As soon as the doors closed, Viola knew she'd be lucky if she was ever given the chance to step outside them again. The sound didn't just echo throughout the tower, but appeared to signal the ending of her old life and the beginning of an entirely different one.
"You'll have to watch this one," Mrs Casket said, holding up a frail hand speckled with age. The index finger was missing. "She bites."
Viola averted her eyes, trying to ignore the ball of apprehension growing in her belly. She gazed up at the winding staircase. Her tongue felt like a strip of dried leather and it was difficult to form words around it. "How much longer until we're there?"
Mrs Casket stopped in her tracks and raised the lantern. Her hair was pinned back and greying at the temples. In the dull light her eyes looked almost black, glittering like a beetle's shell. Viola half-expected them to scuttle around her face at any moment, disappearing between the creases of her skin.
"You doubt yourself, my girl," Mrs Casket said accusingly. "Well, it's not too late, I suppose. We can always turn back. I mean, if you want to be a cleaner in a whore house for the rest of your life"
"I can do this," Viola said, all too aware of the shame blossoming across her face. It was true; she'd been born in a brothel and had lived her days in one up until a month ago. She was done with that life and had no desire to return.
Mrs Casket squeezed her shoulder. "Of course you are, dear. You're a very special girl, Viola. That's why I chose you." And then she smiled, turning away quickly. Viola wasn't certain if the woman was about to laugh or not.
They started to move again.
Viola had been following Mrs Casket up the tower for the past fifteen minutes. The woman was all arms and legs and moved with the speed of a large cat. Aged sixteen, slight and limber, Viola didn't think this was natural. Pain had settled in her legs shortly after the beginning of the trek, making them feel like fire and jelly, but Mrs Casket didn't even falter.
"This is the easy part, my girl. Think how you'd feel running up here in the dead of night while it wails."
"I dunno," Viola panted. "I've never heard her make a peep."
"Oh, you will. It loves to make a racket."
"An' why does she do that?"
Mrs Casket tutted. "Takes moments of madness, doesn't it? Sees and hears things which aren't there. Of course, those moments are getting longer. Its powers are dangerous, my girl, and worse when it takes a turn. Oh yes, I've been its maid for the past ten years and I know it better than anybody else. I bet you every finger on my good hand that if it escaped, it would surely set out to finish the job it started."
Viola swallowed. She wasn't sure if Mrs Casket was trying to frighten her or not, but either way she was succeeding.
It felt like hours rather than minutes later, but eventually they came to a door. It squealed on its hinges when Mrs Casket forced it open. There was nothing but thick, impenetrable darkness lurking beyond. Viola felt the cold prickle up her arms and could see her breath misting the air. She didn't like it in here, either.
There was a whoosh as the light orbs were suddenly brought to life. Viola had never seen them up this close before; in the streets they were suspended from tall brackets and at home they had always relied upon lanterns. The orbs bobbed up and down as they emitted their gentle hum of light, and as Viola leaned forward to get a better look, Mrs Casket stamped her foot.
"Don't play with those," she snapped.
"I wasn't playing."
"Don't ever touch them."
"All right," Viola muttered, but what she really wanted to say was keep your wig on, love.
"Just come over here."
The room also had a bed and a desk with a separate bathroom. It was small and dingy, but as far as Viola was concerned, it was luxury. Well, she supposed everything was when you'd practically lived in a cupboard most of your life. At least her space wouldn't be shared with a poo-clogged toilet brush.
"This will be your room."
Mrs Casket eyed her darkly.
"Ain't never had a room of my own before," Viola explained. "Nah, it's perfect." After escaping from the brothel, she had lived on the streets. She had a knack for being able to sleep anywherefrom doorways to alleyways. It was the orphanage which had taken her in after that. "What are those?"
There was shelf upon shelf filled with large, wicked-looking contraptions. Some were pretty and jewel-encrusted, but others had spikes and clamps. Viola's breath snagged in her throat. What does she want me to do with those?
"Beautiful, aren't they?" Mrs Casket said, standing beside her. There was awe in her voice and adoration in her eyes.
"They're puzzle boxes."
Viola had never seen anything like them before and it was pretty safe to say that Mrs Casket hadn't obtained them from Bowerstone, the local marketplace. Most of them looked ancient and whispered of distant lands and civilisations.
"I like to play games," Mrs Casket said, fixing a stray thread of hair back into place.
It's the only thing that makes the time up here bearable."
Viola reached out to examine one and Mrs Casket slapped her hand. She was used to being treated like a servant and an idiot, but not a child. "Is there anything I can bloody touch?"
Mrs Casket gave a cat-like smile and went across to the desk. Viola couldn't see what the maid was doing, but when she returned, she offered something to her handle-first.
"Had to ask, didn't I?"
"Come on, my girl. It's not going to sting."
But the knife didn't have to; it was Viola who was expected to do all the hard work. This was it, the one catch to Mrs Casket's seemingly simple act of kindness, and it was a whopper at that.
"Ain't never killed nobody before," Viola said.
"It's not difficult. You just jab them with the sharp end."
Once again Viola wondered why the old maid couldn't do the job herself. Her mind wandered back to the very first meeting they'd had in the Burning Banshee pub over a week ago. Mrs Casket had supplied her with pints of black beer and a rack of sticky ribs whilst she'd made her grim proposition.
"She doesn't trust me," Mrs Casket said. "You, on the other hand, are just the sort of young lady I'm looking for. You've got that innocent, harmless way about you."
"Simple, you mean."
"You could befriend her."
"I don't get it. Why d'you want her dead?"
"Why would I not? I tend to her every whim day and night and my life won't be my own until she's dead and rotting."
"And you think the Lady of Chains is goin' to trust me?"
"They'll kill me if they catch me, y'know."
Viola thought about it. She wasn't sure if she could kill anybodyeven somebody who had supposedly committed a great crime. No, the most notorious crime in the city's history. She drained the last of her black beer and was about to leave when Mrs Casket lunged across the table, her knobbly fingers burrowing into Viola's arm.
"I know you need the money and I can give it to you, my girl. You'll never have to worry about the welfare of those little mites ever again." And knowing that she had finally gotten her full attention, Mrs Casket had smiled her first cat-like smile.
The knife felt heavy and strange now in Viola's hands and she didn't like it one bit. She wasn't even aware that Mrs Casket had left until she returned a moment later with a bundle of clothes.
"Put these on."
Viola grimaced. Without a doubt, the uniform was the ugliest thing she had ever seen. The skirt was black and the shirt looked like a meringue; all cream-coloured frills and puffy shoulders. The apron pinched at her hips and the little maid's hat kept slipping across her eyes.
"Much better," Mrs Casket said.
"I feel like a twit."
"You look the part, dear."
"You can effin' say that again."
"Mind your tongue. You're a lady's maid now."
"Beg your pardon, ma'am," Viola said stiffly. Speaking all prim and proper didn't suit her; the words felt too clumsy in her mouth, and when she heard herself aloud, it sounded like she was trying to speak to somebody who was very deaf.
"Now repeat after me," the old woman said, clearing her throat. "Good morning, my Lady."
"Good morning, my Lady."
Mrs Casket took a step back, slipping a strand of blonde hair underneath Viola's hat. For a moment she had a strange, glazed look in her eyes. "Perfect. That's what you are," she said. "Remember; you have seventy-two hours to do the deed and not a moment longer. Cut her throat and remove her heart. That, my girl, is the only way to destroy the wretched creature."
They walked the rest of the way in silence and Viola soon found herself standing before a collection of valves, all different colours and sizes. Mrs Casket pulled back her sleeves, revealing thin arms knotted with muscle. Long scars trailed over her olive skin, branching out like veins. Viola swallowed. It occurred to her that Mrs Casket probably hadn't always been a maid. The marks looked like battle scars.
Mrs Casket coughed and hacked up a glob of spit into her hands and rubbed them together. She went before the largest valve and began twisting it, threading the metal through her fingers.
There was a bang and the door before them slid open.
"The valves are important," the woman grunted. "They don't just lock and unlock the doors. They also control her bonds. Control, my girl, that's the name of the game up here."
Viola chewed her lip.
"We can't have her loose in Greylock. Not again." Mrs Casket rubbed her scars lightly. The gesture was enough to make Viola feel like running all the way back down the staircase. The old woman smirked. She pounced suddenly, grabbing Viola by the neck. "Remember everything I've told you, dear; watch her like a hawk. Don't get her angry. She is a trickster, a liar and a murderer. And it just so happens that the Master of this city is in love with her."
The last doorway was different than the rest. The light orbs stood at either side, emitting a frosty glow, making fingers of ice creep across the floor. There's so much more to this bloody place than bricks and cement, Viola thought. But what exactly? The whole door had been transformed into an elaborate carving. Viola trailed her fingertips down the wood, marking out the shapes and textures. There were trees rising from grassy plains and clutches of flowers blossoming underneath a sunny sky. In the middle stood two figures and it was impossible to see where one ended and the other began.
But it was obviously a scene from either another world or another lifetime. There were no grassy fields in Greylock anymore and the sun was always hidden behind a thick blanket of cloud. Viola had never seen flowers before either and the trees were nothing more than dried-out husks.
The light orbs pulsed, dragging Viola's attention to the top of the door.
Carved in bold letters, which were in stark contrast to the style of the picture, were these words:
MY LADY AWAITS.
THIS TOWER IS HER CAGE.
AND I AM HER KEEPER.
Viola cursed under her breath. This was realand it was happening to her. But her thoughts were quickly left behind as Mrs Casket's fingernails bit into her skin, yanking her forward.
Her heart felt like a panicked bird in a tiny cage. Viola was standing in the dark, her back pressed against the door. She was terrified to move in case she bumped into anything. And then she heard it; the distinct sound of chains scraping against the floor.
Over at the far side of the room there was a strip of light peeking in between long, sweeping curtains. The light caught lots of little things in the room, but it also brushed against the figure of a woman. She was sitting in a high-backed chair like a queen.
Mrs Casket stepped forward, "Good morning, my Lady." Her voice was different up here, smooth and polite. Forced.
"Mrs Casket, what a wonderful surprise." The voice which greeted them in turn was as sharp and as cold as an icicle. It was also dripping with sarcasm.
Despite herself, Viola couldn't help but smile.
"Oh, it's so dark, my Lady. Let's get some light in here." Mrs Casket shuffled forward, ducking and stepping over various things embedded in the darkness. There was another whoosh of light as the orbs swirled orange and red before giving off a white glow.
Mrs Casket's beetle-black eyes narrowed and her palm twitched. But Viola ignored her. She hadn't been sure what to expect, but certainly nothing like this. The room was large and exquisiteor, had been once upon a time. Chains streamed from every angle; they'd pushed their way through furniture, dangled from the ceiling and had burst through the beautiful tapestry on the walls, wrapping themselves around the lone figure in the middle. And even though the Lady of Chains had her back to them, Viola was certain that she was smiling.
"Perfect," Mrs Casket said.
"Yes," sniffed the lady. "I imagine you would be inclined to think so."
Viola stretched her legs and went to slouch against a chest of drawers. Her elbow bumped against one of the chains, making them tinkle. Mrs Casket gave her a look, but the lady merely cocked her head.
"What is your name?"
"Don't be shy. I won't hurt you . . ."
"This is Viola, my"
"I assume your assistant has her tongue, Mrs Casket?" the lady's voice boomed, but then immediately softened. "Don't be shy. What is your name?"
"Viola," she repeated as if tasting it.
"I see and do you have a surname?"
She paused. Anybody who didn't have a family was automatically given the city as their surname. It was supposed to be a sign of reassurance, that the city would always be your home. But times had changed and anybody carrying it was treated with both a mixture of pity and disgust. "Viola of Greylock," she mumbled.
Mrs Casket cleared her throat.
"Viola of Greylock, my Lady," Viola repeated and the words echoed around them.
"I rescued her from an orphanage," Mrs Casket interjected. "She was living in a rundown house full of nasty, flea-ridden deadbeats. I thought she was of polite mouth and gentle manner, but if she displeases you, my Lady, you only need to say the word. Some of these young pups need nothing more than a good kick in the teeth to keep them in line," she said, grabbing Viola by the ear.
"Yes, my Lady?"
"Please, kindly bugger off."
Mrs Casket's face reddened. And then, without another word, she fled the room.
The tower suddenly felt very cold and foreboding. The Lady of Chains seemed to draw the atmosphere around herself like a well-worn cloak.
Viola fidgeted. Her ear felt hot and throbbing.
The silence grew between them, evolving into a life of its own, telling more than words ever could. But what it spoke of exactly, Viola wasn't sure.
Finally, the lady spoke. "Could you open the curtains, please? I haven't been able to see the outside for days."
Viola scurried across the room. She didn't so much as glance at the lady's face, but even so, she couldn't help but imagine those cold, murderous eyes pressing against her back and the mind behind them, trying to dissect her, searching for a way to overpower her and escape. Viola shuddered as she reached the curtains, throwing them back.
The lady let out a hushed breath. "Wonderful," she said. And in that one word Viola heard her stir, like a flower bristling in the sun. "Isn't it tragic when such a sight can be considered 'wonderful'?"
Viola looked up. They were located on the fringes of the city. The network of streets below them had been abandonedmost of the buildings were nothing more than rubble. In the near distance she could see the heart of Greylock; most of its structures were supported by elaborate masses of metal scaffolding. You did this, Viola thought, directing it to the creature behind her. You're responsible for almost destroying us all . . .
"Yes, my Lady."
"Why do you refuse to look at me?"
Because I'm supposed to hate youyou're bad an' wicked and I have to kill you. But, what if I turn around an' there's a person sitting there?
With a deep breath, Viola steadied her nerves and turned around.
She met a pale face framed with dark-as-ebony hair and the wildest blue eyes she had ever seen. The rest of the lady's features were small and delicate; a narrow nose, high cheekbones and a Cupid's bow mouth.
She should be wearing a crown or something, Viola thought. Because that's what she looks like; a queen stolen from some faraway place and tucked away up here. But then her thoughts turned to steel and she scolded herself. But she's not. She is the Destroyer, the Traitor of Greylock and here she is, sitting in front of me looking like butter wouldn't melt.
Regardless, Viola stepped closer.
The lady's neck was adorned with chain upon chain of gold. Great gemstones sparkled on her fingersthey were the size of walnuts and looked like the kind which, (Viola imagined) could have been plundered from the tomb of a king or a dwarf mine. She was also wearing a black dress, expensive and beautiful, yes, but
Something isn't right about this.
And then it hit her. None of this suited the lady's style or manner. It was like a shell somebody had created for her, something they hoped the lady would grow into eventuallyor more accurately, something she'd be reduced to. There had also been an attempt to put makeup on her; a line of blood-red lipstick trailed down the corner of her mouth.
"They said I was pretty once," the lady said in a paper-thin voice. "But now I don't know . . . They haven't let me near a mirror in a long time." She shook her head as if clearing it from cobwebs and perked up. "Now, I'm only going to ask you one question, Viola. But I really need you to answer honestly. I look like shit, don't I?"
"Come on, you don't have to fib."
"I'm not a child. I don't fib."
"Can you wipe it off anyway?" The corner of the lady's mouth curved into a half-smile, gesturing to the lipstick.
Viola didn't move.
"At least tell me what colour it is. I mean, is it peaches and cream or harlot red?"
"You have a cheek, you know," Viola said abruptly. "Sitting there, acting like butter wouldn't melt."
"Oh, it would melt. But it would do so slowly."
Viola's lip twitched, but she still didn't move. This is it. One of her bloody games. She fidgeted; the lady was staring at her with unblinking eyes. What is she looking at me like that for? I wish she'd quit it. She broke eye contact and glanced down. The lady's wrists were bound by thick knots of chain. Brilliant red marks were criss-crossed into her pale skin.
"You wouldn't believe how much of a bugger it is when you've got an itchy nose," the lady said.
It was the last thing Viola had expected her to say. The corner of her mouth twitched again and this time she couldn't help but smile. The lady returned it.
"So, she can smile after all."
"Of course I can, my Lady."
"Would you care for a seat?"
"And why shouldn't you?"
"Oh well, that answers everything."
But truthfully, Viola's legs were still feeling awfully sore and stiff from the journey up here. After a moment, she sighed and slumped down beside the window, placing her head in her hands. Everything was finally hitting home. The silence was once again gnawing at her, and before she was even aware of it, she asked a question. "How long have you been up here for?"
"I don't know. Time loses meaning when you're incarcerated without a sentence. But then again, I imagine you'll have a better idea than I do. Tell me, Viola, how long has it been since I allegedly threatened to destroy our world?"
She thought about it. "Ten years."
The lady didn't bat an eyelid. "There you have it."
Viola didn't know what else to say. Just hearing the lady speak like this made her blood run cold.
"Do I scare you?"
Viola hesitated. "Yes."
"It's the stories, my Lady."
"Everybody tells stories."
"So, what they say . . . it's not true?"
Again she showed nothing. "No, it is. Some nights I can still taste the smoke," she whispered and then her peculiar eyes went somewhere else before coming back again. "But I have no desire to harm you, Viola. I promise you that. Anyway, I have another request, if I may?"
"Can you loosen the chains? I wish to stand and feel the air on my face."
Remembering what Mrs Casket had told her about the valves, Viola clambered through the web of chains and pushed a copper-coloured one. The chains quivered before sinking to the ground.
Viola stood a safe distance back.
The lady rose to her feet, the fabric of her dress hissing across the floor as she moved jerkily towards the window. She was taller than Viola would have previously guessed. And when she approached the window, she leaned forward, her eyes closed as she savoured the air. Her lips were moving and Viola wondered if she was praying.
When you kill her, it'll have to be at a time like this. In fact, if you'd brought that stupid knife with you, you could have done it by now. Viola clenched her fists and forced the thought from her head. She'd had a long day, and didn't want to focus on murder right now. Besides, she still had two more days after this one and that was plenty of time to kill somebody, wasn't it?
"Toy soldiers," the lady hissed.
Once again the lady's entire demeanour had changed. Her body was ridged, her palms pressed against the edge of the window as her eyes narrowed into slits, scanning the ground far below them. It looked like she was about to leap out the window.
Viola rushed across.
There was a line of sturdy figures travelling through the abandoned part of the city below. Their footsteps were in unison and clapped against the ground like a war drum. Each one cradled a gun.
"Officers," Viola murmured, giving the machines their proper name. "Sometimes they patrol the city. It's nothing to worry about, my Lady." But what if it was? What if it was a sign from Mrs Casket, a reminder of what she had to do?
A piece of rock crumbled in the lady's grasp and tumbled off the ledge, striking one of the robotic things on the head. It landed with a dull thud and a plume of dust. The officer in question whirled around and aimed its gun up at them. Steam hissed from its joints and threaded into the air.
"My Lady, you're going to get us into trouble," Viola pleaded. But the lady was fixed to the spot, watching them carefully.
"No, this isn't right. There's something wrong down there," she stated. With her hands pressed against the sides of the window, Viola could see the fine muscle rippling along her arms. She looked like she wanted to rip them apart. More importantly, she looked like she was going to try.
"My Lady, please. There is nothing wrong. You're going to get me into trouble." And then Viola did the unthinkable; she grabbed the Lady of Chains by the arm. The lady spun around, stunned by the contact and Viola stumbled backwards. She knew it was a mistake reaching out like that, but if the officers got involved, there'd be no chance for her. They wouldn't think twice about ridding Greylock of some lowly girl from the slums.
Then again, wasn't the lady more dangerous?
Viola got to her feet.
The Lady of Chains stood straight, gripped with a dangerous calm. Her eyes weren't focused on anything else but Viola, and that was the most terrifying thing of all. Viola had to think. She had to knock the lady off guard and divert her attention.
"Why did you try to destroy the city?"
The Lady of Chains stared at her for what felt like a very long time and eventually she sighed and returned to her chair. "Why do you insist on asking me these questions?"
The lady raised an eyebrow.
"Can't you tell me, my Lady?"
"I don't remember."
"None of it?"
"They're like images in the fog, Viola. There and not. But there is something . . ."
"Yes, my Lady?"
She leaned forward. "There's something about you."
"I don't . . ."
"Have we met before?"
Viola shook her head. She didn't like the lady looking at her so keenly. And what was she going on about? Viola had never been up here before in her life and she was pretty sure that the Lady of Chains had never visited a brothel, either. It was true what everybody said; she was as mad as a bucket of frogs.
"How very peculiar," the lady said.
And Viola thought that she was hardly in a position to disagree.