A snippet from The Binding…
…by Victoria Clapton
My short walk to Jackson Square had a surreal, rapturous feel to it, heightened by a lone musician, sitting on a darkened stoop, playing an empyrean melody that transcended passersby into a higher realm of awareness. As my first full day here in New Orleans began to wind down, I was beginning to understand that this wonderfully overwhelming energy of always “going with the easy flow” was not only tangible but also never-ending.
So far, I had yet to look out onto the street and find it empty. People were constantly moving about. With the daylight long-faded, the artists and musicians had mostly packed up their belongings, instrument cases, and easels, leaving behind the empty spaces they had occupied by day open for evening tarot readers to set up folding card tables which they would cover in scraps of velvet and satin and glowing candles as they waited for curious tourists to inquire about their future.
I took a moment to gaze up at the brightly-lit stained glass windows of St. Louis Cathedral. The various colors sparkled brightly over the night, serving as a bright beacon of hope for the city. This magnificent display of Catholicism stood erect only twenty feet away from the myriad of card readers, and in some unexplainable way, they seemed to fit well beside each other.
Following a whim, I passed several nice restaurants and boutiques as I made my way to the crosswalk where I could safely cross Decatur Street and climb up the levee to Artillery Park. From the street, I could not see the river that I knew to be close, but I had a hunch that I would be able to see it once I’d climbed all the stairs to the top.
My hunch was dead on. The views from the park were nothing less than stunning. In fact, this was the perfect spot to see Jackson Square and the cathedral in all of its magnificent glory.
And when I turned in the opposite direction, I was instantly filled with delight. Before me was the Mississippi River. I turned in a semi-circle, not sure which view I should marvel at first, until I realized I could walk down the other side of the levee and actually go to the riverfront.
A British family standing near me taking pictures was about to do just that, and I overheard them call the walkway that ran beside the river “the Moonwalk”. Not wanting to intrude upon their space, I waited for them to walk down before I headed in the same direction.
For as long as I could remember, I have been drawn to water. It has a calming effect on my mind when my its workings feel electric, and it was here at the waterside where lights were found dancing off the water ripples that I finally sat down on an empty park bench and let go of the first-arrival urge to rush around New Orleans.
City lights cast prism rainbows upon the water while soft white lights from the bridge and a slowly passing riverboat cast an older, more orange tinge upon the tiny waves. The combined illuminations decorated the waters of the Mississippi.
Lost inside my head, in my own creative world, allowing only a polite nod or smile, I mostly ignored the few people that walked by while I daydreamed about what might happen next. So far, my spur-of-the-moment decision to uproot my life had been a fortuitous adventure. Smooth and exciting, I had high hopes for the future days ahead. That is…until I was approached by a pair of strangers.
“What is a pretty thing like you doing out here all alone? How about some company, sweet thing?”
I looked up from the haze of my lazy river dream to see a man and a woman dressed in the popular Victorian Steampunk fashion that I admired but had never really had the money to try.
“I am enjoying some peace by the river.” This was my reply, for I did not wish for company. I hated to seem rude, so I didn’t say whether the two could join me or not.
As if in a choreographed dance, the two of them moved fluidly around opposite sides of me, taking up the remaining room on both ends of the bench. They were uncomfortably too close for strangers, and I felt trapped.
While I tried to figure out what sort of situation I was in, I took in their appearance much closer. The man and the woman were unnaturally good-looking and flawless, in a creepy way that seemed inhuman. Both were shorter than me. The female had brown doe-like eyes and doll-like ringlet hair that should, but didn’t, make her seem innocent rather than sinister. The accompanying gentleman had a lighter chestnut colored hair that he wore at shoulder length, and his eyes were light in color, possibly green. Their angular appearance was so model-perfect, so similar to one another that they could have been either siblings or perhaps, twin flame lovers.
Not enjoying their sudden invasion to my space, I moved, in an attempt to rise from the bench.
“Where are you going, pretty thing? We were just about to get to know one another.” The woman declared possessively.
“Zyl, this one smells like…” The man’s voice sounded slightly worried, but his concern bothered the woman little.
Cutting him off, she focused on me, “Now, what brings you to our city?”
As she spoke, she brushed her fingers through my hair, and I had to keep myself from shivering. These were the type of night walkers that Aloysius had warned me to avoid while out in the ancient streets. I was not frightened as I perhaps should have been at being cornered by two freakish strangers, but I instinctively knew I should get away from them as fast as possible.
Both of the creeps leaned in closer to me, the woman moving to re-position my hair. My hand knocked hers out of the way as I tried to stand up again. This time, they both grabbed an arm, holding me down as the female draped her arm around my shoulders. This was not good. I needed to get away from these nuts.
“Zylphia Lynum and Ambrose Northgood, I believe you are needed elsewhere.” A strong voice, filled with distaste, emanated from the shadows behind the bench where we sat, and I recognized it immediately.
Again my body betrayed me. The two moved away from me instantly, disappearing into the night without a word, and I should have left too. Yet, I remained sitting there, frozen, not by fear, but by the same deep yearning that had brought me blindly to New Orleans.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said as he stepped into the light where I could see him.
I desperately wanted to give a snarky come back but was immediately taken aback as I found myself speechlessly gaping at Demien instead. He was standing there beneath the lamplight in a stunning greatcoat, as if he’d just stepped out of a Jane Austen novel. It was a humid night. He should have been sweating in that coat, but he seemed comfortable. Goddess in heaven and hell, he was gorgeous.
Silence wrapped around us as he gracefully sat down beside me, making no noise at all except for the rustle of a white paper bag he carried in one hand. In his other hand, he carried a cup. Both Aloysius and Josephine had warned me to stay away from this man, but I was pretty sure he’d just gotten me out of a dangerous predicament. Plus, curiosity and questions overwhelmed me.
“You know those two creeps?” It wasn’t the best question. Obviously, he did know them.
“Why are you out here alone at night?” he snapped. His sheer disapproval was emphasized with his last three words.
…because this is a free country. I am a grown woman. It’s none of your business.
I thought all of those things and worse, but did not say any of them.
“Zylphia and Ambrose are…they won’t bother you again. You are fortunate that I saw you walking to the riverside alone. If you intend to stay in this city, and I suggest you don’t, you must learn caution and common sense. If you want to see the city at night, take one of the Touchets along for protection.”
My mouth was wide open in disbelief. I could feel the night air on my teeth. I knew I looked foolish. The tone of his voice had shifted from anger to great concern. I didn’t understand.
“It’s beautiful,” I mumbled. All of my years of arguing with my father and brothers should have aided in dealing intelligently with this over-opinionated man beside me, but no…I, once again, had said something stupid.
“Yes, this city is a unique place,” he concurred.
“Especially at night. At least I think so. I’ve only viewed a small section since I moved here two days ago. Tonight was my first venture out.”
“And you attracted their attention…” Beneath the street lamps his face showed no emotion, yet I sensed confliction within him. “Here.”
“What’s this?” I wondered as I took the bag without a thought.
“Beignets and a cup of café au lait. You passed right by Café Du Monde and didn’t stop.”
“You were watching me?” True, my friends had warned me to stay away from him, but I thought their warnings came from his being a total malcontent, not because he was a stalker.
“A friend owns a bar down the street. I saw you pass by, noticed you were alone, and assumed that since you were being foolish, you would need my help.”
He’d insulted me again.
“Where do you get off? That’s the second time you’ve insulted me. You don’t even know me.” I couldn’t believe his audacity. I also couldn’t believe how much his opinion hurt me. I didn’t even know him. Why should I care if he liked me or not? I’d spent my life living with people who didn’t like me.
“You’d be well on your way to dead had I not been waiting on you to do something ill-advised. No one would have batted an eye. Locals are well-acquainted with your type. You come here in search of good times and a flirt with the supernatural, but you have no idea what really waits lurking in the shadows. You get yourself in trouble, and then we have to clean up the mess. Eat your beignets before they cool off.”
“Dead? What are…?”
“Eat and drink a little of that coffee.”
“I don’t want…”
“Sybella Rose,” he said my name as if it were painful to pronounce, as if those two words were much more than just my name.
He knew my name…probably from the same source that I learned his.
“Demien…” I hesitated because his facial expression twitched when I spoke his name. He seemed to be struggling with something. “Look, you are right. I don’t know what I am doing, but here is where I am meant to be. It’s the only place I can be.”
Before finishing what I had to say, I pulled out one of the beignets covered with powdered sugar from the bag and took a bite, failing to keep the messy white sugar from getting on everything.
Oh hell, I was going to die of overwhelming delectable-ness of food in this town. Not wasting time on words, I held up the bag to Demien to offer him one of the fluffy little pillows of awesomeness. He declined as he pulled napkins out from a jacket pocket and waited for me to finish off the doughy square.
When I came up for air, I asked. “What were they?”
“What? Not who or why…”
“No, what?” I insisted. As a great consumer of fiction novels, I am aware of all manner of creatures that go bump in the night. “There are two kinds of beauty. One, like the kind Aloysius and Josephine carry, is physically appealing, but their real attractiveness comes from their soul. They are both true individuals.”
“And the other kind?” He sounded like he didn’t want to hear the answer.
“Well, like those two who were just here, their beauty is distracting, nasty, sneaky, oily…wrong.”
A low deep rumbling sound erupted from Mr. Cranky himself. I looked over to see that Demien was laughing.
“WHAT they are doesn’t matter. You probably wouldn’t believe it if you knew, and even if you did believe it, knowing the truth never benefits the person who knows. They almost always end up dead or worse.”
I detected bitter truth in his words and wondered what made him such a pessimistic entity. “Okay, so illuminate me on this. I have supposedly walked into a situation I am not equipped to handle, but I’m not allowed to learn the truth so that I may be better informed so that I may be safe because the truth is also danger. Demien, what do you propose I do? And do NOT say leave the city!”
I carefully closed the paper bag, sealing in the freshness, so that I could eat the other two beignets later and sipped on my café au lait as I waited on him to speak.
“Learn what you can from Josephine, anything and everything she might teach you. Eat at least one meal a day from Aloysius’ kitchen. And wear this always. Never take it off.”
He was removing an oval amulet from his neck, a black stone embellished with a faded silver fleur-de-lis. As he placed the necklace around my neck, careful not to entangle it with my hair, his eyes caught mine. I leaned in closer to him. I could not help it. I needed to be nearer to him. My fingers reached up, desperate to touch the lines of his face. I wanted to kiss him.
Demien moved to the far side of the bench fluidly, like the scary two had moved, and quickly.
“Sybella Rose, stop. I am more dangerous to you than those two ever could be. Do as I said, all that I said. And don’t seek me out. This amulet will deter others like me from harming you. It will not, however, protect you from me.”
He was gone before I could reply, and I was left with an intense yearning to yell at him again. I looked all around me in every direction. After all of that, I didn’t believe for a second that he had disappeared completely, leaving me, once more, alone in the big bad dark. But he was nowhere in sight. When I stood up, I realized I was gripping his amulet. Again, I felt a sense of wrongness within me. I should be scared, but I was not. Instead, irritation and suspicion filled me.
. . .