Even without sight I could tell as the house loomed and I was borne within.
I could only act as myself in part, and could be nothing more than what I pretended to be. On this my life rested. My eyes flashed open once inside, and with a cry I let out all the fear that had been building. The man carrying me did not so much as miss a step. The house was great and empty, and I froze in awe at the room he brought me into. It stirred memories too old to recall. Cushions littered the floor around a low mahogany card table. Divans made a half-circle, and a great harp stood behind them.
I wriggled free. I think he let me do so, for there was no other way out of the room, and I scrambled away across the cushions until there was nowhere left to go, and there I sat drooping but wary, exhausted by the effort.
He laughed, and asked me what my name was.
Gen, I said.
He said that it was rude of me to go dying on his front step, and even though this was not spoken cruelly I curled up, cold.
When he asked where I belonged I merely hunched lower.
“Well. You might be from any where, a spy, or a thief, or any variety of liar.”
He stood up. And I desperately uncurled, and began to offer up a torrent of words – that I could help with cooking, running errands, ledgers, keeping the fires, cleaning. Saying anything to keep him there. And too late I saw that he had not been about to leave. Everything went to my head at once. The part I played slipped from me and I rose shakily despite the white paper room, speaking vague apologies as I made to leave.
I stumbled, and he caught me by the arm. He said that if I were clean I might be fit to tend the fires, once it were actually winter. He said, in a very odd tone, that if I stayed I should make an effort to be diverting.
Given a flurry of instructions I carried them out carefully, for I guessed that he wished to see if I would make any mistakes. I washed in the servants’ bath, which was still grander than anything I had known for years, and when I dressed I rolled up the sleeves of the shirt so they would be a proper length. I found the kitchen, and was granted a roll of bread. When I had something to drink as well I went off to discover the great round library of the house, and there I waited by the window.
I was waiting for him to come in, but movement among the shelves showed that he was already there. He looked me up and down.
“I thought so. You are not of common descent, are you?”
I was astonished. I had forgotten. “I, once –” the words failed me, and after struggling with my mouth I bowed an apology.
“What a suspicious little thing you are. Can you read?”
He gave me a book in which the words were milk and honey, and while they fell round and perfect from my lips I was transported, and while they stalled or trembled I despaired. Though I bathed in the light of the window I forgot the window, and though I spoke at his command I forgot him.
A hand took the book, closing it, and I reached after it before I could stop myself.
A mistake. The other hand came down, and I shut my eyes. Yet it landed lightly, and ruffled my hair. He was smiling.
“Goodness, the look you have there. This way I cannot be blamed for taking in a stray.”
I remembered that word, and when I thought of the cats, and the dog with one ear which had been admitted to Balsa’s inn, I could understand the way he treated me. So I began by making sure that I was always clean, and always responsive to his cues. In what seemed like a short time I became his favourite. I could read, I could write at his dictation, I could pour his cup the proper way. I could dress neatly and attend him anywhere in the house, though he did not take me with him into the city. I could bring him his towel when he finished his morning routine in the yard.
I could have borne his weapons away for him, when he was done with them and with the towel, but he alone took them back to the dark panelled room in which they rested. Had I been less conscious of myself, they would have drawn my eyes like any fish on a gossamer line.