Olivia's thumb absently stroked the picture frame. She smiled fondly. She didn't regret what she'd done, not really. She was much happier here. This was where she belonged. On the other hand, she'd known Daniel since their school days. She had thought, once, that she loved him. She hadn't; she knew that now. She knew what love was really like. But he had always been a good friend. She missed him, and sometimes she couldn't help wondering if he missed her too. Hopefully, he'd moved on and found someone new, someone he belonged with, like Olivia had. Still smiling, she set the photograph of her first wedding back on the nightstand. Arthur could never understand why she kept it. Any time they had an argument, he brought it up. Usually he just demanded to know why it was there, but sometimes he shouted at her, told her to go back to Daniel. Worst of all was when he asked, "Do you miss him?"
Fortunately, Olivia had no scruples about lying. "No," she would say. "I'd always choose you." That much, at least, was true. Arthur was her one and only. Nothing and no one else mattered, not even Daniel. "He's nothing to me anymore."
Today, though, Arthur was not there to see her reminiscing. He'd come to bed after she was already asleep, and was already gone when she woke. If she hadn't woken up to use the bathroom and found him curled around her, she would have thought he hadn't come to bed at all. It was irritating, but she understood. Olivia was very proud of her husband, and she supported him, even when he worked so hard she barely got to see him.
Olivia got dressed and sat down in front of her mirror. She brushed her hair just as her mother had taught her to, counting each individual stroke. She wasn't quite sure why she did it, because the tangles were gone well before one hundred, but it was somehow a difficult habit to shake. Once she had finished, she set down the brush and reached for her creams. She wasn't particularly vain about her appearance; Arthur said she looked beautiful even in the early morning, when she thought her hair looked like black seaweed, knotted by the currents--and no other opinion mattered. It was another habit from girlhood. Her mother had spent hours teaching her all the best ways to make herself beautiful, and for a long time Olivia had thought being beautiful was the only way for a woman to be successful. She knew better now.
She set down her mascara and blinked a few times, to make sure she looked perfect. She did.
Olivia swept down the hall, heels clicking on the marble floor. Charles, apparently having heard her coming, came out of a sideroom--she didn't notice which one--and fell into step beside her. He talked at her for a little while, something about a leak, or something. It was exhausting. He was telling her what he was doing to solve the problem when she cut him off.
"Thank you, Charles, that was very clever of you," she told him, smiling at him. It was a winning smile. People couldn't help but smile back. "Is breakfast ready yet, do you know?"
Charles' smile faded into a frown. "I was just telling you, Lady Livia. There's a gas leak in the kitchen, none of the chefs can cook without blowing the whole house to pieces."
Olivia rolled her eyes. "Get rid of it then. Are you a magician or not?"
He glared at her, and opened his mouth angrily. She raised an eyebrow at him. Let him tell her he knew better than her. Let him try.
"Of course," he muttered, only a touch acidly, swallowing his rage. His face was still red. "I should have thought of that, thank you for the advice."
Olivia smiled back graciously. "You're welcome, Charles. Have Arthur's and my breakfast sent to the Nursery."
She left him standing there, watching her leave. Where had he ever gotten the impression she cared about his problems? Every single one of the circle seemed to be laboring under a similar delusion lately. It probably had something to do with Arthur's latest project. He didn't have much time to run the manor, these days. They probably expected her to do it. They were mistaken.
As she made her way carefully down the stairs, her hand on the banister and her heels clicking arrythmically. By now, she could hear the faint sound of Arthur at work. Smiling, wondering how his luck was, she slipped a little. She hated these stairs, they really weren't wide enough to walk on comfortably in high heels. Why did men never take the time to think of these things? It baffled her. But perhaps Arthur could be persuaded to have them replaced. Olivia had no idea what it took to replace an entire four-story staircase, and she didn't care. It was possible, and that was enough for her.
When she finally got down to the basement, the screaming was much louder, although still slightly muffled. She noticed with irritation that all six side doors were closed. The door at the end, though--the one that led to Arthur's study--was ajar. She strode over and went in, without bothering to knock. Arthur looked up, his blue eyes harrassed, until he recognized her and smiled.
"Livia!" he exclaimed, and set down his book. "What are you doing up so early?"
"Early?" she laughed. "It's nearly ten, darling."
Arthur blinked in surprise as he came around the desk to take her hands. "You're joking! Why haven't they summoned me for
Olivia laughed again. "When was the last time you came upstairs for a meal? And anyway, the staff is apparently incompetent and the circle had forgotten they were magicians, until I reminded them. Breakfast isn't ready yet. I told someone to bring ours down here. How's it coming along, Arthur?"
Arthur's eyes shone with weary excitement. "Number four is showing some promise, but we've still a long way to go with her. So I'm going to hold onto the others."
"Come here, let me show you," he said, pulling her eagerly back into the Nursery.
He went to the fourth door and grinned at her. He flung it open almost triumphantly. The woman inside, who was the one screaming, didn't notice them. Her matted black hair was plastered to her dark cheeks with tears. She was screaming in agony or terror or both, with her eyes squeezed tightly shut. Though somewhat underfed, her belly was swollen.
"She's further along than I expected," Olivia commented, raising her voice above the woman's cries. "How much longer?"
"I'm not exactly sure," Arthur said. "She wouldn't talk to me. I think she's about seven months, give or take a little. I'm trying not to get my hopes up, but, I have to tell you, Livia...I think she might be the one."
His eyes gleamed with enthusiasm. Olivia leaned over and kissed him. She loved to see him like this, filled with boyish excitement. It almost made up for her lonely nights, to see him this absorbed in doing something that really mattered. She smiled at him, and he took her face in his hands. He kissed her forehead and whispered, "It's going to work, Livia. I can feel it. We're getting closer. It's really going to work."
Silence fell abruptly. Olivia and Arthur broke apart, and turned to the woman chained to the wall. She was staring at them now, watching them with expressionless black eyes. For a moment, no one moved. Then, sighing, Arthur pulled a knife out of his belt and stabbed her through the heart. Her eyes turned brown, already glossing over with death, as a plume of black smoke escaped her up through the ceiling.
Olivia raised an eybrow at her husband. "Why did you kill her?"
"Waste of time," Arthur shrugged. "I have five more, and time marches on. I don't need Hnikarr in there clinging to every moment. I've not the patience."
Olivia didn't spend much time in the Nursery after that. It was all well and good for Arthur, and she supported him fully, but she had better things to do. At this point, his experiments were getting far too precise for her to help him, without having been there for every moment all along. So she left him alone, and made sure the maids brought him quite enough to eat. In the meantime, she focused on her own powers. She had very little she actually wanted to accomplish, except for replacing the Nursery stairs. She was hesitant to do so, though, since Arthur used them. Olivia worried that he would need to come upstairs, looking for a certain book, and the stairs would be gone. So she left the steps alone and settled for pettier magics.
One night, as she was washing her face before bed, she heard the door open and close. Arthur. Neither the magicians nor servants were stupid enough to intrude on her without knocking. She rinsed and dried her face without any undue haste. When she stepped out of the bathroom, Arthur was sitting on the bed, drooping.
"What's wrong dear?" she asked, without feigning an innocent tone like her mother would have. Arthur loved her for her independence. "Another one of them died?"
"Another one," Arthur repeated dully. "Another one..."
She knelt down in front of him, and stroked his hair, until his blue eyes met hers. "You told me yourself, you were getting closer. It's only a matter of time, and you always knew it would never be easy."
"I got the amulet perfected." He sounded almost as though he were pleading. "They don't get possessed any more, not like that last one you saw. But they die, Livia. The strain is too much and they die. None of them are strong enough. I've killed five since you came down last week, and only the first two were possessed. I don't know what else to do."
Olivia's heart broke. She could hardly bear to see him like this. "Arthur," she murmured, still stroking his hair. "Arthur. Don't fret, my love. Don't lose hope. It WILL work. If anyone can make it work, it's you."
Arthur looked down at her, looking exhausted but not quite defeated. He ran his hands lovingly through her hair, along her face and neck. Then he bent down and kissed her. At the same time, they both stood up, Olivia noting with pleasure that they could still read each other, even after all this time and stress. He wrapped his arms around her, and buried his face in her neck. His breath was warm against her shoulder as he whispered, "Livia, what would I ever do without you?"
Olivia's heels again clicked on the marble floor as she made her way toward the Nursery staircase. She placed her hand on the banister to support her on the horrible steps, but then hesitated and took off her shoes. She held them in her left hand, with her right still on the banister, as she went down barefoot instead. It was much more comfortable. She was able to reach the Nursery much more quickly, without any fear of falling. When she reached the bottom, she put her shoes back on, and headed toward the open door, number two today. She could hear the woman weeping, and shouting horrible things at Arthur, who was obviously in there to check on her.
For the first time, Olivia found it disturbing. She ignored the feeling, and stepped into the pen. Arthur didn't immediately notice her, as he was making notes on his clipboard. The dishelved blonde woman, her tummy barely even showing she carried a child, screeched something and spit in his face. He wiped it off with the ease of long practice and continued writing.
"Arthur," Olivia said, ignoring the woman's hateful stare. Arthur jumped and turned around.
"Livia! I didn't hear you come down. Go wait for me in the study, I'll be done here in a few moments."
Obediently and--though she hated to admit it--gratefully, Olivia swept into the study and shut the door. With the screaming a touch quieter, she allowed herself a small smile. Gently she ran her fingers across Arthur's desk and over the books he'd been reading that day. They were, without exception, specialized books about exorcising demons. Some were thicker than others, but none of them were light. Arthur really was trying his best. Olivia was so proud of him.
"Was there something you needed, dear?"
She turned around and saw him, standing there, and for a moment didn't know what to say. He was so handsome, so perfect, so
wonderful. How had she ever been lucky enough to find him?
"Livia?" he asked, his voice laughingly concerned. He could tell she was happy, but also that there was something on her mind. He knew her so well. "Are you all right?"
Olivia couldn't help laughing back at him. "All right? Arthur, I'm perfectly all right. I have the most wonderful news to tell you. But not here, you have to come with me upstairs."
Arthur smiled, a bit bewildered, as she led him back through the Nursery. He gave her a strange look when she took her shoes off at the base of the stairs, but took them courteously so she wouldn't have to hold them while they climbed. He kept laughing and asking her what was so important and why she couldn't tell him in the Nursery? He had work to do. But Olivia just smiled and told him to be patient, but didn't mention that the Nursery was starting to frighten her. All those pregnant women, practically condemned, so that their children could be given to that demon of Arthur's, what was his name. The uncomfortable truth was that Olivia now had a reason to see herself in them.
When she finally told him, Arthur was so happy, and Olivia herself could not have been more pleased. He took her out to dinner, for the first time in years, to celebrate. They had so much to talk about. What if it was a boy? Arthur had so many plans for a son, and Olivia could tell he really wanted it to be a boy. Olivia promised herself that if it was a girl, she wouldn't be burdened with any of the beauty habits she'd been saddled with. Any daughter of Arthur's and Olivia's was bound to be beautiful anyway. But Arthur kept dragging the conversation back to his son. Olivia hoped, for her husband's sake, that it was a boy. And personally, she felt she could be a better mother to a boy.
After dinner they even went dancing, which they had never done before. They swayed in each other's arms, eyes closed, still daydreaming. Arthur's hand went to her belly, as if he couldn't wait to touch his son. Olivia laughed, and covered his hand with her own. It was, without a doubt, the happiest night of their marriage. They were going to have a baby.
Their good mood lasted for days. The other magicians in the circle mostly stayed out of their way, but when they were forced to interact they were all smiles and cheer. Olivia was in her element. Everyone admired her, everyone wanted to congratulate her. The braver ones even asked to touch her belly, where the baby was. It was exhilarating, and infectious.
Everyone seemed to pick up on her mood. She heard laughter much more often lately, as she swept through the house. Arthur was just as pleased as Olivia. Even when his latest subject died, he didn't lose hope.
"You were right, my love," he murmured into her hair. "It's just a matter of time, none of them are strong enough."
Olivia smiled into his cheek. It would all work out, now. Arthur would find success at last, and stop these experiments. He would come back to her. She was going to have a baby, and there was nothing that could take that away from her.
That night, Olivia dreamt that she was sitting in the Nursery, listening to the women crying. She didn't remember it very well, but she didn't think it would be quite classified as a nightmare. Although it was unpleasant, she knew she was safe. The only part she really recalled was the sound of Arthur's voice, whispering something in her ear. She didn't see him there, in the Nursery, but his voice was so clear she thought it might even be real.
Throughout her pregnancy, Olivia studiously avoided descending into the Nursery. It made her too uncomfortable. Arthur understood, and even took to having meals upstairs with her. He was so sweet. She was, as always, his number one concern. How was she feeling? Did she need anything? Was she still getting sick? All these questions and more, all about her. He wanted to make sure her pregnancy was perfect, he said. She appreciated it more than she could possibly say.
For herself, Olivia spent her free time wandering the halls in bedroom slippers. She was gaining weight now, and she didn't want to hurt the baby falling in her heels. So she scuffed her way into this room and that room, trying to decide what would be best for her child. There was a room on the third floor she thought might do, although she would have to fire the maid that currently lived there. There was another on the second floor that she liked, which was going to have to be converted into a bedroom. At the same time though, she thought perhaps it would be best to keep the baby in with her and Arthur. She couldn't decide, and it was really starting to bother her. So, taking a deep breath, she made her way down to the Nursery.
The sound of it came up the stairs to her, and thinking about the origin nearly made her sick. But she perservered, determined to hear Arthur's opinion on the baby's bedroom. There was, however, something strange about the sound, today. Something that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. Frowning, she walked faster. It sounded even stranger the closer she got. With curiosity beginning to replace her fear, Olivia stepped into the Nursery hall, looking for Arthur, when she realized what it was.
It was a baby crying.
"It worked?" she cried. "Arthur, love, is that a baby? It finally worked?"
As she hurried toward the pen, Arthur stepped out of it. There was a strange, hesitant look on his face. Olivia frowned again. Something was wrong, and she couldn't put her finger on what. If only that baby would shut up, she'd be able to think. But no, it was still bawling, probably upset that it was pos--
That was stupid of her. Possessed people were mute, everyone knew that. Demons could neither speak nor understand speech. If the baby was crying, that meant it hadn't worked after all. No wonder Arthur looked so upset. He'd tried so hard, and now one of the women had given birth and it hadn't worked. She looked at him, speechless, trying to find the right words.
"Oh, Livia," he breathed, and reached out to touch an amulet around her neck. She'd never noticed that one before, but she had so many she shouldn't have been surprised. "I didn't mean for you to find out like this."
It was a boy. They'd wanted a son, and now they had him. He had black hair just like both his parents, but Olivia could never really tell who he looked more like, what with the chubby baby face. She and Arthur looked too similar. So instead of trying to figure it out, she held him in her arms, and rocked him just as she'd imagined doing for months before he was born, before she'd realized what Arthur had done. Olivia rocked her son in her arms and tried to choke out a lullaby between her sobs. Every morning when she woke up, she'd kneel by the crib and watch him until he woke up, so that she could see his eyes. Even though she knew it was pointless, every morning she convinced herself his eyes would be blue like his parents'. They never were, no matter how many times she told herself they would be, no matter how bitter her tears. They were always coal black.
So she rocked him and she wept for him and she prayed for him to cry, just once, so she would know he was there. But the baby never made a sound. Arthur tried to tell her that everything was fine, that everything would be all right. She threw a chair at him. Nothing would ever be all right. Panicky, she went through every exorcism book in Arthur's formidable library, looking for something, anything, that could help her free her child. But there was nothing.
As she sat there, her throat too tight to weep or sing, holding her baby boy, she tried to wrench her eyes away from his. She couldn't bear to look at him. So instead, she looked around the room. A glimmer of gold caught her eye. Bundling her son close to her, she got up and walked to the nightstand. It was a picture frame. She reached down to dust off the glass, since it had been ignored for months. Even through the dust, though, the picture of her first wedding was clear.
Daniel. Daniel would help her.