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The Gilded Conspiracy // Ring Around the Rosies

London, 1853

Dull morning light marked the early hour. A grey aura barely filled her room when Lady Irene Washburn awoke on the floor of her bedchamber. She’d fallen asleep in front of a crackling fire, with tongues of blue, white and yellow that drew her into an uneasy slumber. Since Julius’ death two months earlier, a dull throb in Irene’s temple was now the only constant thing in her daily routine. Somehow, heat soothed it.
       A shudder ran through her stiff body as she lifted her head from her forearm. Irene sank a palm into the sage green carpet that ran the length of her room. All that remained of last night’s fire in the hearth were a few glowing coals; their depths pulsed with a deep ruby hue that left much to be desired. White ash from dissolved logs, cold and spent from their duty, reflected how Irene’s heart felt. Irene inched forward on her knees and held her palms to the dying embers. Her unbound chestnut hair fell forward and brushed against the ash. In short order she tucked the waist-long curls into her elbow to keep them safe from the fine powder.
       Two months. Those two months felt like ten.
       Can I learn to endure a lifetime without him?
       “Impossible,” she said, speaking to the coals as if they’d respond. Her dry lips cracked as they formed the word and straightaway she wanted tea. Irene leaned back onto her heels and eyed her chamber’s heavy wood door, closed to the hallway beyond. In the two months since her love left for Paradise, the house she’s always loved managed to attract all kinds of unwanted attention.
       The first to appear was the light with Julius’ voice on his wake day. She’d often joked with Julius’ on the subject of her grandmother’s fascination with Egypt. That such things could never happen in modern times. No gods made their presence known with light. Or spoke with disembodied voices. For a light to emanate from Julius’ handmade clock and claim to be him was utter nonsense.
       Next, a poltergeist who fervently claimed to be her great grandfather from Surry took up residence in the coal cellar. “I’m your grandmother’s grandfather,” the mischievous spirit said when it first startled her a month ago emerging from the washroom.
       It was after the third oddity appeared that she began to question her very existence. An elliptical void made its home in the chambers which once belonged to her mother and father. It stuck itself to the wall directly behind the door. She never would’ve seen it had she not been searching for a recipe box the poltergeist heisted from the kitchen. The void drew nothing into it, and nothing came from its depths. Even after she’d spent three nights and two days daring something to come forth.
       Finally, the latest visitor to grace her with its presence was a particularly obnoxious will-o-the-wisp who enjoyed roaming her hallway with a sprightliness one would expect from such a thing. Would the universe not allow her to grieve Julius in peace?
       Without a second thought Irene tucked her black nightgown ‘round her knees and brought her cheek to the floor. In the most unladylike position, one which would earn her a firm rebuttal from her grandmother were she still alive, she stared through the bottom crack of the door. Not a tiny blue wisp or golden hued streak to be seen. Good, she thought. No dancing lights on this morn.
       Irene stood. Her joints protested against the movement as she pulled a silken robe off the mahogany chaise under the window. Irene hesitated at the closed door after making quick work of the robe’s tie around her waist. A brown cloth bag, herb-filled to the brim, hung from the ornate doorknob. It served a simple reminder that all was not well in her house.
       When her frightened scullery maid left her position at Washburn House a month earlier,  she left a note behind; “Only blessed bags of rosemary, thyme and oregano can cleanse this home accursed home.” So Irene hung bags filled with the herbs everywhere. She also requested of Mrs. Oakden – the only one to stay with her in her grief – to craft garlands of dill for every doorway.
       Irene gripped the doorknob – a glorious piece bearing the etched form of an open rose in its metal – and forthwith withdrew her hand. An unnatural warmth spread out from the knob. No matter where she ran her hands along the door or walls surrounding the frame, heat seeped into her frozen fingers.
       A warm doorknob on such a bitterly cold morning? Still, the knob was merely warm, not recalescent. Irene gathered her fraying courage and wrapped her fingers ‘round it once again. Her index finger brushed against the herb bag and it swayed as she pulled open the door.
       Irene guardedly checked both ends of the dimly lit passage. The will-o-the-wisp wasn’t anywhere in sight. The truly empty hallway relieved some of her anxiousness. Irene’s breath came out in fine, cold puffs as she propelled herself out of the room, down the stairs, and finally the foyer.
       Tea. Hot tea. Julius’ specialty blend. That thought grounded Irene in the present even as her lower lip quivered uncontrollably. In all her four and twenty years Irene never thought she’d know grief deep as this until she reached a ripe old age herself.
       “Irene. My Irene.”
       Irene tried to ignore the voice she hadn’t heard in weeks. She tried to ignore the pull to the parlor she hadn’t stepped foot in since the wake. But rows and rows of red drew her into the room she’d once shared with generations of Washburns.
       Every shade of red rose circled the parlor. Their vines clung to the emerald green walls and tender leaves glowed with their own light. In the middle of the room floated the most magnificent, brilliant light she’d ever seen. As she stared, the hem moving in a draft at her feet, it began to transform.
       Irene clutched the back of the chair nearest to her and gaped as the light, its edges also glowing green, drew itself inward. Legs formed first, followed by the shape of a man’s shirtless torso. His arms, a familiar neck, and finally a head. His once blue eyes, now a luminous gold, poured over her shaking form. His sharp lips curled into a smile Irene knew all too well.
       “It can’t be,” she breathed out as the form of her beloved finished taking shape. Irene took a step back, but the statuesque Julius held out a hand to stop her. His voice sounded more like the one she knew as well. Not the strange one from months ago.
       “Please, stay. Don’t go. I need to take you with me.”
       “Wi-with you? You wish me dead?”
       “No, my love. It’s not I who’s dead. It’s you.”


      

The Gilded Conspiracy // Prologue

      “To lose her betrothed so late in life. She’ll be a spinster by mourning’s end,” a neighbor with a rather immense black bonnet tsk’d.
      “Lord Julius was a kind man. He always encouraged my son to take up an apprenticeship and learn a trade. Poor dear, that Lady Irene.” Her companion, a formidable society lady who spent her time meddling in others’ affairs, agreed with her friend.
      “Poor indeed. The Lonely Heiress once again. It took her so long to find a rare gem like him.”
      Spinster.
      Poor.
      The Lonely Heiress.
      Whispers from neighbors who came to pay their respects still hung like a heavy cloud over Lady Irene Washburn long after her housekeeper, Mrs. Oakden, ushered them all out at half past four.
       Flames crackling in the dying fire in her parlor’s hearth, a sound which once brought much comfort, did little to calm her pounding heart. Lady Irene, used to bearing the weight of London’s gossip in the ton, felt it press into her chest like a disembodied entity on this day, her Julius’ wake day, more than any other day before.
       She sat, back rigid within the confines of her corset, in her favorite Aubusson chair. The very same chair she’d spent the last ten hours in receiving company, and let out a careworn breath. Her thoughts, engulfed in grief and whispers so deep, felt as veiled as her vision impeded by the black crape veil covering her head.
       Irene turned her head to the empty hall off the parlor, the veil she must now wear for two more years, bunched against the back of her chair. Only then did she discover a silver cup of tea her faithful housekeeper had brought her some time ago.
       Try as she might, Irene couldn’t bring a hand to the cup, its shape engulfed by the afternoon sun streaming in through the window behind her. The sun set early this time of year, and Irene blinked as she stared at the golden sunlight. She gave up on the tea and stood. Skirts of the darkest ebony silk, once gathered around her on the floor, straightened as her crinoline did.
       Irene freed her veil from the bonnet covering her hair and draped it over her arm. Enough of this, she thought. Why must I mourn so much? This is my third mourning gown in ten years. My God, why have You cursed me so? Irene ran a hand along the dress’ simple bodice, ready to turn in for the night.
       Those whispers were right. At four and twenty, by the time her deep mourning finished, she may as well turn to a life of spinster-hood. Or join a convent. She’d met Lord Julius Nicholson a month after her mourning period ended for her family. Lost them all to cholera. Julius taught how to love again, and trust that love.
       The pendulum wall clock in the foyer struck the first chime of the new hour. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
       Five times it chimed. Mrs. Oakden would soon be in to see about her evening meal. No. She’d dismiss tonight’s meal. Her appetite, as fleeting as life itself, still hasn’t returned since she first received news of Julius’ accident.
       Irene took a step toward the door to the foyer and stopped, listening intently to all the noise in her house. The fifth chime hadn’t ended. Instead, it added its lingering toll to the ever growing whispers in her mind.
       Shaking her head, Irene moved forward and reached the foot of the stairs. Irene brought a hand to her temple where a sudden pain throbbed.
       With no warning the seams between the mahogany floorboards gleamed amber, the sudden intensity puffing up her skirts and loosing the veil from her arm. A scream caught in her through as tall, thin beams of shimmering light wove their way from her home’s entrance to the clock’s place on the foyer’s back wall.
       Her bethrothed’s handmade clock.
       The glowing streaks of light shrank back to the clock and crackled louder than anything Irene had ever heard and she dropped to the floor with a shriek. Nothing could’ve kept her mouth, set in an unmoving line all day, from dropping open at the sight of the clock’s elaborate face. Golden sparks dropped to the hall’s floor as the clock’s Roman numbers pulsed with an otherworldly hue of blue she’d never seen before.
       Lady Irene gathered up her skirts and what remained of her courage and fled to her darkened room. Once there she slammed the door shut and backed away, her hands balled over her chest as she tried.
       The amber light had followed her and now danced, as it were a ball, in the hallway, its brilliance sending streaks ‘round the cracks between the door and the frame. Words unexpected, terrifying words, accompanied it. “Irene. My Irene.
       For the first time since she learned of her love’s death, Irene forced one word from her lips. “Julius?”
       “Yes.”