Monday, 4 July 2016

Chapter Seven

The Dead London Chronicles: Vol I, June 2016 is now available FREE at SmashwordsApple and Kobo!

On with the tale...

The house was large and the party busy, so it was longer than it should have been before Mary discovered her mistress, still on the floor where the man who dared to call himself her husband had discarded her. Despite her protestations to the contrary, it was all too apparent to the maid that Alice's scrapes would need seeing to, denials still ringing in her ears as Mary hurried off to find water and cloth. As she again descended the staircase her anger knew no bounds, both towards her master and her own helplessness to do anything to change the fate of the woman she cared so much for.  

Mary told herself, water, and a cloth. She had not thought to bring with her the salve that she had far too often had cause to apply to the injuries inflicted upon her mistress, and she grew even crosser at the oversight, at the suffering that would be caused by the lack of it. She had thought she knew the way to the kitchens but after one wrong turn and then another she realised she was hopelessly lost, doing little to improve her mood, direction something she was usually able to pride herself on, but even that had now deserted her. "Hell!" 

 It was at that moment that 
Mary rounded a corner, colliding headlong with the man coming the other way, her exclamation of annoyance loud and most certainly not in terms her mistress would approve of. She was not one of his household, Mishael knew that in an instant, even as he reeled back for a moment, eyes wide with amusement at the word she had uttered. "Madam!"

"Water," she remembered instantly her purpose, "And a cloth. Where can I find them?" 

"Did you know..." he leaned closer, voice a conspiratorial whisper, "It is snowing? In summer.. have you seen it?"

"I don't give a fig, sir," 
Mary declared hotly, the shock of the collision adding to her ill-temper, "For the weather. Water if you please!"

"Forgive me, I did not recognise you!" Mishael bowed very low, flourishing his hand as he straightened. "The Duchess of Devonshire herself! I shall repair and find water at once; please, your Grace, follow me."

That brought her up short; feeling crosser than ever 
Mary turned on her heel, declaring, "I will find it myself!"

"Not if you follow that corridor, you won't," he called, his tone more placatory when he added, "Please, miss, follow me, I shall find what you need."

"This place," she turned back to him, though still riled, "Is like a rabbit warren!"

"And they say the walls change before your very eyes; it is the devil's house."

"A pox on the Devil," she decided, in no mood for mystery, "and his house too!"

"A pox on him indeed," the man agreed with a flourish of his hand, as though he were not half-dressed and wandering the hallways like a savage.

She wondered then what she was doing, alone in these corridors with this stranger, a man whose eyes, when they settled on her, were unlike any she had seen before, no colour visible, dark and filled with something she couldn't identify. "Are you sure it is this way?"

"Do you doubt a man," the footman, for she was sure he must be a footman or perhaps even a stablehand from his careless undress, looked down at his feet, "Without his boots on?"

"I just need," she told him, following his gaze before looking up again, wondering at what sort of man - Devil or not - would employ someone who walked around in such disarray, "The water."

"Has something untoward happened?" He did not take her to the kitchen but deep into the house, its walls not moving, but labyrinthine and she was all set to find her own way when the man opened a door onto a pantry where a fire burned bright despite the cool air, the shelves piled high with cakes and food for the feast. "Have a jam tart and I will find you your water."

"I need to get back--"

Her companion lifted a heavy iron cauldron up over the fire as though it were weightless and then he cocked his head to one side, the glittering black eyes settling on 
Mary. For a moment he was silent and then he said, "The water will soon be boiled... should I bring it up?"

Alice would not, she knew instantly, welcome that at all, much less did she like the thought of some unknown man in the vulnerable woman's chamber. "I am not letting a half dressed footman into my mistress's bedroom, sir!"

"Then you must wait for the water to boil," he sighed, shaking his head. "I thought perhaps a jam tart might occupy you whilst you wait..."

There was something she couldn't name in that gaze then, the fight going out of her as she groped for a chair. "Do you vouch for the devil's tarts?"

"I do!" Her companion nodded keenly, holding out a pastry to 
Mary. "You are Lady Brandenburg's maid?"

She hesitated a moment before taking the tart, nodding slightly. "I am." 

He nodded, bowing deeply as she took the offering and when he straightened his back, his eyes glittered with mischief. "Then you must be sure to take her a tart too."

Mary snorted at that, the thought of Alice eating anything much less a tart far more ludicrous than the thought of the Devil pacing these halls. "It will be wasted on her I fear."

"Then another for yourself and if you ever feel a little bit... low," The turned footman back to the now boiling pot of water, "Come back to this pantry and help yourself to anything you wish here; it is the devil's secret stash."

"We'll be gone in the morning," 
Mary told him, quite certain of that, softening a moment to add, "But thank you."

With a nod, the man filled a large china jug from the cauldron and then offered it to 
Mary with a gentle smile, telling her, "Perhaps next time; it is always nice to talk."

"Talking," she realised then, too late, "Causes trouble.  You won't--" she stumbled over the words, "You won't tell anyone, about this, will you?"

"Especially not the devil," he promised. "I will tell nobody."

"Thank you," she hid her sudden disquiet with a bite of tart, eyes widening as she added, "This is delicious." The footman positively beamed at the comment, and set the jug down beside the door before he took up a pastry of his own and bit into it. As she chewed he crossed to the window where a gentle snow was falling in the darkness, blanketing the parkland beyond.

"That better not settle...." she got to her feet to join him, frowning. 

"I believe it will."

A shiver passed through her then, another bite of tart not enough to chase away the sudden chill. "We'll see...."

"If it does," he smiled, the hand that was missing its little finger passing through his dark hair, "Then at least you will be comfortable here; some of the guests have yet to even arrive... the very guest of honour himself!"

"She won't like that," 
Mary shook her head, thinking again of Alice, "She'll want to get home...."

"We cannot always have what we want," was the reply, his shrug rather flamboyant. "Unless it is jam tarts, in which case, we are well catered for."

She popped the final piece of her own into her mouth, chewing and swallowing as her frown deepened, peering into the night. "Well I shall be praying for a thaw." With that she turned to the door, lifting the jug and cloth he had provided. Thoughts on her mistress she paused to look at the man once more, telling him, "Thank you. For your kindness."

The story continues on 11th July!

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