Valentine treated Thomas to a tour which consumed the daylight hours. By four in the afternoon, rain began to drizzle against the Inn, flooding the interior with a lethargic pattering sound which shrunk all of Thomas' world into that silent space.
The hostess took him to a nearby abandoned butchery, to farmland that was the beginning of the Erato family business. She narrated every step, her mind a grimoire which summoned up the Erato Family's past. They explored the kitchens, the scullery, the washing rooms and a bathhouse at the lowest level; each chamber was unbelievably well maintained. Of the few staff members they did happen across, they were always furtive, some of them even scuttling away from the sound of their footsteps.
Now, Thomas stands alone in the library several halls down from the main entrance. His hand is tired from pinching his pen between his fingers, recording all of the history which plagues every room of the hotel. She has told him to wait for her while she excuses herself for an undisclosed reason.
Between the two armchairs before a great, crackling fireplace, Thomas sees a chess board carved in the likeness of a closed book, The Count of Monte Cristo reads on its 'spine'. The game itself is not finished. The writer analyzes the positions. Both sides have only taken a pawn despite the complex state of the match. After a few minutes, he decides the black pieces are in a favorable position and adopts them as his own. He slides one of his bishops across the board and captures a pawn.
“Anything I can get for you sir?"
Thomas jumps backwards, stumbling over the board and over the table itself. His cane goes flying while its wielder nearly douses his head in the fireplace's flame. One of the pieces, a queen, has jabbed itself into his side.
“Oh my! Are you all right? You've not fallen into the hearth have you?"
At first, Thomas is annoyed by the woman who's just startled him half to death, only to let him struggle to get to his feet without looking to assist him. Then he sees her.
Dressed in a uniform two centuries too old, the maid is wringing her hands together and looking above where Thomas is laying. Her eyes have a milky film with opaque irises, yet they are searching the room as if they might find him. The monochrome colors of her dress are stark and alive despite the style’s age.
“Please, don't worry about me," Thomas says, “you just startled me is all. No, no, stay there. I can help myself. I am something of a klutz, so I'm afraid we're both struggling with the situation," he chuckles.
“Oh," the maid grins, "that makes two of us then, and I’m glad you are all right. I heard something clatter." She drops to her knees and starts sifting her hands over the floor, a few locks of grey hair falling from her ponytail. “A thin piece of wood, maybe. Is it your cane?"
Thomas wishes she could see the grin on his face. She's very clever. Already, the maid has secured the cane and handed it back to him. Thomas gets up to his feet and she sticks out her hand.
“Isabelle. My apologies for startling you, sir."
“Oh ... oh!" Thomas cleans off his glasses and takes her hand. The eeriness he felt when imagining a maid coming into his room in the middle of the night is somewhat dispelled by the abundant innocence in Isabelle’s demeanor. “No, not at all. Valentine wasn't lying. You really are quiet," he laughs. “So you, ahem!, look after this place? Are you who I have to thank for every shining surface?"
Her small grin widens. It is difficult to put an age to her face; it is all at once youthful, deeply sorrowful, and made to look sickly from a lack of sunlight. The grey tint to her hair seems purely genetic. "I do my best, sir," she says. "May I?" But she has already started touching his face, hands prodding, pinching, testing every detail. She even tugs on one of his eyebrows and traces his eyelashes. "You must be such a gentleman, Mr. Pawn."
“Looks can be deceiving. Has Valentine told you my name?"
“Valentine? You mean Mrs. Gormek?" Her hands make their way to his ears. "I haven't spoken to her for two days I believe."
“Oh? So how did you know my name?"
“You just told me, didn't you, sir?"
“No, no I don't think I did. Did I?" Thomas feels his head for any blood. Maybe that fall was a bit harder than he thought.
“Should we play a game?" she asks. Isabelle pulls her hands away from his face, but they seem reluctant to obey. "I hope you don't mind, by the way. I can't help but want to see our guests as best as I can."
“No, no, not at all. I hope I feel as good as I look. What kind of game did you have in mind?" Thomas bends over to recover the pieces on the ground, feeling overcome by dizziness after he finishes. He is grateful that Isabelle can't see him, because his brow feels stitched together as the diziness escalates to a headache.
“Look at your nearest time piece, and I'll tell you what time it is ... without looking, of course," she giggles.
“Oh, okay. Excuse me, I don't feel so well. I need to sit down." Thomas collapses into one of the armchairs with the polite but truly useless gesture of Isabelle holding one of his arms to ease him in.
“Better?" she asks.
Thomas spares a glance at his phone but squeezes his eyes shut immediately after. It feels like a migraine condensed into a few seconds. “Not quite."
“You don't need to worry. I'll get you something for it. I know just the thing. Did you check the time?"
“It's 7:13 PM, isn't it?"
“That's incredible," he admits. “Isabelle I know this isn't outstanding for first impressions, and you must know how impressed I am with your trick, but I feel as if I'm going to vomit." Thomas opens his eyes. The light coming off the flames in the fireplace is now blinding.
Isabelle bends towards the table, feeling around the chess board. She stops when her hands touch Thomas' journal. “What are you doing?" he asks.
“Shh, shh. I have just the thing. Sit right there, Mr. Pawn." Isabelle opens up the journal and begins tearing out pages at random. Her expression is knotted in concentration. “It's the memories that hurt," she says, “that's why your head is splitting. We just need to get rid of it. Quickly. The memories are what hurt, yes.”
The pain is so much so that he can't protest, let alone get up from his chair. He knows he should care about Isabelle and what she's destroying, but that is a distant concern to the metal plates squeezing his skull together.
“Isabelle. Please, Isabelle. Don’t …” he groans.
“Isabelle, stop prodding him! Get away, please. Yes, thank you. I'll handle this, sweetness. Thomas, can you hear me? Thomas, are you all right?"
He stirs to see Valentine crouched over him as he is laying on the floor. The flames of the fireplace are hot against his head. He reaches out for his cane but somebody is holding it. It’s the maid, standing several steps away with the same, grey hair, but her eyes are green and she looks timid enough to disappear into a shell.
“Thomas?" Valentine asks. The writer sits up, transfixed by the quiet woman. “Isabelle, I asked you to kindly leave."
The maid signs in reply.
“Yes, well, hand it over and then scurry along."
Isabelle hands Thomas his cane. Wordless and searching the air for answers, he takes it from her. "T-thank you," he manages. “You can't speak?"
Isabelle shakes her head, then gestures again.
“Isabelle was born mute, but she has found another language in this place that she is fluent in. Perfection. Anyways, she says she is sorry for startling you. She says that's how you hit your head and went unconscious. She came to get me immediately."
“That can’t be it. I remember she—you—said something to me. You did. Didn’t you? That’s what scared me in the first place. You said, ‘Can I do something for you, sir?’ or something like that."
But before he’s gotten halfway through his sentence, Isabelle has already done a rushed curtsy and left the room.
“I’m sorry Thomas but that’s impossible. Isabelle can't speak. You must had muddled what happened when you went unconscious."
“Well how else would she have started me? Ugh. I guess I really don’t know." Thomas groans and shakes his head. He decides that to inform Valentine of what happened in his dream would only stack up on the side of lessening his chances with her. “Must you dress her like that? I can imagine it feels humiliating."
“Believe it or not, she insists on wearing that uniform. I've tried to convince her otherwise, but it's all she'll wear. Once she found the set in an old storage cupboard, it was all she would put on for her shifts."
“Odd. And not just in the typical sense, I mean … oh, I won’t be mean. How long was I out?"
Valentine reaches into Thomas' coat pocket and checks his phone. “It's 7:16 PM. How are you feeling? Do you need to go to a hospital?"
“No, no," Thomas insists, though he isn't sure he'd be so adamant about it were it not for the fact of Valentine clutching his wrist and the lavender scent of her perfume engulfing him. “You said you have a grand finale for me. Concussions. Psh."
“That I do. Come on, solider." Valentine helps him to his feet. "Boy, you and that girl really got off on the wrong foot, didn't you? First she breaks into your room now she breaks your head."
“No kidding. Wait, I need to …”
“Need to do what?”
But the chess pieces he’s knocked over are completely upright and returned to the game’s previous position. The pawn he’d taken is set to the side just as he’d left it. The bishop is where he’d placed her. The only thing that had changed is that somebody had replied to his move. They’d captured his knight.
“Nothing.” Thomas takes up his journal. “Let’s just get out of here.”
"Are you afraid of the dark, Thomas?" Valentine is standing next to a statue of a faun posed towards him. Both her and the creature wait for the answer. They are standing in the grounds of the Erato Cemetery, a small plot of land marked by gravestones and obelisks just outside the abandoned chapel. Valentine has positioned them beside a sepulcher, a candle glowing from the inside.
Her face is cradled by the light of dusk. The moon is low in the sky and glowing crimson like the day Thomas arrived.
“I think you know more about the dark than I do," he says. “And you’re not afraid. That’s enough for me.”
“I never said I wasn’t. Do you think that because I live alone with ghosts, or because you suspect I am one?"
“You don’t have to be a ghost to live like one."
“Maybe you’re right, but everyone should fear the dark. Memories are a terrifying thing, and that is where they prefer to dwell. That is where they live longest.”
“Memories,” Thomas murmured with a pause. That was what Isabelle was trying to tear out of his journal. “Do you fear making them? Even the good kind?”
They stare at each other for some time before Valentine approaches the sepulcher with an innocent grin. The thick, stone doors take some effort to open. After she has one of them ajar, she pulls Thomas inside.
It is a single room as one might expect, but instead of a coffin there is a bed, a bookshelf, a desk, and even a portable gas burner with a kettle. A neat arrangement of teas is beside it, as well as several mugs. The air inside is as crisp as it is outside, slightly damp from the hillside’s rolling fog, perfumed with dying leaves and damp soil.
“Do you ... ?"
“Live here? Yes. Mostly. I don't enjoy sleeping in the Inn."
“So you really are unsettled by it at night?"
“In that place, the silence is always roaring." Valentine pulls in the door with strain. “Once you hear it, you can’t stop. I’m sure you’ve noticed. But after a few months, it’s enough to drive you mad. There is a silence of a different kind here. It is … a quiet silence. God, that must sound strange. But here, the unwanted guests seem disinclined to bother me. Perhaps it's a kind of camouflage, hiding in one of their sleeping mattresses. This is what I was doing while you were waiting. Tidying up my home."
There are candles along the surfaces, a spare set of clothes fetched from Thomas' own wardrobe. The heat from the candles has been pleasantly trapped inside; the light softens everything, making some of Valentine’s indecipherable expressions appear almost loving.
Slowly, she closes the few steps between them. “Is this too fast?” she asks. “You haven’t run away yet, I’ve noticed.”
Thomas finds his hands cradled in hers. He lets his grip on the cane loose and it clatters to the floor. His head is buzzing with a nagging sense of alarm. At first he pauses to keep the slow cadence of the conversation, but then he suspects that there is a true reluctance. Something is off. It feels like the presence of Isabelle. That sense of being deeply unsettled for no clear reason.
“You haven’t killed me, either,” he says.
Valentine’s eyes flutter shut. An indulgent smile spreads on her face as she savors the strain between them
One thing Thomas is certain of: the air outside the Inn is lighter. Maybe it is the intrigue, history, or the ghosts he secretly hopes to never see, but there is something different about the inside. Something heavy. Oppressive. But out here, Valentine is at once a link to its allure and detached from its disquiet. She is the heart of the Inn, a life Thomas would never live himself, but would always romanticize and write about.
The temptation simply became too much.