Somber storm clouds hung in such a way that hid the moon and set the stage for a daring rescue. Amaranth, in all her pixie stature, faced the iron gates imprisoning the souls of Silvan Mansion. She tied a flashlight to her oxygen mask as she made her way towards the garden. Perhaps, she fancied herself playing the role of the prince saving her beloved from his glass-covered tower, but she was truly a fool for not heeding his warnings.
A part of her knew she had no place standing beside the heir to the Silvan Family. She was a finch with coffers as lackluster as her grey eyes. Regulus was a bird of paradise. He held the spotlight at every party since the Late Lord Justus Silvan introduced him to society. Regulus captured the guests’ imaginations with his mysterious upbringing. Was he some creature Lord Silvan found on one of his expeditions? Was he proof the Otherworld existed? Or was he the product of an unholy experiment conducted by Lord Silvan’s brother? These questions drew scientists along with buzzy fame-seekers and friends with hidden stingers to Regulus. All the while, Amaranth was being drawn to the Silvan Family like a fly to a pitcher plant.
With a spider’s grace, she climbed up the garden gate as the wind whipped her mass of wild curls around her neck. Rain gave her limbs an icy pinch. Her tan fingers turned pale and loosened when the raindrops drilled into them. She held on. Her oxygen machine beeped, signaling she only had a few hours left. She cursed at her past self until her flashlight flickered. Her hands gave in to the rain. Amaranth fell.
She lied in the mud while the wind and rain fought each other over who would beat her into submission. The flickering stopped. The black surrounding her matched the darkness lurking inside the old mansion. Everything in nature told this woman to let the Silvans be, yet she persisted and climbed once more.
The moon peeked from her grey curtains to cast a light on the dying garden. Winter’s ire and the poor air quality transformed Regulus’ haven into a graveyard of thorny, skeletal trees, creeping from the earth like mangled hands. Amaranth jumped from the top of the fence to a nearby branch. Her fingers brushed the locket around her neck. She had to speak to Regulus. In good conscience, she could not leave him and Lady Loranna to wilt.
Three years ago, Lady Loranna had interviewed her in the garden. Wrinkles framed the edges of the lady’s eyes as she and Amaranth gossiped about other families. Two years ago, Lady Loranna invited Amaranth to a candle lighting ceremony in the garden. Bags dragged the skin below the lady’s eyes to her cheekbones as she mourned her husband. A year and a half ago, Lady Loranna handed Amaranth tea far from the garden. Sharp cheekbones protruded from the lady’s face, nearly distracting Amaranth from glassy eyes and the 215 AQI value. The lady’s decline happened so quickly that Amaranth feared if she would find anything left of her beloved.
She trekked through the twisted trees until she spotted one that reached a window.
When she first met Regulus, he didn’t care for literature lessons. He seemed more interested in teaching her carnal acts. She may have been a bauble to Regulus until he confided in her after one of their late-night lessons.
“Anne, you are not the only woman I have brought here. But you are the only one that sees what I truly am.”
The next night was the fire.
While being bedridden, he continued their more academic lessons. She noticed a change in him. The books she sent enthralled him. He wrote pages of notes for her to review and tried his hand at storytelling. In his stories, monsters were misunderstood misfits, shades walked in the light and love could bring back the dead. His words haunted her, consumed her.
They exchanged letters for over a year.
Amaranth turned off her oxygen machine. She ducked behind the curtains when she heard the slapping of boots. Down the corridor, two men were talking in hush voices. She could never forget the harsh baritone of Lord Stasius Silvan, the man who interrupted her lessons to take blood samples from Regulus, the man who entered his room with pruners, the man who sabotaged a budding romance.
Months ago, her beloved sent her a letter with pink and red camellias.
Longing for you, you are a flame in my heart.
She responded by sending him a book of love poems.
Days ago, Amaranth spoke to Lady Loranna and Lord Stasius about having in-person lessons. In heated tones, they mentioned his recovery and the increased air pollution. She understood why he could not leave the house. She did not understand why she couldn’t see him.
He sent her an essay with a begonia before she left. The message was clear.
Still, she pushed the issue. He deserved more than to be a rose in a gilded terrarium. Lord Stasius sacked her without consulting his sister-in-law and barred her from entering the mansion. Amaranth begged for an audience with Lady Loranna until a servant took pity on her and allowed her to give Regulus a parting gift. She gave him a fairytale book.
The servant handed her back the book of poems with a pink carnation, azalea, and purple hyacinth.
I’ll never forget you, take care of yourself for me, please forgive me.
As she turned away from the door, petals fell from the library window. They were from pink and red camellias.
Amaranth took the petal from her locket as she searched for a brick with a knotted tree symbol. During her time at the mansion, Regulus taught her how to navigate the secret passageways. One always came in handy when she wanted to warm his bed. A chill enveloped her before she pressed the brick, revealing a passage that would lead to the library. The library was close to his tower.
Her heart fluttered against her ribcage like a bird longing to be set free. She was a few feet from her beloved. She closed her eyes, picturing the last time she laid eyes on Regulus. His green skin glowed amongst the moonlight. Leaves spiraled across his muscled arms that planted her firmly on the bed. Purple-tipped tendrils bounced around his magnetic, golden eyes. Red blossoms crowned his head and freckled parts of his body. He was ethereal, a fairy king.
It was only after she opened the door to the library that she thought about her appearance, covered in mud and blood with ragged clothing.
A thud echoed across the room.
Her head snapped to a nearby table. Sitting next to a fallen book was a slacked face man with yellow-green skin. The crisping tendrils framing his face reached past his shoulder blades. The gold in his eyes faded to dull mustard.
Yet she bounded into his arms.
He shoved her off. “Do I know you?”
Heart freezing, she gripped the petal tighter. His eyes locked onto it. He gasped.
Nearby tapping interrupted them. Amaranth dove under the table. She chided herself over her horrible hiding spot but sighed in relief when a familiar cane came into view. Lady Loranna tapped the table with her cane as she looked past Regulus.
“Reggie, have you been moping here all day?”
“I was studying.”
She held out her hand, trusting Regulus to guide her towards him. “You should photosynthesize under your lamps. Stasius tells me you have not seen much sun.” Lady Loranna patted his shallow cheeks. “We cannot have you wilting.”
“Mother, may I write to Am—Miss Flores?”
The lady’s hand dropped. “You may not.” She tapped her cane. “Your uncle thinks she may impede your recovery.”
“But I am already healed.”
“You still have no memories from before…before that night.”
There was a pregnant pause.
“I am completely healed.”
“I know you wish to see Miss Flores. I miss the dear girl as well, but your health comes first.”
“My mind is fine,” he stressed.
“Who gave you the name Regulus?”
He was silent.
“Fine, indeed.” She lightly hit his foot.
“I can’t remember a memory I do not possess.”
Lady Loranna squeezed her cane until her knuckles cracked. “I will not have you start this nonsense again.”
“If I am your mother, then you must be my son, correct?”
“Please,” he whispered.
Her fingers dug into his cheeks until they hit the bone. “Are you my son?”
The pause lingered.
Her hand shook as her voice broke. “Am I your mother?”
“Yes, of course, you are.” He wiped away a few of her tears.
She dropped her cane. His hug soothed her sharp edges, and she folded into his side.
“I love you, Son.”
Amaranth waited until Lady Loranna left the room before she bombarded him. “What is happening? Do you have memory relapses? Why can’t I see you?”
His entire body deflated with a long, suffering sigh. She reached for his hands and yelped.
He waved her off. “It will grow back in an hour or so.”
Before she could ask more questions, he stopped her with a wilting look. They made their way to his room in silence. The chill followed her as she was dragged deep into the Silvan’s pitcher plant.
Amaranth scanned his domed-covered room, which had been transformed into a greenhouse. The red walls were lost behind a mass of vines that also claimed the bed canopy as its domain. Potted plants littered the floor and shelves. In parts of the room, there were flowerbeds directly on the hardwood floor. Fairy lights flung hap hazardously from hooks and hanging pots. It looked magical if one ignored the spiderwebs draping from UV lights.
He smiled at her reaction and handed her a towel along with one of his nightshirts. Her cheeks reddened as she closed the door to the bathroom. Scrubbing the grim off of her skin, her mind rewound the past conservation.
“I can’t remember a memory I do not possess.”
When she emerged from the steam, he ceased his pacing but replaced the action with reaching for his phantom hand. Instead of facing her, he focused on the rain pattering against his dome. Its acidity further broke down the marble grotesques of Silvan Mansion. In a cruel way, his glass cage protected him from the rain’s wrath. But it would not protect him from Amaranth.
“There is no easy way to explain this, so I will be blunt.”
“I am not Regulus.”
The rain scraped against the walls as dead leaves thrashed in the wind.
Amaranth blinked. “Pardon?”
“I came from him and have almost everything that made him up. But I am not Regulus.”
“What are you saying?”
The chill hovered in the air around them.
“During the fire, most of Regulus burned, leaving only his thoracic cavity. From there, cells specialized and…to put it simply, I was born.”
“I don’t understand. You were born from his chest?”
“Amaranth, I am a clone.”
She wavered from side-to-side. The leaves quickened their spiraling ascend around the dome.
“It is similar from when you cut the top of a carrot and place the top in water to—”
“Gods, you are not a carrot!” Her shrill voice backed him to a bookshelf.
“Amaranth, please, allow me to try this again.” His hand reached for her shaking fingers, but she pulled them away.
“Who are you?”
“Call me Nemo until I find a more suitable name.”
“Why? Why let me believe you were Regulus?”
In a small voice, he said, “I thought I was.” Nemo ran his fingers through his mess of tendrils. “I thought Mother was right, and I would remember. But after months of not remembering…None of Regulus’ brain matter survived, so why would I have his memories? Why would I be him?”
He let out a hoarse breath. “I am sorry, Amaranth. I never meant to deceive you.”
Grey met dull yellow. Nemo took one step closer to her. Amaranth stood frozen. She continued to stare into his eyes as if she would find any answers or deceit. She wouldn’t find any. Nemo gripped his phantom hand, and perhaps, Amaranth longed for her own phantom.
Regulus had not been a companion or much of a lover, but what they shared was innate to their natures. Perhaps, Amaranth was drawn to Regulus, not by his beauty, but by his otherness. She too found herself in the company of lords and ladies, yet she remained orbiting them, never quite touching, never connecting. The night before the fire, he was not some alien creature nor was she some foreigner. They were a man and a woman. But had she truly felt this connection with Regulus? Or with the man who sent her pink and red camellias?
“If this was one of your stories, what roles would we play?”
“You would be the fair maiden trying to rescue the monster.” Nemo turned from her. “I would be the monster you must leave behind.” He took a step back. “I am a selfish creature. I wanted to tell you the truth, but you have spent too much time within these cursed walls.”
Amaranth stepped closer to Nemo. “Why don’t you leave this place?”
“Mother needs me.”
“She needs you to be Regulus.”
He flinched. “Stasius needs me to complete his research.”
“And what do you need?”
They stood inches from each other. Nemo’s phantom hand reached out for her. He pulled his arm back once he noticed, but she drew nearer. Amaranth took his hand and peered into his eyes to see flecks of gold. He lowered his head to meet her face.
Boots slapped outside the door.
Nemo pushed Amaranth away from the peephole’s view. The slaps hovered by the door. They held their breath and fought from seeking comfort in each other’s gaze. Nemo wilted into himself as he remained rooted in place. The wind screamed. Amaranth’s eyes searched for the nearest pot in case the door burst open. His tower was caught in the middle of a storm. Minutes lagged. Nemo glared at the peephole once Lord Stasius drifted away from the room.
“Does he check on you often?”
Nemo shrugged. “I never understood why he does it.” The poor dear was like a bird who had forgotten its wings.
Amaranth held his arm with the phantom hand. “Did he do this to you?”
“It always grows back.” In a rehearsed voice he said, “We are dying. The world is dying. And I may hold the answers to its salvation.”
“So you stay here to what? Allow yourself to be a martyr for our sins?”
Fire flowed through Amaranth’s veins. The chill returned. A phantom hand cupped her cheek and turned her head towards the closet. She promptly followed its suggestion.
“What are you doing?” he asked as Amaranth raided his closet for coats, scarfs, and oxygen masks.
“You are not a plant for that monster to hack away at.” She handed him a trench coat and mask before throwing a portable UV lamp in a nearby bag.
Her head whipped toward him. “You can!” She inhaled deeply and let the fire dwindle until it settled in her core. “Nemo, you are not a living ghost. You are not an experiment. You are not a damsel in a tower.” Amaranth held his hand. “You can choose who you are.”
Nemo pulled away. “I may not survive outside.”
“But can you live here?”
Amaranth didn’t know if she had a place in his future or how long his future would be, but she knew he had to decide his fate. She stepped outside the room and left the door open. The chill hung near Nemo. He shifted his weight from foot-to-foot, not meeting her eyes. She smiled and held out a hand for him.
In the corner of Nemo’s vision, he saw pink camellias and begonias.
He put on the mask and took a step forward.
The moment his hand touched hers he became Janus.