The Snakestone Jewel, Part One

Feb 12, 2010 13:31

Title: On the Experiences of an Exceptional Gentlewoman
                     The Snakestone Jewel,  Part One

Author: Alsike

Pairing: None, as of yet

Fandom: Take a wild guess.

Rating: PG (May increase to PG-13 in later chapters)

Apologies:  This is a restart.  Most of the first half of the chapter is the same as what I previously posted as a teaser, but it's been slightly altered, and keeps going.  And when I say I've got a plot, I usually mean that I have some general idea of what the plot ought to be like.  So let's hope that ends up somewhere good.  But the bruises from sledding yesterday are coming out, and there is nothing better than working on this fic to put me in a good mood, except for comments, which are awesome.

Chapter 1

Miss Emily Prentiss had once been a young lady, or as much of a young lady as you could be when you were born in India. Her father had been a colonial official, the governor of Rajasthan. But he died unexpectedly when Emily was only eleven, and she and her mother had been put on a ship of the line by the lieutenant governor and sent back to England.

Emily’s mother was also of a wealthy and socially well-situated family, and they had written many welcoming letters, saying how they would be pleased to have Emily and her mother stay with them. And, when they arrived, they were as good as their word, although perhaps only the letter of it, rather than the spirit. Elizabeth had caught a fever on the ship. Her relatives were appalled, and nursed her solicitously, bringing in the best doctors, but Emily sat quietly in the corner, knowing none of the bleeding or vile-tasting opiate medicines would be of any use.

And, dreadfully, she was right. Her mother died a few days later and Miss Emily Prentiss was left an orphan, at the mercy of her relatives.

* * *

The house was only a medium-sized townhouse in Bristol. Elizabeth’s sister had married decently, a man who was a well-respected merchant, but she had always been slightly jealous of her sister. Elizabeth had eloped with a redcoat of nearly no fortune, and her family had turned away from her, at least until her husband had returned from the wars in India a general, and with a small fortune in prizes. He had taken a place in parliament, which, through influence and friendships he had made during the wars, became an appointment to governorship. And suddenly Elizabeth’s family was desperately apologetic that they hadn’t noticed the excellent prospects her young man had so clearly always had.

There had been a boy who died in England. But Emily had been born in India. And that alone was enough to make her relatives suspicious of her.

“She’s not a very personable child,” said her aunt, while Emily was reading behind the curtain in the window seat.

“No, and it seems that except for languages, her education has been rather poor,” commented the visitor, her aunt’s sister-in-law.

“Except for languages? She doesn’t even speak French! Knowing heathen tongues is of no benefit in society… nor in employment.”

Used to derision, Emily did not listen until employment was mentioned. Did they intend to expel her from the house?

“Employment? Doesn’t she have an… inheritance?”

“Tied up until she’s married, or thirty, and only a few hundred pounds a year. And Indian fortunes are notoriously precarious.” Her aunt gave an exasperated sigh. “I really don’t know what her father was thinking. As if a girl who looks like that is about to get married. He’s made her a burden on her relatives.”

Emily was quite aware that this was a hint that she should make an effort to not be such a burden on her relatives. But she was barely twelve, and had no real idea how to go about it. What she wanted was to go to school, or go back to India (and preferably back in time to when she wasn’t an orphan and a worthless burden with a clear lack of prospects), but as a Ward in Chancery her actions were severely curtailed.

* * *

Emily’s aunt had five children of her own. The eldest boy had run away to sea years before, and Emily had never seen him, but the younger four were enough to torment her thoroughly.

Her cousins despised her for her odd manner and lack of prospects, and at lessons they teased her for her poor French and even worse embroidery. “You don’t even have the ability to be a governess! No one would hire you to teach their children Rajput!” And they would roll over laughing.

She didn’t respond to it, but they only mocked her more.

She spent the next few years as a ghost in her family’s house. She spent much time below stairs, getting in the way of the servants. They all knew her position and weren’t afraid to give her a cuff or a shout. But they often spoke to her, rather than above her head, or in snide comments meant for her to overhear, which was preferable. Otherwise she hid in the library.

She was a lanky, hollow-cheeked fourteen when her aunt came to find her, and pretended to be surprised to find her in the library. Perhaps she was surprised, having paid little enough attention to her for the past three years.

“I have come to tell you that I have procured employment for you.”

Emily’s eyes widened at this. She was certain she was to be hired out as a scullery maid.

“There is a lady, who is blind, and she requires assistance in her daily life. She is a Marchioness, and it would be perfectly respectable for you to become her companion.”

A companion to a real lady was indeed respectable, although she didn’t believe that many of them were blind. She assumed the lady must be confined to her bed. It was a sort of nursing, she supposed. It would probably be awful. She hated sick rooms. But she nodded.

“When do I go?”

Her aunt laughed. “Don’t be so eager! The lady will come tomorrow, to… inspect you, I suppose. Do try to be presentable, although I guess it doesn’t matter so much about your clothes.” She laughed, as if it were funny.

Even if it didn’t matter very much, Emily was rather frightened by the idea of being inspected, and did her best to be as neat and as well put together as she could be, although she mostly only owned dresses she had brought back with her from India, which had become far too short as she had grown taller.

She had expected the woman to be carried in state into the parlor, wrapped in rugs of lace, but instead the woman walked in under her own power. She held the arm of the butler, and a long wooden cane, but stood pin straight, and she wasn’t old at all. Her hair had just begun to grey at the edges. She also wore an odd pair of smoked glasses that Emily supposed kept those conversing with her from being frightened by her lack of eye contact.

“May I present Lady Adler,” intoned the butler.

“How do you do,” Emily stammered. And to her horror Lady Adler turned right towards her and took two spidery steps until she was close enough to touch her.

“You must be the orphan.”

“Emily,” Emily said.

“Indeed.” And suddenly Lady Adler’s fingers were on her, feeling the contours of her face, and examining her collar and her hair. “You made your own toilette?”

“I- I don’t have a maid.”

“Good. I’m afraid I can’t have any mollycoddled brats in my employ. When one is blind one must rely on the opinions of others for the appearance of things, but it is still important to maintain quality. At the very least I can tell a silk from a calico, and a straight seam from a crooked one. But for everything else I must depend upon outside opinions. Do you have any pretensions of taste, Miss Emily?”

“No, madam.”

“Good. I generally stick to grays myself. It… makes the right impression. But I will have you appropriately schooled in such things. I’m afraid the position is basically that of a valet. Do you read?”

“Yes, madam.”

“I mean, of course, are you skillful at reading aloud? I am in the middle of quite a few interesting novels, and I would be distressed at too much stumbling.”

“I think I would manage. I…” Emily winced at the thought, but in the end it would be more rude to trail off. “I like to do accents.”

“Really?” Lady’s Adler’s thin face contorted into a smile. “Do one now.”

“What… what should I say?”

“Oh, anything, recite a poem.”

Entirely embarrassed, Emily began the first few lines of Dryden’s Aeneid in a heavy Irish brogue. “Och, Arms, an’ ayn man I sing, who, fursd by fate, An’ hawty Juno's unrelenting hayit…”

Lady Adler burst out laughing and Emily stopped, humiliated. “I love it! I truly do. Honestly, even if you could not so much as curl a hair or sew a seam I would take you, just for that.”

Emily knew she was flushing red, and was grateful that it was not observed.

“Well, it’s settled then. Pack your things and have them delivered to my house and present yourself not after ten o’clock tomorrow morning. We have much to do, for on Friday we leave for Paris.”

“Paris?” Emily exclaimed, half horrified and half thrilled by the prospect.

“Of course. I’ve heard you’re quite a hand at languages. It will give you an opportunity to improve your French, as I am certain it languished when challenged by the distractions of Urdu and Bengali, or whatever you may have studied.”

“But I’m a Ward in Chancery.”

“Happily,” Lady Adler smiled tightly, “I have procured a special dispensation. You will be under my protection, which…” she paused, “can be more… emphatic than you might think.”

* * *

Emily’s education began as soon as she arrived at the Bristol townhouse where Lady Adler was staying, hungry, and with a heavy bag of personal belongings that had been selected out of the pile of her parents things that were too worthless for her aunt to take in for ‘safe keeping,’ and too sentimental for her to bear to see thrown out. It was bedlam, the servants managing the packing up of what seemingly was a full transport to Paris. She ducked underneath a sofa being carried by two strong men and hid in the corner, trying to keep out of the way. The butler somehow found her there and brought her into the parlor, where peace reigned once more. Lady Adler sat pouring tea, as calm as if there were no sounds of trampling elephants outside her door.

“Do you take sugar?”

“Yes,” Emily said, before thinking better of it.

“Good. Children should appreciate their youth for as long as possible, and sweets for even longer. Milk?”

“No. I… got out of the habit, in India.”

Lady Adler merely nodded, and handed Emily the saucer. Emily watched curiously as she poured her own tea with her head tilted up, away from the tray, her hands moving assuredly and not spilling a drop. She took hers straight black.

Emily took a sip and breathed it in. It was a rough sweet Assam, with none of the flat mint flavor of Darjeeling.

“Is it to your taste?”

“Oh yes. Very much so.”

“Good. Now, I recommend that you stay out of the way as much as possible until we leave. The servants are often intoxicated by their authority when a plan is incipient. I may have a few errands for you, but otherwise your only responsibility will be reading. I do hope you can entertain yourself.”

“Yes, your ladyship.” Emily eyed the muffins, but did not take one. Her stomach rumbled uncomfortably. Her aunt had said that since she did not belong to their household anymore, they were not responsible for serving her breakfast.

“Please do eat up,” Lady Adler said out of nowhere.

Emily jumped, not knowing how she could have known what she was looking at.

“I do not hold with unhealthy girls, and your recent brush with tragedy, I am afraid, has made you quite unhealthy.”

Emily took a crumpet and ate it as carefully as she could, not having any idea whether Lady Adler had a sixth sense for dropped crumbs or buttery fingers, but not desirous of finding out.

* * *

The errands were mostly letters to be brought to the post office. At the first she had been surprised and almost inquired who had taken it down, before deciding it would be impolite. Afterwards she came in on Lady Adler writing. The lines on the page were needle straight and as she tapped the pen twice on the inkpot before using it, there wasn’t a single blot.

She seemed to sense Emily staring at her, for she smiled and lifted her pen in the air. “Practice, practice,” was all she said, in answer to the unspoken question.

The reading had also been a surprise. It seemed that Lady Adler liked novels in the afternoon, the newspaper with breakfast, and satire at night. Her cackles as Emily progressed farther and farther into the dark brooding castles on the moors, facing villains and corpses and vile ravens were decidedly unnerving. But Emily curiously made her way through the Jonathan Swift, trying not to let her occasional shock show through in her voice. She didn’t always succeed, and Lady Adler would laugh at her boisterously.

* * *

Before dawn on Friday, Emily was shaken awake by the maid, and blinking away sleep from her eyes, hurriedly dressed and helped Lady Adler to prepare. They ate swiftly, as the bricks were being heated up, and the groom lifted them into the carriage. Emily spread out the rugs and pushed the bricks into position. The door clicked shut, the driver called out, “walk on,” and they were on their way to Dover.

* * *

As far as Emily could tell, Lady Adler seemed to be a very unexpected person to most everyone. This was in some ways, a relief, as Emily found her own surprise at nearly everything Lady Adler did less anomalous, and in other ways, quite a new source of distress. Being associated with Lady Adler might indeed make Emily herself a rather unexpected person as well. And in the inns where they stayed, on the first night outside of London, and the second in Dover, waiting for the next day’s crossing, Emily was the voice and hands for all of Lady Adler’s unusual requests.

She would send her out at midnight for a bag of lemons, or to inquire if there was a silversmith in town, and if the smithy was next to a laundry. Emily had gotten used to the curious glances and would shrug helplessly, although it made her look like a servant, rather than a companion. But, for all Lady Adler’s ‘protection’ she did seem to have the freedom of a servant, and she wondered, if she had been inclined to elope or run away, if it would truly be as simple as it seemed.

But why would she, when tomorrow they were taking ship for Calais?

* * *

The wind was strong up on the deck, but Emily couldn’t bear to go below. It had been so long since she had been to sea, and the noise of it, the wind, the shouting. It was almost enough to believe she was coming up the river into Kotah on her return to Jaipur. Perhaps it had only been a short visit to Bombay, and her parents were waiting for her at home. Perhaps she had never come to this cold grim place, never lost everyone dear to her.

She clung to the ropes, leaning into the spray, heedless of the way it soaked her sleeves and spattered her face.

“Excuse me, Miss.”

Emily turned, surprised, to see a young man in the uniform of a Naval Officer, a lieutenant, if she was correct, standing behind her, awkwardly holding out a coat.

“I couldn’t help but see you standing there, and I thought… if, perhaps, you intended to stay, you would be more comfortable…”

He was handsome, sun-bleached straw-colored hair, bound into a tail that ran down his back, and blue eyes set in a tanned face. His blue coat was cut well around his broad shoulders, and he seemed to be unable to help the embarrassed shy smile that crossed his face as he offered the coat again.

“Thank you, Officer, but I couldn’t.”

“Please. It is… offensive to my sensibilities for me to see a girl standing around wet to the bone in such vile weather. If it were my own sister, I would not be any less horrified.”

Emily shivered, and awkwardly reached out to take it. It was probably entirely the wrong thing to do, but she was beginning to freeze and didn’t want to leave quite yet. “You have a sister?”

“Three, I believe, though I haven’t been home recently enough to know for certain.”

Emily looked at him curiously, and laughed. “You don’t know for certain?”

“I’m actually on my way to meet my family in Paris, so I should find out soon. But my mother died nearly eight years ago now, and she was the only one who bothered to write to me while I was aboard ship, so I have been without news for a long time.”

“I’m sorry. You didn’t… come home for her funeral?” It was a rather impertinent question, and Emily wished it unsaid the moment it had come out of her mouth.

“I was in India at the time. The date had already passed, by the day I received the news.”

“You were in India?” He nodded. “I was just…” Emily flushed, embarrassed. “Imagining that we were coming into Kotah rather than Calais. Coming home.”

He looked at her, blue eyes soft. “I was in Kotah once, though the river was so dry the boat couldn’t fit up the whole way, and we had to leave her in the last pond and row the damn jollyboat twenty leagues and walk the last one to get our cargo there.”

Emily’s eyes widened. She had heard that story before. “When was this?”

“Oh, my first voyage, I think, because I was sick for a month. I wasn’t even eleven yet. But our cargo, the new governor and his wife were kind to me, and let me be sick in their cabin.” He plucked out his watch from his pocket. A small gold colored crescent with a glittering stone set in it dangled beneath it. It hung like an exotic fob, clinking against the chain. “The governor gave me this, a souvenir from his time in the war with France in Bengal. He said it would help me feel better.”

Emily stared at it and when he offered she cupped it in her palm and wished that objects carried the memories and people with them that they had touched. “They were my parents,” she said, unable to be uncertain.

“The Governor Prentiss, and his wife?”


He smiled sadly. “Then, in a way, I suppose we have been introduced. I am Christian Frost, Lieutenant, thought currently unassigned and on half-pay.”

“Emily Prentiss,” she answered back in kind. “Orphan, currently under the protection of the Lady Adler.”

“You’re Lady Adler’s companion?” he looked shocked, and she was surprised. “Oh.”

“Yes,” said Emily, not willing to apologize for something she didn’t understand.

He smiled awkwardly. “I’m sorry. It was just a surprise. I have heard many strange things about her, but I am certain that she is not nearly as unusual as rumors would make it seem.”

“I don’t know,” Emily said, matter-of-factly. “She is a rather unusual lady.”

The bells rang out as the hourglass was turned and Emily blinked, calculating in her head. “Oh, is it that late already? I need to be there to read during tea.” She slipped out of the coat and offered it back. “Thank you very much, Lieutenant Frost.”

“You’re welcome,” he called after her, as she ducked under the beam. “Miss Prentiss.”

* * *

Stay tuned for the thrilling next installment, in which Miss Emily discovers Paris, and comes upon various secrets that she might be better for forgetting.

criminal minds, extraordinary gentlewoman, x-men, au, emma/emily

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