“Her House There by the Mountain” by Kerry C. Byrne
Anet stands at the head of the grave pit where they’ll bury the box: six inches by six inches. Her head is bowed, her lips glued shut in mourning and her feet a shoulder’s width apart. Around her buzz the whispers of the funeral crowd. The mourners shuffle into one another as they inch closer, trying to see the burial. Behind her, Petir wails loudly.
Pinching the material at the end of each of her fingers, Anet removes her gloves. The priest places the box in its net, murmurs his prayers, and allows the package to descend into the deep.
A book, a half-smoked cigar, and half the family fortune. Three final requests, interred.
Anet sinks her hand into the mound of fresh dirt before her and, crouched on her knees, tosses it in after the box. Collectively, the throng about her sighs and begins to disperse.
Anet stays on her knees at the hole. She breathes deep.
Mount Eorthe’s air is sharp today.
The descent from the mountaintop is silent. Night has crawled over them by the time they reach the valley, and Anet’s eyes are rubbed raw with exhaustion. She retires to the sitting room with the lawyer to work out the details of their mother’s passing. As they sort through papers, Petir pilfers what she can from Cypris Abbey. For an hour or two her men mill about; then, the younger daughter’s portion of their mother’s fortune approved by the lawyer and tucked safely into her carriage, she leaves in the bustle of dust and exclamations she came in. A pitiless sister.
The whiskey scalds Anet’s throat. The glass is frosted, the drink neat. It’s her fourth of the night. The lawyer left after one drink, having laid out the duties of an elder sister. The paperwork splays in front of Anet in some organized chaos; she sets her glass down on it and smiles at the ring it makes.
Anet nods to the urn sitting on the mantel.
“To the future, hm, you old cow?” she says.
She downs the rest of her drink, and the burn almost drowns the tart taste of funeral glue still clinging to her mouth.
The mountain grows taller over the Cypris Abbey valley.
“Madame, are you ready?” asks the housemistress from the doorway.
Anet smooths her hands over her bodice, correcting the wrinkles. Her maid pushes another silver pin into her hair, and Anet tips her head to the side so one muddy brown curl falls over her forehead.
“It’s here, then, is it,” Anet says.
The carriage is cold, gilded metal on the outside and almost too warm within: a bundle of soft fabrics and sweet scents. Anet climbs in, one hand poised over her hair, and her man closes the door behind her. She is alone with the glow of the carriage candlelamps.
“Good evening, my Lady,” coos the carriage. “Please verify your destination.”
Anet nods. Strands of blue and grey intertwine against the front wall of the compartment and form the carriage’s screen.
‘Welcome,’ the screen reads. ‘We are thrilled by your patronage.’
The light pad descends before her. Anet pulls her glove off and presses her hand on it.
“Destination verified. Would you care for music?”
Tonight, as the carriage glides through the valley towards New Ith, it’s Tchaikovsky’s Entrées des fées. Anet wonders if the old world was simpler.
They travel high up the mountain and into the city along twisting manmade paths. From the window, Anet counts the clouds they pass.
In the distance, she can make out the lights of New Ith in the dusk. Mount Eorthe is ravenous today, the city almost crumbling into the mountain face. The carriage turns a corner, and the glare grows stronger. The city smells rich, tinged with dust.
Once, her ears pop.
The bordello sits near the top of the mountain. It is not quite outside the city, nor does it belong to it. There is an air of privacy to its cobblestone driveway, and a quietness that Anet has not otherwise experienced in New Ith.
A servant opens the door and Anet takes his offered hand, climbing from the carriage to stand beneath the bordello. The building seems just as big as when she was a child. It hangs over her, some dark shadow. Despite this, however, it is well kept. The exterior is scrubbed and tidy, the windows sound. Her mother would have expected nothing less, and it is a pretty acknowledgement of those wishes.
“Thank you for your service, my Lady,” the carriage hums, then drives away.
The door looms. Anet misses the plain country dark.
Then, grasping the crisp metal doorknob, she lets herself in.
The woman waits in the reception room with her head bowed so low her nose touches the floor. She wears a widow’s bun, greying, and is dressed in simple black. Two men stand to the wall behind her.
“My Lady, welcome, and my condolences,” the woman murmurs.
Anet nods. “Thank you.”
“May I have permission, Lady?”
The woman rises gracefully. She touches her hands to her hair once to check for stray strands and then folds them neatly before her. Her eyes are sad at the edges and wrinkled beyond her years. She is lovely: she wears her structured nose under graceful eyebrows, and holds some irony in her slim mouth, which tilts to one side. She would be young, if not for her silver-strewn hair.
The woman curtsies and extends her hand palm up. “I am Mercuria, my Lady.”
“Good evening, Mercuria,” says Anet. She places her hand in Mercuria’s and the housemistress cups it warmly.
“I imagine you would like a tour?” The question is only in Mercuria’s tone. They both know Anet’s responsibilities.
Anet removes her wrap and allows one of the men to take it from her.
“The place is mine now,” she says with resignation.
In each room they visit, Mercuria waits at the threshold. Parlor, drawing room, dining room, billiard room, gentlewoman’s room. It is all grand and tasteful and quite like her mother.
Anet stands before the first of many overflowing bookshelves. She rests a hand on the spine of an old, yellowing tome. No one has used this room in many years, she knows. She thinks of her father, of how he cultivated this collection, building on the assortment started by her great-great-grandmother. This was the room where they kept her as a child, more often than not under his care. When he passed, her mother closed the room up and never returned to it.
Anet is pleased to see that despite this, not even this room has fallen to disarray.
“My Lady…” Mercuria says gently from the door of the library.
With her thumb, Anet rubs at a loose piece of binding on the top of the book. She does not turn around when she addresses the mistress of the house.
“May I ask a question?” asks Mercuria.
The woman hesitates.
“You may ask,” says Anet.
“What do you plan on doing with us?”
Anet plucks the book from its shelf. She opens it, running her fingertips over the cracked page. It gives, almost tearing.
“I don’t know,” says Anet. “I don’t know at all.”
When they move on, she leaves the book out.
The largest parlor is made of old-fashioned wallpaper and tired furniture. Nothing has browned or sagged, but it obviously wants to. The old city manor whirrs with little metal servants in the walls and smells of rotting money. In the corner, a grandfather clock ticks loudly, then chimes. Nine o’clock.
Lady Gorgen of New Ith’s collections are highly anachronistic. Antiques crowd the corners of the rooms. The room plays host to too many chairs in varying shades of dark wood, settees in dated upholstery, rough standing lamps that would be long rusted if they weren’t so well cared for. Rows of paintings dress the walls. Anet stands before them and grimaces at their faux-renaissance glory. One depicts Mount Eorthe’s founder in archaic style, bearing light to the colony capsules as they arrive at their new home. Another is the image of a man and woman embracing, their clothes in tatters but their faces peaceful, while a home burns down beyond them. Picture after picture tells stories of politics and romance in an overwhelming display of ill-conceived, old-fashioned sentiment. They will have to go.
Anet’s walls have always been bare.
Anet draws away from the paintings and goes to the window. Fingering the draperies, she squints out at the city shine before turning away. The light assaults the room in stripes of white: ghosts on the hardwood.
Somewhere above them, someone giggles.
“Is it lonely for you here?” Anet asks.
“More so now, my Lady,” the greying woman replies. But when Anet looks at her, she is smiling. Mercuria beckons her forward. “Come. There is more.”
They make their way upwards and then upwards again. Each floor is full of staircases, weaving up through the center of the bordello. The manor, cast so long ago into the side of the mountain, is made of dark wood hallways. They lead to rooms with no windows and plenty of privacy.
Behind one door, a muted moan rolls.
The skin at the back of Anet’s neck grows tight. “Customers?”
“No, my Lady. Not so soon after your mother. Absolutely not.” Mercuria rolls the fabric of her skirts between her thumb and her index finger. “But regardless of whether our doors are open, those who live within them…keep living.”
Anet’s lips grow tight.
“Will you be trying, tonight?” asks Mercuria.
“I don’t think so, no.”
Mercuria clasps her hands behind her back. She smiles warm. “Your mother never did, either.”
“Ah,” says Anet. “Is that so.”
“Have you ever—” Anet begins.
“Once. Not here—a place like it. Then I married on my sixteenth birthday.”
“She died five years ago,” Mercuria says.
Mercuria’s bun seems tighter now.
The top floor keeps the gardens. The doorknob is older than most others in the house. Like many items in Lady Gorgen’s manor, it might have been older than New Ith itself. A hint of rust marks the door’s seams, and it creaks when Mercuria pushes it open. She gestures for Anet to pass through.
“Good evening, my Lady,” sighs the garden. “Do you have any requests?”
Click, click, click. Lamplight floods the rooftop and blurs the stars. The garden is made up of wild, twining wood and vegetation that spreads up onto the mountain itself. A labyrinth threads the length of the garden, as was the style twenty years ago, but it has long been overgrown. A tree stands at its center, gnarled and bent.
“No,” says Anet. “Please disable the system.”
The darkness is soothing. Anet blinks red dots away until she can see in the moonlight. She pretends it is only moonlight, without the pollution of the city around them.
Anet steps into the labyrinth. She extends her arms to either side of her and brushes her fingertips against the leaves. The hedges curl over her, a great maw.
“Mercuria?” she calls. “Would you care to join me?”
The mistress of the house is silent, but follows Anet with gentleness as they wind through the green.
They sit beneath the tree, peering up through its branches. The ground beneath them is reassuring. Real rock, caked over and into the manor. Real dirt under her hands. Anet digs her fingernails into it, then releases, smoothing the torn-up pieces back down.
Mercuria sits with her knees to her chest, Anet with her legs before her and her ankles crossed. They are almost like children. Here, Mercuria is young, younger than Anet had thought, her neck a smooth curve. The soft lines meld with the complex ones. She is girlish, almost, in the shadows.
“Do you know how your mother came to own this place?” the girl asks.
Anet shakes her head. She picks strands of grass one by one.
“Would you like to?”
Curiosity almost overtakes her. It scratches from the back of her mind, eager. But then the quiet overtakes it, and anger spreads warmly down Anet’s spine.
“No,” she says. But this time, there is something almost like regret.
As the night grows darker, the city overtakes them. Anet squints at the sky. She tries to make out the stars, the familiar patterns that she’s drawn for herself since childhood. But New Ith’s lights grow brighter, and they dance on the mountain’s rock face.
“Why do you do this, here,” Anet leans against the tree. She counts the leaves. “Why do any of this.”
“Plenty of reasons.”
Mercuria sighs, placing her chin on her knees.
“I think…because there needs to be a place where moments can actually end. We are a house of dreams and instants. Patrons come and go. Relationships bloom and vanish. It’s important work, Anet. Being one person your whole life? It’s exhausting. We offer respite. Invention. Recreation. Even better, we offer time, bought and paid for. An illusion of control, compassion, as we are carried endlessly along.”
Anet goes quiet. She turns the thought over in her mind. Something in her reaches out to this woman, with her sadness mingled so tightly with her optimism, and her tightly run house of dreams.
“Really?” Anet asks Mercuria, smiling gently.
Mercuria is starry-eyed as she considers Anet’s question. Her eyebrows furrow and smooth as she works it through, as though no part of her thinks of giving Anet anything less than the truth.
“Well yes, but…” Mercuria pauses, then shrugs. She half-smiles back. “I suppose my mother also did it, too.”
Anet blinks. Her body tenses, and then she laughs loudly into the sky.
In the parlor, the old clock chimes twelve times. It echoes.
When Mercuria touches the back of Anet’s hand, their eyes meet. Two pairs of gloves, both black. Anet takes her hand. They sit in the garden’s hush. The sounds of the manor have faded. She can hear her thoughts, Mercuria’s breaths.
She returns to Mercuria’s earlier question, and considers what she will do with the manor. What she will do with her mother’s many fading chairs and chiming clocks. With the livelihood of her many employees, and of the woman who sits beside her. She did not expect to find a quietness here, when her thoughts carry a roar with the image of the bordello. She did not expect to find a question here, or things she would like to know.
She runs her thumb over the back of Mercuria’s hand.
“Thank you,” she says.
When the sun rises, Anet sits in the largest parlor alone and pours herself a glass of scotch. She settles into the most comfortable of the chairs and curls her feet under herself like a little girl. On her lap she spreads the yellowed book. Outside, the city wakes up. Its sounds rise, a rush of movement: today, it’s something like music.
Anet’s fingers play along her glass, touching the rim. Then she leans over to the side table and slides the drawer open. Inside lies a box of her mother’s cigars and a matchbook. As a child, Anet echoed her father’s dissent. A disgusting habit. She has never tried one for herself.
Anet places one cigar between her lips and, with a flick of her wrist, lights it.
|Kerry C. Byrne is an autistic, queer and nonbinary writer/cat lover living in Toronto. Their work is published in Fantasy Magazine, THIS Magazine, The Temz Review, and others. The rest of the time, they can be found working on Augur Magazine as publisher—or diving deep into the endless void that is their homebrew D&D world. Find them on Twitter as @kercoby.|