Exercise “On Reflection”

The idea for this one came from a few places. I’m reading Anna Karenina on my Kindle, so that’s where all the aristocracy came from. It’s a long book, like so many Goodreads reviews say, among other things. It’s much-hated for a ton of varying reasons from the ideological to the entertainment value, but I’ve been enjoying it. At the rate of reading it in 30 minute intervals during my lunch breaks, I should be done… in a year or something? -_-‘ I may be as much as 20% through it but don’t quote me on that.

I also read the latest installment of RX by Robert Brockway, and that’s where I got the idea of guards with mirrored visors. The ones in the book are futuristic nano-tech where the mask can either be a limp drape like fabric (and that’s how you remove them) or hardened into a visor shell, but mine are more like mirrored sunglasses in terms of technology. I’m not sure exactly where or when this story takes place era-wise (Odessa mentions learning French so I guess it’s in our world but I don’t know what country or anything). Personally, I love the idea of being able to hide one’s facial expressions and how one looks – I guess that comes from a history of insecurity and social anxiety. Sometimes it’s just so hard to know how to compose your face into a socially acceptable expression depending on the situation, and for a guard it must be exhausting (think of all those people trying to get the British guards to laugh) so I can see why Reg would like his visor.

Anyway, enjoy! I’m happy I was glad to get another story out this week :)

On Reflection

Reg didn’t know what the girl thought she had to pick at about her appearance. He was used to aristocrat women at these soirees of Baron Downey’s using his mirror-masked helmet to give themselves one last confident look before moving on. They did the same thing with any reflective surface. They couldn’t get enough of looking at themselves.

This one was a wreck, though: taking hairpins out and putting them back, struggling to fix the fall of a dark curl, smudging her eyebrows into place, rearranging her cleavage, all with a strained, unhappy look like it was all hopeless.

“Odessa, there are powder rooms for your fretting,” scolded a taller woman, similar in features only more white and golden in coloration, and wearing a lavender frock. “You needn’t bother the guard.”

Odessa’s eyes bugged and she jumped back a step. “Guard? I thought it was a statue!” She turned back to Reg, a hand up as if about to prod him. “He stays so still—“

“If he moves, it will be for a reason,” the other woman snapped. “Let him do his job. Come along.” She held out a gloved hand.

“Yes, sister,” Odessa said, taking the woman’s hand and returning to the dance floor, tugging at the skirt of her dress with her free hand. It was a pale shade of green, the color of pistachio macarons, the kind Reg hoped would be left over after the guests had gone and the cook let the guards at the leftover food back in the kitchen. His stomach grumbled. Standing motionless for hours consumed a lot of energy.

If this Odessa girl didn’t know about Baron Downey’s mirrored guards, this was likely her first time at one of his soirees. She must be newly debuted into society, then, about eighteen, about ten years younger than Reg. If he were an aristocrat, he’d have heard of the debut, but guards had no reason to pay attention to the social millings of the ‘aristos.’

Other lords had started employing the mirror-masked uniform for their guards, but Baron Downey was the first. The brilliance of science made possible not only the glass-like but unshatterable visor of the helmets, but also the coating that appeared as silver on the outside, but was transparent from the inside, making it so the guards could see all and yet none could see their faces. Behind a reflective mask, no one could tell if a guard was bored, or distracted, or even which way he was looking. There was no human face to appeal to, no expression to regulate. People behaved when they knew they were being watched and couldn’t tell when they weren’t. Reg’s training even eliminated variation in body language: he was able to be still for hours, yet could spring into fluid motion in an instant.

There wasn’t much to be done for the boredom, though, so he watched and listened. It was what he was supposed to do anyway, and it was amazing what one could notice, and what things people would say near a faceless guard.

The mask was freedom. He could stare at anyone or thing as long as he liked, his reactions plain on his face yet hidden behind the mask. That meant leering at comely ladies and making faces at fops, most of the time.

It wasn’t long before Odessa was before him again. Her sister was across the room with her back turned, chatting with a small group of admiring men, her fan fluttering like a butterfly wing.

Odessa was so near that Reg could have grabbed her. She leaned in, baring her teeth, running her tongue along them and scrubbing at them with a finger. Her breasts were pushed up above the cut of her bodice like bread dough overflowing a pan.

“Do I have lipstick on my teeth?” she said to herself.

Reg answered anyway. “No,” he said, his voice echoing weirdly in his mask. Odessa jumped; had she already forgotten a person was in there? “You look beautiful,” he said.

Odessa’s face was rosy. “Thank you,” she blurted, and gave a spastic curtsy before running back to her sister. Or trotting, rather, unsteady on her heeled shoes. A debutante all right, but one who either hadn’t had the usual lessons or didn’t take to them. Reg could pick debutantes out, usually: they danced as if from a textbook, and every motion was precise. After time and repetition, soiree after soiree after ball, this smoothed out as they settled into society.

Reg was glad she couldn’t see his face redden. He had broken protocol. Luckily, no one was near enough to hear, and of course no one saw his mouth move.

At the next ball, Reg watched Odessa go over to the guard standing where he had stood last time. The baron liked to rotate their positions. Reg still had a good view of the ballroom, but was near the buffet, where he could see which finely bred lords and ladies double-dipped or shoved food into their faces like starving peasant children.

Later, enjoying the leftovers in the kitchen (and avoiding the soup he had seen Lord Windor sneeze into), Reg’s fellow guard, Collum, talked about how some fine little thing kept trying to chat him up. “Had some nice little biscuits in that bodice,” he said with a leer. “I’d like to pour some honey on those.” He laughed nastily.

Reg punched him.

Later, when they’d righted the tables, helped clean up the spilled food and broken crockery, and begged the forgiveness of the kitchen staff, Reg and Collum sat on the hearth and passed a bottle back and forth. “I don’t know why I reacted like that,” Reg said by way of an apology.

“I didn’t think it’d set you off. She your girl or something?” Collum joked. No lady would be a guard’s girl.

Reg scoffed. “I wish.”

“What, really? An airheaded aristo in love with her own reflection?”

“That’s the thing: she’s not in love,” Reg said. He gestured with the bottle. “She’s so worried about how she looks, but she’s beautiful.”

Collum belched and shrugged. “Maybe she’s got some fancy lord she wants to marry to pull her family out of debt or something.” He scratched himself. “Aristos are always fluffed up about shit like that.” He yanked the bottle from Reg, took a deep pull, belched again, and got up. “I’m heading back to the barracks. You?”

“In a minute. Gimme that,” Reg said, taking the bottle back. Collum waved dismissively and wandered off.

Reg didn’t drink from the bottle, just cradled it in his hands. So Odessa kept trying to chat with Collum, huh? Reg wished he’d asked the man what she’d said, if he could even remember with visions of honeyed biscuits dancing through his head.

It was probably something like, “Do I look beautiful tonight?” Fishing for compliments. Or reassurance. Why would a girl like that flirt with a guard, especially when she couldn’t see if he was handsome or not? Did that tiny bit of positive attention have such a huge effect? How starved for approval could she be? Collum always scorned the petty concerns of aristos, petty compared to the survival struggles of their class, but Reg knew it was hard to compare. When all one’s basic needs were constantly met one’s whole life, then concerns come that the lower classes have little space for.

At the next soiree, Reg was stationed in the hall, on the way to the powder rooms. Half the night had passed before Odessa approached him. “Hello,” she said, her voice uncertain.

“Hello,” Reg said before he could stop himself.

Odessa clapped her hands together in delight. Her smile was contagious – Reg was glad his face his behind his mask. “I found you. I didn’t realize they changed up your posts. I wondered why you ignored me last time.”

“We’re not supposed to talk to the guests. How did you find me, anyway?” Reg asked.

Odessa looked down, seemingly into her cleavage, and gave a tiny smile. “I said hello to all the guards until one answered.” She laughed nervously. “They probably think I’m a lunatic.”

“Word might get around. Someone will warn your family that you’re fraternizing with guards.”

She waved her hand. “I’ve always been strange. They’ll think I’m being friendly, like when I thank the servants or say please when ordering them around.”

“And isn’t that a problem? I thought aristos—“ Reg corrected himself, “aristocrats took protocol breaches very seriously.”

Odessa sighed, still with a small smile. “I think they think I’m a lost cause. Marie –my sister—tries to keep a leash on me but I won’t stop tugging.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I was born under a bad star. I’ve always been strange. I struggled to fit in, but it’s like people can always tell that I’m trying too hard. So I stopped trying.” She tugged her bodice up, jostling the pale dough of her breasts but not moving the dress an inch. “Maybe it’s because I’m so much younger than my sister. I was the baby, so I got away with everything, plus my mother and father were so occupied trying to shape her that they left me to the servants. I got ‘chummy’ with them,” she said, hooking her fingers into the air around the word. “That’s how my father put it. I had so much more fun doing things with them. Planting, pitching hay, baking. Then my parents remembered me and threw me in with tutors, but it was too late. I wasn’t raised to it early enough. I hated lessons. They seemed so useless. The household runs on the simple things the servants do every day, not on my knowledge of French.” She stopped, and looked embarrassed. “But I’m prattling on. I’m sorry. What’s your name?”

“I wouldn’t dare.”

“Why not? What’s the harm in it?” Odessa asked.

“They already know you’re talking to a guard. If they find out it’s me—“

Odessa laughed. “I won’t tell anyone. Please?” She stood on tiptoe, leaning in.

Reg sighed. “Reg.”

“Just Reg?”

“Reginald Gardner.”

Odessa settled back on her heels. “Reginald Gardner,” she said, as if tasting his name.

“Who is Reginald Gardner?” Marie demanded, stalking toward them from the direction of the powder room. “Is that who you are? Why have you been talking to my sister? Know your place, guard!” Marie chastised Reg, her nose nearly touching his mirrored visor. He kept silent, thankful that his face was hidden and he was not compelled to answer her.

“Why shouldn’t he talk to me?” Odessa demanded of her sister, her voice growing shrill. “Why can’t I talk to a guard? Are his thoughts and opinions worth less than mine because he actually works for his bread? Should I not thank him for his service?”

“Hsst! Shut up with that talk!” Marie grabbed her sister’s arm, roughly, and yanked her close, looking around to see if anyone was nearby to hear. “This again, Odessa? People will think you’re a radical!”

“Maybe I am!” Odessa declared, straightening up as tall as she could, her chin lifted.

Marie’s slap was muffled by the glove that sheathed her hand, but Odessa staggered anyway. She clutched her hand to her cheek, tears welling in her eyes. Marie went on in a hiss, “We will never see you married at this rate, and worse, you’ll be jailed as a sympathizer! Do you think the radicals would take any pity on you for sympathizing with them? They’d steal all you have and use you as they wish, thinking it their due. Stupid girl!” She raised her hand again. Odessa flinched.

Reg interposed his arm between the sisters. He said nothing, only looked toward Marie, letting her know that further violence would not be allowed. Marie gaped, scandalized. Odessa gazed at him with her huge, wet eyes, as if he done something heroic instead of just blocking her sister’s swing.

Marie drew herself up, shaking, and lifted her chin. “The baron will hear of this!” she declared, and stalked away, dragging Odessa with her. Odessa looked behind her at Reg as they went, streams of tears running down her cheeks.

At the next ball, Reg was stationed to one side of the doorway to the ballroom, with Collum on the other side. He saw Odessa briefly, on her sister Marie’s arm, as the women entered. Odessa looked at both guards searchingly, with a mournful little pout to her lips. Reg kept his head straight, following her with his eyes, unseen behind his visor. His spirits sank a little. After the outburst at the last soiree, Marie likely would keep Odessa glued to her side. No chance of talking with her this time. Ah well. It was silly anyway, and shouldn’t be.

It was some time after the last guests passed that Reg heard the screams from within the ballroom. He looked to Collum. “Go, I’ll guard here,” Collum urged. Reg swung around and plunged through the doors. Figures in head-to-toe gray , their faces wrapped in cloth, stalked between the guests, slaying them and plundering their corpses. Reg knew them by the rope necklaces they wore, tied in the fashion of a noose: radicals.

“You don’t understand! I’m on your side! I sympathize with your plight!” Odessa was saying. She stood in front of her cowering sister, beseeching a menacing radical wielding a long, curved knife. He yanked a string of pearls from her neck and she screamed. Pearls clattered along the floor.

Reg drew his sword, darted forward, and shoved it through the man’s back. The blade burst from his stomach, close enough to Odessa to leave a bloody stain on the bodice of her dress. She swooned backward atop Marie.

Throughout the ballroom, guards were quickly bringing the situation under control. Nearby, one was strangling a radical with his own noose necklace. “Bad choice of costuming, man,” Reg heard him say. Screaming was replaced by weeping and the groans of the injured and dying. Only the guests taken surprise at the very start were among the deceased; the guards’ training had served them well, enabling them to spring into action almost instantly. The radicals that weren’t dead or escaped were rounded up by several guards to be questioned –and likely tortured—by higher authorities than that of the baron.

Reg looked back to the women. “Are you all right?” he asked, bending to the women. Marie sat with her knees drawn to her chest, rocking herself. Odessa had recovered from her swoon and was staring down at the stain on her bodice, whimpering softly. At Reg’s words she looked up.

“Reg?” she said, almost inaudibly.

“It’s me. Are you hurt? Did the blade cut you?”

She touched the stain gingerly. “I don’t feel cut,” she said, but she stared at the bloodstain on her fingers, her face milk white. “It just got the fabric.”

“My apologies,” Reg said with a bow.

Odessa looked back up at him. She had the same expression on her face as the last time when he intervened to stop Marie from hitting her, as if he had done some great heroic deed.

“Show me your face,” she said, rising to meet him.

“Lady Odessa—“

“Take off your mask. Please, Reg. I want to see the face of the man who saved my life, our lives.” Her eyes were wide.

Reg sighed, and reached up to press the tab that would release his visor. A smile began to spread across Odessa’s face.

The smile dissolved when Reg lifted his visor. His heart sank. He knew he wasn’t much to look at, but Odessa had the look of a girl who cuts into a beautifully decorated sugared cake and finds it full of mold. He knew exactly what she was thinking, that he looked nothing like the romantic notion she had cooked up in her own head, the fantasy she was able to spin off the blankness of his visor, based on their handful of encounters. Such a kind, brave, and dashing knight (for in her head he must be a knight, not a mere guard) must be handsome too. Not someone with beady eyes and a huge nose, a strong jawline but skin pockmarked from a spotty youth. He tried to keep his disappointment off his own, but he wasn’t used to hiding his emotions anymore.

Odessa put on an  uncertain but kind smile. “Thank you, Reginald Gardner,” she said, and leaned forward as if about to kiss his cheek, then thought better of it and drew back. She turned away under pretense of tending to her sister.

Reg slammed his visor down, breathing a sigh of relief at being anonymous again, though his chest felt tight. “If you ladies are all right…” he said, then turned to resume his duties.

Later, in the barracks, Reg sat next to Collum on Collum’s bunk (his own was the one above). This time it was a hand-rolled cigarette they passed, filled with something stronger than tobacco. “How did they get in?” Reg asked.

Collum shrugged. “One or more of the guards. Them’s that’s dissatisfied with their lot.” Reg nodded. Any guards known to harbor radical sympathies were sacked with no notice. To some of the dissatisfied ones, this was even more reason to sympathize with the radicals, as men with one of the only well-paying jobs for those of their class were turned out in disgrace. Those that remained kept quiet and, apparently, plotted from the inside. Reg was surprised Collum wasn’t one of them, with all his loose talk of the silliness and sins of the “aristos.”

“Lucky they were so bad at it,” Reg said. “No organization. Dunno what they thought to do.”

“Kill as many as they could and snatch their jewels?” Collum guessed. He passed Reg the cigarette. Reg took a drag on it and held the burning smoke in his lungs. “Hey, your girl make it out all right?”

Reg laughed, spilling the smoke into the air. “You’re a funny one, Collum. ‘My girl.’”

“Hey, serious.”

Reg waved his hand through the smoke. “She’s fine. She’s not my girl though. You were right about her. Silly aristo in love with her own reflection.”

“Caught sight of your ugly mug, did she?” Collum laughed, and took a drag.

Reg punched him again, but in the arm this time.

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~ by Amber on July 21, 2012.

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