Richard’s group of writer friends were the only people he had ever been truly comfortable around. He’d never had many friends, thanks to his skin condition, and his only sibling had died in the cradle after taking his mother with her. His father was distant, to say the least, often shutting himself up for long periods of time to avoid talking with his sister, son, or his own aging father. The sister, Jane Redmond, was a widow whose husband had died of typhus just after she’d given birth to her twins, Elizabeth and Owen. Jane had raised him, and Richard had played with her children in his youth, until Owen was sent away to be an officer in the army and Elizabeth eloped with a woman. Richard’s grandfather had died when he was thirteen, and Aunt Jane had helped him get into painting as a way to cope with the isolation and grief. She’d died, too, in a shipwreck with Richard’s ever-distant father when he was seventeen. After that he’d gone to study at university for two years, before returning to London.
He had met Duke Leonard at university when he was twenty, and through him he’d met Leonard’s wife Serena, Camilla Chambers, Cesare Sabia, Elijah Wade, Hai Daiyu, Veronika – Vera to close friends – Nikitovna, and the ever-mysterious friend he’d only met in person once, a few years ago in Italy, Enoch Carter.
All of them were writers in some fashion, except for Leonard, who tagged along because he was such a dear friend and because he had obscene amounts of money. Richard wrote horror, Camilla wrote romance (and horror, apparently), Cesare was a poet, Elijah a poet and philosopher, Daiyu wrote science fiction, Serena studied fish and wrote papers on them, Vera was a playwright and poet, and Enoch wrote mysteries.
Apparently, his outing to draw dancers and quick conversation with Serena and Cesare had transitioned into a full get-together. Once the opera ended, he was swept up by the rest of the group into a carriage, then to Leonard and Serena’s house for dinner.
“I’ve composed another poem,” Cesare said.
“Congratulations,” said Camilla. “I wish I had the motivation to write anything.”
“You’ll find it. Did you finish that last novel about the man falling in love with the fish?”
“Excuse me?” Serena asked. “You wrote about what?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Camilla. “I finished it, but I haven’t published it yet.”
“What exactly was that about a fish?”
Camilla shrugged. “Really, it doesn’t matter.”
“I study fish. I want to know if you wrote a book about one.”
“Oh, I did.”
A servant arrived with drinks. Richard took out a pencil and started idly sketching the bizarre hat a man in one of the paintings on the wall was wearing.
“And the fish was…”
“The love interest,” Camilla said.
“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand,” said Serena.
“He fell in love with the fish woman.”
“Was she more of a mermaid?”
“Sort of. She had a fish upper half.”
“This sounds more like surreal horror than romance.”
“I suppose it could be considered such. The man does die at the end. Falls off his balcony after giving a long soliloquy.”
“That makes no sense.”
“You don’t have context.”
Serena sniffed. “Well, I can say with scientific authority that fish people are impossible.”
“That you know of.” Camilla rejected silverware a servant tried to put down in front of her. “I don’t eat.”
Richard finished his drawing and stuck it in the pocket of his coat. Hopefully, Deirdre wouldn’t come looking for him tonight, because gatherings like this often ran quite late.
A few minutes later, Vera, Daiyu, and Elijah showed up in quick succession. Richard was already between Leonard and Camilla, so he wasn’t sitting next to any of them.
They were a diverse group, in both appearance and personality. Nearly none of them came from the same place. Leonard and Richard himself were English, Serena was Scottish, Camilla was a Native American, Elijah an African-American, Cesare was Italian, Vera was Russian, Daiyu was Chinese, and the never-present Enoch a New Englander. Their various personalities often led to conflict, specifically between Cesare’s arrogant hedonism and Camilla’s intrinsic need to make fun of everything on the face of the Earth. It was all in good fun, though. Probably. Hopefully.
Vera was Russian, a woman who had been born a lucky peasant and was now somehow engaged to the rich American philosopher Elijah Wade. She had blonde hair, blue eyes, and a round, nearly perfectly symmetrical face. Richard had done a portrait of her a few months past, which, come to think, he needed to have framed. It was still leaning against the wall in his studio.
Elijah was African-American, a philosopher who had made his money with his radical ideas and utterly nihilistic worldview. He’d written lots of books, most of them philosophical but some composed of poetry. He had dark brown skin, curly black hair cut close to his head, a short beard, a blocky face, and inky eyes. Elijah was rather handsome, at least in the sense that classical artists understood the word. He would not have been out of place as a statue in a ruined Greek graveyard.
The last of the newcomers, Daiyu, was a science fiction writer who wrote mostly about aliens and the unknown. She was Chinese, and had short dark brown hair, brown eyes, and round face, which Richard thought was just average enough in terms of classical beauty that she might have been painted in as a background character by some great Renaissance artist. Not ugly, per se, but not a great beauty, either. Just rather average.
Leonard and Serena stood to greet each of the three as they arrived. They took their seats, and conversation started anew.
“I mislike Duke Janson’s new laws,” Elijah said. “Workhouses and prisons are not my idea of a solution to poverty.”
“I mislike politics,” Daiyu said. “They make me feel sick. Let’s talk about something else. Did you know that in America they’re developing-”
“A war?” Camilla suggested.
Elijah gave a long, suffering sigh. “I’ve heard quite enough about the war in America for an entire lifetime.”
“And to think, it hasn’t even started yet!” said Cesare.
“It’s all just war this, war that, I heard you’re American, can you tell us anything? As if I’ve been home in the last year.”
“Didn’t you take a vacation there?” Serena asked.
“I am sad to say that the trip to Italy soured me to vacations forever, my friends.” Elijah paused for a moment. “And, let me add, all of you are to blame. I don’t divide between individuals. When a group does nothing to stop troublesome individuals the entire group is held guilty.”
Richard sighed. The whole group of them had gone to Italy a few years ago, only to be promptly quarantined in their house for much longer than anticipated due to an unexpected outbreak of typhoid in the small town they’d stayed in. Richard had spent nearly the entire trip indoors, except for when he went down to the beach at night. That had been the only thing keeping him sane, mostly due to his housemates at the time.
Enoch had been there. He was in his thirties, with brown hair flecked with early gray. His face was thin, his skin pale, and he had a very serious disposition. He had talked at length of his family, especially his younger brother, Percy.
“Very profound,” Camilla said, draining her glass of what was presumably red wine in a single swallow. “What do you think of the war?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“You don’t care?” Richard was indecorous. How could someone simply not care about something so terrible as war?
Elijah scoffed. “Of course not. Why should I? Does it affect me at all? Does it interrupt my way of life? Render anything impossible for me? I’ll answer my question for you: no, no it doesn’t. I care little about anything that does trouble me, and even less for things that do not.”
“You’d be saying differently if the war was here,” Serena said.
“I highly doubt that. If there was a war here, I would simply survive for as long as I could on nothing and then die. What else do humans do, anyway, but that?”
“You’re speaking hypothetically,” said Richard, who was desperate for a reason to believe that this philosophy was a simple front. “If there really was a war here, or a war breaking out in America-”
“My philosophy wouldn’t change,” Camilla said. “It’s much the same as Elijah, here.”
“What would you know about war?” Cesare asked. Richard was wondering the same thing.
“Plenty, my good friend. I know enough to have developed a philosophy like Elijah’s. It’s like this: Everything dies. People, animals, plants, buildings, philosophies, even words, sometimes. Everything dies, and once it dies, it can’t come back. Ever. So, if everything dies, and doesn’t come back, then nothing you do can ever matter, because it will all be forgotten and rendered pointless someday. However, consider this. If nothing you do can ever matter, because it will all be forgotten and rendered pointless someday, then there’s no reason to do anything good with your time alive. Anything considered good will be torn down someday, anyhow. It’s all for naught, so you might as well enjoy it. And, if nothing good matters, then logically nothing bad matters, either. If anything considered ‘good’ will be torn down someday, then so will anything ‘bad.’” Camilla smiled and drank more of her wine. “It’s a game with no rules, Richard. Why do you still try to play the good guy?”
Richard stood as fast as his weak feet would allow him. “Because being bad makes me feel terrible.” How could they consider basic morals to be pointless? He grabbed his cane, turned on his heel, and left the room.
He was only going to the toilet, but it was a good dramatic exit if he did say so himself. His blood still boiled as he entered the toilet. It’s a pointless game with no rules, Richard. Why do you still try to play the good guy? He bit his lip. There was a reason he could come up with beyond ‘it makes me feel bad,’ and it was the fact that he had had instilled in him from a young age a deathly fear of being a ‘bad person.’ To be a bad person was to fail someone else even once, to not sacrifice everything you had for your fellow man. To not put yourself second always. Richard clenched his fist around his cane.
After he was done, he came out to find Serena standing in the hallway.
“It’s alright, I’m coming back,” he said. “I was just a bit angry in the moment, that’s all.”
Serena put her hand on his shoulder. “Camilla’s drunk, Richard. She probably didn’t mean any of what she said, and even if she did, she hasn’t the courage to act any of it out.”
Richard made no response. Why do you still try to play the good guy? He played the good guy because he had to. It was how he covered everything up, neatly in a bow, with kindness and compassion and empathy. Without that, he would have to face everything inside him, and that wasn’t something he ever wanted to do.
“Elijah said he apologizes. He didn’t mean to upset anyone, he was only trying to answer Camilla’s questions. Well, he claims. It isn’t difficult to tell that he’s not only lying, but also a godawful liar.” Serena patted him on the back. “I don’t think it was you he was trying to upset. I think he just wanted a reaction out of Camilla.”
Well, he had gotten one. “I know he did. And really, it isn’t bothering me anymore.” What a lie. Richard smiled, but it came out looking more like he was about to cry.
Serena raised an eyebrow, clearly seeing right through him, but she didn’t say anything further. They reentered the dining room and took their seats.
“I would be completely willing to eat an entire meal fit for hundreds just now,” Cesare said.
“Or, you could just eat a horse,” said Camilla. “That, too, is an option.”
“I detest horse meat,” Leonard said. “I’ve had to eat it involuntarily many times before, and… eurgh. Never again.”
“Why did you have to involuntarily eat horse meat?” Richard asked, eager to participate in the conversation. He had to act like he didn’t care about what had just happened. He had to act like it didn’t bother him deeply.
“Putting down another damned rebellion,” said Leonard. “Tecualt was late with the supply train, so we ate the dead horses. I very nearly fired the man.” He left something unsaid at the end of that sentence, Richard could tell.
“My husband is a very brave warrior,” Serena said. “He puts down a lot of rebellions in his dukedom.” She twisted his wrist under the table as she said this.
Leonard looked supremely uncomfortable. “Why, look, it’s the food. Why don’t we eat?”
The subjects of war and rebellion were not brought up again for the rest of the dinner, nor when they went into the parlor to continue their conversation. Richard was not the last to leave; Camilla and Cesare were still there when he did, but it was late when he began his trek back home.
Some strange urge compelled him to take a detour through the docks. He didn’t like them very much, at least not on most days, when the cold and wet would sometimes seep through his shoes and make his feet hurt, and his cane would occasionally slip on the wet wood. It had been hot, though, so maybe the walking areas would be a little drier.
They weren’t. In fact, they seemed even more damp, and slippery, almost as if it had poured rain for days without letting up. Richard made an irritated noise and did his best.
A piece of paper flew through the air, carried on a chill night wind. Richard caught it before it went into the water and held it up to read it:
Someone here to see you, sir.
Perhaps it was a fragment of a message? Part of a letter that had been lost? Richard shook his head and tossed it away.
Only a few seconds later it flew back into his face. He glared down at it again.
Someone here to see you, sir.
Had it been underlined before? He didn’t think so. Richard turned around, looking for a young ruffian who might have thrown it back at him, and that was when he saw them.
There were four figures, standing at the end of a dock. The first one was a woman with dark skin and black hair, wearing a white nightgown soaked through with blood at waist-level. She held the hand of a child, a sickly looking little boy whose entire front was also bloody. Richard didn’t recognize either of them, though there was an odd familiarity in their eyes. The little boy swayed back and forth, a nasty, bloody grin on his face, and Richard realized he could hear his ragged, shallow breathing from several meters away.
The other two had their faces obscured. The first was probably a woman, judging by the fact that she appeared to have breasts. She was dressed in dark clothing made darker by the fact that it was soaking wet. The clothing seemed to be for travelling; her dress buttoned up the front, it was devoid of frills, and she had a white shawl instead of a collar. Her bonnet was pulled down to obscure her face, but her mouth was slightly visible, and Richard could see a small trickle of water coming down from the side of it. The last figure stood beside her, illuminating the whole group with a lantern. It was probably a man, since he didn’t have breasts, dressed in a soaked suit of dark fabric. He had hidden his face with a tricorn hat, but the lantern shone down to show that water flowed freely from his mouth, as well.
There was a disturbing sense of familiarity here. Richard wanted to run, he wanted to leave the unnatural wraiths at the docks, but something seemed to compel his feet forward.
“D- Do I know you?” Richard asked.
The man looked up and gave a rattling cough, causing salt water to spray from his mouth. His eyes were still hidden. “Barely.”
“Barely, I said. Who am I to judge your memory? I can say that you may have known me, once, but you hardly know what’s left of me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You sure are thick, for a writer.”
“How do you know that?”
“I know everything about you.” The cough came again, and Richard realized why he couldn’t see the man’s eyes: they were gone. There was a strip of canvas fabric where they should have been, splotchy with blood and salt.
“You can’t,” Richard said.
“Are you a sailor?”
“Hah! Hardly. I wouldn’t be here if I had been.”
“I still don’t understand.”
The man laughed, drawing his hands up as if he was grasping at something, then coughed into his lantern-less fist. “You’re a blind idiot.”
The man pointed to the sneering boy. “Henry, the son of my body. Eldest. He caught the consumption when he was three, he lived with it until he was five.” He gestured with his lantern towards the blood-soaked woman. “Cathy, show him the baby.”
She moved her arm to reveal that she had been carrying a bundle Richard had taken for another part of her bloody dress. Richard shook his head and stepped back. “I don’t want to look at it.”
“Look at it or don’t, makes no difference to me,” the lantern man said. “Jane, after her aunt.”
Jane was the aunt that had raised him. Richard’s palms were clammy with sweat, and his head began to ache. He felt dizzy, and he felt outside of his body, like none of this was real. He hoped it wasn’t.
“My sister,” the lantern man continued, gesturing to the woman beside him. “Her name’s Jane, she’s the one I should have listened to. ‘Don’t go on that ship,’ she said. ‘It’s a bad idea to leave the boy.’ Yes, at least I might have taken him with me. With us.” The man coughed again, and fell to one knee. When Richard ran forward to help him up, he realized that the man was as pale as a statue, and as cold as a corpse. Surely there should have been some redness, somewhere on his body? Some redness to prove that blood still flowed through his veins?
The man looked up, and his hat blew away, taking the eye covering with it. Those two bloody, empty sockets were a pair of twin voids, and the sneer fixed on the lantern man’s face matched to them perfectly.
“Not such a blind idiot now, huh?” The lantern man said.
“Oh, Christ,” said Richard.
“My name is Peter Henry Golson,” his father said. “I’m not such a blind idiot now, either. I didn’t believe in God, you know that? Of course you do. I never took you to church, that was her responsibility. Well, I can tell you, son, that I was only half right. There’s something up there, that’s for sure. Something that craves worship and wants followers. But you know what? It’s asleep, son. It’s asleep and it wants to wake up.”
Richard was stumbling back. He had lost his cane. Had his father always been so tall? The world was spinning. He wasn’t in his body. This was fake, it was a dream, it was something he would see inside his head. His head was about to explode with built up pressure. Peter Henry Golson’s face twisted into something that was threatening and inhuman. He drew back his arm and threw the lantern. It hit Richard square in the chest, and he knew nothing more.