L I L I T U - S A M P L E C H A P T E R S
SHADOWS IN THE SKY
I was still mortal, the night it all began. My dreams were still my own. I still believed what my parents told me.
My sister Gladys and I were on our way to a ball, riding in a coach over a bumpy road. Outside, the grassy English countryside passed us by, a dark sky warning us of a coming storm. Pearly white fog licked the windows, its curious tendrils threatening to creep inside.
Gladys sat across from me, her face slack with boredom. “They’re going to think you’re in mourning,” she said. “We’re going to spend the whole night telling everyone ‘No, our parents are most certainly alive.’”
Her comment was due to the fact that I was wearing a black dress. Her own glistened gold and flattered her figure, an hourglass next to my pear. She would undoubtedly acquire many suitors tonight. Our parents had already taken their own coach to the ball a half-hour prior, and when Gladys and I arrived, Father would inevitably introduce us to gentlemen of dull wit and duller demeanor. Our family had money thanks to Father’s business, but we lacked titles. As I was twenty, and Gladys eighteen, Father had decided it was time for us to elevate the family name.
“I’m surprised you don’t want to make a better impression,” Gladys remarked. “There will be gentlemen at this ball. Gentlemen with titles. But have it your way. I’ll shine all the brighter standing next to you.”
“Yes, you’ll be perfectly gaudy,” I said. “They’ll be covering their eyes.” I continued to gaze out the window, not giving her the satisfaction of eye contact.
Gladys knew I was lonely; we were only late at all because I’d spent an hour in front of the looking glass, obsessing over my every flaw. All the while, Father’s words had echoed through my mind: “There is only one path before you, Maraina. You will wed a gentleman with a title, and you will bear his children.” The threat went unspoken, but I’d heard it in the sharpness of his voice.
Outside, the fog continued to caress the window, blanketing the fields beyond with murky white air. I heard a distant echo—wind being swept up again and again, like from the beating of vast, leathery wings. “I understand if you feel like there’s no use trying,” Gladys replied, her face splitting into a malicious grin. “A nicer dress won’t fix those bloated cheeks. And we both know your suitors only want you for Father’s money. Why, any one of them would probably murder you once it’s in their hands! Better for you to end up a bitter old spinster. You’ll be alone, but at least you’ll be alive.”
Trembling with rage, I finally turned to face her. “Perhaps you will be no less alone. Perhaps your poor husband will kill himself once he’s realized what a shrew he’s married.”
Gladys’s eyes widened. “What an awful thing to say!” She looked ready to retort with something just as mean, but our coach suddenly jolted to a violent halt, nearly jerking us from our seats.
“What happened?” Gladys asked, making no attempt to investigate.
As I opened the window and stuck my head out, I felt the cold caress of night. The horses, Bastion and Badger, were stationary. Our driver had climbed down into the mud and was in the process of tying them to a tree beside the road.
“Mr. Stephens?” I called. “Is something wrong?”
He turned around to look at me. He was a portly man, whose large eyes made him appear perpetually bewildered. “Apologies, m’lady,” he said. “A carcass is blocking our path.”
I looked past him, and saw a large dead cow lying in the middle of the road. It looked impossible to circumvent. The horses whined, obviously restless.
“Strange, really,” Mr. Stephens said as he approached the carcass. “I’m not aware of any nearby cattle farms.”
I, too, was perplexed. To the left and right of the road, there was naught but tall grass and the occasional tree. Where had this cow come from?
“Be careful, Sister,” Gladys called. “You might fall out, and then we’ll never get you off the ground!”
“Hush, Gladys,” I hissed.
Mr. Stephens grasped the bovine by the horns and pulled with all his might. “Won’t…take…long!”
I hoped he was right; heavy grey clouds churned above us, and the air was freezing against my skin.
I sensed movement in the corner of my eye. Rain? I looked up, and saw something drifting down like a great black veil, preparing to shroud us in a greater darkness. I could not see it clearly—its shape was obscured by the clouds—but the dark thing fell faster and faster, until suddenly it was upon us, swooping like an owl.
In the blink of an eye, Mr. Stephens vanished. Startled, I attempted to make sense of what I’d just witnessed. It didn’t make sense for something to pull Mr. Stephens into the sky. Surely he had simply hidden himself—behind the bovine, perhaps? But then I heard screaming from above, and saw a figure fall from the sky, only to crash into the field beside us with a dull thud.
The screaming stopped. The blood drained from my face. I heard a great rumble of thunder.
“Mr. Stephens?” I tried to shout, but my voice was scarcely more than a whisper.
The sky flashed with distant lightning, and in that split-second I saw the dark shape again, circling above us like a vulture. Bastion and Badger whinnied and tried to pull away from the tree, to no avail.
“Gladys,” I whispered, staring up at the churning darkness. “There’s something up there...”
“What?” Her voice was loud and shrill. “Maraina, I can’t hear you.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off the dark shape. It was too large to be a bird or a bat. Large enough to lift a grown man into the sky...
I pulled my head back into the coach. “There’s something up there, and I think it just killed our driver.”
Gladys’s eyes widened, more from confusion than fear. “I don’t understand. Mr. Stephens is...gone? We’re stranded?”
“We can’t be stranded,” I said, my voice trembling. “We can’t stay here...”
A scream of pain erupted from somewhere nearby. I gasped. “It’s Mr. Stephens. He’s alive!”
While I didn’t want to leave the coach, we couldn’t remain here and wait to be attacked. I opened the door and scampered into the grass, hoping the creature wouldn’t see me.
“Maraina, what are you doing?” Gladys called from the coach.
Mr. Stephens continued to wail in agony. I followed the sound of his cries, hunching over to keep low.
Blades of grass scratched my skin as I trudged through it, so tall that I could no longer be sure whether I was going the right way. I stopped to listen for another scream.
The grass rustled behind me, and my legs turned to stone. I had no weapons. No way to defend myself. And the rustling sound was only getting louder.
I whirled around.
The grass parted, revealing Gladys’s face. I practically panted in relief.
“I couldn’t stay in there alone,” she said. “Maraina, I think you’re right. Something’s up there.”
I nodded shakily. “Come on, then.”
We moved through the grass, still hunched over, until at last we came upon Mr. Stephens. He lay on his back, crushing the grass beneath him. He had a gash across his face, and his leg was bent in the wrong direction.
“Goodness,” I murmured, bringing my hand to my mouth.
His face was twisted in pain, teeth bared as his cheeks pushed up into his eyes. “What are you doing out here?” he croaked. “You should ride off. Leave me behind.”
“He’s right,” said Gladys. “We should go.”
“We’re not leaving him,” I said sternly. “And if we ride off, that thing in the sky will chase us.”
Mr. Stephens grunted in pain. “There’s a musket in the trunk. If you get me back there, I can shoot the beast.”
Gladys and I hoisted up Mr. Stephens and carried him back to the coach, moving far more slowly than I would have liked. All the while, the rain pelted our faces with sharp cold drops, mingling with the blood on Mr. Stephens’ face. When we reached the edge of the field, Gladys hissed, “Wait.”
I saw it too: something was perched on the coach, bending down to look through the window. It was about the size of a very tall man. It lingered a moment, then spread bat-like wings, each one as long as a horse’s body, and darted up into the air.
At that moment, I felt the same dizzying sensation many other mortals did only months later: that of my entire concept of reality crumbling under the weight of a seemingly impossible fact. I was bearing witness to a monster that should not be. Nonetheless, my sister and I were in danger, and I had to do what I could to ensure our survival.
“Wait here,” I said, dropping my end of Mr. Stephens. Gladys struggled to keep hold of him; she was very petite, and hadn’t lifted anything half as heavy her entire life.
“Come back!” she called. “I can’t carry him on my own.”
Ignoring her, I rushed over to the coach and opened the trunk to find an Enfield rifle-musket. I pulled it out and whirled around, half-expecting the creature to already be upon me.
“Bring it to me, m’lady,” said Mr. Stephens. “It should already be loaded.”
I looked down at the gun. Now that we’d come to it, this didn’t sound like such a fine plan. The man was crippled. How could he possibly aim?
The shape swooped down at the other end of the road and sped towards us. There wasn’t time to hand Mr. Stephens the rifle.
My parents had always told me to know my place. Gentlemen don’t like bold women, they said, so be soft-spoken. Be agreeable.
Tonight, being agreeable was likely to get us all killed.
I lifted the rifle and took aim myself.
“M’lady, no!” Mr. Stephens cried out.
Lightning illuminated the air once again. This time the creature was only a few meters away, close enough that for a split-second I saw it clearly...though I couldn’t make sense of what I saw. Its shape was humanoid, aside from those massive wings. I did not have time to see its face, but I did glimpse a silver, ruby-encrusted ring on a pale finger. What monster wore jewelry?
I put the question out of my mind and pulled the trigger.
“Toss it to me, m’lady,” Mr. Stephens said.
Of course—the safety hammer. I pulled it back, revealing the nipple, and readied the weapon again. By now, the creature was one meter away, reaching out towards me with shadowy claws.
“Maraina!” Gladys shrieked.
The blast sent ringing through my ears, and the recoil made me feel like my arm had been torn from its socket. I squinted, rubbing my shoulder. The creature was sprawled on the ground, hands shielding its face, blood leaking through its fingers. It let out an all-too-human scream, which only became louder as my hearing returned.
After a moment, the creature rose to its full height and spread its wings once more. It loomed over at me, its face still shrouded in shadows. I aimed the rifle, threatening to shoot again, but the creature raised a hand, as if to reason with me. Then it kicked off the ground and disappeared into the rainswept night.
“Is it gone?” Gladys whispered.
I stared up, searching for any sign that the creature was still around. “I don’t know,” I said. “But even if it isn’t, we should be. I feel like a worm in a bird’s nest.”
We went to Bastion and Badger, who were by now completely terrified, frantically trying to pull away from the tree. It took some time to calm them down, but they eventually seemed to realize that if they obeyed us, they would be allowed to leave this terrible place. We decided to ride them back, as Mr. Stephens could not drive in his condition.
Gladys and I hoisted Mr. Stephens up onto Badger. “Ride with him,” I told her. “I’ll untie the horses.”
My sister gave me a sour look. “Are we really going back home?”
“Do you want to attend the ball covered in mud?” I asked.
Gladys looked down at her dress and sighed. “No. Fine. We’ll go back.” She joined Mr. Stephens on top of Badger. I untied them, and then Bastion, who I mounted myself.
As we rode back to Blackwood Manor, I had the sensation that the creature was still watching me—staring down from the darkness above, curious about the woman who had shot it.
I kept the rifle by my side the entire journey home.
A SPLENDID NIGHTMARE
When I was eleven, my cousin Amelia visited my family and me at Blackwood Manor. She was only a few years older than I was, so my parents expected me to entertain her.
Blackwood Manor was large, filled with paneled walls, embroidered pillows, and all the comforts money could buy. Growing up, I took every inch of it for granted.
My favorite room was our expansive library, which contained hundreds of wonderful books. Naturally, when Amelia asked me what there was to do at the manor, a tour of the library was the first thing I suggested.
“Are there any math books?” Amelia asked, eyes lighting up in excitement. “I find math ever so much fun!”
“I don’t see why there wouldn’t be,” I said, but I’d never felt the need to check. I preferred fairy tales—stories of chivalrous knights, dragons, and princesses whose beauty I hoped to one day possess. I did not share my cousin’s fascination with numbers, but all the same I helped her find the appropriate section. Using the ladder, she reached up to a very high shelf and grabbed a large textbook. My father had kept it from his days at Oxford, and likely didn’t expect anyone else to ever look at it. That was probably why things turned out the way they did.
As Amelia flipped through the book, dozens of postcards fell out, surprising us both. I crouched down to look at them, and was confronted with images of women baring their bodies. Some were even accompanied by men.
Amelia blushed. “We should put these back in,” she said.
“Why?” I asked. The postcards were certainly more interesting than numbers.
“What are you girls up to?” came a voice. Mother had entered the room, and was walking towards us. Amelia’s blush disappeared instantly. She scrambled to put the postcards back into the book, but before she could get them all, Mother saw them and screamed.
Mother spoke to Father, and then together they spoke to Amelia’s parents. Soon, my cousin was whisked away from Blackwood Manor, never to return.
My parents were quick to have a word with me, as well. They waited by the fireplace, their faces orange from the flames, but hard as ice.
I felt very nervous as I entered the room. I wanted to explain myself, to say something that would get me out of trouble, but I was afraid to even open my mouth. The fact was, Father terrified me. He was a giant, with a beard larger than my entire head, and beady eyes that were usually squinting, because he was too ashamed to wear the spectacles he needed.
Mother had a Rubenesque figure that was even broader than my own, but I never saw her as obese, even though I saw myself as such. She was, in general, a very kind woman. She would check on me during my sulking fits, and tell me that I was beautiful when no one else would. But one thing she would never, ever do was raise her voice to Father, no matter how he treated Gladys and me. Mother clung to the idea that she had to submit to Father’s will, that his feelings and beliefs mattered above all others. She would support whatever punishment he deigned to give me.
“Don’t worry, Maraina,” Father told me. “You won’t be held accountable for what happened. It is clear that Amelia smuggled those depraved postcards in.”
I was perplexed. “She didn’t bring the postcards. They fell out of that book.”
“Perhaps in your confusion it seemed that way, but I would never allow such material in my library.”
Mother gave Father a skeptical look, but did not question him. “According to her parents, Amelia was familiar with performing what we call the bad touch.”
“What is that, Mama?”
Mother looked once more at Father, her gaze nervous. “It is a way of touching your body that is...wrong. I will not describe it. All you must know is that it causes blindness, hysteria—even insanity. And it will ensure you go to Hell.”
I did not understand, but I felt a pang of worry all the same. “Is that what will happen to Amelia?”
“I certainly hope not,” said Mother. “But she has been punished for it before, and it seems she has not learned her lesson. Her parents are consulting a surgeon who may be able to cure her condition. They mentioned an operation that, with any luck, will save her soul. They call it the cure for the disobedient wife...or the disobedient daughter, as the case may be.”
“What does the operation do?”
Mother became very stiff. “The source of the sin will be removed.” She leaned in close, taking my hand. “Maraina...promise me now that you will not make the same mistakes as your cousin.”
I still didn’t understand what Amelia had done, but from the way Mother’s eyes bored into me, I knew that I had no choice. “I promise,” I said.
Amelia wrote to me, years after the incident. The shaky handwriting stated:
It really isn’t so bad, Cousin. The bible studies are making me a purer and happier person, the bland diet is giving me the mild demeanor all women should strive for, and the cut they made between my legs has finally stopped hurting. I am no longer tempted to touch that most sinful of places, for I can derive no pleasure from it any longer—only a painful reminder of the ruin I inflicted upon myself.
It would have been easier to believe these words had Amelia not hung herself only months after sending them.
Eventually, I realized what Mother had meant by the “bad touch.” I cannot point to a specific moment, but sometime in my early adolescence, sleeping at night became challenging. Alone in my dark bedroom, with my dress finally shed, I couldn’t help but dream of beautiful boys I’d encountered. As I imagined them, I would feel a hunger so strong that it disturbed me.
I never let myself perform the “bad touch,” for I was afraid of ending up like Amelia. But the agonizing frustration never truly went away, no matter how much I told myself it had.
“Are you all right, Maraina?” Mother asked me, a twinge of sadness in her eyes.
It was breakfast, and I’d eaten too much again. I had consumed two sausages, three pieces of bacon, a scone, two slices of toast, and a bowl of fruit. I told myself that I had a good reason this time; I’d been attacked by a monster, the likes of which had no business existing in the first place. But didn’t I always have an excuse?
“I’m fine, Mama,” I answered. “I am merely exhausted from last night’s fiasco.”
Gladys met my eyes from across the table, her own swimming with anxiety. We had managed to keep the events of the night before a secret. When our parents had returned to Blackwood Manor, we had told them that Mr. Stephens had unfortunately fallen off the coach, requiring us to help him back up and turn around.
Gladys, Mr. Stephens and I had all agreed to this necessary lie, as Father would think us mad if we told him the truth. I couldn’t believe that Gladys hadn’t told him already; I’d expected her to jump at the chance to ruin me. But so far, everyone had stuck to the plan. Mother had sent for a doctor, and now the delirious Mr. Stephens was being cared for.
Still, I couldn’t shake the image of the winged creature from my mind. It was all that I could do to not bury the memory under helping after helping of scones and jam.
Father looked down the table as if he were a king, and us his subjects. As was his custom, he lit his cigar when he was done eating. He coughed, and ash fell into his bird’s nest of a beard.
“A terrible shame you had to turn around,” he said. “I intended to introduce you to some very notable gentlemen.”
“Gentlemen with titles,” sighed Gladys.
“Indeed.” Father’s eyes fixed upon me and narrowed in obvious concern. Father saw me as one of the only two bargaining chips he possessed, and thus far I’d proven absolutely worthless to him. “Fortunately, there may be another occasion with possibilities of its own.” He pulled a letter from his pocket, cleared his throat, and read: “Dear Benjamin Blackwood: You and your family are invited to a unique event: a concerto aboard an airship. Yes, that’s right—a concerto in the sky!”
Gladys clapped her hands excitedly. “Oh, my! I’ve always wanted to fly in an airship.”
“I as well,” said Father. “It continues: The airship has been built and properly tested by some of the finest aerial mechanics in Europe, based on designs I helped create. It is sure to stay aloft regardless of the night’s weather, even with the concerto’s many attendees aboard.”
“How wonderful,” said Gladys. “We simply must go.”
“That’s the ticket,” said Father. “This adventure is free of charge, but open to a select few. Bring no friends with you, and speak to no one about it, for only those invited will be allowed on board. Be honored that your family has been among those chosen for this exclusive opportunity. Should you still be ambivalent, it should also be said that failure to attend may leave you ill-informed about upcoming events that could impact your well-being.”
“He doesn’t really think we won’t tell anyone, does he?” Gladys snickered.
“What does he mean by that last part?” asked Mother. “Who is this letter from?”
“It is signed by the concerto’s very performer,” said Father. “Alkin Beauxdera.”
Mother dropped her fork onto her plate with a loud clatter. “Mr. Beauxdera?”
Father was startled. “Something the matter, dear?”
“No,” said Mother. “Of course not.” She toyed with her salad, not bringing it into her mouth. “It’s just...I remember reading about an airship crashing last year.”
I was not sure I believed this. Mother had not reacted to the mention of the airship. It had been Mr. Beauxdera’s name that upset her. I had no idea who he was, but evidently Mother did not like him.
“They are new contraptions, it is true,” said Father. “But I am curious enough to believe Mr. Beauxdera’s assurances. It’s on September 21st.” He turned to look at our butler, who stood waiting by the door. “Barnes, aren’t we supposed to have a dinner guest that night?”
Barnes nodded. “If memory serves, sir, a gentleman by the name of Mr. Cillian is due for dinner on the 22nd. The 21st, however, remains open.”
“Right! Splendid. Mark that date, then, would you?”
“I have marked the calendar in my head, sir.”
“Are you sure the girls will be safe?” asked Mother, who still seemed perturbed.
Father snorted. “I would not deny them the chance to be inside such an astonishing contraption any sooner than I’d deny myself. They say it’s the train of the future. A train without tracks!”
“But it sounds so suspicious.”
“We are going,” said Father, his tone suddenly stern.
Mother lowered her head and attempted to smile. “Yes, dear.”
I said nothing. Father’s apathy towards Mother’s objections always perturbed me, but by now I had learned that it was better to stay silent. Father’s spells of anger were sudden and volcanic, and it was difficult to argue with him knowing that he could make life unpleasant for me.
I couldn’t let him find out that I’d fired a rifle. I didn’t want to end up like Amelia. Chilled by the memory of her final letter, I reached across the table and took two more scones.
That night, I awoke to the sound of leathery wings. At first, I panicked, assuming that my room had been infested with bats. Then, I noticed that my bedroom door had disappeared. So had the walls and the windows. There was only the bed, and the floor, and darkness.
I saw movement in the shadows beyond my bed. Something shifted around me, always in the corner of my eye, darting away whenever I turned to look. Slowly, I turned my head. For just a moment, I glimpsed a strong-jawed face, its eyes piercing into me with such intensity that I could not tell if it was out of rage or desire.
I awoke with a jolt. I was back in my room, in my bed—safe. But I did not feel relieved.
When I fell back asleep, the dream did not return.
I didn’t give the dream a great deal of thought the morning after. Unusually vivid though it had been, I had no reason to presume it had been anything other than my imagination. I’d had a strange experience with a creature on the road; it only made sense that I would have nightmares after.
So I went about my day as usual: reading, listening to Gladys gossip, and eating with my family.
But that night, the dream returned...and this time, it went further. After the familiar sound of fluttering wings, a lump formed in the sheets next to me. I felt paralyzed, unable to move, though I was not entirely sure I wanted to. I felt a tickle of pressure against the small of my back, as if something had brushed against it. I reached into the space behind me, searching for whatever might be there, until a hand clasped around mine. I felt the softest kiss against the back of my neck, and shivered in pleasure. At the same time, I was frightened by the delightful sensations. Was it sinful to enjoy this? Was this the same pleasure Amelia had succumbed to?
Blushing in shame, I pulled away—and then awoke as abruptly as before, breathing so hard I thought I was choking.
My dreams didn’t often repeat themselves, and this one was unusually disconcerting. Yet, for reasons I was too ashamed to admit, I found myself hoping the dream would return. I’d always hungered for affection—yearned to be held, kissed, and utterly loved, like the beautiful princesses I’d read about in stories. To briefly taste that pleasure, only to have it torn away, was more torturous than I could have imagined.
I felt like I’d been granted a drop of water after centuries of thirst—just enough to make me want more.
At teatime the following day, my mother let out a horrified cry and thrust her newspaper at me from across the table. “Isn’t it terrible?”
It appeared that Princess Isabelle, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, had disappeared. In the accompanying photo, Isabelle’s expression reminded me of a child who was resentful of being punished.
“How awful,” I said. “I hope they find her soon.”
Gladys looked at the paper and covered her mouth. “What if she’s been kidnapped? Or murdered?”
Mother scowled at her. “Gladys, don’t be morbid. She must have eloped, and fled England to avoid a scandal. Even the continent is being searched.”
Reading beyond the headline, I noticed that the article also mentioned other recent disappearances—all of them important, wealthy aristocrats. I found myself envisioning them being attacked by winged creatures, and carried away into the night. My anxiety became suffocating.
I pulled my sister into a nearby sitting room, where Mother couldn’t hear us. “Gladys, between these disappearances and that thing we saw on the road, I’m terribly worried. These incidents aren’t normal. I fear they are signs that something terrible is happening in England. Oh, maybe we should tell Mama and Papa what happened...”
Gladys looked at me as though I’d suggested we dine on shoes. “They’d think us mad. And we would be mad, if we told them.”
“But what if we’re in danger?”
She rolled her eyes. “Maraina, I don’t know what attacked us that night, but surely it has nothing to do with the missing princess. And if you tell our parents about it, I will not corroborate your story. I will tell them that you shot a bird.”
I was appalled. “A bird?”
“They will think you imagined it with or without my testimony. It was dark, and you were hysterical. How do you think that sounds? You can throw yourself into an asylum if you wish, but I’m not coming with you.”
It was very hard to relax that night, for my fear only deepened my loneliness. I desperately wanted to be held, protected, reassured that all would be well.
When I finally fell asleep, the dream returned. Just as before, the presence floated around me like a spectre, tentatively reaching out to touch me. This time, I let it.
I let those ghostly hands trace the curve of my hip, somehow beneath my nightgown, even though it had not been pulled up. I let them caress their way up to my breasts. I let them run through my hair, pulling it aside to reveal my neck.
The sensation was wonderful, but I still did not know whether I should allow myself to enjoy it. If a man I was not married to touched me this way in reality, it would be sinful. But did I have any reason to fear sin, if it only happened in a dream?
The presence returned the following night. And the night after that. And the night after that. Before long it had been over a week, and not a single night passed where I did not feel its touch. And each night, it explored further, touching more and more of my body.
I could no longer tell myself that it was a mere dream. Part of me knew that I was foolish to let it in, but another part was desperate to return to its arms each night. In truth, I feared these dreams would prove to be the closest thing I would ever have to a man’s affections, and I did not want them to stop.
Strange and terrible things were happening in England, and in the waking world I had no one to turn to for support. But when I slept, the nightmares were there to comfort me. Their wrongness made them feel right. Their darkness made them a lantern for my lonely nights.
The dreams became all I thought about that month. Father continued to remind us about the upcoming concerto, Mother continued to brood, and Gladys avoided me whenever possible, but I scarcely noticed these things. All that mattered was returning to sleep.
I began leaving dinner early, so that I could go to bed sooner. Each night, as soon as there was a lull in my family’s discussion, I let out a feeble cough and asked if I could be excused.
“Again?” Mother asked one night.
“I’m afraid so,” I said. “I feel terribly ill.”
“But you seemed to be feeling so much better this morning. And the doctor found nothing wrong with you.”
“Perhaps this disease only occurs at night,” I said, keeping my voice soft so I would sound frail.
“I have never heard of such a thing in my life,” said Mother. “Have you, Benjamin?”
Father shook his head. “You’ve been leaving dinner early for weeks now, Maraina. How long do you think this will last?”
“I don’t know, Papa,” I said. “I only know that I require sleep. I apologize for distressing you.”
Trying to look as exhausted as I could, I went to my room, and changed into my nightgown without the help of a servant. Then I crawled into bed and waited impatiently for the fluttering sound.
I never moaned aloud, though sometimes my body yearned to do so. My back would arch, my muscles would tense, and my teeth would clench. I would ache for a release I did not yet understand. It was strange, how the slightest, subtlest touch could yield such a reaction.
The presence hadn’t broken my virtue, and I told myself that this made it acceptable. But each night, it went further, giving me more shameful pleasure than the night before. And I knew that someday, if I let it, it would corrupt me.
The most disturbing thing of all was, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to stop that from happening.
On the evening of September 21st, our new coachman took us to Alkin Beauxdera’s airship concerto. The path to the landing pad took us through the woods; apparently, Mr. Beauxdera wished his voyage to be a secret.
“Beauxdera doesn’t even mean anything in French,” Mother told us along the way. “His name is a complete falsehood.”
“He’s a musician and inventor,” said Father. “It’s a sort of stage name, from what I understand.”
“I don’t trust men who hide their surnames,” said Mother.
Between dark branches I glimpsed the setting of a red sun, but by the time we reached the clearing, the sky was dark. The landing pad was surrounded by gas lamps, illuminating the large contraption that lay upon it. I was awed, for I’d never seen anything like it. Its basic shape was akin to a sea ship, but propeller-bearing wings grew from the sides. The outer walls were ribbed, like the hide of a great seahorse, and the words The Snickering Bovine were painted on each side. Sprouting from its nose was a mast, with a voluptuous cow-headed mermaid carved onto its base.
A staircase on the side led up into the ship. Standing beside it was a man with a rumpled, soot-stained cravat.
“Do you have your invitation?” he asked as we approached.
Father showed him the letter. The greeter took a moment to inspect it before saying, “Right then. Come aboard.”
We followed him up. The ship’s gas-lit interior was surprisingly roomy. Perhaps forty people were already standing comfortably inside, whispering excitedly to one another. The air practically bristled with enthusiasm. We were in an airship. A real airship!
To our left was a doorway that led to the cockpit, and at the back of the room a pair of curved staircases led to other floors. On the other side of the room, a raised stage held a pipe organ.
The greeter pulled on a lever at the doorway, and the stairs we’d used to enter swung upwards to join the rest of the wall, closing like a vertically-hinged door.
“Well,” said Mother. “That’s that. We can’t go back, now. Unless we asked, perhaps?”
“Everyone!” the greeter called out, and everyone quieted. “We are about to lift off, so please grab a rail above your head or on the wall.”
We all reached up to grab the rails hanging from the ceiling.
The floor rumbled. I looked through a nearby window, and saw the propellers spinning faster and faster, until we left the ground.
“Oh, Ben,” cried Mother. “We’re going to crash!” She reached for Gladys and me and pulled us tight against her.
“Calm yourself,” said Father, obviously embarrassed.
The vessel rose into the moonlit sky. It was exhilarating and terrifying—this sensation of weightlessness, of building pressure. My ears began to sting, and though there was a floor beneath me, I felt as though I might fall at any moment.
Then, when we were very high indeed, the floor became still. Many guests, Mother among them, sighed in relief. Everyone let go of their pipes, and waiters patrolled the floor with wine trays. Now that we had settled, I found myself strangely soothed by the sensation of flight. Through the window I saw a cloud-soaked forest passing below. How amazing would it be to fly without needing this ship, and feel the caress of clouds against one’s skin?
“Quite a contraption, isn’t it?” Father said, his voice as loud and bombastic as it always was when he was anxious. “When I was a boy, the idea of a man flying like a bird was laughable. But here we are, in the sky and, for the moment, alive. Maybe I should erect a factory to build some airships of my own...” His eyes glimmered as he looked around the vessel, perhaps attempting to memorize its design.
The crowd broke into applause as a figure walked onto the stage—Mr. Beauxdera, no doubt. His appearance was unusual, even bohemian, but as he was a musician, I presumed he was in the habit of drawing attention to himself. He possessed elfin features, with high cheekbones, a pointed beard, and dark brown locks that flowed to just above his shoulders. His light green eyes looked down at us from behind perfect-circle spectacles, seeing everyone but me, it seemed. It is strange, how small one can feel just from seeing someone beautiful.
My attraction to him was powerful and immediate. Here was a man who looked nothing like the gentlemen Father had introduced me to. Though I knew nothing about him, in that moment I felt that I would have given anything for him to look into my eyes and smile just for me...for him to touch me, as the presence in my dreams touched me. My cheeks grew warm from the very thought of it.
“Welcome to The Snickering Bovine,” said Mr. Beauxdera. His voice was deep and rich. “I am Alkin Beauxdera, and I wanted to personally thank you all for coming aboard. Thank you all as well for not bringing friends.”
The audience clapped, but some in the crowd looked troubled. Why had Mr. Beauxdera demanded such secrecy?
“I must warn you,” Mr. Beauxdera continued, “that this is no ordinary voyage. I needed a way to get you all on board, in a place where we could be safe. Where we could talk.” He smiled, but his brow was furrowed. “Not to worry, though. I told you that this would be a concerto, and so it shall be.”
I was very perplexed by this speech, and if the murmuring audience was any indication, I wasn’t the only one. But Mr. Beauxdera didn’t pause to answer questions. Instead, he made his way to the pipe organ. The curtains behind the stage opened to reveal a great window, from which we could see the full moon. The waiters snuffed out the gas lamps, until the moon became our only source of light.
Mr. Beauxdera sat down, becoming a black silhouette. His fingers danced across the moonlit keys, manifesting dissonant chords. It was a dark, mischievous, malicious melody.
Then Mr. Beauxdera sung, his voice an operatic baritone:
“Sitting in their high chairs
In the alleys of our town squares
And the shadows of our nightmares
Scheming devils lie in wait
They find us when we are alone
And sculpt their pearls from our bones
And make our flesh into their scones
A revel and a fete...”
His playing paused. It was a moment before the meaning of the words took hold of me: he was trying to tell us something very important with this song.
He resumed, increasing the tempo:
“There are devils young and devils old
Whose hearts have become black as mold
They’re tradesmen of the human soul
It is their favorite drink
There are devils in the Parliament
Who work to bring about descent
The people who they represent
Are not the ones you think...”
I listened, watching the impressive movements of Mr. Beauxdera’s fingers, my entire body still. I felt Mother’s hand grasp my shoulder, but when I looked at her, she had not taken her eyes off the stage. Her mouth hung open, her eyes distant, as if overcome by a memory. The audience was becoming quite stirred, most of them muttering their disapproval, but Mr. Beauxdera was not done:
“The devils look to Buckingham
To shroud the sky, the sun be damned
Like proper monsters, they will stand
They’ll rise from the abyss
The devils deceive and pretend
Perhaps you know one as a friend
Yes, I say it once again:
There are devils in our midst!”
“Good God, man!” Father yelled. “Do you know what you’re saying? Do you hear your own words?”
Yet still Mr. Beauxdera went on, almost as if in answer:
“The devils will put all askew
Both in the world and inside you
You, my friend, can be one too
For these devils were once men!”
Most of the crowd was yelling now, so loudly that it became impossible to even hear the remaining words. Mr. Beauxdera ceased his song, stood up, and turned to look down at us from the stage.
“You have my most gracious appreciation, sirs and madams—and my most heartfelt apologies. The truth is, I did not bring you up here tonight for a concerto.”
“What’s he on about?” Gladys hissed to me, her voice quite loud. “He plays one stupid song and that’s it?” I frowned at her and brought a finger to my lips.
“The truth is,” Mr. Beauxdera continued, “I brought you up here to warn you. I know that some of you have heard whispers of strange happenings in England: disappearances, once-respectable gentlemen acting strangely, reports of events that are not politely put into words...I want to assure those of you who have experienced such things that you are not mad.”
My breath ghosted out from my lips. Would Mr. Beauxdera understand, if I told him what I’d experienced? Would he believe me, when my parents most assuredly would not?
He continued: “I made it clear in the invitations that you were not to bring friends, and there was a reason for this. Not everyone in England who was once trustworthy remains such, and as much as it pains me to be the one to tell you, it is best that you have a warning.”
“Just what are you on about, boy?” Father shouted. “Are you implying that there is some conspiracy afoot?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Beauxdera, and the whispers among the audience became louder, and more plentiful, until Mr. Beauxdera had to yell: “You may not believe me now, but I am putting my own head at risk by even trying to warn you of what is to come.”
The objections continued, louder:
“If I’d known what this would be, I wouldn’t have boarded!”
“Why did you take us on this terrible contraption?”
Mr. Beauxdera spoke again, his voice even louder than before: “Everyone, please listen. Sometime within the next few days, an individual by the name of Warren Cillian will contact you. For many of you, it is likely he already has.”
The crowd became noticeably more silent, then. Father narrowed his eyes.
“Mr. Cillian is an exceedingly dangerous man,” Mr. Beauxdera continued, “and he has managed to keep a very low profile for a very long time. Recently, he has been meeting with every wealthy family in England. Last week they found Lady Summerset’s body in the Thames, two days after her visit from this gentleman. Rumor has it she did not initially accept him into her home. It appears that Mr. Cillian found her refusal...impolite.”
There were more hushed whispers in the crowd—I heard confirmations, people muttering that they, too, had heard of Lady Summerset’s demise. But Mr. Beauxdera was still not done:
“The baronet Sir Simon Randolph was also visited by Mr. Cillian. He’s not dead, but any of his servants can tell you he has been acting very queerly since the visit. He has become nocturnal. He is also refusing food, and yet somehow is stronger than he’s ever been, despite his considerable age. And he is hardly the only person to be the subject of strange rumors, as of late. Has it not struck you, just how many of your friends have not been answering your letters—or have done so only to impart that they are quite ill, and cannot see you during the day? You are the only wealthy families in England who have not yet been seen by Mr. Cillian, but you will be soon enough. I invited you aboard this ship to offer an escape.”
The crowd resumed their rumbling, but Mr. Beauxdera continued, ignoring them: “I can take those who consent out of England, to a place where Mr. Cillian cannot harm you. I will force no one. But if you stay, Mr. Cillian will come to your home, and make demands that you may not be comfortable with.”
I wanted to go with him, for it sounded like our only hope, but Father yelled, “This is absurd! We don’t need to fly away. We should just call Scotland Yard, and have the man arrested.”
Mr. Beauxdera laughed, and a chill caressed my spine like the touch of a frozen feather. “If you think the Yard can help in the slightest, then you still don’t understand. Everything is about to change in England...and the rest of the world, as well.
“We shall now return to the loading dock, to drop off those who wish to leave. But I strongly encourage you all to stay aboard.”
The airship hadn’t even come close to crashing, but that didn’t matter. Everyone stormed off, insulted and insolent.
Father spent the entire ride home blowing cigar smoke in our faces as he ranted about what a waste of time the entire thing had been.
“It says something,” he said with a cough, “that I don’t even care that I was finally on an airship after all this time. I should look back at this memory and be amazed. Instead, I am appalled. A conspiracy. Hah!”
Gladys was quiet, all color drained from her face.
“I don’t think we should see that Mr. Beauxdera anymore,” said Mother, locking her eyes on me in a way that said, quite plainly, I saw you admiring him and I don’t approve.
“Agreed,” said Father. He looked at the window a moment, then added: “However, I suppose I should inform you that the Mr. Cillian he spoke of does indeed exist. He is coming to an early dinner tomorrow. Four o’clock, he said.”
“What?” I gasped, my blood curdling. “Papa, we should go back to the ship!”
“I’m not leaving Blackwood Manor because of some silly rumors,” said Father.
“Are our lives not more important?” I asked.
“You forget your place,” Father growled. Then he seemed to sense that Mother and Gladys, too, were nervous, so he added, in a calmer voice, “If Mr. Beauxdera is right and there is indeed some sort of...threat, I will not let a single one of you be harmed. You have my word on that.”
“I believe you, Papa,” said Gladys.
I was very much looking forward to dreaming that night. It was the only escape I had, and I was too afraid to worry about it anymore.
It was still dark when I awoke the following morning. I did not remember having any dreams; evidently, the presence had not come.
I sighed in frustration, and tried going back to sleep, even though I was no longer tired. There was no use in getting up when it was still so dark. I didn’t understand how I could have woken up so early when I’d gone to bed much later than usual.
It was only after I’d been lying there for an hour that I checked the clock on my wall, and realized that something was very wrong.