She must have fallen asleep. She woke to find her hands freezing and numb and her chest aching where the ropes bit into her and her mouth and throat dry as chalk. The room’s fire had burned low and the room was cold and dark. She became aware of voices coming up from the front of the house. She wished it was the voices of her parents, who would open the door, unbind her, hug her, kiss her cheeks and take both her and Jason home, not to mention giving the gun-slinging footman an indignant lecture. If only. She wondered for the hundredth time what her mother was doing right now and if she knew they were missing.
A few hours ago she would have told her mother, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.” Now she longed for her to swoop in on her colourful Nikes and get them out of there. She realized it was Jane Becker her heart and mind had turned to for help and comfort, not the faceless woman who had given her birth. Besides, if her biological mother did show up, they wouldn’t be able to communicate since they no longer spoke the same language. It was so confusing being adopted.
The door opened and she heard a deep voice say, “Bring it to my study,” followed by a woman’s giggle. Two shadowy figures entered and picked her up, chair and all. One smelled strongly of sweat and woodsmoke and the other was the sarcastic footman who had tied her up. She blinked in the relative brightness of the gas lamps in the hallway and realized they were carrying toward the rear of the house, to the room with the desk.
They put her down in front of it. A slim man with dark slicked-back hair had his back to her and was removing a red jacket, decorated with swirls of white twist and miles of lace around the hem, collar and cuffs. He turned, rolling up the cuffs of his shirtsleeves, and looked Rosalyn up and down. He said the young man standing to her left, “Vincent! You know I love presents! So beautifully wrapped!”
The woman tittered behind Rosalyn and came around to look at her. She wore a dress that shimmered gold and red and her blond hair was an elaborate mass of braids and curls. The man placed his hand around the back of her slender neck and pulled her to him. “Hasn’t Vincent brought me a lovely present?” he asked with a childlike lisp.
The woman looked at Rosalyn, avoiding eye contact, as though she were merely a curiosity and giggled again. Rosalyn looked at her intently to see any sign of humanity in the woman’s face but she only turned away and ran a painted fingernail down the man’s chest.
“Are you thirsty, little present?” asked the man whom she now assumed must be the Marquis of Scalamandre. Though he was sarcastic, he seemed genuine. Rosalyn nodded, blinking back tears. Surely this man would listen to her and let them go.
“Vincent, ungag her.”
Rosalyn’s mouth was so try and stiff that even after the gag was off she could hardly move her jaw and tongue. Thirsty was not even close to describing how she felt. She had never known such thirst. It was agony. Even if she had wanted to scream for help now, she could only think of water.
“Just to clarify,” said the Marquis, filling a cut crystal glass from a pitcher on the desk. The water shimmered in the glass, wet and cool. Rosalyn couldn’t take her eyes off it. “You claim you’re Jason’s sister?”
“Yes,” she whispered. How many questions would she have to ask before she could drain that glass?
“But you look nothing like him.”
“I’m adopted,” she rasped.
“Adopted? Ah, so you aren’t truly his sister. Just thrown together under the same roof for a few years until you both figure out that blood is thicker than water.”
Rosalyn was stunned. “No,” she protested.
“But anyway,” said the Marquis with a wave of his slender fingers, “as someone who was picked off the refuse heap yourself, you can’t object to this little boy leaving his cheap, working-class family and being adopted by those who will be able to provide him with every advantage.” He looked around at the others in the room. “I really feel I’m acting with remarkable selflessness.”
The two men who had carried Rosalyn in broke into guffaws. “Yes indeed, milord,” said one.
“Can I drink now?” she pleaded.
The Marquis tut-tutted. “May I have a drink. Patience, patience.” He wagged his finger at her. Turning to the woman, he said, “Floriana, darling, bedtime.” He patted her on the derrière and shooed her out of his study.
With another giggle and a toss of her curls, she flounced out. The Marquis went behind Rosalyn and she heard the clink of a bottle against a glass, the glug-glug, the screw of a lid. It was an agonizing sound. He came back and perched on the edge of the desk. He took a long drink of the deep golden liquid, smacked his lips and held it up to Rosalyn. “To adoption!”
Rosalyn kept staring at the glass of water he had placed on the desk. In the light of the candelabra even the lacquered desk shone like water. She felt she should care more about the insulting things being said to her, but she could only think about how parched she was.
“You see, big sister,” said Marquis, holding his glass up to the candle flame and watching the light sparkle off the cut facets, “You came just in time. I was getting very worried, wasn’t I, Vincent, about what would happen if dear little Jason was right, that his sister was coming to take him home. So I had to help him forget he had a sister. And he’s made remarkable progress, even a in a couple of days, hasn’t he?”
The two goons agreed heartily.
“What do you mean?” croaked Rosalyn, horrified.
“With judiciously timed toys, sweets and medicine, the adorable child is beginning to accept the fact that his real parents do not live in your city, To-ro-no, or wherever he imagines, but are searching desperately for him right here and will find him very soon.”
“Yes.” The Marquis looked at her as if she were stupid. “You didn’t think he was just asleep, did you? He’s not going to wake up until we’ve dealt with you and he’s—“ He broke off suddenly. Smoothing his cravat, he asked, “Shall I tell her, Vincent?”
“As you wish, Excellency.”
“Very well, then, I shall. She’s not going to be able to tell anyone anyway. When your brother landed on my ship, I knew fortune was favouring me. Here was a blond boy, seven years old, and, as I soon discovered, fixed. In other words, an exact replica of the little missing prince.”
Rosalyn’s heart sank. So that was his plan. Pass off Jason as the prince and probably get buried in gold coins by the eternally grateful king and queen.
“Tomorrow’s the big day, his homecoming.” The Marquis wiped away pretend tears. “The Renewal of the Search is going to be the Conclusion of the Search. I know you wouldn’t want little Jason to be deprived of growing up in the Royal Family out of some foolish notion of sentimentality. He gets every advantage life can offer, their Majesties get a son back, and I, well, I don’t fare so badly myself.”
“You have no right! He’s not yours.”
“And he’s yours?” shot back the Marquis. “Not by birth, not by parentage, not by resemblance. What’s a sister, anyway? A temporary house-mate, bound by a rather tenuous tie, if you ask me. So what if you have the same parents if you have nothing else in common?”
Rosalyn didn’t know what to say. It hurt, but she had been thinking almost the same thing lately. She wondered how her relationship with her parents would change as she got older. She just felt so different from them. How would they react when she told them she wanted to go back to China to look for her birth mother? Jason belonged to them, that much was obvious from the little ways he moved and talked. She had never picked up any of those mannerisms, even after twelve years. It seemed like Jason was a planet, orbiting around his parents, while she was only an asteroid, traveling through their galaxy, enjoying the warmth of their star temporarily. It was a depressing thought. But it didn’t make her want to stay in this mixed-up world, or leave Jason behind in it. Home was still home.
“He’s Phil and Jane Becker’s son. And I’m taking him back to them,” she whispered with as much determination as her sore throat could muster.
He looked at her without speaking, then snorted a laugh. “And just how do you propose to do that?”
She did not reply. She looked at the water, willing the handsome, cruel man to give her even a sip.
“You see? There’s no way back. Just forward into a new era of prosperity.” He shook his head at her in mock sadness. “But you don’t want to have anything to do with it.” He strolled over to the mantelpiece and looked at the ornate barometer. “It’s getting late. We all need our beauty sleep for tomorrow. Some rapetissing overnight—I can already feel it.”
“Drink up.” He held the glass to Rosalyn’s cracked lips. Nothing had ever tasted so good. It was almost sweet, though there was a bitter aftertaste. Perhaps it was the crystal. Her father was always complaining the wine tasted funny in his mother’s crystal glasses.
As soon as she had finished the last drop, the Marquis ordered, “Vincent, your handkerchief.” In a split second, it was pulled tight between her teeth.
She cried out in pain. No one reacted.
“Let’s cellar her. Perhaps she’ll improve with age.” The Marquis left the room.
Dizziness overcame her and the edges of the room began to get dark. Had they picked her up already? The candelabra on the desk was warping like the clock in that Dali painting and the men’s voices behind her were becoming deep and warbly. Why were all the lights in the hall going out at once?