Silas glanced at his pocket watch. It was five o’clock. Only ten minutes past when he had looked at his watch the last time. He got up, paced across the room twice, and sat down again. He both regretted his decision and desperately wanted it to all be over. He was going to join the Sovereign Order. He had to.
He tapped his leg up and down against the damp earth floor and looked at his pocket watch again. His father would be coming soon.
The door at the top of the basement stairs opened and two thick legs came into view, the rest of the man obscured by the basement ceiling.
“Waters,” said a low voice before tossing a bundle down to Waters, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor shuffling cards.
Waters caught it with his face and pulled it away, squinting at it.
“For Mr. Lawrence,” the voice explained before shutting the door again.
“For Mr. Lawrence,” Waters mumbled to himself, limping off the ground and stretching stiff muscles. He opened the bundle and peered into it. “Change of clothes,” he said. “I suppose you’ll want to wash up.”
Silas stood as Waters took the ring of keys from his pocket and unlocked the cell door. He backed away as Silas opened it, hand moving to the butt of his revolver. He tossed Silas the bundle and gestured toward the water closet.
Silas walked across the basement and opened the water closet door. It was only a scrap of wood with hinges on it, and the water closet itself was barely four feet square and contained only a toilet and a washbasin. Silas heard the jingle of keys and turned around just in time to catch a small key ring Waters tossed to him.
“There’s a mirror, razor, and soap in the cabinet,” Waters said.
Silas nodded and swung the door shut. He leaned his head against the wall and let out a sigh. It felt good to be alone, even if his sanctuary was a closet in a grimy basement. Constantly being watched ate at him like water eroding stone. He stood there, head leaned against the cold wall, enjoying the privacy for a delicious moment.
Finally, he looked down and opened the bundle. There was a change of clothes inside, along with a pendant and a pamphlet. The bundle itself was actually a large, black robe with wide sleeves. It must be for the initiation. Silas frowned, nervousness filling him again, and set it aside.
Using the keys Waters had tossed him, he opened the cupboard and took out the looking glass, a razor, and a bar of lye soap. He looked at himself and paused, raising an eyebrow. He hadn’t looked so terrible since… well, ever. Faye might not even be able to recognize him. His hair was an oily, tangled mess, his eyes were bloodshot and puffy, there was a greenish bruise on his forehead, a scratch on his nose, dried blood on his neck, all under days of scraggly, wispy facial hair and a good coating of dirt.
“What a mess,” he mumbled to himself, not sure if he was talking about his appearance or the situation.
He set the mirror down and scrambled out of his clothes. He’d been wearing them… well, it had been three days now. Hard to believe it had only been that long. It felt good to get out of them, nonetheless. He washed up as best he could, soaking his hair and scrubbing it with the cheap soap and using a rag to rub the dirt off his body. He dabbed the blood away from his face and chin and pushed the wet hair out of his eyes, putting on the new clothes they had given him. They were just his size, almost tailored perfectly to him. He was buttoning the shirt when he saw a speck of ink on the sleeve. He leaned closer and realized it was his own shirt. All the clothes were his, in fact. They’d gone to his boarding rooms and fetched them.
Suppressing a shudder, he rubbed soap on his face and picked up the razor. He shaved carefully, keeping away from the deep gash under his chin. He nicked it despite the extra care, and it started bleeding again. He sighed and pressed the rag against it, shaving the other side awkwardly while he waited for the wound to close. When it did, he held the mirror close and looked at the cuts. The one on his chest was about three inches long, and shallow. The fork had scraped up and down the skin but hadn’t pierced deeply. The one under his chin was ragged, though. It almost hurt to look at. He reached up with hesitation and poked at it. The area around it was already starting to bruise a deep shade of red.
He shuddered and set the mirror down, picking up the jacked and pulling it on. His hair fell over his eyes and he combed it back with his fingers when he stood. He gathered up his clothes, picked up the tiny ring of keys, and as an afterthought, slipped the razor into the inside pocket of his jacket.
When he opened the door of the water closet, Waters was standing nearby, still with his hand on the butt of his revolver. Silas glanced at him and tossed the pile of old clothes against the wall. He didn’t really know what to do with them, and he supposed he could come back for them later.
“Razor, please,” Waters said.
Waters just rolled his eyes.
Silas sighed and handed it to him, along with the tiny ring of keys.
“Thanks. Say, you clean up nice.”
Silas ignored him as he walked back into the cell and the door locked behind him.
Silas turned and crossed his arms. “These are my clothes,” he said.
“Yeah, looks like it.”
“Who went to get them?”
“I don’t know,” Waters shrugged defensively.
Silas ground his jaw and was about to say something when Waters interrupted.
“No one saw your wife there. Like I said, she disappeared, and no one’s seen her since Wednesday.”
“Is this the way it’s going to be now?” Silas asked. “Constantly being watched, no boundaries or privacy?”
“That’s the way it is in the Order,” Waters said, as if it was a stupid question. “Everyone keeps tabs on everyone.”
“And you’re alright with that?”
“Look at it this way: as long as you do what you’re supposed to, you don’t even have to think about it. Just pretend things are normal and they will be.”
Silas sat down and looked at the robe and the pendant. “What is this supposed to be?” he asked sullenly.
“It’s the formal uniform. Everyone wears them for important occasions like initiations and holidays and the like.”
Silas tossed it onto the floor.
“You wear the pendant over the robe,” Waters pointed.
Silas looked at it in his hand. The chain was long, and on the end hung an emblem of a crown with a sword resting under it. So that was what the Sovereign Order looked like. It felt fitting.
“It’s the Order’s emblem,” Waters explained. “Oh, by the way, you should be thinking about where you want the mark. Everyone at initiation has the emblem tattooed somewhere. It can’t be anywhere visible, but it should be where you could show someone easily. I have mine on my shoulder, because it gets so hot in the summer, and I like to roll my shirtsleeves up, you know?” He pulled his shirt away from his neck and Silas saw a small crown about the size of a quarter tattooed in deep black ink.
“Splendid,” Silas said, throwing the pendant on top of the discarded robe and flopping down onto the cot.
He hated the robe and the pendant and the Order and everything. Waters seemed to notice his irritation and walked away to play another game of Solitaire. After a while, Silas picked up the pamphlet and started reading it. It was a detailed description of the ceremony, and there were some passages underlined that he was supposed to memorize.
He studied it until a group of men came down the stairs – Lord Carson and his father and two other men who he thought he recognized from sometime in the last three days.
“Good. You’re ready,” said Mr. Lawrence.
“Sir Waters, you’re dismissed for the evening,” said Lord Carson. “Mr. Lawrence, you’ve read the pamphlet I sent you?”
“Yes,” Silas said, getting up.
Everyone else was wearing the formal black robes and pendants, so he put his own on, hanging the pendant around his neck.
“To make sure everything is clear, I will go over everything before we leave. When we arrive, the Accounter will have everything ready. We will walk through the front hall together, but at the end, we will leave you with the Accounter to join the others in the hall. And then you will?”
Silas realized he was supposed to finish the sentence and he sighed. “Kneel to the man.”
Waters finished packing his cards and handed the key ring to one of the other guards. He gave Silas a smile and a small wave as he left up the stairs.
“Good,” said Lord Carson, nodding. “He’ll say a few ritual words and then…”
His voice blurred together as Silas realized he was going to go over the whole ceremony. Silas gave an inward groan and wondered why they couldn’t just go and get it over with.
“Now, traditionally the mark was placed on the right forearm,” Lord Carson said, pausing, “but in recent years, we’ve made an alteration to the rule for various reasons, and it can be now placed elsewhere. Did you have a preference?”
“I don’t care,” Silas rubbed his forehead.
Lord Carson wrote that down on a pad of paper and put it back in his pocket. “After the mark is made, the Accounter will ask, ‘Will you respect the wisdom given, obey the protocols written, and keep all in utmost secrecy, be it even from your spouse, child, or closest friend?’ And you will say…”
Silas gave the answer and Carson went on for another few minutes, concluding with, “Finally, the Accounter will announce your new membership. Oftentimes there will be a feast or celebration afterwards, but given the circumstances and the rushed nature of this initiation, we forewent the pleasantries.”
“Count Lawrence, have I neglected anything?” Lord Carson asked.
“Proceed,” Mr. Lawrence said.
“Ralston,” Lord Carson nodded.
The guard unlocked the cell door and hung the key by a hook beside it. He took a pair of shackles from his pocket and Silas’ brows furrowed.
“Of course, you’ll understand, Mr. Lawrence,” Lord Carson explained with a smile. “One last precaution.”
He still thought Silas was with the Fellowship. Silas could tell. He was expecting Silas to have an ingenious escape plan and wanted to corner him into getting to the place of initiation, where he would (obviously) refuse to join the Order and Carson could victoriously recapture the criminal, vindicating himself for all to witness. The poor fellow was in for a disappointment, and that made Silas smile.
“Of course,” he said, holding out his hands.
The guard shackled him, and the metal was freezing. It made him shiver involuntarily. They walked up the stairs, but instead of going through the front doors, they walked down the hallway and out the back, where there was a carriage waiting for them.
Mr. Lawrence got in first, followed by Lord Carson. Silas sat on the opposite side from them, flanked by the two guards who were twice his side and pressed up against him tightly. The carriage was clearly not built for people like them. He heard the driver give a shout at the horses and the carriage started with a jolt as he shifted forward and leaned his elbows on his knees. The chains on the shackles clinked and Silas suddenly was looking at the situation from an outside perspective and thinking how unexpected life was. He would have never seen this moment coming.
“You made the right choice, Silas,” Mr. Lawrence said quietly.
Silas didn’t reply. It wasn’t as if he had much say in anything, but the closer he was to going through with the ceremony, the more uncomfortable he felt. There was something about the Order that was… off. Of course, there were the obvious problems – the kidnapping and torture, mainly. They would explain it away as an unhappy accident, but it still felt wrong. Especially the fact that they had all treated it as completely normal – which they claimed it wasn’t.
But that wasn’t what made him most nervous. What made him nervous was the feeling of vastness, like looking into a deep ocean from a small boat, or looking down into a valley from a high mountain. The Sovereign Order was deeper, more complicated, and more widespread than he knew or could imagine, and he didn’t know a fraction of what he was getting himself into. If he jumped over that edge, he felt like he’d be swallowed whole.
He could probably change his mind even now and take the other option. But an investigation involving cross-questioning Faye… he had no faith it wouldn’t involve some form of torture. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if… no, he wasn’t going to involve her. Not if his life depended on it. All the same, it felt like his life was depending on it – that if he went through with this, nothing would ever be the same again.
What a mess.
A shiver ran through his body and he fought to keep from shaking. It was cold. There was snow on the ground that hadn’t been there before. There must have been a flurry sometime in the past few days. He wondered where Faye was and what she was thinking about. She must be worried. How much had his father told her? Surely, he’d at least told her he was safe. Relatively safe, that is. What did Silas know, though? Three days ago, he’d thought his father was a businessman.
The carriage suddenly lurched and they almost flew out of their seats and collided with Mr. Lawrence and Lord Carson.
“What the devil–” Lord Carson started, but he was interrupted by a gunshot. “Ralston, Edwards,” he barked.
The two guards jumped out of the carriage. The door swung shut before Silas could see anything, but gunshots began to ring out, loud and close. A bullet hit the carriage and wood splintered through the floor.
“We’re under attack,” Lord Carson shouted, pushing open the opposite door. “Count Lawrence, we need to go.”
It was dark outside as he helped Mr. Lawrence down and jumped down after, his boots splashing in the muddy slush. There was a rumbling of hooves coming towards them fast, but Silas couldn’t see who it was through the curtained window. Another shot rang out and he gave a start.
“Mr. Lawrence,” Carson turned, offering a hand.
Silas stood and stepped to take it, but at that moment the opposite door crashed open and someone jumped into the carriage behind him. Lord Carson pulled a pistol from his pocket and pointed it at the intruder, but not before the man had wrapped an arm around Silas’ neck and held a gun to his head. Silas froze and suddenly couldn’t hear or feel anything but the cold tip of metal jammed behind his ear.
Lord Carson said something, but he missed what it was. His father was pulling the gun from Lord Carson and shouting something. Silas could hear his heartbeat racing in his ears. The man behind Silas pulled him backwards. They fell out the other door, straight onto the floor of a coach which had pulled up next to the carriage. Two other people jumped inside a second later and the coach jolted off at a run.
Silas was flat on his back on the floor and decided that was a good place to stay for the time being. Since they were all holding guns and at least three of them were pointed at him. He edged to the corner and pulled his knees to his chest, hands still shackled and the key probably half a mile away by now.
Apart from the clatter of hooves and wheels bouncing over potholes, it was eerily silent in the coach. All of them were wearing grey clothes and each wore a full-face cloth mask. Grey men. The ones who had attacked, or rescued, Faye. Right now, he was leaning towards ‘attacked’. One man was holding his arm and hissed as blood dripped from it. It looked like he’d been shot.
Once, one of them leaned out the window to say something to the driver, but over the noise Silas didn’t catch what he said. They rode like that for at least half an hour before the coach finally slowed to a walk and, a few minutes later, a stop.
One of them, the bigger one, reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of paper, handing it to Silas. Silas’s brows furrowed as he took it, trying to swallow.
“What is this?” he asked, but received no answer. He opened the folded paper and read it, his frown growing deeper. It was a ransom note. And it was addressed to Faye. He read it again more closely. They wanted the Text, just like the Order did. Of course. Everything revolved around the book. He shook his head. “I’m not going to sign this. I will not involve Faye.”
The man said nothing and handed him a pen.
Silas thrust the letter back at him. “Perhaps you misunderstood. I am not signing this. Look, I should have never had the book in the first place. If you want it, let me go and I swear I’ll give it to you. I want nothing to do with it.”
The man hadn’t moved an inch and was still holding out the pen.
“Are you deaf as well as mute?” Silas shouted. “If you want the book, you can have it! I don’t care! But you’ll have to kill me before I sign this!”
One of the others rubbed his forehead. He looked up at the leader and gestured to the wounded man. The leader hesitated, but after a moment nodded, gave the pen to him, and put an arm under the wounded man, opening the carriage door and helping him out. It looked like they were downtown somewhere, but before Silas could read the sign on the building the coach door shut. He turned back and studied the man across from him. He was tall, but didn’t have a strong bearing, and he held the gun nervously… he was still holding a gun, though. Silas wondered if he could knock it away and get out of the coach before he reacted.
“Bad idea,” the man said in a low voice.
“You can speak.”
The man didn’t reply.
“Are you with the Order?” Silas asked.
He shook his head.
He shook his head again.
“What are you?”
“Ghosts,” the man replied casually, taking a glove off and revealing a hand that, in the low light of the cab, Silas could have almost sworn was translucent.
“That’s… what do you mean?” Silas said, eyeing the hand. “It’s not possible to–”
The man reached toward him. Without stopping, he plunged his hand into Silas’ chest, and the hand disappeared inside him. He gasped. An ice-cold feeling filled him like he was being frozen from the inside out and he felt his heart stop, but just as quickly the man had pulled his hand back. Silas pulled in a choked gasp for breath.
“Please write the letter.”
Silas opened his mouth, but nothing would come out.
“We mean no harm to your wife.”
“I don’t believe you,” Silas whispered, glancing at the coach door.
The man paused for a full minute. Finally, he let out a sigh. “5 Acorn Street. 201 Hawkins, tenement F32. Roger’s Textile Factory, Water Town. 35B Kline St., which is empty because Faye is with your sister at 67 Babcock.” He stared at Silas silently for a minute, letting it sink in as the world started spinning. “We don’t need your help, Silas, but it’s in your best interest.” He slowly pulled his glove back on. “Have you ever watched someone you love die in front of you?”
The world stopped spinning with a jolt. The air had turned solid in the cold and Silas couldn’t breathe. The man sat back and waited. Silas took in a short breath, but his throat was too tight to say anything. He gave a nod and the man gave him the pen as he shifted to his knees. There was only one last thing he could try, and he was almost certain it wouldn’t work.