A red sky loomed over Mourning, as it had every day for the last twenty-five years that she resided there, and as it would for all the years to come. It was the type of red that the sky turned on Earth when the sun set after a passing storm, but it never transitioned into night. Instead, Mourning was perpetually trapped in crimson twilight that hung like bloody curtains over a half-constructed city. The city twisted around a massive black tower that stretched so high the spire disappeared into the red froth of clouds.
The outskirts of Mourning were surrounded by a black quartz desert on three sides and a placid black ocean on the other. Years ago, a wooden ship had carried her across the placid, waveless ocean from the crystal white shores of the north to the corroded docks of Mourning.
Tall, metal framed buildings, once meant to be skyscrapers like those of New York or Chicago, filled the city. They were nothing more than hollow shells that residents finished in patchwork fashion with scraps they found littering the Undercity.
The Undercity, the ground level of Mourning where Nina lived, had some semblance of order and civilization. This was the oldest construction, so its buildings, although shorter than the rest, were complete. The affluent, the Pure or the Gray lived here, while the Uppercity and its unfinished high-rises housed the poor, the rejected, and the Corrupt. That was not to say that the Corrupt did not leave their towers to venture to the Undercity, the did more often than liked.
Nina looked out from her bedroom window, watching steam waft up from grates in the streets. It clouded the alleys and roads as thick as fog, but every few feet, where the grates were clogged with rags, it cleared enough to see.
She saw a Corrupt slither out of the alley, covering his deformed head, and step up to the front door of the Solace House. She felt the heavy knock under her feet and opened the window to hear Pock, the Solace House guard, turn him away.
“I’ve money,” the Corrupt said, his voice as rough as sandpaper against stone.
“No one will take your money,” Pock replied.
Nina bent out the window a bit more to get a better look. Pock was a tall demon with pale skin and black eyes. If you could look past his grumpy disposition and constant hunger for human souls, he was a rather likable guy and very protective of the Solace House, as it was his main source of food.
The Corrupt gave a throaty growl, a gnarled hand pointing at Pock. “You shut up… I’ve got good money.”
Pock laughed, his voice like two different people with very different octaves speaking at once. “No one would entertain you, foul Soul. If you wanted to be pleasured in the afterlife, you should have thought of that in your living one.”
The Corrupt hissed, jerked a step back, and turned his eyes up to the window. Nina shrank back out of sight. She waited a moment longer and, when she thought him gone, leaned back out and pulled the window closed. She noted as she did this, that the patrons of the Solace House were already beginning to fill the street just outside their door.
Nina slipped out of her silk robe, down to the thin nightgown, and sat at her vanity to brush the tangles from her hair.
The face that looked back through the mirror wasn’t recognizable. It was not the face she had while living, nor the face she had after waking in Argaros, but it had some similarities to both. This face was older than one she had while living, but also still young, as all residents of Argaros aged to the point of adulthood, maybe to the age of twenty-five, and stopped.
But, age had little to do with these differences. All the flaws of her old skin were gone. The thinness of her paralyzed, malnourished, and under-muscled form had filled out into the fullness of a woman’s body. It was perfect in every way. All blemishes, dark circles, and lines were washed from her skin. She was beautiful and needed no one to tell her. It was impossible to ignore, a beacon of brightness and light. It was the curse of being Pure.
The longer one lived in Argaros the more Purgatory took a toll. For Pure, the ones who had lived brief or just lives on Earth, they grew perfect and beautiful, reflecting outwardly what they had contained inwardly on Earth. For Corrupt, it was the opposite of beauty. If they had done evil on Earth, their forms decayed to match the level of darkness their souls had performed while living. They became monsters. Grays made up the majority of residents in Argaros. They were people who had done neither great things or evil things. They had lived average, normal lives.
Nina would have much rather been a Gray. While a demon or a Corrupt would feed on a Gray in a pinch, they were less likely to be driven mad to pursue one.
Nina pinned half of her hair up so that the rest dangled around her shoulders like a cape to conceal the flesh of her neck. She donned a black dress of many layers, with a ruffled skirt, high neck, and corset. She drew on black tights and high boots and made sure that the sleeves of her dress were tucked into her leather gloves. When every inch of her body had finally been covered in cloth, she took a metallic mask from the hook of the wall to cover her face.
The Solace House had six floors and a very deep basement. Her room was on the second, along with others who did not serve the house in intimate ways. Nina had often thought about working as a Lady of Solace, as it did not carry the terrible stigma that it had on Earth. To work on the sixth floor as a Lady of Solace was to be revered and admired. However, every time she mentioned it to Orthen, the owner of the Solace House, he quickly dismissed it.
It made little sense to Nina. She was exactly what the position required. She was Pure. No matter what case she presented, or how much money she promised to earn, he would hear nothing of it. Since the day her reluctant guide, Keiden, dumped her on Orthern’s doorstep, he’d only ever allowed her to work in the theater.
The lobby was busy that morning with hundreds of customers waiting at the front desk to be lead to their respective areas. Nina took up her posts as a hostess, greeting the guests politely until Siri, a Gray, arrived at her post. Siri, even as a Gray, was a lovely woman. Nina had always been envious of the fact she could go through life without the need of a mask to hide away.
“You best get back there,” Siri said from behind the reception desk as the theater doors began to close. “Jonah will not be pleased if the show starts late.”
Nina walked quickly backstage, where she scooped up her violin resting on a table and hastily trotted out from behind the curtain to offer up pre-show entertainment.
Nina had never played the violin in her old life. She’d been paralyzed at birth, a complication or malpractice by the doctor who had delivered her. She’d spent her life in a wheelchair with her mother tending to her every need. She’d lived and died in that chair, with a bag over her head, held tightly in place by a mother driven to depression by the responsibility of singly raising a disabled child.
But, once she arrived in Argaros, Nina began to remember things she’d never known before. Orthen said that sometimes Souls could remember fragments of their past lives, and that in one of hers she’d played the violin. In another, she assumed, she’d been a very good thief.
Nina stood beneath the bright beaming lights and lifted the violin to her shoulder, bow in hand. The crowd beyond the light was nothing but a mass of shadow, and even if she could see them she wouldn’t have the knowledge to be stage fright. Nina found it hard to be nervous about much of anything anymore. When the world was full of so many unreal things, what was there left to fear?
The young musician gave a sufficient amount of time for a dramatic pause before putting bow to string and letting sweet notes glide into the air. She could almost feel the collective sigh of her patrons. Nina liked to pretend that the music was magic as it wove through the air, casting a spell and alleviating any worry or fear they had.
When she was finished the crowd rose from their seats and gave a great, loud round of applause. She bowed to them, low and sweeping, before scurrying off the stage to change into her costume, a shimmering maroon gown and a copper-haired wig. The black metallic mask she wore was exchanged for an opalescent one with sharp cheekbones and hollowed eyes. Then, she took the stage again.
Under the harsh light, the deep ridges of the mask hid her soft features for a skeletal appearance. Her arms were painted so that the contours were harsher, as rigid as stone. When the curtain lifted again, Nina stood at the center of the stage with fog loitering around her feet.
“I am the Mother of Life,” she announced, stretching out her arms and turning her head to the sky. “I am the Ruler of Argaros. The Killer of Death.” Nina slinked forward, her dazzling gown scraping across the old wood floor. “You think you know my story, Souls?” She laughed. “You know nothing.”
The play recounted the tale of Death and Life and how they fought. Of course, millions of years had passed and the story was skewed. No matter how it happened and, to be honest no one really knew, Aris, Mother of Life, was always the savior in the end. Death had tried to overthrow God, and Aris had stopped him. But, it cost her and cursed her to live among the dead for eternity. She ruled them well, as best she could, though her body suffered. She shriveled up to skin and bones, while her magic, aided by Death’s scythe, grew darker in strength.
Nina held the replica of the ancient weapon in her hand and looked down at the seven props at her feet. Seven pieces of the dead King of Purgatory. She turned her eyes up to the demon who dressed as a Goil and watched him raise his fake-leathered wings. “Take these pieces and bury them in the six realms so that they can never be put back together. I will keep his heart and bury it here.”
Nina reached down and drew the heart from Death’s chest, lifting it so she could admire it in the bright light. “I loved you,” she said to the heart. “As you loved me… But, power and greed spoke louder than love.” Nina carried the heart, sobbing in melodramatic fashion, to the center of the stage, where she knelt before the patrons of the Solace House and clutched the bloody mass to her chest. It dripped and stained the gown she wore.
Then, the lights flashed, and darkness fell.
Nina quickly passed the prop away, gathered with the other actors, and bowed as the curtains opened and the lights flashed on. They did this two more times before the curtain closed permanently. They would do the show once more that night, and then start the process all over the next day.
She found her old clothes, the black tights, boots, and dress. She exchanged the opalescent mask used to portray Aris for her metallic one.
What little time Nina had between shows, she spent running errands for Orthen. Sometimes the errands were simple, just to run and get him parchment. Other times they were complex and required weeks of planning. She had no errand today, as they had days of planning for his latest scheme.
Orthen sat at his desk in the basement, pouring over papers, books, and tapestries. He was always busy doing “research”, though he never bothered to tell her on what. She took her time getting to his desk, letting her fingers and eyes roam over the hundreds or thousands of books that sat on shelves around the room.
“Are you finished snooping?” he asked, glancing up. “Come out of the shadow.”
Orthen was a short, round man with dangling earlobes and a bald head. He reminded her very much of the small statues of Buddha in restaurants back home.
“I like shadows,” Nina replied, removing her mask and setting it on his desk. “I don’t have to wear this in the shadows.”
Orthen let out a heavy breath, taking the mask and admiring it. “It is for your own good, you know that.”
“Do I?” Nina asked, an elegant eyebrow arching at him. “The other Pure don’t wear such things. Why must I wear one and skulk around like a fugitive.”
He tossed the mask back to her. “Because you are a fugitive, though you don’t remember it.”
“And which one was the fugitive? Out of all the names you call me when you forget I’m Nina, one of them must have done something very awful to require that I wear this thing around everyone but you and the House.”
He focused on his papers, riffling through them and ignoring her. He would do this, she knew, until she changed the subject.
Nina sighed and settled back in the chair just before his desk. “His majesty should arrive next week, according to my sources.”
The owner of the Solace House smiled, turning his hazel eyes on her. “Well, that’s pleasing to hear.”
“I don’t understand why it fascinates you so. He’s not friendly. There are horror stories about his bouts of anger that match the realm he governs. Anyone so close to Hell has to have anger management issues.” Nina stretched her legs out, leaning back in the uncomfortable wooden chair. “You haven’t told me what you want from him.”
“I do not know what I want from him yet,” Orthen said, smiling. “But, I’ll let you know when I do.”
The actress scoffed. “You’re like a teenage girl with a crush. Do you find the Red King attractive, Orthen?”
“Very much so, but it matters not. I’m not his type, nor is he mine.” Orthen’s grin grew big and his eyes narrowed with mischievous delight. “He might be yours, though.”
“How do you know my type? I don’t even know my type,” Nina said, drumming her fingers on the arm of the chair. “And besides, what would it matter? You hold me like a nun in a Monastery. The moment I get a hint of attention from a man I catch Pock stalking him home and I never see him again. He probably eats them.”
“He might,” Orthen replied in such a dull tone that Nina knew he hardly cared what Pock did with her potential suitors.
“It would be nice if you stayed out of my personal life.”
“I took you in. I gave you shelter, protection, and a job that garners much respect –”
“Not as much as a Lady of Solace.”
“That is out of the question. You will not be one, and we have made that final.”
Nina gritted her teeth, and stared off at the dark corner of his office.
Orthen looked her over, frowning. He set his pen down before clasping his fingers together. “Why do you wish to be one so badly?”
“I don’t know,” Nina said, half smiling. “Maybe because you hate the idea? Maybe because I long for affection, or even just attention. I hide behind a mask all day, every day, except for small moments of interaction with you or other workers in the House. Other than that, I am alone and have been since that asshole of a guide dropped me off at your door. I am utterly, and awfully alone, Orthen. Maybe I wouldn’t be so lonely if I were a Lady of Solace.”
Orthen’s gaze fell to the table, and he looked guilty as he stared there. “It is not an option.”
“Of course it isn’t,” Nina scoffed. “But, at least stay out of my personal life.”
“That is not an option either.” Orthen picked his pen back up. “Hate me if you will. It’s for your own good and you’ll find out soon enough why. Just be patient.”
“Twenty-five years of hiding is a long time, and patient isn’t really something I want to be anymore. I spent twenty years on Earth trapped in my own body, and now I’ve spent twenty-five trapped behind a mask. I’m tired of being a prisoner. I’ll leave Orthen, I will. Then, you won’t have anyone to steal your information or trinkets.”
“This is not the first time you have threatened to leave me.”
“But, it will be the last,” Nina said, standing from her chair and snatching up her mask. “Stay out of it.”
* * *
Orthen watched Nina stalk out of the room and slam the door behind her. Even the door’s jarring seemed to yell at him for being an ass. He knew that she meant it. She would leave him if he meddled in her affairs again. There was only so much meddling that sort of woman could tolerate. In fact, she tolerated him a lot longer than the other incarnations of her had. If anything her damaged body on Earth had taught her, it was obviously patience.