Ainsley huddled up by the fire, not reacting as Selene explained what Ainsley already knew.
Black Cat is dead.
Selene explained it slowly, standing close like a mother hen to her chicks. She tilted her head, likely expecting Ainsley to cry, whimper, or deny the truth.
No tears came, though the news left a dull, heavy ache in her chest. She had never really liked the cat. It was strange to think she would no longer have the opportunity to yell at him or pat him on the head. In the many days he'd been missing, she'd come to realize that he could only be dead. He'd never miss a meal. Now he had missed quite a few.
Ainsley sniffled. Not because she was sad. She'd had a feverish headache and a clogged nose for three days now. She had been trapped inside this mansion for far too long.
"I need to bury him," she croaked. The cat deserved a proper burial.
Selene folded her arms, finally taking a step back and giving Ainsley some space.
"You will do no such thing," Selene said. "You're sick. I can't have you getting worse, not so close to the party. If we're careful you'll recover with enough time to be presentable, but that won’t happen if you head out in this weather."
Ainsley stared dully at Selene, and wondered if she'd end up being like Selene: a strong woman so focused on the outside world she forgot about the inside. Dark brown hair perfectly combed, makeup perfectly set, wide lips set in perfect frown. Except Ainsley had no makeup on, had auburn hair, and a flushed, round face.
"I need to bury him," Ainsley repeated.
"I'll have the gardener do it."
"I need to do it."
Selene strode forward and wrapped the blanket tighter around Ainsley’s body. "No, child, you will not. We can't have anyone seeing you in this condition and we can't have you get worse. Heaven knows you're too weak to go out there."
Ainsley's expression didn't change, even as another piece of her died at the thought of staying here, trapped with Selene's good intentions. She kept her half-lidded, dead-eye stare on the fire. "Fine," she said. "Can I be alone for a while?"
"Of course, of course." Selene smoothed down the blanket, checked that Ainsley's water jug was full, stoked the fire, and left the small sitting room.
Outside the slitted windows, the snow continued to fall.
Ainsley stood, sick aches stabbing deep into her bones. That was the worst part about being sick: the aches that couldn’t be relieved.
She'd been in her nightgown, but now she changed into her warmest set of leggings, socks, shirts, and skirts. With her thick, red woolen jacket over the top, a gray scarf over that, and a red hat and brown gloves, she was ready.
Outside was a dark corridor, lit by orange electric bulbs and a few decorative candles. Selene had disappeared, now probably cornering someone else with her good intentions.
Ainsley rubbed her nose with her handkerchief, then went down the corridor, took a few twists and turns, and stopped at the door to the gardens.
Black Cat's body had been placed in an open cardboard box beside a rose bush, which was just visible through the window. His body was a bit twisted, a bit mussed, and looked nothing like Black Cat. The furry thing in the box was too still to be Black Cat, too ugly to be Black Cat.
Cold spat in Ainsley’s face and summoned tears to protect her eyes when she opened the door. The snow was falling thick. In the short distance it took her to get the box, grab the shovel beside it, and hurry back into the warmth, a white layer had settled onto her shoulders and hat. She wished she could just bury Black Cat in the garden, but that would horrify anyone who knew about it, and it would be all too easy to be spotted and stopped. Black Cat would have to go in the graveyard with the others.
Ainsley wove through the corridors, the box under one arm, the shovel in the other hand, making it difficult to navigate doors. Once, she had to stop and hide behind a potted tree when Selene strode past, humming some song to herself.
Then it was up the stairs. A few times her legs shook so badly she had to stop.
The secret passageway hid behind a painting at the end of a hall. The painting was of some long dead queen with a secretive smile, a double chin, and cloudy blue eyes.
Behind the painting was a door, and behind the door was a creaky stairway. Ainsley wondered how many times she had walked down these steps and made someone think there was a ghost in the walls.
The passageway was cold. She had to use the walls to make her way down, which made her cringe. The walls were slick and slimy. A faint odor came off them as well.
"Not exactly a glorious send-off," she whispered to the corpse in the box. A rattling cough shook her chest.
Maybe this wasn't a good idea. The idea of fresh air had been intoxicating, but first she had to go through this little hell with a corpse under her arm.
Her foot slipped. She fell and slammed her chin into the bottom step, sending pain exploding through her head. She cursed as the box slipped out from under her and disappeared into the darkness.
It was quiet except for her snuffling breath. The cold dripped into her, penetrating her woolen jacket and gloves. She shivered, coughed, and wondered how a sickness could make the slightest trip feel like her doom, the slightest cold a spear into her muscles, and the mere thought of existing an ache in her bones.
Slowly, she rose. She was being an idiot. She should've been on a chair, by the fire, reading a book, recovering from her illness. Instead she was bringing a cat she didn't even like to the graveyard, and being melodramatic about it as well.
In a crouch, she groped about, searching for the box and its occupant.
Why hadn't she grabbed a flashlight? Gods, she hated fevers, and fever thoughts even more so.
Her fingertips touched the corner of the box. It was on its side. When she flipped it back she heard the cat's stiff body thud back into the box. She sighed. At least the body had remained in the box.
She found the shovel, adjusted her hat, and continued down the hall, trying to bury her complaints about her self-imposed problems, and just be grateful to be on flat ground.
Cracks in the walls offered her little glimpses of light, revealing mouse remains and large patches of green and black mold. The crooked floor caught the tip of her toes more than once and more than once she was sent stumbling, relying on the walls not to fall again.
The little patches of light widened, showing her far more of the color and content of the passageway than she wished to know. Black Cat wasn’t the only corpse in here, although he was the biggest.
She quickened her pace. The exit would be just around the corner, the only corner in the entire passageway. The door would be crooked, the dirt loose around the bottom from her time spent passing through …
Around the corner, and she came to a stop.
Rocks were piled up in front of the door. She could just see the top of the door above the rocks.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said in a harsh whisper. She set down the box. She stared at the pile, wondering what to do. Give up? Turn around?
She crouched beside the box. A cough racked her body.
Give up, she thought. Leave the box, go to bed, sit by the fire, enjoy yourself, not sit in this miserable darkness.
Her feet twitched. She twisted and looked back, back into the darkness, the slimy stairs, the suffocating rooms with their suffocating people. She looked at the cat, stiff in its box.
Feeling twice her age, she rose and shuffled to the rock pile. She took one, tossed it aside, the sound reverberating off the walls. She took another and threw that away.
She began to huff and cough after five rocks. She started wheezing at the tenth, and her arms trembled at the twentieth. Her feet slipped and slid beneath her and she started talking to herself.
“For the cat, for the cat, for that damn cat.” But she didn’t even like that cat.
After her hundredth or so rock she slumped to the ground, shuddered, and closed her eyes. Her hands throbbed. Sweat rolled down her face but she felt cold, and as the sweat cooled it became like ice on her skin.
It was so dark down here. She was alone except for the dead and the mold and the smell that wrinkled her nose. Why was she down here? The corpses stank and she stank and everything stank.
She thought of Selene. Selene with her calculations and her analyses. She’d say Ainsley couldn’t do it. That she shouldn’t do it. She was too fragile. Too precious. Not worth it for a cat.
Ainsley rose. “Damn Selene,” she muttered, and went back to work, fueling her thoughts with Selene’s disregard for all things small and all things not beneficial.
When at last she could shove the door open, she fetched the box with its precious, unaware cargo, and shoved it through the space she’d made, and followed it, coming out into the snow.
The clouds were thick, dark, and patchy. Farther down the mansion wall was a patch of sunlight, warming the cold, gray stone walls like a spotlight.
A conifer forest of dark green, brown, and powdered white stretched out in front of her and rose above her, a combination of colors that suited the trees, unlike the passageway.
Holding the box to her chest with the shovel, she trudged through the six-inch deep snow. Her breath frosted mini clouds around her face. She tugged up her scarf and sucked in a breath of the piercing, unforgiving cold.
The graveyard wasn’t far into the forest. It was a wide meadow, which in the summer would grow dandelions and delicate feverfew, but now was a flat plain of white, only broken by a few icy daffodils and a jackrabbit’s tracks, and soon to be marked by her own passage.
It was hard to see the nine other graves beneath the snow. The only indication of their existence were the lumps in the snow, and when brushed away would reveal stones, bowls, and a few logs.
Black Cat would’ve liked being away from the dogs. Not that it mattered.
She chose a spot away from the dogs. She took her shorthand shovel, set it into the snow, and began to dig.
The shovel rubbed against her hands. It felt good to be moving, but she still shivered and huddled in her woolen coat, the sick aches making her pause to just groan every once and a while. With every stab into the frozen ground she felt a bit of her drive fade away. Now she was just tired, wet, sick, and overall just miserable.
It wasn’t her first time digging a grave, but it was the first time she’d dug in the snow. Each bit of removed earth required all her weight and some to shovel it out and be thrown aside.
Selene had probably checked on where Ainsley was supposed to be by now. Was probably wondering where Ainsley had gone.
Maybe Selene would understand how Ainsley felt when Black Cat went missing. Maybe she'd learn of that quiet understanding. It had been a dark, loathsome dread that both emotionally and logically agreed that Black Cat had died. That he was only to be seen again in an ugly, twisted form.
It was strange. She hadn’t even liked the cat.
The sun came out from behind the clouds. The white light made her squint and wince. It burned her, it pierced her, and it warmed her, blessedly warmed her.
She coughed. Hacked. Wiped sweat from her brow and let it soak into her sleeve. She looked at the hole she’d dug, then at the box and the cat.
It wasn’t deep enough.
She continued digging, arms shaking, legs aching, wondering why she was doing this.
Carefully, she set the box and the cat in the hole. The cat had always liked sleeping in boxes.
She stood over it, wondering what to say, if she should say anything at all. She thought about how Black Cat had just appeared at her home one day, just a wide-eyed kitten with a fondness for ribbons and chasing the dogs. Black Cat, who’d be found sleeping by the fire every evening and hunting mice in the morning.
This couldn’t happen anymore. Wouldn’t happen. She’d never see Black Cat again.
That left a dull ache in her chest, but she didn’t cry. She just trudged through the snow to the edge of the meadow, to a snow-encrusted daffodil. She plucked it and dropped it into the grave. Then she grabbed her shovel and buried Black Cat, and felt that she was burying a piece of herself. She uncovered some rocks and set them on the newly turned earth.
Reveling in the quiet, she remained there for a bit longer, breathing in the freezing cold, looking at the daffodils that were just yellow droplets on the snow.
She hadn’t even really liked Black Cat. But she hadn’t done this for Black Cat.
She returned to the mansion, ignoring the secret passageway with its stinking and overly colorful walls. She went through the front door, up the stairs, and back to her room, only garnering the stare of a servant.
Snow melted off her coat and dripped icy water onto the floor. She really was quite cold, and now her throat felt a bit scratchy.
The door to her room was open. Selene stood inside, arms folded, staring at the empty chair where Ainsley was supposed to be.
“Ainsley!” Selene turned, scowling. “I said you were to stay inside.”
Ainsley took off her coat and hung it up. She kicked off her shoes, grabbed a blanket, and pulled it tight around her shoulders. She settled by the fire.
Selene took one of Ainsley’s hands and gave it a disapproving look. “You’re feverish, and dirty.”
Ainsley pulled away from Selene and settled deeper into her chair. She shook her head, and smiled. “I’m perfect.”
Selene clucked her tongue.
Ainsley stood, took Selene by the arm, and pulled her to the door. "Excuse me, but I have some recovering to do, and I'd rather I do it alone. Please and thank you." She pushed Selene out and closed the door, locking it for good measure.
She took a book, grabbed her fallen blanket, and returned to her chair.