Jenny had been working for Madame Vastra for more than two years, but it had taken only until the second client to realize that all of Madame's initial conferences would play out according to the same script.
"I have heard," said the nervous voice in the drawing room, "that you suffer from -- a misfortune."
Jenny rolled her eyes and rummaged for the teacups.
"All too true," came Madame's voice. She spoke sadly, because it was expected that she do so. "My condition is alarming, but I have it on the highest medical authority that, while but poorly understood to science, it is not contagious." Jenny mouthed the words along with her; it was impressive how little Madame's tone and timing varied.
"Oh," said the client. There was a faint accent to the voice. A foreigner, Jenny thought.
"The framed documents behind you will give clear testimony to that effect, if it is of any concern for you."
Those documents had been Jenny's own first clue that something was amiss. The first document had been a prominent doctor's testimonial that Madame Vastra's condition was entirely noncontagious. The second had been an even more prominent doctor's testimonial that Madame Vastra's appearance, while initially alarming, was rather romantic, really, when an attractive young parlormaid took the time to appreciate it properly. The third had been a letter from the Queen describing, in shocking detail, exactly how the nice detective could take Jenny's mind off her troubles, and convincingly explaining why Jenny should let the nice detective go about doing those very things.
The strangest part of Jenny's embarking on her new life had not been Madame's horns and scales and oh god her tongue, but that her mistress's first words on embracing her had been, "Bloody psychic paper."
The kettle was already whistling. Jenny warmed the teapot, dumped the water, and put the tea up to steep. With the kettle off the stove, she could hear Madame calling her. She covered the pot with a cozy and made her way to the drawing room, where an elegant screen separated Madame from the client. "Yes, ma'am?" she said to the screen.
"Our client wishes to ask your opinion," said Madame.
This had never happened. "Yes, ma'am," said Jenny. The client sat on the couch near the fireplace, not far from the screen shielding Madame. Behind the screen, Jenny knew, Madame would be lounging in her armchair, one arm resting on the weighted stand next to it that let her swivel a writing-desk into place when necessary for note-taking.
To Jenny's surprise, the client was a Chinese. She was elegantly dressed, and she was a handsome, strong-boned woman, but her hair was touched with gray. She must have been close on forty, Jenny thought. "What can I do for you, ma'am?" she said.
The Chinese woman said, "You have seen her face. Madame Vastra's."
Jenny blinked. "Yes, ma'am."
"Would I find it very terrible?"
"My story is very queer. Bordering on madness. I am here because only your mistress might believe it. Yet if my story were to escape this house -- " The client broke off. Gathered her breath. "I fear I am half mad already," she said, her voice shaking. "I must look your mistress in the face and know if I may trust her. Yet I know not how much more terror my nerves can withstand." She looked at Jenny. "Look at me, and tell me. You can see I am a woman of means. I know the world, and I can pay her. But can I bear it?"
"Ma'am?" she said hesitantly to the screen.
"Tell her, Jenny," said Madame. Jenny didn't need to see Madame to know her mouth had curled into a narrow smile. "Tell me."
Jenny took a breath. "She hasn't got money, ma'am," she said. "Shoes've been cleaned, good shine, but there's old mud in deep at the edge of the sole, a good maid would've got that out and a woman with a poor maid would've complained and refused them. No scratches on the shoes, so it's not poor service, meaning she's doing for herself. 'Spect she didn't see the mud 'cause it's small and she squints like she's a bit shortsighted. Dress is in fashion, shoes are not, and the dress and shoes don't go together. She keeps her hands folded in her lap so's I can't see them, and the dress doesn't fit in the shoulders because her arms are strong. She works with her hands, laundry I'd guess, took the dress from there, if I looked I'd prob'ly see a fresh laundry-mark. She's poor but she's smart, she's got good English and she talks better than you'd hear in back of a laundry so I'd guess she can read. She'll tell you what she thinks you want to hear, because she's used to people not listening to her; 's'why she's lying, so you'll listen now. But she put on a dress that isn't hers and tried passing above her station. Takes some sand. So I think she can look at you, ma'am." Jenny paused and cleared her throat. "I'll just be back with the tea."
Jenny curtseyed and left the room. She could hear the shocked silence in her wake, and felt a pleasant warmth at the thought of Madame's smile.
"You use your parlormaid to shame me," said the client.
"No. I use my parlormaid to invite you to consider: if she can see so easily through your lies, what chance have you when you lie to me?" Madame's voice softened again. "Now," she said, as Jenny, tray in hand, stepped back into the drawing room. "This time, the truth."
"My name is Wong Tung-Mei. I am a laundrywoman. My husband and his brothers and sister think me mad. The whites would think me a superstitious nothing. But I have seen a horror I cannot otherwise explain, and if what I fear is true, then all of London is in the greatest danger."
Jenny watched her face carefully, then turned to Madame and nodded.
"Hm," said Madame. "Mrs. Wong, you may look upon my face. The screen, Jenny."
Jenny set the tea-tray on the side table next to Mrs. Wong. She turned to the screen. It was ebony, with brass inlay. A mock Chinese design, now that Jenny thought of it. She lifted the screen. Folded it against the wall. Behind where the screen had stood, Madame sprawled comfortably in her chair. One clawed, scaly hand toyed gently with a long clay pipe. She never smoked it; Jenny had persuaded her into it, on the grounds that clients might feel more comfortable if the great detective were toying with something less intimidating than a knife. The clients didn't know that the end of the clay pipe was sharpened enough to drive through an eye, in a pinch.
Jenny heard no gasp, no scream, no intake of breath. She turned to see Mrs. Wong looking squarely at Madame. The client's face had not changed.
"Interesting," said Madame after a few moments. "Usually people say something."
"What I have seen is more terrible than you."
"Usually they don't say that."
Mrs. Wong's face was set in stone. "Then they have not seen a jiang shi."
Madame blinked. She turned to Jenny, who shook her head. "Never heard of 'em, ma'am."
"I'm disappointed," said Madame. "You're usually such a reliable guide to all things hu-- local."
"Not local, ma'am. Chinese."
"How different can they be from you? They don't even have third eyes." Jenny coughed. "I!" said Madame, too quickly. "I forget myself. Please do go on. What is a jiang shi?"
"It is a corpse that has returned to life, and preys upon the living."
"No!" said Jenny. "A Chinese vampire?! -- excuse me, ma'am."
"A vampire?" Madame's eyes sparkled with excitement. "Like 'Carmilla?'"
"Oi!" said Jenny sharply. "Let's hope not."
"Yes, yes, of course," said Madame, "terrible, that would be terrible, young lovely girl, seductress, evil incarnate, don't know what I was thinking." Jenny, who had known exactly what Madame was thinking, made a face where the client couldn't see her. Madame failed to look apologetic.
"No," said the client flatly. "The jiang shi is much worse. They do not move naturally. Their joints are stiff, hence the name -- it means, stiff corpse. The jiang shi does not walk like humans. It hops. It steals the qi from humans -- not the blood, but the very life force. They are terrifying predators, the worst of the human they once were. They do not see, but sense the currents of the air, and if one comes by you your only hope is to hold your breath until it has passed."
Madame said, "And you knew the human that it once was?" The client shook her head. "Then how did you discover that this person had become a jiang shi?"
"Her maidservant came to our laundry. She brought but one dress, with no request for urgency, as is usual in such cases. I noticed that she was pale and drawn, and she spoke but little. When I asked of her mistress, her face was as of one greatly afraid. This made me curious, so I followed as she left. A carriage awaited her, but no one was in it. Her mistress, veiled and shrouded, awaited her in a nearby alley. She pointed to another shop, I surmised a direction to make or collect some purchases. The maidservant returned with a package, and the mistress -- the mistress followed her to the carriage, and -- " the client swallowed. "-- the mistress was pale, and her joints were stiff, and she hopped."
"Is that all?"
"It was enough."
"She was not infirm, or --"
"A woman of means, afflicted, would not have alighted from her carriage," said Mrs. Wong. "No. She flaunted this. She jerked and wriggled in a foul way, and smiled hideously as I stared at her, and then she hopped to her carriage and entered it, laughing, at a bound, her pale-faced servant following after. No. She was not infirm. She was obscene."
Madam tapped the sharp stem of the pipe against her teeth. "What is the name of this woman, and where may we find her?"
"The servant is Kathleen. I do not know the jiang shi's name, or where she lives."
"Have you no clue to her identity?"
"I am wearing it."
Madam's eyes, half-closed, opened fully. "Her dress?" she said. "Brava, Mrs. Wong! Jenny will attend you. Have you cleaned it? No? Excellent! Pray borrow one of my dressing gowns, and have a cup of tea by the fire. I shall retire to the library, and thoroughly examine the clue you have so ably brought us."
The library table was large, and the jiang shi's dress fit neatly onto it. Madame bent low over the dress and sniffed, her tongue flicking rapidly over the material. "Ozone," she said. "Interesting."
"What's that, ma'am?"
"Oxygen allotrope. O-three, molecule composed of three oxygen atoms." Madame glanced up at Jenny's uncomprehending face. "You smell it after thunderstorms? Can be formed from the air as a result of electrical discharge?" Jenny shrugged, and Madame sighed. "Ought to read up on your chemistry, my dear."
"Find me more hours in the day, ma'am."
"And this is interesting. Look, in the hem of the dress." Madame pulled something free, squinted at it, and popped it into her mouth. She rolled it around for a few moments, then spat. "Tektites," she said. "Tektites and iron ore. Our putative jiang shi's been walking around somewhere there are a lot of meteorites. Electrical discharge and meteorites; that's a curious combination."
"Or she's a woman with an unfortunate affliction who's fond of meteorites." Madame frowned. "I need more information. We need to find out who this woman is." She glanced up at Jenny. "Can you work through the servants?"
"It'll take some doing, ma'am," said Jenny. "Got a description of the girl while I was attending Mrs. Wong, but there's a lot of servants in London and a lot of them are named Kathleen."
"Well, it's that or have Parker keep watch until the maidservant comes back to the laundry. If she does. And that would never do; I might need him to drive us somewhere if another case arises."
The bell at the rear of the house jingled. "I might have a way, ma'am," said Jenny. "Excuse me."
"Very good. Come to the drawing room when you've finished."
Jenny left Madame sniffing over the dress again and made her way down the back stairs. The young man at the tradesman's door was who she'd expected to see, given the day. "Wilmer," she said. "How are you?"
"Just fine, Jenny. Just fine." Wilmer's cheerful grin flickered halfway to a leer before flickering back. "An' you're just a bit of scrumptious today, you know that?"
"Get on with you," Jenny said. "You don't care for me no more than for your other girls."
Wilmer tugged his cap from his head, revealing a shock of curled black hair, and clasped the cap to his bosom, trying to look for all the world like a maligned soul rather than the second-greatest danger to the virtue of servant girls in all of London. "''pon my soul, Jenny," he said, "I don't care for none of 'em so much as you."
"That's not what I heard," Jenny said. "You were out with that little Irish girl, I heard about that!"
"What little Irish girl?"
"Kathleen. Don't tell me you don't know any Kathleen."
Wilmer twisted his cap in his broad fingers. "Ah, well, I know one or two, but --"
"Young and short, with red hair and freckles. Has a scar on her cheek, just here." Jenny pointed.
"Lady Carrington's Kathleen? I never!"
"You did, too! In the park --"
"'Like she'd leave 'er ladyship's side for even a minute, even on a half-day off? Unseemly devotion, it were. T'ain't natural. Always shut up in that great white house in Westminster."
"So you tried, then?"
"Well," said Wilmer, "can't rightly blame a fella for that." His eye twinkled, and despite herself Jenny smiled back. He was a shameless seducer, but she gave him this much: unlike a lot of them, he never promised more than a good time, and from the gossip she'd heard he more than delivered. She grinned at him, and waited for him to realize he'd been had. In her experience, it would take only a moment or two.
Wilmer pursed his lips as suspicion crept into his eyes. "You know, darlin'," he said, "if you want to know who some serving-girl works for, you can just ask me."
"Nah," said Jenny. "Where's the fun in that?" He scowled theatrically, so she pressed a coin into his hand and then, on a whim, pressed a quick kiss to his cheek. "Don't be gettin' ideas," she said as he brightened. "There's no more where that came from, so don't go expectin' any."
"A man ever lives in hope, my dear. Does that mean you've nothin' needs sharpening?"
They did. Jenny reached into the corner, found Madame's spare sword, and tossed it to him. "Good and sharp, now," she said. "Don't scuff the blade, mind."
Wilmer took the sword and squinted at it. "What's this on it, then, blood?"
"It's not human," said Jenny. It was Rutan, actually.
"Well, that's a comfort. I'm sure I don't know what you and Madame Vastra get up to."
Jenny grinned. "No," she said, "I'm sure you don't."
Madame was ensconced in her armchair by the time Jenny returned to the drawing room with the freshly-sharpened sword in hand. Mrs. Wong, wearing one of Madame's obnoxiously expensive dressing gowns, sat uncomfortably before the fire, a delicate teacup in one roughened hand.
"Have you anything for me?" said Madame.
"Yes, ma'am. Kathleen works in Westminster, for Lady Carrington. Big white house, shouldn't be hard to find."
"If this is your parlormaid," said Mrs. Wong, "you must be a very great detective."
Madame smiled. "For this, I don't need to be," she said. "Lady Carrington's one of the greatest socialites in London. I don't know her, but I know where she lives."
"But can you slay a jiang shi?" said Mrs. Wong.
"Sword, ma'am," said Jenny, and tossed it.
In one swift, whirling motion, Madame rose, snatched the sword from the air, drew it from its scabbard, and neatly bisected the candles on the far table, and along with them the topmost wax apple in the fruit bowl.
Madame said, "If it must needs be slain, we shall slay it."
The Carrington house was large, larger by far than Madame's own; but Jenny barely spared it a glance, for she was focused on the walk and on her feet. Twenty-three paces, she counted. Mark. Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six…
When she was done, she turned right at the next street and made her way through a narrow alley and back to the nearby abandoned house Madame had selected for a base of operations. The garden was a touch overgrown, but the house itself was in fine shape, and even the sheets covering the furniture were as fine as any Jenny had ever seen. The floor was covered with a light dust, and Madame's footprints were clear in it, as were Jenny's own.
Jenny took the narrow stair down to the cellar, where Madame squatted next to the sewer opening. "Three hundred of my paces north gets you to the house, ma'am," she said as she picked her way through the bric-a-brac. "Twenty-three more is the front door, another thirty to the far corner. I didn't see anyone to play who-is-what on the way, sorry. What do you expect to see underneath?"
"Don't know, dear. Might not see anything." Madame draped her cloak over a dusty chair and unfastened her sword belt. "Might find a nest of very nasty somethings." She unfurled the roll of canvas next to her across the floor, and pulled out the waders that had been wrapped inside. "So play who-is-what here. The house we are in is abandoned; where are the owners?"
Jenny frowned. She'd never played who-is-what with a house before. "What do I look for, ma'am?"
"How did you peg Mrs. Wong as a laundrywoman?"
"Servant's eye, ma'am."
"So look as a servant does. Furniture's in place upstairs, covered with sheets, but some whole rooms are empty, one carpet clearly removed, light patches on wallpaper show where pictures are missing, but other pictures remain. Why would someone ask you to do that?"
"Going abroad for a year?"
"Would they take the furniture?"
"No. Too heavy, too much trouble -- " Jenny bit her lip. "Somebody died."
"Somebody older, from the decor. Somebody who lived alone, other family members independently established or married off -- all daughters? Address is good, house is big, if there were a son he and his family would remain here, so there wasn't --" Jenny shook her head in confusion. "Or they're dead, or they didn't want to stay. Why wouldn't they want to stay?"
"Everything that was taken has been taken from the rooms that show a feminine influence, with the exception of the pictures. No samplers or cross-stitch remain; those have all been taken, as have the family portraits that show the wife. The portraits and photographs that remain show children with only the father or a man alone. No one wanted those. Why? What is the human context?"
Ah. "His children hated him, but loved their mother." It was a disconcerting thought, to see a family's pain so clearly laid out in the arrangement of their rooms. "You're a great detective, ma'am."
"So are you," said Madame, "when you let yourself be."
It was not a wonder that Madame said such things, not any more. It was that she said them to Jenny as if they were not wonders, as if she expected that people had been saying them to Jenny for all of Jenny's life before.
Jenny regretted her maid's uniform, her lack of trousers. "I should be going with you."
Madame shook her head. "I need you to do the things I can't. Get into the house. Play who-is-what, the way I've taught you. Talk to Kathleen. See her mistress, if you can. If it's safe."
"Yes, ma'am." The straps on the waders were not quite right, so Jenny adjusted them. Her mother had always said that there was hard work in being a servant, but a comfort, too, in knowing one's place, in knowing what one made possible. Jenny had never felt that before Madame. Now she knew it every day. If her mother could see her, Jenny thought, she would be proud.
She looked up to Madame's face and felt herself blushing. She should not be so enraptured, she thought; it would not do; there was no time for it. "Sorry, ma'am," Jenny said, handing Madame the shorter sword. "I know there's a time and a place."
Madame said, "Yes, there is," and kissed her.
The kiss was long and loving, and Madame's mouth was cool. Her claws slid gently over the back of Jenny's neck, and Jenny made a mental note to give Madame a manicure when they got home; her claws were just on the edge of scratching.
"Good luck, ma'am," Jenny managed to dazedly mumble as Madame stepped away.
"And to you." Madame swung herself into place over the opening, then dropped into the darkness with a low splash.
Jenny caught her breath for a few moments, then made her way back to the street and walked boldly toward the house.
She counted her steps as she moved, and imagined Madame, but scant feet below her, counting paces, short steps to compensate for Jenny's shorter legs. It was a comfort to think that Madame was not so very far away.
The Carrington house itself was very large. Jenny knew little of Lord Carrington, though if Madame's clippings of the society columns were any indication he was perpetually abroad with the army. Lady Carrington, Madame had explained, was well-known for knowing people and for being known, which to Jenny made little sense. Given Lady Carrington's sociability and Lord Carrington's fame, however, the house was not what she had expected. It was grand, yes; but the walk was unswept, the beds unweeded. Jenny saw no movement in the windows, which were streaked and lacked the expected sparkle.
Jenny made her way to the servants' entrance and knocked softly. For almost a minute, nothing happened. Then Jenny heard a soft rustle, and glimpsed a flicker of movement at the nearby window. She hoped it had been Kathleen, rather than the alternative. It was, she supposed, technically possible that Mrs. Wong had been mistaken. But Mrs. Wong had been sober, and serious, and terrified.
The door opened a few inches, and a young woman peeked out. She was much shorter than Madame, but still an inch or two taller than Jenny. A few tufts of red hair had escaped her cap, and her skin was fair and freckled. Beneath the freckles was an unhealthy pallor. Her eyes were shrouded in dark circles, and a small scar stood high on her cheek. "Yes?" she said. Her voice was thick, as if she had just awoken, or had yet to speak that day.
"Hullo," said Jenny cheerfully. "I'm seeking a position, and -- "
"We've no positions," said Kathleen, and closed the door.
Jenny stuck a foot in the door before it could fully shut. "But it looks like you could do with some help about the place," said Jenny. "The walk's not been swept, nor the windows done, and -- " She angled her neck, trying to peer around the door. "Is anyone else in there?"
Kathleen froze. Her lips opened, but no sound came out.
Jenny said, "Are you quite all right, love?"
"I want to shut the door," said Kathleen. Her voice was still rough, but small now, like a child's. "Let me shut the door."
"May I still talk to you, if you shut the door?" said Jenny. "I'll take my foot out, I promise, but you must stay there and let me talk to you for a moment. Will you do that?" Slowly, Kathleen nodded. She opened the door enough for Jenny to withdraw her foot. Jenny glimpsed the kitchen behind Kathleen: neat, organized, everything in its place. Not everything had gotten away from her.
The door closed, and locked. Jenny leaned against it and pressed her face to the wood. "When I was a little girl," she said, "and things were bad, my mum would make me a cup of tea. Not so often, the mistress wouldn't allow that, but when I needed it and when she could, she would make me a cup of tea." Jenny smiled at the memory. "Do you have anyone to do that for you?" No answer came. "You've had so much to do, and such a lot to take care of," Jenny said urgently. "Just -- just let it go, only for a little while. Let me come in and take care of you. Don't you want someone to take care of you?"
A soft sob from the other side of the door.
"I won't stay. I'll make you a cup of tea and then I'll go. Only let me do that for you, my dear. Please."
The door unlocked and slowly swung open. Jenny stepped inside. "Now," she said, "just show me where the things are, and --" Kathleen sobbed again. Jenny reached forward and took her hands. "Oh, my lamb," she said. "Oh, my poor lamb. Come on, come here and sit down, that's a girl, poor girl, poor lamb."
They sat at the table. Kathleen stared at the wood. When her cup of tea went untouched, Jenny sat across from the girl and kept hold of her hands, which were trembling. "It's very quiet," said Jenny. "Isn't there anyone else here?"
Kathleen said, "My mistress is upstairs."
"Your mistress," said Jenny. "Tell me, is she -- " monstrous? " -- is she quite all right, Kathleen?"
Kathleen's head jerked up. "How do you know my name?"
"I know a lot of things," said Jenny. "Don't worry. I'm here to help you."
Kathleen went very pale. She was trembling, and when Kathleen rose and turned away Jenny saw that there were three scratches on the nape of Kathleen's neck. They were long, and parallel, and they looked very much like the leavings of fingernails.
It wasn't like practicing deduction on Mrs. Wong, or any of the times Madame had made Jenny play at who-is-what in a crowd. The things she'd seen hadn't been interpreted one-by-one, but now they added up in a sudden flash: that happens sometimes when Madame kisses me and Wilmer said she's so devoted it isn't natural and he'd think me and Madame wasn't natural and then sharp-nailed Lady Carrington is kissing her and but it's too much house for one servant and the walk isn't swept and quickly turned those into the other servants have deserted, but not her, she hasn't, because she loves Lady Carrington and she won't ever, and the jiang shi eats the life force and finally oh dear God she's letting her feed --
A sound came from upstairs. It was not quite a thud. It was more of a flop-scrape, of something lurching forward, then shuffling to regain its balance. A wriggle and hop.
Jenny leapt to her feet and grasped Kathleen's hand. "She's a monster," she said. "Run."
Jenny got only two steps before she was jerked to a halt. Kathleen stood, unmoving, rooted to her spot in the kitchen floor. Her head moved side to side, side to side, in a little arc: no, no, no. "Kathleen," said Jenny desperately, "come along. I promise, I'll explain everything, but right now --"
"It's not wrong," Kathleen snapped. "I love her and she needs me and it's not wrong --"
"That's not what I meant --"
"It's not wrong!"
Kathleen flung Jenny's hand down like a filthy thing. Her eyes were wild, and her cheeks streaked with tears. Her breath came in short, shuddering gasps, and something in it brought back to Jenny, unbidden, the moment she had first stepped trembling around the screen to face Madame. Jenny would never forget that rush of exhilaration: she had felt terror, and wonder, and hope, such hope.
"You always loved her," said Jenny. "Didn't you." The stark horror of it unfolded before her. "And now she says she loves you back."
"It's not wrong," whispered Kathleen fervently. She sounded as if she were praying. "It's not wrong."
"No," said Jenny. She took up Kathleen's hand again, and squeezed. "It's not wrong." It could have been me, once, she thought, it could have been me. But no; Jenny had not loved Madame from afar, while Kathleen had been so near to her beloved with no hope. It must have been so much worse. "But she is wrong, Kathleen. She's gone very wrong, and I don't know if I can help her, but I know I can help you, but only if we leave right now, do you understand?"
The sound, again. Closer. Closer. Flop-scrape, flop-scrape, coming down the stairs. Kathleen did not move from her spot. Jenny squeezed her hand again. "I'll come back for you," she said, and turned to run away.
Kathleen didn't let go.
"Kathleen," Jenny said urgently, "if you want to stay I'll let you, but you have to let me go right now -- "
"No one must know," Kathleen whispered. "Milady said. 'No one must know, Kathleen.' That's what she said."
"Kathleen -- "
"No one must know. She said. She watches me, I said I won't, but she watches me -- " Kathleen's voice broke, and broke again. "She didn't mean to -- she's gotten better -- she was so hungry --"
"Kathleen," Jenny said, "did the other servants run away?"
Kathleen said nothing, but sobbed, and Jenny thought, oh God.
Jenny yanked. Nothing. The girl's grip was like iron. No sword. Can't take her hand. Jenny's glance flashed over to the table, where a paring knife lay. I could take her eyes. The knife was within reach. Before the thought was done, it was in her hand. Jenny turned back to Kathleen, saw the panicked face, saw in a sudden flash how it would look after she -- no, Jenny thought, no, no, no. She leaned forward and kissed the girl instead, kissed her as warmly as she could, Madame would understand. "I'm like you," she hissed as their lips parted. "Don't you understand, you're not wrong, you're in danger, I'm like you, I'm like you, please --"
Flop-scrape. Flop-scrape. Closer, closer, it was right outside the kitchen door --
Kathleen let go.
There was no time to leave; Jenny spun behind the kitchen door, made herself as small as possible, and, remembering Mrs. Wong's words, took her deepest breath, and held it.
The door opened.
With a flop-scrape, flop-scrape, the jiang shi dragged itself into the kitchen. Hiding behind the door, Jenny could only glimpse a little of it through the crack. She saw a bit of a dress, trailing behind, as the jiang shi passed, and then nothing more, for the creature in Lady Carrington's body had gone by the crack, and was separated from Jenny only by two inches of fine wood. Jenny hid behind the opened door, and held her breath, and waited.
Kathleen said, "Milady."
"Kathleen," said a voice like death and stone and a loveless heart, "to whom were you talking?"
"Just to myself, milady."
Another flop-scrape. Then another. Fingers appeared, curled round the edge of the door. They were long and thin, and the nails were very pointed.
The jiang shi came further into the kitchen, and turned, and as it did it shut the kitchen door, and Jenny saw.
The jiang shi was pale and horrid, with mottled skin like a gray porridge, and little streaks of green and blue to marble the surface. Its grin was fixed in a terrible rictus, and its head lolled a little to one side; when it turned to face something, it didn't rotate its head; it twisted, until the head moved of its own accord, and then let the momentum flop the head sickeningly into place. Its arms were raised in front but not straight out; the elbows were bent, but frozen in position, as if the hands were reaching out for something, or straining against the lid of a coffin. Its legs were worse. They were twisted toward the inside, so the jiang shi was horribly pigeon-toed; the hips were stiff, as were the knees, so that small or graceful movements were impossible. It was not the confinement of a palsy. The jiang shi's every motion was forced and brutal, as if for all its clumsiness it overcame its reduced movement with convulsions of sheer strength.
The jiang shi's eyes were filmed over and useless, and they rolled as their gaze fixed on Jenny.
Jenny didn't move. Didn't breathe.
The jiang shi held its position for a moment, and then turned away.
"Kathleen," said the jiang shi, "I require you."
Kathleen bit her lip. "Again, milady?"
"Not so much, and not for long. And when I've done, I'll kiss and caress you, just as I always do. You do like that, don't you? You went without for so long."
The jiang shi's posture softened. Its voice, cold and grating, dropped, softened, until it was like the rustle of dead leaves. "I know that I have changed from what I was," the jiang shi said, "and more each day." A sharp-nailed finger clumsily traced Kathleen's cheek. "Can you truly still love me?"
"I love you, milady," said Kathleen softly, catching the jiang shi's hand in hers. "I've always loved you, and I'll always love you. I'm yours, always and only."
"Then look with your eyes, as you love me, and tell me," the jiang shi said. "Is there truly no one here?"
Kathleen lifted her head and stared straight at Jenny, then turned her gaze back to what had been her mistress. "No one, milady."
Jenny closed her eyes as Kathleen lovingly kissed the twisted mouth, and closed her ears to the jiang shi's murmured endearments as the two exited the room, Kathleen supporting as the jiang shi hopped and wriggled, hopped and wriggled. The door closed behind them; only then did Jenny slowly let her stale breath go and take another.
Jenny, breathing as little and as shallowly as she dared, let them go upstairs and waited several minutes before she slipped away, and when she was outside, she ran.
Jenny burst through the door of the abandoned house and slammed it behind her.
She leaned heavily against the door and gasped for breath, then peered through the leaded glass windows beside the doorframe as if the jiang shi might be hopping after her. No unusual movement was visible on the street outside. A few of the people she had brushed past in her flight looked in evident curiosity at the house to which she had run, but that was all.
Jenny closed her eyes and rested her head against the door. She was still breathing fast. She didn't know why Kathleen hadn't listened to her. Jenny had lost track, by now, of the number of times Madame had grasped her hand and yelled, "Run!" That was how things were done, Madame had said once, with the air of one with long experience in these matters. It was still unusual for Jenny to try doing it herself, but as far as Jenny was concerned, when someone grabbed your hand and yelled, "Run!" you ran.
Perhaps there was some knack to getting people to listen to you when you did it. She would have to ask Madame about it.
Madame must still have been inside the sewer. There was no sound inside the abandoned house. No one had responded to Jenny's entrance, or the slamming of the door. No one; no one at all.
Jenny wished she had her sword.
She crept as cautiously as she dared toward the cellar. She would have held her breath, had she been able, but her lungs were still laboring, and her heart pounding. Her own pulse resounded in her ears as she cautiously passed the door and made her way down the staircase. The lanterns she and Madame had left were still lit. The hole to the sewer was open. There was no movement, no sound. Her sword, she saw, was on the other side of the hole, by the chair holding Madame's cloak; another chair was on Jenny's side of the hole, against the wall. Everything was as it had been left.
Jenny whispered, "Ma'am?"
No response came from the cellar, or from the hole. Jenny picked up the lantern. Slowly, she moved toward the hole, the lantern high, so its flickering light crept down the hole's dark edges. "Ma'am?" she said.
The sound of splashing sounded from within the hole. Jenny moved closer toward the edge, looked down. Something moved --
Two green, scaled hands grasped the edge of the hole a split-second before Madame's head rose into view. "Hello, dear," she said, dragging herself onto the flagstones. "All right?"
"Jiang shi," said Jenny. "Lady Carrington. She is." The words tumbled awkwardly past her lips. "I don't know what that is really, but she looks horrible, she looks dead, I think she is, ma'am, and now I'm babbling, sorry. Blind, can't see, but she senses the air like Mrs. Wong said, and I think she's strong."
Madame carefully took the lantern from Jenny's shaking fingers. "Dead? Was there a smell?"
"No, ma'am. Skin looked bad -- gray and marbled, but no smell, she's off but not rotting. She killed the other servants, Kathleen said, ate their life 'cause she was so hungry. Kathleen's the only one left. Kathleen's in love with her ladyship; the jiang shi's using that. Feeding, on Kathleen." Jenny blinked at Madame, whose skirt was stained and torn. The scabbards at Madame's waist were empty. "Where're your swords?"
Madame said, "Would you care to guess what I found in the sewers?"
Jenny swallowed. She took a breath, to steady herself, and then said, very fast, "The reanimated corpses of Lady Carrington's dead servants, ma'am."
"Excellent!" said Madame. Her beaming smile flashed, then vanished. "But worryingly specific."
Jenny pointed past Madame's left shoulder.
The third of the revenants was just hauling itself over the edge of the pit. Behind it, Jenny could see a tangle of limbs; more undead were standing on each other, climbing each other's bodies, to reach the cellar. The heavy iron grate to the sewer lay where Jenny and Madame had left it, propped up against a wall. As the third revenant straightened up to stand beside the two that had preceded it, Jenny saw bright lengths of steel protruding from its belly.
"Oh look," said Madame happily. "There are my swords."
The revenants began to shuffle forward.