I am pleased to hear your meeting with the Topsy King went smoothly. “Most capering goden,” as the Raggedy Men might say. It is of course unfortunate that the scandal over the incident at canapé competition hasn’t quite died down yet (damn that infernal cat!), but I’m sure some well-placed words from Mr. P______ will help restore your good name.
As for me, I have some exciting news. Victoria and I have been having an affair.
Shocking, yes. But also deliciously sensual. You’ve told me of your own affair with the Struggling Artist – it’s only fair I repay the experience in kind. Besides, I believe I can trust you not to make my sordid confessions public before I have a chance to do so myself.
Oh, and before you think too badly of me, you should be aware that Victoria knows I’m writing this letter. In fact, she encouraged me to write it. She, like me, delights in a scandalous reputation. And like me, she finds something erotic about writing something this intimate down only to give it to a friend, to the wind, to a well. We’re exhibitionists that way.
At any rate, perhaps I’d better start at the beginning.
As with so many of my dalliances, I owe a large part of it to Prisoner’s Honey. Victoria, as I mentioned in my last letter, is quite the connoisseur of Neathy delights, and this also encompasses a Honey habit surpassing even my own. As she likes to say, there isn’t a lot else to do in Venderbight but indulge one’s appetites, and these, of course, are hardly limited to wine & Honey. But I get ahead of myself.
Two nights ago, we met at my home for a sparring session. My swordsmanship has markedly improved under her tutelage – in fact, I was able to score a touch (my first so far) on her halfway through the session. After repaying me with a series of blows with the flat of her blade, she laughed, tweaked my moustache, and told me I was a good pupil.
After practice, we had dinner, and over the meal Victoria suggested we celebrate my new abilities with a Kiss. This was not, I should hasten to add, the rather forward suggestion it might seem to be. Victoria is the proud inventor of a cocktail which she calls a “Kiss of the Zee”, consisting of one part Prisoner’s Honey, one part Laudanum, two parts brandy, and a twist of lemon. It is not a drink for the fainthearted, but then, it was a special occasion.
We drank our Kisses and headed off to my bedroom – we both find it rather more comfortable for Honey-dreaming than the couches. We laughed as we collapsed onto the double bed – the world already beginning to swim as we stared up at the white plaster of the ceiling. But as I began to doze off, I felt the soft touch of leather against my skin, and looked down to find she’d placed her gloved hand in mine. In the moments before the darkness closed in, I gently squeezed her palm.
When I came to, we were in the Dreamlands. Parabola. I knew it was a dream, because the moon was out – the surface-moon now half-remembered or half-forgotten. And there were the stars, above & below. Motes of light in the water. I stood on a dock lit by a multitude of candles.
“Well,” came a voice, “here we are.”
It was Victoria’s voice, of course – but not Victoria’s form. Or, rather, not the form I had come to know. For this evening she appeared to me as she had once been, before Venderbight.
I’d known she was a Zee-captain, of course – she’d told me as much – but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I saw her in the bloom of youth. Her manner of dress was much as it is today – only without the bandages. The boots of a zailor; the sash, vest & gloves of a corsair. Around her right arm, the black ribbon. Around her left, the crimson kerchief. Her hair was cut short and dyed an acid green – eyebrows included. Her lips were twisted in an amused smirk.
She also had an impressive array of tattoos, winding down her arms and up her face. Along the arms a rose-vine. On her left cheek an anchor, with a serpent winding its way up from the neck to coil round the metal. Of course, she was a zailor, so it made sense.
It was, of course, an illusion; a magic trick. But I hadn’t thought her so talented a magician; so experienced a dreamer. Hiding one’s true form so radically, even in the Dreamlands, is no simple task, and this was a work worthy of Mahogany Hall.
Still grinning, she took my hand and we ran down the dock. The wooden planks became a sandbar, and we were suddenly on the beach, stripping off our clothes as we ran into the surf. Naked, we dove, down deep into the glowing water. It was a dream, so the risk of drowning was minimal: I just needed to remember to breathe normally while underwater.
Lit and glowing with phosphorescence, we danced beneath the waves; moves that would have been impossible if the water was real. The motes of light clung to us and turned us into silver wheels.
Victoria was doing something that reminded me of the Rubbery Dancer I’d hired, in the musical that sent me here. Across her back, lit up by the glowing sea-motes, was tattooed the leering face of a Gorgon. It wasn’t a beautiful image: reptilian eyes narrowed to slits, lips curled with contempt. Snakes haloed out from the scalp. It suited her perfectly.
She turned back around, and I turned aside. I felt her eyes on me as I tried to copy the moves I’d seen her perform, and smiled.
Eventually, we climbed out of the water and collapsed on the sandy beach, laughing. We were dry again in an instant – it was a dream, after all – so there was no need for her to re-dye her hair, or for me to re-wax my moustache.
I looked at the moon. It sat low on the waves and drowned us in pale light.
I looked at Victoria, and found her looking at me. We spent several seconds admiring the way the light played on one another’s bodies, the curve & line of muscle.
“Dance with me again,” she said, getting up off the sand. It wasn’t a request.
I got up and took her hand. She put her other hand between my shoulderblades, and I realized she was taking the lead. I had never danced the lady’s part in a waltz, but followed her lead as best I could, in a series of squares across the surf. Moonlight glinted quicksilver across our naked bodies.
“You’ve been planning this evening for a while, haven’t you?” I asked.
“The evening, yes,” she admitted. “But I didn’t have the right company until now.”
We laughed, and then we kissed, soft as moths. Her lips tasted faintly of dust and linen – not the expected brine. Some things illusion can’t mask. But I cared not. I ran my fingers through her hair, then lay my head on her shoulder as we danced, slowly, in the surf. And the waters were gathered together, the floods slept in the Sun’s blindness, and the depths rose like the Moon, in the light at the edge of the sea.
Slowly, we woke up.
Victoria’s Honey habits, as I’ve said, surpass my own. You are of course, aware of the phenomenon of Honey-mazing, where the body awakens before the conscious mind has a chance to. What this meant was that I awoke to find my clothes largely undone, and Victoria tracing one gloved finger down my sternum, circling a bruise she’d left there during our earlier duel. As I watched, her glazed eyes regained focus, and locked with my own.
We sat up. The world still swam through a surfeit of laudanum, but that wasn’t important right then. Slowly, I reached toward her face, my hand trembling as it touched her cheek. She held still and unresisting as my groping fingers found a thread and began to wind the bandages away.
The room was silent – Venderbight is quiet even in the middle of the “day”, and this far into the sleeping hours it was so quiet that every noise seemed a din. There was nothing to hear but the soft whisper of the bandages as, layer by layer, I wound them away. We said nothing, for there was nothing to say.
Soon enough, there was her face – much changed, but still recognizably hers.
There were the lips I’d kissed, within the still-clinging darkness of our dream. Scar-split, now, into an involuntary sneer with long years of battle. Thin lips, with the skin pale and drawn around them.
There was the anchor, on her left cheek; bleached and faded with the desiccation of the flesh. There was the serpent trickling up from the neck to wind around it, hacked to pieces by the scars. On her back, still covered with the bandages, would be the Gorgon’s head.
The nose was mostly gone. Perhaps it was hacked away in some long ago duel, perhaps it was simply a victim of leprous time; of the decay that ravages so many tomb-colonists. Her hair had fallen out, or been shaved off; her scalp was bare, and even the eyebrows were gone. Her face was like a skull with papery flesh yet drawn across it; the old tattoos withered remnants of bygone youth and bygone glory.
But her eyes! Still-living eyes in the skull-face of a corpse; eyes that glowed with warm & vital life in a face that should have been cold and dead. Her eyes held mine even as I pulled the last bandage away and let it fall from nerveless fingertips. Her lips didn’t move – perhaps she’d forgotten how to smile, or frown, but in her eyes I saw permission and passion; vulnerability and bitter iron pride; mixed together and become shadows of one another.
I don’t know how long we spent looking at one another, whether it was moments or minutes. I broke first – I closed my eyes, leaned forward and pressed my lips to hers. The skin was cold. Down below, her hand worked its way into mine again.
What else was I to do, Honeysuckle? It would have been terribly rude of me to refuse to kiss her right then, and while I may be many things, I am never rude to a lady. Except, of course, if the lady has been rude to me first. Or if I’m in a poor mood. Or if it’s necessary to advance my interests. But I digress.
Of course, it also would have been terribly rude for me to refuse to make love to her afterward.
When it was done & I lay heavy upon her, she ran a hand through my hair and murmured something in French. For some reason, the phrase stuck itself in my mind.
“Le temps détruit tout,” she said. “But not yet; not yet…”
And I kissed her again.
Honeysuckle, I don’t normally like being honest, let alone genuine. You of all people should know that I view honesty as both ungentlemanly & unchristian. All the same, I can’t help being honest now. It was a wonderful evening, and I’ll never forget it.