Take a look at Any Other Name, Book 2 of The Split Worlds by Emma Newman, out tomorrow from Angry Robot Books:
Cat has been forced into an arranged marriage with William – a situation that comes with far more strings than even she could have anticipated, especially when she learns of his family’s intentions for them both.
Meanwhile, Max and the gargoyle investigate The Agency – a mysterious organisation that appears to play by its own rules – and none of them favourable to Society.
Over in Mundanus, Sam has discovered something very peculiar about his wife’s employer – something that could herald a change for everyone in both sides of the Split Worlds.
Sam knew it was a terrible idea, but once he realised he had to go back to Exilium his course was set. It was like the time he and Dave decided to see who could drink the most tequila without throwing up or passing out. As they matched each other shot for shot he knew it was stupid – perhaps even dangerous – but once they’d had the idea it was impossible to ignore. It was like a cannon already fired; something was bound to be broken, it was just a matter of what.
As he walked out of King’s Cross station and looked down the Euston Road, Sam doubted his plan. It wasn’t much of one anyway: go to the last place the blonde girl had been seen and look for something… weird. The television appeal from her family was still raw in his thoughts. If he hadn’t been watching the news over breakfast he’d be at work now, perhaps even successfully putting the events of the last few weeks behind him and doing what the Sorcerer had ordered: not telling a living soul about his entanglement with the Fae, and getting back to his mundane life.
But he had seen it and recognised the blonde as one of the enslaved dancers in Exilium. Cathy had said there was nothing he could do but everything had changed since then. The Rose had been broken, that’s what they said. Those people might be free, but trapped on the wrong side of the Nether.
He’d tried to call Cathy but the phone went straight to voicemail. She was probably in the Nether and he had no idea how to get there without the Sorcerer’s help. He couldn’t go to the police. What would he say? “Good morning, officer. Those missing blondes – the ones you didn’t seem to notice were being kidnapped – are being held in a beautiful magical prison created for the Fae.” Sam knew they’d either laugh at him or have him sectioned. Neither would help those people.
Sam wasn’t entirely sure he was still sane. At least Leanne had left without being tangled up in it all. She’d already moved to London and he’d promised to join her as soon as he could arrange some time off work. He would never be able to tell her anything about what had happened to him and he wasn’t sure their marriage could survive the strain.
Ultimately he would have to hand in his notice – if he wasn’t sacked first – and move to London. He’d never really wanted to live in the Big Smoke, but since the trip to Exilium he’d lost all motivation for his job. Perhaps a change would be good for the marriage too.
Perhaps he needed therapy.
He walked past the British Library with the slow pace of a lost tourist. He looked up at the higher floors of the huge buildings and down into the drains and gutter. What did he expect to find? A lock of blonde hair? A rose petal? A convenient note detailing instructions for the kidnappers?
“You twat,” he whispered to himself. “What the arse are you going to do anyway?”
He headed back towards the station, thinking it might be best to abandon his childish attempt at heroics and go and visit Leanne at the apartment. He hadn’t even seen it and he was supposed to be moving in soon.
Waiting at a set of traffic lights, he looked up at the huge hotel on the other side and then down the road he was about to cross. Surely they wouldn’t take a girl anywhere near such a busy road? Perhaps they’d led her into a side street like the one he was looking down, away from the crowds and CCTV.
He crossed and turned left, keeping the hotel and station on his right. He’d never appreciated how far back King’s Cross stretched. He passed dozens of waiting taxis and decided to do a circuit of the area immediately around the station. Further down Midland Road he was about to turn back when he saw greenery incongruous with the urban concrete around him. Remembering the intense green of Exilium’s meadows he pressed on, finding a church set back from the road behind ornate iron gates.
The churchyard had been turned into a small park and Sam found its natural peace irresistible. He went through the gates and immediately felt better, as if the place had dropped a blanket around his shoulders to protect him against the quiet violence of the city. He strolled to an elaborate tomb, past an ornate blue drinking fountain and up to the church. He didn’t go inside when he heard music coming from within, not wanting to interrupt anything, so he walked around the back and came across an oak tree with dozens of gravestones stacked at its base.
He stared at the way the roots had grown between the slabs until the stones and the tree looked like they’d always been one. There was probably a metaphor for life and death in there somewhere.
He jumped and looked for the source of the high-pitched voice. It sounded like a–
He crouched and peered into the dark crevice between two gravestones. A tiny face moved out of the shadow for a moment and then an equally tiny hand waved at him. It was the faerie from Exilium, the one who’d led him and Cathy to Lord Poppy.
“Bloody hell! What are you doing here?” he whispered. “I thought you guys were trapped in Exilium.”
“We can come through in the oldest places, if we’re very careful. How clever of you to come here.”
“I had no idea… wait – what do you mean?”
“You want to come back, don’t you? To Exilium?” When he nodded, it clapped its hands. “I’ll take you. Close your eyes.”
He hesitated. The first time he’d met one of them in Mundanus they’d Charmed the fuck out of his brain and practically ruined his life. The second time he met one, Cathy had walloped it with a plate. He was fairly certain this one was actually helpful in Exilium, but not certain enough.
“I promise I’m taking you into Exilium to help you,” it said. “I won’t take you anywhere horrid or turn you inside out.”
Sam remembered the people he had to find. How else was he going to get there? He closed his eyes. There was a brief tickle on his left eyelid, then on the right, and his ears popped.
He was struck by a distinct change in air quality; the grim fumes he’d already become accustomed to in London had been replaced by the sweet scent of flowers.
Sam opened his eyes. The blue of the sky made him ache for childhood summers, playing outside in seemingly endless sunshine, and the grass was so verdant it made him doubt he’d ever seen real grass before.
Then he remembered what Cathy told him: people could get lost there forever if they didn’t stay focused. He looked at the faerie. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen any blonde people here lately? They’re from Mundanus.”
The faerie flashed an excited smile. “Oh, yes! Would you like me to take you to them?”
“Yes! Brilliant!” Sam said, following as it set off. Maybe this heroic rescue thing wasn’t going to be so hard after all.
Catherine sat in her nightdress. Her feet were cold; the slippers were still tucked neatly in their usual place just to the left of her bare toes. Leaden, she leaned back towards the welcoming divot her head had made overnight.
“Oh, no, you don’t!” the maid dashed over to pull Cathy onto her feet. “Time to get up now, Miss Papaver! There’s so much to do. The mistress said I need to wash you quick.”
The nightdress was pulled off her and the sponge rubbed up and down her arms. Cathy watched the activity with complete detachment. “So much to do,” the maid had said. That resonated.
“You must be so excited,” the maid gabbled. Cathy wondered if she’d been talking all along and she just hadn’t realised it.
She was about to ask why when the maid had already moved onto another subject. All she wanted to do was lie down and go back to sleep. Once she’d been washed and dried, an unfamiliar silk dressing gown was tied about her waist.
Cathy could feel a flutter of something unpleasant in her stomach. Had something bad happened? Was that why there was so much noise?
She could hear servants clattering up and down the stairs. The house was filled with the sound of orders being given and occasional shrieks from her sister down the hallway. The latter was nothing new.
“Come on, now,” the maid said. She’d opened the door and was looking at her expectantly. Cathy assumed she wanted her to leave, but walking felt like a distant memory of something she once did to pass the time. “You’re to be dressed in your mother’s dressing room today.”
“Why?” Cathy fought to form her lips around the word.
“It’s tradition, isn’t it?” The maid had resorted to pulling her along.
Again, that sense of something terrible, a long way away from where she was now. She felt a dull serenity as she watched maids carrying all manner of things up and down the stairs. One was running out of her sister’s room in tears, a hairbrush flying out after her.
Then she was in her mother’s dressing room. Aside from a huge mirror, the walls were filled with cupboards and wardrobes. A single red chaise-longue was positioned in the centre of the room.
Cathy was left looking at the pink glow lingering on her skin from the maid’s earnest scrubbing. It was like looking at a painting of herself; she felt no connection to her reflection.
A woman bustled in with two assistants and, after a liberal application of talcum powder, Cathy found herself in the midst of efficient dressing. When she was in silk hose and bloomers, chemise and corset, her mother entered, wearing a blood-red dress with large black buttons. Her sister was close behind, hair half pinned up, a nervous maid trailing after her with a basket of hair clips and other accessories.
“You look well rested,” Mother said.
Elizabeth sat on the chaise-longue. She was wearing a dressing gown over her underwear, judging from her tiny waist. “Now for goodness’ sake get it right!” she said to the maid after taking the basket from her. She picked out a hairpin and passed it to the girl, whose hands were trembling. “What are you staring at?” Cathy realised she’d lost track of herself again.
“Now, now, dear,” Mother said, inspecting her own hair in the mirror. “Today is the one day you have to be particularly nice to Catherine.”
“Already? I thought that was once we leave the house.”
“Elizabeth.” Mother gave her a look that ended Elizabeth’s pout.
“Once my hair is pinned I want you to tighten my lacing, Mama, you’re so much better at it. I want to make Imogen look like an elephant next to me. And I need a new lady’s maid, mine is hopeless.”
Imogen. Imogen Reticulata-Iris. William’s sister. Just the thought of him made that distant flutter spike into a brief burst of something bright and sharp.
“I think I… I was going to do something.” Cathy realised she’d spoken aloud when her mother came over.
“You don’t need to do anything except stand there and be dressed.” She looked into Cathy’s eyes as if checking that a long-lost cat was still missing. “Elizabeth, did you eat anything at breakfast?”
“I had a small cup of tea and not a morsel of food. I’d rather faint than be too full for a tight lacing, Mama. Catherine slept too late to join us. I expected you to be up before the rest of us today.”
“Why?” Cathy asked, but Elizabeth was too busy slapping at the maid’s hand for jabbing a pin into her scalp.
“Are you ready for your dress, Miss Papaver?” The woman was familiar, but it took her a few moments to place her as the dressmaker. “Are you feeling all right?”
“She’s fine,” Mother said. “Start dressing her now.”
Cathy was guided, pulled and pushed into a heavy embroidered gown. It was white. She stared at it in the mirror as the tiny buttons were done up the back. Its crystal beads glinted in the sprite light. Through her muddied thoughts, two facts bubbled slowly to the surface: it was a wedding dress, and this was very, very wrong.
“Is she going to faint?” the dressmaker said as Cathy swayed.
“No.” Mother took hold of Cathy’s arm and clasped her hand tight.
“I had to do something,” Cathy said, trying to shake off the wooliness. “I had to–”
“Hush now, dear.” Mother patted her hand. “You’re just a little lightheaded, that’s all, it’s perfectly natural.”
Elizabeth came over and looked into her eyes. “Oh, Mother, look at her. She can’t get married like that. Did you give her poppy milk?”
“Just so she would have a good night’s sleep.” Mother’s smile was more smug than compassionate. “We’ll make sure she’s bright and wide awake when she needs to be. Now let me see to your lacing whilst they pin Catherine’s hair. The carriage will be here soon.”
As Cathy was steered to the seat, she remembered she’d intended to tear the bed sheet into strips and escape from the window of her bedroom. She wasn’t supposed to be getting married, she finally realised, but the thought was as slippery as a melting icicle. Her eyelids drooped and she found it hard to keep her head up. Nap first, escape later, she thought. There would be time. There was always time for sleep.
Max watched Axon stitch the incision closed as Petra peeled off the latex gloves covered in the dead Arbiter’s blood. In the silence of the cloister the only sounds had been those of the autopsy. Both Petra and Axon were clearly shaken by what they’d seen but Max’s emotions were safely locked away in the gargoyle back at the Sorcerer’s house.
The Sorcerer came to the doorway holding a handkerchief over his nose and mouth. “All done?”
“Yes, Mr Ekstrand, all done,” Petra replied, taking off the apron and washing her hands in a nearby basin of water. “Once Axon has finished, I suggest we repair to the house.”
“Good idea,” Ekstrand replied. “What are your initial impressions?”
Max could see Petra’s hands trembling with fatigue. She’d been working solidly for two long days. Axon had noticed it too. “Perhaps that would be better discussed over a cup of tea sir,” he suggested, tying off the thick black thread.
“I’ll open a Way,” Ekstrand said. “Thank you for your hard work. An admirable activity for a Thursday, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Indeed, sir.” Axon pulled off his gloves. “I’ll see to everything back here once refreshments have been served.” That earned a grateful smile from Petra.
They left the cool sterility of the healing room at the cloister and walked straight through into Ekstrand’s hallway. Petra excused herself, Axon promised tea and Ekstrand paced impatiently as Max hobbled to the sofa in the living room.
The gargoyle was upstairs and Max knew it was hiding from the gruesome task of discovering what had killed everyone in the Bath Chapter. Max assumed it was feeling unsettled, as his own emotional reaction to the autopsy was bound into the stone through the soul chain round the gargoyle’s neck.
Ekstrand poked at the fire. “How’s the leg?”
“Healing well, thank you, sir,” Max said.
“Splendid, splendid. I spoke with the Master of Ceremonies this morning, whilst you were at the cloister. He’s much better than when you first found him. He couldn’t speak for long. His niece is getting married today.”
“The puppet who helped us?”
“Was that her? I have no idea. Perhaps, although he has more than one niece. He’s very happy to have his house back, even though he won’t be able to use it in the same way again, of course.”
“And what exactly did he use it for?”
“Secret meetings with his lovers. It seems the sister gets jealous. Strange bunch, the Fae-touched.”
“Yes, sir.” Max tried to flex his foot, as having the broken leg resting on a footstool was giving him pins and needles. A dull ache where the titanium pins and plates had been secured felt like it had set in for the day.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, sir,” Petra said as she entered wearing different clothes. “Max, the gargoyle can read!”
“You didn’t give it any of my books did you?” Ekstrand was half out of the chair before she had a chance to reply.
“Of course not. I gave it one of mine.”
“Wuthering Heights,” Max said as a sudden image of the title page popped into his mind.
She blinked at him. “You know it’s creepy when you do that?”
“It houses his soul, of course he knows,” Ekstrand said. “Petra, once we’ve discussed your findings I want to practise what one should say on hearing that a niece has recently married.”
“All right.” She had her notebook and pen and sat on the nearest armchair as Axon arrived with the tea. As Ekstrand was distracted by the impending refreshments, she leaned towards Max. “The gargoyle liked the sound of it. It almost went for The Count of Monte Cristo.”
“It is Lapsang Souchong, isn’t it, Axon?” At the butler’s nod Ekstrand said, “I’ll pour.”
He handed a cup of tea to Max. “Lavandula told me that if we hadn’t intervened, the Roses would have broken him and returned him corrupted. Before we could say, ‘More Battenberg, please’ they’d have used him to wheedle their way onto the Aquae Sulis Council and shut me out. That reminds me, where’s the cake?”
“Here, sir,” Axon said, bringing in a large plate stand. “Lemon drizzle cake sir, as requested.”
“Did I really ask for that? Pop it down and give everyone a slice, there’s a good fellow. Now, let’s discuss the details from the autopsies.”
Petra flipped back a few pages. “The results are… unusual,” she said after a few moments, and then took a slice of cake from Axon gratefully. “They all died from the same cause: their hearts were turned to stone.”
Ekstrand’s cake didn’t reach his mouth. “I beg your pardon?”
“The hearts were literally turned to stone. We carried out ten autopsies including the two Arbiters, the Chapter Master and three of the people who had thorns growing out of them, plus four selected at random. Previous to the… incident all were in good health. They were taken from different parts of the cloister, so I think it’s a reasonable assumption that everyone died from the same… ailment.”
Ekstrand rested the fork and its morsel of cake back on his plate. “Maximilian thinks the mutual murders were staged. Would you agree with that?”
She nodded. “Yes. No one was strangled, and the angles of the knife wounds and the force applied don’t match up with the people who were supposed to look like the assailants. I’ll compile the details of those observations in my report. I believe they collapsed when their hearts were changed. They would have had a very short period of consciousness, whilst the blood in their brains was oxygenated, but then they would have died in a manner similar to a person having a heart attack. I can’t imagine how it must have felt.” Her voice wavered and she cleared her throat. “That’s speculation, of course.”
“This is most disturbing.” Ekstrand picked up the fork again. “Do you think they all died at the same time?”
“As far as I can tell, yes. It’s not possible to work out exactly when. It would explain why no one raised the alarm.”
“What in the Worlds could change their hearts to stone?” Ekstrand wondered aloud.
“It doesn’t sound like Fae magic,” Max said.
“This is unlike anything the Fae would be able to do, even if they wanted to,” Ekstrand replied. “I thought the Rose magic picked up by the Sniffer was a causal factor. Now I’m not sure. Perhaps it just grew the thorns.”
“It seems a seed was forced down their throats after death and then grown, rather than a stem being forced in to choke the individual,” Petra said.
“Hardly justifies the amount of Rose magic detected,” Ekstrand muttered.
“Could a Sorcerer do it?” Max asked the question, seeing it as another tick in the column under “Sorcerer of Essex corrupt”.
“No,” Ekstrand replied without hesitation. “It’s simply impossible.”
“Couldn’t a formula be written on the building and affect everything within it?”
“Maximillian,” Ekstrand said, “your skills, whilst admirable, do not extend to sorcery. Formulae require exact definition of variables and parameters. Each person’s heart would have subtle differences making it impossible to work one formula that could affect every single person’s heart at exactly the same time.”
“Even if it were defined by the common variables?” Petra asked. “Couldn’t all of the hearts be expressed as the organ that pumps blood with four chambers, four valves–”
Ekstrand shook his head. “Far too vague. This is simply an impossible thing to achieve with either Fae or sorcerous magic. It is truly inexplicable.”
“We’ll carry on investigating,” Petra said. “There must be a critical piece of information we’re missing.”
Ekstrand nodded. “We need to be thorough, that much is true. Every single body needs to be autopsied and tested for any other trace magic. I’d also like to have a go at one myself. It is Thursday after all.”
Petra fidgeted. “I’m not sure this is the best time, Mr Ekstrand. There’s so much to do. I can refer you to an excellent book on pathology.”
“Jolly good.” Ekstrand smiled and finally took a bite of the cake. “Excellent, Axon, excellent. Not too sweet, just enough tang to the lemon.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“The only clear lead we have is the Rose magic,” Ekstrand said. “No one could replicate that residue.”
“Perhaps a Sorcerer could,” Max said. “It all points to the Sorcerer Guardian of Essex. The corruption is in his territory, and when–”
“Remind me about what happened in London,” Ekstrand said, sliding a second slice of cake onto his plate.
“I was shot whilst collecting evidence sir. They were turning a blind eye to kidnapping an innocent in broad daylight.”
“Ah, that’s how your leg got broken and your soul ended up in the gargoyle, yes, I recall it now. And they knew you had a deep connection open and the Chapter Master could see what you were witnessing, am I right?”
“Yes, sir, which is why I think the Sorcerer of Essex is responsible. To cover it up.”
Ekstrand shook his head. “It makes no sense. Why make it look like the Roses are involved?”
“Maybe they were,” Petra said. “Just not in killing them.”
“We’re definitely missing something,” Max said. “They drop dead when someone or something turns their hearts to stone, someone arranges their bodies to make it look like they killed each other and then works some powerful Rose magic that only results in a few stems? It doesn’t add up.”
For a while, the only sounds were the crackling of the fire and Ekstrand’s chewing.
“Just because the corruption in London is in Dante’s territory, it doesn’t logically follow that he is behind the destruction of our Chapter,” Ekstrand said. “It may be that a third party has found a way to infiltrate the Chapters, thereby corrupting Dante’s and destroying mine. If that’s the case, no one is safe. And all indications are that the Roses are the infiltrators. Even if we don’t know how those hearts were turned to stone, we know there was Rose magic used in the cloister, and that they’re being given free rein in one of London’s wards.”
“They are the common element,” Max agreed.
“I suppose Lady Rose is difficult to speak to at the moment,” Petra said.
“I’ll have to petition the royal family to interrogate her and the Brothers Thorn, but given the circumstances it shouldn’t be too difficult,” Ekstrand replied. “I’ll do that tomorrow. Always better to deal with Fae royalty on a Friday, I find. And the wheels are in motion with regards to the moot with the other sorcerers. When I’m there I’ll be able to gauge if Dante is aware of the corruption in his Chapter or not.”
“Is there any way we can keep an eye on things in London?” Max asked.
“Too risky,” Ekstrand said. “We don’t have the resources to monitor things in any subtle manner, and we can’t risk Dante finding out you’re there, nor the Arbiters who tried to kill you.”
“And what about the Chapter?” Max asked. “Are you going to rebuild it?”
“When I know exactly what happened to the last one,” Ekstrand said, picking crumbs off his plate. “And not a moment before. Terribly tiring, I recall, building a Chapter and training a Master. Definitely not something for Tuesdays or Thursdays. Or Sundays for that matter. Now, Petra, I need to practise what to say to the Master of Ceremonies on his next visit when he mentions the wedding. I was planning on commiserating with him and offering a slice of something. I had thought a nice Victoria sponge, but now I think lemon drizzle cake, and perhaps a handkerchief. Dreadful business, weddings, dreadful. What do you think?”
Petra set down her notebook and picked up her cake plate. “I’ll think we’ll work on it, Mr Ekstrand.”
Will sipped his morning tea and thought of Amelia Alba-Rosa instead of the woman he was marrying in less than two hours. Not that Amelia was an Alba-Rosa anymore; now she and her brother would be known as Amelia and Cornelius White. He wondered how well she was recovering from the trauma of the Sorcerer’s revelations and the destruction of their place in Society. She and Cornelius would be back in Londinium by now, waiting at the house they’d always lived in. Now their home belonged to him.
“Another cup, Will?” Nathaniel asked as he poured his own tea. His brother was in better spirits than usual, which had surprised Will, seeing as he’d missed the opportunity to duel with Horatio Gallica-Rosa. Then he realised the good mood was for that very reason: Nathaniel was now seen as the best swordsman of his generation and he hadn’t even needed to lift a blade to achieve it.
“No, thank you,” Will replied.
“I wonder where Horatio is now,” Imogen said. The Gallica-Rosas were on the minds and lips of everyone in Aquae Sulis.
We were only obeying our Patroon. How can this be happening? Horatio Gallica’s words had transformed him, from a hateful, arrogant man hell-bent on ruining his fiancée’s reputation, into a pawn on the losing side. If the Iris Patroon had ordered such behaviour Will knew he would have obeyed, just as Horatio had, and the thought haunted him.
“To think I actually danced with him,” Imogen said.
“To think you hoped to marry him,” Nathaniel said, stirring sugar into his tea.
“I did not,” Imogen replied. “I speculated about his potential as a spouse, nothing more.”
“I saw you huff and puff every time Elizabeth Papaver danced with him.”
“Dear brother, there is a world of difference between wanting to keep in the race and backing the wrong horse altogether. Surely you of all people understand that.”
Nathaniel dropped the spoon onto the saucer with a clatter and fired a dark glare at Imogen, promising retribution at a later date. The ignorance of yet another family secret filled Will once more, but by the end of the day he’d be married and moving out of the family house and none of it would matter. The thought both delighted him and killed his appetite. If only he were leaving to set up home with Amelia. He couldn’t imagine having breakfast with Catherine. What would they talk about?
At least his fiancée was more interesting than he’d thought. Catherine had successfully navigated a mundane through Exilium, carried out a secret spying mission for a Sorcerer and smuggled a sorcerous artefact into the most controversial party of the season. She was clearly capable in a crisis, so why was she so inept at the easiest aspects of life in Nether Society?
“Lost your appetite, Will dear?” Imogen was still glowing from having scored a point off Nathaniel. She reached across and patted his hand. “Perfectly understandable. I do hope they dress Catherine in something decent. Surely they could manage that for her wedding day. After all, it’s the only day of that girl’s life that everyone will be looking at her.”
“By the end of the day she’ll be your sister-in-law,” Will reminded her.
Imogen withdrew her hand, her sharp smile fading. “How perfectly awful.”
“Don’t worry, old chap, she’ll be veiled,” Nathaniel chipped in.
“Yes, just pretend there’s someone else under there when you’re in front of the Oak.” Imogen smirked. Will knew perfectly well who she meant.
Neither Nathaniel nor Imogen mentioned the Albas openly, probably some nod towards discretion on his wedding day. No doubt everyone in Aquae Sulis was speculating about why he’d saved Amelia and her brother from the Agency, and he knew what most of them were thinking of his motive. They were probably right.
“William,” his father called from the doorway, “a word with you in my study.”
His father was already dressed for the wedding. Will excused himself and followed him in.
“Good morning, Father.” Will smiled, trying to give the best impression of a man ready to face his fate goodnaturedly.
“Close the door and sit down. We don’t have much time and I need to talk to you about something important.”
“Wisdom for married life?”
The stern glare burnt the cocky smile from Will’s lips. “I’ve just spoken with the Patroon. Everything is ready at the Oak. I know you were pushing to marry Catherine Papaver sooner than planned. No doubt you were surprised when I told you the new date.”
“A little. I assumed it was because Horatio’s accusations against her went public.” Will felt the muscles in his neck knotting. He’d worried that the marriage was happening far faster than a polite request from him and the threat of scandal could explain. He hadn’t told his father the real reason behind his desire to marry sooner than the end of the season, because he didn’t want anyone else to know about the beating Catherine had suffered. It wouldn’t do anything except increase the chance of her being harmed again.
“Well, that’s true, and now his accusations have been made public I’m glad we moved quickly. Hopefully everyone will be too busy gossiping about the fall of the Roses to remember what he said about her.” He paused. “You’re certain the purity opal remained white?”
“Positive,” Will replied and wondered again whether it did change colour when he’d pressed it against her neck. Not that it would have changed the fact that he wanted to get her away from her father as soon as possible.
His father nodded, satisfied. “There’s something else, William. Once you’re married, the Patroon wants you to establish your residence in Londinium.”
“You’ve impressed him, and with the Rosas being rounded up by the Agency and their control of the city lost, this is the perfect time to further our interests there.”
“But surely this is something for one of your generation? Or Nathaniel, as the eldest?”
“The Patroon is not easily impressed, William, and neither am I. You handled the Rosa debacle with subtlety and quick wits, both of which will come in useful in Londinium. We want you to secure the Dukedom and bring the Court under our control.”
Will sat back, feeling the knots reach down his body and into his stomach. The Dukedom? It was beyond ridiculous. “I… It was a bit of a coup revealing the Gallica-Rosa treachery but it doesn’t exactly mark me out for Duke material. I couldn’t have done it without the help of the Alba-Rosas; they warned me about Horatio.”
“Horatio said the Albas were just as guilty as he. Tell me, did they really come clean with you? Or did you lie to save them?” When Will didn’t immediately respond, his mouth twitched. “You wouldn’t be the first man to lie for the sake of a woman.”
“In all honesty, Father, I don’t think it’s as simple as Horatio claimed. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some truth in it, but I think Amelia and Cornelius genuinely came to like me and didn’t wish me any harm. Amelia certainly did not do anything to jeopardise the engagement. On the contrary, she made an effort to be kind to Catherine.”
“Cornelius has cooperated with my staff but I don’t think you should ever trust him, or his sister. They could be useful to you, if you choose what you tell them with care and verify anything they tell you before acting upon it.”
“Surely it’s in their best interests to be trustworthy?”
Father raised an eyebrow. “It’s in their best interests to please you. That’s not the same thing in all situations. Never trust a Rose, William, you know that. And remember, a mistress can be very expensive.”
Will looked away, not wanting to discuss that with his father of all people. “I’m flattered, Father, but I can’t see how that one evening could qualify me for such a task.”
“You made excellent use of the information you uncovered, you kept calm and you managed the crowd magnificently. The Lavandulas have sent me letters expressing how impressed they are with you and have ensured there is a magnificent property waiting for you and Catherine. The Patroon’s staff are making it ready for your arrival after the honeymoon.”
“I had no idea the Lavandulas owned property in Londinium.”
“They’ve acquired several impressive houses as compensation for the crimes committed against them.”
“So the house once belonged to the Rosas?”
Father nodded. “Best not to think too much about that. Our people will make sure no traces of them are left behind.”
“This isn’t a proposition, William. The decision has been made.”
Will put aside his doubts and irritation. They wouldn’t serve him now. “What support will I have to take the Dukedom?”
“A generous income, and the Patroon has assured me that should you need extra funds we will take care of that as a family. Do whatever it takes to impress the Great Families in Londinium. Lord Iris himself is behind this.”
“The Patroon said that?”
“He said enough. You know the Patroon was pushing for this marriage. He’s taking a greater interest in you. I don’t need to tell you how important it is that you succeed, do I?”
“No, Father.” Will said it in his most confident tone, but he knew the odds were more than stacked against him. “Do you think that Catherine is still the best choice, given this new remit?”
“Nothing has changed on that front,” his father replied, standing up. “I’m sorry, William, the agreement is too entrenched to change now. You’ll have to do all you can to bring her up to scratch, but Dame Iris will help too. She takes all new brides brought into the family under her wing to make sure they know what’s expected of them.”
“Good,” Will said, relieved. “I’m sure Catherine will be most grateful.” He stood, needing what little time he had alone to consider what he faced. “I need to dress for the wedding.”
His father stood too and reached across the table to shake his hand. “I’m proud of you, William. Don’t let me down.”
The faerie led Sam up a gentle hill, promising that the people he sought were very close. Just like before, exactly who he was looking for was on the other side. Four women and one man, all blonde, all looking dazed and horribly lost.
“Hey!” Sam waved from the top of the hill and they drew closer together fearfully. As he ran down the slope he could see the sparkling bands that had been around their ankles were gone.
“Who are you?” one of the women asked.
“Are you from home?”
“Can you help us?”
Sam grinned. “I’m here to rescue you.” He’d always wanted to say that. “I live in Bath. I’m going to take you home, to your families.” He scanned their faces, looking for relief and gratitude but seeing doubt and fear instead. “I’m like you, a mundane,” he added.
“Have you got anything to eat?”
“I’ve got a packet of crisps and half a doughnut.”
“We’re starving,” one of the women said.
He recognised her from the photo on the TV appeal. Her name was Clare and she was a model. They all were. It was probably why they were taken and why it hadn’t bothered him that they were rather gaunt. He pulled his rucksack off his back and found the crisps.
“I wouldn’t give those to them,” the faerie said, zipping in between him and the others, who cowered away from it.
“Don’t believe anything they say!” the man said, snatching the bag of crisps from his hand and opening them. They closed around him like pigeons around crumbs.
In moments they were retching and spitting out lumps of chewed potato. The man threw the packet on the ground and the faerie dashed behind Sam. “You think that’s some sort of sick joke?”
“I told you,” the faerie whispered.
“Oh, no.” Clare pointed to something behind Sam. “It’s one of them.”
Sam turned to see Lord Poppy strolling down the hill, swinging his black cane back and forth. He was exactly the same as the last time Sam saw him – long black hair and black eyes with skin like a lily petal – bringing back unwelcome memories of being licked in the ear and held by poppies as the Fool’s Charm was broken. He wished Cathy was with him to step forward and handle it. He realised the models were hiding behind him instead.
“Ah! The little mundane my favourite brought to me! Did she send you back as a gift this time?”
“No, she did not!” Sam pressed against his wedding ring with his thumb. The last time they met he wasn’t wearing it. “And before you try anything dodgy –” he thrust his left hand towards Poppy’s face, fingers spread “– I’m protected by Lord Iron.”
“How terribly exciting for you. Could you explain why that’s relevant? Am I threatening your person?”
Sam lowered his hand, aware of the people cowering behind him as if he were the only thing protecting them from a rabid dog. “Um…”
“Irrelevant then, it seems. And it’s such an ugly ring. Wouldn’t you rather take it off and put it in your pocket so its ugliness isn’t inflicted on everyone around you?”
Sam nodded, pulled it from his finger and did as Poppy suggested. He wondered why the people behind him were groaning.
Poppy’s smile didn’t seem to cheer them up. “Now tell me, has my faerie been helpful?”
The faerie fluttered next to Lord Poppy, giving Sam a hopeful smile. “Yeah.”
“She brought you into Exilium, I understand.”
“And led you to these poor little waifs and strays.”
“And what do you plan to do with them? No one wants them. They’re soiled now. They smell of the Rose. Never has a scent been so unfashionable.”
“I’m going to take them home.”
Poppy tittered and watched Sam for a moment. “You’re telling the truth!” He flapped his free hand as the faerie accompanied his melodic laughter with its own soprano harmony.
“What’s so funny? They were kidnapped!”
“But,” Poppy said, dabbing at the corner of his eye with a slender finger, “they’ll die if you take them back to Mundanus.”
Sam glanced at the crisp packet at his feet. Would they be incapable of eating anything at home? Or was that something to do with being in Exilium? “We’re willing to take the risk.” He twisted to look at them. “Right?”
All of them nodded.
“So be it.”
“And we’re leaving now.”
“So soon? But we’ve hardly had a chance to enjoy the day. It’s a very special one. My favourite is being married to a very pretty boy.” Sam had been certain Cathy had more time. “They moved the date,” Poppy added. “She’s captivated the Iris boy to the extent that he begged his father to marry them as soon as possible. Isn’t that romantic?”
But she had been determined to find a way out. Sam jolted. That’s what he needed to do! “We need to go now.”
“Before we’ve settled my compensation?”
“Oh, no.” Sam sighed. “Look, I told you–”
“Because it would be so dreadfully impolite to accept help from my faerie – twice – and simply leave without a token of your gratitude. Or rather two of them.”
Sam folded his arms. “Like that time you took one of my memories?”
“Yes, but I don’t want another. I took the one I liked the best, the rest are horribly dull. No, I want you to do two things for me, such easy tasks. It being my favourite’s wedding day has filled me with generosity, it seems. You’re lucky she likes you. Otherwise I would have cursed you to believe you’ll die if you don’t bray like a donkey and given you an irresistible urge to visit the ones you most want to impress in Mundanus.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Take a message to Catherine. That’s all. And then in one month – or perhaps less – you’re to deliver something to me.”
“But I don’t know how to find her.”
“Then you’d better work it out. Otherwise I shall be displeased. Now, the message is this – and take care to recite it perfectly, otherwise your debt won’t be paid.” Sam nodded. “‘Dear Catherine, Your friend accepted my help in Exilium. As payment, I require the painting you promised to me the last time he visited before the next Mundane new moon. It must contain an Iris secret. Your true patron, Lord Poppy.’”
“Hang on a minute!” Sam said. “You said my taking the message was payment, not her giving you a painting!”
“Ah, the painting is in return for not turning your fingers into hungry rats with a taste for your flesh. I think that’s most generous.”
Sam couldn’t reply. He just blinked a few times, trying to drive the image from his mind. “OK… tell me the message again.”
Poppy repeated it. Backwards. Sam’s temples started to throb as the faerie giggled.
“Fine, I got it,” he said, trying to sound confident. “Do I just take the painting to the church again?”
“No. That’s such an inelegant way to bring my favourite’s masterpiece. Simply stand in front of a mirror, say my name three times with the desire to come here and you’ll be able to step through. Of course, should you wish to visit before then, or –” he looked pointedly at the people behind Sam “– bring me other gifts in return for saving certain doomed souls, you’ll be quite welcome.”
“OK. Thanks.” He didn’t want to thank him but he had to get at least one thing right. “We’ll be off then.”
“But how will you leave?” the faerie asked.
“You’ll take me back, won’t you?”
“Only if you give me something in return,” Poppy said.
“Oh, for the love of… If you don’t let us go, I can’t give Cathy the message, can I?”
“I could find another way and give you an alternative compensatory task if you wish.”
“No. No… I’ll…” He looked at the faerie and at Poppy, understanding even more clearly Cathy’s frustration with the Sorcerer and his unwillingness to help. He put his hands in his pockets in an effort to look relaxed and not at all panicky, and his fingers brushed the wedding ring. He clasped it tight, horrified he’d taken it off. “I’ll find my own way out. Thanks.” He started walking as Poppy laughed. “Come on then!” he called back to the others and they followed him.
“I’ll join you,” Poppy said. “A stroll before the wedding is just what I need. Do you know where you’re going?”
Sam marched on but Poppy matched his pace effortlessly. “Out of Exilium.”
“Oh, this is simply divine entertainment,” Poppy breathed. “If only I could bottle it and save it for dull days. But Catherine would be upset if I rendered you into a few drops of hopeless optimism. I have no desire to upset her when I can’t see it.”
Sam tried to ignore him, pressing the ring painfully into the palm of his hand to keep his focus on it. There had to be a place he could get them out. Surely Exilium had a border?
“How long do you plan to walk? Your waifs look so dreadfully hungry. Poor little things. Perhaps I could take them in, I’ll need something to play with after the wedding. I fear I might feel a little upset by the sight of my strange sunlit one becoming an Iris.”
Sam had the urge to veer left. Was that Poppy, the faerie or something else? He slowly changed their direction and Poppy didn’t seem to notice. He pressed on.
“Oh, look, over there is a patch of daisies in the shape of a teardrop. If you can guess what made it, I’ll grant you a boon.”
“No, thanks,” Sam said. He was on to something, he could feel it.
“A missed opportunity is a dreadful thing. I could have given you the ability to know a woman’s desire. Or a man’s, should you wish it.”
Sam shook his head. “Not far now,” he said to the others. Then he saw something ahead: a huge pillar driven into the earth, the grass around it yellowed and coarse. A fogbank hung in the air on the other side of it as far as he could see, so dense the ground seemed to stop where it began, as if forming the edge of Exilium. The pillar looked like it was made of iron with copper bands riveted around it and was about six feet tall. It was covered in symbols and things that looked like algebraic equations written by an insane mathematician. Several thick iron chains ran from the top of the pillar and disappeared into the ground.
Poppy had also stopped and planted his cane in the ground. “Well, I need to go to the wedding now,” he said, turning slightly so the shape up ahead would be out of his sight. “I look forward to your delivery – whichever one it may be. Time for you to leave.”
He pushed Sam backwards with the tip of his cane, so hard it hurt. The panic of falling made his arms pinwheel and seemed to go on for longer than it should. There was a horrible pop in his ears, a brief pain in his sinuses and his stomach rose up like he’d fallen several metres instead of onto his backside.
One second he saw blue sky as he tipped back and the next a white ceiling. His hands sank into a deep pile rug and there was the scent of cologne. Before he could even take in the room Clare landed next to him and then the others, as if they had fallen through an invisible hole in the ceiling. One of them landed on a chaise-longue, the rest on the rug next to Sam.
A man in his sixties was on the other side of the room with a butler tying a bit of white cloth around his neck like a weird tie.
Poppy’s faerie appeared next to the older man and whispered in his ear as the servant came over and pulled Sam to his feet.
“Oh… I see,” the man said. “Well… where should I send them?”
The faerie whispered something back and a twitch at the corner of the man’s mouth made Sam nervous. He nodded and went to the door leading out of the room as the others were pulled onto their feet, just as disoriented as he felt.
“This way,” the man said, opening the door and gesturing for them to go through. Sam couldn’t see a room on the other side, just a haze.
“Where does it go?”
“Home,” he said. “I have a wedding to go to. Will you please hurry along?”
Sam wondered if they were in the Nether, as the Sorcerer’s house was, so he looked out of the window. The familiar silver mists confirmed his suspicion. “Come on,” he said to the others. “We need to go. And I think we should all hold hands, in case something weird… I mean more weird happens.” They did as he asked. Clare slipped her hand into his to join them together.
Wanting it to be over as soon as possible, he ran out of the room. His ears popped again, there was a rush of cold air and he found himself – and mercifully the others – in the central reservation of a motorway. It was dark and cold and he didn’t have a clue where they were, but car fumes had never tasted so good.
Any Other Name © Emma Newman 2013