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The Mystery of Tepes Hall

Chapter Text

There comes a time in any young lady’s life when she will be faced with an inescapable truth: that she must embark upon an adventure now, or else she will never have one. The window between adolescence and marriage - in which a young woman might travel, and see the world, and in short be free to do exactly as she pleases – is an unfortunately narrow one; the opportunity to explore must, therefore, be seized with enthusiasm as soon as it arrives.

It was in pursuit of just such an adventure that Miss Sypha Belnades found herself, on a blustery and overcast day just shy of her twenty-second birthday in the autumn of 1875, tramping up a hill on the ---shire border towards Tepes Hall. She hadn’t anticipated having to walk, but the coach which dropped her off had refused to take her further than the village in the valley below – a rather grey, miserable sort of place whose hollow-eyes denizens had viewed her with more wariness than seemed warranted by a neatly-dressed young lady with a generally pleasant disposition.

Certainly, she didn’t think there was anything sufficiently untoward about her appearance that would warrant the glares she had attracted as she passed through the low-set grey stone cottages of the village. Her shoes were a little old and rather big, but neat enough and recently polished, her bag was perhaps a little oversized, but otherwise perfectly plain and ordinary in appearance, and she was sensibly outfitted in a grey wool dress, which was neat and functional and altogether a most unremarkable item of clothing, if a little old-fashioned. It had been – as many of her nicer dresses were - a hand-me-down from an older cousin, but it was clean and unmarked and overall in perfectly respectable shape. It certainly wasn’t unusual enough to be attracting such unwelcoming stares, surely? So what could… oh. Hmm. She patted self-consciously at her hair; in the city the drastic cut had hardly raised eyebrows, but out here in the middle of nowhere… maybe that was it. Maybe they didn’t like her hair. Well, more fool them; it was terribly practical to keep it short like this, and personally she thought it rather dashing. Still, daring fashions are never as easily worn in the country as in the city, and this particular village was very firmly in the country. Indeed, it was not even on any through-route by which carriages might reasonably pass to and from more populous areas. The coach she had taken had been the only one headed this way for some days; she had been very lucky to catch it, all things considered. So she took the wary stares with as much good grace as she could summon up after a very long and not especially comfortable ride over some absurdly bumpy roads, and simply smiled at the wan-faced villagers as she passed though. She had, after all, still something of a journey to make before she reached her final destination at Tepes Hall itself.

From the outskirts of the village, she caught her first sight of the Hall, silhouetted against the late-afternoon sky atop the hill above the town – a grand, imposing shadow that loomed above the trees like a sleeping giant. The building was… arresting-looking, to put it politely. To put it impolitely, it looked like a mess. There were strange little turrets and rambling gables that tore up into the skyline at all manner of frankly bizarre angles and heights and – were those battlements? On a manor house? Good Lord.

 

Sypha shook her head slowly. This sort of architecture, she reflected, can only occur when people with a lot of money but very little taste (and even less understanding of gravity) inherit a house and decide they want to ‘make their mark’. Still, there were a lot of chimneys – all, of course, in different styles and at different heights - visible above the treeline, which could only be a good thing. One can forgive a great deal of architectural silliness in a manor if it is, at least, warm.

 

For the first few minutes of Sypha’s walk the Hall dominated the skyline, black and sharp as a jagged row of teeth on the hill above the village - but as soon as she entered the forest the whole ludicrous pile vanished, hidden by the trees, and she was left to follow the twisting path through the undergrowth and hope that it would lead her to her destination before sunset. 

Sypha sighed, and set a brisk pace into the woods. The weather was just beginning to turn, leaves tinged brown at the edges, and she would rather not be out in the dark when the chill really started to set in. The day was dreary enough, and the trees so closely pressed together, that inside the forest it seemed almost dark enough to be twilight already. And it was cold, too, a sort of creeping chill that snuck into the seams of Sypha’s sensible grey dress and curled itself up against her skin, making her shiver just ever so slightly and quicken her pace. She wasn’t one to be easily unsettled, but she also wasn’t used to being alone in places she didn’t know, and there was something about this forest that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. It was too quiet. Surely there should have been a few birds singing, or little voles scurrying around in the undergrowth, or… well, something, anyway.

She shook her head, briskly. It wasn’t like her to indulge in such silliness.  The birds and the creatures of the forest were simply sensibly enough to keep quiet when humans passed through – and no doubt they could hear her coming a mile away with her stomping great boots. She looked down at them fondly. They were, she had to say, a very excellent pair of shoes. As is the case with all truly good boots, they were of uncertain origin and it was unclear what colour, exactly, they were supposed to be; certainly, they were black now, but whether that had always been the case she couldn’t say. They looked unprepossessing, it was true, but they had big, thick soles with nails in them, and were excellent for kicking things - something that Sypha had done a lot of in her younger years. It was important for a young girl to own a pair of boots that she could really kick things with – a big rock, a rotten log, a door… an annoying boy who wouldn’t leave her alone…

Sypha grinned to herself. Those birds were right to keep clear. She could probably kick them out of the sky, if she really put her mind to it.

She carried on with her spirits raised, her thoughts drifting toward dinner as her stomach rumbled slightly. From the village below, the Hall had looked to be only a handful of miles away, but the path was a little more winding than she had expected it to be - and although she had been walking for some time, she could see no sign of anything other than more trees up ahead. Perhaps she had misjudged the distance – certainly, the hill was steeper than she had anticipated, and she was beginning to regret having brought quite so many of her belongings with her. Her bag was many things, but it was certainly not light. Probably, she reflected glumly, her grandfather had been right when he said she had packed too many books. Still, it couldn’t be much further until-

A sudden flash of movement at of the very edge of her vision made her jump, and she whipped round to glare into the undergrowth, heart thundering in her chest. Dusk was well and truly beginning to set in now, and the gloom between the trees had become deep enough that she had to squint to try and get a look at whatever it was that had gone rushing by. Sypha frowned, narrowing her eyes into the darkness. She had been so sure she’d seen something pelting by in among the underbrush – something pale, tall, four legged… she sighed, and shifted her bag on her shoulder. Probably a deer. It had been very quiet, whatever it was.

She walked on for perhaps a minute or so more when another movement in the undergrowth made her jump, this time accompanied by a low, rumbling growl. She froze. Alright. Definitely not a deer.

She turned around slowly, squinting into the brambles and clutching her bag against her side. Whatever it was that had growled didn’t make any further noise, and she was almost at the point of deciding that she had simply had a very long day and was beginning to imagine things when there was a rustle in the bushes behind her, and another low, menacing growl. She froze. Another growl, closer this time. Was it behind her, or in front? Either whatever it was could move very fast indeed, or there was more than one of it…

 

And then, with a vicious snarl that made Sypha’s skin crawl, the brambles in front of her parted - and she and took a sharp step back as a very large and decidedly unfriendly-looking dog emerged onto the path before her, crouched low and with its teeth bared.

“Shit,” said Sypha, and then, “I mean, uh, oh dear,” because she had remembered her manners, and then, “I mean, shit,” because she had remembered that manners were not particularly important when nobody was listening and she was possibly about to be devoured by an enormous and very angry dog.

Another loud growl sounded from the bushes behind her, and her heart sank as she glanced over her shoulder and caught sight of a second dog of a similar size and, if possible, even more threatening aspect slinking out of the undergrowth toward her.

She shifted her stance slightly, trying to keep both dogs in her line of sight. “Alright, calm down there… good… girls?”

The dogs growled.

“Boys?”

The dogs continued to growl. One of them had a long string of drool beginning to drip from between its glittering teeth.

 

“Good… good dogs,” said Sypha, sounding distinctly unconvinced even to her own ears. The dogs continued to growl as she shoved the flap of her bag open and tried as clandestinely as possible to rummage around inside and reach for her letter-opener. It wasn’t exactly sharp, but it might be enough to at least scare them off and give her some space to… what? Run? Climb a tree?

She took a careful step back as the dogs began to circle, and the slightly larger of the pair snarled at her. She froze, staring it down. Neither of them moved. After a long, tense moment, she resumed rummaging through her bag – and this time it was the second dog who snapped, lurching forward with its teeth bared. Sypha jerked back and screamed, dropping her bag and throwing her arms up to cover her face as the beast came snarling toward her and-

 

And then a loud, shrill whistle sounded from deeper in the forest, and both dogs froze, their ears pricking up. Sypha lowered her arms a fraction, eyes wide. After a moment there was a second whistle, more insistent than the first. The dogs abruptly wheeled around as though they had forgotten about Sypha entirely, both focused intently in the direction of the noise. Very slowly, Sypha reached down and picked up her bag before taking a cautious step back. The dogs barely seemed to notice.

 

A loud, imperious voice echoed through the woods. “Pompey! Crassus! God damn it, where the hell are- Pompey! Crassus!”

The dogs whined in unison, glancing round at Sypha, who froze, and then toward the voice, and then back at Sypha again. One of them licked its lips. Sypha took another slow step away, and it snarled at her.

“Heel!” said the voice, closer than before, and now Sypha could hear the muffled sound of hooves and rustling of leaves - and then, suddenly enough that it almost made her jump, a tall white horse came careening out of the darkness and onto the path, snorting indignantly as its rider steered it directly through the best part of a small bush.

 

“There you are, you blasted pair of- oh,” said the rider, freezing halfway through the act of brushing first a tree branch, and then a cascade of delicate blonde hair, out of his eyes. He paused, blinking his long lashes at Sypha with a bemused frown, “I say, who are you?”

 “I-“ said Sypha, trying to reconcile the mundanity of the question with the alarming events of the past few minutes and coming up distinctly short, “I- are- what?”

The young man wheeled the horse round toward her with a sharp tug of the reins, looking down his long, aquiline nose and sniffing slightly. He was well-dressed, and handsome in a way that was at least two-thirds pretty, although both he and the horse looked as though they’d been for a bit of a rough ride. He had bits of twig clinging to his long, golden hair, and the horse had a thick coat of mud crusted up as far as its hocks. The dogs, for their part, had put their tails between their legs and slunk over to stand on either side of the horse, looking as bashful and meek as they could manage with all those horrible sharp teeth.

 

“I said,” repeated the man, slowly enough to make it clear that he was being rude about it, “who on earth are you? And what did you do to my dogs?”

“What did I-” Sypha spluttered, glaring first at the man, and then at the dogs, who were both studiously avoiding her eye, “What did I do?! Your dogs are entirely out of control, do you realise that? They looked like they were about to eat me!”

The man bristled at that, glaring imperiously down at Sypha. “My dogs are perfectly well in control. And they don’t eat people. That’s ridiculous.”

“Well, that one certainly looked prepared to take a bite out of me!” she said, pointing at one of the dogs, which had the good grace at least to look a bit ashamed about the whole affair, keeping its head down and making a very convincing appearance of studying a small leaf on the path in front of it. “And they clearly weren’t listening to you at all when you were calling for them, which is frankly dangerous, and-”

“They- I-” he stuttered at that, the tips of his ears going ever so slightly red, “They’re perfectly well trained, it’s- I- they’re just a little… independent. Which is a sign of intelligence, anyhow, so-”

“I don’t care what it’s a sign of!” Sypha snapped, waving an admonishing finger up at the young man on the horse. “They gave me a terrible fright, and they might have bitten me. And even if they didn’t, they were menacing a member of the public, which I don’t doubt is against some sort of law, you know. You ought to keep the pair of them on a leash!”

 

And with that she turned on her heel and stomped off up the path toward the Hall, ignoring the posh spluttering that the young man was now making behind her. What an idiot. Who on earth would be so foolish as to let dogs of that size go rampaging across the countryside, menacing young ladies and causing a nuisance? The nerve of it.

 

The sound of hooves on the path jerked Sypha out of her furious train of thought, as the young man came cantering up behind her – and then overtook, and pulled the horse up to a stop directly in front of her, blocking the path.

“I asked you who you are.”

“So you did.”

“… well?”

“I don’t have to tell you anything,” Sypha said, clutching her bag close to her chest and stepping smartly around the horse so that she could carry on walking. “You’re rude, and I don’t like your dogs.”

“I’m not-” she heard the horse snort, and once again the young man trotted forward to bar the way. “Look, I’m not being-” he sighed, shaking his head, hair tumbling down over the shoulders of his black riding jacket like liquid gold. Sypha, to her great annoyance, couldn’t help but notice that the jacket fitted him extremely well. Bastard. She frowned, turned her nose up, and once more stepped around the horse as the man said, “Look, I’m just saying that you’re on private land. Do you know that?”

She ignored him.

“And the village is the other way.”

She continued to ignore him.

 

Once again, the horse came trotting up past her and the man pulled it up to a halt sideways across the path, blocking her way. “I’m not trying to annoy you, you know. I just-”

“Well, you’re doing an excellent job of it.”

“You do realise that it’s not very safe for a young woman to be wandering around in these woods after dark? It’s getting late. The sun has almost set.”

Sypha fixed him with her loftiest, sternest glare. “Is that a threat?”

He looked genuinely mortified, at that, and this time it wasn’t just the tips of his ears that went pink – the flush carried down onto his high-carved cheekbones and made itself right at home there. Regrettably, this had the effect of making him look very handsome. “I- no. No! Of course not. I’m not-”

 

“If you’re not trying to threaten me,” said Sypha, “then why don’t you take your nasty untrained dogs, and your fancy oversized horse, and leave me alone?”

“Well, I- I just… I should keep you company until you’re out of the woods, at least.”

“Why on earth would you do that?

“I-“ he frowned, fiddling with the reins, not quite looking her in the eye. “It’s just- dangerous for, um, a young lady to be on her own, so…”

“Not as dangerous as it is to be in the company of a strange man in the middle of the woods. Especially when he has two vicious dogs with him. Don’t you think?”

“Uh,” said the man, looking distinctly embarrassed.

 

With a smart shake of the head and a slight spring in her step, Sypha stepped round the horse and carried on up the path, and this time the young man didn’t immediately come trotting forward to overtake her. She bit back the urge to turn around and see his doubtless ridiculous expression – an exit always has more gravitas, after all, if it is done without hesitation. And so she kept her eyes front, and strode off along the path toward the Hall at a brisk pace. She had half-expected to hear the panting of dogs at her heels, or the steady thud of hooves on the soft-packed earth of the forest floor, but nothing of the sort happened. By the time she did chance a quick glance over her shoulder, the man and his dogs were gone. There was nothing behind her at all.

 

Nothing but the forest, and the gathering dark.

Chapter Text

The remainder of Sypha’s walk to the Hall was, thankfully, short and without any further incident; no more oversized dogs, no more sinister noises in the undergrowth - and no more rude but very handsome strangers. Indeed, the entire encounter had been so strange and so inexplicable that by the time she reached the edge of the woods and finally caught a glimpse of the Hall up close, Sypha was half convinced that she had imagined the whole thing. Or, at least, that her overtired and doubtless somewhat nervous mind had exaggerated the size of the dogs a little.

Either way, the incident was behind her now, and as she saw the gates of the Hall loom up before her, her spirits rose a little. Yes, those wrought iron spikes looked a little alarming, and yes, the jagged silhouette of the house against the scarlet-red remnants of the sunset was a tad ominous, and yes, she was fairly certain that the birds hunching among the chimney-stacks were ravens – but she had arrived, and that meant that she would soon be able to sit down and actually have a bite to eat. It is impossible for anywhere with a kitchen in it to look overly menacing when one is really properly hungry.

And Sypha was, in fact, famished, so she strode on through the great iron gates with her head high and a spring in her step, and waved cheerfully at the ravens when they croaked at her. The sun was very nearly set, but thankfully there was still enough lingering light for her to make her way through the gardens to the front door without any real difficulty. She hesitated for a moment, brushing down her skirts and smoothing her hair before knocking, and she found herself wishing that her grandfather could be with her, just for a moment, because he always knew how best to comfort her when she felt nervous or afraid. And then she thought of what he would say if he could see her now, and reflected that he would probably tell her that she was perfectly old enough and brave enough and self-sufficient enough to ring a doorbell on her own, and not to be silly and worry herself, and also to stop thinking about him and missing him as if he were dead and not perfectly alive and well in London - even if he was south of the river and that was practically the same as being dead, as far as society was concerned.

All of which was very excellent advice, and frankly she was far too hungry and too tired to hover on the doorstep any longer, however nervous she might be – so without further ado she stepped up the the vast oak doors of the Hall and knocked. She smoothed down her hair again, thoughtful. It was admittedly rather frightening to be so far from anyone she had ever known, but it was also… exciting. Perhaps she would make some very great friends here among the servants, and perhaps she would be allowed to wander around the library – for surely a house of this size must have one – and read all sorts of books she had never read before. Perhaps she would find a new favourite! And Dr Tepes… the newspaper advertisement for the governess job that she had answered hadn’t said much about her new employer, but she had no doubt that he would be interesting to speak with. He was, after all, a doctor, and therefore undoubtably an educated and intelligent man, although possibly he would be too busy to spend much time speaking to a simple Governess…

Sypha was jolted out of her train of thought by a dreadful groan of rusted hinges. The vast oak door swung inward abruptly before her, revealing a dark hallway beyond. A sallow-faced footman lingered in the shadow behind the door, dressed all in black. His chest bore a strange, stark red insignia that Sypha could only presume might be part of the family crest, and a deep hood obscured most of his features. He stood a little back from the doorway, and eyed her with an expression of vague distaste.

Sypha swallowed slightly. “Hello, I’m, uh- I’m here to see Dr Tepes?” It came out sounding altogether too much like a question, so she cleared her throat and tried again, more firmly this time. “I’m here to see Dr Tepes.”

The footman inclined his head slightly.

“Oh, so sorry, where are my manners – I’m Miss Belnades, I responded to an advertisement that your employer had put in the ---shire Post. I’m the new Governess.”

She held out a hand to shake, smiling brightly. The footman ignored it, staring at her for fraction too long before blinking.

“I believe I’m expected?” said Sypha, dropping her hand and pulling a now rather rumpled telegram from her pocket. She frowned, and smoothed it out as best as she could against her skirts, “Here, this is from Dr-”

“Come in,” said the footman, stepping further into the darkness of the hallway beyond.

Sypha followed after him, and behind her the heavy oak door slammed shut with a decisive thud. She glanced around, squinting slightly. The hallway was dimly lit, the lamps turned down so low that the candle in the footman’s hand was by far the brightest source of light in sight. Still, what she could make out of her surroundings seemed very grand indeed, if a little old-fashioned.

The footman cleared his throat, and motioned for her to hand him the telegram.

“Oh!” she said. “Sorry, yes, of course. Here it is.”

He stared at it for a long moment, and then nodded slowly. “Wait here, please.”

 

As his footsteps faded away into the darkness, Sypha took the opportunity to peer up and around her at the grand hallway she found herself in. Several sombre dark oak doors lined the passage to the left and right, and through a vast set of doors at the far end she could just make out what seemed to be a ballroom – in the half-light she could see the glint of marble tiles on the floor, and the frame of a vast painting on the wall, swathed in dusty black cloth. The ballroom must be large indeed, because even the entry hall was princely in its proportions – though, admittedly, not very well maintained. The cornicing above was distinctly cobwebby, and the carpet beneath her sensible black boots had certainly seen better days. The walls were lined with age-darkened paintings, strange figures looming out from behind crackling, tarry varnish like shadowy shapes seen beneath the ice when the Thames froze over in the wintertime. She peered a little closer at the nearest portrait, squinting in the half-light as she tried to make out the name on the tarnished plaque below – and then the sudden sound of a slamming door made her jump.

The slam was briskly followed by a volley of curses that would have made a sailor blush, and then loud, heavy footsteps moving briskly toward her. She glanced up and down the corridor, trying to work out where on earth the sound was coming from and if she ought to make herself scarce – but the echo down the dark hall threw the sound strangely, and she couldn’t work out where on earth the noise was coming from until it was almost on top of her.

She spun round just in time to see one of the doors further down the corridor burst open, spilling a blaze of candlelight over the dusty carpet as a towering figure stumbled through it. Sypha took a half step back quite instinctively – the man was vast, broad-shouldered and shaggy-haired and built like a prize fighter. Like two prize fighters, even.

“-WHICH IS,” he shouted back through the doorway by which he had entered, “ENTIRELY NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.” He shook his head. “What a load of fu-” he growled, face twisted into a furious snarl, before catching sight of Sypha and almost dropping his candle. His expression dropped, too, almost comically, as he caught sight of her alarmed face; “I- ah, oh, shi- that is, uh, I didn’t realise anyone was- uh. Hello.”

 

Sypha looked him up and down slowly. He was certainly very big, and a little grubby looking, and he had a hole in his left shoe. He was clearly in need of a shave, and probably a haircut too. And a new coat. But he had taken a polite step back at the sight of her, and after a moment he raised his hands in what might have been an attempt at an open-palmed gesture of apology – it didn’t quite work, because one hand had a candle in it and the other had a half-empty brown bottle, but Sypha appreciated the attempt. And really, must be sort of hard for a man of such monumental muscularity not to look at least a little intimidating. One could almost feel quite sorry for him.

So she smiled, and extended a hand toward him to shake. “Hello. Sorry if I startled you. I’m here to see Dr Tepes.”

His expression seemed to dim again at that, a slow frown creasing over his brow.

Sypha waited for a moment, hand hovering in the air between them. He made no move to shake it. After a moment she smiled again, and cleared her throat. “My name is Miss Belna-”

The man wrinkled his nose. “I didn’t ask,” he mumbled, brusquely, shoving past her in a whisky-scented whirlwind and barrelling on out of the front door without another glance back.

 

A cold wind rattled down the corridor, and then the door slammed shut with a decisive thud, and he was gone.

“Well,” said Sypha, after a moment, “That wasn’t very polite.”

 

The footman from before strode briskly back into the corridor, eyeing the front door with a wry smirk. “Ah, the young master of the house must be returned from his ride, then.”

Sypha stared, aghast. “That was the master of the house?!”

The footman let out a strange, barking laugh. “No. No, indeed. That was the groundskeeper.”

“Then what do you mean by-”

“The foulness of his temperament correlates rather directly with whenever his latest run-in with young master Adrian was. Now, if you would follow me, please.”

And with that he strode off so briskly that Sypha had to half-trot to keep pace. Further questions seemed to fall on deaf ears, or at least profoundly disinterested ones.

 

The footman led her through a maze of corridors; through door after door and hallway after hallway and up and down stairs and round corners and past landings until Sypha felt quite dizzy with it. She was quite certain that she could never find her way back to the front door alone, so convoluted was the passage through the house. The Hall at this hour was mostly dark, other than the strange shadows that the footman’s candle cast up the walls and along the spidery corners of the ceilings above. There was no sound other than their footsteps, and the rustle of Sypha’s skirts, and the occasional soft creak of the house settling as the night chill took hold. She could make no sense of the layout of the place at all, and the décor seemed entirely nonsensical – statues and plinths here and there, old stone walls pressed up against dark panelled wood, tiny arrow slit windows along one side of a room and wide shuttered windows just beyond; there was precious little cohesion to the design, and no sense at all.

 

Sypha was musing on the dismal taste of the unreasonably rich when the footman came to a sharp stop in front of her and rapped sharply on a door before swinging it open, motioning Sypha to step forward.

 

And so she did, blinking at the sudden brightness – this room, unlike the others she had passed through, was aglow with light. A fire crackled in the grate, burning low behind a wrought iron guard, and the walls were hung with smart modern oil-lamps. A mismatched array of candle sticks were scattered across various tables, and a little desk in the far corner was piled high with papers and notes and files that were spilling half onto the floor. And the books! The walls were almost entirely hidden by bookshelf after bookshelf, stuffed floor-to-ceiling with books of all manner and description, gold lettering on the spines glittering in the light. A tea set was laid out on a low table before the fire, flanked on either side by two somewhat overstuffed but clearly well-loved brocade armchairs. The one facing the door was empty. The other was occupied, but high-backed enough that all Sypha could see of the occupant was a single hand in a slim black glove, settled gently on the armrest.

 

“Please,” said a warm, gentle voice. “Come in, sit down. Have something to eat – you must be famished. I had the cook make up some cucumber sandwiches, and some little cakes. I do hope you are fond of cakes. I should like very much like an excuse to have them more often.”

Sypha frowned, slowly stepping into the room and then hesitating slightly as she moved toward the table and got a better look at the figure in the chair, draped from head to toe in inky black, veiled and gloved and entirely at odds with the warm and cozy feeling of the little study she had found herself in. And also very definitely… female.

 

“I’m so sorry,” said Sypha, glancing back at the door and realising with a sinking feeling that the footman must already have left, “I’m actually here to see Dr Tepes, I wonder if you might direct me to-”

The woman laughed, with a genuine warmth so sincere that Sypha fancied she could almost see the glitter in her eye behind the thick black veil that obscured her hair and face. “And indeed, you have found me. Do sit down, I should hate for you to be deprived of tea and for cake any longer than is strictly necessary.”

Chapter Text

“You- you're Dr Tepes?” Sypha murmured, taking in what the black-veiled woman in the armchair had said with a jolt, and abruptly realising her mistake, “Oh, forgive me, I only- well, the advertisement for the Governess position was signed Dr Tepes, and it never indicated that you were- well, that is to say, I assumed-”

Dr Tepes laughed. There was something warm in that laugh that seemed at odds with her all-black outfit, and with the general decaying grandeur of the house. “It’s quite alright, you are hardly the first to make that assumption, nor, I imagine, will you be the last. There are, after all, precious few woman doctors. I am aware that I am quite the anomaly.”

“Thank you, I- well, I can only apologise for-”

“Please,” said Dr Tepes, gesturing at the unoccupied armchair, “do sit down. You must have had an exceptionally long day.”

Sypha sat, folding and unfolding her hands nervously in her lap.

 

Dr Tepes regarded her for a long, silent moment. Or, at least, Sypha assumed that was what she was doing – it was somewhat hard to tell, through the denseness of her black lace veil. Whatever she saw, she must have decided she approved of it, because after that moment of silence she nodded, and leaned toward the table and the little cakes. “Tea?”

Sypha nodded. “Please.”

Dr Tepes poured a cup, and gently placed it on the side of the table toward Sypha. “There is milk in the jug,” she said, with a gesture, “and sugar beside it. Please do help yourself. You will have to forgive the lack of service, I have…” she tailed off, shaking her head. “We are somewhat short-staffed at present. You will find we are rather self-sufficient here, as a result.”

“Oh, that’s quite alright,” said Sypha, reaching for the milk, “It is always easier to decide for yourself how you would like to take your tea, I think.”

“Well, quite. I always prefer mine with as much milk as possible, and I can never bring myself to ask for that in polite company for fear of being thought terribly uncouth. But if I pour my own, I am at liberty to consume as much milk and sugar as I desire, without fear of social ruin.”

“Very wise,” said Sypha, taking another sip of tea and eyeing the cucumber sandwiches hungrily. It really had been a very long day.

 

“Please, do feel free to help yourself,” said Dr Tepes. “I had the cook make them up specially.”

Sypha didn’t need telling twice, reaching out to put a sandwich or two on her plate with a grin. She lifted one to her mouth, then paused. “Won’t you have a few? Or…” she frowned, realising that Dr Tepes had not even poured herself a cup of tea. “Would you like me to pour you some tea?”

Dr Tepes started slightly. “I- oh, no. No. I prefer not to eat in company.”

“Oh.”

“But you must- please, help yourself. I will take my supper a little later, and then doubtless finish off whatever is left of the cake.” She folded her hands in her lap, her head tilted slightly to one side. “There are a few little oddities about how we operate in this house which you will doubtless soon become familiar with, but that is one.”

“And serving one’s own tea is another?”

“Exactly so.”

Sypha shrugged. “I’m sure I can handle that well enough.” And indeed, she was. She had never yet met anyone truly rich who hadn’t managed to develop a few strange habits in the process. Frankly, she was quite happy to realise that all the cucumber sandwiches were for her - they were very dainty and charming, but also rather small.

 

Dr Tepes nodded gratefully. “I am glad. You seemed singularly unflappable in your reply to my advertisement, which is partly why I thought you might be a good fit for this posting.”

“Oh?”

“Your charge, in particular, has some special requirements. She is… unwell.”

“I’m sorry to hear it.”

“The condition is very manageable, and for the most part I see to her care myself. But you must be aware that she is profoundly allergic to both the sun and to most foodstuffs, if they have not been specially prepared. I will see to her mealtimes personally, so you need not trouble yourself about that, but I mention it so that you know not to offer her food. She can have quite terribly adverse reactions to the most innocuous things.”

“And she is allergic to the sun? How dreadful. Will I not, then, be able to accompany her on walks?”

“No, indeed you will not. She is confined during the day to a few rooms which have been most carefully prepared so that the sun will not trouble her within them. It is inside these rooms that she will take her classes with you. Once the sun has set, of course, you may accompany her to any other part of the house, but the gardens are strictly out of bounds after dark; there is a very deep pond, which is treacherous, and we have had trouble with wild animals.”

“Wild animals?”

“Indeed.” Dr Tepes seemed not to want to be drawn on the topic, moving on rather swiftly without further elaboration, “Still, the gardens are open to you to explore at your leisure by day, and since your charge’s condition makes her somewhat more active at night, your lessons will pause for a long lunch of three or four hours around noon, during which she may take a rejuvenating nap, and you will be free to do as you please.”

“I see. Is there anything else I ought to know about her?”

 

Dr Tepes hesitated for a second. When she spoke her tone seemed a little lighter than before. “Other than that she is, at times, an extremely trying child and spoilt beyond reason? No, I think that is all you need to know, for now.”

“And she is to be my only charge? It’s just that the footman mentioned something about a young master of the house, so I assumed that-”

Dr Tepes snorted with laughter. “My son Adrian is nearly twenty years old – I think he would be quite offended if I attempted to saddle him with a governess.”

Sypha smiled. “Ah, I see. Well, that is quite fair. And your daughter, how old is-”

“Ah, no, she is not my daughter, rather, she is my ward. And she is seven, nearly eight. My husband and I took her on a few months before…” she tailed off for a moment, staring at the fire, and then seemed to jolt herself back to focus. “Some time ago, anyhow. Her mother was a distant relation of his, and after she got herself involved in some, ah, political issues in her home country, it was deemed safer for the girl to come here. We have two other wards, also, but they are both older, and now at school, so she will be your only charge.”

“Wonderful. I look forward to meeting her. If she has had much prior education, I would be grateful to see her syllabus, and I will spend the first few days making my own appraisal of her current talents, if that is amenable to you?”

“Most amenable. She is terribly smart, but occasionally difficult. Well. Frequently difficult, actually. I hope you do not mind a challenge?”

“Not at all. Besides, it must be hard, for her to be here without her mother. When will I be able to meet her?”

“Tomorrow, after breakfast. She is very excited. I believe she has expressed a desire to sing for you.”

“That sounds lovely.”

Dr Tepes chuckled, leaning back in her chair. “I admire your optimism, but you have yet to hear her sing. Do have some cake, by the way. Are the sandwiches good?”

“Delicious, yes, thank you.”

Dr Tepes picked up a small notepad from the table, and consulted it carefully. “I believe that is most of what you will be required to know, for now at least… ah, no. There is one further rule which I must insist you follow.”

“Yes?”

“For the most part, you are at liberty to explore, barring any rooms which are locked. Few are, but I must insist they remain that way. The house is old, and certain rooms contain antiques which are very easily damaged by too much warmth, or light, or even the moisture of human breath. Most importantly, though, there is an icehouse in the garden which is entirely out of bounds. Entirely. There has been an infestation of wood mites in the beams, and the entire structure is beyond unsafe. The slightest disturbance could bring the whole thing crashing down on any person foolish enough to enter it. Do you understand?”

Sypha nodded, gulping down a mouthful of cake. “Oh, yes, perfectly. May I ask, with regard to the locked rooms- is, um- may I- that is, will I have access to the library?”

She could hear the smile in Dr Tepes’ voice when she replied, even if she couldn’t see it. “Indeed, you will. I would never dream of keeping a young woman away from access to books.”

 

Sypha grinned. “I’m glad. I think we shall get along well, in that case.”

“I very much hope so! But it would be cruel of me to keep a young lady from any source of learning, given my position. Had I been kept away from books as a youth, doubtless I would not now be a doctor, and much of my life would be very different. I think it is vastly important for a woman to receive an education.”

“Indeed!” said Sypha, and then, “I must- well, look, I really am sorry about my assumption that you couldn’t be Dr Tepes, I was entirely foolish to assume-”

Dr Tepes held up a hand. “I assure you, you need not apologise. It is quite commonly done, you see, my husband-“ she sighed, a little shaky, her gloves fingers smoothing down her skirts as if to steady herself somehow. “My late husband, is also Dr Tepes. So the mistake is quite understandable.”

“Oh.” Sypha put her cup down. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Was it-” she glanced at the veil, and the gloves, and the long black dress. “Well, I suppose it must have been recent. I’m so sorry to hear that.”

“I imagine the mourning dress gives it away somewhat, yes.” Dr Tepes sighed again, her veiled head turning toward the fireplace, where a small but vibrant blaze danced behind a rather heavy-duty fireguard. “It- I prefer not to speak about it. It was sudden, and unexpected, and...” She shook her head, her calm, warm voice cracking suddenly under the vast and overwhelming strain of grief. A deep breath seemed to steady her slightly, and she said, “Forgive me. I would prefer to speak of other things.”

 

“Of course,” said Sypha, gently. Dr Tepes looked smaller, suddenly, and Sypha felt a great pang of sympathy deep in her chest. The poor woman. It must have been a recent death indeed, for her to still be in full mourning dress. And it occurred to Sypha, suddenly, that this made perfect sense of how at odds Dr Tepes’ current appearance seemed to be with this small and brightly-lit room, with its warm soft armchairs and its crackling fire. She was not a habitual melancholic at all, as her sombre dress might suggest - she was simply in mourning. “I know that death can be…” she tails off. “Well, there aren’t really words, are there?”

“No. No, indeed.” Dr Tepes dragged her gaze away from the fire, and clapped her hands, an artificial brightness in her voice. “But enough of that. I cannot invite you into my house and then spend all my time dwelling upon misery and death, that would be dreadfully rude. You must tell me about your ride here – it has been some time since I travelled. I miss it.”

“I’m afraid my tale is rather dull; it was a most uneventful trip. The carriage was a little delayed coming into the village, on account of some pigs loose on the road, but that was probably the most excitement I had along the way.”

Dr Tepes tutted. “That will be the dry-stone walls between the two farms near the river. They have been in need of repair these past three years, at least, but there have been continued disputes between the two farmers as to who is in charge of overseeing the repairs, and so they continue to decay… I suppose, though, that sort of petty small village talk will seem rather dull to you compared to the excitement of London.”

Sypha shrugged. “I was not in London long before I came here. My family have always travelled a lot. And, in earnestness, the gossip in the city is no less petty than the gossip in the country – there is simply more of it. Frankly, it can become quite exhausting.”

“Ah, there you may indeed be correct. But I am glad to hear that your journey was not too unpleasant. The roads between here and London can be difficult, this time of year.”

 

“Oh, indeed, and-” Sypha paused, remembering the rude young man and his dogs, “Wait, no, there was one moment of great unpleasantness, in fact, just before I arrived here. I had to walk up the hill to the house through the wood, and I was accosted by two of the most ill-mannered dogs I have ever had the displeasure of meeting. They seemed quite feral.”

“Large dogs?”

“Enormous! Unreasonably gigantic in all aspects! And then their owner arrived, and he was every inch as rude and difficult as his dogs.”

“Indeed! And did he introduce himself at all?” She sounded - and this, perhaps, should have been something Sypha payed rather more attention to before ploughing on with her complaint - strangely amused by the whole affair.

“No, goodness, he didn’t have the manners to do anything so polite as that. He must be local, I suppose, although-”

 

At which point, Sypha was cut off by a commotion in the corridor; the sound of a distant door swinging open, and then a cacophony of howls and yelps swiftly approaching the study which sounded strangely similar to… oh no. Oh no no no. She turned to Dr Tepes, eyes wide. “Your son, Adrian – he doesn’t happen to keep dogs, does he?”

“He does, funnily enough,” said Dr Tepes - and although Sypha could see nothing of her expression behind the veil, she felt suddenly eminently certain that she was struggling to hold back a laugh.

“And…” Sypha could feel herself going quite pale, “He’s not blonde, is he? Tall, long hair?”

“You are precisely on the money, Miss Belnades.”

Sypha felt, in that moment, her stomach sink to approximately the centre of the earth. “I- I didn’t realise-” she began, but she had no chance to finish the sentence as the door on the far side of the room burst open, the two enormous dogs from the woods hurtling in, followed by the handsome rude man from earlier, clutching a third extremely small dog in his arms.

 

“Good evening, mother,” he said, striding across the room on his absurdly long legs to plant a somewhat distracted kiss on Dr Tepes’ cheek. “Sorry about Pompey and Crassus,” he muttered, gesturing at the huge dogs, “they were very anxious to be reunited with the third member of their little triumvirate-” he raised the small dog aloft. It appeared to have one eye and three legs, and in stark contrast to the other dogs, was barely larger than a well-fed rat. The huge dogs both sat and stared up it, enraptured, tails wagging. The small dog, in response to this adulation, stuck its tongue out and drooled lightly.

“Have they been fed, Adrian?” asked Dr Tepes, her voice fond but a little stern, as the voices of all good mothers are; “They both look like they need a bath, too.”

“They’ve been fed – I’ll bathe them presently, but I have to run out with them again, there’s a very pretty but extremely rude young woman who doesn’t seem to know the area at all wandering around in the woods, and it’s become quite dark by now so I really ought to make sure-” his gaze, at this point, alit on Sypha, who was busily trying to sink into her armchair and not make eye contact with anybody. “Ah,” he said, after a moment, blushing to the roots of his long blonde hair. “Oh, I- I didn’t realise you had company, mother.”

 

Dr Tepes, judging by the soft shaking of her shoulders, was trying very hard not to laugh. “Indeed, Adrian, this is the new Governess, Miss Sypha Belnades. And Sypha, this is my son, Adrian. Oh, and the dogs – Pompey,” she gestured at one of the large dogs, “Crassus,” she gestured at the other, “and their undisputed leader, Caesar.” She gestured at the small dog, which wagged its tail contentedly.

 

A long silence followed. Eventually, the handsome rude man – Adrian, she had to remember to call him Adrian, now – stepped toward Sypha’s chair with a deeply pained expression and held his free hand out toward her, rather stiffly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Belnades,” he managed to grit out.

Sypha stood, and dropped the smallest curtsey she could reasonably get away with, before shaking his hand and nodding sharply. “A pleasure, I’m sure, Master Tepes.”

“Adrian is fine.”

“Adrian.”

He hesitated, obviously waiting for her to insist he call her Sypha. She kept a careful, level gaze with him, trying to ignore Dr Tepes audibly snickering away in the corner, and said nothing.

 

“Well,” he said, after a moment, abruptly dropping both his gaze and Sypha's hand, and, goodness, they had been staring at one another for probably a moment too long, there, hadn’t they? Sypha could only assume that this was further evidence of the depths of their disdain for one another. “I, uh… I should probably go and wash the dogs, I suppose.”

“Probably,” said Dr Tepes. “And Adrian?”

“Yes?”

“I would so enjoy it if you could manage to conduct yourself with basic common decency toward at least one member of the household staff. It’s quite bad enough you having your little scraps with Trevor.”

Adrian fixed her with a grieved expression, clutching Caesar grumpily to his chest. “Look, just because I don’t like Belmont doesn’t mean I can’t be polite when I want to be.”

Sypha raised her eyebrow.

Adrian caught her expression, and flushed again. “I… I’m going to go and wash the dogs. Goodnight, mother.”

 

“Goodnight!” called Dr Tepes, as he turned tail and fairly sprinted out of the room, pursued by the two large dogs, both barking loudly.

“I am so sorry,” began Sypha, but Dr Tepes only laughed, waving a dismissive hand at Sypha’s concerned expression.

“No, indeed, don’t be! He’s not a bad young man, but ever since his father…” she shakes her head. “I fear that in recent months he has taken to locking himself in his room, and he does not socialise other than with the dogs, and as a result he has become unused to the delicacies of proper interaction with other human beings. I think a little polite company will do him a world of good.”

“Oh, well, I’m glad you think so. And I’m sorry I called him rude, and said his dogs were feral.”

“Ah, well, you also called him handsome, and so I cannot say you were entirely one-sided in your appraisal.”

“I suppose that’s true,” said Sypha, feeling vaguely as though she would very much like to crawl under a rock and never leave.

 

Dr Tepes reached out and patted Sypha’s hand gently. “In any case, he is, luckily, not your charge, and I can assure you that it is I who runs the house, not him. So it is of little consequence to you whether or not you get on well with him. Please don’t worry yourself about that.”

“Thank you,” said Sypha, letting out a sigh of relief she hadn’t quite realised she was holding. “That is… very generous of you.”

“Not at all. It is in my interest to hire somebody who will be an excellent governess for my ward, regardless of her opinion of my son. Still, I hope you will find second impressions more becoming than the first. He's a sweet boy, really.” She glanced up at the clock, and started. “Goodness, but here I am chattering away and it is already so late – forgive me. We have very few visitors here, I find myself becoming quite animated when we have company. But you have travelled a long way, and must be tired. Let me call somebody to show you to your room. The bed is laid, and I have had a fire set, if you would like to light it – I hope you will find it all to your liking.”

“I’m quite sure that I will,” said Sypha, dropping a curtsey and stifling a sudden yawn as Dr Tepes rang a little silver bell on the side table. Gosh, she really was tired, now she thought about it. She’d been up since well before sunrise, after all, and then lugging her suitcase up that hill... she smothered another yawn. “I look forward to meeting my young charge tomorrow.”

“Indeed. I’m glad to have you here with us. And do feel free to make use of the library whenever you like, I’m sure you will find much in there to edify and amuse you.”

 

A creak at the door alerted Sypha to the presence of a servant, who had appeared so swiftly and so silently that he quite made her jump when she realised he was there, waiting in the doorway with a candle in hand. He was wearing the same deep hooded uniform as the footman from earlier, and Sypha could not quite work out if he was the same man, or just a very similar looking one.

“You called?” he drawled, his expression bland.

“Indeed,” said Dr Tepes. “If you would be so kind as to escort Miss Belnades to her room, please.”

The servant nodded, gesturing for Sypha to follow him. “Of course. This way, please.”

 

The room was some way away, and by the time Sypha arrived and bade goodbye to the sullen-faced servant, she was so exhausted that she could hardly sum up the strength to properly look round her new room at all. It seemed a nice enough spot, though, and there was a cupboard and a generously sized wardrobe which she could unpack her bags into… tomorrow. She was too tired to even begin to contemplate such a thing at present. And bookshelves! Almost an entire wall of the room was filled with shelf after shelf of books. Those very nearly tempted her, but as soon as she had kicked her trusty old boots off and laid her head on the pillow, she found herself drifting almost instantaneously into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Sypha found herself awoken rather earlier than she would have liked, as the sun beamed in through the open curtains of her small but well-kept little room, shining into her eyes and chasing sleep away entirely. She pulled the covers over her head for a minute or two, but it was no use – she was awake, and there was nothing to be done for it.

She rolled out of bed with a sigh, glaring over at the open curtains which had so cruelly betrayed her – although, really, she had to admit that it was rather her own fault for being too exhausted to remember to shut them the night before. And for sleeping in her clothes! Sypha groaned, and spent a moment or two attempting to flatten out the deep-set creases in her skirts before begrudgingly accepting that her dress was a lost cause entirely. She shucked it off and kicked it unceremoniously under a chair in the far corner of the room, which didn’t feel like entirely the proper thing to do – but, she reasoned, it was going to need a good steam either way before she wore it again. A little time on the floor would hardly do worse than sleeping in the darned thing had.

She yawned, and shuffled over to the little washbasin in the corner of the room to splash her face and neck with fresh cold water, before turning to her little case and - after a moment’s consideration - unfolding her third-best dress and tugging it over her head. It had, several repair jobs previously, once been her cousin’s first-best dress, and although it was now a little worn around the edges, it was still a rather fetching shade of blue. Sypha had once been told that it brought out the colour of her eyes; a glance in the black-spotted old mirror behind the washbasin told her that, yes, this was indeed the case. She gave her reflection a cheery (if somewhat sleepy) grin, and turned her attention to unpacking her things.

Of course, Sypha being Sypha, ‘unpacking her things’ was essentially shorthand for ‘hanging up one dress in the wardrobe before becoming entirely distracted by the bookshelves’. And so, when a knock sounded at the door some half an hour later, she was sprawled across the bed, utterly engrossed in a well-thumbed copy of The Mysteries of Udolpho, with one boot on and the other entirely forgotten and abandoned halfway across the room. She jumped at the sound of the knock, hastily scrambling to her feet and brushing her hair out of her eyes before hobbling – one bare foot and one booted – over to the door to swing it open.

“Good mor-” she began, and then stopped. The corridor was empty. She frowned. How odd. She made to take a step forward, trying to ascertain if somebody had knocked and then stepped into one of the little doors that dotted the narrow corridor beyond her room, and very nearly kicked a large silver tray set upon the floor. But she managed, luckily, to catch herself just before she upended the tray - upon which was set a rather charming roses-and-gilt teapot, a cup, a little milk and sugar, a dish containing a wide variety of fresh garden berries, and a large and generously buttered bread roll.

She blinked down at this apparition for a moment, and then her sleep-addled mind caught up. “Ah,” she said, to nobody in particular, “breakfast.”

She picked the tray up and set it on the side-table by her bed, busying herself with pouring tea and shovelling fruit into her mouth at a pace which could only be described as ‘unladylike’. Happily, though, since there was nobody there to see it, it was not described as anything at all, and so that was quite alright. Idly, Sypha supposed that one of those strange hooded servants must have dropped off the tray, although it was strange that they had managed to vanish down the corridor so swiftly after doing so. But she was not especially inclined to think further on such a small matter, instead ruminating on whether or not, at first sip, her tea didn’t feel a little cold – it was, after all, some way from here to the kitchen, and so perhaps it had cooled on the way. But after another sip or two it seemed that it was, in fact, a far warmer temperature than she had initially feared, and quite drinkable.

She finished the tea and the fruit in record timing, and after a moment’s contemplation stuffed the bread roll in her pocket – that was the other good thing about this dress, actually. Not only did it complement her eyes, it also had wonderfully spacious pockets. Perhaps she would upgrade it's standing to second-best dress, now she thought about it.

She contemplated this for a little while, and came to no clear decision - but she did manage to decide that she would take the rest of her breakfast in the gardens. Outside the window, the morning was bright, and she could hear the birds singing, and although it was a little late in the year for the sunlight to be truly warm, it would surely at least take the edge off the chill.

It took her some time to find her way out of the house. The Hall was truly a labyrinthine structure in the most literal of senses, filled with odd turns and dead ends and strange little staircases and antechambers that seemed to lead to nowhere much. One could quite easily become very lost. It almost felt as though the place had been built with just that in mind. But Sypha had a good sense of direction, and her trusty walking boots, and so although it perhaps took her longer than it ought have done, she did eventually find herself at a slightly rusty-hinged old side entrance leading out into the gardens. It took a good heave with her shoulder, but it eventually gave way, and she stepped out into the sunlight with a beaming smile.

She took a deep breath, the autumn air cool and crisp in her lungs, and strode out into the flowerbeds. The garden was still dewy, and although the sun had burned away the worst of the frost, it still lingered in the shadows under bushes and beneath the broad-leafed plants. It was a rather nice garden, though doubtless not at its finest in this season. There was not too much lawn, which was nice, and all around her bloomed great tangling arcs of foliage that appeared wild and untamed but, on closer inspection, were clearly all well-cared for. Branches had been strung up to walls, bent trunks strapped to wooden rods, and – impressively – there was not a slug in sight. Somebody had gone to great lengths to make this garden appear entirely effortless and not half wild, and that was something which appealed to Sypha’s more fanciful sensibilities quite marvellously.

As she rounded a corner along one of the many well-kept little footpaths that criss-crossed the garden, she became aware that she was not entirely alone out here. And this was a little strange, because she had, she realised, not seen another soul in the whole time she had been wandering through the house looking for a way out. Strange. Although, of course, it was a ludicrously large house. She supposed that Dr Tepes really had meant it when she said that they were short staffed.

In any case, out here, she was no longer alone. Through the trellises and the tall foliage of the borders, she could hear the sound of somebody singing; there was no particular art to it, but it was a rather lovely voice, deep and bassy and somehow gentle, despite its power. Every so often the singing would be interrupted by a loud cracking noise, or a woody thud, or the same deep voice swearing softly… and then it would resume.

Sypha wended her way toward the source of the sound, and eventually came to a little clearing near the edge of the garden, where the enormous man she had bumped into in the corridor the night before was stood with his back to her, evidently engrossed in the process of pruning a rather gnarled old tree. She watched as he took a huge pair of shears, blades glinting in the early morning light, and sliced through a branch with barely a moment of resistance. The branch next to it – which must have been the size of Sypha’s arm, easily – he simply snapped off with his bare hands, making only the slightest grunt of effort as he did so. He turned to throw the branches into the wheelbarrow behind him, and must have caught sight of her wide-eyed (and, in honesty, probably also open-mouthed) stare, because he stopped singing abruptly, and froze.

 

Sypha was the first to recover. “I’m so sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I only wanted to see who was singing.”

The man grunted. “Well, you’ve seen me.”

“You have a lovely voice.”

He gave her a look of deep suspicion. “… thank you.”

They both stared at each other for a moment, and eventually Sypha strode over to him and stuck her hand out. “I’m Sypha, Sypha Belnades. I know we met briefly last night, but perhaps-”

He sighed, reaching up to wipe a bead of sweat from his brow. Despite the early morning chill, the signs of his exertion were clear, his thin white shirt clinging slightly to his skin, his shoulders heaving ever so subtly as he breathed. He did not shake her hand. “Pretty sure I told you last night that I didn’t give a shit who you are.”

 

Sypha glared. “Watch your tongue.”

“Why should I?”

“Because- well, because there is a young and impressionable child in the house, for one.”

The man snorted, and made an exaggerated show of looking around the clearing. “I don’t see her anywhere near here, though.”

“Well… well, no, but… well, I’m here, aren’t I?”

“I’d rather you weren’t.”

“But I am. And you ought not to say swear words in front of a lady.”

“Oh?” He glanced at her, sidelong. “Hmm. I suppose I shouldn’t. You ought to fuck off then, before you hear any more.”

 

Sypha folded her arms, and dug her heels into the dew-soft grass. “I’m not going anywhere at all until you introduce yourself to me.”

“What if I just keep cursing?”

Sypha re-folded her arms, more emphatically this time. “Then I shall be very disappointed in you.”

He gave her a long, thoughtful stare, and then seemed to deflate slightly. “Fine. Alright, I’m Belmont. I’m the groundskeeper. Will that do?”

“Belmont what?”

He sighed. “No, Belmont is the surname. I’m… it’s Trevor. Trevor Belmont.”

Sypha beamed. “There, see, that wasn’t so hard, was it? It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mister Belmont.”

“Hmmph,” he grunted, not quite meeting her eye as he reluctantly took the hand she held out and shook.

“Trevor! See, we shall become firm friends in time, I’m sure.”

 

He tugged his hand away and turned back toward the tree, picking up his shears once more. “No, we won’t, Miss Belnades. No we won’t.”

“You can call me Sypha, you know.”

“No, I can’t.”

“Whyever not?”

“You’re the new Governess, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Well, there you go,” he said, gruffly, “you’re halfway to being a Lady – a capital ‘L’ Lady, that is. And I’m just the groundskeeper. So.”

“So? So what?! You do speak some nonsense. We’re both staff, aren’t we?”

He glanced over his shoulder at her with a baleful expression. “Rather different sorts of staff, though. Now, if you don’t mind, I have this,” he motioned at the tree, and the wheelbarrow already half-filled with branches, “to tend to.”

 

“Fine,” said Sypha, sitting herself down on a mossy stone bench a few paces away. “Well, I shall call you Trevor, anyhow.”

“As you wish, Miss Belnades.”

“You know,” she said, pulling the bread roll out of her pocket and shaking her head, “I think I preferred you when you were swearing at me, on reflection.”

Trevor snorted. “Oh, you did? Alright, well… fuck, then. Shit, shit, fuck. Will you go away now?”

“Certainly not. Here, do you want a bit of this bread roll?”

He turned at that, raising an eyebrow. “I’m not a wild animal in need of feeding and tending to, you know. I have my own bread, if I want it.”

 

Sypha shrugged, kicking her heels against the stone bench and tearing off a chunk of the bread roll with evident relish. “That isn’t the point. It’s about, well, it’s like in all those old stories, where all the men would break bread together and that meant they couldn’t fight each other later, even if they were mighty and powerful warriors and they really wanted to.”

Trevor fixed her with a blank stare. “But… we aren’t mighty and powerful warriors.”

“Well, no, but it’s not- that is, it’s not literally about that, it’s about what the breaking of bread means in a broader-”

“Come to think of it, not only are neither of us might and powerful warriors, but you’re not even a man! That story has nothing to do with you sharing your bread. Other than the bit where it mentions bread, I guess.”

“It’s- oh, never mind.” Sypha chewed thoughtfully on the crust of the roll for a moment. “Say, did you know that in Old English, ‘mann’ - that is, with two ‘n’s as they spelled it then - simply meant ‘person’? It didn’t mean a male person, it just meant a person, in general.”

Trevor paused halfway through shearing off another branch, turning over his shoulder to give her an incredulous stare. “Why are you telling me this?”

Sypha shrugged. “I read it the other day, and I thought it was interesting. Another fascinating thing I read about Old English is that-”

 

Trevor groaned. “Oh, you’re one of those people.”

“One of what people?” said Sypha, bristling slightly.

“People who think about things, and think that makes them smart.”

“I- what, as opposed to people who don’t think about things? Are you implying that it’s actually smarter to think less? Because-”

Trevor shook his head, casting a dark glare up toward the Hall. “In that house? Yes.”

“What do you mean?”

 

He said nothing, returning to his work and wrenching branches off the tree with what could only be described as unnecessary force. Sypha watched the muscle ripple under his shirt with no little amount of interest.

“What were you arguing with Adrian about, last night?”

Trevor gave a grunt of annoyance. “Something stupid.”

“What?”

Trevor sighed, heaving down another branch into the wheelbarrow and wiping the sweat from his forehead with the end of his shirt sleeve. “Roses.” He looked – whether from the exertion of his work or embarrassment Sypha couldn’t quite determine – slightly flushed.

“… roses?”

“Mmm. I tend the gardens here, so I handle pretty much everything – get a few folk from the village to help cart the really heavy stuff out now and again, if they’re willing to come up here, that is – but the rest of it is all me. Only I’m not…” he shook his head, brow furrowed. “Look, I’m good with plants. Almost all of them. But I don’t have the knack with roses that Adrian has. No idea how, because he never gets his hands dirty if he can help it, but somehow he has the most wonderful way with roses.”

“Oh, I see - and you were arguing because he wouldn’t help you with them?”

“Much worse,” said Trevor, with a very grave expression, “he wouldn't stop trying to help.”

Sypha almost laughed, until she caught the seriousness of his expression. “You know, I feel like you perhaps ought to try being a bit more friendly, sometime.”

 

A silence lapsed over the little clearing, then, interrupted only by the sound of shears through branches and by the wind in the leaves. It was silent so long that Sypha thought the conversation must be over entirely, and almost jumped when Trevor eventually spoke again.

“The thing about breaking bread,” he said, his breathing slightly laboured now as hauled a particularly gnarled branch into the wheelbarrow, “Is it only works if everyone buys into the same idea of- whatever it is. Comradery, or friendship, or love - whatever you want to call it. You break bread with someone, and you feel safe, and let your guard down? Maybe that’s nice. Maybe it is. But then again, maybe it’s nothing more than a grand opportunity for getting a knife shoved into your back.”

Sypha gaped for a moment. “Oh, so you did understand my metaphor!”

He shrugged.

“And there you were going on as if you made a point never to engage in thinking about anything at all-”

“I said I didn’t like to think, not that I couldn’t. It’s much like dealing with annoying Governesses who accost me while I’m working and try to wring a conversation out of me. I can do it, but I’d rather not.”

“I-” began Sypha. Distantly, echoing out from within the house, came the sound of a clock striking the hour. “Wait, what time is it?”

 

“Why, do you have somewhere to be?” asked Trevor, mildly. “Do they employ you to teach, and not just harass the groundskeeper?”

“Oh shit,” said Sypha, scrambling abruptly to her feet.

 

And at that – although she didn’t get much of a look, because she was too busy gathering her skirts over her boots and fairly sprinting back toward the house - she was almost certain that Trevor finally cracked the slightest hint of a smile.

Chapter Text

Sypha reached the parlour late, and somewhat out of breath. “I’m so terribly sorry-” she began, but Dr Tepes simply waved a gloved hand and laughed.

“It’s quite alright. The house can be somewhat difficult to navigate, for those unfamiliar with its layout.”

“I- yes, that was it,” said Sypha, rather relieved to have been provided with an excuse that did not require her to disclose that she had spent the lion’s share of her morning watching the groundskeeper lift heavy branches, “I got myself quite lost, actually.”

“Yes. I found I had the same problem when we first moved here,” said Dr Tepes, with a shake of her head. “But I wouldn’t worry yourself over it. My dear ward always turns up to her lessons fashionably late. She does so love to be the centre of attention, that child.”

 

Sypha blinked. “Fashionably late?”

“Oh, indeed. She turns up to everything fashionably late, if she can find a way to do it. She discovered the phrase earlier this year, and has been utterly enamoured by the concept ever since. I do so hope she will grow out of it soon, it’s dreadfully inconvenient.”

“I can imagine it would be, yes.” Sypha contemplated this for a moment, head cocked slightly to the side. “When you say she turns up to everything late-”

Everything,” said Dr Tepes, solemnly. “Late to get up, late to go to bed, late to her classes, late to dinner… if she can be late, she will be.”

“She’s stubborn?”

“Oh, very stubborn. Will that trouble you?”

Sypha considered this for a moment. “I’m sure it shall, sometimes. But I was a stubborn child, too, so I suppose I cannot begrudge her for it. And stubbornness is not all bad. A stubborn learner might stick at a problem where one with less intensity of purpose would not, after all.”

“I’m glad you think so,” said Dr Tepes, and Sypha could hear the smile in her voice, “because she is uncommonly stubborn. I’m sure that a solid half of the reason for her continued insistence on tardiness at all costs is simply that it frustrates the rest of the household, and that amuses her.”

“And the other half?”

Dr Tepes chuckled. “The other half of her motive is the pure and simple enjoyment of being able to make a dramatic entrance.” She drew a little watch from her pocket and observed it for a moment, lifting it up to the light so she could make the face out through her thick black veil. “And for that reason, I suppose, we ought to make our way to the nursery now. She will doubtless be making her grand entrance soon, and will be most dismayed if we are not there to see it.”

 

Sypha nodded, and followed after Dr Tepes as she set a brisk pace off down one of the many winding corridors, leading deeper and deeper into the house. Eventually she came to an abrupt halt in front of a very heavy-duty looking door, fixed with a lock of enormous size. Dr Tepes lifted a great ring of keys from where it hung at her waist, and raised one of the largest from the bunch to unlock the door with a solid metallic clunk. It took a clear effort to open; the wood was thick, dark and knotted and banded with great iron hinges that creaked as it swung open.

“We went to great trouble to light-proof this suite of rooms,” explained Dr Tepes, motioning Sypha through the door and into the lamp-lit space beyond, “for obvious reasons. I must stress that your charge is not to leave this area during daylight hours, and that the door must always be closed behind you in this antechamber before you open the next one.” She motioned, as she said this, at another door of similarly epic proportions on the far side of the little room.

Sypha nodded slowly. “To prevent the possibility of accidental sunlight exposure?”

“Indeed. Given the severity of her allergies, even a little sunlight would likely wreak great havoc – she is so young, after all, and her constitution is somewhat fragile.”

Sypha nodded again. “Of course. I understand.”

 

“Good.” Dr Tepes pressed her gloved hand gently to the door behind them to ensure it was fully closed, and then strode across the little room to the next one, unlocking it and waving Sypha through. “All the doors in this suite have locks. I shall give you copies of the keys for these two that you require access to.”

Sypha cocked her head, frowning slightly. “What about the other ones?”

Dr Tepes turned to face her, and although Sypha could make nothing of the other woman’s features out through the veil, she could almost physically feel how firmly she was being stared down. “What about them?”

The room felt as though it had dropped several degrees in temperature. Sypha smiled, not a little nervously. “Oh, I only wondered what… well, I suppose it doesn’t matter.”

“You are quite right. It doesn’t. Now, come this way, please - this is the nursery, which will be where you spend much of your time while you are here…”

 

There was, Sypha reflected, as she followed Dr Tepes into the next room, something decidedly odd about the woman. Not necessarily bad, but peculiar in a way that people can become when their lives have been touched by too much tragedy. Or, indeed, by too much money. Likely Dr Tepes was suffering from an excess of both. Which was to be expected, and Sypha did not hold it against her – but the idea of locked doors which she was not permitted to even ask about… well. She eyed the heavy iron bundle of keys at Dr Tepes waist. It wasn’t that she wanted to be disobedient and difficult, it was just that things were always more fun when one had been told not to do them. She had always, as a child, been most terrified of Bluebeard, of all the tales her grandfather had told her. It wasn’t because Bluebeard was more violent or more menacing than any of a thousand other storybook villains, but simply because she knew that, were she in the place of any of his wives, she would absolutely have opened that forbidden door without a second thought, and died for it.

 

But she was no longer a child, and she knew now that locked doors rarely led to anything so exciting or perilous as the ones in Bluebeard’s castle - and so she sighed, and pulled her gaze away from the keys. Undoubtedly, the ‘secret’ rooms would turn out only to be linen closets or unused bedchambers, or something equally mundane. Perhaps it was more fun, after all, for them to remain a mystery.

 

She realised, with a jolt, that Dr Tepes was still talking to her, and shook herself slightly, trying to make herself focus on the conversation and not on whatever absurd trains of fantasy her idle mind was apt to wander off on.

“… and through that door is a little cupboard with a selection of spare school supplies, should you run out – notepads, pens, a spare chalkboard, that sort of thing. If you have need of anything else, you may ask me, and I will see that it is provided to you. I hope that will do?”

“Oh, yes,” said Sypha, brain racing furiously to catch up with the conversation, “yes, that should do me very nicely. May I bring books from the library?”

“There are, of course, many books in the nursery itself,” Dr Tepes gestured to her right, where the wall was lined floor to ceiling with bookcase after bookcase, all overflowing with books, “but if you find that there are tomes in the main library that are not present here, and you feel that they would be educational in some way, you may of course bring them through. I only ask that you return them once you are done.”

Sypha nodded, still taking in the glorious sight of all those books. The room is warm, and cosy, thoughtfully lit with merrily burning lamps to stave off the sunless gloom that would otherwise encroach on so enclosed a space. There is a little table, with two chairs – for her, she supposes, and her pupil, a dolls house which appears to be a replica of Tepes Hall itself, filled with the most wonderful miniature furniture, and an assortment of toys and games which have been flung slightly haphazardly into big wooden boxes by the boarded-up windows. A little fire crackles merrily in the grate, behind a cast iron fireguard, with some little floor cushions and a few overstuffed armchairs surrounding it.

 

“This all looks very lovely,” she began, “I-” and then jumped, realising abruptly that one of the strange hooded servants was stood right beside the door they had just walked in through. “Oh! Oh, you scared me for a moment, I didn’t see you there at all.”

The servant inclined their head slightly, but said nothing.  

“I’m sorry,” said Sypha, “I only- well, you startled me, that’s all.”

The servant only stared at her, saying nothing.

Sypha winced. "I hope I haven't offended-"

Dr Tepes placed a hand on Sypha’s shoulder and cleared her throat. “The servants do not, for the most part, speak a great deal of English. My husband brought a cohort over from the continent. So I am afraid that you will not find them especially talkative, in the main.”

“Oh. I see.” She frowned. “What about Trevor?”

Dr Tepes chuckled. “Ah, well, his English is good enough. But he is remarkably antisocial, so you will probably not find him very talkative, either. Still, perhaps it would not hurt to try.” She sighed. “I worry that he must be rather lonely, especially since…” She shook her head. “Poor boy.”

"What-", began Sypha, only to stop as she suddenly heard the light pitter-patter of footsteps came into earshot.

“Ah,” said Dr Tepes, motioning to the grand set of double doors on the opposite side of the room to the one they had entered by, “I think that somebody may have sensed that her audience has arrived.”

At that, the great doors swung open, and two more of the hooded servants stepped out, standing to attention and holding the doors as a small child entered the room.

Dr Tepes took a step forward, a smile in her voice. “Carmilla. How nice of you to join us.”

 

Sypha stared as the girl moved imperiously toward her, little button nose firmly aloft in the air, steps measured. She was pale – not just her hair, but her face, her eyes, even her lips and cheeks seemed drained of colour almost entirely. Sypha supposed that must be an effect of her condition, or perhaps the cause of it. She was small, for her age, and wearing a dark red dress so ostentatiously frilly that she was quite nearly wider than she was tall. She had a shock of white-blonde hair which was fixed around her head in vast and alarmingly stiff ringlets, tied in the back with a golden silk-ribbon bow. And, clutched firmly in her tiny arms, was the ugliest cat Sypha had ever seen. It was lanky, covered in choppy reddish brown fur that clashed terribly with the girl's dress, and possessed of a face that looked as though it had attempted to enter hell and the devil himself had kicked it back out with his iron-shod hoof.

Carmilla approached Sypha slowly, looking her up and down with an expression of immense disdain. Then her sharp white-blue eyes flicked up toward Dr Tepes, and she said something so fast that Sypha couldn’t quite catch what it was.

Dr Tepes replied, and Sypha realised, as the two began to talk back and forth, that they were not speaking English at all, but rather… she frowned, just about managing to pick up on a word or two of the swift-paced conversation – Carmilla was certainly being rude about her, she could tell that much. Something about… oh, she couldn’t quite make it out. But Sypha was pretty sure the child had actually sworn at some point, something about ‘bloody’ this or that. Clearly, Dr Tepes was serious when she said the girl could be difficult. But a few more words gave her the surety she needed – she did recognise the language, even if the exact meaning of the conversation eluded her.

“Romanian!” she said, out loud, with a pleased little clap of her hands.

 

Dr Tepes and Carmilla both froze, turning back toward her. Carmilla looked shocked, and not a little impressed, and Dr Tepes… well, Dr Tepes was still wearing her veil, but Sypha assumed her expression must be similar.

“Sorry,” said Sypha, “I didn’t mean to intrude. I was just excited to hear-”

“You speak Romanian?” asked Dr Tepes, a note of surprise evident in her voice.

Carmilla gave her an alarmed glance, clearly chastened at the thought that her rudeness had been comprehended by her new governess.

Sypha made a noncommittal gesture. “Not really; enough to know that you were speaking it, but not enough to tell what was being said, if that gives you an idea. I used to know a little more, as a child – my grandfather speaks it, and my parents did, when I was small. My family are from – well, it used to be Wallachia, when they were there, but-”

“But it is Romania now.” Dr Tepes nodded, seeming to relax slightly. “Curious. Strange how these things come to pass. My late husband was from the same part of the world, and Carmilla likewise was raised there, until last year.”

 

Sypha smiled down at the girl, who gazed up at her with a look of deep distrust, clutching her raggedy red cat to her chest with her chubby little arms until it made a grumpy little whining noise. “Well Carmilla,” she said, leaning forward slightly so she could hold a hand out within reach of the child, “perhaps you will be able to teach me a little Romanian, and I can teach you a little French? Then we would both be learning something from our studies.”

Carmilla eyed her outstretched hand with an expression of deeply begrudging interest. “I should like to learn some French, I suppose. What is your name?”

“Sypha Belnades.”

“You will call her Miss Belnades,” interjected Dr Tepes, sternly but with a clear fondness in her tone. “Now, introduce yourself properly, and shake hands, please, Carmilla.”

 

Carmilla contemplated Sypha’s outstretched hand for a long moment, and then sighed and dropped the ugly ginger cat on the floor. It yowled, and hissed at her. She hissed back.

Dr Tepes sighed. “Carmilla, please refrain from tormenting Godbrand.”

Carmilla scowled up at her. “I cannot very well hold Godbrand and shake hands with Miss Belnades, can I?”

“No, indeed, but you do not need to drop him like that. He doesn’t like it.”

“I know.”

“Then please don’t do it.”

“He scratched me earlier!”

“He is,” said Dr Tepes, with the stern sort of dignity that only a mother can manage when talking about something truly absurd, “a cat.”

“And?”

“And so he is not capable of rational thought, as you are.”

“That rather sounds like it is his problem, and not mine” said Carmilla, with a sniff.

 

She turned before Dr Tepes could say anything more, and took Sypha’s hand. Her grip was remarkably firm, for so small and sickly-looking a child, but her hand was terribly cold. “Good morning, Miss Belnades.”

“Now tell her your name,” said Dr Tepes.

“I am Carmilla. Can I stop shaking her hand now?”

“Tell her that you are pleased to meet her, and then you may.”

Carmilla glared firmly at Sypha’s shoes. “I am very pleased to meet you,” she said, sounding entirely unconvincing and clearly making no attempt to hide it. Then she pulled her hand away with a frown.

“I am very pleased to meet you, too,” said Sypha, considerably more sincerely. She had, herself, been a very strange little girl not so long ago, after all. She maintained, as a result, a little fondess for girls in whom she saw a something of her own childhood self. “I hope we shall become very dear friends.”

“Hmmph,” said Carmilla.

 

Dr Tepes knelt down and planted a kiss on her furious little brow. “Well done. You introduced yourself very nicely.”

“Hmmph,” said Carmilla, but her expression softened slightly, and she relented to a gentle hug.

The Dr Tepes stood, and brushed down her long black skirts, and turned to Sypha. “Well, now that introductions have been properly made, I’m afraid I must excuse myself. I have matters to attend to rather urgently in my laboratory. But please do feel free to send one of the servants to fetch me if you find yourself in need of anything. I will come to relieve you of your duties at noon, so that you may have your lunch, and Carmilla may nap and take her treatments.”

Sypha nodded. “Of course. I’m sure we shall get on very well between now and then, don’t you think, Carmilla?”

Carmilla did not reply, as she appeared to be busy trying to pull Godbrand away from the train of her skirts, which he was scratching at and biting quite furiously.

“I’m sure you will,” said Dr Tepes. “I shall have keys dropped at your room tonight, and I will make sure to find time to speak with you at some point over the next few days to discuss her progress, and you may run by me your plans for her curriculum at that point. Until then…” she nodded, and waved, and made her way out into the antechamber that she and Sypha had entered through, closing the door firmly behind her. The loud clunk of the lock echoed through the nursery.

 

Sypha turned to Carmilla, who now had Godbrand by the scruff of his neck and was glaring at him as he took swipes at her face. “Well now, I think it would be rather nice if I could use this morning to learn a little bit more about you, don’t you think?”

Carmilla gave her a very sly look. “I don’t see why you should need to know about me.”

“I would like to hear about what you have been learning, so that I can teach you things you will find interesting. And I would like to hear about you so that we can be friends, and then the learning itself will perhaps be a little more fun and not too much of a bore. Would you like that?”

Carmilla gave her a sceptical look, one pale white eyebrow raised. “I suppose I would like it if you would teach me some French. I know a little, but not much. It is a very pretty language, I think.”

Sypha grinned. “I can certainly teach you some French. And Dr Tepes tells me that you like to sing – perhaps we could learn some French songs, and you could perform them.”

 

Carmilla dropped Godbrand on the floor, and clapped her hands together. “I should like that very much indeed! My mother always told me that I would do excellently on stage. She took me to an opera once.”

“Did you enjoy it?”

Carmilla nodded. “Yes. It was very loud. I liked the music, and also the bits when people murdered each other on the stage.”

“Ah,” said Sypha, remembering at once how dreadfully morbid small children could be. “Well, I suppose that is a start.”

“I have been trying to learn to sing like in the operas,” said Carmilla, tucking her hands behind her back and swaying slightly on her heels, “so that I can shatter glasses just by screaming. Would you like to hear?”

“I-” began Sypha. “Well, perhaps if we first-”

Carmilla picked up a glass from the nearby table. “I am going to do it whether you would like me to or not.”

 

And then she opened her mouth and let loose the most horrendously high-pitched yell – and really, it was incredible that so much noise could come from a child so small – and it took every shred of focus in Sypha’s body to stop her from throwing her hands up to cover her ears.

After a solid minute, Carmilla stopped, and took a deep, heaving breath, so ridiculously exaggerated it almost seemed fake. “There. I’m sure if I keep practising I will be able to shatter a glass one day. Did you enjoy that?”

Sypha hesitated for a moment. “I thought it was very… I thought it was very interesting. Yes.”

“Oh good,” said Carmilla, with a wicked little grin; “In that case, I will do it again.”

 

And she did. Sypha gritted her teeth. She had a feeling that this was going to be a long morning.

Chapter Text

The morning proved to be… interesting. Carmilla was certainly difficult in the way that very smart children have the capacity to be - it was, therefore, rather hard to grasp what exactly she found interesting, beyond her evident delight in causing chaos. Sypha suspected, from what she managed to glean of the girl's previous education, that there were some areas in which she was very advanced for her age, and other parts of her knowledge that were entirely lacking. She was clearly intelligent, and inquisitive, both of which were positive signs, but her education seemed to have been rather patchy so far. Her English was impressive, especially given that, by her own account, she had only been speaking it for a year or two - and she seemed very competently able to pick up the few bits of French that Sypha tried to explain to her. Her grasp of geography, on the other hand, was very poor indeed - she seemed to have been learning from an atlas that was either extremely outdated, or flat-out wrong. Her mathematical capacity was reasonable, although she showed little interest in it, and her artistic skill was mixed, though she showed signs of potential in her singing. Or, at least, Sypha thought she might do, if she would stop trying to shatter glass. Her grasp of history was… odd. But she seemed to have an interest in military strategy and the history of war, which would doubtless prove to be good topics of study to help engage her attention. Indeed, any topic which could feasibly be related to violence and bloodshed seemed to delight her, and so Sypha decided to begin with a little military history, and perhaps some short passages from Shakespeare - Romeo and Juliet, perhaps, or Macbeth - to draw her interest into her lessons and perhaps encourage her from there into a slightly broader curriculum.

 

Having learned all that, Sypha could certainly not say that the morning was wasted, and indeed, she might even say that it was not entirely unpleasant - but it was nevertheless rather tiring. And so, by the time noon rolled around, she was very pleased to hear the sound of the key turning in the door, signalling that Dr Tepes had returned to relieve her of her duties over lunch.

"I do hope you have both had a pleasant morning," she said, breezing into the room and adjusting her black lace gloves before picking a grumpy-looking Carmilla up and resting her on her hip. "Have you been well-behaved, dearest?"

Carmilla scowled. "You are ruffling my skirts."

Dr Tepes kissed the crown of her head. "I think it is high time for lunch, don't you? Your mood is always much improved after you have had a little to drink."

"And now you are mussing my hair!" scowled Carmilla, "All my lovely ringlets will fall out and I shall be left looking like a common little urchin child, and then what will become of me?"

"I’m not sure. Perhaps you will learn an important lesson about the perils of vanity," said Dr Tepes. But she let Carmilla down with a fond shake of her head, and – at the girl’s imperious direction - helped her to straighten out her crinoline and re-tie the golden bow in her hair.

 

As Carmilla fretted about the precise placement of her ringlets, Dr Tepes turned to Sypha. “Shall I show you out? Carmilla will need to take her lunch, shortly, and doubtless you will wish to do the same.”

Sypha nodded, smiling as Dr Tepes moved to let her out of first one door and then, once they had passed through into the antechamber, another. “When will you expect me back? And should I go to the kitchen for lunch, or-”

“No,” said Dr Tepes, “that won’t be necessary. There is a little parlour in which you will find your lunch laid out – it is only a little way down this corridor, to the end of the hallway and then right. The window there looks out on a most charming view. I used to take afternoon tea there, sometimes, before my husband passed away. It is a very lovely room, but I…” She stared off down the corridor and shook her head, her hand resting lightly on the heavy wooden door. “Do you ever feel, Sypha, that places can become haunted, somehow? Not by ghosts, precisely, but by the idea of things that were, or things that might have been. By memories, I suppose. By dreams.”

Sypha thought of her grandfather’s caravan back home, and of her mother’s moth-eaten scarf, still hanging on the hook in the corner - as though she might come back across the Styx to pick it up again when the seasons turned and the weather got cold. “Yes,” she said, softly. “Yes, I think they can. You must miss him a lot.”

Dr Tepes sighed. “Yes and no. It’s complex. It’s hard to miss somebody who is still so… present. This whole house, every room is- I don’t know. He lingers, still. But I miss talking to him, I miss-” she shook her head, one gloved hand slipping under her veil to wipe away a tear. “Forgive me. Time. That’s what we need. Time. All will be well, with time. I’m sure of it.”

Sypha gave her a sympathetic glance. “Would you like a handkerchief, Dr Tepes?”

“No, no, that’s – I’m quite alright. Go and take your lunch. If you knock at three or so, Carmilla should be ready to commence her classes again.”

And with that, she slipped back behind the heavy iron-hinged door, too swiftly for Sypha to say anything in response – and then, after a second, there was a familiar clunk of the lock sliding closed.

 

Sypha stayed by the door for a moment, a sombre sort of temperament overcoming her normally sunny disposition. It seemed, she thought, terribly unfair that so many people who were kind and good had to die, and leave behind nothing but sorrow and misery for the living. Those sort of ghosts were much more real – and much less exciting – than the ones she liked to read about in books.

 

After a minute or so, she shook herself out of her reverie, and headed off down the corridor where – just as Dr Tepes had described – there was a charming little room, where a still-steaming bowl of soup and a warm buttered bread roll was neatly laid on a spindly-legged table. Sypha sat and ate in contemplative silence, gazing around the room and wondering what little details – entirely unremarkable to her – would to Dr Tepes be unbearable reminders of her late husband. The fraying edge around the dark red rug, perhaps, where he had walked, or the steady tick of the gilded clock on the wall, which he had wound, or the rich embroidered fabric of the heavy curtains, which perhaps he had purchased, or loved, or hated. Or all of it, maybe, or none of it so specifically as the air and the light in the room itself. Or perhaps it was nothing in the room at all, but rather the view from the grand north-facing windows, overlooking the rose garden. She wondered if Dr Tepes’ late husband had the same knack with roses that his son had apparently inherited, and if Dr Tepes ever sat in here on sunny mornings to watch him tend the garden.

 

She sat like that for quite some time, lost in thought, but eventually the last of her soup went cold, and she yawned, and stretched, and shook her head like a dog trying to clear its ears of water. Whatever ghosts still lingered in that quiet little room, they were not the sort that she could bear witness to, no matter how hard she looked for them. And so, her lunch being finished and the room containing little enough beyond that to interest her, she decided to head to the library and see what she could find there that might interest Carmilla.

 

She'd passed the library on her way to the gardens this morning, and so it took her only a dozen minutes or so to find it again - it was central, and well-lit, and vast enough that even within the cavernous corridors of Tepes Hall it was not so hard to find. When she stepped inside, she felt her heart soar; the shelves lofted up around her like the arching ceiling of some wondrous scholarly cathedral, the oil-lamps on the walls as merry as the sun itself, and the very air thick with the magical scent of old paper and leather. The library was set over three levels, linked by arcing wooden bridges that criss-crossed the room here and there, and by a series of ladders on metal rails, which could be pulled this way and that to gain access to the higher shelves. Now this, oh, this was a room, thought Sypha – this was more than a room, even. This was glorious. There were soft padded chairs in hidden reading corners, and tucked away desks with green leather tops, and great floor to ceiling windows that cast the autumn sun along the narrow paths between the shelves and made the gilded titles of the finest books gleam like a pirate horde.

 

And, like any really good library, it had absolutely no comprehensible shelving sequence at all, so that one could no more find a volume one was searching for than find the proverbial needle in a stack of hay. Sypha loved libraries like that, because it meant they were owned by people who loved them so well that they had no need to organise anything by rational means. Somebody with a library like this simply knew where things were. And that knowledge was not acquired by following any kind of ordered system – rather, the owner possessed it simply because they could no more lose track of their worn old copy of The Monk than they could lose track of the hand at the end of their arm.

 

She ran her fingers idly along the cracked leather spines, letting her feet guide her around the room, slowly piling up books in her arms as she went. Here, a tiny gold-edged French dictionary; there a collection of rather melodramatic sonnets; and, up one of the ladders a step or two, a huge volume of historical tales of war, well-illustrated throughout with full page plates in brilliant colour. This one, she felt certain Carmilla would be bound to love – the illustrations were suitably blood-spattered and melodramatic, and the volume contained plentiful quantities all three of the things little girls love best; violence, death, and horses. It was heavy, though, and as she carried on wandering around the library the stack of books in her arms grew steadily harder to hold - and also more and more prone to obscuring her view. And so, when she rounded a sharp corner between two rows of shelves at some speed, it was perhaps unsurprising that she failed to notice the young master of the house walking the other way.

 

They collided with one another with a thump, followed by several somewhat smaller thumps as all the books - and then Sypha herself – hit the floor. Adrian, for his part, looked suitably startled, although, frustratingly, he had the staying power of a rather good-looking brick wall, and didn’t even have to take a step back at the impact. Sypha was fairly well-muscled herself, and stockily built, so she was not used to being sent flying - but despite his willowy frame, she rather thought that if she had hit him hard enough, she could very well have broken her nose on his chest before his feet budged from their spot.

 

Still, he had the good grace to look thoroughly embarrassed, mumbling something that was almost certainly meant to be an apology if he could only stop stuttering long enough to spit it out, and reaching to help Sypha as she scrambled to pick up her books. In the inevitable way that such things are bound to happen, their hands briefly touched over a small volume of poems, and they both jerked back as though they had been stung.

 

“I- sorry,” he managed, after a moment, red to the roots of his pretty blonde hair, “I only meant to- um, that is, if I could help you with-” he glanced at the books, still mostly spread across the plushly carpeted library floor, and at Sypha, also currently mostly on the floor, and scowling furiously. “Oh, look, do you- can I-” he dropped the book and held a hand out to her, rather abruptly, as if he was only now realising that it might be a good idea, “Shall I help you up?”

Sypha raised an eyebrow at him.

He withdrew the hand as swiftly as he’d offered it, tucking it awkwardly behind his back. “Sorry. I- I’ll just-” he bent down and picked up another book, clearly trying extremely hard not to catch her eye.

He looked so miserably contrite, in that moment, that Sypha’s heart softened slightly, and she held her hand up toward him with a wry little grin. “I didn’t say no, you know.”

He blinked down at her, an expression of vague confusion settling charmingly over his handsome features. “Pardon?”

“I mean that you can help me up,” said Sypha, wiggling her fingers. “Here, come on. You knocked me down, after all, so it seems only fair that you should help get me up.”

 

“Oh,” he said, and then, “oh,” again, slightly more softly, looking down in vague confusion as he appeared to realise rather abruptly that he had put his hand in hers before his brain had time to process the fact that that was what he was doing.

“You look like you’ve never seen a woman before,” said Sypha, cheerfully, “let alone touched one,” - and then it was her turn to look shocked as he pulled her off the floor with so little visible effort that she might as well have been made of air, or feathers. She blinked. “Oh, you’re- gosh. You’re strong.”

He grinned shyly. “Ah, well… a little, I suppose. I go horse riding quite often, which requires some athleticism.”

She shook her head, frowning slightly. “No, you’re strong. Really strong. How did you- how are you that strong?”

“I… well, as I say, horse riding. And I help out, sometimes, in the house and the gardens. We’re short on servants, you see, so I suppose I end up doing rather a lot of heavy lifting.”

Sypha ran her thumb over his palm, staring down at their entwined hands with her head cocked slightly to one side. “Oh. That’s odd.”

“Why? Have you truly managed to garner such a terrible impression of me that you think I would find the act of physical labour beneath my station?”

“Not at all,” said Sypha, flipping his hand over and touching the pads of her fingers against his for a brief moment before letting go, “it’s just that I’ve never met somebody so strong who has such soft hands.”

 

“Ah,” he said, bending to pick up more of the books scattered across the floor – was Sypha, imagining it, or was he evading eye contact? “Well,” he said, after a moment, “I suppose I must attribute that to good ancestry, and better ointments.”

“I suppose so. And to what do you attribute your need to go about knocking over visitors in your library, and setting your dogs on people in the forest?”

He went a little pink, again, at that, straightening up and running a fretful hand through his golden locks. “Look, I- well, firstly, I didn’t knock you down-”

“You most certainly did!”

“I did not.”

“How so?”

“Because you ran into me.”

Sypha gave him a deeply unimpressed glare. “I see. And the dogs?”

“I- they really don’t mean any harm, it’s just…” he tailed off, and sighed. “Here, look, can I- can’t I reintroduce myself? Properly, this time. I would hate for us to get off on a bad foot and then be shut up in this miserable old house all winter together and not be able to at least speak civilly.”

 

Sypha folded her arms. “You have already re-introduced yourself – first in your mother’s study, where you were hardly forthcoming with any sort of apology and left at the first possible chance, and now here, by bodily flinging me onto the ground-”

“Now, hang on-”

Sypha ignored his protests, “- and throwing all these lovely books quite all over the library floor. You have managed to give me at least three distinct bad first impressions – you do realise that?”

“I-” he sighed, his eyes delightfully wide and pleading under his long pale lashes, “well, yes, which is rather why I would like another chance at it. If you wouldn’t object, that is.”

Sypha eyed him for a long, contemplative moment, and then nodded, the corner of her mouth quirking up in a grin. “Alright then. Go on. You have my permission to re-reintroduce yourself.”

 

He smiled back, a glint in his eye, and then straightened himself up and brushed down his shirt as if to remove some invisible speck of dust. He cleared his throat, took a half step back, and bowed deeply. “Good afternoon,” he said, holding his hand out with a genuine sense of nervousness that Sypha found very flattering indeed, “I am Master Adrian Tepes, of Tepes Hall. Welcome.”

Sypha curtseyed, significantly less proficiently than he had bowed, and took his hand. “How charming to meet you. I am Miss Sypha Belnades, of… uh, well, London, I suppose, most recently.”

He nodded solemnly. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Miss Belnades. And I am so glad that we have met in such a pleasant and decorous way. I always think that a first impression is terribly important, don’t you?”

Sypha stifled a laugh, at that. “Oh, most certainly. After all, one is only able to make such an impression once.”

“Well,” said Adrian, bending down to pick up the rest of Sypha’s books, “Quite.”

 

Sypha decided to let him collect the books, as penance for his having knocked her on the floor in the first place – and so she perched herself on a nearby chair and contentedly watched him scramble around for a minute or two. The last book he turned over was a greenish-gold lettered volume of fairy tales for children. He stood, depositing the stack of books on a spindly little table near the chair Sypha had settled on, and raised an eyebrow, gesturing broadly at the piled up tomes; “I presume, based on the titles, that these books are not for your own reading pleasure?”

“No, indeed. I am bringing them back for Carmilla’s classes after lunch.”

He nodded slowly, running his finger along the spines of the stacked-up volumes. “An apt selection, then. She’ll like these.”

“You think so?”

“Oh, certainly. She is an… odd child.”

“I think she’s rather sweet.”

Adrian fixed her with a deeply unconvinced stare. “No you don’t.”

“Alright, no, I don’t. But I think she’s interesting, which is better. And she’s clever, and - if she would only have a little faith in her capacities - I think she would not at all be a bad singer.”

“She screams.”

“Yes, but she screams because she would like to sing and she is not convinced enough that her singing would be good, or that it would be well received.” Sypha scratched her head, “Well, that and the fact that it annoys people so much, which amuses her.”

“Hmm,” said Adrian, still not looking especially swayed by her line of argument, “perhaps that is indeed the case.”

 

“It is a shame, really, that she cannot come out to the library herself. I’m sure she would enjoy being able to pick her own books. And perhaps we could find her some sheet music, and set her up on a pianoforte. I think she would enjoy that.”

“I don’t doubt that she would.” He tapped his long slim fingers thoughtfully along the edge of a nearby shelf. “I suppose, if it were night, she might be permitted to come in here, under supervision.”

“I shall speak to Dr Tepes on the matter. I’m sure that everyone else in the house must get good use out of such a charming library - it seems a shame for her to be kept out of it entirely.”

Alucard sighed. “I am afraid this room is not used half as often as it ought to be, since father…” he shook his head, his already pale face turning ghostly for a moment. “Well. Ever since then, mother has quite withdrawn to her own library-”

“She has her own library?!” Sypha thought that she had never in her life been so jealous as she was in that instant, but Adrian only looked pensive, and a little withdrawn.

“Indeed. It is quite locked away, though – it is in the same part of the house as her laboratory, and she is most insistent on keeping people out, for the most part. A lot of the volumes are very ancient, and damaged easily by touch, or even by warm breath.”

“Have you ever been in there?”

“Once or twice. I found it a little austere, for my taste. I don’t like having to put gloves on to handle a book, you know?”

“I think that sounds rather exciting.”

He shrugged. “The novelty wears off quite quickly when it takes you a full minute to turn a page without tearing it.”

“I suppose that does make sense,” Sypha relented, but she wasn’t entirely convinced.

 

“In any case, since mother is rarely here any more, and father is gone, and the servants are… well, you know,” and here he made a vague gesture, “and so, in consequence, the only person you are likely to bump into in the library, at present, is me.” His lip quirked up slightly at that, eyes sparkling. “Although hopefully not literally, next time.”

“Hopefully.” Sypha grinned, and then glanced at the clock on the wall and started slightly. “Oh! Goodness is that the time? I should get going. I’ll be wanted back in the nursery in a few minutes.”

“Of course,” said Adrian, “Would you- uh, do you need a hand carrying all those books?”

“I’m sure I will manage quite capably on my own,” said Sypha, firmly, reaching to pick the stack up from the spindly-legged little table.

“I’m sure you will, I didn’t mean to cast aspersions about your capabilities, I just-”

“Wanted to demonstrate how much stronger you are? I am aware of your unnatural strength already, you have no need to show off. Trust me, I have been suitably impressed already.”

“I- oh. Well. Alright then.” He smiled, a little crookedly. "Have a nice afternoon, in that case. And I will... see you around, perhaps?"

Sypha snorted. "We're living in the same house. You're definitely going to see me around."

"Oh, I... yes. I suppose I will."

 

And with that, she turned on her heel and headed off back to the nursery, with a spring in her step which - a keen-eyed observer would doubtless note - had certainly not been there this morning.

Chapter Text

After that, a few days passed with very little incident, beyond Godbrand clawing a hole in the petticoats of one of Carmilla’s more absurd dresses – which, naturally, led to lessons ceasing entirely for the rest of the morning while the girl chased the cat around the nursery, the pair of them yowling like little devils and attempting to scratch one another’s eyes out.

 

But while the days were relatively unremarkable, the same could not be said for the nights. The trouble was, Sypha reflected, that the library was so exciting, and she loved to read so much, and nobody had told her not to go wandering around the house at after dark. Oh, it had been implied, certainly, but technically Dr Tepes had only forbidden her to wander around the garden at night. Inside the house was – in theory, at least – fair game. Besides, the halls were hardly bustling even during the day – at night, Sypha could have walked around quite easily for hours, some nights, without ever seeing a shred of evidence that there was another human soul in the house at all. And it was hardly as though she was up to anything suspect; she simply found the lure of a well-stocked library too tempting to ignore, even well past midnight when she really ought to have been putting her books down and going to sleep. But Sypha was bad at going to sleep, and worse at resisting temptation, and downright terrible at avoiding seeing things she wasn’t supposed to see.

 

That was the problem, really. Sypha had never gone looking for trouble. She just went looking, and the trouble seemed to turn up entirely of its own accord.

 

The first thing was the servants. Their numbers were sparse, and she saw even less of them at night than she saw in the day, which was little enough to begin with. But, just occasionally, as she was making her way to or from the library at night, she would hear distant footsteps, and catch a brief glimpse of one of the strange hooded figures traversing the darkened corridors. The odd thing was that whenever she saw them passing by at night, they were always moving through the halls without any light to guide their way beyond whatever moonlight came in through the windows. There was something about that, and about the way that they moved, and their strangely similar appearances, that made the hair stand up on the back of Sypha’s neck. It was more noticeable how strangely they acted at night - in the day they blended into the fabric of the Hall; there weren’t many of them, after all, and they were quiet, and they spoke next to no English, and they seemed disinclined to respond to her clumsy attempts to dredge up enough conversational Romanian from her childhood to speak with them in their own language. Perhaps her pronunciation was too mangled for them to understand her – only she was sure it couldn’t be quite that bad.

 

And the longer she spent in the Hall, the more she began to realise something; she had never once seen them speak among themselves.

 

There was something about that which sat in her stomach like a lead weight. It felt wrong, even if she couldn’t quite make sense of why. The animals felt it, too, she could tell they did – Pompey and Crassus were subtle, but they would somehow seem to end up on the side of their master furthest from the servants whenever they crossed paths. Caesar flatly refused to have anything to do with them at all, and would hide himself in Sypha’s skirts and whine if he caught sight of them. And Godbrand… well, actually, she couldn’t tell if Godbrand thought anything in particular about the servants, because he was abominably behaved with everybody. Only Carmilla could compete with him in terms of capacity for violence and for sheer unrepentant chaos.

 

Regardless, it was odd. Worse than odd, it was mysterious, and an unsolved mystery was, to Sypha, much the same thing that an unpicked scab would be to an idle child – something that would best be left alone, but she nevertheless felt the unbearable urge to worry at it.

 

Still, she was not an idle child, and had some capacity for self-control, and was aware that poking around at mysteries would probably be a good way to get herself fired, and she really did need the money. So, were it only the servants who were busy being vaguely sinister and mysterious, she might have been able to mostly ignore it, like she was ignoring her burning curiosity about the locked rooms beyond the nursery. But the other thing she began to notice, on her late-night journeys to and from the library, was that somebody – and she couldn’t quite make out, in the darkness of the night, who it was – was taking nightly trips out to the ice house in the garden. And that, that was a proper mystery, one which she could sink her teeth into. The servants being weird might turn out to be a simple reflection of the fact that they didn’t like her, which would be an unsatisfying end to an investigation and also more than a little hurtful. But the figure visiting the icehouse? That was something interesting, she was sure of it.

 

And so she was delighted when, on the first Saturday morning of her stay at Tepes Hall, Adrian deigned to come and take breakfast with her – he, surely, would know something more than she did about all of these strange goings on. She hadn’t expected to bump into him, that morning. But she had been up early, and no breakfast was waiting outside her room when she awoke, so she had wondered over to the library – and that was where she had found him, knee deep in a stack of books and steadily piling up more.

 

He blinked at her when she cleared her throat – he was, as ever, beautifully dressed and immaculate, but something in his eyes suggested that he probably had not slept overly well, despite that. “Oh,” he said, “hello. Good morning. I- I’m,” he waved a vague hand at the piles of tomes surrounding him, “I’m looking for a book.”

“You appear to have found several of them,” said Sypha, raising an eyebrow.

He laughed. “I am looking for a specific book. Only I can’t remember the name of it.”

“Ah.”

He frowned. “Or the title.”

“I see.”

“Or… what it was about…”

Sypha cocked her head. “That seems like it might be a rather hopeless endeavour, then.”

 

He sighed, and slowly began stacking the books back onto the shelves, with no apparent regard for order or organisation. “I don’t remember the story, even, not really – but I recall that the volume had within it the most spectacular illustration of a dragon. I wondered if perhaps Carmilla might…” and then he sighed again, and shook his head. “No, I didn’t,” he said, with a rueful little smile, “she is quite over dragons; she told me so herself. Dragons are for six year olds, apparently - she likes harpies now, and unicorns.”
“And pixies,” added Sypha, “but only if they have pointy teeth.”

He laughed. “Of course. How could I forgot? So, no, it wasn’t for Carmilla, I, well, in all honesty – and you mustn’t laugh at me for this, I know it’s a little childish -  but it was something my father used to read to me, when I was very small. I just… I just wanted to look at that picture again.”

Sypha found that she had reached out to pat his arm almost before she had thought about doing it, her fingers gentle on she silky-smooth fabric of his jacket as he blinked down at her, looking a little flustered at the gesture. “I’m not going to laugh at that, Adrian. And will keep my eyes peeled,” she said, giving his arm a squeeze before withdrawing her hand and moving to help him shift books back onto the shelves, “for volumes of unknown appearance and title, which contain excellent pictures of dragons.”

“Thank you,” he said, solemnly. Then his expression cleared a little as he picked up a slim but well-worn tome from the pile and handed it to her. “I did manage to find something here that I think Carmilla would like very much, though. Here, take a look.”

 

Sypha took the volume and turned it over slowly in her hands, before glancing up at him with one raised eyebrow, her expression quizzical. “This is a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince.”

“Yes, I am aware – I was the one who handed it to you, if you can recall.”

She rolled her eyes, and made to hand it back. “Absolutely not. This is not suitable reading for my charge.”

He pushed the book back toward her. “I disagree. I think she would enjoy it.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that she would enjoy it – but I do not think that any of us would enjoy the consequences of her having read it.”

 

He laughed, at that; not a self-conscious laugh, or a wry one, or a smug self-important one - just a proper, head-thrown-back laugh. He looked nicer, laughing like that, then he did when he thought he was being clever. “My god,” he said, after a moment, “I suppose you’re not wrong.”

“She’s an interesting child. If you don’t watch it with her, you will quite easily find yourself raising a monster.”

He chuckled wryly, reaching up on his tiptoes to place the book on the highest shelf he could reach, far out of the clutches of a wandering child – probably wise, just in case Carmilla ever managed to escape the nursery. “I rather suspect we may end up raising a monster regardless – but perhaps you are right not to tempt fate.”

 

Once all the books were back on their respective shelves, he turned to her and brushed an invisible speck of dust off his jacket. “Have you anything much to do, this morning?”

Sypha shrugged. “Not especially. There are no classes, today, so I will probably just find something to read. I might see if I may visit Carmilla, later in the day. I worry that she must get lonely, locked away like that. But no, nothing this morning. Why?”

He looked, momentarily, slightly nervous. “Well, I was- I was just about to go and take my breakfast in the conservatory, I was wondering whether perhaps you would care to join me?”

“Oh!” said Sypha. “Oh, well, yes. That would be very nice, actually. Thank you.”

He looked so inordinately pleased with himself as he bowed and showed her the way to the conservatory that she almost had to tease him for it – but then, she thought, perhaps he was a little lonely, too, holed up in this vast old house as he was. And so she decided not to needle at him, for once. Maybe he needed the company.

 

The breakfast was good, as usual, and the conservatory itself was a delightful room – even the watery rays of autumn morning sunlight were enough to heat the space and fill it with light. It had clearly been designed with thought; great heavy blinds sat rolled at the tops of all the windows, presumably so that the room could stay insulated and warm even on less sunny, colder day. It was filled with vast tropical plants which Sypha did not recognise for the most part. One corner was filled with brightly coloured orchids, and another wall was lined with venus fly traps and pitcher plants – Sypha watched with fascinated horror as one of the traps snapped shut, catching a bluebottle in its fleshy jaws and squeezing until the little legs stopped wiggling out of the sides and went limp.

Adrian caught her eye. “They’re a little morbid, I know, but my father rather liked them. He thought they were funny.”

Sypha looked at the wiry little legs sticking out of the maw of the fly trap. “Hilarious,” she said, dryly.

He lingered next to her for a moment, his expression inscrutable as he watched the fly trap. “I must agree, I don’t share my father’s amusement over the things. But I suppose it’s not so different from you or I, is it – I mean, you eat meat, don't you?”

“Not while it’s still moving!”

“No,” he said, slowly, turning back to the breakfast table to take a seat with a sigh, “I suppose it isn’t. Perhaps that makes a difference.”

 

Sypha sat down and began buttering a slice of toast with a snort. “Of course it makes a difference. Mind you, it’s partly just because they’re so unsettling to look at.”

“Oh?”

“Well, I mean that perhaps the issue is not that they eat living things, but rather that they eat living things while looking very disturbing. Is that shallow of me?”

Adrian stifled a grin. “Ah, well, a little, perhaps. But it is also understandable. What brings you to that conclusion?”

“Well, I saw Caesar eating a spider the other day, and I personally thought that was rather sweet of him.”

Adrian shuddered. “Rather you than me.”

She gave him an amused glance. “You don’t like spiders?”

“Not in the slightest. Too many legs. You can’t trust anything with that many legs. That’s why Hector taught Caesar to catch them, actually.”

“Hector?”

“One of my father’s other wards. He’s away at school, now. But Caesar is his dog, and since he can’t exactly join in hunts for bigger game like Pompey and Crassus can, Hector thought it would be – how did he phrase it? Good for his self-confidence, that was it. He thought it would be good for his self-confidence if he could be trained to hunt slightly more manageable prey.”

Sypha grinned. “That sounds very sweet of him.”

“He’s a sweet boy. Odd, certainly, but sweet. With any luck he’ll come home for the Christmas holidays. You’ll like him – everyone does.”

“That would be very nice.”

 

They ate for a while after that in companionable silence, Adrian leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes as he turns his head into the morning sun, brilliant rays shining through his golden hair.

“So,” said Sypha, presently, trying to keep her tone conversational, “about the icehouse.”

His eyes snapped open. “What about the icehouse?”

She shrugged. “Well, I know your mother told me that it’s riddled with woodworm, and unsafe. But I keep seeing somebody heading out toward it, late at night, and I was wondering what-”

“Who?”

“Well, I can’t make it out – I just see the lantern heading across the lawn.”

“You’re not going outside at night, are you?”

“No. But somebody is, and since, as I say, I’ve been told it’s terribly unsafe, I was just curious-”

“Nobody’s going out to the icehouse,” he said, firmly. “Not at night, not in the day, not ever.

Sypha blinked. “But I’ve seen them,” she said. “More than once, too. Late at night, well after dark, when the moon is low.”

“Nobody’s going out to the icehouse,” he said, again, more firmly. “And you shouldn’t be wandering around at night, anyway.”

 

“But-” she began.

Adrian stood, abruptly, brushing himself down and leaving his breakfast half finished on his plate. “And now I have… I have some matters to attend to,” he said, making immediately for the door. “If you’ll excuse me.”

“But-” said Sypha, again.

 

It was no use – he was already gone. Strange man. Sypha finished her breakfast slowly, and then – since she was still hungry, and he didn’t seem like he was going to come back for it – she finished Adrian’s, too. Once she was done, she sat back for a long moment, looking over at the slowly digesting fly trap with a thoughtful expression. Adrian was a funny one, that much was for certain. For all that he had been more pleasant to her after their first meeting, he was still undoubtably extremely rude, when he found himself out of control of a situation. He was also, obviously, hiding something, which meant that there was probably no headway to be made in asking him anything further – Dr Tepes, likewise, was unlikely to give any satisfactory answers, Carmilla never left her nursery to learn anything interesting about the house itself, and the servants never really spoke to her anyway. Which left…

 

****

 

“Don’t you think,” asked Sypha, kicking her legs back and forth and tapping her heels against the mossy garden bench she was perched on, “that there’s something strange about the servants?”

“Yes,” said Trevor, flatly, bending down to pull another weed from among the geraniums; “there’s one in particular who won’t stop pestering me incessantly, even though I have specifically told her I’m busy, and that I don’t want to talk.”

Sypha sighed. “Look, I’m sorry, but I haven’t anyone else to talk to. Not anyone I would be able to ask about-” she glanced around, half wary that one of the peculiar servants might have followed her out into the garden with their almost imperceptibly soft footsteps, “I mean, don’t you ever think it’s strange? How they all move? How they- I can’t even entirely put my finger on it. You know. Don’t you?”

Trevor rubbed his temples, leaving vague soil-black smears over his sweat-damp forehead. “Yes,” he said, shortly, “I think it’s strange.”

“Then-”

“I don’t get curious about strange things,” he said, pulling another weed, “I don’t ask questions, and I don’t get involved in whatever the fuck goes on in that house. I suggest you do the same.”

She gave him an incredulous look. “You can’t possibly mean that.”

“I can and I do.”

 

After that he lapsed back into silence, and when Sypha spoke again he jumped slightly, as though he had forgotten she was there. “Here,” she said, “alright, if you don’t want to speak about the house you don’t have to. I have another question.”

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“Have you been going to the icehouse at night?”

His hand paused, hovering over his trowel. “You haven’t been going outside at night?” He sounded genuinely alarmed at the prospect, which was concerning.

“No! No.”

His shoulders relaxed slightly. “Good. Don’t. There’s all sorts of wild animals about – or so I’m told.”

“Oh, it wasn’t an animal. I saw somebody with a lantern, from the library window, and I was wondering who-”

 

Trevor put his trowel down and turned to face her, brow furrowed. “Do you know what happened to the last girl who was doing your job?”

Sypha blinked. “Pardon?”

“I said, did you know what happened to the last girl who was a Governess here?”

“I didn’t… I wasn’t aware that there was a Governess, before me.”

“She got mauled,” said Trevor, flatly.

 

Sypha would have had to sit down, at that, if she was not already seated. “She- what?”

“She almost died, actually. Half her throat was ripped out when they found her, it’s a miracle she survived.”

“She- I- what by? One of the dogs? Dear Lord, I knew they seemed difficult, but that is-”

“What, by the triumvirate?” He laughed. “No. I don’t like their master, and I liked their previous master even less, but they’re not pointlessly violent. Well. Caesar has his moments, I suppose – especially if he doesn’t get fed on time - but he’s also about the size of a pigeon and has three legs and one eye, so that’s not exactly a huge problem. It was…” His gaze darkened slightly, and he shook his head. “No. Not the dogs.”

“Then what?”

He shook his head again. “Before it happened, she kept talking about a wolf.”

“A wolf?!”

“She used to go out into the gardens near sundown to pick flowers for the breakfast table, and she swore more than once that she’d seen a great white wolf stalking around among the roses.”

“There aren’t any wolves in England, though – certainly not this far south. Perhaps in some distant highland of Scotland, but-”

“Well, exactly. That’s what we all said to her. Honestly, she had a bit of a spirited imagination, and she was very young, so none of us paid it much heed. I mean, a wolf, this far south… it does seem quite absurd, doesn’t it?”

Sypha nodded, slowly. “Only then she got attacked by one?”

 

Trevor hesitated for a moment. He looked, she thought, as though he was trying very hard to chose how to phrase what he was about to say. “I think,” he said, eventually, “that she was attacked by something.”

“You don’t think it was the wolf? Then what-”

“I think,” he said, leaning in a fraction, his voice hushed, “that she got attacked, and I think that whatever it was, I don’t want anything to do with it. So I stay inside at night, and I don’t go near the icehouse, and I definitely don’t go around asking questions when people make it clear that they don’t like giving answers. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Do- I- you-” Sypha frowned. “Wait, so what was it, then? If it wasn’t a wolf?”

He gave her an incredulous look. “I have no idea.”

“Doesn’t that worry you?”

“Well of course it worries me! That’s why I ignore it, and I keep my nose fucking clean. How is that hard to understand?”

“But what if it’s dangerous?”

“I’m sure it is. That’s why I don’t get involved.”

“But-”

He sighed, waving a hand in the air in a vague gesture of defeat. “Oh, I give up. It’s pointless. All I’m saying is- well, if you get mauled, you can’t blame me. I warned you.”

 

Sypha threw her hands up in the air with an expression of sheer, unadulterated exasperation. “Oh, this is pointless! What do you all know that you’re not telling me?”

Trevor groaned. “Sypha, I don’t know anything – that’s exactly the point.”

“How can you bear that? Doesn’t it trouble you?”

“Nope,” he said, getting a good grip on an errant dandelion and tugging it from the soil with blatantly unreasonable force.

Sypha narrowed her eyes. “Perhaps you are just too much of a coward to find out.”

 

He stabbed the trowel into the flowerbed and turned to face her with a thunderous gaze. “I am not a fucking coward. Why do you think nobody from the village works here anymore?”

“I- people from the village used to work here?”

“Well, obviously. This house has stood on the hill here for centuries; there are families in the village who have worked in its halls since it was first built. Hell, there are families in the village whose ancestors were working here since before it was built, because they were the ones who put the house up in the first place. A lot of them left when the Tepes family turned up, out of loyalty to the old lords of the manor - but some stayed on. And why not? Can’t blame anyone for that, really. The money was still good, after all, if you learned to ignore the strange things that had started going on around here. But that – Marie getting mauled – that was the last straw. I’m the only one left, now, who isn’t one of theirs.”

“One of theirs?”

“The ones the Tepes family arrived with.”

“You mean the other servants?”

He gave her a dark look. “Dr Tepes brought them in – the late Dr Tepes, that is. He kept them staffing his lab, at first, and we were never allowed in there, so you would hardly see them. Mostly everyone just kept their nose clean and avoided that wing of the house. But after he’d died, and Marie got attacked, and then everyone from the village finally up and left, Lisa - that is, the current Dr Tepes - started bringing them out to staff the whole house.”

“So you do think they’re weird.”

“They’re… I don’t know what they fuck they are. Weird doesn’t begin to cover it.”

 

Sypha rested her chin in her hand and frowned, head cocked slightly to one side. “Why don’t you just leave, then?”

He shrugged.

“Can’t you go back to the village?”

“I’m not-” he rubbed his forehead, leaving another patina of dirty fingerprints across the skin. “I don’t have anything to go back to.”

“No family?”

“No.”

 

Sypha caught the expression, there, and decided not to pry – or, rather, decided to pry later, when he seemed a little less delicate. “Still,” she said, “there must be work for you, down in the village – you’re young, and strong, and clever enough, when you want to be. There’s always work for men like that.”

“It’s- it’s not that simple.”

“No?”

“No.” He sighed, heavily, standing up and shoving his trowel in the pocket of his greatcoat, ineffectually brushing soil off his knees. “It’s… I can’t leave.”

 

Sypha laughed. “Oh, and that’s not at all a mysterious statement, Trevor.”

He shrugged, his expression rueful. “It’s not, actually. There’s nothing special about it, it’s just…” he stared up at the Hall with a strange look in his eye, and shook his head. “It’s home. Is that a bizarre sentiment? I know that there’s something really, really wrong that’s taken root in there, but it’s… I don’t know. The pay is alright. I have my hut. And I was born here, you know. I’ve never known anything else.” He shook his head again, and his massive shoulders dropped a little as he turned back from the house with a sigh. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I am a coward. But I can’t bring myself to leave.”

“You were born here?”

He nodded. “And my father, and his father before him, back as far as anyone can remember.”

“I see,” said Sypha, who had been born on the road and had no great understanding of how a place could be a home, but an excellent understanding of how people could be; “So your family have been gardeners for a long time, and you don’t know how to leave that behind?”

He gave her a strange look. Then he shrugged. “Something like that. But I’m not a gardener - I’m a groundskeeper. And, if you don’t mind, I actually do have things to be getting on with. So, if you don’t mind…”

 

Sypha sighed, but let him go. “Fine, but I’ll see you around.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Not if I avoid you, you won’t.”

“I’ll track you down anyway,” she said. “I’m going to have nice conversations with you, no matter what you say.”

He chuckled, picking his basket of weeds up and slinging it over his shoulder. “Sure. I look forward to it. And Sypha?”

“Yes?”

He rested one great, heavy hand on her shoulder, leaving a soil-covered smear across the pale grey fabric of her dress. “Watch yourself, won’t you? You can’t pester me properly if you get yourself mauled.”

 

And with that, he was gone, stomping back across the garden and disappearing amongst the hedgerows.