Algol is the name of the winking demon star, Medusa of the skies; fair but deadly to look on, even for one who is already dying.
Ah, the bright stars of the night. Almost they obliterate the clear white pain. A thousand stars shining in the ether; but no dazzling newcomer. And so little time left, so little time...
Yet still two-faced Medusa laughs from behind the clouds, demanding homage. Homage, Medusa, or a sword, a blade sharper than death itself.
The wind stirs. Night clouds obscure the universe. A lower music now, a different kind of death.
No stars tonight, my love.
IT WAS PAST ELEVEN OF THE CLOCK ON A RAIN-WASHED JUNE evening when Auguste de Montpellier rose from her bed and realized that her brother, Guy, had gone from the house. Because he was not always responsible for his actions, and because he was, like her, a stranger in an alien land, she felt the beginnings of fear: a familiar fear that touched her skin with cold fingers.
"Guy," she called. "Guy."
High in their attic bedrooms, the servants slept on. Only her own voice whispered back to her mockingly from the distant passageways and sparsely furnished rooms of this big house, which stood so still, so quiet amidst the fields and woods far to the west of the slumbering city.
"Guy. Oh, Guy." Auguste ran up and down the wide staircases that twisted through the rambling mansion; though once she stopped, with a different kind of cry, because she thought she saw someone, a ghost, gazing back at her from the shadows of a forgotten room. But she realized quickly that the ghost was herself, captured by a looking-glass on the wall, her face small and pale beneath her close-cropped red hair. She stared, distracted, and saw how her silk robe was slipping from her shoulders. Pulling it more tightly across her breasts, she shivered and hurried on.
"Guy - where are you?" The servants, wakened at last by her footsteps and her cries, were starting now to stumble one by one from their attic beds, candlesticks in hands. Catching her fear like a contagion, they ran, too, hither and thither, their nightgowns fluttering, knowing that the master was not well and that at such times he needed help, like a child. But Auguste had left them far behind; for now she was up on the roof of the house, where a wide balcony lay open to the cool summer night. Here, when the skies were clear, the heavens spread out to infinity, and the stars wheeled overhead. Here, night-long, Guy would search with his telescope for the lost star he called Selene. But not tonight. Tonight the stars were obscured by rain clouds, and the precious telescopes had been dismantled and laid carefully to rest below, where the night air would not harm them.
Auguste laid her hands on the stone parapet and looked down at the old trees in the rambling garden, imagining she heard them whispering in the stirring of the breeze. When her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, she lifted her shorn head and gazed westward toward Kensington village, to the deserted palace that was shrouded in wooded parkland; then north, to the lonely fields stretching up to hilly Hampstead. And finally she looked to the east, following the winding desolation of the rough turnpike road, nighttime haunt of thieves and robbers, as it led through somber heath and furzy woodland to the Knightsbridge turnpike and thence to far-off London.
No stars tonight.
She ran back down into the house, her satin shoes pattering as she went, her silk wrap billowing behind her. She hurried to her dressing room and looked for the little lacquered box that she kept in her writing desk. She opened it and saw that her gold had gone.
She closed it and put it away, staring into nothingness.
There were footsteps in the passageway outside. She turned and saw her maid Emilie, fluttering distractedly, murmuring fragments of prayers under her breath.
From The Music of the Spheres by Elizabeth Redfern. (c) July 2001, Putnam Pub. Group, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc. Used by permission.
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