Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Baron Sabbath

by McCamy Taylor



"People have been called back from the dead."

Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse

Their picnic was cut short by a sudden summer storm. Wind whipped the palm trees, sending coconuts and dates flying in all directions. Water spouts danced across the ocean. The sky went from blue to black. Lightning struck the mast of a wrecked ship. The hull burned brightly in the darkness, until the rain came, a few drops at first, just enough to stir up the dust. And then a solid sheet of water fell from the clouds.

Baron Sabbath and the Queen's half-sister, Jeanne-Louisa crouched behind the counter of the vacant seaside oyster bar. The skies raged. Thunder assailed their ears. Lightning blinded them. In the darkness that followed, they held each other close. There was, the duchess declared, something delightfully erotic about summer storms.

"Death is an aphrodisiac," agreed the Baron.

"Really? No wonder you have so many mistresses." She shivered. "My, it's cold. I should have brought a shawl."

Boymere's foremost necromancer, the man referred to by friends and enemies alike as the Lord of the Dead, stripped off his black frock coat and draped it over the shoulders of his companion. She was wearing a strapless jonquil sundress which left most of her upper body bare. Her skin -- the color of burnt caramel and almost as sweet -- was covered with goose flesh. She sighed and turned up the collar of the coat.

"Have you thought about my proposal?"

Lightning illuminated the Baron's face. He was no longer young. Soon it would be time for him to abandon the skin he had worn for almost three decades. However, he was hesitant to part with the face that all of King's Town knew and loved.

"There's nothing to think about. The answer is no."

"But Rafe, it isn't as if anyone would get hurt -- "

His mouth closed over hers. Her heart pounded in time with his, but she refused to let passion distract her. When he finally came up for air, she added "The dead are just lying there, taking up space. In a few years, the cemeteries will be full, and then what will we do with the bodies? Feed them to the sharks like the Indigos -- "

Another lightning strike, this one nearby. The grim expression on the Baron's face frightened her.

"You're right," she murmured. "It's a silly idea."

####

Five Years Later

Summer nights on the island kingdom of Boymere were hot, but the Indigo was shivering. "This is it," the blueskin told his companions. He pushed aside the low lying branches of a hairy leafed tibouchina, revealing a moss covered boulder partially embedded in the side of the mountain. Startled, an owl took wing, a partially eaten mouse firmly clamped between its talons. The Indigo grimaced and ducked his head.

"You sure?" asked the bigger of the two thugs, a boxer who went by the name of Red Jack. A port wine birthmark covered the left half of his face, marring features that otherwise might have been handsome. In the moonlight, the red stain looked black.

"You expect us to move that?" exclaimed Red Jack's brother, Little Jack. Half a head shorter and fifty pounds lighter than his beefy sibling, Little Jack relied upon his blades rather than his fists. He carried a razor sharp corvo tucked into his belt, along with four throwing knives, two strapped to his wrists and one concealed in each boot. He took a long pull on the wine skin which he carried slung over his shoulder.

The Indigo licked his lips. After climbing for hours, he was parched, but the last time he had asked for a drink, Little Jack had snarled something about wasting good wine on a dead man. "There's a switch. Somewhere over there." The Indigo pointed to the left edge of the boulder. "The men were aristos. Soft hands. Silk coats." Not the kind to do manual labor. "One of them pushed a switch and the rock rolled aside, and the three of them went in. I saw it."

"Five years ago," grunted Red Jack. "How do you know they haven't come back since then to get their treasure?"

The Indigo did not know. He was not even sure that there was treasure. He knew only that three noblemen had entered the cave carrying something in a large leather sack, and when they emerged the sack was empty. "It had to be treasure. What else would three aristos hide in a cave in the dead of night?" Trying to reassure himself as much as his captors. Hugo Chevre had called in his gambling debts. If he did not make an interest payment tonight, Hugo would seize his sixteen year old daughter, Sylvie, and sell her to a brothel.

"If there's treasure in there, why didn't you come back to claim it for yourself?" demanded Little Jack, the smarter of the two brothers.

The Indigo had been tempted many times over the last five year as his gambling debts mounted. However, one of the aristos was the famous necromancer, Baron Sabbath. Necromancers could kill a man with a word -- and then resurrect him as one of the Soulless, a fate worse than death. Up until tonight, the possible reward had never quite seemed worth the risk. But now, with his daughter's freedom on the line, he was desperate enough to wager against Death himself.

Red Jack examined the edges of the boulder. "There's something here." A knob that felt too smooth to be natural. He pressed it. Nothing happened. He grabbed it between thumb and forefinger and gave it a twist. Slowly, the boulder began to shift.

Little Jack prodded the Indigo in the back with his curved blade. "You first."

The blueskin native paused in the entrance to the cave. The interior was dark, and it smelled like a tomb, damp and musty, with an overpowering stench of rot as if some wild beast had crawled inside to die.

"Move it!" Little Jack growled.

The Indigo ducked his head and shuffled forward, feeling his way in the darkness. Water splashed underfoot. His eyes searched the shadows. There, in the corner. Something white that caught the moonlight. Relief swept over him. A pile of pale glistening jewels. Pearls, perhaps or opals.

"What's that smell?" asked Little Jack, holding his sleeve over his mouth and nose.

Red Jack was not as squeamish as his brother. He stepped forward. "What do you think? Pearls?" He reached down to grab a handful of "jewels" but froze when his fingers encountered something soft and squirming. "What the fuck!" he exclaimed. "Brother! Light!"

Little Jack struck a match and lit a torch. Its ruddy glow seemed to bathe the cavern in blood.

"Maggots!" Red Jack kicked the writhing white mass, revealing a human arm, skinless, partially covered with larval flies. "Maggots eating a corpse."

"Maybe the treasure's under the body," suggested Little Jack. "Maybe the dead man tried to steal it, and he got caught in a trap. You!" He planted his foot in the small of the Indigo's back and sent him sprawling forward on hands and knees. "Drag the corpse outside."

With shaking hands, the blueskin took the dead man by the ankles and hauled him from the cave. The full moon was bright, and beneath its white light the writhing mass of insect larvae seemed to glow. The dead man's head fell back and his mouth opened, revealing more maggots. The blueskin felt bile rise in his throat.

Meanwhile, the Jack brothers searched the cave from top to bottom but found nothing except a few grubs and flies. Disgusted, they marched outside. Seeing the fury on their faces, the Indigo turned to run. He only got a few paces before he stumbled over an exposed root. As he scrambled to his feet, he was grabbed from behind by his long black braid.

"Wait!" he cried desperately as his neck was stretched taut. "I know where you can find -- "

Little Jack's curved blade carved a deep gash in the Indigo's throat. Blue blood gushed from the severed artery. His vision went dark, and he toppled backwards, landing on the corpse of the flayed man.

"That's for wasting our time," muttered Little Jack. He wiped his blade clean on the grass and tucked it back into his belt. "Let's go round up the girl."

The Indigo clutched ineffectually at their ankles. Little Jack aimed a kick at the dying man's head. "We'll give your daughter your regards," he said over his shoulder.

Red Jack laughed.

####

Warm, fresh, copper scented blood flowed over the maggot-covered corpse. As the life drained from the Indigo, the flayed man's fingers and toes clenched spasmodically. His chest heaved. For the first time in months, he took a breath.

"Sylvie!" wheezed the dying blueskin.

The flayed man pushed the Indigo aside. Propping himself up on one elbow, he gazed down at the man whose death had brought him back to life. "Sylvie? Is that the name of your wife? Your daughter?" Maggots flew from his mouth with each word.

The Indigo was too far gone to be surprised that a skinless, maggot covered corpse was talking. "Save her!" he rasped. Despite the heat, he began to shiver uncontrollably.

The flayed man climbed to his feet. He arched his back, moving slowly like someone who has been asleep so long his muscles have grown stiff. "I'll see what I can do for Sylvie," he told the dying Indigo. "But in return you'll have to do something for me. I must borrow your skin, at least until I recover the one that was stolen from me."

At that, the dying man's eyes widened. He had heard of the voldepeaux, skin thieves -- magicians who could exchange their own skin for that of others. He had always assumed that voldepeaux were bogeymen dreamed up to keep children indoors at night. But here was a man without a skin, talking and walking as if it was the most natural thing in the world. No, not a man. A monster. A monster who knew his daughter's name.

Though the night was still, a nearby red oak shivered as if shaken by the wind. A black cloud rose from the tree and descended upon the flayed man. Within moments, he was covered in crows. The blackbirds devoured the maggots. Then, once the voldepeaux was clean, they settled down on his shoulders, arms, chest and legs to roost with their heads tucked beneath their wings.

The Indigo's heart was fluttering in his chest like a captive bird. His vision grew dark. The last thing he saw with his mortal eyes was a man wearing a black feathered cloak. Thinking it was a cemetery guardian come to escort him to the afterworld, he gave up the struggle. His eyes closed. His heart ceased to beat.

The flayed man checked the Indigo's pulse. Satisfied that he was dead, he stripped the clothes from the corpse. The blueskin was big in the shoulders and narrow in the hips, but he was the right height and size, more or less. The voldepeaux searched for a sharp rock. Carefully, he began to separate the still warm and supple flesh from the fat and muscles underneath.

His grisly work done, the flayed man dragged the Indigo's body into the cave. When his enemies came to check on him, they would find him exactly where they left him five years ago. He sealed the cavern. Then, he dismissed the crows and donned the dead man's skin.

The Indigo's braid tugged at the back of his head, deforming his face. He loosened his hair, which fell like a black silk curtain down his back. The gaping wound at his throat caused the skin to sag on his chest. A nearby stitcher-tree supplied a thorn and coarse fibers with which to sew up the injury.

Once the dead man's hide was properly adjusted, he stood as still as the mountains, waiting for his own tissues to knit the borrowed flesh in place. First the tiny blood vessels, then the nerves and finally the integument. It was a slow, painful process, almost as bad as being flayed alive, but he was a voldepeaux. He knew how to send his mind somewhere else while the body did its work.

When it was done, he discovered that he was famished. For five years, he had eaten only maggots -- the same larvae which had kept his flayed corpse from putrefying. The insects combined with his magic and the moisture he absorbed from the air had been enough to keep him alive -- just barely. But now he craved meat.

He donned the dead man's clothes, butter soft leather pants and an embroidered white linen shirt, frayed around the cuffs and stained with sweat and blood. Blue blood, though in the moonlight all blood looked equally black. The boots were too small for his feet, so he went barefoot.

Though it was still several hours shy of sunrise, a flock of birds followed him, their numbers increasing so that by the time he reached the valley hundreds of birds of all sizes and colors -- parrots, sparrows, jays, grackles, quail -- swarmed behind him like a rainbow colored storm cloud.

The voldepeaux paused. He sniffed the air. A gentle sea breeze from the north carried the scent of frying bacon and fresh baked bread. He glanced down at his own body to make sure that everything was in order. The Indigo's blue flesh now had a lavender tint, thanks to the magician's blood, which was red. He flexed his fingers. The skin stretched and relaxed normally. He touched his face. His lips were wider and fuller than they once were, his nose slightly longer and more aquiline, his eyes slanted -- those who met him would assume that he was a mulatto, part blueskin and part roseskin. No one would suspect that he was a dead man returned from the grave to seek revenge upon those who had stolen everything from him.

####

Surreptitiously, Sylvie tested the strength of the leather dog collar which encircled her neck. The padlock would not budge. The key, she knew, was in her master's left inner coat pocket, along with his wallet. If she was going to make her escape, she would have to take the collar and leash with her. Unfortunately, the leather leash was currently secured tightly to the leg of her master's chair in order to free his hands while he played Primero.

Monsieur Andre Maripos had all the fashionable vices. He drank to excess, he smoked opium, he stayed up till dawn and slept until four in the afternoon. He kept race horses and a yacht. He was handsome, with golden hair that had only just begun to thin at the temples and a square jaw with only a hint of sag. Though he had never worked a day in his life, he was rich -- rich enough that he could afford to lose at games of chance like Primero. However, he had the devil's own luck when it came to card games, perhaps because he did not fear losing. And therefore, when a superior player appeared, he was often slow to recognize the danger.

"Shall we double the ante?" he asked blithely.

Behind him, the young Indigo bondwoman shivered, not from cold, for though she was naked, the night was hot. Sylvie trembled, because when her master won at cards, he was kind, even generous. When he lost, he took out his frustration on his servants, and she, the newest of his toys was the one most likely to bear the brunt of his wrath.

"If you wish," replied his opponent graciously. His voice was deep and smooth. His handsome, slightly rose tinted Indigo features were serene. His eyes behind wire rimmed spectacles were pale grey. A mulatto, probably the favored child of a wealthy roseskin father and a blueskin mistress judging by his cultured manners and his seemingly bottomless wallet. He called himself Anon. Rafael Anon. His clothes were elegantly understated. Black satin frock coat over old fashioned knee breeches. Shirt, stockings and points dark charcoal grey. He looked, M. Maripos had confided to his neighbor, like a prosperous undertaker attending his daughter's wedding.

The salon where the wealthy nobles and merchants of Prince's Port played Primero, Faro and other card games was owned by Mme. Alexandre, the proprietor of the brothel upstairs. A follower of the Goddess, she treated her girls well, and she disliked the way that M. Maripos dragged the naked young Indigo around on a leash, like an animal. She knew his habits. If he lost at cards, she would not allow him upstairs, not after what he did to poor Claire. But Sylvie was his possession, purchased at one of the underworld auctions where human flesh was traded for money. Technically illegal, slavery was tolerated on Boymere under the guise of working off debt.

Mme. Alexandre had tried to buy Sylvie from her master, but M. Maripos was not interested in selling her, not until he had broken her spirit -- which might take months or even years. Indigos, the blue-blooded natives of the island were a proud, stoic race.

M. Maripos was a loose player, who commonly bet high regardless of his starting hand. At first, it seemed that M. Anon favored a similar style of play. They passed stacks of gold coins back and forth across the table as one then the other would luck into a winning hand.

The two other players at the table were professional gamblers who stuck around in hopes of carving off a little piece of that golden mountain for themselves. However, like Sylvie, a gambler's daughter, they had begun to suspect that the mysterious M. Anon was toying with M. Maripos. The back and forth flow of luck at the table was a little bit too even. Neither was much surprised when the mulatto gentlemen's style of play went from loose to tight. Very tight indeed. He folded a Numerus -- something almost never done. And a good thing, too, because M. Maripos swept the board with a Fluxus.

The professional gamblers' eyes met. Had M. Anon noticed the markings on the backs of the cards? Mme. Alexandre allowed such tricks as long as those doing the cheating were discrete and did not get greedy. Sometimes, she paid the pros to let a favored customer win small sums. M. Maripos was usually afforded this courtesy, since he repaid the money many times over in the bordello upstairs if he finished the night's gambling in a good mood.

M. Maripos won the next two hands. And then, his luck plunged into the sewers, as gamblers on Boymere liked to say. Hand after hand was swept by the Indigo. Almost before M. Maripos realized it, his wallet was empty. And it could not have come at a worse time. He had been dealt a Quartet of Sixes.

"You'll accept a voucher?" he inquired of his opponent.

M. Anon shook his head and replied, almost sadly "Sorry, but I must leave Prince's Port before dawn. If you have no more cash at hand, perhaps we should call it a night."

Sylvie, who had grown adept at anticipating her master's emotions, was almost beside herself with fear. If they finished now, with M. Maripos wallowing in the sewers, she would suffer for it. Her almond-shaped black eyes were wide with fear.

Mme. Alexandre gave her hand a quick squeeze. "Patience," she mouthed.

M. Maripos was not used to hearing the word "no." "Surely you can delay your departure a few hours until the banks open."

"My ship sails at dawn," M. Anon replied. He laid down his hand and began picking up his winnings.

"I'll wager my horses," his opponent offered quickly.

"The ship is a very small one," replied the mulatto gentleman. "Too small for horses."

"Then my bondservant." M. Maripos tugged at the leash, forcing Sylvie down on all fours. "Surely there is enough room on your ship for one Indigo girl."

M. Anon shrugged one black satin clad shoulder as if to say If I must. "Agreed. I will accept your wager. Shall we compare hands so we can finish this game? It has been a long night, and I need to pack my things."

Grinning triumphantly, M. Maripos turned over his cards. His smile faded when the Indigo across the table revealed his own hand, a Quartet of Sevens.

"So close," murmured M. Anon. "Thank you for a pleasant evening's entertainment." He held out his hand.

M. Maripos stared at the blue palm foolishly.

"The leash," prompted M. Anon. "So I can claim my prize. Sorry to hurry you, but I'll have to find her something to wear before the ship sails."

The room was silent. Everyone knew that M. Anon had cheated. However, those who knew how he did it could not reveal the source of their knowledge without implicating themselves.

Mme. Alexandre brought M. Anon's cloak herself. "Thank you for your patronage," she murmured. "I hope we'll see you again."

M. Anon draped the black silk cloak over Sylvie's shoulders. Eying the dog collar around her neck, he inquired "Is there a key to this thing?"

Still too stunned to protest, M. Maripos dug the key out of his pocket and passed it to M. Anon, who unfastened the collar and tossed it onto the card table.

He offered the black-silk-clad, barefoot Indigo girl his arm, as if she were a lady. "This way, my dear. We have a ship to catch."

####

At first, they seemed to be heading south towards the docks. But just as the first gust of humid, salty air washed over them, M. Anon ducked down an alley. When they emerged several streets away, he turned north, away from the ocean.

Sylvie's new master was tall, and she had to run to keep up with him. The silk cloak was too long for her. Several times, she tripped. Finally, M. Anon took off his black silk frock coat. Buttoned and with the sleeves rolled up, it made a reasonable facsimile of a dress.

"Do I know you?" she asked, squinting up at his face. Moonlight and shadows distorted his features, but there was something familiar about the way he smelled.

"I knew your father."

At the word knew, her elation at being freed from M. Maripos vanished. "'Knew'? Has something happened to Papa? Is he dead?"

"Your name was on his lips as he died," M. Anon replied gently. "He begged me to rescue you."

She clenched her fists. "How? How did he die?"

"Does it matter?"

"I want to know."

"It was quick and almost painless. A severed artery in the neck."

"Who did it?"

"Two men. One of them had a red mark here." He touched his own left cheek.

"Red Jack. The other was probably his brother, Little Jack. But why? Hugo said as long as I cooperated nothing would happen to Papa." Her slanted black eyes filled with tears.

M. Anon handed her a handkerchief. "Wipe your eyes and blow your nose. We must be off the streets before dawn."

Cold, she thought, as her savior's hand brushed hers, and she shivered. But she had no choice but to follow. If she stayed in Prince's Port, M. Maripos might realize that he had been tricked and come looking for her. Plus, now that she knew what had happened to her father, she was anxious to get back to King's Town.

The tall buildings and cobblestone streets gave way to dirt roads and cottages. The bright lights of the waterfront dimmed. Prince's Port was so still and dark that it could have been a necropolis, and the Indigo girl and man the only two living creatures in all the land, except for the rats which scrabbled through the garbage and the cats which stalked the rats. This was a part of the city which Sylvie had never experienced, and the smells reminded her, painfully, of the King's Town slum where she was born and raised. No matter where one went in Boymere, the scents of poverty -- spoiled fruit, rotting fish heads, open latrines -- were the same.

The sky was still dark when they reached their destination, a small house on the edge of Prince's Port. From the outside, the shack looked deserted with a sagging porch, broken glass windows and roof stripped of shingles. However, the hinges of the front door were well oiled, and the room downstairs was free of cobwebs and dust.

M. Anon lit a single candle. "There are clothes in the chest. Pick out something suitable." He began to strip off his own finery. Sylvie watched out of the corner of her eye as he undressed. His skin was blue and almost hairless, like that of all Indigos. As if to make up for what they did not have on their chins and chests, blueskin males tended to have abundant black hair that did not thin with age. M. Anon's braid was longer and thicker than Sylvie's, without a strand of silver even though there were tiny lines around his eyes and mouth. He had a nasty looking scar at the base of his throat, as if someone had recently taken a blade to him or maybe a garrote. Circling his waist was a thinner, more delicate scar. Sylvie couldn't imagine what would cause a wound like that. Maybe a rope tied around his middle?

M. Anon neatly folded his fine silk clothes, then opened the chest and took out a pair of soft leather pants and an embroidered shirt. In the native garb, he looked even more like Sylvie's father. She knew instinctively that she could trust him.

"Help me kill Hugo Chevre," she said impulsively.

M. Anon shook his head very slightly. "I made a bargain with your father. I promised him I would rescue you. I didn't promise I would avenge his death."

"Please."

Gently, "Sorry, no. Be grateful that your father loved you enough to give his life to protect you. Now, hurry and dress. Mme. Alexandre is sending someone to take you home. You need to be on the road out of town before the sun rises. The ruse about the ship won't fool your master for long."

She stamped her bare feet impatiently. "Come home to King's Town with me. Help me kill Chevre. My father must have trusted you if he asked you to save me. Don't you care about what happened to him?"

M. Anon picked up a pair of leather boots. "I only met your father one time. He helped me, and in return I offered to help him. My debt is paid."

Sylvie stuck out her chin.

M. Anon sighed. "I didn't want to do this," he murmured. He began to unbutton his shirt.

Sylvie froze. Was her savior going to attack her? Rape her? She began backing towards the door as his hand moved to the waist band of his pants. But rather than unbuttoning his fly, he used the sharp nail of his index finger to split the skin around his waist. The blood that trickled from the wound was red.

"What are you doing?" Sylvie's eyes widened as M. Anon began to peel the flesh from his ribs and muscles, pulling his skin up and then over his head in a single piece, the way that one might peel off a shirt. Except this shirt of flesh covered his neck, face and scalp as well as his arms and chest, and when it was removed, she found herself staring up at a face like something from a bad dream, bald, noseless, lipless, eyes round and white in their sockets, teeth bared in a feral grin. A skeleton's head, except worse because the skull was covered with glistening muscles. Red muscle. M. Anon was a roseskin sorcerer wearing the flesh of an Indigo.

Sylvie covered her mouth with her hand. Voldepeaux, she thought. M. Anon was a skin changer. And the flesh he was wearing now --

"Is that my father's skin?"

"We made a bargain." The lack of lips made it difficult for him to pronounce certain letters, so it sounded more like 'E nade a thargain. "Your freedom for his flesh." His gentle, cultured voice was at odds with his insanely grinning skeleton face. "He had no need for it where he was going. I didn't skin him until after he died of his wounds," he added kindly. "And I couldn't have saved him. I was too weak to move, until his blood brought me back to life. And by then, he was all but dead."

Sylvie forgot about M. Maripos. She forgot about her vendetta against Hugo Chevre and his henchmen. There was no room in her thoughts for any emotion besides fear. With a muffled scream, she turned and fled from the ramshackle house.

Some lingering sense of self-preservation sent her into the hills surrounding Prince's Port rather than back into the city. Her feet were bare, but she had gotten used to going without clothes or shoes. At least she still had M. Anon's frock coat.

She didn't stop running until she reached a clear flowing stream. The sky was light in the east. A nearby farmhouse rooster crowed. Birds were beginning to stir in their nests.

As she knelt to drink she felt something heavy in the front right pocket of the borrowed black silk coat. She reached inside and grabbed a handful of coins, all of them gold. She had accidentally taken M. Anon's winnings.

Yesterday, she was a slave. Today, she was free and rich -- all thanks to a monster who had stolen her dead father's skin. She did not know whether to laugh or cry, so she did both.

####

Mme. Alexandre heard the girl scream and saw her dart from the shack and flee into the hills, so she was not surprised to find the voldepeaux rearranging his borrowed skin.

"Did you have to do that?" she asked peevishly. "What if she tells someone?"

M. Anon stood as still as a statue while the flesh knit. Only his lips moved. "Soon, everyone will know that I'm back."

"Oh really?" One of Madame's penciled brows rose. "What are you planning?"

"To take back what belongs to me. Assuming that bastard has left anything for me to reclaim. I've heard the talk. The people in the streets curse me. They claim I've sold my soul to the Devil for wealth."

She waved a delicate, jeweled hand. "Your true friends know that the man pretending to be you is a fake. When did you ever care about money? Speaking of money..."

"I'm sorry," the Indigo told her. "Sylvie was wearing my coat when she fled. Your gold was in the pocket. I'll make it up to you, I promise." Cautiously, he flexed his fingers, then his elbows. Satisfied that his borrowed skin was firmly in place, he stretched his arms above his head. In the candlelight, his flesh was the color of the sky just after sunset. A slow smile spread across his face. It was, Mme. Alexandre admitted to herself, a more handsome face than the one he used to wear.

As if he could read her mind, "I look good as an Indigo, don't I?"

Madame tapped his smooth, blue chest playfully with her black lace fan. "You never change."

His hands cupped her face. He leaned down and kissed her. Though his lips were strange to her, she recognized his tongue and the taste of his saliva. With a sigh, she melted into his arms. Soon, they were on the floor, writhing in a tangle of leather and lace. The little death, when it came made her heart leap in her chest as if it was trying to break free of the cage of bone and flesh.

"You never change," she sighed again.

####

High summer in Boymere, the sun so hot that candles melted and stream beds baked. Dogs hid in the shade of weeping willows with their tongues hanging out, too sluggish from the heat to pay attention to the strangers who had arrived at the plantation early that morning.

The sugarcane fields were being burned in preparation for harvest. Thick smoke and bits of leaf debris clouded the air and made those standing nearby cough and choke. Rats, snakes and other wild animals fled from the conflagration.

The Soulless stood mute and motionless, faces slack and eyes unfocused. In their hands, they held machetes. They outnumbered the overseers ten to one, but it would never occur to them to say No when they were ordered to work. Point them in the right direction and tell them "Cut the cane!" and they would chop and hack until they dropped over dead. Or until one of their masters told them that it was time to rest and eat.

Not far away, the plantation owner, Berto Credo, stood on his veranda, watching the line of smoke and fire spread towards the irrigation ditch which separated the cane fields from his country home. The household servants stood by with buckets of water, ready to douse any flames that jumped the stream.

In the drawing room behind M. Credo, his daughter, Irene, was playing a grand piano which he had bought for her sixteenth birthday. His wife, Julia, stood beside him on the veranda, admiring the way that her new diamond ring sparkled in the morning sunlight.

"You're sure we can afford this?" Julia asked for the fifth or sixth time. She was a middle aged woman, still attractive, with honey colored skin and thick, shiny black hair.

M. Credo poured himself a cup of smoke mountain coffee, the best and most expensive kind. "Once I sell this crop, I'll buy you a necklace to go with it," he promised. Credo was a red-faced, stocky man with a bulbous nose and jutting chin who looked more like a butcher or blacksmith than a landed gentleman. To make up for the lack of refinement in his appearance, he dressed immaculately. This morning, he wore a dove grey suit over an ivory silk shirt. A sapphire stickpin held his cravat in place. His broad, big knuckled hands were encased in spotless white gloves.

The sugarcane business had never been better. Prices were high, thanks to foreign demand. And his overhead had been slashed, thanks to Baron Sabbath. After years of living frugally, King's Town's most famous necromancer had recently gone into business, raising the dead and selling the services of his army of Soulless to farmers and plantation owners for a fraction of what they had once paid living field workers.

Some people were not happy with the Baron's newest business venture. The families of the deceased objected to having their kin resurrected and enslaved. That problem was solved by stealing bodies in the dead of night and transporting the Soulless to other parts of Boymere, where no one would recognize them.

The field workers who had lost jobs to the undead laborers were also angry. Unable to find work on Boymere's farms, they flocked to the cities looking for jobs. Instead of work, they found hunger, disease and corruption. Girls were forced into prostitution in order to survive. Boys became thieves or pickpockets. Those jailed were hired out by the government for labor that was too skilled for the Soulless, like building roads or milling cotton. Those who died of disease or starvation were resurrected and sent back to toil on the farms that would not have them when they were alive. Some of the weak and dying were helped along by bounty hunters, who were paid well for freshly dead bodies that had not yet begun to decay.

The balance between the laboring classes and leisure class which had kept Boymere peaceful for two centuries had been lost. In five years, the rich had seen their wealth double while the ranks of the poor swelled. It was, those who studied history declared, a situation ripe for violent revolution.

M. Berto Credo had no interest in history. Why dwell on the past, when the present was so profitable? He poured himself another cup of coffee.

Gradually, the flames died and the sky cleared of smoke. All that was left of the sugarcane field were scorched stalks. When the ground was cool enough, the overseers gave the signal, and the Soulless shuffled forward. They moved like automatons, stooping, hacking, bundling the cane.

At set intervals, the overseers would call a halt to work. The Soulless would line up, waiting for water and a meal of smashed grubs mixed with unsalted corn. They drank and ate what they were given, never asking for seconds. They were dead in spirit, if not in the flesh.

All went smoothly until sunset, when one of the overseers interrupted M. Credo at supper just as the butler was serving the fish course, crab stuffed flounder sautéed in white wine, the plantation owner's favorite. The overseer was tall and gaunt, with sun-darkened skin and a single heavy black brow over deep set eyes. He wore a miniature shovel on a leather cord around his neck, a mark of his profession. His shirt was sweat-stained, but he had washed his face before approaching the mansion. He stood with his hat in his hands, looking nervous.

"M. Credo, sir. There's a problem."

The plantation owner frowned. The overseers were paid to take care of "problems", so that Credo could enjoy his wealth in peace. "Well? What is it?"

"A stranger. A blueskin necromancer -- "

"Indigos don't practice necromancy. It's against their religion," M. Credo interrupted.

"Yes, sir. I know. But this blueskin must be a necromancer, because he's taken control of the field workers."

M. Credo frowned. "Taken control of them in what way?"

"In every way, sir. They've walked off the job."

M. Credo swore under his breath. Was this some kind of extortion racket? Did the rogue Indigo sorcerer intend to hold the workers hostage, until a ransom was paid? "What are you waiting for? Kill the bastard!"

The overseer spread his hands helplessly. "We can't get near him. He's surrounded himself with Soulless."

Muttering something about having to do everything himself, M. Credo grabbed his hunting rifle and stormed out of the mansion. He was dressed in dinner clothes, a black velvet jacket over an embroidered grey satin vest and matching silk pants, but he marched through the irrigation ditch, oblivious to the mud and filth that clung to his shoes and clothing. If the sugarcane did not arrive at the mill on time, it would lose its sweetness, and then it would be worthless, except as animal feed.

The Soulless were milling around like cattle. M. Credo fired his rifle once in the air, but the undead paid no attention to the sound. With a curse, the plantation owner began to force his way through the crowd, using the butt of his gun to shove the field workers aside. The stench of sweat, urine and shit was almost unbearable, and the heat was fierce. By the time he reached the center of the mob. M. Credo's silk shirt was soaked with perspiration, and his temper was high.

"Who the hell are you, and what do you think you're doing with my workers?" he roared, his face flushed dark red with anger.

The cause of all his troubles was a mixed blood peasant with lavender tinted skin and grey eyes. A lean, broad shouldered man, he was dressed in typical Indigo garb, leather pants and an embroidered white shirt. A raven was perched upon his shoulder. Despite the heat, he looked cool and calm, which only angered the plantation owner more.

Credo aimed his rifle at the rogue sorcerer's chest and was about to pull the trigger, when one of the field workers plucked the weapon from his hands. Two more seized him by the arms. Their faces remained expressionless, but their intention was clear. No one was allowed to harm their new master.

Abruptly, M. Credo became aware of his own precarious situation. If the blueskin sorcerer told the Soulless to tear their former master limb from limb, they would obey without emotion or question. Eyes wide with fright, he began to back away from the Indigo, stepping on toes as he did so, but none of the workers protested. They did not even look at him. Their eyes were fixed on their new master's face. At that moment, he was their sun and moon, their sole reason for existing, and where he went, they would follow.

As the last hint of red faded from the western sky, the Indigo left the sugarcane fields, a small army of the undead following in his wake like baby ducklings after their mother. The crop was only half harvested. M. Credo was beside himself with anger. He began shouting at the overseers, demanding that they pick up machetes and continue the work that their slaves had abandoned. Though the three men complied, they were unused to manual labor, and their efforts produced only a few, butchered stalks.

"Give me that!" M. Credo tore the machete from the head overseer's hands and began cutting cane himself. His shiny leather shoes slipped in the ash, so he kicked them off. His velvet coat and embroidered vest soon followed. In shirt sleeves, he labored long into the night, but it was no use. One man, no matter how determined, could not harvest a whole field of sugarcane.

By morning it was clear that M. Credo was ruined. And he was not the only one. In the weeks that followed, plantation owners across Boymere watched in shock and disbelief as the Soulless abandoned their labors. The lucky ones were able to hire living field workers at a cost four or five times higher than they had expected to pay. Others lost a season's crop and were forced to sell or mortgage their newfound wealth.

The merchants, who traded sugar, coffee, spice, tobacco, cotton and other crops in foreign ports felt the pinch next. With the holds of their ships empty, they had to make do with lesser merchandise, like dried fish and fruit. The Indigos' embroidered cloth was suddenly in high demand. So were the shell and pearl ornaments which the island's natives crafted.

The banks were hit next, as the demand for credit went through the roof along with the number of defaults. Since the bankers were the not-so-secret power behind Boymere's government, it was only a matter of time before the army was sent out with orders to find and capture the rogue Indigo necromancer.

####

Before the eastern invaders arrived in Boymere, the island was inhabited by the Indigos, a race of blue-skinned people who claimed to be descended from sea dwellers. In addition to having blood of an unusual bluish color, they were often born with webbing between their toes and fingers. A few blueskin babies had gills and were able to breathe underwater, though the gills usually shriveled up during adolescence. Rarely, an adult Indigo retained the ability to breathe underwater. Those lucky few were in high demand as pearl and deep sea treasure divers.

The rest of Boymere's natives survived as best they could among the stronger, more aggressive and more fertile roseskins, so named because their blood was the color of the roses that grew wild on the island's northern coast. The Natives wove cloth. They gathered herbs. They crafted jewelry using gems collected from the sea. They performed songs and told stories. Their women, with their smooth dusky skin, shiny black hair and dark, exotic eyes were considered beautiful by the invaders and were in high demand. The men were tolerated.

One of the first stories the Natives told the invaders, as soon as they learned their foreign tongue, was about the bargain which Sister Sea made with Sister Land.

"In the beginning, all living things inhabited the ocean, and dry land was the place where creatures went to die. The great whales beached themselves when they felt death near. The shells of dead crabs and mollusks were deposited upon the shore and crumbled to sand. Jelly fish washed ashore and shriveled up under the burning sun. The sea was the nursery, and dry land was the graveyard.

"Eons passed, and Sister Land became lonely. She appealed to Sister Sea, who took pity upon her and created air-breathing animals to keep Land company. However, in order to preserve the balance of Land and Sea, she demanded that Sister Land send her children back once they had breathed their last.

"That is why we bury our dead at sea. Otherwise, the departed become ghosts, lost and confused. They haunt the living, demanding release. Though they were born on dry land, like all things they long to return to their ancestral home within the ocean, and until they do, their souls can never rest."

The invaders paid no attention to the Natives' stories. They came from a dozen different parts of the world, and they had a dozen different beliefs about life and death. The followers of the Wisdom continued to burn their dead. Devotees of the Three insisted upon a decent burial. The Eaters devoured their loved ones' internal organs and left the rest for the crows and vultures. The Goddess required mummification. And in most cases, the rituals accomplished what they intended, the peaceful passage of the soul from this life to the afterlife.

However, some of the dead did not stay dead. Boymere was an island plagued by ghosts, and as time passed and more roseskins were interred in the ground, the number of spirits grew. In order to control the ghost infestation, cemeteries were built and cemetery guardians were appointed -- a waste of good land and resources, according to the Indigos. All the invaders had to do if they wanted to get rid of the ghosts was keep the bargain which Sister Land had made with Sister Sea.

####

A fisherman, an ancient toothless mulatto with weathered purple skin and silver-streaked black hair was on the beach thirty miles west of King's Town, repairing his net, when the Indigo calling himself Rafael Anon appeared at the top of a sand dune, silhouetted against the grey, overcast sky, a raucous flock of seagulls flying overhead. The fisherman knew at once that this must be the infamous blueskin necromancer he had heard so much about, because a small army of Soulless followed in his wake. Some of them had been travelling for days. They were weak from hunger and thirst, and many of them had blistered, bleeding feet that left red footprints in the sand as they shuffled forward.

The fisherman's eyes widened. He had never seen so many undead in one place. Though he bore no particular grudge against the necromancer -- the price of fish had risen since the Soulless uprising -- he shared his race's prejudice against eastern magic. He turned his boat over and hid beneath it. There was a crack between wood and sand, and through the hole he watched as the Indigo marched to the edge of the sea. The surf washed over his feet. His head was thrown back. He had loosened his braid, and his long dark hair streamed behind him like the black sail of a funeral barge. He took a deep breath of salty air and sighed aloud.

"Here we are, my children," he told his followers. His voice was deep and resonant. "Now you can rest."

The Soulless seemed to come alive. Smiles appeared on some faces. Others wept. All of them picked up their pace and began to run, fighting against the tide in their frenzy to lose themselves in the warm salty womb of the ocean. So many undead that the fisherman soon lost count. They plunged into the water and did not rise again.

The fisherman thought that he had escaped detection, until M. Anon turned and stared straight at him. "I have a favor to ask." Though he looked like an ordinary blueskin peasant, he sounded like an aristo. "Soon, the army will attempt to arrest me. If they can't take me alive, they'll try to kill me. They are under the misapprehension that I am a thief and that those poor souls belonged to the necromancer who raised them."

Reassured by Anon's cool voice and benign expression, the Indigo fisherman crawled out from under his boat. "You want me to take you to sea?"

"If it isn't too much trouble."

With the help of the sorcerer, the fisherman soon had his ship afloat and the sails raised. He watched the water anxiously, secretly convinced that the Soulless would reappear at any moment and begin climbing on board the boat to be with their master.

His passenger was more concerned by what was happening on the shore. They had barely set sail when a large party of armed men on horseback appeared atop the highest dune. Something was shouted, and the riders surged forward, urging their mounts into the water. Rifles were raised. The bullets fell a few yards short of the boat but too close for comfort.

"Maybe your servants could slow them down," the fishermen suggested. If he was wading in the ocean and undead suddenly rose from the waves in front of him, he would turn and run as fast and as far as his legs could carry him.

"They belong to the sea now." Anon closed his eyes and began to whisper, reciting a sailor's prayer for favorable winds. Gradually, the breeze picked up and filled the sails, and the shore faded into the distance.

"You aren't really one of the maya are you?" Maya was the Indigo word for people. "You look like one of us, but you sound like them. The roseskins."

The sorcerer did not reply. And a good thing, too. Later, after the fisherman let his passenger off at a small seaside village on the outskirts of King's Town, he visited an Indigo café. There he learned that the Soul Stealer, as he was being called, was not simply a necromancer. He was a voldepeaux -- a skin thief.

The fisherman turned pale. Had he guessed that he was sharing a boat with a skin thief, he would have jumped into the water and let himself drown rather than risk being skinned alive and having some stranger wear his face.

Shaking his head, he downed his glass of sea wine and reached for the bottle. If he lived a hundred years, he would never understand the roseskins who had claimed Boymere for their own. Sooner or later, he thought, Sister Sea would rise up and send a storm to cleanse the island of their filth and corruption. And then, all the poor dead souls that had been laid to rest in cemeteries would finally be at peace.

####

Dominy, the cemetery guardian, was conducting the funeral rites for a member of the Earthly Brotherhood, more commonly called the Eaters. The family of the dead man had stopped by earlier in the morning to claim his heart, liver and spleen. At sunset, they would gather in one of their subterranean temples to honor the departed by eating his internal organs. In the meantime, his other earthly remains -- lungs, brains, flesh, muscle, marrow -- would be offered to carrion feeders. Crows were already gathering in the lower branches of the old oaks to watch as the pitre fileted the dead man's flesh and cracked open his bones.

"Dominy." The voice came from the shadows.

The cemetery guardian lifted his head. It was high summer, and his hair was the color of corn silk. Every visible inch of his body was covered with tattoos. Sunlight reflected off the lenses of his wire rimmed spectacles. "Rafe?" he asked uncertainly.

A man dressed in black emerged from the shade of the oldest, largest tree in Father Friday cemetery. No, not dressed in black. Covered from head to toe by black birds, crows. He had the face of a stranger, an Indigo with a high forehead, straight nose, wide lips and hairless chin. But his voice was familiar. "No names, please. You never know who may be listening." He glanced at the tall, red-haired girl who stood nearby trying her best to ignore what the pitre was doing to the corpse.

Dominy followed his gaze. "That's Agatha, my apprentice. You can talk freely in front of her." He stripped off his butcher's apron and blood stained rubber gloves. "Where have you been?"

"Away," the voldepeaux answered shortly.

Despite the feast laid out before them, the crows that clung to the Indigo seemed strangely reluctant to give up their perches. The skin thief knelt beside the corpse, paying his respects. One by one, the black birds dropped from his head and shoulders and began to peck at eyeballs, brains, glistening red marrow. The birds in the trees joined them, and soon the corpse was covered in a living, breathing robe of black shiny feathers.

"What happened to my wife?" the voldepeaux asked, his expression grim.

"Officially, she threw herself out of her tower. Unofficially, she was pushed," the cemetery guardian answered.

"And her remains?"

"Disposed of according to the rules of her faith."

Meaning that the crows that clung to his shoulders and head had some of her within them. "I suppose the imposter ate her heart."

Dominy's fair head shook ever so slightly. "Come." He held out his hand, helping the voldepeaux to his feet. "I have something for you."

Inside the marble mausoleum that served as the cemetery guardian's home, they could speak freely. Dominy lead his guest to the workroom where he prepared corpses for burial. From a row of glass jars, he selected one that was labeled with the letter B. Inside, was a human heart, preserved in rum, the liquid tinted red with blood.

"Brigitte's?" the Indigo asked. His hand trembled as he reached for the jar.

Dominy opened the container. "The man who claimed to be her husband didn't notice that I substituted the heart of a sheep. That was when I knew."

"That he was an imposter?"

"That he wasn't a member of the Earthly Brotherhood. No Eater would mistake the heart of a sheep for that of human being. Do you want to be alone?"

"No need." The skin thief dipped his blue fingers into the jar. The heart had softened in the rum, and it smelled of sugar and iron. He took his time, savoring every bite. The girl, Agatha turned green and darted from the room.

Dominy maintained a respectful silence, until his guest was done. "Pierre has been searching all over for you."

At the name, the Indigo's expression brightened. "He's still alive? I heard he was dead, too."

"His skin was found on a dead man. He has a new face."

"I should have known. Where can I find him?"

Dominy told him. "You're going to stop the imposter." It was not a question.

The man known as Rafael Anon bared his perfect white teeth, stained now with the blood of his dead wife. "I am going to take back what was stolen from me."

####

In a city the size of King's Town, it was easy to find assassins. But finding someone to kill Hugo Chevre was turning out to be a problem. Sylvie had enough money to hire the best, but the best all had ties to the criminal syndicate to which Chevre belonged.

Then she heard about the doctor, Anton Duvy. Though now retired, in his heyday he had been Boymere's top assassin. Once he had amassed enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life, he conveniently repented of his sins. The Three were very forgiving, if the sinner was willing to tithe, and the larger the fortune being tithed, the greater the crimes that could be forgiven.

Now, Dr. Duvy lived in a mansion in the fashionable quarter of King's Town, on a quiet avenue lined with fragrant shade trees, close enough to the ocean to get a breeze during the summer but far from the stink of rotting fish.

A physician by training -- before he found a more profitable way to wield a scalpel -- he held clinic two days a week in the infirmary of a soup kitchen, ministering to the city's poor. Good works were another way to buy the Three's favor.

The waiting area was crowded when Sylvie arrived early one afternoon. The heat was oppressive. Despite the open windows, the room felt like a sauna, and the air smelled of mildew, stale cabbage and antiseptic. By the time her name was called, she was light headed and queasy.

The doctor's consultation room was little bigger than a closet. A single, high window let in light but no air. The doctor was a short, slightly built man. He had the pale skin and thin, flaxen hair that were common in those from the frozen lands of the north. He wore dark spectacles to protect his eyes from the sun and a fawn colored coat of the kind favored by gentlemen physicians.

Eager to be out of there, Sylvie got straight to the point. "I want you to kill Hugo Chevre."

The doctor sighed. "I'm no longer in that business. If you don't have a medical ailment, I'm afraid I can't help you."

"He killed my father!" she blurted out.

"Hugo Chevre has killed many fathers," he said dryly.

"I can pay you."

"If I needed money, I would be treating rich men's impotence and providing abortions for their daughters. Murder for hire is for young, desperate men. Look for someone else." He stood up and began to gather his instruments. Sunlight from the single window fell on his face, revealing deep lines on his forehead and around his mouth and eyes and ugly brown spots on the backs of his hands. Sylvie guessed him to be somewhere between sixty and seventy years old. The tinted lenses made his expression difficult to read.

"I've tried. They're all too scared." Tears filled the Indigo girl's eyes. "Hugo Chevre sold me to a man who -- who beat me. He said if I went willingly, he would spare my father. But it was a lie. The skin changer told me my father was already dead -- "

Dr. Duvy paused in the act of closing his surgical bag. "Skin changer?" There was an edge to his voice that she had not heard before. "What was his name?"

The question started her. "Rafael Anon. He was wearing my father's skin." She recounted what the voldepeaux had told her. Dr. Duvy watched her closely. Occasionally, he would interrupt with a question. He seemed more interested in the skin changer than in her father.

"Describe his voice? Was it high pitched or deep? Did he sound like an educated man?"

"Deep. He talked like you. Like an aristo."

"Did he say where the Jack Brothers found him?"

"No, just that they dumped my father -- " Her voice broke. " -- my father's bleeding corpse on him, and he woke up. Do you know M. Anon? I need to talk to him. Find out where my father's body is so I can give him a proper burial -- "

Dr. Duvy held up one hand. "First things first. By now Chevre will have learned that an Indigo girl is trying to have him killed. He may even guess who you are. We'll have to disguise you. Your new name will be Christian. You'll be my page."

"Christian's a boy's name," she protested.

"Exactly. Disguised as a boy, you should be safe."

"What about Chevre?"

"Leave Hugo Chevre to me. I want you to keep an eye out for Rafael Anon. If you see him, tell me."

She regarded him suspiciously. "You aren't going to hurt M. Anon, are you?" The voldepeaux had stolen her father's skin, but he had saved her from a fate worse than death.

"My dear, if your M. Anon is who I think he is the last thing I want to do is hurt him."

####

Boymere's criminal underworld was shocked by the triple murder. Hugo Chevre had surprised his employees, the Jack Brothers as they were trying to break into his safe. Chevre had shot Red Jack in the leg before falling to one of Little Jack's blades. Apparently, the two brothers then quarreled about how to divide the spoils, because Little Jack was found strangled to death with his brother's hands still fastened around his throat, while Red Jack had two stilettos in his chest, one through the left lung and the other through the heart.

Anton Duvy refused to tell Sylvie how he had contrived to have the three men murder each other. "The less you know, the better."

They were alone in Dr. Duvy's private study. In her disguise as Christian, the page, Sylvie had come to serve him after-dinner coffee. She wore loose fitting white cotton pants and a matching smock. A linen band wrapped around her chest hid her breasts. Since Indigo men wore their hair long, all she had to do was plait her hair into a braid to pass for a teenage boy.

The walls of the doctor's study were covered with leather bound books and diplomas. In addition to the usual medical textbooks, there were volumes on astrology, alchemy, dream interpretation, augury. And an odd assortment of items -- crystal balls in a rainbow of colors, bird's feathers, garlic on a string, bundles of dried herbs, even a mummified chicken's foot -- cluttered the mantelpiece. It was not unusual for gentlemen to dabble in the dark arts, but Dr. Duvy appeared to be much more than a dabbler.

On a hunch, Sylvie blurted out. "You're a sorcerer, aren't you? Like your friend, M. Anon. Are you a skin changer, as well?"

He did not deny it.

"Whose skin are you wearing now?"

The doctor looked at her long and hard. "What makes you think the skin I'm wearing isn't my own?"

She shrugged. "The dark glasses. You wear them even at night."

"Clever girl." Dr. Duvy slipped off his tinted spectacles. His eyes were surprisingly dark in his pale face. "I used to wear bits of colored glass in my eyes. But they were uncomfortable, so I invented an eye ailment. Photophobia senilus. Even wrote a paper about it."

Too late, Sylvie realized the dangerous situation she was in. If the man calling himself Anton Duvy was an imposter who had stolen the doctor's skin in order to get his hands on his wealth, he would not want to risk exposure.

Without the dark glasses, it was easier to read the "doctor's" expression. The old man looked amused. "I know what you're thinking, but you're wrong. I didn't do it for the money."

"Then why? Why live in another man's skin?"

With a sigh, he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. "Five years ago, Anton Duvy was hired to murder me. He wasn't the first, but he was the first assassin who was roughly my height and weight. After three attempts on my life, I knew the people who hired him wouldn't stop until I was dead. So I faked my own death. I took Duvy's skin, and I covered his dead body with mine. The cemetery guardian's a friend of mine. He went along with the charade. Besides you, he's the only one who knows my true identity."

The image of Rafael Anon, skinless from the waist up, his face a bloody red grinning skeletal mask flashed before Sylvie's eyes. It was hard to imagine the fastidious little man before her looking like that. "Who are you really?"

"Have you heard the name, Pierre Noir?"

"Black Peter? The actor?" Though only a child when the news of Black Peter's death swept the city, she recalled women wailing. Mourners threw themselves across his open coffin as he was carried to Father Friday Cemetery, to be fed to the birds in accordance with his faith. Locks of black hair were torn from his scalp. The theater district closed for a week, to honor his passing. "You're Black Peter?"

Duvy inclined his head. "At your service. You realize, of course, that this must remain a secret between you and me. If Baron Sabbath were to discover that I'm still alive --" He drew his finger across his throat.

Sylvie frowned. "I thought you were Baron Sabbath's friend." More than friends, if the rumors were true. "Why would he want to hurt you?"

Pierre's smile faded. "Why indeed?"

Sylvie struggled to make sense of what he had told her. Had the two men had a falling out? Was that why Black Peter was pretending to be someone else? She could not imagine having Baron Sabbath as an enemy. They said he could kill with a word and then resurrect the corpse and make it dance until it fell down again, dead once more from exhaustion. They said he could make the dead talk to him, tell him the secrets they never dared divulge in life. Though she had never seen him in the flesh, she knew what he looked like. A tall, thin elderly man, almost skeletal with pale skin and dark curly hair cut short and a neatly trimmed goatee. He always wore black -- a black frock coat, black pants, a tall black hat. His ebony walking stick concealed a cane sword called Serpent's Fang, a steel blade imbued with poison that was lethal even in miniscule doses. The ring which he wore on the index finger of his right hand was made from an iron shovel that had been used to dig ten thousand graves. He was lucky at games of chance and even luckier with women, and though he had the power to make grown men quake, he had a soft spot in his heart for children. A voldepeaux as well as a necromancer, he kept a whole wardrobe of human skins in his subterranean fortress, and when he wanted to escape notice, he could transform himself into one of the Sun-Touched, or a Wisdom mystic or a northern sailor or even an Indigo --

Her eyes widened, and her jaw dropped.

"Don't say it," Pierre whispered. He glanced nervously at the shadows. "Don't even think it."

Sylvie trembled, overwhelmed by the enormity of the intrigue into which she had stumbled.

####

Lucky Lyndon had not always been lucky. As a lieutenant in the Boymere navy, he had deserted his post during a pirate attack that left six civilians including the mayor's daughter dead. Sentenced to death for cowardice, as he hung by the neck from the yardarm, the rope snapped and he plunged into the water. Since a man could not be hanged twice for the same offense, he was given a dishonorable discharge.

In the seven years since he had earned the nickname "Lucky", his fortunes had soared. First, the queen's half-sister, Jeanne-Louisa had taken an interest in him. Jeanne-Louisa introduced him to the necromancer and voldepeaux, Sylvester Jacques, a younger son of the Jacques family, whose spiced rums were world famous.

When a consortium of plantation owners decided that the current Baron Sabbath was standing in the way of progress, they hired Jacques and Lyndon to get rid of the old man. Jacques assumed the skin -- and the identity -- of Boymere's most powerful necromancer. With the Baron's iron ring, he could raise and control the dead by forcing ghosts back into their corpses. Having no interest in sword fighting, the new Lord of the Dead gave Lyndon the famous sword cane, Serpent's Fang, to carry.

Now, when he visited taverns and gambling dens, people stepped aside. Even aristos tolerated his insults, since dueling Lucky Lyndon meant sure death. For a man who had been taunted all his life for being short and puny, there was a delicious irony in watching bravos twice his size cower in fear.

In addition to carrying out assassinations for the new Baron, Lyndon also ran errands of a sensitive nature. He negotiated fees with the landowners who hired the Soulless, and he collected debts from those who "forgot" to pay. Law officers who could not be bribed often breathed their last at the end of his sword. The work was satisfying, the pay was good, but it was the intangible benefits that kept him at the Baron's side. If he roughed up a girl for getting smart, madams looked the other way. If he forgot to pay his landlady, he never came home to find his possessions on the curb. Next to Sabbath himself, he was the most feared man in King's Town.

With privilege came responsibility. Four times a year, Lyndon made a solitary journey into the green mountains overlooking King's Town where a moss covered boulder concealed a damp, musty tomb.

His next scheduled visit was two months away, but there were rumors of a blueskin necromancer roaming the countryside, freeing the Soulless and leading them into the sea. And therefore, the Baron had insisted that Lyndon check to see that their mutual enemy was still safely interred.

Lucky Lyndon hated the summer visits the worst. Even at night, the weather was so hot and humid that it was difficult to breathe as he trudged up the trail, slashing at the undergrowth with a machete. The air was thick with mosquitoes and other biting flies. Every time he waded through standing water, he found a half dozen leeches clinging to his skin. By the time he reached his destination, his clothes were soaked through with sweat, and his pants were caked with mud up to the thighs.

After five years, he could find the latch mechanism in the dark. The boulder slid to one side, releasing a powerful stench. The cave smelled of sickly sweet rot, sour mildew and bat guano. It was, he thought, the stink of death itself.

Standing in the open doorway, a perfumed handkerchief pressed over his mouth and nose, Lyndon studied the white, writhing mass of maggots. He was tempted to toss his lantern onto the flayed man and incinerate him. But the new Baron wanted the old one alive. "If his flesh dies," Jacques told him "His ghost will be free. And then he'll tell the world our secret."

That was one of the problems with living on the island of Boymere. The dead did not always take their secrets with them. When he performed assassinations, Lyndon was careful to conceal his face, in case the spirit of his victim came back as a talkative ghost.

In order to ensure that the flayed man did not find release in death, Lyndon carried a small flask of human blood. Four or five drops, sprinkled over the maggot covered body would bring it to life for a few moments. The lidless eyes would focus on him. The chest would heave as it struggled to take a breath. Sometimes it would manage few words, and Lyndon would clap his hands over his ears, terrified of the man's black magic. It was, he told himself each time he made the journey up the mountain, a job for a necromancer, not a swordsman.

"Every time I open that cave, there's a chance that someone will see me and get nosy," complained Lyndon.

"That's why you carry the Serpent's Fang," replied the Baron.

Though Lyndon feared the dead, the living held no terror for him. He wished that someone would try to follow him. Just once, he would like a chance to put the Fang to use defending their secret.

That night, he got his wish.

He had barely set foot into the cave when, out of the corner of his eye, he detected movement, a slight shifting of the shadows. It could have been anything, falling debris, a bat disturbed in its slumbers, but Lyndon was taking no chances. "Show yourself!" he hissed. He dropped the lantern and unsheathed his blade. In the flickering firelight, his skin was as velvety black as the night sky. Thick, sensuous lips drew back exposing white teeth. Snarling, he lunged at a shadow and was rewarded with resistance. The Serpent's Fang drew blood. He knew, because whenever the blade fed, it grew warm in his hands, as if it was a living creature.

"Gotcha!" he exclaimed triumphantly.

"I think not," replied the shadow. "A pet may nip at its master's hand, but it never bites to kill."

Despite the heat, Lucky Lyndon's blood froze. He knew that voice.

"Sabbath!"

"In the flesh. Well, not actually in the flesh. At the moment, I'm in someone else's flesh."

"Bastard! Why can't you just stay dead?" Lyndon lashed out again with his sword. This time, the blade caught on something and was ripped from his hands. A blind moment of panic, then, too late, he turned to run.

The Serpent's Fang pierced him through the thigh. Almost immediately, his leg went dead, and the numbness began to creep up his torso to his head. He fell to the ground, paralyzed but still conscious. That was the worst part of the Fang's poison. The victim stayed awake while he suffocated from lack of air. Oh well, he thought as his vision went dark. There were worse ways to die...

As if he could read his mind, the Indigo leaned over him and flipped him onto his back. Blue tinged lips covered Lyndon's mouth. Air was forced into his lungs. One, two, three quick breaths, and his head stopped spinning, and his ears stopped ringing. Suddenly, he was wide awake.

The Indigo tossed the sword aside and pulled a knife from his boot. "You owe me a skin, little man." He ripped open Lyndon's shirt and made a clean cut across his waist.

No, thought Lucky Lyndon as blood trickled down his flank. No, no, no. His terror was so great that it seemed he would explode. Again, the Indigo breathed life into him. At the same time, the blueskin's hands were tearing his life away, inch by inch, and he was powerless to scream or flinch or even blink.

####

Pierre Noir was dreaming. He dreamed that he was lying inside an open coffin, dressed in a fine black suit, his hands folded across his heart, a fresh white lily between his fingers, a satin pillow beneath his head. A typical hot summer day in Boymere, but he was cold. So cold!

You have the wrong man! he tried to scream. I'm not dead!

One by one, the mourners came to pay their respects. Last was the High Prelate, who laid a purple jewel on his forehead then placed a single coin beneath his tongue. Amethyst to wash away his sins. Silver to pay his passage across the River Sky. The funeral rites of the Three. A choir began to sing.

Don't bury me inside a box! Give me to the birds! I'm not Anton Duvy! I'm Pierre Noir!

Paralyzed, he could only lie there and watch as the coffin was lifted onto the shoulders of six strong men. He had a bird's eye view of the funeral procession, which followed a winding course to Father Friday Cemetery. There, a hole in the ground waited for him, six feet deep, as dictated by the Three's Holy Book. Once he was laid to rest within that grave, he would never rise again.

Not in there! I'm an Eater! If my soul cannot fly, I'll never be free.

He woke in a panic, heart racing, fingers clutching lavender scented sheets. Just a dream, just a dream, just a dream -- but so vivid!

A breeze through the open window lifted the gauzy curtain. In the moonlight, the white lace looked like a dancing shroud. Then it was just a curtain again, and he was lying in Anton Duvy's bed in Anton Duvy's mansion, wearing another man's skin but still himself beneath the age spots and wrinkles and withered old flesh. With a sigh, he rolled over and closed his eyes.

Beside the bed, a floorboard creaked.

Pierre froze. Holding his breath, he listened to the sounds of night, cicadas buzzing in the garden below, wind rustling the leaves of the sweet olive trees, and in the distance, the gentle sigh of waves lapping at the shore. Nothing unusual there. He allowed himself to breathe again --

What was that smell? Something familiar. Blood and sinew, and the stink of fear as if someone had died in terror. His houseguest, Sylvie? No, this was roseskin blood, with its bitter iron tang. Indigo blood was sweeter, with just a hint of copper.

Pierre Noir fumbled for the pistol he kept hidden beneath his pillow, but it was gone. Had the intruder taken it? He resisted the urge to leap from the bed and run towards the door. He would be an easy target with his back to the room. Better to keep his eyes closed and his breathing slow and regular.

"Looking for this?" asked a familiar voice. A match was struck, a candle lit. Pierre opened one eye. By the flickering flame, he saw an Indigo in a blood stained shirt sitting on the chair beside the bed, his long legs stretched before him, a pearl handled revolver dangling from one hand.

"Rafe." A dream. It had to be a dream. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. The blueskin looked nothing like his old friend, but the voice was unquestionably Sabbath's. And the eyes were the same, cool and grey as the sky on a winter day. "You look good."

"So do you," said Sabbath.

Pierre grimaced. "I look like shit." Though he was only twenty-nine, he looked like an old man in his borrowed skin, while the Baron looked young enough to be his son.

"I've brought you something." Sabbath laid the pistol on the bedside table and picked up a sack. Inside was a human skin. The flesh was dark and smooth, like the flesh Pierre Noir had been forced to give to the crows in order to save his life.

"Anyone I know?" he asked lightly.

"Lucky Lyndon."

"Ah, so that's the plan." Pierre stepped away from the bed so that he would not bloody the sheets. Duvy's skin peeled away easily, since it had never properly knit. An incompatibility of the blood. Lucky Lyndon, on the other hand, was Sun-Touched, like Pierre, and his dark, supple skin felt as comfortable as a pair of silk pajamas.

"Like it?" asked Sabbath.

Pierre picked up a hand mirror and examined his new features critically. He had never liked Lucky Lyndon, however he had to admit that when the man was not sneering he had a handsome face, heart shaped with a smooth brow and full, sensuous lips. He touched the scar across the throat, evidence of the hangman's rope which had come so close to ending the young lieutenant's life. He checked the torso, arms and legs looking for other injuries, but there were none. "For a swordsman, Lyndon had surprisingly few scars."

"Even carrying the Serpent's Fang, he was a coward." The Baron tossed the ebony sword cane to Pierre who caught it one handed and unsheathed the blade. Though he had been away from the stage for almost five years, he had not lost the bravado that had made him so popular with King's Town audiences.

"I don't like the braids," Pierre complained, shaking his head so that the tiny plaits whipped through the air like angry snakes. "They get in my eyes."

"Tie them back if they get in your way. But don't make any drastic changes in your appearance. For a little while, you must be Lucky Lyndon. Think you can do it?"

The actor threw back his shoulders and stuck out his chest like a bantam cock. "I played the King of Minos and his wife," he declared. By raising his chin and staring down his nose, he managed to create the illusion that he was a little man trying hard to seem bigger than he was. "Compared to that, playing Unlucky Lyndon should be a walk in the park."

####

The next morning, the actor Pierre Noir dressed with care. He wore a pink and white striped shirt with a broad red sash around his waist and white trousers tucked into knee high, black leather boots which had been polished until he could see his own reflection. His braids were tied back with a red velvet ribbon. The collar of his shirt was open, so that all could see the famous rope burn on his throat. He spent an hour before the mirror practicing sneers and scowls.

"As long as you don't smile, no one will suspect a thing," Rafe assured him. He was sitting near a window, sewing Anton Duvy's face and scalp onto the real Lucky Lyndon's severed head. He had not changed clothes, since today's plan called for him to look as disreputable as possible, but even in a blood stained shirt and filthy leather pants, there was something imposing about him. He had been Baron Sabbath for so long that it was hard for him to be just another Indigo laborer.

Pierre Noir, on the other hand, could be anyone he chose to be. Dressed in Lucky Lyndon's skin and carrying the Serpent's Fang, no one questioned him as he made his way past the small army of soldiers who guarded Baron Sabbath's underground fortress.

"I know how we can catch the Soul Thief," Pierre said, once he finally gained entrance to the necromancer's private study.

Sylvester Jacques, the man currently known in King's Town as Baron Sabbath looked up from his book. "Do tell."

Pierre/Lyndon puffed himself up like a peacock. "Remember that aristo in Prince's Port, the one offering a reward for the capture of a runaway bondswoman? I found the girl. Guess where she was hiding?"

Jacques raised one eyebrow. He had been playing the Baron so long that his mannerisms had become second nature. "Go on."

"With Anton Duvy. He's the one who killed Hugo Chevre, not the Jack Brothers."

"And you know this how?"

Lyndon opened his saddlebag and pulled out a human head. Drained of blood, Dr. Duvy was even paler than he had been in life. "Because the doctor told me, before I killed him."

"Congratulations," said his employer drily. "You've killed an old man and earned yourself a nice bit of pocket money, assuming you have the girl. But what does that have to do with my problem?"

"The girl's father is the Indigo sorcerer."

At that, Jacques laid down his book. He was an unusually tall, lean man, with parchment colored skin drawn taught over aristocratic features. His choice of clothing -- unrelieved black including his frock coat and top hat -- emphasized his pallor. Dark colors also allowed him to blend into the shadows in his underground fortress, a series of natural tunnels and caverns beneath King's Town which were home to bats, feral cats and the Soulless who served the Baron.

Since assuming the identity of Boymere's Lord of the Dead, Jacques had made many changes in the fortress. He now had a suite of rooms as luxurious as any at the palace. An underground stream had been rerouted and turned into a fountain. A natural hot spring supplied warm water in the winter for bathing. Ice brought down from Boymere's mountains at great expense kept wine chilled and fruit fresh during the long hot summer.

It took money to maintain his current, comfortable lifestyle. Money that was no longer flowing into his coffers, now that his army of Soulless had been decimated by a rogue blueskin sorcerer.

"Where is the girl now?"

Lyndon hated standing next to the Baron. It made him feel small. Drawing himself up to his full five feet two inches, he said haughtily "Right here. Hector, Achilles, bring the bitch!"

The two men who descended the rough stone steps were bigger even than the Baron. Hector was Sun Touched, like Lyndon with skin dark as night, while Achilles was an albino. Sentenced to die for crimes including kidnapping, rape, murder and extortion, they had ended up servants to the Baron after Jacques paid the undertaker for their corpses.

A hooded figure stumbled down the stairs between the two giants. An Indigo dressed in tattered servant's clothing, her feet bare, one breast exposed. When the cloth sack was pulled from her head, she stared straight ahead, her expression blank, her jaw slack like one of the Soulless.

Jacques sniffed the girl's breath. "You've drugged her." It was not a question. A concoction of puffer fish venom, belladonna and opium could temporarily render the living as pliable as the dead.

"Had to. It was either that or kill her, and she isn't worth anything dead."

"You have a plan?"

Lucky Lyndon puffed out his chest. "I do. We turn her loose and let her lead us to her father. We give her a gun and let her kill him for us. He won't be expecting it from her. He'll let his guard down. She'll shoot him, and then you'll resurrect him."

"Resurrect him and show him to the planters. If they see the Indigo humbled, they'll respect me all the more." Jacques fingered the iron ring which he wore on his right hand. It was a good plan. Surprisingly good, coming from Lucky Lyndon, a man more famous for his quick temper than his quick wit. "What about Sabbath?"

"What about him?"

"Was he still in his tomb?"

Lyndon sneered. "Where else would he be?"

"Still alive?"

"If you can call it that. I poured three drops of blood in his mouth. He took a breath. Tried to say something. Sounded like ‘Please.'" He grinned nastily.

Jacques frowned. "Don't take him lightly. If he ever escapes, there will be hell to pay."

####

Sylvie moved as if in a dream. The last thing she remembered clearly was an underground cavern full of plush carpets, furniture upholstered in velvet and brocade, polished wooden tables covered with golden ornaments and fine crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, like something from a fairy tale. An aristo, a tall, pale, elegant gentleman with a neatly trimmed goatee had taken her hand, as if she was a fine lady. In a soothing voice, he said "You want to help your father, don't you?"

Certainly, she wanted to help her father.

"You'd do anything for his sake, wouldn't you?"

Yes, she would do anything for her father's sake.

"Even kill."

The word made her tremble. But yes, if it was for the sake of her father, she would even kill.

"Listen closely, child, and I will tell you a story." The gentleman had elegant hands. As he spoke, his fingers traced shapes in the air, and she found her gaze fixed upon his ring. A seemingly plain band of iron, the more she stared, the more lovely it seemed, its smooth grey surface unfolding like a flower revealing blues and pinks like those found inside a seashell, the kind that would wash up on the beach when she was a small child...

Then, the world went dark and soft around the edges.

Now, she wandered aimlessly through the slums of King's Town, searching for her father. At each blueskin face, she paused. Was this him? No, this man's nose was too short. That man was too tall. This was a woman, mannish but with round hips and firm breasts beneath her embroidered shirt. That one looked alive, but he was really a ghost.

The sight of spirits should have frightened her. Some part of her that was still Sylvie understood the danger of consorting with the dead. However, in the twilight land where she found herself, there seemed little to distinguish life from death. They were but two sides of the same thing, like the front and back of a coin, or the inner and outer surface of a ring...

Finally, in the alley behind a fish market, she saw the face she sought. "Papa!" she called. She raised her arm to wave. What was that in her hand? A pistol? Why was she carrying a pistol?

The tall Indigo in the blood stained shirt and mud splattered leather pants stood up. Arms wide, he welcomed her. Then, he saw the gun, and his smile became a frown.

"Sylvie. Daughter. What're you doin'?" he asked in a thickly accented voice.

What indeed? As if in a dream, she watched herself take careful aim and shoot. Her father clutched his chest. He fell backwards into a rotting pile of garbage.

Only after it was done, did she remember. A pale man with a neatly trimmed goatee dressed all in black wearing a tall hat. "The man you call your father is not really your father. A skin thief has stolen his form. You must kill the sorcerer and set him free. Do you understand?"

And Sylvie had nodded, because it was true -- more true than Sylvester Jacques realized. A voldepeaux was wearing her father's face, and until the sorcerer died, her father would never be at peace.

What she could not know, because only two men knew the truth, was that the pistol which Lucky Lyndon had placed in her hand was loaded with powder but no bullets. The flash and bang were loud enough to make birds fly from the trees. A murder of crows, black against the darkening sky.

The pale aristo in the black frock coat and tall, black hat hurried forward. Kneeling in the banana leaves and scattered fish guts, he laid his right hand across the fallen Indigo's brow. The blue tinged skin was still warm, the heart still beating. Excellent. The best time to bind the soul was at the moment when it tried to leave the flesh.

"I command you," said Jacques. "Rise and serve me."

The dead man's eyes opened. What an unusual shade of grey for an Indigo, Jacques thought. The dead man's hand closed over the Baron's wrist. So strong, Jacques thought. Dead fingers pried the iron ring from his hand. Impossible. This ring was forged from a shovel that had been used to dig ten thousand graves. With it, he, Sylvester Jacques had absolute power over the dead.

"Bastard," murmured a voice he had hoped never to hear again. The Indigo picked himself up from the filth and garbage. He slid the ring onto his own finger and held up his hand. The iron began to glow red hot. The Soulless servants who accompanied the imposter fell to their knees and covered their eyes.

Jacques cowered in the mud. "Lyndon!" He called hoarsely. "Your sword! Quickly!"

Behind him, he heard the Serpent's Fang unsheathed. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of silver and he tasted victory --

Only to have it snatched away again. The blade nicked his cheek, a small graze that hardly broke the skin, but it was enough. Numbness spread down the right side of his body.

Rafael's breath was hot against Jacques face. "I could forgive you for what you did to me -- almost. But there is no excuse for what you've done to Boymere. Dragging my children from their graves, forcing them to slave like cattle. For that crime, you must die. And the man Boymere knows as Baron Sabbath must die with you."

####

Necromancers do not die easily. Though Sylvester Jacques had not drawn a breath in almost half an hour, he was still awake and alert -- though paralyzed -- when the Soulless carried him from the slums of King's Town to Father Friday Cemetery. They laid him out on the freshly trimmed grass. The nearby rosebushes were in full bloom, the ground around them littered with red petals like drops of blood. The black oak trees which were home to the cemetery's crows shivered, as if in anticipation of the coming feast.

A crowd of onlookers watched from the shadows. A score of the city's poor had followed the grisly procession from the slums, and their number grew as visitors to the cemetery heard the news -- Baron Sabbath was dead, and, in accordance with his beliefs, his body was being fed to the birds. Reaction was mixed. In his youth, Rafael Sabbath had been well loved, but in recent years, he had grown reclusive and miserly.

In preparation for his air burial, the Soulless tore off the Baron's black frockcoat and his tall, black hat. They ripped open his shirt, uncovering his pale chest. Long, filthy fingernails gouged at his skin -- his borrowed skin -- opening bloody wounds. Then, at a gesture from the tall blueskin in the blood stained shirt, they stepped back.

The crows waited for five, perhaps six minutes before the boldest dared to swoop down from the trees and grab a tiny morsel of bloody flesh from the dying man's chest. Seeing their brother's success, the other birds joined in. The right eye was seized almost at once. Two birds fought in the air over the left eye.

A shadow fell over the dying man. The cemetery guardian. For a moment Jacques thought he was been saved. Dominy would never allow such sacrilege in his graveyard. But the pitre merely shook his head and muttered "Not until he's dead."

"Fair enough," replied Sabbath. He leaned over the imposter. "This is for Brigitte," he murmured as he plunged the Serpent's Fang into Jacques heart.

####

The puffer fish venom wore off. Sylvie woke around midnight with a mouth full of cotton and a splitting headache. She vaguely remembered firing a gun, but seeing M. Anon standing over her bed, she guessed correctly that she had missed.

"I'm sorry," she mumbled. "I didn't mean -- I don't know why -- "

"You did well, my child."

"I did?" Feeling very pleased with herself, she went back to sleep.

When she woke again, it was morning. She climbed out of Dr. Duvy's huge feather bed. Snatching up a robe, she went downstairs to the kitchen following the scent of bacon and coffee.

At the sound of the door swinging open, the two men standing near the stove glanced up. M. Anon was dressed the way he was when she first met him, like a gentleman in a black frock coat.

Beside him stood a short, incredibly handsome man with smooth chocolate skin and a dazzling smile. His curly hair was trimmed close to his scalp. A white shirt and loose white pants emphasized the dark perfection of his skin. His only ornament was a strip of leather embroidered with pearls which he wore choker style around his neck. The beading was Indigo. Sylvie's mother used to make jewelry like that. At the memory, her eyes filled with tears.

"How are you doing, Sylvie?"

Startled, she blinked away her tears and stared at the Sun Touched man's face. Though she was sure she had never seen him before -- she would have remembered someone so handsome -- his eyes were familiar and so was his voice. "Dr. Duvy?"

"Call me Pierre. Pierre Noir." He bowed.

She could not help but stare. "You're so young!"

"I told you."

"And you!" She frowned as her gaze turned to M. Anon. "Why are you still wearing my father's skin?"

"He doesn't need it anymore."

"Doesn't need it anymore..."

Gently. "I kept my promise. Your father's been buried. A proper Indigo burial at sea."

Sylvie looked to Black Peter for confirmation. "I guess -- In that case -- " She bit her lower lip and ducked her head to hide the tears that had started flowing again. Black Peter would think that she did nothing but cry! For some reason, it seemed very important that she make a good impression on the handsome young man who spoke with Dr. Duvy's cool, cultured voice.

"We have to leave this house," Pierre told her. "The world thinks that Anton Duvy is dead, and in his will, he left his fortune to the Three. Do you have some place to go? Do you need money?"

She still had Rafael Anon's gold, since "Dr. Duvy" had refused to accept payment for the killings he had performed for her. However, the voldepeaux would probably want his money back. "I thought I could stay with you," she said shyly, blushing as Pierre Noir took her hands between his.

"I'm going back to the theater. You're welcome to come with me. Do you sew?"

"Of course. I'm Indigo."

"Then you can do costumes. Rafe has written a play, one he's anxious to see performed."

Three Months Later

After five years away from the stage, Pierre Noir had a new play set to open on All Soul's Night. News of the actor's miraculous return from the grave had spread throughout Boymere. People from across the island had descended upon King's Town to catch a glimpse of him as he led a parade of thespians from the waterfront to the theater district.

Black Peter had never looked better, his many fans agreed. He wore white, which set off his inky skin. His hair was cropped close to his scalp. A garland of marigolds proclaimed him to be a member of the Earthly Brotherhood.

In honor of the Eaters' holy day, he was flanked by twelve spirits, ghosts of dead actors, playwrights and stage hands. On All Soul's Night, the warded gates of Boymere's cemeteries were thrown open so that restless spirits could mingle with the living. For a single night, ghosts flirted, danced, sang, cried and loved. Consciences were unburdened, unspoken goodbyes were said, grudges were settled. By morning, a fair number of the restless dead would be ready to move on to the next world.

Surrounded by luminous spirits, Pierre Noir seemed like a god, radiant and ethereal. His smile was enough to make women swoon. They tossed flowers and garters at him. They called out his name. A few even bared their breasts or lifted their skirt. But the actor only had eyes for the young Indigo woman who walked at his side. Rumor had it that she was the daughter of Boymere's new Lord of the Dead.

The new Baron Sabbath was a mixed blood Indigo who went by the name of Rafael Anon. As the author of tonight's play, he had a place of honor in the parade, beside Black Peter. The two men were close -- as close as Pierre Noir had once been to the previous Baron Sabbath, which lead to rumors that the "new" Baron was, in fact, the old Baron wearing a new skin.

Dressed in a black frock coat with a tall, black hat perched upon his head, the Indigo towered over the actors as they marched through the streets of the city. He wore only one piece of jewelry, an iron ring. A snow white cockatiel sat on his right shoulder, while a raven occupied the left. A flock of pigeons followed in his wake.

Near sunset, the parade reached the theater district. The newest playhouse was a pink and white dome, dedicated to the memory of Madame Brigitte, the dead wife of the former Baron.

The crowd of ticket holders who filled the lobby represented most of the major faiths of the island kingdom. The richest patrons belonged to the Three, but there were Eaters, followers of the Goddess and even a few members of the Wisdom, the latter easy to recognize, because men and women wore identical loose fitting, brightly colored silk robes.

The wealthy playboy, M. Andre Maripos from Prince's Port was one of the lucky ones. He had managed to get his hands on a ticket for the performance. He was dressed in red velvet, with a star ruby the size of a quail's egg holding his cravat in place. He had chosen his companion, the daughter of a wealthy banker, for her looks. Her shiny black hair and low cut black silk gown provided a perfect contrast to his red. They made a striking couple. Though Maripos was pretending to admire the statute of Mme. Brigitte, a life size black marble nude carved by the sculptor, Margot Noct, in fact he was basking in the approval of the other nobles gathered in the elegantly appointed theater lobby. It was, he thought to himself, the event of the season, one he would not miss for the world.

A hush fell over the crowd as the double doors opened, and the players stepped into the lobby. The lead actor, Pierre Noir was the center of attention, of course, but M. Maripos's eyes were drawn to the tall, young blueskin woman who walked at the actor's side. She was dressed native style in a pearl beaded blouse over a blue velvet skirt, and her long black hair was piled on top of her head, but he recognized her immediately.

His face flushed as red as his coat. "Sylvie!" he shouted.

At the sound of his voice, the young Indigo woman's face went from blue to grey, and she clutched the arm of her companion, Black Peter.

M. Maripos began to shove his way through the crowd. "Sylvie!"

"May I help you?"

A blue tinged hand dropped on M. Maripos' shoulder.

He tried to shrug it off, but the Indigo had a grip like iron.

"Unhand me!" Maripos tore his gaze away from his runaway bondservant. When he recognized Rafael Anon, his eyes bugged out of his head. "You! You're the card cheat!"

M. Rafael Anon inclined his head, as if in greeting. His expression was cordial, but his voice was like ice as he whispered in M. Maripos' ear. "Before you do anything you'll regret, you should know that Sylvie is under the protection of Baron Sabbath."

Andre Maripos froze. His blue eyes searched the mulatto's face. His gaze dropped to the hand on his shoulder. He noted the iron ring. And in the Indigo's other hand, an ebony cane with a silver serpent handle. The color left his face. "M—my apologies," he stuttered. "I mistook the young lady for someone else."

"Exactly," the Baron murmured. He watched Andre Maripos' back as the nobleman fled the theater, his lovely companion protesting as she followed him.

The actors vanished into their dressing rooms, and the ticket holders began looking for their seats. The theater had a high, domed ceiling painted to resemble a blue sky dotted with clouds. When the lamps were extinguished, phosphorescent paint recreated the moon and stars. The thespian ghosts that floated high above the orchestra pit gave the impression of fog. Marigold wreaths decorated with licorice skulls hung over the doors filling the air with the sweet scent of flowers and anise.

Queen Esme and her retinue were among the last members of the audience to arrive. They had a special box overlooking the stage. The monarch wore her usual gold and green, colors which set off her red hair. Her crown was a golden diadem studded with emeralds and topazes.

Boymere's queen was a figurehead, but her family was immensely wealthy, and their holdings had increased in the last five years, thanks to Baron Sabbath. Cheap, abundant labor had allowed them to plant cotton, a valuable crop in high demand in foreign ports. The Queen's half-sister and financial adviser, Duchess Jeanne-Louisa had used the profits to invest in land, ships and banks, almost as if she knew that the agricultural boom would not last forever. Now, with so many other wealthy landowners up to their necks in debt, the royal family had assumed a stranglehold grip on the nation's economy. There was talk, in the general assembly, of restoring some of the monarch's powers, in exchange for the Queen's help in balancing the island's budget.

Rafael Anon occupied the box next to the royals. In his black clothes, he was able to hide in the shadows, so neither the Queen nor her sister noticed him as they settled into their seats. As the orchestra struck up a slow, poignant melody and the curtain rose for the first performance of The Indigo's Skin, his eyes were fixed on the lovely caramel brown face of the Duchess. Her hair was plaited into dozens of tiny braids pinned up with diamond combs. The décolletage of her yellow silk gown left her breasts all but bare. Her latest lover, a willowy Wisdom poet swathed in emerald green silk sat to her left while her half-sister, the Queen occupied the chair to her right. The two women had opera glasses that let them see the action on the distant stage as well as the clothes, jewels and hairstyles of the other theater patrons.

On stage, Pierre Noir, wearing a bone white mask was lying in the arms of an actress dressed in gold. Her mask was that of a beautiful woman with medium brown skin and a small beauty mark on her right cheek, near her ruby lips.

In the box next to the Baron's, the Duchess touched her own small, black birthmark. She murmured something to her sister. The Queen laughed softly.

The two lovers began to argue. The woman wanted the man, a necromancer to use his powers to raise an army of the dead with which she could reclaim land seized by the neighboring country's king. Pierre Noir, in the role of the necromancer, Ivan the White, refused. The noblewoman grew angry. While Ivan's back was turned, she poisoned his drink. Once he was unconscious, she summoned her henchmen, a necromancer and a swordsman. With their help, she "stripped" Ivan of his skin -- on the stage, skin thieves only stole the other actor's mask -- and gave it to her own necromancer to wear.

Pierre Noir, still unconscious and wearing a bloody skeleton mask was carried by the three conspirators to a secret room. The noblewoman instructed her necromancer, now wearing her lover's white mask to raise an army of the dead using Ivan's stolen ring. The swordsman was told to make sure that no one disturbed the body.

The story was full of holes, but audiences in King's Town did not expect a tight plot. They wanted tears, anger and blood -- lots of blood -- all tied up with a happy ending. And so, when the Indigo servant stumbled upon the body locked in the secret room, he readily agreed to let Ivan borrow his skin. Disguised as a blueskin, the necromancer devised a plan for revenge that was as gruesome as it was elaborate. In the end, he regained his white mask and magic ring, the voldepeaux fell to his death in the ocean while trying to rescue his own mask from sharks, the swordsman stumbled into a pit of poisonous vipers, and the noblewoman threw herself from a cliff after her lovely face was disfigured by acid.

There were six curtain calls. So many red roses were tossed at the principle actors that the stage looked like a bloody battlefield. The only members of the audience who remained seated were Jeanne-Louisa and the new Baron Sabbath. The Duchess looked ill. She whispered something to her half-sister then fled from the box.

In the foyer, she was waylaid by an Indigo gentleman dressed in black. "Hello, Jeanne-Louisa."

She glared up at him. "Do I know you?"

"Intimately," the Indigo said with a tight smile that did not touch his eyes. He took her arm and steered her to an empty alcove. Leaning over her, he whispered "I thought about you while I was rotting in that cave where you left me."

The Duchess's eyes widened in alarm. She had gone into the mountains with Jacques and Lyndon disguised as a man the night they left Sabbath's body in the secret cave. She had even insisted that her co-conspirators call her "Ramon", in case the flayed, paralyzed but still conscious Baron died and his ghost was released to tell the story of his death. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Don't lie. Your skin was the last thing I smelled, before you sealed me in that pit and left me for the bats and worms. I thought about you often." His breath was hot against her neck. "I loved you. I thought you loved me."

"I do love you," she whispered. "Please forgive me, Rafael."

The Baron shook his head. "It's too late for that. You saw the play. You know how this must end."

With a cry of alarm, the Duchess pushed him away. Her hands flew to her face.

"No, love," he whispered. "I'm not going to destroy your face. That would be too quick. And it would do nothing for the poor citizens of Boymere who suffered for your greed. Or for Brigitte."

Her face went pale, and she began to tremble. "B -- Brigitte?"

He pulled her close and murmured into her hair. "I can forgive what you did to me, but I can never forget what you did to poor Brigitte. You were there when she fell. No, don't try to lie. I've talked to her servant, the one you tried to bribe to silence. She saw the two of you standing together at the top of the lighthouse.

Brigitte sent for you. She had doubts about the man claiming to be her husband. She had no intention of throwing herself to her death. You pushed her."

"Rafe, please -- "

His mouth covered hers. She tasted bitter almonds. Poison. Briefly, she struggled, and then the life left her body, and she exhaled her last breath.

Baron Sabbath caught her before she could fall to the ground. He buried his face in her hair, inhaling her scent. Then he laid his right hand across her brow. The iron ring on his index finger began to glow. The dead woman's eyes flew open. Her heart began to beat. She took a gasping breath. Then another. The color returned to her face. Dead for only a moment, she was physically unchanged, but her will was gone. The Queen's sister, the Duchess Jeanne-Louisa was now one of the Soulless.

"You will give your fortune to the poor, and then you will join a convent," Sabbath whispered into her ear. "You will spend the rest of your days ministering to the sick. Boymere will call you a saint. After you have atoned for your crimes, you will walk into the sea and never return."

She nodded. Her thoughts were still clouded, but in the fog, one image grew clear. She saw herself dressed in a black hooded robe kneeling in the dirt tending to the open sores of a leper. The leper looked so touched by her kindness that it seemed he might break down and cry. "Thank you! Thank you!" he kept saying.

"No," she countered. "Thank you." And she meant it. For there was a hole inside her, an empty place that had never been filled until now.

As if in a dream, she wandered back to her sister's side. "I've been thinking," she murmured to Esme. "I'm tired of this life. I want to retire to a convent..."

Queen Esme knew her half-sister too well to believe a word of what she was saying. She assumed that Jeanne-Louisa was teasing her. "Don't be silly, Jeannie. I need you to manage our money."

Manage our money, the Duchess thought. Yes, tomorrow morning she would sign the papers and all the land and wealth which she and her sister had acquired in the last five years would be given to charity. She would have to act quickly and in secrecy. Esme would not like it. Not at first. But eventually, she would persuade her half-sister that it was better to serve than to rule, better to love than to dominate. Better to let the sea take one where it would rather than struggle against the tide.

The sea. She was seized by a sudden whim. Soon -- after the papers were signed, after she did what she could to ease the suffering of the poor -- she would go to the beach where she and Baron Sabbath had made love five summers ago. Though it was too cold for bathing, she would walk along the shore, maybe slip off her shoes and get her feet wet or even wade in knee high water. Water, yes. Waves washing over her. The gentle give and take of the ocean, so like breathing. There was no place in Boymere so restful as the sea.

His revenge complete, Rafael Anon slipped away. The streets were full of revelers. Many of the celebrants wore costumes. Black top hats were especially common. A young girl handed him a licorice skull. An old man tossed him a wreath of marigolds. The ghost of a buxom, middle aged woman slipped her arm through his.

"I've been looking for you," the spirit said in Brigitte's voice. "Where have you been?"

The Baron was not a man prone to tears, but his voice broke. "I was...indisposed."

If life, Brigitte's head barely came up to his shoulder, but her ghost floated twelve inches above the ground. She planted a cool kiss on his cheek, as light as fog. "I always said your philandering would be the death of you. But I never expected it to be the death of me."

"Brigitte, I'm sorry -- "

"Hush. We only have a few hours until dawn. I saw what you did to Jeanne-Louisa, that lying bitch. You were too easy on her. But then, you've always been weak to women and children." She laid a cool, ghostly hand against his cheek. "I like0 your new skin. It suits you. Try to take better care of this one than you did of the last."

"Brigitte -- "

She silenced him with a kiss. "I know."

Arm in arm, man and ghost strolled until dawn. As the first rays of sunlight broke over King's Town's warehouse district, Madame Brigitte's spirit waivered and then vanished. Alone, Baron Sabbath returned to his underground home.

THE END


© 2012 McCamy Taylor

Bio: McCamy Taylor is, of course, Aphelion's reigning Serials / Novellas (fiction longer than 7,500 words) Editor. She is also the author of many stories and articles that have appeared in Aphelion and various other publications too numerous to list here. Her most recent fiction contribution to Aphelion was the novella Become Like a God in the August 2012 edition.

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