They met at midnight on a blasted Heath. Hampstead, to be precise. The night was appropriately dark and stormy, a fact that gave Count Cristoforo a moment of wry amusement as he progressed towards his rendezvous, but it was also highly inconvenient. He’d had to pay a torch bearer to light his way and now he would probably have to have the unfortunate lad killed in case he talked. It was all most tiresome and unnecessary, but this Gilchrist Irving fellow had insisted on the time and place and his message had been too intriguing to ignore – particularly in that it had not been addressed to the Count Pietro Cristoforo, but to Scaroth and, as far as he was aware, no one on Earth knew his true name.
In truth, Scaroth was not entirely Scaroth any more, but only one of a set of incomplete splinters of himself scattered in time. That was also most inconvenient, but Scaroth was working on amending it. All of him were. He rather envied the last in line who would reap the fruit of all their labours and cause their glorious race to be saved and, not only that, live in a fractionally more civilised time.
He glanced around him, wary of a trap. His faithful right-hand man, James, was lurking further back in the bushes, but one could never be too careful. However, he was beginning to fear that the greatest danger was merely that his mysterious correspondent would never arrive. There were footpads on the heath, after all. Perhaps Irving had fallen prey to one.
Even as he thought it, a tall, ghostly figure emerged out of the rain in front of him.
“You are Scaroth, Last of the Jagaroth?” He appeared human, but thin, wasted; perhaps a little vampiric even.
Scaroth gave a brief nod.
“It’s so hard to tell from behind the mask, isn’t it? You could be anyone.” He gave a small smile that was, nevertheless, evidently insincere. His tone was curiously softened and flat, as if deadened of emotion. “Allow me to explain. I am someone who has a vested interest in seeing you get your way. Your aims are not mine, but they meet on one or two important points.”
Scaroth gave another nod. “And?”
“And currently in town is the one man who has the power to stop you. He’s called the Doctor, and I also wish to see him die. I feel confident you can achieve that.”
The Count raised an eyebrow. “If that is true, then I appreciate the warning. But how do I know whether or not to believe you, Mr Irving? I have a great deal of business of my own to attend to and no wish to be used as someone’s personal assassin. If that is what you are after, I can recommend you an efficient hireling.”
“I knew you would ask.” Irving smiled again as the moon emerged briefly from between the clouds. “Permit me to convince you…”
The Count had rented a small house and grounds in Chelsea. It was not the most elegant building – a previous owner with questionable taste and an unwise amount of money with which to indulge it had attempted to turn the comfortable small Georgian manor house into a piece of Gothic folly. It had a thick wooden door with iron studs and one daring designer had even added some unlikely turrets. The Count, however, found the effect amusing. He had contributed to it by adding carved tentacled door knockers that he had bequeathed himself from a former incarnation, having grown adept at finding ways to pass on items down through the centuries.
Despite the lateness of the hour, he headed for his library to reflect on Irving’s proposition – one he had indeed been unable to turn down – but found, to his surprise, a broken window pane and, on setting the candle down on the table, a dark-haired girl, drowsing in the upholstered chair.
She sat up abruptly on his entrance, and gave an ear-splitting shriek.
“I believe that was my line,” he said, after a brief wince at the dreadful sound. “Who are you and what are you doing in my house?”
The girl sat up in confusion. She didn’t look particularly threatening, being fairly petite even for a human, with noticeably large, dark eyes, and a yellow dress that had seen better days. However, it had been an odd evening and Scaroth didn’t care to take chances.
“I’m the governess,” she told him, rising to her feet and giving an unsteady bob in his general direction. “I came in answer to the advertisement.”
The Count raised an eyebrow. “That is an exceptionally feeble attempt at lying. I did not advertise for a governess and have no possible reason to do so. Also, I had never got the impression that breaking and entering was a skill usually possessed by one of your, er, profession?”
The girl raised her chin. “There was nobody here. I’d come a long way and I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Very likely, but I still put no advertisement in the papers. And much as I enjoy fine art, sadly, I doubt that your value will appreciate with age.”
She swallowed at the implicit threat and held out two pieces of paper to him, one torn out of the Morning Chronicle, and the other a letter offering her the position that had been offered in the newspaper. “There. And I am a highly-trained, efficient and particularly excellent governess, thank you.”
“An effective burglar, too. A most intriguing skill set and, indeed, on reflection, one that could be of use to me.” The Count read the Wanted advertisement in which he did seem to have asked for a governess. It would have been baffling, had there not been details of an item for sale beneath it that finished: “A Gift, Gilchrist Irving.” Yes, intriguing, indeed.
The Count smoothed out and folded up the crumpled paper and then gave her a small smile. “I think I may have a proposition for you, Miss -?”
“Oswin. Clarissa Oswin. And I am a governess. I’ve got a reference from Miss King’s Academy in Manchester.”
“How provincial,” said the Count. “Please, put it away. It’s late and I have very little interest in your education or even whether or not you can play the pianoforte. You see, I feel, as a property owner, it is my duty to hand you over to the local magistrate with a word to the effect that I found you in my library, no doubt trying to filch rare and valuable volumes and probably the family silver at the same time. It would be a hanging offence, although I expect the judge might be lenient and sentence you to a few years hard labour, or possibly transportation. Perhaps if you were exceptionally lucky, you might escape with a mere public flogging.”
She backed away from him. “You can’t!”
“Miss Oswin, give me one good reason why I shouldn’t?”
“I have ten starving children relying on me!”
The Count sighed slightly. “You really are the most terrible liar.”
“Well, all right, at least two starving children! And I can play the pianoforte. And sing. And speak French and Italian –”
“Dear me, then we must certainly ensure you are not lost to the world. What a tragedy that would be.”
“So, here is my alternative proposition. I am, as you may have noticed in the course of your criminal activities this evening, an extremely rich man. My title isn’t English, of course, but after all, you are only a governess, and one with at least two starving children to think of.”
She clenched her fists. “I didn’t say they were my starving children.”
“No. In that case, may we forget these tiresome hypothetical infants? It is growing rather late – or perhaps I should say early. I have a project in hand that could benefit from your particular collection of skills. I shall explain to you more fully in the morning, but if you were willing to help me, I should not press charges against you.”
Miss Oswin swallowed. “What do you want me to do?”
“As I said, I will explain in the morning, but nothing of any great harm – merely another work of art I must acquire. If I wanted an assassin, you are the last person I should turn to.”
She frowned, “Yes, but if I stay here with you and help you steal something, that isn’t going to look good on my resume, is it?”
An anachronism. She grew more intriguing yet. She didn’t truly belong in this time, even if she didn’t seem to know it. The Count nodded. “Oh, yes. That was the point I was coming to. If you perform your part adequately, then I propose a marriage of convenience in which we can continue to combine our talents.”
“Wait – a what? And what do I get?”
“Aside from your life, liberty, and a very wealthy, titled husband? Well, you may have as much money as you need to send home to your starving children – if there are any starving children.”
“Plenty,” said Clarissa. “Just not mine.”
“Well, then, as a reward you may start up a charity for feeding any number of hungry brats if you wish. I will not be a cruel husband, nor will I make any unwanted demands on you. Now, I suggest you go upstairs and give me your answer in the morning. Please don’t try to climb out of the window in the night. I do have a groundsman, even if you may have missed him earlier, not to mention that there may even be a mantrap or two in the grove. You would hardy want to stumble into one of those in the dark.”
She opened her mouth and shut it again, and then settled for staring.
“The word you are looking for,” he told her, “is yes, your excellency. Possibly also ‘thank you’ if you’re feeling especially polite, but it’s not a requirement.”
“I don’t think I’ve got much choice here, have I?”
Having achieved his aim, the Count gave a smile and removed his coat. “Good. I’m glad we are agreed.” He rang the bell and they waited in silence only punctuated by her continued hard stare in his direction, until his servant arrived. “James,” he said, “Miss Oswin will be joining our establishment on a trial basis. See her to the red room and ensure she has everything she needs. As for you, Miss Oswin, I shall see you at breakfast.”
“You do know this is outrageous?” said Clarissa. “I should protest!”
He paused and turned towards her again. “I suppose it is, but I really don’t care. Oh, and, James, make sure she has no chance of escape. Our business is unfinished as yet and I would hate for it to remain so permanently.”
Scaroth walked around the library, examining everything to check that Miss Oswin had not moved or stolen anything of significance. After scanning through the papers in the desk, he concluded that she didn’t seem to have touched anything, and retired to his bedchamber with relief. He was itching to remove the mask and he was weary again. None of his selves were complete, and all of them were flawed in some way in consequence, much as it frustrated and angered him. Keeping up this fractured, unsatisfactory existence was exhausting.
He shut the door behind him, but only got as far as unbuttoning his coat when it hit him – the rest of his splintered selves coming together through time. The pain of that moment of separation had not even been something that he had endured once and was now done with; he must suffer these reprises on a regular basis as the centuries that divided him unravelled around him – but never enough to allow him to reunite himself. These incidents enabled him to communicate and to do what he needed to, but they were uncontrollable, held at the whim of whichever splinter most needed to say something, or due to the ebb and flow of time waves – and thus also a considerable nuisance.
He sat on the bed and stared out, seeing other times and places, far away from the impeccably decorated room, adorned with its invaluable art treasures.
Scaroth… Scaroth… Scaroth… The centuries that divide me shall be undone!
“I’m here,” he muttered, dizzy with the effort. “Yes, I’m here.”
Midway through, he suddenly became aware of something odd, something unprecedented in all these millennia: he saw echoes of someone else on the periphery of his vision. He turned his head, readjusting only slowly, still half seeing Paris in 1979 and Ancient Rome, and Egypt among other places, before he blinked and focused in on Clarissa, standing in the doorway in her white nightgown, looking almost as pale as the cotton.
“How do you do that?” she asked. She was trembling slightly. “You talk to the rest of you. I can’t – I can’t do that – too many – I can’t remember –”
He stared at her, fully rooted in England, 1784 again and rose, walking towards her, watching her with intent curiosity. She was still staring past him, almost as if she was asleep rather than awake. He put out a hand to her cheek to examine her more closely, puzzled and alarmed as to what or who she could be, and she failed to react. He thought she wasn’t exactly fully conscious, or not quite herself, but she appeared to be human yet. So, as it turned out, he thought wryly, as a collector’s piece, she was unique.
Or perhaps not entirely unique, he decided, reflecting back on his other strange encounter of the evening. There had been something slightly wrong about Gilchrist Irving as well; something that made the ends of Scaroth’s tentacles twitch – that must be something time-related, too.
“My dear,” the Count said, keeping his voice low so as not to startle Clarissa out of the state she was in. “Who are you?”
She looked at him suddenly and then failed to speak, softly folding up into a heap on the floor at his feet. Scaroth looked down at her, his puzzlement shifting into irritation at this inconvenient ending. He couldn’t simply leave her lying about in his room. James would fall over her in the morning, and no doubt she would complain if she woke up again – that was, if she didn’t scream on getting a glimpse of his true face.
He gave a sigh – this really was turning out to be a rather tiresome night – and considered calling for James, but even the most well-paid and discreet servants could sometimes resort to unwise gossip and it always distracted from the glorious work when he had to stop and kill one and then find a suitable replacement. So, he picked the girl up and carried her back to her bedchamber, depositing on her bed with detached care, because after all, she was an unusual enough specimen that he didn’t want to damage her. Then he sat down on the nearby chair and watched, waiting for her to regain consciousness.
Clarissa opened her eyes, staring straight at him, and then sat up in alarm, her hands going instinctively to her chest. “Count! What are you doing? You said you – you said you wouldn’t!”
“You came into my room and then you collapsed,” he told her. “Do you not remember?”
She shook her head, her brows still drawn in suspicion. “No. I don’t. And anyway, I don’t swoon, I never swoon. And it’s very unfair if I finally do and then I don’t even remember.”
Was she lying? The Count thought not. “You seemed to be walking in your sleep. Have you ever done so before?”
She shook her head. “At least – I don’t think so.”
“Aha. You have.”
“N-no,” she said, and then bit her lip. “Well, I did once wake up in the garden in the middle of the night. So, I suppose… I might.”
“I see.” He didn’t, however, not yet, and that was a novelty to him. Almost nothing on this benighted planet had ever come as a surprise to him. What he had not engineered, he had warned himself about.
“Well, in that case, thank you, sir,” she said, and raised her chin. “And now you should go back to your own room. This is highly improper!”
The Count raised an eyebrow. “As improper as breaking into a gentleman’s house, would you say?”
“Nothing’s more improper than being in a lady’s bedchamber at this hour.” She swallowed. “You’re not going to ravish me, are you?”
“No,” said the Count.
“Oh,” she said, and folded her arms over her chest. “Well, I wondered. Since you said we had to get married anyway. And I’ve never been, er, ravished.”
“How fortunate for you,” the Count said, and rose. “I shall see you in the morning. After this little incident, however, I shall lock the door. For your own safety, Miss Oswin. If you wander about this house after dark, you never know what you might find!”
“Now,” said Scaroth, who was perfectly prepared to talk business at the breakfast table, “allow me to outline my plans for this evening. I am visiting an acquaintance. You will accompany me and while I deal with certain other affairs, you will steal a painting. You will recognise it because the sitter will also be present.”
Clarissa sipped her coffee and watched him in undisguised fascination. “You really go round stealing paintings from everyone who invites you to dinner?”
“No, that would be silly. One would be bound to be caught. Only on rare occasions when I cannot purchase the work in question – and, in this case, Thomas is proving awkward on the subject. Now, having identified the painting, you will lower it out of the window, where James will be waiting in the garden below. Not quite the master plan, perhaps, but it should suffice.”
Clarissa had put down her coffee and was now picking at her bread roll. “And then I just stroll back in and start talking about how lovely the weather is for the time of year?”
“Probably not,” said Scaroth, considering it with private amusement. “I have engaged a somewhat shadier gentleman to provide a distraction that I feel will derail the conversation from such mundane topics. You will barely be missed.”
“Why do I have to do the sneaking around and stealing things?”
“Do remember that I still have no proof you’re not a professional thief and house-breaker.”
Clarissa screwed up her face as she thought the plan over. “Yes, but why do you have to have that painting? Why not just buy a different one or commission one yourself?”
“I have done both. However, I need this particular painting. Its worth now is not negligible, but it’s nothing to what it will fetch in a century or two. If your conscience is bothering you, my dear, rest assured that no one will be badly hurt by its loss. Indeed, in the end, unimaginable good will come of it.” He stared past her, seeing his lost world, his lost brothers – even if only he could reunite himself, it would be something regained. This current state of affairs – the loss, the fracturing – was intolerable.
Clarissa was again looking at him as if he was some particularly unusual exhibit at a fair. “You know, for someone who’s planning to steal works of art, you sounded almost like a preacher for a minute.”
“I doubt it.”
She shrugged. “And since I have no choice anyway, I agree. To stealing the painting. I still don’t see why that means I should marry you.”
“If you would rather be taken before the magistrate or cast out into the street with no reference and not a penny to your name, then so be it. If you insist, I will oblige. It is your affair, not mine. Although only after I have the painting, naturally.”
“So, tell me,” he said, “do you consider marriage to me to be in fact a fate worse than death?”
Clarissa paused for a long while before answering, buttering the remains of her roll for a second time, and then eventually, she shook her head. “No-o. Not worse than death, no.”
“There we are, then,” said Scaroth. “The matter is settled. I promise I mean you no harm. Quite the reverse if you continue to be of use to me, as I am beginning to suspect you will be.”
“I had hoped for something a little more –” She stopped and waved a hand about. “Affectionate. Companionable. In a marriage, I mean.”
Scaroth met her gaze, his expression bland. “Oh, yes, naturally. If you wish to be ravished after all, I’m sure that can be arranged.”
“I didn’t say that,” she said, and then coloured. “Not exactly. Although if we’re going to be married, for years and everything –” Then her brows closed into a frown. “What do you mean, that can be arranged?”
He smiled. “What I said,” he murmured rising from the table. It was petty to toy with her, but things had been insufferably dull lately and her reactions were amusing. He might not be human, but he’d passed for one for twelve lives over four hundred million years or so. He’d learned how to persuade these creatures to his own ends by any and all means available to him. And human beings were laughably straight-forward in such affairs, even if he did usually find buying whatever he wanted was usually by far the most simple and effective method. “You only have to ask.”
Clarissa’s addition to the party required a few rearrangements. Scaroth sent a message to his host to inform him and then sent James out on a quest to find Miss Oswin something suitable to wear. She didn’t seem to have anything better than that atrocious yellow dress with her. He’d looked through her things yesterday when she’d been unconscious, and the only other gown had been a sturdy but unflattering muddy-grey robe evidently designed more to keep out the cold than to please the eye.
In the meantime, the Count felt the need to be sure that last night’s incident was not a mere coincidence or odd quirk of the timestream, and there was only one way to do that.
He initiated the contact this time, while Clarissa was still in the room. He focused every part of his mind on his other selves – on himself combined into one single being, as he ought to be. It made it no easier or less disorientating, however, than merely being on the receiving end of the call. He heard, somewhere behind him, Clarissa give a startled sound, catching sight of him as he inevitably lost his balance, and grabbed at the nearest chair for support.
“Are you all right?” she said, but she might as well have been speaking underwater; the sound was slow to reach him, and distorted. “Count!”
The essential thing was, though, that he saw and sensed the same intrusion again – someone else’s presence on the edges of his awareness. This time, with immense effort, he managed to tear his thoughts from his other selves and, as the connection consequently faded and broke off, caught fragments of Clarissa – her identical face and form, as with him, but in different clothes, different names, different times. He had very little time to glimpse anything else – the only other information he picked up with a sense of an overwhelming need to complete some mission he couldn’t understand, and then a feeling of falling, and a sense of confusion that had no part in his own experience. He knew exactly who he was; she had lost even that in the process of fragmentation.
He pulled himself up from the floor, half on the boards, half on the expensive Persian rug and looked at Clarissa. She was standing about an arms length away, but looking past him, unseeing, much as she had been last night. Then she frowned and gave herself a small shake, but she was evidently still confused.
“You had tentacles all over your face,” she said, but she sounded distant. She was somewhere else, he suspected, possibly even someone else. He knew at least part of that feeling.
Scaroth got to his feet. “Yes,” he said, and then, this time, caught her as she passed out again.
She opened her eyes, and then blinked, looking at him blankly, before glancing down at herself. He’d placed her in a nearby chair and shaken her gently until she’d shown signs of returning to life.
“You had another one of your turns, it seems,” he said. “I trust that you will still feel up to our little expedition this evening?”
She pulled herself straight in the chair, edging away from him, the frown not yet leaving her face. “Nothing like this ever happened to me before I met you! What did you do?”
“Except possibly for that time in the garden,” he reminded her helpfully. “I did nothing to you at any rate – the problem seems to lie with you, my dear. Unless, of course, you mean to tell me that you feel moved to swoon at the sight of me?”
She glared. “Don’t be daft. Nobody does that, not in real life.”
“Don’t they?” he murmured.
Clarissa leaned forward and put her head in her hands, before looking up at him again. “No, wait – I remember! You collapsed! You started muttering, and then you fell down here, on the carpet!”
“I did,” he said. “A moment of dizziness, however – nothing more. Or perhaps I’ve taken to swooning at the sight of you.”
She clearly was not convinced. He could hardly blame her.
“I did nothing to you,” he said again, more seriously. “I have no intention of harming you, I assure you. Quite the reverse – I have hopes I may be able to help you – as, perhaps, you may be able to help me.”
Clarissa lost some of her wariness and then, changing the subject, said, “What do I call you? If we’re going to tell people we’re engaged and you collapse on someone else’s carpet, I can’t kneel over you going, ‘Count!’ can I?”
“You may call me Pietro.”
She paused for a moment and bit her lip before speaking again. “But that’s not your real name?”
“For this particular moment in time, it is,” he said. “As much as anything else.”
She let him help her out of the chair. “I think you must be the most peculiar person I’ve ever met.”
“Thank you,” he said, and smiled at the compliment.
James did not fail his master in his mission, returning after some hours with a bundle of clothes he had managed to obtain that he thought ought to fit the young lady.
Scaroth entered Clarissa’s room without knocking and threw the clothes down on the bed. “Your outfit for the evening, my dear. I shall return presently to give you any assistance you need.”
“You can’t assist me in getting dressed!”
He sighed faintly. “I can. The house is empty but for myself, James, Wilkins and various other ground staff and Monsieur Poitiers, the chef. I value my privacy and my security. Usually some of the kitchen staff would remain, of course, but we are going out to dinner. If you would prefer one of the others to help you instead –”
“In that case, I suppose you’ll have to do, your excellency. Pietro.”
He smiled. “Good. Please don’t take too long.”
When he returned, she was in her shift and stays, busy straightening the petticoat. The dress was pleasingly simple; the gown being of ivory silk, edged with a deep pink ribbon and discreet embroidery, and the petticoat was similarly decorated, with matching ribbon and embroidered flowers around the hem at the bottom.
He walked round her, finishing the current stage in the proceedings by fastening her stays and helping her into the gown. It was not a perfect fit, but it would be adequate for this evening. He put an outspread hand to her throat lightly, testing her response to his touch. It would be better if she was eager to stay, rather than determined to escape. He must know what she was before he let her go or had to kill her.
She turned her head, continuing to smooth out the lines of her skirt, but there was a flush of colour in her cheeks. He put his other hand to her waist, turning her to a better angle as he completed his survey, and he saw not fear, but curiosity in her eyes. Good, he thought, and stepped back abruptly.
“Charming,” he said in approval. “The hair could be better dressed, but you should pass muster.”
Clarissa drew herself up, as if annoyed about something. “Well, if we’re getting married and I’m going to be a Countess, I shall need a lady’s maid.”
He nodded. “Quite. If so, I shall see to it. For tonight, I think we have acquitted ourselves enough to suffice.”
“Talk about damned with faint praise. Thanks!”
He proffered his arm. “You remember my instructions?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten; we’ve only been over it at least twenty times already today.”
He waited for the correct answer, ignoring her unbecoming flippancy.
“All right, yes,” she said, seeing that he wasn’t going to move until she actually said it.
“Good,” he said. “Now come along, my dear, or we shall be keeping our host waiting.”
“Who is he, anyway? The person whose painting you’re going to abscond with?”
“Our host? Why, Thomas – or Mr Gainsborough, I should say.”
“Wait, we’re stealing a painting by Mr Gainsborough?” she said, pulling back in shock. “N-not a royal portrait?”
He laughed. “Good Lord, no. They’re rather unappealing subjects, don’t you think? Merely his latest portrait of a young lady – it will be precisely what an acquaintance of mine needs, or will need in a while. Does it make a difference if it’s a Gainsborough?”
Clarissa thought about it. “I suppose not. What happens if I get caught?”
“Then I’m afraid it will be off to the magistrate for you after all; the constable will hardly be likely to agree to anything else. That would be a shame, so I suggest you try to be careful.”
Even now, on an early summer evening, London was bustling; its streets full of people rushing about their business, or shouting out to sell their wares. Scaroth had grown used enough to the relative peace of country life that even he noted the noise, the crowds, the smell, and the fast pace, despite his memory of far greater, more populous, and more beautiful cities, lost millennia ago in a terrible war. Clarissa, however, had propped herself forward as soon as they had entered the capital and was staring at the traffic, and street sellers with visibly eager interest.
“You’ve never visited before, have you?” he asked, as James drove them between St James’s Park and Green Park towards Pall Mall, temporarily out of the hustle and racket of the streets.
She shook her head.
“Where did you come from, then?”
She gave a smile. “Well, I was on my way to London to seek my fortune or at least a better teaching position, but I’d only got as far as Birmingham when I saw that advertisement, and answered it, directing replies onwards. But I hadn’t got as far as London itself.”
She was still looking about her, wide-eyed, as they reached their destination. Schomburg House was an unusual and imposing building, with a red-brick front bookended by two would-be towers (although not as ridiculously gothic as the Count’s Chelsea house; Schomburg house had no grey stone or inappropriate turrets). However, it had in fact been divided into three some years ago and England’s foremost painter currently lived in the western end of the building, next to an entirely questionable establishment known as the Temple of Health and Hymen, while the last of the building was a shop selling fabrics.
Scaroth took Clarissa’s arm, guiding her away from the Temple, as she had seemed about to walk towards what looked to her to be the main door of one mansion. “Not in there, not unless you are particularly keen to be ravished, after all, and for a shockingly extortionate rate, at that,” he murmured in her ear. “This way, my dear.”
Dinner was an odd meal for, as the now elderly Gainsborough told the Count, his other guests had arrived early and then both of them had gone chasing off down the street after some strange creature they claimed to have seen. Dr Smith was an eccentric, it seemed, and his niece, Miss McShane, one of the most restless sitters the painter had ever had, or so he told the Count. It had only reinforced his wish to paint landscapes instead.
The rest of the party were inoffensive and unknown to the Count, who barely bothered taking in their names, watching the room, calculating any changes to his plans while being blandly charming to his fellow guests. He let his gaze stray to Clarissa, who seemed to be struggling in conversation with the Mrs Gainsborough and hastened to her side to ensure she said or did nothing too foolish, and, incidentally, to receive congratulations on his engagement.
Thomas claimed them both again, showing off a device to the Count that genuinely did amuse him. He had once, foolishly perhaps, shown the artist a toy of his own, and now the man had concocted up his own projection box – nothing like the Count’s in sophistication or purpose, but a commendable effort.
“Splendid!” said Scaroth, and Clarissa shot him an odd look. He disregarded it, allowing himself to laugh. Imitation, the humans said, was the sincerest form of flattery. Which Scaroth thought was highly ironic in his case.
It wasn’t until they had almost finished their meal that the errant Dr Smith and his companion returned. Dr Smith didn’t look anything like as dangerous as Irving had claimed, but Scaroth knew better than most that appearances could be deceiving. He observed him closely and concluded that the small Scotsman was more than usually devious. His companion, however, could not have been less so. She was also even odder and more anachronistic in her behaviour than Clarissa. The Count gave a small smile at that thought, wondering if there was any likelihood the two of them could be an odder couple than he and Miss Oswin, both splintered in time, and at least one of them entirely alien. He doubted it.
The ladies left before the port was brought round. That would be Clarissa’s cue to effect the robbery and hopefully the footman he’d paid would alert the Count’s hired villain.
Thomas was talking of his trip to the Lake District on the previous year, but Dr Smith was restless, rising from his seat and crossing to the window, as if watching for something out in the street and paying little attention to his host.
“Something wrong, Doctor?” asked Thomas.
He turned. “Not yet, but I fear there will be if I don’t – you’ll forgive me I know, Thomas. You’ll hardly want a repeat of the other week!” He gave a nod to the rest of them and a strange, quick grin in Scaroth’s direction. “It’s been a pleasure – or mostly a pleasure – but I have to go! A matter of life and death – you know how it is.”
“A true eccentric, I believe you said?” murmured the Count as the Doctor dashed off out the door, but he was cursing under his breath and hoping his paid murderer could still find his target. If he didn’t, the Count would have to kill him, because stupidity was not to be tolerated and did the human race no favours in the long term in any case. “I see you were right.”
Gainsborough nodded. “Yes, but he’s a clever fellow – helped us out last week, although I’d best not talk of that. Whole thing was vastly odd.”
Another gentleman, whose name Scaroth had instantly forgotten, asked Thomas again about the Lake District, but he didn’t get the chance to finish his reminiscences this time either, as this time he was interrupted by a shot in the street, causing them all to jump.
Yes, thought Scaroth in relief, his hired ruffian had killed the Doctor, and if Gilchrist Irving as right, saved Scaroth’s future, and his brothers’ by that act. He shot to his feet, affecting to be as surprised as the rest, but in another moment he had no need to play-act, for he heard another shot, and yet another, both much nearer – far too much nearer. He was certain the last at least had been inside the house, or to the back of it.
He left the others as they exclaimed in alarm, one of them saying something about fetching the constable. Scaroth didn’t stay to hear any more, racing out onto the landing and then making his way to the room in which he’d told Clarissa she’d find the painting. The last gunshot had sounded as if they might come from this direction, and he could think of no good reason for that.
He entered to find no sign of the painting he was after – it was one of Miss McShane, looking far more elegant in a pink gown and hat than she was in life – but Clarissa was there, lying near to an empty easel, her ivory silk dress fast staining with a red that was caused by no paint; it was blood.
At the same moment, he registered, almost like a flicker in the corner of the room, a movement and he saw Gilchrist Irving there, holding a gun. “She stopped me – us,” he said, with an unpleasant twist to his mouth. “And I’d thought I could count on you to do away with her before it came to this.”
“He lied,” said Clarissa faintly, struggling to move. “He lied – the wrong Doctor, you see –”
“Shut up!” Irving snarled, raising the weapon, but Scaroth was ahead of him, and fired, using a compact firearm of his own invention. It seemed to do the trick effectively enough, as Irving staggered back and then slid down the wall to the floor. Scaroth, at his coldest, fired again to make certain that he was dead, whatever he had been.
Then he strode back to Clarissa and crouched down beside her. “You tried to help the Doctor, did you? Why?”
“The Gr – Irving. He lied,” she said, and she had turned even paler. The Count bunched up her petticoat and pressed the material against the wound, but even if he could get her home in time – and he couldn’t – he doubted even he could do anything to save her, and any physician of this time would only make matters worse. She was finished.
“He wanted to trick you into destroying the Doctor,” she said, her breath and words coming in short gasps now. “And it was the wrong Doctor anyway. Killing him wouldn’t – have helped you. He tried to shoot the girl – the girl in the painting, but I stopped him. She – she climbed down out of the window – got to the Doctor in time. And that’s the important thing; that’s what matters,” she murmured, hardly even registering him now. Scaroth wondered if she was turning delirious. “That’s all that ever matters. And then he shot me.” There were tears sliding down her ghostly face, although she didn’t seem aware of them; she barely seemed aware of him any more.
He gripped hold of her. “I’m sorry, my dear – but tell me who you are! I must know! It’s vital that I understand.”
“Impossible,” she said, even more faintly. “Impossible girl, that’s me. I did it. Saved her, saved him.”
“Who are you? How did you get here? I saw you, echoed in the time stream – just as I am,” he said, and it was a new agony, to have a lead, a fellow sufferer, someone he could have studied and maybe even used to find a solution, and then to lose her, all for the machinations of Irving, whom he should never have trusted even this much. “You must tell me! I’m trapped, fragmented, in the same way – you must –”
She was a literal dead weight in his arms, no longer breathing.
“No,” he said. “No. Clarissa!”
That was how the others found him, a few moments later. Seeing him – as they thought – distraught with his fiancée’s lifeless body in his arms, they accepted his explanations as to how the intruder had attacked her and he had shot him in self-defence. After all, the Doctor and Miss McShane had had a similar encounter down in the street below, the others said, except of course they’d managed to escape and chase after the other ruffian.
So it was that Count Cristoforo was barely even required to wait for the constable before he went home, accompanied by Clarissa’s body. Perhaps she might afford him some clues dead, but he doubted it. Still, having inadvertently caused this unfortunate event, he could at least give her the decent burial that all these humans valued so much, if nothing else.
And, perhaps, if his senses had not deceived him, and she was as shattered across time as he, perhaps one of his other selves might encounter another such fragment of her and this time uncover her secrets, and with them, perhaps even a solution. It was not impossible, he thought and gave a weary, ironic smile as the carriage slowed and then finally halted its rattling onward movement. They had reached to his would-be fortress at Chelsea.
“Sir,” said James, as the Count climbed out of the vehicle. “I thought you’d like to know – she got the painting out to me before that fellow shot her. It’s here. We’ve got it.”
The irony was too exquisite. Much to James’s stoic bafflement, the Count took hold of the portrait of the young woman in pink, and laughed aloud in the darkness. And now he merely had to get it to Paris in time – in perfect time.
Clara sat up in bed with a yell, waking out of a particularly weird dream. She didn’t remember her splintered existence in the Doctor’s personal timestream – no human could remember hundreds and hundreds of lives across time without going mad – but some things were constant enough to have remained and others returned as fragments in her dreams, usually in the shape of nightmares. The Doctor’s timestream frequently was the stuff of nightmares.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to disturb you,” said the Doctor from somewhere across the room in the darkness, making her squeak in startled alarm, before she noticed the large and incongruous blue box parked opposite her bed. Again.
“I’ve told you not to do that!”
“Yes, sorry. I think the old girl likes it in here.”
Clara wasn’t sure she bought that. She thought it was more likely that the TARDIS just enjoyed annoying Clara. Still, if the Doctor was here, at least she could ask him something. She switched on the light, because observing him closely was important when trying to get answers. “Doctor? You know when I was in your timestream . . . is there any chance one of me might have sort of accidentally married a bloke made out of tentacles?”
The Doctor didn’t ask her how much cheese she’d had before going to bed and laugh at her; instead he jumped back in horror, as if she’d turned into a monster in front of his very eyes. As reactions went, it was actually kind of beautifully overblown, Clara felt.
“Clara!” he said, and seemed lost for words, before eventually, he said, with a scowl, “I don’t know, but if you did, your taste in men is appalling.”
She grinned. “Oh, I know – why else would I like you?”