Victor closed the door to his room and calmly fetched a handkerchief for the child as she struggled to contain herself. She flinched from him as he presented the fresh white cloth to her and still shook as he motioned for her to take it. Pulling a chair from the corner of the large room, he sat across from her and waited as she steadied herself. She did not look at his face as she wiped at the blood and tears staining her blackened face. Likewise, Victor waited until she was calm before looking her over. The child seemed resigned but she did not move to speak or even to move as she stared sadly at the floor.
“You tell me so many things in this house and yet you say so little, I find,” Victor said, finally. “You tell me whatever I wish to know and yet when you are compelled to speak on your own, you seem to only half speak. You talk as though the words themselves might come back to haunt you. To hurt you as badly as you hurt now. I know where these marks come from. I know why you sit here ashamed, even if the person who did it had never told me the reason. Does he tell you why?”
“No,” the child muttered, miserably. “His reasons are lies.”
“The man who hit me was the same,” Victor sighed, shrugging. He looked out at the brighter day. It was blustery but far less than it might otherwise be. Construction might be slower today but it would progress. He had good men to work for him. They were more than capable and the job was sure to be finished soon. “I have a new proposition for you, one I think you may appreciate more. First, tell me truly, the woman who brought you to me is not your mother, no?”
“My mother is gone,” the child said, her voice heavy with despair. Victor nodded. “She takes what we earn to make him go away. He leaves for days but comes back when he needs more. He says I must pay my debt.”
“And this debt, do you know what it is? He has, no doubt, kept the amount a secret.”
“He says that I live off his charity,” the child said, new tears welling up in her eyes.
Before him was the child he’d spent months consulting with now. The blackened ring around her eye made her seem older than she was and yet her face was still that of a babe. Of a child too young to know this kind of life. To know the cruelty and suffering that she did. In that moment, Victor saw her face transformed. She would not look like his beloved Annabelle but she could be someone as lovely one day. He felt no desire for her as she could be but he could see the beauty that she would one day have, should she grow to be that old. And a part of him shuddered at the thought. The child before him was just a girl now, performing errands for a meager wage that turned into bruises but that would not last forever. She would be a woman eventually. A young woman with large expressive eyes the color of rich earth. She would become a woman with strong legs from her lifting and her slender frame would become one that would be desirable by many. She would turn into that woman who spent her nights scrubbing amid the stares and the casual invasions of the men who would make her life miserable. Men who might believe themselves to be charitable.
“Well then perhaps his charity has too high a cost,” Victor replied, his voice taking on an edge. The child looked at him with fear in her eyes. “Calm yourself, chéri. I am not interested in giving you more to fear.”
“The man who owns the house will be angry,” she stammered. “He says that I owe far too much to pay. That no one might be able to pay him, not even you.”
“Allow me to see if I can’t change his mind on that, child,” Victor said, calmly.
Inside, he felt a surge of something like viciousness but it was more devious that this. More malicious. He wondered if Charlotte felt like this often. If perhaps she wasn’t addicted to this sense of power that being vindictive gave her. It was satisfying but it also felt obscene in front of a bloodied child. Victor swallowed the feeling before continuing.
“You said that you knew who owned these cards?”
“I know the one who made them,” the child corrected. “My memère made this deck. I thought it long lost. Stolen when she was lost, long before you came.”
“Then did you know the one who stole them?”
“My memère said I was not allowed to speak to her,” the child said, cringing. She frowned. “It does not matter now, though. She is gone.”
“You seemed as though you were looking to read it,” Victor said. “Do you know how? Were you taught?”
“I read very well,” the child nodded.
“Then here is my proposition for you, chéri,” Victor said, leaning forward. “I know nothing of these cards but the one who gave it to me wished for me to have it. I don’t know what manner of message or warning she meant for me to have but I feel the time has come for me to know. If you read this for me, I will see to it that your creditor is paid what he deserves and you may move into the house and into one of the lower guest rooms until the staff quarters are complete.”
“I can read it,” the child said, her lips trembling. “I will but he will be so cross. He has already taken the money that I had. I cannot give him more and he will be so angry if I do not return.”
“Stay calm, child,” Victor replied, surprising even himself with his demeanor. It was almost comforting. “The world of grown men has its own language. Allow me to speak it for you and you never need worry about bruises again. Will you read this for me that I may understand it?”
Reluctantly, the child looked over the card. Her face was a mask of sadness for a moment but shortly after, she seemed intrigued. The expression in her brown eyes seemed to flash and she looked up at him. Still fearful, she laid the card before him.
“There are many things to come, many changes that will come to pass,” she said, her voice small and nervous.
“These things are dangerous then?”
“Some of them,” she admitted. She looked deeper at the card, seeming as though she were being spoken to more by it than him. “This is not a warning. It is a promise that all things that begin must come to an end. Something that has been has come to the end and new life comes from it. You are changing and those things that you once loved are gone. The new things you will love are being seeded but that which has come before must die for it to grow.”
She passed the card to Victor to look over. He looked over the face of the reaper in the card and wondered where anything to do with love could be found. What seeds could such a harsh-looking figure ever foster?
“Is this what your memère had told you about this card?” he sighed.
“No, sir,” the child said, sheepishly. “The card reads different for everything and everyone. They always do. This one tells that death comes but life begins again. Something has gone on too long and must die.”
“I imagine that might be many things, child,” Victor said, quietly. “And that is what I wished to know, chéri. I will arrange to have my driver take you home later where you might pack anything you wish to bring here.”
“I have nothing, sir,” she said, the words almost silent.
“Then I will inform the housekeeper to prepare the lower guest room downstairs for you to stay in,” he said, his voice taking on a more firm quality as though he assumed that he was already speaking to her. “I will see to it that it is ready for you to retire to. You currently work as a between maid, correct?”
“I will officially change your title to that a chamber maid,” Victor said. “I’ll ensure that you may clean my room alone, however, you may ask for assistance if you wish. You can assist with the room that my sister currently resides in and if she should behave strangely at all, I want to know immediately. If there is anything at all amiss in my room, tell me immediately. Charlotte is dangerous, child. You are never to be with her alone, do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” the girl nodded.
“Very well,” he nodded, motioning to get up. “For the sake of appearances, tidy what you might find in here, child. Nurse your wounds if need be and if you are in pain, see the house nurse. I will attend to the business of your former residence and see that it is properly dealt with.”
Victor left the child in silence, feeling a swell of something vicious growing in him. He had done well to hide from the fragile girl his true feelings but in her face, he could see the fear. He felt the overwhelming sense of anger surging in him at the thought of what she must have felt. He had done nothing when it was his beloved. He’d felt powerless then. He was not so powerless now. Not as powerless as the brute who had laid a hand on his staff had been. As he walked tall, he wondered if Charlotte’s tales of Mother were true. If it was indeed her spirit he felt within him now as he set forth to ruin someone. He was surprised how perfectly satisfying malice could feel.