Illustrated by Wendy Xu • Edited by Joel Cunningham
A Victorian comedy of manners: Androids, bad clams, bad men, and one ambitious kitchen girl. The B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog presents an original short story by award-nominated author Sarah Gailey.
A Lady’s Maid
By Sarah Gailey
Upstairs, in the Bedroom
Isaac hadn’t taken the news of the engagement well.
Nadia reflected on this as she pressed her cheek against the cool wall of her washtub. She was strong, and Isaac Cornette was a small man, but wrestling his dead weight into the tub hadn’t been easy.
Nadia dampened a cloth in the washtub and pressed it to the hot skin on the back of her neck, catching her breath. No, Isaac hadn’t taken the news of the engagement well at all. His ire was exhausting; the whole affair made her want to power down.
Blood was spattered across the embroidery on her bodice, and the lace trim on the bottom flounce of her full skirt was saturated. She hadn’t anticipated all the blood. Isaac’s head, as she had discovered, had a lot of blood inside of it. He’d never told her. How was she to know these things, if he never told her?
Whispered cracks and crinkles sounded from the washtub as the ice within settled under Isaac’s weight. Nadia dabbed at her decolletage with the damp cloth and peered in at him. He was very pale, but he was still breathing.
Probably he’d be fine. Probably he just needed to power down for a while. Needed to lower his core temperatures.
Nadia stood and looked down at her gown. It was effectively ruined. Oh well. She grasped the front of her bodice and, with a slight grunt of effort, tore the entire thing down the middle. Tiny glass beads rained around her as she ripped the silk and lace and taffeta and horsehair crinoline in two. She dropped the swishing layers of yellow fabric, letting them pool around her feet.
As she stepped out of the now-doubly-ruined dress, she wondered—why on earth had Isaac taken her good news so poorly? Since her debut, all she’d ever heard anyone talk about was marriage. Leticia Monroe and Prudence Cawthorne had gone on and on about the importance of finding a good man before the end of the season—Nadia had thought Isaac would be pleased at her success. Instead, he’d been so furious that he’d malfunctioned.
She glanced over her shoulder at the mess that was her washroom: half-melted ice scattered across the tiles, diluting the pooling blood and turning it pink. Yet more crimson stains upon the walls, and beads scattered hither and yon. And of course, the heavy wooden frame of the shattered antique mirror, with moist, reddened tufts of grey hair stuck to the side. How frightful—but she put it out of her mind. This would be quite a chore for the maids to clean up, but they would be up to the task. They were quite good at their jobs.
Nadia closed the door to her washroom and pulled the bell cord in her bedroom. She’d need to dress again, before she could go back down to dinner.
Downstairs, in the Dining Room
Isaac hadn’t taken the news of Nadia’s engagement well.
Stephen Vanderbilt—yes, of the Boston Vanderbilts, and yes, the same Stephen Vanderbilt who was involved in that messy business with Tussy Hedren at the boat race the previous fall—reflected on Nadia’s father’s ire as he toyed with an oyster fork. The empty oyster shells sat before him, piled on a tray of ice. His stomach was rebelling, although he wasn’t sure if it was from the oysters or the argument. Across from him, a wine stain nestled itself cozily into the white tablecloth. Stephen watched the stain, envious. That stain was about its business. It was precisely where it wanted to be. It wasn’t supposed to consider itself lucky to have found something that might stick.
Stephen was a man who had just eased his way past his prime. He was given to overindulgence, credulity, and metaphor. He had overindulged in the oysters, although he didn’t care for them—but that was alright. He deserved them, much as he deserved to have Nadia nestled in his home like a pearl inside of an oyster’s shell (when a metaphor was unavailable, Stephen often found a simile would do). But then there was the rubbery grey meat of the oyster: necessary to make the pearl, but awful in every other regard. Stephen considered how to dispose of the meat without having to eat it.
The meat, of course, was Isaac.
Nadia’s father—or was he her warder? Or an uncle? Nobody quite seemed to know—hadn’t taken the news of their engagement well at all. He’d shouted, thumped his fist on the table, spilled Nadia’s wine, and stormed off. He’d acted like a bridegroom jilted at the altar. Not at all like a father.
And Nadia, of course— sweet, pearlescent Nadia— had run after him without a word to Stephen. It was just like her, he thought, to be so concerned about Isaac. She was such a sweet girl. So compliant, and quiet, and charmingly naive. Stephen liked that about her, at least—her naivete, and the way that she hung on his every word. Like a pearl, hanging onto the… the inside of an oyster.
It had been nearly thirty minutes since she’d left, and Stephen had drunk all the wine, including what was left in Isaac’s glass; and he’d eaten all the oysters, grudgingly. And now he was a little drunk, and a little nauseated, and his metaphors were wandering all over the place. Like oysters probably would, if they had legs.
Stephen realized he didn’t know the way to the smoking parlor, so he rang for a butler. He’d need to clear his head before Nadia and Isaac came back downstairs.
Inside Ada’s Brain
It was Ada who answered Miss Nadia’s bell.
Ada shouldn’t have been answering Miss Nadia’s bell. Ada wasn’t a lady’s maid—she was a kitchen girl, and had been one long enough to know the difference. But Miss Nadia’s usual lady’s maid, Beatrice, was sick with food poisoning (or, if the whispers in the kitchen had it right, with the early end of a secret pregnancy), and so when Miss Nadia’s bell rang, Beatrice wasn’t there to answer it.
That still didn’t mean Ada should have been the one answering Miss Nadia’s bell. She should have found Mrs. Patterson, the housekeeper, and said ‘Miss Nadia’s rung’ and then never thought of it again.
But Ada saw the bell ring, and the chime sounded like opportunity. If she answered it, and did a good job, maybe she could move up someday. Maybe she could become a lady’s maid herself, and get herself a little more pay besides. With a pay raise, she could buy a length of purple ribbon and start tying her hair back with it, and then Albert the chauffeur would notice her long, slender neck, and he would compliment her, and she would laugh and blush, and he would take her hand and ask her if she’d meet him out in the garden later in the evening, and she would say yes—
So Ada went to Miss Nadia’s bedroom when the bell rang. She knew that she shouldn’t have gone—she knew better than to go—but she went anyway.
To her credit, she did not scream. Not right away.
Here are things that Ada wanted to scream about: the bloody footprints leading from the washroom to Miss Nadia’s dressing table; Miss Nadia’s nudity; Miss Nadia’s torso, which was hanging open like a cupboard door; the green and silver web of circuitry that filigreed the insides of Miss Nadia’s ribcage. The long, ropy cable, which extended from the wall to the crackling copper coil that was nested in the center of a nest of wires where Miss Nadia’s heart should have been.
Ada did not scream about any of these things, no, although she would have been well within her rights to do so. She did not scream, because, she thought, a lady’s maid would not scream. Instead, she clenched her fists, and she asked Miss Nadia what she needed.
What Miss Nadia needed was to be dressed for dinner. So, without screaming, Ada dressed her. She closed Miss Nadia’s ribs up, and, with minimal instruction, she caulked over the seams in Miss Nadia’s flesh with a tube of something that smelled foul but dried clear. She cinched Miss Nadia’s corset as tightly as she could, and helped Miss Nadia into her green damask dress, which was a bit heavy for spring, but which made her milk-pale skin seem to glow in the candlelight. She brushed Miss Nadia’s hair and pinned it up into a cascade of curls. She wound up the long, ropy cable and tucked it away under Miss Nadia’s vanity.
And then, after Miss Nadia went back down to dinner, Ada walked into the washroom and saw all the blood, and that was when Ada finally screamed.
Inside Albert’s Brain
It was Ada who answered Nadia’s bell, and it was Albert who answered Stephen’s.
Albert the chauffeur should have been sitting with Beatrice. It was technically his fault that she was so, er, ill. But he had to work, and besides, he didn’t really like Beatrice anymore. She was always angry with him, always sniping, always after him to get married, as if that had anything to do with anything. She’d been grousing at him all day, even after he’d gone and found the medicine she’d wanted. So he’d told her he couldn’t get away from work, and Marcus the butler had gone to sit with Beatrice; meanwhile, Albert sat around in the kitchen flirting with Ada, avoiding Mrs. Patterson’s sharp eye.
But then, while Mrs. Patterson was away, the bell rang for Miss Nadia, and Ada went up to answer it. And then another bell rang, and there was nobody but Albert in the kitchen, so up Albert went. He helped the sodden Mr. Vanderbilt out of his chair—the man kept talking about oysters and legs and Miss Nadia—and into the smoking parlor. Albert lit Mr. Vanderbilt’s cigar, and nodded for a while as the older man rambled about oyster meat.
“It’s so very grey, you see, just like Isaac’s heart, and—I say, was that a scream from upstairs? Go on and see that everything’s alright. Hup, and bring back some more brandy with you.”
Albert was, with great relief, just turning to leave, when the doors opened and Miss Nadia walked in, wheezing. Mr. Vanderbilt stood, a little too quickly. He caught himself on the back of his chair, steadied himself, and made an elaborate bow to Miss Nadia.
“What are you doing in here, my love? Surely you aren’t supposed to be in the smoking parlor? It’s no place for a lovely pearl like yourself.”
Miss Nadia picked her way over to a chaise and sat, avoiding Mr. Vanderbilt’s glassy eyes. “Nonsense, Stephen. I sit in here with Isaac frequently.”
Mr. Vanderbilt fell back into his chair, legs splayed. His Bostonian slur was even thicker than usual. “It’s odd. Isn’t it odd, Albert? That she doesn’t call him ‘Father’ or ‘Pa-pa’? I thought that’s what pearls are supposed to call their oysters. Isn’t it?”
Albert kept his gaze fixed on the mantle of the fireplace, with no idea of how to respond. Miss Nadia came to his rescue. “Stephen, you’re making Albert uncomfortable. Albert, you may leave.”
Miss Nadia favored Albert with a smile, and he bravely returned it before fleeing the room.
Inside Isaac’s Brain
As Ada hyperventilated, Isaac Cornette lay unconscious in the washtub. The ice under him cracked as it melted.
The ice came from the icemaker he’d invented to solve Nadia’s overheating problem. She’d been designed to walk around in flowing empire-waisted dresses, not in corsets and petticoats and hoops. He couldn’t have anticipated the way that fashion had changed since the design of the first Nadia model had been finalized. But he couldn’t have installed an extra fan without broadening her hips, and that simply wouldn’t do. Instead, he’d invented an icemaker, and ordered Beatrice to keep the tub filled with ice at all times, and to help Nadia into the tub whenever she started feeling faint. It was not a permanent solution, but it had done the trick so far.
Isaac lay unconscious on the ice, and blood oozed from his head. Usually, when Isaac slept, he dreamed of Nadia in a gauzy, romantic gown, her hair in cascading curls, sitting at his feet and gazing up at him adoringly. He’d wanted her to acclimate to society life before installing the 010.wife.prt% firmware update. He needed her to acclimate, and to understand the rules, so she could guide him through the complexities of the social scene—he was tired of being alone, but he’d been out of the loop for so long, he didn’t know the right people anymore. He’d become a wealthy old eccentric, invited to dinners only because of who his father had been, and it hurt. And so he’d been happy to wait, content to dream. He had waited for fifty years while he invented the perfect woman to warm his bed and his heart, to bring friendship into his life again. He had then been content to wait another six months, until the end of the London season, when, he’d thought, they could move to Philadelphia or Boston, away from the people who assumed she was his daughter or his ward or his niece. People he’d had to lie to for purposes of propriety. He’d been happy to wait until after that move to make her his wife.
But she hadn’t waited for him.
Isaac Cornette had lived his life in intellectual solitude, surrounded by inventions that didn’t appreciate him. He’d lived a life of quiet genius, taking his meals alone in his laboratory so as not to interrupt his work.
He died, goosebumped and alone, in a washtub filled with ice he’d made for the companion he’d booted up just six months before, even as his best invention tidied herself and went back down to dinner.
Downstairs, in the parlor
Nadia felt faint. She’d had to move her chaise closer to the fireplace because Stephen kept kicking it for emphasis, and she felt like the heat was smothering her. Something had cracked in her chassis when Ada cinched her corset; her chest let out a high whistle as she sighed. She’d have to ask Isaac to fix it later.
“…and you see, in this metaphor, you’re the diamond, you’re the diamond in the, in the pearl…”
Nadia had never seen Stephen drunk before. Neither had she been in a room alone with him before, not even when he’d proposed to her at last week’s picnic. Now that she thought about it, she realized she’d really only gotten engaged to him because he’d asked, and because she had an idea that she was supposed to say ‘yes’. His face was very red—almost the color that Isaac’s had been when Nadia announced the engagement—and he kept going on and on about some epiphany he’d had while she’d been upstairs.
She was having a hard time following him, and not just because he’d begun slurring his way through another nonsensical metaphor. She was distracted by a troubling thought.
“…and the diamond, it—oh, pardon me, dear, I hate to belch in front of a lady—the meat of the oyster is—”
“Stephen, where is your button?”
Stephen stopped midsentence, and the few parts of his face not already flushed quickly pinkened.
“My, er. My button, darling?”
“Yes. Your button. Where is it?”
Stephen stammered, staring into his brandy snifter. “I, ah, hm. I’m not sure that’s entirely—I mean to say—”
Nadia snapped her folding fan open and fluttered it near her face, hoping to cool off a bit. The too-warm room was beginning to blur at the edges.
“Oh, pish-tosh, Stephen. Just show me, if you can’t tell me.” She stood and took a step toward Stephen, who leapt from his chair and stumbled over the footstool, spilling brandy all down his front. He looked down in bemusement and began brushing at his shirtfront with a handkerchief, muttering about propriety.
Nadia froze, staring at his mole-covered, flaking scalp, clearly visible through his thinning hair. But something more than just hair was missing.
“Stephen. Do you not have an ‘off’ button?”
Stephen stared at her, brows knit in incomprehension. “A… a what?”
“An ‘off’ button. Like this one.” Nadia tilted her head and parted her hair to show him the red button that protruded from her skull, directly on top of her head.
Stephen vomited brandy all over the overstuffed chair he’d been sitting in.
“Oh! Oh, no, oh, Stephen.” Nadia ran to him. “What’s wrong with you? Is it—was it the oysters?” She reached for him, but he stumbled back, away from her touch.
“What’s wrong, Stephen?” A high-pitched whine undercut her words. She could barely catch her breath. She was so hot. She tried to take a deep breath, to get her auxiliary fans going, but Ada had laced her corset far too tightly, and she couldn’t ventilate. She looked up at Stephen, at his slack jaw and his flushed cheeks. He was so red.
“Stephen, is there… is there blood inside your head? Not just in your tanks? Does everyone have blood inside their heads?”
Upstairs, in the washroom
Ada couldn’t quite move. She was standing in the washroom, staring at Mr. Cornette’s corpse, lying half-submerged in rosy icewater. She couldn’t make herself look away until Miss Nadia kicked the door in, carrying a limp Mr. Vanderbilt in her arms.
“Help me with this, won’t you, Ada? We need to put him into the tub straight away.”
“Yes, Miss,” Ada replied unthinkingly. “Wait! Wait, Miss, you—begging your pardon, but you won’t fit both of them in there.”
Nadia frowned and dropped Mr. Vanderbilt unceremoniously to the floor.
“Right. Let’s get Isaac out of the tub, put in some fresh ice, and then put Stephen in. The ice-maker is there—” her voice caught for a moment as she lifted the sodden, stiffening Mr. Cornette from the tub and carried him through to her bedroom “— just fill it up with fresh ice, there’s a dear.”
Ada began shoveling ice into the tub, her mind spinning. There was simply too much going on. She didn’t know what to say, so she said the first thing that came to mind.
“Miss, if you don’t mind me asking—is, ah, is Mr. Vanderbilt dead as well?”
Miss Nadia’s head appeared around the side of the door. Her breath was quick and shallow, and a rising whine was sounding from under her bodice. “Is he what?”
Ada shook her head. What had she been thinking? A real lady’s maid would never ask such an intrusive question. “Never mind, Miss, it’s not my business.”
Miss Nadia walked in and hefted Mr. Vanderbilt from the floor, and to take another whining breath. “No, no, I just—what was that word you used?”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s not got any of whatever that is.” Miss Nadia smiled sweetly at Ada as she dropped Mr. Vanderbilt in the washtub. “He just needs to cool down and then recharge. His fans probably got overwhelmed by the fire in the parlor. It’s far too hot in there.” Miss Nadia was swaying on her feet, panting between every word. “It’s far too hot in here as well, I think.”
“Miss, are you quite alright?”
“I’m fine, dear, fine,” she said, not meeting Ada’s eyes. “I’m just going to go to the other room and plug Isaac in.”
Ada thought at first that she’d misunderstood. “Plug… what? I mean, pardon, Miss?”
Miss Nadia fanned herself as her face fell. Ada had never seen her quite so distressed before. “Oh, Ada, oh, dear. I think I’ve—I think I’ve damaged Isaac quite badly.”
Ada’s stomach sank. She didn’t think she could bear to tell Miss Nadia that Mr. Cornette was more than badly hurt. A real lady’s maid would know how to handle this, but Ada was starting to wonder if she was capable of being a real lady’s maid after all, if this kind of thing was in the job description. “What happened, Miss?”
Miss Nadia clutched at the doorframe. Near-perfect circles of color rose high on each of her cheeks. “It was just—his temperament circuit was stuck in a loop, it happens to me all the time. Whenever I get that way—shouting and saying I don’t want things to be as they are—Isaac does a hard reboot. He just turns me off and then on again. So when he was shouting and calling me all those terrible things, I just—well, Ada, I tried to reboot him.” Miss Nadia raised a hand to her forehead. “But he wouldn’t stand still for me, so I got the tall mirror there and used it to reach his off button. But he didn’t restart correctly, and he was wheezing and whining horribly, like a fan was malfunctioning, so I put him in the tub to cool down and rest and come back online.”
Ada opened her mouth, then closed it again, unsure of how to respond. She had only understood perhaps half of what Miss Nadia had said, but she could see that the woman was in hysterics. Miss Nadia’s paper fan moved faster and faster.
“Oh, but Ada! I’ve spilled his blood everywhere, and I don’t know where he gets refills for mine. He tops me off, you know, once a week, and—and I can tell that he’s low because he’s so very pale, but I don’t know where to get the refills, and I don’t even know where his port is so I can plug him in, and and and and and-” something clicked inside Miss Nadia’s neck, and her head twitched horribly again and again to the side, almost faster than Ada’s eye could follow.
Then, Miss Nadia stopped. She fell down stiff, and was still. Her mouth hung open, wider than it should have, and a thin stream of smoke wisped out of it. A spark shot out of her ear. Her eyes flashed green, and then they went terribly, finally dark.
Behind Ada, the ice crackled as Stephen woke up.
“What the devil—what is going on in here? Why am I—is this ice?” Mr. Vanderbilt hauled himself out of the washtub, scattering ice everywhere, and walked to where Ada was standing. He looked at Miss Nadia, paralyzed and smoking. He looked over her shoulder, and saw Mr. Cornette on the bed, soaking and bloody. In that moment, Ada knew-just knew-that she would go to jail. She saw the pointed finger coming from a mile away.
But knowing it was coming didn’t make it any easier. The ashen-faced Mr. Vanderbilt reached toward Ada and spoke in a low and furious tone. “What in God’s name is the meaning of this?”
Ada: An Interlude
Nobody had ever called Ada smart. “In the way” and “brown-haired” and (this from Albert, when he thought she couldn’t hear him) “I’d give it a go, if I was desperate enough.”
But never smart.
Nobody ever called her smart, because she was a kitchen girl, and nobody cares if a kitchen girl is smart. The only time anyone cares about a kitchen girl is if they think she’s horribly murdered her employer. Even then, they don’t care if she’s smart.
Nobody had ever called Ada smart. But that didn’t matter. She was smart anyway.
Back to the washroom
Ada screamed. She had screamed when she saw Mr. Cornette’s body, and that had been a real scream, but this scream put that one to shame. It put all the other screams across the whole of England to shame.
She screamed and screamed and screamed.
And everyone who was still in the kitchens came running.
When she saw Albert out of the corner of her eye, Ada lifted her hand, extended a finger, and pointed it at Mr. Vanderbilt.
“What’ve you done, Mr. Vanderbilt?” She threw a little extra bumpkin into her country accent. Several real, overwhelmed tears slipped down her cheeks. “What’ve you done to Mr. Cornette and Miss Nadia?”
Albert and Mrs. Patterson crowded behind Ada, staring at the grisly scenes in the washroom and bedroom. Mr. Vanderbilt threw his hands up, sputtering. “Wha—what do you—why, I haven’t done a blasted thing!”
Mrs. Patterson stepped forward, careful not to slip in the scattered ice. She spoke in a thick, calm brogue. “Now, Mr. Vanderbilt, there’s no need for such language.” She put a hand on Ada’s still-pointing finger. “What’s happened here, girl?”
And Ada told her. Without looking away from Mr. Vanderbilt, Ada explained all about how he’d gotten drunk and flown into a rage. About how Mr. Cornette hadn’t approved of the engagement, and so Mr. Vanderbilt had killed him.
“…and then, well, I suppose Miss Nadia will have tried to break off the engagement, won’t she? She doted on Mr. Cornette so, and with Mr. Vanderbilt having murdered him-”
“Now see here,” Mr. Vanderbilt tried to interrupt, but Mrs. Patterson silenced him with a look.
“Ada,” she said softly. “You go run and fetch a constable.”
This was too much for Mr. Vanderbilt to bear. “Now wait just one moment! I didn’t-I would never-”
Albert interjected. “You were quite drunk when I left you in the parlor, Mr. Vanderbilt. Talking all about how you’d like to be rid of Mr. Cornette.”
Ada nodded vigorously. “Oh yes, he kept going on and on about how he hated Mr. Cornette.”
Mr. Vanderbilt looked down at his hands, and mumbled to himself. “Now… now see here, old boy. Now just… see here.”
Mr. Vanderbilt’s solution
Stephen Vanderbilt was given to overindulgence, credulity, and metaphor.
He knew that he’d overindulged that night. He knew that something very upsetting had happened to him. But the oyster of events had slipped from the shell of his memory, and he couldn’t seem to get a good grasp on the slippery grey truth of it all. He was trying. He was sure that he’d never murder Nadia-she had never heard of the fuss with Tussy Hedren, and his mother approved of her, and that made her the perfect woman. He had been so looking forward to taking her home to Boston, and introducing her to all of his friends there.
But his memories were clouded with the deep purple of too much wine and then too much brandy, not too mention too many oysters. And there was Nadia, dead. And there in the other room was Mr. Cornette, also dead.
And here was Stephen, covered in blood and ice.
And here was Ada, tearful and leaning heavily on Albert’s arm.
“Alright. Alright, well, then, alright. Let’s—let’s see.” Stephen smoothed his moustache down, then reached into his pocket and withdrew a lovely emerald bracelet. He had intended it as a gift for Nadia—but no matter.
Stephen held out the bracelet to Mrs. Patterson. “My good lady, I would beg for your silence. What happened tonight is clearly an… an anomaly, and fetching a constable will not bring Mr. Cornette or Miss Nadia back to life.” Mrs. Patterson looked greatly affronted; but then her eyes flicked to Miss Nadia’s mouth, where another wisp of smoke was curling towards the ceiling, and she clasped the bracelet to her bosom.
“There’s a good woman. Now, would you please be so kind as to send a telegram to my father? He—he’s quite good at fixing things. Fixing problems.” Stephen tried to smile ingratiatingly at Mrs. Patterson, but she did not meet his eye. She bobbed a curtsy and squeezed past Albert and Ada.
Yes, Stephen thought. Father will fix this. Just like he fixed Tussy. When he looked back at the remaining servants, Stephen saw Albert had put a protective arm around Ada’s shoulder. Her eyes glinted and she rubbed her sleeve across her damp cheeks.
“And what about us, Mr. Vanderbilt?” Albert looked down in surprise as Ada spoke. “What’ll you be doing with us? We won’t have jobs now, what with Mr. Cornette not having an heir. And Mrs. Patterson might be able to retire on that bracelet, but we can’t do that, can we?” She dug an elbow into Albert’s side. “Can we?”
Albert coughed. “No, Mr. Vanderbilt, we can’t.”
“And,” Ada continued, “it might be awfully hard for us to remember that you didn’t murder anybody, when we’re out there looking for work. Awfully hard, Mr. Vanderbilt.”
Stephen considered the two of them. “Well then… well. I’ll just have to give you jobs, I suppose.” Ada nodded, confirming he’d reached the correct conclusion. “How would you like to come to Boston with me? And have jobs there? At my home?”
Ada pursed her lips. “What kind of jobs?” She was staring hard at Stephen, not blinking at all, and it made him profoundly uncomfortable.
“Well, I don’t know, ah—what do you do now? What do—er, what did you do for Mr. Cornette?”
Albert started to answer, but Ada cut him off.
“I’m a lady’s maid.”
Albert stared down at her. She stared defiantly back. Albert cleared his throat and turned back to Stephen.
“And I’m… I’m a valet. A gentleman’s valet.”
Stephen stared at Ada and Albert. They stared back. There was a long, thick silence.
“Well. Alright then. A lady’s maid and a gentleman’s valet. Mother will be very pleased.” Stephen fidgeted in his pockets. He pulled out his handkerchief, found it sopping wet, and let it drop to the tile.
Albert pulled out his own handkerchief, and handed it to Stephen with a flourish. “Sir, if you don’t mind my saying, it seems as though you’d benefit from a change of clothes. Shall I accompany you to Mr. Cornette’s suite, and we can see if he’s got anything suitable?”
Stephen mopped his face with the handkerchief. “Yes… yes, I suppose that’s best. Ada, pack your things. Father will be sending a carriage presently. He… he always does.”
Ada Pursues Her Ambition
Albert and Stephen left the washroom. Ada looked down at Nadia’s frozen face; then she looked into the bedroom, at the stiff, still body of Mr. Cornette.
She walked to Mr. Cornette and prodded his shoulder with the tip of one boot. Ada had never been so close to a dead body before. “What are you, then?” she muttered. She knelt to inspect his pockets.
Behind her, ice crackled on the washroom floor. There was a sound like a crystal glass being struck twice by a silver fork-then, a long, sweet chime. Ada froze. She turned slowly toward the washroom.
Miss Nadia stood in the doorway.
“I weren’t—er, I wasn’t doing anything. Miss.” Ada said, rising and straightening her skirts. Miss Nadia did not move, did not reply. “Miss? I was just checking on him, you know.” She took a hesitant step toward Miss Nadia, who stared straight ahead without saying a word. “Miss?”
Nadia opened her mouth, and that crystal sound came out of it. Her head tipped to one side, and she let out a whirring noise, like the spokes of a wheel spinning faster than the eye can see. Ada shrieked, darted across the room, and slapped her across the face.
Nadia’s eyes focused. “Ada?” she asked. Her voice sounded… fractured, somehow.
“Yes, Miss?” Ada whispered.
“My chassis,” Nadia said. “It’s damaged. You must fetch Misssssssssssssss—” her chin snapped to one side, and she broke off midsentence. She began again. “My chassis, it’s damaged. You must fetch Mrs. Patterson.”
“What d’you want with Mrs. Patterson?” Ada asked, her mind spinning.
“My chassis, it’s—”
“Damaged, yes,” Ada interjected, but Miss Nadia didn’t seem to hear her.
“—damaged. You must fetch Mrs. Patterson.”
Ada hesitated. She stepped around the back of Miss Nadia, who did not seem to notice. A trickle of blood ran down the back of Miss Nadia’s neck. It was very bright—almost more pink than red.
“Ada?” Ada did not reply. She waited. After a brief pause, Miss Nadia continued. “My chassis, it’s damaged. You must…”
Ada jumped onto Miss Nadia’s back. Miss Nadia toppled forward, cracking into the doorframe as she went down. Ada gripped Miss Nadia’s hair in both hands. Her fingers brushed something hard protruding from the top of Miss Nadia’s head, but she didn’t pause to find out what it was. With all the strength that comes of a lifetime hauling pots of peeled potatoes up and down the kitchen stairs, she wrenched.
Miss Nadia’s neck made a deep sound—a crunch-pop—and hung loosely in Ada’s grip.
Ada sat there, straddling Miss Nadia’s back, her fingers knotted tight in the other woman’s hair. Miss Nadia was once again still and silent. Ada caught her breath and blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. Perhaps, she thought with a small smile, I do have what it takes to be a lady’s maid after all.
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Hugo and Campbell award finalist Sarah Gailey is an internationally-published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and she is a regular contributor for Tor.com and Barnes & Noble. Her most recent fiction credits include Mothership Zeta, Fireside Fiction, and the Speculative Bookshop Anthology. Her debut novella, River of Teeth, was released in May 2017 by Tor.com Publishing. She has a novel forthcoming from Tor Books in Spring 2019. Gailey lives in Oakland, California. You can find her at www.sarahgailey.com or on twitter @gaileyfrey.