There’s no way to really describe the feeling I get when I die. Obviously it’s probably not the same feeling you will get when you die, but then again, you might not be around to report the sensation or indeed remember it at all. In my opinion, it’s very difficult to fully experience something without experiencing what comes afterwards. I die and then I rise again; it’s how it works for me, and I have to say I hated it.
Yeah, past tense, it doesn’t bother me so much now. But back when I was young . . . yes. Well. The first time the life drained from my body, I was barely twenty-one, a young woman working tirelessly for Mr Albert May as his children’s nanny. The death itself was a complete accident, I was escorting the eldest daughter – her name was Mellissa, and I could swear on the grave of the Eternal Mother that there was no one more beautiful – to her debutante ball. The other children were left at home, the boys laughing at Melissa for dressing, and I quote, ‘like a large French meringue’. The two girls were both younger and had stars in their eyes at the prospect of coming into society themselves. I’m fairly sure that, looking back on the whole business – a time so far in the past for me now – the girls were really just delighted with the idea of dressing up and dancing.
When we arrived, the small hall was almost swampy with frills and white lace. Flower petals, some broken and bruised others fresh and fragile, carpeted the cobbles from hundreds of corsages and posies. I remember even now the smells, perfumes chosen by eager Mothers and dutiful guardians, the first womanly scents worn by excited woman-children. The sounds of the band striking up their first number drifted through the chatter and din of young women, twittering like so many flocks of sparrows, and made me suddenly nervous. I didn’t know why, I still don’t, but the change in music, and the slightly shoddy finger work of at least one of the cellists, told me that something terrible was going to happen.
“I’m going to go in, Nanny. I think that’s a good idea.” I knew the pretentious remark was an attempt at sounding like Mellissa’s neighbour, Madame Kara, a truly horrid woman born low and enough of a cut-throat so-and-so to claw her way into such circles as these.
I dutifully followed Mellissa into the hall, stooping swiftly to gather the train of her frilly gown and carry it so as to prevent it being stained with lily pollen, as someone had had the rather natty idea to wind various big-flowered plants through the arbour over the doorway. The result was a fine carpet of pollen; many of the varieties present would definitely stain. I distinctly remember reminding myself to wash my own dress train as soon as I got home. When we were both inside, I dropped the train on the polished hardwood floor and observed the scuffmarks left by inexperienced heel wearers. My own heels were custom-made for me by Mr May’s own cobbler, each with a heel a little over four inches, and I could walk in them like they were my own bare feet. Mellissa was wearing a custom pair too, a touch under two inches, and the racket she made walking made me cringe. To be fair, she was by no means the loudest walker in the hall in that moment, but there were certainly more skilful individuals.
I touched Mellissa’s shoulder and indicated where I would seat myself, just under a window facing the great doors, where I could be assured of being both easy to find and having a plentiful supply of fresh – if a little chilly – air. I made my way over, smiling politely at the other ladies on the way. Of course, I must have stood out – peacock blue was not too common, especially as the tailor responsible for Mr May’s clothes had some special silk from India, which, instead of just being one colour, shifted from blue to purple to green, with every fold showing a swirling rainbow of colours – but by the time I’d made my way to the window, eyes had moved to the dance floor, and girls back towards their chaperones. The band started playing something gentle and relaxing; it reminds me now of elevator music, but of course we had no elevators back then. I settled myself beneath the window and felt the curtain edge tickle my shoulder.
Absent-mindedly I pushed it away and watched as Mellissa made her way over towards me. She really did look preposterous. The frills and lace didn’t become her somewhat well-rounded figure in the slightest, but then again, the whole affair was rather tasteless. Having grown up myself in a wild and green part of the world, in a secluded area in a wood a mile or so from the nearest village, I had never attended one of these events as a girl. My ‘coming out’ occurred when I moved here and got a job working for a gentleman named Mr Albert May. He was in his late forties and very handsome. His wife had died the year before, leaving the very busy man with three daughters – Elleanor, Elaine, and the eldest, Mellissa – and a young son, named Micha. Mellissa settled herself next to me and fixed her skirts about her to her liking. She smiled thinly at me – another habit she had learnt from Madame Kara – and then coolly eyed the males, who seemed to have positioned themselves in the centre of the room like a herd of nervous elephants. I didn’t blame them; not to be spiteful or anything, but my opinions of the appearances of some of the girls present left a lot to be desired. Poor things! And as time has gone on, in my memory, they seem to have become more cartoonish, the dresses frothier and the hairdos higher and more inappropriate.
Anyhow, the boys were still milling about, a mixture of pimpled, baby-faced, mature, gawky, and slightly fuzzy faces all agog at getting to hold and dance with a “proper” lady for the first time. Many had hair so shiny that the chandelier’s brightness was simply outdone, and the exact motifs from the arched ceiling were clearly reflected rosette by rosette. From somewhere within the stage a bell rang, and the band started playing with gusto and no small amount of skill. No more shoddy finger work there.
A couple of boys moved in pairs, like a leader and a wingman, towards the slightly jittery girls along the walls. A particularly handsome-looking individual made his way alone towards Mellissa, and she cast a slightly nervous glance at me. I gave her an encouraging nod and a small smile, and she rose elegantly, offering her hand. He accepted it, and they headed off towards the middle of the room, where the less courageous boys had now had to actually move closer to the girls to make room in the centre of the floor so that couples could dance. The hall now resembled a large target, with eligible girls, though admittedly the dregs – at least to the cynical eye – ringed around the walls, eligible boys – dregs and nervous mice – in another sort of circle just inside the girls and then the dancing partners, all the most beautiful and confident individuals, in the centre, in a constantly heaving and twisting mass.
The night progressed in very much the same fashion; Mellissa danced many times, her feet light and quiet compared to the less talented, more heavy-footed girls. It was clear to me also which boys had decided to – or been made to – have dancing lessons. Their steps were more fluid, and they weren’t following, they were leading.
It must have been Mellissa’s tenth dance, or maybe her twelfth, as it’s been a while since this night, when it happened. A sudden split in the music made everyone, including myself, jump in our seats. It was like half of that band just suddenly stopped playing.
I’m sort of glad I died that night, but in another way I’m not. If you’ll recall, I did explain a bit of the mechanics of the whole thing, about what makes us Spooks. And at this point, I hadn’t died yet, so I wasn’t so keen on trying it out. I was young and had a lot of time for that yet.
The other half of the band trailed off until there was a single off-key violin. It stopped abruptly as everyone turned their gazes towards the band stage, staring in awe and horror as a cello player keeled forward in slow motion, blood spreading rapidly across his ruffle-fronted shirt from his right shoulder. For a moment, I couldn’t help but admire the pattern it made, the contrast between the brilliant scarlet and the crisp white. Blood is such a beautiful colour. The next band member to go down was the young man with a flute. I couldn’t say what kind it was even if I could clearly remember what it looked like, something about the fact that there was a man standing behind the falling body of the flautist holding an elegant rapier in one hand and a length of cord in the other has made my memory of the events somewhat focused. The silence was absolute; it almost seemed to throb against one’s eardrums. I remember distinctly drawing my hands ever so slightly closer to my core, straining with all my being to control my aura. Mellissa was still standing in the middle of the floor, frozen in mid stride; her partner’s both hands placed now around her waist. With approval, I noticed that the boy had angled his body so that he was between the danger and the lady. I almost smiled until the voiceless man twitched the rapier through the air, sending a fine spatter of blood across the cowering musicians in the front row.
There was no space for smiling at this moment, but I did have such a knack for the inappropriate in that life.
I wasn’t really looking at it when it happened, but a window or two windows down to my right sort of exploded, then the one closer did too. I felt myself brace, my aura refusing to work properly as it should; I could feel it shrivel into my chest, a feeling akin to how I imagine a broken heart to feel. The window exploded behind me, and a huge sheet of glass came down over my head; I ducked to the side, and it missed me, breaking into several larger pieces, a few fine shards and a mist of powder all over the floor at my feet. Admiring the sparkles for a second, I almost missed the man climbing through the window two down from my position. The man by the dead flutist nodded to someone outside the second broken window, and he too climbed through, putting his boot firmly on to the shoulder of a chaperone leaning against the wall. Her cry of pain was silenced suddenly by a knife into the well of her left shoulder, causing her to slump forward and sideways across the lap of her ward. The girl’s childish cry of fear was met with laughter from the masked men; their satiny masks and steely gloves were in stark contrast with their blackened woollen clothes and scuffed boots. Horsemen, I thought at the time of course, with all the talk of watching where you went at night and women definitely not out after dark. When a man climbed through the window behind me, my aura came to life, projecting itself half an inch through my skin and into the surrounding air. The man’s boot was well soiled and would have hurt an awful lot if it had, in fact, come into contact by my shoulder, but through the shield, it didn’t even register as pressure. It smelt like something horrid too, not the clean smell of horse, like I expected, but more like . . . pig. Yes, pig . . . And maybe sheep with the stench of wet wool on his trousers, which made them poor horsemen – that made them more dangerous in my opinion. The man settled his feet on the dance floor and glanced back at me as if to question me on the sensation of being stood upon. I returned his glance with the coldest governess stare in my repertoire, a look that earned a slight rise in his colour. The ring leader – or at least that’s what I took him for – rose his voice slightly with his next statement, an action I thought odd, considering a whisper could have been a roar in the silent space.
“All right, all right. Now . . . Who shall it be? Now you’re a pretty lady, aren’t you?” The man turned his head and made eye contact. He had funny eyes, very blue and shallow – it bothered me unduly actually, blue eyes usually have depth, even when they’re like ice, but these were flat and without either heat or cold – his gaze was very focused, though, and I had no doubt that my lack of ladylike distress had singled me out for punishment. One man came forward and grabbed my wrist where it rested on my thigh and yanked me to my feet, dragging me towards the centre of the room. I could see Mellissa struggling against her suitor’s grip; damned girl was going to get me killed.
My aura sent needle-like spikes into the grasp of the horseman. He hissed and adjusted his grip, leaving a smear of blood on my wrist. His other hand shot out and slapped me across the face.
“No!” Mellissa forced her way out of his grip and made to launch herself at the man who had struck me. Her suitor managed to catch the back of her dress and reel her back, but the ringleader had already turned towards her and was smiling chillingly. “Do we have a volunteer? Now this is a surprise. A rich chit protecting her governess? That doesn’t happen. Well, come forward, chit.”
“Don’t you dare!” I knew it was stupid, and I definitely shouldn’t have done it, or at least, I should have thought of something else to do; I couldn’t let Mellissa be hurt, I served her. The ringleader slowly turned and balanced on his heel.
“Well, this is new. Back and forth, back and forth. If I wanted to watch a tennis match, I’d head to London. I’ll take the governess first, and we’ll keep the chit for dessert, aye?”
As he said it, I knew what was going to happen. If I was close enough, just maybe, to the whole lot of them, and enough of them attacked at once, then my aura could be overpowered, and I would die. However, if I used it to kill the whole lot of them . . . It would work, of course, it would. I stepped forward and threw my hand somewhat inelegantly at the man who had a grip of me. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked; my perfectly done nails sliced through the skin of his chin and tore the satin mask up to his eyes. His yell was explosive, and the blood that trickled down my slender fingers was a beautiful precursor to the violence that followed.
The man I’d attacked ripped his mask off fully so that he could see me, and I got a jolt of recognition through my gut. I’d met him, not three days afore, in the market when I was with little Micha. He must have seen a slight widening of my eyes because he drew a wicked blade from his belt and advanced with frightening speed. Contrary to his expectations, I moved towards him, pretending to myself, at least, on the surface, that this was all a dance. I spun sideways and felt his blade slide off the edge of my aura. Another man came at me, and I ducked and wove, managing to catch the eye of the suitor holding Mellissa May, and smiling quickly, I thought he was a beautiful lad, half-Arab perhaps, with refined features and soft smooth skin. Such a good match, I sincerely hoped that Mellissa’s father, my master, would approve. I tried my best to silently thank him for his efforts – I think he understood too. As the ringleader made to go for Mellissa, he gave the man a mighty one-handed blow across the face, full of knuckles. Predictably, the ringleader retaliated with a gauntleted fist to the man’s cheek, and the chain mail sliced the skin like a cheese grater. Before he could get another blow in, I used my rather pointy shoes to inflict damage on the back of his right knee.
That particular motion got me sort of in the middle of the group and at least three of the five had swords and rapiers of various kinds. Two went for me at once, and I managed to shield from them, but the third made it as far in as my ribs before being forced out. Another sword skewered my shoulder and came through the other side. I couldn’t really make a noise at that point because another man had attacked from behind and drove a fine blade between my shoulder blades at an angle. I felt blood fill my chest and heat began to seep from my limbs, climbing into the points where blades sliced deeply, as if trying to flee my slowly dying body. Another blade went through my back, broader this time, and shorter, and my aura had given up. There was no heat in my body now; my aura was condensing, pulling into itself more and more, and suddenly it was very hot. Heat, like liquid gold, spilled from the centre of my chest behind my breastbone and writhed down my limbs like snakes on branches.
One of the men began to scream as his sword began to glow. Another tried to pull him from my body, and his gauntlets were sealed to the hilt with heat.
And then I exploded. After the explosion, there was nothing. Ice cold, like plunging into a bath of the North Sea.
And then . . . Nothing.
That was the end of my first life.
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