Standing across from her, Victor knew that he should have settled into thinking of her as memère but even as he drove here, he knew that his heart had changed. He knew her still by this name but he could only see her as the widow now. Still, she did not seem to pick up on this. She made no display to show him that she demanded better respect from him and though he knew she would mean it, he could not bring himself to feel as he did. This was greatly disturbing to him. He knew well enough the price he would pay if she were toying with him. He forced himself to be a mask of calm as he walked a pace behind her through the atrium. Could it be that she knew his heart and yet she was only leaving him alive now that she might torture him for his ignorance later? He wondered if the man who’d hired him to escort her here had these same loss of feelings prior to his untimely and gruesome demise. Yes, he had died in great pain, though Victor did not know how exactly. He knew that she would not spare him though he also knew that he had been her favorite. The widow knew nothing of mercy when she felt scorned. He only prayed silently that her odd behavior might have a different author than himself.
The table was exactly as it had been last time but the cards were out of their pouch, waiting for him. Victor felt a lump in his throat developing but quickly swallowed it. He did not know if these hours that he would spend here would spell his doom but if that were the case, he was determined to face them while looking her in the eye. His murderess would at least know that he was not a coward, even if he did know to fear her. She motioned for him to be seated and as he slowly took his place across from her, he could see that she was completely entranced by the flower given to her. Her eyes had grown dull even in the time that it took for them to walk the short distance among the plants. Distracted as she was, Victor chanced a look about the room and and saw, much to his horror, that the room was different. He had missed it in his initial ruminations. His thoughts had been so wrapped into worry about the widow’s revenge that he had not noticed the decay among the foliage. The wilted leaves, left in among the verdant growth around them. For the first time that Victor could recall, the shadows around him seemed to have seeped into this brilliant room and infected the greenery. The edges of the turning leaves appeared to almost have become sharp like daggers and the beginnings of rot had started to creep into the stalks of some of them. Twisting the branches and the tendrils of what was once soft and beautiful into something that he found alarmingly familiar. Pulling himself from his chilled thoughts, he looked once more towards the widow who seemed like she was lost. Her expression unreadable and unfocused in a way he’d never seen. If she were toying with him, it was the best he’d ever seen but his heart told him that there was a much deeper play at work. Something far worse.
“Dear memère, forgive my observation but it appears as though you have some need of an extra hand in your atrium. Would you care to have me send one of my gardeners along with the roses? I will pay him extra to see to it that your plants are well tended,” he offered. It was a foolish idea because he knew well the fate of anyone he sent to her employ. His question seemed to snap her attention back to him though to his horror, she did not react in the way that the widow should have.
“You are a dear boy,” she said, almost sentimentally. Victor felt a cold rush go through him. “Such a precious gift you give to me. A new servant is not necessary. I have let most of my servants go. Tiresome to keep track of them all. Meddling in such things as they see fit. Much easier to be alone. To have such things without all the interferences of daily life. A much more suitable environment. And you need not worry about the plants. They shall tend to themselves.”
“Would you then like me to arrange for the rest of the roses to be brought here?” Victor said, his hands going cold and his lips dry.
“Yes, that would be lovely,” she replied, focused entirely on the rose in her hand. “Remarkable, no? The shape, the color of the bloom. Such pale outer petals but they seem to seep into the middle. The vibrancy of it. The beauty. Yes, this is a rare gift that you’ve come by. If you stare into the petals, the shadow of the color seems to come alive. Such a beautiful specimen.”
“I will make arrangements in the morning as soon as my contractors arrive,” Victor replied.
The widow seemed to snap from her daze at this and looked at him. Her expression was one of confusion and even as she spoke, it appeared as though she were internally at odds with what she said.
“I will contact you when the time is right,” she simply replied, the tone lost from her voice almost completely. She placed the rose on the table next to the cards, almost nervously caressing the stem between the thorns. “For now, I wish only this. To see the bloom unfold and reveal itself to me. I will prepare myself for the rest.”
“As you wish, memère,” Victor nodded.
She was still at his response. Seeming calm but there was a fire building in her eyes. A kind that he had feared since he walked in the door. The woman that he had called memère on the boat was in that fire. She saw through him now and he knew it but her body betrayed no sign that anything was happening. In fact, she seemed more like an weathered mummy than the woman that he’d learned to fear. The woman that might bend the knee of mobsters and politicians. A woman who could kill and he knew it. The fire in those eyes could kill but the woman before him would not. She instead seemed like she was resigned to being a corpse. She looked ancient even though nothing appeared to have changed about her since the last time he saw her. Her skin seemed to hang more around her slackened mouth and seemed more wrinkled and yellow around her eyes. And those eyes seemed hooded for the first time he’d ever seen, the large expressive irises in danger at any moment of being closed off. A sudden flare of that fire within her turned to action and she paused, her thumb poised on one of the sinister looking points of a thorn on the stem.
“What has become of you, memère?” Victor whispered.
She did not speak but pushed the fleshy part of her thumb on the point, letting it rest. With a sharp intake of her breath, she forced her finger upon the sharp edge and grit her teeth. Grasping at Victor’s hand viciously, she leaned forward and looked him in the eyes almost desperately.
“I am not of myself any longer, my dear Victor,” she said, her voice wild as though on the verge of madness. “You have brought me what I have sought but do not bring me another bloom. No matter how I might request it. If I do not speak to you like this, I am not of myself. The shadows around you are many and they fight to keep you but you are mine. For now, you have done your bidding. Take the card on the top of the stack and leave. Do not look at it until daybreak tomorrow. Do not show me what the card is. Go now!”
She released Victor’s wrist from her grip and immediately fell back into the semi-stupor that she had been in before. The fire behind those eyes was all but gone. Victor felt the pull to help her but immediately remembered what she told him to do. The widow looked upon her bloody thumb as though it were the first she’d seen of her own hand.
“Gracious. I seem to have pricked myself upon the thorn,” she said to the angry wound. “You’d best be going now, my dear boy. Drive safely.”
She rose from the table and he did as well. As her back was turned, he pulled the card from the top of the deck and slipped it into his pocket. She escorted him to the door in silence and paused with her hand on the ornate knob.
“Remember what I have told you,” she said, her voice tinged with a kind of darkness he had never heard. A kind of darkness that sounded like fear.
“I will,” he said as confidently as he could muster.
Stepping out into the darkness of the night, he waited until the door was closed before looking at the place she’d grasped to him. His wrist was throbbing and even in the shadows he could see the start of a vicious bruise.