The Price of Secrets

This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #7: The Woman in White. Get NonBinary Review #7 from the Zoetic Press website. 

I was solid once, glacial, even. Cold and calm and collected was I, Marian Halcombe. I am meltwater now as I stream across the deck. Fluid, each movement. The remnants of my old self, destroyed. I deserved a new identity, and that is what I’ve bought for myself…at a price.

“Lady Spirit,” says a beggar on the starship’s main deck, “spare a spell? Just a small one? Anything for me bairn.” At the ragged woman’s breast, a wee babe, blue and unmoving.

A thought: Count Fosco could have spies anywhere.

I gather my silver cloak around me, fearful the gossamer might fall and the Glimmer might fail. I would be exposed; still sick, cold, frightened, clinging for dear life to that gutter. But the mage promised me my new powers were ceaseless. They had cost me, yes…just a secret.

I aim to move on, past this woman and her choices, but the wretch grabs at the hem of my gown, and I spare her a coin and a blessing. Blonde and waifish, she thanks me. And in her I can see my Laura. Pain catches in my throat. Three words: I must know.

Past the woman, up to the gate where the mortal guards will be keeping watch—I laugh at the thought, “Mortal!”, ‘til I remember what I was. I know what these beings will tell me: “Visiting hours are over. Come again tomorrow, love.” But they will allow me—I shall make them allow me.

The nearer I come, the more detail I can make out in the dense fog. There is but one guard, and he is drunk. Dazedly so. He can be bribed, I think, reaching for my purse, only to remember I gave my last spendable coin to the beggar woman. The rest I need for a return journey.

The mage’s words return to me, a spitting hiss, like raindrops on hot embers: “First, use your words.”

I do not know what he meant, but I reach for my words. “I am come to see a patient.”

The man burps and staggers. “Visiting hours is over. Come again tomorrow, love—I mean, Lady Spirit.”

I ignore him. “Her name is Anne Catherick.”

“Visiting hours is over, m’lady.”

My movements are fluid as I lean forward, staring into his watery eyes. I will my way into his thoughts, which slosh around in his great melon-of-a-head. It is disorienting, but I persevere, until I seize on his string of consciousness and give it one tug followed by another.

The man blinks, lets out a great snort, then falls over in a dead sleep, which he will not waken from for hours…I hope.

I snatch the keys from his belt, and am through the front gates within the blinking of an eye. “So this is where my—” The thought stops in a whimper. No, I daren’t let myself even the merest shadow of hope. I force myself to speak the truth: “This is where Anne spends her days.” I cover my nose with my sleeve, but not before the stench engulfs my senses: medicine, cleaning fluid, human waste, despair.

A dry heave wracks my body, and I am glad I didn’t dine on the ride over. Able am I ere a nurse spies me and bustles my way. Collected, calm, cool. I cannot afford to yield like water. Not now, not yet. “For Laura,” I think.

“M’lady,” says the nurse in flowing grease-grey robes. “Visiting hours are over. With all respect due—”

I’ve raised my hand. I’ve raised my hand merely to scratch at an irritation, but the nurse cringes away from me. It’s my window of opportunity. I must press my advantage. “I’ve come to see a woman in white. Anne Catherick, though she’s been calling herself Lady Glyde as of late.” Laura, Laura, how I wish you were here with me now.

The nurse recovers herself, though her left eye twitches in sync with her pulse. “Lady Spirit, please do not grow angry with me, but it’ll cost my job if you take another step farther into the ward.”

The drunk had been easy to convince to sleep. This hyper-alert woman with the twitching eye will not be, not for a fledgling like me. I hear the mage’s voice, bold and brash like fists on a drum: “When your words fail, fear is your best tool.”

My gaze reaches deep into her eyes, searching their surprisingly shallow depths for the thread that is fear. I don’t look long, for it is red and throbbing like a vein pumping hot blood back to its source. Gently, ever so gently I stroke this thread until it sings with tension. Tighter, and tighter it becomes, until I pluck it and it screams.

“Right this way, m’lady.” The woman’s pupils are pinpricks. Her shoulders are hunched. She jumps at the sight of her own shadow.

Marian, that is unkind. They are Laura’s words. She was always the sweet one, the beautiful one. But I am no shadow. I always was the bold one, even before my…transformation. I am shade, but not shadow. I follow the nurse, who is all but running to do my bidding.

“In here,” the nurse says, jerking her head at the cell door. As fast as her fat fingers will fly, she undoes the lock, throws the door open and steps aside. “Ten minutes…if you please.”

In the corner of this tiny cell, there she sits on a cot. But who is she? I move in closer, but she shrinks.

“Who are you?” she rasps. It looks and sounds like Anne. It looks and sounds like Laura. I am confused, as is she.

“Miss Catherick, it is I, Miss Halcombe. We met? In the boathouse on the Glyde Estate? Remember?”

This news has her on her feet, and it is I who am afraid—afraid that for naught I am disturbing this poor woman. “You’ve changed,” she says.

I study her. She looks like Anne. She does not look like Anne. Oh, please let my fears be allayed! My voice is barely composed as I ask: “You know who I am, then?”

Anne’s legs buckle beneath the miniscule weight of her bird-thin frame, but she does not collapse. “O friend! O terrible, dreadful friend. Where am I? I know you, but I do not.” Shaking, a dry leaf on a twig snatched by the wind, fluttering, floating until down, down, down she comes to rest.

“I’ve gone through a…change of sorts, Miss Catherick.”

She rebuffs me. “Do not call me that, Marian. Marian, it is I!”

One moment passes. Then another. I feel a crackling in my veins, a stirring in my breast. All is light and energy inside me, and I scarce know what to do with this power, until I realize what it is: Love. Love has overcome me, and I can no longer stay a respectable distance. Like a scapegrace I rush at her, forgetting that she might fear me now, take her into my arms and hold my dear, my own, my sister! “You’re alive,” I say, choking on happy tears. “Oh, Laura, tell me it is you that I am holding.”

“It is I. But is it you, Marian? Is it really you? They told me terrible things. Dead. Oh, Marian.” She sobs into my gown, shaking, incoherent. “Take me from this dreadful place.”

With supernatural perception, I sense footsteps approaching and pull back from Laura. “We are not free. Not yet. But I will get you out of this prison—I promise, Laura. Laura, look at me.” I say this forcefully, for she is quite gone into hysterics. “I will not abandon you. We will be free. We will find W-Walter.” My voice breaks on his name, but Laura doesn’t notice. For her I am strong. “We will find Walter and everything will be all right.”

His name brings a light into her eyes, and I am all shame, for it was I who discouraged their romance. The fault is entirely mine that she wed the wrong man. Oh, what a wretched man at that! Had I faith in Walter’s love and none in my own, all might be well. If I had not been so conceited and foolish, Sir Percival, Count Fosco—I shudder at the thought of his name—wouldn’t be players in this perverse game of cat and mouse.

Laura sees the pain in my eyes, and is quick to assure me, “Do not blame yourself, Marian. You were only looking out for me.”

The footsteps are now audible to both our ears. “My visit ends. But I will back. I will be back with a plan. Trust me, Laura. Do you trust me?”

Her head bobs. I help her back into a reclining position. “You’re all I have.”

“Nonsense,” I sniff. “You have Walter.”

*   *   *

For days I plot, yet the best approach to freeing Laura eludes me. What power I have is limited by the simple fact that I have not had time or opportunity to cultivate all of my…talents.

Aboard the starship I remain, eating nothing, saying nothing. My soul, if I still possess one, should thrum with the vigor of hope. Yet I am all doubt and fear. I have my beloved sister, but I have her not. Curse that fiend Fosco! A pox upon Lord Glyde!

But the anger is all bravado. I am weak and sick, still clinging for dear life on that ledge, listening to the two men scheme. The words of the mage rumble in my mind. “Where there is will, there shall be resistance from Fear and Doubt. Both will fight the Will, two great titans against a mere god. The job of the mage is to harness the power of these giants. Use fear. Use doubt. Employ both and fight, Lady Spirit. Cloak yourself with the skins of your enemies.”

Until this moment, I’d thought it an odd expression. Perhaps the mage had meant it figuratively, but there is merit there. If I am able to manipulate the mind, this might be possible. Have I not knocked a guard unconscious without lifting a finger? Have I not reached into the mind of a frightened woman and stoked the fires of her terror?

Time is of the essence. My Laura is sickly and in need of tender care. The asylum would not admit me, a mage, into that ward again. No, I am certain that nurse had been found out and reprimanded.

Fear is strong, greed is stronger. I have yet one stronger still: love. With that, some luck, and an evening of practice, I will be ready. Tomorrow, I make my move!

*   *   *

Count Fosco. I recall his face, build, demeanor, and voice in my mind for the millionth time. But my memory is not what it should be, my former life hazy before mine eyes.

I try my trick on a few passersby. No one quakes, no one bows or tips their hat. There is a new briskness in their step and some whispering, exchanges of confused and conflicting opinions. I am afraid to attempt manipulating two minds at the same time. Either they or I—or both!—might find ourselves inside that wretched asylum and not as visitors.

The ship’s main deck is empty at this early hour, and I meet few people on the way to the asylum. There is the beggar woman, no babe at her breast, rocking and moaning to herself. My coin was too little too late. But I cannot let this tragedy distract me from preventing another tragedy…my own. I seek out the nearest mind. He is alone. He is a guard. This will be my first real test.

There are many threads within strands in the human mind. For instance, this man’s strand of recognition throbs blue as he squints. I seize this strand, freeze it along with four threads attached to one sickly green thread I cannot help but recognize. Plink! goes the first thread, facial recognition, severing. I quickly plink at build, demeanor, and voice. These four I replace with my own strands.

The guard wears an expression of bewilderment, and I fear that I have confused one of the threads with another. “Count Fosco. What an honor it is.” The man bows.

I hold my relief for later. In my regular voice I say, “I am come to collect Miss Anne Catherick.” I know he hears it as Count Fosco’s voice, for there is no alarm or confusion in his response. Forever more, if this man is to see me, he will see Fosco.

“But why?”

I, Count Fosco, raise my brows, lips twitching. “I feel the country air would be better for her.”

The guard blushes deep red. “I’m sorry, sir.”

For a moment, I believe he is denying my request. He surprises me by saying, “But are you not already inside?”

Blood freezes in my veins, but my plan is as supple as water. It can bend. It can also slip quickly out of my grasp.

I want to apologize to this burly man, but instead search for the thread attached to the strand of recent memories. There I see the ugly green again and severe that. “What were you saying, captain?”

The man blinks. “I-I don’t know. Why are you come outside so soon, Count Fosco? You surely caught me by surprise, sneaking up on me just now.”

Dratted luck. I severed the wrong memory of Fosco from his mind! He remembers the real Fosco is here, but he does not remember my Fosco from seconds ago. As another guard approaches, there is only one choice left me. I actually do apologize before seeking out a strand of silver that connects his recent memories to his memories of all. I freeze that, intending to revive it later. He will have no memory of anything, not his name, not his rank, nothing unless—until I am able to aid him.

There is the second guard, the drunkard from the previous day, approaching. He suffers from a hangover, all of his threads and strands throbbing coral pink. In my panic, I seize every single one and snap them back into place.

The first guard is staring around him, forgetting how to speak. The second is collapsed in a heap, vomiting.

I grab the first’s keys, step around the sick and the two men, praying that no one will come upon them until I’ve had time to sort things out. My next problem is imminent: Count Fosco is here. I cannot manipulate him or anyone else to thinking I am him. One slip, and all my hopes are dashed.

I recall the face of the nervous nurse from the other day as I put the largest key in the lock and turn. The door creaks open slowly, and I make my way with care inside. The hall is empty at the moment, but I hear voices coming from another room.

I dash to Laura’s holding cell. But the keys! They are all nearly identical, save for the scoring on each. I am about to try one key at a time, but someone in the room is talking. A man’s voice. In truth, the devil himself!

“And you are sure no one has come to see Miss Catherick?” he says, his tone calm, jolly even.

A second familiar voice answers, trembling, “I—I am not sure, Count Fosco.” The nurse from the other day, the nervous one. “There might’ve been the other day, but…”

“But what?”

I freeze, praying she will not mention that a she-mage had been to see “Anne.”

“I had a—fit on Monday, and my employer sent me home early. Someone might’ve called on her while I was out.”

“Well then,” Fosco says, “we will have to ask around, yes? See if there is anyone who knows.”

“Where is Laura in all this?” I find myself wondering. As if to answer me, the nervous nurse says, “The sedative should be wearing off soon. Maybe it’s best that we left her…”

I could simply duck into another room, if I had a key for it. There are footsteps moving toward the door. I try the handle, and it gives.

The two stare at me in shock. I am shocked and terrified as well. And I have waited too long; I am seen! Fosco reaches in his coat pocket, for I know not what, the nurse opens her mouth to call for security. And I recall the last words the mage spoke before dismissing me: “When Fear triumphs and Doubt seizes all, hold to Love above all else. Do not for a moment let it go.”

Laura moans from where she lies, and the thought of her seeing the count and becoming distraught overwhelms me. Love is courted by raw fury, and with a crash and clash of indigo light, both the count and the nurse are knocked off their feet. I know they are paralyzed, overcome with the feelings that have been gnawing on me to nth degree. But this will pass.

Burning under the heat of exhaustion, I stumble to Laura and try to rouse her. “Darling, it is I. I’ve come back for you.”

My sister stares at me as though she’s never seen me before. Then, face paling, she drops back to sleep.

Time. There is no time. I trick myself into believing this wraith-of-a-woman will be easy to carry. She is not. I need help, and there are less than two options left me. I clasp my arms under Laura’s armpits and fold my hand across her chest, and I heave. We collapse to the ground in a heap. If only I could make her weightless! My mind searches the many short lessons I was able to coax out of the mage, but there is nothing about changing a person’s weight or adding to one’s own strength. This plan was doomed from the start.

Fosco groans and rises to a sitting position. He chuckles. “Ah, Miss Halcombe—or should I say, My Lady?” He looks me up and down as I stumble to my feet. “You are just as clever and cunning as ever, a worthy opponent.”

I lift a trembling hand, searching my numb mind for some way to incapacitate him. He has no fears to stroke—save for a strand of dark purple, a deep wine that summons unbidden thoughts of Italy to my mind. What could he fear from Italy? I do not what to pluck or stroke the strand, for fear of putting him on his guard. There is not a drop of alcohol in his blood, no hint of drowsiness to coax. On the contrary, he is excited, energized, a man ready for a challenge.

Ready for a challenge…I must use this to my advantage. But how? It is not as if I can trick him. At a speed I did not know I was capable of, I begin sorting through the threads and strands I find in his mind, seeking one that might be of use to me. I sift and I search, and am just about ready to resign myself to freezing them all, when I come across one that is a dangerous orange, throbbing fast and unsteadily. I look at it with revulsion, like it is some sick, disgusting specimen, and it is.

“Ah, I see your mind working. Ingenious! She has a plan, the marvelous creature. I see it, in her eyes…”

I can’t stand to hear another word from him. I take that pulsing orange thread and I stroke it back and forth, back and forth, until I see that I have him.

Count Fosco’s eyes mist over and his cheeks flush. He won’t be a problem now. His will, his love, his everything, is mine…if but for a matter of minutes. And minutes are all I have anyway, before the alarm is sounded.

“Help me,” I order, and he obeys.

We lift Laura, who protests ever so slightly, and carry her down the hall, past two befuddled doctors, and to the front door.

And as I leave the man of my nightmares standing as one bemused, knock out the remaining guard at the door, and make for my rented space ship, Laura musters enough strength to hobble along with my help.

And now that we are safe, I cannot help but wonder. What if Glyde’s nasty side hadn’t been kept a secret? What if I hadn’t forced Walter to keep his?

Mr. Philip Fairlie’s secret had cost him a daughter.

Anne had her misinformed secret. It cost her the remainder of her sanity and her life.

Walter’s secret is now spent on Laura. It cost him his heart.

My secret…my secret I sold to the mage. It died with the birth of Laura’s. I paid for mine with my health. I paid for it with my hope.

Count Fosco, Sir Percival Glyde have more secrets. Why else would they commit a sane woman, passing her off as another? Walter, Laura, and I shall uncover their secrets. And they must pay for them. Yes, in the end, all secrets have a price.

NBR7OvermeyersmallBeth Overmyer writes short and long fiction in any age category and in any genre–except for horror and erotica. She has a middle grade book (In a Pickle) out with MuseItUp Publishing.