A Prologue

Six Months Ago

Hester sat in a soft, red velvet chair in the third row of the Oakdoor Theatre, staring blankly at the elevated stage before her.  Red curtains, drawn closed for intermission, framed the dark-stained wood.  People moved about the theatre chatted and laughed with abandon, probably about the first half of the play.

Ezra sat like a red-haired statue on the edge of his own plush chair, smiling to himself.  Hester’s half-brother’s features were calm now, his lips curved up into a subtle smirk, finally resting after mouthing the words along with the actors.

This was his favorite play.  Hester had never read it.

Until this evening, Hester had not left her flat since the incident.  For a whole year, she had lain in bed, staring at the green walls of her bedroom between finishing and starting books.  She never did much enjoy reading, but during her convalescence, she had read every book on each of her six bookshelves in her flat.  She had read the compendiums of Urbanic folk tales at least four times.  Unlikely stories of the Spirits provided respite from the mundane pain.  But she had never read the play she and Ezra watched on the stage now.  In fact, she had never read a play at all.  This one was especially bizarre.  Performers wore wigs and brightly colored make-up.  They danced and sang together.  Hester couldn’t imagine why Ezra liked it so well.

Singing and dancing?  How could that even happen?

The whole thing was completely unrealistic.  It was impossible for a group of people who had never met to burst into a perfectly timed dance.

Maybe the songs are good? 

Hester couldn’t tell.    

Her left foot started shaking.  The tremor snaked up her leg and slithered into her spine, spread out into her arms and settled in her sweaty hands.

Hester lurched upright.  Gripping her cane in an effort to still the tremors, she took a tentative step.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” she whispered, not knowing or caring if her half brother heard her.

Ezra raised an eyebrow in question and opened his mouth to speak, but Hester turned around and limped away up the aisle before he had an opportunity to say anything.

She took a deep breath when she reached the large open space of the lobby.  A single empty bar served as the ticket counter.  But behind the other counters that surrounded the room, finely-dressed bartenders poured drinks and took money with professional quickness.  Patrons poured into the lobby behind her, lured out of the semi-darkness by the prospect of sour ales and expensive whiskey in faux crystal.  More people here laughed and discussed the play than in the theatre itself.  But these people all held cups of whiskey or ale.

Ignoring them, Hester rummaged through her vest pocket and pulled out a small glass bottle with a cork stopper.  It was almost empty, but there was enough left in the bottom to fight off the withdrawal jitters for a little while longer.  A pang of fear struck her as her unstable grip sloshed the remainder of the drug in the phial.  This was the last of it.  She had promised Ezra that this was the end of it.

“I can’t do this to him,” Hester whispered to herself.  Then after a moment, she continued, “But I can’t do it.”

With shaking hands, Hester uncorked the bottle, downed the last of the elixir, and pocketed the empty container in one motion that might have been smooth a year and a half ago.  Tonight it was sloppy and nearly ended with broken glass on the floor.  Then she turned quickly on her heel and went back into the theatre, joining the throng of people as they finished their drinks.

Ezra, still seated, watched the curtains intently, but his smile had long since faded.  His once-pristine expression had become a furrowed brow and clenched jaw.  Hester averted her eyes as she lowered herself back down into the chair beside him.

The electric lights flickered and dimmed, signaling the end of the intermission while people continued to file back into their seats.  Hester assumed they had once again become quiet, waiting for the next act to begin.

A moment later, drums began to beat a steady rhythm straight into Hester’s chest.  Two young men dressed in black with thick beards, in time to the rhythm, operated the pulley system that parted the curtains to each side of the stage.  The parted curtains revealed an actress with a blue wig, scandalously short skirt, and very high heels that Hester secretly envied.  The woman spoke toward the audience, but her mouth moved too quickly.  Even standing on the edge of the stage, she was far away for Hester to catch any of the words.  Hester cursed under her breath and glanced at Ezra.

He was once again enthralled by the show, speaking the lines to himself, but still not smiling as wide as before.

She returned her attention back to the stage and focused on the actors in the background, staring intently at the face of each one individually.  She focused on one woman with long grey hair that hung down to the backs of her knees.  Though she appeared old, her face didn’t have wrinkles, and she twirled to the drum beat harder and faster than anyone else on the stage.  Another man, overweight and balding with a blond mustache, too was spry and light on his feet, despite his bulk.  They all began to look the same.  Perfect.

As if waiting for its cue, the scar that ran down the right side of her face twinged with pain.  Even with an hour’s worth of Ezra’s highly-skilled make up application, it was barely hidden.  He had assured her before they’d left the flat that the scar was invisible, but it was still all Hester saw in her reflection.  She sat on her hands to keep from rubbing it and smearing the make-up.

Putting the pain to the back of her mind, she looked back to the stage to find the man upstage to the left with short blond hair with a rugged sort of stubble that enveloped his soft jaw.  His eyes stayed in shadow, but Hester knew they were beautiful.  For a moment, she felt his direct gaze, and turned her attention the Ezra in an effort to hide her scarred face from the actor.

Ezra still mouthed the words, singing along as the cast began to dance.  His smile had finally returned.  Hester nudged him out of his reverie.

“Who is that?” Hester whispered.

“Which one?” Ezra replied slowly, blinking, emphasizing each movement of his lips.

“Stubble.”

Ezra’s smile widened.  “Tomas.”

Tomas.

Happy birthday, Hester!  Leaving home might have been worth the trouble after all.

The rest of the show pranced by in a blur of color and light.  Hester lost track entirely of time until finally, the curtains closed for the last time and the drums no longer resounded in her chest.

Many audience members still stood in front of their chairs clapping and cheering.  Ezra didn’t wait around to applaud; he grabbed Hester’s arm and pulled her out into the aisle.  Hester followed as fast as she could despite the shooting pain in her ankle, the ache in her back, and returning tremors.

Ezra led her through the lobby and out the front door of the theatre.  He stopped, looking side to side.  A few of the patrons filed out onto the streets into an already overflowing city centre filled with drunken revelry.  A pair of ladies walked nonchalantly to the left and around a corner, into an alley.  Tentatively, Ezra followed, still dragging Hester by the arm.  They rounded the corner to find the alley completely dark except for the dull red glow of a single electric lamp on the theatre’s wall.  The two ladies had disappeared.  Ezra walked toward the lamp, leaving Hester watching her brother from the shadows.

A mural of two blue and green dragons curled around the Oakdoor’s trademarked knotwork oak leaf on the wall beneath the light.  Ezra fumbled around with on the wall for a few seconds, feeling around for the hidden latch that would open the door though which the two women had disappeared.  Ezra turned to Hester and grinned, and the door sprung open and more dull red light leaked onto the cobblestone pavement.  He walked through the doorway.

Hester reached the doorway with effort.  Red lamps illuminated a dark stairwell that led down, beneath the theatre.  Hester estimated the number of stairs quickly as she took a step into the doorway. Close to twenty stairs.

That’s about twenty more stairs than I care to do.

Reluctantly, Hester stepped down onto the first step toward Ezra who waited at the bottom of the staircase.  The door closed behind her with a grinding thump.

Grinning, Ezra waited for her at the bottom, and helped her with the last three stairs.  He opened the door at the bottom of the staircase, and light flooded the stairwell.  Squinting against the glare, Hester found a brightly lit room full of yet more laughing and chatting people.

These people were not the same people she saw in the theatre, however.  These were the fancy rich people who drank expensive bottles of wine in private boxes above the mass of attendees such as herself.  Dressed in the finest silks and trendiest plaids of blues, greens, and yellows with their long hair fixed on top of their heads in braided buns, these men and women didn’t have to enter the party from the alley.    

Suddenly very aware of her appearance, Hester readjusted the three copper hairpins in her own knotted bun as she walked through the door.  Hairpins had never been in fashion as long as Hester had been alive, but they were useful.  These hairpins doubled as a lock picks.  When she was ten, she was locked out of the flat while her mother and Ezra were on a job.  She had climbed an outside wall and destroyed a window.  Then she found these hairpins in her mother’s jewelry box.  She had worn them ever since despite their lack of favor in popular fashion.   

Hester zigged and zagged between partiers to a chair at the bar across the room, placed a dollar down in front of the bartender and pointed to the cheapest bottle of whiskey.  With the other hand, she held up two fingers.  The bartender turned away for a moment and returned with two glasses of the brownish booze.  Hester downed the first cup with a long drink and became invisible.  A part of the scenery, she watched Ezra blending in his own way.  Loud and boisterous.

The crowd grew steadily.  Trickles of patrons came in from the dragon door and from hidden doorways behind bookshelves.  Ezra mingled effortlessly with the fancy people.  To the untrained eye, he fit right in.  These were his people.  But Hester knew that Ezra was thrifty.  She knew his trendy plaid vest and pants were knock-offs from an illegal vendor on Ninth street.  But they didn’t even seem to question it.  Did they even notice?

Ezra ended a conversation with a group of yellow-clad theatre patrons and made straight for the opposite side of the room where Tomas conversed with small group of people.  Hester recognized one of them as the usher who had shown her to her seat before the performance and another as the man who had operated the curtain pulleys.

Ezra inserted himself into the conversation seamlessly, laughing and smiling when appropriate.  He looked over towards the bar.  Hester tried to look away, but it was too late.  Ezra had made eye contact and motioned for her to join their group.  Everyone in Ezra’s clutch stared at her.   

Reluctantly, Hester stood, grasping the second glass of whiskey in one hand and her cane in the other.

They watched her hobble through the crowd, nearly spilling her drink, until she joined them, only glancing away to look back at Ezra.

“Hello, Hester!” Tomas said as he extended his hand.  “I’m Tomas— — — —you.  This is —”

Tomas indicated to the people around them, and presumably he told her their names.  Hester wasn’t paying attention to him.  Instead, she scowled at Ezra and turned to walk away.

A hand resting lightly on her shoulder instigated an instinctual reaction.

Hester stepped backward and turned on her toe.  She grabbed the hand tightly.

What am I doing?

She twisted Tomas’s arm backwards.

I can’t stop.

She took a quick step in.

Just stop.  Stop. Please stop!

Just before she could destroy the man’s arm and foot, Ezra stepped in and placed two calming hands on her shoulders.

Hester’s heart raced.  Sweat dripped from her brow into her eyes.

What am I doing?   

Hester released Tomas, and Ezra released Hester.

“Sorry.  Forgot where I am,” Hester said calmly with a bowed head, eyes meeting Ezra’s, sincerely apologetic.

Tomas replied by flailing his hands about wildly.  His face a mixture of grimace and giggle.

Hester arched an eyebrow, confused.

“You don’t know the language?” He asked, speaking slowly, still moving his hands about.   

Hester shook her head, her mind slowly settling.

Tomas smirked.

“I’ll forgive you,” Tomas continued with while rubbing his shoulder, “if you let me teach you.”

And for the first time in over a year, Hester laughed.

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