The talking picture triggered thoughts of a long neglected Work in Progress, 'On the Other Side of Mask'.
I submitted a short version of it to Lethe Press's 'Gaslight and Gents' anthology. I got one of the nicest rejection letters I've ever received for this story. The anthologist had been conflicted about rejecting it, since he really enjoyed parts of the story, but he felt the City of Paradise and its denizens hadn't been quite fleshed out.
I've been trying to flesh it out ever since. Other projects have pushed it out of my crowded imagination, but I never forgot 'On the Other Side of the Mask'.
This freebie story is one of my attempts to continue to flesh out Byron, reacting to the strange manor of Lord Ruthvyn he's trapped in.
No, he's not the famous poet Lord Byron from our world. Nor is his Shelley the same Shelley who wooed the world with his own poetry. They're simply using their names to give themselves strength and individuality in a trapped society ruled by the pale lords. A society in which both boys are in constant danger of disappearing.
This can be an advantage as well as a peril.
He huddled under the blanket on the landing between staircases, peeking out from beneath its darkness.
All the while, the boy’s painted eyes watched him from the portrait hanging on the walls. Lips which should have been motionless swirls of white, pink, and gray moved.
“You think you’re on the right path?” Blue eyes dabbed with green and yellow regarded him from shadowed eyelashes. Too perfect to have ever been real. Too cruel to be anything but. “Do you believe if you keep climbing this staircase, you’ll find your precious Shelley?”
“It is the way,” Byron muttered to himself as much as anyone else. “It’s my way because I choose it.”
A bold, possibly futile statement in Lord Ruthvyn’s manor. Everything here belonged to the master. Everything might be a mad illusion, meant to lead Byron into further delirium.
“It’s my choice.” Byron balled his white gloved hands into fists beneath the blanket’s shelter. “Not his. This staircase will take me to Shelley. I refuse to allow to lead me somewhere else!”
“Ah, but is your will stronger than your lord and master’s?” The mocking voice faltered a bit, trembled in uncertainty. Perhaps even hope. “How can you promise to do better than any of the rest of us?”
“I can promise nothing,” he growled, glaring at the painted face, one of many faces in Lord Ruthvyn’s many halls. All of them were arranged according to the master’s design. All of them created a reality meant to thwart him. “Only that your master’s desire can’t be stronger than mine.”
“You? What are you?” The full lips of the painted boy twisted into a sneer, but something like hope gleamed in the sheen of his eye.
If it wasn’t just the reflection of the candlelight off the canvas.
“He’s one of the pale lords chosen by the Goddess to rule Paradise and its outskirts.” The voice uttered the hopeless truth which bound everyone trapped in this haven. “He’s Chosen by Her to represent us all. What makes you mad enough to think your will can prevail?”
“The fact that I was able to hide beneath this blanket.” Byron didn’t bother to keep the triumph out of his voice before it faded away. “The fact that you actually thought I was here.”
He withdrew his presence away, allowing himself to disappear.
It was a power Byron had never wished to use again, to become one of the invisible, faceless masses. Not since he’d faced the Court of Paradise and claimed his name.
It was a power every single ordinary person possessed. The problem was you risked losing all sense of self whenever you vanished.
He shivered, no longer Byron, no longer even a boy. Just a ghost, floating amidst the other lost souls trapped within these walls.
It was worth it to hear the gasp which ran through the house, the realization of every other forgotten child that they, too had the power to vanish. The very thing that made their master lose interest in them could enable them to slip through his grasp.
The timbers of the estate quivered with the shocked outrage of the master, whom just sensed the flaw in the trap he’d created for his victims.
“Ah, Lord Ruthvyn, you truly are one with your estate as you claimed.” Byron couldn’t resist making his boast. “That’s interesting to know.”
Silence fell, but the master couldn’t be as quiet as a non entity could.
This was the price of being one of the chosen.
Byron grinned, delighting in his enemy’s weakness. Not that he could savour his victory for long.
Somewhere Shelley was in this place, trapped as everyone else was.
Byron had to find him before he faded away, like everyone else.