You know how you can be minding your own business, doing the most habitual thing in your life, and a new story idea comes to you? "Thus the female mind." I think this newest idea will make Number Ten (roughly speaking) in my Plenilune series which I am working on (Talldogs makes Number Three - Ethandune, who is Number Two, will be overhauled and expanded from its two-month blitz at some point in the future).
I've used my tentative, embryonic scene for this newest story as my Chatterbox. This month's Chatterbox subject is mirrors, but the actual story (so far as I know) does not hinge upon mirrors. They are a prop, a foil. And upon my soul I have cheated so shamelessly this month, it is a wonder Rachel didn't throw me off a cliff. I lo-o-ove you, Rachel.mirrors
my lord avery
“Is my Lord Avery at home?”
I slipped loose the heavy garnet fibula and let my chamois slide from my shoulders into Julia’s hands. The maid took it and I turned in the burnt shadows of the hall entryway, my nostrils full of the scent of mown grass and freshly baked goods. The wind was in its summer quarter, and the familiar smells of Amaranth in the height of the year hummed inside my veins. My heart had been going at a quickened pace since the morning two days past, and had not slowed: now that I stood upon the threshold of my future, its gait seemed to redouble.
Julia folded my little riding cloak in her arms and took up my pack with ease. She was a tall woman, a little roughened from use, but surprisingly strong for her light-boned build. With the yellowed evening light catching on the thin grey of her eyes she looked down a little at me, smiling straightly. “Aye, hast been expecting thee these two days past. He was a dragon in these halls this morning!”
Guilt was added to the active emotions in my chest. If only Father had not been tardy returning from Battens and I had been sent off in due time! I knew I was not late for my own coming-out, but I should have arrived at Amaranth at least a day ago. I had not known my Lord Avery to ever be cross with me—trifling and, at times, a little perplexed, but never cross—but when he was out of temper there was no gentle place in the world for my soul. I hoped he was not angry now.
“Art dusty, and thirsty besides,” remarked Julia gaily, in ignorance of my trepidations. “Come by and I will set up the bath for thee and tuck thee in before supper.”
“Thank you, Julia,” I replied meekly, and tread softly along behind her down the hall. The stone flags underfoot were scored and scarred with fire, but the walls were new, and still looked to me a little like playthings, they were so clean-cut and fresh. “Give them another six generations,” my Lord Avery had once said to me—I glanced over my shoulder: I had been sitting on the stone kerb of the wall on the east side, where the summer’s evening light would hit me, and I had been reading a book of history. My Lord Avery had looked on the book with a strange fondness and his eye had not been upon me. “These walls will grow hoary about the whiskers with age.”
The rest of the house was old—very old. I walked after Julia through a narrow arched doorway into a darkened dog-leg of corridor where very few lights shone after dusk and it was a horror to walk in the dead of night, even with a lamp. I have never been equal to the dark. Many other things I have conquered in my sixteen years, but the dark has not been one of them.
The buckle of my saddle-bag jingled as Julia moved.
She took me to the familiar blue-tiled washroom with its high narrow window and plumbing that could alternately freeze your bones and strip the skin off your muscles with its heat. It was a small, familiar, fish-scale-coloured place, and I was glad to see it.
Julia shut the door behind me and moved to place my pack on the stuffed seat of the armchair by the old copper tub. As she began to remove my clothing and lay out a fresh set of garments for me, I moved to the basin and framed my reflection in the round, heavily gilt oval of the mirror. The face which gazed back at me was paled by the blue light, but picked out on the cheeks with lively pink, woefully freckled, and shrouded in the flaxen hair which the wind of my ride had teased from its coils.
Mon coeur, I sighed dismally. I had hoped that, magically, the eve of my coming out would wake a kind of spell that would make me very beautiful. In all respects I was tolerable, respectable, and plain. Most days I could contrive to believe that I was not ugly: very few days came which found me vain. But tomorrow, I reasoned with myself and with providence, I should have liked to be beautiful, and to stand before the world with unrivalled grace. My Lord Avery—
“There is the clothing for thee,” said Julia, rising and turning to me. “Canst undress thyself?”
I drew my gaze from the image in the mirror. “Yes. Thank you, Julia.”
She pinched the corners of her gown and dipped. “I will get a glass for thee and come back to thee presently.”
“Thank you, Julia.”
She went out through the heavy oak door, shutting it again so that its iron latches squealed a little in their places, and I was left with the hollow sound of my own voice echoing in my ears. Thank you, Julia. I would be saying that often.
I unbuttoned the throat of my riding habit and crossed to the tub. It was a sweltering day, and my head was light with the blaze of the sun. A cool bath, cool enough to jolt the brain back to reality—a heart-thundering reality—would be the sort of thing Lady Greymere of Hol would take. Would she not? With my hand upon the handle of the spigot, I frowned over my shoulder at that ordinary reflection.
You have always misfitted your name. I turned the water on and felt the cold dig its fingers into my palm through the sweaty metal pipe. Then, as an aside, I have been waiting for this moment all my life. Why am I so terrified of it now?
As I stood placidly watching the tub fill, my fingers toying with the purple pearl buttons of my silk, it crossed my twitching mind that I had not brought my set of combs with me, choosing to use those which were held here for my use in the little ivory drawer of my little ivory dressing table. I would need them.
I shut off the water and let myself out of the washroom. The muffled sound of my boots on the stone flags was my only accompaniment as I wound through the familiar passages to my bedroom at the rear of the house. It was a beautiful room, long and low-seeming, with a bank of leaded windows looking out over the park. There was always good light in that room, and it was lavishly furnished. As a bower, I did not know its rival.
I turned the corner to my room and stopped, mumchance, my lungs fighting to expel a sudden wave of rotten stench. It was as though something had died, and been left to decompose! I slung my elbow over my mouth and hurried by the window, bracing as the sharp light lanced across my eyes, and dove for my bedroom door. My foot hit a little red thing on the floor—something like a rose petal; the door stuck and banged as I pushed it open.
The butcher scent, which I thought had been coming in from the window, welled out at me as I stood stricken in the doorway. I got a confused image of scarlet and a man’s silhouette, but it was a moment before my flogged brain could pick itself up from the oppression of the smell. I jumped back, flinching, as a fly dove for my face, and then a familiar voice was cutting through the miasma—
“Don’t come in here!”
Something wet and red hit the back of my hand and I recoiled from the threshold. When I could see, when I could breathe without gagging, I looked up through the fan of electrum evening light to find my Lord Avery standing half upon the seat of a chair, half upon my receiving table, holding what looked like the cover of my windowseat like Atlas above his shoulders. He kinked it backward, cutting off the aureole around his head; long red droplets, shining in the light, fell to the ground behind him.
“Greymere!” His voice was reproachful, harsh and serrated. My body shrank from it, but already my eyes were starting round the room, glassing over as they took in the shattered furniture, the scarlet smears on the lime-washed walls, the bed-hangings ripped and sodden with blood. There was a puddle inside the doorway not far from me which had thickened, but still carried its rich, guttural shine; three flies were skirting its oblong perimeter.
“Lord Avery!” I gasped weakly. “What—what have you done!”
“Don’t come in here,” he snapped. Then, beneath his breath, “Shi’batch! you would come at this instant!”
It was a new word for me. In the back of my mind I wondered what it meant, and if I could use it. Later I would pull it out and see what his response was. I was not sure how Lady Greymere ought to use such things.
I stared at the coagulating blood and the flies. “What happened? Did you kill someone?” I took a step over the threshold.
“No—don’t come in!” He took a step up onto the tabletop and swung the windowseat-cover off his shoulders. It spat blood across my carpets and stained the cream linen of the back-turned bedspread.
“What are you doing?” I demanded. My stomach was feeling queasy and my voice sharpened to cover it. “What happened!”
It did not occur to me that he might not know. He was Lord Avery, head and shoulders above me, even when he was not standing on a table, and I had always looked up to him as a kind of god. It did not occur to me that he might not know.
He set the cover down on the floor, dropping its weight against the lip of the table. As he bent his face was plunged in grey shadow, and I was able to see his eyes, brown-hazel in the light, flickering round the room as if he was expecting something more to spring out at him. I, too, travelled round the room with my eye, sick-feeling and suspicious, repulsed by the sheer amount of carnage that covered my belongings. There was so much blood. It was throat-catching, filthy—the lot would have to be burned.
It must not be human. It is too much blood. Perhaps it is cow-blood, or pig—something no one would notice if it was slaughtered. A human would go missing, and surely—my mind darted back over countless items of information I had picked up from my Lord Avery over the years, pieces he had probably not been aware I was storing away—surely this is too much for one person to bleed out.
But where are the bodies?
My Lord Avery stood on the table, the crown of his fair hair brushing the ceiling, and gazed round on the room with a kind of sullen despair. I pressed tenaciously to the entryway, my hands clasped together among my skirts, and tried to make myself as small as possible. He was deeply in thought, and I was always fearful of disturbing him when he was angrily pensive.
He looked down at a shattered chair between himself and a scarlet end of bedding. “Is that a new gown?” he asked lightly.
I coloured and looked down the length of my dress. It was a dove-grey silk, ribbed in glossy purple thread. My father had ordered it so that I might not come with trunks full of old gowns. “Yes,” I murmured.
He nodded sharply. “It is very becoming on you.”
My colour deepened. It was only very recently that he had taken to remarking, now and then, on the cut of my gowns, and I had not grown accustomed to the event. But he was not cross with me, and I was emboldened to prompt,
“Who would have done this—please?”
My Lord Avery flung a sharp laughing look at me, covering a latent fury which he did not want me to see. “ ‘Please’! I am sorry my tone was so strong. But sooth I do not know,” he added in a growling, baffled voice. “Have you see Malcholm?”
I shook my head, and the blonde tendrils of my hair trembled around my cheeks. “No. Julia saw me in, but I did not see Malcholm.”
He thrust his hands down upon his hips and scrunched his nose in perplexity. “Aye! I do not think anyone knows of this. And yet the windows are not broken, nor the latches undone. I have a wretched worm in my heart telling me it was a person of my own household.” He looked at me sidelong and quizzical. “Have you ever,” he began, then stopped as if he had thought better of it.
I stood very small and cold in the doorway, wondering what was going on behind his suddenly inscrutable face.
He began again, speaking his words very gently, as if they were made of glass and might cut his lips. “Have you ever had a disagreement with any of the members of my household?”
A disagreement! I was not yet out, and despite the strength and the money behind my name, I was not powerful or clever—not as powerful or clever as I wished I was—but I heard the words he did not speak and I felt the heat rise in my face. My voice came out very soft.
“No, my lord.”
His eyes widened a fraction, like a wick when it catches the flame and sinks again. “ ‘Please’ and ‘my lord.’ What have I done to deserve this treatment?”
I shifted my heel toward the corridor. “I am sorry, my lord.” It seemed very clear to me now. Someone was jealous. Perhaps someone had had her eye on my Lord Avery for some time now, and felt I was unworthy of such a position. And I was, was I not? My throat was very dry: I tried to swallow. It had been an old, settled thing before I had shaken out of the mould. And look at how I had shaken! Here I stood on the brink of my coming-out and the announcement of the shape of my life, and someone had painted a very clear sign of what would happen to me if I should dare to go forward. It was very clear to me.
My heart felt like a broken silver.
“I am sorry.”
My Lord Avery was very quiet and I did not dare to look up at him for the corners of my eyes were smarting and any movement might send a telltale pearl of water over the edge. But at last he said, very gently and very thoughtfully,
“I am facing a room debauched in something’s blood and the suspicion that someone of my house is trying to send me an unpleasant message—not very clearly, but very poignantly—and the little chit standing before me, to my mind, is not upset about any of these things. She is upset about something, but not these things.”
“I am—I am very sorry.” My throat was tight, but I pulled the words out of my mouth with an effort. I straightened my shoulders. How I wanted to get out of this and run away from it like a coward! I levelled my chin at the nightmare. “Did you—did you jilt someone?”
This appeared to take him aback. The chape of his sword clawed across the back of a chair as he pivoted with the movement of his surprise. “Jilt? No more than you, it would seem! Whom would I have jilted?”
It was all a bad omen: Father’s lateness, the bloody carnage, the flies. My stomach crawled up my backbone and hid there. “The timing is—tomorrow is my—was my—coming-out. To find my room like this—”
His voice cut across mine. “If you think you are playing a very subtle game with your words, your grammar is markedly telltale. But let us suppose you are in the right. I can think of no female I have jilted—not to her face, at the least—but the landscape has an expression of revenge, don’t you think?” His teeth flashed and his nostrils flared on the scent of his words and the old bloodlust of his noble pedigree. “Sooth, I did not want you in here because I would rather you not see the foreskin that is nailed to the lintel.”
“Shi’batch!” I jerked from the doorway and scrubbed at the blood-streak on the back of my hand. “An’ sure it was a woman!”
“Why—language, girl!—why a woman?” my Lord Avery laughed.
My flesh trembled with appreciative revulsion. “A man would not do such a thing.”
His brows flickered admittingly. “An’ true. Ma petite mère,” he added, swinging down off the table to stand with the sun’s areole around his head, “I believe you have just formally graduated from the schoolroom.”
I bit my lip and stared up at him from an angle, discomforted and frightened and desperately hopeful. He had used his old pet name for me—could that be a good omen among all these nasty imports? Could it be that he was not looking round at this violated chamber and looking twice at the picture he had made in his mind of his future?
He hooked his middle finger through his sword-belt at his back and gave it an unconscious hitch. “It is in my mind that you are right,” he said in a more serious tone. He smiled straight-lipped and mirthless at me, and the hope in my chest died. “Someone—an’ I do not know who, but I am sure I will meet presently—someone is towering angry with me, and from the looks of things it is a woman.”
I ventured among the dead embers of my hope, and they did not burn my feet as much as I would have thought. “It is not me she is angry at? That was your first thought.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw him whip his head toward me. “It was my first thought that it was a man playing a brutal game with your sensibilities. I have got account of that kind of thing done before, and it is not pretty.” He came carefully across the mess toward me, sure not to set his boot in any of the congealed patches of blood. His shadow thickened on my trembling skin. “But now that I look at it anew I am convinced you are right. This was not a man’s work. Not a lady’s work, either, but certainly not a man’s.”
Was he convinced? My mind backstepped quickly from his advance, and a new, nasty thought occurred to me: what if he knew more than he let on, what if he was trying to convince me, and all this was a façade to break up the coming-out and the announcement and everything I had anticipated all my life? What if he wanted none of it, and sought a bold way out? Oh—oh God—my chest hurt abominably. “My lord—” I began thickly.
“I am a lord,” he cut me off gently; “I am also a man, and I will take my liberties.”
Next thing I knew my heart was in my throat and his hand was firm beneath my chin, drawing it up so that he could touch my mouth with his. It was so sudden, so unexpected, that I did not catch my own reaction of his lips and his smell and the comfort of his presence until the thing was over—and then he was smiling soft and crooked down at me, as if something hurt a little on his inside, and he asked,
“Now tell me: why does my first kiss taste of salt?”
I gasped and ducked my head to brush the back of my knuckle against my dampened eye. “I—I am sorry,” I stammered and stared at his feet. “Please do not—I do not mean to cause you trouble—if you would rather send me back—”
I heard his teeth in his voice when he spoke. “I thought that was the thing which troubled you. Send you back! My girl, what kind of picture have you painted of me, that I would backstep from the gate like a coward? If this is the way the weird lies, I will follow it, and nothing will induce me to upset either your coming out or the formal announcement of our engagement.” His voice softened a little, but the sound of his teeth was still in it. “Sooth, my own blood is up, and I would like to look the witch in the eye who has done this. A good test of our mettle, don’t you think, you and I?”
He put his hand up on the doorhead and leaned into it, tall and dominant above me, and the presence in his eye as he stared down at me was blunt and heavy like high summer sunlight on my skin. I did not feel brave—I was still sick inside—but I thought he was in earnest, and with the knowledge of that, feeling better would come in time.
His free hand brushed my cheek and he said without lifting his gaze from me, “Malcholm. Art just the man I am needing at this moment. Come soft.”
I pressed into the wallspace behind me and turned to see the big soft-spoken steward standing hesitant in the hallway some yards behind. He was a great man for silence and efficiency, and I knew that in a moment my Lord Avery would speak a few deft words in his ear and turn the matter of my bedchamber over to capable hands. Malcholm would know, but would not mind save that it was a matter pertaining to his lord’s comfort, that someone had painted a gruesome message across the threshold of my life.
Staring at my hands clasped in my skirts, I wished powerfully that I could determine what the message said.
My Lord Avery bent to my ear. “Chin up, ma mère. Do not look so peaky. I will see you at supper.”
Then he backstepped into the doorway again and Malcholm joined him, nodding with kindly deference to me as he passed, and in a few moments I had my back to them and was wandering in a daze toward the washroom. Nothing felt right to me. My Lord Avery did not yet feel safe in my grasp and the vicious thing which had happened cast a sordid pall over the glint and glimmer of the ton into which I was about to be ushered.
But perhaps my Lord Avery is not wrong. My breastbone ached with the effort of hopefulness. He is not cross with me, nor regretful. God and his angels preserve me—I could not bear it if he was regretful. I came to the washroom door and let myself in silently upon the gentle blue-lit chamber. Perhaps it is not all glint and gilt, but blood too, and we will come together through it, he and I. Those were his words.
I shuddered and slipped the lock to on the door behind me. I do not feel safe.
Crossing to the tub, I turned the water on once more and watched the high pale light dancing in the coppery depths. My fingers played with the long row of buttons down the front of my silk, and as the silk fell open the air stroked my nettled skin. With an effort I drew a deep breath to soothe the tension of my chest and found the tang of blood was still in my nose.
I jerked my head toward the mirror. Something told me it was there the moment before I saw it, but the little scream still started from my throat. The bloodied back of my hand flew to my mouth and I recoiled, grasping the edge of the tub for support. The mirror was slashed and streaked with bloodied handprints, and across the width of it someone had written—
ALL MEN ARE BASTARDS