THE GHOST AND THE MACHINE
Warning: This story is dark, as in double dark with extra dark and a side of dark. There are references to rape and child abuse, though neither is depicted. There is also murder, manipulation, and a whole lotta chess.
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Part Three: King
I've been around, I'll have you know. In the course of my unconventional life, I've been to Prague and Berlin, Moscow and Rome, Madrid and Amsterdam and any number of places in between. The thing is, it all looks more or less the same when you're inside a box.
So I've never paid much attention to changes in scenery. What matters more to me are the smells and the sounds: fresh herbs or cabbage, mutton hash or roasted chicken, harpsichords or flutes, the silence of a country house or the clatter of a city street.
Here's what I noticed as the Rajah was being wheeled through the manor halls, to the Countess's parlour: squeaking and groaning. Every time someone took a step, the floorboards squealed as if they'd trodden on a rat. Then, too, the box kept jolting, so often and so hard that I had to wedge myself in a corner to keep from collecting bruises. That meant that the floors were uneven, the wooden planks having swollen in the wet and then shrunk in the heat over and over and over.
Question: why hadn't the Countess bothered to fix her damn floors? She was rich enough, God knew, so either she couldn't be bothered or she didn't want workmen tramping around. Either way, I was beginning to get a mental picture of the woman. Peevish, I thought, and bad-tempered. Probably went around whacking puppies with a stick.
My aunt has a passionate interest in oddities, the woman Eleanor had said. I wondered what kind of oddities she liked. Extra-large sticks so that she could whack many puppies at once? Or maybe she was one of those peculiar and disturbing women who liked to stuff all of her dead cats and keep them on a shelf under glass.
The Rajah rolled down an incline (not quite a ramp; the floor was askew) and went abruptly over a bump (Christ only knew what that was; a dead puppy, perchance). Then the box came to a halt, and there were murmuring voices around. The scents of cigar smoke and fresh coffee, port wine and powdered wigs, now mingled with the familiar smells of the Rajah's interior (dust, mainly, and candle soot and wood varnish). So I knew we'd arrived.
Within the space of five heartbearts, the murmurs quieted. That would be the impact of the Rajah as it made its appearance in the parlour: the wooden man, splendid in his robes and jewelled turban, all polish and gold inlay in the candlelight. It was a scene I knew so well that I could almost feel the heat of the candles on my own skin, along with the weight of the stares. Hundreds on hundreds of times, I'd been in this position: performing and hiding all at once, concealed and on display. You had to hand it to Rush. Not many people could hide their toys and show them off at the same instant.
"Ladies," I heard Rush's voice announce, in the slow sonorous tone that she used when she was showboating. At the same time, she laid her hand on the cabinet. How did I know this? I just did. I felt it there, as if she'd touched my own back and started to rub gently, to and fro, to and fro.
"Ladies," Rush said again. "Without further ado or introduction, I present the automaton itself. Over the course of this week, you will have the opportunity to satisfy yourselves that the Rajah is no mere novelty or plaything. It is nothing less than an invention which heralds the coming of a new and braver world." (Pause for effect.) "The Rajah is, quite simply, the first intelligent machine. I say 'the first'- there will be many more. In the ages to come, automata such as this will not merely spin thread and grind grain. No, they will fight our wars, slave in factories, come at our bidding, go at our direction- in fact, they will serve our every whim. And this miraculous invention- " (she was getting very excited now) "- this marvel of science, this step on the journey to man's mastery of the cosmos-"
An impatient voice broke in. "I thought you said no further ado!"
"Ah." Rush's mouth shut with a click, and then she coughed twice. More than almost anything, Rush hated being interrupted, and I knew that she was swallowing her frustration and annoyance. "Yes, of course. Forgive me, Countess."
So this was the Countess. I listened with interest to the new voice. Rush had been right: it did bear an uncanny resemblance to the braying of donkey. A very unhappy donkey which someone had been repeatedly kicking in the nuts.
"You travelling types are all the same," the Countess brayed complainingly. "Always thinking that you've found the Holy Grail. I could put up with that, if you didn't go on and on and on about it. Why can't you just point at the thing, announce 'Me made shiny!' and leave it at that?"
There was a long pause, and then Rush let out a dutiful, unconvincing laugh. "Most amusing, Countess."
"Oh, don't humour me," the Countess brayed in answer. "There's nothing that annoys me more than people who humour me. Except buttered parsnips."
"I loathe buttered parsnips. Well, let's have a look."
Now we were into familiar territory. I knew what was about to happen. The Countess would wander around the Rajah a few times, staring at it shrewdly, and then would beckon someone towards her, and confide her own crackpot theory on the secret behind the machine. ("Squirrels. The thing's filled with trained squirrels.") Rush wouldn't comment; she'd just go through her normal routine of opening the doors in the Rajah's cabinet to expose the clockwork. The Countess would see her theory debunked (no squirrels in the cabinet, not a one) and would sulk for half an hour before recovering enough to start the game.
But I was wrong. Instead, a nearby chair groaned in agony as a heavy body lowered itself down onto the seat. "Come on then," the Countess commanded. "Wind the thing up and let's begin."
"Ah- yes." Rush tried to cover her confusion, but she was clearly thrown off her stride. "I generally begin with a brief exhibition of the Rajah's interior machinery. Shall I-"
"Stars above, woman. Do you ever, for three consecutive seconds, tire of the sound of your own voice? No, forget the clockwork. I've seen a deal of clockwork in my life and I've never found it precisely riveting. Let's just get started. Eleanor, my sherry. And a cigar."
Eleanor hadn't said a word yet, which struck me as odd, since Rush had described her as arrogant and cheeky. I listened, expecting slippered feet to whisper across the floor when Eleanor went for the sherry. Instead I heard firm, booted, no-nonsense footsteps. My mental picture of her began to come into focus. Pointed chin, I thought. Bristling eyebrows. Spectacles.
"Tell me, Rushmore," the Countess brayed. "This machine of yours, does it always win?"
"Virtually always," Rush answered. She was setting out the chessmen on the cabinet top; I could tell from the way that the magnets on their coils of wire were stirring above me. She was doing it very slowly, very deliberately. I knew why. She was quivering on the brink of total apoplectic fury and if she didn't stay master of herself, she would throw the whole Rajah across the room. Or, she would burn things. Many things. Expensive things. Possibly living things.
"Well, then," the Countess said, sounding amused. "What will you give me if I win?"
An unconvincing laugh from Rush. "My most hearty congratulations, ma'am."
"That's all? Then I will look forwards to receiving them. Eleanor, another sherry for Miss Rushmore. And keep them coming until she stops glowering. It wouldn't do to have wrinkles develop on such a pretty face."
* * *
The Rajah almost always played with a handicap: I would start the game with only one of my rooks, or only five pawns, or, sometimes, without my queen. It kept things interesting.
The Countess, however, refused to let the Rajah take a handicap. ("Where's the glory in beating up a cripple?" was the way she put it.) It felt a little strange to have all sixteen chessmen to work with, but I adjusted quickly.
Over the next ten minutes, I divided my attention between the chess game and Rush. The Countess seemed to be a competent player; she was developing her side well. Still, she paused for a long while between each move, to demand that Eleanor bring her more sherry, adjust her chair, and fan her brow. While all that was going on, I had time to listen to Rush silently seethe.
She was truly, truly angry now, so much so that I was vaguely surprised that her entire head hadn't exploded in one riotous blaze of powder and flame. I could hear it in the way that her sharp-toed boots were going click-click-click against the floor. I fancied I could hear her teeth, too, grinding away.
The Countess had gotten under Rush's skin so effortlessly...and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't amused. In an ill-advised, against-my-better-judgment kind of way. It was all very well to snicker when I was still safely inside the box, but if Rush hadn't cooled down by the time we got back to our rooms, then things would stop being funny in a very big hurry.
At the very least, Rush would regale me with the "If there was any justice in the world" speech. That one was an evergreen. I heard it for the first time the day after Rush won me, and by the time I was thirteen, I knew it by heart. If there was any justice in the world, then the wealth and power wouldn't be concentrated in the hands of stupid, backwards aristocrats who thought that calculus was just another word for a bladder stone. It would be the forward thinkers like Rush, the scientists and geniuses, who would be in charge of everything, and everyone else would have to write a competitive examination at age eight to determine whether they were intelligent enough to go on living. Morons, clergymen, and fat women would be rounded up and killed by firing squad. And Rush would rule England, or, at the very least, Wales.
"Cat got your tongue?" the Countess brayed presently. "Honestly, Rushmore. I thought a travelling wit like you would have more to say."
"I beg your pardon, Ma'am," Rush answered. "It is difficult for me to shine in the presence of so many luminaries."
"Careful, Rushmore. I may blush. Eleanor, another cigar. Quick before I faint. I'm not used to all these compliments. Oh, and by the by...Check."
Check? Already? What? I had been playing more or less mechanically- a bad habit, but easy to get into when your opponents aren't good enough to stretch you. Now, shocked back to concentration, I stared down at my chessboard in the flickering candlelight, and sucked in a long breath. So evil. So brilliant. I'd never seen the sneak attack coming. Now my queen was down and my king was under threat from a overzealous bishop and a pawn which, until that moment, had been playing all innocent. I swallowed hard, my mouth bone-dry from excitement. If I could have screamed with joy, or fallen to my knees and sung hallelujah, then I would have. It had been so long...
Utter silence from Rush. Not even an intake of breath or a scuffing of her shoe on the floor. I knew well what that silence meant, but for the sake of my own sanity, I couldn't think about it. Instead, I forced myself to pretend that Rush had stepped out of the room to get a bite to eat and catch up on the latest in saucy French novels. Then I put the thought of her out of my mind, exactly the same way that you would put a cat out the door into the back yard, and I immersed myself in the game.
My old strategy was useless now, ripped to rags by the whirlwind violence of the Countess's attack, so I made up a new one on the fly. It was based, roughly, on one of the more famous reported games of Jacques Mouret (the not-quite-as-great-or-as-immortal-as-Philidor-but-almost), with a few crucial fiendish twists. It was the kind of game I would have played seven years before, back when I still had to innovate in order to beat my opponents, and it made me feel as if a whole hemisphere of my brain was coming back to life.
We played. It's so easy to say that, two words, but it's also easy to say "The bomb exploded," or "The armies met," or "God made the world," or "My legs fell off." We played- but oh, how we played. Not since that day in Paris, when Lecrivain and Sasias beat me to a joyfully quivering pulp, had I faced such a master. The Countess was merciless and endlessly inventive. Again and again, she found the weak points in my formation and pounced on them. She still paused for a maddeningly long time between each move, but that allowed me some space to recover from the excitement. Some of her more dazzling strokes left me so worked up that I had to hunch over and do some deep breathing before I could focus on anything else.
I'm not sure how long it all lasted. While the game was still going on, it seemed an eternity. Afterwards, it was more like the entire evening had been some delicious fruit which I'd devoured in a few giant bites.
The Countess had just manoeuvred me into check for the fourth time, and I was frantically scheming how I was going to make her regret it, when the dream ended. There had been a sort of delirious ringing in my ears which blocked the sound of the outside world, but a particularly loud bray from the Countess snapped me back to reality: "Miss Rushmore, would you kindly stop making that infernal noise?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean, my lady."
Rush was trying to sound innocent. As you can imagine, perhaps, she wasn't doing a very good job.
"You don't know what I mean," the Countess repeated. "I'm beginning to think that you're daft as well as pretentious. That noise. That."
That noise. Somehow I'd managed to block it out- I suppose I'd wanted to- but now it was impossible to ignore. It was a clicking sound, like a metallic cricket, and it came from a small device which Rush kept in her pocket during performances. For emergencies.
"That noise," the Countess said again. In her exasperation, she slapped the cabinet so hard that my ears rang. "The noise you're making now. Are you going to cease and desist or do I have to spill a glass of sherry down your bodice?"
A strangled noise from Rush, and then, when she mastered herself: "Your ladyship will, of course, do as she pleases."
"My ladyship certainly will, so, if you please, belt up. Otherwise I'll do something that I'll regret tomorrow morning. Actually, I won't regret it, but you will. More sherry, Eleanor. No, open a new bottle."
My excitement and delight had drained away, replaced by a much more familiar feeling: a cold, sickly dread. How long had Rush been giving me the emergency signal? Five minutes at least, I judged- probably ever since the Countess had captured my one remaining bishop. For one wild moment, I wondered whether I could just keep playing. It had been years since Rush last used the signal; perhaps I could tell her that I'd forgotten what it meant? No. No good. I was in enough trouble already. I took a last longing look at the chessboard, then forced myself to grab the emergency knob and pull.
The reaction was immediate. Clockwork gears on either side of me shuddered and groaned, so forcefully that the cabinet quivered. Outside the cabinet, the Rajah's hand would be flailing ineffectually back and forth. The Rajah's head, too, would be shaking from side to side, like a man in an apoplectic fit. As the final touch, I slid open a vent. This would allow some smoke from my candle to leak out through the Rajah's mouth, making it look as though the whole machine might blow up at any moment.
There was a gasp or two from the spectators, but Rush's voice rose above it: "My lady, for your own safety, I must ask you to move away."
"That's bosh," the Countess said, but she was already backing up. I recognized her clumping feet. "What's the matter with the thing?"
"I'm afraid that you may have damaged it when you struck it, my lady. The mechanism is exceedingly delicate-"
"Is it damaged or is it sulking? I was just about to ride to glorious victory; is it being a poor loser? Fix it, Rushmore!"
"My deepest apologies, my lady," Rush said, for what seemed like the twentieth time since we had arrived at the manor. "But it will take me time in order to find and rectify the fault. If you will excuse me, I will return the Rajah to my rooms and begin repairs immediately. I will undertake to have the Rajah in perfect working order for tomorrow night- failing any unforeseen crisis, of course."
"Oh, hang it," the Countess said, disgruntled, and though I can't swear to this, I think that she might have followed it up with a belch. "You idealists are maddening. You promise perfection and then your inventions explode. It's enough to make one lose faith in science for good."
* * *
The post-mortem, back in our rooms, went about as well as could be expected.
When Von Hausen popped open the lid of the cabinet, I was already making my excuses, as fast as I could. "I underestimated her. I underestimated her and she caught me off guard. It was a mistake. It won't happen again. It'll never happen again."
Rush wasn't listening. Back towards me, she was staring at the window as if she could see through the thick drapes, right to something fascinating on the other side. Her voice was very cold. "Get her out of there, Caroline."
Von Hausen's big hands plunged down, grabbed me by the shirt-collar and one wrist, and hauled me from the cabinet. There was a grey smear around her mouth, her clothes reeked of chemicals, and her eyes wouldn't focus. She must have been drinking the shoe polish again. She gripped me by the shoulders as though she was presenting me for Rush's inspection and critique. But Rush still didn't turn around. Her hands were clasped loosely behind her, and one finger tapped idly.
The silence stretched so long that I almost began to break down there and then, which I suppose was the point. How could she be so quiet, when I could see that every nerve in her body was stretched to breaking point? It was as if I was watching a bullet, somehow arrested at the very second it was fired.
Von Hausen assumed that she knew what was coming next. She reached for the leather belt that was draped across a chair, waiting.
Rush's head moved slightly. "No," she said, in an even tone. "Not yet."
When Rush said Not yet, it always meant Definitely later. I tried to talk, explain, protest, but it seemed that some inconsiderate person had glued my tongue to the roof of my mouth.
"You were going to lose," Rush said. Almost as if it didn't matter. As if her interest was purely casual.
"No," I managed to whisper. "Not necessarily."
"Were you going to win?"
"I don't know. I might have."
"Do you think that's good enough?"
Finally, something I could answer. "No."
"No," she repeated, and swept around to face me at last. She was angry, but she didn't look like it, not particularly. Of course, at times like this, she never did. There was a sadness about her, a look almost of pleading. She wanted me to know how terribly I had disappointed her.
"You know the rules, Kit," she said. "After twelve years of this, you'd be an idiot not to know the rules."
Technically, there was no rule against losing. But I guess that there was something in the nature of a religious commandment.
"So this is very perplexing." Rush sunk into a chair, as if suddenly exhausted. "Every time you lose..."
"...it hasn't happened for years..."
"You're interrupting me? Honestly?" Her hands tightened around the armrests, as though she was in pain. "What's gotten into you tonight? Every time you lose, Kit, you promise it's the last time. So why do you keep doing it? Are you trying to get my attention? Well, now you have my attention."
"I didn't do it on purpose," I said desperately. "I didn't. I swear, I didn't. The Countess is just...she's very, very good."
Mistake, big mistake. Von Hausen caught sight of the fire blooming in Rush's eyes, and dragged me up until my toes were barely touching the floor.
"The Countess?" Rush asked, her face all venom. "That braying, Austrian ass? That pompous, self-satisfied bitch? If there was any justice in the world, then women like her would either be sent to labour in the coal mines or handed over to the state to be used for scientific research. You're asking me to believe that she was a match for the Rajah?"
"Yes! No! I don't know what you want me to say. Tell me what you want me to say!"
"I want you to say- and I want you to mean it, Kit- that all of this will be fixed by tomorrow. Whatever happened tonight, whatever fit of pique or lapse of concentration or whatever it was, by tomorrow's game, it's over. Because the Rajah has two more games at least to play against that bitch, and I can't pull an emergency stop again. If you don't do better than you did tonight, then you will lose to that Austrian whore, and I swear to the living God, I will put you out of your misery myself before I let that happen. Caroline, the belt."
Von Hausen came alive at once, and the sequence of movements was so smooth and familiar that she might have been an automaton herself, running on clockwork. She took up the belt, dragged me to the sofa, and forced me down over the arm.
"Wait, wait, wait!" I called before my face was pushed into the cushions. "Please, Rush, don't- please, just-"
"Just what?" Rush's voice came closer. "I'll tell you what, Kit, I'll leave the choice up to you. You can either take the beating- or we shall go outside, you and I, and take a turn around the garden."
Outside. Ice ran through my entrails. Outside, that vast expanse of the vicious unknown; the terror of those infinite spaces; the lung-crushing void. Not that, sweet Jesus not that, dear God not that, dear God, dear God.
I didn't really have to answer; Rush already knew what I would choose. I switched tactics. "At least let me take off my shirt first."
Rush must have nodded, because the pressure of Von Hausen's hands went away. I straightened, pulled down the straps of my suspenders, and went through the business of unbuttoning. It was stupid of me to have made the request, in a way, because this whole business would be worse if my back was bare. But I only owned two shirts and there would probably be some bleeding.
My bloodstone pendant thumped against my chest as I folded the shirt carefully and set it on the floor. "All right," I said, when I couldn't put it off any longer. "I'm ready."
Once again, Von Hausen forced me down over the arm of the sofa. I found a loose fold of fabric with my teeth, bit hard, and braced myself. Then came the whistling of the belt through the air, and damn it all, she was using the end with the buckle.
I'll gloss over the next ten minutes, if I may. Von Hausen laid it on hard that night. I don't know whether I can hold Rush responsible for that. She didn't give a word of instruction or encouragement. But, as always, she counted the strokes.
* * *
I did get to hear the rest of the if-there-was-any-justice-in-the-world speech, but I heard it through a kind of haze, lying on the sofa in the messy aftermath while Rush stroked my hair.
I stared at the ceiling while she talked on and on and on, about the glories of science and the stupidity of the aristocracy, about competitive examinations and firing squads. And of course, about the way that children would be brought up in the brave new world of the future. How they would be removed from their inept and ignorant parents and given into the care of those who knew something about morals and discipline.
"I have to be strict with you, pet," Rush said at that point, breaking from the script. "Look what happens to women who haven't known enough discipline in their lives. Look at Caroline."
That was metaphorical, since Von Hausen wasn't in the room. Rush had given her a full bottle of schnapps after the beating (payment for services rendered, I suppose) and she'd disappeared to the stables to swill it in private.
"Or," Rush continued, and her voice had gone very soft and confiding, "remember your mother."
Not fair. I closed my eyes, preparing to listen as little as possible. My mother used to describe herself as a "dancer," but I'd known the truth of it since I was six, even though she rarely brought men home. I suppose she worked mainly out of alleyways. I used to know when she'd had a bad day because she would come home with bruises, and I knew when she'd had a good day because she came home with rolls and butter. Otherwise we lived mainly on soup. I saw no reason for anyone in the world to criticize what my mother did, especially since she wasn't married to my father and he didn't come by very often. (When he did, there was cake.) But Rush felt differently about these things.
Rush had never met my mother, but she knew everything about her that I knew. I wasn't permitted to have secrets any more than I was permitted to have sweets.
Rush went on: "Quite honestly, Kit, it chills me to think of what might have become of you if I hadn't taken you away from there. I suppose that your father would have lost you to someone else in a game of cards. Considering the way he drank and gambled, it was just a matter of time. Or maybe he would have taken a more direct route- dropped you off at the neighbouring whorehouse in return for a week's worth of drinking money. That happens, you know, Kit. There are markets in Budapest and Warsaw where you can buy a girl for half the price of a pig or a sheep. It's much, much more common than people believe. You could have ended up in some rich man's harem, leashed to his bed with a golden chain, with your ankle tendons severed so you couldn't run."
There was a pause where I was expected to say something appropriately grateful. I didn't. Von Hausen would be passed out by now, so I wasn't going to be whipped again that evening no matter what I said. Rush never handled the belt herself.
"So you see," Rush concluded, "I have to be strict with you. Fortunately, I got you young, but you still rotted away ten years of your life in a Paris slum, and it left seeds of corruption somewhere deep. Even now- even now, I'm still trying to purge the last of it away. It's difficult for you, I know, but we'll get there in the end. We'll get there in the end. I promise you that, pet."
Her hand sought and found the chain around my neck, the one from which the bloodstone dangled, and she very gently began to twist it.
I'm not much of a one for prayer- not anymore. There was a time after Rush won me when I said my prayers to her, because she did have the power to improve my circumstances and she seemed to be the only one listening anyway. I think that Rush was amused by that more than anything else, but her strict Anglican upbringing kicked in and she made me stop. Except on special occasions.
Since giving up on prayer, I'd also given up on the idea of divine intervention, which was a good idea, as it turned out, since divine intervention never came. I mean real divine intervention, the kind with lightning and glowing clouds and things. I did, however, retain my belief in luck. I got a lucky break every so often.
I suppose you could consider it a lucky break that the screaming started at that moment.
Unlike the scream that we'd heard the day before, from outside the manor, it started all at once, full-throated. Yesterday's scream had been recognizably a woman's voice- this one was so raw and piercing that you couldn't even tell. If it had been coming from out of doors, I would have thought it was a wolf keening or a pig being slaughtered. But it was coming from above us. Not immediately overhead- more distant than that, probably a couple of floors up. The attic?
Rush's hands stilled. I took another risk and looked up at her face. She was frowning at the ceiling.
"Lunatic relative or baboon?" I asked, trying for a casual tone. "Which do you think is more likely?"
"Knowing the Countess, her relatives probably are baboons, lunatic or otherwise. Still, it's very strange..."
Her voice petered out, as she realized that she'd come close to admitting that there was something she didn't know. "Sleep, Kit," she said brusquely. "It's past your bedtime."
I reached for the blanket. I didn't need it- my skin felt burning hot- but I wanted to cover myself, was grateful for the excuse. "Von Hausen said it was a ghost."
"She would say that. Germans. Thick as custard, the lot of them." She fussed with the blanket, tucking me in. "I did my best with Caroline, but somewhere along the line things went wrong. You take that as an example, pet. You don't want to go down that road."
She stood and turned down the gas. Between the feverish feel of my skin, the lightness of my head, and the unaccountable screaming somewhere above, the whole scene had taken on a sort of dreamlike quality. It seemed to me then that there was nothing in the universe but Rush turning down the gaslight, and it was as if I'd been watching her for years.
* * *
I suppose I got a little bit delirious during the night, because my dreams were filled with screaming baboons and Rush on the throne of Wales and firing squads shooting the Countess with buttered rolls. My skin got hotter and hotter and I longed for ice- then the temperature plummeted and I was shivering so hard that the couch shook beneath me. I pulled myself up and shambled round and round and round the room. I was looking for Towser, who had made himself scarce during all the fighting earlier but who couldn't be too far away. I found him, in the end, under the table. He huffed in an offended way when I woke him, but after I explained the situation, he scooted over a little to make room for me. Once huddled against his warm smelly bulk, I stopped shivering and sunk back into restless dreams.
Mostly, I dreamt about my father- the way he looked on that last day, right before everything changed. Right before Rush. He was drunk that day, of course. I hadn't known that at the time, had thought that his red eyes were from crying and that he was slurring his speech because he was trying to be funny. (He did try to be funny every so often when I was with him. He wasn't very good at it, but I appreciated the effort.)
Strange that I was ever so innocent when it came to drunkenness. My years with Von Hausen had made me something of an expert when it came to drunk.
In my dreams, the same scene played out over and over. Not even a scene- more of a fragment. I stood in the smoky, crowded hall, staring at my father's bent back, in its shabby black coat, as he slumped over the gaming table. My right hand was in Rush's left hand, her taloned grip biting my skin. And I was wishing, wishing with all the power that a ten-year-old has to wish for anything, that my father would turn his head and look at me. Somehow I was certain that if his eyes met mine, everything would be fixed. Rush would miraculously vanish, my father would take my hand instead, and I would go home to my own trundle bed, in a room that smelt of hazelnuts.
But he didn't look at me- and he didn't, and he didn't, and he didn't. He didn't even lift his head. For what seemed like hours, he slumped there not looking at me. Then came a gentle tug on my arm. That was Rush, pulling me away.
I must have relived that scene a hundred times over the course of the night, and really, it wasn't necessary. I'd gone through it once in real life and that was more than enough.
I tossed and turned so hard that, in the end, Towser grumbled complainingly, wriggled out from under my grip, and stalked away. That was all right, because I was too hot again. The flesh of my back was tight, inflamed, and burning. I felt that if I licked a fingertip and touched it to the skin, I'd hear a sizzle. I felt like I could sing like a kettle on the boil, except of course, it wouldn't do to wake up Rush.
In my restless sweaty half-sleep, snatches of old songs chased themselves around and around my head- the kind of thing my mother used to sing when I was sick, way back when. My favourite was the one about the shipwrecked cabin boy who was about to be cannibalized when the Virgin Mary stepped in, with its chorus of Ohe! Ohe! My mother's voice had been really terrible and she always used to cough in the middle of a verse. I could almost hear her coughing now...
I sat abruptly upright and banged my head on the tabletop. Wincing, rubbing the new lump, I peered through the dimness at the hearthrug. No Von Hausen, which meant she hadn't come in the night before, which meant that she was trying to get in now, which meant she was knocking, which meant that she'd wake up Rush too early, which meant that Rush would get up angry, which meant that she'd stay angry the whole day, which meant that today would be even worse than yesterday and with that I could not cope. Sandy-eyed, sore and feverish, I scooted out from the table and shambled over to the door.
I realized on the way that I didn't have the key, but found that wouldn't be an issue. Rush, probably because of her distraction the night before, had left her key in the lock and there it was still, with a threadbare bit of red ribbon dangling from the head.
"I'm coming, Von Hausen," I growled, wiggling the stiff key. It didn't want to turn. "Keep it down, you drunken brute. If you wake Rush now, then you won't get another drop of liquor before next Candlemas Day."
The lock clicked. I wrenched the door open, just before another knock could land on it, and prepared to dodge backwards. It was like Von Hausen to come in swinging, trying to catch me a clip on the ear or chin before I could blink.
It wasn't Von Hausen behind the door. It wasn't even something that I could recognize as a person, not right away. I had to see all the details in turn, working from the ground up: Shiny riding boots, polished black; a sweeping dark-blue skirt; a plain neat bodice with a row of blackberry-shaped buttons; a pointed chin; furrowed eyebrows; a crown of dark hair. All the images tumbled around my head for a minute like apples in a basket before I could put them all together. It was a woman, a young woman.
And she was looking at me. She was looking straight at me, and I wasn't inside a box or under a blanket or hidden in a cloak or obscured by a pile of cushions.
She had seen me, which meant I'd broken rule number one, which meant that I was in more trouble than I had been in living memory, which meant, which meant, which meant...
I tried to yank the door shut but the woman grabbed the handle. "Is something wrong?"
"Everything's normal," I said automatically.
Her eyes narrowed, then softened, and her shoulders moved in something like a shrug. "Well, in any case, I don't think we've been introduced. I am Eleanor Von Kaunitz, the niece of the Countess. And you are...?"
I am dead, was what I nearly said in response. Instead I just stood and gaped. Eleanor the Austrian Bitch was staring right at me.
She didn't seem affronted by my rudeness. She tried another tack. "I was coming to invite Miss Rushmore to breakfast. We have it early in the summertime. Would you like some breakfast?"
I did not want some breakfast, not particularly, not that moment. I wanted time to reverse itself so that I could change the last five minutes and not commit an act of terrible stupidity by opening the door. I wanted pain to stop roiling in waves through my back. I wanted to understand why this strange half-broken house had so few servants in it and why there was a howling woman upstairs. I wanted my mother to sing me that song about the cabin boy and the cannibals in her husky voice, with coughs interrupting every refrain. I wanted my father to turn around. I wanted my father to turn around. I wanted my father to turn around from the gaming table and look me in the face before Rush led me away, Rush who had won me, Rush who had won me in a game of cards and it was a fair game so it was no good complaining about it and if she hadn't done it I would have ended up in some rich man's harem anyway with my tendons cut.
I wanted all that. I could manage without breakfast for a while.
Eleanor seemed concerned now. She took a step forwards, as if to lay a hand on my arm.
That broke my paralysis. It was all up now, but it couldn't be helped; Rush had given me some firm instructions about what I was to do if I ever got into a situation like this and I couldn't have disobeyed her any more than I could have lifted a church and steeple. Squeezing my eyes shut, I yelled Rush's name.
Then I just stood and waited for Rush to come and kill me. I hoped that she would make it fast, but I doubted it. I did believe in luck, but it didn't come to my assistance all that often.
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