LAST EDITED ON Sep-10-20 AT 08:05 PM (EDT)
[ So this happened! Maybe I can get back to work on Act VIII now! --G. ]
Tuesday, March 30, 1790
Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie packet Dageraad
77 days out of Kaap de Goede Hoop, bound for Texel
Count Victor Scarlet sat at the minuscule writing desk in his berth, studying the curious document he'd been given at the end of his recent mission in Fusō.
It had been a curious expedition to a curious land, the first time he had ever visited that reclusive island nation. The humans who governed Fusō refused entry to all foreigners save a few Dutch traders, which was why the Count had taken passage there and back in a VOC packet. Even they were restricted to a single tiny artificial island just offshore—but once within sight of the mainland, that hadn't been a problem for Victor. He hadn't had any contact with the place's human rulers, anyway. His business had been strictly with... other local potentates.
At any rate, it was a difficult job done well, and Victor could look back on it with some satisfaction—but the immense amount of time required to get there and back was another matter. After more than a year away, Count Victor itched to return to his home and family a little more each night. Not only did he miss them, he didn't like the sound of the last news from Gallia he'd heard... and to be brutally honest, he had to admit he was growing quite weary of the company of these Dutchmen. They were a coarse and fractious lot, even by the standards of seafarers. They were never quite hostile to their peculiar passenger—he was paying them far too well for that—but they were inclined to be discourteous.
Ah, well, he thought. Another six weeks or so and I'll be rid of them, and they of me.
Victor pushed thoughts of his enforced shipmates out of his mind and concentrated on the scroll. It was a Fusōnese astronomical table, listing the islanders' names for various celestial phenomena and some very accurate measurements of stellar and planetary movements made by their astronomers in the past few years. The Count, a keen amateur astronomer and correspondent of the Herschels, found it fascinating, but also challenging, since his grasp of the Fusōnese language was questionable at best. He'd been working at it—gods knew he had nothing but time on his hands at present—but it was so different from any of the dozen other languages he knew that learning it was akin to starting over from zero.
He was puzzling over what appeared to be a description of the phases of the moon when there came a small, timid knock at his cabin door.
"Enter," he said, without looking up from the scroll. He knew who it would be. Only one member of the ship's crew ever entered this cabin, and always after that same weak, hesitant knock: the cabin girl, a sad-faced creature who brought him his meals, took away the dishes, and generally did what she could to look after the passenger.
With the best will in the world, though, "what she could" was not very much. She couldn't have been much older than ten, if that: a tiny, fragile-looking thing, ill-suited, the Count would have thought, for the rigors of life at sea. She never spoke to Victor except as her job required it, and when she did, it was in a low, lifeless monotone. Her facial expression was always, without fail, a solemn demi-frown, grey eyes downcast.
Now she entered with Victor's lunch on a tray, as she always did. Victor moved his work slightly to make room for the tray, but otherwise did not acknowledge her. This was not out of coldness or hauteur, as an outside observer would probably have assumed, but because when he had attempted to make her acquaintance on the first night out of the Cape, it had caused her such visible discomfort that he'd quickly abandoned the effort. Being ignored seemed to be the only mode of interaction she felt comfortable with. As a result, he didn't even know her name, for she never volunteered it, he never felt he could ask, and the Dutchmen only ever addressed her as "girl", in the harshest available tones.
She didn't even like to be looked directly at, which meant that Victor had been forced to surveil her covertly, watching her out of the corner of his eye as she tottered across the narrow space between the cabin door and his desk. What he had seen over the past 77 nights troubled him.
The child had been more or less presentable when he'd first seen her, on the first night out of the Cape. Her clothing was of poor quality, just a cheap dress, an apron, and wooden shoes, but it had been reasonably clean, as had been her person. Now, two and a half months into the voyage, it, and she, were filthy. It seemed as if no care whatever had been taken of either for the whole of the voyage.
It troubled Victor, but at the same time, he didn't see what he could do. The girl herself refused any but the most cursory of social contacts with the passenger she was charged with looking after, balking like a frightened horse at any attempt to get to know her. He didn't think going to the ship's officers would do any good; if anything, it might bring more trouble down on her head. He had no idea why the Dutchmen seemed to have such disdain for the poor girl, but evidently they did.
To be sure, it was no concern of his. He was merely a paying passenger, and it was not for him to question the running of the ship or the handling of its personnel. But all the same, watching the poor girl's condition deteriorate as the voyage wore on, the Count's heart—never the hardest—went out to her. He wished there were something he could do to help her, mysterious little creature that she was. Who was she? Where did she come from? She spoke Dutch, what little he'd heard from her, with such an absence of accent that it was almost an accent in itself. Had she chosen this miserable life? If so, what on Earth had possessed her? If not, what bastard had chosen it for her?
Victor was jolted from his reverie by a crash. Turning, he saw that his cabin maid had fallen to the deck, and his lunch with her. He sprang to his feet, about to ask out of sheer reflex if she were all right, but immediately saw that she wasn't. She hadn't made the slightest attempt to catch herself, and now was making no effort to get up; she was just lying there, crumpled on the deck, the spilled tray lying just beyond her outstretched hand. She hadn't tripped or misjudged the roll of the ship, as Victor had first assumed; she'd collapsed.
Without hesitation, the Count picked her up and carried her to his bunk. Even as small as she was, he was shocked by how little she weighed. She seemed to be made of little more than bone and hide inside her filthy sack of a dress. As he lay her gently down on the straw-stuffed mattress, her short sleeves rode up her thin arms, and he noticed livid bruises above her elbows—bruises that matched a very distinct pattern, the kind left behind when one is seized violently by the arms and shaken hard.
So. She's not just been neglected, but abused, Victor thought to himself. He might have guessed as much. Furious with himself for dithering about the girl's obvious plight for as long as he had, he went to the half-open door, wrenched it open, and leaned out into the narrow companionway. Spotting one of the Dutch officers passing on some inscrutable ship's business, he shouted,
"You there! Fetch me a bucket of hot water and some clean rags, and be quick about it."
The man was so startled, and Victor so forceful, that it didn't even occur to him to object that this was not his job. Not until he had returned from the galley with the demanded items did he remark,
"Next time get the girl to fetch your shaving water, my lord. It's no job for an officer."
"For the amount I paid your captain to charter this vessel, friend, you'll do as you're told," Victor replied curtly. "Go and tell the mate I wish to speak with him at once."
Again the sailor seemed like he would object, but, seeing the borderline-murderous look in the passenger's crimson eyes, he decided against it, muttered something vaguely grudging-sounding, and hurried away.
The mate kept him waiting, but Victor had assumed that he would. Out of all these disagreeable Dutchmen, Van Zandt was the most disagreeable. But he was also the one responsible for the management of the crew, something the drunkard of a captain was more than happy to leave to his entire discretion.
Besides, Victor could use the time. He had work to do before the water got cold.
It was a long while since Count Victor Scarlet had bathed a child. His own daughters were approaching three centuries old now, long past the age where they required their father's assistance. Even poor, mad Flandre could look after herself to that extent. Still, he'd always maintained that part of the glory of being a vampire was that most skills didn't fade, however long they were left to lie fallow, and so it proved now.
Stripped of her irredeemable garment, the cabin maid was even more bedraggled than she'd appeared with it on, with easily counted ribs and more bruises than Victor cared to tally. Her hair, which he'd taken for blonde-but-filthy, turned out once washed to be a pale iron grey, a most unusual color for a human child. Most troubling of all, her back was striped as from a bosun's whip, with scars underneath the fresh stripes telling of other, older punishments in the same vein. By the time he'd finished cleaning her up, dressing the worst of her hurts, and wrapping her up in his blanket for warmth, Victor was in a towering rage, a fair bit of it directed at himself.
Van Zandt chose that moment to show up, appearing in the doorway with a grunt of, "Third says you want to see me, your lordship?" Then, before Victor could reply, or the mate notice the look on his passenger's face, Van Zandt spotted the girl bundled up in the Count's bunk.
The redheaded young Dutchman had a face that was all too ready to match his hair, and it did so now. "What's this?" he demanded. "Lying around when you ought to be working, is it?"
"Keep your voice down, you oaf," Victor snapped. "Outside. Now."
Before Van Zandt could object, the Count pushed him out of the cabin with a flattened hand on his chest, followed him out, and swung the door to behind him.
"What are you blackguards playing at on this ship?" Victor demanded. "That child has been savagely mishandled. She doesn't look like she's had a single square meal in the last year or more, her clothes were nothing but the vilest rags, and she's been beaten to within an inch of her life! Is this the sort of treatment the 'gentlemen' of the Honourable East India Company customarily mete out to children? Well, sir? Answer me!"
Van Zandt knew enough to be concerned that this particular passenger was so perturbed, but he was a choleric sort of man himself, and in the face of such a peremptory challenge, that part of him gained the upper hand over the natural prudence of a man confronted with an angry vampire.
"Watch your tone, your lordship," he replied. "How we handle our cabin help is no concern of yours."
"I will not stand by and permit such brutality to go on," Victor shot back. "It is to my eternal shame that I failed to recognize it up to now." Drawing himself up to his full, impressive height, his wings instinctively spreading as far as the narrow passageway would allow, he went on with a colder sort of fury, "That child is under my protection now. If any further harm comes to her, you will answer to me."
Van Zandt's red face went redder still. "See here, your lordship. Count or not, you're just a passenger on this ship. You've no right to go dictating. Now, I paid good money for that little wretch in the Cape, and it'll be years before I get decent value out of her. If you think you can just walk in here—"
"How much?" Victor interrupted him.
Van Zandt blinked, his brewing tirade derailed. "Pardon?"
"How much did you pay for her, you swine!" roared the Count.
The mate looked back at him blankly for a moment, then smiled a smile that made Victor want to rethink his views on interpersonal violence.
"Ahh, now I understand," said Van Zandt. "His lordship's a bit peckish, is he?"
Even Van Zandt realized he might have gone a step too far when the Count seized him by the throat and lifted him bodily off the deck, his arm as straight and as rigid as an iron rod.
"How dare you?" Victor snarled. "Are you perhaps confusing me with one of those animals from House Dracul? I am a Scarlet, sir! We do not prey on the helpless!" His upper lip curling back from one razor-pointed canine, the Count added in a calmer, smoother, deadlier voice, "We prefer more robust game. If you wish to know more specifics, then pray sir, push me that final inch."
"I-I-I didn't mean anything by it I'm sure," Van Zandt sputtered.
Victor stared redly up at him for a moment longer, then slowly lowered his feet back to the deck.
"Of course you didn't." Releasing Van Zandt's neck with stiffened fingers, he withdrew his hand very slowly, maintaining eye contact all the while. "Now then. I asked you a question, mijnheer."
Feeling at his neck, Van Zandt replied hoarsely, "Thirty... thirty guilders."
"Very well." The Count fished in his purse and flung a handful of coins at the man's feet. "There's thirty-five, which includes an extremely generous estimate of what it's cost you to keep her. Take it and begone."
Van Zandt made one last attempt to get back his position. "Supposing she's not for sale."
"This is not a negotiation, Meneer Van Zandt," Victor replied, folding his arms, his fury gone cold again. "Your options are to recoup your cost, which is more than you deserve, and forget the matter entirely, or spurn my gold and face the consequences of your insult of a moment ago."
"I see. Well, when you put it that way..." Keeping a wary eye on the Count the whole time, Van Zandt crouched and collected the money. "... I suppose we have a deal." With a faint smirk, he added, "Ordinarily the done thing among gentlemen is to shake hands on—"
"Get out of my sight," Victor snapped. "And tell your men to keep out of my way. I shall be looking after myself for the rest of the voyage."
He waited until Van Zandt beat his retreat back above decks, then sighed with the draining of tension and returned to his cabin. He'd have to sleep with one eye open for the rest of the trip, he supposed, but that was all right. He'd done it before, under far more trying conditions than these.
The girl was still asleep when he returned. After regarding her for a long, thoughtful moment, he sat down at the desk and resumed his studies.
She woke an hour or so later to find him sitting there, not reading, but amusing himself with a knife. For a few minutes, she kept silent, watching as he twirled the blade skillfully between his fingers, rolling it from knuckle to knuckle, occasionally flipping it in the air. Despite the undeniable fact that it was a weapon, there was something soothing about the way it moved, almost magically, in his big, long-fingered hand, its polished flanks glittering in the lamplight.
Presently he noticed movement, ceased fiddling with the knife, and turned to look. The girl was sitting up with the blanket pulled up to her chin; at the sight of him taking notice of her, she started trying to get out of his bunk.
"No, no, child," said the Count, as gently as he could. "Stay there. You need rest." Then, realizing he'd instinctively addressed her in Gallic, he repeated the instruction in Dutch.
"I can't..." she began, and to his surprise, the words were not Dutch but Gallic, with the same utter absence of accent. Je ne peux pas was as far as she got before she trailed off, warily watching the door.
"You needn't worry about that thug Van Zandt or his men any longer," Victor told her. "I've purchased your freedom."
At that, she looked directly at him for the first time, her grey eyes solemn and knowing beyond her years. "You mean you bought me for yourself."
The accusation stung, though it didn't trigger a surge of rage as Van Zandt's similar remark had done. Victor knelt next to the bunk, careful not to reach for her or do anything that might seem like a predatory gesture.
"No," he said. "I bought you for yourself. You should stay with me for the rest of this voyage, for your safety, but after that... if you have anywhere to go, I shall help you get there."
"There's nowhere," she replied.
"In that case, I'm responsible for you until you're of age to make your own way in the world. Allow me to introduce myself: I am Count Victor Scarlet, of Alsace. My demesne lies near Colmar. Do you know it?" She shook her head, eyes still fixed warily on his face. "No matter. You'll see it soon enough. I believe you'll like it. It's beautiful country."
"Meneer Van Zandt..." she said, trailing off again.
"I'm not afraid of Van Zandt," Victor said. "Nor need you be, now. He knows that if he so much as shows his face in that door..."
With a sudden, almost invisibly fast flick of his hand, the Count threw the knife he'd been holding. It embedded itself hilt-deep in the door with a hollow thwack, straight through the center of one of the stout oaken planks.
"... that for Meneer Van Zandt," he finished, smiling at her.
"The crew wouldn't like that," she said.
"If I have to, I'll deal with the lot of them and sail this hulk back to Holland by myself. Come what may, no further harm will come to you. You have my word."
"I..." the cabin maid said, and then, her eyes filling with tears, she turned on her side and began, at last, to cry.
She's human, after all, thought Victor kindly.
When she'd cried herself out, he said, "You should eat something. Regain your strength. It's a fair journey from where we'll make landfall to my home." So saying, he placed his reassembled lunch tray on the bunk in front of her. "This is a bit disorganized, I'm afraid, but it can't be helped," he told her, then added with a wink, "Someone dropped it."
Her face going red, the girl looked awkwardly away, then began to eat—at first tentatively, then ravenously.
"What is your name, by the way?" Victor asked when she'd finished and he was removing the tray.
"I... don't have one," the cabin maid replied.
Victor arched an eyebrow. "None? None at all?"
She shook her head. "None."
"Hm. Well, that will never do. We shall have to call you something at Maison Écarlate, shan't we? Would you care to choose one for yourself?"
She shrugged, a little helplessly, then said, "I'm tired."
"Then sleep," Victor told her. "You're safe here."
She seemed to weigh that for a moment, then turned back to face the wall again and pulled the blanket almost over her head.
Smiling faintly to himself, Victor put the tray outside—he'd have to figure out a way to secure this cabin, for the times when he would have to go to the galley for provisions, and make all haste on those errands—then returned to his desk, rummaged in his case, and produced a small vial of blue-black liquid. Dipping a freshly trimmed quill pen in it, he turned to a blank page of his journal and began to write.
Remi, are you there?
A minute passed, and then, as if written by an invisible hand, a reply appeared below it:
Victor? Is there a problem?
Naturally she would assume so; their supply of these inks was so limited that they had agreed to use them only in emergencies. Shaking his head, though she obviously couldn't see him, Victor replied,
Not exactly, but there's been a development you should be aware of. I
He paused, unsure how to proceed, for long enough that Remi's handwriting appeared after the "I". You what? Victor?
Sorry. Thinking. I seem to have purchased my cabin maid.
Fully five minutes went by.
Victor chuckled in spite of himself. Not enough ink. In a good cause, I assure you. Ten years old and so unloved she hasn't even a name to call her own.
That's terrible. Still, we aren't running an orphanage, Victor.
Victor sighed. Hardheaded Fleming merchant princess to the end. Yes, yes. I'm sure she'll be glad to earn her keep.
Didn't you tell me Remilia needs a new lady's-maid?
Five minutes later, he put the journal aside, leaving it open to dry; capped what little exchanging ink remained; and returned to his studies. As he retrieved the scroll, his eye fell across the freshly written journal page. —so unloved she hasn't even a name to call her own.
Victor considered the Fusōnese lunar chart, then smiled.
Wednesday, May 19, 1790
near Colmar, Alsace
It was just past midnight when the Scarlet carriage rattled to a halt before the house's great doors. While the coachmen busied themselves with the baggage, Count Victor helped his young companion down from the driver's seat, where she'd sat beside him throughout the run up from the stagecoach station in Colmar.
"Now, remember what I told you," he said kindly, kneeling to straighten her travel-rumpled clothes. "My daughter can seem a bit... intimidating... at first, but she's really very sweet at heart. I'm sure you'll be great friends. Just... give her a chance. Are you ready?"
She nodded. "Yes."
"Good girl. Come on, then. Let's go and meet her."
The lady in question was standing at the second-story balcony rail in the front hall when the Count and his charge entered. With a joyful cry of "Papa!" Lady Remilia Scarlet the Younger hopped onto the north banister and slid down, alighting in a flurry of pink ruffles and red bows before him.
"You're finally home! How was Fusō?" she asked, embracing her father.
"A strange land full of strange people and stranger customs," Victor replied, returning her embrace. "I quite enjoyed it. The voyages there and back... not so much," he added, wobbling a hand.
Remilia laughed, then noticed the small, pale figure standing beside and a little behind her father. She was so short herself that she hardly needed to bend, let alone crouch, to get her eyes on a level with the stranger's, despite the near-three-centuries' difference in their ages. As her crimson gaze met the newcomer's grey one, she saw the girl firmly control an urge to flinch, looking steadily back at her.
"Who's this?" she wondered, then reached and fluffed one of the decorative frills on the grey-haired little girl's apron. "And why is she dressed as a maid?"
"She is one," Victor said. "Or she will be, once her training's finished. Remilia, meet your new lady's-maid." Placing a gentle hand on the girl's shoulder, he went on, "Her name is Sakuya."
"A Name to Call Her Own" - a Gallian Gothic Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
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