What started as an escape for fencer Evadne Gray quickly turns into a paranormal thrill ride.
Tasked with chaperoning her younger, wilder sister—aspiring art critic, Dorina—on her trip to London, Evadne has no idea just how dangerous the task is. When Dorina befriends Lady Henrietta “Henry” Wotton, she’s enamored with the sophisticated woman. But Henry is hiding a secret—one that, try as she might, she can’t keep from Dorina.
Meanwhile, Evadne enrolls in a fencing academy, hoping to improve her skills. There she meets instructor George Cantrell, a man with secrets of his own. He soon reveals to her the underground world of spirits and demons that lies beneath Victorian London, and his plans to destroy it. He needs Evadne’s help, but that may prove to be a conflict of interest considering Dorina’s latest obsession…
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Dorina was much more relaxed now that this was no longer between them. “You know, Evadne made some snide remark today, when we had our row, about you influencing my opinions. It seems she was right.”
“Oh, don’t say that! I prefer to think of myself as helping you find yourself. Influencing someone is terribly immoral.”
“It’s difficult to explain, but when you influence someone, you risk replacing their soul with yours. An influenced person ceases to think her own thoughts or chase her own passions. Her virtues are no longer her own, and her sins—if there is such a thing as sin—are borrowed. She becomes rather like an echo, or perhaps an actor reading lines. If the purpose of life is developing one’s self—if we are all artists whose canvas is our person—we must strive to realize ourselves as we wish ultimately to be. What would be the purpose of becoming someone else?”
“I suppose I never thought of it that way.” Dorina looked rather startled by Lady Henry’s suggestion; well, she was at that age where young people wanted nothing more than to be wholly themselves . . . and also everyone they found interesting.
“It will help you in life, my dear, if you seek to be only who you want to be.”
“And yet, we say artists have influences, don’t we?”
Henry smiled. “Of course, but that’s not quite the same meaning of the word. If an artist sees something she admires in another, and chooses to treat it as a lesson, that is wholly different from someone seeking specifically to change someone on a whim, isn’t it?”
“I think it is especially reprehensible to seek to influence someone because we are all so afraid of ourselves these days, even the bravest of us. If we were to live our lives fully, completely, and give in to our impulses, the world would be better for it. But we squash our impulses, we strangle them . . . and yet, they cannot be wholly suppressed. When denied, these impulses begin to poison us from within. We brood over what we forbid ourselves, whether or not we admit it. I think the only way to know one’s self is to yield to those urges, to not fear them. I had no idea, before I met you, that one as young as yourself would be courageous enough to give in to that which is considered reprehensible rather than suppressing or fearing what is within you—that which makes you you. I certainly wasn’t so confident at your age.”
“I’m not so sure I’m so confident,” said Dorina.
“Actually, I was thrown for a loop yesterday . . .”
“Well . . . our conversation. The one we had before the painting of Bacchus.”
The demon was amused; Henry felt its mirth as keenly as her own stirrings of panic. It had been very foolish of her to challenge Dorina over the issue of demons. She had just been so surprised by Evadne’s remarks, and entertained by Dorina’s dismay. She did not wish to get the girl interested in the subject. Henry had, after all, vowed never to recruit another. Not after what happened with Oliver.
The demon let her know its displeasure at this, but she ignored it. Their relationship was one of equals; she was its host, not its servant. She had no obligation to obey.
“Oh, that,” said Henry, with as much nonchalance as she could. “You mean about the gods of the ancient world being . . .”
The girl blushed. “Well, yes. I thought about it quite a lot last night.”
“Don’t give it too much mind.”
“How could I not?” Dorina’s eyes were so very wide.
“I’m sorry,” said Henry. “I meant to tease your sister, not you. It was just an intellectual exercise.” The demon scolded her for lying. Knowing she was being disrespectful toward Dorina by telling her half-truths, Henry tried to walk a middle path.
“Might there be some merit to the idea? Who can say! You believe there is a scientific explanation for what appears to be supernatural. But what if what we believed was supernatural was just natural? The paranormal, normal?”
Dorina laughed a little, dispelling the tension that had gathered like steam in the carriage—and even better, they had arrived at the Royal Gardens. Before Dorina could say anything further on the subject, the door opened, letting in bright light and the cries of the peacocks. The girl gasped with pleasure, and almost leaped out to get a better look.
Henry was thankful for the distraction, grateful to leave off with that particular conversation. Dorina was too quick—she would have to really watch her tongue.
For now, it was a fine, hot day, summer sun beating upon them as they sifted in among the other visitors, and the air smelled even greener than everything looked. The shade of the trees and shrubs and the little ponds and lakes lent the air a coolness that was pleasant when the wind gusted. Dorina leaned into the smell, inhaling deeply, her face glowing with pleasure.
The presence in Henry’s mind reasserted itself when she lit a ginger-scented cigarette as they strolled along the gravel paths. The blooms on the flowers seemed to open before her eyes; the color of their leaves deepened as their stems became more graceful; the grass appeared more perfectly manicured. Henry felt unalloyed joy to see it all; it was so very beautiful, and her appreciation knew no beginning and no end.
Dorina cozied up to her just as she was finishing her cigarette, the younger woman snaking her arm around the older’s waist, leaning her head on her shoulder.
“It’s magnificent here. I can see why you wanted to show me. It’s as if I were walking through an Impressionist painting! See that woman over there? Standing as she does, in the breeze, she looks just like Woman with a Parasol. The people are but tongue lickings, strips of color and motion, unless one stops and stares impolitely . . . Henry?”
Henry had pulled away, too aware of her own response to Dorina’s touch, too cognizant that the invisible thing that lived in her mind and body had also responded positively—eagerly, even. It was not often that she and the presence in her mind disagreed; they were usually in perfect harmony with one another, but they had both been so electrified by the girl’s sudden intimacy it was as if Dorina had struck some secret chord neither of them had ever heard before.
Dorina was watching her, smiling. Why, the little minx knew exactly the impression her touch had produced. She was flirting with her!
The nerve of the creature, thinking that she, Lady Henry Wotton, would ever be interested in such a young, unformed, innocent as Dorina Gray! It was insulting, the insinuation that she could be tempted by such a liaison . . .
And yet, she was tempted. Dorina was delightful, physically and mentally. Henry had been denying it to herself, but the demon knew. It reminded her that she had just given Dorina a lecture about the virtue of yielding to impulses—but theory was just that, and she made a mental note to qualify her earlier statement to Dorina at some point. She did not want the girl thinking she had been flirting with her . . . even if perhaps she had been. At least a little.
Henry withdrew a cigarette and lit it to cover the awkwardness of having jerked away from Dorina.
“Can I have one?” Dorina asked boldly. “They smell delicious, and you just said I shouldn’t deny myself things I want.”
Oh, Henry had dug herself an interesting hole!
“You may not have one,” she answered, tucking away the case. “They are not for beautiful young girls. The smoke toughens the skin as well as making your throat raspy.”
“You think I’m beautiful?”
“Of course,” said Henry. “You are beautiful, and you are young, and for me to do anything that would jeopardize either would be a terrible crime. Beauty is useless . . . but appreciating it is the highest calling we can answer.”
Dorina looked around. “We are answering it now, I think.”
“Yes. Through gardening, I have truly learned to appreciate beauty. I know it lasts but a short time . . . Flowers wither, no matter what you do, and while they blossom again, they are never the same blooms. You may regret the loss of some and forget others, but they are gone just the same. People are similar . . . Youth is a flower, one that will never return. Joy diminishes as we age. Our bodies betray us, and we become hideous, haunted creatures.”
You still fear that? asked the presence in her mind, not in words, but in a sense of surprise that was close enough to speech after all the years she had hearkened to it.
For others, she replied, looking at Dorina. They had wandered by a fountain, and the girl was lifting her face as the spray dotted her skin and dappled her shirtwaist.
She need not wither. She could—
“No,” said Lady Henry aloud, surprising Dorina.
“No what?” she asked, turning. The droplets of water across the bridge of her nose, clinging to her hair, sparkled like diamonds in the sunshine.
“No telling what’s around the next bend here,” she said quickly. “They plan the gardens so pleasantly—every new sight is delightful, don’t you think?” She ambled away from the fountain; Dorina followed.
“You know . . .” The girl caught up to her, looking thoughtful. “Even though I find I agree with nearly everything we’ve spoken of since the very moment we met, I can’t help but disagree with you on a point.”
“I would love to be influenced by you. You’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met, and while I can’t imagine you’d inspire some sort of passion for trousers in me, I believe you’d encourage me to . . . do better. I’m already trying to think of art in a different way . . .”
Henry felt a pang. “Pray don’t! You should be your own person, my dearest Dorina, because the person you are is delightful. And you’ve known me far too short a time to know if I ought to be influencing you.”
“You sound like Evadne,” said Dorina, making a little moue.
“Maybe I do, and maybe I don’t. I think your sister worries about you changing in a certain way—I’m concerned that you should change at all.” The demon chided her, and this time she acknowledged it was correct. “Then again . . . everything is always changing. Nothing can remain static and exist in this world.” Dorina looked perplexed, hurt almost, and Henry felt another swell of affection for the child. “Oh, you darling girl, this is why I hardly ever make friends with young women. When a woman reaches a certain age, she is more or less formed. But at your age, you are in a constant state of flux. You tell me you want to be influenced by me, but in a fortnight you may find me as tiresome as any other old woman. Shh—I know of what I speak, trust me. And I know from experience it will be my heart that breaks, not yours.”
“Do not speak of heartbreak,” said Dorina. “It is a beautiful day, and we are together, and nothing will change, ever.”
“You cannot promise that. No one can,” said Henry. “As for me, I hardly ever promise anything. But, perhaps you will stay the same—perhaps your desires will not change, and you will grow straight and tall, in the same direction you are growing now.”
Dorina looked a bit overwhelmed, so Henry took her hand and squeezed it. The presence in her mind approved—very much so. She tried to ignore it, but she could feel it. It had appetites like any living creature, and desires and loves and needs. But she would not let it have Dorina. Not if she could help it.
No one knew better just how much was at stake . . .
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Body photo: Abigail Keenan / Unsplash