Seven (1)

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"It's here!"

Izzy burst into the music room of the house in Grosvenor Square and waved an envelope under Vita's nose. Vita sighed, her hands suspended mid-air above the piano keys. Closing the door was meant to signal no one was to bother her while she practised. After the previous day's social gathering and her disturbing visions, she was desperate for some time alone before going to the dance school later in the morning. But she assumed that Izzy didn't believe this request applied to her. Instead, she bounced about the sunlit room, a delighted grin on her lips.

Despite herself, Vita let her hands fall into her lap, curious about the content of the letter. "What is it?"

"Your presentation invitation!" Izzy squealed. She handed her the envelope. "It was delivered to Weatherly but your mother sent your footman – what's his name – to give it to you just now!"

Vita examined the letter's thick cream paper and seal. Her mother's name and Weatherly's address were etched in an elegant handwriting that had an air of solemnity she had seldom seen on paper.

Izzy clapped. "Open it, open it!"

Vita obeyed. The invitation card read:

'The Lord Chamberlain is commanded by Their Majesties to summon Mrs Hartpole to an afternoon presentation party at Buckingham Palace on Thursday 11th June 1922 from 4 to 6 o'clock pm.

Day dress with hats. Morning dress, lounge suit or service dress.'

"Isn't it the bee's knees?" Izzy said, her cheeks bright with excitement. "We're going to come out together! This is going to be such terrific fun!"

She grabbed Vita by her forearms and forced her to stand up, then she pulled her into a foxtrot about the room. They swirled around the grand piano, with Izzy leading the flowing movements of the dance. Vita let out an amused laugh, her head spinning slightly.

"You're mad!"

She did love seeing Izzy so happy, though. She took this whole Season business so seriously, it was a relief to see her enjoy part of it too.

"We're going to meet the King!" Izzy sang. "And the Queen! And walk through the Throne Room! And bow!"

She let go of Vita to sink into a graceful curtsey. Playing along, Vita pretended to be the king, and yawned behind her hand while rolling her eyes. But instead of the expected burst of laughter, Izzy let out a gasp.

"Vita, your hands!"

Vita frowned, taken aback, and gazed down at her hands. Her heart skipped a beat. From her unnaturally black nails to the middle of her forearms, her veins stood out in her pale skin, dark as ink. Their criss-crossed pattern was like intricate foliage on her hands, spreading out around the lower part of her arms. She tried to rub it off, without success.

Izzy's eyes were wide in astonishment, her mouth agape.

"What have you done?" she asked.

Vita shook her head. "Nothing. I was just playing the piano."

Mesmerised, she couldn't get her eyes of her hands. The lines were as black as the soot that had covered Holden's body at the warehouse.

"Well..." Izzy said. "Does it hurt?"

"No. I don't feel any different."

But as she said the words, she wondered if she had indeed felt different since her ordeal in East London. She was often hot, and had lost her appetite. But she had assumed those were side-effects of her nightmarish experience. Her hands and forearms turning the colour of charcoal were, however, definitely not normal reactions to a trauma.

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