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Chapter Nine - Das Vadanya


Chapter Nine

Полая Луна

Ada spends the next couple of days doing two things: watching the north wing, and working up the courage to go inside. This has been complicated somewhat, however, as Ivan has taken to sitting just outside the curtain. Clearly, even if he didn’t see her in the hallway, he is still suspicious that someonewas out there, if not Ada herself. It is not a constant vigil by any means. In fact, from Ada’s assessment over the past two days it seems to be almost entirely random when he has his chair leaned against the wall, napping or reading a book. This makes it all the more dangerous for Ada to try to sneak inside. What if he makes an appearance on the landing after she sneaks in, and she can’t get out again?

What she needs is insurance, and as much as she hates to admit it, help. It’s becoming increasingly clear that with all the Volkov siblings as potential enemies, Ada can’t do this on her own. She will not ask Kapov. She will not ask Kapov for anything ever again. She doesn’t want to, she hates more than anything the awful, painful words that will have to pass through her lips, but she needs Mishka.

So she sends him word. Ada knows that the brat’s lessons are finished at half-past-three, so she dusts the paintings in the corridor just outside the library until Katya dashes out like a harried rabbit, and Mishka—his eyes nearly glazed over from exhaustion—emerges just a minute later.

As he passes by her she leans over. “We need to talk,” she mutters under her breath. “I’ll be waiting in the servant’s quarters in an hour.”

Mishka nods as subtly as he can, and continues walking.

She finishes up her dusting and makes her way downstairs to wait. Ada doesn’t dare hide in the kitchen, the cook is sharp as a hawk and will immediately notice how anxious she is, so she paces the small dining room instead, back and forth till she’s sure she’ll wear a hole in the floor.

Inside her mind it’s anarchy. She does not want to bring this back, these thoughts, these feelings. She thought that it was all in the past, now, that her sob story will be easy to regurgitate and then promptly forget again. That is what she has to do to acquire Mishka’s help, a pact of secrets. This is what she needs to do to see Jack again. But this is not easy at all. She hasn’t even spoken a word yet but it already feels like she’s right back there tossing amidst the lice-filled sheets till she can’t tell up from down anymore...

“Ms. Steel, are you alright?” asks a voice, and Ada realizes that at some point she had sat down. Her forehead stings from where it had dropped onto the table.

She wipes the cold sweat from her brow. “Ada, please,” she gently corrects him as she looks up to meet Mishka’s concerned gaze. “And yes, I’m quite alright. Just... preparing myself, is all.”

“Preparing?” he asks as she gestures and he takes a seat.

Slowly, to mitigate the effects of a burgeoning headache, Ada nods. “I need your help, as much as I hate to admit it.” Her voice comes out more strained than she intends it. “But in order to request anything of you, I believe that I owe you a story.”

Ada takes a deep breath, inward, outward, and Mishka waits patiently. Her throat is on fire, her tongue, ice. Sighing, she shakes her head. She has to start sometime. So Ada opens her mouth, and begins...

~~ o ~~

Birmingham, 1906

Ada and Jack’s parents had left them an inheritance when they died. It was a terrible fire, one that consumed their childhood home. Not a large inheritance, by any means, but if Ada worked at the laundress down the street, and they were very careful, it should last until Jack was able to finish university.

There were able to rent a townhouse in a decent part of Birmingham, and as long as they didn’t go out after dark, they felt relatively safe. It was hard, at first, and many a night was spent silently staring at the fire in the hearth as they huddled together.

“I miss them, Jack,” Ada said, barely a whisper, on one of these long night when she couldn’t sleep. He hadn’t been there, he hadn’t seen the flames.

He rustled her hair as he always did. “I know,” he said finally. “I do too.” This last part came out a bit muffled, as he had buried his head in her shoulder.

“Sometimes I think I hear mum calling still,” she admitted. “But then, of course, I look and there’s no one there.”

The other day she had caught a whiff of her mother’s perfume on one of her blouses that she’d managed to save, and then cried as the more she sniffed it, the more the scent disappeared. But she didn’t tell him that part.

“It’ll get better,” he whispered. “At least, I hope it will.”

If she didn’t have Jack, she didn’t know how she could have kept going. He’d already had the townhouse, had been renting it while he went to school, and so with the little they’d been able to salvage from the fire, she’d come to reside in the small apartment with him. It had made it that much easier to have someone to cry with, and for the first couple of weeks, she did little else.

Yet Jack was right, in the end. It did get better, a little at a time. Ada got her job scrubbing rags down the street, and that kept her mind at least a little occupied, even if it was to complain about how red and sore her hands were. But finally, one day, she got her smile back too.

She didn’t notice until Jack commented on it. “I missed it,” he said. “It never fails to brighten up the whole room. I know that everything’s alright as long as Ada’s smiling.”

The evenings were often spent with a book. Jack’s ambition was to become a teacher, maybe even a professor at a university himself eventually, and since they could no longer afford to send Ada to finish her last couple years of schooling, he would often teach her. Sometimes it was basic things, like maths or geography, but often he’d spend the evenings regaling her with what he’d learned that day, whether Latin, anatomy, or astronomy.

“Latin,” he proclaimed one night, “is the most grating language I have ever had the displeasure of reading.”

“And why is that?” Ada prompted, her face propped up in her hands, bemused. He was going to continue on anyway, but she always liked to encourage him.

Jack sighed dramatically. “Because Latin is much more flexible than English, any word can go any place in a sentence.”

“But then how are you supposed to know how to read it?”

“Here’s the finicky part.” His laugh was dripping with sarcasm. “The endings of words can be changed to determine its place. So every way a word can be used in a sentence, and every tense that it can be, have different endings.”

Ada frowned. “That does sound complicated.”

“Oh, but we’re not done!” Jack shook his head. “In addition, every noun is divided further into five different categories, called ‘declensions,’ and which declension the word belongs to each has its own set of endings you use for the different ways and tenses! It’s utterly maddening!”

The two began to laugh at the ridiculousness of the whole thing. “There’s that smile again,” Jack grinned back at her. “Keep smiling for me, will ya? That’s the only way I’m going to make it through this credit.”

Of course, she agreed.

Those busy, happy days couldn’t last long, however. At some point Jack had to finish university and start working, for their inheritance had almost run out. It was a tense few weeks for them both, as Jack searched for a job. But then, one morning, a mysterious letter arrived.

It was from a family of nobility—old money—from, of all places, Russia. Apparently, Jack’s university had recommended him, for the Volkovs were in need of a tutor for their youngest sibling, Katya. This wasn’t uncommon. English tutors were highly valued in Russian society, or so Jack had told her. The Grand Duchesses had an English tutor, after all.

Of course, for the pay they were offering him, Jack would’ve been a lunatic to turn it down. But this raised a lot of questions in regards to Ada, who was yet only sixteen. The invitation was only extended to Jack, without a mention of any family allowed to accompany him, and they didn’t want to push their luck. Eventually, it was decided that Ada would stay behind in Birmingham, keeping up residence in the townhouse, and Jack would send her enough money to pay the rent. Her work for the laundress should be enough to cover whatever else she might need.

Ada was old enough—and had seen enough—to know that this was the way things had to be. Yet that didn’t mean she had to like it. A pit opened deep within her chest, and sudden fears of never seeing him again flashed through her mind.

“It’ll only be two, maybe three years at most,” he said, grabbing her hand after she started sobbing at the dinner table on their last night together. “Then I’ll have enough money to come back here and go back to school.”

“To become a professor?” Ada added, wiping her eyes.

He grinned. “Of course.”

“But three years is such a long time.”

“It might look that way now,” Jack spoke softly. “But in six months it might only be eighteen until I’m back. Six more and that number goes down to twelve. Just think about it one day at a time, Ada.”

“I... I’ll try,” she mumbled. “But I’ll spend every one of those days missing you. You’re... you’re all that I’ve got left!”

Jack’s smile fell just a little, the cheerful façade cracking. “I know,” he said finally. “I’ll spend every one of my days counting down to when I’ll be back with you again. But until then, you’ve gotta be strong for me, alright?”

She agreed, on the one condition that he write to her every single day.

And he did. For the first three months she received a letter every day, and she would write back. It wasn’t a very efficient way to communicate, as most of the letters were delayed by several weeks. But always delivered the fastest it could, with no expense spared—courtesy of the Volkovs—a letter arrived containing just enough money to pay the rent, although on the second month there was a little extra with a message that said to buy herself something nice.

Then one day, there was no letter.

At first, she didn’t think much of it. He’d probably been exceptionally busy one day and hadn’t the time to write. From what he’d told her, his pupil was a bit of a handful. But then there was silence the next day, and the day after that.

And then the money stopped coming as well.

Without that money, Ada couldn’t afford to stay in the townhouse, no matter how many rags she scrubbed. And she couldn’t find lodgings for cheaper because no one would rent to a child. She managed one more month from the money she’d carefully saved, each day hoping, praying that a letter from Jack would arrive. But it never did. And after that month was up, they threw her out onto the street.

Something must have happened to him, for Ada knew that he would never abandon her. But no matter how many letters she wrote, who she addressed them to, no one ever replied. And there was no other way for her to contact him, for Jack was thousands of miles away.

She wished she at least knew. If he was sick, if he was dead, if Katya Volkovna had decided to dissect him? But all she received was silence. That silence was the worst thing she could imagine.

At first, Ada stayed at inns and taverns by selling some of her clothes and jewelry, yet even that money eventually ran out. Her first night out on the street it was storming, and she nearly drowned when the ally corner she’d huddled in suddenly became a pond. By the morning, she was soaked to the bone, bleary-eyed, and shaking uncontrollably.

She did whatever she could for money, begged mostly, sang on street corners. Sometimes she’d get enough for a warm meal or a night on a stiff cot in a hostel, but not often.

Then the cold began to set in, and life got even harder. Ada was at first horrified to wake up to icicles dripping from her nose, but she quickly grew to see it with a cold indifference. Everything was cold, so cold that Ada soon forgot what being warm even felt like.

Come January, one especially chill wind whipped through Birmingham, and Ada was done for. At first it was her fingers and toes that burned with an icy fire, but soon everything just started to go numb. This was it. If there was a god in heaven, she hoped she’d make it there so she could sock him in his saintly face. Maybe Jack would be there waiting for her as well.

She huddled in as deep as she could in the pile of moldy rags she’d scrounged up and prayed that she could just fall into a nice, gentle sleep.

But if there was a god, he was a righteous prick, and he wasn’t quite done with her yet.

“Leave her be,” said a voice, a very long way away. “She’s just another urchin.” Was even God leaving her now? To sink slowly downwards into the snaking fingers of the abyss? That’s what it felt like, as the cold came in waves now, the intermittent numbness caressing her with gentle tendrils.

Distantly, she felt something poke her in the side. “No, I recognize this one, sings on the corner some nights. Pretty face.”

It became even harder to breathe as she was grabbed by her cheeks, her head forcibly turned this way and that.

“Aye, you might be right about that.”

“Our sick girl is done for anyway. We’ll need a new one. Grab ‘er. Ain’t got no one to miss her anyway.”

One would think that she’d remember getting lifted up or dragged off, or even how far they went, but straining her memory as far as she can, all Ada remembers is waking up upon a lumpy mattress. It was warm, or at least, not cold, and the off-white sheets felt like the cloth of an angel’s robe. Maybe she had died after all?

Her clothes—what was left of them, anyway—were gone, replaced with a simple nighty. So tired, both physically and spiritually was she, that for an indeterminate amount of time all Ada could do was stare up at the ceiling. It was a dark wood, with several large support beams running across it, full of knots and uneven edges.

At some point, however, her stomach began to pain her. She had no idea how long it had been since she’d last had any sort of food to speak of. It was this hollowness that slowly awakened her mind and limbs. Ada craned her head around this way and that, trying to determine where she was.

She didn’t recognize it, and it seemed most likely that some stranger had taken pity on her and taken her in. Ada decided that it would be for the best to find whoever it was, thank them for their generosity, and be on her way. As much as she feared bearing the cold again, it would be wrong to take advantage of a complete stranger.

As she rose from the bed and wandered out of the room, however, something began to feel... less than right to her. It became clear as she stumbled down the thin hallway that her benefactor was not a person of means. Several women were idling in this hallway, each with heavy makeup and little in the way of clothing. They stared back at her as she passed not with confusion, but with pity.

Finally, one of them approached her. Under the plastered on face she looked so... worn, that was the only way to describe it. “You’re the new girl, right? Come along, the Madam wants to speak to you.”

The Madam, a somewhat portly woman who introduced herself as “Bet Middleton”, stared down at Ada from behind a somewhat rickety desk and explained her situation rather succinctly. “This is a whorehouse, love. I took you off the street, clothed you, fed you, and that all costs money I don’t have. So now, you have a debt to pay.”

“I can cook and clean,” Ada offered.

But the Madam simply laughed. “You really don’t listen well, girlie. One of my girls just passed, god rest her soul. The only reason I saved you from freezing to death is because of your pretty face. There’s only one way to make up debt in a whorehouse, and that is to whore.”

Ada sat in silence for a moment. That was simply an unfathomable proposition. “A... and what if I refuse?”

“I didn’t get nothin’ in writing,” the Madam shrugged. “The door is that way, but I hear another chill is coming our way tonight.”

Ada wouldn’t last another night out there. She knew this, and the Madam definitely knew it. Ada wasn’t a virgin; she’d had a dalliance with a boy from her neighborhood, but it hadn’t lasted long. Regardless, how could she possibly sell herself like that? Thinking of the risks, the diseases, the sheer thought of letting so many man touch her, violate her, it all made her head spin so much that she wanted to cry.

But what choice did she have? She’d be eighteen in less than a year, so she would work here, pay off her debt, and get herself back on her feet. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than the alternative.

They brought the first John to her, up in the bedroom she had first woken up in. He was a youngish man, maybe around the same age Jack would be, and clearly sloshed out of his mind. He had the decency to be embarrassed and mumble something about not often doing this sort of thing.

It was clear he was lying, though.

It hurt like a son of a bitch, more than it ever had before. It was rough, violent. She tried to open her mouth to say something, but was roughly slapped and told to keep her mouth shut. Despite her best efforts, a tear or two slipped out of her eye, but this seemed only to invigorate the man, who continued to pick up his pace.

After he left, dropping a few coins on the pillow next to her, she was appalled at just how wet it was between her legs.

Ada didn’t sleep that night, partially because she couldn’t stop crying, partially because she ached more intensely than she ever had before. Yet there was something else too: a used up, hollow sort of feeling, like she was an old doll with all her stuffing removed. She didn’t think she could do that ever again. Ada almost jumped out of the window right then and there.

But she got up the next day, and did it again. And again.

All for some hope of getting out. She had dreams about a small room to call her own. Any place was fine, just somewhere warm and clean. Maybe then she’d be able to afford a ticket to Russia, knock on the Volkovs’ door, and bring Jack home.

It was what she thought about when her head was knocked mercilessly against the wall, staring up at the ceiling. That was an attainable dream, wasn’t it?

Then she got her pay for the month, and after expenses taken out for the room, food, clothing, and other miscellaneous expenditures, Ada realized she was never getting out of there. But what else could she do? Ada understood well the unfair situation she found herself in, but it was either the whorehouse or back out onto the street.

So she continued. For months and months life turned into a monotonous drone of pain and exhaustion, only broken by a month when she became so sick she couldn’t work. But the Madam called someone who claimed to be a doctor and she didn’t get sick anymore after he left; a visit which was of course tacked onto her debt.

One day, after who knew how long, Ada happened to glance into the cracked, dusty mirror that sat on the small table in her room and realized that she barely recognized herself. Her face was pale and gaunt, hair a tangled mess of bandoline and grease. Her features were caked over with a layer of heavy powder and her eyes looked sunken in from the smudged ring of black surrounding each.

Ada remembered that distant time, walking down the road with Jack and taking pity on those poor creatures. Just when was it that she had become a creature herself?

She cried then, for the only time since her dreadful first night at the brothel. And then, an awful thought occurred to her: she was eighteen now. It had been a week ago, her birthday, but she had entirely forgotten. What did it matter anyway? Ada was sore, used up, broken, and above all, she was simply tired. Though she had never been one for praying, Ada locked her hands together and whispered requests of forgiveness to god, or whoever was listening. “Please,” she muttered in a hoarse whisper, “Someone take me away from this place.”

It was that night that she met the daemon.

She could tell immediately that there was something not quite right about him. Nowadays she mostly solicited her own Johns, but this one just waltzed right into her room merely a few minutes after she had finished putting her face on. And there he was, standing in the middle of one of the most miserable places on earth, where the drunk, the lonely, and the old got their rocks off, and he was grinning like an idiot.

Maybe higher-class establishments got his kind more often. He seemed too happy, too polished, with his bright eyes and pressed suit. Ultimately, it didn’t matter to Ada. He’d be done and gone in twenty minutes and she wouldn’t think about him again. At least he was something nice to look at. Maybe he’d go a little gentler.

She sighed. “Do you want it on the bed, love, or would you prefer to bend me over?”

The John straightened, surprised. “Oh, well I suppose if you’re offering.”

“You want it some other way, instead?” she asked, but the man simply grinned. “You do know where you are, don’t you?”

“I am quite well aware,” he chuckled. “But, alas, I didn’t come here for that. Business before pleasure, as they say. No, no! I came here to see you!”

Ada sat as far back as her chair would allow. She’d seen some freaks but this man was a nutter. “And just what business would you have with me?”

“Well, I heard that you need a little help, so I rushed right over. You had me waiting quite a while, you know.”

Rubbing a hand through her matted hair, Ada shook her head in confusion. “Are... are you saying that you heard me... praying? What, you some sort of angel?”

The man really laughed at that. “I suppose I’ve neglected to introduce myself. Awfully rude on my part, really. The name’s Cowell, and I’m not so much an angel as well... more of the opposite.”

Though she didn’t believe him for a second, Ada knew from experience that it was much safer to play along with this “Cowell’s” delusion than to try to deny it. “So, you’re a demon then?”

“Exactly,” he beamed. “Eh, probably not the kind you’re thinking of, though. I don’t come from Hell or any nonsense like that, though I fill much the same purpose.”

“Tempting sinners?”

“I like to think of it more like ‘making dreams into realities.”

Ada stood, making her way to the door. Better to humor a madman, but this one seemed harmless, and she did not want to deal with this tonight. “Well, now I know you’re mad,” she said, “because dreams don’t become real. That’s why they’re called dreams.”

“You think I’m lying,” Cowell’s expression didn’t change.

“No. I’m sure you believe quite strongly in your own demonhood.” She paused to wrench open the door. “Either that or you’re selling something. Now, it’s been lovely chatting with you, but I don’t need any help from—”

“Not even to see Jack again?”

He said it so quietly that she barely heard him, but Ada froze all the same. “What did you just say?”

“Your brother, Jack. That is his name, right? You don’t want to find out what happened to him? Not even a little bit?”

Ada closed the door. “I haven’t told a soul about Jack. So where in the bloody fuck did you hear that name?” She turned, and closed the distance between them, but Cowell didn’t bat an eye.

“I already told you.”

“You... you must have been a-a classmate of his or something, right?”

He just shook his head. “You can check, but you won’t find any trace of me at the university, or anywhere else, for that matter.”

Rubbing her temple to abate a developing headache, Ada shut her eyes tightly. “So you... you really are a demon?”

“Yes,” he said patiently. “And please just... believe me. You don’t know how tedious it can get to explain it over and over again.”

“Alright.” She couldn’t believe she was going along with this. “So, you’re a demon.”

“And I’m here to help you.”

“But why? Why me, and why now? Couldn’t you have gotten here six months ago?”

Cowell smiled mysteriously. “Because you’re important, and because you asked.”

“What do you mean, important?” Quite regardless of her own will, Ada felt her skin begin to crawl.

“You wouldn’t understand if I tried to explain. We’ll just say that the cosmos has taken a liking to you, so here I am.”

Ada sat back down again, utterly baffled. “So what are you going to do? Bring my brother back?”

“Mmm, not quite,’ he shrugged, a little embarrassed. “I figured we’d kill two birds with one stone, as if were. I can help reunite you with you brother andget you out of here.”

“And how do you expect to do that?”

He scrunched his face in thought, spectacles nearly falling off his nose. “Not sure, yet. But I’m sure it’ll all work out. That’s the power of the deal.”

Sighing, Ada felt her heart sink a little. She wasn’t exactly bursting with confidence. “It’s not like I’ve got anything to lose.”

“That’s the spirit! But before we finalize the arrangement, there’s one more thing we need to discuss: my payment.”


“Like I said,” he shrugged. “I’m no angel. I can’t just snap my fingers and make miracles happen. I need some oil to power the miracle machine!”

“Let me guess,” Ada interrupted. “You want my soul, don’t you?”

But the daemon shook his head. “I was considering it, but I’ve been growing bored of souls lately. There’s only so many you can eat before they all start to taste the same.” He said that, but Ada couldn’t help noticing the odd look that came into his eyes anyway. “No, I think I’d like to try something more interesting. Plus, I like you, so I’ll let you off easy. All I ask, in exchange for all I do, is your smile.”

“My... smile?” she asked, confused.

“Yes, the smile that your brother likes so much. I want it.”

At the time, she didn’t understand what that meant. Given a clearer head and some time to mull it over, Ada would grasp the irony. But by then, it was far too late.

Ada took a deep breath, wondering briefly if this was all just some really fucked up dream. “Alright,” she agreed. “It’s a deal. Now, how do we make it happen? An occult ritual? An orgy—?”

“Well, if you’re offering,” he began laughing, but quickly turned it into a cough as Ada glared at him. “Too soon?” He proffered. “No, no. Nothing as risqué as that. All it takes is a gentleman’s agreement. Just a simple handshake...”

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