"Did I tell you why I'm really here?"
"Yes," sighs Alice. Im Eun-Soo tells everyone who will listen why she's here. According to the doctors, she says with pride, she is an egomaniac and a compulsive liar, and a sapphist to boot, but the last one's on all their files whether or not it's true. It's not their fault none of them can pretend to be fond of the calibre of men they usually meet here, or of what is done to them by those men.
"No, why I'm really here." Eun-Soo blows her nose on her shift hem. Alice Kirkland and Amelia Jones sit up and look curiously at her. She looks down at the filthy floor and pauses until they think she's forgotten what she was about to say. Finally she says "My little brother killed a man who tried to hurt me, and my parents thought I did it."
Honda Sakura will not break the code of the Striped Stocking Society, but she sighs quietly. The Honda and Im families did business together before their respective daughters both entered the Asylum; while they weren't very close they met a few times, and the girl jokingly called her eonni and borrowed her best writing pen. Eun-Soo doesn't have a little brother.
Alice squints across the corridor into the cell the Asian girls share, her green eyes fixing on an empty spot. "Is that him next to you? The lad in the green jacket?"
"Oh, yes!" Eun-Soo says, clapping gleefully. "He wasn't going to leave me, after all."
Come to think of it, Sakura remembers, Eun-Soo's older brother died when she was very small... Has she mentioned the green jacket in front of Alice before? Probably.
Nobody really has to ask why Alice is here.
The new Chaser is an attractive fellow named Eli Hedevary. He comes in on his first day holding his baton with the pride of a knight bearing a sword. At the breakfast call he makes comments to a workmate about all the lonely pretty girls, and asks if some of them will kiss for him, laughing off the curses the angrier women throw at him. Another Chaser grabs Eha and Tatjana by the hair and shoves their heads together, and Hedevary laughs again until he realises the man is really hurting them, upon which he pulls them free and laughs again more weakly. By the end of the day his face is sour and white, the blood having drained from it as thoroughly as if he'd been leeched himself.
The girls expect him to be gone the next day, but he's there. Their breakfast bowls and spoons have been washed for once and Hedevary has a black eye. At first they don't connect the two. Over the following weeks and months little things are cleaned or mended, and whenever he's on shift he brings them the newspapers he knows they want and expects nothing in return.
A man who could afford to would leave and pretend the place never existed, but Hedevary needs the money and doesn't need a bad reference. As the girls know from the other workers, a slightly lesser man would shut off his heart and treat the girls like livestock, while a much lesser man would treat them like toys. Hedevary stays, and tries to stay kind.
Ward A is becoming crowded, despite the rapid disappearance of so many of the girls to the depths of Ward B or the cart around the back or wherever else they may go. The girls have been sleeping two to a bed for a while. In Laima Galante's case, it's three; she takes one end while Eha von Bock and Tatjana Laurinaitis take the other, curled up together to avoid falling off the narrow bed, and big Anya Braginskaya with the soft voice and hard fists has a bed all to herself. At least this way it's warm. At least in Ward A they have beds.
Anya goes bare-legged and wraps her stockings about her neck, to conceal the rope-burn scar that is the reason she is here. Laima still trembles as hard as she did the first week after she came and no longer had access to liquor. Tatjana's crucifix was confiscated and so she weaves a cross from straws plucked from the mattress, as some of the girls do, but none of the other girls also weave a pentacle and whisper prayers to Celtic gods along with Christ at night. Tatjana says they need all the help they can get, even if her excessive curiosity about the old ways brought her here. Eha is merely too clever and curious for her own good; when she came to investigate her missing friends she found herself locked up with them.
The foreign doctor who visits one week terrifies the girls. His hands are deft and never linger on them, and his blades are sharp and clean, but even so, he looks at them as an artist would his slabs of marble, and takes as much joy in using his scalpel. When they struggle he snarls like a wolf, and when his work is done he smiles like a snake. For all that, unlike the others, he seems sure he is actually helping them. As Laima lies strapped down with leeches on her veins, she hears him - Dr Arlovsky, someone calls him - talk about how with luck he will prevent others succumbing to the fate of his poor melancholy sister.
It is a relief the next day when they hear Arlovsky has moved on to another hospital.
Anya is seen only by the other doctors all that week. When Laima describes him, Anya sits very quietly all evening, staring at the wall. At midnight, Laima thinks she hears weeping from the other bed.
Amelia Jones and Julchen Beilschmidt and Wang Chun-Yan are striking, but too big and loud and belligerent. Alice Kirkland is small and delicate but the frown and the eyebrows just won't do. Felicia Vargas is sweet and pretty but will not obey when taken from her sister Lavinia, who is violent and foul-mouthed and certainly cannot be used. Laima Galante is too terrified and Anya Braginskaya is too terrifying. Eventually the doctors select Francoise Bonnefoy, blonde and still smiling, and Honda Sakura, tiny and exotically foreign, to join the Ophelia Gallery.
The girls are bathed with warm water and soap for once, given clean shifts and stockings, and their hair is combed and filled with flowers. They are instructed to sigh, to swoon, to languish, and into the cages they go for the public to view for a few pennies each, not a farthing of which nor the benefits thereof the inmates will ever see.
Sakura watches the public pass by, as she swings on the little perch hanging in the cage as if she were a pet bird. A brown-haired lady in indigo silks and wire-rimmed spectacles looks down her nose at girls and patrons alike. Holding her hands are a tiny girl with the longest braids of hair Sakura has ever seen, and a green-eyed boy who looks an awful lot like Val Zwingli. She wonders if this is the brother of whom she's spoken, whether the family abandoned Val or if the doctors told them she was dead. She wonders how many of the women attending today will be patients some day soon. The wealthy seem more prone to insanity, or to accusations thereof, and are the favourite source of patients as they will pay for their women to receive "better" care.
Francoise is removed to Ward B after one day when a scandalised lady patron - the very one with the two children Sakura had been watching, in fact - informs the doctors that she understands what Francoise had been calling her in French. Another girl is removed after a panic attack frightens the viewers, and another after a messy miscarriage in her cage. Tatjana Laurinaitis is among the replacements, frail and wide-eyed, and while she does weep for her friends left in the cells she does so quietly and prettily.
Tatjana and Anya have been moved on by now, but Felicja Lukasiewicz with the short-sheared hair and cockney voice has joined Eha and Laima in their bed instead, as more and more prisoners arrive. Ward A's inmates sleep three or even four to a bed, Ward B is overflowing. The Chasers talk of girls now having to be left to sleep strapped on the leeching beds. There are other beds in the special rooms, but those are not for sleeping.
The girls are nervous, and so is Hedevary. He sneaks an extra crust to Laima, fingers playing on his baton handle, and murmurs "Something's gotta give."
In the mess of screams and cheers and tears and blood, Laima thinks Hedevary was right. Someone got the keys, and now the cells are open, and the circus of dead little girls has risen and become an army. Someone shoved a scalpel into Laima's hands and left her in the chaos, and her friends are somewhere else. She trembles alone in a corner and watches the inmates steal the tools which tortured them and take revenge.
Alice and Francoise, who hated each other, are fighting back to back, screaming an argument at each other even as they slash and hack. Julchen and Amelia are laughing, swinging batons and doing so impressively for half-starved untrained women. Eun-Soo and Chun-Yan and shy little Madeline Williams swarm a Chaser, and Laima realises she never found out why Maddie is here when before the man has even stopped screaming she hears her start to eat. Women are cut down left and right but there are always, always more, and both sides are afraid but the contempt of the Chasers and the doctors is nothing to the women's boiling hatred, and Laima can see the girls are going to win.
A hulking Chaser looms over her, baton raised, and she is sure she will not live to see the victory. She covers her head and waits for the end. After Ward B, it won't be so bad.
Anya Braginskaya, who beat Laima and her best friends black and blue and stole food from them and would hide behind them when the Chasers came to take fresh girls to the clients' rooms, swings a chain-wrapped fist into the man's jaw, and as he stumbles backwards she tears out his throat with a bonesaw. Showered in blood and smiling, discoloured teeth looking very white in her flushed and red-splattered face, she takes Laima's shaking hand, and says "I see it is much nicer to help you than to hurt you, da?"
Laima laughs mirthlessly in shock and stutters "D-da! I... thank you."
Julchen and Val find Hedevary in the hallway, trying to run, but when he finds the doors are locked he turns to face them and throws down his baton and they stop.
"The others are dead, or will be soon," Val says flatly.
Hedevary spreads his empty hands and bows his head. "I thought so. I'd rather not join them, but if you feel you must, I want to hurt you even less. Unless you'd prefer I fight? I can do that. I can't win but if I must die I wouldn't mind going out fighting."
The girls know he's far from a coward; he's fought for them before, in less violent ways then they are doing now. Julchen hands him his baton and the two stand beside him, prepared to defend him against his and their cohorts alike.
The floors run red, the girls' white shifts are splashed with red, and large patches of the black and white wallpaper and their matching stockings are now closer to red and black. Their hands are reddened, their faces are flushed red with exhaustion, and Maddie is not alone in having red running from her teeth. It is terrible but it is over. They won. They sit in the dining hall, the only room big enough to hold them all at once, and wonder what to do now.
Amelia and Anya run in with armfuls of gleaming objects, and Amelia shouts "Hey, we found the storeroom, they kept a lot of our stuff! Must have wanted to sell it later. Look, they even still had my glasses!" Her eyes glitter with joy behind the items in question, which are steaming up with happy tears, and hands out the other pairs she was carrying to Maddie and Eha and the others who need them, and they swap around until they find the ones with the correct lenses. Anya finds a wooden rosary with the name Tatjana engraved on the back, and hands it over with a smile; Tatjana takes it, shaking in fear and smiling in gratitude.
The girls discuss where they could go, and soon find most of them have nowhere. Their families are the ones who put them here, and who will have work for a thousand women? None of them want to lose the only friends they have, and so they decide, instead, they will stay here.
Val Zwingli stands up and says "Speak for yourselves. My little brother needs me and if Rosalie Edelstein doesn't like me being back she can stick it." The girls hug her and cry and say they'll help her pack a bag, and she promises to write and to come back if she must, and then she points to Eli Hedevary who is bound and gagged between Julchen and Sakura and says "I'm not going till we work out what to do with him."
"You want a man to stay here?" cries Francoise, scandalised. "You know what they did to us!"
"He never did!" Julchen snaps.
Felicja stands, and the girls see she is wearing clothes salvaged from the doctors' rooms, the shirt too big and the collar exposing bandages on her chest. "You've already got one boy here, and if he can't stay I won't!"
"Quite right, Feliks," says Tatjana, and hugs her, or rather him.
"Two boys!" says Eun-Soo, pointing at the air.
"Maybe more!" says Antonia Carriedo, pointing at Alice's belly, which already looks a little swollen on her stick-like frame. Several other girls hold their own stomachs and shift uncomfortably.
"Don't be silly, mine shall be a girl," sniffs Alice. "But indeed, we do already have men here. Surely I'm not the only one who sees the ghosts of this place? They're not all patients! What do you think happened to the Chasers who couldn't hack the job any more? Would they be allowed to wander free and tell? All those who say one more won't matter say aye!"
A resounding "AYE!" echoes from the walls, and Julchen whoops and cuts Eli free, and the girls crowd around to shake his hand and hug him.
The Asylum's name is now applied in the other sense of the term; a safe haven, a place for the downtrodden and forgotten to be loved. The doctors' stockpiled goods and money will keep the place running for decades, and sometimes new girls are sent in and pleasantly surprised. Sometimes Val writes; Rosalie was surprised, but relieved she was alive, and agreed her brother needed her, and let her stay.
Wendy Kirkland proves her mother right, and all her hundreds of aunts and both her living uncles think the world of her.