Chapter 1:

A Gentleman's Request

Of Salt and Silver

I ran.Bookmark here

Into the darkness, away from the darkness, I ran.Bookmark here

No matter how far I went, how long it took, nor how much I tried, I couldn’t escape it. The air was thick with a sweet stench of decay, and the sound of bones being crushed underfoot resonated behind me. It was as though death itself was hot on my heels—something was pursuing me.Bookmark here

A feeling of primal fear grabbed hold of my heart as I threw myself through this world of darkness. My own breathing was ragged, strained, and becoming more shallow as I pushed myself forward. The disgusting odor from before grew stronger the closer the thing got. It took all of my willpower to hold back the urge to vomit.Bookmark here

Then, the thing behind me let out a guttural roar that sounded like a dying horse—it wheezed, and stuttered out a garbled word.Bookmark here

“Heee-lll--pp…”Bookmark here

I shook. It was an affront to nature. My body wanted to give up upon hearing it, but I knew if I did—I’d die. Before I could muster the strength to continue, I found my sprint hampered. As though my steps were slow to fall, I found myself fighting against something invisible. Somehow, an invisible force was possessing me, and so my legs eventually refused to move at all. I tried to scream for help, but ultimately it caught in my throat.Bookmark here

Then, a monstrous hand latched itself onto my shoulder, its claws digging deep into my skin. A well of pain assaulted my body as my bones creaked under its strength. I tried to pull away from it but to no avail. It spun me around and I finally learned what that smell was. It was its breath. It could only be described as a mixture of rotting meat and metal.Bookmark here

And—Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

A loud crack rang out from just below my window, startling me awake. My eyes flew open and my body tensed…I was in my bedroom. With the panicked neighing of a horse and a series of expletives shouted out, I knew what had caused that sound. Yet another carriage had been claimed by the uneven cobblestone road outside.Bookmark here

As my eyes adjusted, I saw streaks of light flit through the gaps of my curtains. It was a new day. I was covered in a cold sweat and my hands were clenched tightly to my blanket as though I were holding on for dear life. There was still a lingering feeling of dread that settled in my stomach, but I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.Bookmark here

“Another nightmare…”Bookmark here

That would make it the fourth time this week. I was beginning to grow tired of it…still, things needed to be done. Forcing myself out of bed, I carried on with my morning routine, ending with me dressing out of my nightgown and into my work clothes. Bookmark here

I proceeded to perform the necessary chores around the property—I watered the mandrakes and meticulously tended to the wolfsbane plant that had been looking quite unwell lately. From there, I reapplied holy water to the entrances and exits on all of the floors. Finally, I prepared a mid-afternoon snack for Lady Sophia, should she awaken early and find herself a bit peckish. It wasn’t until mid-morning that I felt satisfied in saying I had completed a majority of my duties—well, all except for one.Bookmark here

Toward the back of the house, cordoned off from where guests may traffic to and fro, I ventured down a long corridor lined with portraits of people I had never met. It narrowed to a dark wooden door with an emblem of a raven perched atop a belfry worked into it. Making sure that I was still presentable, I knocked upon it three times. Of course, I was not expecting an answer, and as usual, I let myself in.Bookmark here

There in the dim light, off in the corner sprawled across a bed, I saw a figure stir. They tossed and turned, seemingly my disturbance, but otherwise made no sounds. Without a word I moved to the window and parted the drapes. A bright light lit the study up, removing the film of monochrome that had obfuscated the room. Throwing open the window, I spun on my heel and faced the bed.Bookmark here

“Rise and shine, Master Raines.”Bookmark here

A hoarse groan emanated from the figure before it pulled the sheets over its head. It wiggled like a worm for a time before a tuft of half-gray hair peeked out from the top.Bookmark here

“Miss Isabella…do you know what time it is?” A husky, tired voice asked me.Bookmark here

“Why yes, it is almost upon the hour of lunch.”Bookmark here

It did not take long for his grumbling to cease. “…I see. Very well, I appreciate your diligence. Now then…may I request that you please close the window? I fear the chill will freeze me solid.”Bookmark here

“I’m afraid that cannot do, Master Raines. You’ve got a busy day ahead of you.”Bookmark here

I approached the bedside and lightly placed a hand on the edges of his blanket. Before he could protest, I gave it a slight tug and exposed him to the cold, foggy air that seeped in from outside.Bookmark here

“Miss Isabella…you are a demon.”Bookmark here

“Of course, but that is why you pay me, is it not?”Bookmark here

A defeated sigh escaped past his curled lips as he wrapped his arms around himself. Laying before me in such a pitiful state was my employer, a man I had come to intimately know over the last two years—Viktor Ellwood Raines.Bookmark here

Though he was still in the prime of his youth, his hair had prematurely begun to gray at the roots. The soured expression he currently wore betrayed his otherwise handsome features that, at times, have turned heads and broken hearts.Bookmark here

“What day is it?” He wearily asked.Bookmark here

“The fact that you do not know concerns me.”Bookmark here

“You should know by now that I pay no mind to the passing of days or weeks—ugh! Please, at least do something about the cold.”Bookmark here

Complying, I shut the window and fixated myself by his side. “I had feared that had I not roused you sooner, that I would’ve needed to fetch the mortician.”Bookmark here

“Always with the dramatics. If a man can decide when to sleep, then surely a man can decide when to wake.”Bookmark here

“Well, truth be told, when it is only me moving about the place, I’ll admit that I begin to feel rather lonely.”Bookmark here

“Liar.”Bookmark here

A smile crept across my face. “Perhaps, but it does not change that you’ve got an appointment today.” Though it was an unusual arrangement we had, I never once found myself bored or unhappy while working alongside him. Not that I’d ever let him know that, lest I wish to inflate his ego.Bookmark here

“Right, a busy day. I believe those were your exact words.”Bookmark here

“That is correct, Master Raines.”Bookmark here

He furrowed his brows and peered up at me through half-open slits as though something I said had troubled him. “How many times have I told you? Just Viktor is well enough.”Bookmark here

“That would do no good, Master Raines. I do still have my pride as a working woman, after all. While my contract continues, you are to be considered my master.” I responded, offering him a practiced curtsey. “Besides, do you know how many times I’ve heard ill gossip from the neighbors? They believe you to be a mad man, among many things. It is not normal to be so lacking in etiquette for someone of your status, nor is it to stay up so late into the night howling about this and that.”Bookmark here

I offered him a hand to grab hold of, but he ignored it and stumbled out of bed. I followed him to see if he required my assistance with anything, but eventually, when it came time for him to dress, I was shooed out of the room. As he shut the door a muffled complaint slipped out from the other side. “Bah, mad man, is it? Don’t they know that it isn’t I, but the whole world that is mad?”Bookmark here

“That would be what someone unhinged would think, would it not, Master Raines?”Bookmark here

“Forget all of that rot! You said I have a consultation today?”Bookmark here

“Yes, it was perhaps short notice but a letter was delivered this morning. I was told it was an emergency.”Bookmark here

Though it was hard to hear, I could make out the faint sound of him clicking his tongue. “That’s what they all say.”Bookmark here

After a minute had passed, Master Raines exited his room in his usual attire. I led him to the dining room, pulled out a chair for him, and stood at his side. “What tea would you like today?”Bookmark here

“Anything you fancy, Miss Isabella. I’m not too particular.”Bookmark here

Regrettably, I couldn’t help but let out a slight chuckle which I promptly stifled. This however earned his ire. “What is so humorous?” Bookmark here

“—nothing at all.”Bookmark here

Perhaps it was the truth that he was not too particular with his choice of drink—save when it came to spirits, but Master Raines was the pickiest man I had ever had the pleasure of serving. Be it food, clothes, or even down to which hand is used to open doors; he was a man of habit and superstition…though, I couldn’t fault him for that, given everything I knew about him.Bookmark here

After boiling a fresh pot of tea composed of orange peels, honey, and spices, I swiftly set the table with two plates and pairs of cutlery. Had it been nighttime, I would’ve prepared three, but alas Lady Sophia is incapable of enjoying the mornings. I then garnished Master Raines’ tea plate with a square of his favorite chocolate. “Please enjoy yourself.”Bookmark here

I took a seat across from him at the table. Helping myself to the butter biscuits and bacon, I poured myself a cup and faced him earnestly. “The request comes from the noble house of Withers.”Bookmark here

An audible groan met my statement. “Of course it has to be nobles! And, with a foreboding name like that, I sadly fear the worst. Please, let me guess before you tell me. Is it—strange ongoings such as things being moved about and coming up missing? Why, oh why, must they waste my time with what is obviously petty theft by their staff?”Bookmark here

I kept silent as he continued. I’ve learned that when he gets going like this, it is generally best to let things run their course before attempting to get a word in edgewise.Bookmark here

“Or, no, wait, I understand now. Perhaps they have children who claim monsters are living under their bed, waiting to grab them in the dead of night by their ankles to drag them to some perverse hellscape? Nothing but overactive imaginations! Curse the fools who trust their spoiled rotten children wholly! Do they not know that kids these days consume rubbish penny stories by the dozen?”Bookmark here

“Actually, Master Raines—”Bookmark here

“No! Wait, I’ve got it! They’re hearing voices emanating from thin air. They shiver and shake in the night as a wailing passes through their hallways—of course, it always involves an adulterous affair with the wife and servant.”Bookmark here

Master Raines,” I said sternly.Bookmark here

Having finally gotten through to him, he closed his mouth and looked at me curiously. “…yes, Miss Isabella?”Bookmark here

“The Withers family has a private stable, as most well-to-do families have. However, for the past few weeks now they’ve been terrorized by a horse thief. They initially assumed it was just that, but yesterday morning they discovered one of the missing horses in their acreage.”Bookmark here

“I fail to see how this concerns me, considering it sounds as though their problems have solved themselves.”Bookmark here

“The horse was found—yes, hung from a tree by a series of red ropes. Upon looking into it, these ropes appeared to bear religious significance in the east. As for the horse itself, its skin was turned inside out, showing no other wounds which might have caused its demise. If I were to speculate, I would guess that it died from the trauma.”Bookmark here

“…oh.”Bookmark here

“Yes, oh,” I repeated.Bookmark here

Master Raines appeared to be deep in thought for a moment. Then, his sour demeanor transformed into that of a bright smile, eyes sparkling as though he had just heard good news. “Well then, color me interested! You said a representative will be meeting with me today, did you not?”Bookmark here

“I did. They should be here within the hour.”Bookmark here

“Ha-ha, splendid! As always Miss Isabella, I can count on you to get my arrangements in order! Well then, I best hurry up and gorge myself on your wonderful cooking. I wouldn’t want to leave our guest waiting, after all.”Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

Ding-dong.Bookmark here

The doorbell rang out. Before I could finish setting down my book, Master Raines had sprung from his lounge chair and was already halfway to the front door.Bookmark here

“Honestly…”Bookmark here

That man is at times, an enigma. To spend the first half of our breakfast complaining about nobility, only to have nothing but good things to say about them afterward…sometimes I wonder how he finds it so easy to change his opinion, or if he even has a true opinion at all. It did not take me but a few seconds to join him at the door.Bookmark here

“Greetings! Greetings! I’ve heard so much about you! Please, come in!” Master Raines had opened the door and immediately set upon our guest with pleasantries.Bookmark here

Standing in the doorway was a dapper-looking gentleman, seemingly in his early twenties. His complexion was fair which gave me the impression he had never worked a hard day in his life. Likewise, his clothes said he came from wealth, yet…surprisingly, there was an underlying air of humbleness to him. Looking at his face, I found him rather charming. From the looks of his expression though, Master Raines’ attempts at hospitality were met with caution and unease.Bookmark here

“Uh—well—”Bookmark here

“Well, don’t just stand there! Su casa es mi casa!”Bookmark here

“I—beg your pardon?”Bookmark here

“Master Raines, I would very much appreciate it if you’d let me do my job.” I shooed Master Raines aside so that our guest would have some space to breathe. While he was deciding on whether it was safe enough to enter or not, I leaned over to the master and whispered in his ear. Bookmark here

“The phrase is mi casa es su casa. You’d do well to remember that, lest you someday encounter someone who might actually take offense to your butchering of my mother tongue.”Bookmark here

Master Raines looked at me full of bewilderment before whispering to himself. “What do you mean? That’s exactly what I said.”Bookmark here

It was barely just past afternoon, and already I could feel my eyes begin to tire. Thankfully though, the young gentleman bashfully lowered his head and walked in. “I really do appreciate you accepting our request on such short notice.”Bookmark here

“May I take your coat for you, good sir?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Oh, please, if you’d be so kind—”Bookmark here

“Miss Isabella, after you’re done why don’t you brew up some more of your homemade tea? I’m quite sure this good man would very much enjoy it. Now, sir, right this way—we have a special room for consultations.”Bookmark here

Sparing no time, Master Raines immediately put a hand on the gentleman’s back and ushered him away. Had he been born under a different star; I’m quite sure Master Raines would’ve made for an excellent servant himself. With these whimsical thoughts to serve as amusement, I put away the gentleman’s coat and prepared a new kettle to be put on the stove.Bookmark here

After spending some time meandering and deciding which set of fine china to use, I carefully placed the refreshments on a silver tray and made my way toward the consultation room. Upon turning the corner—Bookmark here

An unfamiliar voice carried down the hall. “HOW DARE YOU!”Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.