by Jodi Ralston
The knocker recalled Mr. Ayers to a sense of self: a tangle of snakes with one head, formed into a scaly loop; new, red, and once shiny, now smudged with grime from dark places. He wrapped arms tight around himself as if he could hide the culprits beneath more filth. Sodden filth. The damp feel to his skin, reassuring moments ago, made him shiver.
But not with cold.
His body felt it but did not mind it any more than the earth itself did.
Not since “yesterday.”
The door opened slowly, silently, and sourness filled his mouth. Nothing good came from leisurely silence. Not anymore.
A man stood exposed in the now open doorway.
His benefactress had a twin.
Or a scion, he corrected himself. Though both inhabited the same final spring of middle years, she was frozen in time while this man obviously was not. She was styled after bygone centuries, and this man modeled pristine modern fashion: Starched, pure white cravat. Well-fitted coat and wine-colored waistcoat. Breeches, stockings, and shoes, all without a wrinkle, crinkle, or smear. And, oh, those supple gloves, how they made Mr. Ayers’s own bare hands clench. How they reminded him of everything he had lost and the little that was left.
But the gentleman did not dispose of the trash on his doorstep. Instead, he smiled, not any smile, but that goddess smile, and reached out for him. “Oh, it will not do to stand outside freezing, sir. Please, come in.”
And with those simple words, Mr. Ayers gained a benefactor. One of flesh and blood, not stone and sweet, deep waters. “Thank you,” he gushed. “Thank you, good sir. I-thank you.” And he stepped over the threshold into a bone-white corridor. “I will do whatever I can to repay your kindness, sir, if you but give me your name.”
“Oh, such pretty address. Your servant-” The gentleman bowed, and the movement betrayed the one flaw in an otherwise perfect appearance: hair as long as the goddess’s, but bound in queue woven throughout with a white ribbon. “Sir Bennic Daga. And you are?”
“Ayers. Niccla Ayers of Morning Rise.” While Mr. Ayers spoke, his benefactor glided behind him toward the door. Shuddering, Mr. Ayers turned away so he wouldn’t have to witness its closing. “B-b-back h-home in Ar-arcana Major.” He wrapped his arms tight around himself and whispered, “But I’m afraid I don’t have even a card to prove my claim.”
“Oh, I’m sure you have lost more than a few calling cards in the New World, Mr. Ayers.”
A touch had him drawing his coat tight about himself. He had not expected the gentle brush down his side.
Nor for it to continue despite his own withdrawal.
“Oh, you must be cold, Mr. Ayers, but I’m afraid this is so terribly sodden it does you no good.”
“Yes.” Mr. Ayers relaxed. “Sorry.” Watermelon-scented waters had plastered the coat upon his being, yet under his benefactor’s hands, it glided inch by inch down his arms as if there were nothing to resist; every move the gentleman made was that way, slow and graceful and perfect. And hypnotic-but not to the point he missed the tug at the back of his waistcoat. He jerked away, hands fisted, and winced as the misstep sent pain like a hot poker up and down his legs. “Yes, sorry, for the mess-my state, sir.” He found himself eying his coat resting upon the gleaming hallway table. It was so far away. “I partook of your fountain. If it weren’t for her, I would never have found you. And I don’t know what would have become me.”
“Oh, I am glad. She serves as a guiding star to the lost. You are wet through, aren’t you? Oh, please, come with me. I’m afraid I’m a little short staffed; I have given my only maid the night off. Perhaps, though, we can make do and settle in more private quarters.”
On the heels of that promise, Mr. Ayers followed his benefactor down the long corridor spare in furnishings and decorations but rich in texture. Extraordinary patterns swirled down the walls like strands of wandering hair, giving movement to the stationary. The bannister added its own touch of grace, curving upward, gleaming, red as the goddess’s hair.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” His benefactor waited for him three rooms down. “Oh, I’m quite proud, as I am of this room, too.” He gestured toward an open door.
Mr. Ayers flinched, and his muscles twinged as he remedied the lapse.
The room was more of the same, with little occupying it except for textured walls and shiny furniture. The fireplace (with a fire just starting to stir), a wardrobe, dressing table, washstand, and bedside table broke up the off-white that flowed even through to the carpets. Yet despite the plain style, everything gleamed, and dust rested nowhere-all perfect as its master, and so Mr. Ayers could not help but wonder: How could one servant manage it all?
With a soft tut, his benefactor showed him inside the room, gripping him about the arms and drawing him across the white expanse to the bed. And at some point during Mr. Ayers’s distraction, his benefactor must have circulated the room, picking up a nightshirt from the wardrobe and a towel from the washstand, for these he disposed upon the bed before reaching toward Mr. Ayers’s waistcoat.
Mr. Ayers’s stomach clenched for reasons other than hunger, and he backed away, hit the bed, sat down hard. Blinked. And blinked again. “No, I undress myself.”
“Oh, I don’t mind, Mr. Ayers. But if you are sure? You seem terribly exhausted. Oh, I’m not sure if you’d make it through a meal.”
“Food. No, I can’t eat.” He was sure he’d never be hungry again.
“In the morning perhaps, but, oh, do undress. I fear a cold despite the fire. Unless this room or clothing is not to your taste, Mr. Ayers?”
Mr. Ayers looked down at his filthy self and understood the hint, but he simply prayed that a token effort with the towel would suffice. Even a few seconds’ glimpse of bare skin left him fumbling and shaking, a betrayal of nerves that lasted through closing the drawstrings beneath his throat. But he could not complain: the nightshirt was clean and whole; everything he wasn’t. When he turned to express his tardy gratitude, he bumped into his benefactor.
A misstep that did not change his benefactor’s smile or unblinking gaze.
“Oh, pardon me,” his benefactor said at last, unmoved and unmoving. “Now that I have seen you safely dressed, I’ll leave you to your rest. But I cannot rest easy unless I remind you that if you need assistance, you must seek me out. Just wander a few doors down the corridor and, oh, you’ll discover my room. The one with the oltoggoldaga carven upon it.”
“Olt-” The name caught in his throat. Thanks to “yesterday,” Mr. Ayers had learned more than enough of the myths of madmen and that it was lie that the Unknown God had saved his people from them all. He hugged himself. “Wh-what does that look like?” Though he didn’t really want to know.
“Red Water Serpent? Oh, you can’t miss her. I promise.”
Before Mr. Ayers could feel relief-it was only the figure on knocker, then; no doubt a family crest-his benefactor alarmed him by starting to shut the door.
“Don’t!” Mr. Ayers rushed after, knowing what came next. “P-please, if you would leave it?” He couldn’t explain; his benefactor would desire an explanation; any sane man would. He backed up, looking away, and offered instead, “S-sorry, I-I-sorry.”
But the smile only grew. “Of course, I shall leave it open for you.” And he toed the stop into place.
That done, his benefactor withdrew, leaving Mr. Ayers to the safety of a man-made room, clean clothes, and a warm bed. It took most of the night before Mr. Ayers could submit to it all.