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Tarnish


Tarnish
by Dawn Vogel

Adelaide hurried up the stairs inside the Lindell Hotel, her skirt hoisted to make it easier to run. The yellow silk rustled with every step. When she reached the landing one flight below her destination, she paused to catch her breath and compose herself. It would not do to enter the presence of the Veiled Prophet in her current state.

A quick glance at one of the gilded mirrors on the wall of the staircase showed her face was flushed an alarming shade of pink, her hair disheveled. Upstairs, the clock chimed seven. She was out of time. Gritting her teeth, she smoothed her hair and raised the hem of her skirt just an inch above her shoes to make her final ascent to the New Orleans room.

A stern looking matron glared at her over the top of her spectacles as Adelaide reached the top of the steps. "You're late."

"I'm sorry," Adelaide murmured. "My mother has been ill. It fell to me to oversee the preparations for tomorrow evening's dinner." The lie flowed from her tongue. The matron appeared to accept it, as Adelaide had anticipated.

It was far more palatable than the truth, after all. Proper young ladies of her standing certainly were not late because they had waited an hour after sunset in an attempt to observe a recently reported astronomical phenomenon. And they simply did not miss their planned streetcar because they dawdled just outside their own front door, watching the sky for yet another phenomenon.

"Do not think your tardiness will go unnoticed." The attendant gestured toward a closed door. "You are fortunate that he is still speaking with another candidate. Please, have a seat."

Adelaide lingered in front of a mirror instead. Her earlier attempts to smooth her hair had failed. Hoping the matron would not notice the rough patches of skin and ragged nails, Adelaide removed her gloves to better tame strands of hair that had escaped the elaborate style her friends had concocted.

All of Adelaide's friends were jealous that the committee had selected her for the Veiled Prophet's Court, yet they waited anxiously for the Veiled Prophet Ball on Tuesday night, where they hoped she might be crowned. It was said that the Veiled Prophet was a world traveler who had made the city of St. Louis his base of operations. Each year, a committee of the most prominent men in the city selected young women who competed to be named as the Veiled Prophet's queen. The ball this year was to be a grand spectacle, with President Cleveland and his wife in attendance in addition to the St. Louis elite.

Adelaide knew she had every right to compete for this prize. Her father was one of the wealthiest men in St. Louis. But he had earned his fortune through hard, earnest work, and he insisted that his children embody the same virtues. Had Adelaide's mother truly been ill, it would have fallen to the eldest Holekamp daughter to see to Sunday dinner, so at least that part had not been a lie.

With her hair restored to a semblance of order, Adelaide put her gloves back on and looked for a suitable seat to accommodate her bustle. Before she found one, the door opened. She turned and regarded the young woman who exited the Veiled Prophet's sitting room, wearing a deep crimson gown that complemented her dark hair and eyes. The latter drew Adelaide's attention. They were unfocused and distant. Vacant. Haunted.

The hairs on the back of Adelaide's neck stood on end, and her skin crawled. She tried to catch the other girl's gaze, but to no avail. The girl brushed past Adelaide and toward a valet who held a mink wrap in front of him.

Adelaide clutched at her own shoulder to remove her shawl. Her gloved fingers whispered across the silk of her dress, not the lacy woolen shawl she expected. It must have gone missing somewhere between boarding the streetcar and the top of the stairs. Before she could think of a way to retrieve it, the matron cleared her throat and gestured toward the now open door. Adelaide nodded and proceeded in.

The Veiled Prophet's sitting room was lit by a few sparse candles and the glow of the fireplace. The lamps ringing the room were all extinguished. A wave of what Adelaide presumed to be incense washed over her, nearly eliciting a cough. An older woman, the chaperone, no doubt, sat in a deep, plush chair near the fireplace, though she seemed more interested in the embers than Adelaide's entrance. The visible furnishings looked elegant, if a bit threadbare. Outshining everything else in the room was the Veiled Prophet himself.

He wore a hooded robe in yellow silk, laden with glimmers of golden embroidery. The robe was of a style Adelaide had seen in illustrations of clothing from the Orient. Despite the expectation of opulence, the cuffs and hem were tattered to irregular lengths of flayed threads. More peculiar than the rough edging was that the Veiled Prophet's attire almost glowed with its own light, brighter than what the few candles provided.

"Your dress most becomes you," the Veiled Prophet said. His voice was deep, without a trace of an accent.

Adelaide fumbled a curtsey and murmured her thanks. It was difficult not to stare at the incongruous robes, but she redirected her attention to his face, half-concealed beneath his golden veil. His dark eyes arrested her attention. In the dim light, they looked jet black, with little white visible. She bit back a gasp of alarm and forced a smile. "It is an honor to be considered for your queen, Your Highness."

"Direct. Good." Amusement tinged his voice. Adelaide allowed herself to relax just a touch. "You must be one of the ..." He paused. "Ah, Germans. I am not good with names."

"Adelaide Holekamp, Your Highness."

"I see. Good. Have you any other names?"

Adelaide frowned, her brow furrowing in confusion. This was not the sort of question she had prepared to answer. "Only a middle name, Your Highness. Adelaide Magdalen Holekamp."

"Ah. Very well then." He turned to gaze at the remnants of the fire.

Adelaide's frown deepened. Although she had been uncertain about the specifics of her interview with the Veiled Prophet, their exchanges thus far made little sense. She reviewed them in her mind, then said, "Was there a different name you had hoped to hear?"

The Veiled Prophet turned back toward her. "Yes, but you do not possess it."

Adelaide forced a smile. "I wish to be of service, Your Highness. Give me the name. I can tell you if it is one I know."

"No." He stared at Adelaide for several minutes. She was struck dumb by the intensity of his unwavering scrutiny. Her only thought, over and over, was how dark his eyes were. Try as she might, she could bring nothing else to her mind. The incense made her eyelids heavy now, and she had to force herself to keep her eyes open. When finally he spoke, his voice was a whisper. "Gaze into the looking glass beside you. Tell me what you see."

Adelaide blinked as he released her gaze and looked around. To her right, on a dais she had not noticed, was a mirror as black as the Veiled Prophet's eyes, its edges jagged. Adelaide clenched her hands into fists, fighting a sudden and irrational compulsion to touch the sharp points.

At first, only Adelaide's faint reflection was visible. The longer she stared into its depths, the more the darkness took on dimension. There was a divide between skyline and sky, two different shades of black.

She glanced over her shoulder, spying the patterned wallpaper that should have been reflected. There was no part of the architecture or décor that could create such an image in the mirror.

He had not called it a mirror, she realized. No, the words he had used were "looking glass." Her breath caught when she realized what she was seeing was not a reflection, but instead some other, distant place. Not a mirror, but instead a portal of some kind.

The skyline was unfamiliar, but that did not trouble her. She was not well traveled, and vistas sketched in journals and books could not be counted upon for accuracy.

The sky, however, was a constant with which she was intimately familiar, regardless of the hemisphere from which it was viewed. But this sky was unfamiliar. That sent a shard of ice into her heart.

"What do you see?" he repeated.

Adelaide didn't know how to respond. If the image contained within the glass was not an elaborate fabrication, the sky certainly belonged to some other world. But she didn't understand how that could be possible. And if it were, why would the Veiled Prophet show her such a vista? The stars, though, told the truth. So too did she. "Stars that are not of this world."

"Yes."

It was the one word she had dreaded, and hearing it, she felt her knowledge of the world spiral away from all sense of reason. She had hoped the Veiled Prophet would laugh at her inability to recognize a foreign city and send her on her way. Or better yet, to admit to a clever ruse. But confirmation that the vista was from another world was unnerving.

"You see the city of Carcosa, on the shores of Lake Hali, my true home. In seeing this, you have revealed that you are the one who can open the way between the worlds."

"What? I don't understand." Adelaide backed away from the mirror and the Veiled Prophet.

"You will be my queen," he said. His eyes sparkled. Adelaide suspected he smiled underneath his veil.

"Oh." The word came out flat. Gone was her enthusiasm for the pageant. Adelaide knew she should express her thanks, but the revelation that she was to be named queen now filled her with unnamable dread.

"And on Tuesday evening, after you are crowned, we shall open the way to Carcosa together." Though he spoke them pleasantly enough, the weight of the Veiled Prophet's words was smothering, like spilled honey that trapped ants.

Adelaide took another step back. She had never heard of this "Carcosa," and she began to wonder what she really knew about the Veiled Prophet. Rumors surrounded his identity, but he was never unveiled, not even at the ball. What did it mean to become his queen, a title sought by so many and now promised to her? Her heart thudded in her chest like a trapped bird. Another rush of incense hit her, and this time she coughed. Immediately, it felt as though a cloud had been lifted from her thoughts. Adelaide forced herself to curtsey to the Veiled Prophet before she stumbled backward out of the room, pulling the door shut after her.

Her backward motion was arrested by something solid, but the solidity yielded with a murmured, "Oh, pardon me."

Adelaide turned around and found herself facing a woman not much older than herself, dressed in a very conservative dark brown travelling gown and holding Adelaide's shawl. It took Adelaide a few moments to realize why the woman looked so familiar.

She gasped as she curtsied again. "Oh, Mrs. Cleveland! My apologies!"

The First Lady smiled. "No, my dear, it is I who should apologize. I should not have stood there unannounced."

A thought occurred to Adelaide. "Pardon me for asking, but my father said the President was not due until tomorrow?"

Mrs. Cleveland held a single gloved finger to her lips and winked. "Our train was faster than anticipated. We will not officially arrive until midnight. The tour organizers were able to get us here unseen so we could rest first."

The clock beside the two women began to chime the eight o'clock hour. Adelaide jumped. She hadn't realized she had spent an hour in the Veiled Prophet's presence. The entire interview had seemed like mere minutes.

"Are you alright, my dear?" the First Lady asked.

"Um, yes, quite alright ... I'm just a little startled, that's all."

Mrs. Cleveland studied Adelaide's face. "Startled by something other than me, I hope?"

Adelaide bit her lower lip. The First Lady looked concerned, but Adelaide wasn't certain what to say. How could she explain the sudden unnamable dread that had gripped her since gazing into the looking glass? She could not begin to understand it herself, let alone convey the edges of her fears.

Before Adelaide responded, Mrs. Cleveland spoke up, though at a low volume. "Did you gaze into the looking glass?"

Adelaide gasped again. "How did you know?"

Mrs. Cleveland closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, her attention was focused on the door. "We should depart. Please, follow me."

Adelaide took the First Lady's offered hand and followed her down the stairs to the lobby of the Lindell Hotel. The clerk dozed at the front desk, and the doorman appeared to be asleep on his feet, despite the early hour. Mrs. Cleveland continued through to a sitting room, led Adelaide to a seat, and closed the door behind them.

"Now, my dear, are you quite alright? May I get you some chamomile tea?"

"Yes, thank you," Adelaide said, still reeling from the events that had transpired. Mrs. Cleveland rang a bell and had a quiet conversation with a maid who entered the room, but that was at the periphery of Adelaide's attention. She worked to process what she had seen into something intelligible to tell the First Lady. Her mind swirled with more questions than answers.

Finally, Mrs. Cleveland sat in a chair beside Adelaide. "I'm sorry to force you to dwell further on what was undoubtedly an unpleasant encounter. I must ask you a few questions. First, what questions did he ask you?"

Adelaide frowned as she recalled the details of the conversation. "First he wanted my name. Actually, perhaps he didn't ask that of me. Not directly, at least. The only other thing he wanted to know was what I saw in the looking glass. Please forgive me, but I am quite confused by all of this. What is happening?"

Mrs. Cleveland sighed. "A few more questions, my dear, and then I will explain. Tell me what he wore."

"Ragged yellow silk," Adelaide said, confident for the first time. "Much like the color of my gown, but more of an Oriental style. And, of course, his veil."

"His eyes?"

"Black as midnight." Adelaide frowned at the poetic turn of phrase. She had used it without a thought, and that troubled her. The midnight sky was not as black as writers would have people think, dotted with thousands of specks of light from the stars. But the phrase suited and elicited a nod from Mrs. Cleveland.

"Then it is as I had feared." She paused, taking Adelaide's hands in hers. "Now I must ask you one last question. You must answer me very carefully. I need to know if you saw something other than your own appearance in the looking glass."

Adelaide nodded, and Mrs. Cleveland hurried to place a finger over Adelaide's lips.

"I must not know what you saw. That you saw something is enough." She let out a long sigh. "My family has long been dedicated to researching entities known as 'The Ones Who Lie Dreaming' and their agents. We have had reason to suspect that the Veiled Prophet might be one of these agents. While our tour is, of course, to further my dear husband's political career, I insisted upon a stop in St. Louis to coincide with the ball."

"You said 'entities.' What does that mean?"

Mrs. Cleveland hesitated, her gaze searching Adelaide's face. "Are you familiar with the myths of the Greeks and the Romans, Miss ... I'm sorry, I never asked your name."

"Adelaide Holekamp. And yes, Mrs. Cleveland, I am. They lent the names of their gods and goddesses to constellations."

"There are some among the Order to which I belong who believe the Ones Who Lie Dreaming are another pantheon, like that of the Greeks and the Romans, or the Sumerians and Babylonians before them, but far, far older." She paused, pursing her lips. "And there are some who believe the myths we have about the Ones Who Lie Dreaming are not simply stories--they are history."

Adelaide considered the First Lady's words. They were blasphemous, plain and simple. Adelaide's father had read the family many newspaper articles that spoke of the President and his wife's dedication to Christian principles, so to hear such ideas from Mrs. Cleveland shocked Adelaide.

The rational part of Adelaide's mind, however, was not quite as aghast. The Veiled Prophet's eyes were not just depthless black. They were ancient, eyes that might have seen the rise and fall of myriad civilizations. Though Adelaide's faith told her that myths were just that, she knew that at the core of every story lay a kernel of truth.

Whether she accepted the First Lady's explanation or not, Adelaide still had unanswered questions. "If what you say is true, what does that have to do with me being crowned queen?"

Mrs. Cleveland gasped. "You must decline. Whatever he has planned cannot transpire."

Adelaide frowned. While it was true she no longer wanted to be the queen of the Veiled Prophet, walking away from the title and prestige that came with it would be hard. And that night sky, that foreign night sky, teased at her mind even still. "What will happen if I resign from the Veiled Prophet's Court?"

"Nothing that you need concern yourself with, my dear. It will all be taken care of."

Adelaide frowned. "I see. Then I suppose I should be going." She fumbled a calling card out of her case, hoping the First Lady would not notice her trembling hands. "If you need anything else, you may find me at home."

* * *

Adelaide rode the streetcar past her house twice. Though she was deep in thought, she took note of her stop each time the driver called it out. Her father was visible through the lace curtains in the living room. He was smoking his pipe on the first pass and peering through the curtains on the second. She turned her head away to ensure he did not see her.

While she rode, she considered what she had seen and heard. Though the First Lady had assured her that she need not worry further about this matter, too many questions remained unanswered. Her thoughts returned to the Veiled Prophet's looking glass. He had talked about opening the way between two worlds. Adelaide reasoned that if she were the key he needed, then perhaps the looking glass was the door.

When the streetcar stopped in front of the Lindell Hotel again, Adelaide disembarked. The doorman looked more alert now. He held the heavy door wide open as she approached.

"Has anyone found a woolen shawl here?" she asked. "I've retraced my path this evening, but cannot find it."

"I don't believe so, Miss, but you could check at the desk."

Adelaide nodded and stepped inside. Approaching the front desk, she repeated her inquiry softly, careful to sound bewildered rather than confident.

The young man at the front desk said, "No, no one has brought a shawl to my attention this evening."

Adelaide bit her lip. "Perhaps I left it up on the third floor, near the New Orleans room?"

"That may be. I don't believe there's anyone up there at the present time."

"Would it be alright if I went to look?"

"Of course, Miss."

Adelaide made her way up the stairs to the Veiled Prophet's sitting room. The matron who had been outside earlier was no longer watching the door like a hawk. Adelaide swallowed, breaking into a cold sweat as she neared her destination. Mrs. Cleveland's assurances should have been enough for Adelaide to simply go home and carry on with her life. But something had drawn her back. She tapped on the door. No response came from within. She rapped a little harder. Still no one answered.

Taking a deep breath, she turned the doorknob. The door swung open, revealing a nearly pitch black room beyond. The smell of incense was gone now, replaced by a pervasive mustiness. Adelaide poked her head in, but found it impossible to see anything except for the few remaining embers in the fireplace. The chaperone's silhouette was no longer in the chair by the fire, or the woman had fallen asleep in its plush depths. She listened for a moment. The pounding of her heart filled her ears. No other sound drew her attention. She edged into the room and closed the door behind her.

It took a few minutes before her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She tiptoed to the nearest gas lamp. Not even the faintest hint of blue showed at its base. There were no logs or coal to build up the fire, either. She looked around the room, trying to regain her bearings.

She murmured under her breath, "I stood here, and he stood in front of the fire, which means the looking glass ought to be ..." She turned to the pedestal that had previously held the mirror. But instead of its fathomless depths, she found herself looking into the Veiled Prophet's eyes.

"You could not stay away, I see," he said, his voice quiet.

Adelaide gulped and managed to shake her head, breaking eye contact with the Veiled Prophet. "I know I shouldn't be here. I ... I couldn't sleep. I wanted to ... needed to see it again."

"But now is not the appointed time."

Adelaide frowned, considering her options. She wished the First Lady no ill will, but tipped her hand nonetheless. "Your Highness, I have reason to believe that there are forces acting against your interests within this city."

The Veiled Prophet chuckled. "Your words do not surprise me."

"If such is the case, then can the way to Carcosa not be opened tonight, so that these forces cannot impact your plans?"

"I am afraid not."

"Then perhaps you should leave this hotel. Find a place where you can hide from them until the appointed time."

The Veiled Prophet did not respond at first. Adelaide worried that she had been too transparent in trying to get him to abandon this room. Finally, he spoke.

"Very well. Wait here." He shuffled away to one of the other doors leading off of the sitting room.

Adelaide let out a shaky sigh of relief. Although she still wasn't sure her plan would work, at least things were moving in the right direction.

A moment later, the Veiled Prophet returned, balancing a disc swathed in golden silk on his right hand.

Adelaide took several steps closer to him. Her hands rose to grasp the mirror on either side.

The Veiled Prophet stepped away from her, pulling the looking glass close to his body. "You must not touch the glass, Miss Holekamp. There is only one woman ever born who can, and you are not her."

"She is the one you are seeking, then. Not me?"

"You seem to have enough of her spark within you."

His words ignited Adelaide's determination. Without another thought, she seized the looking glass. The edges bit through her gloves and into her hands, tearing through even her callouses. But more than that, something pierced her mind, forcing a shriek from her lungs. The pain pounded behind her temples, at the base of her neck, and even into her eyes, filling them with tears.

Before she could move away from the pedestal, the Veiled Prophet grabbed hold of the top of the mirror. Though she gripped it with both hands, his single-handed grasp was stronger than hers. The jagged glass scraped across her hands.

Adelaide's head cleared for the briefest of moments. Nagging doubt entered her mind--could this mirror be broken? She forced herself not to think about the seven years of bad luck that would surely follow. She squeezed the looking glass tighter. Its edges were sharp enough that her hands had not yet begun to bleed, but she could feel the sting of pain criss-crossing her palms, mirrored inside of her skull.

The door behind Adelaide flew open with a bang. "Miss Holekamp?" The First Lady's voice trembled. "What on earth is going on?"

"You!" The Veiled Prophet growled. He turned his attention toward Mrs. Cleveland, but maintained his grip on the mirror.

Adelaide gulped for air. "I couldn't wait."

The Veiled Prophet grabbed Adelaide around the waist with his free hand, drawing her nearer. "Are these the forces moving against me of whom you spoke?"

Tears poured from Adelaide's eyes. She choked out a feeble "yes."

The Veiled Prophet laughed. "The Order has never been a true threat. Simply an annoyance." His voice took on a deeper timbre. "Leave us."

"I will not," Mrs. Cleveland said. "Not unless you let the girl go."

"Leave us," he repeated, his words tinged with a feral growl.

The unmistakable sound of a pistol cocking cut through the pain and confusion in Adelaide's mind. The Veiled Prophet laughed. "Your bullets will do nothing to me."

"No, but they can prevent you from using her as your sacrifice."

Adelaide stiffened. There was no doubt in her mind that the First Lady was pointing the pistol at her. Adelaide could not allow either the Veiled Prophet or Mrs. Cleveland a moment more to react. She did not have the strength to pull the mirror away. Instead, she shoved it upward, into the Veiled Prophet's ungloved hand.

The Veiled Prophet gasped and released his hold on both the mirror and her waist. Adelaide seized the opportunity and hurled the mirror toward the fireplace.

Her aim was off. The looking glass struck the edge of the marble lintel with an audible crack. It was not the shattering sound she had hoped for. The Veiled Prophet's anguished scream told her the crack was enough. The two halves of the mirror clattered to the hearth.

A foul wind blasted from the fireplace, reeking of sourness and rot, a twisted version of the incense that had earlier suffused the room. Adelaide covered her face, coughing. The stench did not dissipate, even as the air returned to its previously placid state. Adelaide found her handkerchief and clutched it in both hands as she held it over her nose and mouth and looked around.

Mrs. Cleveland came to Adelaide's side, her pistol put away. "My apologies, Miss Holekamp. Let me assure you that I would not have fired on you."

Adelaide shook her head. "I would have forgiven you if you had. But what has become of the Veiled Prophet? Is he gone along with that wretched mirror?"

Groaning nearby drew both women's attention. The Veiled Prophet lay on the floor, his body now hunched. His eyes looked ordinary. He looked tired, older than he had before.

"I must not be seen," Mrs. Cleveland murmured as she turned away and slipped out of the room.

"What are you doing here?" the Veiled Prophet asked. "Where is Mrs. Owens?" His voice was not the same. He sounded more like the grocer down the street, though Adelaide knew this person was not someone as common as a grocer.

Despite her bleeding hands and the pain that lingered there and in her mind, Adelaide gave the Veiled Prophet a winning smile. "My apologies, Your Highness. I'm afraid I must withdraw from the competition to become your Queen. Adelaide Holekamp. You can ask your secretary to strike my name from your list."

"I don't understand."

"It's not important," Adelaide said. "I wish all of the other girls--and you, as well--the best of luck. It seems I'm just not cut out for the life of a Queen. If you'll excuse me." Adelaide took a moment to throw her now bloodied handkerchief into the smoldering remains of the fire. Fragments of the mirror, now tarnished with age, caught the reflection of her yellow gown, rather than showing the sky of Carcosa. She nodded, a small smile playing across her lips. Then she curtsied and hurried out of the room.

* * *

Mr. Holekamp did not understand why his eldest daughter no longer wished to go to the ball on Tuesday, but he muttered something about her needing to remember that she should not be out so late unaccompanied. He told his wife that perhaps the ball was not the proper place for any of his children. Mrs. Holekamp did not press the matter.

And Mr. Holekamp did not mind that Adelaide loaded her arms with books from the study, nor that she borrowed his best pen to write her application letter for Oberlin College's astronomy department. All of these things were fine.

He worried, though, that she ate and slept little in the weeks after her interview for the court of the Veiled Prophet. When he did find her snoring amongst the books and papers spread out across her room, he wondered about the word "Carcosa" that appeared over and over.

But the word meant nothing to him. Nothing, that is, until four years later, after graduation, when Adelaide set out on a trip around the world. She concluded her letter, "I am off to find another door, another way to Carcosa. I will not rest until I find myself on the shores of Lake Hali. Do not wait up for me. I shall be a while."

* * *

Dawn Vogel writes and edits fiction and non-fiction. Her academic background is in history, so it's not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. She is an associate member of SFWA, and her novel, Brass and Glass: The Cask of Cranglimmering, is available from Razorgirl Press. She lives in Seattle with her husband, author Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats. Visit her at http://historythatneverwas.com.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

My brain is constantly coming up with ideas for stories, based on things I see, hear, or learn. In
the case of this particular story, we were visiting my mom in St. Louis (where I grew up) and flipping through a book about St. Louis. We came across something about the Veiled Prophet, which my husband had never heard about (he's from the West Coast). So as my mom and I were explaining the weird pageantry of the Veiled Prophet Ball, I started to concoct an idea for a story about the Veiled Prophet, as though he really were an otherworldly entity. That's where many of my ideas come from—something relatively mundane that can be twisted into something fantastical.

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