Don’t get killed on Devil’s Night.
I thought I was close to figuring out the truth about the mysterious death of my roommate. But Blackfriars University still holds her secrets close.
In the name of the Father…
Father Sebastian Pearce – my priest, my teacher, my friend. The man who tempted my into sin with that rich, commanding voice. The man who had me over an altar...in the biblical sense. The one man in the world I’m forbidden to love.
William Windsor-Forsyth – the dark prince who shattered my heart into a thousand pieces. He’s as cruel as he is beautiful, and he’s back to make sure I don’t forget that he’s royalty and I’m the freak.
...and the Holy Spirit…
In a moonlit ceremony of obscenity and excess, the Orpheus Society made me one of their own. But that doesn’t mean I’ll keep their secrets. I’m here to expose a killer, even if the price of justice is betraying the two men I love.
I’ve said my prayers,
and poured my libations.
The old gods are listening.
They demand sacrifice.
Brutal Boys Cry Blood is a dark bully romance and part two of the Dark Academia series. If you enjoy tales of clever heroines, ancient rites, secret societies, cruel princes and wicked priests, dusty libraries and decadent parties, twisted relationships and buried secrets, then prepare to enter the halls of Blackfriars University. You may never return.
Release date: December 10, 2021
Publisher: Bacchanalia House
Print pages: 402
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Brutal Boys Cry Blood: A dark college romance
No one is looking for me.
No one can hear me scream.
I scream anyway, because that’s what you do, isn’t it? That’s what you do when there’s a monster under the bed and your dad is at a late-night film shoot in heaven and you have to face it all by yourself.
I scream, and my voice coils back on itself in the claustrophobic space. It grows talons that rake across my skin.
I scream, and weirdly, I feel better.
Okay, not better, exactly. Because I’m still walled into this pitch-black room with no way out. But I feel calmer. I stop screaming and lean my back against the wall and think.
I’m George Fisher. I’ve thought myself out of worse scrapes than this. None come immediately to mind, but still…
Claws didn’t keep me around last year because of my excellent karaoke skills. We get along so well because she does the slaying and I do the thinking. And if I can help my best friend run a criminal empire, then I can figure a way out of this room.
Why am I in this room? Who put me here? Is it some enemy of Claws, trying to blackmail her into submission? Or is this to do with the Orpheus Society? Or Keely’s family—
No. Don’t think about the why. That way lies only madness. I suck in a deep breath. Focus on the problem in front of you.
Right. How to get out of this cell.
I’ve already checked the room for possible tools I can use to break out. Nothing. I stood on my tiptoes and scraped my fingers against the ceiling, but it seems to be solid stone. The only exits from the room are the three windows – the one that faces into the church for receiving communion and the one the anchoress’ maid handed food through are too small for me to fit through. But there’s the third window, facing out into the walled graveyard where the monks are buried.
I cross the room and examine the window with my hands. It has old wooden shutters that I might be able to break, but the window is covered by three metal bars that seem pretty fixed in place. If I can get the shutters off, I can call for help, but the graveyard isn’t exactly frequented by people—
But the church is.
Even though the campus has emptied out, and even though both Sebastian and Father Duncan have gone to their priest summer camp for the next few weeks and there won’t be services, the church can’t remain empty. The college runs tours, the cleaners have to dust the holy objects…someone will come in.
“Help, help!” I beat my fists against the shutters on the tiny window. It’s locked from the other side, but if someone is nearby, they’ll hear me.
Please, hear me.
After a few frantic minutes, my arms aching and my fists bleeding, I collapse back against the wall. There’s obviously no one in the church right now. I’ll wait a little and try again.
I lean back against the stones and fight to calm the panic rising inside me. Imagine being walled up inside this room for your whole life. Imagine choosing this.
The anchoress who lived here gave up her worldly life to make her home in this tiny cell, to commune with God and the angels. She became anchored to the church, a tether to the spiritual realm around which her community could congregate. But was it God’s presence within these walls that made her holy, or was it her sacrifice? Did the very act of giving herself to God, of stripping her life of everything but these four walls, allow her to see the unseen?
Is God here, in this place?
It’s a strange question for an atheist to ask, but what can I say? Gods have been showing up as a theme in my life lately, and the duality between Sebastian’s faith and the Orpheans’ rapture became obvious when he lay me on the altar and made me come so hard I could believe in God.
The anchoress’ asceticism, the Bacchanalia, the cilice Sebastian showed me in the sacristy: it’s all the same – humans eternally searching for ekstasis, for the joyous rapture of giving your body and spirit completely over to a god, to be possessed in every way until you are outside of yourself, until you’re beyond the veil of human suffering.
It requires something I don’t possess, will never possess – the ability to let go, to throw oneself over a cliff and trust in something you can’t see or understand to catch you. I like being in control of my body. I like my mind doing its thing without divine interference. I need to hold back a little of myself to keep safe.
Having a god barge into your head uninvited is a terrifying thought.
Although not as terrifying as slowly starving to death in an ancient anchorhold.
And once a god is possessing your body, how do you make him leave? How do you know he’s not still there all the time, directing you like a puppetmaster—
Why didn’t I think of it before?
It’s so simple. I leave the way I came in.
Whoever placed me in here couldn’t have used the windows – the size and the bars prevent that. So unless they dropped me through some hatch in the roof (unlikely, since I don’t have any broken bones), they must have removed some of the stones and pushed me through the wall.
The rough stones jab into my spine. I cast my mind back to when I first woke up in the cell. I heard a scraping noise – probably the stones being mortared into place. They probably used a quick-set mortar, but even so, I can’t have been in here for that long. I might be able to wiggle the stones free somehow or—
Holy shit. Dad’s toolkit.
I dig my hand into my pocket. As soon as I touch the case, my lungs fill with the familiar scent of my father – black coffee and fresh aftershave and prosthetic latex. I know it’s my brain tricking me into conjuring a scent memory, but in the gloom, I can almost believe it’s something more…that Dad’s here with me, looking out for his little girl.
Thank you, Daddy.
How did I not remember I had this with me? How did whoever stuck me in here not think to check my pockets?
I click it open, my fingers sliding over the familiar shapes until I find what I need. A tiny screwdriver. I feel around on the walls until I touch mortar that crumbles in my fingers. It’s set, but not hard as stone like the rest of the room. I set the screwdriver into the mortar, draw back my hand, and hit—
I suck on my bruised finger. Ow ow ow. Who would’ve thought trying to chisel an ancient rock in the dark is so damn difficult?
I take a smaller, more precise swing this time. The screwdriver slides into the mortar. Chunks fall around my feet. I cough as dust swirls around me. This is going to be a problem. The more mortar I chip away, the more dust I’ll create.
Keep going. If it becomes a problem, I’ll bust through the wooden shutters to let in fresh air.
I pound the screwdriver until my arm aches and my eyes sting from the dust. I grab the stone and wiggle it, but it still won’t move. Tears sting at the corners of my eyes, but I don’t know if it’s from the irritation or the sinking realization that it’s going to take hours of work to get these stones free, and my throat is dry and my head’s spinning and my limbs are starting to tremble from hunger. I fight back a coughing fit and move the screwdriver to the next stone. I bring my hand back. I swing, and the hammer hits the screwdriver, but the screwdriver doesn’t sink into the mortar, because the mortar is no longer there.
The entire brick wall crumbles away.
Dust encircles me in a cloud so thick and complete that even though light penetrates the wall, I can’t see what’s on the other side. Stones drop on my feet and scrape my legs.
I stagger back, trying to scream but unable to push sound through my parched mouth, as a pair of monstrous hands reach through the dust and grab me.
I claw at the wall of my prison as the hands drag me through the rubble. Who are you? What are you going to do to me?
I scream the questions inside my head, but it’s all I can do now to fight for breath as I’m dragged into the church. Bright sunlight burns through the faces of dead saints in the stained glass windows, blinding me so I can’t see the face of the person holding me. Are they my rescuer, or are they dragging me off to some even greater torture?
The hands rub my back and push my hair out of my face so I can gasp in fresh, incense-tinged air.
“Who are you?” I manage to choke out between dry, retching coughs. “Why are you doing this?”
“She’s a little disoriented,” a familiar voice says. Female, it drips with concern and comes from somewhere on my right. Not the voice of the person holding me.
“But she’s right as a trivet?” Another voice. Male. He sounds almost…frightened. “No injuries?”
Shapes move around me, crowding in on all sides, blocking the light – almost as claustrophobic as the walls inside the anchorhold. I shove and kick and cough and wail, trying to make enough space so I can understand. They clear away, and I reel back and finally, finally, open my stinging eyes enough to get a look at the man who pulled me to safety.
It’s Montague Cavendish.
Monty grins down at me as he pats me hard on the back. “No hard feelings, George old chap? It was just a little fun—”
I slap him across the face.
Monty reels, touching his cheek. Something that might be shock or rage flickers in his eyes, but he doesn’t do anything except whimper. My palm stings, but the pain fills me with righteous anger.
Behind me, Diana laughs, but it’s high-pitched, a little manic. “You’re fine, George. You’re perfectly fine.” She comes forward to wrap her arms around me.
I’m not fine. I’m shaking from head to toe. I’m dehydrated and my head pounds and I have no idea what the fuck is going on. I want to run. I don’t want to be surrounded by them, not right now. But my legs won’t work, so I sink against Diana, letting her vanilla and blackcurrant scent calm me.
“We were never going to hurt you, you do know that,” says Richard. “This was just a lark.”
“Every Orphean has to go through an ordeal as part of their initiation,” adds Tabitha. “It’s tradition. And you love traditions, don’t you, George?”
“You already had your room trashed, so we needed to think of something else to mark the occasion,” explains Percy. “We’ve done it before, but we see now that it’s awfully cruel, and we’re sorry.”
They all seem so penitent, their heads hung, their pale cheeks reddened with shame. But they’ve never felt shame about any of their pranks before. Monty didn’t act like this after the men’s bathroom, so why now?
What is this? Why are the Orpheans apologizing to me?
“George, we’re so so sorry.” Diana squeezes me so tight I taste vanilla and blackcurrant. The other Orpheans crowd in, talking over each other as they squeeze me so hard I worry my brains will pop out my ears. Sorry, so sorry.
“Back off her,” a deep, familiar voice booms.
The Orpheans leap away like I’m rigged to explode. I turn toward the voice. As the dust clears and the diffused light hits a spot in the pews, I recognize the hulk of a man sitting there, his eyes narrowed with menace.
The scarred face of Claws’ number one enforcer grins back at me. “Little George Fisher.” He strides across the church and wraps me in his enormous arms. “Are you hurt?”
“Not physically.” My mind is still reeling from the sheer terror of waking up inside the anchorhold. “What are you doing here?”
“You know Madeline and I live not far from here.” He sets me down on a pew in the chapel and checks me over to make sure I’m not hurt. “Claws sent me to watch out for you. She thought you might be in trouble, but you didn’t want her help, so she told me to stay in the background and only step in if you were in serious danger.”
He glares at the Orpheans, who all take a step back. Diana’s lip wobbles.
“She was never in danger from us,” Monty says with a pout. “We weren’t going to hurt her. Honest. It’s just a silly initiation stunt—”
“We’ve done this a hundred times before. The mortar in the bricks is old. You can slip them out and then wall them back up.” Percy scuffs the broken stone pieces with his wing-tip.
I wrap my arms around Tiberius’ thick neck. “Thank you. How long have you been following me?”
“Ever since you got back after the New Year. I saw this lot nab you and wall you in. They were whooping around, cracking bottles of piss while you screamed your head off.” Tiberius cracks his knuckles, and the Orpheans shrink away from him. “My duty is to set them straight on a few things.”
It’s then I notice the dried blood on Monty’s jaw, the fact that Richard’s holding a bloody shirt up to his face, and that Tabitha’s eyes are wide with fright.
I grin at Tiberius. “You made them set me free.”
“No, no,” Diana says. “We were already pulling the wall down, honest. We would never…”
Tiberius grins. Diana trails off. I turn to the Orpheans and study their contrite faces, and all the emotion of the last year rises up inside me. All the awful things they did to me, the way they went out of their way to make me feel less than them, and now they do this? And Keely, what the fuck did they do to my roommate?
“Why?” I demand. Why any of this?
Diana rushes forward and takes my hand. “You know why, silly. It’s your initiation.”
“Welcome to the Orpheus Society, George.” Monty holds out a bottle of Domaine Leroy. His arm trembles a little.
As one, the Orpheans throw their arms around me, laughing as they tell me how they planned this little trick especially for me, how I did so brilliantly, how much they were looking forward to having me as one of them. And though I should be terrified that they’ve decided I’m going to take Keely’s place, thrilled that I am officially in the inner circle, that I’m closer than ever to getting justice for my roommate and Khloe May and the poor dead person in Paris, the thought that consumes me is—
William’s not here.
These are his friends, his closest circle, and he’s not with them. Surely he’s supposed to be present when a new member is initiated. The Orpheans seem like the kind of secret society that expects current members to show up. So where is he?
And why, after everything he’s done, does thinking of him make my heart clatter in my chest?
“Wow.” I peer out the window at a grand country estate – a Georgian Hall covered in creeping ivy, like a house from a storybook. “Is that where Monty’s family lives?”
It’s a week after my initiation, and I’m squashed with Diana and Tabitha in the backseat of a Bentley, nose pressed hard up against a window as rolling hills and lush estates roll by. We’re somewhere in the Midlands, heading toward the country estate Monty declared would be our home base for the summer.
I’m supposed to be meeting Leigh in London tomorrow to start our backpacking adventure, but when I rang her to say I’m now a member of the Orpheans and Monty wanted me to join the society at ‘the estate,’ she said I had to do it. Monty declared that Leigh was welcome too, as long as she brought along some bottles of her famous mead. Aware that I still suspect the society of murdering my roommate, I don’t exactly want my new friend mixed up with them, but I also know I can’t keep Leigh away. Besides, I think they’re unlikely to try anything now they know Tiberius will be hanging around. He’s behind us right now, his bulletproof windows rolled down as he cruises along, banging his head to the heavy metal blasting from his stereo.
Just cruising down to the country estate with my secret society friends and my ex-enforcer bodyguard watching out for me. This is my life now.
The last week has been surreal. My quiet sojourn on campus turned into an endless parade of fancy-dress picnics, impromptu Greek oratory debates, and raucous partying until all hours of the morning. The Orpheans never seem to tire of each other’s company. They’re all intimidatingly clever and demand stimulation every hour of the day. I’m breathless trying to keep up with them.
I know at least some of them are dangerous. I know they’re hiding something. But I have to admit, being part of their group is intoxicating. We went to a restaurant on a country estate just out of Blackfriars Close, and when they saw Monty at the door, they ushered us into a private ballroom. Richard has keys to all these strange, hidden places in the campus, so on Tuesday, he snuck us into an old WWII air-raid shelter underneath the cricket pitch where we drank twenty-year-old Scotch and played backgammon until the wee hours.
And Diana…Diana is like a mythological creature. She’s the personification of her name – wild and ethereal. She makes even the most mundane activities feel magical – a walk in the woods, a shopping trip to buy soap. When she talks about Dionysos or Persephone or any of the Greek myths, her eyes sparkle with this inner light, like she knows things that she can only hint at to mere mortals. Hanging out with her can make even an atheist like me question if the old gods really exist.
Right now, she reaches across me and touches my cheek. “No, no, not that place. Look over there. That’s where we’re going.”
I whirl around just as the car turns into a driveway, passing beneath towering stone and ironwork gates that look more like they’re welcoming us to Jurassic Park than someone’s home. My breath catches in my throat as we sweep around a wide driveway lined with pink and white flowers, taking in rolling fields filled with fluffy sheep before climbing around a forested hill.
The house comes into view – a sprawling mass of neo-gothic arches and leaded windows nestled into the crook of the forest. A majestic garden and cascading water feature that would make Louis XIV blush stretches down the hillside. Just when I think it can’t possibly get any larger, another wing reveals itself. This is not a house, it’s a fucking palace. It makes my friend Gabe’s place, Blackwich Castle, look like a shack in the woods in comparison.
Monty lives here?
I mean, I know the Orpheans are all rich. I know that money in England is different from money in America. In Emerald Beach, I’ve been surrounded by wealthy kids my whole life – kids who live in tacky Barbie doll beach houses, drive showy cars, dress head-to-toe in luxury brands and gold plate everything. But this…this is…otherworldly.
It looks like the movie set for Pride and Prejudice. It looks like the kind of place that inspires peasants to lop off heads. It’s a fairy tale made flesh. I wind down my window and breathe in the blossoming honeysuckle as we round the winding driveway through verdant market gardens and avenues of trees into a large parking area covered in English Heritage signage. The forest stretches around the hillside, encircling the house like a magician’s cloak.
We pile out of the car. Tabitha smooths down her dress. An army of staff dressed in pristine uniforms circle the car and start unloading our bags, while Monty chases a tiny kitten around the parking lot.
We follow the staff through opulent reception rooms and an armory, past meandering tourist groups and into the deepest recesses of the house, where I have no hope of finding my way out again. In the guest wing, I’m shown to a room that’s larger than my entire house back in California. The oak-beamed ceiling stretches so high I have to squint to make out the mural painted between the carved beams – satyrs and maenads dancing, drawn in a Renaissance style, all flowing skirts and sensual hands. I run to the window and pull back the gauzy fabric to reveal a view of the shimmering artificial pool and grand fountain.
This is the kind of house William grew up in.
It’s so different from everything I’ve known. I feel like I understand him a little more, just being here. I touch my fingers to the heavy brocade bedspread. I mean, this place is magical, but it’s like stepping onto a movie set. It doesn’t feel like any of this furniture is supposed to be touched. It doesn’t feel like a home in the same way my mom’s dreamcatchers and salt lamps and Dad’s piles of old blues vinyl and horror film posters do. How do you be a kid in a place like this? What happens if you knock over a vase? Do you get sent to the dungeon?
When I first met William, I couldn’t imagine him ever being a kid. He rarely smiles, and looks like he came out of his mother all grim and posh and serious. And now that I’ve seen this place, I think I understand, at least a little. I mean, this is Monty’s house, not William’s, so maybe it’s different at his place. Less…off with their heads.
And there are so many sides to William – he might be serious, but he’s not at Blackfriars to become an investment banker. He’s a brilliant artist, and in his studies of water are all the emotions he refuses to wear on his skin.
Plus, there are all those stories I read about his parents, about their ‘swingers’ parties and wife-swapping and drug-fueled escapades. So perhaps not all country estates are painted with the same brushes. Perhaps William is—
I shake my head. I shouldn’t be imagining William anywhere or doing anything.
I’m not feeling sorry for the poor little rich boy who stomped all over my heart.
I fling open my suitcase, scattering clothes around as I hunt for something to wear to dinner. All my clothes feel so wrong for dining in a literal palace. Finally, I settle on a red tartan skirt and a men’s Septicflesh t-shirt – which I tie into a knot at my stomach – and some socks with tiny dinosaurs on them. I’m so obviously the odd one out in the group, I might as well embrace it.
It takes me a good hour to backtrack my steps through the vast rooms to reach the dining room. Hundreds of glittering candles light the banquet table, glinting off the gilded ceiling decorations but unable to penetrate the darkest corners of the room. Even though there are only nine of us, the table is set for thirty, so we spread out and have to shout at each other along the table length. Staff move around us constantly, bringing in dish after dish of food until I fear a Mr. Creosote situation. Monty keeps eating long after the rest of us retire to a nearby drawing room, the candles burning low around him as he licks meat juices from his fingers.
The rest of us crowd around tables beside a large carved fireplace. It’s too warm to light the fire. Instead, we throw open the enormous windows. Richard and Alfie pull their chairs over to the windows and smoke cigarettes, Percy collapses into an overstuffed chair with a book of poetry, while we girls crowd around a table and Fatima deals a game of poker. There are five girls and four boys – plus William makes five – the same as when I first saw the Orpheans draped over the fountain the first day at Blackfriars.
“Is there a significance in the number of members?” I ask as I study my hand. Might as well get as much information as I can, now that I’m part of the inner circle.
“There are always twelve members at the school at any time,” Diana says as she hands out rolls of poker chips. I breathe a sigh of relief that we’re not playing with real money. “Like the twelve apostles. Ten students, two faculty members. Some members believe Benet saw himself as the Jesus of the group. And there are ten students because the number ten is worshipped by Pythagoras.”
So I did take Keely’s spot.
“Who are the faculty members?” I have a pair of aces, but I match the current bets, not wanting to show too much enthusiasm. “I’m guessing one is Father Duncan.”
“Nothing gets past you, Georgie.” Fatima deals the other cards. “The other is Madame Ulrich. Have you met her? She tutors a few of us in the fine arts department.”
Oh yes, I’ve met her.
“George joined us for one of her figure-drawing classes,” Diana says as she deals again. I smile at her gratefully because she doesn’t bring up what happened in that class. “The Madame’s involvement is purely to smooth ruffled feathers in the faculty, making sure we don’t get in trouble with the college for any of the stunts we pull. She was a member when she was at school, so she’s automatically tapped, but she doesn’t come to the events or take an interest in our affairs. Not like Father Duncan.”
She casts a glance at Monty that betrays some meaning I don’t understand. My Miss Marple senses tingle. I knew from the photographs I’ve seen that Father Duncan attends Orphean events. At least, he was at last year’s Devil’s Night party, where Keely was last seen alive.
I pick up another ace, so when the betting begins again, I raise.
“You bluffing, George?” Matilda raises a perfectly sculpted eyebrow.
“I can bluff with the best of them,” I say in a deadpan voice. It’s clear that they’ve played a lot of cards together – they know each other’s tells. But I’m new. And I want to clean them out. I raise again, and Tabitha drops out.
The rest of us show our cards. To my surprise, I win. We play a few more rounds. Tabitha keeps our wine glasses filled and the girls share gossip about people I don’t know. I can’t quite manage to steer the conversation back to Father Duncan.
“I’m bored,” Diana gets to her feet. “I fancy a turn about the gardens. George, care to join me?”
“Sure.” I set down my untouched wine and trail after her.
Diana leads me through the winding passages with the confidence of someone who’s spent many summers here. She collects two pairs of rubber boots (Wellingtons, as she calls them) from a closet, and leads me out a narrow door into a walled kitchen garden. We follow the neat cobbled paths through rows of vegetables and herbs. Diana stops to pick a handful of strawberries that stain her lips pink. On the other side of the garden is a small iron gate leading to a forked trail.
“Would you like the formal garden or the meadow?” Diana asks.
We turn away from the neat parterres and Classical statuary, meandering down an irregular cobbled path that snakes between towering oaks and fluttering aspen. We pierce the edge of the trees and come out on the edge of a gentle slope, dotted with wildflowers of impossibly bright hues. The meadow stretches on for an eternity, only finishing on the edge of a shimmering lake that curls around the edge of the forest, its glass-like surface disappearing into the woods. A Tudor-style boathouse sits on the edge of the water.
“It’s beautiful,” I breathe.
“We’ll go boating tomorrow, if you want to,” Diana says as she sinks to her knees, spreading her skirt around her and threading her fingers through the long grass. “There’s a small island in the center that you can’t see from here. We like to picnic there—”
“Where are Monty’s parents?” I blurt out.
Diana blinks. “Who?”
“Monty’s parents. Are we really allowed to just wander around like this? We’ve been here for hours, making a mess, eating all their food, smoking in their house. I thought they’d at least introduce themselves…” I trail off as Diana’s husky laugh breaks the stillness of the night.
“Oh, but the Cavendish family don’t live here,” Diana says. “This is Forsyth Hall. It belongs to William’s family.”
How can this be William’s house? William never invited us. It was all Monty. He said—
Monty never said we were going to his house. He said we were going to ‘the summer place.’ I’d made the assumption it belonged to Monty’s family because I didn’t know you could show up to your friend’s palace unannounced and have their staff roll over themselves to provide for your every whim.
But apparently, that’s exactly what you can do if you’re Monty Cavendish.
“See that house over the hill, there?” Diana points. I plonk down beside her and follow her finger. If I squint, I can just make out a rooftop peeking over the tree line. “That’s the Cavendish estate. Monty only goes there if he’s summoned. His parents are awful. They’re both sadists. They get off on causing pain. They used to come to Sir Henry’s little soirees, but he stopped inviting them after they frightened all his friends. I cannot imagine the things Monty went through locked up in that house alone with them.”
I can’t resist this chance to learn more about William’s childhood. “So is that how Monty and William became friends?”
Their relationship confuses me. Monty is a profoundly odd person – a brilliant visual artist who at times seems to have the mind of a child. He can switch from kindness to cruelty. William coddles Monty like an indulgent big brother, but he’s also afraid of him. I have a sense the others are too, that they walk on eggshells around him.
“They’re more like siblings than friends. We all are. Since Monty learned to ride a horse, he’s been riding over here to spend time with William,” Diana says. “He even has his own room in the hall, filled with things Sir Henry and Lady Isabella brought for him – birthday presents for all the birthdays his parents ignored. William’s parents are like that – they loved to collect people, especially misfits, outcasts, those who don’t fit in with what our world demands of them. My mother has been friends with Lady Isabella since their bon vivant art school days in Paris. We’ve been coming to Forsyth Hall for the summer for as long as I can remember, so I suppose it feels natural to just show up now. Although my parents don’t come any longer. Not after the accident.”
I assume she means when William’s mother drowned. In this lake. I look over the shimmering mirror again. Its beauty has a disquieting edge.
How did a woman drown in water so calm?
I swallow. I have so many questions, but I choose the one she’s most likely to answer. “What was it like back in those days? Before William’s mother drowned?”
Diana stares across the meadow, her face pensive. “I presume you know all about William’s parents, about the swingers’ parties.”
I nod. There’s no sense denying it. The Orpheans know me now. They know I do my research.
“Right. Well, it wasn’t the way they portrayed it in the gutter press, as this sordid house of iniquity where our young minds were corrupted by our parents’ sins. It felt like living in a fairy tale. Sir Henry had no mind for children, of course. He treated us like tiny adults, and grew frustrated when we didn’t understand him or ruined his jovial parties with our tantrums and skinned knees. When you meet him, I think you’ll understand where William gets his…Williamness. But Lady Isabella adored us. She spent all year planning amusements for us – once, she had her gardeners construct an enormous topiary maze, and stacked boxes of toys in the center as prizes if we solved her labyrinth. Another year, she transformed an entire wing of the palace into Charlie’s chocolate factory, and we all got frightfully sick from eating ridiculous sweets all day and night. Once she brought in a menagerie of exotic animals. I still remember William’s face when a monkey peed down his back. You would have laughed to see it.”
I smile at that. It did sound fun. “What did William think of…all this?”
“He loved it and he hated it. William was frightfully lonely. His father barely spoke to him. Not out of malice, mind you. He simply didn’t understand kids. William didn’t have friends at school. He stood up to the kids who picked on Monty, and that made him a target, too. If you want to know why he tolerates Monty’s odd behavior, it’s because Monty was the only person his age who talked to him until we showed up in the summers.”
“Oh.” I twist a strand of grass between my fingers. I never expected my childhood of horror film sets and reading by myself in the corner of the playground to be similar to William, but I know loneliness all too well.
Diana continues. “William was close to his mother, of course. She was an artist herself – too flighty to make a career of it, but she had a decent eye. They’d spend hours out here, paddling on the lake, setting up their easels and painting the sky or the trees or the birds. But when his parents were together, no one else existed. They were so lost in their own world that they forgot about him. William did everything he could to get their attention, earn their respect. All those awards he won, those achievements he ticked off his list, it was all about getting them to see him. When his mother died, I think he dared to hope it might be better, that at least Sir Henry might cling to him. Instead, he clings to God. This house has become a pale shade of what it once was, and the ghost of Lady Isabella lurks around every corner.”
Diana looks out across the water with such intensity I wonder if she sees something I don’t. “It was better for William in the summer. The adults would disappear, sometimes for days at a time, but we friends had each other. It was many years before we realized our parents went to the island on the lake, or camped in the woods, or they were simply squirreled away in Sir Henry’s sex dungeon in one of the far-flung wings of the castle, having their orgies. We thought it was all perfectly normal. We didn’t know it was something to be hidden away, to be ashamed of, until we went away to our various boarding schools and the press started to get wind of it. William had the worst of it. He was at school with Monty, and the two of them were bullied mercilessly.” She smiles sadly. “Sometimes, in order to save yourself, you have to become the very thing you fear.”
It made a sick kind of sense. William said to me once that I didn’t fit. I made myself a target because I reminded people of everything they were afraid of. William said he was trying to protect me, but all this time he’s been a frightened boy trying to protect himself.
Is that why he broke us? Because he’s afraid?
I shake my head. I won’t entertain hope. Even if that’s why he did it, it doesn’t change the fact that we’re broken. I can’t put us back together again, and I don’t want to try.
Then why is your heart racing like a raccoon on crack ever since you heard this is his home?
Why are you asking all these questions, if not to understand William’s heart?
I turn off the tap in my mind, the dangerous drip drip drip of thoughts that lead back to William Windsor-Forsyth. And I focus on Monty. For the last year, he’s been the bogeyman at my back, the source of most of my dread and anguish. And now I feel like I understand a tiny bit of who he is behind the monster. It doesn’t mean I forgive him, but he doesn’t seem so scary anymore.
Instead, he seems sad.
Except that sad boy might’ve killed your roommate. Don’t forget why you’re here. You’re not making friends with these people. You’re exposing their crime.
“—you should probably know that most of us were conceived right here on the lawns or in the summerhouse or one of those opulent bedrooms,” Diana is saying. “It’s one of the reasons we embraced the Orpheus Society. It feels like an extension of what our parents were doing, like we’re reclaiming a piece of those halcyon days.”
“And the other reasons?” I ask.
Diana laughs, twirling her auburn hair around her delicate fingers. “Why, there’s an element of legacy to it, of course. Some of our parents were members – Monty’s mother, my father. But mostly because it’s just a bit of fun. It lends a bit of magic to the drudgery of life. Don’t you love it, George? Don’t you love being special?”
I smile despite myself. She’s right. When I went to their Bacchanal (or more accurately, when they kidnapped me and dragged me to their Bacchanal), what I saw was a typical college party with the trappings of an ancient religious cult. But I have to admit, as cults go, this one has some awesome trappings. I do feel special. I feel chosen. And George Fisher has never been chosen for anything in her life.
But then I remember what happened to the girl chosen before me, and my blood cools to ice.
“So,” I try to sound nonchalant. “Where is William this summer? Paris?”
“Where do you think?” Diana sips her drink. “Down by the pond, yearning dramatically.”
Diana points toward the boathouse. At first, I’m too transfixed by the shimmer of her ivory nail polish to see a thing. But then I spy a lone figure standing on the edge of the lake, hands in pockets, gaze turned across the water.
The urge to call out to him overwhelms me. Why is he just standing there? Why hasn’t he come to see his friends? But then I remember all those horrible things he said to me in front of them, and I lock my jaw. I won’t be the one to go to him. If he wants to sulk by the water, that’s his prerogative.
Diana reaches across and grabs my hand. “I know he hurt you, but he’s hurting, too.”
I open my mouth to say all the things I’m feeling, that I don’t care, that I do care, that I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, that if she weren’t here I might just throw myself into the water so I could drown while he watches, when Diana suddenly falls away from me. She squeals with delight as she rolls down the hill, her skirts flying around her shapely legs as she topples through the wildflowers.
“Come on, George!”
I lie down in the grass, breathing in the earthy scent. A delicate pink flower tickles my nose. I throw myself forward, laughing as the world bowls around me. Adrenaline sings in my veins as I roll over the soft grass. The meadow never ends, the gentle slope propelling me toward the lake, toward William.
I can’t remember when I ever felt so free.
At the bottom, I roll to a stop. Diana and I cling to each other, laughing. Bits of grass stick out of her hair, and wayward petals dust her skin. Maybe the Orpheans are dangerous, but I feel good about Diana. She’s kindness personified, a goddess of meadows and laughter.
Maybe she doesn’t know?
Maybe not all the Orpheans know the truth about what happened that night. When I was in the Cloister Garden on Devil’s Night, the only voices I heard were Monty, Keely, Tabitha, Abigail, and William. The rest of them were supposedly already at the party.
Or maybe I’m just indulging in wishful thinking. Maybe I don’t want to believe that someone like Diana could be involved in this. Maybe…
The laughter dies on my lips. My eyes are drawn back to the lake. William is still there, although he no longer looks out toward the horizon. Instead, his body is rigid as he watches us, the surface of his blue eyes rippling with the poetry of storms.
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