Jul 16 2012 5:00pm
Enjoy this excerpt from Tina Connolly’s Ironskin, out on October 2:
Jane is an Ironskin, wearing half of an iron mask over her face to hold back a fey curse she obtained during the Great War. Her wound has made it impossible for her to hold down a job, bouncing her from place to place in a search for acceptance and a place in the world.
Then she comes to Mr. Rochart’s house and meets his daughter, Dorie. But Dorie is not like other cursed children, and has powers unlike anything Jane has ever seen. Will she stay and become the child’s governess? Has she finally found a home where she will no longer have to hide her face behind a veil? And what of the strange house that Mr. Rochart inhabits, with woods that make horses skittish?
A HOUSE CRACKED AND TORN
The moor was grey, battlefield grey. It had been five years since the last fey was seen, but out here Jane could almost imagine the Great War still raged on. Grey mist drifted through the blackened trees, recalling the smoke from the crematory kilns. That was a constant smell in the last months of the war.
Jane smoothed her old pea coat, shook the nerves and fatigue from her gloved fingers. She’d been up since dawn, rattling through the frostbitten February morning on smoky iron train and lurching motorcar, until now she stood alone on the moor, looking up at an ink black manor house that disappeared into the grey sky.
The manor had been darkly beautiful once, full of odd minarets, fanciful gargoyles, and carved birds and beasts.
A chill ran down her spine as she studied the design of the house. You didn’t have to be an architecture student to recognize who had drawn up the plans for it. It was clear in the imprint of every tower and flying buttress, clear in the intricate blue glass windows, clear in the way the gargoyles seemed to ready their wings to swoop down on you.
The fey had designed this.
The frothy structures were still perfect on the south end of the building, on the carriage house. On the north the house had war damage. It had been bombed, and now only the skeleton remained, the scraggly black structure sharp and jagged, mocking its former grace and charm.
Just like me, Jane thought. Just like me.
The iron mask on her face was cold in the chill air. She wrapped her veil more tightly around her face, tucked the ends into the worn wool coat. Helen’s best, but her sister would have better soon enough. Jane leapfrogged the bits of metal and broken stone to reach the front door, her T-strap leather shoes slipping on bits of mud, the chunky heels skidding on wet moss. She reached straight up to knock, quick, quick, before she could change her mind—and stopped.
The doorknocker was not a pineapple or a brass hoop, but a woman’s face. Worse—a grotesque mockery of a woman, with pouched eyes and drooping nose, gaping mouth. The knocker was her necklace, fitted close under her chin like a collar. An ugly symbol of welcome. Was this, too, part of the fey design?
Jane closed her eyes.
She had no more options. She’d worn out her welcome at her current teaching position—or, rather, her face had worn out her welcome for her. Her sister? Getting married and moving out. There had been more jobs for women, once, even women with her face. But then the war ended and the surviving men came slowly home. Wounded, weary men, grim and soul-scarred. One by one they convalesced and tried to reinsert themselves into a semblance of their former lives. One such would be teaching English at the Norwood Charity School for Girls instead of Jane.
Jane stuffed her hands into the coat’s patch pockets (smart with large tortoiseshell buttons; her sister certainly had taste), touched the clipping she knew by heart.
Governess needed, country house, delicate situation. Preference given to applicant with intimate knowledge of the child’s difficulties. Girl born during the Great War.
“Delicate” and “difficulties” had drawn Jane’s attention, but it was the phrase “Girl born during the Great War” that had let Jane piece the situation together. A couple letters later, she’d been sure she was right.
And that’s why she was here, wasn’t she? It wasn’t just because she had no other options.
It was because she could help this girl.
Jane glared at the hideous doorknocker, grabbed it and banged it on the door. She’d made it this far and she wasn’t going to be scared off by ornamental hardware.
The door opened on a very short, very old person standing there in a butler’s livery. The suit suggested a man, but the long grey braid and dainty chin—no, Jane was sure it was a woman. The butler’s face was seamed, her back, rounded. But for all that, she had the air of a scrappy bodyguard, and Jane wouldn’t have been surprised if that lump in her suit coat was a blackjack or iron pipe, hidden just out of sight.
The butler’s bright eyes flicked to Jane’s veil, glimmered with interested that Jane could not parse. She tapped her fingers on her bristly chin, grinned with sharp teeth. “An’ ye be human, enter,” the butler said formally, and so Jane crossed the iron threshold and entered the manor.
It was darker inside than out. The round foyer had six exits. The front door and the wide stairs opposite made up two. The other four were archways hung with heavy velvet curtains in dark colors: garnet and sapphire on the left, forest green and mahogany on the right. Worn tapestries hung on the stone walls between the curtains, dampening the thin blue of a fey-lit chandelier. Fey technology had mostly disappeared from the city as the lights and bluepacks winked out one by one and could not be replaced. It was back to candles and horses—though some who were both wealthy and brave were trying the new gaslights and steam-cars. Some who were merely brave were attempting to retrofit the bluepack motorcars with large devices that burned oil and let off a terrible smell—like the car that had brought her from the station. The housekeeper must have husbanded the chandelier lights carefully to make it last so long, when all fey trade had vanished.
“I’ll take your coat. That way for the artist,” said the little butler, and she gestured at the first doorway on the left, the garnet-red curtains.
“No, I’ve come for the governess position,” said Jane, but the butler was already retreating through the sapphire curtains with Jane’s coat and pasteboard suitcase, grey braid swinging. In that padded room her words died the second they fell from her lips.
Her steps made no noise as she walked over to draw back the curtain. It was not a hallway, but a small chamber, papered in the same deep garnet and lit with one flickering candle.
On the walls were rows of masks.
Jane stared. The masks were as grotesque as the doorknocker. Each was uniquely hideous, and yet there was a certain similarity in the way the glistening skin fell in bags and folds. Clearly they were all made by the same artist, but what sort of man would create these monstrosities—and who would buy them? They would fit a person, but surely no one would wear them, even for a whimsy like that masked cocktail party Helen had attended. In the flickering oil light they looked hyper-real, alive. Like something fey from the old days, before trade had given way to war.She lifted her veil to see more clearly, reached up to touch one sagging cheek.
“Do you like my collection?”
Jane jumped back, wrapping her veil close.
A man stood in the curtained entrance. The garnet folds swung around him as he stepped inside, stared down at her. He was very close and very tall in that narrow room, and his eyes were in shadow.
“Do people actually buy these?” she said, and was aghast at having blurted out something so rude.
But he didn’t look offended. “You’d be surprised,” he said, still studying her. He was not handsome, not as Helen would describe it—not soft and small-nosed, no ruddy cheeks and chin. He was all angles, the bones of his cheek and jaw plainly visible, and his hair leaped skyward as if it would not stay flat.
Jane tugged on the corner of the veil. She knew how much the gauze did and didn’t cover. The folds of the white veil obscured the details of her iron half-mask, but they didn’t hide that it existed. She caught them all looking, men, women, children. They stared into her veil, fascinated, appalled, trying not to get caught.
But he was staring into her eyes.
Jane marshaled her thoughts. “I’m here from the city,” she said. “I need a job.” She had not planned to state it so baldly, but he and his leering masks threw her from her stride, and now the words were confused. They stumbled from her tongue, and she felt awkward and stupidly young, though she had been making her own living for nearly five years.
She especially felt foolish when he nodded and said, “I know. I bargained with old Peter to pick you up. Only reliable chap in town, when it comes to venturing out to Silver Birch.”
“Oh,” she said. Her driver. Of course. “Yes, thank you.”
“I would’ve sent the motorcar, but we’re down to the last full-size bluepack, and after that . . .” He shrugged.
“They don’t take to this house very well. The forest makes them skittish.” He crossed his arms, his sleeve brushing her bare elbow. She had put on her best dress—a patterned navy one with short ruffled sleeves, though she had regretted it frequently in the cold and again now. Almost spring was the worst—the last cold and wet of winter when you were dying for bare arms and sunshine. “Tell me about yourself.”
“I’ve been working as a teacher,” she said, “and before that I was a governess. My strength is literature and composition, but I’ve taught all subjects. I speak three languages and I know how to help your—”
“I know,” he said. “I saw your curriculum vitae before. I wrote you about it. I want to know about you.”
Her ruined cheek burned, hot under the iron. It was both at the implication that she’d said something foolish, and at the idea that he wanted to know her. The embarrassment was quickly consumed by anger, always close at hand since that day during the war. “What more do you need to know? You received my letters of recommendation.”
He scratched his chin, studying her closely. “In five years you’ve had four positions. Each one praised your knowledge, punctuality, and morals to the skies. Yet each one let you go.”
She was white-hot inside her veil. Anger at the families who dismissed her, anger at the returning soldiers who took her positions, anger at him for probing her injuries. Barely trusting herself to speak, she said, “Yes.”
“Let me see,” he said, and before she could stop him he lifted her white veil and pulled it away from her face, revealed her to the small red room.
The iron mask covered her ruined cheek. It fit around one eye, crept over her temple where flecks of the fey shrapnel had hit. The hammered iron was held in place by leather straps that buckled around her head. And right now, with the rage that consumed her at his actions, it was probably leaking bits of orange light around the edges, as if Jane herself were on fire.
“How could you—!”
“I needed to know.” He was looking at her as if something entirely unexpected had landed on his doorstep. “What’s your curse and why can’t I sense it?”
“It’s rage, since you asked so politely. And you can’t sense it because I’m ironskin.” “Wearing ironskin,” she had said the first few months, but soon enough she’d dropped the verb, imitating the other scarred children at the foundry. “The iron mask stops the fey curse. The rage can’t leak through.” Jane tore the veil from his hands and flung it over her face, but it was far too late. He stopped her from tucking the cloth down her collar.
“Leave it,” he said. “You won’t be veiled here.” He gestured for her to precede him out of the room. His hand dropped as if it were going to guide the small of her back, but then it did not. It would be too forward of him, but perversely, she was hurt.
In five years she could list on one hand the people who had intentionally touched her.
Jane emerged into the round blue-lit foyer, half-thinking he was going to ask her to leave and not return. Despite her desperation—perhaps it would be for the best. To be stranded here in this house that reeked of fey, with this man who ripped down her barriers, who loomed over her with unreadable eyes . . . perhaps it would be easier if he dismissed her now.
But he pointed her up the wide stairs. “Come meet Dorie,” he said.
The wide stairs led, logically enough, to the second floor, though Jane knew that “logical” was not a given with fey architecture. Not human logic, anyway. She followed his lead, unpinning her hat with its veil from her carefully crimped hair. Her straight dark hair did not hold crimps well, and there was little enough of it to see between the leather straps for the mask and the hat—still, Jane had tried to look her best today.
At the top of the landing was a suite of playroom and bedroom, and there was a small girl sitting on the playroom floor, dancing her doll in a ray of sunshine.
Jane was so distracted by the sudden appearance of sunshine in the grey house, on the grey moor, that it took her several blinks to notice something that made her stomach lurch.
Dorie was not touching the doll.
Jane willed her feet to stay where they were, though every inch of her screamed to run.
How could this little girl be doing something only the fey could do? Was this child no human, but a fey in disguise, ready to attack at any second? Panic shrieked inside her, she clutched her hat as if to tear it to shreds—but again she willed herself: Stay.
Mr. Rochart reached down and confiscated the doll. “In this house we use our hands,” he said. The doll’s porcelain hands wrestled with his grip; the porcelain legs kicked his chest. “Dorie!” he said, and the doll flopped over his arm, unmoving.
“Mother,” said Dorie.
He leaned to Jane’s ear. “Calling it Mother is a fancy I can’t shake from her,” he said.
“They do look alike.” Jane would not back away from this girl, though the sharp sense of something fey made her queasy, made her wounded cheek blaze. She had expected a girl with a simple curse, damaged like herself, like the others she had known at the foundry—a girl with red streaks on her arm who leaked despair, a boy with a scarred back who filled everyone who came near with a lust for violence. That child she could’ve helped, in the same way that the foundry had helped her: through acceptance and ironskin.
She did not understand this girl.
“She is not . . . like me,” Jane said. “She is not cursed?”
“She’s cursed, sure enough,” said Mr. Rochart. “But she is not like you. I had heard that there were people like you, hit by fey shrapnel in the Great War, scarred with a curse that everyone around them feels. But she has no scar. And her curse is not like yours. Merely . . . ,” and he gestured at the doll that had been dancing in the air.
Jane was all at sea. It was all wrong that this tiny mite should wave her hands and have power dance behind them, should be able to make Jane recall the talents of the frightening, relentless fey.
Not to mention the creepiness of calling this doll with its waving porcelain hands “Mother.” True, the strange Mother doll did look like Dorie. They had similarly perfect features: button noses, rosebud mouths, rouged cheeks. The doll had painted crimped yellow hair—Dorie had blond ringlets.
But at least there was life behind Dorie’s blue eyes. And not behind the doll’s glass ones. Both things were a blessing.
“I see,” Jane said. She stood her ground and kept her trembling fingers in her coat pockets.
Dorie studied Jane. “Your face is funny,” she announced, displaying tiny white teeth.
“I have to wear iron on my cheek to keep other people from getting infected,” said Jane, though she knew this explanation would go over the girl’s head. She was sure she had been told that Dorie was five, but even minus the curse, Dorie was unlike any five-year-old she’d met.
Already bored, Dorie turned away. She clacked her tongue rhythmically, sketched the air in time to it. Dots and swirls of blue light flickered behind her fingers.
The last time Jane saw that blue light was on a battlefield with her brother. She breathed, she swayed—she refused to run.
Mr. Rochart’s hand came up as if he would steady her, but then he stepped back, his hands dropping. Twice was not etiquette, twice meant he did not want to touch her, and she was ice-cold inside. “We have tried a dozen governesses over the last year,” he said. “None lasted a week. They all claimed it was not us—”
But Jane knew these words and they softened something inside of her. “It was them,” she finished. “They were summoned home unexpectedly. Something urgent came up—a sickly mother, a dying aunt.”
“You wouldn’t believe the number of dying aunts in this country,” he said. And even—he smiled, and Jane saw laughter light behind his shadowed eyes. Then they closed off again, watching the blue lights flicker.
Jane took a breath. Took the smooth-faced doll from his arms and handed it to Dorie. The floating lights vanished as Dorie grabbed the doll and held it close. “Pretty Mother,” she said, burrowing her face into its cloth body.
“She likes pretty things,” Mr. Rochart said. “Her mother was the same way.” Silently he crossed to the window, looking out into the black-branched forest that crept up the grounds of Silver Birch Hall as if it would swallow the house. In the sunlight she saw that his slacks, though fine once, were worn along the crease and at his knees.
“She is gone, then?” Jane said softly. Unbidden she neared him, him and that wide window onto the choking forest. To live here would mean to live in its dark and tangled grip.
Mr. Rochart nodded. “The last month of the war.” The words landed like carefully placed stones, a heavy message grown no lighter with repetition. “She was killed and taken over by a fey. She was pregnant with Dorie.”
Jane sucked air across her teeth. The mother killed, the daughter still unborn—no wonder this child was different from any she’d ever seen. Her heart went out to the two of them.
Mr. Rochart turned to Jane, looking down, down. In the filtered light through the window she could finally see his eyes. They were amber, clear and ancient, a whole history trapped inside of them just as real amber trapped insects. He reached to take her hand; she knew he wouldn’t—but then he did. “Will you help us?”
She had not been touched like that, not simply like that, since the first year of the war. Unbidden she recalled the last boy to touch her: a baker’s apprentice she’d loved, with blond hair and a smile of gentle mischief. She was fourteen, and he’d invited her to her first dance, taken her waist, whisked her around the piano and out into the garden, where her stockings had splattered with spring mud. Someone’s mother had stumbled on them laughing together and sternly ordered them back inside. . . .
A touch and an unwanted memory should not influence her decision, but in truth her decision was already made. It was made from the moment she saw Dorie, from the moment she saw the clipping, perhaps even from the moment almost exactly five years ago when she knelt by her brother’s body on the battlefield, blood dripping from her chin. If this man would take her on, she would bend all her will to the task. She would help this girl. She would help them.
“I will stay,” she said. “I will start now. This morning.”
Relief flooded his eyes—almost too much. He pressed her hand and was gone from the room before Jane could decide what it meant.
Ironskin © Tina Connolly 2012