Candle in Shadow (Flowerdene)

This time, it’s on official business that Eglantine is arranging this little meeting. In a darkened room, before a mirror, they set up a lilac-scented candle and light it.

They draw back, then, and wait.

How is this supposed to summon Passionario? They’re not sure, but they are wary, in case the whole idea was some kind of particularly twisted joke. Still, these were the instructions, and Eli has asked them to find out what Passionario wants to say…

They’re not sure if Eli even knows about the earlier meeting. If he does, he hasn’t brought it up.

But it’s probable he doesn’t know - they’ve been careful, and it isn’t as though he bothers to track them, since their social calendar, in both its public and its private form, is far too busy and complicated to spend that much effort on.

This one, though, he’ll have his dutiful report upon.

Eglantine waits, watching the candle and the mirror, turning the chess piece over in their hand. He’s dangerous, this man, and fascinating - all the more dangerous for the fascination, all the more fascinating for the danger. A sensible person might shun him.

But Eglantine isn’t bothering to even pretend to be sensible. At least, not in this regard. They’ll be careful, they’ll remember what he’s capable of… but they won’t be dissuaded simply by that.

As the candlelight glows and ebbs, the shadows all over the room begin to shift. The reflection in the mirror twists and contorts. Strange shapes start to flicker in and out at the corner of Eglantine’s vision. The candle-smoke, which smelled of lilacs just a second ago, suddenly exhibits notes of camphor, crushed flowers and ice. The oppressive silence drowns out all sounds, includng Eglantine’s breath and heartbeat, and yet they can hear the remote sound of wind and whispers coming from all directions.

Even the sense of the passage of time ceases to be reliable. How long has Eglantine been sitting here in front of the mirror? Minutes? Hours? Days? Years?

Finally, the image in the mirror stabilizes into the shape of a man. Although the figure is shrouded in shadows, Eglantine recognizes him, and his voice dispels any doubt they could have:

&quotSo it has come to this. Welcome, Eglantine.&quot

It’s a strange sort of thing to be given a welcome in one’s own home. (This is still their home, isn’t it? The sounds, the scents, the shadows cast an unwanted flicker of doubt into this question.) Nevertheless, Eglantine inclines their head, all courtesy.

&quotThank you.&quot A pause. &quotEli asked me to speak with you. He wants to know what it is that you’re wanting to say.&quot

Beneath caution and unease, there’s a fascination stirring - this is a new and interesting use of mirrors. A mirror, a candle, and darkness? It’s not the tricks of Mahogany Hall, or the methods of the Glassman Eglantine knows. This is something else.

Can Passionario come through the mirror to this place, they wonder, or is this contact walled off by glass in its entirety? Oddly enough, he’s not that much less unsettling when he’s not physically there.

In response to the unspoken look of curiosity on Eglantine’s face, Passionario turns his palms upwards and raises his hands, as though inviting them to marvel at the writhing darkness around them:

&quotThe inhabitants of Mutton Island call this place ‘The Crossroads’. It’s one of their many secrets, one that is just as dangerous as the rest. I was fortunate enough to learn this rite from one of the Muttoners - a certain acquaintance of substance.&quot

He smiles. &quotThe use of the candle is my personal addition. The fundamentals are largely unchanged, however. Darkness, a mirror, a burning need, questions to be answered, choices to be made… and the terrible price to be paid.&quot

A heavy pause follows. &quotWe’ll get to that part later. For now, we need to talk about Eli. I… think I have been wrong about him.&quot
edited by Passionario on 9/13/2016

Mutton Island? That, Eglantine thinks, explains everything. It’s a strange sort of place - strange enough that people deciding that shadowed mirrors are a perfectly logical way to communicate makes some kind of sense. Sinister rites in place of telegrams? Just one of those quaint Mutton Island customs!

The part about prices to be paid is particularly alarming, but that is apparently something they’re going to discuss later, and Eglantine isn’t feeling rude enough to force a change of subject. Instead, they nod solemnly.

&quotYou’re not the only one who has been.&quot They pause. &quotJust the one whose actions as a result were the bloodiest.&quot For all their polite tone, Eglantine is blunt on that score - they won’t pretend the past hasn’t happened. Still, there’s no malice in their words, no anger, only a simple statement of fact. &quotSo what conclusion have you come to since then?&quot

&quotThe one whose actions were the bloodiest?&quot Passionario asks in a bemused voice. &quotOh, I believe that this particularly honour belongs to the man himself. And the worst is still to come.&quot

&quotThe last time I met Elias, I called him the protector that London’s needed, someone who could take care of the city and do what’s necessary. Someone I could trust.&quot He smiles wryly. &quotA part of it was good old etiquette, of course. There are protocols for what one is supposed to say when there’s a loaded revolver pressed against one’s forehead. But there was also some wishful thinking on my part, a delusional hope that he could succeed despite the odds.&quot

The smile fades from his face.

&quotI can no longer afford to cling to that delusion. None of us can. Elias Lowe is not a protector or a guardian - he’s just another revolutionary firebrand screaming into the night, challenging the darkness to come and extinguish him. And the darkness, as you know well by now…&quot He gestures to himself. &quot…is always eager to oblige.&quot

&quotHe is not the first one, you know, nor will he be the last. For as long as human civilization existed, for as long as there was the division between those in power and those without, there have always been people like Elias. Those who sought to reverse the situation and prey upon the rich in the name of the poor, all while making a name for themselves. And it has always ended the same way: once the rich and powerful recognize the threat, they move Heaven and Earth to crush it decisively. Pugachev was decapitated, drawn and quartered. Spartacus was crucified alongside his followers.&quot

A pause follows. When Passionario speaks again, his voice is like the sound of a judge’s gavel: loud, decisive and fatalistic:

&quotElias Lowe will fall. His beloved Flowerdene will burn. The scene that played out in the Basalt Gallery that day will be repeated a thousand times. There is nothing he can do to prevent this from coming to pass…&quot

He fixes his gaze squarely upon Eglantine:

&quot…but you and I can.&quot

Eglantine listens in silence, their face wiped of expression. Passionario is very, very good at what he does. Appealing to fears, to ego, to reason, shaping the thoughts of a listener… but Eglantine is accustomed to such things, their own methods of persuasion not always dissimilar, and they know things that Passionario does not.

They smile, suddenly. &quotIf you are to call yourself the darkness, am I forced to call myself the light? You came for him. You took him away. And I and those who aided me brought him back. Are we to be dreadfully poetic, and call that the rekindling of light amid shadows?&quot Beneath that light, amused tone, they are casting out a scrap of information, specifically to gauge Passionario’s response - that they were the one to plan and lead the New Newgate strike that freed Elias Lowe.

More seriously, they add, &quotHe has plans, still. He knows who he is and what he’s doing. There are details you are not aware of - details I decline to share, incidentally. Nothing personal, but I’d be a fool and disloyal into the bargain to go telling you everything he’s told me.&quot

Brass fingernails click against the wall in a staccato rhythm. &quotStill. Supposing you happened to be right. What did you have in mind?&quot

All around the room, the candle-smoke grows thicker and appears to absorb the shadows and darkness, up to the point where the walls of the room are no longer visible. All that remains is the small island of candlelight around Eglantine.

Beyond the glass, the picture undergoes a change in response to their admission. No single muscle on Passionario’s face moves; instead, the image of his face rapidly flickers, as though someone was flipping the corner of the pages in a book. Several expressions appear for a split second - surprise, anger, satisfaction, incredulity, murderous rage, fascination and desire - only to vanish into one another. Eventually, the image stabilizes into a neutrally polite mask.

Seconds pass one after another, until Passionario finally speaks. When he does, his voice takes on a peculiar echo, as though it was coming from the bottom of a deep well: &quotSo it was you, after all.&quot Another long pause follows. &quotWell played. I may have misjudged Elias, but I’m pleased to see that, in your case at least, my evaluation was correct.&quot

&quotAs for your question, the plan that I have in mind will result in the victory for independent Flowerdene, the downfall of the counterinsurgency, the salvation of many innocent lives and a reckoning for many others who are not so innocent.&quot He pauses for a second, as though a new thought just occured to him. &quotYou mentioned that Elias has plans beyond my knowledge. I will not press you for details of these plans, but I am curious about their consequences - or, more precisely, your opinion of said consequences.&quot

A glimmer appears in his eye - a mere reflection of the candlelight or something else? &quotGiven that Eli’s plans may succeed or fail, what would be, in your opinion, the best and the worst possible outcome for Flowerdene? Assuming, for the sake of the thought experiment, that I don’t intervene on either side.&quot

There’s a knowing look on Eglantine’s face. If Passionario deems them at all acute, then he must surely think that their assessment of the consequences would provide sufficient clues from which to deduce the details of Eli’s plan, while leaving Eglantine feeling as though they hadn’t given anything away. And he hasn’t actually answered their question, even if the potential results he describes sound interesting.

&quotAs a thought experiment, then.&quot They speak gravely. &quotThe worst outcome I can see being possible? A massacre that spreads, engulfs more of London, and ends in lacre. The best, for Flowerdene? Success. Independence. Resources. Life.&quot They spread their hands. &quotMany things are possible. Some more feasible than others.&quot

What Eli has told them, they will not betray to this man. And so they return a a part-answer in kind, offering something honest yet too broad in scope to be useful, perhaps.

He’ll understand why. He wouldn’t be who he is if he couldn’t, they’re sure of that. And who he is… that’s the interesting part, especially with his response to that fleeting revelation earlier. Some expected emotions, some unexpected, all worth considering.

Passionario responds to Eglantine’s evasive answer with a curt nod:

&quotGood. Now let us consider the bigger picture. One that includes the forces of counterinsurgency and those behind it.&quot

&quotSome scholars and ideologues claim that our existence is a part of a greater Chain which stretches from the almighty stars above to the lowliest creatures below. They say that the stars make and enforce the laws that govern nature, and that one of these laws is that the Chain itself must remain sacrosanct. No one is permitted to rise above their station, lest they risk the ire of their betters.&quot When he pronounces the last two words, his mouth twists as though gripped by severe tooth pain.

&quotAs above, so below. Whether the theories about celestial order are true or not, they describe our society well enough. There is no crime more abhorrent to those who make and enforce the laws than failure to acknowledge one’s place in the grand scheme of things. The Flowerdene insurgency, and the massacre that preceded it, certainly qualify.&quot

&quotHad I retained my office, the most likely outcome of the counterinsurgency’s response would be the restoration of the status quo. Ringleaders would be dealt with, one way or another, and the rest would fall in line after a sufficiently decisive show of force. A fairly straightforward task, one that I have carried out many times.&quot A humorless smile graces his lips. &quotFortunately for Flowerdene insurgency, my successors’ experience in these matters is, shall we say, less extensive.&quot The smile fades. &quotYet some of them learn remarkably quickly, and they are not without tricks of their own.&quot

&quotIn fact, I expect that the armoured hand delivering the deathblow will be covered by a silken glove this time. Instead of neddy squads in the streets and Unfinished twins making door-to-door visits, there will be a campaign to ‘save our Spite’. There will be fundraisers, charity events, public appearances by our beloved Mayor - and, oh yes, aggressive property acquisitions.&quot

&quotThe Constables will still charge in like an inexorable blue tide, but only to ‘protect the new improvements’. In the end, Spite will become a flourishing gentrified district for the affluent Society youth and successful artists.&quot The grim smile returns. &quotAs for the current inhabitants, they will be… ‘taken care of’. Not just the ringleaders this time, but everyone else as well.&quot

&quotI already see the unspoken protest in your eyes: ‘They wouldn’t dare!’ I remind you that we are talking about the English aristocracy. They have spent the last several centuries brutally subjugating the world, and they have become exceedingly efficient at it.&quot

As he pauses for emphasis, the darkness surrounding the room responds with faint half-breathing, half-whispering sounds. Finally, Passionario speaks again:

&quotFinally, we come to the worst case scenario, in which Elias, through fiery rhetoric or bloody martyrdom, succeeds in inflaming the hearts of the people, while his allies manage to assemble a critical mass of resources, seize initiative and strike back at the oppressive regime with all their – or should I rather say ‘your’ - might.&quot

&quotOn the Surface, such a revolution could succeed. True, the former inhabitants of the looted palaces and mansions would disagree with this definition of success, as would those whose loved ones would end up gracing lamp posts, and the social hierarchy would eventually reassert itself, but at least there would be something left after the upheaval.&quot He raises a finger. &quotBut we are not on the Surface anymore.&quot

&quotThe current ruling regime is too tightly wrapped in the coils of the Bazaar. Should any revolutionary flame blaze strongly enough to threaten the latter, the Masters will invoke the Tragedy Procedures. After that…” He shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter what happens after that. Just like the Rosers, the Copper and Motherlings before us, all of London’s factions will end up in the same lacre-pipes.”

Silence falls. Even the whispers and other disquieting noises have disappeared. After what seems like an eternity, Passionario speaks again:

“And yet, you are right. Many outcomes are possible – even the one you deemed the best. There is a way to bring about the future in which Flowerdene has all the resources, independence, success and life (and even more), and the key to it lies in the very thing that currently threatens its existence.”

“Remember what I’ve said about the Chain and its laws. No one is permitted to rise above their betters, and any predations on the part of said betters are to be endured. The good and the great observe this law to a letter. That is why there has never been a second invasion of Hell. That is why the tigers walk free in the halls of Labyrinth and keep the humans caged.&quot

&quotAnd that is why Flowerdene has a chance.”

He’s right, damn his recently-revealed eyes, Eglantine thinks bitterly, though they hide their thoughts behind the same pleasantly attentive mask they’ve offered to paramours and associates of benefit many times before. You are interesting and I am listening, that expression says, regardless of how true it might or might not be. This isn’t the first monologue to unfold itself before Eglantine, and they’ve grown accustomed to sifting through the ocean of words to fish out anything of use, while leaving no sign of choosing anything specific.

They’ve had words with the Widow, and… others. They know what could come of an uprising, though doubtless in less detail than a man aware of the particular protocols. And they certainly know that the world has always been very much invested in keeping people in their ‘proper places.’

(But it’s personal for him, isn’t it? This is only the latest hint to that effect. So, from lowly soil Passionario sprang, Eglantine thinks, and the Masters may not have cared but he’s clearly never forgotten.)

And yet… he doesn’t know Flowerdene as well as he thinks he does, they find themself thinking. He doesn’t know the plans upon plans laid for hopes upon hopes, the precautions and secrets laid down to protect the people there. If the established order reaches out its hands to Spite, there are ways and means kept in reserve to ensure that Spite’s own people benefit, not some future faux-Veilgarden of interlopers.

Besides, he wouldn’t lay out such a calamity unless he was also planning to dangle its solution like a golden key. And is that key dipped in poison? they wonder, watching the mirror, and trying to ignore the strange shadows beyond.

&quotThat chance being one only you can offer it, yes?&quot Eglantine’s eyes narrow. &quotAnd there will be a price, of course. There always is.&quot They smile pleasantly at him, but without any warmth. &quotBy all means, let the author of this mystery reveal its conclusion.&quot

&quotWe’ll get to the price in a moment. For now, we need to reach an understanding what said price will purchase, which is the perceived supremacy of Flowerdene in the eyes, hearts and minds of those who would seek to do it harm, so that they may be dissuaded from doing so.&quot The shadow in the mirror chuckles. &quotHave no fear, my plans do not include elevating Spite’s denizens to tigerhood through Red Science. Not when there is a much more reliable and proven alternative available.&quot

&quotIn matters of power, always look to fear. Fear is the most common reaction to being confronted with the evidence of others’ unassailable superiority. It is the instinctive response to the knowledge that someone can end you with barely any repercussions to themselves. From a lowly guttersnipe cowering at the approach of steel-toed boots, to the royal courtiers cringing at the thought of Her Majesty’s wrath, to the Masters living in dread of the reckoning to come, everyone is connected to the Chain through links of fear.

&quotGiven that this link between primal fear and power is so deeply ingrained, it can be exploited. If one could put this kind of terror in hearts and minds of the ruling class and their obedient watchhounds, if one could hurt them worse than the failed invasion hurt London, then one could claim power over them.&quot

A crooked smile appears on his lips. &quotSounds like Revolutionary propaganda, doesn’t it? And therein lies the conundrum. Years of clumsy bombings and botched assassinations on the part of Calendar fools have cultivated a remarkable tolerance towards danger among their targets, which has only been bolstered further by the unnatural vitality of the Neath. Any threat of sufficient magnitude to overcome this resistance would also pose the risk of the Tragedy Procedures being invoked.&quot

&quotTherefore, in order for the plan to succeed, the approach should be based on the surgical precision rather than magnitude, quality rather than quantity. It would necessitate intimate knowledge of the key figures of the counterinsurgency, including their greatest weaknesses and darkest secrets. It would further demand sufficient cold-mindedness and will to do what must be done to fully exploit these weaknesses, no matter how cruel it may be. And it would require a very specific set of skills and resources to put it in action.&quot

Passionario leans forward, his eyes gleaming wildly in the candlelight:

&quotYou know who I am. You know what I am capable of. I will not claim that I am the only one who can get it done - there is a handful of individuals in the Neath who would be able to do it equally well - but I am certainly the only one willing to come forward and make the offer. Unless you can induce a Master of the Bazaar to go rogue, encourage one of the founders of the Grand Geode conspiracy to take an interest in Flowerdene, persuade the tumen-noyan of the White-and-Golds to switch side, make Penstock break all of his seven vows or convince the Lady in Lilac to descend to London months ahead of her schedule…&quot

His voice drops to a whisper.

&quot…I happen to be your best bet.&quot

Eglantine does not argue, not yet. They merely weigh each sentence as they hear it, calm, thoughtful, storm-dark eyes unreadable. He needs this, they suspect. He needs to be right. To be needed. To have a purpose. He needs for all that he is and all that he knows to be worth something. And oh, they do indeed know what he is capable of. There are stories upon stories, and their own memories.

But perhaps he has grown so accustomed to the use of cruelty and fear that he has lost the ability to see that there could be better ways? Or that someone might have a goal in which such methods could be counterproductive? They have not missed that he’s all charm and laughter about the plans in general, but suddenly intense when it comes to the necessity of his being the one to carry it out, either.

If he needs this so fiercely, how terribly will he lash out if he is rejected?

(And Eglantine does not want to reject him, and not just for fear of retaliation, even though they doubt his plans… They’ve considered the dangers of working with him, and the dangers of having him in opposition, and those are arguments worth considering, yes, but in the privacy of Eglantine’s own thoughts they know that’s not the only reason.)

Still they weigh the matter in silence. When at last they speak, their voice is careful and measured. &quotSupremacy is a difficult notion. It seems to simplify a number of things that perhaps ought not be simplified. But the exact details of Flowerdene’s future, and how to attain it, are matters suited to being discussed between allies, until the clear path is found.&quot They incline their head a little toward the mirror. &quotYour skills are undeniable. That much is easily agreed. Though I am not the final authority in this, I personally would find your strength and experience… an exceedingly compelling argument toward success.&quot

Through the glass, they hold his gaze. &quotAt what price do you set your aid?&quot

Passionario shakes his head, his expression a mixture of sadness and amusement:

&quotWhile it is wise to seek the counsel of allies and advisors, the ultimate decision lies with you. You are the one who lit the candle, faced the mirror and stood at the crossroads of midnight - and it is you who will pay the price, should you decide to accept my offer of aid. As you no doubt have surmised, said price has to do with power, knowledge and secrets…&quot

Although his lips do not smile, his eyes glint with merriment and mischief.

&quotBut not yours. Mine.&quot

&quotIn exchange for salvation of Flowerdene, I will teach you everything I know. Every cunning art and dirty trick I’ve learned over my long years will become a part of your arsenal. All the precious information that Surface nations would wage war over will be freely shared with you. Even my own personal secrets will be laid bare before you.&quot He lifts a finger. &quotMake no mistake: this is a price, not a bribe. My training will be harsh and exacting, my knowledge will test the limits of your sanity and my secrets will rend your heart asunder. You will come to deeply regret accepting my offer, and no one would blame you for rejecting it.&quot

He crosses his arms, looks meaningfully at the candle (now barely a flickering stub), and awaits Eglantine’s verdict.

If one were, for example, a spymaster of perception and renown, one might see the surprise and anger in Eglantine’s half-hidden reaction, and guess at its cause. That they must pay the price for doing as Eli bade them? That they must pay a price for a thing done without knowing exactly what it was, only that it was required? It is unfair -

  • but isn’t everything?

Anger becomes weary resignation. They can feel curiosity scratching at the back of their mind, and they hate it, in a way - this yearning for new knowledge, even when the rational response might be to turn away, is dangerous, and they know it. Passionario is dangerous, and they know it. The knowledge he’s promised will be a burden unlike any they have carried before. They’ve had regrets enough before, and choked on the bitterness and misery of them until they might scream from it…

And yet - and yet - how much can they do for those who look to them, given such tricks? Passionario has used his arts in terrible ways, but they are not Passionario. (Could you become him, if you did this? a voice in the back of their mind asks warningly, but it is only one of many considerations, and it is not loud.) They could use this, perhaps, to be a shield to those that need them.

What right has the shield to complain that its forging was not gentle?

Whatever happens, they must make this choice based upon the warnings they’ve been given, weighed against what this deal could do if set in motion. They may not have lit the candle knowingly, but if they pay its price, they cannot say they didn’t know what they were doing there.

Eglantine closes their eyes for a moment. Somehow, the tiny candle-flame still seems to dance in their vision, even behind their eyelids. In that private space of thought, they allow themself to be honest about what choice they are making, and all the reasons why.

(Would he be surprised, if he knew some of them? Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not.)

There is a long, slow exhale. &quotI understand.&quot Eglantine nods, just once, utterly solemn. &quotI will pay your price. We have a bargain.&quot

After the candlelight in hidden places
After the bargains made beyond the mirror
After the agony played out on faces
The darkness and the sound
Regret and anger and consideration
Of the full scope of price becoming clearer
He who was living is now dead
We who were free are now bound
With endless patience

Passionario abruptly awakened in his study.

In the center of the room stood an empty mirror-frame. A scorched wax mark on the floor indicated that a candle was lit in that spot at some point. Something was lying next to it and Passionario kneeled to examine the object. It was a small wooden chess-piece, a black rook, with delicate brass metalwork shaped like a sweet-briar rose wrapped firmly around it.

Outside, the newspaper-seller’s shout rang out, the same cry that he heard just before the ritual began.

Something was not quite right.

Passionario reflexively raised a hand to his face. He was quite certain that he shaved it clean before lighting the candle - yet the beard and moustache he was touching couldn’t have grown in less than six months!

Several frantic minutes later, after acquiring three copies of different newspapers, inquiring with several bemused passer-bys and corroborating the findings with the examination of false-stars through his glim telescope, Passionario came to two conclusions. First, that only an hour has passed for the rest of London (and presumably Eglantine) while their conversation between the mirrors took place. Second, that his own price of lighting the Crossroads-Candle was several months of his life - or whatever remained of it.

A familiar voice echoed in his head. (&quotFoolish, very foolish. Your time is running out as it is. Are they really worth it?&quot)

&quotThey are. And if I wasn’t foolish, I wouldn’t have ended up with you, either.&quot He spoke aloud. A feeling of wry amusement was the only response he got.

He put aside these thoughts for now. He had a city to save, a bargain to fulfil and a brilliant mind to drag into the screaming darkness. If there was little time left, that was just another reason not to waste it on regrets. Especially when there were other pressing matters that needed to be taken care of, starting with erasing the evidence of the toll exacted upon him.

He took another wistful look at the empty frame and headed outside to find a barber. As Passionario knew well - and as Eglantine was about to learn - the best way to keep a secret always involved a sharp blade and a steady hand.
edited by Passionario on 5/16/2018

Two geniuses, grounded in their characters and working off each other’s performances excellently. Sorry for the necro, but I feel that Passionario and Eglantine Fox have produce some of my favorite passages to date, page or printer and it’s still a joy to reread Your guys’ posts.