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 Six: Knight
My first reaction: So what? My second, third, and fourth reactions: Honestly, so what?
If that sounds a trifle blasé, you need to understand how many people had offered to buy the Rajah over the years. And it wasn't just scholars who wanted to study it, or showmen who wanted to exhibit it, or heads of state who wanted to display it. There were also priests who wanted to throw it into a bonfire because they were convinced it was the work of the devil, and maniacs who wanted to worship it because ditto.
There was a country squire, too, who always talked in a rather breathless and agitated voice when he was in the Rajah's presence. When he was playing chess with the Rajah, his leg kept rubbing against the side of the cabinet- and I don't think it was by accident. I can't prove anything, but I am morally certain that he wanted to buy the machine so he could play a rather different kind of game with it. If you know what I mean.
It didn't matter how many people made offers. Rush never agreed to sell. So why on earth was she getting all peculiar now?
I would have realized what was going on eventually, I suppose, but Von Hausen beat me to it.
“You're considering it,” Von Hausen said flatly. “You're thinking that you might actually sell the Rajah.”
“I'm not considering it,” Rush said. “I've decided. I am going to sell it.”
Right at that moment, things went black. I've told you before, haven't I, what that means? I didn't faint or fall asleep or die- my brain just went out for a while, as if it were a gas lamp, turned down until the flame snuffed.
When the world reappeared, Rush's face was an inch from mine, and she was ranting as if she'd been going on for hours. Von Hausen was picking up a chair which lay overturned on the floor, as if someone had thrown it down in frustration; Towser was waddling out of the room, looking offended.
“Mark my words, Kit,” Rush was saying, in a voice that cut like a shard of ice. “You have begun to get very, very comfortable, and that is a mistake. There are thousands of girls back in the slum I took you from who would kill to be where you are today. You have your uses, but you can be replaced.”
Once again, we were off script. This was a lot like being dropped onto the blank page of an atlas and being asked the way to Sweden. I had no clue which way to go. My jaw moved up and down a few times, puppet-style, but nothing came out.
Luckily, Rush didn't leave me hanging for long. She turned away, disgusted, and stalked to the window. My jaw was aching on the right side, and I rubbed the sore spot, wondering what had happened. Did I fall, or did somebody hit me?
Rush parted the curtains with two fingers, just enough to expose a ribbon of the night sky. It was dark dark blue, and for a fleeting instant, I thought that it matched the colour of Eleanor's skirt on the morning I'd met her.
“It's my fault, really,” Rush said at last. “I've spoiled you. You have no idea of the cost of a night's lodging or a pair of shoes, do you? You probably think that money floats down from the sky whenever we run out.”
“ Have we run out?”
Rush's back muscles twitched, but it was Von Hausen, now laboriously picking up the pieces of a shattered wine glass, who answered. “The Rajah isn't pulling in crowds the way it used to.”
“Case in point,” Rush said, turning. “This godforsaken engagement. The Countess has me hopping around like her trained monkey, and I've been putting up with it simply because there was no other booking to be had within a hundred leagues.”
I was finding this conversation very unnerving. “But...our show in Munich, a few weeks back. It went well. You said it went well.”
“It went well. Yes. It was the first time in three months that we made decent numbers and got some reasonable press. I don't suppose that you noticed that, did you, Kit? No, of course not. Why would you? You spend your days snoozing and snacking. Heaven forbid that you give any thought to the fact that we need to work to make a living.”
Now that I thought about it, the buzz from the audience had been softer the past couple of years. Less electricity in the air.
It all made sense. The Rajah had been criss-crossing the continent since 1819. The Turk was even older news- it had played its first game for the Empress of Austria in 1770, sixty-eight years ago. Both machines had had a good run, but the crowds were finally losing interest. No wonder Maelzel had packed up and taken the Turk to America. He needed fresh ground to cover, fresh minds to dazzle and seduce.
Maybe we could take the Rajah to Australia. True, it was a giant prison colony, but even convicts needed entertainment now and then, didn't they?
Rush had turned back to the window, staring angrily out at the blue. “People don't appreciate art. But what can I do about that? I cannot surgically install brains into the heads of people born without them. And it's killing me to break my skull against the rock of their ignorance, day after day after day. No, this can't go on. It's beneath me to keep pandering to the great unwashed masses. It's time to give up the toys, settle down, and get back to some real work.”
“The Countess is a bitch, but she's a bitch with money. And I think I can bargain her up to an almost reasonable price.”
“What do you mean, real work?”
“Sweet Christ, Kit- I mean real work! Feats of intellectual prowess which will win me the acclaim of generations yet unborn! This bloody show business is just a distraction from my calling. I can't even remember the last time I submitted a mathematical paper to a respectable journal. And what about my mechanical experiments? It would only take me a couple of months to finish building that counting machine.”
Von Hausen and I exchanged an involuntary glance. The infamous counting machine was an incredibly complicated contraption of gears and levers and pulleys. According to Rush, it would eventually be able to perform mathematical calculations, but I was fairly sure that was just one of Rush's many fantasies. Every year, Rush proclaimed triumphantly that she was mere days away from perfecting the thing. Every year, she was wrong. Every year, she hurled a few fatally flawed prototypes out the window at Whitebrook, screws and bolts sailing every which way. Every year, she gave up, and spent a week in the blackest possible mood, while Von Hausen and I tried to breathe as quietly as possible.
“It's the road that's the problem,” Rush said, drumming her fingers on the windowsill. “I can't accomplish anything while I'm constantly on the move. Living in filthy hotels, woken up every night by some fat German barkeep thrashing his wife on the floor downstairs. I need a few uninterrupted years at Whitebrook, where I can concentrate. That's what I need.”
Years. Uninterrupted years, at Whitebrook. It was because of Whitebrook that I felt a surge of panic every time I caught a whiff of salty sea air. Spending years there would kill me- or, at least, the parts of me that mattered.
My common sense evaporated. “You can't sell the Rajah.”
“ Can't ?” Rush repeated, unbelieving. “I don't know what's gotten into the two of you this week, but I know that I don't like it. Kit, you are too well-educated to behave like a lunatic. I'm only selling the Rajah itself- the machine part. It's not as if I'll be handing you over to the Countess with a big red bow around your neck.”
“You don't need to sell the Rajah,” I said, backtracking quickly. “I can fix it. I'll find a way to draw the crowds back in. We just need to do something to capture their imagination again- it won't be that hard, people are sheep!”
“And what would you suggest, Kit?” Rush asked wearily. “Do you want me to juggle fire before the performance? Or wear a donkey head?”
I had, in fact, been thinking something along those lines, but since Rush was not about to entertain those options, I cast about for another idea. What had the Rajah never done before?
The idea burst into my head fully formed, so brilliant that it flickered with golden light. I yelped. “ Mouret !”
“Jacques Mouret! The chessmaster! Mouret the not-quite-as-great-or-as-immortal-as-Philidor-but-almost! You wanted the Rajah to face him when we were last in Paris but he wouldn't do it! He sent you a shaved rat! The Rajah should challenge Mouret!”
“And why, exactly, should the Rajah do that?”
“Because, Rush! Except for Philidor, he's the most famous chessmaster of the last century. And Paris is the world capital of chess. Our problem is that we've spent too long out in the backwoods. Paris is where we'll find an audience. A match between Mouret and the Rajah would be a historic event. It's bound to cause excitement. And I know what you'll say, Rush, but I can beat Mouret. I promise I can. I promise I will! If you just agree not to sell-”
There was a terrible brightness in Rush's eyes, but it wasn't anger, for a change. It was something like...amusement.
“Mouret,” she repeated. “The great man of chess, Mouret. Ah, yes. That lord of strategy, that fiery mastermind, he who bestrode France like a Colossus...Kit, Mouret has been dead for the past year.”
The shadows in the room flickered and folded around me like unfriendly shades. “Oh,” I said numbly.
For some reason, that seemed to amuse Rush still more. “What's the matter, Kit?” she asked. “Have you been inconvenienced by Mouret's death? Are you upset because your asinine plan will never come to fruition?”
“Yes,” I said, working against the sudden lump in my throat. “But it's not just that.”
“Oh? What else is bothering you, then? Tell Cousin Rush all.”
I was used to taking a lot from Rush, but not this level of spite. It honestly seemed that she might laugh in my face. I licked my dry lips, trying to collect myself.
“Kit.” Rush could go from amusement to anger in less than a second. “ Kit, you will answer me. ”
I swallowed, and did. “It's just sad. It's always sad when the world loses a genius. It lessens the rest of us.”
I figured that Rush would either agree with this assessment, or become angry for some mysterious reason and sock me on the jaw again. But apparently there was a third option that I hadn't considered. Rush threw her head back and howled with laughter.
It went on and on, while Von Hausen and I sat uncomfortably. Towser was less bothered by the noise- he padded up to Von Hausen and started nosing around in her hands, looking for a biscuit- but she pushed him roughly away.
When Rush finally stopped laughing, she beckoned me nearer. Her hand slid around the back of my neck and gripped.
“Mouret didn't just die,” she told me, in her soft confiding tone. “Mouret decayed . He burnt out his own brain with brandy. He became a senile, drooling wreck. His body fell apart, all sores and wasted skin. His friends pretended that they didn't know him if they saw him begging for pennies on the street. He died alone, in pain and in poverty and idiocy and despair. The world wasn't lessened by his death, Kit. I promise you that. In fact, the average intelligence of humankind increased by some tiny fraction. Why are you making that face ?”
Her fingernails dug in and I flinched. “I was thinking that if I had known he was in trouble, I would have-”
“You would have what? Helped him?” A snort. “You can't even look after yourself. You need full time care and attention from me, just to stay breathing. What makes you think that you can help anyone?”
Behind Rush's back, Von Hausen had her finger pressed against her lips. Shut up, Kit, shut up, Kit, shut up shut up shut up.
I shut up, staring at the brooch pinned to Rush's bodice, inches from my face. It was a British lion, red-faced and scowling.
Rush let me go and I hurried to a far corner where I would be out of reach. Rush whisked a handkerchief from her sleeve and mopped her glistening face. If it was true, as Rush always said, that ladies didn't sweat, she was doing a damn good impression of it, that moment.
“Now, I'm done debating this,” Rush said hoarsely. “In another minute, I have to go and face those harridans yet again. So I am going to summarize and both of you are going to listen. Kit, the official story is that you've fallen ill again- probably because of the absurd amounts of food that the Austrian bitch insisted on feeding you. Tomorrow, you are supposedly being sent to a sanatorium in Switzerland, by railway. Caroline, you will drive the carriage out so that the Austrian bitch can watch from a window and satisfy herself that Kit is gone. The day after that, with Kit in the machine, the Rajah will play a final game so that the Countess can see that it's in working order. We will play late at night so that she will be exhausted by the time it is over. She will presumably install the Rajah somewhere and then flop into to bed like the human pig she is. Wherever she puts the machine, I will come and find it as soon as the coast is clear. I'll extract you, Kit, and we will leave immediately, driving through the night.” She paused. “Is that understood, both of you?”
To answer, or not to answer? I glanced at Von Hausen, whose instincts seemed to be working better than mine that night. She was staring at the floor, so I did the same.
“Fine,” Rush said crisply. “I'll be back at around midnight.”
She moved to the door, but I heard her pause there. “You needn't go to sleep, Kit. I may need you later.”
* * *
Once again, Rush was gone when I woke up the next morning. In spite of that, there was a leaden weight in my belly that made me wonder whether it was even worthwhile to get out of bed. No more Rajah. No more chess. If Rush didn't need me to work the Rajah, then what was the point of me?
In the end, I only got up because I needed so badly to wash.
Von Hausen was nowhere in sight, which was strange, but I supposed that Rush had given her permission to go and ready the carriage. There was a tea-cup of lukewarm oatmeal on the table for my breakfast. I put it on the floor for Towser. His brown velvet lips closed over the mush and made it disappear.
I was curled on the settee, trying to concentrate on a book, when there was a sharp rap at the door.
I knew better than to think it was Rush or Von Hausen. What the hell was Eleanor playing at? Hadn't she been told that I was deathly ill? Why did she always have to complicate things for me?
My first thought was to freeze and hide until she gave up. Then I remembered that she had the room key. Hardly breathing, I sidled up to the door and wedged a chair firmly under the doorknob.
None too soon. The doorknob began to rattle. “Katherine?”
I began to back away, but felt a plank wanting to creak under my foot. I stayed where I was, my own heartbeat sounding loud in my ears.
There was a second's silence, and I began to hope that she had gone- but the damn doorknob rattled again. Now I was getting testy.
“Katherine, I know you're in there!”
“No, I'm not !” I yelled, without thinking. Then I slapped my forehead. Son of a bitch.
There was the briefest of pauses from behind the door, and then: “Well, if you're not in there, could you please let me in so that I can not talk to you?”
“You can not talk to me from where you are,” I pointed out.
“Yes, but I want to not see you as well.”
This was hopeless. I moved the chair away from the door.
Eleanor was dressed for riding, in a short black jacket and a skirt of dark green, and the whirl of air that came into the room with her carried the scent of cut grass and burning leaves. Her hat was off, dangling from her hand, and loose hairs flew in tearaway wisps around her head.
“The weather's perfect,” she said breathlessly. “I've just been all around the park. Have you finished packing?”
“Um.” Rush had not prepared me for this question. “Yes?”
“Good, then you can come out riding with me. You can take Aunt Maria's horse. She almost never rides anymore. There's a breeze blowing, so it isn't too hot, and I'll show you the foxes' den and the place where the church was struck by lightning. Don't make that face. No, don't make that face. I can see that you're about to say no, and I won't have it, do you understand? My mind is made up.”
I let out a frustrated breath. “I can't go riding with you.”
“You can and you shall. I should warn you, I'm not going to let you put me off with silly excuses. You're ill? You don't look like it. Your cousin won't let you go outside? I'll see that she doesn't find out. You don't have a riding costume? Wear what you've got on. You don't know how to ride? I'll lead your horse. You've turned into a werewolf? I'll bring a silver spoon with which to thwack you if you get rowdy. Come on now, Katherine, please! You can't spend a morning like this mouldering indoors. And it's the best place to talk without being overheard.”
I sunk onto the settee- exhausted, suddenly, by Eleanor's breeziness. It was all so simple to her.
“I'm not going to make silly excuses.” I had to grate the words out, because my chest was so tight. “I'm just telling you, I can't go.”
She looked at me with one eye half-closed, as if she was measuring something. Then she sat on the settee, leaving a careful twelve inches of distance between us. “You can, you know. Perhaps you won't, but that's another matter entirely.”
“Don't play games with me.”
“I'm not playing games. I'm deadly serious. You're upset. Will you speak to me?”
I pointed to my mouth. “What do you think I'm doing?”
“I'm talking, aren't I? What more do you expect of me? I met you- what, four days ago? Do you really expect me to pour my heart out to you?”
I said it as harshly as I could, hoping to end the conversation, but Eleanor didn't seem to get the message. Her eyes were grave and almost...pitying.
“I don't expect anything from you,” she said. “Certainly not the truth. Though if you did decide to share the truth, it would come as a pleasant surprise.”
The truth, pleasant? I managed to stop myself from snorting, but it was a very near thing.
“My cousin will be back here soon,” I said instead.
“She's with my aunt. They're still haggling over the price for the Rajah. There's time. Katherine. Please. Don't insult my intelligence. I can tell that you're not precisely jumping for joy at the moment.”
“Oh, well done, very perceptive.”
“I'm doing my best. You're not making this easy.”
Now for some reason, and for the life of me I cannot tell you why, that offhand comment made a surge of anger lick all the way along my spine. I straightened, bristling. “ I am not easy, Eleanor. I am not one of your mysteries . My life is not some kind of puzzle for you to solve!”
Eleanor closed her eyes briefly. “Has it ever occurred to you,” she asked, “that my life might be just as complicated as yours is?”
That time I did snort. “I don't believe that.”
“Perhaps you should try to believe it.” Her hand twitched as though it wanted to reach for mine. Instead, she left it where it was- resting on her green skirt. “Shall we try something, Katherine? Pretend- just for a minute- that I know exactly what you're going through. Pretend that I, of all people, am uniquely well suited to understand.”
“What should I pretend the minute after that? That elephants dance ballet?”
Eleanor's level stare didn't waver. She asked, “Katherine, has your cousin done something to you?”
She didn't know anything about it. She couldn't know anything about it and yet heat flamed across my face and chest and neck and it's a wonder I didn't start howling.
“Has she?” Eleanor asked again, boring in. “Tell me.”
I snapped. “You want to know what she's done? I'll tell you what she's done. Since I was ten years old, she has clothed me, fed me, protected me, and taught me. How many people in her position would have done the same?”
“Don't you ‘Katherine' me! I'm Rush's ward, and there are much worse things I could be. She's never beaten me. She's never neglected me. And she's never abandoned me, which is more than you can say for my parents. When she tells me to do something, how am I supposed to respond? By sulking and stamping my foot? She's sending me away and so I have to go. I'm never going to see you again and a last-minute pony ride can't change that. There, now. There's your precious truth. Was it everything you hoped it would be?”
I flounced up and went to the far side of the room, turning over some books that lay on the table, though my sight was- abruptly- too blurry for me to make out any print. I didn't hear Eleanor get up, or cross the floor, but I felt the warmth of her hand when it came to rest on my shoulder.
I heard the intake of breath, and knew that Eleanor was going to speak. She would try to tell me...something, to convince me of...something, and I couldn't stand to hear it. Could words prevent what was about to happen? Could they dissolve the bloodstone around my neck, make Whitebrook slide into the ocean, undo the past twelve years? In my wretchedness, I drew the robe more tightly around myself. It was only when the fabric brushed past my nose that I realized- I had Rush's smell all over me. And when I realized that, Eleanor's touch on my shoulder became more than I could stand.
The words were low and venomous. They didn't sound like anything that had ever come out of my mouth before.
“Get out, ” I repeated, “get out, please, Eleanor, please, Eleanor, I am begging you, please !”
By the end, I was screaming. It was that or hit her. And I didn't want to hit her, particularly.
I didn't hear footsteps behind me. But by the time I dared to turn and look, she was already gone.
* * *
Then there was nothing to do but wait. I leafed through the book, but didn't read. What was the point? Instead, I curled up on the coach and let my mind drift. The problem was that it kept trying to drift back to Eleanor.
The clock had just chimed three when the door opened and Von Hausen crashed in. She was out of breath, which was strange, but I supposed that Rush had kept her on the jump for most of the day. Still stranger was the way she looked. Her eyelids were jerking as if strings were pulling them in different directions, but there was purpose in her face.
As soon as she shut the door, she began fumbling with the catches of her dress. In about sixty seconds, she was out of her respectable maid's costume and into her coachman's uniform. Then she lumbered towards me.
This I did not like. “Where's Rush?”
“Out,” she said. She stooped down in front of me, resting on one knee. “Give me your right foot.”
I lifted it. Working quickly, she slid a stocking over my bare foot, and then one of Rush's spare boots. She fumbled with the laces, and now I could see how badly her hands were shaking.
“How drunk are you?” I asked, cautiously.
“I'm stone sober. That's the problem. Give me your other foot.”
As she laced up the second boot, I shot a covert glance at the door. Rush was nowhere in sight.
“What's going on?” I asked belatedly. “Why the hurry?”
She didn't answer, but scrubbed her face with a trembling hand. “God help me,” she murmured.
If Von Hausen was sober enough to have the horrors, there was no telling what she had in mind. Carefully, I began to edge away from her. “It's all right. Rush will be here soon. She'll give you something to drink, as long as you don't piss her off.”
Again, no answer. Von Hausen tried to rise but stumbled twice, and eventually she had to grab the mantelpiece to keep upright.
“The cloak, Kit,” she said, once she had regained her footing, more or less. “Get me the cloak.”
The cloak she meant was hanging over the edge of the trunk. It had belonged to an Uncle Gregory, about five gregories back. It was ancient and had a sort of old man pong about it, but the fur lining gave it a reassuring weight. I carried it over.
“Good,” said Von Hausen, and in a quick gesture, she swirled the heavy cloak around me.
“What's going on?” I repeated, pushing back the hood.
Von Hausen flipped her coachman's coat down from its hook. With some difficulty, she began to thread her arms into it. “We're going down to the carriage.”
“Why? I thought that you were supposed to drive out alone while I hid here. That seemed to be Rush's plan.”
“She changed her mind.”
“Rush doesn't change her mind.”
“I'm telling you that she did. Don't you trust me?”
I raised one eyebrow.
“Stupid question,” Von Hausen admitted, after a moment's pause. “Let me put this differently.”
I was standing halfway across the room from her, but Von Hausen had long, long arms. She reached over, grabbed my elbow, and yanked me so close that I felt hot breath on both cheeks.
“Do as I say or I'll break your legs,” she said tersely. “Is that better?”
I wiped a few drops of spittle off of my face. “Oddly enough? Yes. This is reassuringly familiar.”
* * *
I held my breath as we descended the back stairs, listening for creaks and moans from the rafters overhead, but the ghosts were silent that day.
“They say ghosts are dead people who can't let go,” I informed Von Hausen.
“They say they say they say.” She was tromping down the stairs behind me, each step a heavy plod.
“You're the one who said it was a ghost screaming in the attic.”
“Since when have you listened to anything I had to say?”
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Why the hell would you ask me that? No.”
“What about demons?”
I didn't expect her to answer, but after three more heavy footfalls, she did. “I believe in Rush.”
Three more steps, and she added, “I wouldn't actually break your legs, you know.”
I glanced back at her, wondering how I was supposed to respond to that. Thanks. I wouldn't break yours either. But before I could open my mouth, I saw the lump at the side of her belt, half-hidden by her coat.
It was the wooden butt of a pistol. Von Hausen had Rush's flintlock tucked into her trousers.
I made a noise then. Something like a squeak.
Von Hausen's big hand closed around my shoulder and pushed me forward. “Keep moving.”
I moved, but as I moved, I peeked over my shoulder, trying to keep her in view. “If you kill me, then Rush will crucify you. I mean it. She'll nail you to a tree. It'll take you three days to die and she'll watch the whole time.”
An exasperated exhale. “I'm not going to kill you, moron.”
“So what are you planning to shoot? The horses?”
“Maybe nothing. This is just in case.”
“Just in case what ?”
“None of your business. Put up your hood.”
When Von Hausen was lurking behind me with a pistol, the last thing I wanted was something covering my ears. I hesitated, until Von Hausen swore under her breath, seized the cloak's hood and jerked it over my head.
We had reached the bottom of the stairs. I expected her to pause, to give me some instructions, but she threw her weight against the wooden door and barged into the stable yard without breaking stride. While I wavered at the threshold, one of her long arms snaked back in, caught my hand and gave it a yank.
I stumbled out into the open air, and the attack hit right on cue. My chest went into spasms, my lungs wheezing like a pair of broken bellows. If Von Hausen noticed, she paid no attention. She stalked purposefully across the yard, dragging me behind her, until we reached the carriage house.
It was dark in there. That helped. So did the solid walls surrounding me, and so did the weight of Uncle Gregory's cloak. By the time we reached Rush's black coach, I was breathing almost normally.
Von Hausen threw open the door. “Get in there, get down under the bench, and stay quiet. I'll be back in a minute with the horses.”
I looked blankly into the dark belly of the coach, then back at her. “I don't understand.”
“Just do as I say, Kit.” Was she pleading? “Get inside and wait for me.”
“But Rush said-”
“ I DO NOT FUCKING CARE WHAT THAT BITCH SAID! ”
The words erupted from her as if she had spent an entire decade holding them back- which, I suppose, she had. And she seemed astonished that she had finally given voice to them. Her eyes grew wild, almost desperate.
“Get inside,” she repeated, much more quietly and much more quickly. “Please. Kit, please. This is the best chance we're ever going to get.”
I stared at her. “The best chance…”
I wish that Von Hausen had told me earlier what she was planning. At the very least, that would have given me a chance to wrap my mind around the idea. Failing that, she should have bashed me on the back of the skull, stuffed me in my box, and dragged my unconscious body to the coach without bothering to ask my permission. Instead, she let the truth hit me with a literal wallop when things were already well underway.
Now, today, after all these years- we were trying to escape.
Of course, the inevitable happened as soon as realization struck. I doubled over, my head reeling and my lungs shriveling to the size of dried figs, and began to gasp for air.
“Oh God, not now !”
It was a cry from the heart if I'd ever heard one, but Von Hausen didn't waste time trying to reason with me. She seized me by an elbow and an ankle and all but threw me into the coach. My jaw hit the boards with a juddering crack. I barely felt it.
No air, no air, no air, no air…
Von Hausen's blurry form was at my side. “Hell. Damn. Fuck. Fine. Don't bite your own tongue off, you hear me? I'll be back with the horses in a minute.”
“Please. Take your time.”
Von Hausen whirled around at that quiet remark, and I squinted through watering eyes. There was Rush, a deep velvet shadow in the murk of the coach house. Her gaze was distant, as if she was looking at something very far away.
“Take your time,” Rush repeated. “Kit and I can find something to do. We always manage to entertain each other. Don't we, pet?”
“Back away,” Von Hausen said hoarsely. “I'm warning you.”
“Oh, Caroline, really. Threats? Threats are so crude. You can do better.” And then Rush's eyes flicked to me. “Sit up, Kit.”
My heart was hammering so hard that it felt like a series of tiny cannons were exploding in my ears. Still, I didn't even think of disobeying. Somehow I dragged myself onto the coach seat.
“Sit on your hands.”
I did, sandwiching my hands between my body and the cushioned bench, letting my full weight rest on them.
“Cross your ankles.”
I did, pressing them tightly into each other, as if Rush had clamped manacles around them.
Now that I'd followed Rush's directions, now that my body was back under control, I felt a little less like I was coming apart. The iron bands around my chest loosened, just enough for me to take a long, strangled gulp of air.
“Good,” Rush murmured approvingly. “That should hold you for a little while. As soon as I'm done with Caroline, I'll take you back to our room.”
Von Hausen had been standing as if paralyzed, but now she found her voice again. “I won't let you touch her.”
One neatly shaped eyebrow arched upwards. “Caroline. You've beaten that girl bloody more times than I can count. Isn't it a bit late in the game for you to play the white knight?”
Von Hausen's lips drew back, baring her teeth. Still, she didn't flinch. “I don't need to be a saint to get her away from you. ”
“Really. Well. What's your cunning plan? Are you going to swill a barrel of beer in under a minute and vomit on my shoes until I surrender? Or do you intend to pass out and snore me into submission?” Rush clucked sadly. “You're a sad case, Caroline. It really does pain me to see you brought so low. I wish that you'd never been introduced to the bottle.”
Von Hausen's eyes stabbed. “Then you shouldn't have started to give me brandy when I was twelve.”
Rush shrugged, admitting it. “At the time, I thought that I had to do something to stop you from crying. In retrospect, I suppose that I should just have put up with the crying. You'll note that I didn't make the same mistake with Kit.”
“No. You found another way to cripple Kit.”
“I didn't cripple her. I taught her not to run- that's all. Unlike you, Caroline, Kit is not a fool. She learned that lesson. Better yet, her body learned it.”
I was barely able to follow all of this. Their words lobbed back and forth above my head like juggling balls. What I did understand was this: if I stayed perfectly, perfectly still, and said nothing, and barely breathed, there was just a chance that I wouldn't split into a million pieces.
“One last chance, Caroline,” Rush was saying. “Be sensible, and we might be able to work something out. I'm really rather fond of you, you know.”
“ Be sensible .” Von Hausen spat out the words. “You mean you want me to get down on all fours and lick your boots.”
“I mean that I need you to behave,” Rush clarified. “Licking is optional.”
“I'm not your damn dog.”
An icy smile from Rush. “You are a little bit. On your good days, anyway.”
“This is not one of my good days.”
A jerk of her arm and a twitch of her coat, and now Von Hausen had the flintlock pistol clasped in her fist. She held it in firing position, level with her eyes, though her hand was shaking, now, worse than ever.
Rush raised both eyebrows briefly. “You don't have much experience coming up with cunning plans, do you? It shows.”
“You want a plan?” Von Hausen cocked back the hammer. “Here's the plan. I stick the muzzle of the pistol to the back of your throat. I fire. I watch your head break in pieces like a rotten melon. I let the horses trample your corpse. I grab Kit by the scruff of the neck and get the hell out of here. Sounds fine to me. Sounds fun.”
“Caroline, Caroline.” Rush clucked sadly. “Think this through. Let's say you kill me, and you steal my carriage, and Kit, and the money-bag, and everything else I own. How far do think you'll get? With coin in your pocket, you'll get sucked through the first tavern door you see, and they'll throw your sodden corpse out the back a week later.”
In spite of Von Hausen's shaking hand, the pistol stayed level. “Whatever happens, I'll be away from you. That's far enough.”
“A limited ambition, wouldn't you say?”
“You always told me that it was important to have goals.”
“After all the wise and profound things I've told you over the years, that's all you remember?”
Von Hausen let out one of her barking laughs. “You don't understand, Rush. I remember everything that's happened between us. Everything. ”
And then her trigger finger jerked.
I was braced for a bang, and a scream, and the thud of a carcass hitting the ground. What I heard instead was a metallic click.
Startled, Von Hausen glanced at the flintlock. The hammer had snapped down, hitting the frizzen, but there was no blaze of igniting gunpowder, no bullet roaring from the muzzle.
A faint smile was playing around the edges of Rush's face.
Muttering something under her breath that could have been either a curse or a prayer, Von Hausen cocked the hammer back again and slammed the trigger. Once again, there was a hollow, final-sounding click. And nothing more.
“Here's the thing about flintlock pistols,” Rush said conversationally. “It's quite easy to sabotage them. All you need to do is replace the flint in the hammer with a plug of hard wood. Then they're impossible to fire. No flint, no spark.”
Von Hausen spoke thickly: “The gun doesn't work…”
“It's never worked. I took it apart and disabled it the very same day that I bought it. Honestly, Caroline. I have young girls in my care. It would be far too dangerous to keep a working pistol in my luggage. Anyway, a broken pistol is just as useful. A broken flintlock is all you need to frighten fools and cowards- and you, my Caroline, are a fool and a coward both. I've been wondering how long it would take you to muster up the courage to steal my gun. I'm impressed that you worked yourself around to it at last. But, as you can see, you would have been better off trying to hit me with a rock.”
Von Hausen lowered the pistol, still gripping it hard, as if it were a club. “It's not too late for that.”
“Oh, it's far too late for that.”
Rush had been standing perfectly still throughout their exchange. Now she took a step forwards, and now Von Hausen did flinch. Every muscle in her body was shaking hard, in trembles that looked like spasms.
Rush's bony hand reached out and gently, gently, closed around the flintlock. “Let go,” she said.
Von Hausen didn't answer. I wouldn't have known how to answer myself.
“Let go,” Rush repeated. It was her most soothing, comforting tone, the one she normally used on me. “This is senseless. You know it's senseless.”
Von Hausen's chest moved up and down, and a long, rattling sigh emerged. Her fingers must have loosened, because Rush easily pulled the gun away.
She nodded. “Good girl,” she said.
Then, without warning, Rush's arm whipped around. She didn't just slap Von Hausen- she smashed her across the face with the wooden butt of the pistol. Von Hausen staggered, and fell hard on one knee. She didn't scream, and somehow that made it worse. After a second, her shaggy head turned, and those yellow-stained eyes met mine. The astonishing thing was that she almost smiled, though a skinny rope of blood was trickling down from her nose.
“I'm sorry,” I heard. For a second I didn't know whether I had said it, or Von Hausen, but it was her mouth that was open.
I had spent twelve years hating Von Hausen. Now, all at once, there were a thousand things I wanted to unsay, twelve years' worth of insults and jeers and venom. I hadn't forgotten everything that she had done to me, but it no longer seemed to matter who had been dealing out the blows and who had been taking them. In that second, I found it impossible to tell where Von Hausen ended, and where I began.
“Head up, Caroline,” Rush said. “Look at me.”
Von Hausen didn't seem to hear. Her eyes stayed where they were- trained on my face, studying it as though she was memorizing it.
I couldn't move, couldn't speak; I didn't have permission and I didn't have the strength. But a thrill of horror was slicing slowly up my spine like a scalpel blade. Every atom in me was screaming at Von Hausen: Run!
Perhaps, in some way, she heard me, because her smile became wider, and just a little wistful. “It was worth a try,” she said, as if in answer to some question I hadn't asked.
“Head up, Caroline,” Rush said, her tone growing shrill.
“Do both us a favour, Rush,” Von Hausen said, and now her voice was very calm. “Fuck yourself, for a change.”
Now I saw what happened next. I saw Rush drop the flintlock, saw her hand flash to her side and take something in a firm grip. Von Hausen wasn't watching, so perhaps she didn't see, but Von Hausen was, in spite of everything, a very fine chess player. She must have been able to predict what Rush's next move would be. So why did she wait there, resting on one knee, and holding my gaze? Was she accepting her fate, embracing it? Or was she just tired?
Rush's hand slashed sideways- a swift, purposeful stroke. There was a sound like the tearing of thick paper.
And then beads of red blossomed across Von Hausen's throat, in a neat line, as if she had wrapped a ribbon around her neck. Her face twitched. Her lips parted. The blood began to pulse more thickly, and the red ribbon became a streaming red cravat. She let out a cough, and a bubble of blood sputtered from the wound.
Strange that such a big, messy woman could fall so quietly. She slumped forward, almost to the ground. Rush dropped her spring-loaded knife beside the flintlock, breathing hard, and whipped a handkerchief from her sleeve. She stooped down next to Von Hausen, got a good grip on her sandy hair, and pulled her head up enough to expose her face. Then she clapped the handkerchief in place, over Von Hausen's nose and mouth.
The murder, like everything else Rush did, was quick and efficient. Von Hausen's legs gave a few spasmodic jerks, but in a matter of seconds, they grew still. Rush stood up, panting, with a look of grim satisfaction. There was a horse-blanket nearby, crumpled on the ground, and Rush whisked it over the dripping body.
I was still sitting on my hands. Far too late, it occurred to me to wonder why I was still sitting on my hands.
There was very little time for quiet reflection, because Rush immediately strode up the steps into the coach. “Did she hurt you?” she demanded.
I shook my head. It was all I could do. The carriage house reeked of blood and iron, and something earthier too- the sour dung smell of a corpse. I wanted to wash in scalding water.
The head shake didn't satisfy Rush. She took my chin in a firm grip and turned me to the left and right, inspecting both sides. At last, she nodded, relieved. “No harm done.”
It was a funny comment to make, considering the circumstances, but Rush had her priorities.
Her hands came around my wrists, and clasped them tightly. Ordinarily, she would have tied my hands at a moment like this. I suppose that she had forgotten the leather strap. She must have come out in a hurry.
“Let's get you back inside,” she said.
* * *
Back in the blue room, Rush poured a careful measure of wine, shook three drops into it from an unlabelled bottle, and stood over me as I drank the dose.
“Better?” she asked. “Good. Lie down. You'll sleep. I'm going to have to leave you alone, I'm afraid, but you should be safe with all the doors locked. I need to hire someone to deal with…it.”
It, meaning Caroline Von Hausen. Meaning the corpse that was leaking all over the stable floor, like a punctured sack of wine, spilling its dregs. I licked my lips and willed my voice to work. “ Can you hire someone to deal with that?”
“Oh, Kit, you benighted innocent.” She smiled- tired but fond. “This is Vienna. You can hire someone to abduct the Pope or dress up like a monkey, as long as you know where to go.”
“Did you win Von Hausen in a game of cards?”
The question just popped out of me, and I regretted it instantly. It was something I had often wondered about, but it sounded stupid when said out loud. Rush gave a faint chuckle.
“Well,” she said. “Not exactly. I got her when she was young, though. Much like you. She had talents. I wanted to give her the chance to develop them.”
“But… why ?”
Rush touched my head, smoothing my hair back. Then she did it again- and again- and again. It was as if she couldn't stop. Perhaps she couldn't.
“You know,” she said, “there are people who can stare at a landscape or a painting or a machine or a woman and simply be happy that it exists in the world. They don't need to touch it, don't need to control it, don't need to…have it. I was never that way. If I see something wonderful, I need to look after it myself. Preserve it. I can't allow it to be taken over and ruined by people who wouldn't understand. I'm overprotective, I suppose. Surely that isn't a crime.”
“No,” I agreed. What else was I going to say?
She stared off at nothing, her hand still mechanically stroking my head. “But not even I can do much about it if someone decides to let herself decompose. You'd scarcely believe it, but Caroline was something back in the day. I wouldn't have acquired her otherwise. And yet somehow, in a few short years, she transformed from a luminous little thing into a hulking, boorish, overgrown sot. The metamorphosis was practically complete by the time I got you. And then she became jealous. You shouldn't blame yourself for that. You needed more attention. You deserved more attention. She just couldn't cope.”
I pressed my eyes shut. Even now, I didn't have illusions about Von Hausen, but I knew it wasn't jealousy that made her drag me out to the stable yard. I didn't have a name for the emotion that I'd seen in those bloodshot eyes. I only knew that in that last hour, I had meant more to her than a bottle of schnapps, and that was saying a lot.
Rush let out a long sigh. “This kind of unpleasantness always makes one feel that the world is a little less bright than one had hoped. Still what's done is done and the important thing is that nothing happened to you . Your attack seems to be over. Are you still in pain? Can you breathe?” She lowered a hand to my chest- to check the rise and fall of my lungs, I think, but with Rush you could never be sure. And her hand was moving around more than was really necessary for a medical examination. I stared at the join between the wall and the ceiling until she was finished.
It was several minutes before she rose. “I really must go and deal with the damn thing. Corpse disposal is not a task that you can put off to a future date. Remember that, Kit. Words to live by. Lie down.”
I did and she drew a blanket over me, right up to my chin. “Sleep. I may be a little bit late coming to feed you tonight.”
“Yes, what is it?”
“You wouldn't…replace me. Would you?”
She sighed, loud and long. “Oh, Kit. Don't tell me that you're still sulking because of what I said last night. I didn't mean it, you ridiculous girl.”
All my thoughts had turned into crosshatch sketches in red and black ink. The little folder of newspaper clippings; the corpse on the carriage house floor; a garnet on a new silver chain, cupped in Von Hausen's calloused hands. Those images all added up to something- something that I wasn't yet ready to acknowledge or admit.
Rush gave my hair a last fond stroke. “Are you fishing for compliments? Here's one, then. I couldn't replace you if I wanted to. You're a unique artifact. Go to sleep.”
The door swung shut, the bolt was drawn across, the key clicked in the lock, and I was left alone, in defiance of the all-important Rule Twelve and the entire Kensington System. I was getting foggy, probably from the whatever-it-was that Rush had made me drink. Still, I thrashed free of the blankets and sat up, biting my fist.
It was like a second loss of innocence, finding out how well and how easily Rush could kill. I had thought that I knew everything about her, even her perversions. Especially her perversions. And there was comfort in that. However bad our life together had been, at least she wasn't able to surprise me anymore.
Now she had demonstrated that she was still perfectly capable of surprising me. The rules of the world I lived in had been twisted backwards and I was left to wonder whether I could still count on things like tides and gravity.
There was a snuffling sound in the dark room, and a padding noise. Towser's cold nose bumped against my hand.
I scratched the bull mastiff's ears, trying to decide what to tell him. Should I break the news about Von Hausen right away, or stall for as long as possible? Towser had the right to know, but there was no sense in both of us being depressed tonight.
He butted my hand hard, and gave a whine.
That settled it. He was going to be crushed when he found out, and I didn't have the heart to tell him yet. After a lot of coaxing and petting, I managed to convince him to make a short, ungainly leap up onto the coach. He overbalanced and almost fell backwards, but I grabbed him just in time, pulled so hard my eyes popped, and managed to heave him to safety.
He nosed in my armpits for a while and seemed annoyed that I wasn't hiding Von Hausen in one or the other of them, but eventually, with a rather poor grace, he lay down on the cushions at my side. I circled one arm around his rolling bulk, and closed my eyes.
Even if Rush hadn't given me that drink, I would have fallen asleep easily. I always do, no matter what's going on. It's a very important skill for a person in my position. Sleeping is the best way to make time go faster, and if you don't have that to resort to, then you have a problem.
Dreams are another matter entirely. I've never been able to control my dreaming.
On this particular occasion, I dreamt that I was slogging through a sewer tunnel somewhere deep underground, with a nasty, liquid slurry churning around my feet. There was no light down there except the glow that came from my eyes- which were bright orange-yellow, and cast a little glimmer in the gloom. Things were bobbing in the sewage that I didn't want to look at too closely, and I tried to splash quickly past, but my feet kept getting caught on things below the waterline. More worrying still, the bloodstone around my neck seemed to be growing heavier and heavier, bowing my body, bringing me closer and closer to the muck. And when the weight of it bent me all the way over, so I was close enough to kiss my own reflection in the foul water, what I saw rippling there was Von Hausen's desperate face.To be concluded in Part 7: The Eighth Square
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