The Duchess Gambit – Patricia Haverton

he first thing she was aware of, as always, was the heat. It was a stifling, screaming sort of heat that seemed to fill every bit of the space around her body before she could do so much as open her eyes. She was afraid to open her eyes, even though she knew that her eyes wouldn’t melt or burn. They never had before. But it always felt as if they would. She could hear someone shouting her name. Her twin brother, Samuel. Her heart felt as if it was about to burst, and she wanted very much to scream something back to him, but she didn’t know what. The only thing she knew was that there was some dire message that had to be communicated, that absolutely couldn’t wait. Every moment she remained silent, she was failing him. She opened her mouth to call out, to let him know where she was, and her lungs filled with smoke and ash. She coughed, doubling over on herself, unable to make another sound. “Sue!” Samuel yelled. “Where are you?” I’m here! But again, the words wouldn’t come. Self-loathing welled up in her.

What followed would be her fault. She was the one who was unable to answer her brother’s cries. She was the one who kept coughing, helplessly, uselessly. She longed to call out to him, but she couldn’t. Then she heard a deeper voice, a more commanding one. It was a voice she would always trust, a voice she would always follow. “Sam! This way, son!” Father. Sue stumbled toward him, unable to see where she was going even now that she had dared to squint into the haze of smoke that surrounded her. Father’s voice meant safety. She would go to him, and then everything would be all right.

“I can’t find Sue!” Samuel yelled. “I can hear her coughing, but I can’t see her!” “Come out, son! I’ll find her!” “Go!” Sue croaked, hoping her brother would hear her, but her voice was destroyed, a damaged instrument. Of course he couldn’t hear what she was saying. It was preposterous to think that anybody would be able to hear such a meager sound. Especially when the noises around them were so dramatic, so violent. She heard the crack of a wooden beam breaking somewhere above her. A shower of sparks rained down around her. She tried to scream, but her ruined voice allowed her no more than another croak. “Sue!” her father yelled. “Where are you?” Here! She tried to say, but her voice failed her again.

She broke down into another fit of coughing. “I’m coming for you,” her father said. “I’m coming, Sue.” She was becoming dizzy and disoriented. It was hard to breathe. It was hard to think. The air was thick with smoke. The flames consumed the door that led into Sue’s bedroom. Father wouldn’t be able to open it. The window.

She turned and climbed onto her bed. The pillow had already begun to burn, and she snatched at her skirts, trying to keep them clear of the flames. She shoved at the window ledge— It refused to open. It was stuck. Something seemed to have cleared in Sue’s mind. She knew there was only one way out of this room, and if she didn’t get out, she was unlikely to survive this night. She grabbed a shoe from the floor and hurried back to the bed. Climbing up once again, she hit the shoe against the glass as hard as she could. The glass shattered, spilling all over the bed and the ground outside. Vaguely, Sue was aware of pain in her hand, but she didn’t have the time to focus on that.

The smoke was getting thicker, the heat getting worse. She grabbed the window ledge with both hands and hauled her body through. Her exit was ungraceful—she turned head over heels in the air, fell and landed on her back on the dirt below. Thanking God that their home was only one story high, Sue scrambled to her feet and ran away from the house as fast as she could, tripping as she went. She was only a short distance away when she realized that the heat and the horrible sound of licking flames had followed her. Looking down, she saw that the hem of her nightgown was on fire. With a hoarse shriek, she beat at it with her hands, trying to suppress the flames. She fell to the ground, rolling, tearing at her skirt. Eventually, the flames subsided. Sue sat up, shaking and trying to recover her breath.

She had been sleeping when it had started. She couldn’t remember the dream she had been jerked out of. All she remembered was the sudden rush of heat and fear. Her father had been calling her name… She struggled to her feet. At four-and-ten years old, she liked to think of herself as too old to need her parents for comfort, but she had never experienced a night like this one before. She wanted nothing more than to find them, to find Samuel. To be together. In front of her, the flames rose higher, paralyzing her with horror for a moment. Though she knew it was futile, there was a part of her that longed to run back to the house, to try to recover her worldly possessions. But to run back into the fire would be madness.

She had barely escaped with her life. No, the only thing to do now was to find her family and ensure that they were all safe. Her bedroom window faced the rear of the house. It was most likely that the others would have escaped through the front door. Sue gathered the skirt of her nightgown in her hands and hurried around the corner, gasping and gagging as she did so. It was still difficult to breathe. She had inhaled too much smoke. She wanted to move closer to the house, to see whether they were still inside, but she didn’t dare. The smoke would choke her. She reached the front of the house and looked around desperately.

There was no one there. Not her father, whose calls had gone silent. Not her mother. Not Samuel. And she knew then—she had known all along, she realized, it was coming to her now as if from a memory that she had tried to forget—that she was alone. She was the only one who had survived. Her parents and her brother hadn’t made it out of the house. They had perished in the flames. She fell to her knees, feeling as if her insides had been scooped out, hollow and bereft. She couldn’t feel the heat from the fire anymore.

The only thing she felt was the barren emptiness of knowing that her family was gone. They’re all gone. I’m alone. Nothing would ever numb the horror of that realization, of the moment she knew she was alone in the world and would have to fend for herself. There was a time when Sue would have strained her ears, desperate to hear their voices, desperate to be proven wrong. But she knew better now. They were gone. And now someone was coming toward her, and she knew, without even knowing where the knowledge had come from, that this person was not an ally. This was the person who had set the fire. This was the person who had killed her family.

I need to see his face. I need to know who he is! But she wasn’t looking. She was running, running into the woods in nothing but her nightgown, running to the road that would take her to her father’s store, where she could hide. Where she could pull herself together and make a plan. Did she hear footsteps behind her? Was he running after her? Or was that just the sound of the house finally giving in to the flames, finally allowing itself to be consumed? She looked over her shoulder and saw— S C H A P T E R 2 ue awoke with a start. She was covered in sweat and panting with exertion, as if the frantic flight through the forest in her dreams had been a reality. As if it had all just happened moments ago, instead of years. She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs, doing her best to comfort herself in the weak light of early morning. Yes, the fire had happened. Yes, she had lost her family.

And yes, the face of the villain who had caused it had appeared through the smoke, and she had been certain for a moment that he meant to kill her, too. But that had been five years ago. Five long years. It was behind her now. It was strange to be nine-and-ten years of age when her twin brother never would. In her memory, he remained frozen as he had been five years ago. He was a boy, and she had become a woman. The loss of her parents had been hard and painful. But to lose her brother, who had been her other half—to face growing up without him by her side—that had been a life Sue had never planned on living. She took deep breaths, allowing the fear to slowly drain from her body.

What had happened all those years ago couldn’t happen to her again. She was safe now. Her home now was secure. No one could hurt her here. And she had no family left. There was no one left to take away from her. Only her own life remained. It was never an attack against me. She reminded herself of that, exhaling slowly, feeling her heart rate subside. It was an attack against Father.

It had to be. No one would attack a girl of only four-andten years. Besides, her father had known. She remembered the evening before the fire, how distressed he had been over dinner. Though she and Samuel had both tried to get answers out of him, he hadn’t explained himself. Not then. But she had overheard him speaking to her mother as they cleared away the dishes. He’s found us, her father had said. His tone had been so ominous that Sue had been deeply afraid. She had been too frightened, even, to go to Samuel and tell him what she had heard.

She would forever wish that she had told him. Perhaps he would have seen the fire coming. Perhaps he would have known what to do. Of course he couldn’t have known what would happen. After all, Father didn’t even know. Samuel would have been just as confused as I was. He’s found us, her father had said. Sue was sure that he must be the mysterious figure she had seen through the smoke after the fire had passed. But why had he done what he had done? She shook her head. The past was the past, and she was better off accepting that some mysteries would never be solved.

Besides, she had work to do. She got out of bed and put on her trousers and shirt. She carefully tied her hair in a short ponytail at the back of her neck. She had been doing this for five years, and yet, even now, it made her a little nervous. Even now, she felt the need to check her reflection in the looking glass before allowing herself to be seen by any of the other members of the household. The looking glass in her room was small and cracked, a castoff that she had rescued during her first year serving here. But it worked well enough for her purposes. She stood before it, carefully examining her appearance. As usual, it was flawless. “Hello, Samuel,” she said quietly.

Then she turned and hurried out of the room, ready to see to her daily responsibilities.

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