"Oh how dreadfully clumsy of me." I turned the glass within my fingers. "I seem to have accidentally switched glasses with you."
Before me, VanHollus's hysterical laughter was dashed into a tense silence. The vulgar man gradually straightened up with beads of sweat already blooming on his forehead. Wild eyes darted to the glass in my hand, then to the one in his own. He gasped in air, backing away from me in a frantic fit. Stumbling over his feet, he released the glass sending it to roll across the floor before darting through, pushing people out of his way.
I set my glass on the table before following the path he had cut through the crowd. There was a crude rasp to his breathing. Even if I could not see the man I could hear him. At the edge of the ballroom, he clung to a pillar, grasping his stomach.
"You are in very real danger. Let me help you." I reached out only to find my hand swatted away.
"Back! You are a rat!" He rounded on me before falling back against the pillar, doubling over in obvious pain. "I refuse to accept your help! There is nothing wrong."
"Really?" My eyebrows brushed against the back of my mask. "Tell me why, the moment you realized you had my glass, you panicked. VanHollus, what did you do?"
His eyes were hardly focusing, the twist of his gut audible. "Nothing, you gutter rat."
Around us, the crowd closed in staring in utter confusion.
"I can do nothing until you tell me what you put in my glass." I snapped, "The longer you wait the more damage it does."
"Always blaming me," he snarled. "Always accusing me. I don't need your help, don't want it. Leave me alone."
Nadir pushed his way through the company to tug on my arm. "Erik, for Allah's sake do something."
I stepped back, shrugging him off. "You heard the man. He refuses to let me. There is nothing I can do."
"Erik!" Nadir yelled.
"Nothing I can do until he is unconscious," I explained. "You honestly think I would let him die here? Hardly." That was all I wanted in the bloody papers. Death in architect's mansion. That would go over well.
VanHollus groaned, clutching his gut. His knees were beginning to give out as his color drained away. That was it. I had enough of this.
"Step back, Nadir." I barely waited for him to move before I swung a hard punch with my left hand into VanHollus's belly. The response was the immediate expulsion of the contents before he flopped forward.
I roughly pulled him away from the mess on the floor, gesturing to a worried servant nearby. "Clean that up and make certain to wash your hands thoroughly after. I will not lose a servant to this fool's errand."
I did not spare a single glance to see the compliance. I was feeling his pulse, watching his eyes failing to respond. VanHollus was in bad shape.
"What was it?" Nadir asked.
"You heard him." I eyed the glass on the floor which he promptly got up and fetched. "Rats." A quick smell of the rim and I nodded. "Which is precisely the most common use for that. I can smell it."
"Will he live?"
I shrugged, "He may, it depends upon how much entered his system. Run to the kitchen, fetch me some charcoal."
He squinted, but obeyed. In the span of time before he returned, hardly anyone moved. I glanced up to find a gaunt woman staring down dispassionately at the prone man. She made no gesture to aid him, only stood and watched as I monitored his vital signs.
At last Nadir returned with the gray powder, fortunately it was cool. I stripped my gloves off and crumbled it before pouring the powder down his throat and forcing him to swallow. "That is the best I can do. It may absorb enough to save him from the worst damage. But there is no doubting, if he lives through this, there will be evidence of his error."
My enemy lay in my hands. An enemy I never asked for … shades of this new world.
He stood with his head bowed before the ballroom hearth. Motionless.
"Erik, the guests have all departed. Please. Step away from there now. I … I'll have the servants make us some tea. Just for the two of us."
He did not move.
My shoes clicked as I crossed the floor … an empty echo. His breathing was slow, very slow and painfully measured. "Staying here won't change anything."
His back remained to me. He said not a word.
"This wasn't your fault, no one blames you. It was obvious VanHollus had gone quite out of his mind." I waited and for all the world could have been hoping the stones would reply. "Please answer me, Erik."
I came around beside him. In his left hand he gripped the sword hilt. That blade had been over the hearth, on the hooks right before him now. It had simply been a piece of décor here.
Clasped in his hand, I was reminded of the weapon's deadly purpose. Erik trembled with each breath. His eyes beneath the mask wide and wary, plagued by … unbridled fear.
"Right here. Here in my home. It came." His words were breathy, the blade tip drifting in the air as he spoke. "In my glass, in my glass—poison. Again. Just like Persia. They dance up, they smile, they hand the glass and hope you do not look."
"Erik, give me the sword."
He shook his head stiffly, his eyes still unfocused. "Never again. No, Nadir. Not ever. I dropped my guard, too comfortable and he almost won. The world almost won. Almost succeeded in killing me. That could have been me! No more!"
I tried to reach for the hilt and he spun away, turning the bared blade to me. "Easy, what are you going to do? Wear yourself out keeping that in your hands? Erik, VanHollus was taken to the hospital. I heard the doctor myself. He'll be lucky if he wakes."
"Not alone." His wide eyes penetrated, leaving me to shiver. "There will always be more. More like him who will try. Again and again. I refuse to let that happen."
"You worked so hard." I pleaded, "So very hard to show these men what a gentleman you are. The whole world isn't like VanHollus."
"No," he whispered. "But they hide. They smile in the crowds, they slink up with a promise. I should have known. Should have known not to trust. Should have known I can only pretend to be one of them."
Once more I tried to edge around to his side, tried to gently take the blade from his white knuckled grasp. "You are not responsible for them, Erik. Just your own reactions. And today, you may have saved the ungrateful wretch's life." To my relief he loosened his grip and let me take it.
Staggering from me, he flopped down at the hearth, running his fingers through his hair. "That is the worst part of it. I am uncertain I did the right thing. Nadir … I could have stopped him from drinking in the first place. I knew he had done it and I let him poison himself! His wife, his son … they … "
" … are not your concern." I knelt before him. "You did not do this, and everyone knows that." A smile came onto my face. He blinked at me.
"What is so amusing to you?"
"I never thought I would say this, but perhaps I no longer must remain your conscience. You seem to have finally stumbled upon your own."
He looked away from me. Grasping the sword as he stood, he placed it back on the hooks, fingers trailing along the back of the blade. His shoes echoed as he walked across the marble floor, pausing to look at the shimmering diamond over his head. I thought I heard him murmur in Persian, "Believe what you wish."
An incredible amount of research went into the entire "Nightingale's Odyssey" series. I was inspired by how Leroux and Kay both incorporated elements of real history within their stories. In an attempt to remain true to that intriguing quality, which leaves a reader to unwind the fact from fiction, I dove into the real world history as I pondered where I could envision Erik going if he went into self-exile after the Paris Opera. "Nightingale's Strain" is the first story I actually wrote. I knew I wanted to set in Manhattan in 1891 and in a short search discovered an appropriate project for Erik to be involved with. Once I completed that one, other plots poured out until a few beta readers asked me "how did he establish himself?" Ooooh, now I had hinted at that, but Erik tends to dismiss his rough first years in "Nightingale's Strain"... so I went back and told the struggle.
The research came in looking into the ever changing streets and culture of New York, each of the books in the series reflects that dynamic quality over the years-including places, street names, landmarks. Old street maps and historical building photo collections were a priceless resource. I utilized vintage cook books and medical manuals for how things would have been done back in that era. Music and book data bases, to be certain that Erik never referenced something ahead of its time. Oh yes, and of course manuals on proper etiquette which is where I discovered that despite dueling being outlawed, the elite still conducted duels in secrecy-often paying officers to look the other way.
Aside from shooting the photos for the covers, I have also created chapter headers and a few other pieces to accompany the novels. Regretfully, they cannot be viewed here due to formatting. These stories are available on my word press page under "Nightingale's Odyssey" along with the artwork for those who may be interested.
For those who are familiar with Kay's "Phantom" I based the world largely off of hers with a modification to the Epilogue... Erik is a master illusionist, so who's to say what one saw was the truth? This entire five novel collection is based off one enigmatic question, "what if...?"