Pandora Society Exclusive Short Story – “A Woman’s Work”

Ladies and Gentlemen, we present you a Special Steampunk Short Story from our author in residence, Leanna Renee Hieber. If you wish to submit your own prose for the reading pleasure of The Pandora Society please following the instructions at the end of this tale . . . 

heavy_gear_flourish

“A Woman’s Work”

by

Leanna Renee Hieber

 

 

The necropolis of the Aristocracy was exquisite. It stilled Catherine Earnst’s breath every time she approached its formidable, spiked gate. She took it in before nodding to the City guards stationed at the corners who, noting her Mourning attire, allowed her to put her key to the great lock without comment or question.

It was perhaps naïve of her to see beauty herein, but she was nineteen years old and she would allow herself to indulge the sentiment until twenty. This silent citadel was far finer than any plaza of London proper. Either the elite cherished death over life or overcompensated out of fear. Death, of course, had its romanticism, but only for those outside of her line of work. In her work she was not naïve.

Closing the gate that was twice her height and groaned upon its hinges, she slid her key-ring onto her wrist where its hefty keys jingled until she cupped them in her black-gloved hand. Moving slowly through ornate headstones and marble women with outstretched arms luminous beneath the light of the moon, Catherine relished the silence interrupted only by the familiar brush of taffeta upon leather and the footfalls of her boots along the cobbled path.

Her dress was not as long as she would have preferred; she enjoyed the classic, unadulterated look of the eighties; floor-length skirts doubled and drawn into a relaxed bustle sporting a modest train, but such elegant folds and long trappings were impractical for situations a Mourner must confront. And while she did bustle a layer of crepe at her back, her taffeta remained calf-length and the silver buttons of her knee-high boots gleamed in the moonlight.

The night’s silver beams were magnified by rows of white marble mausoleums, a trick of light perhaps enlarged by Ether she was not gifted to discern. She walked amidst a veritable city of tiny Corinthian and Gothic houses. The glowing graveyard aura nearly had her squinting past her veil and respirator. She felt as though she were spot-lit on a stage, all in black against a blanched set, revealed for all the dead to see. She hoped there were no animates in the audience. But that, of course, was what she was here to confirm.

It wasn’t customary for duty to bring her here. Usually she sat still as a statue in mansion basements or small, stuffy, out-of-the-way rooms or in funeral parlours with their distinct aroma and pall. But the job had its variables and she didn’t ask questions.

Plot 502, South-West corner. This was a new one. While she knew every name of landed aristocracy and most of the nouveau riche she hadn’t yet been assigned to an Undertow. She passed a sentry of obelisks and stopped at a stately, Doric-columned mausoleum bearing an enormous “U” upon the tympanum.

She lifted her key-ring into the light to examine the inscriptions of every name of note. The disease spared no family, though you wouldn’t know it to look at the survivors that the age was anything but gilded. The wealthy lived like the party before Red Death arrived. Red Death had arrived in the form of the Plague two hundred years prior. But for a select crowd, the party had continued two centuries hence, unabated. A show of a beautiful monument was thought to be display enough of grief.

As for the bodies why, they couldn’t be subjected to such degradation as the sanitation laws of the City demanded. Cremating your loved one was an appalling way to cherish them forever. However if the wealthy didn’t wish to set their dead aflame for good measure there were, of course, precautions. And Catherine was one of them.

The key in the bronze lock clanged and the door opened silently, smooth on its hinges, recently oiled, recently used. She entered the house of the dead and let the door close behind her. She lifted her veil and mask, adjusting the fitted respirator to sit snugly atop her black crepe hat with its cluster of damask roses, her veil folding behind her head like a tulle headdress. She narrowed her eyes. Something was not right.

Expecting to see the dead body lying upon a bier and the air filled with the particular scent of embalming fluid, she was shocked to find there was no body arrayed before her.

Was this a hoax? Some trap?

She took quick note of every particular of the interior. One antechamber with mausoleum drawers- surely for the extended family- an altar below a stained-glass window of tumbling wisteria, a tomb on each side near marble walls carved with classical scenes of some march towards heaven or whatnot, but none of that was her concern. It was the tomb at the very centre, reserved for the lord and lady of the house, but recently altered. It would seem Lord Undertow no longer fancied the idea of lying side by side for eternity and had the tomb changed to fit only her ladyship in stately splendor for all time. The funeral would not be held until three days after death, to see if the dead would rise. But where was the body of her intended watch?

Moonlight through a clear glass and grated skylight blazed silver upon the marble sepulchre and giving the four bent-headed angels veritable halos, kneeling one on each corner of the rectangular, flat tomb inscribed boldly:

MRS. MADELINE UNDERTOW: 2082-2105

Had they laid the poor girl in already? Was her body that suspect? Catherine’s gloved hand slid instantly into the parted fold of her skirt, gripped and detached a hilt, her nostrils flaring and her body tense. What sort of precaution was it to place a potential animate in stone? An animate could lift a tomb lid, she’d seen it done often enough.

Approaching in a few gliding, silent steps, Catherine bent and sniffed the corner of the sepulchre. Embalming fluid. The poor girl was in there all right. And Catherine hoped she’d stay in. But this was not a promising start. No wonder they’d called her in.

It wasn’t that Catherine had particularly ingratiated herself to any one family, as many in her guild did, but it was instead that she had a bit of a reputation. Her superior, known only as Madame Ex, always sent Catherine onto the more ‘delicate’ missions.

Poor, poor Maddy. Only twenty three, she thought, staring at the name in question. In her sacred, quiet work, one did not murmur their thoughts to their silent audience. If she did speak, when interacting with the bereaved, it was in a soft voice that men strained to hear, their worlds loud and unused to listening. Her colleagues certainly did not strain to hear her. They were women trained to hear every noise and to see every movement. Especially the subtle ones.

Well, my good girl, Catherine thought, I suppose I’ll lie with you, then, the better to hear you if you wake. Good night, sweet princess, flights of angels and all that. In addition to admiring the beauty of a necropolis, Catherine at times indulged a bit of verse.

Tucking herself between the angels, she lay back upon the flat lid of the tomb as if she were the sepulchral statue lying in state atop the body, her black layers rustling and pooling around her as she nestled in. Her bustle at the base of her spine made lying flat uncomfortable, which was precisely how she liked it. She wasn’t supposed to be comfortable. She was supposed to be awake. It wasn’t about strength, it was about discipline.

Her roses shifted against her tightly-wound hair and her corset- on work nights synched far tighter than was pleasant- shifted her bosom upwards. The rigid stays recalled her to her breathing. She stared up at the night sky glimpsed through the square skylight and began her ritual. Slowly she flexed one muscle after the next in a routine examination, beginning from her face and coursing down to her pinky toe. One by one, all in working order. Ready. She would employ this top to bottom muscular isolation every fifteen minutes for up to seventy two hours, ready at any moment to use them all to strike.

Catherine lay still, drank in the silence, and pondered the sort of woman she lay atop; the breath of life, a breadth of grim work and thousands of dollars separating their respective existences.

She could have chuckled at how she’d chosen to array herself, flat on her back amidst angels as if she were in a magical bower- or laid in a temple like some cultish sacrifice. This was the stuff of penny dreadfuls. This was when rakish aristocrats came to call; not to grieve their loss but to seduce a young Mourner therein. Under cover of night, in the privacy of tombs or funeral homes they hunted. Daring oaths of chastity, these men fed their own arrogance by attempting to undermine a Mourner’s ferocious discipline with maudlin seduction, audaciously in the bodily presence of their lost wives, mothers, children… And only an idiot of a woman could allow such distraction from her still, solitary, silent task of watching. If she did, she deserved disgrace.

No such fools attempted rape, of course. Such a man would find himself immediately without their head- not the one containing the brain. A Mourner was fearsome with blades at close distances when drawn from her skirts.

The appeal was obvious; a Mourner was as off-limits as a woman comes. And there is nothing so delicious to those who have everything as the unattainable.

It wasn’t that Catherine was opposed to the idea of seduction, she imagined it might be amusing. But if there was one thing the ruling class loved as much as ostentations monuments, it was trophy, and Mourners were fascinating quarry. Catherine had no intention of becoming such a specimen. And she’d heard from more than one fallen informant that Undertow men liked their women in black and forced their whores into Widow’s Weeds.

And so she was prepared to brandish her blade to threaten the living and dispatch the undead.

It was, she thought, an aberration that she had not yet received one of these ‘grieving’ suitors. Considering Mourners worked alone she assumed the circumstances would more than invite at least one curious scoundrel at some point in every Mourner’s career. But fear, awe and awkward respect for the grim work of her kind did, mostly, hold sway. Also perhaps word had gotten round that her particular blade had taken more heads than any other in the city’s recent history. Not that anyone was counting…

Born into wealth, Catherine was orphaned as a child and recruited early for the Guild. Because of a certain profound hardness in her eyes they quietly waived the age limit of seventeen and took her into training at twelve. She’d been wielding her blade since the tender and unprecedented age of fifteen and lived in an attic garret in the Guild headquarters where she spoke to no one save for receiving assignments from the Madame Ex.

Her devotion to the Guild hadn’t wavered, save for one near derailing by the handsome young paperboy who delivered to the Guild every Sunday and made that hardness in her gaze vanish, or so he’d proudly boasted. She’d been inclined to believe him. When he became infected and she had to dispatch of him she retreated into herself. That was four years ago. She marked the day she took his head as the end of her apprenticeship and the beginning of her career. It would seem she was destined for nothing but solitude.

And it would seem that she was not, at the moment, alone.

There were footsteps that hesitated outside the mausoleum.

She lay still but for her hand and it was a fraction of a second until her blade hovered before her, ornately carved, curved, ready and gleaming.

The lock turned, the door opened. There stood, presumably, Lord Undertow; his fine cloak, clothing and mask to filter out the deadly decay of the city, replete with golden brackets, bespoke his means. She grated her teeth. The guards should never have let him in. That it was difficult to say no to a Lord is what had hurtled the Empire all the more quickly towards hell.

He closed the mausoleum door behind him and raised his mask, his pale eyes fixing her supine body- and poised weapon- with urgency and horror, lifting up his hands in some gesture of apology or acquiescence. A handsome man, save for the dark circles under his eyes, it looked as though he hadn’t slept in a week. His expression didn’t have an ounce of seduction or even curiosity in it; instead, he was thoroughly haunted.

Catherine put a finger to her lips and knew her visage brooked no welcome. Yet her demand of silence was not respected.

“I… I’ve had these nightmares…” Undertow murmured and Catherine winced at the sound. “That she’s calling me… I fear the worst…”

It took all Catherine’s willpower not to roll her eyes. She remained flat, her blade raised and unwavering. In one tick of her pocket-watch she knew she could be on her feet, the tip of her blade through the man’s heart. That could, however, be a fatal distraction for them both. Remaining motionless, she listened for a sound. But the idiot before her began talking guiltily and she realized he’d come here not to seduce her but to assuage his own conscience.

“I… I came here to warn you.” He murmured. “I… I shouldn’t have employed a Mourner, I should’ve just had her, well… It’s just, for appearances, it’s so much better if a Mourner is employed- I’ll look the guilty fool if anyone finds out I knew about her, I’ll be much obliged if you-”

“Shut up!” she hissed.

It was good that he quieted.

For it was then that she heard the scratching.

Within an instant Catherine was upright, leaping up and to the side of the tomb with the ease and agility of a cat, her blade raised.

“What is it?” Undertow cried. “Has she woken?”

“Lord Undertow, don’t you dare come closer. I’d prefer it if you ran.” Catherine murmured in a tone that carried heavy and unquestionable.

Suddenly the lid of the coffin lifted with a stone growl and one yellowed set of fingertips edged to either side of the granite slab, preternatural strength at its very finest.

Undertow screamed. Catherine pursed her lips.

With swift precision Catherine bent and made a firm, fluid horizontal move with her blade into the centre of the yawning gap Mrs. Undertow had created by opening her own tomb. As her blade struck, Catherine looked not at the animate corpse but instead fixed her gaze coolly on Lord Undertow and his mounting horror. There was no scream from the creature, only a slight, stifled gasp beneath a crunch, the sound of fluid and tearing. Black ooze dribbled over the wall of the tomb. A few tufts of hair floated to the floor.

Catherine shifted and withdrew her blade; an impossibly sharp weapon the size and breadth of her forearm, now dripping viscous black fluid. A boom of stone on stone echoed as the arms of the now truly dead body went limp and the lid fell to seal her eternal rest at last.

“Now. What was that you were saying, milord?” Catherine’s voice was pleasant. She knew her gaze was not. The quality of sounding polite but looking deadly had its uses. Undertow was white as the marble around him.

“My God, I didn’t want to believe, yet… Yet I knew…” Undertow raked his hands through his hair, “I heard her in nightmares, I… Please believe that I didn’t come for any reason but to warn you, you mustn’t…” He stared at the tomb, at the gruesome, pooling fluid at the tip of the long, curved blade again shining in the moonlight as Catherine rested its tip upon the sepulchre lid, thick black foul in a puddle around the U of Undertow. “My God, woman…”

Catherine glanced down at the sullied tip of her blessed blade and pressed a button on the hilt. A small white tuft appeared. She plucked a kerchief and a single match from a hollow in the hilt, wiped the blade, struck the match against the grip, threw the soiled kerchief and match upon the centre of the tomb lid where it went up in flame, all with the instantaneous speed of a soldier assembling a rifle at call to arms.

“You wouldn’t have needed to warn me. It’s not as though I was surprised. It’s a Mourner’s job, Lord Undertow, and I wish you and the rest of your ilk would just leave us to it,” she spat. “Oh, and there seem to be a few locks of her hair there on the floor. You should collect them for a locket.” Her blade clean, she returned it deftly to the scabbard in her skirts and moved to exit, the kerchief smoldering behind her.

Undertow blocked her. Her hand again went to her weapon.

“Why… why do you do it?” He gasped, trying to gain purchase, some kind of understanding. She pitied him. They were so spoiled, so sheltered. She could no longer claim them as kin. They were complete strangers, their worlds running parallel with an impassable gulf between them.

“I suppose you could say a certain sort of woman is born to this work,” she began gently but her words cooled to stone the more she spoke. “And then, when she is forced to behead the only thing she ever loved and set his corpse on fire; there remains no other woman’s work. I face the nightmares of our age with eyes wide open and extend my hand with a blade into the rotting forms that greet me. Your kind would do well to wake up.” She turned to the secondarily dead Madeline. “Rest in peace.”

She waltzed past Undertow as he shuddered.

Carefully replacing her mask upon her face, she stepped out into the garish moonlight once more. Catherine made her way past the now dozing guards who would surely fall this night to one of the city’s innumerable horrors, but what would likely prove a fatal laziness could not be her concern. She was meant to kill the dead, not save those too stupid to live.

She turned along the shadowed path winding up from the Cemetery gates to make a solitary pilgrimage back to her Abbey, where she might pray for the inevitable end of her broken world to go ahead and hasten its fall, but not without her blade drawn all the way down the dreary descent.

 Actress, playwright and novelist Leanna Renee Hieber grew up in rural southern Ohio inventing ghost stories. She is the award-winning, bestselling author of Gothic Victorian Fantasy novels for adults and teens, such as the acclaimed Strangely Beautiful saga, the Magic Most Foul saga and the new Eterna Files saga, launching many new books with Tor in the genre of Gaslamp Fantasy. Her short fiction has been featured in numerous anthologies, in several Mammoth Books, on Tor.com and her novels have been translated into many languages. A proud Goth girl never seen outside of full Victorian regalia, she works as a ghost tour guide in New York City, where she lives and works in film and television, a proud member of performer unions Actors Equity and SAG-AFTRA, on shows like Boardwalk Empire. Learn more about the author on her website, Twitter, or Facebook! And be sure to meet her in person at the International Steampunk Symposium!

If you would like to submit a short story for publication in our Sunday Steampunk Short Stories please click HERE for details and instructions.

heavy_gear_flourish

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar