Seated on the bear skin rug, Charlotte sipped a strange tea that made her feel warmer but sleepy as well. She felt disoriented as she realized that the old woman had returned to her chair, rocking in a motion that seemed to making her feel even more like she was on the verge of falling asleep. She idly thought about how she was aware that she had agreed to drink this strange brew and it was likely laced with something. She smiled mirthlessly at her own carelessness. A poisoner who was now at the mercy of another.

“Regrettable, I know,” the old woman nodded. “Oh but don’t fret. This is a formula that isn’t meant to harm. If I wanted you dead, you would be dead by now and I need only to take the vials from you to do it. But I don’t want to. I don’t want to douse that willful spirit. To snuff out something so raw, why that would be a travesty. You’ll need it where you’re going next.”

Charlotte allowed herself to lay in front of the fire, her eyes focused on the dazzling flames as they crackled in front of her. A part of her was still conscious. She could hear her mind racing with questions but the most pressing was where she might be going and how this old woman knew such things. The elderly crone simply laughed to herself. As she stared at the light dancing before her, Charlotte seemed to see images coming from the flames. She was too tired to make her eyes to focus so she simply allowed them to come to her and watched as they became sharper and more pronounced.

“That’s right darling,” the crone said. “Just let the pictures come. In another place, there would be more time to teach you but this is best for now. I can only do so much with what little we’ve been allotted. Because of this and the pressing need to hurry for what is to come soon, I’m afraid that many of the answers you seek will not be found on this night. Never let that bother you, however. You’re too bright to allow them to slip away on you. These gifts will be sure to follow you and you will see them eventually. Remember to look, darling. You’ll simply have to find them yourself but I have no doubt that you will.

“And I assume that you know the reason for such hurry between us? You know the fiend that comes this dawn?”

“Master Reginald Kent,” Charlotte breathed a whisper, her eyes watching the flickering lights as the images looked like people now.

“Yes, dearest Charlotte. The brute, it seems, has been taken with your brilliance as he once was long ago,” the crone sneered. “He will find you, I’m sorry to say. He will try to create a slave of you and when he fails, he will try to break you. His hatred fans hotter than before but you can defeat him still. I know you are cunning but you need new methods. The ones that are tried and true for you are good for meddlesome husbands but less so for one so vile. He is aware that he is hated but he does not care. Therefore, he is less likely to fall for the usual suspects, if you understand my meaning. Besides, he is not yours and there are things a lady must do for herself. The final blow shall not be yours but you can assist and your neck shall surely be free of guilt for this good deed to the world. Allow another to take the blame, sweet Charlotte. Remember that if nothing else.”

“Who are you?” Charlotte muttered as she curled up on the fur. The images in the fire of people were moving like they were dancing. They looked familiar but like she was seeing them from too far away to know if she truly recognized anyone.

“I was here long before this war began,” the crone said, dismissively. “I was once in your beloved Paris. I was once able to sit in the lap of luxury but I saw it come to bite those who sought it out. I saw what their greed did to them. How it changed them and made them into bigger monsters than myself. Oh yes, I know these things. I know what we become. What we’ve been forced to become, you and I. This is no world for a woman. Not one of innocence and purity. No. We must be monsters, lest we fall into the rotten hands of those who might make us their slaves. Isn’t that right, my darling?”

“They all want to take,” Charlotte agreed, her voice reduced to a whisper.

“Yes, dearest. They all take so much and always have,” the old woman cooed as she got up to stoke the fire. “The first man you ever knew was that wretch who called himself your father and he took your mother. He took your safety and freedom. He took your home away the second that you looked like you could challenge his power and sold you to someone he thought could tame you. There is no speaking of all that man and the ones to follow took. But you, my darling, learned so much about taking from such great teachers. What a perfect monster they created in you and how lovely you’ve turned out.”

Charlotte turned her sleepy eyes away from the fire and saw the old woman’s face looked different in this light. For a moment, the poison circulating through her made her eyes cloud over and she was certain she was speaking to her beloved mother. Yes, it looked just like her. In all her youth and glorious vibrancy, it was her. The woman before her knelt down before her, sitting next to her head and simply gave a wicked smile to reflect Charlotte’s own when she was hunting. She tenderly stroked her hair and directed her eyes back to the fire.

“Pay attention my sweet Charlotte,” the woman said, her voice a shadow of her mother’s voice. Inside, she knew this could not be the woman she idolized but she would allow it only because she would have given anything for this to be true. “You will soon find yourself in the den of that villain and what you see will help. You’ll find something better than you might imagine if you play the cards right and though you will be surrounded by enemies, you will find some allies too. Unexpected though they may be, keep your eyes open because they will find you. And you will not be alone in this trek through hell. I have such plans that I have been seeding through the years and you’re just the fiend to help this garden become what it was always meant to be. Do not fear because I am a constant gardener, my darling. I am here as I have always been.”

Charlotte turned her tired eyes towards the fire and felt the heat of it coil through her as she became shocked by what she saw. For a startling moment, the image of dancers came into crystal clarity. The dancing figured twirled about, their faces hidden by masks of most elaborate designs. Around and around they swung, their features all blurring together until finally they were still. A couple emerged from the centre and stood among the crowd as they clapped enthusiastically. It was a masquerade ball but it was different from the old world ones that she’d attended. There were modern dresses there and people did not look so stiff as they might before. And there was wine there. Good wine that had clearly been aged and there was none of this swill that others had started drinking here. Charlotte narrowed her eyes as though to see better but she found that she could not take her eyes off the main couple. The man, his mask slightly askew and his proud strut hiding a slight stagger, was larger. She knew it was Master Kent. His smile was hideously smug and the ruddy complexion told her that he’d been celebrating this night made him look like even more of a fiend. But the woman was not Vivian. This woman was someone new. Someone whose dark, cruel eyes looked so very familiar to her. She seemed to be staring at Charlotte from this vision and she smiled. Her lips parted in a wicked, red grin as she looked into Charlotte’s eyes and she raised a glass in a toast. She turned her gaze and Charlotte saw the hatred in her eyes as she directed them to the man who had his arm firmly, forcefully, fixed around her waist. She gave a wickedly vicious smile to him as she raise her glass to him and watched as he drank. She looked back to Charlotte and drank herself this time. When she lowered the glass, she mouthed a single word before the image was gone.

Charlotte was startled to find that she was staring at an empty fire place that had long since gone cold. She looked around but there was no sign of the woman anywhere. There was still the rug on which she had been lying. There were embers where the fire had been but they were long extinguished. The cat that had been sitting on the old woman’s lap stirred from his nap and looked at her. It seemed to sigh as it came up and rubbed up against her as she sat up herself. She looked around for the crone but found no one. She looked behind her and the windows were frosted up, the early light of dawn coming through them. Charlotte pulled her coat tighter around her shoulders against the frigid morning air. The cat had returned to the spot of its nap but instead of curling up, it stared at the door behind her. As if on cue, there was a noise outside and Charlotte hunched down instinctively as the cat behind her hissed. The sound came closer and the cat let out a feral noise as it slinked away. Too late, Charlotte thought to follow when the door burst open and the elderly woman was thrown to the floor, her face bloodied. Behind her two men in suits walked in and a larger man in a fur coat followed. Charlotte glared at the smug look on Reginald Kent’s face as he looked down on her.

“The street cleaner was right after all,” he said, sneering at his surroundings.

The woman on the floor spoke in a language that none of them seemed to understand but was quickly silenced when one of the thugs with Master Kent kicked her in the stomach. The brute stepped over her trembling form to come over to where Charlotte was seated and grabbed her jaw with his gloved hand. He forced her to look at him and she would have given anything to spit on him at that moment.

“We’ve a date for dinner,” he said, mockingly. “I won’t tolerate you being tardy so I’ve arranged for you to come by personal invitation.”

“Will we be joined by your darling wife?” Charlotte replied.

Reginald Kent grimaced and smacked her hard across the face. She would not look at him again as he stood up and looked around himself.

“Boys, my guest will need to freshen up before dinner,” he said. “Be sure that she gets to my house in a timely manner. She’s easily confused and gets so lost when she has tantrums like this.”

As Charlotte was hauled to her feet, she caught sight of the cat peering at her from the shadows. As their eyes met, it seemed to wink as it looked and she heard that word from her dream echo in her mind like a church bell tolling at midnight.

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