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. Racist views are expressed by a Very Bad Person. There is also murder, manipulation, and a whole lotta chess.
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Part Five: Castle
Here is something I remember.
The last time I tried running, I was thirteen years old. The Rajah had just played to a packed house in Manchester, and Rush filled the cash box twice over. After the show, we went back to the inn and Rush went down to the tap-room to bask in the awe of her adoring fans. She did love basking in awe, God how she loved it. I think she imagined heaven as a place where she would sit forever on a high stool surrounded by a circle of upturned, worshipful faces. Maybe with me sitting on a lower stool beside her. Maybe not. I never asked her that question.
Anyway. Rush was basking in awe, and Von Hausen and I were up in our room, with a snoring Great-Uncle Gregory, and the Rajah glowering in a corner, wooden face shadowed by his turban. Von Hausen was supposed to be watching me, but she decided to do you-know-what instead, and before very long, she was passed out cold, with her head dangling off the foot of the bed and drool streaming from her slack, open mouth.
For some time, I just sat and watched the drool drip. But Von Hausen didn't wake and Rush didn't come back, and eventually I had to face the question I'd been avoiding.
The door wasn't locked.
So was I going to walk through it?
I did not want to. I wonder if you can understand how much I did not want to. The last time I'd tried to run- over a year before- I only got about ten paces from the hotel before Rush caught me. Then Von Hausen spent the better part of a night persuading me not to try again. She persuaded me so hard that she ruined a perfectly good belt, and I couldn't lie on my back for a month.
But say that I did get more than ten paces away from the hotel this time. What would I do then? Wander the streets of a strange town with empty pockets and no clue where to go? A few nights sleeping in the open might be enough to drive me back to Rush's hands. Assuming that she would even agree to take me.
But what if I decided not to run? Would that mean that I wanted to stay with Rush? Would it mean that Rush was right, when she told me that I was happy?
And then I heard the ringing.
There's something about church bells. People say that evil flees from the sound of a bell ringing. I have my doubts about that- there are an awful lot of bells in the world, and evil seems to be standing the strain pretty well- but still, they're comforting. To me, they always sound like a half-remembered voice.
The sound came from somewhere close by…perhaps just a couple of streets away.
I looked at Von Hausen. Her skin was an interesting shade of pale blue. Summoning what little courage I had, I uncurled a finger and prodded her hard in the stomach. Her shoulders jerked, and I jumped backwards, but she just let out a garbled moan and flipped onto her side. Her strawlike hair fell down around her face, hiding it completely.
I didn't hesitate another instant. Didn't look around for a coin or a knife, didn't glance at the Rajah, didn't even pull on my jacket or my shoes. I slipped out of the door and down the stairs just as I was, in my shirtsleeves and suspenders.
Maids and porters turned to stare at me as I hurried past. I ignored them, trying to look casual. It is not easy to look casual when you are running from a hotel in your stocking feet, but I did my best.
The worst moment was when I passed by a door and heard, from inside, the swell of laughter and clinking glasses. This was the tap-room, and I sidled by it on tiptoe, hoping that Rush was too busy basking to pay attention to footsteps in the hall…
Done. I was past. And though curious strangers were still giving me curious glances, the door of the inn was right in front of me.
There was a time, there really was, when open doors had no effect on me. They didn't make my lungs cramp, didn't make my head whirl. A glimpse of sunlight didn't make me scream, a whiff of fresh air didn't make me collapse. It's hard to remember when all of that changed, because it came on me gradually. But when I was thirteen, the outdoor world held no particular terrors. I didn't even pause or think twice before ducking through the door of the inn.
Then I was outdoors, picking my way over the cobblestones, still in stocking feet. And then I was ten paces away. Twenty. Thirty.
It was dusk, the sky a pinky-grey, with brighter streaks crossing it like throbbing veins. It was cold, too. I had forgotten how cold the outdoors could get- forgotten the way that wind felt on your face. I shoved my hands deep into my trouser pockets and quickened my pace. My heart was skipping in wild, irregular beats. Every second, I expected a hand to clamp down on my shoulder; a voice to hiss in my ear: “Oh, Kit, do you never learn?”
I almost walked straight by the church, I was moving so fast, but when I was nearly past, I caught sight of the white stone steeple. Grinding to a halt, I reversed course. The bell was no longer tolling, but I could somehow feel the reverberations in the ground underneath my bare feet as I crossed through the graveyard.
When I passed the mossy headstones, my fear receded a little. I was walking on holy ground. This was a strong place and powerful things protected it: earth and stone and prayer. And Jesus Christ, I supposed, although, as far as I could remember, he never actually showed up at church. Still. The way I understood religion, God was more or less capable of handling things whether or not Jesus Christ was around. I envisioned a giant bearded man in flowing robe and sandals thrashing Von Hausen with a club made of gopher wood. The image was very pleasing.
The door was oaken, heavy as hell but I threw my whole weight back against the handle and it creaked open a crack. Inside, it smelt of candle-grease and sawdust.
I padded down the aisle, running a wondering hand over the polished pews. I hadn't been inside a church for years. It looked like a very good place to sleep. Peaceful.
Up by the nave, a droopy black shape was hovering by the altar. When I got nearer, the shape sharpened into a priest in droopy black robes. He was lighting candles with a little taper, working his way across the communion table from one side to the other. He moved stiffly, as if his joints creaked, and his robes were threadbare and shabby. That encouraged me. He didn't seem too important to interrupt.
I cleared my throat three times, each time more loudly than the last. He either ignored me or he didn't hear, so I had to speak out loud. “Excuse me, sir.”
The priest looked at me over his shoulder. He had enormous eyebrows, I remember- like two fat furry white moths. “Father,” he said.
“Oh, no,” I said quickly, trying to clear up the misunderstanding. “I'm not anybody's father, I'm just here to-”
He closed his eyes briefly, as if the sight of me gave him physical pain. “You address a priest as ‘Father', boy, or do you not even know that? Where were you raised, in a land of savages?”
All things considered, it was not the best beginning, but I'd come this far. I briefly wondered whether I should tell him that I wasn't a boy, decided not to complicate matters, and plunged ahead. “I need help, Father.”
“Do you.” He sounded exasperated, more than anything. “Boy, you are too young to have problems.”
“No, Father. I mean, I do. There's a woman.”
“You are too young even to look at a woman, let alone have problems with one.”
“It's not like that. I…I work for her.”
He raised his bushy eyebrows, making it look as though the two furry moths were crawling up his forehead. “What kind of a servant are you, then?” he asked. “Page? Hall-boy?”
“Something like that,” I said evasively.
“And your mistress, does she feed you? Clothe you? House you?”
“Well…yes, but- ”
He cut me off with an impatient swipe of his hand, and turned back to his candles, his head wobbling back and forth on his skinny old neck like a ripe plum on a thin branch. “There's no gratitude these days,” he said. “No gratitude.”
This was not going right, and I needed to explain, but it was difficult to decide where to begin. See, there's this thing called the Rajah, and my father lost me in a game of cards…
While I was still wavering, the priest started up again. “Boy, do you know what happens to children who disobey their good masters?”
Offhand, I didn't. But he was a religious type, so I could guess where he was headed. “They go to hell?”
He nodded. “Eventually. But they face an earthly kind of damnation first. Do you know what happens to them?”
I couldn't think of a ready and orthodox answer to this, so I shook my head and waited.
“They turn into ghosts,” he said. “Little white spirits huddled in the workhouses and the jails. Little grey wisps on the street. Walking barefoot through the snow, and crying for bread in voices that no-one can hear. Shut up in dark cells picking oakum, or chained to looms in gloomy factories, working sixteen hours each day with fingers bleeding and stomachs sticking to their backbones. So thin and so ragged that their flesh becomes transparent, like a bit of damp paper, and the people who pass by them on the road don't even see them there. They're nothing and they have no-one, not in this world and not in the next. How does that sound to you?”
“Bad?” I hazarded.
“ Bad. Yes, I would say ‘bad.'”
He laid down his taper and drummed his fingers on the altar as he regarded me. “Listen, my son,” he said, and his voice was a little gentler than before. “There is a station in life that God has called on you to occupy. It is He who has spun the threads of your fate. Who are you to say that He made the wrong decision? Give thanks to Him that you are not a little ghost of a child, alone in the world. Give thanks to Him that you have a kind Christian mistress who sees to your needs. God has decreed that you should serve her well and faithfully. Do this, and you will be provided for. You may become your mistress's valet or footman when you are grown- perhaps even her steward or butler. If you run from her, then you reject God's plan, and doom yourself to a punishment that you'll richly deserve. Do you understand me, boy?”
I understood, all right. He could have made his point much more quickly by slamming the door in my face when I tried to come inside.
“Now,” he said. “The evening service will begin soon. Do you have your mistress's permission to be outside?”
“No,” I whispered.
“Then you must return home. You must return home directly.”
This was getting worse and worse. Not only did God approve of Rush's rules, He was enforcing them. It had been a long time since I had cried- Rush didn't like to see crying- but now I found my eyes a little wet. I scrubbed them fiercely with my shirt-cuff.
The priest didn't seem to notice. His gaze slid off of me, and moved down the aisle. I knew at once what he was looking at, just from the way my stomach was hardening into a knot, and the hairs were prickling up on the back of my neck. I closed my eyes as tightly as I could, hoping for five more seconds, ten more seconds, before it all began again.
When I opened them, Von Hausen was plodding up the aisle with murder in her face. Her crinoline was mussed, thrown on all anyhow, and her hair was damp. Rush must have thrown a bucket of water on her to wake her up.
“Yours?” asked the priest, pointing at me with a finger dry and gnarled as an old stick.
“Not mine,” she said. And then, to me: “Get over here now or I'll drag you back to Rush by your ankles.”
The priest had already turned back to his candles, but he glanced up at this, with an air of mild concern. “Don't be too hard on the lad. I think he learned something today.”
* * *
Von Hausen was silent most of the way back. But as we turned in at the tavern gate, she said: “The life you used to live is over now. You're smart enough to understand that.”
And then, several seconds later: “You're smart enough to understand what will happen to you if you keep trying to run.”
* * *
Von Hausen ruined yet another belt on me that night, while Rush sat nearby and counted the strokes.
After it was over, I curled on the couch with my head on Rush's lap. For once, she didn't seem to mind my crying. She even passed me fresh handkerchiefs now and then, as I needed them.
I was exhausted by the time I ran out of tears, so tired that a numbness ran all the way through me. When Rush began to stroke my hair, I lay there like a doll.
Presently, she asked, “ Did you learn something today?”
I just answered, “Yes.”
* * *
The morning after Rush took me outside to the manor grounds, I woke up alone in the bed. Which was good. I needed the time to re-inhabit my own body, feel my way back into my limbs. Remind myself what it felt like to not be under Rush's immediate and direct control.
That took an hour or so, and afterwards I had a wash. Rush had left some water in the basin, and a slippery sliver of soap. I stripped down and scrubbed myself with the roughest cloth I could find until my skin was tingling and raw all over. It helped. I still wasn't feeling exactly chipper, but I was human enough to be hungry, and that was something.
My own clothes weren't in reach, and the maroon dress I'd worn the day before was sopping wet from the damp grass. So I pulled on the only dry thing I could find- Rush's dressing gown- before padding out into the sitting room in search of food. What I wanted was white fluffy bread loaded with cherry preserves, and chocolate with cream on top. What I found was Von Hausen passed out on the floor, the stench of vomit hanging around her like a filthy curtain.
This day was not starting well.
I considered bouncing up and down on Von Hausen's stomach a few times, but in the end, I decided against it. Von Hausen always gave as good as she got. The fleeting enjoyment I would get from the experiment would not be worth the consequences.
While I was still nudging Von Hausen with my toe speculatively, I heard the door handle rattle. A voice called: “Katherine?”
A woman's voice…no, Eleanor's voice. I froze in place. Rush had not prepared me for this scenario. Where was Rush, anyway?
The handle rattled again. I could actually see it moving. “Katherine? Can you hear me? You didn't come down to breakfast this morning- are you all right?”
I found my voice all at once. “I'm fine! ” I yelled, much too loudly.
The rattling stopped. “Will you open the door?”
“I can't! It's locked!”
“Is it?” Now she sounded concerned. “Hang on a minute.”
There was the crunching of metal on metal. A key. A key scraping into the keyhole. It was turning.
This was absolutely not allowed. This was forbidden by at least six separate rules and when Rush found out she was going to get Von Hausen to break all her remaining belts on me and then she would bounce up and down on my stomach. Panicking, I grabbed Von Hausen's ankles, threw my weight back, and began to drag her towards the bedroom. Where the bloody goddamn hell was Rush?
“Katherine?” Eleanor called again. The door handle was jittering as she tried to turn it. “It's not opening; is it stuck?”
I didn't answer that, needing all my strength to cope with Von Hausen. She was so heavy that my arms nearly popped from their sockets, but I made a mighty effort and managed to heave her the last few crucial inches. Just as I slammed the bedroom door shut, hiding Von Hausen's unlovely body, the door to the hall swung open and there Eleanor stood.
“What happened?” she asked. “Did you lose your key?”
“I don't have a key.”
“You don't have a key?”
“…I mean, yes, I lost my key. Yes. That is what happened. What are you doing here?”
Eleanor stepped into the room. Her gown that day was the colour of a good red wine, with white cuffs and collar. It made her look brisk and businesslike.
She scrutinized me. “You don't look that bad at all.”
Eleanor laughed. “I beg your pardon. All I mean is, I don't think you're quite as ill as your cousin is making you out to be. She said this morning that you weren't well enough to come to breakfast, and I'm unconvinced.”
So I was supposed to be sick today. Honestly, Rush should have left me a note or something to explain that little detail. Von Hausen had probably been ordered to guard the door and keep out nosy interlopers, but Rush should have known how that arrangement would turn out.
I let out a cough or two, trying to sound contagious, and then repeated, “What are you doing here?”
“Well- I thought that you might be bored, with your cousin in town for the day.”
My heart gave a great bound. “Rush is out? I mean- Cousin Diana is out? All day?”
Eleanor stared at me, curious. “She didn't tell you? She said that she had shopping to do. She said you were too ill to come with her, so you would stay in bed and study a little if you felt up to it.”
Thank God Rush had given me something to work with. “Yes,” I confirmed, with great relief. “I have to study. Studying is what I need to stay behind and do. In this room.”
“What are you studying?”
“Uh.” Now I was lost. “Sandwiches.”
“ Sandwiches ?”
“Embroidery, I mean. Embroidery. And- um. Russian.”
Damn. Just damn. It was becoming ever clearer that I shouldn't have bothered to get out of bed today. Eleanor's eyebrows were raised so high that they all but disappeared in her hair.
“You know, Katherine,” she said. “If I'm being too nosy, you can tell me so. You don't need to lie.”
That perked me up. “Really?”
Eleanor smiled. It made her eyes crinkle at the corners. “Really. You can even throw not-very-heavy objects at my head if I forget and start pestering you again.”
“Good.” I collapsed back onto the coach. “I'm a lousy liar. Especially when I'm hungry. It never turns out well.”
“I noticed.” She scanned the table, which was bare of anything but Rush's portfolio and a few dirty glasses. “You haven't had any breakfast, I see.”
“They've cleared the table in the morning-room, but I could have the kitchens send something up here. There's cold ham, or the last of the omelette.”
Too late, I remembered the cover story. “I'm sick,” I reported. “I can't eat. Cousin Diana will make me something when she gets back.”
“If you tell me what you'd like, I'll make it myself.”
“Thank you- but I really do need to wait until she returns.”
“She'll be out all day!”
“That doesn't matter. It's a rule.”
I wouldn't have believed it physically possible for those eyebrows to go up any higher, but somehow they managed it.
“You're being nosy!” I complained.
Eleanor spread her hands. “I didn't ask a single question.”
“You were thinking it. I heard you.”
She laughed. “All right. You caught me. I stand chastened and rebuked. Can I suggest a compromise? I won't ask any questions if you let me bring you breakfast.” Her eyes danced. “I promise that your cousin won't find out about it from me.”
I should have said “no,” of course. I actually opened my mouth to say “no.” But the words that came out were these:
“You don't have any jam, do you?”
* * *
“Do you always eat jam straight from the jar?”
I paused, with a loaded teaspoon an inch away from my lips. “Why, am I not supposed to eat it straight from the jar?”
“I don't mind how you eat it. I'm just curious. Are you sure you don't want a roll or a muffin with that?”
I shook my head, licking the spoon clean. Eleanor had laid out a selection of things on the little table- a basket of hot breads, cold chicken, devilled kidneys, soft-boiled eggs, chopped ham. But everything paled beside the golden jar of apricot preserves. I loved sweets and Rush almost never let me eat them, so this was paradise. I had already emptied half the jar and I fully intended to get through the rest of it before I got up from the table. Rolls or muffins would only slow me down.
Eleanor had already eaten breakfast, but for company's sake, she served herself a cup of tea and a sweet roll. As she sipped and nibbled, she watched me with interest.
“What?” I asked, beginning to feel peevish.
“You didn't sleep very well last night, did you?”
I almost dropped the spoon, and had to grab for it. “How did you know? How did you know ?”
She brought her hands up- to calm me, I suppose, but calm was not going to happen. I grabbed the nearest butter knife, in case it came down to a fight. “Were you watching? How did you get in? What the hell did you see?”
“Katherine. KATHERINE!” She had to yell a bit. “You look tired, that's all!”
Oh. Right. Yes, that made sense. “People do look different when they're tired, don't they?”
“They do, yes.” She traced a half-circle on the skin below her eye. “Dark patches.”
“Ah,” I said. “Well. No. I didn't sleep very well last night. No.”
She nodded. “That's what I thought.”
We lapsed into silence.
Wonderful. Now it was all awkward.
And I'd smeared my face with jam when I clutched for the spoon. I almost wiped my sticky mouth on my sleeve- then I remembered that I was wearing Rush's dressing gown, and I used the edge of the tablecloth instead.
At that moment, there came a soft groan from the direction of the bedroom. Eleanor didn't seem to notice, but the sound reminded me exactly how stupid I was being. It was only a matter of time before Von Hausen woke up, and if she saw me with Eleanor, there would be nine separate hells to pay. I would get punished in a way which would make the events of the night before look like a foot massage. So what in the world was I playing at?
To cover my confusion, I looked down at the jam, but for the first time in my life, I didn't want any. I put the spoon back in the jar and pushed it across the table. “You really shouldn't be here. You're not allowed to be here. Rush must have told you not to come and see me.”
Eleanor just poured herself a fresh cup of tea. “Oh, she did- and my natural perversity took that as a challenge. Why shouldn't I be here? We are in my aunt's house, if you recall.”
It was hard to argue with that one, but I thought of an excuse and seized it with both hands. “The Rajah is in here, though- the Rajah with all of its top-of-the-line state-of-the-art machinery. You can't just come poking around. It's espionage. Rush has a patent. Or she will, one day.”
“I see. Well, there's an obvious solution.” She wiped her mouth, daintily, with a napkin. “Let's get out of here. Let me show you around the manor.”
“ What ?”
“I'll bring you back well before your cousin returns. You'll have time to arrange yourself in a demure pose and pick up your embroidery.”
I was floundering. “I'm not allowed outside...”
“I won't bring you outside.”
“I'm not supposed to be in the sun, either.” Belatedly: “I'm sick.”
“We'll keep the drapes shut. Please, Katherine. You'll be doing me a favour If you don't come with me then I'll have nothing to do today but re-read Das Fräulein Von Scuderi for the fiftieth time and knit some lace. Badly.”
“Your cousin will never know. I swear.”
“You can bring the jam.”
* * *
She waited outside for me to get dressed. I slipped into my own clothes automatically, but then hesitated. Maybe it was a mistake to let Eleanor see me in shirt and trousers, maybe it would lead to more questions that I couldn't answer...but she had promised not to be nosy, hadn't she? I stared at myself in the mirror, fiddling with my shirt collar, making sure that my bloodstone pendant was tucked away and invisible. Then I realized I was stalling. I gathered all my courage and forced myself to push at the door.
The door swung open. It was that easy. I swallowed again and again, trying to shift the knot in my throat. It wasn't going anywhere.
Neither was I. My feet seemed to be stuck at the threshold of the room, as if there was a wall of glass keeping me in place.
Eleanor saw. She reached a hand out to me. “Ready?”
* * *
It was an old, rambling ruin of a manor, the kind of place you could get lost in for years. There were twisty passageways and corridors that didn't lead anywhere and niches that looked like doors but weren't really.
“I'm sorry it's so dark,” Eleanor said, as she led me down yet another narrow hall.
“Is it?” I asked in surprise. “I didn't notice.”
She gave me a peculiar look, and her mouth opened to ask a question, but she caught herself in time. I remembered, too late, that most people couldn't see in the dark as well as I could. Inwardly, I sighed. It was very hard to keep track of what normal people could and couldn't do.
Although, as I explored the manor, I began to wonder whether the Countess and her niece could really be described as normal.
The Countess had said that she was a collector of oddities, and every room of the manor proved that she hadn't been fibbing. She didn't decorate, as ordinary people did, with boring bits of bric-a-brac like pottery and statues and paintings and Persian rugs. Instead, the rooms were crowded with lizard skeletons and stuffed vultures, coiled snakes in jars of formaldehyde, and a larger bottles that held stranger specimens: a cat with no back legs, a two-headed pig. There was a room full of weapons: stone axes and swords of dark pitted iron, wooden shields and chain-mail shirts. Another room was used to hold all of the torture implements that weren't fit to display in the parlour. There were broken manacles and twisted thumbscrews, a Judas chair with a splintered leg, and a horrifying scold's bridle that bristled with rusty barbs. In the same room, there was a very confusing something made out of metal and leather, with hinges at either side. Eleanor said it was called a chastity belt and I shouldn't worry about what it was for.
One small sitting room was filled with bones. Leg-bones and jaw-bones were arranged in a neat pyramid on the table, and an entire row of human skulls glared down from the mantelpiece. The skulls on either end were wearing large, feathery hats, and another gripped a meerschaum pipe between its grinning teeth.
“I wish Aunt Maria wouldn't do this,” Eleanor muttered, standing on her tiptoes so she could whip the hats off. “Bad enough that she has the skulls in the first place. She ought to leave them at least a little bit of dignity.”
There was a miniature garden that stood on a table, with peach trees and roses and a little stone fountain. It was all made of wax, even the blue spray of water that spouted from the fountain's top. It was the first garden I had seen up close in over nine years, and I walked around and around and around it, staring at the lush green as if it was something delicious to drink.
There was a strange two-wheeled machine, with a seat and a steering bar. Eleanor said it was designed to help move you from place to place faster, and it worked in a way but she still had scars all along one hip from the one and only time she had tried to ride it.
There was a roomful of elaborate clocks, too, but I passed it by quickly. The ominous tick tick tick made me think of Rush's purse clicking open and shut, or her fingernails tapping on a tabletop.
Finally, we came to a draped and dusty chamber which must have been a school-room once upon a time. Each of the walls was a giant blackboard, and a basket of chalk stood in a corner. Writing was etched all over the walls, from the floor almost to the ceiling. One scribble read: “OLD PEOPLE WHO READ THE BIBLE ARE STUDYING FOR THEIR FINAL EXAM.” Another mused: “IF A PIG LOSES ITS VOICE, IS IT DISGRUNTLED?” And yet another simply proclaimed: “FIDDLE-DEE-DEE.”
There was also a five-line poem, written in very careful print over in one corner. I didn't get a chance to read it through before Eleanor turned pale, whipped out her handkerchief, and began to rub it out. I did, however, see the first two lines: “THERE ONCE WAS A MAN FROM BERLIN, WHOSE PECKER HUNG DOWN TO HIS SHIN.”
“God's breath,” Eleanor swore through her teeth. “I didn't know this adventure was going to be so fraught with peril. I should have cleaned up first.”
I watched with interest as the last of the naughty verse disappeared beneath Eleanor's frantic scrubbing. “Did your aunt write that?”
“Yes. Now you know why she doesn't mix in polite society very much. She isn't suited for it, particularly.” Eleanor shook chalk dust from her hanky. “Do you want to finish that jam?”
We sat on a bench together behind an old ink-stained desk. Someone had carved a very rude picture into the mellow wood, near the spot where my hand rested. Maybe it was a child's work, but I suspected that the Countess was the real culprit. I didn't mention the drawing to Eleanor, because I didn't want her to hide it or scrape it away. I sort of liked it.
Eleanor handed me the half-full jar of apricot preserves and I abandoned myself to its delights, mouthing up one golden spoonful after another.
“So,” Eleanor said presently. “You can speak Russian?”
I licked the spoon clean. “Enough to get by.”
“And I know you speak German. English?”
“And you obviously know French...”
“Why is that obvious?”
She blinked. “Katherine, we've been speaking French all day. We're speaking it now.”
So we were. I sometimes don't notice when I slip from one language to another. It's not like they're so very different, anyway.
Eleanor was still staring. “Just how many languages do you speak, Katherine?”
“I don't know. Enough. You're getting nosy again.”
“I'm sorry, I'm sorry, but...good Lord . Did you learn them at school? Or did your cousin teach you?”
“My cousin.” The jar was almost empty. I poked the spoon right to the bottom so I could scrape up what was left.
“Was it difficult to learn so many?”
“No. Rush- I mean Cousin Diana- she taught me at dinner-time. She chose the language and I had to speak it throughout the meal. If I made a mistake, she took my plate away.”
“That seems a little bit drastic.”
“Not really. And it was necessary. My cousin says that before long, Europeans on the godless continent will come to their senses and learn honest English. But until that happens, we have to lower ourselves to their level.” The jar was empty except for the thinnest scraping on the glass. I thought about breaking it open so that I could lick it clean, quelled the longing, and put it down.
“So you're English,” Eleanor said.
I shook my head. “No, I'm a heathen Frenchwoman, but Rush says that she can barely notice it on my good days. Rush says that if I try hard, then I can probably become English in time. Rush says that being French is just a bad habit, after all, and she sees no reason why I can't overcome it, the same way I learned to stop biting my nails. Why all of the questions? You promised that you would stop asking questions.”
Eleanor looked fixedly down at her hands. I got the sense, somehow, that she had at least a hundred more questions lined up and ready to fire, and she was doing her best to keep them from bursting out, one after the other, like blasts from a cannon.
“I'm sorry, Katherine,” she said in a gentler tone. “I don't mix in polite society very much myself. I suppose it shows. I'll cease the interrogation.”
“You said that I could throw things at your head if you asked me questions.”
“True, I did. Feel free. But not the jam-jar, please?”
I looked around, didn't see anything other than the jam-jar that was particularly throwable, and informed Eleanor that I would be merciful, just this once. She was duly appreciative.
Against my better judgment, I was starting to relax. The dim, creaky old schoolroom was a comfortable place, and the smell of the chalk was somehow reassuring. I wondered whether I had ever been to school myself, before Rush won me. If so, I couldn't remember it, but there were a lot of things I couldn't remember.
“Tell you what,” Eleanor said, once she was done being appreciative. “Take your revenge. Interrogate me.”
I sat back on the bench, drew my knees up to my chest, hugged them, and studied her. There were two questions I desperately wanted to ask her: first, where the hell had she learned to play chess, and second, would she play against me for a while or maybe forever? But that wasn't an option.
Instead, I asked, “How did you learn to speak French?”
“Ah.” This time her smile was guilty. “That's a bit of a scandalous story.”
“More scandalous than the man from Berlin?”
“Very nearly. I mentioned that I attended a boarding school? Well, there was a reason for that. You see, when I was a child, I was what you would call ungovernable. Disruptive to the servants and dangerous to the crockery. My parents sent me to a convent school in France, hoping, in their innocence, that the nuns would be able to rein me in. It did not work out that way. Picture me, matched against a bunch of frail and aging Sisters of Mercy. It was no contest, really. The only difficult part was hiding my racy novels and the ends of my cigarettes. I would even scale the convent wall and go to town on weekends.”
“Like the time that you went to see Maelzel and the Turk.”
“Like that time, yes. That time they caught me, but before long, they decided that they would all have nervous breakdowns if they kept fighting the inevitable. So they gave up trying to keep me indoors. Instead, they just told me...”
Eleanor paused then, and a dark red flush spread over her cheeks.
“What did they tell you?” I prodded.
She shook her head. “It isn't important.”
“You said I could interrogate you. I'm interrogating. Don't make me go and fetch a pair of thumbscrews. I know where you keep them.”
Eleanor groaned in resignation. “They told me not to rub up against anyone who had open sores. And before you ask- yes, they knew what they were talking about. Vows of chastity notwithstanding, I know for a fact that at least three of them raised their skirts for the man who came to clean the chimneys. And then there were Sister Bernadette and Sister Augustine. Those two did things to each other in the dead of the night that I can't even spell or pronounce. Now must we persist with this line of conversation? It's embarrassing.”
I didn't find it embarrassing. I thought that the nuns' advice was sound and reasonable and probably very well-timed.
“All right,” I said, switching tactics. “Here's a new question, then. Why are you so prudish? Is it because you spent all those years at the convent school? Did the nuns get to you in the end?”
She laughed. “I'm not prudish. But someone around here has to act like an adult occasionally, and it's no good hoping that my aunt will ever volunteer for that role.”
“Are you going to show me your aunt's room?”
“What about your room?”
Now that was intriguing. It was slight and subtle, but at the mention of her room, Eleanor flinched.
“That's rather personal, don't you think?” she asked evasively.
“More personal than anecdotes about nuns and open sores?” I countered, more curious than ever.
She switched tactics. “It's boring, my room. Very and extremely boring.” She stood up decisively and beat chalk dust from her skirt. “Let me show you the third floor. That's a sight worth your time.”
* * *
The third floor was one below the attic. I kept my ears open, wondering if I would hear screams or footsteps overhead, but the ghosts were silent that day.
Most of the floor was taken up by a giant gallery, with at least three hundred toy ships littering the ground. Eleanor explained that one of her aunt's hobbies was to re-enact famous naval battles of the past, and “improve” them at the same time. She like to imagine what would have happened in the Battle of Salamis if the ancient Greek triremes had been armed with cannons, or how the Battle of Lepanto would have played out if the Turks had been assisted by a giant octopus trained to eat Christians. (There was an octopus in the gallery, too. It was carved from wood, but its legs were hinged so you could make them flop around. I made it eat Eleanor's head twice before she got annoyed and took it away.)
Eleanor and I had a brief but bloody sea battle of our own, using about fifty of the toy ships. There were no rules, which I found confusing at first, but I got the hang of it. Eleanor was ahead for most of the battle, but then I decided that all of my ships were able to turn invisible and fly. That pretty much settled things.
While we were clearing the ships away, I said, “You do realize that the interrogation isn't over.”
Eleanor sat back on her heels and raked hair from her face. “I was afraid of that. Go ahead.”
I rapped the questions out as quickly as I could. “Which do you like better, tea or coffee?”
“What's your favourite colour?”
“How old are you?”
“Who was screaming in the attic?”
It almost worked. It came so damn close to working. Eleanor began to answer the question without even thinking about it. But then, with a physical effort, and to my infinite frustration, she mastered herself and bit off the words. Then she shook her head, her lips a thin line. “Katherine, I don't know what you're talking about.”
“You do, you do !” I almost yelped, sitting up on my haunches. “There's a woman who screams up in the attic. I've heard her, three times or more.”
Eleanor slammed a ship to the floor so hard that the toy soldiers aboard it went flying. Then she stared hard at her own hand, as if it had surprised her. “I don't want to discuss this, Katherine.”
“You're not discussing it, but it's true, isn't it? There's a woman up there who screams.”
Eleanor hesitated, but she shook her head again. “There is nothing of the kind.”
“Then where do the screams come from? Is it a lunatic? Or a pet baboon? Or is it a ghost? Is the manor haunted? Did a woman get chopped to pieces by a maniac and buried under the floor?”
“You know, I've never thought to ask.” Eleanor stood and shook the dust from her skirts. “The manor grounds are beautiful this time of year. Don't you want to see them?”
For one deranged moment, I thought of telling her that I'd spent some time in the grounds the night before, and had been reduced to a whimpering half-person as a result. Instead, I focused on the matter at hand. “Why are you lying to me?”
Eleanor turned. The gallery had enormous windows, but the shutters were closed. We had been playing and talking by the gas-light, and now it was hard to tell whether her eyes were flashing in anger, or whether they were just catching the flicker of the flame. “Do you really think that you're the only person in the world who has secrets?”
“I don't have secrets,” I said automatically.
She snorted. “Please.”
“I don't have secrets, please.”
Eleanor smiled at that, but crookedly, as though it wasn't really funny. She put out a hand to help me up to my feet. “We are a couple of nosy people, you and I.”
“I suppose,” I admitted. “But I think it's only natural for me to be curious. Considering that there's a woman screaming up in the attic.”
“I think it's only natural for me to be curious,” Eleanor retorted. “Considering...”
Her voice tapered off. She turned to put out the gas-lamp.
“Considering what?” I prodded her, although I wasn't at all sure I wanted to know.
Eleanor didn't answer, not in words, but she sighed.
The room was almost in darkness now, but I could still see perfectly well. I watched Eleanor pick her way carefully against the toy-strewn floor towards me. I saw it when one of her hands reached for my hand, while her other hand came up to rest on my throat. I couldn't quite believe it, but I saw it.
I didn't move. My instinct at moments like that was to freeze and wait. I did, however, make some meaningless noise of protest, and Eleanor paused.
“I won't hurt you,” she said.
I'd heard that before, but I nodded anyway.
Two of her fingers skimmed along my neck. For a horrifying second, I thought she was going to reach under my shirt-collar to find the chain of my bloodstone pendant, but then the fingers came to rest at the base of the big artery. I knew it was called the carotid; Rush had let me study a book of anatomy, once.
Eleanor let her fingers rest there for several seconds, feeling the steady tick of my pulse. Then she spoke. One word only. “Rush.”
I know Eleanor felt it, because I felt it: my pulse suddenly began to hammer, my blood surging through the artery as if it was trying to escape. My brain filled with pictures: a bird held in a fist, pumping its wings with terror; a fox fleeing a hunter, tongue lolling, lungs gasping.
Bodies are traitors, they reveal so much. Rush always was good at reading me. Hundreds of times, she'd looked at my face or hands or stance or expression and plucked a thought from my head which I would much rather have kept hidden. This was more or less the same thing, and I didn't like it.
It was almost a minute before my heartbeat slowed back to its normal rate. Throughout that minute, Eleanor's eyes stayed on me, though I doubted she could see me well in the dark.
“Well?” she said at last.
“Well what?” I asked weakly.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“I don't know.”
That was honest, at least. Rush usually told me what I wanted. I wasn't sure that I could figure it out on my own.
“Well,” Eleanor said again, “why don't we try talking, and see how it goes?”
I would have said “no,” I think. I'm almost sure. But I can't be positive about that, because, before I could say anything at all, another voice broke in: “There you are, Miss.”
Luckily, Eleanor was no longer touching my throat, because now my heart began to pound twice as hard as before, the beats so heavy that they almost cracked my ribs from the inside. At the same time, my brain cleared of fog. It was like waking up, and realizing that I had done something unspeakably stupid while sleepwalking.
Von Hausen shuffled into the room wearing her black half-respectable maid's dress, her hands clasped in front of her. She bobbed a brief and unenthusiastic curtsy towards Eleanor, but then her shaggy head swung towards me.
“You shouldn't have left, Miss,” Von Hausen said, and I could tell how much effort she had to put into keeping her tone civil. “You need to be back in our rooms before your cousin returns.”
Before my cousin returned- oh God, when Rush heard about this, what the hell would she do and how the hell would I survive it? None of the punishments she'd used in the past seemed adequate. She'd have to design a new one, and Rush always was inventive.
And why had I done it? So that I could spend a few hours with Eleanor? A woman whom I barely knew, whom I'd never see again once we left? What the hell was wrong with me?
I hurried towards Von Hausen, completely unable to speak, but for the second time that day, Eleanor caught my hand. “Katherine, is everything all right?”
That almost made me laugh, in spite of everything. Instead, I whispered, “It's fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said, extracting my hand from hers. “Everything's...normal.”
That at least was true. I was in trouble, Von Hausen was loving it. A very, very bad evening was waiting for me, and all I could do was get through it as best I could, and then forget it with haste. Everything was normal. That day with Eleanor had been like an upwards leap, a pulling against gravity, and Von Hausen had come to bring me back to earth.
* * *
Von Hausen all but threw me through the door to our sitting room. She did it with such enthusiasm, I knew she must have been waiting to do it for a long time. I hit the table, fell, and just managed to roll out of the way before her kick took me in the ribs.
“Idiot,” she hissed at me, but her teeth were bared in something close to a smile. She slammed the door. “Idiot. Idiot. ”
I was trying to get up, but I didn't have time before she was on me again. I scuttled backwards on my hands and knees, dodging kicks. “You'd better- ow!- back off, Von Hausen, I'm- ow!- I'm warning you!”
“That's rich. That's hilarious. You're warning me? When Rush finds out about this-”
“She won't, because- ow!- because you're not going to tell her. Ow. OW!”
I put on an extra burst of speed, and dove under the couch, where Von Hausen's feet couldn't reach me. She let out a few choice German curses, then went and grabbed the broom.
“You're dead ,” she hissed, bending down to jab at me with it. “How could you be such a moron? This time, Rush won't even bother to have me whip you. She'll build you a cage and leave you out under the sun for a month.”
The thought had crossed my mind. I spat out a broom straw. “You were supposed to be watching me. You were supposed to keep the Austrian Bitch away. You feel asleep. Try explaining that to Rush.”
She let out one of those belching laughs of hers. “Why would I have to explain anything?”
“Because...” I began, and then I cursed myself for a fool. Rush wouldn't be surprised or disappointed that Von Hausen had behaved like a drunken sot. You don't blame a cow for mooing, or an old dog for breaking wind.
While I was still hesitating, Von Hausen's fleshy arm shot underneath the couch and caught me by the scruff of the neck. As she dragged me out, I was yelling, “She'll still punish you, you bastard, she'll still punish you !”
The big woman caught me by the back of the head then, and pulled me in close. Her breath was sour: stale beer, curdled milk. “What could she do to me?” she asked in a raspy whisper. “Beat me, whip me, starve me, shame me? What the hell could she do to me that she hasn't done already?”
Her lips curled upwards. “But you, special girl- you've only sampled half of what Rush has to offer. So far. It won't be long before you see the other side of the coin.”
She threw me back into a chair, then, and I automatically curled up, hugging my knees to my chest. I hadn't cried in years- Rush didn't like that- but my eyeballs were getting hot, with a sort of pressure behind them, as if tears were pooling there and couldn't get out.
As a last ditch effort, I said: “Suffering Christ, Von Hausen, please !”
“Shut your mouth before I sew it shut.”
She threw herself into an armchair, and sat with her face turned towards the window, as though she could see through the heavy drapes to the green beyond. We sat for a long time in silence, waiting, as the line of pale light at the bottom of the curtain inched from gold to grey.
* * *
Here is something I remember.
Back when I was- oh, twelve, I suppose- the three of us were stuck in a hotel waiting out a thunderstorm. I'd been sick and I was cranky, so Rush let me amuse myself by looking through her scrapbooks.
Looking through Rush's scrapbooks was not what you would call a fascinating activity. I'd seen most of what was in there already. Newspaper clippings about the Rajah. Diagrams of flying machines and submarines. Here and there, a few jotted mathematical formulae or a theatre ticket. Not exactly riveting stuff. I flipped all the pages twice, gave up on finding anything interesting, and threw the book down on a cushion.
When I did that, a slip of paper fluttered out and landed on my leg. No, two slips of paper. They had been folded together and tucked inside the book's front cover. I picked them up.
“Did you see this, Kit?” Rush said from behind her newspaper. “The yellow devils in China have imported ten thousand barrels of opium this year alone. Excellent news. Before long, they'll all smoke themselves to death or insanity and the world will be that much cleaner.”
“That's nice, Rush,” I said without really listening. I smoothed out the slips of paper.
The first slip was a scrap of old newsprint- more than fifteen years old, from the date at the bottom left corner- and the text was in German. It was an advertisement, a notice for an upcoming performance. CAROLINE VON HAUSEN, the WONDERCHILD, would be exhibiting her skills at MENTAL ARITHMETIC, solving near-impossible problems in mathematics without the assistance of slate, abacus, or pen. Tickets for this MIRACULOUS PERFORMANCE could be had from Caroline's father, Frederick Von Hausen, at such at such an address, etc.
It was the second slip of paper that really made me stare. It was a pen-and-ink drawing, rough and clearly the work of an amateur, but still beautifully done. It showed a solemn-eyed girl, aged about ten, with fair hair and a frock of frilly white lace. She was seated on a leather footstool, white-gloved hands clasped on her knee. A tiny puppy lay at her feet, his eyes closed and his head resting on the girl's left shoe. I inspected the puppy closely, my nose almost touching the paper. Blackie?
Without warning, both papers were ripped from my grasp. My ears were boxed so hard that my brain seemed to bounce in my skull.
“Was that nice, Caroline?” Rush asked absently, but she didn't look up from her reading.
Von Hausen loomed over me. She looked so huge. I don't suppose she was all that big really - she couldn't have been much older than twenty then. I was twelve, though, and so far as I was concerned, she was big enough to be a gargoyle, a troll, a child-eating giant.
But I didn't scream. By then, I was learning.
Von Hausen shook the two slips of paper in my face: the pen-and-ink sketch, and the newspaper advertisement. “These are mine, you brat.”
“Rush put them in her scrapbook,” I pointed out, but I kept a protective hand hovering up my by ear, just in case.
Von Hausen growled, as though she really were a beast. “Rush can do what she likes. But listen here, devil spawn: if you don't keep your hands off of my property, I will break every last bone in your back.”
I must have been studying that book of anatomy shortly beforehand, because I remarked, “There are thirty-three bones in the back.”
“That's right,” Von Hausen said, low in her throat. “And trust me, I would be very, very thorough.”
At that, Rush finally put down her paper. “Honestly, girls,” she said wearily. “Do I have to separate the two of you? The way you squabble, I'm sometimes tempted to sell both of you to passing gypsies and begin afresh.”
“She started it,” Von Hausen and I said in unison.
Rush stood up and stretched, in precisely the way I wasn't allowed to stretch because, according to Rush, it was very unladylike. “Never mind,” she said. “Kit, it's your bedtime. We have a show tomorrow, I need you well-rested. And as for you, Caroline...you'd better wash, and then you may come and join me. I'll be needing you tonight.”
I was young then, still too young to understand much. But I knew that I didn't like it when Rush's eyes rested on Von Hausen in that hungry way.
Von Hausen's face went blank. In those days, her skin wasn't deep yellow and her flesh didn't hang from her in folds. She still looked like a girl, more or less. Especially when she was frightened.
She said, “Someone has to watch Kit.”
Rush smiled roguishly. “Oh, I think that we can bend that rule just a touch, just a fraction. All the doors are locked. I don't think she'll be able to wander.”
Von Hausen's mouth was half-open, as if she wanted to protest further, but I think she'd run out of excuses. Her eyes went from me, to the floor, then to me again. Then, without another word, she walked from the sitting room and into the bedchamber.
Sometimes I wanted to ask why Von Hausen made noises when the two of them were together this way, but I never actually did.
As Rush passed by me, she paused, and cupped my chin in her hand. “Will you be all right sleeping on the sofa?”
Silly question. I always slept on the sofa, except when Von Hausen got angry at me and dumped me off onto the floor. I nodded.
Rush tilted my chin up. “Will you be lonely?”
This seemed very much like one of those questions to which I should answer “Yes,” no matter how I actually felt. So “Yes” is what I said.
That made her smile for some unaccountable reason, and she said, “Patience, patience,” which made no sense at all. Then she turned to follow Von Hausen into the bedchamber, and I thought that the interview was over.
At the last minute, though, she looked over her shoulder, and said, “Don't be in such a hurry to grow up, pet. It'll happen soon enough.”
* * *
I was jolted out of this memory by the sound of the opening door. I was getting used to the sound of the door in this room. It had a whining sort of creak, and the hinges dragged.
Von Hausen surged to her feet, almost tripping with eagerness, but Rush didn't even spare her a glance as she strode inside. She was already talking.
“Vienna, Vienna, dear God, I hate Vienna. Satan probably designed Vienna after he'd had a particularly bad day. Food, disgusting; architecture, nauseating; women, repugnant. Like giant pink pigs laced up in tight corsets. I wanted to grab a hatchet and put them all out of their misery.”
Von Hausen, obviously impatient, tried to speak. “Rush...”
“Oh, not now, Caroline,” Rush said wearily, tossing her bonnet down on the table. “I've spent all day trudging around the armpit of Europe. Is it too much to hope for a little quiet when I come home?”
“What were you doing?” I asked. I wasn't eager to interrupt, but I hoped to turn the conversation onto something a little safer.
“Eh?” Rush looked over at me, surprise in her face. It was as if she had forgotten my existence and was only now remembering. “Oh. Kit. Yes. I was shopping. I had to pick up...I had something to pick up.”
Von Hausen tried again. “Rush...”
“Caroline, I've warned you once. Now hold your tongue, or I'll simply remove it.” Rush shrugged off her coat and let it fall where she stood. “Hang that up. I'll be in my room. If I hear any noise from either of you girls before suppertime, then there will be consequences.”
The door to the bedchamber slammed shut behind her. I cast exactly one-half of a triumphant stare at Von Hausen. One-half, because I knew that the hour of reckoning had only been postponed. Von Hausen drew a finger across her throat, meaningfully, before she stomped across the room to pick up Rush's coat.
I hugged my legs even tighter, and gnawed at the top of one knee. I considered appealing to Von Hausen's better nature, but I was fairly sure that she did not have one of those. I considered bribing her with liquor. That might work, but if I stole brandy for her once, she would have me doing it for her every day.
She was brushing Rush's coat now, with quick, angry gestures.
I considered killing her and making it look like an accident. The idea had its attractions. I considered it a while longer, and then glanced at her sideways, trying to imagine how I would make it work. The sight of her was enough to make me abandon a half-formed plan involving a noose and a bottle of shoe-blacking. There was just too much of her for me to get rid of it all in one evening.
Von Hausen flipped the coat onto its hook. As she did that, a small wooden box tumbled out of the right pocket, and she bent to pick it up. The clasp of it must have been broken, because, as she cupped it in her large clumsy hands, it spilled open.
For a confused instant, I thought that a silver snake had slipped from the box and thrashed its way between Von Hausen's hands before tumbling to the floor. Then my eyes refocused. It was a silver chain...a silver chain, from which hung a silver pendant, a red stone winking in its middle like a shining red eye. I didn't know what kind of gem it was. It was multifaceted, sparkling. A garnet, perhaps?
Von Hausen was staring down at the pendant as if it really was a serpent. Her face- none too healthy-looking at the best of times- had turned a truly sick shade of green.
I didn't care how she was feeling, but just to avoid the awkward silence, I said, “Von Hausen?”
She started at that, dead-looking eyes fastening on me. Then she gave one quick, abrupt shake of the head.
“Not again,” she whispered. “Jesus above, not again.”
I thought about asking what she meant. I'm not sure why I didn't- except that our way of life tended to discourage one from asking questions.
The moment passed, and so did the opportunity. Von Hausen stuffed the pendant back into the box, and the box back into the pocket of Rush's coat. That done, she drew up a footstool to the hearth. For the next hour, I pretended to read, and she stared into the flames, her eyes narrowed as if she was seeing something beyond the fire.
* * *
Rush emerged soon afterwards, rested and renewed.
She was in fine form. In the ten minutes before she left the room to go to dinner, she regaled us with a lecture about the repulsive habits of the Austrians, the degenerate habits of the French, the infuriating habits of the Germans, and the maddening habits of me and Von Hausen in particular. Then she complained about the mess in the room, kicked Towser, told Von Hausen that she was a stupid brute, told me to be a good girl or she'd know about it, kicked Towser again, stormed out and slammed the door behind her.
Von Hausen still sat by the fire. She had pulled her own pendant from beneath her dress, and she was fingering it, running a thumb back and forth over the opal in the centre. The metal of it was almost black, where the new one was so shiny and clean. I glanced at my own necklace. Dull grey.
“Maybe it's for Towser,” I suggested.
Her head came up. “What?”
“The new pendant. Maybe it's for Towser.”
Her face flushed with a trace of that old familiar rage. “Rush has no business hanging things on Towser. He's mine.”
“He's mine, brat. Doesn't matter if he licks your hand now and again, he isn't yours.”
“That's not what I mean. I just mean- the two of us don't own anything, do we? Not really.”
Von Hausen gave her pendant two hard jerks. “Towser's mine. Rush gave him to me after Blackie died. And she gave me Blackie the first week after she...after I...” Her voice became very soft. “She said she wanted me to be happy.”
Now what was I supposed to say to that? I opted for silence, and neither of us said anything more before Rush returned.
* * *
Rush had an odd look about her when she came in the door, as though the universe, after decades of effort, had finally managed to surprise her. Sinking down on the settee, she sat with her chin in both hands, index fingers tapping her cheeks as regular as a pendulum.
Von Hausen and I were quiet, of course, not wanting to break into her train of thought. I jumped when Rush finally spoke in a voice like freezing sleet: “Are you comfortable, Kit?”
I was, actually. Quite comfortable. Did she really want to know that?
“ Kit, ” Rush said warningly.
That tone meant that I had roughly five seconds to give her what she wanted before things got hairy. The problem was, I didn't have a clue what she was after.
I glanced at Von Hausen, wondering if she would give me a hint. She did that sometimes, because things were worse for both of us when I lost the plot. I wasn't really expecting any help from her on this occasion, considering what had passed between us earlier in the day. But, to my surprise, Von Hausen was frantically gesturing with her head, sending me a clear message. Go to her, go to her, go to her.
That was strange. Generally, Rush wanted me next to her when she was in a good mood, and when she was upset or angry, she wanted space. But I didn't have any ideas of my own, so what the hell. I scrambled over to Rush's side, edging as close to her as I could get without actually climbing into her lap.
Rush's hand came at me like a clamp, gripping the back of my head and shoving me down. After I caught my breath and recovered from my confusion- this was not normally part of our evening program- I found that my nose was almost touching my knees. Rush's firm grip on my skull kept me bent double.
Rush spoke so carefully, it was as if she thought a bomb might go off in her mouth if she chose the wrong word. “Kit, I do not ask for very much from you.”
“I know,” I said into my knees.
“Then why can't you learn to behave?”
It seemed safest not to answer. But as the seconds ticked past, I felt her fury swell- could feel it in the way her fingers clenched my head tighter and tighter. I knew then that I had guessed wrong. Far too late, I said: “I try to behave. I do try.”
She wasn't listening any more. The fingers tightened even further, the nails biting in. Then I heard a pop as the tip of one nail punctured my scalp. It didn't hurt that much, but the shock of it almost made me swear loudly, which would have been mistake. I can't remember whether I've mentioned it, but “No swearing” was rule number five. Rush said I sounded like a charwoman when I swore, and a French charwoman at that. Instead, I gripped the edge of the seat, biting my lip.
“You used to be such a sweet child,” Rush whispered.
She had never said that before. I began to rack my brains for an answer which was, all at once, agreeable, non-argumentative, pleasant, witty, and endearing. And sweet, of course, that too. I didn't think of one in the five seconds that were available to me before Von Hausen cleared her throat.
“Something's wrong,” Von Hausen said. “What's wrong.”
Rush twitched with irritation, making me think that she would rear up and deliver one of those walloping blows to Von Hausen's jaw. That was what would have happened on an ordinary day.
This wasn't an ordinary day. Rush's fingers drummed twice on my skull. Then she said, “The Countess made me an offer.”
She wasn't speaking to Von Hausen or me. You could tell because there wasn't any contempt in her voice. Rush was somewhere far away, addressing people who were worth her trouble and time. Or maybe she was just talking to herself. Same difference.
“The Countess,” she said, in the same faraway voice, “wants to buy the Rajah.”To be continued in Part 6: Knight
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