It started when the servant punched her mistress in the face.
No it didn’t. It started further back. One could argue that it started because the servant’s mother made bad choices, and those choices led to her dumping a baby at the dark gates of a blocky building, which in turn led to the baby growing to become a servant at all. But that’s a slippery slope. Then you start blaming every little coincidence and happenstance. You blame the Big Bang, or perhaps you blame God.
So let’s just say it started because a servant punched her mistress in the face.
It was a powerful punch, landing with a thuck and a crack, and it was enough to fracture a bone in the servant’s hand. The fourth metacarpal bone, specifically.
She didn’t notice this. She was too busy trying to get a second hit in. She grabbed several handfuls of the mistress’ hair and pulled like she was uprooting fistfuls of dandelions. The mistress screamed like she’d just seen someone uprooting her prize-winning petunias.
The whole business came to a conclusion in the usual way - with a butler, throwing scalding tea all over the servant, and with a knotted string of swear words yelled loudly enough to rattle the chandeliers. Sopping and dripping, the servant spat at the mistress and turned on her heel. The front door slammed. A vase fell from a cabinet and shattered like a firework.
Which led our servant – or ex-servant, shall we say – to the edge of the Ilton River, where she hunched over the chipped railings and watched the orange lamplight pooling on the water. The metal was cool against her scalded arms. The dank breeze ran its invisible fingers through her hair.
You may want to ask why she punched her mistress. This is also the question that the ex-servant would come ask herself, repeatedly, while looking out of the window or waiting for the kettle to boil. The answer has a lot to do with human nature, attraction, and a young man called Emmet. It has very little to do with what the ex-servant saw next.
She looked towards the jagged skyline to the south, then to the squat buildings across the river, where the windows were patchily lit. Thin reeds of smoke spiralled from red chimneys. Smog hazed the stars.
She looked to her right. The cobbled bank was striped by lamplight, veering off into a parade of shuttered shops and tiny alleys. She saw the cat dart out from the gap between a bookmaker’s and a bakery.
Had her head not been in the position it was, she would’ve missed it entirely. It flashed across the street like a bullet, skittering beneath a bench and vanishing amid the dense shadows. The ex-servant blinked once. Her first thought was to label it the shadow of a low-flying bird.
She walked towards it. This was another thing she would come to question herself about, on the nights where she couldn’t sleep.
When she was a few feet from the bench, she lifted her scratchy skirts and crouched down. The cat’s acid eyes blazed at her from the darkness. The ex-servant held a hand out. She shuffled a little closer-
A hiss, a bump, and the cat sprang away, scrambling down the street. The ex-servant lurched after it, then sank back onto her calves. She sighed.
And then she saw the footprints.
Daubed across the cobbles were patches of something dark – twin patches, which veered out from the bench and towards the alleyway the cat had come from. Muddy prints. Wet prints. The ex-servant crouched lower. She put her finger against one of them.
Her skin came away red.
Her heart leapt, and she scrubbed her fingers against her skirts, backing away with a clop-clop-clop of clumpy shoes. She looked from the bench to the alley. The alley to the bench. Back again.
The alley mouth was a gaping strip of darkness.
And perhaps it was curiosity, or perhaps it was fear, or perhaps it was something else entirely, but her feet carried her towards it. She moved in stops and shuffles and bursts. When she breached the alley entrance, the darkness fell like fog. She had to trace the rough walls with her fingertips, while her shaky breathes rebounded between them.
Then her feet were wet. Her legs bumped against something warm.
She backed away, biting hard at the inside of her cheek. Blood coated her tongue.
It took almost a minute for a rent to emerge in the smoggy clouds overhead, and for a shaft of moonlight to spill down, down, down into the alleyway. In the pallid brilliance, she saw a slack face, a patch of fair curls, and a throat slashed jagged and red and gaping. She saw pooling blood, lit like crimson glass.
And then the clouds closed again.