New Ceres Nights extract – “The Piece of Ice in Miss Windermere’s Heart” by Angela Slatter

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Extract from “The Piece of Ice in Miss Windermere’s Heart” by Angela Slatter

Violet liked a challenge, most of the time. But then again, most of the time she was not hanging upside down over the bed of one very fat, very drunk, impossibly rich noble. Breathing in the fumes that rose from him might very well finish her off before she got the job done. Then there was the dog; a very old, superannuated, sleeping kind of a dog to be sure, but large and, well, leaving a puddle of drool on the floor roughly the size of New Lake Lucerne. If nothing else, she might drown were she to fall into it.

The chandelier from which she hung was a sturdy thing (for this fact alone she was eternally grateful), almost two metres in diameter, firmly lodged in the plaster of the reinforced ceiling, its eight arms spread wide and covered in a dazzling variety of cut crystal prisms. She was small, a girl who brought to mind the word ‘wispy’ (Violet herself preferred ‘delicate’) and so her weight did not add much of a strain to the structure. She twisted and slithered her way towards the middle of the thing.

She could see her goal. In the central column, three of the dangling crystals looked quite different to the rest. By the moonlight streaming through the large French windows the fine tracery that wove inside was visible: one set was gold, one silver, one green. All very lovely and subtle, and pretty much undetectable unless you had managed to get inside the crawl space of the house, shuffle your way along the dusty tubes, then slip through the air vent, and hang your very small self off the very large light source and examine each of its component parts very carefully.

Violet shifted position, just a little but it was enough to make the chandelier dance ever so slightly. The pendants tinkled against each other, the gentlest of sounds, but sufficient to bring a snort and a sniff from master and hound respectively. Violet froze, willing the song to cease.

The man below, who happened to be Doctor Lord Shelley Fitzwilliam, Prefect of Prosperine’s Hospital District, snorted and rolled over like a behemoth, displacing sheets, blankets, and a large silver hip flask, which fell off the bed onto the back of the unconcerned dog, then slid with relative quiet to the rug. The Prefect next let out a deafening snore coupled with a phenomenal fart and settled back to sleep. The dog raised its head with an effort, sniffed (no doubt re-anaesthetizing itself), and then it too slipped back into dreams.

Violet breathed out, then in … and regretted it immediately. She estimated the good doctor could power Prosperine’s spaceport for a good few months all on his own.

As she removed each crystal, she replaced it with one of the same size and cut. The theft would not be discovered for a while, she hoped. Violet slotted the last facsimile into place, checked it was fast and began the complicated series of bodily twists and contortions to take her back to the mouth of the air vent.

It was all going so well when she slipped. There was no reason for it to happen, but it did indeed happen. One moment she was holding on tight with her hands while she unravelled her legs from the branches of the chandelier. The next, the air was rushing by, removing her small black cloth cap, and she hit the bed.

To be fair, she hadn’t made much of a noise or an impact. Nor had she landed on its occupant, but nevertheless Doctor Lord Shelley Fitzwilliam sat straight up as if the expanse of his considerable backside were on fire. He looked to his right, then to his left. What he saw was a pale and lovely face, with amethyst-coloured eyes, full Cupid’s bow lips and surrounded by luxuriant red hair.

Violet had just enough time to compose her features and get rid of any sign of guilt. She gave a bright, somewhat sleepy smile and nestled into the soft mattress beneath her.

Fitzwilliam stared.

“Are we? Did we? I don’t mean to seem ungentlemanly, but I don’t remember…”

“Oh, we didn’t, dear,” Violet replied in her sweetest tone.

“Ah. So I haven’t paid you, m’dear?” He looked increasingly confused. She could see that sleep and alcohol still had a good grip on him. Had he been less befuddled he might have noticed the dirty smudges on her face from the crawl through the walls and ceilings of his house. The dog, it should be noted, made no move to attack or, indeed, even to wake.

“Oh, heavens no! I’m not that sort.”

“Are you … you’re not an angel, are you?” His eyes widened hopefully, and she had to stop her own from rolling. She shook her head charmingly.

“No, no, sweetest, not one of them. I’m just a dream.” She opened her arms. “Now, back to sleep with you.”

He was already falling back into the grip of his chosen opiates, snuggling down against her. She had to be careful, she knew, to time it perfectly. If he fell asleep on her she would never get out from under his dead weight and would be stuck until morning — she didn’t trust Holly to come looking for her.

The doctor was quite good, only tried to rub her breasts once or twice, but she gently pulled his hand away and stroked his neck and back as if he were a very large, malodorous baby.

Within ten minutes she was able to extract herself. A small jump from the end of the high, springy bed got the edge of the air vent under her hands and she heaved herself upwards, then pulled the grill shut behind her.

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