Science Fiction & Fantasy

IntheNightWood-Banner_Final_Lightspeed Oct 2018

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Fiction

Auburn

The unhappily married Lady Abergavenny sat alone at the banquet table waiting for her husband. Her husband, of course, was Lord Abergavenny. The big, brave, handsome Lord Abergavenny. The night was dark. Supper had gotten a bad chill on the banquet table. The goose had goose bumps (this was unsurprising), but so did the potatoes and the turnips and the hunks of dark, sour bread, the region’s specialty.

“Ghastly,” said Lady Abergavenny. It was a word she used often. She stood to gaze out the window at the region. Somewhere in the thick, forested hills of the region, Lord Abergavenny was striding bravely, leading a black horse loaded down with nets and guns and jars of pickling liquors and cameras and tripods and astoundingly powerful truncheon-shaped gaslamps for which Lord Abergavenny was soon to apply for a patent.

Lord Abergavenny. Explorer. Inventor. Never back in time for supper.

It was difficult for Lady Abergavenny to pronounce the name of the region. The name sounded guttural and slightly wispy, like choking in the morning on the flakes of a scone. It was in the bleakest corner of the tsardom. In letters to her sister, the humble Mrs. Cottenham, Lady Abergavenny called the region “the Cold and Quaggy Waste and Woodland” and she called her situation there “that Most Unfortunate Circumstance” or “the Plight of Which You Know.” When she finished a letter she blotted her tears on the paper and signed off thusly:

Fondest Love from your Too Wretched for Further Words Sister,

The Unhappily Married Lady Abergavenny

The Abergavennys were newly arrived in the region. They had taken up residence in the summer house of an Imperial officer in a village on the edge of the forest. The Imperial officer was dead. The house was drafty and dank. The wind made it shudder and wheeze and filled the rooms with the sound of muted sobbing. Lord Abergavenny had claimed the master bedroom as his study and had taken the next largest room, the saber room, as his sleeping chamber. Lady Abergavenny slept in the attic, which wasn’t as moldy as the cellar.

Lady Abergavenny returned to the table, ate a few skinned potatoes and a dry piece of bread (the butter was too cold for spreading) and a mouthful of the lightest dark meat she could find on the goose. Then she took up the candle.

“I am quite finished,” said Lady Abergavenny to the footman. He was very large for a footman, with long, dirty nails tipping his wide, hairy hands, but footman he must be for every night he put the plates on the table and cleared them when Lady Abergavenny retired. The evening jacket he wore was rather like a footman’s jacket and his hair was heavily powdered (although perhaps it was floured). He nodded his head and Lady Abergavenny left the dining hall and ascended the winding stair. The guttering candle threw shadows up and down and all around.

“Ghastly,” she murmured as the shadows wheeled and swarmed. “Ghastly.”

In the attic, she put the candle on the windowsill. She lit another candle on her writing desk. The candles cast far more shadows than lights and the lights they cast were very wan indeed. When Lady Abergavenny counted her troubles (sometimes she called them her “Woes” or “Regrets”), she counted among them the fact that Lord Abergavenny’s astoundingly powerful truncheon-shaped gaslamps were not for domestic use. This was a rule of Lord Abergavenny. He used them in his research only, which is to say (as he did say), “in pursuit of science and in service to the crown.” Lady Abergavenny sat down in a rickety chair to perform her nightly labor. One hundred strokes with the boar-bristle brush through her long and shining auburn hair. This too was a rule of Lord Abergavenny.

Lady Abergavenny’s long and shining auburn hair was her one beauty. Her sole attraction. She had been born Malvina Potts, daughter of Dunston Potts, fruit and nut seller, and of Georgina Potts, wife of Dunston Potts, fruit and nut seller. The Pottses had many hard little nuts and many more hard little fruits (they didn’t sell as well as the nuts) but not very much in the way of money, living space, or good countenance to split between them. Lady Abergavenny nee Potts had crooked teeth and a snub nose and hard, little eyes (this last she had inferred from a customer who compared her eyes to filberts) and she was rather freckled and short in the bargain. She was not a lovely girl after any fashion, but she was a friendly, lively sort of girl, and she had always been a great favorite in the neighborhood. It was widely agreed, to her credit, that she never bagged a light pound of nuts. No one ever expected her to marry below a coal-heaver. But then no one expected her to marry above a clerk.

That she married Lord Abergavenny is still the talk of Market Street and of the wives of fruit and nut sellers everywhere.

Their courtship was brief. Lord Abergavenny stopped at the corner where the future Lady Abergavenny stood selling fruits and nuts and asked for a lock of her hair.

“Oh no, sir,” the future Lady Abergavenny had said. “It’s attached to me head!” In those days, she was less refined in her speech.

“Very well,” replied Lord Abergavenny. “I’ll take the head as well.” And he married her straight off. The wedding was a happy event (the marriages of even the unhappily married often are) and even though Lady Abergavenny didn’t know very much of her Lord, she knew he was big, brave, and handsome and that was plenty. On the wedding night, Lord Abergavenny had handed Lady Abergavenny out of the carriage in front of his mansion in Belgravia (a rolling stop) and the carriage, with Lord Abergavenny inside of it, rattled away across the cobblestones. Lady Abergavenny had sat up waiting for him, eating wedding cake in the kitchen with Mrs. Howard, the housekeeper.

“I never expected my husband to carry me across the threshold,” said Lady Abergavenny as Mrs. Howard polished a set of silver eggcups. “But I did expect that he’d cross the threshold himself and not disappear into the night as soon as the vows were spoken without so much as a by your leave. Maybe I’m over-sensitive?”

Mrs. Howard frowned.

“I’m not over-sensitive?” asked Lady Abergavenny.

“That’s your fourth piece of cake, my lady,” said Mrs. Howard.

“I have heard a lady should eat a like a bird,” said Lady Abergavenny thoughtfully. “But I’ve also heard a lady should do what she wants. I’m not sure how to reconcile those two principles. Perhaps once I’ve been a lady for longer . . .” She picked an icing flower from the top of her cake and popped it in her mouth.

“You might not be a lady for long,” said Mrs. Howard. She gave Lady Abergavenny a significant look. “But it’s not for me to say.” She dropped her polish rag and stood, rattling her keys.

“You shouldn’t be downstairs,” she said. “I will take you to your chambers.”

“There’s still more cake,” said Lady Abergavenny. “And if Lord Abergavenny returns, I want to know right away.”

“He won’t return,” said Mrs. Howard curtly. “Not tonight. He’s gone to his country estate to set his affairs in order. He’ll meet you on the steamer tomorrow evening.”

“The steamer,” echoed Lady Abergavenny.

“To America,” said Mrs. Howard, staring at her with something like pity. “You do seem rather stout . . .”

Lady Abergavenny snorted and cut another, even larger wedge of cake.

“Of heart,” continued Mrs. Howard. “You may last longer than I’d imagine. Longer than the previous Ladies Abergavenny.”

Lady Abergavenny examined her fork.

“Longer than all of them?” she asked, licking the tines with a great show of unconcern. “Surely not all of them.”

“I said may,” said Mrs. Howard.

“But there were quite of few of them?” prodded Lady Abergavenny. “Four?”

“Nine,” said Mrs. Howard.

“Oh yes, now I remember,” said Lady Abergavenny. “That’s what Lord Abergavenny had told me.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Howard. “I’ll see if your fire has been properly laid. Betty will bring you up when you’re ready.”

And so began the unhappy phase of Lady Abergavenny’s marriage. Betty never came to fetch her and Lady Abergavenny slept at the kitchen table and finished the wedding cake for breakfast. At eleven, the carriage arrived and she was whisked away to the steamer and off to America.

Now, a year later, Lady Abergavenny had no idea whether or not she had lasted longer than the other Ladies Abergavenny. Lord Abergavenny didn’t mention them, or much of anything else.

Ninety-nine, one hundred. Lady Abergavenny laid down the boar bristle brush. She blew out the candle on the windowsill, changed out of her high-necked gown into an equally high-necked nightdress, and climbed into bed. Somewhere in the region, Lord Abergavenny was still striding. A wolf howled. Lady Abergavenny slept.

When she woke, the cold summer sun was sending pale rays through the attic window. She rose. She performed her morning labor. One hundred strokes with the boar-bristle brush through her long and shining auburn hair. She changed from her high-necked nightdress into an equally high-necked gown, and descended the stair to breakfast alone at the banquet table on goose croquettes and tea that tasted of smoke.

“It’s a fine day,” said Lady Abergavenny to the footman. He was standing exactly where he had been standing the night before. He had large, wet sea-green eyes that he blinked at her as he scratched his beard with his long, dirty nails. His beard was powdered white as his hair, which struck Lady Abergavenny as excessively formal given his generally uncleanly and disheveled appearance.

“You never can tell what counts as propriety in foreign lands,” thought Lady Abergavenny. “In some places a footman’s livery includes beard powder, in other places it really doesn’t do to have any beard at all.” The footman’s chest was very broad and he must have once attempted to button his coat and so popped the buttons off. His undershirt was white and looked puffed up like a freshly filled down pillow.

“Sun,” said Lady Abergavenny. “The rays of the sun are so heartening, a boon to the soul in despond.” She smiled a non-desponding smile (unconvincing) at the footman, but he was not looking at her. He never looked at her. He plucked a louse from his beard and crushed it beneath his boot. Lady Abergavenny sighed. When she counted her Woes, she counted “dearth of conversation” among them. As Malvina Potts, daughter of Dunston Potts, fruit and nut seller, she had conversed on many topics of interest to the buyers of fruits and nuts, on the qualities and availabilities of various fruits and nuts certainly, but also on other things, horses, rakes, music hall stars, the weather, hair oils, steamships, crime, the Protestant succession, what have you. It had been so enjoyable.

She heard creaking above her head and knew that Lord Abergavenny was pacing in his study, dictating the findings from the previous night to his secretary, Mr. Middleton. It was Lord Abergavenny’s habit to dictate in his study before heading out again into the region to recommence his striding.

“I believe Lord Abergavenny suffers from the monomania,” said Lady Abergavenny to the footman. She usually reserved this type of commentary for her letters to her sister, the humble Mrs. Cottenham, but the footman was in closer proximity than her sister. Plus he never scolded her for complaining of life with a lord.

“Pardon me, Malvina,” the humble Mrs. Cottenham had written in her last letter. “But how you can go on and on about your Unfortunate Circumstance and your Woes and the Bitter Draughts that Blast the Buds on the Nuptial Bower is quite beyond my humble powers of comprehension. You are married, let me remind you, to a PEER of the realm and though he has taken you beyond the boundaries of said realm you are nonetheless maintained in a state of LUXURY and INDOLENCE unimaginable to your poor relations who are, let me remind you, working their fingers to the bones to make ends meet as this has been an IMPOSSIBLE YEAR FOR NUTS and your very own father has been reduced to selling ballads he writes himself about LURID EVENTS and your very own mother his wife is dying of shame and Mr. Cottenham and James and Matilda and I are working downriver for the aniline dyers and our hands are a dreadful PURPLE color that can’t be washed off and Matilda is always itching her face and her face is now SPOTTED WITH PURPLE. When you are sitting to your supper at a great big table laid with turbots and turtles and lobsters and truffles and sauces and jellies and creams and pasties and clarets and coffees and everything nice and Regretting this and Lamenting that remember if you can that you might be BREAKING YOUR TEETH on old nuts and that your face and hands are not purple and remember your sister who bears her own WOES without so much as a fiddle-dee-dee.”

The humble Mrs. Cottenham had written this letter in purple ink and enclosed a ballad. The ballad was very lurid, about a woman in Newcastle who fell in love with a veal cutlet.

Moving on.

“He is singularly focused on his research,” continued Lady Abergavenny to the footman. “Even among naturalists, explorers, and inventors, I do believe such dedication is uncommon. Before we arrived in this region, we spent two months in the Amazon jungles, and before that we spent two months in the Himalayas and before that two months in the North American forests. Lord Abergavenny is searching for a particular kind of bird, of course. The Boffin bird.”

Lady Abergavenny more or less believed this. Why not a Boffin bird? Monomaniacs could fixate on just about anything. Lord Abergavenny had shipped several corrugated, perforated black metal crates back to London over the course of their travels and when she had once asked him, “My lord, what creature bellows so horribly to find itself enclosed in that crate?” he had answered immediately, “The Boffin bird,” and gone striding off to attend to a windlass. Lady Abergavenny had never dared to press her eye to a perforation in the crate, but she gathered from the din that Boffin birds were very, very big. Big and not too pleased with the accommodations the big, brave, handsome Lord Abergavenny had seen fit to provide.

The footman’s nose was slightly askew and he had a finger in his ear but the ear without the finger inside of it was cocked in her direction. Lady Abergavenny felt encouraged.

“The Boffin bird is of great value to science,” she said. “Lord Abergavenny hunts this bird on royal commission. Why, you ask?”

The footman had not asked. He never asked. He was the silent type. But Lady Abergavenny was warming to her theme. “Something about its wings is of the utmost importance.” She hooked her thumbs and flapped her fingers to emphasize the point. She was proud of the point, as it was entirely of her own surmise. “Examining the wings of live Boffin birds will enable humans to unlock the mystery of flight.”

“Lady Abergavenny!” A deep baritone interrupted Lady Abergavenny’s speech, the deep baritone that issued from the chest of Lord Abergavenny. He was standing in the doorway in his dun-colored research jacket and buff-colored trousers and kid-colored boots of soft kid. His black hair waved around his handsome face and his blue eyes were narrowed. “It is half ten. You should be in the clearing in the forest, not yammering to a Mongolian butler.”

Lady Abergavenny stood quickly and fell back into the chair with a cry. Tears leapt to her eyes. She had been sitting on her long and shining auburn hair and it had jerked her neck horribly.

“You were sitting on your hair,” observed Lord Abergavenny.

“I wasn’t,” said Lady Abergavenny.

“You were,” said Lord Abergavenny. “Did you loosen any strands?”

“Not a one,” said Lady Abergavenny standing slowly with an odd torsion of her hips. Her hair swung free behind her. Lord Abergavenny was still regarding her narrowly, his finely modeled lips pressed together.

“Perhaps you would like a croquette?” asked Lady Abergavenny. “And some tea? The footman,” she hesitated.

“Max,” she said. She rather thought his name would be something like Max.

“Max our first footman could pour you some tea.”

Lord Abergavenny now chose to curl his finely modeled lips. “I have a flagon of tea and a tin of biscuits in my saddlebags. A man does not pursue science and serve the crown by taking tea in a drawing room and neither does a man’s wife.” He waved to the footman who was hanging his head, playing with the buttonholes in his jacket. “Clear these plates,” said Lord Abergavenny. “Lady Abergavenny is off to the forest.” And he strode into the room, gripped her am, and steered her through the door. He released her in the front hall where she donned her green cloak and picked up The Foxes of Silicon Fen, a sentimental novel that kept her company throughout her long, dull hours in the forest.

Outside, Lord Abergavenny bowed abruptly.

“Good day, Lady Abergavenny,” he said and mounted his horse and thundered away down the road through the dark wooden houses of the village, toward the mountains.

The day really was fine by the standards of the region. The sky was cloudless and white and the wind was blunt and harmless and didn’t claw at the throat of Lady Abergavenny’s cloak.

“I am happily married,” thought Lady Abergavenny as she walked through the village, turning off on a footpath into the forest. “My hands are not purple and my face is not purple and my husband is a peer of the realm. He loves me in his way, or at least he loves my hair, which is rather my crowning glory. While he strides in search of the Boffin bird, I bask in luxury and indolence, which is preferable to standing on cobbles shelling walnuts. I never eat mincemeat but instead exotic foods such as geese and bison and fermented fish and creamy rice dishes richly spiced. My husband requires me to sit each day for hours in a wooded place so that my constitution is improved by the strengthening vapors of the forest. It is all perfectly lovely and I couldn’t be happier. I do rather miss green plums and almonds and I do rather miss long chats with Minda Travers and Jill Baker on Market Street and I do rather miss book shops and sweet shops and music halls and the circus, but I am of course very grateful that I am peeress Lady Abergavenny and not plain Malvina Potts. I do rather miss Malvina Potts.”

This last thought struck Lady Abergavenny like a thunderbolt. It was true. It was ghastly. She missed Malvina Potts.

“No use crying over spilt milk,” said Lady Abergavenny aloud and pushed the thought away. She could be very practical when she needed to be. The trees began to thin and Lady Abergavenny sat on a mossy log in a small clearing to breathe the strengthening vapors of the forest. The trees creaked. The pale rays of sun poked through the dark canopy.

“O the feel of the veal,” hummed Lady Abergavenny. She opened her book, then put it down. She had read The Foxes of Silicon Fen a dozen times and the story was wearing thin.

“It was more than a meal,” hummed Lady Abergavenny. The pale rays of the sun lit up green moss and yellow needles and wet, black bark. Suddenly, she saw it. Between two trees across the clearing. A flash of auburn. Deep, shining, red-gold, unmistakable auburn the same exact shade as Lady Abergavenny’s hair. She caught her breath.

This was not the first time she had seen it, the thing she called The Auburn. She had glimpsed The Auburn in the mountains of India, in the jungles of the Amazon, in the forests of North America. The Auburn peeking from behind a tree or rock or vine or frond. She would wait, holding her breath, for something more to happen. The more that happened had never been much. She might see The Auburn wink out of sight and reappear, yards away, another flash above a berm. She might hear rustling, snapping branches. She might hear, far off, an eerie bellowing. What did she expect to happen? The Auburn to come forward, to take shape, to charge toward her . . .

She tried to remember another line of her father’s ballad. It was Lurid but not without Literary Merits.

“She had her way with the veal on a table of deal . . .” hummed Lady Abergavenny. She picked up her book and pretended to read, peering at the trees over the top of the book. The Auburn had vanished. She heard rustling, snapping branches. The pale rays of sun became paler and the clearing grew dark. She drew her cloak tightly about her. She saw something buff-colored and dun-colored and kid-colored leap between trees.

“My lord?” she called. Sometimes Lord Abergavenny came to check on her during her hours in the forest. He always seemed annoyed when she spotted and hailed him. Perhaps he did not want her to know that he cared. Lords were notoriously reticent with their Ladies about tender feelings. It was the main problem with Lords according to The Foxes of Silicon Fen. That and the pastime of slaughtering foxes.

At that moment, Lord Abergavenny came crashing through the trees. He held something similar to an astoundingly powerful truncheon-shaped gaslamp but instead of shooting a ray of light it was shooting a snapping blue beam. His black hair was standing on end.

“Lady Abergavenny,” he panted. He fumbled with the device in his hand. The beam vanished. His hair began to drift down around his aristocratic brow.

“Stay where you are,” he said as he backed away again into the trees. “It is only half eleven. You have several more hours to inspire the sweet airs of the forest.”

When she was quite certain he was gone, Lady Abergavenny stood.

“I would rather be married to a veal cutlet,” she said. “There are no two ways about it.” She walked hastily back to the house. The staff did not expect her to return before the usual hour and so she opened the heavy door herself. The hall smelled different than usual. She sniffed. The smell was faint and faintly familiar. What was it? Not one of the regular reeks. Not dark, sour bread and not goose. Not turnips, not beets, not fish, and not stew. It was different, not really even a reek, but a hint of a reek. A light musk. She peeked into the dining room but Max the footman was not there. Instead, Mr. Urquhart, the tiger hunter, was seated at the head of the table with Karthik, his Hindoo servant, standing at attention behind him. Mr. Urquhart was tucking into a goose while supporting his long mustache on a little silver platform attached to a slender silver handle (his own invention, nothing to do with Lord Abergavenny).

“Mr. Urquhart,” cried Lady Abergavenny. “My word, what brings you to—” and she made a noise like choking in the morning on the flakes of a scone. Mr. Urquhart was a childhood friend of Lord Abergavenny. They had stayed in his hunting villa at the foot of the Himalayas. He was most often out hunting tigers, and during the hours she had sat on a stool in the shrubby meadow strengthening her constitution, she had spied him with her husband circling the area, stalking tigers while Lord Abergavenny stalked Boffin birds, Karthik stalking behind them.

“My dear Lady Abergavenny,” said Mr. Uquhart. “I had a run-in with a real man-eater and he did a bang-up job on me. I thought I’d take a break from hunting for the season and ride the engine across the continent. Shouldn’t you be out in the forest? Is it a holiday? I suppose Lord Abergavenny will back soon as well?”

Lady Abergavenny could not answer. Her mouth felt dry and her heart thudded in her chest. She took the glass Karthik handed her and gulped the water. It was a tall glass and she gulped for quite awhile. Finally she finished. She gasped for air and wiped her mouth, staring at Mr. Urquhart. He put down his fork and his mustache platform. His mustache lowered over his mouth like a Venetian blind.

“Karthik,” said Mr. Urquhart. “Help me with my leg.” The Hindoo servant pulled back Mr. Urquhart’s chair. Mr. Urquhart’s left leg stuck out at a straight angle.

“I hope you don’t mind Karthik’s serving luncheon,” said Mr. Urquhart as Karthik rolled up his trouser. “I dismissed your footman. He gave me the willies. There!” Mr. Urquhart rapped on his leg. “Sandalwood! Teak is stronger but this one smelled so wonderful I couldn’t resist. Sniff it.”

Lady Abergavenny bent over and sniffed the wood.

“Wonderful,” she agreed.

“Mr. Urquhart . . .” she hesitated. “I’ve been married to Lord Abergevenny a year now. Happily married,” she added. “What joy!”

Mr. Urquhart winked at her. “Nothing brings the bloom to a lass’s cheek like conjugal harmony.”

Lady Abergavenny grinned in what she hoped was a blooming manner. “And I want to do something special for my husband. He’s known such tragedy.”

Mr. Urquhart nodded at Karthik, who rolled his trouser down and pushed him back toward the goose.

“Nothing steels a man’s resolve like tragedy,” he said and swept up his mustache with the mustache platform so he could once again tuck into the goose.

“Nine tragedies,” said Lady Abergavenny. “All those poor Ladies Abergavenny.”

“Hmmphh,” said Mr. Urquhart around his mouthful of goose.

“Did you know them?” asked Lady Abergavenny in a rush.

“I believe I met some of them,” said Mr. Urquhart, swallowing. “But one was much like another.”

“Oh,” said Lady Abergavenny.

“All that shining auburn hair,” said Mr. Urquhart. “Spectacular.” Lady Abergavenny raised a hand to her own shining auburn hair. She shuddered.

“He adores auburn,” she whispered.

She heard footsteps behind her and whirled around, heart hammering harder than ever. It was only the footman passing by. In profile, his nose seemed straighter than before, but much darker than the rest of his face. He had perhaps been drinking. Lady Abergavenny felt herself in need of a drink as well. Something with more of a kick than just water.

“I’m going to see the cook,” she said to Mr. Urquhart. “To let her know we’ve a guest for dinner.” She hurried after the footman into the kitchen. He really was uncommonly tall. He had to duck or his head would have struck the hanging pots. The kitchen door was open. The cook sat in the yard plucking a goose. She looked up and yelled something. It didn’t sound anything like “Max” but the footman ducked out the kitchen door and trotted over to her. He grabbed a live goose by the neck.

Lady Abergavenny turned quickly away. She rummaged through the kitchen cupboards until she found what she was looking for. She poured a glass of potato wine and guzzled it. She sat down at the narrow table in front of the fire with the empty glass and the bottle in front of her. She took a pull from the bottle. She lifted a lock of her hair and studied it in the firelight. It shone red-gold. It shone like a hearth. Like a beacon. It had attracted a Lord. But what did he want with it? Why did he drag her from forest to jungle to mountain to woodland and waste? She returned the bottle to the cupboard and fixed herself a plate of gingerbread cookies. The cookies were moist and rich and peppery sweet.

“I would most like to be married to a gingerbread cookie,” thought Lady Abergavenny. “Or to a lemon tart. Or to nothing at all.”

She was just stepping out of the kitchen, when the front door banged open and Lord Abergavenny strode through the hall. She hid behind the doorframe. Soon baritone shouts resounded.

“Urquhart!”

“Abergavenny!”

She crept along the hall toward the voices. She had just reached the open door when a tap on her shoulder made her whirl about. Karthik stood behind her. He had a fragrant leg of smoothed sandalwood on one shoulder, a rifle on the other, and a heavy leather valise in one hand.

“Mr. Urquhart’s things,” said Lady Abergavenny, recovering her composure. “You must put them in the spare bedroom.” There was no spare bedroom and so she pondered this conundrum.

“On the second floor,” she said. “It’s really the library. The books have rotted in the damp, but there’s a chesterfield in quite good condition.”

Karthik was exactly her height and he met her eyes evenly.

“Have you seen one?” he whispered.

“Seen one what?” she whispered back, but even as she whispered she thought of it, The Auburn, how it showed itself in flashes. She thought of The Auburn flashing in the fronds on the other side of the river and The Auburn flashing inside the cave mouth in the mountains and The Auburn flashing between quivering conifers in the forest and The Auburn she had seen just that morning flashing across the clearing. She thought of how her husband often appeared as it vanished. The Auburn peeked at her, but it fled from him.

“What is it?” she breathed, but Karthik gave a slight frown. A warning. Lord Abergavenny poked his head into the hall.

“Lady Abergavenny,” he said. “By all means, join us at the table.” He gripped Lady Abergavenny’s wrist and she was jerked into the room. He dragged her to the banquet table and threw her into a chair. She hit the seat hard with her bum and yelped. She whipped her head around furiously and saw Karthik framed in the doorway.

“Steady now,” Karthik’s look seemed to say as he turned to continue on down the hall. Leaving her with Lord Abergavenny and Mr. Urquhart and the cold carcass of a goose. Abandoning her to her Fate. She straightened and glanced at her husband.

You’re not at the table,” she said. He wasn’t. He was leaning against the wall lighting a cheroot.

“Would it kill you to sit to a meal with your wife?” she asked.

“I like this one,” chuckled Mr. Urquhart. His teeth winked through a gray slat of mustache. “She’s stout . . .”

Lady Abergavenny glared.

“Of heart,” he finished. “I would wager she doesn’t spook easily in the forest. I wonder if the others ran. That might have been what did it. The running.”

“Enough,” said Lord Abergavenny. He had scratches across his high cheekbones and a tear in his dun-colored trousers. He drew back his chair and sat down facing Lady Abergavenny.

“Goose?” She hacked at the goose with the serving knife and tilted the platter so a hunk slid off onto a plate. She was not feeling very ladylike. She was feeling like Malvina Potts. Lord Abergavenny blinked as she shoved the plate toward him.

“Eat,” she said. He lifted a brow and folded his arms across his chest.

“Eat,” she said. “Or I’m through with brushing my hair. I’m through with sitting in the forest. I’m through with traveling from bleak to bleaker to bleakest regions.”

“What would you do instead?” asked Lord Abergavenny. He took a bite of goose. “Where would you go?”

“Home,” said Lady Abergavenny, although she knew she couldn’t go home. No one on Market Street would take kindly to a woman who left a Lord to sell fruits and nuts.

“Ahh,” said Lord Abergavenny. “Home.”

“You could stay with me in Darjeeling,” offered Mr. Urquhart. “Except I’m not there. My leg is there, buried in the garden under the mango tree. You could go and shed tears over the grave of my leg.” He laughed again, unpleasantly. “The tiger is still prowling though. You’d have to be very stout indeed to face the tiger.”

“This is the first time we’ve eaten a meal together,” said Lady Abergavenny to her husband. She picked a glistening black strip of flesh from a bone and chewed it slowly. “It’s our first anniversary. Give or take a day.” It wasn’t easy to keep track of the days in the region. She leaned forward.

“Tell me, my Lord, have I lasted longer than the other Ladies Abergavenny?”

Lord Abergavenny looked at Mr. Urquhart. “What have you been telling her?”

Mr. Urquhart held up his hands. “Nothing, I swear it.”

Lady Abergavenny shrugged. “Happy anniversary,” she said. “I hope you get pecked in the eye by a Boffin bird.”

“I doubt I will,” murmured Lord Abergavenny, looking at her speculatively.

“I am beginning to doubt it as well,” said Lady Abergavenny. And left the room. She almost banged into the footman in the hall. He blinked at her. His eyes were larger and softer than hers but the sea-green shade was really very like.

“I’m sorry, Max,” she said. “I wasn’t looking.” He sketched a slight bow. A flurry of white shook down from his hair. She sneezed. Definitely flour.

“I don’t think they’re ready to have the plates cleared away,” she said. “But if you would clear them away I’d be greatly obliged.”

As she hurried past him, she heard a low rumbling that sounded something like a laugh.

That night the wind sobbed in the attic and in the distance, mingling with the wind, came howls and bellows and wails. Lady Abergavenny sat at her writing desk. She looked at the quill and she looked at the comb. She could write to her sister, the humble Mrs. Cottenham. She could brush her hair, one hundred strokes with the boar-bristle brush. She did neither. She picked up her candle and snuck down the stairs and tiptoed to Lord Abergavenny’s study. The door was shut tight. The light that came through the crack below the door was strong and bright white and did not flicker. That could mean one thing only. He was using the astoundingly powerful truncheon-shaped gaslamp for domestic illumination.

“Hypocrite,” she muttered. She pressed her ear to the door.

“. . . miracle she hasn’t been ripped limb from limb,” Mr. Urquhart was saying. “She has lasted longer than your other ladies. Do you think it is because she’s stouter of heart? Purer of soul? Simpler? More childlike? I find her a nasty piece of baggage, assuming and shrewish, but their standards are bound to be different.”

“It’s convenient whatever the reason,” said Lord Abergavenny. “Bloody pain in the arse finding replacements. The color has to be just right and they don’t respond to a wig on a gourd, more’s the pity. She’s working out marvelously. They come close enough for me to shock them and net them and ship them off. That’s what matters, isn’t it?”

“Wish a tiger had bitten my leg off,” said Mr. Urquhart. “I can’t tell you how awful . . . the bellowing, the twisting . . .”

“Have some more brandy.” Footsteps, clink of stopper in decanter.

“Cheers.” A glugging sound.

“It must have been awful for the nine of them,” said Mr. Urquhart. “Losing the leg gives me a new appreciation. You’re a cool one, Abergavenny, to bait a trap with your own wives.”

“I marry bait,” came the reply. “What else would I use?”

Lady Abergavenny had had quite enough. She flew down the rest of the stairs and into the kitchen for a knife and into the front hallway for her cloak and out the front door as quickly as she could. The wind tore at the throat of her cloak and blew her long and shining auburn hair behind her like a flame. She ducked her head and ran into the wind. She ran through the village and turned off onto the path through the forest, stumbling over rocks and branches until she half fell into the clearing. She had no candle. She had no astoundingly powerful truncheon-shaped gaslamp. She had no gun or blue shocker to protect her. She had a knife and she raised it high in the night with one hand and held taut a lock of her hair with the other. She struck and she sawed and in one hundred blows she had shorn herself of every auburn strand. Her scalp stung and the cold wind filled her ears like black water.

She gathered the masses of hair and scattered them through underbrush and overgrowth and hung them on thorns and she trampled and kicked at the earth and stamped on the briars until she was satisfied it looked as though her hair had been ripped quite off her body and her body dragged with great violence away through the woodlands and into the waste. Never to be seen again.

She wondered suddenly if the other Ladies Abergavenny had in fact met grisly ends in the forest or if they too had struck and sawed themselves free and fled into the hills. Maybe whatever creatures her husband hunted were gentle and had never hurt any woman at all. Maybe they only ripped the limbs from tiger-hunters and explorers and Lords and other enemies of the natural world. Maybe they only bellowed when pursued or captured.

What were they? All she knew is they were auburn, like she was, and that was plenty. Maybe they weren’t her friends, but they certainly weren’t her enemies.

She stood in the clearing peering about her but it was dark and no direction looked better than any other. She took a step. Then another. She stopped. She heard a step. Then another. Not hers. She saw a light, a candlelight flickering. The footman was creeping toward her across the clearing. His nose was further askew than ever and his sea-green eyes gleamed and so did his hair where the flour had blown away in the wind. His hair gleamed auburn. Lady Abergavenny was stout (of heart) and did not run. She clutched her green cloak about her as he approached. When he was right in front of her, she reached out her hand. Her hand trembled slightly but she reached with steadfast purpose. She ripped off his nose. It was made of putty and tied to his face with thin string. Beneath the fake nose his real nose was flat. Two wide nostrils set in the slope of his face. It wasn’t a human nose. She was very glad, very glad to see it.

“Max,” she said. “You’re one of them.” And then, because, she wasn’t sure what she meant by “them,” and she didn’t want to think of herself and any other as an “us,” she said, “You? And me?”

He held out his wide, filthy, hairy hand and she took it.

“Do you know where we can go?” she asked and he nodded. Flour flurried. She sneezed. Smiled.

“Let’s go there then,” she said. She saw a glimmer of auburn, but it was only a lock of her own hair sailing through the candlelight on the wind. Max started after it and she followed, the two of them chasing after the flashing auburn with the wind at their backs. They left the clearing and the trees closed behind them. The wind extinguished the candle. It was utterly dark, but Max was sure-footed and Lady Abergavenny was, too, and they leaped over tussocks and hummocks and traveled quickly through the woodlands. The village and Lord Abergavenny were every moment farther and farther behind them.

Lady Abergavenny supposed she wasn’t the unhappily married Lady Abergavenny any longer. But she wasn’t plain Malvina Potts again either. She was something different. She held tight to Max’s hand and they leaped faster and faster. She wondered what lay ahead. She wondered who she would find.

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Joanna Ruocco

Joanna Ruocco is the author of several books, including Dan (Dorothy, a publishing project), The Week (The Elephants of British Columbia), and Another Governess / The Least Blacksmith: A Diptych (FC2). She also works pseudonymously as Alessandra Shahbaz (Ghazal in the Moonlight, Midnight Flame), Toni Jones (No Secrets in Spandex), and Joanna Lowell (Dark Season). She is an assistant professor in the English Department at Wake Forest University.