Begin: Part 1: Constantinople
Faces were curious things. I stared at mine in the looking glass, and it occurred to me how different my fate may have been had I been born with a different face.
My face. I took another lock of thick, dark hair and twisted it up, pinning it in place with the rest. My face had made our vessel a flagship among merchant sailors. My face had convinced many a traveller to purchase my father’s wares. My face had earned him a small fortune when Yusuf had offered to pay almost anything for it.
When first I had learned that I could change — that I could reform my bones and my flesh and become anything — I had thought this gift was for one purpose only, so I could change my face. I had become completely unremarkable; a face that was not seen, but ignored. Not adored, but forgotten. And so I became invisible.
But invisibility was a lie, and after a time I shed my facade. Under the mask I discovered the key to humanity’s weakness, for within beauty was the power to bring men to their knees.
I rose from my dressing table and smoothed down the front of my gown, feeling the roughness of the thickly embroidered fabric. The draping sleeves dragged against the full skirt, creating a swishing noise that I was rather fond of. It was a beautiful dress. Edmund Harewood had excellent taste. I picked up the string of rubies he had given me also and clipped it around my neck. The jewels rested along my collarbone, caught in the candlelight like bright spots of blood. I couldn’t help but smile at the aptness of the color.
There was a shawl to go with it, mink, I had insisted on that. I picked up the swath of fur and ran my fingers over its luxurious texture. The lights that erupted in my mind were so much brighter than any other; the feeling somehow warmer, more natural.
The carriage was waiting for me outside; a decorative thing, pulled by two glossy steeds. I made a point of stroking the horse’s neck, as I always did with animals I crossed. The humming that accompanied the touch was a familiar and welcome sensation to me now.
Low evening light filtered through the brick and thatch buildings, and I made a point of breathing as little as possible. I had been in London for several weeks now, but the stench of the city was something I doubted I would ever become accustomed to. The carriage lumbered along the pocked road. Dirty and disheveled peasants stepped quickly aside to avoid the horses’ hooves and lowered their eyes to the lady who rode amongst them.
The ride to Harewood’s estate was mercifully short, and before long we were journeying through paddocks adorned with livestock and the small houses of the people who tended to them.
The sun dipped below the horizon and the sky turned from brilliant orange to deep pink. The shadows lengthened, swallowing the huts and cattle. I waited for the glow of fires and the smell of woodsmoke to curl from the chimneys, but none was forthcoming. Clearly, Harewood did not feel obligated to ensure the warmth of those in his fiefdom.
The carriage came to a sudden halt. I leaned forward in my seat, peering through the window.
“Driver, what’s wrong?” I called. There was no response from the front.
My door was wrenched open and a man jumped in, knife in one hand, the other reaching for my necklace.
I grabbed his wrist and twisted it hard. He yelled at the sudden pain and jabbed with the knife instead. I grabbed that hand too and disarmed him in a simple movement I had picked up in Venice. Despite the bulk of my skirts, I managed to get my leg up and kick him. He fell back against the opposite seat. I held him there with my foot against his chest and ran my thumb across the dull edge of the blade.
“You’re a poor thief,” I said, leaning forward in my seat so that the last of the daylight reaching through the open door fell across my face.
“I’m sorry, milady,” he said, eyes wide as he took me in. “I beg your lady’s forgiveness. Please, I have a family.”
“Get out of my carriage, I have somewhere to be.” I lowered my foot and leaned back into my seat. His mouth opened and closed several times like a fish left out in the air.
“I cut the horses free,” he almost sobbed.
I lunged forward and stabbed the knife down into the bench, pinning the fabric of his trousers. Gathering my skirts, I stepped down from the carriage into the chill air. The horses had not run far, I saw one grazing only a few yards up the road. I whickered to it, producing the same sound they used to call one another. Instantly its head lifted and its ears swivelled in my direction. I made the sound again and it began to trot back towards me.
When it reached me, I pulled myself onto the creature’s back and adjusted my skirts over its rump. Grabbing a lock of mane, I kicked its sides and it broke into a canter along the road.
“Wait,” the would-be thief called, having freed himself from the carriage. “My lady, come back.”
I did not pause or turn, but continued up the muddied hill.
It was well after dark when I reached Harewood’s home, but my eyes, keener than most, had little trouble distinguishing the entranceway to the large house, or the manservant waiting to open the door. He did not comment that I was riding a carriage horse, but merely called forth a boy to lead the animal away before holding the door open for me.
I made my way through the sumptuous house, noting the riches that adorned the surfaces. Gilt-framed portraits of the Harewood line hung on the walls, bathed in the soft glow of a dozen lit chandeliers. My shoes sunk into the thick fur of a bear skin rug. I closed my eyes against the tingling hum that brushed against my ankles.
As I entered the dining room I found Harewood waiting for me. He was a man of considerable girth, with the soft hands of one who had never done manual labor. It seemed wrong that a man like him should have such soft hands.
“Felicity.” His eyes lit up as I entered and he rose from his chair. “You’re wearing them.” He smiled.
I smiled too, and touched the rubies at my throat, wondering how many women before me had been led here with such offerings.
“A most beautiful gift. Thank you.”
“Their beauty is nothing next to your radiance.” He stepped out from the table and approached me, drawing one finger along my jaw and down my throat. “Let us forget dinner. The real feast is you.”
I looked up at him through my lashes with a well practiced pout.
“I’m famished,” I said. “Let us eat, there will be time enough for feasting later.”
He held my gaze for a moment. “Whatever the lady wishes.”
We sat and servants appeared with plates of food. A suckling pig was brought out, along with a roast duck and a new flagon of ale.
I picked at my plate and watched as Harewood gorged on the food, his fingers pulling apart the pig meat and shovelling it into his soft mouth. When he was done he wiped his fingers on his doublet and lounged back into his chair. His eyes moved to me, as hungry as when we sat down.
I fixed him with a gaze and rose from my chair, moving forwards to slowly close the gap between us.
“You are magnificent,” he breathed, as I almost reached him.
I smiled, and then I leapt.
Mid-air I forced my body to undergo the change. I summoned the essence of the cobra I had found during my time in Morocco, and in a fleeting moment I became it. The heavy fabric of my gown and the string of rubies fell to the floor as I flew forth in a serpent’s body.
My scaled form struck his chest and coiled there, brown and yellow contrasting the dark blue of his stained doublet. Harewood’s eyes widened and his mouth opened to scream. I reared back, hood expanded with its dark spots glaring at him like an extra set of eyes.
With fangs pumped full of every venom I had ever acquired, I struck, sinking my deadly bite into the folds of his neck.
A hand closed around my body and ripped me from him, flinging me across the room. I sailed through the air, twisting and shifting as I did so to land in a crouch. I was in my human form once more, clad in close-fitting garments of cotton and silk — the one thing I had found could follow me through the transformations. I stood and watched as Harewood coughed and gasped, his hands at his throat, until he slid from his chair and was silent.
A woman entered the room, pausing in the doorway when she saw Harewood’s body at the foot of the table. She did not scream, and after a moment she stepped through the doorway and approached me.
“It’s done,” I said, and bent down to pick up the ruby necklace. The red jewels continued to sparkle.
“They’re yours,” she said. “As payment.”
I turned to face her and saw a bruise on her cheek that had not been there when last we spoke. I took in her dark hair and the stubborn line of her jaw. Again I was reminded of Sabeen. I felt a pang for my lost sister; it had been well over a hundred summers since I left her and Sophie on the shores of Cyprus. Her mortal life would have long since run its course. Her pain was over.
I handed the rubies over.
“Keep them, and use them to help those your husband has hurt.”
She lowered her eyes, accepting the jewels. “Your payment has been delivered to the inn, as you instructed.”
I nodded. “Then our business is concluded.” I turned to leave room.
“I’ll make it right,” she said. I glanced back at her. “Everyone he’s hurt, everyone who’s suffered, I’ll make it right.” She looked down at the rubies, her hands closed over the crystalline blood drops. “Thank you.”
By the time she looked up I was gone.
Continue: Part 3: Havana
Image credit: RabbitwoodandReason