The journey passed, to Hugo’s relief, in silence, the city pulling by him in a flurry of midday movement. His near to charcoal eyes darted across the packed pavements outside the tinted windows, observing everything in a desperate attempt to remember it all. He didn’t know the next time he’d see these streets. The streets where he had found himself. Where he had lived every moment of his life. Until now.
The shouting vendors and scruffy children faded away until all that was left was the low chatter of the courting couples outside of the dark lavish carriage as it pulled past. A tiny cough filled the small compartment as one of the brothers opposite him cleared his throat, opening his mouth as if to speak before promptly closing it again. Hugo shifted in the seat, darting his eyes away from the two strangers.
Golden light was starting to stain the sky as they pulled into a new street, lean apple trees and silver birches lining themselves along it. He could feel dappled light paint itself across his soft face, flickering with each step of the horses in front. If he hadn’t been awake the entire time he would’ve suspected he had awoken in a different city.
The houses were bizarrely spaced out here, each with a garden far too large for what they’d ever need. His fingers dug into the crimson velvet of his seat to stop his eyes from gazing up those driveways and to the houses - mansions - he had only ever heard of in rumours. Soon enough he would see the grandest of them all, the most sickening show of wealth in the entire city. The House of King. At least his curiosity would be expected from a long lost family member.
The brothers sitting across from him never stopped their subtle glances. The judgement Hugo was used to, it’s what any ‘Lower’ member of society got from any one of the ‘Elite’, as they liked to call themselves. Though their concern was jarring. Off putting in a way he couldn’t quite grasp.
The fabric of his well pressed black suit shifted as he sat forward, about to attempt to break the suffocating silence, until the muffled voice of the driver floated through to them. The horses promptly slowing.
“We’re here.” One of the men stated the blatant obvious at the exact moment the carriage tilted gently with its turn into the drive. A knife jabbed and twisted in Hugo’s gut with every glance he took out the window. This was real wasn’t it. This was really happening.
“I can’t believe it.” His voice came out breathy, finding himself being entirely truthful with his words. He should have said no to this. He should’ve thought it through. He should have-
“Quickly! They’ll be waiting for you.” The same brother added onto his list of obvious statements, the door swinging open with unsettling fluidity. They had stopped, and Hugo had been too wrapped up in his own selfish worries to notice.
He stood. He couldn’t do this. Another step. This was suicide. A deep breath. He couldn’t go back now.
The air felt different in this part of the city. Cleaner, sweeter somehow as Hugo stepped out of the gilded obsidian carriage. The House of King should’ve looked like hell to him. Not paradise.
The large town house loomed up ahead of the three men despite being a good few stories lower than Hugo’s own home, the House of Moore, in lower town Lyren. Two, broad grey turrets protruded from the main body of the house, near to full length bay windows set into them both on the lower level. He could already tell the dusty blue and fresh cream cushions pushed up against their glass were too good a quality to merely come from this city. In the centre of the aged sandstone front, a set of stairs swept up on either side of the shining main oak doors. It surprised him with their lack of obnoxious adornment, of over the top carvings or silver studs. He guessed all the grandeur from the money this House stole from Hugo’s class was concealed inside. It unmistakably had to be.
His gaze swept across the perfectly green lawns boarding the white gravel drive. It was too perfect, too unnaturally pristine. It was like a fantasy that didn’t quite feel right.
“Miss it?” One of the men spoke up, making Hugo almost leap out of his skin. This place had managed to enchant him. Of course it would, he had never had anything like this before.
“You have no idea.” He managed to reply, keeping his eyes averted. He suspected that he had also been chosen, not just for being similar in age to whom he was meant to be impersonating, but also for his infamous knack at lying. At least Georgia had told him he had one.
“Well are you going to gawk all day or shall we go inside?” The other man walked passed the two, a dazzling smile on his rose lips. Hugo managed to not falter before he followed, a soft curve to his mouth which wasn’t quite nervous or excited enough.
The gravel crunched too loud under his feet, his shoulders tensing with how far back he was holding them. Surely it wasn’t natural to stand in such a way, let alone continuously sit with a similar posture for every waking second of every, god, damn, day.
The house seemed to grow as they approached, threatening to swallow Hugo up as the slightly protruding towers curved around either side of him like a gapping maw. A trap, he was walking into a trap of his family’s own creation like a damned idiot. But it was worth it. It’d all be worth it. For his family, for his class, for every person he had seen suffer. He’d be the one to spark the flame which would burn this entire sneering dynasty to the ground.
Before he could register the tiny, almost unnoticeable, etched designs around the doorframe, the polished oak slabs swung smoothly open. Somehow, the hall the door led to was lit so brightly it pooled on the front stone patio, the sun still blazing above. He had been right, the wealth was hidden inside.
“Come on.” One of them called from just inside the door, a smile laced into his voice. Doing this should’ve felt wrong to him, posing as a family member long suspected dead. But... Not a flicker of remorse sparked in his mind as he entered the infamous house, as he faced the handful of different House members all with aching smiles on their faces.
The entrance hall was far bigger than it ever aught to be, with two decorative tables on either side which framed five, broad off white marble stairs, leading up to a landing spanning out of sight in both directions. The ceiling stretched up to a height only used to show off how much wealth someone had. Though the show of wealth hardly came from the architecture, nor the sconces dripping golden light across the cream walls, but the paintings taking up every square inch between them. From lifelike portraits of past and present House members, to vivid landscapes Hugo had never even imagined existed. The frames themselves were pieces of art in their own right with carved vines and flowers of silver, ebony, and gold. He felt sick.
“Eli!” A flurry of fiery hair and azure satin knocked the air out of his lungs as he was sent a stumbling step backward. His arms remaining at his sides as the woman’s crushed his ribs. “I... we... You’re back!” She finally lifted her head to reveal a surprisingly lined face hidden under a sea of red locks.
“Yes.” He instantly kicked himself for such a stupid answer, his stare blank and vacant as the surprise and confusion was only just kept at bay by his indifference.
“Oh pet, don’t you remember me?” The lady chimed, finally taking a step, though it looked more like she were gliding, back from him. “I know its been a long time but surely you couldn’t forget your dear old aunt Pamela!” The enthusiasm of the sparkling woman before him was merely met by a blink or two from Hugo. Of course he knew who she was, just not in the context she was referring to. Tyrant.
“Of course I do.” The smile burnt across his face as he dragged the corners of his slightly cracked lips upwards. “Sorry, I’m still in shock.” His shoes squeaked as he rocked back and forth on his heels, his palms all too sweaty from where he clasped them behind his back.
“Of course, of course!” She went on, her diamond eyes twinkling. He couldn’t help but notice not another soul had uttered a word yet, though they all still stared. He felt like an exhibit at a zoo. A marvel at the latest circus to pass through the city. A ghost. “I know you’re looking for Jasper, but I have to apologise for them.” Hugo’s wandering eyes snapped back to the lady, supposedly his aunt, having not realised how his gaze had flitted around the large entrance hall. Jasper, the heir to this entire power house. Merely his name made the back of his neck prickle.“They’re out on business which couldn’t be shaken. You know how it is.” Her laugh was like freshly opened champagne, all perfectly cold and fizzy. His stomach turned, even as he laughed along with her, his own sounding like sandpaper and far too early mornings compared to her’s.
He knew the business to which Pamela was referring, he had been briefed on it before leaving the House of Moore so that he wouldn’t get surprised. The head family of the House of King, the blood gods themselves, were out ‘dealing with’ another house. He had been informed that it was this particular house’s third warning. God save them.
His stomach should’ve settled within moments as he remembered that piece of information, and yet it continued to twist inside of him. Why would Pamela instantly jump to the conclusion that he, supposedly Elijah, were looking for him?
“Don’t worry, I understand.” His voice came out thick as his styled black hair shifted with a nod. The silence was excruciating, burning the air around him as he breathed.
He was meant to be close with that heartless heir...
“Elijah?” Pamela’s voice echoed through the heaviness pressing around his ears, her hair cascading down one shoulder with her tilted head. “Oh poor boy you must be so overwhelmed. I knew I should not have allowed anyone other than me and the head family here to greet you.” Hugo begged himself to believe that he didn’t flinch as her hand branded his arm, the thread holding his smile in place fraying. “Though you must understand everyone was extraordinarily pushy to see you, good on me for keeping it small.” The smile widening over her olive face contradicted her words, excitement and pride at the reception she had supposedly conducted radiating off of her.
“You truly are the best.” His voice grated along his throat as the unusually accented words floating out into the air, how they tasted on his tongue being worse than the bile threatening to follow them.
“Oh my, it seems you haven’t forgotten your manners despite all those years in-”
“I think that’s enough Pamela.” A new voice swept in, one of the Members gathered there stepping forward. He hardly recognised any of them. But then again he barely paid any attention to anyone other than the head family of this House when they were out in public. They were the main danger on legs so what was the point? “You’re going to drag up some things he probably wants to forget.” Hugo was planning to stand there as the, admittedly beautiful, woman cut in, his arms slack at his sides as he looked down in supposed misery. But all that jumped out the window as, despite her soft, almost floral, words, her eyes latched into him like claws.
He couldn’t tear his own gaze away from her, his mouth falling into a lost line as it was all he could do not to dig his fingers into his quickly tightening chest.
“Oh my, of course.” His eyes refused to move to look at Pamela as she spoke, fear licking up the back of his suddenly still heels. This woman knew he was a fake didn’t she. She had to know. That glare... He knew hatred when he saw it.
“May,” His chest shook with his deep breath. “May I go to my chambers?” He schooled his shoulders to curve inwards as he spoke, twisting his fingers in front of his shining black jacket. “I’m afraid I’m... positively exhausted.” A muscle feathered in his jaw as he paused to think of the right language to use, the list of ‘correct’ phrases he had been given blurring and coming back into focus in his mind. It was a risk to ask to leave, to not beg to see every person under this god forsaken roof. But the way that slender woman looked at him, the way his energy poured out of him from every little string he had to hold taught so to keep this facade from falling apart, it was too much to keep up.
Perhaps his real aunt had made a mistake when selecting him for this essential task. God’s sake. ‘Task’ was such a stupid word to use for it. A shrouded he now realised she had used to cover the gravity of all this. He was to make or break them. His family. His house. Everyone.
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