A/n: Scratch this being modern. Picture it sort of faux-Victorian era, Steampunk style. Thanks for the review from Maranwe Telrunya which got me off my ass so I could edit (basically rip it down to the bones and rewrite) this. And, of course, thank you for the reviews I've already received. You're all amazing! :) Forget the Romance category – it lies. There was only romance in the previous part of this story, not right now. Do tell me, though, should I continue? Yes or no?
The Scarlet Curtain
All rights reserved © QuartzQuill 2008-2010
The air inside the theater was tense, almost stifling in its weight; the combined breath of the audience was enough to make some members of the crowd shift uncomfortably in their seats.
Handkerchiefs were being employed inconspicuously by not one, but by many gentlemen in the front rows as they patted the beginnings of perspiration from shiny foreheads. Even those sitting in the imperial boxes elevated above the stage suffered from the burden of the oppressive atmosphere emanating from the stage. Somewhere under cover of the dimmed lighting a respectable young woman grasped for the hand of her fiancé, and the satisfied smirk he would have worn at the action did not appear on his handsome face: in reality, the honorable Francis was too absorbed to do anything more than squeeze back reluctantly. He was having second thoughts about bringing Georgette to the play—this was supposed to be an evening where he had the opportunity to comfort her, not where he was shaken and they would return to his father's estate in mutual silence.
There was barely a sound save for the occasional shuffles of the ladies' taffeta dresses. Once during the second act, a sporadic cough emanated from the left wing and all eyes turned in the direction of the nearly inaudible sound, making the unknowing instigator sink in his red velvet seat. Then and now there was a chink and a slip of fabric against fabric as ladies reached into their purses and clicked them shut; one or two distinguished females drew out their fans of dyed ostrich feathers and utilized them in an attempt to keep emotions at a decent level. It would not do for the bounds of propriety to be breached.
The scene on the stage was simplistic, sparse in design but aristocratic in poise, leaving the rest of the surroundings to the viewer's mind. Two armchairs faced each other, each one at the head of a small table of mahogany; a wineglass with a lissome neck stood abandoned at the right end, its reflection showing in the table's almost ridiculous luster. The second glass was being rotated in a slow, leisurely manner; the claret wine caught inside the walls of crystal made mesmeric circles silently. Gloved fingers beat out a monotonous, muted rhythm as their owner immersed himself in the art of observing his dining partner.
The observer (who had captured the sentiments and attentions of the ladies in the audience from the first time he appeared on the scene, prudent and fresh in clear cut sable velvet), was a handsome, brown-haired man whose age was not an easy thing to guess. There was a sort of disorderly order about him; though the pair of green eyes set into his face was sharp in its scrutiny, a languid air rested on his defined shoulders. A hint of a sardonic grin curled his lips, granting him the look of one faintly serpentine in manner. For brief moments the gaze flickered to the wine, still moving, but then they would resume the action of tracing paths up and down the parts of her visible above the table: the elegantly crossed hands enveloped in sheer organza, the blackness of the fabric, the curve of her neck encased in dark, sparingly patterned muslin. The inch-by-inch inspection did not seem to bother her at all.
She was a vision of monochrome, sitting rigidly but not imperiously in one of the accommodating armchairs. Her skin was almost set aglow by the dim lighting; such was the pallor that gripped her that more than one person in the audience thought she had the appearance of one near to death. And indeed, it would be appropriate to liken her to a water-shade of a drowned maiden arisen new from the depths of some glassy loch, for it would not be difficult at all to picture her standing knee-deep in a lifeless lake with a white linen dress billowing all about her on the placid surface of the water. Her hair was inky, glinting blue-black when her head moved; the wavy tresses were pinned carefully into an uncomplicated bun, dotted in moderation with pearls. God knows how she had managed to keep them in place, but they seemed firmly ensconced in the folds of black, and formed a misshapen crown around her head. The eyes, framed by lashes of the same shade as her dress, were perhaps the feature which made the audience most uneasy about her: wide, unabashed, and steely in color, their movement was the only proof that she was, truly, a live human being.
A lingering feeling of electricity circled the stage, darting between the two at the table dangerously, like the forking lightning which played a prelude in allegro to a devastating storm. Something in the dense, packed air stirred, and then the lady was speaking, her quiet voice filling the space and breaching the distance between them.
"I trust the wine is to your liking."
That hint of a grin bent into a smirk as he left the glass and laced his fingers below his chin. "Oh, yes: a little bitter and robust, yet with an undeniable tinge of sweetness beneath."
"One must be careful of all things sweet."
There was a rustle of fabric when he took up the glass again and sipped at the liquid in it. "An astute observation."
She glanced at him for a short time, her face remaining passive. "Lead sugar is one of the few poisons with a sweet taste." She gave a thoughtful 'hm' before continuing. "They say that even a fraction of an ounce can plague a man with illness 'til the end of his life."
"I never understood the gentle sex's fascination with poison," he replied in kind, conversationally, tracing the lip of the glass with his index. A gleam lit the depths of his eyes. "I would fancy something far more dramatic." He lifted his gaze to hers. "An object along the lines of—say—a stiletto. Or a garrote."
She seemed to consider it. "Messy."
"And some of your beloved toxins work far too fast," he said, chuckling. "Far too fast for those of us who value entertainment."
Only the audience saw her hands twitch at the wrists, as if she were reaching for something; but the movement was stilled as soon as it began, and even the fabrics clothing her did not rustle. She turned her head and surveyed the people seated before her, breaking the illusion that she was a statue: the ocean of dresses and faces continuing until the exit caused a sickness to rise in her, and, in turn, she was the reason for many of them shifting, looking away when she met their eyes. The flatness of her stare was unsettling. More than one good, upright lady thought that she was Perhaps overdoing it a tad, and yet none of them had the daring to lean over to their respective mustached husbands in order to whisper it to them. When the actress finally suspended her scrutiny, she went back to facing him, her expression inscrutable.
"Has something bothered you on this eve?" he asked with commendable concern. "Your responses leave something to be desired."
"Simply the effects of a day's hard work," was the stony answer as she closed her eyes.
A sliver of whiteness appeared between his lips when his smile grew. "Now that you touch upon the subject, milady, you do seem to be quite tense." He stood quietly, leaning on the table for a second and then pushing off, walking near-to noiselessly until he was at the back of her chair, his palm pressing against her hair. If it was possible, the woman stiffened further, her breath coming unevenly. "…No need to be nervous." His hands slid down, until they were cradling her shoulders and the gloved fingers were making circles on her skin, supposedly soothing. Up and down, side to side and repeat; her silhouette only became more rigid as he continued his ministrations. The slightest of winces appeared upon her countenance, but then that, too, was stifled.
"I know," he said lowly, in a tone suited to speaking to a sleepy child, "it must be the hair tie. So barbarously tight, my dear, how do you manage not to suffer from headaches?" His fingers slipped under the layer of coiled hair and pulled at a silken ribbon, loosening it with one gentle tug. Down the tresses spilled, falling over her collarbone, stopping shortly before her elbows and creating webs of hair-strands over the fabric of her dress. The pearls, caught fast like wreckage in a deluge, trembled and tumbled but did not come loose. A seeking grasp gathered all of the hair and pulled it over one shoulder with slowness, his knuckles brushing against her cheek softly. She sighed, a tinge of exasperation coloring the sound, and then she shook her head with disappointment, the first ever intimation of a smile appearing upon her visage. There was a sad sort of humor in her voice when she spoke next.
"You are repulsive."
He leaned further, until his chin was hovering above her shoulder and she could feel gusts of unsuitably warm breath ghosting over her skin beneath the muslin. He laughed into her ear, and she thought that his hand and his laughter were too caring for one such as him. Gloved fingers drifted forward, curving to the shape of her throat with a promise of a threat.
"And you, my dear, are no better than me."
"You and I have nothing in common."
"Both traitors to kin, both blasphemers."
"Duty and malice are two different things."
Again laughter rumbled in his chest as he combed his fingers through her hair, now forcing her to turn her face with subtle yanks. "Are you saying your involvement was nothing but duty?" His following words were murmured against the side of her neck. "It was much more than that, my dear."
"I was blind."
"Compliant, as well," he said pleasantly.
"There will come a day," she told him, "when the blood upon your hands will be discovered. I will watch then, and even if I am sucked under with you, I will relish it." She ignored the tightening grip on her. "You may run, and you may escape, but there is only so much escaping one can do. Death awaits us all – and no matter what you do, it will take you one day, violently or calmly. I only have to wait."
The smile was gone now, a snarl in its place. "You will be silent."
She looked to the audience, and there was a single person that she decided to look upon; knowing that this was most likely the last time she would ever appear on stage, she tried to make her way through the thoughts and the emotions of the blue eyes staring back at her. Perhaps this person would understand her message.
"'Life is but one,' the Herald doth say," she quoted, "'and the gates of enlightenment lie before the way to the Light.'"
As the curtain swept across the stage, swallowing the rising light and plunging them into the gloom of backstage, the people beyond the scarlet were utterly silent. And then, there was a burst of raucous applause, thundering, echoing, bouncing off of the wooden rafters and shaking the very foundations of the place. The director came barreling from behind his safe shelter offstage, red-faced in fury and foaming at the mouth, disbelieving and enraged at what were supposed to be the best actors he could offer. It would be quite a while before the rotund man reached them, and the deep, gurgling shouts would not go farther than the curtain.
"The script, mon Dieu, the script! Where did the lines go? Why did you not follow?!"
He only leaned farther, lips tightened in a growl and teeth grinding against each other. "A beautiful final act. I laud you, milady, for that magnificent performance." The hot breath roiled by her ear, and she knew that she had managed to irritate him. "'Tis regrettable that none will understand it."
"'And into the fires of Hell fell he, for the World was cleansed and Punishment began anew.'"
He could not raise a hand against her, for the director was finally before them; as the short male began to express his rage in a tirade of words, blurred between his native language and English: it culminated in a crescendo of incredulous insults and an assortment of gesticulations, but she could not hear him and her partner was seething, for the darkened world that laid before them, bare and ugly, was of their making. She was the beggar groping for light, the fool searching for redemption, longing for something she could not have; and he was the twisting, writhing serpent looped about her neck, the living noose that fed upon the hatred and the fear, and it seemed that now he was undying.
The applause persisted and the director was still bellowing – but she could not help wondering. Perhaps a day would dawn, in this life or the next, when she was not wrapped in this scarlet curtain, suffocating in its velvet waves and trying to break away from its crimson tide.
It would be welcome.