Despite Lady Merrion’s best efforts, she and I became separated shortly after the dinner hour, and I found myself taking coffee in the narrow conservatory with our hostess, Lady Xavior, and a flock of ladies from the surrounding estates to whom I had not been properly introduced. The conversation, which is never torrential at these out-of-season dinner parties, had swiftly and emphatically stagnated on the subject of some sentimental novel that had been enjoying an inexplicable popularity that year. I could find no inoffensive way to extricate myself from a situation that promised to bore me into an early grave; my only hope of rescue was dashed when Lady Merrion stuck her head through the glass conservatory doors, observed the company within, and took flight after mouthing something that looked suspiciously like “sauve qui peut.”
Lady Xavior, a little woman with abnormally large hands, was making a show of examining her reflection in the night-blackened windows and sweeping invisible tendrils of hair from her forehead. She saw me turn, with poorly concealed disappointment, from the door through which my friend had just disappeared. “Dear me,” she said dryly, “I fear we’re boring the professor. Perhaps we should call in Lady M. and have the two of them share their learnéd opinion on our literature. Isn’t that where you met Lady M., Mr. Grey? At the University?”
This produced a chorus of tittering from the ladies—all but a small, sharp-featured woman at the very end of the table, who had said very little over dinner. I suspected her of either deafness or well-concealed good taste.
“Well, Mr. Grey?” Lady Xavior reached across me, grasped the heart-shaped sugar bowl, and scooped a copious amount of sugar into her coffee. She drank without stirring. “Will you grace us with a learnéd opinion?”
My collar felt unbearably tight. I swallowed hard, vowing never to forgive Lady Merrion for abandoning me in such desperate circumstances. “Your... your gardens are extraordinarily lovely, Lady Xavior.”
“Indeed,” said the lady. At once, the tittering stopped.
A glimmer of gold and crimson at the far end of the table caught my eye. The quiet woman had leaned forward, stirring the military medal and ribbon pinned to her breast. She had a pallid face and very fine hair, either dark blonde or very pale brown in color. I expected her to take advantage of the sudden silence, but she said nothing.
“Indeed,” Lady Xavior repeated after a moment, “I suppose you would think so, being rather new to the neighborhood. Lady M. hasn’t snuck you into Landler Abbey yet. She seems to think its gardens surpass all my efforts. A true devotee of the antiquated, is our Lady M.—I say nothing of taste.”
A number of the ladies became intensely interested in the floral pattern on the saucers. I tasted my own coffee and was horrified to discover that Lady Xavior had somehow managed to over-sweeten the entire pot. It was assuredly my imagination, but the sticky brown liquid even seemed to stink of her violet-musk perfume.
“No, Lady Xavior,” I said. “I fear I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Lander Abbey. It’s quite close by, isn’t it?”
Indeed, it was, she said; just over the stony ridge that marked the northern edge of Sir Charles Xavior’s estate, and separated from Lady Merrion’s by the narrow pine grove called Armitage Wood. The gardens of Landler Abbey had been a great source of pride for the von Reis family, whose last scion, Gethsemane von Reis, Viscountess Landler, had vacated the house some nineteen years before. “The war?” I guessed, noting the date. Lady Xavior deigned to nod.
When the war ended ten years later, the Viscountess did not return to Landler Abbey—the ladies mutually declined to speculate why—and the empty house with its spectacularly landscaped grounds became a local spectacle. The gardens were now quite overgrown, but it seemed that visitors of more curiosity than taste could still be found on occasion, wandering its leaf-littered paths.
At this point in Lady Xavior’s monologue, the quiet woman with the military medal cleared her throat. It was a deep, carrying sound; unlike Lady Xavior’s tinny voice, it echoed against the glass walls. “But of course you’ve heard, Lady X., that the place is being renovated? It was sold at auction this past April.”
Lady Xavior made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort. “My dear,” she said crossly, like a tutor whose pupil has spoken out of turn, “please explain yourself. No one has mentioned any ‘renovations’ to me—or any auctions, for that matter.”
“Forgive me, but it’s quite true,” said the quiet woman. “Landscapers from as far as Crosshire put in bids, but they were all refused. The new owner is bringing back the hedge maze, and importing red and yellow jewelfish for the fountains.”
“Indeed.” Lady Xavior turned again to her reflection in the windows, as though the mere sight of the quiet woman had offended her. “Well, I must say it’s a shame, if the dear old place has fallen into the hands of new money. Probably made their fortune on war machines, or patents for coal furnaces. I just wish the old mansions could stay in the families.”
“Indeed.” The quiet woman spoke very softly, her eyes fixed on Lady Xavior’s reflection. “What makes you believe Landler Abbey hasn’t?”
“That family is extinct. Surely you aren’t suggesting that some long-lost von Reis nephew has crawled out of the metaphorical woodwork?”
The ladies did not have a chance to greet this comment with the amusement Lady Xavior seemed to believe it deserved. “Not at all,” the quiet woman said. “As a matter of fact, I am the new owner of Landler Abbey. My name is Gethsemane von Reis, Viscountess Landler. And I would be happy to lead you, Pamela Xavior, or any other of your honored guests, on a tour of the renovated gardens at whatever time you wish.”
Finishing this announcement, the Viscountess Landler produced an ivory-handled walking stick from beneath the table and swept grandly out of the conservatory. She narrowly avoided a collision with Lady Merrion, who had finally taken pity on me and announced to the entire room that it was time for us to go home.
Scarred as I was by the harrowing ordeal, I could not quite maintain my resolution not to forgive Lady Merrion for leaving me to the vultures. As our carriage rolled through the sweetly-scented darkness of Armitage Wood, I related the night’s conversation to my university friend and her husband, the Earl Merrion. They laughed and rolled their eyes at the proper intervals, and the Earl at least showed the appropriate sympathy for my suffering. But when I reached the Viscountess Landler’s revelation of her identity, both Lady Merrion and her husband looked thoroughly perplexed.
“I’m sure it must be true,” said Lady Merrion, sounding uncertain. “She’d have no motive to lie, not even to embarrass Lady Xavior, who is notorious for not knowing who her husband’s invited to her dinner parties. But if she is Gethsemane von Reis, why did she wait so long to come home? The war’s been over for nearly a decade.”
The Earl gazed thoughtfully at the pattern on his wife’s skirt. “I wonder... that is, do you suppose she was serious about touring the gardens?”
He looked as hopeful as a boy on the eve of his birthday. Lady Merrion laughed, wrapping one arm around as much of her husband’s broad shoulders as she could reach, and kissed him on the cheek. “We’ll write to her, mes cheres, and see if she’ll open the gates to the three of us. The worst she can say is no.”
I, for one, suspected that a military veteran who had already made enemies of most the ladies in the county could say several things worse than no. As it happened, I was correct.
Gethsemane von Reis said yes—but only to me.
The Earl’s disappointment was palpable, and he spent all of an otherwise enjoyable breakfast casting darkly longing looks at the sky over Armitage Wood, visible as a wall of cool green out the dining room’s western window. Lady Merrion, on the other hand, was determined to make the most of what she insisted on referring to as this rare opportunity. While I hastily finished a marmalade-smothered muffin, Lady Merrion laid every waistcoat I owned out on my bed and fretted over the propriety of each.
“Not purple,” she said, abruptly crumpling the offending garment into a ball. “Why you even own that color is beyond me—it’s unpatriotic, you know it puts everyone in mind of Branfolk and the war. And for that matter, red would hardly be appropriate, if you’re meeting a true Feldish veteran.”
Almost wishing I could rejoin the sulking Earl in the dining room, I grabbed a pale blue vest at random from the foot of the bed and turned to one of the massive gilded mirrors along the interior wall. This whole suite of rooms, which Lady Merrion and her husband had been generous enough to offer me after my dismissal from the University, had once belonged to the Earl’s mother—a woman who took considerably greater pleasure in her own appearance than I did.
The cool color made my skin look even sallower than usual, and I noted with some irritation that my hair was simultaneously thinning and in need of a trim. Lady Merrion nobly resisted the urge to shake her head and tsk as she replaced the garment in my hand with a deep green one.
“Why so much worry over my clothes?” I sighed. “You didn’t take this much care with your wardrobe when you and James were courting.” A horrible thought occurred to me. “You don’t think the Viscountess Landler is courting me, do you?”
“Don’t be silly,” Lady Merrion said far too quickly. She threaded my watch chain and fob through the appropriate buttonhole and stepped back to admire her work. “There. I’m sure James could do better for you—he has an eye for these things—but he seems determined to waste away with brooding this morning. Do remember to ask for a plan of the gardens, or sketch a map yourself, it’s the only thing that’ll cheer him—here, let me fetch you some pencils—”
Outside, the air held the dry, breezy clarity of a morning in early September, and I declined Lady Merrion’s offer of the carriage, preferring to walk. Cutting due west across the Earl’s extensive and lusciously-scented herb garden brought me to the southern tip of Armitage Wood, through which I could see the ghostly white façade of the Xaviors’ mansion. From there, I turned north and followed the straight line of the forest. The stony ridge that ran perpendicular to Armitage Wood, and served on the west side to separate the Xaviors’ property from the grounds of Landler Abbey, on the east side marked the point where Earl Merrion’s carefully landscaped gardens dissolved into damp, wildflower-dotted wilderness. The Earl’s family cemetery was somewhere in that tangle of long, seedy grass and crooked trees, along with the abbey ruins for which, I assume, the neighboring estate was named. Normally, these relics imbued the eastern grounds with an air of romance and mystery; but today, it was the house I had never bothered to examine through the pine branches that seemed romantic and mysterious.
The entire property of Landler Abbey was hedged in by a wall of white limestone, except for the portion of the western border that jutted against a modest lake. A very faint and root-broken road led through the wood to the Abbey’s iron gate, which had that day been propped open—for me, I assumed, and I was correct. Between the wall and the façade of the mansion house itself, there was fewer than two yards of space, all grown up with weeds and thorn-bushes; I was amazed at this, for it meant that even in the best of times, the house’s front windows commanded a strikingly ugly view.
Evidently, Gethsemane von Reis had been tracking my approach, for no sooner had I reached the oak door with its gilt and intricate carvings than the right half swung open, admitting me to a dark and low-ceilinged hall. The Viscountess’s renovations had not, oddly, been extended to that all-important portion of the house.
“Lady Landler,” I said, stopping within the doorway to bow. “Permit me to thank you for your gracious invitation—”
“Sycophantism doesn’t suit you, Dr. Grey,” she interrupted. With a faint smile, she steered me back onto the doorstep, letting the door swing shut behind her. “Call me Gethsemane. Come, give me your arm, and let’s take a walk through the gardens.”
Gethsemane, it seemed, really did necessitate the support of my arm, though it cannot have been comfortable for such a short woman to hook elbows with such a tall man. We battled our way through the vicious weeds that had invaded the front lawn and finally arrived at the head of a raised brick path, cleanly swept and evidently new. There she gestured for me to stop, and she took a moment to catch her breath. “Bad leg,” she said, sweeping her red military cloak back from the offending appendage. Of course, I could see nothing in the folds of her heavy skirt to show the nature of her affliction.
“Is it—er, that is—a war injury?”
“In a manner of speaking,” she said. She took my arm again, and we rounded the north edge of the house, entering the first of the Abbey’s formal gardens.
The flower beds followed the familiar hexagonal plan that I had seen in Lady Xavoir’s garden, but I had never seen petals so delicately arranged by color. Nearest to the house, the roses and tulips and feathery amaranths were deep, blood-wet red; going westward, these paled to orange, then yellow, before darkening to emerald and blue. At the far end, surrounding a broad pool and running against the shoulder-high wall of the hedge maze, the tulips were so deep purple as to appear black.
“Gorgeous,” I said.
Gethsemane’s smile widened, crinkling the corners of her gray eyes. I couldn’t say why its genuineness was so surprising to me. “Is that your learned opinion, professor?”
I laughed, but all at once her smile vanished.
“It’s remarkable, isn’t it, how busybody gossips like Lady Xavior seem to know everything except the personal histories you’d truly like to learn?” She slowed her pace, and her grip on my elbow forced me to slow as well. “Why did you leave the University, Dr. Grey?”
The sensation of having knotted my tie too tightly overtook me, and it was all I could do not to withdraw my arm. Was this why Gethsemane had invited me? To contribute my philosophical differences with the University of Feldland to the local gossip?
“Surely you’ve talked to Lady Merrion,” I said.
“I have. She left because her engineering classes were being used to build war machines.” Even Lady Merrion had never put her reasons for leaving so bluntly. “But that was over a decade ago, when the war was still being fought. It’s been over for nine years now. Why did it take you so long to become uncomfortable with the University’s complicity?”
The truth—that I had just recently discovered how deep that complicity ran—was not something I was eager to share with a stranger, not even a veteran with a respectable title. I deflected her question with one of my own. “Why did it take you so long to come home from the war?”
“Touché.” This time, her smile was clearly forced. “If you must know, I was in a Branfolk prison.”
“All these years?” In my amazement, I actually forgot to take a step, and I fear my sudden stop caused Gethsemane no small discomfort. “But surely they were forced to release all their prisoners as terms of their surrender?”
“Not the ones who were actually criminals, Dr. Grey.”
This conversation had carried us as far as the broad, murky pool sunk surrounded by the raised red brick of the path. A few brown-edged lily pads floated on the surface. While Gethsemane spoke, a large bubble had floated up from the bottom; I leaned forward to catch sight of its source and leapt back with something like a scream.
There was a hand in the water.
“Dr. Grey!” Gethsemane barked, rubbing her shoulder, which had been insulted twice in the course of three yards. Then, seeing the source of my terror, her face relaxed into what was once again a genuine smile. “Yes,” she said affectionately. “Ghostly, isn’t he?”
I looked again. The thing in the pool was nothing more sinister than a massive, pure white jewelfish. I flushed in embarrassment, recalling that she had mentioned these very creatures at Lady Xavior’s dinner, albeit in the more patriotic shades of crimson and gold. Still, it was silly of me to mistake it for the fearsome shape that its bloodless, silvery length so vaguely recalled: a severed hand, reaching up to me from the depths.
“What I can’t comprehend,” Lady Xavior announced, as though her lack of comprehension were a rare and noteworthy occurrence, “is why anyone would accept such an invitation in the first place. Imagine! Including the Earl and dear Lady M! You know, of course, that I never exclude anyone in my invitations—if I invite one man, I invite his whole household—even those members whose presence is a continual trial to me....”
It is difficult to say who squirmed more at this announcement; the Earl, who was the reason we were enduring another one of Lady Xavior’s dinner parties, or Lady Merrion, who knew precisely at whom that last part of Pamela Xavior’s speech had been directed. It was still early in the evening, else Lady Merrion would have had something to say about invitations whose acceptance was incomprehensible. She sat on the very edge of the drawing room’s violently green sofa, biting her lip and letting her proud gaze fall on nothing in particular.
I attempted to copy this piece of nonchalance, but I found my gaze trapped by a ghastly row of horned and antlered animal heads mounted over the fireplace.
“Say!” piped the balding rabbit of a man who had the rare fortune to be our hostess’s husband. It had somehow become Sir Charles Xavior’s responsibility to pilot the conversation out of treacherous waters. He turned with readily apparent desperation to the Earl, who sat in the shadow of the pianoforte. “Did you read that piece in the Times about the Branfolk war criminals? Horrible stuff, isn’t it, James?”
“Er, rather,” said the Earl, clearly aware that Branfolk war criminals were not an appropriate topic for dinner conversation, yet equally aware that the change in conversation had been necessary for the continued tranquility of the drawing room. “It’s quite sickening. Those poor Feldish soldiers, believed to be dead, and all these years they were being held in secret Branfolk prisons.”
I snapped to attention.
“Being tortured, I suppose?” Lady Xavior, unlike the Earl, did not attempt to show the appropriate disgust for the subject. “I read somewhere that they used to blind Feldish prisoners with a hot branding iron. But what can you expect from Branfolk? The north counties are barely civilized.”
“Of course, Feldish war machines are much more civilized than torture.” Lady Merrion’s face was the same color as the old lace doilies on the sofa’s arm rests.
“Say!” Sir Charles interjected before his wife could reply. “James, I’m afraid I didn’t finish reading the whole thing. What’s this about still holding Feldish soldiers? After the Treaty of Babington and everything?”
“It appears so, Sir Charles. And I fear your wife is correct in her assessment of the tenderness of Branfolk prisons.”
Lady Xavior swept hair from her forehead, positively crowing. “And Branfolk prisoners of war had the impudence to complain of our methods!”
Lady Merrion was looking at me strangely. She wanted permission to say something, I realized; but I was not ready to grant it. I shook my head. And a question that had been troubling me since my visit to Landler Abbey suddenly found an answer.
A war injury? In a manner of speaking.
“Did the article explain why these Feldish prisoners were only now discovered?” I asked.
“Yes,” the Earl said grimly. “One of them was just released. He, er, finished serving his sentence.”
“Sentence! As though he were a criminal!” Lady Xavior flung her massive hands into the air. Then her eyes darkened. My stomach lurched as I realized she and I had reached the same conclusion within seconds of each other.
“Mr. Grey,” she said, “you’ve had the privilege of meeting privately with the Viscountess Landler. Do you suppose she possesses, ah, intimate knowledge of these war crimes? She fought in Branfolk territory, after all.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lady Merrion jump to her feet. Lady Xavior appeared not to notice. “Will you ask her for me, the next time you go calling? I’m awfully curious. Or perhaps I should invite her back here and we can ask her together?”
“Pamela Xavior!” Lady Merrion cried. “I absolutely forbid you to ask the Viscountess anything about the matter!”
“Lady M., how dare you forbid me to do anything? And in my own house!”
Both ladies were standing now, so close to each other that their heavy necklaces clicked together with each heaving breath. Lady Merrion was bone-white, Lady Xavior a delicate shade of green. The Earl inclined his body towards a trophy sword hanging over the pianoforte, as though he meant to command it for the defense of his wife.
Lord Xavior intercepted him, his voice actually cracking. “Say! You show exceptional taste in waistcoats, James.”
“Rather,” the Earl said miserably.
We left scandalously early. Lady Merrion forced the Earl and me to go ahead in the carriage, saying that she expected the night air in the forest to do her nerves an infinite good. The last we saw of her for the evening was a sturdy iron-bound lantern swinging like a pendulum along the edge of the road.
When we reached the house, I asked if I could see that morning’s copy of the Times.
The Earl Merrion and Lady Xavior were of course correct in their assessment of the tenderness of Branfolk prisons. The article gave a catalogue of crimes and abuses, of which blinding with a branding iron could not be counted the worst, and a great many of which were listed in euphemism to spare the innocence and the digestion of the paper’s more delicate readers. I found that my horror was only made worse by the knowledge—the rare knowledge, come across by accident and paid for with my career—that Feldish soldiers were guilty of equal crimes.
That I, as a professor at the Feldish University school of medicine during the war years, had given them the skill to commit equal crimes. I was as guilty as if I had wielded the brands and scalpels with my own hands.
I spent the whole of the night lying awake, watching the sickly reflection of the moon and the thorny treetops in my wall of gilded mirrors. My thoughts were every bit as sickly and pale and circular. At last the sun rose, and I left my rumpled and sweat-soaked sheets with a great and sudden desire to see Gethsemane von Reis again. Before any part of my brain could form a coherent protest, I washed and dressed, tucked the Times article into the pocket with my watch, and set off across the herb gardens to the shadows of Armitage Wood.
It occurred to me, about halfway past the stony ridge, that I was unsure how to secure Gethsemane’s attention once I arrived. What if the gates were locked? But as it turned out, I needn’t have worried; much to my wonder, I found the gates propped open and Gethsemane standing a few paces within. And she was not alone.
“Good heavens, professor, you don’t look as though you’ve slept a wink.” Lady Merrion made a flimsy and uncharacteristic attempt to smooth down my hair. Her own was ornamented with pale leaves and pine needles and, visible in the glare of the rising sun, not a few strands of gray. “I suppose I should talk,” she conceded, noting the direction of my gaze. “I’ve taken the most vicious advantage of Lady Landler’s generosity, but the gardens are such a balm to one’s nerves.”
“Countess Merrion assured me that if I didn’t let her wander through the gardens all night, she would most likely strangle Lady Xavior,” Gethsemane said. “And though I believe she would have been doing a great service to the nation, we were neither of us very sanguine about a criminal court’s perception of the matter.”
Lady Merrion laughed, but it sounded rather forced. “Indeed, though really there was no need to trouble yourself by walking with me. I worry for your health. Come, professor, we’ve no need to further exploit Lady Landler’s hospitality....”
She made to lead me away, but Gethsemane stopped her with a hand on both of our shoulders. “Lady Merrion, I assure you I’ve not slept more than a couple of hours in a night for nearly twenty years. If a walk in the gardens will assist Dr. Grey’s nerves as it did your own, I have no intention of turning him away.” Lady Merrion stammered further protestations, but Gethsemane silenced them with a farewell kiss. As my friend, clearly exhausted, started back down the road for home, Gethsemane reached up and took my arm. “Shall we resume where we left off, Dr. Grey?”
On my previous visit, I had seen all nine of the formal gardens with their brick paths, foreign funereal statues, and narrow gallows-like trellises; the water garden near the shore of the lake, inhabited by dank-smelling lilies and a somber chorus of frogs; and the pitted stone temple on the edge of the wood, veiled in clematis and surrounded by a field of irises through which no path led. Now Gethsemane took me through an ancient and overgrown archway at the back of the bare rose pavilion, into what I quickly realized must be the newly reordered hedge maze.
“It’s a true maze, not one of those silly Cathedral-floor labyrinths where all paths lead to the center. Even I have gotten lost in here.” I smiled at this, but her expression was not the least bit playful. “Lady Merrion wasn’t interested in talking last night, which I confess was much to my liking, but I can see that whatever’s gnawing at your gut won’t be frightened off unless you speak of it. What troubles you, Dr. Grey?”
Despite the cool September air, my palms were damp. I tried to dry them surreptitiously on the front of my waistcoat. “I read something last night.”
“How very brave of you. Reading is a dangerous business.” Disconcertingly—for what could her comments be, if not ironic?—her voice remained flat and unamused. “There’s a folktale among Branfolk university students about a man who begins reading a book that he found abandoned on a table in the reading room, and is never able to stop. Every time he thinks he’s reached the last chapter, he discovers another chapter behind it. I rarely read anything.”
“Not even the Times, Lady Landler?”
“Especially not the Times.”
But she did, of course. I felt her grip tighten on my arm as her bad leg missed a step.
The hedge-maze path began to descend. From a lush blanket of grass, it turned to weathered slabs of limestone, and then a flight of limestone stairs. I could not tell where the steps ended, for they continued at least around the next corner. The tops of the yew hedges remained on an equal level, which meant that the hedges themselves grew taller as we went deeper into the maze; shoulder-high at the entrance, they were soon three feet over the top of my head.
“Last time I visited, you asked me why I left the University.” She seemed about to reply, but I doubted I could begin again if I were interrupted. I continued rapidly in a raised voice. “I started teaching eight months into the war. That was just about the time they realized that this was no simple rebellion by the northern counties. The Dukes of Branfolk were serious about succeeding from Feldland. And suddenly, men and women in military uniforms would appear in my medical lectures and pull students out of class. These were upper-level lectures. These students had learned all about amputations and scalpels and vivisections, plenty about drugs—which ones caused insensibility, or nightmares, or unendurable pain.”
I glanced at Gethsemane. If anything, her face was stonier than before.
“For as long as I could, I pretended ignorance. All through the war and all the years after, I told myself it was medical services the military needed. Then nine months ago, when I was still working for the University, I found a sheaf of old documents ready for the rubbish heap. Recognizing the names of several students, I picked it up. They had been awarded medals of honor for ‘obtaining valuable intelligence’ from the enemy.”
For a moment, Gethsemane did not reply. Her right hand fingered her own military medal. We took another sharp turn and were greeted by yet more step. These looked even older than the previous ones, and were densely overgrown with moss. “You must be so proud,” Gethsemane said at last.
Her flat tone, completely void of either sincerity or needling, cut me like broken glass. “They were torturers. I taught them to be torturers.”
“I know.” If I had been expecting a reaction like Lady Merrion’s or the Earl’s, all horror and sympathetic condolences, I was disappointed. “I know what happened to them. Some of them, anyway. There were torturers in prison with me. They had been arrested, charged, tried and sentenced, like common murderers. As though there hadn’t even been a war.”
I swallowed hard. We both knew, though neither of us said, that this precisely had been Feldland’s attitude toward the Branfolk rebels.
“Branfolk is not a forgiving people,” Gethsemane said.
“I wasn’t expecting forgiveness.”
“Really? Then what did you hope I could give you at the end of your little story?”
She stopped walking. We had reached the sunken garden at the heart of the maze.
The hedge walls now stretched nearly ten feet above my head. The limestone path was replaced by lush, dewy grass, dotted with unfamiliar red flowers. In the center of the garden was a raised stone planting bed, shaped something like a bench, with a long low-arched back and small arms on either side. The von Reis crest, a crossed sword and olive branch before an open gate, was carved into the front. The soil inside the bed was rich and black, but nothing had been planted there.
“What happened to you, Gethsemane?” I turned to her, taking both her dry, calloused hands in mine. “What horrible things did they do to you? Tell me that Branfolk deserved what they suffered. Make me believe it served a higher end.”
“What if I tell you that your students deserved what Branfolk did to them?”
It took several deep breaths for me to regain a measure of control. The air in the maze smelled unpleasantly old and wet. “You don’t mean that. Even I don’t mean that.”
“Of course I don’t.” She did not sound convinced. “But that’s the mindset of Branfolk, Dr. Grey. How much of what happened to me at their hands was the fault of Feldland’s own cruelty? For it remains the dearest wish of every blinded and crippled rebel to make the Feldish torturers pay.”
I shuddered, remembering that ghastly detail from the Times. “I thought it was the rebels who blinded prisoners?”
“Yes, it was. But where do you suppose they got the idea?”
By this time, some of my sense was returning to me, and I felt deeply ashamed of having used the Viscountess in such a manner, like a fountain in which I could wash away some of my guilt. The more I spoke to her, the clearer it was that she carried guilt of her own—no matter how undeserved. Lady Merrion had shown great wisdom in forbidding us to breach this subject with Gethsemane.
“Dr. Grey?” Gethsemane tightened her trip on my hands, bringing me back to myself. “A fog is coming in, Dr. Grey. They aren’t uncommon this close to the lake, but they can be very dense. Come, let’s go back up to the house.”
The fog poured in incredibly fast. It seemed to rise from the very grass and yew hedges, smelling woody and wet and overpoweringly organic. It was a matter of minutes before our vision was swallowed completely in the cold, opaque whiteness. Gethsemane’s pace quickened; there was almost an edge of panic to it, and I remembered her joke—had it been a joke?—about becoming lost in the maze.
We were perhaps halfway to the exit when Gethsemane’s bad leg buckled, and she fell.
Her grip on my arm broke. I dropped immediately to help her to her feet, but in the solid whiteness I became disoriented. My outstretched hands connected with nothing but wet limestone and prickly yew. Gethsemane was not where I expected her to be; with growing panic, I realized that she was nowhere to be found at all.
She was lost in the maze. I was lost in the maze.
For a dreadful moment, I thought I might scream.
It was the thought of Lady Merrion that saved me. She knew I had gone to Landler Abbey; with a little consideration of what I had told her about my previous visit, she would conclude that I had gone into the maze. And if I knew anything about Eveline Merrion, she would rip the yews apart with her bare hands in order to find a missing friend.
Closing my eyes, breathing deeply through my mouth, I managed to collect myself. I began to retrace my steps, calling Gethsemane’s name in a clear voice.
Slowly, the fog began to thin. To my immense relief, I caught sight of Gethsemane’s bright military cloak at the end of a long corridor. Her back was to me; standing several limestone steps above me, she looked oddly tall.
“Gethsemane!” I shouted. But something was wrong. She did not turn, and no matter how briskly I walked, I did not seem to be getting any closer to her. Panicked again, I began to run.
I did not see the branch that had fallen across the stairs.
My fall drove the breath out of my lungs. I had not had time to fling up my arms, and my chest and knees took the full force of the landing. Black stars danced in front of my eyes, and when they vanished, I saw a dark figure crouched over me.
It took me a moment to realize that it was Gethsemane.
“Father instilled a sense of economy in me at a young age,” she said, finally with a trace of a smile. “Normally, I’d be more pleased to find a penny in my path than a professor. But in this case, I confess that I’m frightfully relieved to find you.”
With a good deal of fussing and dusting off, during which I realized that my trousers were hopelessly ruined, we joined arms once again and made our way back to the entrance of the maze. The path out was somehow not as long or convoluted as I had expected. As we passed beneath the ancient archway and into the sunlight of the rose garden, I turned to smile at Gethsemane, and another wave of uneasiness passed through me.
Gethsemane’s cloak was red.
Of course it was; it was a Feldish military cloak. I must have been slightly mad with panic when I saw her standing at the end of the corridor, and believed for a moment that her cloak was Branfolk purple.
Lady Merrion wanted to talk, and I could not convince her that it was a bad idea. She cornered me in the solarium, where I had been enjoying the delicate scent of the last dwindling roses, and blocked the door with a man-sized vase of bulrushes.
“You aren’t alone in this, professor.”
I wished heartily that I had brought a book or a sheaf of newspaper so that I could hide myself in its pages.
“Look at me!” Lady Merrion snapped, and I could not politely do otherwise. Her bruised eyes made her look incredibly tired—not only tired, but beaten. I saw again the silver in her hair. It made her look a full decade older, closer to my age than her husband’s. “They used me, too. My model machine for agricultural irrigation was modified to spread poison gas. My prototype corn-husker was used—” But revulsion overcame her before she could finish her sentence. “Feldland did terrible things, professor. And Branfolk did terrible things to us. You’re not the only one who feels responsible for what happened to Viscountess Landler.”
“I don’t even know what happened to her,” I mumbled. Lady Merrion made me repeat it.
“Good heavens, professor, put two and two together! You read the Times. You know she was in a Branfolk prison.”
“Maybe she deserved to be!”
Contrary to my expectations, Lady Merrion did not appear shocked at the truth of what I had been thinking. “I’ve also been wondering,” she said slowly, “what put her in that prison in the first place. She wasn’t simply a soldier, or they’d have released her after the war. I’ve been thinking and thinking—is she the kind of woman who could have cut off a man’s sword arm while his fellow prisoners watched? Could she have burned out a soldier’s eyes with a branding iron? In the end, I decided I didn’t want to know.”
“Well, neither do I,” I said. Lady Merrion rolled her eyes with evident disbelief. “You didn’t even speak to her, Eveline. All she did was show you her gardens.”
“Perhaps that’s her way of talking.” Lady Merrion roughly shoved a lock of hair away from her face. I had angered her more than she was willing to show. “It’s a moot point, mon cher, whether you want to talk to her or not, because I sent a message this afternoon to request that she see you. I don’t know what’s going on in your head, but I suspect it isn’t pretty, and the Viscountess Landler is the only one with a real chance of unlocking it. Good day.”
Her messenger came into the solarium about an hour later. Lady Merrion, he said, had retired early, and the Earl had gone out to see the stable cat’s new kittens, an activity he judged less likely to result in bites and scratches than conversing with his wife. Besides, the messenger said, there was something in the way of a message from Viscountess Landler, and it was not addressed to the masters of the house.
“It’s for you, Dr. Grey. Got your name right here.” He displayed a dirty scrap of paper that had been folded into quarters, with my name printed prominently on the front. “She weren’t at home, I don’t think, but I found this stuck up against the gates. Not in the gates, you understand, like it’d be if somebody placed it there a-purpose; but plastered against them, like it were carried on the wind.”
I unfolded the paper. At the top and center were the flaming sword, olive branch, and open gate of the von Reis crest. Below, in blocky manuscript printing that took up half the page, was a single word: Come.
The fog over Landler Abbey was even denser than before, and the moonlight that fought to pierce it turned the common garden features into fearsome and fantastic shapes. A mat of clematis flowers draped over a trellis looked like a hanging body in the distance, and a statue of a cheerful peasant maid at harvest put me in mind of a far grimmer reaper. When I glanced at the jewelfish pond, I could not escape the resemblance that the ancient white fish bore to part of a corpse.
But the real horror, of course, was waiting in the hedge maze.
She was standing near the entrance when I first saw her—waiting. She was not very tall, but here the yew reached only to her shoulder. The hood of her cloak was drawn about her head, covering her indefinitely colored hair.
She was not easy to follow. She moved with perfect silence in the fog, and soon we had descended so deeply that her shrouded head was no longer visible above the hedge-tops. Once, a sound like a woman’s scream echoed in the distance, and I crashed through the hedges in the direction of the voice. But the yews were thick, and the sound did not come again to guide me. I resigned myself to following the path, and hoped I would not arrive too late in the garden at the maze’s heart.
But I did, of course.
It was over in a matter of seconds.
She was standing over the unused planting bed, her purple cloak billowing in an unfelt wind that did nothing to disturb the fog. I shouted Gethsemane’s name, and I swear I saw the black earth stir beneath the von Reis crest. She turned to me, silent as the moon. Where her eyes should have been, there was nothing but a puckered stretch of red.
She raised her hand to me. She held nothing, but her long nails were caked with black earth. One skeletal finger pointed at me, accusing.
“Yes,” I said. “Me too.”
The dead woman beckoned to me. I slipped and stumbled across the wet grass, and she swept closer, closer, until her rotting face was inches from mine. She traced a line across my throat, her hand cold as ice. Her skin stank of damp. I held my breath as she reached for me, as her hands closed around me—
And she was gone, in a blaze of crimson light that burned my eyes like iron.
“Professor!” Lady Merrion cried, embracing me with the arm that was not supporting her lantern. She was wonderfully warm and solid, smelling of amber and rose. I openly wept, and would have fallen to my knees in relief, if she had not forced me to remain upright.
“We have to run,” she said. “Something in the gardens is furious.”
To this day, I do not know how we found our way out of the maze.
We returned to Landler Abbey the next morning, accompanied by the Earl and a large shovel, which—fortunately or unfortunately—we did not have to use.
She had not been buried very deeply. I shoveled dirt out of the raised potting bed with both hands, stopping when my fingers brushed something solid. It was a military medal on a crimson ribbon, stamped with a sword and an olive branch and the letter G. The finger curved around it was shriveled and boney, more like a corpse several years dead than a woman buried the previous night.
Without a word, Lady Merrion knelt beside me and swept the black earth back over the bones.
Last year, the gardens of Landler Abbey were opened to the public. Lady Xavior and a number of ladies in the neighborhood set the date for the tenth anniversary of the battle that defeated Branfolk, “as a celebration of the peace that Viscountess Landler had so little time to enjoy” before her mysterious disappearance.
As the caretakers of the Abbey, the Earl and Lady Merrion had little choice but to attend—though I hear the latter left scandalously early, and the former spent the whole of the evening shepherding guests away from the hedge maze. I suspect that this effort was unnecessary, considering that the maze’s new path ends within twenty feet of the entrance.
Even if it did not, I doubt most strongly that anyone else would have been able to reach the maze’s heart. Lady Merrion and I, the guilty ones, had found it without trouble; but when the Earl went in alone, at the beginning of the new renovations, he could not even penetrate so far as the place where the limestone steps begin.
Although Lady Merrion, who now frequents the garden unaccompanied, has found a great multitude of jewelfish in the garden fountains, she has never discovered the huge white creature that caused me such disquiet. She claims also that the dense white fog has never returned to Landler Abbey.
And though she promises that she will always be there to rescue me, I, too, have never gone back.
I suspect that when the day comes for my return—and it is coming; I know by the hooded, limping figure who follows me in my dreams—I will not desire rescuing.
If you liked this story, you may also like:
“The Orangery” by K.D. Wentworth
“Mr Morrow Becomes Acquainted with the Delicate Art of Squid Keeping” by Geoffrey Maloney
Return to Issue #83