The Darkening Horizon-Chapter One
SAINT AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA, 1920
Dark clouds hid the sun as the train made its way through dense green fauna. As she watched out the window, Francine Rossi sighed, resting her chin on her hand. She watched the landscape rush past her window through wisps of brown curls that escaped her green and purple butterfly comb.
“I thought Florida was supposed to be sunny,” she muttered.
“What was that?” her sister, Cecilia, asked, looking across the small table between them.
She turned her brown eyes to meet her sister’s. The two were remarkably similar, yet remarkably different. At twenty-one years old—only two years older than Francine—Cecilia was already taking on lines around her eyes and lips. Her own brown hair was tied back modestly into a tight bun as she worked on her cross-stitch, just as their mother did at home.
“I said, I thought Florida was supposed to be sunny,” Francine said with a new whine to her voice. “It’s just like New Jersey outside.”
“Oh, come on, Franny,” Cecilia said, “it’s a bit of rain. How d’you think everything stays green here without rain? It’s probably far warmer outside than it is in Jersey right now. You just wait until we reach Saint Augustine and get settling into the hotel and—”
The new round of coughing interrupted Cecilia’s protestations. She dropped her cross-stitch as she raised one hand to her mouth and one hand to her chest. Francine immediately rushed to her sister’s side, rubbing her back in an attempt to ease her breathing.
After a moment, the coughing subsided and Cecilia waved her away. “I’m fine,” she said, in between gasps, “I’m fine.”
Francine watched her sister for another moment, then picked up the cross-stitch from the floor to place it on the table. She took her seat again, keeping her eyes on her sister.
Cecilia resumed her stitchwork, but stopped and looked to her sister as though she could feel her eyes on her. “Really, Fran, it’s just a cough.”
“A cough that hasn’t gotten any better in the last two months, Cici.”
“Well, that’s what the warm air and sunshine are for,” Cecilia said, casting her eyes back down to the cross-stitch.
Francine wanted to ask what sunshine her sister meant, but she could already tell that her sister was weary.
Cecilia was always weary, it seemed.
Instead of speaking, Francine stood from her seat and smoothed out her blue-striped skirt, adjusting her matching blouse and tightening the belt around her waist. She picked up her blue hat with the yellow sash and placed it gently over her short curls. Then she tied her yellow dress scarf around her neck.
“Where are you going?” Cecilia asked, not taking her eyes off of her cross-stitch.
“I’m gonna see if Mother and Father have eaten anything. I’m getting hungry.”
“Hmm,” was all her sister said. Francine could tell that she didn’t believe her alibi for seeing their parents. Still, Cecilia didn’t protest and Francine didn’t push it.
She exited their chamber and made her way down the hall. When she got to her parents’ door, she knocked.
“Come in,” she heard her mother’s sharp voice.
When she entered, she thought her mother mirrored Cecilia perfectly. She sat on the same side of their own little table, her own blonde hair pulled back in a bun and her blue eyes not moving from her own cross-stitch. On the opposite side, her father was reading the paper with a cup of coffee in front of him, his green eyes squinting through his thick glasses and his graying hair askew.
“Good morning, Princess,” he said, not moving his eyes. “How are my girls doing?”
Francine sighed and dropped to the chair near the door. “Pop, I don’t like how Cici sounds lately. I think that cough is getting worse.”
Her father raised his eyes from his paper, and Francine saw her mother’s hands tremble enough that she nearly dropped her needle.
“She had another fit then?” he asked.
“Now, Franny, I know it’s a little daunting, but everything will end up jake. Cici needs fresh air and Florida sun, and that will fix her up in no time. Pretty soon, she’ll be jumping headfirst into that big pool at the Alcazar across the street. You see the pictures of that pool? It’s like a lake. You two are gonna love it.”
Francine forced a smile. Her mother finally looked up and watched her for a moment with that shrewd, calculating look that she liked to fix her daughters with when Francine thought she was reading their minds.
“Remember what the doctor said, dear,” her mother said. “We don’t want to upset or worry Cecilia. And you know she gets upset when you’re upset. We all have to straighten up and be strong for her. When we get to the hotel, we’ll have her rest.”
“She’s been resting this entire time and it hasn’t done her a lick of good.”
“She hasn’t breathed in the clean Florida air, Fran,” her mother said. “I know you’re worried, but you have to give this idea a chance. We’ll be here all season, and I promise you, you’ll see a difference in her soon. Fretting is just making all of us miserable, and she can’t afford to feel more miserable.”
“You heard your mother,” her father said, a bite of sternness to his voice. “No use in having the three of us worry her. You go get your things ready. We’ll be getting there before you know it. Go on.”
Francine wanted to protest further, but she knew her mother was right; there was no point in getting Cecilia worked up when there was nothing any of them could do. She reluctantly stood from the chair and left her parents to resume their morning in solitude. As she walked down the hall toward her own chamber, she couldn’t shake the feeling that things were about as sunny as the cloudy skies outside of the rumbling train.
Raindrops fell as Telese walked through the corridors surrounding the Ponce de Leon Hotel’s courtyard. Despite the warm humidity that laid over the city like fine linens, she felt a chill as she watched the people come in and out through the big iron gates or linger at the center fountain. Life seemed steady and uninterrupted, yet she knew that the Dark World gaining a hold on the country meant that life would soon be far from uninterrupted.
She thought of what most of the Warrior Sirens had tried to assure her of; the war was over, the people were in high spirits and there was nowhere to go but up.
As a Diplomat, however, Telese had gotten used that there was always a path waiting to drop life downward once again.
She paused and rested her hands on the warm terracotta brick in front of her, focusing her attention on the lines from the poured concrete in the grand building that nestled the courtyard. Her short, auburn curls danced in the breeze, covering her dark green eyes for a moment as raindrops hit the backs of her hands. She looked down at her fingers—her skin looked a little paler than its usual olive color. She wondered if she was worrying herself sick. The Healers would tell her that was impossible, but she wasn’t convinced.
Where are you?
The Irish voice in her mind was a welcome distraction.
I’m in Saint Augustine. In the courtyard of the Ponce de Leon.
There was a moment of silence. After a minute, a thin young woman in her late 20s in a purple dress and black blouse caught Telese’s eye. She had her thick, black hair tied in a large bun to the top of her head. She scanned the courtyard and then to the open corridors until her black eyes found Telese.
Morgan made her way across the courtyard, up the multiple levels of steps until she reached where her little sister was standing.
“I thought Florida was sunny,” she said, leaning her elbows against the ledge to watch the courtyard.
“You caught it on a bad day,” Telese said. “How’s Ireland?”
“Awful,” Morgan said. “Griffith is trying to build a legal system for the Republic, but it’s a slow process, some IRA prisoners are on a hunger strike because they want prisoner of war status and the whole bloody country is suffering while Father’s ordering us to treat it like some minor skirmish. Everybody else may be finished with war, but I’m still in the middle of it.”
“Li asked Father about sending more Diplomats there. She said the Dark World has really been playing both sides.”
“Let me guess, he shot it down?”
“Of course,” Telese said.
“Of course,” Morgan repeated. “How’s it been here this year?”
“Alcohol being illegal means a lot of underground markets and a lot of pacts with the Dark World already, and it’s only been four months.”
“Business good, though?”
“I guess,” Telese said, the uneasy feeling returning. “War is great for the economy, I suppose. Business is still booming for now. We have some trouble with some street gangs trying to organize themselves into something akin to actual businesses. A lot of pacts out of New York and Chicago have to do with control of these groups. Lots of bankers are buying up lands in the southern plains. People without one iota of an idea of how to work a plow. I don’t know, Morgie, things are good, but I feel like they won’t be for long.”
“That’s how it always is, though, isn’t it?” Morgan asked. “Just waves and waves of good and bad. Whatever happens, we’ll get it under control again.”
They stood in silence for a moment, and Telese watched the small splashes of rain in the fountain.
“We have to stop the Dark World from getting a stronger grip. Oren seems to be working overtime with the pacts,” she said, looking sideways at her sister.
“Only work he ever does anymore is to make our job miserable. But, look. Let’s take the next few years as easy as we can. Don’t worry about things you can’t control and focus on the things you can actually change. The war was terrible on you, Telese. I don’t think you slept more than three nights in a row.”
“Yeah,” Telese said, distracted by a family that had just walked in—a couple with their adult daughters, one of whom was coughing so loudly Telese heard the barking gasp loud and clear from where she stood. “Something tells me that’s going to be easier said than done. Still, I’m here for a few months, so I plan to at least visit the beach, maybe stroll through the boutiques.”
“Good,” Morgan said.
“I want to keep a closer watch on Oren and Mortimer, though,” Telese said.
“Not good,” Morgan said, rolling her eyes and standing up straight. “Telese, just stop working for a little bit. Li can always assign some work to the other Diplomats. You need a break.”
“They’re up to something big,” Telese said. “I know it. They’re positioning themselves to take advantage of the weak spots in society right now.”
“You mean, the same as they always do?” Morgan asked. “Come on, Telese, that’s their entire mode of operation. They exploit what they can to gain control.”
“Yeah, I know that,” Telese said, exasperation soaking her words. “But these pacts with a bunch of street gangs, pacts with legislatures that passed our alcohol laws, then making pacts with the people going underground? These are more targeted than usual. Look,” she said, as Morgan fixed her with a skeptical look, “I’ll take it easier. All I’m saying is I think we should keep a close eye on them with these things.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll talk to some Warriors whose bonded countries are not being torn apart right now, but there’s only so much I can do right now. In the meantime, just…just take it easier than you have been. Seriously, talk to Li about lightening your workload. Nothing good comes from you being overworked and stressed.
Telese sighed. “Yeah, yeah, of course. I’ll talk to Li.”
As she and her sister turned their attention to the courtyard again, however, Telese knew she couldn’t just take a relaxing vacation.
The Dark World was up to something, and she fully intended to find out what.