The amethyst room had been destroyed. He would never forgive her. With an increasing ferocity, she dragged the brush against the carpet, but the stain clung to the fibers for the red tide would not abate. It crept forth from the darkness around her; pooling about her shirts and blackening her hands—
At once, she awakened. The silence belied his presence. She swung, braced by the fetters that bit into her wrists, as good as headless. Bearing all her weight, her arms were benumbed. Her toes clawed for earth, striking stone; stirring straw. Soon the sway deepened, and the suspension bawled. It roused the midges that had settled about her face. They circled back now, climbing her nostrils and eating their way into her ears.
It seemed hours since he had last said anything. She thought perhaps he had escaped into the cooler quarters of the building and left her alone; chambered by flame. Cooked liked a skewered swine. There was no air. There hadn’t been for a while. Only the flicker of a torch ahead, which she watched behind the blindfold—afraid to blink, afraid to think of God.
The thunder made the fires leap. Men assembled about her once more and spoke gravely of her condition. She was grateful to be hooded, hidden from the snarling shadows and those who reviled her. They were as the guards in the anterior of the building who prodded vaults of men day in and day out. Prisoners who barked in a confusion of tongues, their slops flooding the flags. She recalled little of those moments before her sight had been occluded—only the men and the smells. And the fleet of dripping tables that filled the room, vanishing at its far ends into gloom.
“Must another hour be endured?” the inquisitor asked. “Must another sun set on you in this place?”
“In all likelihood.”
“Pray, what has driven you to such an end?”
“Let me be…” was her fevered reply. “How…might men abide such darkness…which even a hundred fires could not illume? Do not suffer me to abide such darkness—”
“Do not stray.”
“Might I know what day it is?”
“It needn’t matter. These things no longer concern you. Better to answer the question you were raised. What has driven you to such folly?”
“Him, you say?”
“What have others to do with your predicament?”
“None would hear me. They have driven me to act on my own behalf.”
“Speak plainly. What hand had you in this treachery?”
“The only hand…”
“To what purpose?”
(5 Years Earlier)
North American Territory
West of Quebec
The water was too hot, but she sat in it and stewed. The elderly woman who had been called from the kitchens to oversee the bath took care to pin the flurry of dark hair into a knot at the crown of her head, before wringing a scorching sponge down her back. Wincing, the girl rose from the tub, but her aunt’s hand landed on her shoulder and commanded she remain. Glancing at the dispietous woman, she mustered a smile, however, when the gesture was not returned, she hunkered in the tub and shut her eyes.
They called her Ember and occasionally her father’s surname, Durand, which she detested. Apart from the intended epithet, which likened her to a man generally held in disfavor, the latter struck a nerve and to answer to it had become her aversion. He had never been more than a stranger. One whose likeness besieged the house in august paintings, overlooking her childhood with loathing. Men were queer and irksome creatures in her experience. That she had not known him made her glad, and she couldn’t understand why anyone alleged she shared his blood or ought to bear his name.
“Stop fidgeting,” her aunt said. “The floors are drenched and likely to rot.”
“Forgive me, madam.”
This was her father’s sister. It had not taken long to realize the family’s appearance was at variance with her own. The siblings were white with pale hair and pale eyes. The girl’s coloring, however, was decidedly indigenous, and she had been made to understand this was a frustration for the family. Her unique appearance was owing in part to her mother, a girl of indigenous and African descent. She had left her mark on the world in the form of a small babe found in a port some fifteen years ago. No more than thirteen herself, the girl had perished giving birth. The child was now older than the mother had ever been.
“Good, Durand,” someone said when she began cleaning her own nails. Her aunt couldn’t stomach the state of her nails, which she chewed without remit.
The toilette dragged on until her flesh wrinkled. As a rule, the last time she had been afforded a bath this thorough was a few months ago when her aunt invited new acquaintances to dine with them. A portly widow and her daughters who’d recently come into a small fortune following her husband’s death onboard a ship bound for The Netherlands. He was a pharmacist researching a breakthrough treatment for smallpox. The widow could barely fit through the doorframe and had made the dining room seem tiny with her girth and voluminous skirts.
For the first time in what seemed forever, the large old home was warmed with the anticipation of company and merriment. Ember was made to look presentable to tend the table with the help of the only other free hand on the property, Molly Dupree, who had been called away from the scullery. Neither girl proved fit for the task, and despite the instruction of the caviling housekeeper, the night was deemed a failure and Molly Dupree an utter dimwit.
Today, however, the toilette had been granted for they sought to present her to the most well-regarded fur-trapper in the district. Fritz Werner. He was an affluent German of mounting prospects, who planned to depart on an expedition into the tundra soon, and it was expected that Ember should be the only young girl staking claims on his heart at that time.
“Has he any pets?” she asked, shifting in the tub.
“Need it matter?” the aunt replied, watching the canting treetops from the bedroom window. The only prevalent sight for miles.
“Well, I should not like to be alone with him forever. I shall grow impatient of his company, no doubt, and pets will become indispensable to my survival.”
“Don’t be so theatric,” the woman scoffed. “Furthermore, you shall cease with all such indelicate expressions of impatience. What vulgarity. You have never met the man to determine whether you should grow bored of his company or not.”
“Neither can you be certain I should not—”
“You are determined to be difficult.”
“I should like nothing more,” she muttered, turning to the woman with a crooked smile.
“You’re going to be a woeful little wife, aren’t’ you?” the housekeeper remarked.
“In all likelihood.” The room laughed.
Weeks ago, she had been instructed to woo him, despite having no true understanding of the art, nor what the outcome should entail. Upon receiving her assignment, she had at first felt aimless, accepting the instructions with all the rue of a death sentence.
In the days prior to the presentation, three lovely gowns had been foraged from storage, and she was to choose from among them for the occasion. Her aunt seemed scornful when she had chosen the teal satin. Perhaps because it held memories she longed for the girl not to taint, or others she longed for the girl never to experience.
As the bath cooled, the women washed her hair and she watched the daylight shift behind the shutters of the small window, wondering how the world might receive her. It had never seen her clothed with such sophistication. A high-waisted frock with beaded bodice and matching cap, and she hoped the roads would not conspire to leave her covered in dust before she reached her destination. Most days she counted herself fortunate if her hem was not encrusted knee-deep with mud and leaf-litter from her journeys to Mr. Bryant’s home. There, preparing for him both breakfast and supper in the absence of his late wife, an arrangement her aunt consigned her to at the tender age of nine to settle mercantile debts.
Lucian Bryant was the proprietor of the district’s largest market and had looked after the Durand family since the death of its patriarch. It would have taken a sizable fortune to eliminate the generational debt, or a lifetime of indentured servitude. Now, not a day passed that Ember did not report to Mr. Bryant’s home in her worn apron and splintering boots to scrub his floors and empty his slops.
“Almost done, Durand,” someone said.
Jasmine and rosewater played havoc in the air, as the bottles had been opened in preparation for use. Someone sang and she joined them until the verse escaped her. Something about a deterred romance and a great war. Something about broken promises and a seafaring lover.
“Stand,” they said. The women dried her amber flesh with towels until it grew flushed and dewy. Later they took pumice stones to her feet and in the end doused her with fragranced oils. By the time her hair was coiffured and the gown and gemstones set into place, Ember could not identify the girl in the looking glass.
One Month Later
On the way to alert him, she sensed his routine; his movements stiffened with infirmity. He had spent his dotage mounted in that horrible chair, haloed by the light from the principal casement.
“Will that be all, my lord?” she asked, knocking at the open threshold to the study. An inquiry voiced daily since time immemorable. Lucian Bryant glanced up from scribbling and removed his spectacles.
“Very well,” he said, watching the girl wring her hands. Then he drank his warm water and decoctions.
“Must you lurk? You’ve the look of a dog about you.”
“Forgive me, sir,” she entered, exposing herself to his faultfinding.
“Warm, my lord, and awaiting your earliest convenience.”
“Very well,” he repeated, inclining his spotted head.
The girl bobbed and started away, skirts spinning in her haste.
“I’ve not kept you long, as it were!”
Halfway home through the forests, Ember raced the waning light until an approaching cart gave her pause. Darting into the ferns, she hunkered to await the passing of the two women and a skittish mule. Soon the procession groaned to a halt and one of the two alighted. The moment Ember rose to her full height, a palm cracked across her cheek.
“Parasite!” the woman barked, grabbing the girl by the collar. “You impudent little parasite! You are determined to suck the life out of me! I’ve given you all I have! What the devil could have possessed you?!”
When Ember could do nothing but sputter, her aunt’s eyes turned to slits.
“You have brought this entirely upon yourself! I have no more pity for you! And no more alternatives!”
She yanked the girl by the collar towards the cart, and the ride home was overlong—the company as silent as the grave.
“Hold still, Ember! Quit your fidgeting!” the housekeeper said, setting a creased hand to the girl’s knee.
She sat wedged between the two, on a seat so brutalizing she yearned to walk. Her aunt stiffened, so she wiggled about to deepen her consternation. Alas, she was a stern woman of uncertain affection. She had an uncreased face, for she never smiled. And she always seemed to bear the weight of the world on her shoulders, yet managed to sit and walk ramrod straight. Her icy blonde hair matched her icy demeanor, but somehow did not match the gentle grey eyes. The girl considered herself blessed whenever they landed upon her.
Often told she had acquired her father’s deceit and little of his looks, Ember endeavored to be nothing like him; as the prejudices his name had heaped upon her from birth were untold. Yet in ignorance of all concerning the man—apart from the boyhood portraits and the listless gaze—she was powerless to avoid mirroring him, and therefore upsetting her aunt.
“People hate to see us coming,” the housekeeper remarked, kissing her teeth. “You’ve given them much to occupy their pens, and their tongues.”
“Those confounded gossips loathed us long befor—”
“Don’t,” her aunt said sternly. She rested her head on the woman’s shoulder.
“Where did you even go?”
“East…” the housekeeper said. “Seeking reconciliation.”
Ahead, the sun quaked, suffusing the forest. The day seemed to lie down in resignation, and the larches loomed; aquiver with creatures. Blond needles rained and confused the lanes entirely. Stirred by the winds, they formed a shroud that fell continually. But the travelers knew the routes like the palms of their hands and the dips along the bottoms of their teeth. They stuck to the homeward stream and allowed the golden corridors to guide them, even through the night.
They entered the parlor and lit the lamps and the aunt retired. The room was drear and spotless, smelling strongly of pine oil and damp linen. The housekeeper delivered tea and joined the girl upon the settee near the fire. She was an eagle-eyed old scold who disparaged behavior in others she was prone to herself. Out of habit, she watched the girl overlong and marked her every move. Ember nursed her drink and commented occasionally on the prints in the China.
“In observance of what is commonly decent…” the woman began. “You shall wed Lucian Bryant and endeavor to please him. You are to make a life for yourself in his care—”
“Madam?!” Ember sprang to her feet, tea sloshing from the cup.
“You shall not contradict me.”
“But, madam, he is vile!”
“He is ill. When the time arrives, you are to bury him, collect his belongings, and return home.”
“Not again! I will not be betrothed again! Surely by now you only mean to put me out of humor?!”
“Indeed not. I would not jest of such things. He is not well, Ember. Rejoice. There is little likelihood he holds…expectations.”
“Yearnings. To lay with you. To touch you—”
“He touches me already!”
“Then you ought to be quite prepared for whatever intimacies he may bear in mind,” the woman hemmed, setting a hand to her high collar, then to the coiled braid at her nape.
“Am I to allow him to wheeze and shudder atop me?! Like some animal?! I’ve told you: I want nothing of this wifehood! I am not an old woman!” She slammed the cup onto the table and the tea burned her hand.
“We are all old here. It is a drear place…”
“Not I! And I do not wish to marry! Ever!”
“Be pleased to marry, Ember. To be sure, it is the very object of your womanhood.”
The girl quavered, sitting again when her knees grew weak.
“This is unaccountable…he despises me! And he has already murdered his first wife!”
“You will not publicize such ludicrous falsehoods. Suppose they somehow got back to the man?”
Ember clenched her fists then flexed the hand used routinely for chopping; trembling digits that shot pains into her wrists and through to her elbow. She remembered earlier setting the knife away and submerging her hands into the basin. As usual sunset had shone through the window and alerted her to time of day. She had dried those hands upon the hem of her apron and arrayed the meal onto wormy wood worn with decades of identical placements. Afterwards, she had gone to fetch him as she had every day for six years. Forasmuch as this, her childhood had abounded in lessons of domesticity and little in the way of a formal education. In truth, she was only fit to serve.
And now? Having travelled home through the familiar aisles where birds clamored and flitted away at their passing—now she was to marry her employer? To be alone with him for good? He was five times her age; far older than her previous two arranged suitors combined—
The housekeeper snapped her fingers before the girl’s face.
“Forgive me, madam,” Ember said, eyes welling with dread.
“How did you offend him?”
“The fur-trapper? Well…something about him repels me. Perhaps his mustache, which was filled with spittle. Or his slow, susuratting speech. He reminds me of a snake somehow. There is something oily in his manner—”
“He is the governor—”
“Self–appointed! It means naught!”
“Even so, who might defy him? With men of his rank, one must look past the perceived flaws and recognize the advantage inherent in this union. A self-important bore he may be, but here he is as good as king.”
“He is a devil.”
“He showed interest in you.”
“Because he wants to skin me like one of his beasts! Upon my word, he exhorted me to spin about and saunter back and forth until I positively thought I’d scream! And my aunt did little to deter his advances….”
“I’ve heard the story quite differently—”
“I believe I said awful things to him once we were out of earshot of the others,” she confessed. “Whatever came to mind, really. I had grown quite crazed in my desperation. When my aunt left us, his conduct was forward. He took a lock of my hair, you see.” She showed the shortened lock near her ear, and her lids fluttered. “It must’ve triggered some mayhem in me. And I may have intimated that if he forced me to wed, I would do awful things to him in his sleep.”
“You are impossible.” They laughed.
“Aye,” the girl quieted, staring ahead with the resignation of the grave.
“You are determined to be bleak.”
“No, madam. But for a time, it is all my heart will admit of.” Then she whispered: “Lucian Bryant? Really?”
“He is our final resort. We are nearly bankrupt, my pet, and will barely survive the winter—”
“I dread to think of what the coming months will cost us.” She set a few fingertips to her lips. “The China will be the first to go. Then more of the help. Soon I’ll be the only one left, apart from her ladyship.” She glanced to the girl and patted her hand. “Now…as the most fitting and promising member of this household, if falls to you to rescue us all. This predicament may for a while seem callous and exact, but all hope is not lost. Endeavor to please him, and you will be rewarded. Acquiescence is the order of the day, my pet. It is a timeworn strategy to pleasing any man,” she smirked. “And do not let your gaze be overly direct—he may take it as an affront. You in all your state can be quite intimidating.”
“I doubt it.”
“Feed him well—that will breed contentment of the deepest measure.” The girl’s brows drew together, but she remained silent. “Never challenge him and he will befriend you—”
“Or he shall tread upon me! Forgive me, madam…but to be weak-willed and agreeable is an abject condition. There is nothing to be gained and nothing shall ever change for he shall always desire that I remain this way. And as for me, I will lose more than just a lock of hair this time. I will forget everything I know of myself!”
“Ah, but to forget oneself is the beginning of altruism. A worthy aspiration.”
Days later, Ember awakened to blackness. The hood remained and her breath was hot and shallow beneath it. Someone carried her. Someone rapped upon a door. Someone answered. The last to register was the pain that tracked along her back. The arm that held her pressed these wounds, rendering the agony so acute she was sure to swoon.
When the officer sensed the movement in his arms, he set her onto bare feet. She doubled over, inhaling the reek of smoke and mud. A footman answered the study door, receiving as great a start as misfortune had ever granted him. Faltering, he watched the two officers and the filthy thing that accompanied them.
The Duke, who had before now loomed idly over the hearth, approached. His gaze leveled upon the nearest man, and when the officer was not swift in his account, he demanded,
“What the devil disturbs me?”
“Another, your Grace,” the second officer advanced, dropping the girl’s belongings before the hearthstone.
The party entered.
“Another?” the Duke persisted, circling where she crouched upon the floor; hands braced against the carpet and panting like a dog. “So soon?”
The stench of cigars and a neglected supper filled the air. The officer hoisted the girl back against his leg by a fistful of hair, her groan prompting a gasp from the flanks.
“Leave us,” the greater man snapped in that direction.
“Your Grace,” the footman complied, bowing backwards out of the room.
“Though this reeks of a many unpleasant things, gentlemen, espionage does not answer,” the Duke determined. “It is a child.”
The captain rose from the desk and approached.
“Commander, behold…the matter we’ve discussed,” the first officer said, coiling her hair about his bandaged fingers. “She makes little sense if she speaks at all, sir.”
“What tongue have you tried?” the captain asked.
“Our own, sir, and that of the people where we believe she has been derived.”
“Aye, sir. Thrown from her mount, it would seem.”
“What business has she here?”
“These people are rampant, westwardly, sir.”
“I do not believe her to be indigenous…” the captain muttered, nudging her with the toe of his boot. “God’s truth… it cannot be…”
“Smells like sin,” the Duke remarked, setting his knuckles to his nose.
The captain squatted before the girl and tried the languages of the land.
“Who are you?”
Ember awakened to those few discernable words; a Lazarus called back from the brink of something interminable.
“I w-want to leave this p-place—”
“It is English,” he declared. “Listen here, this property is militarized and the consequences for trespassing are inexorable. Have you any idea what you’ve done?”
“You m-misunderstand, s-sir—”
“I am n-not a t-trespa—”
“Damn, you!” she snapped.
He grabbed ahold of her chin in a flash.
“She lives,” was the Duke’s wry remark from above.
“Watch your tongue, child…” the captain sneered. “You are in the presence of eminence.”
When she spat blood at their feet, the two officers subdued her. However, the Duke grabbed ahold of her hair and used it to wipe the spittle from his boot. Ember shrieked, struggling face-first against the floor until he had done. As she was later hauled from the chamber, a jewel lay in her place.
“A thief, sirs,” he concluded.
They ventured northeast in the following days and the landscape altered extremely. From forlorn hills and loamy tracks to lakes that shone like glass beneath the sun. The forests teemed with hues. The rivers babbled. Rife among them were wildlife of every form; foal and rodents and bears and wolves—and unseen creatures that hummed in the altitudes.
Settlements grew fewer by the day and the majority were mere relics of forgotten people. By night, the mounted horsemen wielded torches and were a terrible sight. When they camped, they rejoiced, exhibiting gruesome trophies—sundry bits of things slain along the way. Cold bodies. Cages of bones strung bloodily about the camp. Ember saw the colors that made up the insides of things. The wormy gore of defleshed flesh, and in the aftermath her dreams were primitive.
By morning the company staggered over land devoid of every living thing. Days fled without sight of a single beast or edifice, heralded by nightmarish green skies and impassable terrain. In the morning the sun was cold and strange. Come night, the gusts jostled the girl awake, and she stared out onto dark yards of nodding steeds and dozens of men who coddled their accouterments. She considered an escape but knew she wouldn’t survive an hour on her own. When she felt the urge, she left the vehicle and pissed in the dirt and was glad to move on again. The men were a restless sort, unwilling to squander a single workable hour.
Hawks came in droves when they exited the brume of the forests. As the team plodded toward a remote lodging, the mounts sweated, and the officers broke away and camped along the flatland. They made love to willing and unwilling women and to each other in the dark. The sky was streaked with silver, and there were flashes of green, and small traces of the sun glowing thinly along the bottom of the distance. Ember lay awake in a second story chamber of a public house, watching the vaults in the ceiling which seemed to decay before her very eyes. Her lids were raw for she had wept again. Her hair was unruly. She hadn’t stretched her legs in days. She hadn’t washed for longer, trickles of mud and urine drying along her ankles. Now she chewed her cheeks, starved for speech.
An officer entered the room and she looked at him stupidly, for they did not speak a common tongue. He motioned for her to be dressed and waited as she complied. Later he guided her down an ill-lit passage and over the threshold of a stifling chamber.
There, the captain waited; staring down at her from over six feet. He had green eyes and big knuckles and dismissed several men from his presence with but a mere flick of his head. When they were alone, the interrogation began.
“Who, exactly, are you?” he asked sternly.
“No one,” she answered.
“Simply no one?”
“Have you a beating heart?”
“Have you a brain in that head?”
“Breath in those lungs?”
“You are alive, aren’t you?”
“I’m certain, sir.”
“Should not that suffice?” he rapped. His tone growing more incisive the longer he spoke. “We are all someone, child, no matter how inferior…how ignoble. You have a family, an origin—and that is what I must know.”
“I am Ember.”
“And how have you come to be?” His words were ground out, belying the patience with which he deployed them.
“I was found.”
“I am unsure. Someplace…some time ago…following which I was placed into the custody of my only known kin. My dear aunt. I know nothing of my parents, except that they are dead.”
“Nothing at all, sir,” she confirmed. “When the sailors found me, you see…there was only the indication that I should be transported north to my aunt. And so that is how I came to be.” She bit her top lip.
The man leaned back against the foot of the bedstead, studying her without relent.
“If you are so uncertain of your identity…perhaps someone should enlighten you?” His gaze was frigid and half-lidded. She could not tell whether he spoke in jest.
“Your mother was a negress. Very young when she had you. Little is known of her beyond that. Your father was an Englishman and a fool to have touched her—though wise to abandon you.”
She yanked her gaze from his form.
“Your father’s surname was Durand. Your aunt—his sister—is also an English immigrant, as was your grandfather—a British loyalist who fled north after the war. For a while, you were their dreaded little secret.”
His amusement left her incensed. “How did you come to know this?
“It was not difficult to trace where you’d traveled from. Your aunt was devastated when my men informed her you would not be returned. We are uncertain if she has survived the blow.”
Ember took an involuntary step backwards, tears springing to her eyes.
“Does this displease you? Pity, Em…for I do not aim to displease you. I aim for the unmitigated truth, however alarming to your delicate sensibilities that may be.” He spoke with such contempt his lip occasionally curled. “You are young, yes? Aye, of course you are. I was never as young as you.”
She wrung her fingers. He began to pace.
“Now,” he continued. “My final question for you is simple. How did you come to be in my company, and upon what were you intent?”
“Intent?” she gaped. “Upon what was I intent? I bore no designs, sir, I assure you! All that I seek is to be free of you! Are you afraid of me?! I cannot otherwise fathom why your men have detained me so long! Perhaps it is you who ought to make your intentions known!” Her knees buckled, but she caught herself against the door.
“You are ill?” he eyed her narrowly.
“No!” she panicked, quite aware of their verdict for the infirm. If they believed she were ill, she would not see another day. “You are quite mistaken, sir—”
A force barged into the room from behind, forcing the girl to scurry away as the door careened on its hinges. The Duke strode beyond the pair, perching upon a chair before the grate. He went on in silence as though he were alone. The captain snapped his fingers before the girl’s face.
“Have you a contagion?!” he demanded, towering head and shoulders above her.
He grasped her chin and pried her jaws apart for inspection. When she wrenched away, he slung the back of his hand across her cheek, leaving her in a heap at his feet.
“You are impetuous.”
“You are impetuous,” he repeated, refusing to observe aught else. He bent and tipped her face toward his, cremating her with his gaze. “You are my charge now. In whatever I may ask, do not resist. I assure you, girl, you will find no clemency beyond me.”
“Aye, my lord…”
She wiped her bloodied nose on her sleeve as the man quit the room. Humiliated, she rose and kept her back to the one who remained. When she developed a mind to leave, he halted her.
Her fingers withdrew from the handle.
Ember complied, perching upon the chair opposite of him and watching her surroundings unseeingly. Light danced between them. She was overwarm. A phantom-itch started at the back of her neck, and she scratched away, regarding him in secret. His legs were sprawled, knees jutting a great distance in her direction. He was very tall.
“Your name?” he asked, without looking in her direction.
“Ember.” Then, after some time, she ventured: “Your name, sir?”
“You are in no condition to ask of my name.”
Her mouth snapped shut. Anxious, she shuffled her feet. The flames were the only sound for a while. For a nobleman, he was decidedly unadorned. The hand slung over the armrest bore fingers long and boney. He was well beyond six feet in height and solid from head to foot. A Goliath. She would hate to see him enraged. Yet there he sat, eyes downcast, oddly serene.
A party entered, heralded by a chorus of shrieks and pounding feet. Ember skittered behind the Duke’s chair where he remained seated. The captain and an officer hauled a pair of maids into the room. One was obedient, but her counterpart struggled tooth-and-nail within the commander’s arms.
“I am not for sale!” the younger girl raved, rearing to her full height once she was set onto her feet.
“I believe your father said differently,” the captain leered.
When she spat square in his face, he struck her and she stumbled into her sister, spluttering blood into her hand. Soon the second officer hauled Ember from the chamber and shut the door in her face.
Port Town: Hudson’s Bay
“It cannot be a good sign,” Tilly remarked, shifting to sit against the pillows in the morning. They had awakened to quaking walls and the fury of a storm. Ember rose, cursing herself for leaving the window open—a habit acquired in her youth for which she had often been scolded. The planks were flooded already, and she dashed barefoot through puddles to slam the panel shut.
“It’s an old window, my love. Perhaps the storm wrenched it open?” the blonde said, scooting to the edge of the mattress and swinging her feet.
“Are we quite prepared for this?” Ember fretted.
“I suppose we’re as prepared as one can reasonably hope. We must be—”
The commander entered, worse for wear.
“Captain,” Ember gasped.
“We’ll head aboard within the hour. Be prepared.”
“Aye, sir.” They said collectively.
Later the maids climbed into the saddles of a pair of officers and journeyed to the docks. Their mounts were road-worn and speckled with mud and blood. Ember endeavored to steer clear of the soldier before her, bracing herself backwards in the saddle and mustering every bit of her strength to keep still.
The storm would not abate. It lent dawn the look of night. Great masses of cloud shrouded the wharf and scudded along the waves, horrifying the girl into shutting her eyes. Soon she forfeited and buried her face between the officer’s shoulders, gagging on the fumes of his soiled uniform. When they reached the pier, she waited with him to go aboard.
The steed reared beneath them, startled by a clap of thunder. Ember’s shrieks were muted by the howl of the wind. In abandonment, she clung to her saddle-mate, but when the beast’s tirade subsided, the soldier mocked her. Soon she realized he had intentionally provoked the steed. It bucked repeatedly, leaving her queasy. A pair of hands grasped her from behind and set onto her feet. Before she could identify her helper, he was gone. In the aftermath, she staggered over to Tilly who remained mounted with another officer and clung to her skirts.
For a while, the wait seemed interminable, and they were drenched to the bone. Many men trudged about the harbor, some sloshing through the swamped streets. Despite the weather, the town sprang to life when the hour was decent. Dockworkers scampered to their posts and toiled against the winds, salvaging cargo, wrestling animals, and prepping ships.
Twisting against the steed, Ember eyed the town’s verge which dropped steeply away into black waters and imagined horrid things lied beneath. The team had shifted to the west of the waterfront where the Duke’s vessel was now moored. By now, few soldiers remained unboarded. The rain seemed to slow. The squalls came repeatedly and struck her like a blow. Overhead the gulls were blown helter-skelter, and she wondered if any might drown.
Flags thundered, snapping in the wind. Sea and sky roiled ahead, encasing the Duke’s vessel and serving as a portent for those who intended to voyage further. Many questions leapt to the girl’s lips but remained unvoiced. Where might they eat? Where might they sleep? Must the women lodge with the men? Who might ensure their survival?
Still, she gaped at how the men kept their composure. They were seafaring officers who had been at this a while. And there seemed to be a hundred preoccupied crewmen aboard—hauling and wrenching things, and rapping orders to their minions. Many were but acrobatic specks along the masts, walking the rigging like tightrope. They wore exceptional hats and dirty boots and coats that slung with rain.
In time, hundreds of soldiers and their families exited the surroundings buildings and gathered about the wharf in a farewell to the parting company. Having recently arrived from the land to which the party was bound, these officers and dignitaries had been entrusted with the governance of the recovered territories in the Chancellor’s absence. Stupefied by their number, of which before there had been no trace, Ember now understood why so many magnificent vessels occupied such a realm.
“How long might it require one to drown?” she asked, as Tilly dismounted.
“I should imagine rather swiftly out here.”
“Can one be crushed by the current?”
“I should imagine so, my love.”
“Do you not fear such an end?”
“Not in the least. I can walk on water you know,” she winked.
Explosive winds knocked their hoods from their heads and whipped their skirts. Ember stumbled and her hand wrenched from her companion’s. She hid her face from the icy rain that stole her breath as the captain led them down the pier to board. As they climbed the gangway, she was unable to discern the man’s warning to: ‘Look ahead.’ The moment she glanced at how high they hovered above the wallowing rubbish, she became paralyzed. He hauled her the remainder of the way.
“I cannot conceive of this,” she panicked. Tilly took ahold of her hand again.
Hurtling footsteps surrounded them on deck, forcing them to cling to the railing. Men cursed in every language. Nothing seemed to work well. They were vitriolic and anxious. The vessel lurched beneath their feet, not unlike the beasts that had delivered them there. There were cages brimming with contorted birds. They squawked and crushed one another; their bodies spilling beyond the bars in a bloody portrait of how Ember felt inside. The deck reeled—a chaos of drenched wood, flying cables, and rope ladders. Barrels were stacked in every available space and when the girl sidestepped a passerby, she careened into one after another.
“I’ve never seen such a sight!” she cried, dragging the blonde about until she gazed up at how the masts vanished beyond the mists.
The Duke boarded and the crowds roared. He quit the deck and vanished into the belly of the ship directly.
“Let us seek shelter!” The captain shouted over the downpour, his face lost behind a hood. The pair followed the dripping form down a companionway and into a corridor below deck. He delivered the girl through a low-ceiled threshold and took Tilly further down the passage. Ember froze behind the shutting door, waiting to hear the slide of the bolt. It never came.
Opposite of the entrance, a bunk lay with many oversized pillows and fresh bedclothes. The wood glinted in the lantern light. Above this were tapestries woven with iconography and battles of lore and the heads of dead Norsemen. Sparse furnishings accompanied these things; a washstand, a desk, a stove and its scuttle, a table for four. Removing her wrap, Ember fingered the bedclothes before plopping onto them. She sprawled in true abandonment of her good sense; shuddering for the ship was unbearably cold.
Later when she stirred, they were hours from the pier and the room seemed strange. Panicking, she rose and noted that someone had entered during her oblivion. Pine trunks dominated the floor, imbuing the air with a peculiar scent she thought she had known before. The Duke sat motionless in a chair before the stove, his head inclined. His bigness seemed menacing in the low-ceiled quarters, and she wondered if his head might touch the beams when he stood. His hair lay in waves about his face, so that when she approached, she could not read his thoughts. As she reached for the warmth of the stove, her gooseflesh rescinded.
“It’ll only get colder,” he uttered, startling her.
Their eyes met; his as artic as the land they had traversed.
“Forgive me…I suspected you to be asleep.”
He rose, crowding her, then moved over to the bed, tossing a letter onto the desk along with the contents of his pockets. Ember warmed her hands before the reeking stove as he doffed the mantle and boots. He lay and slept immediately. After a while, she answered Tilly’s call and together they repaired to the woman’s cabin.
Later, the captain entered. He eyed them in indecision before speaking. “I shall undertake to learn you my language. Once we exit the ship, no one will look after you in that regard.”
“Then we shall gladly acquiesce,” Ember assured him.
“Awaken early, Em, and I’ll be to fetch you.”
“What of supper?” Tilly asked.
“I’ll bid a boy to wait upon you. Ember, you are to dine here, for my master often dines with the others in the wardroom. Neither of you shall go beyond this passage without my consent, and you may never venture onto deck. The crewmen have not encountered anything female in months, and they are thoughtless knaves.” With an inclination of his head he left, and they laughed.
Later a lad delivered a cart of food. He allowed a toothy grin before unloading with Ember’s assistance. Tilly squealed in excitement, snatching the lids from the dishes before them. The girl made a sour face at the rations while the woman ate her fill; undaunted by the rotting meats and lukewarm water.
“My hands are cold,” Ember whispered upon finishing, tucking them into her skirt pockets. She found a forgotten key and thumbed it in boredom.
“The beef was foul, I think.” The blonde shut her eyes through a fit of indigestion. “I’ve once had good boiled potatoes—these were poor.”
“They’ve not given much water.”
“Water will be scarce onboard. There are many men and animals.”
“To think…” the girl wondered aloud. “All of that water out there, and we haven’t much to spare.”
“The lamp will die soon.”
“What’ll we do? What if we have a need of things that are not onboard? This is a detestable life!”
“The captain will discard of me!” Tilly blurted, eyes glossy above the flame.
“Madam? Has he hinted that he may?”
“I believe so. And so many women in my condition are locked away…”
“But you are well, madam! Fine and healthy!”
“I am with child, Ember.”
“Yes…and I withheld the information until we were aboard and well on our way so that he should not send me back. It was deceitful, but I was desperate to ensure my passage—”
(***Skipping to the next segment of these scene to avoid spoiling the dialouge of this conversation. It’s quite disturbing so I’ll save it for the ebook!)***
In the evening when Tilly grew fatigued, Ember returned to the stateroom and braced herself against its door; flinching at every foreign noise that sounded in the distance. The ship’s muscles lurched beneath her and she could feel its pulse in her blood. This level of the craft was windowless, so the conditions outside remained a mystery. She prickled all over at the thought of the captain’s decree forbidding her to travel any place beyond the staterooms, for the inactivity would lengthen her days by much.
The Duke was absent when she entered his room, which she was forced to share since Tilly was bunking with the captain, so she relished the notion as she plaited her hair. She sat in the printed chair before the stove, lifting her skirts to capture the warmth. A song leapt to her lips and she belted it, her quavering voice filling the room. Soon the fumes from the stove made her head ache, and she retired from all activity.
The room bore an alienation that made her feel trapped in a bottle bound to the bottom of the sea. Prodding the shadows of the cabin, no nook or cranny left unmolested, she delighted in her finds. The items in the desk drawers denoted frequent use. As she stepped around the structure, splintering woods groaned beneath her feet. She set her hands to the dank walls in an attempt to goad the sea. Later she perused the unclosed books and letters that littered the desk, sliding about as the waves shifted. A near-empty decanter caught her eye in a cupboard behind the chair; the exquisite crystal scintillating in the lamplight. She stole a taste and instantly regretted it, her throat burning even after the merest sample of the draught.
Lifting a brass powder flask, she marveled at its inscriptions and pulled a face after sniffing its contents. Codified letters and a snuff box intrigued her further; the box was a Spanish antique and she considered pocketing it. Leafing through the piles of inscrutable text, she discovered the letter the Duke had deposited from his pocket. As she had not noticed before, the stationery was worn and its script had faded. The closing read something to the effect of: Yours eternally, Geneviève.
In their brief time together, Helen had not disclosed much of the Duke’s late Duchess, however, the girl was made to understand she had been a childless Marchioness who fell ill in the Winter of ’14, from which she never recovered—
The Duke entered and Ember sidled to the far regions of the cabin to affect a preoccupation with the looking glass. The man shut the portal and stood before the stove, warming his hands.
“I assure you, madam, no one will notice if you have two heads or one. To bed with you. It is very late.”
She started to speak, though he left the room abruptly. He returned sometime later, several fellows in tow. The crewmen set a tub before the stove and emptied steaming water within. Task complete, the cabin was vacated by all except the Duke.
“Would you be so kind as to look away.”
“Of course!” she bobbed, spinning about until she faced the wall. By and by she craned to peer into the looking glass.
He undressed and she watched in secret as each item was pulled from the towering frame. He dropped his garments to the floor and forgot them. She noticed he was leaner than his breadth suggested and entirely white with the cold. When at last the drawers dropped from his waist, her stomach knotted. Flaccid flesh bounced with his every move. She had never seen a man ungarbed before at so close a range. He kicked his clothes aside and climbed into the tub—cramming his long legs to accommodate his height.
Removing her frock with tremulous fingers, Ember kept her back to him. Once down to the thin shift, she folded her arms across her bosom, fingernails digging into her shoulders.
“Madam?” he asked, startling her into biting her tongue. When the embarrassment ebbed, she stammered a reply.
“The t-tub, my lord. I normally make my pallet upon the floor, however—”
“I see,” he conceded. “I’ll have the tub removed on the morrow. But, you’ll catch your death if you sleep upon the floor. You’re welcome to share the bed tonight, and find yourself a more suitable pallet come morn.”
She nodded and approached the bunk, aware that his gaze followed her. He began to whistle with a stridency that to her seemed unnatural. Governing herself to sleep beside a man for the first time in her life, she slid beneath the sheets and teetered as close to the edge as possible. Soon the water lapped as the Duke rose. When later they lay back-to-back, the room unbearably dark, she remained awake and listened to him breathe.
The home was a staggering seventeenth century Palladian palace. It towered three stories high, boasting extensive east and west wings and an astronomical principal range. Ember took an involuntary step backwards after alighting from the coach in the courtyard. Tilly laughed and pulled her close and they clutched one another in tears.
The southern front of the home was hedged about with imperial lawns and giant yew trees blanketed with snow. Much of the building’s surfaces were patinised and overcome with wisteria, and the banners that lined the central façade snapped in the gusts. The surrounding grounds were measureless and varied, sweeping beyond the manor, league upon league, and vanishing beyond the fells.
Livered officers filed into the courtyard, greeted by young boys who retrieved their mounts and skittered out of sight. Ember and Tilly were led farther into the courtyard and made to wait beside an immense fountain. Before them, towering steps led up to a portico whose columns cast mammoth shadows. Once the yard was cleared of all vehicles, the assembly that had exited the manor fell into view, having filed along the lower steps in several ranks.
The Duke progressed down the first line, greeting family and other acquaintances with a mere inclination of the head. He did not heed those occupying the steps behind—an army of darkly clad servants who withstood the gusts unflinchingly. They shifted but once in a collective parade of bobs and bows to honor to the returning company. Once the formalities ended, the Duke entered the manor. The servants created a pathway for the Family to follow, and in the aftermath, all trudged across the lawn to a westward portal, for they were not permitted to use the main entrance.
The captain approached the newcomers to retrieve Tilly, instructing Ember to remain with an officer until otherwise directed. Tilly planted a kiss to the girl’s cheek and promised to find her as soon as time permitted. Shuddering as the woman departed, she watched her hem slide away the across flags and out of sight. Having stood out-of-doors for more than an hour, the temperatures had become fatal. She looked to the officer for guidance, but it was as though she stood alone. Lifting her hood over her head, she hid her face and eyed her surroundings like a disconcerted child.
The fountain was amuck with eyeless figures who bore the veneration of an antiquated things. The marble was overcome with hoarfrost and great stock-still cascades of ice. It reminded her of home, where in the mornings even the spiderwebs were taken by frost. She jabbed a finger into the eye-socket of a skull and carried on with her examination.
The manor bore countless inscriptions and a tortuous façade, whose principal pediment depicted men who had won the State. Scores of windows scrutinized her in return, bedimmed with metal latticework and vines that clambered from the far quarters of the home. When she dared a step forward, the structure loomed, blotting out the sky.
In time, a laughably short woman emerged from the west wing and made a difficult trek through the snow. Yards away, she halted and gestured wildly.
“Young miss,” she called, hands cupping her mouth. “Young miss, come along now. Do follow me.”
Ember glanced askance to the soldier. He gave no indication in any regard, so she left. The maid waddled ahead, in the direction from whence she had come.
“Bitin’ cold! Bitin’ cold!” she hissed, having ventured out-of-doors without a wrap in anticipation of a prompt return. She led the immigrant across the lawn towards the darksome quarters of the west, following the course taken by the army of servants earlier.
Along this route, the opulence did not wane. Neither did the snow and ice. They reached a cavern wreathed in wisteria and slipped within, skirting buttresses and moving forth beneath a tiered archway. Ahead lay a cloister which they approached; embraced by its tomblike silence. Mullioned windows glinted from above, lining the walls of the courtyard like castles of old.
At the center of the yard, a colossus stood thirty feet tall, sword drawn. Ember gaped and averted her eyes and hurried out of its reach. Inside, she was afforded little time to observe her surroundings, for the maid embarked on a dizzying trek through the depths of the manor toward its rear. Pale marble surrounded them, punctuated with ornate furniture and brocade drapes. Tapestries were suspended with gilt riggings, threaded throughout with queer imagery. Everywhere was the fragrance of gardenias, and the halls were peppered with many eyeless busts and canvases that depicted the divine.
Far-flung sunrays stole through the drapes and shot down onto their path. The light flooded the halls, making the limestone appear wet. Stupefied, Ember stumbled along, uncaring if onlookers thought her daft. They passed an open-welled staircase with a banister of gilded iron, and when the girl craned to see its highest galleries, she found them fraught with shadow. Heading up a few steps, she was snatched from the staircase by her guide and set onto their path again.
Such depth awaited that they never seemed to reach their destination. Toward the rear of the home, the decor diminished and became utilitarian in nature. The passages shrunk, becoming increasingly cruder and spiraling into antiquity. Polished planks replaced marble, while stone replaced stuccowork. The canvases here depicted battles and eldritch figures, no longer the celestial.
Ember marveled when the corridor awakened to her presence. It seemed demand her name. A draft stirred her skirts and beckoned her closer as they passed a broad set of bolted doors. Gathering the cloak around her throat, she watched her breath plume out before her and thought the temperatures had dropped considerably.
By and by the maid delivered her unto the servants’ quarters, and she squirmed like an insect crushed between two fingers. Now the woman ushered her into a room adjacent to the kitchens that reeked of a coal fire.
“An oddity,” the maid remarked, winded from their march. Her breath was putrescent. She hauled the girl before her for examination. “You are very dark, aren’t you?”
“I suppose. Darker than some.”
“Shamelessly pretty—though quite exotic.”
She studied the weather-burnt features before her; registering the damp hair and full lips and weary eyes as black as ebon.
“I am Milly Faye.”
The girl smiled. “Very pleased to make your acquaintance, madam. I am Ember.”
“Ember? Simply Ember?”
“Indeed. It was the only name given me.”
“It’ll do, I suppose. There isn’t another Ember here, to my knowledge, and for that purpose the name shall suit us well.”
“Are you the housekeeper, madam?”
“Nonsense, child! Me, the housekeeper?! Not me, you know! I myself could never manage a ship this large. It’d take two or three of me at least!” she wheezed. “I had been a lady’s maid in me time. And a laundress before that—but when the Duchess departed, God rest her soul, I was put out of me role. Her ladyship—”
“Yes, child. The Duke’s aunt. Merciful as she was…kept me on as aide to the housekeeper. I’ve no children, you see—not anymore. So, there’s no one to suffer me absence in the long hours I’m kept from home.” She halted abruptly and studied her ward. “You must’ve come ten thousand miles. Perhaps even farther than that. A great deal wearisome, I’d wager.”
It was a wounded thing Milly clutched between her hands; frightful and slender. Even so, the woman held the girl’s iniquity should not be overlooked. Reportedly, she was cunning and insolent. One to be surveilled closely, for by virtue of her deceitful nature she had proven most unpredictable. Already it was evident she would require a wary eye and a great deal of slow instruction.
“Well, I’ve only wanted a look at you!” the maid blurted, with all the defensiveness of a meddler. “Must be frozen stiff!” She gathered the girl’s hands into her own and tried to warm them with her reeking breath. “I was rather warm before I ventured out.”
“You are quite kind, madam.” Ember remarked, retrieving her hands. “But you needn’t worry…I’ll thaw soon enough.”
The woman pursed her wrinkled mouth and started toward the door. “I’ll fetch a warm drink and a coverin’.”
Seated before the fire, Ember crossed and uncrossed her booted feet and fidgeted with her soaked hem. Having gone months without a proper heating, she refused to squander the opportunity and lifted her skirts to warm her bones. Rising, she lifted them further and allowed the heat to seep up her shuddering thighs.
By and by Milly returned and set a tray upon the table between them. Accepting the draught of tea with stiff fingers, Ember gulped it until her throat burned. The maid quit the room once more, and in her absence, the girl studied the freshly laundered stockings strung about the room to dry. She then moved on to the knick-knacks atop the mantel in her unremitting way, deeming the room musty and drear; more of what she had known.
(3 Years Later)
Days following, a storm claimed the land for hours. Ember slept at its commencement and awakened to the moan of a swinging shutter. The shower pelted her ribs until her frock grew drenched and she flipped onto her opposite side and consigned it to the same fate. The chill was like an anointment that revived her to the atom, and she liked the dewy aromas, hoping they would seep into her marrow. It was a long-traveled scent.
All the while, she failed to fathom her predicament. Her chief humiliation lie in confronting the staff once she returned to work, as she was aware they had been informed of her misfortunes through the manor’s rumor mill, headed by Milly Faye herself.
After a while she observed her hand—icy, pruned, quivering—blackened with the dust from the floor upon which she had raged earlier. Pressing those fingers to the wall beside her, she felt the roar of the vortex outdoors, so much like the one tearing through the membrane in her head—
Milly Faye burst into the room in her reckless way and Ember twisted atop the cot to address her. Too late did she note the woman’s vexation.
“Wretched little idiot!” Milly rasped, brows drawn to the center of her ashen face. “Thoughtless little beggar!”
Before Ember could rise, the woman snatched her forth by the bodice.
“Is it a game to you?!” she raved, spittle flying from her dim teeth. “Had you planned it all along?! Upon my word these deceits will not abide!”
“Milly?!” Ember cried, wrenching free of her grasp. “Unhand me this instance! I haven’t a clue as to what—”
“Liar!” the woman rapped, snatching the barefoot girl along towards the door. She wailed in agony of her arm, though was forced to quicken her step to keep up. The maid’s tirade was enough to rouse the dead. She thundered like a lunatic throughout the house, decrying an injustice done her and the whole of the domestic kind; anathematizing the moment she had lain eyes upon the ‘filthy little American immigrant.’
They stumbled onto the opulence of the second story and Ember was transfixed for it had long been forbidden to her. The rustles of their frocks disturbed the stillness of the tapestried stairwell. There she was towed through a convolution of passages, stumbling to her knees a time or two when her hem was entangled.
“Milly Faye!” she shouted. “I demand to know where you’re taking me!”
Her terror heightened upon entering the realm that housed the Family’s apartments. Before long, the elder shuffled through a set of whitewashed doors and deposited her into an amethyst suite.
Theatric purples swam in damask along the walls and bed hangings, lending the room an airless effect. There the woodwork shone in an infinite fleet of tapers. The carpet sprawled, storming beneath them in a bloodlike current of aureate prints. Ember craned to ingest the work of a late master that blanketed the ceilings, but Milly ended her wonderment with an oath, shoving her toward the center of the apartment.
“All your fine things!” she bellowed, sweeping her arm toward the bed and floor, both deluged with silks, muslins, chiffons and delicate laces. Wildly garnished hats and countless other trappings whose number and purpose the girl was at a loss to fathom. There was also an assortment of clothiers’ boxes that besieged the bed and towered in stacks along the walls, bested only by the jewels that occupied the pillows and nightstands.
Again, the woman mastered forth, brushing beyond the dumbstruck one to wrench at the textiles before them.
“Chinese silks and shawls! Scores of hats and gloves and other such fineries!” Now she stormed to the dressing table which boasted an ornate looking glass. “Jewels!” she cried, so consumed with fury that her face puckered. “In all me poor, pitiful life, I’ve not known a lowborn thing to be so puffed-up!”
Ember buried her fingers in her unpinned hair and sputtered.
“I-I know nothing of which you speak! I know nothing of these things, Milly, you must believe me! They do not belong to me!”
“Indeed not!” Milly spat. “Not by any principle that was right! But you’ve beguiled him! Beguiled him senseless! And you ought to be ashamed of yourself! What slovenly ways you boast! Blindin’ and enticin’ respectable men with your whore’s tricks! I’ve known you were trouble from the start!”
“You, madam, are preposterous!” Ember snapped. “I’ve not asked for these things! By all that is holy: I have not! Think you I could ever accept them after what happened to me?! Never!”
“Is that so?” the woman mocked. “What a damnable little liar, you are!”
“I will not heed these insults, Milly Faye, for I know them to be the invention of a fleeting passion.” Ember said. “Though I will not extend the courtesy a second time.”
“Christ, you have a dark way about you! I will not stand to be demeaned by some arrogant little negress whose gotten it into her head that she has taken precedence above her betters! It is a fool who stands for any more of your black-hearted treacheries! I ought to feed you to the dogs.” She started from the room, though halted. “And you’ve been blathering about us, I see! Fancied I wouldn’t find out about it, didn’t you?! Slandering your betters! Half a dozen good folks discharged this very morn! People who’ve spent their entire lives beneath this roof! Your superiors! And what have they now, you conniving little wretch?! Nothing!”
“You keep my name out of that rotten mouth! You are unfit to speak it!”
The following morn, Ember resumed her duties in the scullery and her wardens were missing. Many of them had been discharged. An array of humors plagued her, from relief to gratitude to uncertainty and in the aftermath: guilt. She redoubled her efforts in hopes it might compensate for the lack of additional hands, though the glowers of her former companions fell steadily upon her back.
The following week saw the kitchens restored to order with the recruitment of new wardens and many new servants. The girl managed her best to mend bridges burned among her teammates, and in time they warmed to her.
“Ember, is it? It would seem you’ve been summoned,” the first footman announced—handsome and lean, the head of the livered sycophants. “Hurry you along.”
The girl set her pots aside and scrubbed her hands over the basin. She shut her eyes to disperse the conjectures that filled her mind. Doffing the dirty apron, she followed the man to the east quarters of the home where he deposited her.
The study door quivered with a consciousness all its own. Few were admitted beyond this threshold; she being the least of any. After deliberating, she knocked with an unexpected firmness— imagining what lie ahead. Austere woods. A magisterial vault.
A porter answered her call and announced her entrance. She left him in the anteroom and passed into the recess beyond. It was as she expected, darksome and domineering. Bronze ceilings swam overhead, glowering upon a fleet of ruddy furnishings and printed carpets. She crossed the innermost threshold and noted a remarkable collection of volumes shelved along the wainscoting. Amid them, necrotic trophies were encased in glass: a tarred hand, a human heart. When she spotted a jawless skull, she averted her eyes.
The Duke sat in the rear of the room behind a desk that heralded a row of floor-to-ceiling windows. The captain sat opposite with a wolfish dog at his feet. At her approach, the canine advanced and she offered a hand, which he promptly sniffed.
“Em, as I live and breathe…” the captain said, tossing a glance over his shoulder.
“Captain, how do you do?”
“I do well.” He rose.
She could not see him for all the cigar-smoke aglow in the shafts of daylight. He donned his coat and lent his regards to the Duke before exiting with the animal.
“Good of you to come,” the greater man began, examining her. Smoke seeped from his parted lips.
“Sir,” she bobbed, inclining her head.
“I imagined you might refuse.”
“It is not my place to.”
Ember perched upon the opposing chair, watching the cigar smolder between his fingers. It burned her eyes until he snuffed it. Then she made a registry of the items that lined the surface of the desk—strewn paperwork, a silver inkwell, a case for the dreaded cigars. For all these things he appeared rather uncomplex, but she knew that to be a clever diversion.
“I’ve purchased something…” he remarked, rummaging through a desk drawer. Erelong a golden-leafed volume lay before her.
“English?” she asked, recognizing the story he read for her at sea.
Her fingers inspected the binding, running along the gilded leaves. By and by she slid it back to him and he caught ahold of her wrist.
“You shun me?”
“You seek to provoke me?”
“Not in the least.”
“Why then do you spurn my offerings? The book? The room?”
“I am not in need of anything, thank you.” The hold upon her wrist tightened and she whimpered. “I should not like to invite further advances by accepting luxurious items. You enthrall and disenthrall and re-enthrall me at whim. I refuse to let it continue. I’m not an idiot. I know my place and will play my role until I truly emancipated, not just granted a longer leash.”
“Have I not undertaken to…to conduct this meeting with the utmost civility?” His eyes flickered. “Have I not gifted you fine things? The women I consulted saw to it that you received everything you could possibly desire. Is that not an exceptional kindness?”
“No, sir. Not if the items were gifted in attempt to reconcile wrongdoings where a suitable apology did not precede. I’m afraid your efforts and your offerings are unworthy of me.”
In a flash he had risen, kicking the chair out from beneath him. He snatched her atop the desk, knocking many items onto the floor. They locked eyes.
“I yearn to make you regret those words,” he whispered.
“You are incapable hurting me further,” she hissed, drowning in the whiskey upon his breath. “You’ve done your worst, yet I’ve survived.”
“You know nothing of my worst…”
These men were not the single-minded savages she had pegged them to be upon first sight. In truth they were nothing like what she had witnessed in their travels. Here, they were men of erudition, practitioners of disciplines far more sordid than soldiering. And the thing that clutched her was the chief architect of it all.
“I’ll attempt kindness once more,” he ground out. “You are in need of the things I’ve purchased. You will make use of them. You will no longer report to the scullery. It is prohibited.”
“It is my work and I shall continue to go!”
“Do not gainsay me. You are never to step foot in that place again. You will employ the women I have assigned to your care. You needn’t express your gratitude, madam, however, you will be suitably garmented when next we meet.”
He freed her. Ember climbed to the floor, quavering. He moved away, setting both hands onto a shelve of books.
“Forgive me…” he croaked. She could not resist the urge to ease his desolation, having taken an involuntary step forward. “You make me feel as though I am stumbling through an interminable darkness.”
“It would seem we’ve fallen into a rather disconcerting intimacy.”
“Through no works of my own, sir.”
“No? For you’ve been at work in me since first I laid eyes upon you. And it matters little how unconsciously these works were rendered. You are under my skin. You crawl around in me.”
“You are daft…”
“I am in need of you, whether or not you are in need of me.” He faced her like a manic bull.
“Without my consent, sir, the intimacy we’ve shared is unlawful, by any standard that is just. And your position is altogether unpitiable. I am not the sort of woman you are after.”
“You are cruel to withhold your sympathies from me.”
“And you are ridiculous,” she marveled.
He struck down a shelve of books and they spilled in an avalanche at his feet. Ember ran from the room, and someplace upon the third floor, his footfalls joined hers. They were rapid. In terror, she hastened, slinking into an unlighted recess to weep.
(One Year Later)
The officers arrived at dusk with chilblained hands through the vortex of winter. Ember admitted the captain into the chamber and hugged him tightly. He had a great beard now and a great cloak dusted with snow.
“So good of you to come.”
“I have news,” he uttered, pulling her away for inspection.
“Good, I hope?”
“I fear not. My master accompanies me and demands an audience.”
Now the hall leaned with the weight of an inimical presence; the building ill-equipped to contain his magnitude for long. His eerie whistling reached her and made her flesh creep. When she entered the neighboring bedroom, he stood against the footboard, impervious to all. One man accompanied him; a marksmen who had protected the campaign from wildlife during their travels.
“What brings me…through the hell of winter to so desolate a place?” he began. “An execrable journey, young madam. The frontier is unforgiving this time of year.”
“I dearly regret to have troubled your Grace, but I thought it imperative you should know.”
“Suffice it to say, I do not believe you.” His half-lidded gaze would not meet hers.
“I expected nothing less.”
“Furthermore, I refuse to consider your plight until I have witnessed the condition for myself.”
She studied the downcast eyes and found them to be ignorant of all they had shared. As she doffed her clothes, nothing transformed his gaze; not even the merest flicker of remembrance. It veered along her body with an eagerness to falsify her claims.
When the shift pooled like gossamer at her feet, he finally dismissed the officer. The marksman repaired to the hall where the captain stood outside, fixated upon the closed door.
“Could not you have spared me sooner?” Ember said, covering her breasts.
Entranced, the Duke laid a hand to her belly.
“Your fingers are dreadfully cold. May I be dressed now?”
“You’ve only just missed him!” Milly Faye noted as Ember entered the kitchens for a break of fast. An assembly formed and they watched the flushed woman until she gathered her breath.
“Our Lord Commander! Come and gone before dawn, I’d swear to it! Came storming in like God’s revenge! He’s brought news of his Grace. He’s been injured is not expected to re—”
“Stand down, Milly Faye, I exhort you!” the butler thundered upon entering. “On what authority do you presume to give an account of Grace’s bill of health? Eavesdropping again?! And on privileged information no doubt! Preying shamelessly on the ignorant with half-truths and speculation?! Filling their heads with your panicky gossips?! Shame on you!”
The woman’s flush intensified. Soon Ember hauled her aside.
“Milly, speak again.”
“I’ve never been addressed so ruthlessly in all me poor, pitiful life!”
With a final indignant huff, she fanned her face and averted her eyes to the floors. Ember set her hands onto the woman’s shoulders and forced her to focus.
“Milly Faye, I implore you to continue. This is a matter of exceptional consequence. You must tell me exactly how long ago the captain departed, and what precisely he conveyed to you.”
Milly swallowed thickly and gathered herself.
“Come now Milly!”
“Heavens, child! Pack your patience!”
She dragged the girl away into the scullery where they might find better seclusion. Her housekeys clangored along the way.
“He descended upon the kitchens, angrier than the devil! Ever has been a poorly tempered old lout! Now don’t you go repeatin’ that, missy!”
“Focus, Milly! What did he say, precisely?! It is of paramount importance!”
“Nothing to me of course!”
“Then what have you heard, Milly Faye?! At once!”
“He’s ordered the house to prepare for the worst,” she whispered. “He’s noted: it is the last we should see of them for a while. He was careful not to offer assurances of his Grace’s safe return. He spoke most bleakly on that account. But I was given to understand from a very reliable source: it isn’t likely our master should survive what has befallen him.”
Ember backed away as though she had been struck. At once, she spun and dashed from the kitchens, ignoring the many demands for her to halt. Bursting from a recessed rear door, she skirted the manor until she breached the principal grounds and dashed full-tilt down the drive—lungs aching and heart aflutter. Dew blanketed the flags and made her steps unsure. She toppled once, catching herself on her hands and knees. Upon rising, she lifted her skirts and heaved on, her palms beaten for having borne the brunt of her fall.
When her energy faltered, she thought of a dead Duke and accelerated through the hills. It was not long before she encountered a lone horseman knelt along the drive, examining the boot of his steed. A mounted company progressed ahead with a train of wagons in their wake, creeping down the shaky length of road. At last, the officer mounted his steed and started away; moving quickly over the blue-green sod. She screamed to him. He turned back, then called to another horseman who came dashing back down the road in her direction.
“Captain!” she cried, clinging to his booted calf. When she gazed up, he was lost in a sunbeam.
“Em?! What the devil are you about?!”
“Where are you off to?!”
“To my master.”
“What news of him?! Say he is well!”
“He is not.”
“I must see him.”
“What am I to do?!”
“Be composed. There is nothing for you to do. Nothing that a horde of bickering physicians have failed to do already.”
“I must see him! I cannot make myself any clearer.”
“I forbid it. It is an unspeakably high crime to enter unsanctioned where we reside. You will be hanged for espionage.”
“Not if you should permit my attendance, sir.”
“I will not.” He took off and she flailed in the rising dust.
“You must!” she screamed, running after him as long as her limbs would carry her.
By and by they were separated by hundreds of yards, but she persisted. Once she lost sight of him, she plopped onto the ground in exertion, cooked by the sun. A feverish prayer leapt to her lips. At once a steed thundered down the lane in her direction. Before she could retreat, the captain dismounted with a curse.
“You witless child!”
“I will go with you—”
“You will cease this madness and return home directly!”
“Do not speak to me like I’m a civilian!” she hollered.
“You keep me from the King’s business! Do not defy me!”
“I defy God! Nothing will keep me from him!”
He struck her across the cheek and she toppled to the ground.
He set his boot into the center of her back when she tried to crawl away. Her shrieks were murderous. The gravel cut into her palms. He watched her claw and writhe and set his foot more firmly onto her spine. Eventually she rose and shoved him as far as she could manage.
“Damn you! Damn your King! Damn your commandments!” He spat at her feet. “I will do what I please! I will go where I please! And if you will not accompany me, I shall keep to your wake and count your tracks and fuck my way to his side once I get there! You men are all the same. You are all after the same!” She slapped him.
They watched each other. She wiped the blood from her nose when it dribbled onto her lip. Overhead, the sky was a deep-sea abyss, swimming with large cloud banks and a radiance that marked the noon hour.
“He will not return.” The confirmation was like a blow.
“You are certain?”
“He is terminal. He speaks strangely if he speaks at all. He’s been abed for weeks now. Beyond that he is plagued with fever—sure to madness. Em…I cannot bury him…” he croaked. “I shall send word of his condition within the week.”
“Take me with you,” she pled, grabbing his lapels and rising onto her tiptoes until they were nose to nose. “Please, sir. Do not leave me here.”
“I give regard to my master’s mission and to my men. If you follow me, you are a free agent and a fool. I will not protect you. Don’t think for a second that I will. You have not my allegiance, and in distress you ought not utter my name.”
“Then I shall save my breath. You needn’t worry for me, captain.”
He approached the steed and halted.
“I am disinclined to trust you. Even after all this time,” he glanced askance. “I have never known you to be pure of intent.”
“Then you have not known me.”
“The conditions will be appalling.”
He mounted and spared little time for her to do the same. She plopped into the saddle behind him, and they strove to pull abreast of his company.
The westward forests were high and unseasonably chill. There, hawks wheeled without end. Smaller things clamored and hushed when the team neared. The reek of the beasts grew stifling when the wind stood still, and insects descended in legions. They entered a realm overrun with beetles—dark, winged beings that swarmed and numbered into the thousands. Ember rode in the bed of a wagon to avoid them.
At day’s end, she was violent with hunger. An officer assisted her from the bed of the vehicle, and she studied the sweat that beaded across his brow and in the creases of his neck. She sat cross-legged before the fire and gnawed at her hair. The captain busied himself among the steeds and readied the camp; shirtless until the midges sought the sweetness of his perspiration.
Twilight shone, diffused amid thousands of black boles that rocketed into enormity and swayed overhead. She ate what could be spared of their salted meats and gruel, and pissed onto the ground in the brush like the others. Eventually she settled onto the captain’s pallet before the fire. The men congregated around a separate fire, upward of a dozen officers. She watched the flames until darkness encroached and distorted those who sat yards away. Removing her boots, she wiggled bare toes in the night air. They seemed to glow against the dirt. She stretched them towards the flames and trifled with the heat until it ached.
Card-game ended, the captain joined her. He did not remove his boots. They lay shoulder to shoulder and did not speak for hours, blanketed by nothing but the calm of the forest. Beyond the pines were spangled skies and midnight clouds. Hunger returned, violenter than before. The man beside her slept. The soldiers stirred without end; gnashing their teeth.
“Sir, I am hungry,” he shoved her from atop his dead arm.
“Wake me again and I’ll flog you.”
“Do you doubt me?”
She shifted onto her side with her back to him and gazed into the eye of a miniscule flower. Recalling her master’s sugary words when he had lain sated in her arms, she let out a long breath. Remembering him, all, with a fevered acuity. She prayed he did not suffer at the hands of crude attendants. Prayed that the sickness leave his body, even if it must enter her own. Prayed he would remember her. The flower splattered in her fist like a worm.
“Captain…” she turned shook him again. “Do you hold me in high regard?”
His sough stirred the surrounding shrubs. “You are witless.”
“Do you respect me?”
“In the main.”
“Not when you are as obstinate as this.” She scoffed and he kissed his teeth. “Ornery, tiresome, churlish…these traits abound of late.”
“I’ll try to be better. I should like to be more amiable, captain. There are so many amiable women, aren’t there? They are mesmerizing. I am not genteel. It is not of me, it seems. Do you hate me?”
“Should your master be pleased to see me when we arrive?”
“If he manages to awaken, he will throttle you.”
“You cannot be sure of that.”
“You know nothing of the man he is afield. He will not humor you as I have.”
“I couldn’t have remained home…like a good little girl. The wait is insufferable. It eats at me. I’ve feared him dead long ago.”
“You must learn to occupy yourself—”
“But I feel so dispossessed. After everything…I have nothing. Nothing to offer him anymore.”
“You couldn’t have prevented it. You must not give thought to it.”
“I did not know it to think of it. Just another corpse now…”
“Then forget it entirely.”
“I can’t. Has he?”
“He didn’t sleep a wink in that house. He took it into the night and wrapped it in his shirt. Then he buried it and kept watch over the plot for hours. It lies now beneath a remarkable tree, should you ever choose to revisit.”
She awakened to find she had dozed, then shrieked beneath the hand clamped across her mouth. The earth was soft like mush and uprooted beneath her flailing heels. An officer dragged her into the brush, lifted her skirts, and took her in the dirt. Ramming himself inside without warning. Splitting her in his haste.
Crushed onto her stomach beneath his bulk, her screams were stifled and mattered not for none would hearken. She was as good as mute, choked by the grit that slipped into her lungs. Bound by the hand that pressed her skull into the damp duff. Mud masked her face, and she was unrecognizable upon lifting her head for air. The man’s fingers wrenched about her hair, and his member slapped her against thighs upon exiting. She lay writhen as he sat aside and caught his breath. They rested a while before her struggles were renewed.
Dawn pulsed across the forest and a chorus of birds pealed. The captain’s boot fell near her nose.
“Have you finished?”
“Aye,” the officer replied, adjusting his clothes and quitting the area.
Assisted to her feet, Ember faltered. The captain presented a clean kerchief and she cleared the rotting mask from her face, sitting upon a stone until she caught her breath. Her eyes grew gritty from the tears. The captain left to attend his steed. Dark birds darted in the distance. Her toes stiffened with crud.
“There is a river ahead, should you choose to make use of it,” the captain said. “Up with you, we’ve a stern day’s trek ahead.”
He left her and she clasped her aching groin, heading for the river. Most of the men had departed before she rejoined the party. Having lifted her skirts and waded into the stream to purge herself, she now slid clean toes into her boots and waited for further instruction.
The captain would not look upon her and she did well to avert her eyes. Her aggressor had been among the early departures, and she nearly swooned with relief. Beyond that, no feeling assailed her. She drifted, crippled by the alienation of an unwelcome and unneeded thing. All got on without her. Laughter rose among the soldiers and died as quickly. Additional horsemen departed. What few remained smoked and cursed in their dialects. She smelled the sausage they seared. She would’ve counted the pine needles at her feet, but they numbered beyond her depth. The captain ended a conference and approached.
“I’ve not forgotten you,” he assured her. Their eyes met for the first time that morning.
“Perhaps I should return home,” she wagered.
“Perhaps,” he agreed. “Or have you forgotten all your speeches?”
“I would do well to.”
“Are you so entirely deterred? So easily? You are not the person I thought you were.”
“I am nothing I had hoped to be either.” Heartsore and fatigued, she reckoned: “I am not fit for this.” Unable to maintain her composure any longer, she wept and he pulled her to his chest.
“Em…” he kissed her hair. “I would never deny you justice.”
She gazed up, confounded by the glimmer in his eye. Now she followed him into a thicket where the trees seem to double in height. He took them far from animal and man and into a silence that made her glad. A primitive calm, ethers away from where she’d been hurt. And she trusted him beyond reason.
Near a clearing, he halted and removed several items from his person. A pistol, its flask, a rod, and a collection of lead balls.
“Don’t look so off-put. It is a burdensome business, is it not?” He jammed the pistol into her hand and raised her arm.
“Now…when you target a man, you must aim to end his life. Yes…a thoroughly objectionable notion, I know. Though a greater dread will be visited upon you if you aim and fire pitifully.”
She heaved a breath and squeezed her eyes shut.
“Be selective in your fears, my love. You’ve only the one shot.”
She had little volition to do harm, yet the man behind her was a practitioner in it. “This is unaccountable,” she said, in hopes he would spare her.
This was not her place. These were not her things. The contraption was awkward. Who could wield it? Who could stomach it? For her, war was psychological, and victory was a man.
“This is a firearm. Revere its utility, do not fear it.” She tried to return it to him. “Take it into your hands!” he barked.
Taking it between her hands, she trembled. She found that birds chirped in all conditions. When she lowered her arms, the man slung them back into place.
“Captain, I have no understanding in this.”
“Then let us amend that. Hold it well. Directly forward. There…there. The projectile loads and exits here. Do not peer down into it! Keep the end ranged ahead!” He pressed his lips to her hair and muttered: “Your curiosity will be the end of you.”
“What is a projectile?”
He dug into some hidden breast pocket and presented a beaten round, dropping it into her open palm.
“See here the clever round we dug from your Duke. Had it killed him, I intended to keep it.”
“Should so small a thing undo him?”
“It would seem not.”
“He is an eternity of a man.”
The captain presented a new round and helped her to charge the pistol. She studied his fingers as they moved deftly about their business. He cocked and leveled the device. It blared without warning and brutalized her ears. Smoke wafted. The bird was eviscerated. She glanced to the shooter, but he was already reloading. Swiftly. Monstrously.
“See here.” His bark startled her. “A miniature canon.”
Her ears still rang. His voice was eons away.
“The object is to spark the flint and ignite the powder, which’ll expel the round into a fiend of your choosing. Understand? Speak.”
When the pistol was primed again, he jammed it into her hands and grasped her from behind.
“Prepare for a kick,” he cautioned, cramming his finger onto the trigger atop hers. They leveled it upon a tree and the round discharged before she could blink.
The blast redoubled her deafness, and she had no understanding of why men concerned themselves with such things. Her body had flinched down to its depths, making her bones long to flee her flesh. Smoke wafted.
Again, there was a squall of sound and a waft of smoke, leaving her heart abristle. And it was no longer a mystery why the Duke seemed hard-of-hearing. When they had done, the captain clamped her upon the shoulder, and she grinned like an idiot.
Later, they gathered their belongings and moved further into the forest. The pines soared beyond reckoning and shadows were rampant. In that sepulchral quiet, she imagined they traipsed another planet; where unseen and unknowable things observed their coming. She now wished they weren’t alone. The captain halted within yards of a frantic rustling. A nude man lay outstretched upon his back, hands and feet bound to the earth.
“Should you need me, I’ll be with the mounts. Follow the twine back to camp,” he indicated a trail marked by thin rope a few yards east.
“What am I to do?!” she hissed, eyes darting between the two of his.
“That is up to you.” With that, he vanished.
Ember listened to his every footfall, feeling as cold as she had before dawn. She squatted behind a bush so that the bound man could not see her. Time wandered. Her skirts were too fine for this business. Her hair tasted dirty. The awkward pistol lay before her, a primed agitation.
He was blindfolded. That strong nude body revolted her. The captain’s dictate rang clear, and she knew she must aim to finish what he had begun. It was not a game. Her aggressor lied entirely at her mercy. At last, she rose and approached. His manhood hung dark and shrunken. So much smaller than what she imagined had assaulted her.
“What is your name?” she crouched and ripped the hood from his face. A pause ensued in which his half-lidded blue eyes refused to meet hers.
Then quietly: “Breon.”
“Breon…I am Ember.”
She latched her fingernails into his face and drug them clear down to his jowls. He hollered and gnashed his teeth and reviled her and reviled God like some hell-bound fiend. He choked on his curses, feverish with the very hatred that had led him to aggress her. She rose again, nails caked so tightly with his flesh she could hardly feel her fingertips. Stepping over him, she pissed onto his face and listened to him sputter.
The captain accepted the unused pistol without comment. He awarded her the man’s steed. They took to their mounts and soon drew abreast of the main convoy…
Military Base: An Abandoned Hospital
The following afternoon they drew abreast of a much larger company who transported livestock and hundreds of refugees apprehended at the borders. Scores of carts teemed with animals and their cadaverous human counterparts who wore tatters—grey with defilement—all driven back onto the battlegrounds they sought to escape. The captain circled a cart, forcing it to a halt. A weary Ember reined in and watched dozens of vehicles progress into the distance. The captain rapped in the language of the land they occupied and before long a young boy removed his clothing and handed it up to the mounted officer. Soon his cart lurched on and took him away in the nude. When the man approached, Ember dismounted.
“These should suit you,” he remarked, dismounting and dropping the heap into her arms. He dropped the boy’s boots at her feet.
“You must not be noticed, if you wish to avoid being molested again.”
She nodded and doffed the gown. The stay and shift remained for they helped to conceal her breasts. She tucked the hems into the trousers with a meticulousness that irked the man, then donned the sweaty boots with bare feet. As she started to remount, her braid was snatched from behind. Before she could register what had taken place, its length lay at her feet.
“I am sorry,” was his earnest remark.
She grasped the shoulder-length locks, fighting tears. He set a floppy, broad-brimmed hat onto her head, and she tugged it low to hide her despondence. As with everything, it was masculine and cumbersome and helped to finalize the charade.
“When we near the camp, you will enter the last cart and conceal yourself until word is given for you to exit. Is that clear?” They mounted and moved on.
Later that afternoon, they entered an abandoned town overcome with disembodied voices. In the flagged square, most of the horsemen parted and the last man to go had an orange beard and sang stridently. Ember shifted in the saddle and eyed the steed’s twitching ears. They had been eaten to bits by vermin. His head reared again, frightening her into dismounting lest he cart her away in some mad dash.
The captain ordered her into the final cart. She panicked when a man pulled a filthy tarpaulin in place over the bed of the vehicle. Pressing to the wall, she sucked air from the cracks and sweated profusely. The world crept by, vibrating as she watched through the slits in the wood, counting several blocks of dormant buildings and a destitute haze. The buzzing of flies grew livid beneath the tarp and a number of them flitted about her ears. She covered her head with her arms and knew the blows her body sustained in the wagon would haunt her for weeks to come.
Outside of a large, fortified building, the voices amplified and the company halted. Many carts advanced into the empty city out of sight; the refugees never to be seen again. Once permitted behind the wall, Ember’s cart trundled toward the principal building and the gate shut with a crash. She feared the captain had gone. The air beneath the tarpaulin had grown dank and she longed to call out to him.
Men barked overhead as the vehicle took to a gravelly driveway before circling to a halt. Many hailed the captain’s coming with whistles and jubilant shouts. He greeted them for what seemed an eternity, drawing nearer the cart all along. At last, he called to her and she struggled to emerge from beneath the weight of the canvas. The first breath of fresh air was like a stake between the ribs.
The humidity struck her square in the face. The sun was white hot. The captain was irate. He stood shrouded in the dust, watching her falter to her feet atop the bed of the vehicle and then finally jumping to the ground. They had landed hundreds of yards from the high, deeply gabled entrance, so she fell short of avoiding the guardsmen’s scrutiny altogether. Before she could survey her surroundings and register the legion that strode about in arms, the captain whisked her up the steep stone steps and into a building that seemed to house nothing alive.
His fingers dug into her arm as they passed a vestibule and dim French-doors that opened to a dormitory. Bedsteads were scattered about and upturned against the walls and dozens of linen curtains still hung in place. All was discolored with smoke and ash. Abandoned medical equipment lay strewn atop carts and the floor, along with strange accouterments stacked in heaps against a far wall. Ember advanced into the dorm and counted scores of slippers and curled boots among hairbrushes and debris. Fire-shields lay overturned before the hearths, which stood centered along either flank of the room. She straightened the nearest painting and wondered how many had observed the pastoral scene, now yellowed with smoke. A small boy and woman stood at a river’s edge amid the glow of sunset.
The room itself smelled musty, owing to the captain’s extended absence. She spotted him at the far end of the dorm, seated at a desk laden with paperwork. A solitary bedstead equipped with mattress and fresh linen stood behind a curtain and she deduced it was where he made rest. Setting the hat onto the foot of the bed, she thought of the robbed young boy to whom it belonged.
“Captain, are these your things?”
The question went unanswered, but she approached the cabinet cluttered with gadgets and old coins and determined they belonged to none other. There was a toothbrush and a bar of soap upon a washstand and everywhere the stench of damp wood. She halted upon catching a glimpse of herself in the looking glass. The image opposite was dirty, arrogant, and boyish. It might have complemented her espionage well, however, the winged brows, tilted eyes, and full lips betrayed the truth.
Catching a bit of twine from a package, she tied the shoulder length mane at her nape and expelled a breath that uplifted dust. Beside the cracked basin lay a razor enclosed in a turtle-shell handle, and she fingered it before pocketing it. Striding back into the vast thoroughfare, her feet scuffed through the sunbeams cast from undraped windows.
“This place is wreck,” she said, setting her smudgy hand to the pane of a nearby casement. Outdoors, many blackcoats moved perpetually. Massive canines tread the yard at their heels, much like the hideous grey thing that often shadowed the captain.
“Come away from the window.”
“What is this place?”
“Never you mind—”
“You ought to tell me where I am…” she caught his eye.
“Why aren’t there any patients?”
“It’s been out of use a while now. It was converted into a madhouse to relieve the principal cities in recent years…though that operation was disbanded upon our arrival.”
“And what has become of our patients?” she wondered. “Have they been committed elsewhere?” When he did not respond, she demanded: “Are they dead?”
“By and large. What few remain wander freely outdoors.”
“Day and night? Heavens…”
“A sight better than the condition in which they were found,” he said, perusing a series of maps. “They’d been forsaken to their own devices for weeks after the practitioners fled.” He stamped something and the thud echoed a while. “We found them…those wretches…huddled together like dogs in the rear rooms—starving, howling—eating and fucking each other to death. Like nothing I had ever seen…or smelled.”
“Won’t you help them?!”
“My men are my only concern. It is as simple as that, Em. It is no more difficult than that.”
A while passed before he exited and returned, and in that time she had made herself comfortable upon the floor beneath a casement, surrounded with webbed flies and woodlice. Her fingers became tangled in discarded hair and broken bits of nails along the molding.
Military Base: An Abandoned Hospital
After dinner Ember removed her clothes, angry for soiling them so soon after they had been laundered. Climbing into bed, she was careful, for unlike the Duke, the captain was the same man in the night: unsociable, untrusting and untrustworthy.
“The men were a part of your team, were they not?” she asked. “They were committed to your purpose…”
“To be sure.”
“Then why did you do it?”
“I beg of you, do not divert me.”
“You have sat there at that desk for hours, sir, perfectly undiverted! I wish to speak with you now! It would be commonly decent for you to acknowledge my presence for once!” When he looked disinclined, she continued: “Only for a little while.”
“They were thought to have borne a contagion, and in resolving matters as these…one must be absolute.”
“Where were they from?”
“Detainees from the south. They were scouts—my scouts—arrested early on in the capital.”
“Before you acted…did you inform them of their fate?”
“Of course not.”
“Why deny them a physician’s opinion? A simple examination, sir? Do you toy so easily with a man’s life? And here I have trusted you with my own.”
“Of your own accord,” he spat, rising. “Em, you must understand: plague would be the end of us. You, I, everyone. It is a mighty equalizer, you see. And to await the arrival of a physician might’ve become a detriment to us all. Thousands of my men reside here—more arriving by the day. Should I in good conscience lure them to certain death?”
“It’s not that simple.”
“It is entirely that simple. For the betterment of the whole…for the furtherance of our success, nothing is too costly.” He sat at the foot of the bed.
“You are wicked,” she quailed. “I’d heard of the things that transpired back home, but refused to believe them. Culling your own citizens like beasts. I cannot conceive of it. And every day I awaken, I regret that I have followed you here—”
“No one asked you to be here. Do not speak on matters of which you have no true understanding. Think you that I am pleased with today’s outcome? I do his bidding, not mine. And I shall not compromise his holdings—months’ worth of toil and suffering on such a scale that words cannot attest. And if my master should not make it, I will not allow his fate to have been in vain. I will continue south at all costs—alone if I must—but resolve this I shall.”
Incapable of denying that the man she loved was the author of the entire enterprise, she burrowed beneath the sheets without another word. The captain joined her after hours of drinking in the dark. She balanced upon the edge of the mattress to keep away from him.
“The borderlands were first to go,” he susurrated, lying close. “They always are. It was good that we rescued you.”
“There was little resistance. They were too weak to make a showing. They practically laid down and died. ” She turned and watched him unseeingly. “It was not always as unseemly as that. We sought to quarantine them for as long as we could. But that was no longer viable. There were countless districts taken already, you see, and more amassed by the day. The infirmaries had been overrun, and at the very last we burned them to the ground. They were not permitted to house those people. It simply could not be contained. It was always one step ahead of us, you see…the further we ventured north and along the coasts into Hall. At such a trajectory…a countrywide outbreak was imminent. By then it would have become riotous. It would have been the end of us all.”
He watched the ceiling. She scooted to prop her chin atop his chest and watched his mouth move in the moonlight.
“What ensued next…was unheard of—”
“Captain…you needn’t continue.”
“He came to me at day’s end like he always does and reassured me of the actions taken. Of our actions….against our own people. Ultimately, the sickness retreated into the land from which it had come, and we have arrived here to finish it off.”
“We shall rebuild what we have salvaged here and replenish the land to our liking. Appoint a new king.”
He rose and pissed in the pot at the far side of the room and opened a window.
“I am indebted to that man. We fought together under the command of his father,” he said of the Duke. “Seldom, you see, though often enough that we should become acquainted. It was during one of these early campaigns that I was apprehended. But he refused to forsake me. Now these marks remind me,” he indicated the scars along his back. “Of what my master risked, and of what he gave.”
Ember eyed the puckered flesh; scores of hideous stripes and discolorations.
“Spare me your quivers.”
“Is that why you follow him so blindly? Because he saved you? Sir, I pity you dearly.”
“You need not bother.”
“You’ve beholden yourself to a man who performed quite possibly the sole kindness of his life in sparing yours, yet it is for him you’ve committed a thousand evils,” she puzzled. “He is no god. You must know that?”
“Who speaks of gods? Upon my word, you know nothing of love.”
“Upon my word, sir, I imagine I am far more acquainted with notion than the likes of you.”
He sat upon the edge of the bed with his back to her. “What can you know of love? You are a child. You know nothing of what I bear. You know nothing of what this feels like. Love that consumes, that mutinies—that kills. Heart-whole, unconscionable devotion,” he glared ahead. “What can you know of love when you scoff in its very face? When my parents forsook me, it was that man who took possession of me. He has saved my life more times than I can attest, and it is for him I would commit every evil.”
“I know the feeling…”
“You know nothing of love. And you have neither the birth, nor beauty, nor requisite good graces for a place beside royalty. These facts will never change. You are already non-existent to him. Forgive me, Em…while it is not my intention to offend you, you know me to be a man of perilous truths.”
“These are your truths, sir, not mine.”
“There is nothing new under the sun. I speak, my love, as the reprobate son of a courtesan. My mother was a whore. My father was the proprietor of the country’s finest house of ill-repute. Having myself been reared in his care…I’ve come to know you creatures all too well.”
“You know whores. You know nothing of me.”
“Your schemes, your ploys—you all operate the same. Mark my words, you shall be as the others—all the little fleeting objects of his favor—forgotten and put far out of his company.”
“I am not the vulgar stuff of your father’s degenerate enterprises. I was untouched before my master found me, and shall remain untouched apart from him. I will be his forever.”
“My master will not be long in humoring you.”
“Fuck you.” She left him to sleep upon the floor.
Military Base: An Abandoned Hospital
Dragging the sheet away from his neck, she saw that he was nude, apart from a cloth that hung from his waist and rested atop the protrusion of his loins. Yellowing bandages swathed a great portion of his torso, and his flesh was warm to her touch. She kissed his belly. She dragged the sheet further away and kissed his feet. She lifted his hand and kissed his bruised knuckles.
Sometime later she roved the premises. A study at the end of the dormitory boasted a desk laden with his belongings, and at first glance she found a compass and his old watch. Sifting further, she uncovered a cigar case that featured a painting of his new wife.
Pages of inscrutable text lay at her fingertips, and she envisioned the condition he must have suffered to render so little sense of his own thoughts. The words leapt from her lips and rang with the same sweltering delirium that had formed them.
A broadsword lay atop the cabinet, and she recalled spotting it at his hip. Sliding it from the sheath, bit by bit, it glinted like hallowed bane. Inscriptions flickered throughout the silver, and it seemed a device fit for a fable. The hilt was too large for her palm; comprised of queer things like leather, wire, and human bone—
Someone questioned her in an unknown tongue, and she spun in a frenzy to face them. The Duke stood at the threshold, gazing through her. Setting the desk between them, she dropped the sword and watched him repeat the question.
“Forgive me, but I…I can’t understand you…” she said.
His lids lowered. “English?”
“Who are you?” he asked, watching her like something from a fevered dream.
“Are we acquainted?”
“We are. ”
“Pardon me, I do not recall.”
“You are quite forgiven, my lord.”
“Why do you call me that?”
“What? ‘My lord’? Simply speaking, sir, you are lord of all we stand within, and all that surrounds it.”
“Very well,” he quieted. “Do these things belong to me?”
He approached the desk and fingered the cigar-case, and found for himself a journal filled with mad scrawls.
“I am inarticulate, it seems.”
“Do you know who you are? Do you know where you are?”
“I am me, and I am here,” he said. Then, after some time: “Where precisely?”
“Southgate, I believe…or Southend. Newly acquired territory, adjacent to Hall…our home.”
“Our home? Yes…I do believe we’ve met before. In a daydream perhaps? There are many strange faces to account for…but I feel as though I’ve seen your face upon a million heads.” He nodded, setting a hand to his wound as though he were confronting the thing that had dealt it. “You are a veritable torment. The enormity of those eyes—chthonic eyes—they gape at me, seeking to swallow me up.”
“You are delirious,” she smiled weakly. “The poisons have tainted your dreams and hardened your heart against me. Give me your hand.” She gathered the large specimen between her palms. He was shivering.
“Do I feel evil to you?” she asked.
He met her eyes. “Do you love me?”
“I ought to—”
“You, sir, are a most refractory patient!” The captain’s voice rang throughout the dormitory. The patient squared and left the girl to face the newcomer.
“Who are you?” the Duke demanded.
The captain chuckled, drawing face to face with the madman. “Svendsen, your Grace. Lord Svendsen, at your service.”
“Johannes? Lord Commander?”
“It’s been years…”
“Days, my lord.”
“Am I dying?”
“You are tenacious,” he said, with his sideward grin. “I am beginning to think you immortal.”
The Duke faltered and looked deeply aggrieved. “When I am gone, captain…see that I am properly prayed after.”
“You are not a pious man.”
“Is that how I’ve contended myself in this life?” he puzzled, starting away. “Skepticism is a wonderful privilege, is it not? One rather denied a dying man.” He surveyed the room. “I’ve seen the things that revile me and revile the God I longed not to know. They are impatient of my final breath.”
“Then I am at your behest—”
The patient coughed. Blood dropped from his nose and he teetered forward. The captain caught him, and the crash of their bodies thudded about the empty acoustics. Once the patient was hauled back onto the mattress, Ember leapt to his side, wiping the blood from his lips. She pressed cool linen to his forehead and winced when the captain strode away in fury. Developing a mind to go after him, she was restrained. Her charge had grabbed ahold of her hand.
The manor had been upheaved with preparations for the King’s advent. Ember was designated to prepare the staterooms with a team of her choosing, and afterwards busied herself among old comrades in the kitchens. The court arrived three days hence and the King’s outriders were brightly clad. Crimson abounded; the horses caparisoned in red and gold.
A rider assisted the supersovreign from the carriage and presented a gilded cane. The King accepted it, for he struggled with a lumbago that troubled his going. He was a cadaverous titan of a man with closely cropped hair and unruly brows. His beard was long and totally white. Decked in coruscating robes, he resembled something out of a fable.
As he advanced, exultation greeted him. The courtiers who had heralded his coming joined the servants and sank to their knees, remaining there like souls won over to Christ. The Duke kneeled at the forefront of the assembly and the King bid him to rise. The crowd sundered as they passed, and dozens of officers rose and followed. The courtiers trailed in their wake, skirts whirling in a deluge of exquisite colors and print.
Inside, Ember watched from the third story gallery of the Great Hall with the kitchen crew, for they had been forbidden to attend the ceremony. They kneeled behind a high balustrade as the procession poured into cavern below. Craning, she spotted no familiar face among the courtiers. To see the Duke beside the King was to see the thing he was to become. In all his state, he was distinct from his ovine counterparts. The women smiled upon him with much the same acquisitive leer they bestowed upon the King. The latter sat at the head of the Hall in a throne fashioned for his visit, and soon gifts were conferred. Dark women numbered into the dozens and were stark among the masses for it would seem the Duke’s proclivity for exotic mistresses had sparked a trend.
Outdoors, vehicles arrived without end, depositing scores until it seemed the whole of the country had descended. The first day featured a hunt where the hounds roamed, and their baying could be heard long after they dispersed. The second day featured a ball to commemorate an international triumph: the joining of two states by blood, for it was revealed that the Duke’s new wife was with child. The third day was consumed by a picnic in the gardens replete with enormous tents and a menagerie of beasts from the earth’s most remarkable corners.
The maids watched from the terraces of the third-story and were joined by domestics of every order. More than thirty grappled over a pair of binoculars and Ember triumphed long enough to espy a panther and an ancient tortoise. The fourth day featured the Duke’s chamber orchestra and a dinner that would drive the excursion to a close.
Following the footman into the dining room, Ember fixed her gaze ahead and heeded the conversations adrift in the heat. Men with long faces and odd beards watched her above the chokeholds of their cravats; beings who looked as though they held stakes in the ownership of the world. Beside them sat hard-nosed women whose dialogs lacked depth. One spoke of drop earrings. Another remarked on past functions and those forthcoming. Others expressed their odium for country life and decried muddied skirts and the antiquity of the manor’s protocol.
Even in all the time she had spent with the Duke, acquainting herself with his eminence, Ember reeled among his kind, feeling like an unearthed worm. At the head of the long table, she stepped before the king and sank into a deep curtsy. His perfumes were cloying. He regarded her in a way that made her feel stepped upon. The guests were seated according to excellence, clad in aberrant fashions; in clothes out of time. Among them were appropriations of foreign dress and artistic innovations—women sporting turbans and veils and curious headwear; and always there was the rustling of skirts. Women like horrendous dolls, feathered, painted, winged; barking with laughter. Shrouded by the amber of a thousand curling flames—
Ember gasped awake in the kitchens. She rose, and a stab of hunger encouraged her to take a registry of the surfeit of food waiting to be served. Silver tureens of apple soup and turtle soup and roasts sampling every beast. Oysters, lobsters, and steaming fish. Fruits, custards, and tarts. Entrées garnished with gold; dishes fit for gods. She sampled the chocolate and was banished from the kitchens.
The galleries were unnavigable, being overcome with servants. As the chapel was the only room sure to grant her seclusion, she slipped within and enjoyed its vaulted chill. By and by a footman followed.
“Madam, your presence has been requested in the east drawing room.”
“A dignitary, madam. Forgive me, I am ignorant of aught else.”
Ember followed him to the teal room where he left her alone with a councilman who towered beside a great walking stick. As she neared, he squared to his full height and gazed down his nose at her. He smelled of moth-eaten clothes and peppery things. They watched one another a while.
“Have you forgotten how to comport yourself upon entering the presence of one of elevated peerage? I should hope not.”
Ember lowered into a curtsy. “Forgive me, my lord. I only wondered how we might’ve been acquainted—”
“You bear not the honor of my acquaintance,” he confirmed, glowering from beneath profuse brows—a face like something out of a frieze. He presented a black humor; each word curling from his lips with an acrimony beyond reckoning. The girl resolved to speak as little as possible.
“Finally, I have come face-to-face with the gangrenous bane accountable for the uproar and devilry overtaking this region. And I am given to understand, young madam, that you have set out to bankrupt and deprave the second most reverend man in all of Norr.” He paced before her, no more expectant of her to respond than she was willing.
“Impudence, impudence…” he mused. “Tucked away in secret…bearing his bastards! Strolling the corridors of so esteemed a home as though you were remotely worthy of its preeminence. An insidious contravention of every polite code! Indeed, madam…I know all too well the exploits of your degeneracy and the tricks you have visited upon your master. These stories have flown far and wide and at last ended at my doorstep.” He dabbed a yellowing kerchief beneath his nose. “I know of the many God-forsaken things you have visited upon this household—abetted still no doubt by its very proprietor! Will you account for them?!”
“Indeed not, sir,” Ember said. “I would never speak a word certain to denigrate the greatest man I know.” He scoffed. “Surely, my lord. My master is a valiant and m—”
“You hail him?!” he balked. “In my presence? As though he were some paragon of virtue?!”
To avoid confirming the rumors of their congress, Ember remained silent and did not defend the man further.
“You ought to condemn him now. Save face. You have no idea who he truly is…” he continued. “My girl, you haven’t a clue.”
“I shall not mind it, my lord, whomever he may be—”
“A vulgarian!” he roared, throwing the cloth aside and heaving in fury. “A mind wrecked with vengeance since youth! An inveterate murderer! How dare you stand before me and fabricate merits—”
“Sir, I am perfectly aware that in all things my master deals with a heavy hand—”
“Heavy indeed! You haven’t a clue of how deep it runs, my girl! Though this time he has invoked the righteous indignation of this country’s highest order. Forasmuch as this, he will atone,” he hissed, advancing still. “I will make certain of it. And as an inhabitant of this nation, you too are enthralled to serving its best interests. You will account for what you know, you vulgar American hussy, or you shall rue the day you stepped foot beyond this nation’s threshold.”
“My lord, what you demand of me is simply impossible. I cannot—nay, I shall not betray my master! Ask anything else of me, I beg of you!”
“I have it on good authority that you have not only held congress with Hall, but with the good Lord Commander himself! I demand to know what you have observed of their dealings abroad—”
“Sir?!” she cried. “I cannot listen to this further! What you ask of me is absurd! I know far better than to malign a man in his own home! Neither shall I betray the captain’s confidence!” She looked him over from head to foot with sneer. “Pray you I remain ignorant of your identity.”
As she quit the room, he reviled her at the top of his lungs.