In Which the Doctor Medicates Many People
(Part 1 of 2)
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Elise von Lahnstein had really done afternoon tea right. The Doctor was impressed.
“Scones! Cakes! Sandwiches! You’ve even got the multi-layered stand!” The Lahnsteins stared at him like he was a madman. “Sorry, I’m British myself, so it’s like being home again.”
“You speak excellent German,” Elise commented.
The Doctor noticed Rainart’s eyes had widened at his proclamation and guessed the cause. “Of course. I must, to teach in Germany.”
Rainart followed up with, “Absolutely. Dr. Smith had taught at the University of Cologne for three years before I attended.”
“Love Cologne.” He smiled at a room full of cold stares.
“You look young to have been teaching for eleven years,” a severe-looking woman with half-moon spectacles said. Her blonde hair was graying, creating streaks of white against light gold, making her waist-length hair shimmer like a weave of cloth. Yet her face was free of wrinkles, and since the Doctor smelled no make-up on her, the blush on her cheeks was natural. She must have been a renowned beauty in her youth, and age had only refined and, indeed, perfected her looks. With a figure to match, the Doctor wouldn’t have been surprised if the feud had started over her. Wars had been fought for less.
“Thank you,” the Doctor replied, “but you of all people must understand what it means to appear younger than your true age, for if Rainart is correct in his description of his mother as a woman who could subdue a lion with a look, then you must be her.” He gave a deep bow and checked Rainart’s expression to make sure he had guessed correctly. When he saw the boy give him a pursed smile, half impressed and half annoyed, he winked before straightening back up. Elise giggled.
“Rainart is correct.” She inclined her head deep enough to indicate grudging respect.
Rainart stepped forward. “Frau Schmetterling von Lahnstein, meet Professor Smith.”
The Doctor grinned. “Just John Smith is fine.” It helped when everyone made up the same pseudonym for him. Saved him having to remember different names.
Rainart indicated the plump figure beside his mother. “Herr Abelerd von Lahnstein, my father.”
Abelerd gave a hearty laugh and clasped the Doctor by the hand. The rest of the family went by in rapid succession, almost too fast for even the Doctor to take in. Waldo was the family patriarch, the elderly father of Abelerd, pushed about in a wheelchair by a massive old man named Jakob, who was evidently his wife’s brother, a gentle giant who wasn’t all mentally present. Waldo was a stick of a man, as though all his weight had gone into his son, but his arms and legs appeared bloated, like the limbs of a balloon animal. The gout, it appeared to be.
Adalie was Waldo’s wife, and she had the same slightly-pouting, eagle-eyed look of severity that her daughter-in-law possessed. She was an exercise in contrasts: every movement of her body was like part of a planned dance while her face could not be described as better than plain; her skin was wrinkled like a prune while she spoke with a voice clear and pure as a mountain stream rushing into a roaring river; her snow white hair was tied into a tight bun but the binding consisted of a dazzling red bow and dangling ribbons. Her dress was entirely grey, managing to be elegant rather than drab and stylishly stark despite a large number of frills along the front. She had a wheelchair that matched her husband’s but got by fine without it, preferring to hover beside Jakob, the brother who dribbled a little out the left side of his mouth and didn’t have his shirt tucked in.
Annegret was Waldo’s younger sister. She was pale and resembled tissue paper, in danger of being swept away by the slightest touch. Of all the older Lahnsteins present, she was the only one who seemed to enjoy the party, looking about at all the decorations like a wide-eyed child, though she clutched her teacup as though someone might snatch it from her at any moment. As people moved past her, she swayed a little, teetering this way and that--as though her cane was a metronome and she was keeping time--before her maid appeared to steady her. Then Lysanne would lean against the wall and vanish from notice again, which was quite impressive considering she looked like Marilyn Monroe, all the way down to the short French maid’s dress that fluttered in the drafts that swept through the castle.
There was, Adalie explained, one more Lahnstein from their generation, but Bernard died twenty-two years ago--the latest casualty of the long-standing feud between the families-- while dueling Friedrich Schneider. At that pronouncement, everyone crossed themselves and muttered something in low tones, and when the Doctor strained to hear what was said, he realized not all of it was complimentary.
The introductions then moved on to Abelerd’s siblings--the children of Waldo and Adalie--which included another Adalie, an old maid who had not been as fortunate as her namesake mother and who tended to loose a braying laugh at awkward times, Edmund and his wife, Dorothea, who lived on the adjacent property but were visiting for tea, and Adolfa, who was not present, having married a wealthy duke (also named Bernard) and moved to his larger castle in Saxony.
“Ah, and there’s Edwynna,” Rainart said as the lowing of cattle preceded a large heifer pushing through the crowd of aristocracy.
“Sorry, terribly sorry!” exclaimed a young girl dressed in periwinkle lederhosen as she bounded through the room. A man in tight-fitting red overalls and a fedora with a large yellow feather sticking out of it skipped into the room after her, jingling with a cowbell in his hand and a belt of lesser bells looped across his chest from the shoulder to the waist.
“Who?” Schmetterling asked, her voice crisp as a fresh apple. She turned so that she faced the exact opposite direction from the newcomers. “I don’t see anyone.”
Abelerd slapped the Doctor on the back, and he would’ve sprawled across the ground if the cow hadn’t been there for him to fall against. “Never mind the wife. Women get silly ideas in their heads sometimes.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Abelerd. I would’ve thought the family honor would be more important to you.”
“If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then how do you know I’m talking about a matter of family honor?”
Schmetterling sniffed. “Everything is about family honor.”
“And who are you?” Edwynna asked, bouncing up and down in place. The cow mooed again and started in on the platter of cheese. “Please don’t mind Beatrice. She loves her own cheese.”
“What people would we be to deny her such simple pleasures, when she provides so much for us?” her husband interjected.
“People who aren’t freaks,” Edmund said. With that pronouncement, he and Dorothea swept out of the room.
Rainart shrugged. “Uncle also disapproves of Edwynna.”
Schmetterling made her way around the cow to retrieve a scone for Jakob, and the Doctor was impressed how nonchalantly she managed to ignore the bovine presence. It was as though she just happened to weave across the room in a large semi-circle, and she didn’t even need to act drunk to be convincing. “I wonder where Baron is,” she said. “He’s normally quite good about social appearances.”
“A family tea is hardly a social appearance,” the Doctor ventured.
“True.” Schmetterling brightened. “Family gatherings aren’t nearly as important.” As she said that, she managed to bump into Edwynna’s husband and spill tea all over him.
“Yodel-ow-ow-ow!” he half-sang and half-screamed his way out of the room.
“My, how lucky. I nearly tripped but none of the tea fell onto the ground.”
“Mother!” Edwynna stamped her foot. “That was cruel!”
Schmetterling ignored her, so Edwynna came closer and stamped again, this time catching the edge of her mother’s dress. Schmetterling’s hand swept out and slapped her across the face, all without the slightest change of expression. Edwynna burst into tears and ran to her father, who swept her into his arms and shot his wife angry looks. She continued to nibble on her scone, never glancing at him.
“Your family is very...” the Doctor realized that a thousand years of travel through space and time hadn’t provided him with an adjective that would be adequate yet tactful so he settled on the tried-and-true human standby: “...interesting.”
Rainart led him to the corner of the room before a full-out argument could erupt. “That is why I didn’t know how to answer you when you asked for something strange.”
“Not that sort of strange. I was thinking more along the lines of giant stone statues rampaging across the countryside, but you probably haven’t seen any of those, have you?”
“That’s too bad. Do you mind if I poke around?”
Rainart and the Doctor both froze, because the voice had come from between them. They looked down and saw Annegret staring up at them with beady eyes. The Doctor instinctively turned his head to track down Lysanne and found himself face-to-face with her, his lips a bare centimeter from her wide-open mouth. Then he realized that, in taking up a spot in the corner, he’d crushed her against the wall.
“I’m terribly sorry!” he yelped as he leapt aside.
“You’re very bony, Dr. Smith,” Lysanne replied, brushing herself off and catching her breath. He found himself transfixed by her heaving bosom, not because of any sexual curiosity but because their motion defied the laws of physics. “Surprisingly strong as well.”
“I would appreciate if you do not take any further liberties with my maidservant,” Annegret said.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t see either of you there!”
“Neither did I,” Rainart added, fighting back a laugh.
“I object to you ‘poking around,’ as you put it,” Annegret said. “My quarters, at least, are off-limits, even if Rainart doesn’t respect the boundaries of his other family members. I expect nothing less from a radical revolutionary.”
“Auntie, I am not a radical, and my friends are visionaries, not warmongers.”
“Political change is bloodshed.”
“Now that’s not fair,” the Doctor said, “though given history to this point, it isn’t an entirely unreasonable conclusion.”
“If you’re looking for something strange, you don’t need to look any further than the river.”
“Really? What’s there?”
Rather than answer, Annegret removed a sprig of a withered plant from her dress. At first glance, it looked like nothing special, but then the doctor noticed purple mottling along the stem and undersides of the mint-like leaves, so light he’d mistook them for shadows. His breath caught.
“May I?” he asked in a hushed tone, as though they were in a church. She thrust it into his hand, and he lifted it to his ear.
“What is that?” Rainart asked. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a species before, though Baron is the naturalist, not I.”
“Lean closer,” the Doctor replied. “Listen.”
Their ears came together beside the plant, and a faint ringing began, like humming wineglasses, but the tone shifted back and forth in the semblance of a melody.
“Galæsia nachtis,” the Doctor said, and even though he’d said the name out loud, he still couldn’t believe he was holding a specimen. The shock was such that he found he couldn’t continue the explanation, which was a rare enough event in itself.
“It’s a mythical herb,” Annegret spoke for him.
“Legendary,” he managed.
“You may hear similarities to ‘nightingale’ in its etymology, and you would be right if you do. Roughly speaking, it means ‘spell-’ or ‘song-in-the-night,’ but the common name is ‘Singing Plant,’ so named because of the sound you just heard. It is believed to be a cure for all diseases, but that is legend corrupted in re-telling. I have run experiments on the small sample in my possession, and its true properties are even more amazing: Galæsia nachtis reverses the aging process.”
“What?” The Doctor wasn’t sure whether he should be elated or disappointed. On the one hand, the singing plant could have been the answer to Gwen’s plight, but this new development was even more revolutionary. If true, Galæsia nachtis might induce a process in humans that was similar to Time Lord regeneration. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure! I don’t have enough to create visible effects in a human, but I tested it on plant cells and small animals, and the results speak for themselves.”
“Where did you get it?”
“The river. There are growths on the bank where the Rhine runs most turbulent, but the footing isn’t good. Investigate at your own risk.”
“Most turbulent... do you mean the Bend?” Rainart asked.
“Yes, you children call it the Bend.”
Rainart shook his head. “You can’t go there. It’s near the black forest, and Baron’s reported poachers. Until he’s back in the castle, you risk being shot in addition to drowning if you go.”
“I wouldn’t mind waiting until evening,” the Doctor replied. He extended a hand to thank Annegret, but in the few seconds he’d turned his attention to Rainart, the old lady had disappeared, along with her maid. “Now that’s a woman with many talents.”
“I agree. I’ve heard Aunt Annegret was quite the lady in her day, and no one understands why she never married.”
“Maybe she liked it that way.”
“I rather suspect she does. A man would only slow her down.”
It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. It was dark, because nights usually are, unless a massive asteroid is burning through the atmosphere, but there wouldn’t be much use for quibbling about the time of day in such a situation. The sky lacked any semblance of storminess, however, and the full Milky Way was plastered across the sky as clearly as wallpaper, or tapestries full of dark and creepy woodland animals.
For a moment, Adric was certain the animals’ eyes were following him, but he credited the effect to a talented weaver and didn’t trouble Susan with the issue. There might be secret passages hidden behind the cloth, but the eyes didn’t look like holes, so people probably weren’t lurking. Besides, the number of eyes vastly outnumbered the number of humans in the castle.
“I think I like the pink room better,” he said to Susan.
“Smart boy,” she murmured. Her eyes remained fixed on the tapestry behind which the vampire had vanished.
“Let’s go to the kitchen, see what we can do to help.”
Susan’s hair curled up by itself, and she batted at the strands absently without putting much effort into flattening them. “That... feels like a good suggestion.” Her voice was distant, and even though she looked at him, she wasn’t looking at him.
“Are you all right?”
“Something’s not right, and I don’t mean the vampire. I feel... hurry!” She grabbed his hand and rushed into the hall. He flew after her, his legs moving as fast as he could make them go, but the initial tug had squeezed all the air out of his lungs and he didn’t think he could keep up the pace.
Through a parlor, down one flight of stairs and up another, they traveled an assortment of rooms, each as empty as the last, before dashing through the servants’ quarters and ending up in the kitchen. As they struggled to catch their breath, Adric managed: “I think we went in a huge circle.”
“I don’t know how the castle’s laid out!”
“You could’ve... asked... for directions.”
“When they don’t understand me?”
“I’m sorry, may I help you?” Adric jumped as Rosa Schneider took his arm. Ula’s mother loomed a head taller than Susan and four times as wide. Although half her girth consisted of layers upon layers of frills and cloth, she was still a significant woman, from the explosion of curly strawberry hair to the water tower-shaped bustle of her dress. Nevertheless, she moved with the grace of a ballerina and had, in fact, been a dancer in her youth, if he correctly remembered the stream of information Ula had thrown at him on their way back to the castle.
“I, we, were just wondering if we could help.”
Before Rosa could respond, Ula swept over with a bleating lamb in tow. “Cousin, you should be resting!” The lamb tried to back away, its hooves scrabbling against the ceramic tiling. She jerked the leash. “Bad Sassy. Cook! Here, can you take care of Sassy for me?”
“Uh, is that--” Adric began as the goat was led away. His sentence was cut off by an urgent baa-ing followed by a squelchy thud. “I guess it was.”
“Sassy was a good lamb. I don’t know what got into her.”
“I can’t imagine.” A bright red rivulet appeared from around the corner and made its way across the floor. His stomach did a few flips before settling down just in time for a blood-curdling scream that wracked the castle. It was pitched at a frequency that intensified as it bounced off the stone walls, culminating in a piercing assault on the eardrums that was akin to the downpour of arrows on the French at Agincourt--he knew because the Doctor had accidentally materialized there with him and Jamie before beating a frantic retreat.
Being the lady that she was, Ula’s reaction was to cry out dramatically: “A murder!” and faint. Rosa hailed from the school of “The show must go on!” and caught her daughter as she fell.
“Do you think it’s really a murder?” Adric asked Susan, who glared back at him, making him realize how stupid he must look, querying his supposedly dim sister. It was like one of the Earth shows he watched with the Doctor and Tegan. Lassie, he remembered it was called, though instead of Timmy falling down the well, it was Timmy’s remains being pushed in to dispose of the evidence.
As this train of thought left the station, the rest of the household poured out of the kitchen and scattered in every direction to find the source of the scream. Most headed for the entryway and the library, which were located on the first floor where an intruder might be, while the more mystery-novel-oriented went for the wine cellar, and all seemed to possess no survival instinct considering they believed they were looking for a crime scene where, presumably, the killer was still nearby.
Adric was about to follow the crowd when Susan tapped his shoulder and pointed at a curly-haired young woman who looked about his own age. She skipped past them in a frilly pink dress so large that it had an accretion disk all its own, or maybe that was just more frills falling off due to the stresses of the dress swirling and quaking and rotating in an attempt to keep up with the movement of the person at its core. Her destination looked to be the stairs, and she moved with an otherworldly air that belied her airy teenage appearance.
Susan muttered something about skipping, but when Adric gave her a questioning look, she just said, “People in large groups never know what they’re doing. You want to find the truth, you follow the creepy, solitary ones.” Her hair twitched as she spoke, like frog tongues darting at invisible flies.
Once the woman was out of sight, they followed her up the stairs. “I’m going to guess that’s Karin,” Adric remarked in a low whisper. “You know, the one Ula said your bedroom belonged to.”
“That would explain a lot.” Susan nodded.
Karin did not stop at the second floor, or the third, and when they reached the topmost landing, Adric pushed open the door to reveal a sight that took his breath away. They were atop a rampart connecting two turrets that loomed into the sky like giant pillars. Overhead, the stars were so innumerable that they shone like a layer of foam atop the sea. The black forest was a line of absolute darkness to their right, standing as an abyss between the feeble torchlight of the Schneider and Lahnstein castles. Evenfall had made the colors more vivid in a visceral way that sent shivers down Adric’s spine. The blue tinge of the night sky seeped into everything, and the dark emerald of the lawn fifty feet below called to him. The maroon of the Schneider banners looked like old glory and smelled of the sweat and tears of battles won. All of it glowed, catching and reflecting whatever light would come its way. In that instant, it hit him. He didn’t think he’d ever been more removed from technology--no spaceships or electricity or Time Lords standing by to whisk him away. It was just stone and fire, wood and water. Primal fears called to him, howling about life and blood and death.
A gun cocked, its sharp crack ringing clear against the castle walls before bounding into the distant gurgles of the river. Adric threw up his hands in time for the barrel of a shotgun to swing into his vision and stay there, a line of steel leading into the burnished copper eyes of Karin Schneider.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. Her voice was low and melodic, the sort that could lull bears to sleep and make rivers change course.
“What are you doing here?” he replied, more because he couldn’t think of anything else to say than out of defiance. Saying, “I’m following you because I think you can lead me to the scene of a murder” didn’t seem the best course of action given the gun in his face.
There wasn’t the slightest change in expression as Karin lowered the shotgun. Within moments, the weapon vanished amidst the folds of her dress, and Adric wondered how many more surprises she had hidden in her clothing. He didn’t want to find out. “You’re not a killer.”
Adric’s jaw dropped. “Of course not!”
“And you’re the idiot.” Karin had turned her gaze to Susan. “You’re the cousins from Bavaria.”
“Yeah. Yes, I am, er, we are. Do you, uh, know what’s going on?”
“My grandfather is dead.” She swiveled and rustled along the rampart. The two of them followed at a brisk pace, and somehow, Susan got ahead of him. The moment she caught sight of the view inside the room, she pushed him aside and moved to block his vision.
“What?” he exclaimed.
“You don’t want to see this.”
“I’m not a child!” He shoved past her, and then the stench hit him. Retreating as fast as he arrived, he leaned over the parapet and retched.
“It’s a good thing we didn’t eat dinner yet,” Susan said in her governess’ voice, the sort of tone one used on a frightened child who needed to be reassured without hurting his ego.
“I wasn’t expecting...” Well, he wasn’t expecting quite that much blood. Over such a large surface area. And so many body parts scattered around the room. There had also been that hand still clinging onto the back of the chair.
Then Susan added, “Although, I’ll admit, it seems like a little more blood than is in the human body.” Adric threw up again, this time on Susan’s shoe, but she deserved it.
From the doorway, Karin examined the room as she might a painting in a museum. “This was deliberate.”
“Really?” Adric hoped he didn’t sound too sarcastic, as her rifle was still fresh in his memory, but he couldn’t help thinking she was stating the obvious.
She tilted her head, watching him like a bird. There was something of an offer in her eyes. Taking a few tentative steps closer, he paused three feet away from her and the terrifying room. Her response was to remove a handkerchief from the purse draped over her left shoulder and tie it over his nose. “Think of the blood as nature’s paint,” she said as she tightened the knot, her fingers brushing the hair at the back of his neck. “Without it, her canvas would be empty.”
“Paint.” Pressing the handkerchief tight against his nose and mouth, he stepped into the room with Karin. “They were just redecorating... with mannequins... and did a really bad job.”
The main part of the body--that is, the chest and one complete leg--lay upon the bed, an elegant four-poster with ripped sheets and a torn canopy, some of which looked sliced apart by a knife while others had collapsed from the weight of someone pulling on them. The body lay at an angle with the neck ending beside the pillow on the far edge of the bed. A writing desk beneath the window by the door was snapped in half, and the chair had been knocked over, but one arm was still clinging to the back of it. The other arm hung from the candle chandelier overhead, but the hand that belonged to it was nowhere to be seen. The head had rolled into the dresser opposite the bed, while several feet of intestines decorated the windowsill.
“Where’s his other leg?”
“Grandfather Imre only had one leg. The other one’s wooden. It’s that pile of splinters beside the gallbladder.”
“The pear-like thing in the puddle of candle wax at the head of the bed.”
“Ah. I see. You’re awfully calm about this.”
“I’ve seen worse.”
“Gauthier at a tea party. His manners are absolutely atrocious. Oh, you mean in terms of violence? There was that time a pack of wolves tore a live deer apart in the forest. It’s incredible how much blood is in an animal.” Her eyes sparkled as she spoke, but then she caught herself with a sharp intake of air and blushed. “I’m sorry, my stories probably aren’t helping your stomach.” He didn’t think she was actually sorry, but he appreciated the sentiment nonetheless.
“Well, I didn’t know there was so much blood in the human body either.”
“There should be more.”
“She’s right,” Susan commented, stepping into the room for the first time. “I was being sardonic earlier. Pay attention.”
“Look at the smear patterns on the wall.” Karin pointed with an umbrella, and even though Adric had been staring right at her, he couldn’t tell where it had come from. “A bleeding body thrown against the wall should smear in a vertical pattern, and splashing should cause blots that drip downward. However, the blood is at a sideways angle, and it is congealing.”
“You’re saying there wasn’t a struggle.”
Karin gave him a small smile, lips pressed tight in a somewhat pouty manner. “Good. I think you catch on too fast to be a cousin of mine.”
“You said it’s congealing. Is that important?”
“Yes, as is the fact that there are stains but no puddles on the floor even though it’s stone.”
“There should be more blood,” he repeated. “So everything about the scene indicates there was a struggle. Something happened, a cold-blooded murder attempt or a robbery gone wrong--”
“Or a Lahnstein,” Karin added.
“Yes, or that, I suppose. But Imre fought back and had a messy death. But it’s not messy enough, which means someone wants us to think that’s what happened but Imre actually died before being cut apart. That’s why there isn’t as much blood”
“Precisely. In fact, he died in bed. There’s only one set of footprints around the entire room.”
“Those are bare feet! How do you-- oh. Imre had a false leg, but there’s no markings from it. But... we heard a scream just moments before!”
“Who said it was my grandfather’s scream?” Karin tip-toed through the room, keeping her dress and feet from touching any of the mess. When she reached the head, she pushed back one eyelid and nodded. “The eyes have filmed over. Grandfather was dead for hours before the scream.”
“So what does that mean?”
“It means my family’s about done searching the castle.” Karin put her hands to her face and let out an ear-splitting scream. “HELP! HELP! Oh my goodness, someone’s killed grandfather Imre in his room and would someone please hurry up and get here already!”
“I think that’s the end of intelligent conversation for the evening,” Susan said. “Time to watch the fireworks.”
And fireworks there were, for the first person to answer Karin’s summons was her twin, Hildegard. She scampered along the bridge to the tower, took one look at Karin’s grin, and fainted splendidly before catching sight of whatever caused her sister so much enjoyment. Adric doubted the faint was real, but considering her dress had even more accoutrements than Karin’s, there was little danger to her falling over. She could probably jump over the parapet and bounce to safety.
In addition to the fancier outfit, Hildegard had bleached her hair, clearly striving for an angelic appearance to distinguish herself from her less savory counterpart. Adric decided it made her look insipid but did not voice his opinion out loud.
Raoul came next, looking every inch the operatic hero his name forced him to be, but upon seeing his daughter’s limp form on the ground, scooped her into his arms and ran off to revive her and wasn’t seen again until the murder scene had been cleaned.
Ula was much too fascinated by blood to be a proper lady, but she stomped on Adric’s foot (“Oh my, did I get you? I’m terribly sorry. I sometimes stamp the ground really hard when I get upset and people have an unfortunate habit of being underfoot!”) when he pointed that out. Then she retreated to a spot that silhouetted her figure against the moon and stood there like a dramatic princess awaiting rescue.
Her mother became the first person to do anything useful, which was to shoo away everyone and send Karin to summon the castle staff. “I’m terribly sorry you had to see this,” she told Adric.
“It’s all right. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Just shield the young ladies from seeing any more. They are delicate flowers and should not be exposed to the uglier elements of the feud.”
“The feud?” Adric wisely did not comment on the flower statement.
“Well, surely, this must be the deed of a Lahnstein, and a terrible deed it is.”
“Absolutely horrible.” Adric nodded in sympathy.
“Savage!” Rosa was working herself up into quite a state, quivering like a gelatin cake in an earthquake.
The word cut off Rosa’s impending tirade against the Lahnsteins. “Gruesome? Well, I suppose...”
“You suppose?” he squeaked. He felt the urge to vomit once more.
“I was speaking of the fact that they did not kill him in a field of combat. To murder someone, in secret, in their room. That is, well, it is quite dishonorable.” She pronounced “dishonorable” as one might say, well, as one might say something that is not proper to say at all. The concept was uncomfortable for her to consider, much less discuss with someone of a younger generation, like a parent trying to have the sex talk with her child or a manatee fending off a motor boat.
The awkward silence was broken by voices drifting over from the other tower. “Quick, do something!” Rosa implored. “Do not let them see this disgrace.”
“You’re not going to be able to stop her from cleaning the crime scene,” Susan said in response to his unspoken concern. “Anyway, it’s not like we’re equipped to learn anything from it. Not unless you know some enterprising dwarves in the region.”
Adric shook his head. Gauthier led the pack of oncoming Schneiders, so bad things were going to happen very soon if he didn’t stop it. Yet, what would stop a bunch of honor-obsessed, bloodthirsty aristocrats from arriving at a murder scene?
“Tell them the murderer ran into the forest,” Susan again answered his question without needing to hear it.
Right, nothing like a good romp in the dark with a murderer on the loose, not to mention the wild animals. Adric ran to the edge of the walkway and pointed. “I think I see a figure running into the forest! It must be the murderer! Look!”
Everyone except Gauthier looked, but Rosa seemed all right with that--you could only be so improper when no one was around to judge. Like a stampede of elephants, it took a while for momentum to turn the other way, which in this case consisted of many people pointing and arguing about which shadow was the killer and just exactly which direction they were headed. It took about two minutes before anyone realized that the killer must be headed for the Lahnstein castle if the killer was a Lahnstein. Once that reasoning sank in, the crowd vanished in the blink of an eye.
Before Ula could leave, Gauthier caught her by the waist and threw her into a puddle of blood.
The Doctor knew something was terribly wrong with time. There were instances when this was self-evident, like when Earth got turned into a flaming wasteland by the Daleks--come to think of it, that had never been rectified...--and there were times when it was so subtle that only he knew it, the burden of the last Time Lord, listening to distant temporal currents and hearing a pebble slip into the turbulence. There were times when it was serious and other times when the solution was more trouble than the original problem. There were the best of times and the worst of times, purple times and fuzzy times, times with thyme and many times in the same time happening multiple times, which did not make for fun times for Time Lords, even back when there was more than one, or two, or maybe four, along with a red fish and a blue fish.
This time was none of those times and could never be one of those times because it was infinitely more painful than anything even the Daleks could throw at him.
It began with the end of the tea party. He and Rainart had given up trying to track down Annegret when it became evident she had retreated to her quarters and, of course, they had no excuse to leave the party. They could have left, but the Doctor didn’t want to get on the wrong side of the Lahnsteins just yet. The throbbing bumps on his head told him that he’d had enough objects thrown at him for one day.
“I think we’re in trouble,” Rainart remarked as he dumped his teacup into the cheese platter. “What?” he said when the Doctor gave him a look. “It makes cleaning more convenient for the servants when everything’s on one easy-to-gather tray.”
“Not that I don’t approve of your thoughtfulness, but I had my eye on the gouda.”
“There’s much better cheese than gouda.”
“I like how it sounds. Gou-da. Gouuuda. Gouda.” He grinned, but Rainart looked unimpressed. One of the castle cats began lapping up the newfound mixture of tea leaves and dairy products.
“Like I said, I think we’re in trouble.”
“Why? I don’t believe I’ve violated any common etiquette rules.”
“Oh no, you’ve done wonderfully in that regard. But Baron isn’t back yet.”
“Eager to get on the trail of nach-tis, are you?”
“Not really. It’s just, he has a good sense of things, and usually, if he’s gone for so long, that means something bad is coming, probably from Elise.”
“If it’s bad like a tea party, it can’t be that bad.”
“No, not at all. More like--”
“I know!” Elise clapped her hands together. “Let’s play croquet!”
“This isn’t right,” the Doctor insisted. “Croquet isn’t supposed to be invented for another century, and certainly not in Germany.”
“What?” Rainart sounded as though someone had announced that they’d delivered the crate of cockroaches to his bedroom and no, it didn’t matter that he hadn’t ordered any such thing, could he please sign and initial on the line there? “Are you implying this actually becomes a professional sport?”
“Oh, you mean it’s not?” He felt his hearts slowing back down at the thought that perhaps this wasn’t a temporal violation after all. “But still, it’s a century early in the wrong place.”
“Maybe people tried to kill it and it kept coming back.” Like cockroaches.
“Did your sister tell anyone about croquet at university?”
“No, she didn’t think it up until after she came back.”
“This is the game with mallets and balls going through hoops on the ground?”
“Oh good, you know it, that means you can take my place.” Rainart raised his voice as Elise came over. “The Doctor volunteers! I’ve explained the rules to him.”
“What? No, no, n-- oh hello. Yes, lovely-sounding game, would love to play.” He tried to look disapprovingly at Rainart but suspected he just appeared confused, because Elise took him by the hand and started explaining all the rules in painstaking detail. Which was a good thing, it turned out, because some of them were quite different from the ones he knew. That was why, three hours later...
“SCATTER SHOT!” Elise screamed, firing a shotgun at her ball. Scatter shot indeed burst forth from the barrel, sending her red ball rocketing toward the next hoop, while the Doctor’s ball launched toward the pond but stopped just short owing to the obstructive nature of geese. There wasn’t much he could do about this development, however, because even though scatter shot was intended to send the ball into a less dangerous position, and while just about anywhere was safer than in the scope of a shotgun, he didn’t think that was what the rules meant, but it was not prudent to argue with anyone who played croquet with guns. There was also Abelerd’s comment at the beginning of the game when the Doctor went for the yellow ball:
“No, dear doctor, the men always get black and blue balls in this game. I think Elise meant that as subtle commentary, ha, ha, ha.” His comment earned him pursed lips from his wife, but the Doctor suspected he was getting back at her for the Edwynna incident. No doubt Abelerd found the joke much less amusing after Schmetterling sent her first ball off his shin, through the hoop nailed into the trunk of a nearby juniper, and into his black ball, sending it tumbling near a haystack. Her continuation stroke was clean, but somehow his ball ended up inside the hay afterward and play was suspended for ten minutes while Abelerd searched and pricked his finger on a needle instead of locating the ball.
“Look at the time!” the Doctor exclaimed, pointing at the setting sun and trying to ignore the fact that the panicking geese were pushing his ball closer and closer to the water’s edge. The yard line for the game was actually drawn through the middle of the pond owing to the fact that one of the hoops was on a floating platform anchored to shore by five meters of string. He did not think a water hazard would make this game more enjoyable. That was before colors exploded across his vision as a spike of pain drove its way through his head, and he woke up on the ground.
Elise let out a cry: “He’s regained consciousness! I’m so sorry, but I do remember telling you that during scatter shots, the team partner is allowed to take one extra stroke at the same time.”
“Right. Forgot that.”
“I’m sure mother is sorry too.”
Schmetterling shrugged. “The rules are the rules, and I must thank the Doctor, because without him there to deflect it, I’m sure the ball would’ve overshot and I’d never have run that hoop.”
“Glad to be of service, Frau Lahnstein.” If his head swelled enough, all the bumps might run together.
“Anyway, now that you’re back up and running, we can finish the game!” Abelerd said. “I do hate losing, and I think our luck’s about to turn.”
“But it’s dark!”
“I, uh, mixed together a substance that can be applied to surfaces,” Rainart said, scratching his head, “and it, unfortunately, ah, well, it glows in the dark.”
The Doctor bounced up and seized Rainart’s coat. “A substantive escape plan would be saluted,” he hissed before turning back to the field. Indeed, the balls, hoops and mallets were all glowing green, as were the boundaries, which was one advantage of nightfall. It would make finding the balls in haystacks easier as well. “Do I want to know where you found the glowing substance?”
“Well, your family’s exposure is minimal enough that they shouldn’t get radiation poisoning. You, on the other hand, I can’t speak for.”
“Radiation poisoning? Whatever that is, it doesn’t sound good.”
“Get me out of here and maybe I’ll explain it to you.”
Rainart removed the mallet from the Doctor’s hands and headed for the castle. “I think we should take a break and find the Doctor some herbs for his headache. It wouldn’t be a fair game if one of the players was impaired.”
Once they were far enough away, the Doctor admitted that, as he did not sense any radiation in the area, Rainart’s discovery was biological rather than radioactive, but it was too late to prevent a lengthy inquiry on the subject that didn’t cease until they were outside Annegret’s room.
Rainart frowned upon realizing where they were. “When I said we were getting you some herbs, that was to get us away, not to justify you breaking into Great Aunt Annegret’s quarters.”
“Nonsense, I’m sure she won’t mind us dropping by, her favorite nephew and his favorite professor.”
“How did you know I was her favorite? Not that the status imparts much special treatment.”
“She doesn’t seem the type for your average aristocrat.”
“Good point. You go in alone.”
“What? That’d be breaking and entering!”
“But you’re her favorite!”
“So she’ll kill me quickly rather than hang me out the window for crows to eat alive.”
“You’re exaggerating.” The Doctor tried the handle and found it locked.
“How unfortunate. Let’s go.”
The Doctor removed his sonic screwdriver, waved it across the handle, and opened the door. As he slipped it into his pocket, he winked at Rainart. “Pretend you didn’t see that.” Cracking the door open, he darted in, and as he expected, Rainart followed him, eyes still on his pocket.
“What do you mean ‘pretend you didn’t see that’? What is it? How does it work?”
“Shhh, you’re in your aunt’s room!”
“Damn you!” Rainart shut the door with the handle turned to make the action as quiet as possible. As he let the bar swing back into its regular position, the Doctor tiptoed over to a large mesh rack that extended along one entire wall.
The room was an antechamber, about thirty square meters in size and wider than it was long. The ceiling was vaulted, and herbs hung from the rafters. He recognized several bundles of lavender, along with some sage and dill. It was too dark for him to identify the ones farther from the window. There was no sign of Galæsia nachtis, but he didn’t expect her to leave samples on the table.
“Guard the door!” the Doctor said.
“The one with your terrifying aunt behind it.”
“Um.” The Doctor didn’t understand what Rainart’s hesitation was about until he realized that there were not two but three doors in the room. One was for the hallway and another, the bedroom, but where did the third lead? Rainart chose one at random and pressed his ear to it. “I think the other one’s a store room.”
“Do you hear snoring?”
“Maybe you should check the other door.”
“Maybe you should hurry and get what you need!”
“Fine, fine.” The Doctor set to work, but Rainart’s eyes followed his every move. “Would you stop staring?”
“That combination isn’t a painkiller.”
“I thought you weren’t a naturalist.”
“I’ve read books.”
“Of course. Oooh, valerian, very good. And kava kava? What does your aunt need kava kava for?”
“Maybe she likes to shake it shake it.”
“That was inappropriate.”
“Can we go?”
“Make yourself useful and find some chocolate. I need hops, do you see any hops?”
Rainart performed a short hop on his way to the cupboard.
“No, not like rabbits. More like banana daiquiris.”
“We’ve got chocolate.”
“Good, grab some, and I’ll check the store room for things that aren’t bunnies.”
“Wait! I’m not sure if that’s--”
“You’ll never get anywhere in life if you don’t take risks.”
The Doctor threw open the door to discover Annegret in bed, completely naked save for the sheet below her waist and the maid-shaped lump it covered, her back arched and her bosom heaving, every wrinkle on her body stretched taut as she cried: “Yes! Yes! Just like when we were young! YES!”
Slamming the door shut, the Doctor confronted Rainart’s dropped jaw. “You win some, you lose some. I think we can do without hops.”
Their next stop was the kitchens. The staff had not recovered from afternoon tea yet, so there were still pots of boiling water available. The Doctor threw in the herbs and started mixing.
“Are you planning to drug my family?”
“I thought a little nap would be the perfect opportunity for us to slip away because, if I’m right, and I’m usually right, there’s still dinner to come after croquet.”
“That is brilliant.” Rainart started scribbling on a pad he had in his pocket. “What’s the recipe?”
The Doctor snatched the pad out of his hand and put it in his pocket. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Extraordinary circumstances and all that.”
“They’re just herbs.”
“Kava kava’s just an herb.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Did you just throw in catnip?”
“Where’s the chocolate?” Rainart handed over a pouch. The Doctor pulled the drawstrings and peeked inside. “Cocoa powder. Perfect. It’ll mask the other tastes.” He poured out the entire packet.
Back on the croquet field, Adalie had parked Waldo over the next hoop to prevent Schmetterling from making her shot. She didn’t dislike her daughter-in-law--she just liked her son more.
“Look what the servants cooked up!” The Doctor brandished his tray of cups as one might a shield bearing the heroic dead. One could never be too overdramatic when trying to sell drugs. “Not only did it help my head, but it’s supposed to stimulate health and protect against chills. Everyone should try some, but mind the taste.”
“I thought you put in chocolate,” Rainart whispered.
“Watch and learn.”
Elise took the first cup and took a sip. “It’s not that bad, Dr. Smith. It tastes like chocolate.”
“In that case, I’ll try some as well,” Abelerd said. General murmurs of agreement followed as he downed an entire cup in one gulp and pronounced it excellent. “Whenever did the servants learn to make something so incredible?”
“I believe it’s one of Annegret’s recipes.” The Doctor noticed Rainart shudder at the name and thought it was good he hadn’t witnessed the event, only overheard it. For his part, the Doctor felt everyone deserved to be happy, and so long as Lysanne the maid wasn’t being pressured into anything, he wished them all the best. On the other hand, he had shut the door rather loudly, so maybe he was biased in hoping they’d been very, very distracted.
“It’s your stroke,” Elise said.
“One second. Here you go, other Adalie. Is that everyone? Good.” The Doctor hit setting ninety-thousand, two hundred ten on the sonic screwdriver and the entire family hit the ground before he’d finished speaking. “Sonic waves targeted to enhance the human metabolism, causing the herbs to work faster,” he explained to Rainart. “Cricket is so much better.”
“But what about Baron? He’s still in the woods, and I’m more worried about guns than croquet mallets.”
The Doctor grinned. “How would you like to ride in a time machine?”
To Chapter 21: Part 2
Back to Chapter 20: Interview with a Vampire
Summary: Illicit affairs, drugs, murder, piracy, and tentacles. How scandalous!