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Posted: Jul 9 2016, 11:34 AM
Joined: 21-February 11
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"It was so nice of you to have me over again, Milly - it has been too long." Iris's voice echoed softly in the still air of the early afternoon. She felt like it was bouncing around the inside of a decadent cake. All the wall accents reminded her of icing.
"Oh, please, friends never really say 'goodbye'. They say, 'until next time'."
Iris had not expected to end up in Milly's parlor for tea and cards again, but when she had not left Paris, it turned out to be an inevitability. Milly simply had her finger in every pie, an ear at ever door, and an eye over every wall; she acted as the gatekeeper for anyone who was not born to Paris. Milly must have bet that Iris would miss the accesses her company provided, sooner or later. So there they were, back in Milly's parlor, the walls a pearly pink, the little snack cakes dusted with powdered sugar. Milly had darkened her hair to a Prussian blue and braided up to the top of her head, making her look something like a cake herself. She was as much herself as ever, heavy-bosomed and vibrating with gossip and giggles.
Iris could not glean what motivated Milly, but it troubled her not. In her opinion, Milly was just the sort of flighty and misguided creature to do things on whim, holding grudges and offering forgiveness on the same impulsive basis. Iris had come simply but primly, having dragged herself out of the strange, existential misery that had descended upon her. Her black hair was long down her back, and the dark circles were gone from beneath her eyes. She felt herself.
"Have you been well?" Milly looked at her very closely when she asked the question, leaning slightly forwarded.
"I have," Iris lied pleasantly. "And yourself?"
"Oh, the same as always - tortured, heartbroken, you know how it goes." Milly sat back in her seat, and fanned herself with her cards. Her maid, Daphne, coughed. Milly stilled her hand. "Nothing new under the sun." They played quietly for a while, the silence only interrupted by Milly's huffs and puffs.
Iris noticed that there was a certain gleam in Milly's eyes, something like newly minted coins, when she'd arrived - but Milly always fussed so much over cards, it wasn't anything unusual. Then, after Milly took another trick, she went still. She seemed to be listening to something no one else could hear, like a dog hearing a whistle.
Milly laid her hand down entirely, and pulled both hands into her lap. "Actually," she said, "There's someone I want you to meet." She turned to Daphne. "Daphne, can you get Margaret?"
Margaret? Strange, that Milly would introduce someone without warning Iris ahead of time. Iris always felt that introductions with Milly had to be just so, like her parties, and both individuals needed proper preparation for the acquaintanceship to happen smoothly. Instead, Daphne rose mechanically and went from the room, and Milly hummed to herself as if nothing was amiss. Daphne came back a minute later, trailed by a tall, severe looking young woman.
Milly stood and gestured at the woman. Her hair was violet-brown, pinned in a bun at the back of her head. Her dress was long-sleeved and high-necked; if not for the maroon color of it, Iris would have thought she was widowed. It wasn't the sort of fashion Milly generally allowed in her company, but now she crowed sweetly, "Cousin Margaret! You must meet Iris, she is such a darling."
Iris did not stand. That familiar numbness crept into the tips of her finger. Milly chattered on, about the weather in Marseille and all that happenings there, but her words sounded far away and muddled, as if Iris was under water. There was something immediately disconcerting about this Margaret.
Iris blinked sharply, and looked over. Milly was staring at her.
"Daphne says Lord Ferris is at the door too - please pardon me a moment, I must send him away myself." The shine in Milly's eyes had brightened. It was even more unlike her to leave two guests alone - lest they talk about Milly, and not to her. But Milly stood and hurried from the room, Daphne trailing her. With that, Iris was left alone.
Margaret sat down across from her, in Milly's seat. She picked up Milly's teacup and took a sip.
"So you are...?" Iris stared at her hands and fumbled the conversation.
"Millicent's cousin," she echoed.
"It is well-enough to agree on that," Margaret said.
Iris looked up, and shook her head. She blinked as if her eyes had clouded over. "You are her cousin, aren't you?"
"She thinks I am. I came here to talk to you."
I came here to talk to you. Iris was on her guard.
"Who are you?" Her voice was stronger now. Her hands shook slightly, so she clenched them into fists.
"Margaret," the woman repeated, as if teaching a simple lesson to a child. She continued to sip Milly's tea, and watch Iris as if she was watching a play, or perhaps an animal at the zoo.
"Whoever I want her to be." The woman whose name was Margaret spoke with airy nonchalance, and blinked rarely. She sipped her tea, and looked between Iris's face and Iris's hands.
The whimsy of the conversation was unpleasantly familiar. Certainly there were other people who had approached Iris directly, very determined to be a companion of sorts. But this Margaret had foregone basic rules of civil society, the very least being that she should veil whatever malignant curiosity she possessed. It was the fearlessness of this stranger that struck her, Iris realized. This woman was accountable to no one.
"Why have you come to talk to me?" Simply the way Margaret had looked at her, from the first moment, gave Iris the sense of a fox who had spied a rabbit. The woman's stare had the hypnotic quality of a slowly-approaching predator.
"I wanted to see who it was that Regus hated so much." She said it very conversationally, like hating someone was just something that someone did, like smelling roses on a stroll through the park.
It took Iris a moment to remember. "Regus... Ariel's friend?"
"My friend," Margaret corrected.
"Who is Regus?"
Margaret smiled. "Whoever he wants to be."
There was something very wrong with these people. Looking too hard at this woman made Iris go cross-eyed; she wasn't entirely sure she was even speaking to another person in the room. Perhaps this was all a bad dream, and she had fallen asleep at Milly's after too much tea. This whole conversation was just a dream.
"And why does he hate me? I've scarcely ever seen him. I have nothing to do with Ariel now." There was a pleasure in saying that. Every time Iris thought about it, it gave her a faint pang of delight.
"I can't say why he hates you. Everyone has their preferences." Again, as if the whole matter was very casual, and this really was a simple social call. But Margaret's prescience brought a heaviness to the room, a fog like strong perfume or incense. She spoke of hatred without a trace of sympathy in her voice.
"You must know something, if you're here to talk about it."
"I do know something. I know that poor fool back in London is still sighing over you, and Regus will do anything in his power to erase you." Margaret smiled. She set the empty tea cup on the table, and reached across the table to take Iris's. Her touch was warm and soft. "I think I know how he's going to do it," she said. Suddenly they were sisters in conspiracy.
Iris laughed. "I don't care about any of that. It doesn't interest me." She wanted to slap the woman's hand away, but didn't want to show her discomfort. With her free hand, Margaret took Iris's tea.
"Perhaps you would, perhaps you wouldn't." Margaret took a sip of the tea, and sighed. "Too sweet." But she drank it. She leaned away, releasing Iris's hand.
"I'll listen, if you want to tell me so badly." Iris felt better, knowing that she wasn't under the obligation to hate Ariel anymore. She could simply be indifferent to him, and stay here in Paris. She could be neutral about what he did or didn't do. She wasn't even obliged to have this conversation, but since she was here, she might as well.
"Ariel still doesn't understand who you are." A low hum carried through Margaret's voice, as if she was carrying the tune of a lullaby. "First he got it into his head that you were mistaken about leaving him, like a child is mistaken; then he decided that you were his victim, an escaped prisoner. There's a bit of truth to both. But... what he hasn't realized yet is that you are just as bad as he is, if not worse. And as you know, that boy never forgave traitors lightly."
It was not what Iris expected. She had never dreamed that anyone would have the gall to pass such judgment on her - she gave virtually no one the opportunity. No one knew enough about her to judge her. Ariel possessed enough information, but he was a fool, a monster. Her breath caught in her throat. She raised her voice. "As bad as he is?! Do you have any idea what he did to me?"
"Only some. But I know he loved you, to the exclusion of all other things, and I know that you knew that. All those bad habits of his - thinking he could fix your world, that he could protect you, that you needed him..." The other woman smiled and sighed. "Those things don't just spring up overnight. Seeds are planted. Sprouts are nourished. He listened to you, and became what you bade him to." Margaret folded her hands in her lap, beaming at Iris. "He was a good listener. And you even convinced him it was all his own doing."
"You think I would... that I would do this to myself?!" She felt dizzy and sick. Ariel had promised he would never need anyone else but her. He had lied to her. They had fought one another, chased one another through the streets, thrown things across rooms - and she had lived that way, happily enough. He had stopped those things, but he stopped needing only her. He was cruel and a liar.
"You lost control of him, in the end. When you lost control of him, you became afraid of him. When you became afraid of him, you revenged yourself upon him, as you do now."
"You don't know me. You don't know a thing about me, or him, or how it was."
"You are not the first woman who loved a man like this. You will not be the last to cut off your nose to spite your face. Have you become the person you told him you were all along?"
Iris inhaled sharply, and opened her mouth to speak. Margaret interrupted her.
"You underestimated him, the same way he did you. The difference between him and you is that he is very close to admitting he was mistaken about you. You are not troubled by any such doubts."
Iris looked toward the door. "Where is Milly?"
"You're more obvious than you think you are, to everyone except that boy. He believed the fairy tales, about how he was a monster. He couldn't believe you were his equal because he didn't think you were as bad as he was." Judging by Margaret's tone, she found the whole situation very funny. Iris wanted to scream. "You'll finally have it now, his... equality."
"You've come all this way," Iris breathed, "To tell me all this. To call me a monster. To tell me that everything is my own fault." She turned her head slowly back to Margaret. "You come here, to my friend's home, to tell me that my biggest critic, the most loathed man of my world, is my work of art."
"Your fault? Your accomplishments are rather admirable, if we don't bring morality into it. Your artistic tastes are impeccable. Someone ought to recognize you, for your true achievements. For your... capabilities." There was an implication at the end of that sentence, one Iris did not want to examine. There was an offer she did not want to take.
"You are," Iris said, "Perfectly insane."
"No doubt. Now now, don't sulk - most people don't ever face their sins." She reached across the little coffee table to pat Iris's hand again. "They absolve themselves without penance, and carry on. As you can see, you didn't drop dead after leaving London." She set Iris's empty teacup down, on Iris's side of the table. "It's not like you have to remember a thing I just said."
"What are you?"
"Manipulation is a human inclination," Margaret said, ignoring the question. "Those inclinations are what make you human, and tie you to this world." She stood, and dusted non-existent cake powder from her dress. "There is no shame or disgrace in being human."
Iris clenched her fists. She wished she had never come here. This invitation had been a sham, a trap. She had thought there was no worse feeling than emptiness, or boredom - but there was. This feeling.
"Thank you for the conversation, Iris. Please don't argue with Milly about whether or not I'm her cousin - it will only give her a terrible headache." Margaret headed for the hallway.
Iris wanted to say something, but her mind was a blank. She sat in her seat, vibrating with rage, the other woman vanished from her peripheral vision. When the last fold of Margaret's dress whispered around the corner, she got up and followed her.
But there was no one in the hallway. No one.
"Iris?" Milly's voice echoed from down the hall. "I hope you haven't looked at my cards!"