(The cover made by Elaina Lee )
Ashton Godwin's chestnut brown eyes stared at the back of her guardian Nanael, who after she passed a calling card to Lady Belmont's footman demanded to see his mistress.
The footman refused.
Ashton had been right a few minutes before when, anticipating trouble she had insisted on using the back door rather than climbing the stairs that led into the large hall. Of course, in the end Nanael would manage to persuade the footman to let them in, but it would have been easier if Nanael had, for once, listened to her. Ashton's eyes moved to the door standing slightly ajar at the left of the main entrance, where two gas lamps -- the privilege of the rich -- mounted on the flower-patterned walls drew circles of light on the pink-grey marble. She had expected for the house to be more brightly lit, especially since the lady was hosting a small social gathering. Of course, the purpose of the assembly might have something to do with the lack of light, since most of the people saw 'ghost calling' as dark and ominous affair and assumed that it needed complete darkness and silence.
The door on the left opened and the lady of the house walked through it. At the sight of Ashton and Nanael a small smile graced her lips as she clasped her hands together and hurried to them, the fabric of her blue silk gown and petticoats rustling as she moved. She welcomed them, gushing how delighted she was that they had decided to accept her invitation before instructing the footman to take their coats.
“How can we refuse,” Nanael said as handed her overcoat and leghorn straw hat to the man's outstretched hand. “When you have been so generous to us?”
Generous to us? That meant that Belmont had paid them. Later Ashton would have to inquire about her share. But for now... Ashton took off her warm brown coat and her bonnet and gave them to the footman, then she followed the two women into the parlour where, in the far corner by a window draped in heavy curtains, people sat at a round table. Among the ladies Ashton noticed a voluptuous matron, “Miss Ghost.” as Nanael named her.
They passed the fireplace, whose warmth kept away the chill of London's spring evening, and then a set of blue damask sofas. “Ladies,” Lady Belmont said as they stopped by the round mahogany table. “This is Mrs. Godwin and her daughter, the ladies I was telling you about.”
They all nodded greetings to each other, before Ashton and Nanael occupied the two armchairs set by the curtained window, just as Nanael had requested.
Ashton laced her hands in her lap, her gaze sliding over the carved wood of the cabinets and tables and the blue damask of the curtains, chairs and sofas visible in the weak light coming from the fireplace and the small candelabra set by the table.
A half-year ago the door of Lady Belmont's house would have been closed to them, and Ashton doubted that even Nanael's impressive powers of persuasion would have been able to open them. But then with the growing interest of the nobility and upper middle class in spiritualism, just a whispered word from their previous client, whose haunted house they had purged, brought them calling cards and more invitations than they could accept. The interest had been brought to England with news from America about the public séances of the Fox sisters, the so-called mediums, who communicated with ghosts by rapping sounds. Nonsense, Ashton thought. Restless spirits only followed people who could see them or hear them and if they ever resorted to knocking, they would have never done it in public. It was a fraud, she was sure of it, and so was Nanael.
The ladies around the table took each others’ hands and rested them on the embroidered linen covering the wooden surface.
Miss Ghost started first to hum and then to softly call the Lady's brother by name, urging him to come forward.
Ashton silently sighed, that was nonsense too, and a waste of time. Despite the spirit energy she could see forming a yellowish halo around Miss Ghost and the gift of sight she could feel that the woman possessed, the power the lady had was dormant and as such not substantial enough to draw spirits forward. Ashton could have awoken that power, she was an Awakener after all, but Nanael said that she had doubts that the woman was mentally strong enough to shoulder that kind of gift.
Another sigh left Ashton's throat as she scrutinised her surroundings, looking for a sign of the glittering colour that would betray a ghost's presence.
A window rattled before it burst open and the curtains flapped in the cold wind that blasted through the room. It extinguished the candles and made the flames in the fireplace leap up.
The hair at the back of Ashton's neck stood up.
The maid that had until now stood by the wall to the left of the table hurriedly started to relight the candles.
“Stay seated, please,” Nanael said to one of the ladies who rose up. She stood up herself and slipped between the curtains to close the window. She bypassed the white translucent form that had appeared in the room with the first flutter of the curtains and now slowly floated toward the table.
Ignoring him, Nanael returned to her seat.
A Soul Eater. Ashton scowled at him. This was the third one this week.
It positioned itself above Miss Ghost and pointed its hands -- if two translucent white stumps could be called hands -- at her. The yellow energy around Miss Ghost thickened and rose up like a yellow ribbon. It floated to the white shape, disappearing into it.
So Nanael had been right when she said that Miss Ghost's unconfined spirit energy attracted Soul Eaters like moths to a flame. Could Nanael have known that Miss Ghost would be present, and was that the reason for Nanael's accepting the invitation? But Ashton had been told that the reason for coming was because Tom, the boy with the sight that Nanael used as an informer, had told her that Belmont's London residence had been haunted since the death of the Lady's brother, two years back. Which meant the house hosted a ghost in need of their help.
Ashton subtly glanced at Nanael, then at the Soul Eater.
A deep breath before Ashton closed her eyes and dove into the calmness inside her. She could fight with the Eater in her physical form, but she doubted that the ladies would have accepted her behaviour as rational. They couldn’t see the thing.
The tranquillity enveloped her together with purple light, the colour of her aura. Her eyelids fluttered open and she saw her surroundings as if she were looking at the world through a thick glass. She drifted up, a purple translucent version of her body.
The Eater noticed her and its head, an empty white oval, turned in her direction and the two black holes where eyes should have been looked straight at her.
She swung her forearms upwards and she needed only to think about her purple steel fans for them to appear in her hands. She snapped them open. Another thought and sharp tips like serrated leaves grew out from the lace-like edging of black wires.
The thing shot toward her.
Ashton sidestepped and brandished her fan. The steel tips cut into the whiteness, making a wide tear in it.
The Eater howled. It wheeled around and charged at her.
She waited for it, the left fan at waist level and the right one half covering her face. She evaded the Eater, then in quick succession her fans slashed through it.
More cries followed as big shreds of white floated down, dissolving before they could reach the thick carpet. The Soul Eater’s size diminished by half.
In similar cases Eaters used to try to run away from her and she had to chase them down to finish them with a last few strokes of her fans, but not this one.
It turned slowly around. A horizontal rip appeared where its mouth should have been and screaming spilled out as it leaped toward her.
Sharp tips thrust into it, into its front and side, and then with a soft click the steel teeth of the fan widened and extended out, its size tripling.
A last cry before the white light burst out from the creature and blinded her, then curled into itself. The light vanished together with the Soul Eater.
Ashton reduced her fans, then wished them away. She saw Miss Ghost staring at her over the table. She floated closer and lowered herself to Miss Ghost's eye level. No, the woman wasn't staring at her, she was staring through her, unblinkingly. She was in the trance into which she had fallen when the Soul Eater started to feed on her.
She touched Miss Ghost's shoulder. In her spirit form she couldn't move material objects yet, but she could influence living beings, as long as she concentrated hard enough. Nanael said that was possible because living beings, even plants, possessed spirits, which she as an Awakener could influence.
Ashton tugged the lady forward and the woman slumped down onto the table, face first. The ladies around the table jumped up and hurried to her, crying her name. In the clamour of excited voices one of the ladies pulled her up.
“Calm down, please.” Nanael rose up and softly pushed her way toward Miss Ghost.
Ashton floated up and was about to return to her body when something shadowed the light coming from the fire place. She might have imagined it, but she doubted that, so she flew to it. She examined it and when she didn't find anything of interest she focused on the large portrait of the man hung above the mantel. A tiny lemony green dot of light glittered in its corner.
He was a ghost, he could hide much better than this. “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” she said in a hushed singsong voice then added, “I won't hurt you, I promise.”
A head protruded out, the resemblance to the man on the portrait obvious. He glanced around, looking ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. “What was that? That whiteness?”
“A Soul Eater, sir.” She tilted her head as she glanced over him. The green of his aura was too light. Normally the colours of an aura were darker, richer.
He uncomprehendingly gazed at her.
Of course he didn't know what that was. No spirit did; if they had crossed paths with a Soul Eater they never survived it, let alone told stories about them. “It's a lost soul who caved in to its dark feelings until all of its colours washed away.” And now it needed the spiritual energy of others to continue to exist. Though she never hesitated in eradicating them, in a way she felt sorry for them. When a soul lost its colour it couldn't cross over to The 13th any more, there was no redemption for it, no second chances, no rebirth, just the ever present threat of its demise.
She directed her attention back to the spirit before her. He had regrets that bound him to this world and she could help him resolve them. A fan appeared in her hand.
He shied away, back into the picture, just his eyes visible.
“I won't hurt you, sir.” She couldn't have, even had she tried, since the blades of her fans couldn't rip through the colours, only the whiteness; not like the Soul Reaper’s scythe, which cut the light of released spirits to deliver them into The 13th. But she had a power the Soul Reaper didn't:, With the touch of her Stones of Awakening, she could open the connection that tied a deceased with the living, if the spirit couldn’t do it on their own. It allowed spirits to appear in their loved ones' dreams and to clarify unresolved issues that were holding them back from crossing over.
“See?” She showed him her fan and with it the rhombus-shaped stone that shone with a purple light at its top edge. As he leaned closer, she slapped his forehead with her fan.
At the contact of the stone against his energy, purple lightning zigzagged into him, so quickly that if she had blinked she would have missed it.
He fell backwards, disappearing into the canvas for a short moment, probably to collect himself from the blow he had gotten and the knowledge he had received with the lightning. Looking quite disoriented he slid out of the picture and hovered before her. “I am very much obliged to you, Miss.”
She gave him a smile and murmured that it was nothing then, without a glance to the women still gathered around Miss Ghost, she surrendered to a pull lingering at the edge of her mind. It returned her to her body. As soon as her soul anchored inside it, she opened her eyes, rose up and joined Nanael. Their work here was done and it was time for them to depart.
On their way out Ashton could see a displeased expression replacing the blank mask Nanael usually wore on her face. A Soul Eater had been eliminated and another soul set onto the path of crossing, shouldn't Nanael be pleased?
“What is it?” she asked as they climbed down the stairs and into the cab that waited for them on the street as had Nanael arranged with the driver before they stepped into Lady Belmont's house.
Nanael sighed as she settled down on the bench of the carriage. “Haven't you noticed?”
“Notice what?” Ashton sat across form her, grabbing for the edge of the seat when the carriage moved with a surge.
“The spirit's lack of colour. He was about to become a Soul Eater, but I didn't sense any of the negative feelings that normally inflict the change.”
Nanael was a Keeper of Balance, she had a high empathy level and she was very receptive to spiritual energy and to people's feelings, traits that helped her in manipulating people. If she said that she couldn't sense something that meant that that something didn't exist. “But only lingering negative feelings have the power to erase the colours.”
“Yes.” Nanael smoothed the wool of her coat over her lap. “That's why this is so strange. It had to be connected with the increasing number of Soul Eaters.”
It wasn’t as if the number of Soul Eaters hadn't increased before. Just two years ago when cholera had spread over London, almost every sixth deceased turned into an Eater. That time they were so busy that Nanael even spoke about asking for the Soul Reaper’s help, but then at the last second she had changed her mind. “There aren’t that many of them.”
“Too many, considering that there were no disasters or accidents on a large scale,” Nanael said. “I will contact Blade.”
Ashton flinched at the mention of his name. Blade, the current Soul Reaper, the boy two years her senior, who had loved to pull on her braids when they were little. Seven years ago, when she had watched the carriage taking him away to boarding school, with her heart empty and heavy, she had hoped that their paths would never cross again and, now, she still held the same hope.
With her hands laced over her stomach Ashton stared through the dim glass of the sitting room window. A room with cabinets against the wall patterned in light blue roses , with a damask sofa and three armchairs arranged around a small fireplace.
Nanael had just left, employing the portal leading into The 13th to report about the latest turn of events. She usually used portal to and from The 13th to travel to the Soul Reaper's residence - wherever that was - without having to resort to the discomfort of this world's transportation. It was like going through two sets of doors. Or maybe slightly different since the ground under Nanael made a full turn, as if she stood on a merry-go-round before she disappeared, giving Ashton a glimpse of The 13th. A glimpse of the colourful sparks that rained down, but only to gather into a pool high in the air and then flow down into a sequence of waterfalls and pools, all of it looking like a river made out of rainbow and stars. On the ground the view of the river was veiled by a small city built from black bricks. If Ashton squinted she could even see the tree glittering above the highest pool. The Tree of Souls. The 13th was beautiful, but except for the one time when she was four years old, Nanael had never allowed her to accompany her, to see it more closely. It didn't seem that she had the same prejudices regarding Blade since she said that she might bring him back with her, and Ashton resented it. Just because she was the Awakener she wasn't anything less than the Soul Reaper. It wasn't fair. She shook her head like that would have helped her get rid of the annoyance that bubbled inside of her.
Her gaze slid over the people on the street below; the vendors selling their goods, the busy hard-working folk in worn out clothes with purpose in their step, gentlemen with top hats on their heads tipping them each time an acquaintance crossed their path, and ladies in wide crinolines stopping here and there to admire displays in the shops lined up the streets.
Ashton had never regretted being an Awakener, never, but it did irk her that every time Nanael mentioned Blade, Ashton understood how little her being an Awakener mattered to Nanael.
At a short knock on the door she turned around to see it burst open. A ten-year-old boy, barefoot, wearing worn clothes that were too small for him, rushed into the room. A young woman, Mary, in her black uniform and white apron chased behind him.
Mary caught him by his arm. “I'm sorry, Miss. I couldn't stop him.” She slapped him over his head. “Leaving mud on the floor like that.”
“Thank you, Mary. You can release him,” Ashton said as she went to take one of the old newspapers lying by the basket of logs on the hearth. She spread it on the armchair closest to the fire. “Come, Tom, sit.” She offered the seat to the boy, knowing that if she didn’t protect the fabric and the armchair got dirty she would have to listen to Mary's nagging for a week or more.
“Mary,” Ashton called the maid who was already on her way out. “Could you bring tea, please?”
“Yes, Miss,” Mary said, but the way she shut the door told Ashton that she wasn't pleased with the request.
“I don't like her,” Tom said. “I liked the one before, though. She was nice.”
“Mary's not going to be here long.” Ashton sat on the armchair opposite him. Mary had already become a reliable, well-versed maid and it was time for Nanael to find Mary steady employment in one of the big houses. Then another girl, one of the fallen women that London was full of, would be offered training in the ways of being a maid and their lives would again become a mess of dirty clothes, windows and dishes until the girl learned the basics.
“Ma'am should pick a nicer one next time,” Tom said, swallowing vowels as he spoke.
“I'll tell her that.” Ashton smiled then leaned over the small table. “Do you have news?” Or had he only come to fill his belly– though if that were the case, he wouldn't have had to force his way in as he had. “Nanael asked you to watch the houses around Grosvenor Square, right?”
“She did that, Miss, but those men are always chasing me away. One give me a black eye, he did.” Tom pointed to the small swelling over his left eye hidden under the dirt covering his face. It looked like the same dirt that coated the windows, the coal dust from the stoves and factories carried around by wind and fog. “But I saw something else, Miss, on my way home. Ma'am said that I should visit every time I see something out of the ordinary.”
“Yes, she did say that. And what did you see?”
“Weird ghosts in graveyard. Lots of them.”
Contrary to most people's belief, graveyards weren't spirits' favourite socialising spot, they were too morbid and being deceased was already depressing enough. Though most spirits did like to attend their own funerals, using it to say a sort of goodbye and, as Ashton suspected, to enjoy the nice words said about them.
“How do you mean weird?” And which graveyard? The nearest church to Grosvenor Square was St. George's, a large building with a portico, two-story high pillars and an immediate entrance into the building, but Ashton doubted that Tom would pass it on his way to the Seven Dials. He probably meant the St. Giles churchyard.
Mary interrupted them by bringing the pot, tea set, butter and bread. As soon as she left the room, Ashton repeated her question. “Weird?”
He furrowed his brows like he was trying to find the best way to describe them, then his forehead smoothed. “Like old sheets.”
“White?” She poured tea into a cup and offered it to Tom then started to put butter on a piece of bread.
“White, yes.” He nodded, unmoving, staring at the food in her hands.
Soul Eaters only appeared at night. “Were you out in the dark again? By the cemetery? Oh, Tom, you should be more careful. You might encounter grave robbers and then what would happen to you?” She put the bread on a saucer and set it before him.
“Ain’t no more grave robbers, Miss. Not like there used to be.” He waved his hand like she was worried for nothing then pounced on the bread, stuffing it into his mouth.
She watched him. She should tell Nanael about the visit and the news Tom brought now that he was busy with eating. She thought about the words, writing them in her head like she would write a note, and then concentrated on Nanael. She hid her left hand between the folds of her frock and with it a small Clouded Yellow Butterfly that materialized from her fingertip. It dropped down to the floor and then flew toward the outer wall and through it into the open. A much more practical and quicker way of delivering messages than using the post, but, unfortunately, it only worked among the people with very high spiritual energy.
More Soul Eaters? What did that mean for them? More work for her, of course, but... there was something else. She could remember Nanael's nervousness when they’d had to deal with those Eaters two years back. It had something to do with The 13th, but Nanael had never revealed what, and Ashton couldn't find anything helpful in The 13th Guidebook.
A knock before Mary opened the door and announced a visitor, saying that Nanael was expecting him before she gave Ashton a calling card.
Ashton stood up and read the card. Darien B. Williams. Nanael expected him? Who could he be? A client?
A man stepped into the room.
Ashton folded her hands and scrutinised him. She examined the shining leather boots before her gaze rose up, over the grey pants and well-fitted coat toward the handsome oval face above the black bow that held the white collar tightly against the man's neck. Plum-shaped mouth with dimples at its comers; narrow, straight nose above it; high cheekbones and almond-shaped brown eyes that looked back at her with something akin to amused curiosity. He was young, a boy, probably a year or two older then her, no more than twenty years old.
He removed the top hat from his head, exposing black curls in need of a trim. They fell on his brow and he brushed them backwards as he stepped closer to her, a small smile gracing his lips. With a soft, deep voice, he greeted her.
Ashton frowned. There was something familiar about him, very familiar. But it couldn't be him. “I heard that mistress is expecting you? I'm sorry, she's not in at the moment. May I be of assistance?”
“No need. I have a feeling that she will return shortly,” he said and without waiting for an invitation sat down on the sofa.
Ashton checked the card again. Darien B. Williams. What could that B stand for? She raised her eyes to see that Tom had already eaten his bread and had now his gaze fixed on the rest of the food on the plate. “Have more bread if you want, Tom,” she said then her gaze slid back to Mr. Williams, who was smiling at her. He seemed to have decided to wait for Nanael and Ashton couldn't exactly throw him out. She might not be a lady by blood, but she had been raised as one. She should have an additional tea cup brought for him.
His blue eyes measured her. “You grew up very well.”
The wrinkle on her forehead deepened as she blankly stared at him.
“Ash, don't tell me you don't recognize me?” He rested one arm on the back of the sofa.
Ash? Only one person called her that. And he was -- So it was him! Her eyes widened and she stumbled backwards.
“Have I really changed so much?” The smirk he wore metamorphosed into a grin which made him look deliciously naughty.
She knew that expression well, she had seen it every time Blade got his way, and since he was the master's only son -- despite being a bastard -- and she a mere governess's adoptive daughter, he always got his way. Well, that is, unless she started to cry. “But... But...” Her eyes fell on the name on the card. “Your last name is not Williams.” And as a child he had had dark brown hair, not black.
“It is now. Haven't you heard? The old goat remarried and had a real son,” he said. “He doesn't need me any more, so I'm free as bird now, to do whatever I please.” His grin transformed into a wide smile. “We have so much to talk about.”
She fiddled with the card, tempted to rip it, feeling like a hand was wrapped around her throat, suffocating her. She had to calm herself down. She subtly took a few deep breaths. “Nanael isn't here,” she spoke up, proud of how her voice sounded calm and collected as she strode past the sofa to Tom.
From the pocket of her frock she pulled out a handkerchief and used it to wrap the bread which she had offered to Tom. “I hope you don't mind, but I'll have to ask you to leave.”
The boy stood up and took the parcel. “No, miss, I don't mind.”
She put her hand on Tom's shoulder and led him toward the door, refusing to risk a glance in Blade's direction. She would not allow his presence to affect her. “I also have something else for you.”
“Really?” Tom looked up at her.
“Yes.” She opened the door and then after they passed through it, closed it, pleased that Blade hadn't followed her. He probably assumed that she would return. But that wasn’t going to happen. “Shoes.”
They descended the stairs to the ground floor with the kitchen, paltry, front parlour used for hosting clients, washhouse and servants’ quarters, which were actually just two small rooms. She had used shoes stored in the cabinets under the stairs. She gave them to Tom then put on her coat.
Beside her Tom admired the worn-out shoes he now had on his feet and which she had found and bought at the shoemaker. She would have bought Tom new shoes, but those would have been stolen from him too quickly.
She put a coin in his hand and asked if he would mind her company on his way to Seven Dials. She intended to go to St. Giles anyway, to visit the Reverend Mr. Filmore and now she would also use this opportunity to inspect its churchyard and to get away from Blade.
Tom shook his head in a no and they left, but not before Ashton peeked into the kitchen and requested that Mary supply Mr. Williams with refreshment while he waited and told her that she was going to be absent for an hour or two.
“You shouldn't have left him alone, Miss,” Tom said when they hurried along the street past the loud vendors and other pedestrians. “Isn't he your friend?”
“How is your reading? I hope you are going to Sunday school regularly?”
“I do.” Tom nodded then started to talk about David Copperfield, which he was reading in instalments in the Monthly Series she supplied him with, wondering when Mr. Dickens would publish a new story. “It’s been a year.”
“I like Mr. Dickens’ stories and I'm looking forward an instalment of a new story too,” Ashton said, only half-listening to the boy beside her while they strolled across the pavement, the smoke of the coal and the smell of the gutter irritating her nostrils. It made her miss the green plains of Leeds, where she had spent most of her childhood after Nanael 'found' her in Poland and which she’d had to leave when Nanael lost her position as governess upon Blade's departure.
Blade.... Every time she remembered their adventures, full of laughter and joy, warmth washed over her, but only until the memory of their goodbye flashed before her eyes. He had been so merciless, telling her how much he was looking forward to leaving the house and leaving her. How she was never anything but a pest to him, somebody he only allowed to be by his side because Nanael asked him to. That he was a Soul Reaper and an heir while she was only an orphan, who wouldn't have any powers if not for him. That if he hadn't died that time when they’d had to revive him, she would be nothing -- which was true. Maybe that's why his words hurt so much.
She hated that memory, tried to suppress it, tried to forget him, because to him she was nothing, while she.... she loved him. She tensed her jaw, glad to see in the distance St. Giles’ church tower that with its roofless top reminded Ashton of a castle. She parted with Tom and went in search of Mr. Filmore to give him her donation for his Sunday school.
A yellow butterfly flew by, then turned around and hovered before her. She glared at it for a few moments before she sighed and offered it her hand. It could be Nanael's, she rationalized, but deep down she knew that it was Blade's.
The butterfly landed on his finger and dove into her skin.
“Where are you?” Blade's voice spoke inside her head with a sharp edge to it but then it softened. “Come back soon. I’m waiting for you.”
Ashton examined the rows of freshly closed graves, grimacing at the stench that here and there drifted in her direction. There were no Eaters present, not that she expected them since they rarely appeared in the daylight. But she found it strange that despite the new graves not even one spirit lingered around. Cemeteries were never crowded with ghosts, but they always had one or two 'lost' spirits nearby.
She noticed a butterfly hovering beside her left shoulder and ignored it, like she had ignored the last three.
“You have become cruel,” a man's voice said behind her.
She wheeled around. Blade. Again, tightness constricted her throat and chest and she had to concentrate to calm herself. She narrowed her eyes at him. “What are you doing here?”
“You could at least reply.”
“Why should I?” She turned her back to him and marched passed the graves toward the church.
“Ash!” With three long strides he overtook her. “Why are you acting like this? Is it because -- is that why you haven't responded to my letters?"
She didn't reply, but instead accelerated her pace. Why was he here, bothering her? Shouldn't he be glad that she had been trying to spare him her presence which he, as he had said seven years ago, detested so much? She felt wetness at the corners of her eyes. She blinked it away.
“Ash!” His hand grabbed her shoulder, forcing her to stop.
She flinched then started to wiggle, trying to slip out of his grasp. She wouldn’t allow him to rattle her. “Let go of me.”
“Ash, please, can't we talk?”
Talk? She wanted to laugh. There was nothing she wanted to say, nothing she wanted to hear from him, but he must have been here in Nanael's stead and had to be in contact with her, otherwise he wouldn't have known where to find her. She turned around, slowly. “What does Nanael want? And why is she using you as a messenger? Couldn't she use butterflies?”
“Nanael? What does Nanael have to do with this?”
“How do you mean?” Why else would he be there then? She frowned.
“Ash.” He closed the short distance that separated them, his hands settling on her shoulders. “I missed you.”
She looked up at him, melting at the small smile gracing his mouth and at the eyes that seemed to shine down on her. She swallowed. She had missed him too, so much.
His hands slid over her shoulders and down her arms. “So much time has been wasted... and for what?”
She stared at him, caught in the spell he cast over her. She had always dreamt about them together, about him professing his love to her and them having a happy ever after, but he had shattered that dream. Not only that, he had stomped on it, driving a knife into her heart. She could still remember it so vividly. An ugly, worthless little girl, that's all you are. “Release me.”
“Ash?” A wrinkle marred his forehead.
She tried to pry his hands off. “Release me or I'll scream.”
“Don't be silly.” His fingers dug into her skin.
She opened her mouth to carry out her threat, but he covered her mouth and dragged her out of the open to the nearest tree. He pushed her against the tree trunk, imprisoning her with his arms. “What's wrong with you?”
“You are.” She glared at him.
“What did I do? Don’t tell me you haven’t forgiven me? Please, can’t you forgive me?”
Why was he doing this to her? Did he find it amusing? And why did she feel like crying? She hung her head and fisted her hands, her nails cutting into her palms. “Please. Please, just let me go.”
“Ash?” He leaned down and his forehead touched hers while his fingers slid over the edge of her jaw.
Shivers ran up her spine and warmth pooled in the pit of her stomach. She took a deep breath. “An ugly, worthless little girl, that's all you are.”
She glanced up at him.
He furrowed his brows.
“That's what you said to me.”
“I never meant it. I told you so.”
“In the messages.”
“I sent you messages. I explained everything in there.”
Explained what? Was there even anything that needed explaining? He despised her, he had said that clearly enough. And nothing could change that. “Please, release me.”
“It’s that why you never replied?” Blade cupped her cheek. “You have to know, I never meant it.”
She refused to look at him.
“You have to believe me. You have to.”
“Please, Blade, just let go.”
“I never meant any of it, really I didn't.... It was just --”
“Hey, you,” a man yelled from the church. “Release Miss Godwin this instant.”
Ashton glanced sideways at the blond, stout man who with long steps rushed toward them. She pushed against Blade, glad for interruption and hoping that Mr. Filmore's soothing presence would help her calm herself.
Blade, with a deep scowl, stepped away from her.
“Miss Godwin... Miss Godwin...” The man leaned on the trunk, trying to catch his breath.
She cleared her throat before she spoke up, “Mr. Filmore, you are not well. You should not have run.” The Reverend was a young man, a little over thirty, but like most gentlemen his daily exercise consisted of a stroll in the garden.
He straightened, waving his hands as if trying to convey that he was fine.
Blade crossed his arms. “Who is he?”
“Are you hurt?” Mr. Filmore asked, breathing heavily. “Has this man hurt you?”
“Who are you?” Blade towered over Mr. Filmore.
A worried expression appeared on Mr. Filmore's square, open face as he moved backwards. “Stay back or I will call a constable.”
“You need not worry, Mr. Filmore,” Ashton said before her voice lowered to a whisper, “A barking dog never bites.” She tried to sound playful, but her voice still sounded slightly breathless.
“I heard that.”
“I apologize for Mr. Blade's behaviour. He has come from abroad and unfortunately he is still not used to the etiquette of an English gentleman.” She put her hand on Mr. Filmore's forearm. “Shall we?”
“Ash!” Blade gave her an ugly look.
She ignored it as she and Mr. Filmore stepped onto the path leading to the church.
Mr. Filmore's step slowed down. “Maybe --”
“Don't mind him.” Ashton patted Mr's Filmore's arm, refusing to stop for introductions. “He's being childish.”
Blade followed them, she could hear his footsteps behind them, and he hovered around them as they stopped at the church entrance.
“Won't you come in, Miss Godwin?” Mr. Filmore offered. “I would be honoured if you would join me for supper.”
“No, thank you.” At the moment she wasn't inclined to spend her evening in the company of Mr. Filmore and his sister. “I have already imposed upon your hospitality as it is.” She looked up at the darkening sky. “And it's getting late.”
“Yes, of course. Allow me to fetch my hat and I will escort you.”
“There's no need for that,” Blade intervened. “I'll accompany Miss Godwin home.”
Mr. Filmore objected, but since Ashton wanted to avoid any conflict, she reassured him that Blade didn't pose any threat to her and the Reverend had to submit.
“Who is he?” Blade repeated his question as they walked out of the churchyard.
“The Reverend Mr. Filmore. He's runs the Sunday school.”
“What is he to you?” He wrapped his fingers around her wrist, stopping her.
She sighed, suddenly feeling tired. “You almost compromised me, back then. And you are doing the same now. Do I mean so little to you that you are willing to trash my reputation so easily?”
“That was never my intention.” He released her like he had burnt himself. “I... I only...”
Then what was your intention? she was tempted to ask, but instead she resumed her walk, observing the graveyard behind the iron fence. She had thought she was over him, but having him near... the feelings that she had suppressed for so long bubbled inside her like boiling water and it was just a question of time before they would spill over. She had to prevent that.
She waited for him to draw even with her. “Tom, the boy you saw today, told me that he noticed Soul Eaters gathering in this cemetery.”
“I thought so too. And there are no spirits at the cemetery; usually there's at least one.” Lost and slightly confused, not knowing what was going on. They usually just needed a short chat and a little guidance. “I was thinking that since you are already here, you could use the scythe.” A materialized scythe attracted the spirits in need of passing over and though spirits came to the Soul Reaper from all over the world there might be some from this area who knew what was going on.
“Not here, but somewhere near and out of sight.” Ashton glanced around, searching for an appropriate place, but she couldn't see anything suitable in the low buildings on the other side of the packed earth that marked the road. They could go to the one of drinking establishments near the British Museum.
“I have rooms near The Covent Garden.” He looped his arm around hers.
“You are not implying that I should visit your rooms?”
“They have a lounge we can use.”
She agreed, reluctantly, and they found a cab, though she would have preferred walking. The drive passed in silence, she could feel his gaze on her but she focused instead on the colourful and noisy scene outside.
“Ash,” he spoke as he moved closer to her until she could feel his legs against hers through the folds of her skirts and coat. He took hold of her hand. “About what I said to you --”
“We are almost there.” She hauled her hand out of his hold.
“Why won't you listen to me?”
“We can discuss the past later, but now I would like to learn what is behind the increased number of Eaters and why they are gathering in the cemetery,” Ashton said despite having no intention of ever listening to his excuses or apologies about what had occurred between them. In the seven years that had passed he could have sent her a butterfly any time, but he hadn’t. And even now, when he waltzed back into her life he tried at first to pretend that nothing had happened.
The cab stopped and after Blade paid the man he helped her down and guided into hotel’s vestibule. Red wallpaper with brown trim on the wall, and an arch on the right side of the hall led into what looked like the dining area. Armchairs and sofas stood by the wall, with small tables before or beside them.
Blade found a corner with two brown leather armchairs half-veiled from the rest of the hall by the potted greenery. They sat down.
She made herself comfortable and separated her soul from her body. Blade, in his energy form, already hovered beside her. The colour of his aura, a blue so dark that it looked black, was the same as it had been when they were children, only the tool he wielded had changed. The sickle had become a scythe, as expected, with a simple dark blue snath devoid of grip and decoration and with a wickedly gleaming silver blade.
They didn't need to wait long for the spirits to appear in all nationalities, glittering in a rainbow of colours. They lined up before them without a word.
“Is anybody from this area?” Blade inquired.
The spirits exchanged glances, but none of them came forward.
“If nobody is from this area, there will be no reaping,” Blade threatened.
A chatter of voices rose up.
“We just have a couple of questions,” Ashton said, then added, “We need some help and would really appreciate your cooperation.”
A few of the spirits came out of the line.
“What about the rest of us?” an old man in long, richly embellished robe asked.
“Since you are already here...” Blade tapped the bottom of the snath against the ground and one by one four more blades emerged from the first existing blade, connected together by thin dark blue bars. “Grain cradle,” he explained to Ashton.
“You do your job then, and I'll talk to them,” she proposed.
* * * * *
The complete story is for available on Smashwords, its retailers and on Amazon Kindle US, Amazon Kindle UK and Amazon Kindle DE.