Episode 18: Servitude | Scryer's Gulch
Mamzelle had a time of it under Charity's orders the next day.
She scrubbed the floors, beat all the rugs, bathed Charity's disgusting little pug dog, shined the copper weathervane atop the gingerbread-encrusted turret, mucked out the stables, and blacked every boot in the house as well as the stoves--all in her best silk dress, now tattered and stained. Blacking smudges covered her face, not all of them self-inflicted, and shoeprints stood out on her dress where the occasional kick had landed.
"Too bad about about the dress. It was so flattering on you, too. I bet you never affront me again!" smirked Charity as the housekeeper fidgeted behind her.
"Oh, no, madame, I wouldn't dream of eet!" said Mamzelle, face downcast; her eyes reflected a dangerous ruby color in the wooden floor she'd polished to a perfect finish; neither human noticed.
"It's five minutes till seven, just enough time for you to walk down Main Street like that before my time over you ends, and before it gets too much darker. I don't want you washing your face, straightening your hair or arranging your dress. Let them all laugh at you. Now, get out, you slut!" said Charity. Mamzelle inclined her head, and sauntered out of the room as if she'd been eating tea and cakes in the parlor. Charity aimed one last kick, and missed.
"You should be careful with demon servants!" hissed the housekeeper as soon as Mamzelle was out of sight.
"Mrs Walters, my treatment of that hell-spawned bitch of my husband's is none of your business!"
"But you never know when they'll find a loophole and then you're in a fix!"
"Shut up, Mother!" said Charity, stomping up the stairs.
Mamzelle, meanwhile, did as she was told, and no one laughed. She ambled down the middle of Main Street, bold as brass, past L. Luther Lockson and Anatole Prake, standing in general conversation by the shuttered office of the assayer. "That woman's smile turns men into moths, a-circling round her flame," said the newspaperman.
"You have a way with a phrase, sir," said Anatole.
"Thankee, Mr Mayor."
Once inside the Palace, Mamzelle waved a hand; all smudges vanished, and her hair tumbled down from its ratted confines and rearranged itself. She examined her dress in the long mirror behind the bar. Jed's favorite, all to tatters. So expensive, too, as if she cared; anything Jed liked, she didn't.
Howard the bartender barged across her view, rag and glass in hand. He raised a shaggy brow and said, "What happened to you?"
"Madame Bonham. Is 'e here?" she asked.
"Upstairs with Hepsy."
"Good. 'E won't bother me for a while, peut-être." She turned away to the stairs.
"Hey, you need anything? You look like you could use a drink or five," Howard called.
"Eau de vie. A bottle, it will suffice. Send it up."
Howard whistled low, but lumbered off to the cellar.
Mamzelle walked up the wide staircase, the ruined gown's hem trailing along the rich red carpet, the lustrous, dark wood banister smooth under her hand. At the end of one long dark-paneled hall leading to the front of the house was her door; she opened it, expecting a visitor, and found him. "'Allo, kitty."
"I noticed you left a window cracked, and took it as an invitation," said Misi, stretching and flexing his paws on the velvet upholstery of her settee.
"Oh, eet was." She rustled behind a screen, and sailed the filthy red dress over its top.
"What happened to you? You look like you've been through a war!"
"Nothing of consequence. 'Ave you found a loophole yet to kill Bonham?"
"Not yet," he answered.
Black paws appeared under the screen, creeping to one side. "I can see your sneaking feet, chèri," she said. "Eef you want to see me as the Dark One made me, ask."
"Oh, I'd never presume," said the cat; the paws slinked away.
She stripped off her corset, camisole and drawers. "I do wish we could change. Human forms are very limiting."
"Try being a cat."
"Eh bien, I think not," she said, coming round the screen in fresh underthings and a negligee. "Though it would mean less of this. Clothing. Bah."
"It becomes you. Say, speaking of past conversations, you said something about a wolfman before. Were you serious?"
"'Ave you not sniffed out the werecreature yet?" she said, joining him on the settee.
"I wasn't looking for one."
Such an awkward demon to show his owner's mind. "Why do you care?" she said.
"What is it the humans say? 'Curiosity keeled the cat.' But no, I do not threaten. Your master, 'e wishes to know, ehn? 'E is frightened?"
"Werecritters can't do anything to us, but humans are frightened of them--they have every reason to be."
"I should think you'd welcome an accident to befall him. I would to make an arrrangement with a sympathetic wolfman be very pleased."
"Hm," said Misi. "Well, be that as it may. I guess I'll go sniffing then. Though I tell you--sniffing around here, whew!"
"You do not like my scent, petit chat?" she laughed.
"Oh no, doll, I like it a lot!" he said, butting her hand with his head. "Could you...? Oh, thank you. You always get the perfect spot behind the ears. No, I mean that weird hermetauxite. You've been here a while. You have to at least have smelled it!"
"Oh, I've tasted eet! Ptui! It is to spit!" she scowled.
"I've never been near any deposit with ore like that. Wonder why the ore from here is so bad? And how come all of it isn't--it's all out of the same veins pretty much, isn't it? Is it one particular mine, or all of 'em? Just so I can avoid it!"
"No, no, petit, it doesn't come out of the ground like that. Someone, 'e twists it."
"Someone twists it?! Who'd do something like that? Who'd have the knowledge?"
"Eh, I know not. Eet started not long after I came here. No new pollution since six months ago, I think. Just the same stench I already know."
"I already know to avoid the assayer's and the ethergraph office--why the ethegraph office? So strange!"
"I know not."
"Anywhere else I should avoid? That stuff is nasty."
"'Ere and there, it pops up. Those places are the worst." A loud voice outside her door, and she dumped the cat to the carpet. "Leave, quickly. Trouble of the worst for us both if 'e finds you 'ere."
The cat nodded, and was out the window before the door opened and Jed strolled in. "I am feelin' fine, Mamzelle, thanks for asking! That Hepsy can bounce like a rubber ball! Bourbon? Don't mind if I do!" he boomed, helping himself to the decanter on the side table. "Just thought I'd stop by, have some dinner, pass the time. How was your social call at the big house? Have a good time?"
"Your wife, she thinks she put me out, but she is nothing," said Mamzelle. "Though I am desolée. Madame 'as ruined my best dress red of silk, the one you liked so much."
"What? Goddammit, that thing cost me five hundred dollars!" He barreled into his favorite chair, the bourbon sloshing out of his glass onto its tufted leather. "Wipe that up! And go get me dinner!"
She swiped the arm of the chair with the hem of her negligee, making him cuss even more, then meandered out the door, down the stairs to the kitchen. "Chen! He wants his dinner."
"Okie dokie, Missy. Chen make up plate zip-zip." The Chinese man drooped toward the stove.
Mamzelle paused at the door. She still hated humans, but Chen was a soft spot. He was kind to her; whenever he slaughtered a pig, he made sure she got the heart before it cooled, and though he treasured it himself for black pudding, he always had a big mug of its steaming blood for her as well. "You look out of spirits, Chen."
"It is nothing, Miss," he answered in Chinese. "The full moon always makes me wistful. I am glad tonight is its last night. It reminds me of sitting in the gardens of my father, drinking tea and admiring the moon's reflection in the carp pond." He stepped to the kitchen door; a cool breeze blew back the straggling hair from his queue as he stared up into the night sky. "Nothing is as it was. My family is disgraced, my brothers dead or in exile, as I am. A poem I recall, by honored poet Bai Juyi:
This night, our wish for home can make five places one."
Mamzelle sighed with him, long and melancholy. "Some day, you will rejoin them." she said.
"No, Missy, Chen no can go home, never," he said, and turned to his pots.
Some day, she thought as she returned to her room, she would send Chen to join his brothers in death, for she still intended him to be among the slaughtered when she won her freedom. Everyone in town would be, even the Sheriff. But she would kill Chen first, and make his death quick and merciful. It was the least she could do for such a poetic soul.