Senga looked around. The place was not as bad as she’d expected. It was dusty, but the broken furniture had been moved. The grand ballroom stood open and bare of furniture, one of the two wide staircases blocked off. There were no bloodstains, no place on the wall where – where – her grandmother’s portrait was gone, which was not surprising, but one of her mother had replaced it, which was far more startling. She had never seen her mother looking so formal, so comfortably formal, even when the ballroom had been open with the giant parties her parents had thrown.
She turned in a slow circle. She remembered the way that corner had seemed so small, so cozy and hidden, even if you could see right into it from the front door. She’d sat there when there were parties, long past her bedtime. And over there, they’d laid out vast spreads of food, back when this house had bragged a staff second to none.
Behind her, the rest of her crew had opened the grand front double doors but were waiting. She understood. “Enter Monmartin Manor, and make it yours. As Crew, this house is every bit as much your home as it is mine. As family, you can hold this home with me.”
Chitter gasped softly. Allayne squeezed Senga’s hand. “You know you didn’t have to go that far.”
“This has never been a house for one person. It’s never been a home for one person. It was meant to be shared, and so I’m going to share it. Come on in, guys. I claim the top right wing. Ah. Watch out for fives, anywhere. And keep an eye out for secret passages.”
“Fives?” Chitter crowded forward.
“So my family liked traps, and the traps would be set up anywhere that the number five repeated. Sometimes not just there, but the fives are the best indicator. Ah, keep your phones with you and call if you get stuck? None of the traps I remember are immediately dangerous.”
“Senga…” Ezer‘s voice was slow and careful, “did you just move us all into a haunted house – Ow!” He was behind Senga, but she could see the way Chitter had darted backwards and then forwards. “I didn’t mean -”
“We’re pretty sure it’s not haunted, and I – I don’t think fae leave ghosts. It’s just, well, it’s a house built by people who knew someone might be trying to kill them.”
“So,” Erramun rumbled, “normal people.’
She wondered if he’d done it on purpose to lighten the tension. It worked whether he’d meant it to or not. Ezer scoffed. Chitter snorted: “Normal. Like you?” Allayne got involved in untangling that before it became a fight.
Senga took her duffel bag and started towards the stairs.
She hadn’t gone up and down the big stairs all that often. She’d used the side stairs in each wing or, when she was younger, she’d used the Back Wing servant’s stairs. The big sweeping front stairs were for parties, for showing off, for being seen, and she had not been all that interested in being seen when she had lived here.
Erramun followed her closely, so close she could feel his breath on the back of her neck. She was pitifully grateful for the closeness, and more grateful that, going first, she didn’t have to see anyone else watching her and they couldn’t see her face.
The left staircase was blocked. Her old room had been that way. She didn’t want to go back there. She turned right instead. When she’d lived here, her grandmother had held the upstairs master suite. She could handle that, she thought. If no, it would be the downstairs left hallway.
But she was Monmartin; she was this house’s holder and family. She ought to live in the master suite.
“A couple of the portraits up here have been defaced,” Erramun warned her. “There was a bit of a mess here – looked like someone failed to figure out one of the family’s traps? – but I dealt with that when I came through.”
“Thank you. We used to have two people on staff just for the ones who got caught. Pull out the ones that survived and send them on their way with a warning, dispose of the rest. The pear trees out back appreciated the fertilizer, I’m told.”
“The police never – of course, the police never.” He snorted. “What was I thinking?”
She chuckled. “Sometimes one or two of the police would come by, wanting to know about someone or other who had gone missing. If it was our favorite police officers, we’d – well, not me, usually [xx], who ran the staff – she’d tell them something that ended up being ‘you can stop looking; they’re not going to be found.’” Senga paused at the top of the stairs. “I wonder how many of those, their family is still waiting for something to be found. I could, ah, I could ‘discover’ the old bodies.”
She could feel his eyes on her, although her back was still to him. “Just to give their families closure?”
“And maybe to have one less skeleton in the closet here, literal or otherwise. Oh, look, someone installed a new trap. I wonder when that happened.” She studied the way the parquet floor shifted just a fraction of an inch and looked around. “Oh, I see, and that panel up there in the pressed-tin ceiling, that’s lovely. That wasn’t here when I moved out. We’ll have to warn the others.” She carefully stepped around the shifting place, making sure she didn’t step right into another trap. Her grandmother had loved that sort of thing, where you avoided the obvious trigger only to step on a far-better-hidden one.
“Curious. I didn’t see that when I came in.” Erramun muttered a series of Workings. Senga caught the Word for Know, and something about wood, and, she thought, something about the touch of humans. “I thought you said this place was unoccupied?”
“It should be. We all moved out when – well, I mean…” she trailed off. “I moved out. The staff moved out. I didn’t really – I didn’t really pay much attention, though, to everyone who lived here.”
“And yet the threshold recognized you.”
“Well… staff have always been a sort of grey area, haven’t they? At least, that’s what my grandmother said.”
“That sounds very much like your grandmother.”
“…You know, it’s a little creepy when you do that.” She eyed him sidelong as she stepped around a hole in the floor – this one looked to have been made by an axe, and would need repairing – and found him eyeing her in return with a cautious glance.
“And what is that, my Lady Monmartin?” He muttered another Working before she could answer, this time at the hole in the floor. It closed itself up and smoothed over until there was no longer a sign there had ever been a hole.
“Well done. Ah, um. Well, calling me Your Lady Monmartin, for one, but I meant talking about my grandmother like a friend.”
“Not a friend. I’m not sure she had friends. But you mean talking about a time before you were born, don’t you?” He tested the floor he’d repaired with a toe and, finding it good, continued on towards Senga.
“Well, that too,” she admitted. “But she was – well, my grandmother.”
“And she was my employer. And sometimes my blackmailer. Sometimes she and I spoke, and once in a while we did business together. Mostly, however, I worked for her.” He raised his eyebrows at her. “Is that going to be a problem?”
“Well, it doesn’t really matter if it is or isn’t, does it? We have to work together. The facts are, I have to Keep you to keep my head. You have to be my Bound Servant to keep your secrets. And you were known by my great-aunt and my grandmother long before I was even born.” It still sounded creepy. “So whether or not it’s a problem, I have to live with it.”
“That sounds like the theories of someone who ignores anything that bothers them.”
“Well, I do have a job where I sometimes get shot at. It pays to develop at least one sort of thick skin.” She smiled up at him. “All right. I have no idea what this room is going to look like.
“Let me go first.” He rested his hand on the doorknob. “In case of more trouble.”
“’Trouble.’” She let him go first, even though she wasn’t sure that was a good idea.
“Trouble,” he agreed solemnly. “As I said, things have changed since I was here last. That makes me concerned. And I don’t want you… hurt.”
The door swung open. Senga found she was holding her breath.