The sun was going down. The carriage came to a stop by the little cottage. Porphyria could smell the salt spray of the ocean beyond the cliffs.
"Wait here, Danner," she told the driver. "Water the horses at the spring. And don't disturb us even if the sky is falling."
"Yes, mistress," said Danner.
Porphyria followed the path to the cottage door, but hesitated before knocking. She looked toward the cliffs. Maybe I should just throw myself over the edge, she thought. Maybe that would be a better way to do it. But instead she knocked on the door, and when it opened she went in without waiting to be invited, or even greeted.
Hester moved out of the way, wiping flour-covered fingers on her apron.
"Oh yes, don't stand on ceremony, please do come in," she said, smirking.
Porphyria had to duck a bit to fit through the doorframe. She was a great, tall woman, with strong arms and broad shoulders and a hard face, and yet she was often called beautiful. Last season a duke wrote a sonnet in tribute to her golden hair.
She called the verses "quaint."
Hester was petite and delicate, but gentleman of every stripe stayed away from her despite her charms, and her name was never mentioned in polite circles.
Hester went back to her kitchen and continued rolling out dough on the sideboard. Porphyria stood, arms folded, waiting for the other woman to say something, and when she didn't Porphyria coughed as loud as she could.
"Well? Why are you here?" sad Hester, without looking up.
Porphyria took a wooden box from her handbag and set it on the countertop. Hester smeared flour on it as she picked it up.
"What's this?" Hester said.
"Open it," said Porphyria.
Hester did. There was a diamond necklace inside. "How...pretty," she said.
"It's priceless. It was worn by my mother at the coronation. Just one of those stones would buy all the land from here to Marblehead Hall. It should be more than enough for what I'm asking."
Hester turned the necklace over in her hand. "I'm sorry," she said, "but I wouldn't have a thing to wear with it." She dropped it onto the dirt floor.
Porphyria scowled, although she had expected this. "If that's not good enough then what is?"
"You know my price," said Hester, continuing to knead the dough.
"I will not pay it," said Porphyria. She turned away to hide her blush.
"Then you will not. It's your decision."
"I'll just find someone else to help me," Porphyria said, turning as if to leave.
"But there is no one else. You've traveled all over the isles and even to the continent, but found no one who can do what I can."
Porphyria turned back. "How do you know that?"
"I know," said Hester.
Porphyria seethed. Hester said nothing. She separated the dough into pans, singing to herself under her breath.
"If I agree," said Porphyria, "do you promise to give me what I want?"
"You know I will," said Hester, without looking up.
Porphyria went to the window. She felt ill. She took many deep breaths. Her eyes burned, but she refused to cry. It wasn't too late. She could still turn back, go home, forget all this. But to go back to that old empty house alone, knowing that she would be alone always...
"Fine then," she said.
Hester stood up straight. "We have a bargain?"
Porphyria bit her lip. "Yes."
Hester picked the necklace up off the floor. "I'll keep the jewels too, if you don't mind?"
"Not at all."
Hester hung her apron. She washed her hands in the rain barrel, then took her hair down, one layer of auburn curls at a time. She took Porphyria by the hand (her entire hand disappearing in the great woman's palm) and lead her into the little bedroom. She turned her back as Porphyria undressed.
After several minutes it was clear that Porphyria was having trouble with her layers of undergarments. Hester covered her mouth to keep from laughing. This went on for some time. Finally Hester said: "Let me help you."
"I don't need help!" said Porphyria, struggling with her petticoats.
"Plainly you do," said Hester, moving behind the other woman and undoing the snaps and buttons. Porphyria made a noise very much like a growl, but kept still long enough for Hester to undo everything she could not reach herself.
Hester stripped Porphyria down to her chemise, and then Porphyria pushed her away, sitting on the edge of the thin mattress, hands knotted in her lap. Hester undressed by herself, and then both women stared at one another, unsure what to do.
Finally, Hester leaned in and kissed Porphyria on the lips. Porphyria nearly fell off the bed, recoiling. Hester kissed her again, with a bit more force. Porphyria's body went rigid. It was like kissing a blacksmith's vise.
Hester sighed. "This is not going to work," she said.
"Wait!" said Porphyria.
"No," said Hester, reaching for her dress. "It won't work. You don't love me."
"Did you expect me to?"
"No. But I expected you to be a little more convincing." Hester looked out the window. "Do you remember when my mother stood at this window and watched us play down on the rocks?
"Do you remember when your father took you away and made you promise not to come back, telling you that you should never associate with our kind? Do you remember that day?"
"Yes," said Porphyria. Her voice was cold.
"I loved you even then. I think about that day every time I look out this window. Do you know what it was like for me when you went and married that man, and went to live at Marblehead Hall, and left me thinking I would never see you again?"
She looked at Porphyria.
"I could have had you for myself if I'd wanted. I could have forced you to believe that you love me. I have that power. But I didn't, because I wanted you to be happy. I did that for you. And you can't even do this one thing for me, when you need my help."
Hester shook her head. "I gave up a lifetime," she said, "and you won't even give me a night."
"Give me a chance!" said Porphyria. Her words came between little hiccups, like restrained sobs: "I have never...done...this before. It is not easy. But I'm...willing, if you'll just help me!"
Hester had never heard this tone in Porphyria's voice before. It almost sounded like pleading. Hester drummed her fingers on the windowsill, thinking.
"Maybe I should make it easier for you?" Hester said.
"What do you mean?" said Porphyria.
Hester went to a shelf on the wall and took down a round box. She drew a pinch of something that looked like crushed rose petals from it.
"Taste it," she said. "Just a little."
Porphyria came no closer. "What is it?"
"Something to help you."
Porphyria turned away. "I don't need your witchcraft."
"If that were true, you would not be here. This will make it easier for you to forget."
"Who you are, and what you're doing, for a little while." She held her hand higher. "Taste it."
Hester touched the substance to Porphyria's lips, and as soon as she did Porphyria felt lighter. She sighed, and then swooned, closing her eyes as she fell onto the bed. She was not sure where she was all of a sudden, but she felt too good to care.
Someone touched her bare arm. It felt very good. Only when the touch became more insistent did she open her eyes. Someone else was in the bed with her, she realized. Who was this woman with the auburn hair and brown eyes? Porphyria was not sure, but the touch of her hand was soft, and warm, and sensual.
Porphyria closed her eyes again. She felt the other woman removing her last few underclothes, but did not object. The sensation of silk against her skin was thrilling. Once naked, she stretched like a cat.
She forgot that Hester was there as soon as her hands went away, and then when she was touched again she experienced the surprise of finding another occupant in the room all over again. When Hester kissed her she examined the sensation of another pair of lips, decided that she liked it, and responded in kind.
Hester was momentarily alarmed when Porphyria's strong arms wrapped around her as tightly as they could. For a second she feared she would not be able to breathe. Porphyria's tongue darted into Hester's mouth, and then she bit Hester's lower lip.
Porphyria's hands pawed Hester's undergarments, and Hester only just managed to slip out of them before they were torn. Both women tumbled naked across the bed, limbs entwined. The night air became sultry and hot.
Outside, Danner wondered, idly, how much longer his mistress would be.
Porphyria writhed on the bed. She felt like she was on fire. Every thing that so much as grazed her sensitive skin jolted her. She could concentrate on nothing for more than a few seconds before becoming distracted by something else.
She kissed Hester again, filling her mouth with the taste of the other woman. It was good; the more she had, the more she wanted. Hester barely caught her breath between kisses. She broke off long enough to kiss Porphyria's neck, tongue moving in a circle. Porphyria's red, red lips opened and she moaned. Hester cried out as nails raked her back.
Hester's tiny, shapely breasts were pressed to Porphyria's ample bosom. Her little fingers cupped Porphyria's breast and squeezed as her teeth grazed the tip of one nipple. Porphyria convulsed. She took hold of Hester, strong fingers fondling her body, and Hester gasped, shuddering.
"Take me," Hester whispered, "I'm yours."
Porphyria's hand slid between Hester's legs as Hester's tongue flickered out, licking her nipples one by one, lapping around and around them before flicking the tip. Porphyria pressed on the back of her head. Hester began to suck. Porphyria's hand pushed against Hester's sex. Hester whimpered, whispering between the darting movements of her tongue:
"Take me. Take me! I belong to you. My whole body is yours. Own me. Use me. Do whatever you want with me."
One finger slid inside Hester, then two. She was wet and hot, and she clenched around the invasive touch. She rocked back, breath quickening. Porphyria smiled as she pushed harder. Hester whimpered.
"Oh God!" she whispered, as Porphyria thrust a finger up into her again and again, causing her sex to quiver and ache. "Oh God, oh God, oh God!" she repeated. She was sweating all over. Porphyria's other fingers nudged her clit, and she almost passed out. She was pushing down with her hips now, chasing Porphyria's touch whenever it retreated.
"Do you want more?" said Porphyria.
"Yes!" said Hester.
Porphyria slipped a third finger inside. Hester's eyes rolled back. Her body jerked and twitched. She tried to move but it was difficult, as Porphyria rammed her fingers up inside each time she did, reducing her to a writhing mess. She fell onto her back, legs splayed, fingers knotting the blankets, at Porphyria's mercy.
It was hard to say how long this went on for. Hester was coming down off her climax when Porphyria grabbed a handful of her hair, dragged her up, and, before Hester could say anything, pushed her face between Porphyria's thighs. Hester gasped and was nearly smothered. Her lips parted instinctually and they met something wet.
She pushed her tongue against the slit, licking it. Porphyria grunted. Hester opened her mouth, fixing her lips to those, and ran her tongue inside, tasting the inner rim, then went deeper. Porphyria grunted again.
Hester opened her eyes and watched Porphyria's breasts quiver with each breath. She was grinding against Hester's mouth. Porphyria set the tip of her tongue between her teeth, eyes closed, brow furrowed. Her breathing came in slow moans and little sighs, and then there came a deeper, harder panting sound, and an insistent growl from somewhere in her throat. Eventually she was crying out, wordless animal screams.
Hester moved her head up and down. Her tongue lapped over and over. She was legitimately afraid of what Porphyria might do if she stopped, so she concentrated entirely on the moment. Her fingers massaged the Porphyria's inner thighs, her calloused fingers moving along the pale, delicate flesh of the other woman's gleaming white nakedness. She tasted wetness. She found Porphyria's swollen, trembling clit and engulfed it with her tongue.
The entire bed shook as Porphyria threw herself against the mattress. Her hands clawed Hester's back. Hester didn't stop. Porphyria ached all over. She was burning up inside. She tried to push the feeling out, but there was always more of it.
She screamed: "More!"
Hester went faster. Porphyria was covered in sweat, twitching all over. She buried was screaming non-stop now:
"More, more, more!"
She pulled Hester away and slapped her across the face. Hester blinked, stunned, and then Porphyria pushed her down again, and her mouth opened again, and they went on like that until Porphyria shuddered and screamed her last and collapsed, exhausted. Hester wiped her mouth and took a deep breath, then kissed Porphyria one last time, risking being crushed in another embrace.
They lay side by side for a little while. Then Porphyria's stomach lurched, and she ran across the room, reaching the window just in time. She spat bile into the weeds and brush outside, choking and gagging. Hester rolled over on the bed.
"Sorry. I should have mentioned that can happen, once it's run it's course."
Porphyria tried to reply, but the pain made it difficult. Eventually she settled down.
"I don't remember anything," she said. "What happened?" And then realized that she was naked, and sweaty, and sore. She felt sick again. Hester said nothing.
Porphyria dressed herself without incident. Hester seemed bored as she watched, sliding back into her own clothes. They did not look at each other as they left the room. Porphyria looked at the floor as she said:
"Well then. You're paid. Now give me what I came for."
Hester went to the mantle and removed a loose chimney stone, taking a leather drawstring bag from behind it. Something rattled inside. She put it into Porphyria's hand.
"Is this it?" Porphyria said.
"If this is a trick-"
"Then you know where to find me," said Hester.
Porphyria put her cloak on and left. Hester watched her from the door, but Porphyria did not look back. Her coachman had fallen asleep waiting for her.
"Danner!" she said, waking him. She climbed into the cabin. "Harness the horses. We're finished. Back to Marblehead Hall."
"Yes, mistress," he said.
"The workman, they should have arrived by now?"
"And they're reliable, and know how to keep their mouths shut?
"Yes, mistress." Danner climbed into the bucket.
"Good," said Porphyria, and it was the last thing she said the entire trip back.
"Heave gents, heave!" said Danner. Rain dripped into his face from the brim of his hat. His boots squelched in the mud.
"Begging your pardon sir," said one of the workers, "but we've been heaving all night."
"Then perhaps you lack proper motivation," said Danner. "Move that box or you forfeit your pay."
The worker scowled, but wrapped the rope twice around his hands and braced himself against the fence to pull harder.
"Danner, why aren't they finished?" said Porphyria. She stood under an awning, watching the workman pull at what looked like a great trunk that had become stuck in the mud. They were at the gate of the little churchyard on the other side of the estate, trying to pull the box out and load it into the waiting wagon.
Danner took off his hat and rung it out. "We had a problem with some of the men. Half of them refused to work when they found out they would have to open the mausoleum. The rest had some trouble moving the coffin on their own. They've almost got it now."
"Have them take it to the old stable on the east side, the empty one," Porphyria said. "Make sure that none of the house staff are around to see them."
"Yes, mistress," said Danner. "Shall I dismiss them after?"
"No. Send them to the kitchens. Wake the cook and give them whatever they want, then tell them they can sleep in the other stable tonight, and that tomorrow they'll be paid to take the coffin back to the crypt and seal it up again."
"Back?" said Danner.
"Yes, back. Do you have any objection to following my orders?"
"No, mistress, none at all."
"Good." Porphyria watched the men work. "I suppose you're wondering what this is all about, Danner?"
"Not at all, mistress," said Danner. "I do your business and I mind my own."
"Smart answer. Did you turn out the old servants?"
"Yes, mistress. There's not a single person in the house who worked here while your husband was alive."
"Excellent." She paused. "I think it's time for a drink. Take care of this lot, then join me in the study, will you?"
Twenty minutes later Danner changed his clothes and knocked on the study door. He sat on the red velvet couch opposite Porphyria, sipping the absinthe she poured for him.
"Well," she said.
"This seemed like a good occasion to talk," said Porphyria.
"Indeed, mistress? Whatever about?"
"You've been...very faithful to me, Danner, these last few years."
"I've been able to rely on you for everything, and I appreciate the services you've rendered me. All of the services. And the discretion around them."
"There's no need to thank me."
"I didn't," she said, though she smiled as she said it. "And do you have any regrets, Danner?"
"None whatsoever, mistress."
"Not even about those graves in the churchyard that you filled?"
"It had to be done, mistress."
"Yes," said Porphyria, as if to herself. "It had to be done. I'm lucky to have you around, Danner. It's hard to find good help these days.
"Nevertheless," she continued, "as much as I value everything you've done, it should be noted that, as of tonight, certain improprieties in our relationship must be discontinued."
Danner's heart sank, but he didn't let it show. "That is entirely your decision, mistress. I serve in whatever capacity you deem suitable."
"Yes. But you see Danner, that makes me a bit nervous."
"Yes. To put it bluntly, I'm just not sure if I can trust you now that certain...choice rewards are beyond your grasp."
Danner nearly spilled his drink. "There's no need to worry about that-"
"And the thing of it is Danner, you know all of my secrets. I don't like it when any person knows too much about me."
Danner's palms were sweating. The glass shook in his hand. He drank the rest in one gulp.
"Given everything that's happened, I'm afraid we have to part ways. Starting tonight. Starting right now, actually, unless I miss my guess." Porphyria looked at her nails.
Danner rolled the absinthe around his mouth. Something tasted funny...
"Ah," he said, after he swallowed. "Oleander."
"A good choice, mistress. I didn't even notice it." His limbs felt heavy. "But what do you intend to do with the body? I won't be around to dispose of it."
"You already have. You'll be in the coffin when the workmen seal it back in the vault tomorrow. You'll lie next to the Grey family's ancestors until the end of time. A fitting reward for all of your service to the great old house, don't you think?"
Danner's vision tunneled. Even now, he had to admire her thoroughness. It was her most charming quality. She patted his hand. "For the record Danner, it was...nice, while it lasted. Nice for what it was."
He tried to answer, but his throat closed up.
"I would give you a kiss for old time's sake, but I'm afraid it just wouldn't be appropriate.
"After all, " she said, standing, "I'm about to be a married woman again."
And that was the last thing he heard.
Porphyria rolled the body up in a rug, then slung it over her broad shoulders. She locked the door to the study, then went to the old stable on the east side. As per her instructions, there was no one in the corridor to see her. The rain had stopped.