Content warning – graphic violence in the first part of this chapter
Clara heard Albert coughing somewhere in the house. She shifted her body against Ernest’s, and tried to get comfortable. The room was too hot, even though she was naked with only a thin blanket to cover her. The air was still and stagnant, almost choking in its heat. Clara rolled over and tried to press herself further into the mattress. There was a buzzing at the window that was keeping her awake. Well, the buzzing at the window, the heat, and the fact that in her wide-awake brain, the room seemed as bright as daylight despite being supposedly completely dark. Clara groaned and slid out of bed. She put on a light nightgown to cover herself as she walked to the window.
Sure enough, there was a veritable cloud of flies outside, crowding to be let in. Clara threw open the widow, and they dissipated at the sudden movement. She leaned out and shivered. How strange it was that the air was so cool outside but so stiflingly hot inside.
She wrapped a blanket around her shoulders and left the bedroom. The clock at the base of the stairs clock struck one thirty as she walked past it, headed for the front parlor. There was light from under the door, and when she opened it she discovered that someone else was also awake.
“Albert,” Clara said, suddenly embarrassed to be wearing so little. That explained why she’d been able to hear him coughing so clearly.
Albert smiled. He put down the book he was reading and patted the sofa next to him. “Come sit next to me.”
She did, and he put his arm around her shoulders. Clara shifted uncomfortably, and not only did he let go, he also moved little away from her. She appreciated that.
“You know, I’ve never known how Ernest managed to land such a wife as you,” Albert said. “Such a beautiful, wonderful wife. Such a good person, just, in general. I’d never be able to find a woman like that, much less make her love me.”
Clara sighed. Albert could be a bit melodramatic at times. “You’ll find love someday.”
He gave her a sad smile. “That’s very kind of you, Clara. I wish it were true. I wish I was like you, too. You never hesitate to tell people exactly what you think. You don’t keep it all bottled up.”
“I keep more bottled up than you would think.”
“You once killed someone.”
That was true. She had murdered someone, once, a few years ago. With a sword. It had been gorier than she’d thought, and not as satisfying as she’d expected. “Yes, but consider this: I didn’t want to, and it wasn’t just because of my emotions. It was self defense.”
There was a harsh knock at the front door. Albert stood up and went to see who it was. Clara could see the door from where she was sitting, and she saw him open it. Surely it was just some salesman or messenger.
The door opened, and Clara nearly fainted right where she was.
“Need to see,” said Dominic Sapping. He looked like he’d been run over by a train. His body was a mess of ravaged flesh, decaying skin, and open wounds barely held together by bandages. His face was eerily untouched in all the carnage, which was why she recognized him immediately.
Albert jumped back, banging into a table and breaking a vase as he did. A flap of skin on Dominic Sapping’s chest fell open, and he pressed it back with badly lacerated fingers.
“Need to see her,” he said. “Now.”
“Me?” Clara heard herself ask.
“You,” said Dominic Sapping. “Have to run. I do. I have to warn you.”
“I’m being chased. The dogs don’t like it when I come. They’re chasing me.”
Dominic Sapping limped into the room. “They want me, but it doesn’t matter. I have to warn you. You Da started something bad, and it’s going to hurt you.”
“My father has been dead for ten years.”
“Oh. Your Da-in-law, then.”
“Yes, him. He’s started something bad, given the wrong powers, and it’s stirred everything up, and it’s going to hurt you.”
“You know them. You always have. They’re right there in the mirror. But listen, that’s not important. What’s important is that you have to either convince Janson to fix this mess, or convince Doctor Faust. ”
“Doctor Faust? I don’t understand.”
“You will have to. Otherwise, suffer. Maybe even die.” Dominic Sapping paused. “Or not-die. Just as bad.”
“I still don’t understand. What do you want me to say to him?”
Dominic Sapping shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Simply stop him.”
A dog barked, and Clara saw a flash of auburn fur in the light of a streetlamp. There was a low growl, and a monstrous creature stepped into the light. It was, in theory, some kind of dog or wolf, the size of a cow, with a long, lean frame. It had a stretched head, like a greyhound’s, with a flat snout, wolflike ears, and a wide mouth full of fearsome teeth. Its broad chest was splashed with white fur, and when it turned Clara saw that its tail was longer than a wolf’s, with a white tuft at the end. The rest of it was russet-colored, with black stripes down its back.
The beast snarled, and covered the ground between the streetlamp and Dominic Sapping in several long strides. Why wasn’t Sapping running? Didn’t he see the beast before him? Albert grabbed Clara’s arm, yanked her back into the entryway, and threw her to the ground. He moved to do something – take out a gun, maybe? – but Clara threw a paperweight that was sitting on the floor next to her. It struck him on the foot, and Albert stumbled back for enough time that she could stand, and grab the first sharp object she saw – a long, thin pen that Hugh had been using at some point earlier in the day.
Her and the beast pounced at the same moment, both of them on poor Dominic Sapping, the monster with the intent to harm, her with the intent to protect.
The beast was on top of Sapping first, ripping his throat out and causing a veritable fountain of blood before Clara could cover the ground between them. The monster turned to her and screamed when she tried to come near it.
Clara wasted no time. She threw herself at it, and brought the pen down as hard as she could on its eye. There was an uncomfortable squish, hot blood soaking her hand, and the beast gave a disturbingly human-like scream. It wrenched away from her, and loped off down the street, trailing blood as it went.
“Sapping’s dead,” Albert said. To her strange look, he replied, “I saw his name and face in the papers.”
Clara stood up. She felt numb. “I’m going to bed. Goodnight.” She walked upstairs, went into her room, took off her bloody nightgown, and threw it in the fireplace. She lit the fire, and waited for it to burn. The heat was suffocating, but Clara bore it all the same. A strange autonomy had taken over her, and she felt nothing but apathy towards the events that had just transpired.
Ernest had not awoken, even with all the commotion. Clara smiled, and laid down next to him. She had done her part to protect her husband tonight, and now she needed to sleep. Sarah and her children were coming tomorrow, and Clara had to be ready for them. She closed her eyes, but imagined she could still feel the beast’s blood on her hand. She stood up, went to the sink, and washed her hands thoroughly.
It was easier to calm down after that, but she was still too excited from the fight to sleep. Clara sighed, and reached for the book she’d been reading, The House of the Seven Gables by Nathanial Hawthorne, an American author. She was greatly enjoying it, though at the moment she wasn’t able to read more than a single page. Clara tossed the book aside and went to the bookshelf.
The first book that grabbed her eye was A Collection of Stories of the Unknown, by Richard Golson. She’d never read anything by that author before, so she took the book back to bed with her.
The first story was titled Corrupted by Eternity. Clara read it slowly, and had to go back to read a few of the parts, because they were written in such an odd way. She got through it, though, and by the end had decided that that was quite enough reading for tonight. She put the book down, put out her candle, and laid down in bed.
The story she’d read had greatly disturbed her. There was a group of children, entering some kind of contest in their town, held by another boy, who had come out of the well, and one by one… something… happened to them, until none were left but one. Clara shifted, imagining she saw the dead child from the story standing at the foot of the bed, sneering at her. She could almost hear his hollow voice ringing out through the room. I like games. Don’t you? Everyone likes games, after all.
Clara shuddered and buried herself in the covers. She had just fought off a monster with a pen. Fictional dead children were no threat to her.
Commotion throughout the house woke Clara. She groaned and sat up. Already, she was so exhausted that nothing felt real, as if her body was automatically doing it all and she was just watching.
It didn’t matter how tired she was, though, because her family waited for nothing. A servant helped her get dressed, did up her hair, and helped her with makeup. The woman did a good job of covering the dark circles under her eyes. She stumbled downstairs to where the rest of the family was eating, and sat down next to Ernest, in between him and Emma. Sarah sat across from them with her husband, Baron Gerald Holland, and her four children.
The eldest, Gerald Jr, was nine years old. He had his father’s pale yellow hair, his mother’s brown eyes, and the same freckles Oswald Janson himself had had at a younger age. He was small for his age, with a round face and short hair, and a cheerful disposition.
The next two children, Henry and Oswald, were seven and six, respectively. Henry looked the most like a Janson, with dark hair, tanned skin, and wide brown eyes. Oswald, ironically, was the spitting image of his father, with the same coarse blonde hair, green eyes, long face, and pudgy body.
The last child, Titania, was two years old and named after her grandmother. Her hair was wispy and brown, and her eyes were blue. She was not in any way related to William Shakespeare, at least as far as Clara could tell.
The nursemaid, Leah Blakely, was also there, and when Titania started to cry she rushed in to take her off to calm down. Clara yawned, and struggled to keep her eyes open.
“How are you, Miss Clarissa?” Gerald Jr asked.
Clara nodded, for some reason. “I could be better.”
Gerald Jr was apparently confused by this reaction. It was probably the nod. “Oh… um… well, my mother told me that you like dogs. Cats. Pets. Animals! I like animals too. Did you know that we read a good book about African animals? Mother said that Uncle Ernest had recommended it.”
“Yes, I do like animals, refrigerators – I mean, regardless, I don’t have any pets here.”
Duke Janson gave her a sharp look. Clara yawned again.
“I’ve got a big dog back home,” Henry said. “A big mean dog that could kill Gerry’s stupid giraffe.”
“He could not!”
“He could too! He’d just grab the giraffe by its big ‘ol neck and he’d just – snap – kill him, just like that. Beat that!”
“Oh yeah, well my giraffe could kill him.”
“Oh yeah? How?”
“With his hoofs!”
“Children,” Gerlad Holland said sharply. “Remember that this is all a hypothetical discussion anyways. Under no circumstances will Gerald or any of the rest of you be getting a pet giraffe.”
“Not even if Uncle Ernest goes to Africa and brings me back one?” Gerald Jr asked.
“Not even then. Besides, how would he fit it in a ship?”
“He could bring it in a box.”
“Dummy,” Henry shouted. “There’s not enough wood in the world to make a box so big!”
Gerald Holland stood up. “Oswald, if you would be so kind as to sit between your brothers?”
Oswald Holland, with a wide grin on his face, pushed Henry out of his chair and took his place. Gerald Holland sat back down, and neither boy tried to begin the argument anew.
Duke Janson’s facial expressions throughout all of this had been a source of pure entertainment. He had gone from shock to disapproval to outright anger, then just as quickly back to a neutral expression when Sarah turned to talk with him. Clara cracked a grin, causing Ernest to grab her shoulder and ask, “Are you feeling quite alright this morning?”
“Just fine,” Clara said. She yawned again and tried to focus.
“What do you think of this war?” Gerald Holland asked.
“I think that I would rather not discuss politics,” Duke Janson replied.
“I can recite Romantic poetry,” said Gerald Jr.
“Not as well as I can,” said Henry.
“Don’t start this again, children,” Sarah said.
“But it’s true, really.”
“No it’s not!”
“That may be, but if you keep this up both of you will be exiled from the table. Would you like to go eat with your nursemaid? You may, if that is what you wish.”
Henry shook his head vehemently. “I only sook to tell him what’s true.”
“Sook?” Ernest asked.
“Like seek, but in the past.”
“Sook isn’t a word,” Duke Janson said icily. His face was a mask of disapproval.
Gerald Jr pointed at Henry. “Ha-ha!”
That was apparently the last straw, because Sarah said, “Gerry, I think you should go eat with Mrs Blakely and Titania.”
“Let me rephrase myself. Gerry, you will go eat with Mrs Blakely and Titania.”
Gerald Jr stood up and moped in a very dramatic fashion to the door. He flopped his head to the side and sighed loudly, which earned him nothing but a continuing glare from Duke Janson. He frowned at the lack of reaction, and continued out of the dining room, dragging his feet all the way.
“You would do well to discipline that child,” Duke Janson said. “A few strikes with a rod when he misbehaves will put the fear of God in him.”
“I will not beat my child,” Sarah said. “And besides, it did little to help Hugh when he misbehaved.”
Hugh winked at her from across the table, and she laughed.
The food was delivered, and though Clara wasn’t hungry she still managed to eat most of her plate. Henry told an amusing story about how a boy he was friends with had fallen into a creek, floated down river, and, unable to get home, had accepted his lot and pretended to be a mud monster for a full three days straight before his father found him and dragged him back home. Oswald stood up and recited something he’d read in a book, which Henry easily made less impressive by reciting an even longer poem.
Once they finished breakfast, Duke Janson, Gerald, Ernest, Hugh, and Albert departed for some kind of men’s only event. The nursemaid came back to retrieve Oswald and Henry, and dragged them off with Gerald Jr to their lessons.
“We should call on Serena Mephisto later on,” Emma Janson said.
“Duke Mephisto’s wife?” asked Sarah.
“Do we know any other?” Clara asked.
Emma glared at her. “What a good thing it is that you are our guest, Sarah.”
Oh, right. She was supposed to be kind to guests. That had been very important to her father, who she only had dim memories of, since he had ‘died’ – a phrase understood in the common tongue as ‘abandoned them’ – when she was eleven years old. Well, Clara wasn’t feeling very up to the task of respecting the views of her long-gone father when she was this tired. She glared at Emma, and Emma glared back.
Sarah was blissfully unaware of this small confrontation. “Yes, I am quite pleased to be your guest. I think it is good for my children to experience London, as well, don’t you?”
Clara turned her attention away from Emma. “Yes, I do.”
“Where did you grow up, Clarissa?” Sarah asked.
“Where in Scotland?”
“In a city, or-”
“No, up in the northern part. Not in a city.”
Emma smiled. “Did your father have a castle?”
“What my father had was a problem with understanding common human morality.” Clara clenched her mouth shut. Apparently, the filter between her mouth and brain fell off when she was tired.
“It’s not good to insult your father so,” Emma said.
Well, she was already too far in to get out, so why not take the plunge? “My father was a scoundrel who only married my mother on a passing whim. Did you know that he got her pregnant with me before they were married? Did you know that she was also already engaged to someone else when they married? Did you know that my mother became estranged with her father after that? Did you know that he went against my mother’s ideas of how to raise me correctly? Or how about how he disappeared when I was eleven? Never to be seen again, except for when I moved to London with Ernest and found him an important political figure and ambassador? Did you know that I haven’t been to call on him yet because I fear I might attack him if I ever see him again? No, you don’t. You don’t know anything about him, or me, or our relationship.”
“You haven’t been to see your father!” Sarah said.
“No, and I don’t wish to,” said Clara.
“You must!” Sarah hooked her arm into Clara’s and practically dragged her out of the room. “He is still family, after all. Surely you can think of one good thing about him.”
“I don’t wish to.”
Clara paused, then said, “He took me to France repeatedly. I’m fluent in French because of him.”
“Did he have a home in France?”
“Yes, a castle there. And what I believe was a wife.” Sarah sighed. “Well, he sounds like an awful man from what you’ve said, but you must remember, Clarissa, that there are two sides to every story. We shall go and see him anyway, because he is family. Come on, Emma, we have to go and call on Clara’s father!”
Clara yawned, and reluctantly allowed herself to be marched out the front door and into a carriage. She was still so tired, and it would be a moderately long ride. There was plenty of time for a nap, surely.