literature

A Party at Dragon Claw House-V1

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It looked like a dragon's claw to be certain, but Pietro was far too old to believe that his home was anything more than a fancy shmancy abode bought by two people with far too much time and money on their hands.  It was a beautiful thing, undeniably, its sheer curving rock face reaching out far beyond the edge of the island to stretch back across the cliffs, a crescent moon on the tip of an iceberg.  Inside it was completely hollow and furnished by the sort of people that considered renovation a hobby and not a massive irritation, the sort of people that thought living without electricity or wireless internet was, 'an adventure,' the sort of people who refused to let you hang anything that wasn't a tapestry on the walls and shoved you in a bedroom with your imbecile of an older sister.  The room itself offered splendid views across the sea in which the island stood although this served only, to Pietro's eyes at least, to hammer home the fact that in order to reach the mainland he would have to endure a twenty minute boat ride, accompanied by Miss Danvers the governess, for at fifteen he was far too young to travel onshore unaccompanied.  Sadly the sort of people who insisted on living in a hollowed out rock on an island in the middle of no-where were Pietro's parents, and while they could no more ground him than he could sprout wings and fly from the cliff edge to civilised shores, they could force him into his Sunday best and make him endure their own brand of punishment: their infamous parties.
It wasn't that the food was bad for Robert and Betty Driscoe, the parents of this unbearably miserable spawn, generally spent a fortune in outsourcing exotic delicacies for their guests, and of course their chef was only the best.  Nor were the guests particularly tiresome, Archibald Smear was amusing in his own way, even if he did smell a bit funny, and Lieutenant Spit did have the odd habit of bringing antiquated bits of weaponry to the dinner table, but he had at least fought in enough wars to provide the table with several horrible anecdotes about life in the trenches.
Nor was it the obvious and undisguised fact that his parents clearly favoured his sister, an irritating and slimy little worm if Pietro had ever known one, over him.  Indeed, so enamoured of Skye did they seem that alongside extolling her every virtue and parading her like a prize-winning cow in front of the assembled guests (and not once would she blush and murmur flattery the arrogant little witch!) but indulged her every whim and allowed her every trifling fancy imaginable.  Of course this wasn't speaking a great deal as Skye, apple of her parents' eyes, happened to share a great deal in taste with them both, and was allowed her own way purely because it tended not to clash with theirs.  If Pietero's father had, like him, favoured the colour black and stoner rock, then the Claw interior would have been plastered in the stuff.  The fact stood however that Pietero was left to his Byronesque musings and languishings in a room not unlike an explosion in a taffeta factory, and largely ignored by his parents.
But the thing which really galled and agonised Pietro about the parties was what happened when he went up to bed.  For at each soiree, at precisely five to nine, off to his room he was sent, without a kiss good-night or a glass of milk, but most importantly without his sister.  For the rest of the assemblage would stay behind, and Pietro had never stayed awake long enough to hear them go to bed.  The spiralling nature of the Claw was such that any movement on the stairs would be heard at once by the dinner guests below; each time he lingered upon the stairs as long as he dared before a brief silence and impatient cough would shoo him up the flights to bed.  But what he heard before that would be the most tantalizing, laughter and thumping, the swilling and spilling of liquid, the moans and excited shouts painting a dozen different images in Pietro's mind as he lay in bed, hearing now only the waves that lapped against the shore of the island and now only his own steady breathing.
When quizzed about the subject, and a dozen times had Pietro tried, he was firmly informed that he was far too young to know of such things, and he must wait until he came of age.  And here would Skye flash him the most gloriously smug smile across the breakfast table, the light of the early sunrise glinting in her white even teeth.  And never more had Pietro envied, not her, but instead the staff that waited on them, for their youngest was but thirteen, and Pietro knew full well he waited on the party long after nine.
The staff were an odd bunch, not a singular one ascribed to a particular task, but in each in his or her way playing cook, nursemaid, valet and waiter, except of course Miss Danvers who as the governess felt such menial tasks were beneath her.  She occupied that odd position in between the stratified layers of the Claw, teaching not only Pietro and Skye, but the youngest lackey, Rook, and yet sleeping in the same quarters as the domesticates.  Indeed it was to Rook that Pietro felt his greatest resentment, for what right had he to wait on the secret activities of his parents, let alone rise to academic prominence among the triad despite his duties often calling him away from study.  These times, Pietro felt, would be better enjoyed if he were gazing wistfully out of the window and thinking of the fortunes that would await him on the other side of shore in ten years' time.  And he could cast off his tasselled shackles and swim to the beaches of appreciation and acceptance, where he felt sure that his morose lyrics and tuneless dirges would be the talk of the town.
The staff shared their own quarters, hollowed out from the rock at the base of the island, and in these closed but comfortable confines they shared a deeper camaraderie and kinship than the Driscoes ever would, despite their lack of blood.  The head butler Jackson was a proud man, who could no more reveal the secret of their parties than let his son Rook grow up with ideas above his station.  He was pleased by his son's intellect and fascination with the life of those upstairs, but as he firmly believed in the class system, so he was a little distressed at his son forming a bond with Skye, the daughter of his employer, and therefore a most unsuitable courtship.  He was content for the meanwhile to observe their relationship blossom within the confines of the classroom, for where else would he find his son an education, yet dreaded the day when he would take him firmly by the hand, and lead him back down the steps to the bottom of the island where he belonged.  Moreover Jackson was a perceptive man, and quietly noted each day the seething resentment that was bubbling inside of Pietro, a cloudburst sheathed in black cotton and denim.  
Ostensibly of course the reason for sending the children out of the house was a reward for all their hard work, or something, but the Driscoe's preferred not to have their offspring underfoot when decorating the drawing room.  It was party night again.  While Pietro, Skye and, to Pietro's distaste, Rook, rowed the fifteen minute to shore under Miss. Danvers watchful eye, the servants set about arranging the room to Robert's taste.  The great man himself stood in the corner, barking instructions on doilies and candelabra, which most of the staff wisely ignored in favour of Jackson's more tasteful direction.  Like the children's outing this too was a façade, for each plaque that was hung on the wall was immediately covered by a gaudy banner or drape, the drink's cabinet would open to reveal crystal one way, and a collection of robes another, the instruments stacked in one corner more than the evening's entertainment, but vessels for initiation.  The Carpathian Guards did not admit people lightly.
They would claim, I'm sure, to be an ancient, and noble foundation, keeper of the keys to sanity and bringers of light into civilisation. In truth however they were invented by Robert's grand-father who, struck by that most virulent of all demons, boredom, had gathered his student friends about him and created a secret circle from whence he could discuss all the matters he felt were of most import.  He had done his research carefully, for what inner circle could be without gowns and costume, a succession of rites, perhaps its own prophecy.  Sadly from these halcyon days in which Robert Snr Snr., who enjoyed campaigning for civil liberties almost as much as he did oak matured whiskey, had used his presidential power to generate a force for good, an olive branch dipped in gilt, the Guards had become a stagnant, festering organisation, with only a few lingering members.  Robert was desperately aware of this and while he had little interest in political activism beyond declaring the Tories right at every turn, he realised the need to inject some new blood into the group.  To this end, he had chosen Rook.
Jackson had been initially reluctant at the choice of his son as the newest Guard, but Robert had firmly informed him that he could live with the choice, or go elsewhere, and Jackson was not prepared to bet on finding employment for both him and his son in such comfortable circumstances again.  Moreover, as Robert had explained, Pietro given by his very nature to sulk and withdraw without intention of doing anything to change his situation would have been a most unsuitable candidate.  And should the boy ever find out on his own terms, well then perhaps it would inspire him to greater heights.  Sadly the opposite would prove to be true.
On reaching the shore Miss. Danvers had immediately retreated to a place only she would find of interest, the linen shop or tea room Pietro supposed; he generally had very little interest in the goings on of others. Today however, he planned to follow his sister and his nemesis at a close distance, for he suspected what Jackson had already surmised, that his sister and the cretin were soliciting a clandestine relationship.  As it was market day there were a hundred stalls in which he could comfortably conceal himself, and in any case his room had recently become infested with vermin, other than his sister that was, and a cure needed to be sought.
It was not a fancy, seasonal market, nor yet was it a sort of wholesome farmer's market, but if string vests and shop soiled phone batteries was what you were after, then you would be in luck. There was fruit and veg to be sure, but of the bruised and rather battered variety.  Of plants there were plenty to be had, all be it in rather withered quantities, and the toys, all glowing in the same neon plastic, were cheap at a pound a pack.  Above the stained and gaudy marquees rose a hundred different clamouring voices, as raucous as the gulls that wheeled over-head and about as likely to inspire confidence in their wares.  Even so, to Pietro the fetid alleys were a place to dream of, for only here was he afforded escape from the confines of the Claw, only among these thieves and beggars could he truly to rise to his feted position above them all.  
He stalked among the stalls, a raven in a flower bed, searching for a substance that would rid him of the dreaded rodents holding his room to ransom.  Never out of his eye-line was the happy couple who, away from the jaundiced eyes of their elders, were openly holding hands, catching each other's eye and then giggling.  They hadn't kissed, not yet at any rate, but as they suddenly turned sharply into a darkened cul-de-sac, so Pietro pretended to study the nearby stalls with great fervour.  Their voices from within drifted through the clamour to Pietro's ears, straining to catch every word.
'Did they say it would be tonight?' there was his sister, shrill and excited.
'Yes…I'm not sure I'm looking forward to though,' and there was Rook, nervous, fawning.
'Oh you'll be fine,' Skye was laughing.  'They call it an initiation ceremony, but it's just holding your hand over a candle and reciting an oath, they don't haze you!'
'I know, but still…'
'Look, you're going to be wonderful, I know you are. That's why father chose you, to be our white light.'
'That's just it Skye, he did choose me, you know, over your brother.  I guess I'm just worried he'll feel…'
'Oh now you're just being silly, Pietro doesn't even know.  And even if he did,' her voice was firm over Rook's hasty protest, 'there's nothing he could do about it.  Father chose you.'  She paused.  'And so do I.'
Skye reached out and, taking Rook firmly by the hand, kissed him full on the lips.
Pietro gagged a little from all this sentimentality, he could hear the sticky sounds of their lips squelching together from his perch between two market stalls.  He didn't have the faintest idea what they were talking about, but the theme was certain; Rook had once again managed to get one over on him, and he didn't like it one bit.  He could hear the two making motions to leave the alleyway; he hastily backed out of his hiding spot, straight into the side of one of trestles.
'Oi, watch it mate!  That stuff's lethal, don't spill it!'
The vendor was a tall, broad man with tired, blood-shot eyes and a shadowy chin.  He gazed blearily at Pietro who was now examining the contents of the stall with interest.  What he'd almost knocked over was a large box of rat poison, unwittingly he'd stumbled across the very item he needed.  
'Is it potent?'  The vendor, a little taken aback at the vehemence in Pietro's voice, looked around him a few times before beckoning him to lean in closer.  Pietro remained exactly where he was, prompting the vendor to lean forward instead.
'Technically, I'm not even supposed to be selling it.  EU regulations and whatnot, apparently there's too high a concentration of thallium or some such.  Anyway that's my last box, so take it home, and use it on the quiet eh?'
'And to whom exactly would I start a discourse about rodenticide you imbecile?'
'What?' the vendor was unsure whether or not to be offended by this.  'Look, all I'm saying is, it'll get rid of the pests but I'd keep it out of harm's way if I were you.'
'Why what would it do?' asked Pietro sharply.
'What this stuff?  It could kill a chap if 'e's not careful.  It's tasteless you see, that's why the rats'll eat it if you stick it in a gob of food.'
'I see.'  From between the gaps in the stall Pietro could see Rook and his sister in the distance, again laughing and holding hands, heading back to the shore side.  He thrust a handful of coins into the vendor's hand and, without looking back, grabbed the box and headed after the twosome at a discrete distance.
'Oi!  Don't you want your change?'  Pietro ignored the shouts of the vendor, and continued to push his way through the thronging shoppers until he reached the boat.  Miss Danvers was not yet back, but Rook and Skye were already sat in the boat, bobbing a little in the waves.
'Pietro!  You're back early, Miss Danvers said we didn't have to be here until three,' Skye seemed surprised and rather flustered by his sudden appearance.  
'I got bored.'
'Oh, okay.'  Skye smiled at Rook.  'Do you like my ribbon? Rook bought it for me.'
The purple satin looked beautiful against her soft brown tresses.
'That looks stupid,' said Pietro grumpily.
'Well what did you get?' asked Rook.
Pietro glanced down at the box in his hand. 'Oh this?  Just some rat poison.'
'Oh yeah, Skye told me you had rats in your room.'
'Did she?' said Pietro flatly.  He settled himself in the stern of the boat, facing the couple.
'You know you're going to have to stop this don't you?'
'We know,' Skye sighed.  'It's just so hard…but Daddy would never…'
'I told you we'll talk to him.  After the…' Rook paused, 'after tonight.'  He reached out a loving hand to stroke Skye's cheek.  Pietro stared at them for a moment.
'You make me sick.'
Any forthcoming altercations were swiftly adjourned as Miss Danvers appeared by the side of the boat, her round face pink from the cold, holding a selection of bulging carrier bags.
'Everyone had a nice time?'
'Yes Miss. Danvers,' was Rook's simpering reply.  Pietro glared at him.
'Right then kiddies, let's get this boat underway, don't want to be late back, party time tonight eh?' She gave Rook a conspiratorial wink.
The journey back was intolerable.  Miss. Danvers seemed unreasonably excited about the party, and spent the entire time burbling on to Skye about dresses and earrings and other such unnecessary diversions.  Rook meanwhile was silent, and a little on edge, although Pietro noted that he chose to spend the time staring into the water rather than offering to row.  When they reached the island Miss. Danvers clambered awkwardly out of the boat, and began to tie it to a little stake set just beyond the main path.  She and Skye quickly made their way up to the gate and into the Claw, but Rook stayed behind in the boat, with Pietro's eyes boring into him.
'What?'
'I think you should stay the fuck away from my sister,' Pietro said quietly.
'Oh come off it Pietro, don't try to play the concerned sibling with me, you don't even like her…'
'I love her!' Pietro stood up suddenly, causing the boat to rock violently. 'And you,' he pointed an accusatory finger at Rook, who cowered into the prow, 'you'll never be worthy of her, you'll never amount to anything.  You should get back down to the basement, with the other worms, where you belong.  Stop interfering with us.'
Rook also stood up.  He was a good few inches taller than Pietro, despite the difference in age. 'You're so full of shit Pietro.  You just can't bear the thought that I'm better than you that I'm being chosen over you, by Skye by your father, by everyone.'
'What's my father doing?'
'Ha! You don't even know, you're so pathetic,' Rook spat, turning from the boat to stride into in the Claw.  Pietro just stood, swaying for a moment with the motion of the boat, clutching at his box of rat poison, with a globule of spittle in his elegantly coiffured hair.
* * *
She looked beautiful.  She was a vacuous, irritating, insufferable bitch but she looked so beautiful.  Pietro longed to tell her but all that would ever come out were insults and put-downs or, in this case, a stumbling choke. Skye turned in a rustle of indigo-red silk to see her brother standing in the door-way, watching her
'How long have you been standing there?'
'It's my room too,' said Pietro, mulishly, pushing past her to stare out of the window.  The guests had already arrived; there was a succession of small boats all tied to the same stake near the front path.  Around the Claw was a ring of golden lights, winking prettily in the encroaching darkness.  The waves were tumbling and crashing at the shore, the wind was high and it would not be a peaceful night.  Moreover Pietro knew if the weather got too bad then the guests would be asked to stay, and nothing says good morning like going down to breakfast and finding a bunch of old men kipping on your sofa.
'Aren't you changing?' Skye enquired.  Pietro was already clad in his very finest set of black skinny jeans and When Salmon Rears its Ugly Head band shirt.
'Why do you care?'
'Because,' Skye placed a hand on his shoulder, 'I want my little brother to look nice.'
Pietro's shoulder tingled at her touch, he shrugged her off.
'Did you put down the rat poison?'
'That's it isn't it?'  Pietro wheeled round to face her, placing both hands on her shoulders, bringing her so close she could feel his breath hot on her neck.  'That's all we are here, just rats in a cage.  It's not right you know, this…closeness.'
'What…what do you mean?'
'Us, all of us, being here, nowhere to run to.'
'Why would you want to run anywhere?'
'Because,' his grip tightened, 'because I can see that there's a world out there for us to explore and you, you just want to sit here with your pet serving boy to kiss your feet and swallow every piece of shit our parents come out with and never wonder if life might be better outside the Claw.'
'You're hurting me,' said Skye flatly, wrenching her shoulders from Pietro's grip. 'I'll see you at dinner,' she added, over her shoulder as she left the room.
Pietro sighed.  Not only had he once again managed to upset his sister, but he'd lied about the rat poison; he'd forgotten it completely.  He rummaged under the bed for where he'd stashed it, his groping fingers resting on several clusters of rat droppings as he did so.  He hastily rubbed his hands down the leg of his jeans, and withdrew the box of poison.  The powder inside was separated into a collection of little polythene bags.  
'Pietro! You coming down darling?'
His mother.  Pietro absently shoved one of the bags into his pocket, pushed the box back under the bed and set off down the spiral staircase to the dining room.  The nature of the Claw meant that rather than having several rooms on a few stories each level had a single room branching off from the stairs, each a little smaller than the one beneath it.  The lowest level naturally contained the servants quarters, then the kitchen, living room, dining room, nursery and finally the bedrooms, cumulating in the room shared by Pietro and Skye.  His mother was waiting on the stairs outside the door to the dining room, dressed in a rather frumpy skirt-jumper-scarf combination.
'What is that all down the front of your trousers young man?'
'Rat shit mother. Well,' he added at his mother's gawp, 'if we lived in a normal house instead of this shit-hole we probably wouldn't have these problems.'
He turned and found himself face-to face with the imposing and rather terrifying figure of Lord Archibald Smear, who was standing in the open doorway.
'Now then young Pietro let's have less of that lip to your mother eh? Get inside, cheeky boy,' he added fondly, eyeing Pietro's rear as he entered the dining room.
The dining room had been gaudily decked out in the colours of the rainbow mirroring, although Pietro didn't know it, the colours of the robes worn by the seven members of the Carpathian Guards.  Behind a long white sheet above the head of the table hung an embellished bronze shield bearing their logo of two crossed flags; white would be the colour of the robe Rook would wear when he took his vow and entered their sacred order.  The garish drapes contrasted nicely with the sombre table decorations; plain white doilies and black candles set in their holders by Jackson and his team.  They stood in the corner of the room, unobtrusive and plain, each smartly dressed but not so as to upstage the rest of the party.  They themselves were already seated around the large mahogany table: Robert large and bristling in crimson velvet at the head, his wife, who had nimbly slipped past Pietro in a rustle of long skirts, took the seat on his left, and Skye sat, her eyes downcast, on his right.  Their guests were three, Archibald Smear, tall and gaunt, who was even now edging his way past Pietro still standing in the doorway, to a seat near the bottom on the table, Ltd. Gautier Spit an ex-military man who was dressed all in his customary leather and Pliny the superlatively Young, who was picking enthusiastically at his bread roll and spilling crumbs down the front of his toga.
Lunatics, every one of them, thought Pietro as he sidled into the last remaining seat at the bottom of the table.  As if this were the signal to begin, Robert motioned to the servants who began ladling coffee coloured soup into everyone's bowls.
'What is this?' Pietro muttered, letting the runny liquid slide off his spoon.
'Onion gazpacho dear boy.  Better eat it up now; grow up big and strong hmm?' Smear gave him a dig in the ribs with a bony elbow.
There were ice cubes floating in his soup.  It was going to be a long evening.  At the other end of the table Skye was simpering sweetly to Rook as he poured her soup.  Pietro shifted slightly in his chair, feeling the packet of powder pressed against his thigh by the tight skin of his jeans.  His gaze fell on Jackson who was staring rather pointedly at his son and Pietro's sister.  A clap of Robert's hands brought them both out their respective reveries.
'That will be all for now, come back in fifteen minutes.'
'Very good sir,' Jackson nodded respectfully, leading Rook out of the room with an arm around his shoulder and the rest of the team following behind.  Once they were back in the kitchen Jackson set the other servants to work on the next course, but drew his son into the corner.  There was little to no sense of privacy in the open kitchen, but he trusted to the clashing of cutlery and the copious amounts of steam arising from a tureen of stew at the far end to conceal them.  He crouched a little, until his head was level with that of his son.  Rook stared blankly back.
'I know what's going on.'
'Do you,' Rook replied blandly.  'You know father I should really be preparing…'
Jackson cut him short. 'You'll stay here until I've finished talking to you.'  His voice softened. 'Look, I'm not angry with you.  Not in the slightest.  But you can't carry on with her it's not proper.'
'Why isn't it proper?' Rook suddenly shouted, causing Schweppes, the man stirring the stew, to drop a hot spoon on himself. 'Why isn't it proper?' Rook repeated in a hiss. 'Dad, in a few hours I'll be…I'll be one of them!' his voice was gaining in excitement.
'Oh Rook…' Jackson shook his head.  'What have they got you believing?  They're just a bunch of silly old men that need an extra member because their charter said so.  Their made up charter!  It's not going to change anything!'
'Won't it?' Rook's voice was steady and colourless once more but he avoided his father's gaze. 'I have to go speak to Mr. Driscoe about later, excuse me.' And he headed out of the kitchen and the stairs to the dining room with his father's eyes boring into his back.  When Rook reached the dining room however, it was empty except for Pietro, who was sullenly stirring his uneaten soup.  He looked up as Rook cautiously edged his way into the room.
'Where is everyone?'
'Gone out onto the island to watch fireworks or something.'  Pietro resumed stirring his soup.
'You didn't want to go with them?'
'And get cold watching some pretty lights?  I'm not a child Rook,' Pietro replied caustically.
'Look…' Rook seated himself opposite Pietro.  'I'm sorry about earlier.  I know you were only being protective, but I care for your sister very much I wouldn't…' He stopped short, clutching at one side of his head and letting out a small moan.
'What's wrong with you now?' asked Pietro unconcernedly.
'It's…just a head ache, it'll pass…' Rook continued to clutch at the side of his head.  'I get them all the time these days.  Must be stress or something,' he gave Pietro a watery smile.
'You want some aspirin?'
'Oh sure, you got some?'
'Sure,' Pietro shrugged.  He grabbed a nearby glass and filled it with water from the jug then, plunging his hand deep into his left pocket, drew out a handful of the powder within it.  He sprinkled it into the water, where it fizzed a little as it dissolved with a puff of white cloud.  Pietro shoved the glass in Rook's general direction, where he accepted it gratefully, his left eye squeezed tight shut against the pain.
'Just popping to the bathroom.  Feel better soon won't you?' Pietro shot Rook a crooked smile.  He stood in the doorway a while, watching Rook from behind as he drained the glass of its contents.  Then true to his word he headed upwards to the bathroom where he scrubbed his hands for far longer than was strictly necessary.
When he returned he found the dining room once again teaming with senile old men.  Spit was gesticulating widely and attempting to emulate the fireworks they had just witnessed outside.
'Like bloody great bombs they were, noisy buggers.  Still, not saying that's a bad thing, back in my day all we ever heard was bombs.'
Pietro slipped back into his seat, wondering how many times he would hear the phrase "back in my day" this evening.  He turned his attention the plate of veal in front of him, attacking it with rather more gusto than he had his soup.
'Hungry are you laddie?' asked Spit, distracted from his war stories by Pietro's noisy eating
'He's a growing boy isn't he, gotta have his protein,' chuckled Smear, eyeing Pietro lasciviously.  'So tell me, what does a young boy like you do all day?'
'I write poetry, short works of fiction, listen to music,' said Pietro in between mouthfuls of meat.
'Write poetry? What sort of a dandy are you?' asked Spit incredulously.  'What we need is a good war, sort out fannies like you.  Back in my day there was no time to waste prancing about and writing odes to flowers.  Load of nonsense.'
'Well actually I'm morally opposed to war, so even if there is one I wouldn't fight.'
'Morally…morally opposed to war?' Spit gaped noiselessly for a few moments.
'I used to write poetry,' interjected Pliny, a luminous look in his fish-like eyes.
'Of course you did Pliny,' snorted Spit.  'The same way you were alive at the same time as Julius Ceasar?'
'Oh you can't talk,' Pliny snapped.  'You spend all your time going on about the war, and you were barely even in it!  You got sent home in the first week 'cos you caught trench fever.'
'Well that's…completely beside the point…bring back the birch and cane that's what I say!' he roared to the opposite end of the table.
'Idiot,' Pliny muttered, shaking his head.  'You take no notice of him young Pietro, if you want to be a writer you do it, and never let anyone stand in your way, no-one, you understand me?'
'Sure,' Pietro shrugged, ignoring Pliny's bobbing, whispy haired head in favour of a large glass of red wine.
The rest of the dinner passed without any extreme incident, unless you counted Smear's unusual need to pat Pietro on his knee at any opportunity.  And at last the brandy and cigars were laid out and, with the room full of a smokey haze, the clock struck nine and Pietro knew it was time to go.  He suffered three hand-shakes from Pliny, Spit and Smear, a kiss from his sister and a clap on the shoulder from his father.  Feeling oddly light-headed despite the large amount of food he'd consumed Pietro ascended the stairs to his room.  As he pushed open the door his world gave a headlong lurch and he fell to his knees, vomiting violently onto the floor in front of him.  He passed out, his face just inches from the pile of sick.  To his left the box of rat poison had tipped on his side and spilled onto the carpet.  Two rat bodies lay beside it.
Downstairs, the party continued.
The bronze plaque at the head of the table had been uncovered by one of the servants, and the last rays of the setting sun were streaming through the window, reflecting on its burnished surface.  The guests were all climbing awkwardly into long robes that had been kept hidden in a secret vestibule behind the drinks cabinet, each a single colour from the spectrum.  Rook attempted to help Betty on with her orange garment, but Jackson softly turned him away, holding out a white gown for his son.
'Now we dress you.'
'I…see,' said Rook, who didn't.
'You chose to accept his offer, deal with it.' And Jackson walked away from his son to wait with the other servants at the foot of the table.  One by one the Carpathian Guards lined themselves up underneath the bronze plaque, each looking more faintly ridiculous than the last.  
'The time has come!' boomed Robert.  'At last we have found someone worthy of taking the final place among our most sacred of orders.  In you young Rook,' he pointed a quivering hand at the boy, 'we have witnessed all of our most favoured traits; an inquisitive mind, an aptitude for hard work and study, the singular worship of a cosmic entity.  Tonight we will confer upon you the lowest rank in our order, that of the White Page, in the hope that you will ascend through the spectrum, and one day take your place at the head of the order.  We do this in the hope that you will shed new light upon your peers, in order to better yourself on this planet, through diligence and generosity to the lower classes, so that you may shine like a light evermore hereafter.  Now,' he extended his hand towards Rook, beckoning him are you ready to take the scared vows and complete the appointed tasks?'
Rook, shivering despite a profuse and sudden heat, nodded and allowed himself to be led around the table by Pliny, whose pale blue robe perfectly matched his watery eyes.
'You'll be asked a question by each of us.  They're designed to test your cunning and intelligence.  Then when you've answered them all the Leader will ask you to confirm your allegiance to the Carpathian Guards,' he murmured in Rook's ear.  Rook swallowed and nodded shakily.  His initial nerves had combusted with something much more potent, the thallium that was now flooding his system and causing him to sweat and shudder.  Blinking several times to clear his fogged vision he turned to face the first of his inquirers: Skye, looking radiant in her long purple dress.  Her eyes were focused somewhere above his head and her words were wooden, committed to heart by rote.
'White Page, would you walk through flames to keep the secrets of the Guards?'
Several weeks before the party was due to take place, Miss Danvers had taken Rook aside, and instructed him in the specific ways with which to answer these very questions.  He didn't hesitate in passing his hand quickly through the flames of the nearest candle.
'I would.'
'White Page, would you give up your last drop to help the weakest here?' was Pliny's question.  Rook swiftly took up his cup and gave it to the eldest man in the room, a doddering old footman called Fripp.
'I would.'
Pliny winked at Rook as he passed to the next inquisitor, Spit, his spray-on leather now hidden by sumptuous mossy velvet.  'White Page, how would you answer a question without paper or pen, without voice or ear to hear it?'
'Like this,' answered Rook and, taking a sharp knife from the cheeseboard, slit open the palm of his left hand.  He dribbled some of the blood in a wonky circle onto the clean white linen that covered the table-top.
'Keep it above your head, there's a good lad,' said Spit, eyeing Rook's pale face as he moved down the table to face Smear.
'How would you respond if someone asked you to reveal the secrets of the Guards, even under deepest pain or vilest torture?'
Rook said nothing, and Smear nodded in satisfaction.  Rook turned to face his final challenge, Betty, in robes of deep orange that clashed horribly with her purplish hair.  
'Who are the Carpathian Guards?'
'They are the only family I know,' was Rook's answer.  A thousand miles across the table behind him, Jackson gave a dry sob.
'Very well Rook, you have proven yourself again worthy of joining our order.  So now I must ask you,' intoned Robert, now hefting a large mallet, 'whether you are ready to cast off your boyhood and join us in helping and guarding this world?'
'I am.'
'Very well.  Be it so.'  And Robert pounded on the brass plate behind him, creating a single reverberating note that rang throughout the Claw, from basement to tip, enfolding the stone in a deep, mellow embrace.  'And it is done,' he said, when the note had finally ceased ringing around the room.  Slowly, the assembled guests and servants began to clap their hands, with the exception of Jackson, who had turned away when the gong had been rung, and Skye, who instead rushed over to embrace Rook.  She planted a single kiss on his cheek, prompting Robert to shake his head cheerfully.  'Time enough for that later my dear, now we have important business to attend.  Sit, let us toast our new Page!'  
As one the Guards resumed their seats and drank Rook's health.  For his part Rook was sure he had never felt any worse.  His shivering nerves from earlier had been replaced with a hollow, drained sort of feeling; where he had supposed exultation he felt only a numbness.  But up and down his limbs he could feel the beginnings of a tingling fire, a burning at the tips of his fingers and toes, and the pain in his head was blossoming anew.  All around him the guests were busy applying themselves to the 'important business,' which seemed to Rook to be little more than an extension of what had gone on at dinner; how badly the government were failing in their duty, and whether or not they agreed with the recent tax increase.  But for the fact they were wearing robes and more wine had been drunk, it could have been three hours earlier.
Rook was relieved to see Skye heading down the table to sit next to him, but his limbs were becoming leaden, his hands dead weights at the end of rubber limbs.  He managed a weak smile at her.
'Are you okay?  You look awful?'
'Oh just…just a bit overwhelmed by it all.  I'll be fine.  So…what goes on here exactly?'
'You know what goes on silly, you've waited on us enough times haven't you?  We talk about the current situation and how we might best improve it, and then we entertain ourselves with debates and music and things.'
'Th…that's it?'
'Well what did you expect?' Skye looked confused.
'Well I, I supposed now I was a member you'd let me in on all the secrets and conspiracies and things.  I thought we'd actually, you know, do stuff.'
'What conspiracies?'
'I don't know, I just though, secret society, must have secrets…'
'Well we have the secret hand-shake of course but I don't know about anything else…'
'So you just, you just, sit around, talking about the price of fish and then Pliny entertains us on the banjele for an hour is that it?'
'I guess.'
'Just the same as when I waited on you?'
'Well yes but, Rook…it's different now don't you see?'
Her face was swimming in front of him, each breath was a rattling effort, but Skye didn't seem to notice.
'Now that you're a member I can ask Daddy to give us his permission.  I'll ask him now in fact,' and she stood up, decisive.  Before she could reach Robert at the other end of the table however, she was accosted by Spit and Smear who were having a lively debate about the legalisation of cannabis and were desperate for her opinion.  The discussion grew heated, and a small circle of Guards closed around the opposite end of the table to Rook.  With the servants out preparing after-dinner canapés and the increased volume of shouting from the other end of the room, Rook fell forward onto the table entirely unnoticed, and died without any regard from the people he had just sworn to love as a family.
And the party continued.
EDIT: Now with a snazzy new cover, courtesy of :iconcrazyfoxmachine: This will appear in my first trade paperback anthology, later this year....stay tuned!

The first version of a short story I wrote, inspired by art by :iconcrazyfoxmachine:

Oh and there is a very brief cameo from one of my other characters. Didn't you know all my work existed within the same universe ;)

Version Two be here [link]
© 2012 - 2024 Palantirqueen
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crazyfoxmachine's avatar
SO GOOOD. What's the crossover - I love that shit! Also - isn't there a way of getting an image on there - ?