"Unhand me, sir!"
"A moment!" the Prince boomed.
The commotion outside stopped. Ghoulrich looked at him and smiled.
"You sounded just like the late King."
The Prince got up and began pacing. He put on his mask, adjusted it, then turned in exasperation toward the window.
"Why are they burning the city?"
"Some thought the Tower going out was a mistake," Ghoulrich shrugged. "They thought by setting fires of their own they were helping your father stay alive. Others were stealing, or trying to stay warm. Still others..."
"What?"
"...just like fires. And took advantage of the opportunity."
A man caged within his body, was how the Prince appeared. But so are we all, Ghoulrich reflected, watching him. And for those of us who are sick, the zoo is in flames, and the zoo keeper, if one ever existed, has fled.
"If you would help me," he ventured, "perhaps there is a way we could make each other happy."
"I granted that curate of yours preferment. I had that other man employed for you as well. Is that the sort of favor you wish? More high places for your friends?"
"Oh no. That was only repaying a debt. Doing good by stealth. I have no desire to be a courtier."
"What, then?"
"Sire?" a voice asked more timidly.
"Fauntleroy!" the Prince commanded, and as the last syllable of the name left his lips the zing of steel being unsheathed indicated the door was still effectively barred. He turned and laid his hands on young Ghoulrich's shoulders. "You are devious, Bradley. I am not unaware of your activities here. You speak to people. You wheedle information from them. You have been working on some plan. Once that door opens it will not close again for weeks. Months, even. If you have something you wish to propose, do it now. You may not get another chance to see me alone."
So Ghoulrich, with time pressing, and only the ugly room as witness, laid out his ambitious scheme for saving them both.It was the Day of Atonement, the vagaries of the Hebrew calendar having caused it to slip a season this year and appear in winter rather than in the winey sunshine of fall. One was not supposed to eat, and though Hepzibah was completely unobservant in all other ways--"Mumbo-jumbo," she scoffed, when her father had tried interesting her in the ritual of the Temple--she did maintain her fast from the previous night. Thank God the days are shorter, she thought, safe and snug inside her furs as she negotiated the still-smoking streets of the city. As after some great binge, the community seemed to have taken to its collective bed. "Mourning," historians would later say, but hungover was more like it. Who could have predicted this strange reaction to the Sovereign's death? His presence, so long a fact of life it was taken for granted, like gravity or the afternoon post, had in recent years dissolved into the national psyche so that he was not only a ruler on high, but an intimate part of the citizenry itself; thus, when news came that he had gone, people slumped as if each had had a portion of their soul snatched away. There followed an orgy. The word was used with many qualifications. An orgy of grief. Of self-pity. Of terror. These were, in fact, wishful afterthoughts. An orgy, plain and simple, was indeed what had happened. An inexplicable explosion, lasting almost a week, from which people were only now waking, covering their eyes, remembering their folly, or trying not to, then groaning and rolling over.
Hepzibah stepped over two such specimens, still loosely tangled in the remnants of an embrace. Should I send my money abroad? she was wondering. The state of the markets was in flux. Of the new King, nothing was known. Order had been restored, and that was encouraging. Still, she sensed a void beneath the very cobblestones on which she walked. But everything rings hollow in the cold.
I shall die of hunger, she thought, having missed both breakfast and lunch. Fasting bent her mind toward melancholia, which was the point of this holy day, no doubt. Soon I shall brood on all the gloomy, questionable things I have done this past year, then ask forgiveness. But of whom? It hardly matters. It is the asking that is important. And when the sun goes down I will eat a hearty meal. Or two.
She rapped on the door, but no one was home. No servant, even. Hiking up her coat, she stepped over a small bundled border of shrubbery and peered in a window which, despite the proscriptions of national mourning, was not yet shuttered. There was no furniture, just a large pile of umbrellas lying in the center of an otherwise empty room.
Well at least it is the right house, she reasoned.
"May I help you?" someone asked.
Hepzibah turned and recognized Lady Tabitha de Bourneville, whose likeness had recently adorned the society pages. She also wore fur, but with a leopard skin muff rather than the simple black gloves the moneylenderess favored.
"I am looking for the Earl of Choir," Hepzibah said.
"So am I," answered Lady Tabitha. "He is not here?"
"No."
"I have a key. We will wait together."
She opened the door and stood to one side. Hepzibah, surprised at this welcoming gesture, passed close, registering in a glance the highborn woman's fine taste in clothes, her clear skin and great regularity of features, as well as an almost killing thinness, visible even through a thick winter coat, and even more noticeable once Lady Tabitha had divested herself of her stole.
Why, she is wasting away, Hepzibah thought.
"Would you like tea?" Tabitha called. "There are no servants yet. But I have laid in a few bits of crockery and some biscuits."
"Thank you, no," Hepzibah called back.
Despite the demurral, Tabitha came out with an enormous tray of tea things, two pitchers, cups and saucers, milk, sugar, and the tin of biscuits...all clattering as her thin arms trembled supporting the weight.
"I did not mean to trouble you," Hepzibah said. "I should really come back later."
"I have no idea when he will return," Tabitha said. "He keeps peculiar hours. I myself have not seen him for several days. I had hoped to find him here. To be honest, I do not really want to be left alone right now. It would do me good if you stayed, whoever you are."
Hepzibah introduced herself, merely saying she had business with the Earl.
"He owes you money, I suppose."
"Yes," she answered, with some surprise.
"He owes everyone money."