This freebie story for On the Other Side of the Mask (my surreal steampunk Work in Progress) was the result...
The sundial sat, taking in light and shadow upon the green. Freestanding, it gave an illusion of time and sanity to the grounds of an estate which knew neither.
The tinkling sound of a music box interrupted Shelley’s reverie. He turned to face Olympia holding it out, the tiny figure in the center of the gears spinning around and around in a circle, trapped in her dance.
“A poignant reminder of your situation, isn’t she?” A broad-brimmed hand covered the lady’s eyes, casting shadows over her face. “She cannot escape from her path, for it’s locked into the very environment around her.”
“Environments change, especially this one.” Shelley gazed at those red lips, forcing themselves into a cruel smile. He was almost sure they were forced. Cruelty was an act, part of a role both Olympia and Nathaniel played as servants of Lord Ruthvyn. It was just another mask the two of them wore.
Was anything in Lord Ruthvyn’s estate genuine? The paintings, the staircase, the walls, nothing was what it seemed. Everything was a mask for something else. If Shelley lingered here long enough, one would grow over his features, hardening it into something doll-like and inhuman. A frightening thought.
“Just how many songbirds have you seen caged while you’ve been here?” The question slipped from his lips. “How many of them are still here, only wearing a different shape than they once possessed?”
“Far too many to remember.” Olympia ran a gloved finger down the music box in a slow caress. “They’re still trying to sing, most of them, but our lord lost interest in their voices. They dwindled into nothing at his lack of attention.”
“Did you?” Shelley caught a flash of the deep blue eye lurking under the brim of the lady’s hat. “Were you once a songbird, Olympia?”
“I am what I’ve always been.” Olympia bowed her head. “A doll, a plaything given to Lord Ruthvyn to make him smile again. Neither Nathaniel nor I have had much success in that.”
“Has anyone?” Shelley glanced at the tiny figure rotating in the box, its little features frozen in an anguished smile. Every gesture from her lifted arms, to the pleading tilt of her torso expressed an intense desire to please. “Does Lord Ruthvyn ever smile?”
“He does at you. He might at your song.” Olympia shut the music box with a sharp click, cutting off the tinkling tune. “Songbirds distract him for a time, returning some of our lord’s bittersweet youth, his vitality. Not that any of you sustain him for long.” She tossed her head back. “You’re all weak. Eventually your singing turns into pitiful cries and moans. Eventually you bore him.”
Shelley bowed his head, suppressing a shudder. Yes, this might well be his fate. He and Byron had dared to raise their voices, to let their song be heard. Now he couldn’t find Byron and he was alone. Alone except for visits from his pale, cold master and his enigmatic servants.
“Crying isn’t pitiful,” he whispered. “It’s just another attempt to be heard. A desperate attempt.”
“What’s the point in attempting to show your weakness?” Olympia cocked her head to the side, glossy black curls beneath her hat sliding with the movement. “How could it be anything other than pitiful?”
“When it’s another form of song.” Shelley met that vivid blue eye. “Many a song is nothing more than a cry for something.”
“No wonder all songbirds are weak.” She spun on her heel, turning her back on him. “For all your pretty tunes, you’re all beggars, pleading for someone to give you what you cannot get for yourself.”
Shelley watched her march off, ruffles skirts flouncing with her movement. Perhaps Olympia had a point.
“No,” he whispered. “Songbirds aren’t weak. Byron isn’t weak.” A shiver ran down his spine. “He’s strong. He can face whatever lurks in Lord Ruthvyn’s estate.”
If he believed in nothing else, he believed in Byron. He had to.
It was the only thing which kept Shelley strong, which kept his own songs from turning into cries. Only he wasn’t sure if he could stay strong.
Not when Byron’s fate, his whereabouts remained so uncertain.