothing would smell of horse. The masque I carried in my breeches bit into my side as I bent down to crawl through. When I landed in the chapel, all was still. My heart sank as I noticed that everything I had laid out for Clara and me was gone. I gritted my teeth as I changed into my human wardrobe. I fingered the mask that Dempsie had made for me to wear tonight. Unlike my usual simple black domino mask, this one covered my entire face, including my mouth. It was molded in the shape of a beautiful face, but painted to resemble those of the victims of the plague that Prospero brought to his own land. My ensemble was finished when I tucked the small whistle given to me by the gods into my jacket.
“Death to all.” They had said. I was a child- maybe five or six- and their presence still dazzled me.
I allowed the memory to fade as I descended the chapel stairs. In the hall outside of the suite, I looked up make contact with my family. Inside, the clock struck loudly, in the chime that I had always ignored with Clara. I swallowed and walked the long hall to the scarlet chamber, intending to work my way back to the blue room.
The scarlet room had always been nearly empty, and tonight was no exception, despite the fact that the other apartments were more crowded than I had ever seen them. I stopped an awkwardly matched couple to ask if they had seen either Clara or her mother. They shook their heads, mouths forming a gape that confused me until I remembered the mask on my face. I knew, then, that I had to be entirely silent as I watched them turn and walk hurriedly from this eerie space. I gave them a few moments, then pushed onwards to the violet chamber. The music of the band swelled around me here. I tapped my ears to signal to my family above that I could no longer rely on hearing alone to find either Prospero or Clara. Even towering over most of the partygoers, the rooms were too full to accurately make out faces in the dim light. I looked up again, tapping my mind and then pointing to the sky. Help.
I saw the dark grey of Dempsie’s clothing flash as she ran over our heads. I took a few steps back, to be better hidden by the red glow of the previous room while she performed her search. I longed to hold Clara, at least one last time. I dreaded the thought of her taking her last breath as just one of hundreds. Alone.
A pounding above me brought me back from my thoughts. Dempsie. She pointed to the left, and tapped the roof with her foot seven times. It was audible even over the noise of the fest, but when a few attending looked up curiously, she had already faded away from view. The message was clear; Prospero was in the farthest chamber, the blue room. I made my way through each apartment slowly, looking for Clara, Mary, or any of the others I knew they associated with. I took extra time in the green room, circling it three times before a thud came from above. Mother. I rolled my eyes and pressed on.
By the time I had reached the blue room, word of my attire had preceded me. Revelers pointed, ladies whispered behind fans. Their words faded as I saw Clara seated next to the princess on a wide sofa. Her expression was beyond grim, beyond angry. She was wearing a pink dress that did not suit her in any way. Seated on her other side was Prospero, engaged in a lively discussion with a circle that included Mary. Clara caught sight of me a moment before Prospero did. At first her eyes widened in horror, then softened with relief and recognition. Prospero’s face twisted into a scowl. He stood up, angry, eyes wild, and pointed at me. I was lost in memories and wishes and heard nothing of what he said. Clara gave me a grim nod. She couldn’t see my lips, so there was no point in telling her why I was about to do what I did. I turned away from Prospero and his accusations and demands and walked briskly back towards the scarlet room. With each turn into the next chamber, I found the other guests already had given me a wide berth. It took until I reached the scarlet room for Prospero to give chase. I reached for the whistle in my jacket. It was warm from my own chest as I placed it to my lips. I turned just in time to see Prospero raise a dagger (strange, I thought him a swordsman), which fell at the first exhale from my mouth. The body of the prince fell soon after. I was tempted to kick him, but before I could take a single step, several dozen companions lunged for me.
“Mother of gods!” I yelled in surprise. I snapped my fingers, leaving my clothes in a heap on the floor as I rearranged myself high on the wall, further up than they would think to look, the whistle still between my lips. I blew before I could lose my nerve and watched as they toppled over, one after the other, like a house of cards. I held my breath and said goodbye to Clara as the last of Prospero’s guests fell.
“Are you sure you saw her here, Surec?” Mother asked, kneeling in meditation in the blue room. Dempsie sat across from her, holding her hands and anchoring her as Mother lingered in the in-between.
“I’m positive. This is the last room, so even if she ran after Prospero, she’d have to be here.” I said, puzzled. Father matched my expression across the room as he knelt to touch the princess.
“Could she have run from these apartments?” Father asked.
“No. You had the doors sealed once I entered the rooms.” I said, placing my hands on my hips. I had changed back into my breeches, and we were well over four hours into our work.
“She was wearing a pink gown?” Dempsie asked as her eyes suddenly flew open. She let go of one of Mother’s hands to point near the couch where I had last seen Clara. Father and I followed her gesture.
The very same pink gown Clara was last wearing was laying abandoned on the sable rug. I felt my face twist even more.
“What in the-“
“I hope I’m not out of place for saying this to my new husband, but gods be damned you are incredibly slow at this. My father would have had it done in half the time.” A voice said from behind me.
I turned slowly in disbelief. Clara was leaning against a grandfather clock, chewing on an apple and smiling that lovely lopsided smile. She was dressed very much like Dempsie; a golden cape and deep blue breeches.
“How- what-you’re-“ I sputtered, unable to articulate my thoughts.
“I tried to tell you, you have eyes just like my father’s. But, I mean, Surec, surely you wouldn’t think you could tell a lady that you’re going to kill her and she would just hop into bed with you?” Clara said, winking at Dempsie behind me.
I felt my face flush. “Your father was of our kind.”
Clara nodded. “You were much closer to Peak than you thought, my lord.”
I turned to face my family. “You knew about this, all of you!” I accused, although there was no real anger in my voice.
Mother rolled her eyes and smiled “Why do you think we were trying to get you to hurry and finish the assignment, Surec?” Dempsie and Father laughed along,
Overwhelmed, I stomped my foot indignantly. “You will ALL have to show me more respect. I AM the plague itself and I DEMAND IT!”
My family stopped laughing and stared at me curiously. I felt a tug on my arm and was turned to face Clara, eyes wild and cheeks flushed. Before I could say anything, she struck me across the face; not hard enough to hurt, but enough to be a shock. She rested her hands firmly on my shoulders.
“No, Surec, I am the plague itself.” She said firmly, the black of her eyes compelling in their truth.
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