Please enjoy this excerpt from With Fate Conspire by Marie Brennan, out August 30th from Tor Books. It is the latest installment in the Onyx Hall series.
The Onyx Hall, London: January 29, 1707
The lights hovered in midair, like a cloud of unearthly fireflies. The corners of the room lay in shadow; all illumination had drawn in- ward, to this spot before the empty hearth, and the woman who stood there in silence.
Her right hand moved with absent surety, coaxing the lights into position. The left hung stiff at her side, a rigid claw insufficiently masked by its glove. Without compass or ruler, guided only by bone-deep instinct, she formed the lights into a map. Here, the Tower of London. To the west, the cathedral of St. Paul’s. The long line of the Thames below them, and the Walbrook running down from the north to meet it, passing the London Stone on its way; and around the whole, touching the river on both sides, the bent and uneven arc of the city wall.
For a moment it floated before her, brilliant and perfect.
Then her fingertip reached up to a northeastern point on the wall, and flicked a few of the lights away.
As if that had been a summons, the door opened. Only one person in all this place had the right to interrupt her unannounced, and so she stayed where she was, regarding the newly flawed map. Once the door was closed, she spoke, her voice carrying perfectly in the stillness of the room. “You were unable to stop them.”
“I’m sorry, Lune.” Joseph Winslow came forward, to the edge of the cool light. It gave his ordinary features a peculiar cast; what would have seemed like youth in the brightness of day—more youth than he should claim—turned into strange agelessness under such illumination. “It is too much in the way. An impediment to carts, riders, carriages, people on foot . . . it serves no purpose anymore. None that I can tell them, at least.”
The silver of her eyes reflected blue as she traced the line of the wall. The old Roman and medieval fortification, much patched and altered over the centuries, but still, in its essence, the boundary of old London.
And of her realm, lying hidden below.
She should have seen this coming. Once it became impossible to crowd more people within the confines of London, they began to spill outside the wall. Up the river to Westminster, in great houses along the bank and pestilential tenements behind. Down the river to the shipbuilding yards, where sailors drank away their pay among the warehouses of goods from foreign lands. Across the river in Southwark, and north of the wall in suburbs—but at the heart of it, always, the City of London. And as the years went by, the seven great gates became ever more clogged, until they could not admit the endless rivers of humanity that flowed in and out.
In the hushed tone of a man asking a doctor for what he fears will be bad news, Winslow said, “What will this do to the Onyx Hall?”
Lune closed her eyes. She did not need them to look at her domain, the faerie palace that stretched beneath the square mile enclosed by the walls. Those black stones might have been her own bones, for a faerie queen ruled by virtue of the bond with her realm. “I do not know,” she admitted. “Fifty years ago, when Parliament commanded General Monck to tear the gates from their hinges, I feared it might harm the Hall. Nothing came of it. Forty years ago, when the Great Fire burned the entrances to this place, and even St. Paul’s Cathedral, I feared we might not recover. Those have been rebuilt. But now . . .”
Now, the mortals of London proposed to tear down part of the wall—tear it down, and not replace it. With the gates disabled, the City could no longer protect itself in war; in reality, it had no need to do so. Which made the wall itself little more than a historical curiosity, and an obstruction to London’s growth.
Perhaps the Hall would yet stand, like a table with one of its legs broken away.
Perhaps it would not.
“I’m sorry,” Winslow said again, hating the inadequacy of the words. He was her mortal consort, the Prince of the Stone; it was his privilege and duty to oversee the points at which faerie and mortal London came together. Lune had asked him to prevent the destruction of the wall, and he had failed.
Lune’s posture was rarely less than perfect, but somehow she pulled herself even more upright, her shoulders going back to form a line he’d come to recognize. “It was an impossible task. And perhaps an unnecessary one; the Hall has survived difficulties before. But if some trouble comes of this, then we will surmount it, as we always have.”
She presented her arm to him, and he took it, guiding her with formal courtesy from the room. Back to their court, a world of faeries both kind and cruel, and the few mortals who knew of their presence beneath London.
Behind them, alone in the empty room, the lights drifted free once more, the map dissolving into meaningless chaos.
I behold London; a Human awful wonder of God!
Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion
Oh City! Oh latest Throne! where I was rais’d To be a mystery of loveliness Unto all eyes, the time is well nigh come When I must render up this glorious home To keen Discovery: soon yon brilliant towers Shall darken with the waving of her wand; Darken, and shrink and shiver into huts, Black specks amid a waste of dreary sand, Low-built, mud-walled, Barbarian settlement, How chang’d from this fair City!
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Timbuctoo”
A great town is like a forest—that is not the whole of it that you see above ground.
—Mr. Lowe, MP, address at the opening of the Metropolitan Railway, reported in the Times, January 10, 1863
Given enough time, anything can become familiar enough to be ignored.
The searing nails driven through her flesh ache as they always have, but those aches are known, enumerated, incorporated into her world. If her body is stretched upon a rack, muscles and sinews torn and ragged from the strain, at least no one has stretched it further of late. This is familiar. She can disregard it.
But the unfamiliar, the unpredictable, disrupts that disregard. This new pain is irregular and intense, not the steady torment of before. It is a knife driven into her shoulder, a sudden agony stabbing through her again. And again. And again.
Creeping ever closer to her heart.
Each new thrust awakens all the other pains, every bleeding nerve she had learned to accept. Nothing can be ignored, then. All she can do is endure. And this she does because she has no choice; she has bound herself to this agony, with chains that cannot be broken by any force short of death.
Or, perhaps, salvation.
Like a patient cast down by disease, she waits, and in her lucid moments she prays for a cure. No physician exists who can treat this sickness, but perhaps—if she endures long enough—someone will teach himself that science, and save her from this terrible death by degrees.
So she hopes, and has hoped for longer than she can recall. But each thrust brings the knife that much closer to her heart.
One way or another, she will not have to endure much more.
The monster city seethed with life. Its streets, like arteries both great and small, pulsed with the flow of traffic: hackneys and private car-riages, omnibuses bursting with riders inside and out, horse trams rattling past on their iron rails. People on foot, on horseback, on the improbable wheels of bicycles. On the river, ships: forests of masts and steam funnels, skiffs hauling cargo to and fro, ferries spilling passengers onto piers that thrust out from the stinking foreshore. Trains thundered in from the suburbs and back out again, the population rising and falling, as if the city breathed.
The air that filled its lungs was humanity, of countless different kinds. The high and the low, glittering with diamonds or the tears of despair, speaking dozens of languages in hundreds of accents, living cheek by jowl, above and below and beside one another, but occupying entirely different worlds. The city encompassed them all: living and dying, they formed part of the great organism, which daily threatened to strangle on its simultaneous growth and rot.
This was London, in all its filth and glory. Nostalgic for the past, while yearning to cast off the chains of bygone ages and step forward into the bright utopia of the future. Proud of its achievements, yet despising its own flaws. A monster in both size and nature, that would consume the unwary and spit them out again, in forms unrecognizable and undreamt.
London, the monster city.
The City of London: February 26, 1884
“Hot buns! A farthing apiece, warm you on a cold morning! Will you buy a bun, sir?”
The cry rose into the air and was lost among others, like one bird in a flock. A burst of steam from the open cut alongside Farringdon Road heralded the arrival of a subterranean train; a minute later, the station above disgorged a mass of men, joining those carried into the City by the power of their own feet. They shuffled along Snow Hill and up onto Holborn Viaduct, yawning and sleepy, their numbers sufficient to stop carriages and omnibuses when they flooded across the street crossings.
A costerwoman’s voice had to be strong, to make itself heard above the voices and footsteps and the church bells ringing seven o’clock. Filling her lungs, Eliza bellowed again, “Hot buns! Hot from the oven! Only a farthing apiece!”
One fellow paused, dug in his pocket, handed over a penny. The four buns Eliza gave in exchange had been hot when she collected her load an hour ago; only the close-packed mass of their fellows had preserved any heat since then. But these were the clerks, the ink-stained men who slaved away in the City’s halls of business for long hours and little pay; they wouldn’t quibble over the truth of her advertising. By the time their wealthier betters came in to work, three hours or so from now, she would have sold her stock and filled her barrow with something else.
If all went well. Good days were the ones where she traced the streets again and again, with new wares every round: laces for boots and stays, lucifers, even larks one time. Bad days saw her peddling cold, stale buns at sundown, with no comfort save the surety that at least she would have something to eat that night. And sometimes a doss-house keeper could be persuaded to take a few as payment, in exchange for a spot on his bench.
Today was beginning well; even a bun of only moderate warmth was a pleasant touch on a cold morning like this one. But chill weather made men sullen in the afternoon and evening, turning up their collars and shoving their hands into pockets, thinking only of the train or omnibus or long walk that would take them home. Eliza knew better than to assume her luck would hold.
By the time she reached Cheapside, following the crowds of men on their way to the countinghouses, the press in the streets was thinning; those still out were hurrying, for fear their pay would be docked for lateness. Eliza counted her coins, stuck an experimental finger among the remaining buns, and decided they were cold enough that she could spare one for herself. And Tom Granger was always willing to let her sit a while with him.
She retraced her steps to the corner of Ivy Lane, where Tom was halfheartedly waving copies of The Times at passersby. “You’ll never sell them with that lazy hand,” Eliza said, stopping her barrow alongside.
His grin was as crooked as his front teeth. “Wait ’til tomorrow. Bill says we’ll ’ave exciting news then.”
“Oh?” Eliza offered him a bun, which he accepted. “Scandal, is it?”
“Better. There’s been another bombing.”
She had just taken a large bite; it caught in her throat, and for a moment she feared she would choke. Then it slid down, and she hoped that if Tom saw her distress, he’d chalk it up to that. “Where?”
Tom had already crammed half the bun in his own mouth. His answer was completely unintelligible; she had to wait while he chewed enough to swallow. “Victoria Station,” he said, once he could speak more clearly. “Right early this morning. Blew the booking office and all ’alfway to the moon. Nobody ’urt, though—pity. We sells more papers when there’s dead people.”
“Who did it?”
He shrugged, then turned away to sell a paper to a man in a carpenter’s flannel coat. That done, he said, “Harry thinks it was a gas pipe what blew, but I reckon it’s the Fenians again.” He spat onto the cobblestones. “Fucking micks. They sells papers, I’ll give ’em that, but ’em and their bleeding bombs, eh?”
“Them and their bleeding bombs,” Eliza echoed, staring at the remnants of her bun as if it needed her attention. She had lost all appetite, but forced herself to finish anyway. I missed it. While I slept tied to a bench, he was here, and I missed my chance.
Tom rattled on about the Irish, allowing as how they were devilish strong buggers and good at hard labor, but one paddy had come up the other day, bold as you please, and tried to get papers to sell. “Me and Bill ran ’im off right quick,” Tom said.
Eliza didn’t share his satisfaction in the slightest. While Tom spoke, her gaze raked the street, as if frantic effort now could make up for her failure. Too late, and you know it. What would you have done anyway, if you’ d been here last night? Followed him again? Much good that did last time. But you missed your chance to do better. It took her by surprise when Tom left off his tirade and said, “Three months, it’s been, and I still don’t get you.”
She hoped her stare was not as obviously startled as it felt. “What do you mean?”
Tom gestured at her, seeming to indicate both the ragged clothing and the young woman who wore it. “You. Who you are, and what you’re doing ’ere.”
She was suddenly far colder than could be explained by the morning air. “Trying to sell buns. But I think I’m about done in for these; I should go for fried fish soon, or something else.”
“Which you’ll bring right back ’ere. Maybe you’ll go stand around the ’ospital, or the prison, but you’ll stick near Newgate as long as you can, so long as you’ve got a few pennies to buy supper and a place to sleep. Them fine gents like to talk about lazy folks as don’t care enough to earn a better wage—but you’re the only one I’ve ever met where it’s true.” Tom scratched his neck, studying her in a way that made her want to run. “You don’t drop your aitches, you ain’t from a proper coster family—I know they runs you off sometimes, when you steps on their territory—in short, you’s a mystery, and ever since you started coming ’ere I’ve been trying to work you out. What’s around Newgate for you, Elizabeth Marsh, that you’ll spend three months waiting for it to show up?”
Her fingers felt like ice. Eliza fumbled with the ends of her shawl, then stopped, because it only drew attention to how her hands were shaking. What was there to fear? No crime in hanging about, not so long as she was engaged in honest work. Tom knew nothing. So far as he was aware, she was simply Elizabeth Marsh, and Elizabeth Marsh was nobody.
But she hadn’t thought up a lie for him, because she hadn’t expected him to ask. Before her mind could settle down enough to find a good one, his expression softened to sympathy. “Got someone in Newgate, ’ave you?”
He jerked his chin westward as he said it. Newgate in the specific sense, the prison that stood nearby. Which was close enough to a truth—if not the real truth—that Eliza seized upon it with relief. “My father.”
“Thought it might be an ’usband,” Tom said. “You wouldn’t be the first mot walking around without a ring. Waiting for ’im to get out, or ’oping ’e won’t?”
Eliza thought about the last time she’d seen her father. Four months ago, and the words between them weren’t pretty—they never were—but she’d clean forgotten about that after she walked out of the prison and saw that familiar, hated face.
She shrugged uncomfortably, hoping Tom would let the issue drop. The more questions she answered, the more likely it was that he’d catch a whiff of something odd. Better to leave it at a nameless father with an unnamed crime. Tom didn’t press, but he did pick up one of his newspapers and begin searching through a back page. “ ’Ere, take a look at this.”
The piece above his ragged fingernail was brief, just two short paragraphs under the header MR. CALHOUN’S NEW FACTORY. “Factory work ain’t bad,” Tom said. “Better than service, anyway—no missus always on you, and some factories pay more—and it would get you out of ’ere. Waiting around won’t do you no good, Lizzie, and you keeps this up, sooner or later your luck’ll go bad. Workhouse bad.”
“Ah, you’re just trying to get rid of me,” Eliza said. It came out higher than usual, because of the tightness in her throat. Tom was just useful; his corner was the best one to watch from. She never intended more than that—never friendship—and his kindness made her feel all the more guilty about her lies.
But he was right, as far as it went. She’d been in service before, to an Italian family that sold secondhand clothes in Spitalfields. Being a maid-of-all-work, regardless of the family, was little better than being a slave. Lots of girls said factory work was preferable, if you could get it. But abandoning Newgate . . .
She couldn’t. Her disobedient eyes drifted back to the advertisement anyway. And then she saw what lay below, that Tom’s hand had covered before.
LONDON FAIRY SOCIETY—A new association has formed in Islington, for the understanding of Britain’s fast-vanishing fairy inhabitants. Meetings the second Friday of every month at 9 White Lion St., 7 p.m.
Eliza only barely kept from snatching the paper out of Tom’s hands, to stare at the words and see if they vanished. “May I?” she asked.
She meant only to read it again, but Tom handed her the paper and flapped his hands in its wake. “Keep it.”
The cold had gone; Eliza felt warm from head to toe. She could not look away from the words. Coincidence—or providence? It might be nothing: folk with money babbling on about little “flower fairies,” rather than faeries, the kind Eliza knew all too well. This new society might not know anything that could help her.
But her alternative was waiting around here, with the fading hope that it would do her any good. Just because there’d been another bombing didn’t mean any of the people involved had been here; it could have been pure chance last October, spotting him in Newgate. She’d spent nearly every day here since then, and not caught so much as another glimpse. They were tricksy creatures, faeries were, and not easily caught. But perhaps this London Fairy Society could help her.
“Thank you,” Eliza told Tom, folding the newspaper and stuffing it into the sagging pocket of her shawl.
He shrugged, looking away in embarrassment. “Ah, it’s nothing. You feeds me buns enough; I owes you a newspaper’s worth, at least.”
She wasn’t thanking him for the paper, but saying so would only make him more awkward. “I’d best be moving,” Eliza said. “These buns won’t sell themselves. But I’ll think about the factory, Tom; I will.” She meant it, too. It would be glorious to go back to something like normal life. No more of this hand-to-mouth existence, gambling everything on the hope of a second stroke of luck. After these three months, she’d even go back into service with the DiGiuseppes, just to know each night that she’d have a roof over her head.
If a normal life was even possible anymore, after everything she’d been through. But that was a question for the future. First, she had to catch herself a faerie.
Tom wished her well, and she gripped the handles of her barrow again, wheeling it down Newgate toward a fellow in Holborn who would sell her fried fish, if she could dispose of the rest of her current load. Her eyes did their habitual dance over the crowds as she cried her wares, but saw nothing unusual.
Second Friday. That’ll be the fourteenth, then. A bit more than a fortnight away. She’d keep on here until then, on the off chance that her luck would turn even better. But Islington, she hoped, held the answers.
The Goblin Market, Onyx Hall: March 2, 1884
With a clicking of toenails upon cracked black stone, the dog trot- ted into the room of cages. A half dozen lined the narrow chamber, three on a side, mostly full with sleeping humans. In the nearest, a young girl lay alone on a floor of filthy straw, curled in upon herself. The dog drew nearer, sniffing. His nose brushed her hair, close by the cage’s wooden bars, and she jerked awake with a cry of fear.
The dog sat down on his haunches and studied her, tongue lolling just a little. It was as close to an appealing look as a scruffy thing like him could come; his black fur was untidy and matted, and a chunk had been torn from his left ear. But when he made no threatening move—merely sat and watched—the girl moved hesitantly from the corner where she’d retreated. Holding one hand out, she inched closer, until her hand was near enough to the bars for the dog to extend his nose and sniff politely. He even licked her dirty fingers, a brief, warm caress.
At that touch of kindness, the girl burst into tears.
The dog rose in a swift turn. A squat, ugly figure stood in the doorway, scratching the wiry hairs of his beard. “Get off it,” the goblin said, scowling at him. “ ’E wants to see you, and not on four feet.”
In the cage, the girl had retreated once more. The dog cast a brief glance over his shoulder at her, then sighed, a peculiarly human sound. Bending his head, he concentrated, and his body began to shift.
He heard a faint whimper from behind him as the transformation finished. However little reassurance his dog form had offered, as a man he was worse; Dead Rick knew that all too well. Ragged trousers stopped short of his bare feet, whose toenails curved thick and filthy to the floor. On his body he wore only a torn waistcoat, scavenged off a dead mortal; he hated the confining feel of sleeves on his arms. His hair was as dirty and matted as it had been when it was fur, and as for his face . . . he didn’t turn around. He might not be a barguest, with a devil’s flaming eyes, but he’d seen himself in a mirror; the hard slash of his mouth wouldn’t reassure anyone.
He could have changed elsewhere, out of sight of the girl. But she was better off learning this now, that even the friendliest creature down here couldn’t be trusted.
Gresh’s toothy smile would never be mistaken for friendly. “She’s a fine bit, ain’t she?” he asked as Dead Rick came toward him. “Bit old to be stealing out of a cradle, but ’er mother kept ’er there anyway, as they didn’t ’ave nowhere else to put ’er. Living sixteen to a room they was; now it’s just fifteen, and she gets this whole cage to ’erself. Better for everyone!”
Dead Rick doubted the girl would agree, or her mother. Then again, what did he know? Perhaps her mother was a gin-soaked whore, and would be glad enough for one less mouth to feed. The girl might be bought by some kind faerie, who wanted a human child to play with like a doll.
Or angels might fly out of your arse, whelp. But she wouldn’t age here, and disease would never touch her, which was more than anyone could say for life in the streets above.
“Come on,” he said, pushing by Gresh. “You said ’e wants to see me.”
“You don’t need me to guide you,” the goblin said.
Dead Rick paused in the corridor and glanced back. Gresh was standing in the doorway still, shoulders hunched with eagerness. “Don’t,” Dead Rick warned him. “You spoil ’er, and it’ll be your ’ide.”
The goblin glared back. “I don’t need no dog telling me what to do.”
He said dog like it was an insult—like Dead Rick should be ashamed of being a skriker. A habit he picked up from their mutual master. But there were advantages to being a dog; Dead Rick growled low in his throat, holding Gresh’s eyes, and sure enough the goblin backed down first. With grumbling complaints, but he came with Dead Rick, and left the girl to what peace she could find.
Laughter echoed off the stone around them as they went along, its source impossible to determine. The warren of the Goblin Market was packed full, fae and the human creatures they kept for entertainment or use; they crowded almost as close as the East End poor that that girl came from. For every faerie that flitted, going in search of a passage beyond the mortal world, another came here to London. To the Onyx Hall, twisted reflection of the City above, the palace that had once been the glory of faerie England—and now was their crumbling refuge against the progress of humankind.
Traces of that glory were still visible, in the sculpted columns and corner posts, the arches spanning high-ceilinged chambers, the occasional mosaic laid into the black stone of a wall. It had all seen hard use these centuries past, though. Much was cracked, or stained, or half-hidden behind the clutter of the refugees. Curtains strung on cord divided larger rooms into smaller, giving the illusion of privacy; fae defended treasured belongings or mortal pets against the greedy hands of their neighbors. But anything could be sold, if the price was good enough: a human child bargained for mortal bread, an enchanted mirror traded for drugs that could make even a faerie forget his troubles.
Gresh was right; Dead Rick didn’t need the goblin to tell him where to go. He knew his way through the warren blindfolded. The room he headed for had a broken floor, scuffed stone giving way to bare earth, into which someone had dug a pit; down at the bottom, a red-eared faerie hound, his muzzle stained with blood, seized a rat and shook the rodent until its back broke. The observers—mostly fae, a few mortals—roared him on. Dead Rick shoved through the crowd, making his way toward the short staircase that curved at the far end. By the time he reached it, Gresh had disappeared, into the wagering mass.
The staircase still showed a touch of refinement, though the balustrade’s carving had taken some beating over the ages. The room it led to showed a bit more than a touch, largely because the rat-fighting rabble weren’t allowed in. If its chairs were mismatched, some were at least carved of exotic wood, and the carpet on the floor was still vibrant with color. Silks draped along the walls helped cover the cracks behind, the signs of inevitable decay.
And there were only two people inside, one faerie and one mortal. The latter was dressed in a ridiculous parody of a footman’s livery, styles that would have been old-fashioned fifty years before, but that hardly mattered; the more important thing was that he was there, uselessly, feeding the self-importance of his master.
Who scowled at Dead Rick. Nadrett waited for the door to close, then said, “I expects you ’ere when I needs you. Not to ’ave to send my goblins searching for you all over the warren.”
He made an elegant figure, by Goblin Market standards. Not clad in patches and rags, nor parading around in a gaudy assortment of gypsy silks; his waistcoat might be red as children’s blood, but it was restrained in its tailoring. One had to look closely to notice the buttons of bone, the cuff links of knotted hair. He wore no coat, but did affect a gentleman’s silk top hat, adorned with a large pin of crystalline starlight.
None of which hid the fact that Nadrett had clawed his way to the top of the Goblin Market heap by a combination of cunning and brutality. Dead Rick was forced to lower his gaze. “Sorry. I was looking in on the cages—”
“You better not ’ave been touching my property.”
Dead Rick was no good at lying. His hesitation told enough, and Nadrett spat a curse. “That one ain’t ’ere to tithe bread. Got a buyer, wants a girl as stinks of mortality. You go licking ’er, she starts to smell of faerie instead, and then I don’t get as good a price.”
He should keep his mouth shut, but the words came out anyway. “I ain’t ’ere to help your coves in their perversions.”
Quick as a striking snake, Nadrett was there, inches from his face. “Yes, you are,” the faerie spat. “Because you serve me. Those perversions are where I makes my profit, see, and if I don’t profit, then I takes the difference out of your mangy hide. So it’s in your best interests to make sure my customers ain’t unhappy.”
Dead Rick opened his mouth to answer—stupid whelp; you never learn—and Nadrett’s hand closed on his throat. He might weigh a stone less than the skriker, but his grip was iron. “Cross me,” Nadrett whispered, “and I will destroy you. Everything you used to be. You’ll be like this forever, broken, crawling, serving whatever master whips you worst.”
Shame and fear twisted in his gut, like a worm, eating away at his pride. He felt a whine build, trapped under Nadrett’s hand, and rolled his eyes in desperation. When Nadrett let go, Dead Rick turned his head to the side, casting his gaze down. “I won’t cross you.”
His master laughed. “ ’Course not. You’ll do exactly what I says. And you’re in luck: I’ve got use for you today. Follow me.”
Hating himself for it, Dead Rick obeyed.
Their path was a long one, weaving through the shabby clamor of the Goblin Market. The constant, encroaching decay made it almost impossible to go anywhere directly; too many chambers and connecting passages had vanished. Whole sections were almost completely cut off, their only access being through patches too unsafe to traverse. A faerie who set foot there was liable to come out somewhere else entirely—or not come out at all.
London’s foundation is rotting out from underneath it, Dead Rick thought. People still told tales of the glories of the Onyx Hall, but that was all that remained: tales, and these decaying fragments. And the Goblin Market’s the most rotten of all.
The place Nadrett led him wasn’t quite Market territory, and wasn’t quite not. The night garden didn’t belong to anyone, except the refugees who slept on blankets beneath the overgrown trees. It lay in what had once been the heart of the Onyx Hall, and in past ages had been the favored haunt of courtiers. But now the Walbrook ran foul through its heart, and the flowers grew among choking weeds.
A trio of goblins lounged on a chipped bench, and rose when Nadrett came through the entrance arch. Scots, and not familiar to Dead Rick; he would have wagered human bread, if he’d had any, that they were newcomers. Temporary residents of the night garden, who’d sold their services to the Goblin Market—to Nadrett—in exchange for a leg up. “We’ve cleared it,” the leader said. “Got two fellows watching each of the other doors.”
Nadrett clapped him on the shoulder and turned to Dead Rick. “You knows your job. Get to it.”
He stared past his master, into the abandoned wilderness of the garden. “Who is it?”
“What does that matter? Some mortal. She’s none of your concern.”
Female, then. But not the little girl in the cage. Dead Rick swallowed, tasting bile. Not the little girl; just some other human who likely never did anything to bring this fate on herself.
The mere drawing of Nadrett’s breath was enough to prompt him. Grinding his teeth, Dead Rick shifted back to dog form, and ran out into the night garden.
A welter of smells filled his nose. The refugees might be gone for the moment, but their scents remained: hobs and goblins and pucks, courtly elves and nature-loving sprites, some so new they carried echoes of their homes with them. Cool soil, and the thick mat of vegetation that grew over it; once the garden had been planted with aromatic, night-blooming flowers—evening primrose, jasmine—and some of the hardier ones still survived. Up ahead lay the stinking Walbrook. The crumbling enchantments had mixed the buried river’s reflection with its polluted reality, poisoning the earth around it.
Dead Rick paused near one of the stream’s surviving footbridges, thinking he saw movement ahead. It proved to be just a faerie light, drifting aimlessly through the air. Most of them had abandoned the ceiling, where people said they used to form shifting constellations, but in the distance Dead Rick thought he saw a more solid glow.
He padded toward it, keeping to the underbrush. Yes, there was light ahead, behind that cluster of sickly apple trees. He sank to his belly and crawled forward one paw at a time until he could see.
The mortal was scarcely more than a girl, fifteen years old at most. She sat with her back to a stone plinth, knees pulled tight to her chest. Dead Rick wondered if she knew she was sitting on a grave. Her dress was reasonably fine; she ought to be able to read—but vines had grown over the inscription, making it easy to miss if she didn’t look for it. And her attention was elsewhere, scouring the surrounding area for signs of a threat.
Signs of him.
Faerie lights floated about the small clearing, as if trying to comfort her. They had just enough awareness to respond to others’ wishes; her fear might have drawn them. Or had she called them to her? Don’t ask questions, Dead Rick growled to himself. Don’t think of ’er as a person—just do your job.
The growl escaped his muzzle, without him intending it. The mortal gasped, rising to a wary crouch.
She shouldn’t ’ave been sitting in the light. She’ll be ’alf-blind once she runs.
So much the better for him.
Dead Rick growled again, this time with purpose. There was a gap in the hawthorn bushes; he snaked through it, making no sound, and snarled more sharply. Then circled further: another growl. To a frightened mind, it would sound like she was surrounded.
In every direction except one: the overgrown path that led away from the grave. And sure enough, she bolted.
He was running almost before she moved. She was human, and wearing a dress; he was a dog, and knew his way about the garden. A fallen tree had blocked the left-hand path years ago, so that even if she went that way—and he heard her try—in the end, she had to go right. And Dead Rick was there, waiting to harry her onward.
Nadrett had sent him to do this so often that it was almost routine. But the girl surprised him; she plunged through an overgrown holly bush, hissing as it raked her, to take a less obvious path. Dead Rick cursed inwardly. Two fellows watching each of the other doors—but were they watching all of them? Or only the ones that led anywhere anymore? The arch ahead opened on a corridor that went about fifty feet before fading into a bad patch of the Onyx Hall.
It had been fifty feet the last time he looked. It might be less now.
Dead Rick put on a burst of speed. A dry fountain near the wall gave him an advantage; he leapt up the enormous grotesque at the center, toenails scrabbling on the twisted stone, and launched himself through the air toward the arch. He landed with an almighty crash, but that served him well enough: he heard the girl stumble and fall, then claw to her feet and run in the other direction, away from whatever huge monster was lurking by the arch.
Huge, no. Monster, yes. That’s what I’ve become.
Dead Rick shook himself, as if his gloom could be shaken off like water. If he failed at this, Nadrett would see to it he was more than just gloomy.
He trotted rapidly along the girl’s trail, following her scent. His pause had given her time to get ahead, and in the absence of his snarls she’d gone quiet. The trail led him over the footbridge; he caught a whiff on the railing, as if she’d paused there, eyeing the filthy water. But for a girl in skirts, who likely couldn’t swim, it would just be unpleasant suicide; in the end she’d gone on.
Across an expanse of shaggy grass, almost as tall as he was. Dead Rick leapt over a fallen urn, hoping to cut her off. The gamble worked: she was coming down the path toward him. Renewed snarling sent her the other way, and now he knew how this would end. Normally he trapped them against the wall, but with a bit of herding . . .
She was nearing the end of her strength. Dead Rick quickened his own pace, baying like a wolf, and burst into the open almost at her heels. The girl flung herself across the torn ground, up the steps of a ruined pavilion, and fell sprawling across the boards of its floor. Dead Rick leapt—
Her scream tore through the air, and then stopped.
Dead Rick’s paws slammed down on her chest, and his jaws snapped shut just shy of her nose. The girl was rigid with terror beneath him, and her mouth gaped open, heaving again and again as if she were screaming still, but no sound came out.
For a moment, the desire was there. To sink his teeth into that vulnerable throat, to tear the flesh and lap up the hot blood as it fountained out. Death was part of a skriker’s nature. It would be easy, so long as he didn’t see her as a person—just meat and fear and a voice to be stolen.
But that was Nadrett’s way, and the Goblin Market’s. Clenching his muzzle until it hurt, Dead Rick backed off, slowly, stepping with care so his rough toenails wouldn’t scratch the girl through her dress.
Nadrett was leaning against one of the pavilion’s posts, tossing a small jar from hand to hand. “That’s a good one,” he said with a satisfied leer. “Prime stuff. That’ll fetch a good price, it will. Maybe I’ll even let you ’ave a bit of the profit, eh?”
If he had any pride left, Dead Rick would refuse it. Since he didn’t, he jumped down to the grass, passing Nadrett without so much as a snarl.
His master laughed as he went. “Good dog.”
Coming from Nadrett’s mouth, the word made Dead Rick ashamed.
With Fate Conspire © Marie Brennan