Insincerely is a short story that I wrote several years ago that’s just a bit too long, a bit too rough, and a bit too odd to publish. Still, I like the silly thing and I think others might too. It’s my love letter to Victorian novels, and by love letter, I mean it’s satire because when I love something I tend to mock it relentlessly. Enjoy!
trigger warning: brief mentions of suicide
Your sentence is nearly complete, isn’t it? It had slipped my mind.
I am writing this letter in an alley off Merlinide Street. It is dark and there’s fog about, but it pushes the light from the nearby streetlamp onto the page, so I don’t mind. I never do mind.
Mind. I’ve written the word thrice now in as many sentences. Perhaps I could dispel some meaning from my mind’s preoccupation with itself, but that would require some thought and, frankly, I just haven’t the mind to put in the effort.
Look at my words. I am turning into my sister. You will agree, since you married her, and therefore must speak to her regularly.
I have been solicited by the Andpyre Publishing Company to write the events that led up to your arrest. You have not heard of Andpyre, not because of your years of incarceration, but because they are not real. I suspect they are a slipshod front made by your friend, Mr. Edward Bolden Jr., in order to prove your innocence and garner my admittance to the good establishment of Merlinide Women’s Correctional and Holding Facility of Ventshire.
I’m bored, so I am going to accept APC’s offer. However, there are the citations and copyright to consider. I don’t like considering those, so instead, I will simply send you the story for your perusal. Tell me it is true, tell me it is false, I don’t care. It’s a story, so of course it doesn’t matter what it is, only what people think it is.
Remind me, is this how it happened?
Ellie Sara Castar often wished she had been named Eleanora. Ellie was childish, playful, and girlish- three adjectives that Ellie tried very hard to avoid personifying in herself. Eleanora was elegant, intelligent, and sophisticated- three adjectives that Ellie personified without really trying, though that had not always been true. When she was five, she was not intelligent because she once ate a worm. When she was ten, she struggled to memorize and implement the etiquettes and courtesies expected by someone of her station. When she was fifteen, she accidentally belched in the middle of her acceptance speech during the Exceptional Ladies’ Award of Early Ventshire University, so she had clearly not always been elegant. Ellie had suited her then.
But now it didn’t, and it was yet another thing Ellie could hold against her father. Ellie’s mother, Cordelia Guinevere Castar, had wanted to name her Eleanora, but Calvin Robert Castar had insisted on Ellie, so what more could Cordelia do?
Of course, when Polly Flannel, the pale, ever-coughing washerwoman with the greasy blonde hair, wanted to name her daughter Theodora Everetta Midford, Calvin had agreed that it was a lovely name. And thus, Ellie Sara Castar obtained a half-sister named Theodora (because it was pretty) Everetta (because it was pretty) Midford (because it sounded better than ‘Flannel’ and because Theodora was conceived in the middle of two Fords, isn’t that romantic?). Ellie also obtained a valuably tragic backstory due to her mother’s unfortunate suicide, a stepmother who couldn’t read and therefore had no idea how utterly cliché she was in her behavior towards Ellie, and a father who realized his mistakes two seconds after seeing Cordelia’s limp body swinging from the dining room chandelier and thus tried to find redemption by marrying Polly to give Theodora a good, legitimate father. Two seconds after the faltered applause followed his alter-kiss with a washerwoman, he decided to simply drink instead.
This regrettable drama happened when Ellie was two, so she never remembered any of it. Her fellow nobles rarely talked about it either, because three years later, Lord Bolden disowned his son because he had used his magic to create a machine that could find and destroy rat infestations and, horrors, had gone into the slums to help the poor. Worst of all, the Paraclesus family had taken Edward in and sponsored his future endeavors, calling his actions ‘laudable’ and ‘progressive’. Can you even imagine? He could have been mugged! He could have been enticed by a prostitute and had disease thrust upon him! Thus, the Castar-Flannel-Midford scandal was soon forgotten, just as the Bolden-rat-Paraclesus scandal was forgotten when a study regarding the spontaneous combustion of candied sweets released and flung the entire nobility into abject hysteria.
And so, in all fairness, the worst memory Ellie had of her childhood was when Calvin banned sweets. Polly would sneak her some occasionally (she probably hoped Ellie would spontaneously combust), and Ellie would sneak some to Theodora (she hoped the same), but it was dreadfully miserable having to sneak. Life got better when the new study came out saying the sweets had never combusted in the first place, so she could eat them again. Ellie found the whole situation profound, though she could never understand why it was so.
There. I’ve written the background and introduced myself. Prologues are out of style right now, so that’s why I included one. I’ll be considered a writer of great literature in about fifty years or so.
Oh, by the way, I know what’s profound now. Most people, myself included, are sweets that don’t combust.
Ellie was twenty now, and Eleanora would have fit her perfectly, especially on this day because this was the day that her magic finally worked. And what magic it was! It proved her strong and noble heart, the intelligence of her passions, the practicality of her pursuits, the dignified gracefulness that coexisted simultaneously with ruthless justice within her. If you think the last sentence made little sense (grammatically, ethically, geographically, etc.), then you will begin to understand what magic is.
There’s been a lot of theories and experiments postulated and experimented by a lot of thinkers and experimenters over the years concerning how magic works, but here are the facts (facts are subjective, of course, so these are Ellie’s facts):
- Magic can only be manifested in a machine invented by a magical person.
- Magic stems from a deep ideal or theme or dream or craving or or or within a person.
- The aforementioned Or must be kept in mind throughout the inventing of the machine, or the magic will not manifest and the machine will not work.
Those are the facts. Now, here are the sub-facts. These are objective.
- The nobility are magical. The poor certainly aren’t.
- Machines are for the nobility. They are of no use to the poor.
- If a nobleman or noblewoman does not create a machine within his or her lifetime, then he or she is a lazy and useless waste of air that clearly does not care about his or her good name.
Ellie had finally accomplished the subjective rules listed and proved the objective rules true. What a blessed day! Best of all, there was a party being held at the Paraclesus manor that night, which would be the perfect place to demonstrate her machine to Mr. Henry Paraclesus, the chief of police, who would, of course, be the one to garner the most use from it. Better still, Ellie’s machine would force the police to allow her, someone who both men and women alike agreed was very much a woman, onto the police force. Ellie had never been particularly interested in joining the police, but ever since her mother had given in to her father’s wishes and named her Ellie, Ellie liked to do what society said women shouldn’t, because then perhaps she could become Eleanora.
Ellie was excited about the party, but dreading it a bit too. No, she was not worried about publicly demonstrating her machine; her adoration of public speaking had not even been dampened by the belching incident. No, she was not worried about essentially forcing the chief of Ventshire police to add her to the force; Henry Paraclesus was barely older than she and he was a fidgety, exuberant young man who attended suffrage rallies even when he was off duty. She was worried about Theodora Everetta Midford.
Theodora has barely been mentioned, and for good reason. She was a lazy and useless waste of air.
But she was also Henry’s fiancee, and Henry never entertained private conversations in the midst of a party unless Theodora asked. Ellie would have to bring her along, and Theodora would have to be present during the conversation, and there was no getting around it because Ellie had tried and tried to get Henry alone to discuss other matters in the past. In fact, Ellie had visited the Paraclesus manor so often in the attempt, she had fallen in love with Mr. Edward Bolden Jr. and the two were now engaged even though he was fifteen years older than she and also disowned because of his rat machine, but even so, Ellie still could not speak to Henry privately.
Why did I ever want to speak to you privately? That is a question I have occasionally asked myself, but finding an answer has always been too difficult to ponder for long.
Ellie and Theodora arrived at the party. Stories need descriptions so here are some descriptions.
Ellie wore the fashionable but (and?) politically controversial gown acceptable for women of her standing. It was slim and tight-figured, but Ellie refused to wear a corset with it because corsets restricted women. She wore a cuirass bodice instead, but it was the principle of the thing. The gown was lavender, the bodice a darker lavender, and her jacket was light lavender with lace because she needed to emphasize that she was a woman even though she was going to join the police force. Besides, lavender complemented her skin. Her hair and makeup were perfect too, but they were not controversial, so it’s not worth mentioning what they looked like.
Theodora had not cared whether she came to the party or not, so she wore almost the same attire Ellie had found her in- a pair of men’s trousers and a mustard-colored shirt. After nearly forty minutes of Ellie’s begging and whining and pleading, Theodora agreed to put on a dress. She still wore the trousers and shirt underneath, but again, it was the principle of the thing. Theodora’s hair and makeup were not controversial, but they weren’t perfect either, so they are worth mentioning. Ellie had tried to brush and pin Theodora’s hair, but it had already reverted to its thin and limp state, swinging dolefully like Cordelia had so long ago. The pin fell out in the cab. Theodora did not wear makeup.
The party looked like every other noble party, but with more political people, because the Paraclesus’ were very political. Remember how they took in the Bolden rat boy? Remember how Victor Paraclesus, Henry’s great great great grandfather, bought and privatized the police force because he was tired of… well, he was tired of something, at any rate (being caught with prostitutes. He wanted to reroute the post-curfew police). Did you hear, Henry is in love with Miss Castar…Flannel…Midford, and they are going to get married even though she’s, well, her?
That last paragraph was not really a description, but I’m bored of description now. Lots of people with less-colorful suits who talked about more-colorful topics were at this party.
After milling through the party with the right type of wine in her hand and talking to the important people for an appropriate amount of time, Ellie approached Theodora, who was hiding in the powder room reading Alice in Wonderland. Stories also need dialogue.
“Theo!” Ellie exclaimed, half-amused, half-exasperated. She had been searching for her for a long time.
“Dora,” Theodora finished. She turned a page.
“I’ve been searching for you,” Ellie said.
“You knew where I was. I told you I would be here.”
“Yes, but I did not want to believe you. Besides, I couldn’t possibly have just waltzed in here, then waltzed back out with you. That would have implied I knew you were hiding in here the whole time. I had to make sure the others knew I was looking for you.”
“You needn’t have waltzed. Walking would have done just as well.” Theodora finally lowered the book and stared at her sister. “How is a raven like a writing desk?”
“They are not alike. Alice in Wonderland is a book centered around the theme of rules and the absence of said rules. Without rules, jokes needn’t follow any logic. It’s an absurd question with no answer. That’s the point.”
“Did you decide that was the point, or were you told that by a professor?”
The two were silent for a long moment. Ellie had been told that by her professor because she had tried to find the correlation between ravens and writing desks too. Ellie stared speculatively at her sister. She was not judging her. Ellie had quit judging her a long time ago. Just like Ellie should have been Eleanora, Theodora was definitely Theodora. That was how Ellie rationalized it, anyway.
Theodora closed the book and placed it in her purse. “I don’t want to read this anymore.”
“Why not?” Ellie asked.
“If Alice in Wonderland has a theme then it is following the rules for proper literature, and all of the absurd non-sequiturs and situations are not absurd at all because the author intends for them to have a point, which makes her point nonsensical because she is following rules to make a point about non-rules.”
“That…” Ellie laughed, because all of her etiquette classes said to laugh politely when unsure of a joke. “He, though. The author was a man.”
“I fail to understand how that matters. You knew who I was talking about,” Theodora said.
“Shall we go speak to Henry?” Ellie said hastily. She smiled widely and lifted her purse, waving it slightly. The machine was inside the purse, so she was not acting like a lunatic, though Theodora would not have cared even if she were.
I’m considering removing that last section because nothing of concern to the plot happened. I’ve been told pointless scenes within narratives must be edited out no matter how fond the author is of the scene itself. I’m not particularly fond of that scene so I would not mind if it were removed but, as Theodora said, what is the point of points?
When Theodora approached Henry to ask if she could have a private conversation with him, but with Ellie there too, Henry was delighted. This confused Ellie for several reasons, but she supposed she was mostly confused because she still had no idea what Henry saw in Theodora. Of course, men did not have to see anything in women to marry them, and vice versa, but Henry clearly did see something in Theodora. This was incomprehensible. Girly Ellie tried to assure herself that love was always incomprehensible, but Sophisticated Eleanora knew that love was nothing more than a formulaic process dependent on ever-changing variables that likely held no solution; love was incomprehensible, but not in a romantic way, more in the way death is incomprehensible because no one alive has ever known what it is. Her professor said so.
Ellie pondered these ideas as she followed Theodora and Henry into a side-room. The room appeared smaller than it was because it was filled with bookshelves, chaise sofas, opulent rugs, and Edward Bolden Jr. sitting stiffly in a cushioned armchair reading The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.
“Edward!” Ellie exclaimed, half-surprised and half-annoyed; he had not told her he was at the party, and she was not certain she wanted him there.
“Miss Castar, my dear,” Edward said, rising and bowing. He carefully set The History of the Peloponnesian War on the table, shifting it so the corners aligned perfectly. “I was unaware that you were here.”
“Actually, I did say… er…” Henry fidgeted slightly and edged closer to Theodora.
Pretending not to notice Henry’s reaction but very much noticing it, Ellie laughed politely. “Of course I’m here, darling. I would not miss a Paraclesus party.”
“So it would seem,” Edward replied.
Theodora’s expression remained as impassive as ever, but there was a coldness to her monotone. “Your purposeful ambiguity is tiring. Ellie needs to speak to Henry. Leave.”
Edward offered a tight smile to Theodora, but deigned not to reply, a rude oversight which irritated Ellie. Theodora was odd and lazy and useless, but that was no reason to smile without sincerity.
Henry shoved his skinny fingers through his hair, mussing his thick curls. His hair stuck up on end and made him seem like a mad scientist, struck by lightning in the pursuit of eternal life, a nervously perplexed look on his face at the entire conundrum. Ellie’s irritation with Edward faded and she wanted to giggle, but she caught herself and coughed instead.
“Would you permit Edward to stay, or would you prefer to keep this matter between you and myself?” Henry asked. His dark blue eyes pleaded, begging her to avoid an argument at whatever cost. How this skinny, fidgety, peaceful man, not only successfully managed, but actually enjoyed, his job as the police chief was beyond Ellie, but she found it oddly endearing. She wondered if Theodora found it endearing, and glanced at her.
Theodora was flicking dirt out from under her fingernails in Edward’s direction.
Henry cleared his throat, and Ellie hastily replied, “Yes, of course! I would be delighted to have Edward stay.”
Edward raised an eyebrow at her. “How kind of you, Miss Castar. Allowing me to stay in my own home.” His tone was joking, but it also wasn’t.
Theodora flicked the dirt from under her middle finger and paused, staring at him. He smiled again.
“Er, right then, excellent!” Henry said, clapping his hands together. “What is this matter, Ellie?”
Ellie started at Henry’s use of her first name, but quickly composed herself. While she could control the blush that was attempting to spread across her cheeks, she could not control the proud grin forcing itself onto her face, so she didn’t bother trying.
“My dear gentlemen and sister,” she began, shifting so she could face the three of them and so the light from the lamp beyond would shine pleasantly on her. “After years of searching the depths of my soul, of examining every dark and dangerous crevice of my mind- the memories and places no true lady would ever want to recall- I have successfully traversed the seven circles of fire and found… my innermost Or.”
Ellie paused for dramatic effect, and to gauge the reaction of her audience. Edward lost some of his stiffness, a real smile drifting ghost-like across his features. Henry fidgeted excitedly, his eyes rapt as he gazed up at Ellie, even though he was taller. Theodora stared straight ahead, as though looking through Ellie. Ellie doubted she was listening, but that was to be expected.
“Indeed, coming to turns with the ideal that drives you, the dreams that await you, the fervency behind your actions is no easy task, and certainly not for someone of my sorrowful… background.” Though in usual circumstances this would have been very rude, Ellie allowed herself a slight nod towards Theodora. She was not paying attention, and even had she been, she would not have cared.
“But I did it. I have discovered my Or, and with all haste, put it to use. After all, what good is a fervency or dream or goal unless you do something with it? You can’t just hoard it, letting it rot within you. You will go mad.”
“You could,” Theodora said, her eyes suddenly focusing on Ellie’s.
Ellie stammered, “Beg pardon?”
“You could hoard your Or. You could let it rot within you, metaphorically, of course, as brain tissue and muscles will rot eventually whether or not you use your Or. Unless you are cremated, then I suppose you won’t rot, you’ll burn.” Theodora paused, then continued, “And you certainly could go mad.”
Ellie stared at Theodora, trying to find an appropriate response.
Henry nodded, “Insightful! Ellie, you laud the practicality of utilizing the Or, while Theodora, you have perfectly illustrated the dark dangers of not doing so.”
“I did not,” Theodora replied. “Do you see an easel? Do you see paints and brushes? I illustrated nothing.”
Henry grinned, gazing at Theodora adoringly while she stared impassively at (through?) him. Ellie looked away.
“You were saying, Miss Castar?” Edward inquired.
Ellie could not remember the next lines of her speech. She grabbed her purse, shoved her hand inside and found her machine, then thrust it to Henry. “I made this and I think it will be of some use to the police force.”
“Brilliant, Ellie!” Henry said. He examined the machine.
It was small, small enough to hold in one hand, and light, light enough to be a nuisance because it certainly did not look light. The machine was a thick rectangle of dark glass. It was smooth to the touch but somehow did not feel like glass, it felt cheaper, like fake silver. Through the black, the outlines of gears and wheels could be seen. They weren’t moving.
“What does it do?” Henry asked.
Ellie smiled, regaining some of the bravado Theodora had dissipated with her nonsensical nothings.
“It finds the guilty.”
Everyone was silent for a long moment. Ellie smiled. She liked it when people were silent for her. Edward ran his finger along the edge of the machine, then held his hand out, “May I?”
Henry glanced at Ellie, Ellie nodded generously, and Edward took the machine. Theodora stared at the wall.
Edward closed his eyes, holding the machine tightly. After a moment, he frowned, and turned it over. Ellie felt her self-satisfaction ebb away, and the irritation began to return.
She reached out and took the machine back. “Unfortunately, this is the type of machine that-”
“-only works in the hands of the maker,” Edward interrupted. “If it only works in the hand of the maker, then it can be of no use to the police.” Edward’s face was neutral, but he stared at Ellie accusingly, and Ellie felt herself grow smaller and suddenly, ‘Ellie’ seemed to fit her more, and not in the way it fit her when Henry said it. It fit her in the way her father had always meant it- childish, playful, girly, silly, empty.
“Congratulations, Edward,” Theodora said suddenly. “I, and all of science, stand corrected. I find myself faced with the undeniable evidence that brains can rot prior to death.”
Edward shifted his gaze off of Ellie, who breathed easier and immediately felt more like Eleanora again, to Theodora. The two stared impassively at each other with Henry shifting awkwardly in the middle- a little emotional something in between two nothings.
“Er… um, Ellie!” Henry said. “Can you please elaborate on the uses of your machine? What do you mean, ‘it finds the guilty’?”
“I mean what I said,” Ellie replied. She laughed politely. “In my hands, it finds the guilty. When I focus on a type of guilt, the machine will lead me to the perpetrator. Observe.”
She held the machine in her palm so that all could see. She took a deep breath, readied and steeled herself to break propriety, and said, “Some of you hurt my feelings during this conversation.”
Immediately, the cogs within the machine began to turn- one in the top left corner and one in the top center. Ellie stepped closer to Edward, and the top left cog spun faster, steam fogging the glass of the machine. She kept herself from smirking and stepped back, then she stepped towards Theodora.
The middle cog slowed.
Frowning, Ellie glanced down at the machine, then, hesitantly, stepped towards Henry. The middle cog immediately whirled, far faster than Edward’s had.
“Henry!” Ellie exclaimed. “You did not hurt my feelings.”
“Oh! Well, that’s a relief! I was worried that I had.”
“You are sweet,” Ellie replied. “But no. You did not.” Ellie attempted to imitate Edward’s impassive gaze and stare at him, but found that she could not meet his eyes, so she looked at her machine.
She took a deep breath and continued. “This can be of use to the police. It does not only work in close ranges. If I were to exit this room and join the party, the cogs would have lead me to people feeling the same guilt, or any other guilt that I envisioned. If I were to walk the streets of Ventshire, thinking of guilt, there is no telling how many people the machine would lead me to. If I were to think of crime-related guilt…” Ellie quirked an eyebrow at Henry.
Henry was nearly bouncing with excitement. “Yes, yes! Oh, Ellie, this is brilliant! And perfect timing too! You see, I have recently spoken to the board about initiating a new female rank into the force. In my opinion, female criminals would be far more likely to put away their life of crime if they had more options, such as police work. Take prostitution, for example! Those poor women need more options made available to them, and police work does not require an education. But I would need an educated woman to head the department, and-“
“I beg your pardon, but I said nothing about doing the actual police work,” Ellie said. “I merely thought I could accompany your investigators, with some guards, of course.”
“Oh,” Henry faltered for a moment, then smiled and continued. “Of course, that can be arranged! In fact, that might be better. The board did say that taking small steps in creating the female force would be best.”
“Nothing of the sort will happen,” Edward said. “Ellie cannot join the police.”
Henry frowned. “Edward, you know I respect your opinion like a brother, but in this, I do believe you are incorrect.”
Theodora leaned towards Ellie and mock-whispered. “Is that a polite way of saying ‘your opinion is shite’?”
Everyone flinched at her vulgarity. Theodora shrugged, stared at the wall for a long moment, then, with an undue amount of force, slapped The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides off the table and onto the floor.
As much as I dislike him now, Edward and I are a lot alike. His false politeness, my false persona, his self-serving good deed done to spite his father, my self-serving good deed done to spite society. We don’t actually care about people. We don’t actually care about you. We are simply doing what we do, struggling like inconsequential beetles in this shark pond of nobility.
Dear Miss Castar,
I am sorry my correspondence has been nonexistent within the last few months, but I wanted to afford you appropriate time to mourn the dissolution of your engagement. As I have been informed through the vague statements and less-vague expostulations from Mr. Bolden Jr. and your sister, respectively, I understand that it was, perhaps, not a mournful experience for you, but rather one of freedom. I am glad that you are satisfied, though I would have quite enjoyed to have you as my sister-in-law twice, as Mr. Bolden Jr. is as good as a brother and I am soon to have the honor of marrying your sister. Alas, I shall have to settle for your being my sister-in-law once.
I can see you smiling, half-pleasant, half-condescending at the above paragraph. I am certain you are wondering what my point is and when it will make an appearance, so I shall hasten to it.
You may have heard of the recent outbreak dour slowness amongst the lower class? The police have recently discovered the cause- a drug. This drug does not seem to affect the people physically or mentally, but it makes their emotions as nonexistent as my letters to you, which is to say, they existed, but were locked and hidden away in my head, unwritten and unsaid. It was almost worse than not having anything to say to you at all, so I cannot imagine the suffering these people are enduring. Oddly, the people we have arrested for dispersing the drug have denied forcing it upon anyone- people take it willingly. This caused me to suspect that it was magical, and my suspicions were proven correct, when our detectives found samples of the drug. It is magical. I would be lying if I said you were my last resort. How could you be my last resort, Miss Castar? You are my first resort, my dearest friend.
Will you help? Do consider it, please.
Henry B. Paraclesus, Chief P.D.
Yes, I have kept that letter in my possession for many years now. Not out of any sentimentality, but because my trash bin is on the opposite side of my room and I simply can’t be bothered to toss it. That would require far too much strenuous effort.
If Ellie had been asked to give a physical representation of the subtle nuances that defined Ventshire society, she would have shrugged and, irritated, inquired why the asker would ask such a ridiculous question and what good that knowledge would do? Internally, she would have pondered the question, probably for several weeks, coming up with hundreds of possible, yet shallow, answers. She might have even stumbled upon the right answer.
The answer is Merlinide Street. To understand Merlinide Street, you need to understand the aforementioned subtle nuances defining Ventshire society. If I were to explain all of these, it would make this story infinitely longer, and it would no longer be a story but a sociological journal, and I think most intelligent peoples can agree that there are few subjects more tortuous than sociology. I will only list the ones relevant to understanding the symbolic aspects of Merlinide Street.
- There are the nobles and the poor. The nobles say that all are equal, it is just a matter of means, ambition, intelligence, or dedication. Merlinide Street is perfectly straight street that cuts through the entirety of Ventshire, from the mansions to the slums.
- The nobles, through obviously non-biased case studies and scientific observations, know that they are different because they have Or and the poor don’t. This clearly means that the nobles are made of something different, something better. Merlinide Street is made of the exact same cut stone. Some sections are simply dirtier than others because some sections don’t have the time or resources to learn the true meaning of futility, they know it well enough (The true meaning of futility is sweeping a street).
- Everyone is afraid of the dark.
Ellie shuddered as she exited the car, clutching her velvet cloak around her. She knew velvet was not practical, but Henry had said to wear something dark, and plum was the darkest color she would allow herself to wear.
Henry wore a black trenchcoat. Ellie thought it had been tailored excellently. She was not thinking that now, of course, because the moon was not bright enough to provide even a silhouette. She had been thinking that throughout the entire ride though.
“Get backup, Reginald,” Henry said to the driver. “And whatever you do, do not mention Miss Castar’s presence.”
The driver nodded, but Ellie thought she saw the whites of his eyes as he glared in her direction. The car restarted with a BANG which contrasted with the silence, causing Ellie to clap a gloved hand over her mouth to keep from shrieking.
“You could have asked Edward to drive. I would have been fine,” Ellie said, lowering her hand.
Henry shifted awkwardly, his commanding tone evaporating like fog in the morning’s light. “Er– I did ask Edward.”
Ellie smirked, knowing that Henry would not see in the darkness. “Ah. I see. He is still angry, then?”
“I don’t think he is angry about the end of your engagement, but I think he is still angry about your being in the police force…No! I mean, no. Forgive me, I misspoke, yes, he’s still upset about the engagement. Very upset. Distraught and inconsolable.”
Ellie laughed quietly. It was a genuine laugh because it was quiet. “There is no need to lie to me, Henry. My feelings are more than intact and capable of handling such truths.”
Henry let out a breath and his tone seemed more relax. “Oh, of course!”
The two were silent for a long moment, a moment Ellie spent wondering what topic she could bring up that would keep Henry from talking about Theodora. It had been a full three minutes since her name had last been brought up, a new record.
Ellie loved Theodora, but not enough to listen to Henry speak of his love for her.
“Nights like these remind me of Theodora,” Henry mused.
Ellie jerked her machine out of her purse and held it directly in front of her face, staring intensely at the cogs within. In the car, they had been turning quickly, guiding them straight down Merlinide Street. They had stopped suddenly when they reached this section of the street. Ellie had no idea what to make of this. As long as she thought of guilt and if the guilty were moving at all, even breathing, the wheels should still be turning to indicate the direction she ought to go.
Oh. She had not been thinking of guilt. She had been thinking of Henry.
Closing her eyes, she focused and thought of the feeling when Theodora got punished for painting Polly’s dresses black when it had been Ellie, the feeling when she ignored the begging man with the sick baby, the feeling when she listened silently to the other women laugh at Theodora. She thought of guilt- the sort you get when you know you hurt someone even if that someone does not know it. While still reliving all of these memories, Ellie thought of the current situation they were in- someone abusing magic to dull the poor- and how guilty they must feel for their terrible deeds.
The machine shook with sudden movement. Ellie opened her eyes. Steam fogged the glass, hiding the whirling cogs, but it was enough. Only the side pointing towards Ellie vibrated, indicating that the guilty person was–
“That alley, there!” Ellie exclaimed. “The machine started working again. The criminal is there!”
Henry stepped next to Ellie, placing one hand on his pistol. He peered down the street and Ellie followed his gaze. Her excitement dissipated. The alley to which she had beckoned was vaguely lit, far away, by an orange, hazy fire that was more disturbing than the darkness surrounding. The cobblestones were covered with trash and debris, while the surrounding buildings looked ready to collapse, and Ellie thought it might be better for everyone if they did.
“On second thought,” Ellie said. “We could wait for your backup.”
“Is the suspect moving?” Henry asked.
“Some philosophers actually argue that there is no such thing as movement,” Ellie replied. The cogs were spinning slower and the glass was clearing. The criminal was moving away from them.
“Parmenides never solved a crime,” Henry said. He walked slowly towards the alley. “We can’t let him get away, Ellie. He’s hurting vulnerable people and he needs to be stopped.”
Ellie grimaced. When she had envisioned herself working with the police, she had always imagined the rallies she would speak to, the university convocations she would lead, the letters from hundreds of inspired girls praising her for her struggles against prejudice. She had never imagined herself chasing a criminal down a dirty alley.
But Henry did look so very dashing.
“You’re right. Let’s go,” Ellie said.
Henry nodded, a childish grin spreading across the grim expression he appeared to be struggling to retain. “Follow behind me, but tell me the directions. These alleys can be twisted.”
Henry grabbed Ellie’s free hand, startling her, but then they were off leaving her no time to process. Despite his slender build, Henry was far quicker and more forceful than Ellie would have guessed, sprinting through the littered streets and responding to Ellie’s stammered directions with decisive turns. Ellie barely noticed the stench, the rubbish, the sooty air clogging her lungs because of the focus required to simply match Henry’s speed. As she grew more accustomed to the shifting vibrations in the machine, the rhythmic pounding of her heeled shoes on the broken cobblestones, and the warmth of Henry’s hand on hers, she noticed that the fire she had seen distantly from the opening of the alley was growing nearer. She could hear the crackle of the flames, smell the ash, and feel the growing heat upon her sweating brow.
Henry turned a corner and skidded to a halt, causing Ellie to slam into his back. Henry let go of her hand and stepped forward, his pistol pointed straight ahead.
They were in a clearing of rubble- an empty space that had no doubt been occupied by one of the crumbling buildings. A bonfire roared in the center of the stones and debris, shadowing the clearing in an orange and smoky shroud. Because of the sudden light, a myriad of colors danced in Ellie’s vision, fogging the scene in morphing shapes and misshapen rainbows. Despite this, Ellie could make out two cloaked figures directly ahead, the taller with his pistol pointed at the shorter. Henry aimed his pistol at the taller.
“Drop your weapon, sir,” Henry said. “We can resolve this civilly.”
Everyone was still for a moment. Slowly, the taller figure stepped away. He turned.
“Drop your weapon and kick it to me, or I will shoot you,” Henry said evenly.
The figure faced Henry and Ellie. He dropped his pistol and kicked it towards Henry. Ellie squinted, trying to make out the features of either figure, but they were dark with the harsh light of the flames behind them.
The machine began to vibrate fiercely. Ellie gripped it with two hands to keep it from falling onto the ground. “You! You’re the criminal!” Ellie exclaimed, pointing at the first figure.
Henry sucked in a breath and held his pistol more firmly.
“Did you bother to teach her anything about policing before unleashing her on Ventshire?” the figure said dryly.
Ellie gasped. “Edward!”
The second, smaller figure stepped forward. “When clearly outnumbered by those antagonistic to police interests, one ought to remain anonymous for as long as possible.” It was Theodora.
“I- I don’t understand,” Ellie said.
“State the situation,” Henry said, his voice quivering. He kept his pistol aimed at Edward’s head. “Why were you threatening my fiancee?”
Edward shifted his weight. He watched Ellie closely as he replied. “Your machine caused me to think about mine differently. You said you could envision different kinds of guilt and the machine would lead you to those feeling them. This revelation lead me to try it with mine. I adjusted what I considered to be a rat.”
Theodora said, “I am a human. Not a rat.”
“Aren’t you?” The sneer in his voice was clear despite the darkness surrounding his features.
Henry reached into his coat pocket with his free hands, revealing handcuffs that looked reflected fire in the light. “Edward Bolden Jr., you are hereby under arrest for…”
“I did not create or distribute the drugs, Henry. You can’t arrest me for anything,” Edward said.
Henry paused. He slowly faced Theodora.
Theodora shrugged. “I created and distributed the drugs.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Ellie exclaimed. “Theo, you never do anything. Forgive my rudeness, but you are the laziest, most apathetic, most droll, most unidealistic person I have ever met. How could you possibly find, and use, your Or? And… why would you?”
Henry lowered his pistol. He stepped towards Theodora, letting the handcuffs hang limply in his grip. “Is this true?”
Theodora nodded, causing her hair to fall out of the boyish tail she had pulled it into. “Yes. I am the laziest, most apathetic, most droll, and most unidealistic person Ellie has ever met.”
“No, no,” Henry said. “Did you create and distribute the drugs to the poor?”
“I was bored.”
“You can’t use your Or when bored.”
“Science is not infallible.”
“Theodora, be reasonable!” Ellie burst out. She pushed past Henry and, as she did so, her machine began to vibrate harshly, causing her hand to shake uncontrollably. “Oh, take this!” Ellie said, thrusting the machine into Henry’s hands. It stilled.
Ellie grabbed Theodora’s cloak and jerked her closer, forcing Theodora to look directly at her. Theodora, as always, showed no emotion. No anger, no smugness, no sadness, no guilt. Nothing but blankness. “Why would you throw away your life like this? You will go to prison, Theodora, prison! And for what? Excitement? Boredom has never seemed to bother you before, why would you do this?” Ellie gripped the cloak tighter. She could see her knuckles whiten against the night. Quieter, she whispered, “I’m your sister. I love you. Henry loves you. I know you don’t care about other people. I don’t either. But don’t you care about me?”
Theodora stared balefully at her.
“Theodora? It’s not true, is it?” Henry said, stepping forward. “The machine lead Ellie to Edward, not you. You can’t have done this!”
“I’m not a monster, Henry!” Edward burst out. “Do you think I want your fiancee incarcerated, knowing the pain that will cause you? Ellie, the guilt you thought of, would it have led to someone in my circumstance?”
Ellie did not reply. She stared at Theodora.
“They have Ors,” Theodora finally said.
“What?” Ellie asked.
“The poor. They have Ors. They have ideals and dreams and hopes and desires. They have more And than we petty nobles could ever conceive of having.” Theodora continued, “They do not have the means to manifest their magic, so it burns inside of them. The drug douses it. It takes away the pain of And.”
“You were trying to help them?” Ellie asked hopefully.
Theodora showed an emotion. Confusion. “No. I saw a chance to alleviate my boredom and I took advantage of it.”
Theodora glanced over her shoulder at the fire. She turned back and looked at Henry. “You should probably arrest me now. The people who want my drugs will be here soon. The fire calls them. They will be furious at my incarceration.”
“How could you do this, Theodora?” Henry asked. “What about our wedding? I love you.”
Theodora shook her head. “No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do!”
“Well, I don’t love you.”
Henry looked stricken. He staggered back. Ellie felt the bizarre, sudden desire to laugh in absolute derision. It was comical. Everyone could have told Henry that Theodora was incapable of feeling love. His shocked reaction to this news seemed an overreaction, almost mocking, except that Henry was incapable of mockery.
Why did you want to marry her in the first place? I can’t comprehend it. I thought you, in typical Paraclesus fashion, had a bizarre obsession with playing devil’s advocate in political scandals. In the events I am about to record, that is either proven true but to an extent verging on insanity, or you are proven true; you really did love Theodora.
Theodora lead them through the alley, but only because she was handcuffed and had to walk in front of Henry. According to police statutes, Henry was supposed to keep his gun trained on her, but it was left uselessly in his holster. Ellie and Edward followed silently behind, both holding their machines. Edward’s, a gray box with a shining marble inside covered by sheet of glass, annoyed Ellie because the marble kept bumping against the wall, pointing at Theodora. Ellie’s machine annoyed her too. It was vibrating dully in her and Edward’s direction, but it vibrated harshly, madly, in Henry’s.
They reached the opening to Merlinide Street. Before they exited, Henry jerked Theodora to a stop.
“No,” he whispered. “No.”
He pulled a key from his pockets and unlocked the handcuffs. He shoved his pistol into Ellie’s hands, who shrieked and stumbled to grip it safely. He locked the handcuffs on himself. He turned and cast pleading looks at Edward and Ellie. “Lie for me, please. Say I did it. Theodora will go free.”
“Are you mad?” Edward said. “Absolutely not! Take those off! You’re being an imbecile.”
Ellie stood silent, shocked
“I’ll lie for you,” Theodora offered. “Everyone knows I always tell the truth.”
Ellie spun on her. “But you don’t, do you? You don’t always tell the truth!”
Theodora stared impassively at her. “I don’t always tell the truth. But everyone knows I always tell the truth.”
“You little…” Ellie clapped a hand over her mouth before she said something uncouth. She wanted to say something uncouth, she truly wanted to, but she couldn’t make herself.
The backup had arrived and were gathered in the street, laughing and talking, but that all ceased as they surrounded the four nobles exiting the peasant alley. Edward tried to convince them of the truth, but nobody listened to him because he was disowned and had a rat machine. Ellie tried to tell them the truth, but they did not listen to her because she was a woman on the police force who had ended her engagement. Theodora lied and told them Henry sold the drugs, and they listened to her because she was too impolite to be wrong. And Henry lied, and they listened to him, because he made up facts and emotions he did not have to make it seem true.
In the end, the police took Henry to prison. Edward stormed off into the night, leaving the two women alone.
Ellie wanted to attack Theodora. She wanted to yell, to scratch her arms, to claw at her eyes, to punch her and kick her and hurt her, but she couldn’t do anything but shakily brush the dirt from her velvet cloak.
“I have to go,” Theodora said. “I don’t want them to steal the drugs. They need to pay for them.” She began walking back into the alley. She paused in the entry. In a quieter voice, she said, “I suppose I don’t deserve to be Theodora anymore.” She entered the alley, and the darkness hid her.
Ellie stood alone in the middle of Merlinide Street. She thought of Henry and she thought of guilt. The cogs pointing towards Theodora began to turn.
I’ll end the story here. Nothing else of import happened. I am certain Andpyre Publishing Company will find it both pleasing in its literary quality and in its ability incriminate me.