Masquerade of Souls.
That was the sign above the main gate. Annabel saw it for the very first time when Elijah brought her and two other children to the nearby village. She hadn’t known Mr. Morr was a man of such a specific kind of creativity. He’d called his mansion The Garden, the place where every kid and adult had been a valuable flower. Flowers to be sold, flowers to decorate someone’s else house. Annabel shivered on the thought she had been one of those flowers, only a thing for somebody to play with. If I have to be a flower, she thought with somewhat ruthless feeling in her heart, then I’ll be an oleander.
Elijah decided to give Annabel a serious job. During the past three years she had shown herself as a hard-working, reliable, and stubborn girl who was able to do anything she’d been asked to do, so the watcher considered her a good candidate for a task in the village. Kids and adults had to buy goods for The Garden, earn money on a chosen occupation, or bring Mr. Morr some important news villagers were sharing. “I hope you can count money,” said Elijah while they were on their way to the village.
“I can,” Annabel replied.
“Your task will be to go to the market place and buy what’s written here,” he handed her a small paper. Somebody’s messy handwriting was telling her to buy milk, apples, porridge and a lot of different things. “And don’t try to run,” Elijah reminded her when they eventually made it to the main street and stopped.
“Why would I?” Annabel smiled slightly at him, grabbed a basket, took the list, and hurried up the street to find the place where the locals used to shop.
Everything went better than she expected. She got no problems neither with resident people, nor with Elijah who was guarding her intentions the whole day. For that work, despite her debut trip outside the mansion, Annabel wasn’t rewarded, but Elijah said he’ll take her to the village again in a few next days. That was the moment Annabel understood how close she was to the real success. Elijah seemed to trust her, maybe not too much, but enough to deceive him. One day, which Annabel felt will be very soon, she will go do her job, and while he wouldn’t be watching her, she will run away from this wicked place. The plan wasn’t that perfect or safe, but it definitely had been composed smarter than Victor’s plan three years ago. Anyway, Elijah isn’t that smart, Annabel thought, but he’s awfully alert, though. I can dupe him if I’m careful.
While she had to wait until some job would be found for her, an event happened that assured her in the necessity of escape from The Garden. Annabel had seen it before, but somehow hadn’t minded it. Perhaps it’s because she hadn’t been that close to freedom, for this time she felt even more than disgust, more than anger when she saw a big, colorful carriage arriving to The Garden and parking in the yard. She knew what was to happen next, and she didn’t like it.
Mr. Morr left the house to greet his guest. Elijah and two other watchers controlled slaves and forced them to keep working, although many slaves wanted to throw at least one glance at a man who came out of the carriage. Annabel wrinkled her nose. That was a big fat lord, his face was almost beetroot red, his eyes didn’t open properly because of fat cheeks, and his chin seemed to be even more than triple. The man was ugly and pretentious, and Annabel was afraid to think of who he came for.
Mr. Morr, being all nice and polite, and his ugly guest talked for a minute, then they proceeded to the house, guarded by two servants. Mr. Morr waved to Elijah and told him something before going inside, after that the watcher went back to the yard. He told something to his friends, other watchers, and started looking for somebody. Annabel watched him taking two girls of sixteen to the barrel filled with water, making them wash their faces and hands, and going inside the house with the girls in tow. After them went two watchers with three seventeen years old girls and one girl who Annabel recognized right away. Susanne.
It was obvious that the fat lord, or whoever he was, wanted to have a young girl slave or a servant, and Elijah with other watchers were told to bring the best girls for him to choose from. Annabel stiffened. What could that man need from them, so young and clean creatures yet, who had done no evil to anyone? Annabel tried not to make any conclusions, but her fear rose into a panic all of a sudden. It can’t be that awful, she thought. Please, let it be not that awful.
Annabel looked around and set her broom against the wall. She knew she would be punished for that she left her work if Elijah found out, but her heart was almost torn apart by what she was thinking about. She couldn’t even imagine what she would do to help those girls, but she decided to improvise right on the place if needed.
It wasn’t difficult to sneak inside the house, but there was a real problem – no place to hide. Annabel had known some corners, but all of them weren’t suitable for watching people in the living room. She passed the door like if accidently, peering inside, and saw the fat lord and Mr. Morr sitting in big chairs with whiskey in their hands, laughing at something.
“I’m too bored after my wife’s left with that young handsome artist,” said fat lord’s loathsome creaky voice. Annabel had to go further and didn’t hear Mr. Morr’s response, but she knew it was even more disgusting.
Before anyone could notice her presence, she sneaked behind another door she knew leaded to the basement and waited there for Elijah with his friends to enter the guest room. And again Annabel stiffened like if somebody hit her heart with a thousand knives – those girls seemed to be so unprotected, so fragile and lonely that Annabel couldn’t look at them without a painful feeling. When the watchers disappeared in the living room, she heard loud voices again, and then the door creaked closed.
Annabel looked around carefully and went outside when nobody showed up. She tiptoed to the door and realized it wasn’t closed properly, there’d been left a tiny gap and light was barely pouring through it. Annabel could hear Mr. Morr speaking.
“They are the best flowers in my garden, lord Bollywan. You may pick any with no doubt.”
Annabel peered through the gap and saw seven girls standing in the row – the best way to show a client the flowers, Annabel guessed. Chill went down her spine.
Bollywan lifted comfortably in the giant chair, cigar in his hand, and studied the girls in front of him with a vulgar smile. Annabel wished she could take a brick, or a weighty board, and hit Bollywan’s face to wipe that look off it immediately. But she tried to care more about girls; they were standing with their heads low, looking down at their toes as they’d been told, breathing quickly, nervous.
Suddenly Bollywan’s eyes stopped on Susanne. He put cigar in his mouth, grinning with vile satisfaction.
“This one seems lovely to me,” he said.
Mr. Morr reacted with a wide grin, showing his crystal-white teeth.
“Very good choice, very good, lord Bollywan,” he said suspiciously and snapped his fingers, making a sign for the watchers to leave the room and take away other girls.
Annabel stilled. Something paralyzed her, she didn’t even know what it was – maybe fear, or rather sincere anger she felt at that moment. She didn’t notice Elijah coming. Their eyes met when the boy opened the door and almost collapsed with Annabel. He looked back in panic, and then tucked her behind the corner to the left before Mr. Morr could see them both.
“What are you doing here?” His voice was rather a furious hissing than a sound. He looked out carefully only to see his friends’ backs turned to him.
“What will he do to her?” Annabel asked. Her voice trembled, she felt tears on her eyes and quickly wiped them off with her palm.
“It’s none of your concern,” Elijah replied sourly, looking down at her.
“But what will he do to her? Please, tell me!”
“I don’t know! He’ll do what he’d want to, and that’s all.”
Annabel looked Elijah in the eyes and saw, beyond all ruthlessness and cold of his soul, something else, something that seemed to be longing when he turned around to see no Susanne leaving the room.
“Now go before I kill you,” He pushed Annabel down another corridor when nobody was there and disappeared in the living room again. The girl didn’t know what to do and wasn’t sure if she ever could do something. Susanne was no more a part of The Garden, but lord Bollywan’s own property. Maybe Annabel could fight them, tell them how ugly they were, punch that fat lord in the jaw at last?.. Don’t be ridiculous, she thought to herself, it will help neither Susanne, nor you.
Annabel turned from the door and left the house using back entrance. She couldn’t believe what just happened: she had treated herself as a brave, outrageous girl, though she was only thirteen, and now it seemed like the truth wasn’t nearly as good as she hoped.
Annabel ran outside and waited behind a wooden cart for Mr. Morr, lord Bollywan and Elijah to come out and proceed to the carriage. Susanne walked with her head hung low, but Annabel noticed she wasn’t crying. She was… careless. Elijah made her get into the carriage with the same cold look, and Annabel understood in the thousandth time that she was just imagining things about his kind nature hidden deeply down inside him.
That night Annabel couldn’t fall asleep. She kept thinking about what happened right before her eyes and couldn’t forget Susanne’s last look – frozen, dull, negligent, like of a fallen angel who suffered too much to complain about its life. But much more terrible and shocking for her was the thought of what if that happens to Annabel herself? What if she also will be taken by another lord Bollywan to entertain him, or to bring him his morning tea and spend nights in his bed if it would be his wish? No, no, for Heaven’s sake no! You’ve promised yourself Annabel, you’ve promised you’ll never let it happen. You must keep your word.
A few hours before bedtime Elijah told her that he’s going to bring her along to the village again. Tomorrow.
The village was quiet and peaceful, as usual. A light wind was fresh and full of early morning smells, sun was shining. One could say that was a perfect weather for a small talk or messing around, Annabel and Elijah were silent all way long to the marketplace. Only before Annabel left their cart, the watcher threw her a brief “Hurry up”, and then disappeared to do his own business. Annabel did everything she had to and realized it wasn’t even a midday when she finished her job. When returned to the cart, she didn’t see Elijah on his place waiting for her. He was still busy, and it meant Annabel had time.
She left the basket in the cart, covered with thick fabric, and carefully looked around the street. There was nobody approaching. Annabel inhaled to get herself together and left the cart behind.
Moving through the streets as quickly as she could, looking back every ten seconds, the girl made it to the northern edge of the village. There was no fence around it to prevent animals from running or people from walking out and back again. Annabel was to use the advantage. The vast wild field that separated the village from the nearby forest would take her only ten or eleven minutes to pass, and then she could hide among the trees or in the bushes until nobody would be willing to seek for her. Annabel looked around again, in the hundredth time, and after seeing no Elijah and no people from The Garden, steadied her heart and hurried toward the field. There’d been left only one small house to pass by, and there it was – freedom, after three years of being a weak, fragile object for somebody to buy and sell. A thought about coming back home, hugging her parents again, made Annabel get all her alacrity together and force it out in strong, confident steps. She looked over the field: it was big, green, spotted with wild flowers and bushes; it reminded her of the field she used to walk in before the slave drivers brought her to The Garden. Annabel forgot how to breathe, and a wide grin of joy lightened up her face. A song from her childhood came back to her, a song about a little bird that wished to get free. Fly far away, little bird, and never look back again.
She just made a step on the grass before her when suddenly somebody squeezed her shoulders and pushed her back with rude force, almost knocking her down. Annabel turned her head. Terror shot through her as she saw a mighty figure hunched over her, still holding her by the hand. That was Elijah.
“Ah, you little wicked thing,” he said, fury in his eyes, “wanted to have a walk in the field?”
“You’re hurting me!” Annabel groaned and tried to whirl, but Elijah violently tugged her back.
“Yes, I know that!” he replied. “Who do you think you are? A hero? A warrior? Haven’t I warned you about this?”
Elijah strode down the street toward their cart, pulling Annabel along. She didn’t have a moment to get free, so she just ran following the watcher, trying to at least not to fall face down. Elijah was definitely ready to kill her right where she stood, but people were watching. A very bad feeling that something was going to happen covered her. Her heart was pounding inside her chest, despair was making her as weak as she’d never been. When they approached the cart, three kids were waiting for them, quietly speaking. Elijah ignored them and pushed Annabel by the throat, slamming her into the cart’s side and closing in on her.
“I’ve warned you,” he snarled. “I’ve told you not to try to run or fool me!”
“I didn’t try to fool you,” Annabel said in a hoarse voice.
“Shut up!” Elijah growled through gritted teeth. He dropped his hands, took a step back and ran his fingers through his hair. Annabel rubbed her throat, feeling throbbing pain all over it, and wanted to turn to go, but Elijah unexpectedly hit the cart and jabbed his finger in Annabel’s face.
“You,” he said, “you know what I’m supposed to do. Do you?” Annabel nodded slightly, fighting tears. “I don’t want to do it. You may believe it or not, but I really don’t. And we will forget about today’s accident as if it has never happened. But I warn you the very last time, Annabel,” Elijah lowered his voice and looked her directly in the eyes, “if you want to escape ever again, I will know about it. And next time, you’ll get the punishment you’re supposed to get,”
He turned away from her and rounded the cart, getting onto it. The kids followed. Annabel felt Elijah shoot her a sharp look and quickly got into the cart, forgetting about shaking hands. She couldn’t breathe freely, for her lungs seemed to be paralyzed.
“What happened, Ann?” a little girl leaned forward to her. But Annabel didn’t notice it, she didn’t even hear the girl speaking. “Ann!” the girl repeated in a whisper, bringing Annabel back to conscience.
“What? Ah, nothing happened…” she mumbled, charily looking at Elijah who sat with his back turned to her. Her stomach dropped.
That was true. Nothing literally happened. Annabel wasn’t able to manage an escape, even after having so many thoughts on how she’d accomplish it. She had a hope and all the alacrity, but Elijah was much more alert than she thought. From now on, she had to leave all her efforts behind her, or her life would be in a much bigger danger than it had been before. If you want to escape ever again, I will know about it. For some reason, Annabel didn’t doubt it.