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Providence of the Broken [m]

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Offline nevermore girl

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A young woman strode at a relentless pace through the crowded hallway, packed with other girls hurrying by with carts of equipment and basins. The air buzzed with noise, coughing and feverish babbles, the turn of machinery and the ever-present puffs of steam, but she seemed unaffected by it, following a sound could not be buried by the din. “Alice, Alice--” a girl appeared at her side, struggling to keep up with her as she expertly wove through the gauntlet of a packed corridor. “Could you--”

“Not now,” she answered briskly, barely glancing at the young woman attempting to get her attention with that whiny tone. She was almost there. Unfortunately, a group of nurses wheeling by another patient forced her to halt, allowing the annoyance to catch up to her.

“Please,” she was saying, her wilting fingers folded together in some display meant to be convincing. “I just need you to mind the front for a minute, that’s all.”

“No,” she retorted dismissively as she brushed by, quick enough for it to be clear that she cared not a whit about her puppy dog eyes. Besides, Alice already knew what the blonde wanted to do--flounce off to powder her nose and fix her hair. Lucy was notorious for the painstaking effort she put into her appearance, and it really wasn’t for nothing that she was typically the first face one would see when they entered the hospital; she was rather pretty in that innocent ingenue way. With her doll-like features, spun-gold hair and sky blue eyes, she fit the saintly image the Abbeys so did favor for their establishment.

The blonde, however, proved to be as persistent as she was irritating, scrambling to block her way. As empty-headed as she was, she wasn’t stupid enough to try and catch her by the arm. “Oh, please Alice, just look at me, I’m a mess!” she begged, her lip beginning to wobble. “I promise, it won’t take me more than five minutes!” Indeed, the girl was less put together than usual, no doubt due to the swell of people that had come hobbling in since the wee hours of the morning. Of course, her loosening updo and the slight dewiness that was beginning to show on her forehead were nothing compared to state Alice herself was in.

Knowing she would not give up, the dark-haired girl heaved out a sigh, pressing a sleeve to her damp face. “Five minutes,” she told her sternly. At those two words she beamed back at her, clearly elated.

“Thank you, thank you! You’re an angel!” she cried, bouncing on the balls of her feet. Alice wasn’t paying much attention, already having filched the charts from her side. Even now, the grating noise was digging into her, but she could do nothing but turn away and walk out to the waiting room.

A roomful of haggard faces looked up at her when she swept through the doors, and she muttered curses to herself under her breath before taking Lucy’s place. “I apologize about the wait--please, line up this way,” she called.

The entire Shire had been in a frenzy for the past week. Every detail had to be perfect--not a speck of dust in a corner, not a crease on a span of cloth, not a silver spoon that wasn’t to be glowing bright. After so many years in the grueling war, their little boy was coming home, their pride and joy. From the luxurious estate to the looming monastery, the numerous sick wards in the hospital to the hell hole of an orphanage, the lists were to be checked and double checked. Every one of the numerous staff instructed down to the letter of the rule--and lastly, most importantly, the undesirables were to be kept far, far away from their precious son’s festivities. She remembered a similar parade thrown for the elder son’s return, perhaps five or so years ago. It’d been a farce, of course--it was clear Christopher was no war hero, but the Abbeys were always so careful to maintain a certain image.

As for her and the others not deemed worthy of being put on display, they were relegated to going about their usual duties in the hospital. The sick didn’t stop being sick for some welcome party, after all. In fact, she and the other nurses had their hands overflowing. The cough had been circulating in the area, which meant that the sick wards were jammed with people--particularly children. It was indeed just the perfect time for all their doctors to be away participating in festivities, leaving the fumbling interns and sleep deprived nurses to handle the mess. Serving only to further foul up her mood was that unbearable shrieking she could not block her ears from--it was maddening, absolutely maddening.

She glanced down at her pocket watch, a nail tapping out an impatient little rhythm on the glass face as the other hand obediently wrote down names and ailments. It was, unsurprisingly, past five minutes, teetering on ten. Though she had expected it of Lucy, it didn’t do her rapidly encroaching headache any good. The dark haired girl’s expression tightened, her fingers leaving the watch to touch the width of ribbon tied around her neck. She would have to wait. However, about fifteen minutes into it all that Alice had finally had enough--she couldn’t bear it anymore, she had to make it stop. “I’m so sorry, please give us a moment,” she hastily announced, something dark flashing in her eyes before she disappeared through a set of doors.

Once again, she found herself storming through the hallway--this time, nothing would stop her from putting an end to the sound that was driving knives into her head. She flung open the curtains to walk into the scene of half a dozen nurses flocking around a single child’s bed, trying to soothe the crying girl. “Miss Rosie, we need to give you these shots,” Evangeline was saying, receiving only an increased volume of furious wailing from the young girl.

“I’ve got some peppermints,” another tried, “would you like some, Miss Rosie?” Crying, more crying--screaming, on top of that. Just the sight of it made Alice want to tear her own skin off.

“What’s going on here,” she demanded loudly, striding up to the circle with a glare burning in her eyes.

It was Evangeline who turned to her first, exasperation in her voice. “We’ve been trying to give her these shots, but she won’t calm down,” she explained, gesturing at the two vials laid out on the tray.

The child continued to wail--mercy, did she not even need to breathe? “First Lucy, and now this,” she muttered to herself. “Alright, alright--everyone out!” Alice barked, a hand at her throbbing temple.

The girls looked up to her hesitantly, but Evangeline clapped her hands, motioning them towards the door. “Come on girls, let’s go,” she ushered. One by one, the frazzled nurses filed out of the room, leaving only the little girl’s crying echoing through the space. She let her cry as she prepped the shots, even though her jaw was seizing up at the grating sound. For a child to receive a room of her own, especially when they were so overcrowded was a clear indicator that she was likely the daughter of an influential person--not to mention how all of them had called her ‘miss.’ Well, that made no difference to her. Walking over to the bed, the young woman crouched over the screaming girl, fixing her with a piercing gaze.

“Stop. Crying,” she intoned firmly--to no avail. Of course, Alice knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. “Crying isn’t going to help you. It won’t change a single thing,” she continued sharply over the diminishing wails, her eyes boring into the girl’s watery ones. “Now you can keep sniveling pathetically all alone, or you can use your words. Which is it?”

“Percy,” the girl finally sniffled, her lip quivering. “I want Percy! I want--!” she began to wail again, only for the nurse’s deathly glower to cause her to settle back into soft whimpering.

“Who is Percy?” she asked evenly.

“M-My, my puppy. They, they won’t let m-me see him!” A childish outrage crossed her little face--she was likely used to having her way at home, and this sudden ban was something that turned her world upside down.

“Of course. This is a hospital, not a menagerie,” she replied matter-of-factly. As correct as it was, it was no doubt the same explanation the other adults had given her that had failed to persuade her. The girl’s big eyes filled with tears, her mouth gaping open into a cry. “But,” the nurse began sternly, cutting her off before that terrible dirge could start again. “But, if you are good, and you let me give you your shots, I’ll let you have a prize.”

“Percy?” she whimpered.

Not a chance, she thought. “He can be your Percy until you go back home,” Alice reworded, already rolling up the girl’s sleeve. Before the girl could move or voice her protest, she had emptied the two needled vials into her plump little arm.

“Ouch!” the girl squeaked, but Alice wasn’t about to give her the chance to dissolve into tears again. She pulled out an object from the pocket of her apron, promptly displaying it upon her palm for the girl to see. “What is that?” the girl asked, her blotchy face crinkling up.

“Percy,” the young woman retorted shortly, giving the pin on the miniature a brusque wind. “See? His tail wags.”

“Oh!” the girl seized the dog comprised of metal parts, her eyes glued to it as she turned it about in her hands, fascinated by the simple movement. “Percy does that,” she remarked, looking up from the toy. The nurse, however, was nowhere to be found.

As she escaped to the hallway, the ringing finally out of her head, Alice breathed a sigh equal parts relief and annoyance. “Thanks for that,” Evangeline sang, sidling up to her with a smirk on her pretty face. Like many of the girls who were employed in the Shire, she was a beauty--tall and slender with fair hair, paired with a sharp nose and cheekbones that might hearken back to some proud noble lineage. Alas, that wasn’t the case for either of the girls, or any among them, for the matter.

“It wasn’t for you,” she rolled her eyes, leaning against the wall for a brief respite. A hand wandered back up to her collarbone, unthinkingly fingering the ribbon around her throat. “I couldn’t stand that incessant squealing--I thought I was finally going to go mad.” There was nothing quite like the sound of children crying that tread on every nerve she had within her, but Evangeline already knew that from similar occurrences.

“As long as you’re doing my job, I don’t care,” the girl sniffed, nudging her aside for a span of wall to lean on as well.

“Someone’s got to get things done properly around here,” she jabbed back curtly.

“Ha! You’re one to talk!” Evangeline scoffed, directing a furtive hand towards the door that led back out to the waiting room. “Visitors have been lining up in your absence.”

Alice sucked in a slow breath, begrudgingly pushing herself away from the wall. “Still no Lucy?” she asked, half-heartedly brushing back the tendrils of dark hair plastered to her face. It seemed that she would have to play the part a while longer. Where was that ninny?

“You’re the one who was dimwitted enough to be fooled by her,” the other girl shrugged, smiling cattily. She too stepped away from the wall, having spent what little time either of them could afford.

“You’re a ratbag, Evie,” she offered with a tart smile of her own as they parted, melting back into the bustling stream of nurses and patients.

“Birds of a feather!” she called back with a wink.

Though she had fully expected a room swarming with people as she peered through the door to the lobby, she was surprised to find it almost completely empty except for a withered figure in the corner. Lucy? She thought, but the girl was nowhere to be seen. It only took her another second to realize that Evangeline must have taken care of the remaining people while she was occupied with the crying girl. Smiling faintly to herself, she swept through the doors with a much lighter step than before. While the sound of the doors opening wouldn’t have bothered most, strangely enough the fellow nearly jumped out of his own skin. As he stood and began to make his way to her using a cane, however, she could see that he wasn’t an old man at all--in fact, he was a very young man.

“Good day, sir,” she greeted him cordially, her eyes sweeping over this curious young man. “Are you here with the cough?” Though to be honest, with how scrawny he was she could’ve thought up a long list of ailments he could’ve been suffering from.

“Ah, no, I’m--I’m not a patient,” he told her, a small nervous chuckle escaping him. His bespectacled eyes glanced about the room, finally settling on hers. “My name is Nick, I’m the new doctor on staff here.”

She blinked. Him, a doctor? He looked more like he needed a doctor. “Oh, is that so,” the young woman replied somewhat belatedly, “We weren’t informed…” Where was Lucy? Surely, she would’ve been told to look out for a newly arriving doctor--then again, perhaps she was giving the pretty girl too much credit. Glancing down at her pocket watch, Alice could only think to go find the head nurse instead. “If you could follow me, sir,” she motioned, stepping towards another set of doors and waiting for him to follow. Once the head nurse had this all sorted out, she'd be glad to finally have a doctor on staff. “I suppose you’ve come at a good time, Doctor,” she remarked offhandedly. “We’ve only got nurses and interns here at the moment, so we’re a bit short on hands.”

“Where’re the other doctors?” he asked, frowning.

“The estate. For the parade,” she quirked her brows, her distaste briefly seeping through the mask of bland courtesy.

“I don’t know why they bother with things like that,” he commented unexpectedly as he limped after her.

At that Alice paused, turning to give the young doctor a measuring look. For a moment it seemed as if an amused smile had brushed by her face, an inaudible ‘why indeed?’ in her eyes. “Have you interned here before?” she asked instead with a thoughtful frown, tilting her head to one side. It was difficult to place a finger on it, but he felt oddly familiar. Just as she managed to get the question out, the heavy front doors suddenly flung open behind them. Nick flinched again.

It was none other than the good doctor Abbey himself who strode in, a cold gentlemanly figure in white. He hadn't changed much since she'd first since him as a child, always appearing to be looking down at the likes of her from the heights of an ivory tower or from the other side of a foggy glass. Distant, coolly disinterested. At the sight of the gaunt young man beside her, however, Alice saw something deep and emotional crossing his face before he rushed over. “Nicholas, my boy!” he blurted out breathlessly, instantly engulfing ‘Nick’ in a tight embrace. Alice froze, her head giving a quick spin. Nicholas? “Son, what’re you doing here? We’ve all been waiting for you at the estate!” Son? 

All at once she understood why he had seemed so strangely familiar. He was Nicholas Abbey, the boy all this fuss was for in the first place. He was Nicholas Abbey, the Good Doctor's precious legacy. As the realization soaked into heart and bone, she stepped back demurely with the pretense of giving the father and son privacy, though her gaze never left their form. Unbeknownst to all, her lips parted--then curved into a dazzling smile that would have outshone the sun itself, a smile that spread to her eyes and set them glowing. Within them lay a vicious hope. Within them, a dark promise burned bright.

Offline Reigning King

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The villages were quiet, so quiet in fact, that they seemed empty.  From Kenbrooke to the gates of Hardoor, not a soul could be spotted from the Long road.  More specifically, not by the one individual traversing it.  A clunky but efficient motorbike bustled along the dirt road, the dust hovering in the air behind in its wake.  The rider donned a coat made from thick, durable mud-coloured canvas, the crossed maces of the Imperial Forces sewn into the sleeve of the left shoulder, his military rank and number beneath.  Medic, 056417, it read, printed in a uniform, black font.  He wore black leather gloves and a black helmet with scratched brown-strapped goggles.  The motorcyclist moved swiftly through the small villages surrounding the Abbeyshire, preferring the Long road to the Short, nothing in his side-car save a single piece of luggage.   

Entering Abbeyshire by the Long road instead of the Short had many advantages.  By avoiding the Square, the central marketplace of the Shire at the base of the big hill upon which the Abbey Estate sat, a commuter could avoid the thick of the traffic, where both buggy, bike and big-rolling-machine fought for position at the intersections.  Additionally, to pass through the Short road and beyond the Abbeyshire, one had to take the Narrow bridge past the monastery.  Though obviously more lengthy, the Long road carried travellers around the base of the hill that sprouted from the center of the Shire and its surrounding neighbourhoods, continuing through to White Rock harbour and the Mountain road beyond.  While out of the way, avoiding all the main attractions of the Shire, the Long road was also beyond the reach of prying eyes.  For the conduit of the sputtering motorbike, such a road suited just fine.  Luckily, this road brought a weary wanderer to the doors of the Abbeyshire Hospital which, fortunately enough, had been this rider’s exact destination. 

The motorbike was left stilled, leaning against a tree that grew beside two sisters near to the road.  With keys secured inside the pocket of the mossy green vest beneath his coat, he plucked his cane from where it had been secured along the side of his transport, a little modification he’d made himself, and started towards the hospital with his luggage in hand.  It took him a short while to make it up the steps and admittedly, he was a little pained after having competed the feat.  The pain in his leg however, the one that limped along with the metal cane, was a constant and so easily ignored, falling into the background like a white noise or an unpleasant smell.  Upon entering the hospital, the cripple was pleased to see that it looked much the same as it had since his last visit.  Seating himself in the vacant waiting room, he grunted quietly to himself as he tugged off the coat that looked too big for him, his frame much smaller underneath.  The luggage at his feet was small enough that it could be mistaken for a briefcase, so when the attending nurse returned to the front waiting room and assumed him to be seeking treatment, he was not surprised. 

“Ah, no I’m -- I’m not a patient.” He explained, laughing as he allowed the slight to roll off his back as though it never were.  “My name is Nick.  I’m the new doctor on staff here.” He offered helpfully, his tone light.  The nurse however, seemed unaffected by his gentle charm, apparently uninformed of his coming at all.  “I’m sorry.” Nick supplied at once, a wrinkle in his kind brow.  “This must be inconvenient for you.”

“I suppose you’ve come at a good time, Doctor.” She continued, further unmoved by his concern.  “We’ve only got nurses and interns here at the moment, so we’re a bit short on hands.”

“Where are the other doctors?” He asked in return, his coat folded over his free arm, held out to follow her through a set of swinging doors. 

“The estate.  For the parade.” She replied.  The way she said the words told him everything he needed to know regarding her opinion on the matter.  Nick himself, shared a similar ideal on the subject. 

“I don’t know why they bother with things like that…” His tone was more reserved than hers, but that reservation was dripping in thoughts unsaid.  After all, a parade made little sense when the individual for whom the parade had been thrown was uninterested in the affair.  Such a spectacle did little to make up for two years without a single letter or word.  Festivities and folly did nothing to bandage the wounds of wartime. 

“Have you interned here before?” She asked him, turning to gaze upon him with a queer look in her eye.  It was obvious, even at an initial glance, that she was a Grass-Blood.  A pleasant, broad face, black hair that fell straight, almond-shaped eyes and wind-worn olive skin; she had all the typical attributes belonging to those from the Dominion of the Queen.  Of course, the annexed nation would now formally be known as Greenlandia, beneath the heel of the Emperor and the protection of the Archbishop.  To the Grass-Bloods, no matter what the tsaivar mangas wrote in their books, the land would always belong to the Queen.  Nick would know that fact better than most. 

“Well, no, actually…” He started. 

“Nicholas, my boy!” Came a familiar voice, interrupting him.  Though it was a voice he had missed, a voice he had longed to hear for years, a voice that rang in him like the bells of joy, he had to take a moment and recover from the crashing entrance his father had made.  Flinching severely, in spite of himself and the calming breaths he had taken, he recoiled at first beneath his father’s rushing advance before his nervous expression cracked into a smile that seemed at least halfway sincere. 

“Son, what are you doing here?” He asked, peeling his youngest son from where he had flattened him against his chest.  Eyes roamed the sight of him, lingering on his leg, just as Nick had expected they would.  “We’ve all been waiting for you at the estate!”

“All the doctors as well?” He asked in response.  “I understand none of them are here.” His father didn’t answer but instead flicked a quick, venomous glance to the nurse who had stepped beyond Nick’s weak peripheral vision.  “You at least need a surgeon scheduled during an event, what if something should happen while everyone is busy having fun?” The tone he spoke with was light enough that Dr. Abbey Senior softened beneath the warmth of it, an empathetic hand falling against his son’s shoulder. 

“You’re right, of course.” He conceded.  “We’ll send for someone.  Let’s hurry to the party, the parade will be starting shortly and your mother is very excited to see you.”

For a fleeting instant, that same old terror gripped at his belly like when he was a boy.  Stiffening, as though struck by an icy breeze and frozen in place, his eyes stayed tuned onto his father, changing beneath the glass of his lenses.  “Didn’t you hear me?” He asked, the warmth gone from his voice.  “There must be at least one surgeon on staff at all times.” He repeated, this time more sternly.   The two men, practically mirror images of one another, save for the hollowness of Nick’s cheeks and the frailness of his body, starred each other down as though each were confronting a stranger.  Nicholas had once been an obedient little boy.  Dr. Abbey had once been an attentive and passionate physician.  Six years was a long time to be away, to be gone.  Just as he had suspected…

Things had changed. 

“Why don’t I stay for now?” Nick offered, a bit of that same charm sneaking back into his voice now.  “You can send two physicians back to the hospital from the party, and in the meantime if I have any questions I can just ask, Miss…” He had to rock onto his good leg and turn his body to find the corner where the nurse who had initially helped him had sequestered herself.  Brown eyes found hers and raised their brows expectantly, she hadn’t given him her name, so he had no way to politely finish the thought. 

“No, no!” Dr. Abbey insisted, stepping in between the nurse in question and his son.  “I’ll send an intern.” He assured him, wrapping an arm around his shoulder.  “Why don’t I show you around myself, son?” Christopher Abbey Sr. proposed, guiding his son down the main corridor of the facility. 

“Yes, why don’t you.” Nick agreed, a slight edge behind his tongue.  Casting his gaze one final time, over his shoulder to the nurse who had first greeted him, he offered her a polite, “thank you,” before following after his father, feeling again like a boy but this time, different, in far more ways than just one.  Time could make men of boys, but war makes monsters of those same men, just as helpless to the horror as the passing of each second. 

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Offline nevermore girl

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The nurse watched the doctor lead his limping son away with a small streak of frustration, cursing Lucy once again in her head. If only she’d been here, doing her actual job, she would’ve been able to do some much needed research for the plot that had begun to rapidly emerge within her. It was then that the very blonde came bursting through the door, sheet white with fear--or was it powder? Apparently, she hadn’t been wishing hard enough. “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what happened, time just flew by--” she babbled, clearly afraid of the backlash she would receive from the prickly girl.

Fortunately for Lucy, Alice was too occupied to give her a tongue lashing. Pushing the charts back into the blonde’s arms, the nurse brushed past the girl with a distracted “It’s fine,” which seemed to stun her. Alice couldn’t care less--there was more important prey afoot, after all.

As father and son wandered down the corridors of Abbeyshire hospital, neither of them seemed to notice the slight figure of the nurse who trailed them at a good distance--unsurprising, since there were many uniformed nurses abound and she was simply a number among them. Had Dr. Abbey been alone she would have dared to follow more closely, for the Good Doctor’s eyes always had a way of sweeping over the undesirables, but his son seemed much more...alert, if not jumpy.

Nicholas Abbey. She eyed the emaciated young man from across the hall, her gaze cool. Now that the two men were together, she felt silly for not having recognized him--he certainly took after his father. While that was to be expected, whenever Alice encountered the second son of the Good Doctor over the years, she’d only ever been able to see that one particularly pathetic memory of him splayed over his face. Of course, she doubted he remembered her; they were all too insignificant for the likes of the Abbeys. 

As they made their slow rounds about the hospital and its wings, Alice strayed close enough at times to be able to catch snatches of the doctor giving a quick summary of each area. The doctor seemed to be in a hurry to get through the tour, judging by the details he was glossing over--but even she could not refrain from laughing scornfully under her breath as Doctor Abbey referred to the Female Trauma wing as some marvelous act of charity, providing their female patients with much needed privacy and respect when it came to ‘sensitive matters.’ Oh, she remembered her own stays in the wing well enough, and to her it was quite clear that the actual reason the male staff was barred from the area was so that the Good Doctor could continue to turn a blind eye to the very real horrors that the girls were put through. Of course, Alice was not surprised by this revision to the cruel truth--what she was surprised by, however, was the flat out lie uttered when they reached the door to the basement stairs.

“That leads to the basement, but stay out of there, son--it’s under construction. There’s a lot of rubble and the floor’s quite torn up,” he told the young man, unable to prevent a meaningful gaze from wandering to the cane he held.

Any one of the girls--including Alice--would have instantly known that to be a lie. There was no such construction going on in the basement of the Abbeyshire hospital. No, it housed the crematorium...and a tunnel. While the crematorium wasn’t used as often anymore, the tunnel was frequented daily by at least a good number of the girls working at the hospital. It only took a brisk walk through the tunnels to reach the richly decorated east wing of the estate, filled with beautiful salons and the grand ballroom. It was no secret what went on in there, so why the lie?

Deep in thought Alice continued follow the duo as they moved on, but once they reached their destination she instantly regretted the decision. It was the pediatrics ward, filled with crying, screaming children. Trying not to feel too ill, she stopped at a corner as the two doctors entered a room filled with fussing, wailing brats. She tended to avoid this very ward when she could, though the sound of crying would more often than not summon her to the bedside of the offender to somehow silence it. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t be able to go bursting into the room this time. Her headache was beginning to return with a vengeance, and she threw a glare towards the roomful of children, a hand beginning to creep up to her neck. The sight of Nicholas Abbey standing there with the sound of their wailing only brought the first memory she had of him rushing back.

It’d been the same summer she’d lost Chryssa, the same summer she’d met him, the summer everything came colliding around her. On a particularly sweltering day she’d escaped the orphanage once again and found her way to the outskirts of the maze-like gardens, hoping the heat would discourage her jailers from searching for her. It hadn’t been to cause mischief, she’d just wanted to be alone--to be free from surveillance, to forget what she was running from. Though she had gone through the pains of secluding herself in the farthest corner of the vast gardens, her hopes of solitude had been dashed when the unmistakable sound of sobbing assaulted her ears through the greenery.

When she’d peered through the wrought iron fence she’d spotted a young boy about her age crying pathetically into his frilly sleeves, dribbling tears onto his polished leather shoes. The moment he looked up and met her dagger-like gaze with his tearful one she’d realized who he was--and never before had she hated someone so instantly. What do you have to cry about? she had wanted to shout, to rage at him. He had a living family. He was so rich he could have been dining from gold plates for all she knew. He had everything he could’ve wanted, he had everything she didn’t--thanks to the misery his family wrought. How dare he cry? How dare he? Before she could give voice to the venom boiling in her veins, however, the ever-familiar sound of her keepers angrily searching for her had echoed across the green labyrinth. She’d fled the wretched scene then, hands balled up into fists and teeth clenched tight. Of course, within a few hours she’d been discovered and dragged back to the orphanage for the usual punishment--but even the blows of the rod could not break her away from the seething thoughts in her head. Even now, the memory caused her nails to press against her palms.

“Doing a little bit of spying, eh?” a voice interrupted from behind her.

Too annoyed with the sound of crying and the memory alike to be fazed at being caught red-handed, Alice glanced over her shoulder to greet Evangeline with a grim quirk of the lips. “And look at you, all dolled up,” she retorted. Indeed, as worn out as the girl had appeared earlier, her hair was now arranged back into perfection, and her cheeks boasted a youthful flush of colour. Though she was dressed like any other nurse, had Evangeline ventured into that room she certainly would not go overlooked by the Good Doctor. Oh, she was a beauty, of course, but it wasn’t so much that she was the most exquisite among the others--rather, it was that her beauty closely resembled a very particular woman.

It was no real secret that Evangeline frequented the bed of Dr. Abbey far more than his actual wife did. There was a certain amount of power that came with such a status, and while most girls deferred to her, she had also become an object of hidden disdain for others. As for Alice--well, she didn’t fall into either category, a fact that both of them were quite aware of. “What can I say? I heard he was here,” Evangeline shrugged, tucking a lock of her strawberry blonde hair behind an ear. A sly smile playing on her lips, she peered around the corner--only to hesitate at the sight of the gaunt young man next to the doctor. “Is that who I think it is?” she asked, not bothering to turn around.

“It is indeed,” Alice answered, just as the father placed a hand on his son’s shoulder.

“Hm,” Evangeline hummed back, her lips curving down the way they always did when she wasn’t too impressed or pleased. She’d been in something of a mood ever since they’d begun preparing for the festivities in earnest--she tried to not let it show, but it was clear enough to Alice that something about this whole reunion rubbed her the wrong way. “I suppose I shouldn’t disturb them,” the fair haired girl concluded primly, turning back with an air of smothered disappointment.

“Suit yourself,” Alice returned lightly. Though she had a few educated guesses to the reason behind the other girl’s darkened mood, she didn’t bother commenting upon it or asking for confirmation. She didn’t stick her nose into Evangeline’s private business, and vice versa; it was most likely why they got along so swimmingly, even when there was no semblance of real personal affection between them. In fact--

A sudden sound made her stop short. “Alice?” Evangeline questioned, her brows quirked at the sight of her stiffening. Instead of answering, the dark haired girl twisted around to look into the room to confirm what she had heard. Indeed, it hadn’t been some strange trick of the mind.

“They’re laughing,” the words slipped from her lips as she stared in disbelief. The children that had been whining and crying were now grinning from ear to ear, some giggling aloud despite their sore throats, their eyes all focused on the scrawny skeleton of a young man. 

“So, they’re laughing,” Evangeline repeated, obviously not seeing what the fuss was about. “Children do that.”

Pulling herself away from the unnatural sight, Alice turned to the other nurse to try and explain. However, her eyes darted to two men hurrying down the corridor behind them, their white coats flapping behind them--the replacements from the estate. “The doctors,” she hissed, and the two young women sprang apart, quickly finding ways to look occupied with some sort of task.

As she wrung out a rag in a basin, she watched discreetly as father and son exchanged a few words with Doctor Bonham and Doctor Westcott. After a round of firm handshakes, the Good Doctor and his son left for the estate, leaving two irritated doctors to run the hospital. Barking out orders and assignments, the doctors sent the weary nurses scurrying to all different corners of the Abbeyshire hospital. The sick don’t stop being sick for a festival, the doctors reminded them, and Alice couldn’t help but roll her eyes.

The world was quiet. Sprawled carelessly in the grass, the dark haired girl let a slow breath escape her, palming the tendrils of green between her fingers. Above her, the sky was beginning to take on a soft orange glow, the sun beginning to make its descent down towards the valleys. In a few hours her presence would be required, but for now, there was no one to come looking for her--for now, she was neither a nurse nor a whore, and she could close her eyes and let herself pretend she had nothing to do with this accursed place. Not Alice,Yuuka.

She still remembered how at nighttime she and her brothers would lay out on the grass while her mother told them stories about the heros in the stars above, the sound of the crickets crooning along to her lilting words. One night it’d be about the Celestial Maiden and the Cowherd, the lovers who could only meet once a year upon a bridge of birds. Another night it’d be the legend of the Five Sister Queens, who avenged their father by driving back the enemy and lead each of their respective dominions to prosperity and greatness. 

The young woman could almost recall her mother’s voice forming the syllables that had rusted and lost their meaning long ago. As hard as she had tried to grasp at the threads that formed the tapestry of her homeland, it’d all started to unravel the moment she’d been ripped from it. Now she could speak no more of her mother tongue than a toddler could, and she did not even remember the full name her parents had given her. She could despise the reality all she wanted, but there was no denying that the empire had succeeded in doing what they set out to do--civilize the barbarians. A bitter, mocking smirk seized her lips for a brief moment before her senses picked up on the approach of footsteps. Her eyes flew open and she immediately bolted up into a sitting position, tensing up considerably. “Who’s there?” Alice demanded, her voice sharp with the hostility that usually ensured she would be left alone. 

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His dress uniform didn’t quite fit him like it used to.  Looking at himself in the mirror, smoothing his parted, greased hair down against the side of his head, he shifted uncomfortably beneath the weight of his garb.  When the war had first started, he had been broader of shoulder and thicker around his middle.  The stiff black fabric of his pristine service dress felt more like a shell than a uniform, oversized and too heavy.  Smoothing out any remaining wrinkles and adjusting the gold-plated buttons of his jacket with his white-gloved hand, he took deep breaths from his nose to steady his beating heart.  Glancing down at the watch on his wrist, the one he never took off, he rubbed a smudge from the scratched glass-covered face.  Though it was late afternoon, early evening now, the watch on his wrist read eleven-thirty-two, and never a second otherwise.  Covering the watch with his sleeve and setting his red and black peaked cap onto his groomed head, the gold stitching of the Imperial Crest dulling the look of his sandy hair, he made for the door that would take him from his rooms.  They remained just the same as when he had first left the Estate.  In truth, it had been much longer than six years since he had been away.  After graduating early from boarding school at a tender age, Nicholas Abbey had immersed himself at once into University, only returning to the Abbeyshire on holidays or specially marked occasions.  While the hallways looked just as they always had, the ornately wallpapered corridors as familiar to him as they had ever been, there was something new lurking in their shadows.  War had sharpened his senses and something about this place he had once called home made the hairs on his arms stand on their ends.  Fortunately, his effects had already been left in a vacant residency room at the hospital, conveniently close to the pediatrics wing and the South doors which led to the orphanage behind.  It had taken some convincing but finally his father had surrendered to the notion of keeping his childhood rooms empty for at least a little while longer. 

The day he returned to the Abbeyshire had been, thus far, just as he had forever hoped it would be.  He had seen his mother and elder brother only briefly during the parade, before wasting the hours into the afternoon with his father.  They strolled through the crop fields like they used to when Nicholas had been merely a boy, though this time son was not skipping or running ahead of his father, stopping next through the carnival that he had initially avoided upon his arrival in the Shire Square.  Both father and son each tried their hand at the various games and attractions that squeezed themselves in between the shops and stalls, before letting a butter beer settle their excitement and fill their bellies enough not to spoil the spread for the formal party later on.  Catching a carriage not long after to the Cathedral of St. Christopher, Dr. Abbey stumbled upon a few of the orphans who would now be beneath Nicholas’ care, introducing him to the pewboys and marvelling at way by which they took to him at once.  When finally the hours had fluttered past for long enough to make them both late to their most important engagement, Lord Abbey had whisked his son back to the Estate, parting from him only to allow for the privacy he needed to change into attire more suitable for the function.  Christopher Abbey seemed, without care for hiding the fact, full of selfish want for his son’s attention and luckily the feeling was exceedingly mutual.  Nicholas had missed the comfort of a warm bed, the fullness of a good meal, the ease of a restful night, while away at war; but most of all, more than anything else, he had missed his father. 

“Look at you.” Came that gentle, coaxing voice Nicholas loved so much.  He stood at the top of the grand staircase, donning a handsomely tailed coat and his formal robes, the ones that hung heavy and red around his shoulders and marked him as a Lord of the Holy Empire.  Yet, when compared to the medals, pins and sashes that clattered and swayed against Nicholas’ chest, the Lord Abbey might have almost looked plain.  “They took my boy and gave me back a man.” He remarked, feeling misting his eyes and making his voice catch in his throat. 

“Most of him, anyway.” Nicholas retorted, his cane moving in tandem with his left leg, ruined beneath the pleated black of his trousers. 

Lord Abbey laughed along with his son, both chuckling in the same throaty fashion.  “Are you ready?” He asked his son compassionately.   

“Not at all, but I don’t imagine that matters very much.” He let his eyes meet those which were an identical shade of warm, honey brown.  “I expect the food has already been paid for, better just to get on with it.”  Again, both men giggled at the jest.  Doctors had a morbid sense of humour, a trait that perhaps Nicholas had inherited from his father or maybe acquired throughout his study of medicine.  No matter the causation, it was a trait they both shared, among countless others. 

“I know this is probably a lot.” Nicholas’ father empathized, his brows coming together at the middle of his forehead in earnest worry.  “Let me know if you need a distraction, I’ll buy you a minute to get some air.” He offered, the smile returning to his lips as he put a hand on his son’s decorated shoulder and guided him towards the staircase. 

“Well, we’re starting the night off with sodding stairs, so I think I’ll be holding you to that.” Once more, both men laughed and father extended a helpful elbow to son, one he was kind enough to pull back once within the sight of the crowded grand ballroom. 

As a child, all things seem larger and grander from behind innocent eyes.  Aging tends to take away the sparkle from places that once seemed magical.  Something that before looked big and beautiful later seems smaller and more boring.  The grand ballroom of the Abbeyshire mansion was not one of these places.  Glistening parquet flooring carried the reflected light from the shimmering crystal chandeliers overhead from one corner to the other.  At the end of the ballroom opposite the grand staircase an orchestra pit was filled to brimming with musicians, a singer bellowing an opera for the enjoyment of guests from the stage above.  While one long wall was filled with windows that stretched from the floor to ceiling, the other was adorned with large gold-framed mirrors that reflected the glow of the setting sun across the scene of revelry.  From the balustrade Nicholas clung to with the hand opposite that of his cane, to the candelabras held by winged saints, all the details of the lavish grand ballroom were gold.  Red banners bearing the Imperial Crest, the crossed maces of the Mace Dynasty, the Sigil of His Excellency, the Holy Emperor, hung upon the walls between mirror and window alike, reminding guests just for whom they were brought together.  With eyes flicking from one piece of artistry to the next, one painted face in the crowd to the next, the ballroom felt just as grandiose and overwhelming as it had when he had been a small boy.  Even before he had descended the final step and entered the throng of the ballroom crowd, the familiar hand of anxiousness had gripped him and begun squeezing at his throat, his chest, his belly.  The panic came in waves, the course of which were a familiar navigation for Nicholas, he could deal with the panic, but the terror…

My darling,” That familiar slithering voice hissed from behind him, striking more fear into his broken heart than all the horrors of war combined. 

The terror he had tried to outrun as a boy, the terror that had haunted his nightmares even in the midst of battle, the terror he had come home to… that which he was far less equipped to deal with. 

“Oh, Nicholas, my baby boy.” The Lady Abbey cooed as she swept her son up into her arms.  Long nails, painted dark purple, scratched against the scruff of his neck, tickling beneath the collar of his jacket.  Her other arm she wrapped around his waist, holding him tight against her full chest, as if she were a great snake from the forests of the Africannis, poisoning her victim into paralysis with her venom, before squeezing from them whatever life might remain.  “I missed you.” She said slowly, the words quiet enough to be for him alone, spoken into the ear against which her lips caressed.  At their utterance, his stomach dropped and his breath caught in his throat.  He tried to will his heart to beat, to make his lungs draw breath, but his was frozen in fear and completely helpless.   

“And look at you, so thin!” She exclaimed, holding him out at arm’s length, sharp eyes roaming over his broken figure.  Her fiery red hair cascaded in smooth waves upon the shoulders of her green, velvet dress, the same colour as her calculating stare.  “We must have a full examination done on the morrow,” she prattled on.  “My son, the hero, but oh, at what cost?” She gushed.  Nicholas moved between the hands that gripped him by the shoulders in the same fashion a rag doll might, his eyes void of feeling, void of presence, voice of Nicholas altogether.  It couldn’t be helped, the terror sunk its claws into him the same way every time, since the very first.  First came the cold, then the blank, then the wait.  The wait was the hardest part.  The wait for it to be over. 

“Is it over…?” The little boy inside of him asked into the darkness.  “Is it over…?”

“But, surely Doctor, there is something you can do?” The Lord of Rockmarch asked. 

“Yes, my good Doctor, with your formidable staff and even your own skilled hands…” The Duke of Bellewood agreed, pressing further. 

Nicholas hadn’t noticed the small crowd that had gathered around him, eager to catch the ear of the renowned Abbey’s or their famous son.  Only when Dr. Abbey Sr. stepped forward, putting himself between mother and son, did Nicholas begin to blink away the frost that kept him from drawing breath.  He put his arm against his son’s back, discreet in the manner by which he held him up beneath one good leg regaining its strength.  The sounds came back to him first, followed quickly by the sights.  While in the beginning both swirled together in a blurry, noisy, chaotic sort of haze, they began to settle until at last he could make out the pieces by which to put together the puzzle of the present conversation.  Dr. Abbey Sr., the Lord of the Abbeyshire, was explaining a new medical procedure, known as a transplant, a procedure that could supposedly correct the ruination of Nicholas’ kneecap and surrounding cartilage.  When the subtle sway of his thin frame found sure footing and a solid distribution of weight upon the cane in his left hand, Nicholas’ father let his hand fall away from his son. 

“Of course, we have much ahead of us before we think on such things.” Dr. Abbey assured the guests he conversed with, casting a proud gaze over to his son.  “Since my son is a certified physician now, he’ll be taking over some of the responsibilities at the hospital and managing the orphanage.”

“How noble!” One gentlewoman chirped in compliment.

“To return from war only to sacrifice even more, you’re too good Dr. Abbey.” That time, the words had been directed at Nicholas. 

“Oh,” he started stupidly.  “It’s no sacrifice.  Actually, I quite like children.”  This was well received, for whatever reason, a few ladies in the crowd even bringing their hands to their bosoms in a theatrical aweing.  He pretended not to notice the way he mother leered from the other side of his father, jealous for the spotlight stolen from she who rightfully deserved it.   

“He does have a way with them.” Abbey Sr. elaborated, his tone dripping with a shining pride that flirted with the borders of arrogance. 

“Even the horse-fuckers?” A man donning his own dress uniform inquired casually.  His chest was as decorated with resplendently polished metal as Nicholas’.  The insignia on his shoulder indicated his rank as a Lieutenant-General.  To most, it meant he was a man of position and title, someone to be respected.  Nicholas, however, knew that it meant he was a yellow-belly with a fat ass; nothing more than an old man who spent the war sitting in a bunker, sipping tea, while ordering young men to the front lines to die.  His duty uniform was probably as crisp and unstained as the day he had been handed the damned thing, along with a pair of boots and the word of the One, the Book of the Many. 

“Yes, Lieutenant-General, sir.” Nicholas offered in a measured tone, the light returning to his eyes but none of the warmth.  “Even the horse-fuckers.”

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“You’re uglier than before.”

Christopher Abbey Junior had found his younger brother sequestered in a quiet corner of the ballroom, a plate of horderves in his hands, many of them already stuffed in his cheeks.  He too wore a dress uniform of the Imperial Forces, the same crossed maces patched against his shoulder like all the others.  While Christopher and his brother both donned the red, braided rope around their right shoulders and matching sash around their waists, Nicholas’ uniform varied from his brother’s in many ways.  While surely the white sash across his chest and the many medals dangling from his left breast pocket drew enough attention, the most notable of all his ceremonial decorations was the rapier sheathed at his hip.  The hilt was encrusted from solid gold, giving momentum to a thrust should the weapon be used in combat, but otherwise only adding weight to an already heavy ensemble.  The leather of the scabbard it was sheathed in was etched with phrases from the Book of the Many, the blade blessed by his Holiness the Archbishop and presented to the receiving officer by the Emperor himself.  It was the highest possible honour within the Imperial Forces, and like a jealous little boy, Christopher couldn’t stop staring at it. 

“You’re fatter.” Nicholas retorted, talking with his mouth half-full and pushing his circular lenses up his nose with fingers armed with further nourishment for his own withering physique. 

“So are you going to tell me what really happened?” Christopher asked, crossing his arms over his chest.  He wasn’t fat at all, Christopher Abbey Jr.  In fact, his was rather strapping, certainly more so than his younger brother.  Standing nearly half a head taller and more than twice as wide, he was built with all the strength and good looks that failed to reach Nicholas in their mother’s womb.  His hair shone like the sun itself, his jaw strong, his lips full and of course his bright green eyes could spot an eagle in the sky from ten miles off on a cloudy day.  Better at Nicholas in everything for all of their lives, constantly overshadowing him in every way, it was curious to see him struggling to get the attention he was typically accustomed to.  For once, the gleaming beam of fame and focus was not on him, but another and moreover, another who wanted it not in the tiniest bit.  How frustrated then, he must be. 

“What do you mean?” Nicholas asked in return. 

“C’mon, Nicky…” He started, stepping towards his little brother and looking at him in the same way he used to look at him before he hit him, or knocked the books from his hands.  “Everyone’s heard the story, the outpost that lost all its commanding officers, the medic who had to take command as Captain, the suicide mission that won the Empire the Eastern Front overnight?” He elaborated, raising his expressive gold-threaded eyebrows at his younger brother expectantly. 

“So what’s your question?” Nicholas asked. 

“My question is, what really happened?” He repeated himself, taking another step forward.  “Because there’s no way, not a chance in all the Many Hells, that a coward like you pulled off something like that.”

Nicholas flicked his gaze up to his brother’s and while there was not cruelty or even prickliness to be found in his brown hues, there was something swimming within them that gave Christopher a momentary pause.  Swallowing what he held in his mouth and finding a surface upon which to set the rest, Nicholas turned his attention to his older brother with a calm indifference.  “You’ve heard the story and that’s what happened, though not as glamorous as singers tell it -- did you know men shit themselves when they die?” His cadence was jarring, his attitude unlike himself.  Visibly, Christopher recoiled in confusion at the sight of it.  Nicholas had always been the type to turn the other cheek.  Their father used to say that compassion made a good doctor, but Christopher had only ever seen it make a useful and readily available punching bag of his brother.  He would take the cut lip, the cut feelings, always bleeding in one way or another.  The last thing Christopher would have ever expected however, would have been that this war would return to him a baby brother who had learned how to cut back. 

“Let me ask you something, brother.” Nicholas started.  This time, it was his turn to make the advance.  As his left foot came to the parquet floors alongside his cane, his brother’s same foot retreated in equal measure.  “If I’m a coward, what does that make you?” He asked, a hauntingly pleasant smile on his unremarkable lips. 

Christopher’s handsome features twisted into an ugly shape.  As his face started going red, he swung a kicking foot hard at Nicholas’ cane, meaning to knock it out from under him.  Instead however, the broad side of his foot struck hard against a seemingly immovable object.  Fortunately, his embarrassing yelp could not be heard above the roar of the party-goers and music as he buckled onto himself and clutched at his polished shoe.  “What’s…? How…?” He stammered, supporting his weight with one arm against the ballroom wall.  From the angle he found himself in, in the midst of his agony, he was able to better see the cane that his brother walked with.  Now he could see, as clearly as if he should have always been able to, that this was no ordinary cane.  His younger brother’s thumb pushed against a tiny notch, making a string of small gears and complex winding mechanisms moving along its length, a ghostly blue flickering at its base.  This was not something that could be bought on the street, or even in the black market, but rather something entirely new that Christopher -- with all his worldly knowledge -- had never seen before.  As the mechanism stopped it’s function, the cane that previously been impossibly rooted to the floor now moved in Nicholas’ hand as effortlessly as if it were a feather. 

“I installed a composite alloy, embedded into a lodestone, into the base which, when activated, connects its component atoms to that of the earth’s crust…” Nicholas explained flippantly.  Upon seeing the confused and bewildered expression on his brother’s face, he leaned forward and spoke slowly saying, “It’s a very strong magnet.”

“You know something, brother?” Nicholas continued, when he was met with only a slack-jawed response.  Righting himself and brushing the crumbs that lingered from the previously devoured horderves, the fought against the headache pressing in against his temples with a clenched jaw.  “You haven’t changed.”  Christopher had underestimated his little brother for their entire lives and would likely continue to for a little while longer still.  Eventually however, Christopher would come to realize, along with everyone else, that while they might not have changed, Nicholas had.  In fact, Nicholas was very, very different. 

“I think I could use that distraction right about now.” Nicholas whispered into his father’s ear, leaning in next to him after braving the crowd for long enough to find him.  Cleverly, the Lord of Abbeyshire made his way to the stage where he commenced a long-winded toast.  With everyone looking in the opposite direction, Nicholas was give the time he needed to make his none-too-hasty escape.  He retreated out the same way he oft had has a boy, through the garden doors behind the grand staircase.  They opened out first onto the terrace, but following the inlain stone path through the garden brought a wanderer to the hedges, wherein he could get lost.  He took his hat from his head, carrying it in his hand as he walked so he could better gaze up at the stars beginning to show through the translucency of the darkening sky.  Orange and pink had given way now to purples and reds, the moon beginning it’s nightly chase across the sky after her unreachable lover, the sun.  Walking soothed him, in spite of the pain.  As he walked he thought about the hospital, the children he had seen today.  The doctors seemed to be rather fond of him, though naturally Nicholas had to assume they were simply trying their best to be agreeable with him.  There had been, of course, that nurse who had initially received him.  She seemed serious, which Nicholas respected in a practitioner of medicine, but she also seemed unaffected by his presence, as though she didn’t care about him.  Nicholas liked that well enough, he didn’t care about him either, after all. 

Suddenly, as if by some weird magic, he spotted her sprawled in the grass in the glades beyond the gardens.  Halting at once in his tracks, he looked at her shape, like a toy dropped and forgotten by a careless child.  She was wearing her nurse uniform, looking just as he had seen her earlier that day, now laying lifeless amidst the green.  Nicholas felt his breathing become ragged as the next wave of panic rolled upon him, setting off his lip to twitching.  He blinked hard against the sight, willing it away.  Usually it wasn’t like this, usually it was…

Dust… Blood… Mixed in together, splashed against the rubble… It’s so quiet… Why is it so quiet…?   What’s missing… ?  Where’s the ticking…?


Can’t think about that. 

Don’t think about that.

His tongue tapped against the roof of his mouth as his lips pursed and flinched, whispering under his breath, “no, no, no, no, no…” The cane beneath his hand whirred to life as the gears moved into action, providing him with the stability that neither his mind nor his body could provide.  He shuffled forward, one step at a time.  There was a voice in his head that told him to look away, to run away, but he never did.  He had to see.  Always, he had to see.  This time was different from the others, though.  It felt off, as if there was something he was missing.  He had never seen someone like this, someone who he didn’t know, who he had just met, but here she was called forth from his thoughts.  The Major who had overseen his transfer after the incident had warned him about this, about how returning home could make things worse.  He had advised him to stay on for a while longer, but he had gotten that letter from his father and been so eager to return to the one place that made everything worse.  Each time he came home, things got worse…

Who’s there?” She demanded suddenly, sitting up. 

“You’re real?” He asked back.  When her head turned at the sound of his voice and her eyes found his, the breath he had been choking on rushed back into his lungs all at once.  Pinching his cap between his fingers and his cane, he pushed the gloved fingers of his free hand across his hair, as though that was what had been out of place and not his ill-functioning psyche or his broken mind.  “I mean, what are you doing out here?”  He tried, finding the words awkward in his mouth, the mask difficult to repair after having already shattered it from the first. 

The heavy, wet beating of his heart against his ribs had begun to settle and he limped his way towards the fence that separated them.  She looked familiar to him, but then again he had seen her face a hundred times, reflected in a hundred of her people.  The beauty of the riders from the Dominion of the Queens, was considered less desirable among the Elite of the Empire of Britannica.  Her face, however, was not a difficult one to look at.  Her features stayed pretty even in her dismay, even as they began to twist, even as they changed, like the colours do on the scales of a chameleon, in the glow of the rising moon.  “Shouldn’t you be out with the rest of the staff?” He asked conversationally.  He needed more words from her.  He needed to see, to be sure this was what it was.  “The lanterns are all still lit in the Square, most of the stalls still open too I think.”

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“You’re real?” a voice rang out from the gardens and she twisted towards the sound, disdain flitting across her features.

“What sort of idiotic question is--” she began tartly, all too familiar with talking back at a moment’s notice, but the words lost their edge as the intruder came into view. The intruder was Nicholas Abbey. “...oh,” Alice uttered as her heart leapt. Before she could offer him a sincerely insincere apology, however, he was attempting to amend his clumsy question.

“I mean, what’re you doing out here?” he hastily asked, limping closer. It wasn’t a surprising question; young women had no business traipsing about at dusk alone, and they were certainly not to be rolling around in the grass. Alice, however, who’d been carelessly breaking those rules since she was a child despite her pearl-clutching keepers, was no stranger to letting that question go ignored.

Instead of answering she stood and mirrored his actions, walking up to the fence that divided the two of them and letting her gaze wash over him. He looked much more like an Abbey son now, decked out in an ill-fitting formal suit, and despite the soft light of the rising moon he positively glittered, the medals pinned to his chest polished to a brilliant shine. A decorated war hero. The same twisting, bitter smile began to well up within her. How many of her people had he slaughtered to earn those pretty trinkets, she wondered. On his shoulder was the familiar patch, the symbol of the empire that had torn her home apart, the very same she’d seen on uniforms and flags alike the day she lost her family. However, like many of the people, he would have met that night, her attention could not help but stray to the most decadent of all his accessories--the gleaming rapier at his hip. Like them, she stared, though the thoughts running through her mind were not ones of admiration or even envy. While his was encrusted with gold, she could recall plainer models gracing the sides of the soldiers who had overrun their camp and dragged her from the barrel her mother had hidden her in.

“Fuck! The little bitch bit me!” she could still hear the soldier scream, taste the iron on her tongue, feel the unpleasant chunk of flesh in her mouth. The rapier held high, glittering harshly in the dying light--

“Shouldn’t you be out with the rest of the staff?” he asked, and Alice forced her gaze away from the weapon and back up to his bespectacled eyes. “The lanterns are all still lit in the Square, most of the stalls still open too I think.” After a day of grueling work, some of the nurses and orderlies had still found it within them to try and enjoy themselves in the square. She’d overheard a group or two promising to meet up at such and such an hour, filled with the kind of excitement she believed was better off left to children. No one had invited her, of course, but Alice had no interest in parades or carnivals. It all seemed to her like a paper thin farce to mask all that was rotten with this place--no, she’d rather be buried in the tall grass, making fireflies her lanterns.

“I’m not fond of crowds,” the dark-haired girl answered simply. It was an honest answer--she saw enough of crowds and staff members during work hours anyhow. “Shouldn’t you be inside with the rest of the socialites, doctor?” she then turned the question back on him, tit for tat, arching a brow. “It seems to me we’re both a bit out of place,” she concluded, daring to equate herself to the young master of Abbeyshire. Before any sort of wounded pride could rear its head within him she tilted her head, a spark of mischief coming through in an impish half-smile as she leaned in conspiringly. “I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.”

In that short exchange alone she’d established common ground and bound them together with an inconsequential promise, a shared secret, an inside joke. This sort of game was child’s play to her by now--turns of phrases, a certain look in the eyes, the curve of a lip. It all began with finding out the kind of woman a man wanted. Some wanted innocent virgins too pure for the earthly world, while others wanted a devilish temptress or a scornful ice queen. She could be any or all of those, a man’s fantasies come alive to flesh and bone once the bedroom doors closed. Had Nicholas Abbey been introduced to her as a customer, she would have perhaps pegged him as the type to respond well to a shy, wholesome maiden, blossoming to attention beneath kind words. Of course, that mask was going to be a difficult one to don since he’d already encountered her as a very different creature indeed, but Alice was not concerned. 

There was a large number of things one learned in her profession, but one of the surprising things she’d come to understand was the very simple key to building a relationship. No matter the kind of relationship, feigned or genuine, platonic or romantic, people wanted to feel special, to be a unique existence to another person unable to be replaced by just another body. Men always seemed to want to forget that they were just another customer to her, even if she was just another whore to most of them. Therein lay her simple but effective ploy; she would have him believe that he alone was able to see through the cracks in her cynical, barbed mask. Real skin turned to a mask, a mask inverted into skin.

Perhaps it was all madness, a delusion of a mind that had started to fester too long ago. There were many reasons why people played the game of seduction, but at the end of the day it was about desire, want. Some wanted a fleeting, torrid distraction from the boredom of their lives, and others chased after a desirable marriage. Many of her fellow girls continued to play the wretched game out of a base desire for survival, while ones like Evangeline thirsted and hungered for every scrap of power that could be wrested from between tangled sheets, climbing higher and higher on the teetering ladder.  As for Alice--well, once as a silly child she had wanted nothing more than a pair of wings so she could fly free from this cage, but now she understood it was an impossible dream. She’d long given up on such folly. As she regarded the young man before her, her piercing stare momentarily took on the starry, pious gaze of a girl kneeling at the altar. Her wants were of a smaller, more humble nature now; she’d learned, she’d repented. A single match would suffice, one little match to have it all go up in flames--oh, just a tiny wish, she thought--won’t you grant it, dearheart?

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“Oh, I can keep a secret, alright.” He assured her at once, taking another limping step forward.  Reaching for the iron-wrought fence that separated them, gloved fingers curling around the bars, he winced at his own folly and drew forth a bashful laugh from his shy expression.  “Did that sound too eager?” Nicholas asked, a nervous smirk tickling at his lips, twisting his broad-set mouth.  “You’ll have to forgive me, I’ve been at shoulders with nothing but soldiers for too long, it seems I’ve forgotten how to talk to a woman.” Having stolen a brief reprieve for his good leg, he unfolded his fingers from around the bars of the fence to slip them between, offering his hand to the young lady on the other side.  “I never did get your name, Miss…?” He let the words hang in the air the same fashion they had in the hospital, his eyebrows lifting towards the starry sky in the same expectant way.  Nicholas had always been charming and likable, even as a young boy.  There was a subtle edge to his lighthearted gestures now, a barely recognizable nuance in the darting of his smart brown eyes.  Once the innocent traits of a good heart, now the rag rubbed raw against hands that would never be free from the stain of red. 

“Well met.” Nicholas returned politely before withdrawing his hand from hers.  Alice.  It wasn’t a name often heard amidst her kind, like others that echoed between calling keepers like bells chiming. 

A silence hung in the air between them that was both peacefully mutual and jarringly familiar.  Each had come out to this quiet place for their own reasons, but sought the same ends.  Silence and solitude.  There was safety in the silence, a reassurance born from having only oneself to be aware of and in engagement with.  The chaos of the party, the clatter of jazz music and the dank odor of overdressed bodies pressing in tightly served not in making Nicholas feel at home, but instead just the opposite.  Coincidentally, it was in the moment when people were at their highest point of elation, that they were closest to that teetering edge over which one toppled into the endless abyss.  They all smelled too strongly, made too much noise, and looked surprised to find themselves without footing and falling, the light fading from them.  Rather, in Nicholas’ case the light pushed in too fiercely around him, rapping incessant knuckles against his skull.  Out in the gardens however, where the breeze could touch his skin but the bushes hugged in close enough to brush their leaves against his shoulders, he found the breath he had been searching for. 

“You want to hear the silliest part of all of this?” He asked her, leaning his weight against the hand that gripped his cane.  “I’m not fond of crowds either.” He hissed conspiratorially, letting a giggle ripple the performance.  “Isn’t that the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard?” There was a small part of him that was mildly aware that he was allowing the conversation to stray beyond the point that was typically appropriate between members of the Abbey family and their attending staff.  “It’s meant to be a party for me, after all, isn’t it?  But I hate parties.  And I mean, truly, I hate them.”  There was a larger part of him however, a much more broken part, that craved conversation with someone, anyone, who wasn’t hanging onto their last threads, who hadn’t already gone completely around the bend.  This Alice wasn’t a patient babbling nonsense, nor a socialite clucking bullshit.  She was a person and she was talking to him.  For Nicholas, that was more than enough. 

“Really, I always have.  No honestly, there’s no excuse for it.” Smiling along with the melody of her laughter, stifled into the back of a dainty hand, he found himself grateful for her company.  Difficult to approach and heavily guarded, he had been up against fiercer odds and still managed to wrangle a happy moment from tragedy.  It was his greatest talent as a doctor, to pull pleasure from pain.  Though, admittedly, he was less well-versed in the wrassling it took in the instance of some women.  He knew not a thing about them, beyond the anatomy working beneath the flesh, sinew and muscle.  Always however, he’d been called a quick study. 

“I hope I’m not keeping you.” Nicholas added, the laughter still lingering on his lips.  “Will I see you at the hospital tomorrow?”

Christopher found his father, after the meaningful and tearshedding speech he had given, out on the veranda that overlooked the gardens.  He had heard him coming, turning at the sound, but when his eyes found those of his eldest son he turned away, uncaring smoothing his features.  For an instant, Christopher hesitated.  With a head tilting slightly to one side the way a little boy’s might, he regarded his father and his handsome tailed coat.  The eldest of the Abbey sons did not often speak with his father about matters beyond those of the Estate’s affairs.  They exchanged sums and lists, stoney featured and business-like in their conduct.  “And to my brilliant son, Christopher, my namesake, I could not be more proud…” He’d spoken the words tenderly in the toast he had made to the ballroom.  They toasted to his Excellency the Emperor, the Abbey legacy and sure even Nicholas but they had also toasted to Christopher.  It was more than he’d ever let himself want for.  Not all, as Nicholas so often thought, and not even some but rather, just a piece of his father’s love.  Just one, tiny piece of it. 

“Don’t linger, Christopher.” His father suddenly called, keeping his back to him.  “Either tell me what you want or go away.”

“Of course…” Son started at once, coming to stand beside his father.  “I wanted only to -- oh.” Coming to the edge of the terrace and looking out across the gardens, Christopher could see that their father was watching after the younger of the Abbey sons.  His frail figure, resplendent in the moonlight with all his shining achievements, was at the rear of the garden.  He looked to be talking with a nurse he didn’t recognize at the distance, still donning her uniform. 

“We have to be careful with Nicholas.  He can’t know too much.” Dr. Abbey started, the serious tone he usually carried settling in place of the warm one with which he had conducted the previous monologue to the crowded ballroom.  He had a knack for that, Christopher’s father, to turn your conversation around on you and make it his.

“Why?” Christopher asked, bitterness seeping past his lips in spite of his best efforts. 

“He isn’t ready.  The War took much from him.” Never did Dr. Abbey take his eyes from his youngest son’s figure in the gardens.  One hand he kept tucked neatly in his pocket and the other pinched a long-necked glass of champagne between careful fingers.  He looked the picture perfect image of a Noble-born Lord, doting upon his child.  Except of course, for the fact that another child stood before him, utterly neglected in the eclipse of his adoration for his second-born.  “Once he’s adjusted, I’ll explain things.  I don’t expect he’ll like it but I’m sure he’ll come to understand.”  Pausing, he took a sip from his glass.  “It’s just the way of the new world, after all.”

“But what if he never adjusts?” Christopher tried.  “You know, father, I could…” He started, seeing Lord Abbey’s brown eyes turning to him at last.  He had hoped he might see promise there but instead he saw the all too familiar chill of his usual icy stare. 

“You could what?” He spat back.  “What is it that you could do, Junior?” Christopher always wondered if perhaps his father would say that word with just a drop of pride if it had been Nicholas to whom the name was given.  “You’re a fool, a waste of my time, a waste of a well-paid education.” Dr. Abbey hissed coolly, turning away again.  “I’d have already had you killed if your mother didn’t find you useful.”

“But… But you said…” Christopher tried. 

“What?  That, in there?” The Lord of the Abbeyshire retorted, a cruel sneer on his mouth.  “You think I meant a word of that?  That I’d really be proud of you?  That I’d really be proud of this?” He reached for his son’s wrist.  When Christopher pulled away he grabbed harder, twisting at the joint and bringing his gloved hand into the light of the moon.  Both father and son knew what lay beneath the white of the dress uniform gloves, the ragged scar of the bullet that traveled through the palm of Christopher’s hand.  It was a well known wound, seen often in the Imperial Forces.  A cowards wound.  As Christopher winced at the pain in his wrist, his father smirked with pleasure at his discomfort. 

“But, but I’m your heir.” Christopher whined. 

“You’ll get the title, even the Estate…”  Dr. Abbey started, dropping his grip on his son’s wrist as casually and coldly as when he had first seized it. 

“The hospital?” Christopher asked suddenly. 

“To your brother.” He answered without inflection, simple fact. 

“But everything’s tied up in the hospital, all the investments, all the capital, it’s all…”  Wide, desperate eyes looked to his father, startled somehow to find them looking back. 

“Like I said, Junior,” Lord Abbey began, taking a threatening step to close the space that separated himself and his son.  “You’re a fool.”  As he spoke he tipped his champagne glass forward, letting the remaining sparkling wine drip down the front of Christopher’s uniform.  “And now look, you clumsy thing, you’ve gone and spilled all over yourself.” He took on the mocking cadence of a concerned parent, the closest he’d ever come to actually playing the role of one for his eldest.  “Best to turn in, son.  You seem a bit in your drink.” He offered, patting his son on the shoulder, a gentle gesture turned ingenuine and cruel.  When he lingered an instance too long the theatrics fell away, and with a freezing malice he told his son, “fuck off,” whilst waving a dismissive hand to him.  He didn’t bother to watch him go when he finally did, turning back instead to the gardens and his youngest son in them.  Finally, with his eldest having stormed off someplace else, his beloved likely already in the arms of another, he set his mind to his precious boy instead.  Charming, brave and with enough filling out, perhaps even strapping, Nicholas had become everything that his father had ever wanted for him.  Now, he was home, at last.   Finally, the good doctor could begin to put his plans and pieces into place, setting the board for the game to be played.

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