There was something to be said, Jenny had always thought, for the quiet life of the domestic servant.
Not that she would know; most domestic servants rarely found themselves shoulder to shoulder with their employer to face a horde of undead rising from the sewers.
The revenants seemed unending. Behind the ones that had already risen from the sewer or were struggling to haul themselves onto the flagstones of the cellar, more strived to climb. Jenny saw one rise briefly and then fall back as yet another grasped at its shoulder and fought to rise in turn. How many of them are in there? she wondered, and then shook her head as her brain rapidly attempted to furnish an estimate based on Lady Carrington's home size, estimated finances, and social position. In a moment, the revenants would be upon them.
"Jenny!" said Madame. "Grate!"
The grate sealing off the entrance to the sewers was where they'd left it: propped up against the wall on the other side of the hole, past the revenants. "I see it," Jenny said.
Madame stepped forward. One arm still held the lantern; the other was raised to a fighting posture. "My swords, your sword, clearance, grate. Ready?"
"Go!" Madame said, and charged.
Madame liked to stick to fists, feet, venom, and swords when she fought. Jenny believed in using everything she could, so her first move was left, toward the wall and the empty chair. She swept the chair up in one hand, spun, and smashed it crosswise into the midsection of the leftmost revenant, a short woman with a cap and uniform very much like Jenny's own. The revenant stumbled backward and fell, tripping over a new revenant making its way out of the hole. Jenny was left holding two splintered stumps of wood; she stepped forward and fell to a knee, driving one of the stumps through the fallen revenant's open mouth.
She risked a quick glance up: Madame had beaten the rightmost of her opponents back, but it seemed not to be responding to the Venusian aikido techniques that usually served Madame in such good stead. Then Madame was blocked from view, as the second revenant, the one with Madame's swords through its gut, turned on Jenny and reached for her.
Jenny smashed it in the face with her other stump of chair leg. The revenant seemed barely to notice. She scrambled backward, but the revenant, though clumsy, was faster. It lurched towards her just as the other revenant, the one with a chair leg in its mouth, turned onto its side and grasped at Jenny's foot.
"Jenny!" called Madame. Her mouth opened, gaped wide.
"Ma'am," said Jenny, "remember --" Madam's tongue flashed across the room. It coiled around the sword-pierced revenant's ankle, and yanked, and just as quickly flashed back. The revenant fell as Madame, retching, recoiled into a small shelf, sending an array of jars spilling across the cellar floor. "-- what they've been wading in!"
The revenant maid clutched at Jenny's shoulder as she rose. Jenny spun, shoved it away, and as it came back in she swung at the chair leg in its mouth with the one she still held. The force drove the splintered chair leg in the mouth through the back of the revenant's neck. The revenant dropped like a puppet that had had its strings cut, but the one with Madame's sword through it was rising to its feet, and more were coming through the hole in the floor. There were six in the cellar, now. On the other side of the hole, Madame choked and spat, grasping frantically with one arm. A small jar rolled nearby, and Madame glanced at it, then opened the lid and swilled the contents, swishing them about in her mouth to clear the filth away.
The revenant closed on her, then reached out. Before Jenny could cry a warning, Madame brought the lantern in front of her lips, puffed her cheeks, and blew --
Paraffin, thought Jenny as the ball of flame engulfed the revenant. The flames lit every corner of the dark cellar. Madame stepped back, gargling with and then spitting out the remnants of the paraffin. She capped the jar and tossed it to Jenny, who caught it and promptly uncapped it and dumped the contents onto the hordes still struggling out of the sewer. Madame whirled, kicked the lantern, and sent it into the middle of the scrum. The revenants fell back, blazing. That left few enough, Jenny thought, surely.
The revenant Madame had hit with the fireball rose to its feet, and began to move forward again.
Jenny looked about frantically; they'd gotten things out of order somehow, but now she was close to her own sword, and she lunged for it. "Ma'am!" Jenny called, as she tossed her sword, scabbard and all, across the pit.
Oh, Jenny thought as the other revenants closed in, joined now by some of their flaming brothers and sisters, throwing away your weapon may have been a very bad idea.
Madame grabbed the blade out of the air and drew it in a flash. Whirling, she slashed the burning revenant through the thigh and then, even as it fell, through the neck. The head, its hair smoldering, dropped to the ground and spun into the corner. Madame rolled again, slicing the legs out from under another revenant, slashing away the groping arms of a third. Then she ran, straight at the pit, and leapt it. She slashed one revenant through the belly, then stabbed it with Jenny's sword. "Grab that, dear," Madame said, making for the revenant that had Madame's own swords through its gut.
The revenant lurched toward Madame. It was well-dressed, thought the portion of Jenny's brain that wasn't occupied with trying to withdraw her own sword from the chest of an undead groom. Butler, perhaps. She pivoted, using the groom to shield herself from a revenant that was afire, and then used her foot to push the groom free and, with the burning revenant, back into the sewer, as the butler came ever closer.
The butler's head twisted clumsily, slumping as Lady Carrington's had. Its face turned to Madame, and it hissed.
"Hello," Madame said. "I believe you're holding something of mine."
Her tongue flashed.
The venom barb caught the revenant full in the face. Madame grasped the hilts of her swords, leapt off the ground with both feet, and planted a double kick to the revenant's chest. The revenant flew back and free of the blades and fell on its face. Madame dropped to the floor, took the fall, and got to her feet, flicking her swords to clear them of tissue.
"There," Madame said cheerfully, even as the burning revenants regained their footing. Soon they would again swell unendingly up through the floor. Madame sheathed one of her swords, giving herself a free hand. "That's got us a bit of breathing room. Grate! Hurry!"
The grate was iron, and heavy. They could manage it, awkwardly, between the two of them. Jenny gritted her teeth, and heaved, and tried not to think about the revenants shuffling toward them above, or the burning ones reconstituting their forces below. She glanced up, and wished she hadn't: the revenant butler had risen to its feet and had begun to shuffle sickeningly toward them, Madame's shed venom barb sticking horribly out of one vile and swollen eye.
"Venom doesn't work," said Madame. "Interesting. Immediate effect should be hemolytic." She frowned. "I don't think their blood is circulating."
There were times that Jenny found Madame's scientific curiosity admirable and even stimulating. Other times. "'course not! They're dead!"
"That's what you said about Lady Carrington," said Madame. "Have we killed any of them?" She glanced at the one Jenny had dispatched with the chair leg. "That one -- no, its eyes are moving. And the one I beheaded is trying to bite." She turned to the revenants. "Can you understand me?" she said. "Can you speak?" The revenants shuffled closer. They made no answer, and no noise. "I didn't think so. Jenny, could Lady Carrington speak?"
"Very well, ma'am."
"Something must have gone wrong with these. That's why Lady Carrington threw them in the sewer."
"You think -- were they dead when she -- "
"Did whatever she did? Very possibly. And whatever's doing this to the bodies is trying to go forward anyway. Bit of an uphill battle, it seems. It must be a remarkable process. I think it's working through the central nervous system. The limbs we carve off don't continue operating. Cut them to bits and destroy the brains."
"One! Two! Three!" The heavy grate clanked into place. Madame shoved Jenny's scabbard through the low rings on either side of it, holding it in. "There," Madame said. "The fire will burn through it, but it'll take a little time."
"Time enough, ma'am?"
Madame drew her second blade. "Depends on how fast you are, dear. Back to back, now. Ready?"
Jenny gripped her sword. The revenants were almost to them, again. "As ever, ma'am."
Once the situation was controlled, the revenants made for simple opponents. Disappointingly simple, Jenny thought: you cut off their arms, so they couldn't grab, and their legs, so they couldn't walk, and then you cut off their heads, so they couldn't do anything, and then you stabbed them through the brain. The revenants were slow and the swords sharp, so none of it took very long. The only tricky part was if you got the sequence out of order, because then you had to watch for the ones that had had their legs chopped off but still had arms, so they didn't crawl up to you on the floor. But even if they did, you just stabbed them in the brain and they were done.
"More in the sewer, ma'am?" Jenny said hopefully, when they'd finished.
Madame frowned. "I wonder," she said.
It was only then that Jenny realized that she hadn't heard the grate rattling in some time. They approached the grate and looked down. The revenants were slumped in a pile below, burning, unmoving.
"Interesting," Madame said. "They're insensitive to pain, but fire did the trick, eventually. Perhaps it took time for the heat to cook them thoroughly?"
"Like a roast, ma'am?"
"I suppose so." Madame turned away from the grate. She stepped over to the first revenant she had beheaded. Its head, still whole, was facing the corner. Madame bent down and picked it up. She brought it to the level of her face and gazed into its eyes. "What are you?" she said. The head only gnashed its teeth at her.
Madame shrugged, dropped it to the floor and sliced the head into two pieces just above the eyebrows. The features slackened and the jaws quit snapping. "And that's the lot," Madame said. Her voice held a strange, absent tone that Jenny knew all too well. Madame reserved it for things that were interesting and also probably extremely dangerous. "Ma'am?" Jenny said.
"Ssh," said Madame. Her eyes were focused on the open wound she'd cleaved in the head. "Something's moving."
Madame leaned forward and squinted into the gray-and-crimson horror that was the revenant's bisected brain, then turned her sword point downwards and thrust home. She wiggled the sword briefly, drove it deeper, and then stepped back with an air of satisfaction. The blade squelched free. Attached to it was something gray and glistening, bloated like a garden slug, but with insectile jaws that were curved and wickedly sharp, and surrounding them an array of frantically squirming little tentacles.
Jenny, whose stomach had been well-honed by her long acquaintanceship with Madame, turned her face into a corner and was quietly sick.
"Hello!" said Madame cheerfully. She raised the sword so she could get a better look, but kept well clear as the body writhed and the tentacles reached desperately toward her face. "You're very interesting. What are you?"
The little beast writhed, and shuddered, and died.
"Just as well, really," said Madame. "I don't think it would have answered any questions. Jenny, dear? Bring the jar."
Jenny's formal education had begun and ended with her mother teaching her her letters. There had been other lessons, afterward, but largely practical and self-instructed: "making do with little or nothing" was important, as were "how not to be cheated" and "when to lie, and to whom, and how to keep them from catching you at it."
Also: "even if you believe something to be dead, do not take your eyes off it until it has been dissected, even if this means keeping it in a paraffin jar balanced on the corner of Madame's bathtub." Jenny had learned that lesson the hard way.
"Ma'am?" said Jenny as she scrubbed. "Where do you think it came from?"
Madame took a long sip of her sloe gin and fastened her gaze on the paraffin jar. "It's a big universe, my dear," she said. "Could be almost anywhere." She held the glass against the side of her head, and leaned into it. "I'm not even sure its native star is in Mrs. Fleming's class G. It's definitely not from Earth, though. We'd have seen something like its progenitor species, even if you hadn't."
When Madame said "We" like that, she meant "Silurians." Jenny couldn't resist. "Didn't see our lot coming, though, did you, ma'am?"
Madame rolled her eyes. "No, Jenny. I remember right before we went to sleep, someone was asking, 'should we wipe out those furry little multituberculates?' and I said, 'oh, leave them, they're so cute; what harm could they possibly do?'" She downed the rest of her gin and made a face. "Two hundred million years later --!"
"We all oversleep sometimes, ma'am."
"Spoken like someone who owns a planet. Mammals. Why do I put up with you?"
There were times when Madame's reptilian chauvinism was intensely irritating. Other times, Jenny found it oddly endearing. "Because I'm always warm everywhere, ma'am."
"True," said Madame, scowling. She sank deeper into the water.
The bray of the doorbell sounded. Jenny rose from her position beside the tub and leaned out the window. "Coach, ma'am," she said. "Mrs. Everard."
"She came tonight?"
"You sent Parker with a note --"
"I didn't think she'd come tonight. Is she mad?"
"She does owe you, ma'am," said Jenny. "Suspect she wants to work off the debt."
Madame uttered a sharp but pungent syllable.
"Shall I tell her you said that, ma'am?"
"No. Let her in. Set up the screen, and bring my dressing gown." Madame glared at her empty glass as if it had betrayed her. "And another gin."
Madame Vastra had taught Jenny a number of games, some of which Jenny could play with her clothes on. The two of those that Jenny played most often were detective games: one was called who-is-what, and the other was called count-the-lies.
"Ah, Mrs. Everard," said Madame from behind her screen. "How nice to see you again."
The screen was opaque, so Jenny thought: one, two.
Mrs. Everard settled into her chair and scowled. It was her friendliest expression, which was saying little for it. Jenny thought: she is old, and stiff, and snobbish, and her children hate her, and before his death her husband had spent all his time at his club rather than with her, and these decisions by her husband and children were right. Jenny did not need to play who-is-what to know any of those things; she knew them from experience, and had no wish to know Mrs. Everard any better than she already did.
"Please do me the courtesy of remaining behind that screen," said Mrs. Everard. "I have not the desire of seeing you for a second time, nor the capacity to withstand it." Mrs. Everard had not been unduly alarmed when her brother-in-law had been revealed to have been a Zygon impersonator and shortly afterward dispatched on her drawing room carpet, so Jenny thought, three.
Madame stirred her gin with a long forefinger. "I would not say the same, Mrs. Everard." Jenny thought, four. "But pray have no fear on that score. I thank you for coming, and am, as always, glad to have your very kind forbearance." Five, six. "Now, please tell me what you know of Lady Carrington."
Mrs. Everard dropped her teacup.
Curiously, Jenny's only thought was, the next thing she says makes seven.
She was looking forward to hearing this lie, because it would tell her what Mrs. Everard was trying to hide. But Mrs. Everard just glared, and snapped, "Your maid is clumsy!" which was a seventh lie but told Jenny nothing. "Why do you ask after Lady Carrington? Has something happened to her?"
"Why?" said Madame. "Do you think it should?"
Mrs. Everard grumbled, but then fell silent. Jenny could sense Madame's patience wearing thin. The day had been a long one, and the gin and bath had been helping, but the interruption and Mrs. Everard on top of that were too much to bear. Jenny braced herself for what she knew was coming.
"Mrs. Everard," said Madame, "I do not think your ill manners extend to ignoring the debt that you owe me, so I will speak frankly, because anyone counting the polite lies in this conversation --" Jenny flushed. " -- is likely to be growing either taxed by or bored of it. I wish to know of Lady Carrington's recent doings, and what you personally know of her interests, inclinations, activities, and opinions. I wish these to be relayed to me quickly, as quickly as you came upon receiving my summons, because I like your company as little as you like mine. You cannot repay your entire debt and begone, but you can repay a portion of it, and I think it in very much your interests that you do so."
Mrs. Everard's lips parted, and Jenny saw her teeth. It was not a smile. Mrs. Everard's muscles were tensed like a coiled spring everywhere Jenny could see, from the backs of her hands to her thin neck, every inch of her tight with hate.
Mrs. Everard said, "Then let me see you, monster."
Madame stretched up one long leg and tapped the screen forcefully with her foot. It fell with a clatter, and she and Mrs. Everard beheld each other, with level gazes and no effort to hide their mutual dislike.
"Ah," said Mrs. Everard. "The beast at last."
"You have not seen a beast, Mrs. Everard," said Madame. "Not yet."
"Oh? Not you, nor the creature you slaughtered in my drawing room?" Mrs. Everard raised her eyebrows. "How revolting the standards for beasts must be, these days."
"Quite," said Madame. "You've some distance to go, I'm afraid. Now tell me of Lady Carrington. She is well-respected, happily married?"
"As far as anyone knows."
"Two sons at Eton, a daughter stillborn, another son dead in an accident at age three. That was when the family was in Hong Kong, before Lord Carrington inherited the title."
"Hong Kong?" said Madame, in surprise. She frowned. "Lady Carrington's maidservant, Kathleen -- these girls often start quite young; did they have her in those days?"
"I am sure I don't know."
"Ah. Now there's a hint of scandal. Most women confine themselves sensibly to old soldiers, small children, and widows. Not Lady Carrington. Would you believe, the sciences? Donations to the Geological and Meteorological Societies, to fund museums and research! She even fancies herself an amateur scientist, after a fashion. Not traipsing over hill and dale, digging for fossils like Mrs. Anning, of course. But she buys them, and classifies them. Fossils and fallen stars." Mrs. Everard shuddered. "Unseemly for a woman to have such a hobby."
Madame groaned and leaned her head back, thumping it against the chair. "I am an idiot," she said. "Tektites and iron wouldn't be in the same place; no, one's meteorites, found anywhere, one's ejecta from large impact, found in geographically-restricted fields. Of course she hasn't been going to them, she's been having them brought to her --" Mrs. Everard smiled thinly to see this, and raised an inquiring eyebrow, but Madame merely grimaced and waved a hand. "No, no, Mrs. Everard, please go on. Educate me further as to my deficiencies."
"There are so many, and I should be happy to oblige you," said Mrs. Everard, "but unfortunately my knowledge of the woman is at an end. What is there to tell? She is not a beautiful woman, and never was. But handsome, yes; rich, witty, very skilled at conniving her way into useful friendships and manipulating the seating arrangement at parties." She shrugged. "Or so I hear."
"Yes," said Madame. "You would have to have. As far as I can tell from the society pages, despite your undoubted prominence she never invited you to her parties. I wonder why?"
Mrs. Everard opened her mouth to reply. Then, uncharacteristically, she held her words, leaned back in her chair, and smiled. It wasn't a pleasant smile, but a knowing one. "One may wonder many things," she said. "I wonder, given your evident dislike of my person and distrust of the quality of my information, why you ever invited me tonight."
"Why else?" said Madame. "For the pleasure of your company."
Mrs. Everard laughed. "And it has been a pleasure," she said, rising. "Usually one pays a shilling for such a sight. I daresay I'll not see anything as unusual tomorrow night, at Madame LeClerc's masquerade." She cast a mocking smile in Jenny's direction. "A suggestion, swordmaiden," she said. "You might wish to find some other employment, if one will have you." Her gaze fell coolly on Madame, still lounging in her chair. "Doubtless the Empire will tolerate inhuman adventuresses playing at its security for only so long."
As Mrs. Everard swept out of the room, Jenny looked quickly at Madame, who appeared not angered, but puzzled. "The Empire?" said Madame. "Tolerate?" She frowned. "She's planning something. I wonder what."
"Call Torchwood on us, ma'am? Not that they'd do anything."
"She should know they won't do anything. She's had that talk before." Madame shrugged. "Though I can't say I'm surprised to learn she disliked Lady Carrington."
"Lady Carrington is everything Mrs. Everard was, and more," said Madame. "When Mrs. Everard was young. Before her husband died, and she found she had no status of her own. It must grate to see her place supplanted by a woman who has her own accomplishments."
Jenny said, "I think I'd've liked Lady Carrington, ma'am."
"So would I." Madame set her teacup back into its saucer and placed it on the table, then picked up the paraffin jar from the bookshelf. "The laboratory, Jenny," she said. "Let's see if we cannot find ourselves at least one or two small answers."
The laboratory, along with Madame's Silurian and anachronistic library, took up much of the third floor. It looked not much different from a well-appointed facility available to any amateur scientist of the day. Madame believed strongly in blending in, or so she claimed. In practice, Jenny had observed, "blending in" usually meant taking some wildly advanced device, sheathing it in brass and wood, and affixing a mechanism that was entirely superfluous and employed more gears than even the maddest inventor would find necessary. Or, in the case of the tool Madame was just reaching for, looked like a perfectly normal awl until you grasped it, at which point its point curled up like a metallic tentacle and groped at the air.
"Ma'am," said Jenny, "why would you even want a device like that?"
"It connects to your nervous system and responds to your every thought, dear. It's like having another prehensile tongue, except on your hand."
Jenny's face twisted in revulsion. "Why would you want a prehensile tongue on your hand?! -- ugh, ma'am, don't look at me like that, I know where that tool's been."
Madame laughed. "Pass me a pin, will you?" she said. "There!" The little beast in the dissecting-tray was neatly slit up the middle; using the tentacle, Madame held the sides open and slipped pins into place. "Now, that's very interesting," she said. "Do you see that, Jenny? No anus at all."
"Then how does it make its piles, ma'am?"
"I don't think it has any to make. No alimentary canal. That mouth isn't a mouth. The little jaws are just cutting tools. Very, very good ones."
"So it doesn't eat?"
"Oh, it eats," Madame said, as she poked with the tentacle. "Psychic energy, I'd wager. Look, these tentacles at the front connect through nervous fibers to this." She tapped lightly at a large beige organ, roughly cylindrical. It took up a good portion of the slug's body. "I wonder if --" she knit her brow, and the awl was steady; a moment later, the tentacles at the front of the slug's mouth twitched. Jenny yelped and leapt back. Madame laughed. "Yes, indeed," she said. "Don't use this tool on one of these when it's alive; you'd be doing its job for it. It taps into the host's brain with the tentacles, then uses the host's nervous system from there to animate the body and act as an extension of itself. Steals psychic energy with a touch."
Jenny remembered the scratches on the nape of Kathleen's neck. "Or a kiss."
"Yes. Don't let Lady Carrington kiss you."
Jenny made a face. "Wasn't planning on it," she said. She craned her neck, trying to make sense of the little slug's innards. "That's the brain? It's awfully big." A disturbing thought occurred to her. "Ma'am? Does it have any blood flowing? Or anywhere for blood to flow? Did you stab it through the brain, or its nerves, or -- " she groped for the words. "It's not like anything on Earth at all, so why did you stabbing it kill it?"
"I don't think it did," Madame said. "My guess is that it can't survive unprotected in Earth's atmosphere. It needs a nice, snug, safe environment. Right inside a skull." She tossed the dissected slug back into the jar, then filled the jar with formaldehyde. "That's a small mercy. They'd be the very devil to stop, otherwise."
"Back to Lady Carrington's house, ma'am?"
Madame shook her head. "Not tonight. We both need rest, and I want a better idea of what I'm dealing with. I need to do some reading. Go on to bed."
Jenny knew from long experience that when Madame turned her attention to research any distractions only made her surly and irritable, so she curtseyed a good-night and tiptoed away and down the stairs. Glancing back, she saw that Madame had flung herself into an armchair, draping one long leg carelessly over the chair's arm. A stack of books, ranging from the ancient to the wildly anachronistic, was on the table beside her; the volume in Madame's hands wrote and rewrote itself as Madame's clawed forefinger brushed over its pages.
Jenny had her own room, and tonight she retired there after she put out Madame's nightdress, knowing full well it would be very late before the gown would be used.
The movement of the coach rocked Jenny from side to side. Her breakfast had gone down well enough, but it sat uneasily, and left a sense of queasiness and a bad taste in her mouth. Of course, that might also have been the prospect of slicing Lady Carrington's skull in two. The jiang shi might or might not be a person now, but it had been an admirable one once. The prospect of killing the jiang shi was, in its way, as alarming as seeing it had been.
And Kathleen welcomed its kisses, and its hands upon her.
"Why wouldn't she come with me?" Jenny said.
"Hm?" said Madame, shrouded in her hat and veil.
"Kathleen. I grabbed her hand, and I said, 'Run.' She didn't run, ma'am. Why not? Yes, she loves Lady Carrington, but after what she's seen -- "
Madame closed her self-writing book, with one clawed finger marking her place. "Supposing that one day I came to you, my dear, and said, 'I cannot tell you how much I loathe my present life, Jenny. Hiding my form in veil and cloak, denied the proper respect for my consort, the stench of humans in my nostrils. Let us kill them all and rule upon the rubble. The Silurians shall rise again, and you shall be consort to their Queen.' What would you do?"
It was not as difficult a question as Madame thought, because Madame was prone to grumbling something very similar while she was paying her taxes. "Make you a gin and a bath, ma'am."
Madame did not laugh. "Perhaps I should start smaller," she said. "You know that human food ill satisfies me, that I crave fresher meat and more of it. If I want someone to disappear, I know how to make them disappear." She lowered the slats on the carriage shutters and peeked out. "Mrs. Everard, for instance."
"You're not going to eat Mrs. Everard, ma'am. She'd be stringy."
"So was Jack the Ripper. What if I wanted to murder people? Not often, not many, one or two, unpleasant little mammals who really have it coming --"
" 'cos you're a decent person, and it's not right," said Jenny.
"Kathleen said the jiang shi didn't mean to kill the servants. If she were starving -- "
"It's still not right. And I wouldn't let you do it, either."
"How? You can't best me with a sword."
"I'd go to Torchwood, or the police, or I'd kill you in your sleep." Jenny's voice caught in her throat. "And it would break my heart, ma'am, it would break it forever, so please don't. Please."
Her eyes stung, and she wiped at them. When she had could see again, the carriage was passing through a market. Crowds of people bustled about, content in their ignorance. Jenny had been one of them, once. She felt a familiar coolness press against her skin, and looked down to see Madame's clawed hand upon her own.
"That is my greatest reason for hoping war never comes between humans and Silurians," Madame said softly. "Sometimes one finds one's heart on the wrong side."
A rogue band of Silurians had risen the year before, bent on starting just such a war; they had disguised their attacks as anarchist strikes but had made the mistake of using advanced explosives. Madame had found them, defeated them, and put them to sleep for a hundred thousand years.
"Ma'am," said Jenny, "which side are you on?"
Madame didn't answer, but only smiled, a little sadly, and Jenny understood.
She had never thought of Madame as having given up anything for their life. Of course Madame would want to live in London and solve mysteries; what other choice could anyone possibly make? But it had been a choice, and it had cost. I am not Kathleen, thought Jenny; I am the jiang shi. "Kathleen made the same choice you did," Jenny said.
Madame said softly, "Let us see how it works out for her."
Glancing out the window, Madame struck twice at the roof of the coach. Parker drew to a halt. Jenny craned her neck, but saw only buildings she didn't recognize. "What're we doing here, ma'am?"
"We need our client," Madame said. "See if you can borrow her."
The laundry itself was obvious enough. Even if Jenny had been unable to read the sign, she would have known the place from the noise, the smell, and the steam. Beyond the sounds of the implements, there rose occasional shouts in Chinese; to Jenny's nose came the odors of chemicals, lye and things more pungent. She stepped inside and up to the counter, where a harried laundryman was wrapping parcels for delivery as an elderly housewife harangued him, and he her, with what they were evidently content to be mutual incomprehension.
Jenny waved a hand to capture the laundryman's attention. "Knee how!" she said. That, or something like it, meant hello, she knew. "Wong Tung-Mei?"
The laundryman looked at her with the expression of a railroad employee who had just been asked when the next rhinoceros was due. Jenny knew she hadn't gotten Mrs. Wong's name quite right, but she didn't think her pronounciation had been that bad. "Wong," she said. "Mrs. Wong, yeh? Tung-Mei?" The laundryman said something and waved a hand. Jenny couldn't follow the Chinese, but she'd seen a wave of dismissal often enough. She held up a coin, plunked it down on the counter, and hopped up and across. The laundryman shouted in protest, but the elderly housewife shouted at him, and then Jenny was into the back of the laundry.
Jenny had washed clothes, of course, but on nothing like this scale. Men and women soaked, sorted, scrubbed clothes, in vast tubs and with giant washboards. Their hands were calloused, and large, and reddened; sweat gleamed on their skin, and their faces were worn and haggard with the toil.
"Why have you come?" said a voice from near Jenny's feet.
Jenny looked down. Kneeling by a washtub, Mrs. Wong looked nothing like she had in Madame's drawing room. She was disheveled and poorly dressed, with wet patches on her clothing. Even as she spoke, she grasped a steaming bucket of water and poured it into one of the large tubs. "I've come because we need you," Jenny said.
"My husband will not permit it. I must work. Later, perhaps --"
Jenny held up a coin. "Reckon he'd let you go if I give him this?"
Mrs. Wong glanced at the coin. "No."
Jenny rummaged for another. "What about this one?"
"For that," said Mrs. Wong, "he will let you borrow both me and his sister."
"Don't let Madame Vastra hear you say that," said Jenny. "Which one is he?"
She had the feeling, leaving, that Mr. Wong had the impression that the British were insane. But he'd bitten the coin, and pocketed it, and sent Jenny out with Mrs. Wong after asking his wife a few questions. Jenny had no idea what explanation Mrs. Wong had made.
The carriage was a tight fit for three. Madame, her back to the carriage's front, sat on one side alone, shrouded in her hood. Jenny and Mrs. Wong squeezed beside each other on the opposite bench. "Good morning, Mrs. Wong," said Madame. "Thank you for joining us. And thank you for bringing us your case; it's proving to be most interesting."
"She is a jiang shi, then," said Mrs. Wong.
"If she is not," said Madame, "she is close enough."
Mrs. Wong closed her eyes. She took a deep breath, released it in a long sigh, and then took another. "You agree I am not mad," she said.
"I know that you are not. I congratulate you on your attention to detail, and your courage. I do not know if, as you had said, all London is in danger, though it is possible; at the very least, a young woman is in great danger of body and spirit, and requires our help."
"Yes. She has stayed in her post through circumstances of great terror and no little toil, out of a deep sense of devotion. This may seem like madness --"
Mrs. Wong smiled thinly. "No," she said, smoothing her stained workdress. "It is familiar. To many, I expect." She glanced at Madame, and then at Jenny. "But why have you come to me now?"
"Because now that we know you were not mistaken, and that Lady Carrington is, for all purposes, a jiang shi, a question becomes very important," said Madame. "And it is a question that you may help us answer." She leaned forward. "You said that Kathleen left you, and reported to an alley -- this alley? yes? -- where the jiang shi waited. It directed Kathleen to a shop, where she collected a parcel. What was in it? Jenny, you saw Lady Carrington's kitchen; were there signs Kathleen was cooking for two?"
"No, ma'am. For one."
"Then the jiang shi has no human needs, or neglects them. So for what purpose did it come here?" Madame turned to Mrs. Wong.
Mrs. Wong said, "The third shop from the corner, next to the bookseller's. It sells paper."
"Paper. Jenny, go with Mrs. Wong and make inquiries."
Jenny nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
The paper shop was small, but expensive. In its window, Jenny saw papers of real quality: creams and whites and light blues, monogrammed samples, all of it beautiful. Mrs. Wong's gaze, she noted, was on the shop next door. "Spend a lot of time at the bookseller's, do you?" Jenny said.
"What I can. I buy books, read them, sell them back at half-price, and buy more books. I wish that I had time enough, and coin, for more." Mrs. Wong's voice was deeply regretful. It was more emotion than Jenny had ever seen her to exhibit.
There were books upon books upon books in Madame's house; despite an open invitation, Jenny had never done more than glance at them. Madame had even given her a Christmas present of a volume like Madame's, that rewrote itself while Jenny watched, but Jenny had never had the patience for it. Now, seeing Mrs. Wong's hungry glance, she felt ashamed. "Come along," she said, and reached for the door. "I'll be cold to you, inside; Madame has instructed me to hire you but I see you as a threat to my position. Do you understand?"
"We pretend to be what we want -- " Mrs. Wong glanced at the signboard. "-- Mr. Toynbee to see. Why do we want him to see that?"
"People're comfortable with what they think they understand. We give him the bait, he walks right in. You'll see what I mean. And if you stay still he'll watch me, not you, so you look around and see if there's anything strange."
The small room was filled with shelves and tables, all of them showing samples of elegant paper. Some of it was textured for effect, some of it smooth as glass, all of it costly. A desk at the front of the room carried several small samples of different types, and pens and inkpots. Behind the desk sat a stout, white haired man with a red nose. He was absorbed in the study of a piece of paper, tilting it from all angles, viewing it in and out of the sunlight. He did not glance up as Jenny and Mrs. Wong entered.
"'scuse me, Mister," Jenny said as she entered. "My mistress sent me with a question for you."
The stout man glanced up at Jenny. His gaze went from her, to Mrs. Wong, and back, and his lips pursed. Jenny could see that he even if he did not know the game as she did, he was playing who-is-what with the two of them. Jenny knew what he would see: the maid's uniform is in good order and she has good shoes meant her mistress keeps a good house and has money and the Chinese is a bedraggled woman fresh from the laundry meant the mistress is hiring more servants for washing but has not enough money to hire another white. Which meant the mistress has ambitions above her grasp which meant social climber which meant customer. That Mrs. Wong was fresh from the laundry meant the maid got the Chinese before coming into my shop, which she had to know would offend me, which meant the maid is stupid and possibly hopes I'll run the Chinese off, but if I did this would lose me a social-climbing customer, so nice try, girl.
Jenny could not count on most people to play who-is-what. Good merchants, however, she could rely upon to be fairly skilled at it.
The stout man glared at Mrs. Wong, to show his disapproval, then lowered his gaze to her hands. "Don't touch anything," he said sternly, and that was all.
Mrs. Wong nodded. Jenny feigned slight disappointment.
"What do you want, girl?" said the stout man.
"Mr. Toynbee?" said Jenny. "My mistress has heard your shop has fine custom." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Lady Carrington."
Mr. Toynbee grunted. He pushed back in his chair and twisted to one side, angling the paper so he could see how it appeared in shadow.
"My mistress understands," said Jenny daringly, "that Lady Carrington's maidservant has recently visited your shop, and wonders if she may enquire --"
"Wants the same stuff, does she?"
"Er, if it's possible, yes."
"Impressed by it, when she saw it?"
"I suppose so --"
Mr. Toynbee laughed, and shook his head. "That's what this is really about," he said. "Isn't it?"
"I don't --"
"Your mistress wants to know if she's included. I haven't the foggiest. We do provide clerkship service, for creating and addressing, but Lady Carrington's girl said her mistress would decline that. Understandably: to go by the sales slip, the girl has a very fine hand." He smiled happily. "Nicely understated paper, too. Now, this gilt edge for Madame LeClerc; vellum for a gentleman whose name I won't mention, but Lady Carrington --"
Jenny's mind raced for a moment before reaching the obvious conclusion. "Do you always do Lady Carrington's invitations?"
"No, this was the first; but I hope to again. If your mistress has interest in a future guest list, and we have one, she might peek at it for a consideration, but I'd think that sort of thing to be above her. Wouldn't you?"
"No, sir," said Jenny, "and I expect I'll be back. Thank you for your kind attention."
Mr. Toynbee grunted and returned his attention to his paper. Jenny turned away and grasped Mrs. Wong's arm. "Back to Madame," she whispered.
The carriage, when they reached it, was empty. Jenny glanced up at Parker, who sat on his box, stolid as ever. He shrugged his round shoulders and pointed. Jenny turned, and saw a veiled, shrouded figure standing in an alley. Mrs. Wong tensed and caught her breath. Jenny put a hand on her arm. "It's Madame," she said.
"She is standing where the jiang shi was," said Mrs. Wong.
Jenny frowned. "Ma'am?" she called. "What is it?"
Madame squatted down. She looked at the wall of the building, reached out a hand, then let it fall back. She rose as Jenny and Mrs. Wong approached, then glanced up and down the alley, and approached the nearest window and knocked on it.
Jenny and Mrs. Wong looked quizzically at each other. Jenny squatted, as Madame had. There were scuff marks on the insides of the low piers holding up the building's side porch, where something had brushed against them. It was too far down for Jenny to see inside. Mrs. Wong, who had dressed for hard work, dropped to her belly and looked. "Clothes," said Mrs. Wong. "Bottles, a pipe, a blanket." She straightened up. "Someone slept there."
The window opposite opened. An aged woman leaned out. She blinked when she saw Madame's shrouded form. "What do you want?" she said.
"I was just wondering about the body," Madame said. "There was one, was there not? Here, in the alley, yesterday."
"The beggar Chinaman," said the woman. "He finally died. Drank himself to death, the sot."
"His sister is in my employ," said Madame. "She seeks his body."
"Rubbish tip, I shouldn't wonder. They came for it, they did whatever they do. Glad he's gone, the filthy tramp."
The woman shut the window. Madame turned back to Jenny and Mrs. Wong. "I had two questions," she said. "'What was in the package' was the first." The second was, 'Why did the former Lady Carrington get out of her carriage?' And the answer is, 'Because she was hungry.' " Madame leaned forward again, to inspect the scuff marks. "You said she told Kathleen 'no one must know.' So she'd stay close to home, she'd hide. But Kathleen came on some important errand, and the jiang shi came with her, to keep her well in view. She would have stayed in her carriage, but where most people saw a man who was not a man at all, she saw… food."
"Ma'am," said Jenny, "does that mean the body's going to --"
"Possibly. We may need to run by the mortuary. What of the shop?"
Jenny had almost forgotten, in the momentary excitement. "The man said that it was stationery for invitations, ma'am."
Madame froze. Slowly, she rose to her feet, then turned to face Mrs. Wong, all the while stepping away, toward the carriage.
"Mrs. Wong," Madame said, as urgently as Jenny had ever heard her, "with your permission, we shall keep you on retainer for the day, for you may pass as the dead man's relative, and you may also speak with your own people, if need be. Conduct your first inquiries here; Parker shall return for you directly, and take you on to the mortuary. Discover the fate of that corpse -- and don't worry, if it does reanimate I expect that Parker can dispatch it with his lead-lined stick. For you, I suggest a change of clothes; as you filled my dressing gown admirably, Parker can arrange one if you cannot. Come, Jenny!"
"Ma'am," said Jenny, "what --"
"Mrs. Everard!" Madame leapt into the carriage and closed the shutters on the windows.
Jenny's mind raced as she climbed into the carriage. Mrs. Everard? She cast her mind back to Mrs. Everard's visit, and her discussion of Lady Carrington. "She never invited you to her parties," Madame had said. And Mrs. Everard hadn't had a return for that, but she'd smiled --
"Parker!" Madame shouted. "Lady Carrington's house! Quickly!"
The first sign that something was wrong were the carriages.
There were eight of them, lined up outside Lady Carrington's house, and all of them were empty. The coaches were expensive and well-maintained, the horses were fine horseflesh, and some of the coach doors were monogrammed with initials even Jenny recognized. One of the coaches she had seen outside Madame's house the night before. The drivers sat on the boxes and read penny dreadfuls or racing forms. They looked stiff and uncomfortable, Jenny thought; usually they would be swapping jokes or pretending unconvincingly not to drink.
"You made a rapport with Kathleen," said Madame. "Can you do it again?"
"I think so, ma'am," said Jenny. "Servants' entrance looks clear. What about you?"
Madame adjusted her hat and lowered her heavy veil into place. "I had thought," she said, checking her sword, "that I would walk through the front door. You have three minutes."
Jenny said admiringly, "Brass, ma'am."
The drivers did not whistle as she passed, as drivers usually did. That was odd. Not that Jenny missed it: she supposed she had no objection to men trying to flirt with her, if they must and if they were reasonably polite about it, but whistling at girls on a street corner? Did it ever work? And, she wondered, if it did, should she have tried it years ago?
It was too late to wonder about such things.
The servants' entrance was unlocked. No one was in the kitchen. Jenny listened hard, and heard only silence. The guests, presuming they were alive, were somewhere deeper within the house. The kitchen door through which the jiang shi had appeared was ahead of her, and Jenny approached it with caution, then pushed it open.
The door led to a cavernous hallway, with another door directly opposite and light coming in from windows further down. Walking toward the windows, Jenny saw the house's front door, opposite the grand stair. Beside the door was a glass-fronted cabinet, in rich dark wood. Inside she glimpsed photographs, a lock of hair, relics of the dead son. Beside the cabinet was a small table, on which the post was laid out neatly. She glanced over the post, because habit had taught her to. There was a letter from Burma, which would be Lord Carrington, and two from Eton, which would be the sons; none of those had been opened. Another envelope had been. It was printed on rich paper, beautifully addressed in a fine hand, and the edges were lined with gilt, but whatever it had held was gone.
Behind Jenny, a door creaked open.
Jenny had just taken a breath. She neither let it out, nor took another. She closed her mouth and waited, moving nothing but her eyes. The glass-fronted cabinet showed her dim outlines of a shuffling reflection behind her. She couldn't see the jiang shi clearly, but but she could hear the creak of the floor, the shuffling, the clumsy hop, the rattle of the jiang shi's own hitched breathing. A few moments later, it came into view, flop-scraping with every lurch forward, sparing Jenny not a glance.
Then it stopped, and sniffed the air, twice.
The jiang shi made a short, powerful inhalation, then a long, controlled exhale. Madame had delivered an impromptu lecture once about how the air was like an ocean, and Jenny had honed a dagger and half listened, but now Madame's words came flooding back. It can sense currents in the air, Jenny thought; it suspects something and it's making currents now, feeling how the air flows, trying to see.
Jenny knew she could not hold her breath much longer.
Cautiously, Jenny backed away. She moved as slowly and as smoothly as she could, the way Madame did when practicing the more meditative forms of Venusian aikido, the way Madame had made Jenny move when Madame had first taught her the sword. The jiang shi swung an arm close to where she had been, but Jenny was gone from there. Not by far. Not by enough.
Already Jenny's lungs were aching. She could not open the front door unnoticed, could not hope to make it down the hall. She had but one hope, and it was the door the jiang shi had come through, just a few steps away.
Jenny braced herself against the wall and eased to the side. The growing dizziness made it harder to move smoothly. Her muscles were trembling as she felt the recess of the doorway and moved as carefully as she could through it.
Voices sounded down the hall. One of them was Mrs. Everard's. The jiang shi's reaction was alarmed. It slammed the door Jenny had just gone through, and locked it. Then it turned away. There was a small window in the door, and through it Jenny saw the jiang shi quickly turn away from the voices and flop-scrape away and out of sight.
Jenny reeled against a long worktable and sank to the floor, gasping like a fish. She stayed on the floor for long seconds until the dizziness passed, and then slowly found her feet and rose, propping herself against the wall with one shaking hand. She turned to look around the room, and caught her breath at what she saw on the worktable, and the shelves, and in the little glass cases.
The room was filled with meteorites.
They were on the tables, and on the shelves, and in the little glass cases and bell-jars scattered about. All of them were neatly labeled. Jenny saw earth rocks, too: jades and geodes and crystals and nondescript lumps that someone had nevertheless taken the care to categorize. Several of them were clustered by the long worktable by a window. One, a meteorite the size of both of Jenny's fists together, was broken open. Inside was a yawning concavity, the edges of which were lined with narrow metallic piping in an arrangement that was far from natural. The piping was broken. Jenny took the meteorite cautiously into her hands and turned it over. Up close, she could see writing on the outside of the meteorite, engraved in what looked like several alien languages. The meteorite's inside smelled like the air after a thunderstorm.
Jenny tucked the meteorite into the pocket on her apron. Madame would want to see this, she knew.
She turned back to see a face watching her through the window in the door. The watcher was Mrs. Everard. Her expression was curiously flat, and smug.
"You have to get the other women out of here," Jenny said, pressing herself against the little window. "There's not much time."
"What is Lady Carrington going to do?" said Mrs. Everard. "Eat us?"
"Possibly. She's a jiang shi. A Chinese vampire."
"Chinese," murmured Mrs. Everard. "Of course. So many of them on these shores; one would expect they bring their unnatural filth. Mrs. Whitmire will be so scandalized to learn she has set foot in a Chinese house."
"Mrs. Whitmire? Here?" No, Jenny thought, it could not be that -- "Who else?"
"Who else is here? You, Mrs. Whitmire --"
"Mrs. Leyden, Mrs. Drysdale, Mrs. van der Kamp --"
The blood drained from Jenny's face.
"You're all going to be murdered," she said. "Once Madame comes to the door, we'll have to act quickly. Don't run now; you'll have to get the other women out. I'd hoped Lady Carrington's maid Kathleen would help, but she won't." Jenny's mouth was dry. "We may have to fight her, too."
"Whatever are you babbling about, girl?"
The man at the paper store said Lady Carrington's maid addressed her envelopes, thought Jenny. He said she has a fine hand. "Lady Carrington didn't send your invitation. Kathleen did, when Lady Carrington wanted visitors to murder."
"And how do you know that?"
"Because Kathleen sent out invitations to old women who are terrible to their servants."
Mrs. Everard's lips drew into a thin, small line.
"Mrs. Everard?" said a familiar voice from just down the hall. Jenny crouched against the door, below the window and out of sight. "I'm sorry. Milady's private laboratory -- she asks no one go in."
Jenny could hear Mrs. Everard turn. "I thought I saw your mistress down the hall, Kathleen," Mrs. Everard said. "She seemed to be moving oddly. Is she feeling quite all right?"
"I'm sure she'll tell you all about that herself, ma'am."
"Yes," said Mrs. Everard. "I'm sure she will." Jenny could almost see the malicious smile. "Oh, look," Mrs. Everard said. "Is Madame Vastra invited? She's coming up the walk; how nice!"
Kathleen's voice was panicked. "Who?"
"She's an old acquaintance of mine," said Mrs. Everard. "Quite clever. They say she's a remarkable detective. Isn't that lovely? Go to your mistress. I'll send Vastra on her way."
"My mistress begs you to come now," said Kathleen hesitantly. Jenny risked a cautious glance through the window. Kathleen was paler than before, with darker circles under her eyes, and she looked just shy of frantic. "Please."
On the front door, there sounded three knocks. Kathleen's eyes widened further.
"I'll come," said Mrs. Everard. "When I've sent Madame Vastra. On her way." She smiled thinly, and a small pink flash of tongue tapped lightly against her white porcelain teeth. "You should go to Lady Carrington, shouldn't you? I'd imagine it would be quite terrible if she found anything amiss."
Kathleen backed away, and then fairly dashed down the corridor to where the ladies awaited.
Mrs. Everard turned toward the front door. Jenny pressed herself against the little window. "Get me out of here," she hissed.
"It's locked," said Mrs. Everard. "Be quiet. The girl or her mistress will hear you."
Jenny looked around for something she could use as a lockpick, but when she heard the front door open she turned back. Madame was stepping into the house, and she and Mrs. Everard were speaking quietly. The front door was too far away for Jenny to make herself heard without speaking up, which she could not risk. Jenny frantically waved her arms, to no effect. The veil, she realized. Madame could not see her because of the veil.
Mrs. Everard took Madame by the arm and drew her inside. "It's terrible," Mrs. Everard was saying. "But there's still time. They're just this way; I'll show you."
As Madame gave Mrs. Everard her back, Mrs. Everard grasped a brass candlestick from the hall table and swung.
At the flash of motion, Madame turned. But not quickly enough. Struck on the head with the heavy candlestick, she collapsed. Mrs. Everard bent and, grasping Madame under the armpits, dragged her to a closet, and shut her in. When the door was closed, she set a chair at an angle beneath the doorknob, sealing Madame inside.
The worst of it was that Jenny dared not scream.
"It is the place of the British government to act," Mrs. Everard said. "Not of some vile inhuman adventuress. I do hope you don't think me stupid, girl. When several friends and I receive an invitation from a woman who has always shunned us, and I subsequently learn that Madame Vastra has taken an interest in that woman, well --!" She stepped closer. "The police already surround this house. At my signal, they will close in and put paid to what I have euphemised as an anarchist threat. And when all is done, I shall take my report to Torchwood, personally, and point out how the operation was nearly compromised by the whim of a monster and her pet."
"You fool," said Jenny in numb horror. She felt as if the world had dropped away; her ears heard the words muffled, as through cotton wool. "Oh my sweet Jesus, you pure fool."
A sudden shriek split the air.
More shrieks followed it. Then panic, the sounds of something heavy falling, scraping chairs, human fists, many of them, beating helplessly against a solid door. The screams grew yet more frantic, and the beating against the door intensified, going from fists to something heavier. Then there was a thud, and a strange, choked garble, and the struggles to open the door died away.
"You've killed them," said Jenny. Later, she thought, I will hate her later, I have to save her now. "It's not too late for you, let me out --"
"Oh, I think not."
"Let me out," said Jenny. "Let me out of here, right now, or you're going to die, I'm going to die, Madame's going to die! Do you understand?!"
Mrs. Everard laughed. "I, at least," she said, "will be going now. Someone has to make sure the police come in shooting." She turned and grasped the handle on the front door.
"Electromagnet," said Kathleen's voice. "That's what she calls it."
Jenny pressed against the glass, and craned her neck so she could see. Kathleen stood near the end of the hall. Next to her, hunched and foul, stood the jiang shi. "It's on all the doors now. She fixed that, she's ever so brilliant." There was a triumphant lilt to the words. "Told you, ma'am," Kathleen said, turning to the jiang shi's squat form. "See? There's one more. She's still alive."
"Ahhhh," said the jiang shi. Its body twisted -- first the top half, then the bottom, and when it was facing the direction it wanted it began to lurch forward.
"Keep away," said Mrs. Everard hoarsely, "keep away, I command you, monster, in the name of Christ and by the authority of the Queen, keep away --"
"Alive," hissed the jiang shi gleefully. "Alive. Alive, alive, alive -- "
"No problems this time, ma'am," said Kathleen. She was smiling; her teeth were less pallid than her face. "You've eaten well enough, I think."
Mrs. Everard backed away, backed away, but she was against the wall with nowhere to go, and the jiang shi shrieked, "Aliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive -- "
The jiang shi's long-nailed hands wrapped around Mrs. Everard's head, and then it leaned in, and kissed Mrs. Everard deeply on the mouth.
Mrs. Everard's eyes widened, and her body jerked convulsively. Jenny thought it was revulsion at being kissed by a woman, or disgust of the jiang shi, but no, it was something else, Mrs. Everard's eyes were rolling upward and her cheeks were bulging, grotesquely distended as if she were holding in vomit, and then something rippled, not in her flesh but, above it, a little slug like the one in the jar, only tiny, and then another and another, squeezing through the junction of the kiss, sliding across Mrs. Everard's face, to her nose, her ears, her eyes --
The jiang shi shoved Mrs. Everard away and reeled back, spitting. The jiang shi fell to its knees. More of the little slugs fell from its lips. They spilled from Mrs. Everard's, too, and fell from her face. The slugs writhed in the open air, and died, quivering, as they hit the floor.
Mrs. Everard was retching, choking; drops of blood oozed around her lips, and as she turned, clawing at her mouth, Jenny could see down her throat and it was nothing but slugs, working, burrowing, twisting around each other. Mrs. Everard's throat distended, her nostrils flared; with horror, Jenny saw her eyes bulging and slugs working away at the corners of the sockets. Blood ran from Mrs. Everard's nose, her eyes, her face grew redder and redder, more florid, and as Jenny watched Mrs. Everard, staggering, grasped her head and uttered a muted gargle that might have been a scream --
Mrs. Everard's head exploded.
In the welter of gore, Jenny saw a thousand little wriggling slugs fall to the floor. They made a soft patter, like rain but heavier, and as Mrs. Everard's body fell she heard the jiang shi utter a despairing wail.
Kathleen went to her. Without a glance to the ruined corpse, she knelt beside the jiang shi, who huddled in desolation, and pressed a gentle hand to the monster's back.
"You'll get it right," whispered Kathleen. "Next time, you'll get it right." She caressed the jiang shi, gently, reassuringly. "It went better than the others."
Jenny thought of the other women who had come, and wondered what could be worse, and then she decided not to.
The jiang shi's voice, when it came, was thin and small, and redolent with despair. "Is there not even one more?" it said. "I could try again…"
Kathleen's eyes rose, and met Jenny's through the window in the door.
Jenny took a deep breath, and held it. Kathleen's gaze locked on hers for a long moment. The girl's face showed no reaction. Jenny met her eyes, and pleaded silently as best she could. Spare me, she thought. You've done it before, you have, you -- and Kathleen looked softer for a moment, but then her face hardened, and she smiled. No, Jenny thought. Oh, no, no --
"She's holding her breath, milady," said Kathleen. "I'll go and get her for you."