Storytime: The Hagfish.

May 24th, 2017

The silverware sparkled.
The glass gleamed.
The dishes… well, they didn’t bear describing. Words failed.
And in the center of the table in a great gold platter, dripping in her own sweat and bile, lay the Hagfish. The guest of honor once again.

“Five years?” a courtier inquired of a fop.
“Six, surely,” the fop guessed.
“It’s seven, or I’m senile,” assured a countess.
“Nine,” said a voice.
It was not a voice that should be listened to. Every instinct screamed at every smarmy syllable. If it had been a vase of flowers, it would consist entirely of little red trust-me-nots, shining with the meaty intoxications of freshly-picked fibs.
But it belonged to their host, the Duchess of Dalby, and so instead of throwing their drinks away and kicking off their shoes and running (not screaming! Waste of breath to run with!) for the windows they bowed and scraped and muttered many congratulations, humble thanks, flattery on her apt memory, etc, etc, etc.
The Duchess smiled, and they looked up it without flinching, and they knew their task was complete, and thankfully so. The Duchess’s memory for happy moments was exceeded only and greatly by her perfect and crystallized recall of any and all grudges.
For that, one had only to examine the banquet table. And the Hagfish.

“A grand ball.”
“Your finest yet.”
“Really, is this truly the hundredth? How time flies!”
And the Duchess of Dalby smiled and nodded and said “thank you,” and “my thanks,” and “indeed!” but what she thought after the last comment was how very funny a thing counting was. It all depended on where you started the list.
For instance, if one counted all the parties, balls and processions she had hosted as a single unit, this was her hundred-and-forty-ninth.
Then again, if one also included all the parties, balls and processions she had hosted under an assumed name, or anonymously, that total would grow again to one-hundred-and-sixty-three.
And if one truly wished to be generous, and included all the parties, balls and processions she had so thoroughly managed on others’ behalf as to have hosted them herself, the total would rest at a respectable three hundred and ninety seven, at which point it would be easier to count those she had not been involved in at all.
But this particular ball was special for a specific and most particular reason, as it was the hundredth since a most particular day indeed.

As the evening wore on, the requests came, pit-a-pat.
“Duchess, a word.”
“Duchess, if I might.”
“Duchess, may I be so bold?”
And obliquely and haltingly and hesitantly and discretely came the details, coughed up from the black depths of the human psyche and the bitter dredges of bad old wounds left to rot and fester in the mind.
“She spurned me.”
“He insulted me.””
“They wronged me.”
And the Duchess of Dalby nodded and smiled and made polite noises and kept most careful track of all that was said and requested and promised – so many meanings behind each word exchanged! – and recorded them in her most faithful logbook, which was inside her skull and nowhere else, and finer than that made by any pen.
She would be busy indeed when the ball was done. Truth be told, the planning of the things bored her to tears, but oh she did love the work they brought in.

The meal was served – no, launched. The Hagfish squirmed in limbless appreciation at it, chuckling from the depths of her serving platter.
“A good spread tonight,” she told the Duchess of Dalby as she served herself of the grand stew – a seething, frothing thing whose body was meat and whose spirit was sublime and whose smell was euphoric. The Hagfish’s voice was coarse and strangely high. Years before it had been very different, the Duchess thought fondly. Before she had made a project of her throat. She patted the old mangled thing on her hip – touching the raw exposed bone and needling a bare nerve – and strode away to the appetizers.
“Use the knife!” the Hagfish called after her. “They always like a spotless death, but it works better if you use the knife! They never forget that.”
Eleven years since the first piece came out of her hide and the old bat still persisted in telling her what to do, thought the Duchess, as she savagely skewered a selection of cheese. You’d have thought she’d have learned her lesson after the Duchess removed the fiftieth fragment of her liver.
But no. This wasn’t the Hagfish’s night. She was just the table setting. This was her night. Her moment. Her commemoration. She mustn’t forget that. She mustn’t let anyone else forget that.
The Duchess clicked her fork against the side of her glass, once. And the room fell silent.
Yes, this was what she needed.

“A toast,” she said, “to yourselves. My clients, my friends, my proud acquantances.”
The cheers flew freely.
“A toast!” she cried, “to this night. A wonder the likes of which I promise you’ve not seen.”
Oh, the windows shook.
“And a toast,” she screamed, “to the old-gone queen of the assassins, the handmaiden of death, the mother of murder, the Hagfish, Nella Triy, who was once the host for so many lovely parties such as these, and whom I have mutilated so thoroughly in the past eleven years nine months and fourteen days that even I, in all my long, careful memories, cannot recall how many pieces of her flesh have been cut off and thrown away!”
And the cheers were loudest of all, coming though they did from mouths stretched tooth-baringly wide with terror.
But the sound that killed the applause was very small and slight, and it was the chuckling from the grand banquet table. From the golden platter. From somewhere inside the torn, eviscerated frame of the Hagfish.
“Oh my me!” she rasped. “Oh really! I had the guess that on?”
The Duchess of Dalby did not sigh.
She did not frown.
Not so much as a crease puckered her brow.
So it couldn’t have been more glaringly obvious how furious she was, as she strode up to that table, one hand reaching into her eighth hidden pocket for something sharp and smoky-dull-shaded.
“You know better,” she murmured, as she stood above the Hagfish, considering her target, “than this.”
“And you as well!” said the Hagfish cheerfully. “Why, I knew you’d lose count some day. I just thought you’d be less proud of it. Tell me, did you enjoy the stew?”
The Duchess of Dalby opened her mouth to retort, but fell silent. Something was sinking inside her, dragging her back twenty years to when she had made a boast to her teacher, Nella Triy, and had realized immediately that it had been very stupid.
“Just a little piece,” said the Hagfish. She winked. “Nobody’d miss a little piece of me, would they? And dearie, dearie me, you DO remember how I always said never to use a poison you haven’t tried yourself.”
The sinking feeling was accelerating, and the Duchess of Dalby’s knees shook.
“I’ve got more death in my littlest scrap of flesh than you have in your whole body, poor mite,” said the Hagfish. “Although, well, I suppose that now you do too.”
The Duchess of Dalby’s mouth still had not closed. Her muscles were quivering against the bone; her blood was boiling up around her teeth. And when she fell, it was as if a signal had been raised.
There were exactly seven hundred and forty-eight guests. But there was no one there to count their bodies, no one but the Hagfish, laughing on the banquet table.
“A bit of a long job,” she said to herself. “But I’ve never fussed much about the little details. They’ll come out or they won’t, I always say. Right, m’girl? Oh! Never mind.”

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