In the course of her association with Madame Vastra, Jenny had learned that one should never be early to presume that one was in a bad situation. Very often, some small detail would have escaped notice, or some new development would come to light, or Madame would come up with a remarkable bit of clever talk. It was best, when things looked their darkest, to use a moment to take stock.
Jenny was locked in a small laboratory, where she was the prisoner of a titled noblewoman who was secretly a jiang shi, which was what the Chinese called their hopping vampires but which was really an alien slug riding in the noblewoman's skull. It had just murdered eight women in what Jenny supposed were attempts to fill their heads with more alien slugs. As far as Jenny could tell these efforts had been entire failures and at best had caused the would-be victims' heads to explode. Jenny was likely to meet a similar fate when the jiang shi and its loyal maid Kathleen made their way through the door. Even so, Jenny most sincerely hoped they did not stop trying to make their way to her. If they did they would probably notice that the late Mrs. Everard had wedged a chair against the hall closet door, at which point they would likely open the closet and discover Madame, unconscious and helpless.
Also, the house was surrounded by police who were likely at any moment to burst in shooting.
This is bad, Jenny thought, this is bad and could not be worse, and then she saw that Kathleen was coming with an axe.
"I'd thought you'd get the key," the jiang shi said.
"Expect she's shot the bolt by now, milady," said Kathleen. Jenny looked. There was a bolt on the door. She shot it.
Kathleen and the jiang shi exchanged a look. "Ah well," Kathleen said. "Not a problem for long."
The jiang shi said, "I could just --" and raised a hand, power evident in its clumsy, crippled fingers.
"I said I'd get her for you, milady," said Kathleen softly. "Let me get her for you."
The jiang shi's hideous grin widened. Kathleen shouldered the axe, and swung.
Chips of wood exploded from the inside of the door. Kathleen was not much larger than Jenny, but she had a stronger frame and good arms. The door was sturdy, but would not last for long. Already, the edge of the axe came into view, then disappeared again. Behind Jenny, the window beckoned; but then she glanced at the door again and saw, through the little window, the chair lodged in front of the closet door. If she escaped, they would find Madame. If she could delay them --
With a crunch, the chunk of the door that held the lock and bolt fell away. Kathleen pushed the door open and stepped in with her axe. This is it, then, thought Jenny, and drew her sword.
A long-nailed hand fell on Kathleen's shoulder. "It's all right, my dear," said the jiang shi. "You've done well. So well. I'll not have you risk yourself. I need you. Don't you see?" Its sharp nails stroked Kathleen's skin. "You're too important to me." The girl hesitantly lowered the axe and backed away. The jiang shi leered at her, then turned to Jenny.
"My mistakes have stopped splashing about below," said the jiang shi. "Did you kill them?" It flexed its long, bony fingers. "You'll find me more a challenge. Shall I show you?"
Jenny's mouth was dry. She swallowed to find some spit, and said, "Show me, then."
The jiang shi moved.
In the fraction of a second before it reached her, Jenny understood: the lurching, crippled gait hadn't been striving to move; the strain was in the holding back. In one spring, the jiang shi had crossed the laboratory and was beside her. Then it flashed away again, to the wall, rebounding off of it and up to the top corner of the room, the plaster and laths crunching beneath the jiang shi's grip as it clung to the ceiling like a spider. Jenny felt a dizziness, and a slow trickle on her neck where the jiang shi's nails had brushed her. She raised a hand to the place. When she glanced at her fingertips, she saw them wet with blood.
The cut was small and shallow, but Jenny's head was swimming out of all proportion. She found herself thinking jiang shi, jiang shi, over and over, and didn't understand why until a moment later she thought, psychic energy, and with a touch, it feeds. She saw the jiang shi, and Kathleen; she should be fighting them, Jenny knew, but she wasn't sure which one she should strike at first, or why. She slumped against the laboratory's high workbench. A flame was dancing on a burner there, and Jenny watched it. She felt as if she could watch it forever.
A slow, triumpant hiss came from the ceiling. Jenny looked toward it, and saw the jiang shi's cruel face, its blind and useless eyes. Even in her weakened state, Jenny knew: she could never hope to defeat it. If she could just hold it, keep it away, perhaps she could save Madame --
A loud thump sounded against the inside of the closet door. Then another.
"What is it, milady?" said Kathleen. Her head turned toward the closet. So did the jiang shi's. Then it let go with its toes and pushed off, landing heavily on its feet near Jenny as it turned toward the door.
The jiang shi said, "Bring the axe."
Jenny's legs would not allow her to stand. It was all she could do to hold the sword, but she tightened her grip on it, and swung. Beyond the lit burner was the pipe for the gas line. The pipe cleaved easily in two. As the burner faded, Jenny batted it with the sword, sending the dying flame into the venting gas.
A great gout of flame spewed from the wall. Jenny reeled back, falling heavily to the floor. For a wild moment she thought, I am burning, but she wasn't; the heat had toasted her skin and singed her hair, and ignited half the workbench and caught the wall on fire, but Jenny had leapt away in time. She could only hope that the jiang shi had not. She heard a hand on a gas valve, and hoped it was Madame, but when the torrent of flame died down she saw that it was Kathleen. The walls and ceiling burned, and the smoke was choking. "Milady?" called Kathleen frantically. "Milady?"
The jiang shi was still standing. Parts of its dress were embers, and the side of its head was charred and blackened. It seemed not to feel any pain. As the jiang shi turned to smile at Kathleen, Jenny saw that it was missing an ear. The room was blazing.
Another loud kick sounded against the closet door. Then another. At the third, the closet door shattered, and the chair fell over. Kicking the chair aside, Madame stepped out into the corridor, her face bare and unhidden, her swords unsheathed.
"Hello," said Madame. "I'm Madame Vastra." Her gaze turned toward the jiang shi. "Lady Carrington, I presume."
"Better kill her quick, ma'am," said Jenny. "I just set the house on fire."
The jiang shi sprang.
Jenny pushed herself up from the floor and lurched into the fray after it. Then Kathleen was on her and screaming. There was no art to the charge; it was all fury, and as Jenny grappled with the girl she could see Madame and the jiang shi circling each other, Madame swinging and the jiang shi dodging, leaping away, flashing in to strike, Madame diving to the side and rolling away. Then Jenny couldn't pay attention any more because Kathleen was on her and her nails were going for Jenny's eyes. Jenny grabbed the girl's thumbs and twisted, then struck with her forehead, and missed Kathleen's nose but landed hard on the cheek. Kathleen fell back, scrambling for her axe, and swung it; Jenny rolled aside just in time, and the axe sank inches deep into the wood.
Kathleen tried to pull the axe free of the floor. It didn't move.
"Kathleen, don't," Jenny said. Her voice should have sounded strong, defiant, warning. It didn't. It sounded sad and tired. "I've trained and you haven't. You don't know one end of that from the other. I'll kill you."
"I don't care," said Kathleen. Her eyes were shining. "You came here to hurt milady."
"She's not your lady!" snapped Jenny. "She's not! One of those slugs, that's what she is, only she's in your lady's head. She's a monster, she's lying!"
"She's not lying!" Kathleen wrenched the axe free and swung it wildly. Jenny didn't bother to parry; she backed away, away. In the hallway, Madame and the jiang shi were doing battle. The flames had spread quickly; as Jenny watched, the glass-fronted cabinet went up in flames. Through the front windows, she saw that the fire had caught the attention of the drivers, who were racing toward the house.
The lead driver reached into his coat and drew a revolver. "Right, you anarchists!" he bellowed. "This is the police!" He kicked the door twice, in a vain effort to open it. When that proved ineffective, he broke out a pane of glass with his gun and opened fire.
Jenny said something very unrefined, and then leapt back as Kathleen hacked at her again.
Bullets buzzed through the open space. Two went into the jiang shi. It didn't flinch, but reached for Madame, and grasped her forearm, and squeezed. Even over the fire, Jenny heard the sudden snap. The jiang shi didn't let go; it held tighter, and pushed Madame back against the burning wall, and forced Madame's broken arm into the fire.
Kathleen was in Jenny's way. Jenny hooked a chair with her sword, whirled it into her hand, and smashed it as hard as she could against Kathleen's shoulder. The girl reeled, falling back and slumping against the worktable as Madame, limp, was flung through the doorway, her face bloody and her arm aflame. Jenny flew to Madame's side, smothered the flames, and turned Madame face-up so she could breathe. The smoke was thicker and thicker. It was hard to see the jiang shi lurching toward them amid the flame.
"Madame?" said Jenny tearfully.
Weakly, Madame opened her mouth. The venom barb, Jenny saw, was still small; it had been less than a full twenty-four hours since Madame had used it. Nor had it worked against the jiang shi's weaker offspring when it was large and fresh. It was all they had.
Jenny put her arms around Madame and held her tightly as Madame propped herself up with her good arm.
"Poison?" said the jiang shi. "It cannot harm me."
Sadness passed over Madame's face. "Yes," she said, "I know."
Her tongue flashed, and the jiang shi uttered a cry of horror.
Kathleen's mouth fell open. Fumbling, she reached for her shoulder. After a few clumsy attempts, she found a grip on Madame's venom barb and plucked it free. She held the barb in front of her eyes uncomprehendingly, then dropped it and fell to her knees as the poison coursed through her.
The jiang shi issued a long, drawn-out rattle. It lurched to Kathleen's side and bent over her, then wheeled on Madame. "What have you done?!"
"Nothing lasting," said Madame, "if you treat her quickly. I know what I'd do." She fixed her gaze on the jiang shi. Beneath the steel, Jenny saw the scientist's curiosity. "What will you?"
The jiang shi lurched toward Madame. Then it turned back as Kathleen gasped in agony.
"You don't love her," said Madame. Her face was drawn with pain. "That's clear enough. I don't think you can. But she's all one little slug has in this great big mammals' world. The only one of them you can trust, the one who cares for your every need -- is it just that she helps you lay your traps in safety? Or is there something else?"
The jiang shi hissed with anger.
On the floor, Kathleen writhed, and sobbed, "Milady--"
The front door still held. The majority of the police were rushing it in a body; when that proved ineffective, they split into parties and began to move about the house looking for another entrance. One or two had taken positions by the windows and were firing on anything they thought they saw moving within. The jiang shi left Kathleen on the floor and turned toward Madame. Jenny feebly waved the sword, but the jiang shi caught the blade in the palm of its left hand and held it, not reacting at all to the edge.
The jiang shi put its other hand on Madame's face, and turned Madame's head so they looked into each other's eyes. Madame weakened visibly at the touch. Her eyelids fluttered, and the jiang shi's face came close to hers, and its lips parted --
The jiang shi whispered, "Burn," and snatched up Kathleen and leapt through the window with her in its arms.
As the shards of glass fell around her, Jenny made no conscious decision to lower the sword; it was simply that her arms had suddenly realized it was heavy, and so the point dropped to the floor with a thunk.
"We have to chase after her," mumbled Jenny thickly.
Madame said, "Yes, let's get on with that," and promptly slumped to the floor, unconscious.
Jenny felt a moment of pure panic: the house was surrounded, the police were even now coming over the wall at the back, the house was on fire, there was no escape.
Then, from nowhere, the thought came to her: the jiang shi threw its failures in the sewer.
There was an entrance to the sewer.
All Jenny had to do was find it.
Jenny had flown through time, fought monsters, and faced the worst of London. The next few minutes would rank as some of the most terrifying of her life. There was no fighting -- Jenny had always rather liked the fighting -- only survival: the dragging Madame through the burning house, the ducking as the gunshots came from outside, the choking smoke, the gasping for breath, the terror that the jiang shi would return and strike at any moment, all of it an endless exercise in fear until she found herself trudging along, one of Madame's limp arms over her shoulders, making her lost way deeper and deeper into a sewer she had no memory of ever entering.
Above them, the house burned and fell to pieces.
Step. Step. Slosh. Step.
Jenny had no idea how long she had been walking.
Filth rose around her ankles and seeped into her shoes, and the stuff too foul to call water rose halfway to her knees. Her sword, thrust awkwardly through the belt of her apron, rapped occasionally at her legs, but she hardly felt it. All her thought was on her right arm, which was supporting Madame, who had fallen unconscious again.
A metal grating came into view overhead. Jenny propped Madame up against the wall, then stretched up as best she could. The grating was too heavy for Jenny to move alone. She stumbled, sloshing back into the filth before catching herself against the opposite wall. Jenny had fared no better at the abandoned house they had used as their base earlier; the grating there had been far too high overhead for her to reach, and so she had kept moving. But now they were even deeper into the sewers than they had been when Madame had fought the Secret and Ineffable Order of Rat-Catchers, and if not for the street urchin they had rescued they might never have escaped the sewers then.
Jenny sagged against the slimy brick. The dim light through the grating let her see Madame's face. It was slack and unmoving, and only the slow, shallow breaths gave evidence that Madame was still alive.
"Ma'am?" said Jenny. "Please wake up."
Madame did not move. The ugly cut in her forehead trickled red, and Jenny could not bear to look at Madame's arm. She felt an ugly swirling of despair. They were lost, the jiang shi was gone, Madame was badly hurt and maybe even dying. This was not her place, Jenny thought. She knew how to clean a house and how to swing a sword and detect, a little, but she did not know how to recover from a defeat. If Madame were awake, she would know. Madame could teach her.
What does Madame do when she teaches you?
The thought caught Jenny by surprise, as if someone else had spoken in her head. She remembered Madame buttoning up her waders, telling Jenny to play who-is-what with an empty house, to use a servant's eye. She has me use what I know.
Ah, said Jenny's other voice, but what do you know? I know how to serve in a house and clean up messes, thought Jenny. This is a mess, said the other voice. How do you clean it?
Jenny knew how to clean a large mess. You could not do everything at once, so you put small tasks in order, and did each in turn; you got out of the sewers, then got help for Madame, then found the jiang shi. But she could not get out of the sewers. Madame could have, because Madame could do anything, Madame was brilliant, and Madame had her devices, Silurian wonders that could do things that Jenny had never dreamed.
It was a ray of hope. Perhaps Madame had something on her person. A magic compass that pointed home, or a self-writing book that would tell Jenny what to do.
Jenny sloshed through the filth to Madame's side. As gently as she could, she ran her hands over Madame's body and into her pockets. The self-writing book was there, but it was in Silurian at the moment and Jenny barely knew how to work it anyway. Madame had a pen, too; it had a rolling ball for a point and the nib retracted when you pressed the end. These wonders did Jenny no good. The only pocket remaining was the one into which Madame had jammed her wounded arm's hand, as a makeshift sling. Jenny bit her lip, and put a hand on the inside of Madame's elbow, above the burned and blackened flesh and what she hoped was not a splintered end of bone. She put another hand on the wrist and pulled as gently as she could. Madame moaned faintly as the hand came free. "I'm sorry," whispered Jenny. "I'm sorry."
Then she saw what was cupped in Madame's hand, and caught her breath.
The device was a narrow cylinder, bright steel, with several indentations giving glimpses of a darker, deeper layer which was in turn etched with shining blue lines, as if something were glowing within. There was a button at one end, and Madame's thumb was poised over it. The button looked like frosted glass, and Jenny thought there was a light behind it, but the light was not lit.
Jenny had no idea what sort of device it was. For all she knew, if she touched the button it would explode and kill them both. She reached out for it anyway. As she took it in her hand, the cylinder collapsed around itself and sealed. The button disappeared. Jenny shook the cylinder, but nothing happened. She tapped it against the wall. There was no response. It had shut itself away at the slightest touch of Jenny's hand. No, she thought. A human hand. Madame was the only waking Silurian. This device was meant for Madame alone.
Cautiously, Jenny fitted the device back into Madame's hand. When the cylinder expanded again, she used Madame's thumb to depress the button. The button began to flash with a blue-white light.
Nothing else happened.
Defeated, Jenny slumped into the muck beside Madame. She leaned her head against the wall, and took Madame's uninjured hand in her own, and squeezed, and only realized she was very tired the moment before she fell asleep. In her dreams, she heard the sloshing of legs through the foul river, and felt cool hands upon her; when the hands brushed her neck, she sank deeper into sleep and all of her dreams slipped away.
When Jenny awoke, her first thought was, it is still daylight, and her second was, but there are no windows.
Jenny sat bolt upright. She was in a narrow bed in a small, white room, the walls and ceiling of which were glowing gently. Her clothes were gone. She was wearing a strange garment, cut something like a slip; her skin was clean, and there was no smell of filth about her. The bedsheets, like her slip, were smooth and fine, and when she eased herself out of bed the floor was warm against her bare feet.
Jenny looked for her sword, but did not see it. Nor did she see her clothing. There were light garments, neatly folded, upon what might have been a chair, and flowing robes hung in a small transparent wardrobe. Jenny had never seen the clothes' like before, but it seemed obvious enough that the light garments went on first, and the robes went on over them; she had helped Madame to dress in a kimono during what Madame had cheerfully dubbed the adventure of the ghostly geisha, so the robes proved little trouble. There were fine boots, too, and they fit Jenny's feet as if molded for them.
The hallway outside the room was narrow, and turned immediately into another, wider corridor. As Jenny ventured forth, she saw a wall made up of panels of the clearest glass she had ever seen. Behind the glass was what looked less like a doctor's office than a laboratory, and in it was Madame, unconscious, in a tank, where she was suspended in what looked like a clear jelly. Her eyes were closed, but she was breathing. She was not connected to any tubing; as far as Jenny could tell, Madame was breathing the jelly. There was a tall, slender Silurian dressed all in white next to the tank. She held a placard in one hand, and a small device in the other, and she was looking at Madame.
The tall Silurian reached into the jelly with the hand that held the device. There was a soft blue flash and Madame's face twitched. The tall Silurian seemed pleased; she nodded, and tucked the device away, and tapped at the placard with her fingertips. When the tall Silurian noticed Jenny watching, she glared, and touched something on the placard, and the glass walls became opaque.
Jenny backed away from the glass wall until she came up against the worked stone opposite, and then she stumbled away so she would not have to look at the blank wall any more.
It was only much later that she realized she had left the narrow cavern for a great one, and that she was sitting on a little bench that rested against a parapet at the edge of a wide ledge. Above and below her, if she craned her neck to see, small carriages flew from one side of the great cavern to the next. Most of them flew without guidance, but a few had drivers, and they were Silurians. She saw Silurian forms in the other caverns, and glimpsed a Silurian in a carved window, and felt her world shudder and go wrong. This was not possible, Jenny thought. There were no Silurians, not waking ones. Torchwood had seen to it. Madame had seen to it.
Madame had lied to her.
A sound nearby caught Jenny's attention. Two more Silurians were walking toward Jenny, arm-in-arm. They bumped heads, and the little rubs and nudges of the bony frills were movements that Jenny knew were more than merely affectionate. Madame had not been thinking one evening and had bruised Jenny very badly before apologizing and awkwardly explaining the significance.
Then Jenny caught her breath. The Silurians were both women.
The knowledge dawned on Jenny like a revelation: it was possible here, they could walk hand in hand, they didn't have to hide. The delight was impossible to not express, and she beamed openly at them as they went past.
One of the Silurian women hissed, "Mammal."
Then they were gone. And Jenny thought, yes, of course, there's always something.
There was no safe place anywhere. She had always known that, but there was something painful in every reminder that it was true. She found she hated the insulting woman, and her silent, abetting partner. She understood their hatred, and their reasons for it, and she hated them back all the same. It was a strange thought, that one could understand another's hatred and yet return it. Could she hate every other Silurian who thought as they did, no matter if she, in their place, might have felt the same?
Yes, Jenny thought, with a growing disquiet, yes she could.
Jenny decided that meant that war between the humans and the Silurians was probably inevitable, after all. She prayed she would be dead by then.
Madame's voice said, "Silurian dress suits you."
Madame was standing by the entrance of a narrow tunnel just opposite Jenny's bench. She looked elegant herself, Jenny had to admit. Serene, and almost regal. Her burned and broken arm was not bandaged or splinted as Jenny would have known it, but was wrapped in what looked like a smooth white clay, and as Jenny watched the fingers of the broken arm moved with ease and no discomfort. When Madame pulled up her robes and sat next to Jenny on the little bench, the whisper of the fabric was like none Jenny had ever heard. I am not just a mammal, thought Jenny, I am a savage.
They sat silently beside one another for some time. Jenny did not say anything. Madame opened her mouth, and then closed it. In the great cavern, a flying carriage passed along, and then another.
Madame said, "I suppose this means you'll have to kill me in my sleep," and saw the look on Jenny's face, and uncharacteristically added, "Sorry."
"Don't say that."
"I said, 'I'm sorry.'"
"And I said, 'Don't say that.' Because you're not, are you? You're not sorry at all."
Madame said nothing.
Jenny said, "Are you their queen?"
"Their jailor. If I am their anything."
"So why didn't they kill you?"
"Because they fear the mammals. And they need me, for they know my plan."
"Plan?" There was a plan. Jenny's voice sounded strange and far-off to her own ears.
"We won't overthrow the mammals, Jenny," said Madame. "We'll help them. We'll nudge their development along, offer secret consultations to a few properly-placed scientists, and before they know it, the human race will be dependent on petroleum. Which, unlike coal, we can tap and drain completely from below, removing it from their reach and into our control, making the humans dependent on it dependent upon us. With our funds from the trade we shall buy great lands upon the surface of the earth, enough for a surface nation of our own, and with our technology and the power we shall amass none can deny it from us. And the mammals will not know to stop us, until it is far too late for them to try." Madame smiled thinly. "You're a mammal," she said. "What do you think? Is that cunning and treacherous enough?"
It was not the plan so much that turned Jenny's stomach as that Madame felt the need for it. "You don't think you'll get justice."
"Justice," said Madame, as Jenny's old mistress might have said "happiness" or "leisure." "Justice is something one must be given. Power is something one can possess. In two hundred million years, Jenny, only one thing never changes: you can never count on anyone to give you anything, unless they know that you can take it." Her lips turned up at the corners, and her voice was light, but Jenny knew a mask for bitterness when she heard it. "I'm rich, Jenny; when you're rich, you understand these things."
"Well, I'm poor, ma'am," said Jenny, "and I believe in justice. If you still think that counts for anything."
Madame laughed. It was not a pleasant sound. "A poor woman in a primitive society, born into drudgery, and you believe in justice?"
"I know you, don't I?"
Madame was silent for a long time.
"Look at the justice I have given my own people, Jenny," Madame said softly. "I took the best and bravest among them, and killed them. I condemned their cleverest surviving leaders to a frozen sleep. I woke a few and set them to my will, out of sight of sky and sun, to toil away and hate me for it while hiding like little slugs in the great skull of the world. It is not what we are, but it is what we must be while the mammals rule the earth."
She said "mammals" with such bitterness. Jenny bit her lip.
"Except for me, of course," added Madame. "I get to live above, in a comfortable dwelling, with a pretty mammal to tend my house and pour my gin." She brushed her fingers above the white clay surrounding her wounded arm. "Yes, Jenny. Look at me. See how I share justice with my people."
"And what am I to do," said Jenny, "for the power of mine?" Madame did not answer. "Go to Torchwood? Tell them? Or am I supposed to look at this, see the fear on one side and the hate on the other, see it building up, and stay silent and let it? Just on the chance that your plan works? That it works peacefully? That it doesn't turn into rivers of blood and the extinction of your race or mine?" Jenny felt her voice shake. "And I have to," she said, despairing. "I have to. Because I know you, and you made me hope."
The Silurians were watching them, Jenny realized. She saw faces peering from the narrow corridors, from the halls too large for their meager numbers.
"If anyone finds out they'll kill them," said Jenny. Her voice was flat. "All of them. And you. And probably me."
"Then when we've stopped Lady Carrington, should we come back to stay?"
Madame turned her eyes to her in astonishment. Jenny stumbled on, getting the words out before she could second-guess herself. "They wouldn't find us, it's hidden, they wouldn't know. And it's not your real home, ma'am, I know it's not, but it's something, and you wouldn't have humans everywhere, you don't like how we smell, you always say so, and you can eat what you want and you wouldn't have to hide --"
Jenny said, "Whither thou goest, ma'am."
Madame smiled. "If I recall correctly," she said, "that offer ends, 'and thy God, my God.' I would not ask that of you."
Peter had denied Him; Jenny could not. "Wouldn't ask it of you either, ma'am."
"Yes, you would," said Madame. "But I am grateful that you do not."
One day, thought Jenny, one day I will say I love you, ma'am, and I might even hear you say it back if I can only stop from just saying it myself, over and over again.
"I have yet too much to do above," said Madame. "And in the meantime, we have a jiang shi to catch. Let us begin."
"Begin where, ma'am?"
"Deduction. We must use what we know to determine where Lady Carrington will be." Madame reached with her uninjured hand into a pocket of her robe, and brought out the hollow meteorite Jenny had found in Lady Carrington's laboratory. "We've been too long; it's evening, and she'll have found her bearings. She'll be preparing to strike." Madame tossed the meteorite to Jenny. "One of my sisters here is an exolinguist. She found this in your clothing, and decoded the alien script -- two of them, actually; the same message repeats in several galactic languages. Would you care to guess what it says?"
"Prob'ly, 'if you open this, you're an idiot,' or something like it, ma'am."
"Close enough. It's a warning, not only about what's inside, but the penalties for opening. This isn't a meteorite, Jenny; it's a prison. A prison for a vile, detested little slug, condemned for riding hosts without consent, jettisoned to spiral forever in despair among the stars, alone."
"She must have been in there a long time, ma'am."
"A very long time."
Jenny said, "So if she didn't have any company, where are all the little slugs coming from?"
"Eh?" said Madame. "Oh, there are species that reproduce using parthenogenesis. I could do it myself, in a pinch." She frowned. "Not many intracranial parasites that do, though, and based on my reading of those there are only one or two that -- " she broke off, and stared into the distance for a moment, and then leaned over and kissed Jenny warmly. "Oh, my dear," she said, as she leapt to her feet. "Jenny, you are a conductor of light!"
Jenny was too surprised by the kiss to stay seated when Madame tugged her hand.
They raced through the dimly-lit tunnels toward the embarking point for the flying carriages. Madame could see better in the gloom than Jenny could, and Jenny stumbled as she did her best to keep up, but Madame was talking too fast and excitedly to pay heed. "She's spawning. Parthenogenesis. Except she's held back, she's fought the urge, so what happens when she tries? It's uncontrollable. She releases too many baby slugs at once, they fight for territory and kill the host in the process. Now, that's useless as a survival adaptation, it's not normal. It's pathological. The need is still on her. She'll try to spawn again, and quickly. But she's tried one person, failed, small groups, failed; no, she needs a crowd, and where will she find one?" Madame stopped in her tracks and wheeled on Jenny. Her scaled face was alive with excitement. "One where she can fit into the midst, won't be disturbed until the ideal moment, a crowd where even a jiang shi can move unseen. Everything you've told me, everything we've seen! You know my methods; apply them!"
Jenny had no idea, and opened her mouth to say so, but then she remembered --
-- the letters from Lady Carrington's husband and sons on the hall table, unopened --
-- one envelope, edged in gilt, torn and the contents removed --
-- why? what would a jiang shi find interesting? --
-- a chance to murder --
-- an invitation --
-- the man at the paper shop said, gilt edging for Madame Le Clerc --
-- Mrs. Everard had laughed at Madame, and said she wouldn't see anything like her at --
Jenny said, "Madame Le Clerc's masquerade."
Until meeting Madame, Jenny had never flown in all her life before.
Since then, of course, she had been carried aloft on any number of occasions -- by old Mr. Jackson Lake's latest balloon, by a time machine disguised as a police box, and even once by a friendly but horribly nearsighted pterodactyl -- but she had never flown in control of the flying apparatus, or on a flying machine of Silurian manufacture, or through the London Underground with a train belching black smoke only a scant few lengths behind.
The Silurian craft was not difficult to fly, which was perhaps why on reaching the Underground tunnels Madame had snapped "Here!" and shoved the control stick at Jenny. As Jenny flew, Madame had proceeded to spend several minutes cursing and consulting a postcard-sized scrap of blue glass that, to Jenny's surprise, had turned out to be a self-writing map of London. Ordinarily, Jenny would have enjoyed her stint as a pilot; but the presence of the train, and its goggle-eyed engineer, was rather disconcerting, especially as the train was gaining.
"Ma'am?" said Jenny.
"Left," said Madame absently.
The mouth of the tunnel gaped into a wider space before Madame had finished speaking, and Jenny flung her weight against the control lever. The craft responded quickly; it turned nothing like a wagon, but sheared directly to the side even while continuing its forward rush. They slipped aside just as the train would have overtaken them. The front of the train clipped the rear of the Silurian craft, sending it spinning toward a wall. Jenny shrieked, but Madame yanked at the controls, and the craft went straight up, narrowly sailing through overhanging steel girders that braced the walls to either side. The craft flew up, and up, and up. The train, its brakes grinding frantically, passed beneath them; the craft's undercarriage kept the worst of the heat from reaching them, but there was no escaping the smoke and cinders. The ill-fitting Silurian battle mask helped, some, but still Jenny shut her eyes tight and held her breath until the worst of it had gone away.
When she felt quite herself again, the Silurian craft had stopped. It was wobbling gently in mid-air next to a roof, and Madame was tying a rope between its railing and a nearby chimney, as if the craft were a horse. "Ma'am?" said Jenny. "What -- what?!"
"24 Leinster Gardens," Madame said. "It's a facade of a house. Used for venting from the Underground." She reached for her swords, and tucked them into her belt. "And it's quite convenient to Madame Le Clerc's, once we get down to the street."
Jenny had her doubts about that last part, until they found a convenient drainpipe. Madame Le Clerc's grand home proved to be only a few streets away. Madame strode quickly, and Jenny, with her shorter legs, hurried after. The Silurian robes flapped around Jenny's ankles. One hand was on her sword hilt, to keep it steady; the other held in place the battle mask, which while perfectly formed to clasp Silurian features was but a clumsy fit upon a human face. They got curious looks from passers-by, but not many; the costumes might be unusual, but the neighbors would know that a masquerade was about, and Madame's battle mask and hood hid her less human features.
"How do we stop her, ma'am?" said Jenny. "She's fast, she's strong --"
"And I," said Madame, patting a pouch on her belt with one hand, "acquired something more than a change of clothes while we were below." Jenny glanced at the pouch curiously, but Madame made no move to open it. "There it is," she said, nodding at a house. "Straight in, no stopping, we find her, we kill her. The masks should buy us some safety from the slugs. Are you ready?"
The mask had been sealed to Jenny's face with an expanding foam that, not being designed for mammalian skin, not only itched but also peeled away wherever Jenny broke out in a sweat. Jenny was not about to let that stop her. "As ever, ma'am." She gripped her sword tightly.
Madame strode up the steps, flung open the door, and stopped dead in her tracks. Jenny, close behind, bumped hard into her, and then saw what Madame had seen.
The great hall was full of hopping, twisted figures. Clumsily, they shambled across the room, their limbs moving in jerks and jolts. Their spines were bent, their fingers twisted, their legs pigeon-toed.
Jenny froze in numb horror.
"Oh, by your murdered god," said Madame. "We have come too late."
The nearest lolling head jerked round to turn its gaze on them.
Jenny began to back away, but the door had swung closed behind them. Could she reach the knob in time? No, the new jiang shi was drawing closer. It was not Lady Carrington, she thought; its garb was fine, and though it wore a mask and its face was painted, she could see it had both its ears. Jenny and Madame exchanged a look, then drew their swords.
"Eek!" said the new jiang shi. It leapt back, and then laughed merrily. Unlike Lady Carrington's, its voice was cheerful, and fully human. "How marvelous! What are you?"
Jenny's mouth fell open in surprise and she stammered; Madame was caught off-guard for a bare moment. "Justice and Hope," said Madame smoothly. "It's allegorical."
"Oh," said the new jiang shi, sounding puzzled. There was no time for further discussion: the door behind Jenny had opened and another woman was pushing through. The new arrival was moving perfectly normally, and she walked up to the twisted form as if it were a friend. "Whatever is everyone doing?" said the woman.
"It is a celebratory gait," said the twisted little figure. "Lady Carrington says it is now quite the fashion in Paris."
"Really?" said the newcomer, surprised. "You must show me."
As the two of them bent over in hideous mimicry, Madame grasped Jenny's arm and drew her away. "We must find Lady Carrington," Madame said. "If we dally too long, she will find her nerve and strike."
"Why hasn't she, yet?"
"Because she's afraid to," Madame said. Her voice, surprisingly, was compassionate. "That's the trouble with last chances. If they fail, no hope is left to you." She squeezed Jenny's arm. "Sometimes hope is better." Jenny looked up at her, but Madame had already turned away and was scanning the crowd again. "We must separate her from the crowd. But how can we find her in this mob?"
Jenny took a moment to consider, and then sheathed her sword and made her way down the few stairs toward the newcomer and Lady Carrington's imitator. As she approached them, the imitator was chiding the newcomer for being insufficiently pigeon-toed. Next to them, a small knot of finely-dressed women and their husbands were watching with unease, clearly uncomfortable joining the parade of jiang shis but just as clearly worried of the risk of being outside the latest sensation. Jenny felt a grin coming on, and did her best to dampen it before she realized she was wearing a mask and they wouldn't see it anyway.
Jenny came to a dead halt next to the would-be jiang shis and stared at them. "What on earth are you doing?" she said. "That's the silliest thing I've ever seen."
The two women looked up at her. The newcomer seemed slightly alarmed, but Lady Carrington's imitator lolled her head over in a jiang-shi-ish huff. "It is very fashionable in Paris," the imitator said.
"Looks ridiculous," said Jenny. "Like you're mocking some poor unfortunate. Where'd you get the idea this was fashionable?" In the corner of her eye, she could see the tense group next to her beginning to stir with interest.
"Lady Carrington said --" began the imitator, but Jenny cut her off. "Lady Carrington?" said Jenny in well-simulated disbelief. "You haven't heard?"
"Her house burned to the ground today! She wouldn't have come to a masquerade --" Jenny let her voice trail off, then clasped a hand over her mouth as if to stifle a giggle. "Oh, my! You didn't see her face, did you?" The newcomer was straightening up already, and looking increasingly alarmed. "You've been had! Oh, this is rich! What a joke, how silly you lot look! I wouldn't have missed this -- look at you, shuffling about -- oh, don't stop, go on, it's too funny!" The words came out through a fit of giggles, and as Jenny broke and laughed in their faces, the crowd next to her eagerly joined in.
The newcomer paled and dashed away. Her friend, straightening, gathered her dress up in one hand and took after her. The laughter was redoubling now, and moving outward like a wave; across the room, grotesquely twisted, shuffling forms stood up straight and walked normally, trying desperately to pretend they hadn't been doing anything foolish at all. The few outliers eagerly seized the moment for mockery, and the laughter grew and grew.
Jenny turned and looked for Madame, who was still atop the stairs and had a view of the room. Madame inclined her head. Jenny was too short to see, so she made her way up the steps just in time to glimpse a twisted, hopping form exiting the room, followed by gales of laughter.
Madame said, "We have to chase after her."
"Yes," said Jenny. "Let's get on with that."
She grinned at Madame, and thought Madame grinned back, but with the masks it was hard to tell.
Madame Le Clerc's garden, Madame Vastra had said, was famous, and Jenny supposed it was certainly big enough to be. She had never learned much of plants, herself, and had liked them less ever since she and Madame had faced down Professor Berglas's ambulatory orchids, but Madame Le Clerc's garden was spacious, and beautiful, and impeccably-arranged.
On the patio, guests ambled about; the fad for imitating the jiang shi evidently had not made it this far. The jiang shi itself was nowhere to be seen. Jenny looked left, looked right, then hissed in frustration. "Ma'am," she said, "how do you hide, when you stand out any time you move?"
Madame said, "You don't move," and pointed. There was a gazebo at the end of the garden, and a dark form was seated in it. The jiang shi's back was turned to the party, and it was watching the skies. Even with the light of London, Jenny could see a few scattered stars.
"Let's cut her down, ma'am," Jenny said.
Madame shook her head, gently, from side to side. "Wait for me a while," she said. "I must have words with her."
Jenny didn't like that, not one bit. "And if she turns on you, ma'am?"
Madame's gaze turned back to the jiang shi, who sat unmoving. "Then we cut her down."
Jenny liked that only a little better.
She followed Madame, but a little behind, and on the next path over. Occasionally, Madame passed out of sight, but the greenery was not thick and Madame always reappeared again. As they neared the gazebo, Jenny drew up short. She placed a hand upon her sword, but did not draw it. Madame did not enter the gazebo, but stood at its entrance, with the jiang shi a few scant feet away.
"It's lovely," said Madame. "Isn't it?" The jiang shi made no reply. "It's enough to make you think back to being very young. In the spring, before the grass came up, so it was all pink rocks under the purple sky, lit by the gas giant by day and the Great Ribbon at night, and you clung to the rocks, and if there was nothing else you ate of your mother's thoughts, because she loved you so."
"Yesssss," hissed the jiang shi, its voice breaking.
Madame said softly, "But you're a very long way from Charonotix Prime, aren't you? In your ill-fitting Lady Carrington suit."
The jiang shi's lolling head swiveled round.
"Oh, I'm from Earth," said Madame calmly. "My race was here before the humans, as a matter of fact. I've never been to your world, though now I've read about it. You must miss your old life; I'm happy and still I miss mine. I will kill you if I have to, but I will give you a chance. I promised an old friend that I would always do that, give a chance, because he gave me mine. And so I give you yours: release Lady Carrington. Spare her, and these others. Let them live, and let them go, and I will help you find another way."
"There is no other way. My time is long upon me. To spawn, I must have sentient flesh."
Madame said, softly, "And your species only has its spawning once, and cannot spawn again."
"I waited. So long. In my prison, I waited, the one hope that I would be released, that I could spawn. They locked me away for my crimes, hoping that I could not wait, that my young would feed on me and on each other, and so my bloodline would reach its end. They wanted it. But I fooled them, I beat them, I wanted my young to live, and so I held on, and I survived!" The jiang shi's voice was fierce with triumph.
"And Lady Carrington?" said Madame. "Did she survive?"
"She is gone and gone, and more than gone. I have shredded her to pulp, to make space inside her skull for me."
"I wondered if you had gotten as far as the motor cortex," said Madame. "Either way, the body must be very difficult to control. Legs are such stumpy, stilty things. So much easier to slide around on your belly. You must wonder how we ever do it."
The jiang shi's laugh was harsh, and short. Madame did not join in it.
"I must kill them all," the jiang shi said. It was neither impassioned nor apologetic; it spoke the words as Jenny might have announced her need to run to the shop later that morning. "I must release my remaining young, and hope that they find purchase. There is no other way for me."
"No," said Madame. "I suppose not." She reached into her small pouch. "But if there's no other way for you, then there's no other way for me, either."
"Yes," said the jiang shi. "There is." It smiled thinly. "Because I ordered Kathleen to prepare for you."
Kathleen stepped from the shadows and raised a revolver.
"Ah," said Madame. She slid her hand, still empty, from the pouch. "Now, where did you get that?"
"One of the policemen stopped us," said the jiang shi. "He won't be needing it anymore."
Kathleen stepped closer. She was pale and stumbling, and her breathing was still hitched, but her hands were steady and strong enough to cock the Webley. "I'll kill her for you, milady," she said. "I don't know what she is, but I'll kill her, and you can be free of your curse, and you'll be better then."
Madame said, "No she won't."
The jiang shi laughed. It was an appalling sound, low and scuttling, like a crab crossing a parquet floor. "Oh, but I will," she said.
"You heard what she said, Kathleen," Madame said. "She's not your mistress. She never was. She doesn't love you. She doesn't need you -- "
"Yes she does!"
"Yes," purred the jiang shi. "I do."
Madame stilled. Then she let a long breath out slowly. "I am a fool. Of course she needs you." She turned to Kathleen, who still pointed the revolver at Madame's head. "You're not her accomplice, Kathleen," said Madame gently. "You're her escape plan." She glanced at the jiang shi. "I'm right, aren't I? Everything you've done has gone wrong. You kill people by feeding, you spawn corpses and failures. Why should Lady Carrington have fared any differently?" Madame's voice was cold. "There's no evolutionary advantage in riding a person when its friends will recognize it as a monster, oh, no. You haven't just torn apart her brain. You're dragging a corpse around that's just this side of rotting."
The jiang shi grinned. "But once I spawn --"
"Yes, once the strain is off you'll fare better. But you'll still need a new host. A living one." Madame looked back at the girl. "And that's you, Kathleen."
The gun trembled in Kathleen's hands. The jiang shi shuffled to its feet, then hopped past Madame and over the rail of the gazebo, until it stood just behind Kathleen. "Milady?" said Kathleen.
"We'll be together," the jiang shi said. "You'll see, Kathleen, it'll be better than before. I feel your thoughts when I feed from you. I know how lonely you have been. No one has ever loved you, not in all your life before. No one has looked at you kindly who did not want to use you, no one has been good to you who did not betray you. Only one."
"She is in me, now. All her thoughts, all her dreams… and all her fondness for you."
"Stop it!" shouted Jenny. Madame's head turned to her, and shook, no, but Jenny couldn't help herself.
"All the thoughts she locked away, all the feelings she repressed, everything she felt kept her from being a good Christian, a good wife, a good woman, everything she wanted, everything she felt, I know it all, and I can feel it too --"
"Stop it!" shouted Jenny again. "Stop lying to her, you're lying, stop it --"
The jiang shi placed a hand on Kathleen's shoulder, and Kathleen gasped softly. The girl's cheeks flushed, and her eyes glazed. "Your lady will live in me," whispered the jiang shi, "and I will live in you --"
Jenny drew her sword and charged.
Kathleen saw her coming. She turned the gun from Madame to Jenny, and Jenny saw down the barrel to the dull shine of lead. The sight seemed to last forever, and as she waited for the gun's hammer to fall she saw the jiang shi's hand on Kathleen's shoulder and wished that she could truly know what Madame felt, just once.
Kathleen pulled the trigger.
There was a sharp clink, and it took Jenny longer than it should have to realize that the gun had not fired because Madame had drawn her sword and swung and the blade had fallen beneath the hammer. Kathleen grasped Madame's wrist, and the jiang shi clutched at Kathleen's shoulder. As Madame reeled, her free hand plunged into her pouch and grasped at something, and suddenly she and Kathleen and the jiang shi were convulsed in a great blue arc of energy. All of them dropped like dolls. Kathleen's fall took her over the gazebo railing and to the hard wooden floor.
Instinctively, Jenny started for Madame's side. Then she checked herself, turned back, and went to the jiang shi.
The jiang shi's fingertips and eyes were twitching, but beyond that it did not move. It looked up at Jenny as she approached. It had killed servants, and old women, and a policeman, and a beggar, and Lady Carrington, and it would have killed a crowd and Jenny and Madame and ridden Kathleen until she grew old and dropped. It was helpless, and its eyes were pleading.
"Liar," Jenny said, and drove her sword through its skull and into the ground beneath.
She vaulted the gazebo railing and fell to her knees at Madame's side. Madame wore the Silurian mask rarely, but Jenny knew how to remove it readily enough, and tore it away so that Madame might have air. She wrenched off her own mask -- the adhesive foam was well and truly loose, anyway -- and bent her face close to Madame's, raising a hand to touch the green, scaled cheek. "Madame?" she whispered. Was Madame breathing? Yes, shallowly, she thought; she couldn't be sure. She pressed a kiss against Madame's forehead, reached for Madame's hands, and vigorously rubbed the wrists. "Madame!"
Madame's eyelids fluttered. "Apple," Madame said. "Apple metaphysics dinosaur." She struggled to prop herself up. "Dinosaur, dinosaur. Not dinosaur. Head. My head." Jenny placed a hand on Madame's back and helped her rise to a sitting position. "Oh," said Madame, clutching her temple, "so that's what aphasia's like. I don't like it." She winced, then added, "Pins and needles."
"My leg. It's gone pins and needles. Help me up."
Jenny put an arm under Madame and helped her to her feet. "What was that device, ma'am?" she said.
"Neural energy stimulator. A Silurian medical tool."
"Silurian medical tools do that?"
"Well, when you disable all the safeties and overload them, yes. Bit of a design flaw."
On the ground, Kathleen was groaning. Jenny bent over the girl. Kathleen was dazed, and one hand showed a slight tremor, but when Jenny took her hand and spoke her name Kathleen looked up. "Milady?" Kathleen said.
Madame looked at Jenny, her face asking the same question. Jenny met Madame's eyes, then shook her head no before nodding in the direction of the body. The jiang shi lay still and unmoving. The spasms that had gripped it were done, and the sword Jenny had thrust into its head still stood upright. Madame's face was impassive. "We'd better stay back," she said.
Jenny blinked. "Ma'am?"
"That body's done now. The connection to whatever psychic energy there was, whatever restraint the jiang shi held, that's severed. And there are a lot of little slugs in there waiting to break free --"
The jiang shi's body made a choked, gargling sound.
"Yes," Madame murmured. "There we go."
Jenny grabbed for her mask, then struggled with a moment's indecision: on whom should she put it, herself or Kathleen? The selfless choice was right, she knew, but she was slightly horrified to find out how little she wanted to make it. But Madame shook her head. "I doubt we'll be needing those," she said. "Look. The air will finish them."
The little slugs poured from the jiang shi's open mouth in an unending stream. There were more of them than Jenny had imagined, more than she could have thought possible. They were slower than the ones she had seen feast on Mrs. Everard, and clumsier; the the pulse from Madame's device must have affected them. They spilled from the jiang shi's lips, and landed on the ground, and writhed, and died. Others came on, surging over their own dead, but they could get no farther. Jenny watched them die, and die, and die.
Kathleen choked, and hid her face. Madame turned her eyes to the girl, and so Jenny was the only one watching when her sword began to wobble, first left, then right.
"Ma'am?" said Jenny. Her voice was hoarse.
The sword wobbled again. And again. Left, right, left, right, left again, and then it fell away, leaving a gaping wound above the staring eyes. As Jenny watched, something moved. Kathleen's covered her mouth with her hand.
The slug that came forth from Lady Carrington's skull was much larger than the ones Jenny had seen before, even the one Madame had carved from the revenant's skull. It squished between the edges of the wound, and squirmed across Lady Carrington's distorted face. She had wounded it, Jenny saw; one of its mandibles was missing, as were several tentacles, and a narrow slash opened and closed as the slug wriggled forward. Through the bloodless slash, Jenny glimpsed a thick fiber that ran to the large beige cylinder of the slug's great brain.
The slug lifted its upper half, waving left to right as best it was able. It tensed, gathering itself for a desperate leap. Then it faltered, and slipped, and fell heavily to the ground. It crawled forward, feebly, through the air that was killing it, over the dead bodies of its children, until its energy was spent and it could go no further. It lay next to the gun and Madame's sword on the wooden floor of the gazebo, twitching faintly, a few feet in front of Kathleen.
Kathleen pushed herself up until she knelt beside the slug. Cautiously, she placed a hand to either side of the slug and bent over it. Jenny could see tears coursing down Kathleen's cheeks.
Then Kathleen put her hand on the gun.
Madame was still leaning heavily against the gazebo. Jenny stepped in front of her and grabbed for Madame's other sword. Kathleen could take the slug up, Jenny realized. She had the gun, she could turn it on them, or on herself --
Kathleen reversed the gun in her hand and brought the butt of it down, again and again, until the slug was nothing but jelly and less than jelly and the tentacles had long stopped twitching, and then Kathleen broke down in helpless sobs.
A hansom cab took them home. Kathleen, pale and shattered, sat next to Jenny. She did not look up, or speak, not even when the cab pulled up outside of Madame's house, where Mrs. Wong awaited them.
Upstairs, Kathleen undressed compliantly and let Jenny help her into Jenny's spare nightdress. Jenny changed the dressing where Madame's poisoned barb had struck, and poured water into a basin and dampened a cloth so she could clean Kathleen's arms and face. Kathleen's hair was a fright, and Jenny gave it a swift brushing. Kathleen's eyes were closed as Jenny did it, and her face showed something almost like surprise. Surely, Jenny thought, someone must have brushed her hair before. When Jenny tucked Kathleen into Jenny's own bed, the earlier stiffness had gone and Kathleen was almost alarmingly limp. Jenny eased the girl into a position she judged was comfortable; where Jenny put Kathleen's limbs, they stayed.
"Thank you," whispered Kathleen as Jenny drew the covers up about her. Jenny reached out a hand and smoothed Kathleen's hair.
"What will you do now?" Jenny said.
"Milady was very ill three years ago. She made arrangements then. She said I could go and do for her sister, a widow who lives alone by the sea."
"That was very thoughtful."
"She was very thoughtful," said Kathleen softly. "She was -- she -- " Kathleen bit her lip. She was going to say something else, it was clear, but the words took time to force out. "If we could have saved her, she would hate me now, wouldn't she?"
Almost certainly, thought Jenny. "That's possible," she said. "But you have said she was a good and kind woman, and you didn't know --"
"The last time I did. You told me, and I knew, and then I --" Kathleen bit her lip. "She would hate me," she said softly. "And she'd be right to." She shook her head. "I thought, if this is the last time to kiss her, what harm in one last time?" Her eyes met Jenny's. "Sometimes once is everything, isn't it?"
Jenny said, "I'm sorry."
"The folly was mine. The sin was mine. I should have listened."
"Yes," said Madame's coldest voice. "You should have."
Jenny turned in surprise. Madame and a nervous-looking Mrs. Wong stood just inside the bedroom's doorway. "Ma'am?" Jenny said. Madame ignored her. Her gaze was locked on Kathleen. "You knew, Kathleen," said Madame. "Didn't you?"
Kathleen's eyes were wide. "I --"
"The paper shop you selected had never been subject to Lady Carrington's custom," Madame said. Jenny had never heard her speak so harshly. "Its proprietor made that quite clear. Why would you go there? Why that shop, so distant from Lady Carrington's home? Shall I tell you? Because it was opposite a Chinese laundry."
Kathleen's mouth opened. No sound came forth.
"You had been with Lord and Lady Carrington to Hong Kong," said Madame. "You knew what a jiang shi was. But not how to stop, or save one. Lady Carrington didn't go with you because she was watching you. You asked her to go with you, to where you thought she might be recognized. You took her dress to the laundry, that you might have your chance." The scorn in Madame's voice redoubled. "But all your knowledge, all your fears, everything you saw, and people died because still you could not bring yourself to ask a Chinese for help."
Kathleen said nothing.
"Be grateful," Madame said. "Be grateful for Mrs. Wong. Be grateful she saw you were afraid. Be grateful she knew your mistress for something close to what she was. And be grateful she helped you anyway."
Madame turned on her heel and left the room. Mrs. Wong, hesitantly, followed her. "Thank you," whispered Kathleen. "Thank you…"
She buried her face in the pillows. Jenny sat numbly by her. She heard voices from downstairs, Mrs. Wong's and Madame's, then a command from Madame and an answer from Parker. He will bring the coach around, thought Jenny. We are going now. She knew what they had left to do. She smoothed the blankets that covered Kathleen. The girl had looked up, now, and was staring at Jenny with stricken eyes. "Will Madame Vastra forgive me?" she said.
"It's not about that," Jenny said. "She didn't tell you that so you could look for forgiveness. She told you because you needed to hear it." Kathleen's face was miserable and uncomprehending. Jenny pitied her, and felt contempt for her, and loved her for her human frailty, and all of it at once. "You rest now," she said. "We'll send the necessary wires in the morning. You'll be off to do for your lady's sister, beside the sea. You'll be taken care of. You're safe now."
"Nothing is safe," said Kathleen. "Doing what you should isn't safe, getting what you want isn't safe. Nothing is safe." Her gaze fixed on Jenny. "Madame Vastra," she said. "Is she -- "
"Like us?" said Jenny. "Yes."
"You love her."
"And she loves you?"
"I… would not presume to speak for her, but I think it is something very like it."
Kathleen nodded. She turned her face to the wall. Jenny rose and blew out the candle.
"Jenny?" said Kathleen in a small voice.
Jenny paused in the doorway. "Yes, Kathleen."
Kathleen turned toward her, and said, "You're lucky." Her eyes were wide, and very sad.
"I know," said Jenny softly, and shut the door.
Parker waited on his box on the coach. He came off it so rarely, these days, that Jenny sometimes wondered if he still had feet. In one hand, he clutched his lead-lined stick. Jenny, unsheathing her own dagger, glanced from Parker to Madame and Mrs. Wong. Mrs. Wong was tense. Madame was… Madame. Confident. In control. Inhuman. Beautiful.
Jenny heard the movement in the ground before she saw it. It was a low scrabbling, nothing more. Then bloodied fingertips broke the earth from below. Mrs. Wong stepped back, as was only natural. Madame and Jenny stepped forward, as wasn't. Jenny hid her smile. Wilmer would think me and Madame wasn't natural, Jenny thought. I s'pose we're not. We run toward things sensible people run from.
The last revenant scratched its way free of its pauper's grave. It was a Chinese man, old and dissolute, clothed in an ill-fitting brown suit tattered just this side of rags. Its mouth opened, but like the other revenants the jiang shi had created, it did not speak.
"Mrs. Wong," said Madame, "may I prevail upon you to translate for me?"
Somewhat nervously, Mrs. Wong nodded and stepped forward.
"I don't know your name," Madame said. Mrs. Wong spoke softly in Chinese, even as Madame continued. "I don't know if you'd have understood me, even when you were alive; I don't know if you will understand Mrs. Wong now, if there is enough left of you. As for the creature in your skull -- I can only surmise that feeding on whatever thoughts are left a corpse has left it damaged and starving. It may well be revenant itself. I wish there were another way to give you peace." The revenant staggered forward and reached out for her. "I'm sorry," Madame said. She stepped back. "Jenny?"
Jenny threw her knife.
It bit deeply into the center of the revenant's forehead, but the skull was thicker by far than any Jenny had yet encountered, and the blade failed to penetrate enough. The wound was not without effect. The revenant began to twitch its arms slowly while stumbling about in a great circle.
"Sorry!" Jenny said.
"It's all right," said Madame. "Parker!"
When its steps brought it near to the carriage, Parker leaned forward and and drove the knife the rest of the way in with a blow from his lead-lined stick. The revenant stopped its slow twitch and fell down.
"Thank you, Parker," said Jenny. Parker nodded in reply, then lowered himself from the coach, grasped the handle of the knife, twisted it, and withdrew the blade. He went to wipe it on the dead man's sleeve, then caught Madame's look and wiped the blade on the grass instead before he took the corpse up and began to drag it back to the grave.
Madame turned to Mrs. Wong and offered her a hand. "And I thank you, Mrs. Wong," she said. "For our case, and for your troubles. You may contact us at any time should our services be needed, but I for one think there will be no more trouble with revenants or jiang shi."
"Madame Vastra," said Mrs. Wong. "What are you?"
"I'm many things," Madame said. "So are you, you know."
"Good. Come, Jenny."
Madame turned and glided through the rising fog toward the carriage, on which Parker had already re-established himself. Jenny glanced after Madame, then stepped closer to Mrs. Wong. Furtively, she reached into her apron's pocket, pulled free the last Christmas present she'd been given by Madame, and handed it over. "Take this," Jenny said. "It's all the books you'll ever want. Careful with it, though." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Some of them ain't exactly been written yet."
Mrs. Wong caught her breath. She flipped the pages, and traced one with a finger, and watched as the letters flowed and changed. Her gaze, when it snapped back from the book to Jenny's face, was wide and amazed. "I asked your mistress," she said, "but you must tell me. What are you?"
"I can't tell you all I am," said Jenny honestly. "I wish I could. Mostly I'm Madame's, I guess. That's all."
Mrs. Wong blinked. She turned the book over in her hands, then clasped it to her chest. "Yes," said Mrs. Wong, her gaze fixing on Jenny as if seeing her for the first time. "Of course you are."
The terror of discovery flooded Jenny's mind in an instant. She was not ashamed, never ashamed, but the prospect of exposure, opprobrium, no more cases -- she was careful, so careful; how had Mrs. Wong been able to tell?
"One can find quite a lot of things in books," said Mrs. Wong. She traced the spine of her gift. "Especially if one reads Latin, and Greek, and English, and Chinese."
"Blimey," said Jenny faintly. She'd never thought Mrs. Wong was that learned. "You really could've been something, if --" she broke off there, because all the ifs were horrible things to say.
"If I were a man? Or white?" said Mrs. Wong. "Or if I were only born to wealth and power, like Lady Carrington? I might have become a great scholar." She smiled. "I think I might have been a very lazy woman who loves books." Jenny laughed. "I shall thank you in a manner you will appreciate," Mrs. Wong said, "if it is permitted?"
"Whuh?" said Jenny, and then she couldn't say anything for a short time. Mrs. Wong, the part of Jenny's brain that worked noted, was a much better kisser than Kathleen had been. Perhaps there were books about it. When the kiss ended, Jenny opened her eyes to find Mrs. Wong regarding her with a smile.
"Interesting," Mrs. Wong said calmly. "Though I think it is still not my preference. Thank you, Jenny, for your gift. And please thank your Mistress as well. I will notify you if ever I discover anything else of import. I shall walk from here. Good night."
Jenny said, "G'nuh."
Mrs. Wong turned away, and Jenny staggered numbly toward the carriage. It pulled up in front of her, and with Madame's aid she climbed inside and shut the door. At a gesture from Parker, the carriage began to move.
"Red-haired serving girls, beautiful foreigners -- I play the great detective and solve their problems, and you get to kiss them," said Madame with good-natured petulance as Jenny sank into the seat opposite. "It's all quite unfair."
"Not tonight, ma'am," said Jenny. "Please."
Madame frowned with concern. "Are you quite all right, my dear?"
Outside, buildings rose about them. The carriage turned onto a larger street; the city noise, the gabble of a crowd, rose to Jenny's ears. She stared out the window at the people. "I could use my mum and a cup of tea. That's all."
The carriage slowed to pass through a knot of street-crossers. "I cannot bring your mother," said Madame softly, "but if you need a cup of tea, I shall make you one."
Jenny almost laughed at the thought. "You what?"
"I know how tea is made. I've watched you. You care for me so often. It's only fair someone should care for you. Tonight, I shall make your tea, and draw your bath, and, should you wish it -- " Madame's voice dropped to a husky register "-- I shall tender to your needs."
A flash of movement came from outside the carriage window, and someone screamed. "They're alive!" cried the voice. "The waxworks, they've come alive!"
Jenny turned to Madame, eyes wide.
Madame shrugged. "Or we could ride into an extremely dangerous situation, having no idea what we may face," she said.
Reaching up, Jenny thumped the top of the coach twice. "Parker!" she called. "Straight into trouble, and don't spare the horses!" She fell, rather than sat, back into her seat as the horses thundered away, and grinned triumphantly to see Madame's surprised expression. "You said it, ma'am," said Jenny. "Tonight, I'm in charge."
"I may come to regret this Saturnalia," said Madame.
"Oh, might you?" Jenny said, and pounced.
The trip took longer than expected, with the crowds and then having to help Madame do up her bustle, so it was a good while before they got to fight the Autons. But Jenny found she didn't mind.