His Serene Personage, The Emperor Ezra Crumb II, stirred in his royal repose. In the distance, he thought he heard angels singing. Was this it, at last? Would there be no more cold winters? Would he suffer no more the indignities of age and shabby boarding houses? Had he endured his last hangover? Ezra smiled. He would hate for it all to be a dream. He decided not to open his eyes. One could never be too sure about these things.
Kaylee Faulkner stood in the corner of the narrow room. Despite having her hands clamped firmly against her mouth, laughter still leaked out around her fingers. Malus and Tobias stood in the center of the room singing a wordless hymn in soft harmony, both intently watching the old man on the bed. Kaylee couldn’t contain herself any longer; she doubled over as a stifled snort burst through her metallic fingers, which earned her an angry stare from Malus. Tobias nudged Malus’ attention back to the old man as he saw him beginning to stir. Malus trailed off his thread of the hymn and stepped closer to the bed. He held an oil lamp under his chin and stood above the old man.
“Ezra Crumb!” Malus called out, his ghostly intonation sending Kaylee into another fit of laughter. The old man closed his eyes tighter.
“Ezra Crumb!” Malus intoned through the sneer he cast at Kaylee.
The old man’s eyes widened with incredulity as he sat up with a start. “I know that voice! Is that you, Joseph?”
“Joseph, forgive me. It was my fault, not hers.” Ezra squinted across the room, distracted by Kaylee’s laughter. “You there,” he pointed to Tobias who stood in silence beside Kaylee. “Come closer.”
Malus and Tobias exchanged curious glances. Malus then nodded for Tobias to approach.
The old man squinted again. “Great Builder, what’s wrong with you?” he whispered. “Confound these wretched dreams and the hideous visions they send.”
Tobias sat on the chair beside the bed and leaned close in order to better hear the Emperor’s mumblings. Tobias nodded for Malus to continue.
“We were friends once, but you betrayed me.” Malus recommenced with the haunting. “Why, WHY, did you betray me, Ezra?”
“Which betrayal?” cried Ezra. “There were two, and they both had different reasons.”
Malus looked at Tobias, who shrugged. There was nothing in Joseph’s journals about this. They were going to have to improvise. Malus looked back at Kaylee. “Don’t ask me,” she shook her head. “I already did my part, the rest is up to you.”
Malus turned back to the Emperor. “The first betrayal then; tell me, Ezra, WHY?”
“You know why,” said Ezra, the anguish clear in his voice. “I saw you at the memorial last March. Surely you remember.”
“Of course I remember,” said Malus, forgetting for a moment to intone with ghostly cadence. “Tell me Ezra, tell me in your own words.”
“I was there for the same reason you were,” said Ezra. “I should have said something that day, but I didn’t, and now you’re dead.”
“Where?” Malus shouted. “What day?”
“But that hardly matters now, if we are both dead.” cried Ezra, reaching over to grip Tobias, throwing his other arm up to ward off the Foehammer spectre. “Martha!”
“Martha,” intoned Malus. He glanced at the others and mouthed ‘Who is Martha?’ Tobias shrugged and shook his head.
“This is hell then, isn’t it? It must be if I am here with you. The fire, The Great Fire,” the Emperor let out a wavering sigh. “That was the end of a beautiful life.”
Malus turned to Kaylee, “What is he talking about?”
“Frigged if I know,” she shrugged. “Maybe he gotta little too much of Emerson’s premium leaf.”
“Tell me Joseph,” the Emperor called, struggling to sit up, “Why were you there at the memorial? Did you really love her at the end? Did you ever really love her?”
“Hey old man, I am the ghost,” snarked Malus. “I’m the one that asks the questions.” Malus paused, trying to figure out where to go next. “Okay, let’s forget the first betrayal. Why did you betray me a second time?”
“That’s an easy one,” said the Emperor. “Because you were insane.”
“Insane? How dare you!” Malus droned, recovering his role. “Ezra! We made plans together, you and I.”
“Was what happened to Martha part of that plan too? What you did to those poor kids? Were those monsters part of your great plan too?”
Tobias caught his breath, but Malus held out his arm to stop him from taking any action. The Emperor was sitting upright now, eyes wide in fright, but he continued his tirade.
“Do you know what Juris did to cover up what you did? He burned his church! Burned it himself to hide what you did to his boys! And after all we had lost too. He told their families that their boys had died in there and that there was not enough of left of them to give them back for proper burials. There was your last friend. And where were you, eh? Where were you?” Crumb held out an accusing finger.
Malus and Tobias looked at each other. “Juris Pizarro?” They said together.
Ezra Crumb was trembling with fright now, pushing himself back into the corner of the headboard. “Yes, Juris Pizarro! That was the end of the the dream we three had built together. You crushed it! You betrayed all of us! Monster! Your whole family is mad! Mad I say! No wonder none of them will dare use your name!”
Now Malus felt his own anger rise against the truth in what the old man had said. “You dottering old fool! I was working to make our plans come to fruition. What were you doing? Drinking? And what about Martha?”
At the mention of Martha, the old man stumbled from the bed and held his hands, pleading to the ghost. “Joseph, I didn’t plan for it to happen. I swear, but it just happened! You were never around; you were working all the time. You even slept at your work. You could have come home more often, but you didn’t…”
Malus leaned over the old man and nodded to Tobias. “My children will feast on your bones!” Tobias let out a hiss and lunged for Crumb, but the old man, in a sudden sobriety that comes of fear, ducked and ran to the door of the small room. He ran down the dark hallway and down the narrow stairs, into the night, and didn’t stop running until he was well into the back alleys of the part of the city known as The Jitters.
You are every bit as cruel as your grandfather, boy.
You knew about this too, you old bat? Why is there a conspiracy against me?
Psst, Junie. I’ll bet you twenty quats the squire boils those sheets before he sleeps in that bed next.
I’ll bet he makes Tobias do it.
But maybe we should set them both to work boiling all the linens in the building — we might have a new boarder upstairs. That writer fellow with the hat needs a place to stay.
He’s always leaving his stuff at the bar anyway, we might as well charge him rent.