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The Hand That Feeds

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Sussex, 1869

 

Rey limped clumsily through the woods. Plutt had beaten her again.

 

She hadn’t cried this time, but a blind rage had slowly filled her heart while he’d put his slimy, chunky hands on her.

 

Her foster father had discovered her secret. Every week, during her walks to Alderaan Castle, she would sneak into the manor through an old drainpipe and steal something to read from Professor Solo’s library. She would devour the book at night, hidden in her little bed, and then return it the following week, borrowing another one in its stead.

 

“You can’t eat books,” Plutt had said, while looking for his cane. “Steal something valuable, or I’ll send you to the brothel in town. You still resemble a lad, but men will pay nonetheless.”

 

She didn’t want to become a thief. She had never felt so helpless in her short and miserable life, and warm tears started to run down her cheeks, tracking through the dust and the soot, almost in time with the first droplets of rain from the cloudy, heavy sky. As she covered the few miles to the castle, she crossed her arms, protecting the work she was going to return to the professor’s collection—the second issue of La Revue Archéologique, trying to run despite her injuries.

 

She slowed down only when the pain became unbearable, the looming silhouette of the manor closer with every step she took. Entering the library without alerting any of the servants was easy enough. She could squeeze through gaps with her slender form, still unencumbered with the curves other girls her age had begun to develop. But this time, with the beating she had taken, sneaking around was proving unusually difficult.

 

She managed to crawl up to the second storey, using her uninjured hand on a drainpipe, risking at every moment a fall. She slipped in through a damaged window, hoping that the wheezes coming from her lungs wouldn’t alert anyone. Breathing was easier once she replaced the periodical, retrieving another issue of the same publication to read during the upcoming week. Relieved at her success, she decided to investigate Professor Solo’s artifacts collection, even as guilt quietly gnawed at her.

 

She had to decide between stealing something ancient and valuable from the man’s private collection or staying true to her beliefs. Otherwise, translating it in Plutt’s language, she had to decide between a warm meal and a relatively tick-free bed or getting beaten again and probably being sold off as soon as her monthlies began. Or even before that.

 

The mere thought made her shiver. She had always considered herself extremely lucky to lack the femininity to attract some lecherous man’s unwanted attention, but, if her foster father began considering her more valuable as a dollymop than as a farm boy, this would soon change. The horror of losing what little freedom she had over her body and her person drove her to continue her inspection of the professor’s valuables.

 

Even to her untrained gaze, the sheer number of priceless trinkets, vases and other pieces was breath-stealing. Her attention was immediately captured by the largest vases: two reddish and black kraters. She couldn’t stop herself from tapping on their round bellies with her fingernails, producing a different sound from each vase, before turning to a cabinet filled with trinkets to see if there were jewels or equally transportable goods.

 

A sudden noise coming from the next room prompted her to snatch a miniature basalt statue of Sekhmet from the nearest shelf, small enough to be hidden under her oversized waistcoat. She began to retreat towards the library, but the sudden opening of a door in the far corner of the room made her forget about her plan, and she started running towards her usual escape route. Halfway down the pipe, her injured calf gave out, causing her to lose her grip, falling and hitting her shoulder and the side of her head on the hard ground of the courtyard below.

 

Professor Han Solo found her like this. After hearing strange noises from his study he’d gone to investigate, but found no one. A sharp cry and heavy thud coming from outside had alerted him to the intruder’s whereabouts. On the hard courtyard ground lay a very young lad, dressed in threadbare rags, third issue of La Revue Archéologique and one of his statuettes sheltered between his arms. Seeing blood on the pavement, the professor slowly lifted the child’s head, checking his heartbeat with two fingers on the jugular vein. His heart was still beating, and he exhaled, relieved.


Rey awoke several hours later, looking at an unfamiliar ceiling, with a thick bandage around her head.

 

“How are you feeling, lad? You took an almost two-storey swan dive. I’m surprised you’re still alive.”

 

Turning her head, she needed a few seconds to focus on the person in front of her; a bespectacled, grey-haired man regarded her. In his hands was the statue she had intended to steal. She recognized him immediately, and her heart jumped in her bruised chest.

 

“Professor Solo, I’m so sorry,” she whispered, as tears began to fill her eyes. “I never intended to steal from you, I just wanted to read more about vases and mummies and Odysseus’ journey!”

 

Her apologies were met with a warm chuckle.

 

“So you’re able to read. Who taught you?”

 

“The nuns, back at the orphanage.”

 

“You could have politely asked to visit my library. I could never deny knowledge to a young lad like you.” He smiled, looking tired all of a sudden. “I had a son once, Ben. The smallpox stole him from me and my wife. You remind me of him, when he was little. Though he’d be almost twenty-four years old now, if he still were alive.”

 

“I’m sorry, I had no idea.” Rey dried her tears with a tattered sleeve.

 

“Why were you tapping on my kraters?” he inquired, looking at her dirty fingernails.

 

“I read that attic vases produce a particular sound, but I never had the occasion to ascertain this information. To be honest, I never saw a real attic krater before, I just read about them in your books.”

 

“Did you manage to recognize which vase is from Attica, then?” He smiled warmly again.

 

“The red one, with black figures. The black one with red figures makes a different sound.”

 

“That’s correct. Your knowledge is impressive. I will put this Sekhmet back, and you will focus on recovering from your fall. In the meantime you’ll be fed and your injuries attended. Let me thank you for returning my books in pristine condition.”

 

“Pardon me, Sir, but I can’t accept. My adoptive father would kill me if I came home empty handed tonight. He commanded me to steal from you, instead of just borrowing books like I have in the past.” Rey’s voice trembled. "I'm not a thief."

 

“Who is this man?” asked the professor.

 

“Your tenant, Plutt. We live in the old barn near the western fields, behind the woods.”

 

“I thought he had adopted a girl.”

 

“That’s me. My name is Rey. You can’t really help me unless you let me return home with that little statue. I’ll repay you later, working for you. Besides reading and writing, I can chop wood, wash dishes and floors, sew, knit, mend socks and many other things. Please,” she sniveled, warm tears running again down her dirty face.

 

“Stop spouting nonsense, young lady.” The professor looked sternly at her from behind his lenses. “You are in no shape to walk right now, you fell down a drainpipe and almost died in the process. If what you’re reporting to me is true, the man you call ‘father’ will only beat you again, or worse.”

 

Rey did not dare to look at him, fidgeting with the clean, white sheet. Plutt had adopted her because he needed unpaid workers for his farm, and he’d never hesitated to hit her with his bare hands or with a leather strap every time she failed to obey him. She hated him for that, but she was completely at his mercy.

 

“You can stay here until you’re well. This will take some time.” The professor got to his feet and approached a shelf full of books. “A friend of mine sent me this last year, but I never had the time to even open it. I want you to read it during your convalescence, and then tell me your opinion on it.”

 

Rey tried to turn her head in his direction, but a stabbing pain surged through her skull, forcing her to look at the book he had put down on the bedside table out of the corner of her eye. Its title was long and complicated, and she managed to discern only the first line, printed in bigger letters, On the Origin of Species .

 

“There is no need to worry about anything. I will contact Plutt about you remaining here, I’m sure he’ll understand,” he said, his eyes suddenly mournful. “I can’t wait to tell my wife about you.”

 

Rey’s eyes slowly closed. This was the first day of her new life as Professor Solo’s protegée .


 

London, 1885

 

“Be careful with that, it’s the only panathenaic amphora we managed to buy this year,” Rey barked at the workmen that were crating the vases headed to the museum. Being one of the few women working in the antiquities business meant that she had to shout more than her male colleagues to be heeded by her labourers.

 

Not being married at the ripe age of thirty didn’t help either, but Rey never felt more stronger or independent in her life. She was free to do what she wanted, thanks to her benefactor, Professor Solo, and his good-hearted wife, Leia, duchess of Alderaan. They had saved her from her foster father, Mr. Plutt, and from a life of theft and misery when she was just fourteen. Treating her like a real daughter, the couple had offered her their late son’s rooms in Leia’s country estate during the summer, and another warm bed was waiting for her in Solo’s house in London, during winter.

 

He had personally overseen her education, teaching her everything he knew, and Rey’s young mind swiftly absorbed even the most disparate subjects, from ancient history to hieroglyphics, passing through Latin and Greek, diggings and long travels to Italy, Egypt, Greece and many other countries. He introduced her as his ward to his students, until she took her degree in Archaeology, and after his retirement to Alderaan Castle, he left her his house in London, where she lived by herself, with the company of a competent and curt housekeeper, Miss Rachel T. D. Turner, and Solo’s old chatty butler, Mr. Charles T. P. Oswald.

 

With her determination and the professor’s teachings, she began working in the antiquities business, buying, selling and evaluating ancient artifacts. She was soon able to open a small company with two acquaintances. Finn was a serious young man, already familiar with the art market, whom she met when she was twenty years old, during travels with the professor in Benin Kingdom. Rose was a kindred soul, arrived in Paris from French Indo-China to study art and painting and later moved to London.

 

The previous day, an important contractor had asked the three of them to evaluate a sarcophagus he had found in a building he had recently purchased. After Rey had finished coordinating the pottery transfer to the museum, Finn and Rose joined her to visit the sarcophagus location, an old house on the outskirts of the city.

 

“I find this place upsetting, there is a strange energy between these walls,” announced Finn, entering the dilapidated building.

 

They descended the stairs leading to the cellars, and when they reached the subterranean room containing the artifact, Rose began lamenting a sudden dizziness. The sarcophagus was huge and imposing, made of polished, black wood and completely devoid of marks.

 

“I’ve never seen anything resembling this anywhere,” commented Rey. “It’s definitely not from Egypt.”

 

Finn shuddered. “I’m almost running out of air down here.”

 

Rey opened her wooden tool box, extracting three nail pullers and lending them to her colleagues. Everyone began pulling out the long nails that were sealing the huge lid; when they finished, Finn excused himself and exited the room, lamenting again a growing lack of air around the mysterious casket. Rey huffed, but Rose didn’t seem at ease either, and she soon became pale and had difficulties breathing.

 

They began removing the top, which gave in after a loud creak. There was no foul odour coming out of the sarcophagus, so they opened it completely, placing the lid on the ground.

 

“There’s a body inside.” Rose peered in. “It’s covered by a sudarium and rather taller than most.”

 

There was indeed an imposing figure within the casket. Rey reached out to remove the dusty shroud that was covering the hulking body, exposing a long pair of grey, well-preserved feet.

 

“It’s not wrapped in linen bandages,” commented Rey. “It might be a spontaneous mummy.”

 

“This is the oddest one I’ve seen, then. Look at the unusual colouring and at the texture of the skin.” Rose pointed to the corpse’s bare limbs.

 

“It appears mummified indeed, but I never saw such skin colour before either,” added Rey, caressing the mummy’s instep. “Let us get a better look at it. Help me remove the rest of the sudarium?”

 

Both women forgot to breathe for a few seconds. The body wasn’t desiccated in the usual way mummies were: he was male, more than six feet tall, well built and quite young looking. He almost looked asleep, save for an earthenware brick inserted into his ajar mouth. His skin looked soft, His head was full of luscious, black hair, and he sported a pointy moustache and a small goatee on his chin. Both women explored the mummy’s sides too, looking for the usual signs left by the evisceration process.

 

“There are no traces of post-mortem manipulation; we are indeed in front of a spontaneous mummy.” Rey felt the need to pull out her sketchbook out to capture his striking features.

 

“It’s unbelievable,” whispered Rose. “Its skin is so smooth and well aged, it almost doesn’t seem dead. Finn has to see this!”

 

Rey delicately pried open the mummy’s mouth to remove the brick nestled between two rows of perfectly preserved and slightly crooked teeth, and observed mesmerized as the jaw slowly closed shut again, revealing fully the man’s striking and unsettling beauty.

 

“I could never guess his age,” murmured Rey. “He seems so young, and yet so old? I’ve never seen such facial bones before, I wish I had my sketchbook with me.”

 

“Take my block, in the meantime I will go look for Finn. I don’t really feel at ease in this room,” replied Rose, extending her drawing supplies to Rey. “Will you be okay down here with it?”

 

“Of course. Go find Finn while I sketch our find in situ .” Rey approached the mummy, ready to capture his lineaments on paper.

 

He was a creature made of contradictions. His features were revealing a wildness that both scared and intrigued her, and that wildness was harbouring an almost aristocratic elegance. She traced the bridge of his nose with two angled lines, doing the same for his strong brow, his high cheekbones and his sharp chin.

 

“Get a grip on yourself, Rey,” she muttered between her teeth. “He’s dead.”

 

The realization that she found him attractive was strange at best and a little spine-tingling at worst. She sketched his wide unmarred torso, his long legs, and his elegant, tapered hands, placed to strategically cover his crotch. She was almost tempted to lift one of his hands to see what lay beneath, but she decided she was not ready to nose around his implements, and caressed his long thighs instead. He really was incredibly smooth, and she kept touching the dried skin, up his stomach, through his hard ribs, to finally reach his captivating face.

 

She stroked his high cheekbones with her knuckles, and the hollows under them. His facial hair was soft, and the hair on his head was even silkier, black as a raven’s wings and arranged in elegant waves around his head. Her insatiable curiosity made her lift the locks that covered his ears, maybe his less aristocratic feature. They were definitely on the bigger side.

 

“Well, that would make you a really good listener!” she giggled, inhaling some dust from the shroud and sneezing violently on the mummy’s face.

 

Rey watched in horror as the corpse’s pale skin was now mottled with tiny speckles of blood from her delicate capillaries, and she swiftly covered her dripping nose with her left hand.

 

“By Jove!” She rushed towards her bag to look for a handkerchief to clean up the mess she had caused. She wiped her nose and hands, but when she returned to the mummy the blood wasn’t there anymore, save for the biggest drop, on his bottom lip, slowly disappearing before her startled gaze. She caressed his mouth with her thumb, trying to clean it, and when she checked again the blood had disappeared.

 

She blinked. His skin suddenly looked less grey, and also his lips had a plumper look.

 

Her ears began to ring. A whirlwind of dust surrounded her, and she had to huddle up next to the casket, covering her face with her skirt. Her heartbeat thundering in her chest, she tried to look at what was happening, but all she saw were dancing shadows that stopped invading the room when her ears began working again after a loud, popping sound.

 

Dizzy and terrified, she grabbed the sarcophagus lid, to avoid falling down, and she almost fainted when she realised the mummy had disappeared.

 

"Rose! Finn!"

 

 

Finn emerged from the kitchen, followed by Mr. Oswald carrying a generous serving of tea, sandwiches and biscuits, while Rose consoled a weeping Rey. Both her friends had decided to keep her company at her house, since she was still unsettled by the events that had occurred during the afternoon.

 

“I knew that coffin was bad news,” he murmured, pouring three cups.

 

“It’s my fault,” cried Rey. “I got distracted, and someone stole the mummy. He was astonishing, he would have been perfect in a museum.”

 

He ?” intervened Rose. “It was a corpse, Rey, not a living man.”

 

Rey had the decency to look ashamed, and she wiped her swollen eyes.

 

“The odds of someone stealing a mummy seem very low indeed,” intervened Finn, sipping his tea. “I was in the courtyard for the whole time, and no one entered or exited the building.”

 

“Didn’t you say that you got blood on it, Rey? What if it was a demon and you freed it or something?” asked Rose, gesticulating at the same time.

 

“Don’t be silly, Rose, a demon? I can’t believe you’d spout such inanities!”

 

“Rey, do you want me to sleep here tonight?” insisted Rose. “I would be terrified to be alone after what happened today.”

 

“Thank you, but there is no need. Oswald and Rachel are here with me.”

 

“Well, try to look on the bright side then,” continued Rose. “You’ll soon have a new chest, full of dust and dirt, but at least the wood seemed in excellent condition. And a terracotta brick for free!”

 

 

That evening, Rey went to bed early but didn’t manage to fall asleep, cursing herself for not accepting Rose’s proposal to keep her company during the night. The bed seemed bigger and colder than usual, and every single noise coming from the house or from outside made her heart jump erratically.

 

The pale, spectral moonlight and the trees in the garden were projecting eerie shadows on the walls and floor, making her tremble under the blankets. She thought about sleeping in Ben’s old bedroom—both bed and window were smaller after all—and when she finally decided to light up a candle and head towards the other chamber, someone knocked at the front door, making her blood turn to ice in her veins.

 

It was almost midnight and the wind was howling outside. Rey called for Miss Rachel and Mr. Oswald, but strangely they didn’t rouse from their sleep. She was tempted to run to Ben’s bed and ignore the insistent knocking, but her mind immediately rushed to Rose, too generous to let her sleep alone, defying every social convention and walking alone in the darkness to save her from her loneliness.

 

“I hope at least Finn is with you,” she mumbled, hurrying down the stairs, mindful of her candle.

 

The knocking became more and more insistent. Without thinking twice, she unbolted her door, opening it, and found herself frozen, suddenly unable to move. She slowly lifted her eyes, and she discovered that the person outside was not Rose, but a mountain of a man, shrouded from head to toe in a hooded, black cloak. He was looking at her with dark, gleaming eyes, and her whole body began trembling like a leaf.

 

“Miss Rey, I mean you no harm. Let me come inside and I will explain why I’m here.”

 

Rey felt the grip on her body slowly abate, and she found herself able to move her mouth at least.

 

“Mr. Oswald!” she cried, panicked.

 

“Your servants are in a deep and dreamless sleep. It’s just us.”

 

“What?” she babbled, quivering.

 

“I’m afraid you’ll have to invite me in. We need to talk,” the stranger continued. “Please.”

 

Rey debated briefly about what to do. Apparently, the man was doing something to prevent her from moving, but he was somehow unable to enter her house without her permission. They were at an impasse.

 

The way he had said “please” convinced her to give him the benefit of the doubt.

 

“C-come in, then,” she croaked feebly.

 

He put a foot on her doorstep, and with a long stride, he was in her face. She was finally able to move again, but she remained on the spot, still trembling and riled up by a deep annoyance. She gathered the courage to address him, her gaze fixed on his shadowed eyes, the candle's flame flickering between them.

 

“I’m finding your behaviour really barbaric, Sir. How dare you knock on my door at midnight, demanding entrance to my home? I never met anyone more uncivil than you,” she gritted through her teeth.

 

The stranger inhaled from his long nose, keeping silent for a few seconds.

 

“You’ll have to get used to my barbaric ways then, Miss Rey,” he huffed, his eyes shining like twin flames.

 

“How so, dear Sir?” she retorted, pointy chin held high.

 

Silently, the stranger proceeded to remove his hood. Rey’s mouth hung open—he wasn’t a stranger at all, she knew that face very well. She had sketched it with a charcoal pencil, and she had caressed his angular features that same afternoon.

 

“Because I am your husband.”

 

Rey felt her knees buckle under her weight, while darkness began clouding her eyes. He managed to catch her during her fall, before she could injure herself, and cradled her body to his chest in an almost reverent way. The candle rolled on the floor, extinguishing in a puddle of wax.

 

“Don’t touch me,” she whispered in the darkness, sheltered by his strong arms, quickly losing consciousness.