Silverblind (Excerpt)

Dorie Rochart has been hiding her fey side for a long time. Now, finished with University, she plans to study magical creatures and plants in the wild, bringing long-forgotten cures to those in need. But when no one will hire a girl to fight basilisks, she releases her shape-changing fey powers—to disguise herself as a boy.

While hunting for wyvern eggs, she saves a young scientist who’s about to get steamed by a silvertail—and finds her childhood friend Tam Grimsby, to whom she hasn’t spoken in seven years. Not since she traded him to the fey.

The wyverns are being hunted to extinction for the powerful compounds in their eggs. The fey are dying out as humans grow in power. Now Tam and Dorie will have to decide which side they will fight for. And if they end up on opposite sides, can their returning friendship survive?

Tina Connolly’s historical fantasy series Ironskin continues with Silverblind, available October 7th from Tor Books.

 

 

Chapter 1
INTERVIEW

Adora Rochart had not called on her fey side for nearly a decade, except for the merest gloss of power that helped keep her unnoticeable: allowed her to slip onto trolleys without paying, to slip under the radar, and incidentally to keep breathing. When the fey had showed her how to extract the blue from her system, they advised her to keep the tiniest film of fey dust about her. There was no other creature such as she: no other half-human, half-fey, and on many things the fey could not advise her.

But the Monday morning she went to her job interviews—that morning, for the first time in seven years, she unlocked the copper box of concentrated blue, and dipped her fingers in it. More than the dusting she had had. Far, far less than her whole self.

The blue must have sparkled on her fingers before being absorbed. Surely it must have tingled. But mostly, we may never know—why that particular morning, did she decide to bring the fey back into her life? Was it for luck? Was there fey intuition at stake, telling her she was about to need it? Or was it somehow the fey themselves, desperate about all that was about to come, slipping their blue poison in her ear, telling her that she must side with them in the final war?

—Thomas Lane Grimsby, Silverblind: The Story of Adora Rochart

 

Dorie sat neatly on one side of the desk, hands folded on top of the dirt smudge on her best skirt, heart in her throat. This was the last of the three interviews she’d managed to obtain— and the most important.

The desk was sleek and silver—like the whole building, shiny and new with the funds suddenly pouring into the Queen’s Lab. The ultra-modern concrete-and-steel space had opened a scant year ago, but the small office was already crammed with the books, papers, and randomnesses of some overworked underling. On a well-thumbed book she could make out the chapter heading: “Wyverns and Basilisks: A Paralyzing Paradox.” A narrow, barred window was half-covered by a towering stack of papers, but there was some blue summer sky beyond it. Perhaps if you stood on that chair and peered around it you could see the nurses marching at the City Hospital. Not that she was going to do anything so improper as stand on chairs today. This was her last chance.

The door buzzed as the underling scanned his ID medallion and walked in. Late, of course. He was probably a grad student from the University, thin and already stooped, in a rumpled blue suit, with a brown tie that had seen better days. Dorie refused to let her heart sink to her feet. There was always the chance that this boy was better than the two men she’d interviewed with that day, even if they had been higher on the ladder.

The underling sat down in his chair and moved stacks of papers with a dramatic groan for his overworkedness. Took out a pencil and began adding up a column of figures on a small notebook he carried. He didn’t even bother to look up at her. “Let’s get this farce over with, shall we?”

No. It was not going to go better at all.

Dorie pulled her papers from her satchel and passed them over. “I’m Dorie Rochart,” she said, “and I’m interviewing for the field work position.”

He dropped the papers on top of another stack without a glance and continued adding. “Look,” he said to the notebook, “it’s none of my doing. I’m sure you had very good marks and all.”

“I did,” Dorie interjected. She found his name on a placard half-buried in the remains of lunch. “Mr.… John Simons, is it? Pleased to meet you. Yes, I was top of the class.” She had worked hard for that, after all. Firmly squashed all her differences and really buckled down. “I have a lot of fantastic ideas for ways this lab could help people that I’d really like to share with you.”

“I’m sure, I’m sure,” said Simons. “But be sensible, miss. You must realize they’re never going to hire a girl for a field work position.”

And there it was. He was willing to say what the first two men this morning had only danced around, mindful of keeping up the appearance that their labs were modern and forward-thinking and sensitive to the current picketings going on around Parliament. She could almost like him for being so blunt.

“I’m very qualified,” Dorie said evenly. Of course she could not tell him exactly why she was so qualified. Being half-fey was the sort of thing for which they might just throw you in an iron box for the rest of your life. If they didn’t hang you first. “I grew up in the country, and I—”

“I know, I know. You always dreamed of hunting copperhead hydras and silvertail wyverns like your brothers.”

“I don’t have any—”

“Or cousins, or whatnot.” Simons sighed and finally put his pencil down. “Look, I don’t want to be rude, but can we call it a day? I still have all this data to sort through.” Finally, finally he deigned to look up at her, and his mouth hung open on whatever he was going to say.

This was the look Dorie knew.

This is what she had encountered twice before today— and more to the point, in general, always. The curse of her fey mother: beauty.

He stammered through something incoherent, in which she caught the words “girl” and “blonde.” Finally he settled on, “I am very sorry. Terrible policy, terrible policy. Should be hiring girls right and left. You’re not going to cry, are you?”

“Of course not,” she said flatly. Dorie Rochart did not cry. She might, however, cause all those papers behind Simons to dump themselves on his head. It would be very satisfying. The fey in her fingertips tingled with mischief. She tucked her hands under her legs and sat on them.

He brightened. “Oh, good. I wouldn’t know what to do.” The mental wheels behind his eyes turned and Dorie braced herself, for now was the moment when they all propositioned her, and she didn’t know what she would do then. The other two men that morning had done that… and her fey side had reacted.

Dorie had locked away her fey half for seven years. She couldn’t trust herself with it. This morning, for the first time, she had retrieved just a trace. Just a smidge. It had felt so good, so real. Like she could face the day. Like she could sail through these interviews. A drop of blue, just to bring her luck.

But in seven years she had forgotten all her habits to control that part of her.

Her fingers had twitched, flicked, and had made a hot cup of tea “accidentally” spill on the first interviewer’s lap. The second one, she had dropped a nearby spider down his collar. Simons had the misfortune to be third in line, and papers dumped on his head would be just the tip of the iceberg.

But to her surprise, he said, “Look, are you good at sums? There aren’t any indoors research jobs right now, but I believe they’re hiring more ladies to work the calculating machines. There’s some girls in the physics wing crunching data.”

Her fingers relaxed with this minor reprieve as she stood. He was safe for the moment. “I’m afraid not. Thank you for your—”

The door buzzed again. It swung open and a young eager face poked his head in. “Wyvern’s hatching! Wyvern’s hatching! Ooh, girl!” He blushed and left.

Perhaps Simons saw the light on her face, for he bended enough to say, “Look, I know you’re disappointed, miss, uh, Miss Dorie.” He blushed as he said her name. “I could… I could sneak you in to see the hatching before you go? As a, uh, personal favor?”

Dorie nodded eagerly. This was by far the most tolerable suggestive remark of the day, since it had the decency to come with a wyvern hatching.

“Stay behind me, then, and keep a low profile.” His thin chest puffed out. “Top secret, you know? But they won’t get too fussed about a girl if they see you—Pearcey brings in his latest bird all the time. I’ll show you out when it’s over.”

Dorie followed Simons down the concrete hall to a room crammed with all the boys and men of the lab. He scanned his medallion and pulled her through behind him as the door opened. She caught a glimpse of the copper circle and saw a thin oval design there, its lines a faint silver glow. The same symbol was visible hanging on the lanyards of a few other men as well—some sort of new technology. Using electricity, she supposed. And a magnet, in that lock? She had not seen this sort of security before, but then she had been consumed with finishing her University studies this year.

She stood behind him, out of the way. She did not need to be told to stay to the back, as she felt conspicuous enough being the only girl. It was a clean, cold room, with metal tables and more rows of those narrow barred windows. The overhead lights were faintly tinged blue, and a smell of disinfectant hung in the air.

There was a small incubator in the middle of the room, made of glass and copper and lined with straw on the bottom. Inside was a grey egg speckled in silver. The top was thoroughly cracked and it was rocking back and forth. More chips from the egg tooth and a large piece broke off.

A man in a lab coat was making sure everyone was at their assigned station—from that and the murmurs she pieced bits together: one man was fetching a mouse for the new hatchling, another man was readying to seize the eggshell at the precise moment the wyvern was done with it and rush it to something called the extraction machine.

What was so important about the eggshell? Dorie wondered. In her childhood, she had made note of the elusive wyverns whenever she stumbled across a pair, crept in day after day in half-fey state to that bit of the forest and stared in awe. No one had been interested in them then, or their eggshells. But she was not supposed to call attention to the fact that she was here, and she did not want to be thrown out, so she did not ask.

Across the concrete room she saw someone in a canvas field hat and her heart suddenly skipped a beat. Tam had always worn a hat like that—he called it his explorer hat. She hadn’t seen her cousin for seven years, not since they were both fifteen and in the fey-ridden forest and—well. She wouldn’t think about that now. Dorie peered around shoulders, wondering if it could possibly be Tam. He would have liked this job, she thought. But the man turned toward her and she could see that it definitely wasn’t Tam, not even Tam-a-decadelater. Of course, Tam had too much class to be wearing a hat inside.

Another crack, and the wyvern’s wet triangular head came poking out. She heard an audible “awww” from someone. The man assigned to the task stood waiting, gloved hands out and ready to scoop up the apparently precious pieces of eggshell.

The egg broke all the way open and the little wyvern chick came wiggling out. Dorie barely noticed the process with the eggshell, as her attention was taken with the wriggly wet chick. They were bright silver at this age, and the sheen of liquid left from its hatching made it shine like a mirror under the laboratory lights. It stalked along, screeching for food. A short man swung a cage up onto the table, reached in with gloved hands to grab a white mouse by the tail. Dropped it into the incubator.

The little wyvern stalked along, its tiny claws clicking on the metal, its feet splaying out as it tried to learn balance. A man moved in front of her and by the time Dorie could see again the wyvern was comfortably gnawing on the mouse.

“Bloody-minded, aren’t they?” said someone.

The short man brought a shallow bowl of water to set on the table and the wyvern chick stopped eating long enough to flap its wings and hiss, causing much laughter as the short man jumped back, spilling the water. A tall man in a finely cut suit said, “Doesn’t like you much, does it?”

“Nasty little things don’t like anyone,” retorted the short man.

“And here I thought it was showing good taste,” said the tall man in a pretend-nice way. The other scientists laughed sycophantically and Dorie thought this must be someone with power. She dropped her eyes as she realized he was looking back at her, and turned to Simons.

“What now?” Dorie whispered to her interviewer. “Will they return the chick to its parents?”

“Oh, no,” Simons said. “We sell the hissy little things—to zoos and other research facilities, mostly. We’re only interested in the eggs here, and they don’t breed in captivity. Every so often someone makes arrangements with Pearce to purchase one as a pet—don’t ask me why people want them. They don’t like anybody. All they do is spit and scream at you, and when they’re older, steam, too.”

“Who’s that man?” said Dorie, for Simons seemed to be in a question-answering mood. “The one looking at us.”

Simons stiffened. Hurriedly he stepped in front of her as if to block the man’s view. “Come on, come on, let me show you out,” he said. “That’s the lab director, and if he’s cross about me showing you this I just don’t even know. Hurry, miss.”

Dorie started to the door, but stopped, Simons running into her. That boy, all the way in the corner, getting the wyvern chick more water. Wasn’t that Tam after all? Or was her mind playing tricks on her now? She had not seen him for seven years, but surely—

“Dr. Pearce,” said Simons, swallowing.

“Yes, this must be the one o’clock, correct?” The tall man was there, beaming down upon them in more of that fauxfriendly way. “Showing her around a little bit?”

“Well, I—”

“Good, good. Miss Rochart, isn’t it? If you’ll come this way? I’d like to continue your interview in more comfortable quarters.”

Simons looked as startled as Dorie felt, as the lab director escorted her to his office.

In stark contrast to the underling’s office, this office was expansive and tidy. You could make seven or eight of Simons’s office from it, and everyone knew that guys like Simons were the ones who did the real work. The omnipresent barred windows were replaced with a large plate-glass window. The new security building was across the street—a twin of this one, in blocky concrete and steel. And here was that clear view of the old hospital—and yes, the women with their placards attempting to unionize: “Fair pay for fair work. A victory for one is a victory for all.” Dorie strained to see if she could see her stepmother, Jane, who was not a nurse, but liked a good lost cause when she saw one.

The other significant object in the room was a large glass terrarium. Its sides were made of several glass panels set into copper, including a pair of doors fastened with a copper bolt. The top was vented with mesh, and the ceiling above the whole shebang was reinforced with anti-flammable panels of aluminum. Inside this massive display was an adolescent wyvern chick, about the size of a young cat. It was curled up in a silver ball on a nest of wool scraps and looked very comfortable.

Dorie wondered how secure the copper bolt was.

Dr. Pearce pulled out the chair for her, and leaned down to shake her hand. She realized now who he was—she had heard all the stories of his tailored suits, suave manner, and ice-chip eyes. Her hope bounded upward—talking to the lab director himself was an excellent sign. She had not gotten this far with the other two interviews.

Dr. Pearce had her sheaf of papers with him—her stellar academic record, her carefully acquired letters of recommendation. He smiled at Dorie—they always did—and sat down across from her. “The lovely Miss Rochart, I presume? So pleased to finally meet you.”

Dorie tightened her fingers together at the mention of her looks, but she did not stop smiling. The Queen’s Lab. Focus on the goal. With this position you could really start to make a difference. Don’t drop spiders on the lab director.

She knew what she looked like—the curse of her beautyobsessed fey mother. Blond ringlets, even, delicate features, rosebud lips. She could put the ringlets in a bun—which she had—and put on severe black spectacles—which she hadn’t; she couldn’t afford such nonsense—and still she would look like a porcelain doll. She had several times tried to tease the ringlets apart in hopes they would turn into a wild mop, which she always thought would suit her better. But no matter what she tried, she woke up every morning with her hair in careful, silken curls. Even now they were intent on escaping the bun, falling down to form softening ringlets around her face.

“And I you,” said Dorie. Her normal voice was high and dulcet, but through long practice she had trained herself to speak an octave lower than she should.

He steepled his fingers. “Let’s cut right to the chase, Miss Rochart—Adora. May I call you Adora? Such a lovely name.”

“I go by Dorie or Ms. Rochart,” she said, still smiling.

“Ah yes, the diminutive. I understand—after all, I don’t make my friends call me Dr. Pearce all the time.” He smiled at his joke. “Well, then, Dorie, let’s have at it. I understand this is your third interview today?”

“Yes,” she said. The laced fingers weren’t working as well as she had hoped. She sat firmly on one hand and gripped the leg of her chair with the other. It would be terribly bad form to make that porcelain cup of tea with the gold rim levitate off the desk and dump itself down his front. “I understood that information to be private?”

“Oh, there are so few of us in this business, you understand. We are all old friends, all interested in what the new crop of graduates is doing.” He smiled paternally at her. “And your name came up several times over lunch today.”

“Yes?”

“Again, Adora—Dorie—let’s cut to the chase. My colleagues were most amused to tell me of the pretty young girl who thought she could slay basilisks.”

“I see,” said Dorie. “Thank you for your time, then.” She began to rise before her hands would do something that would betray her fey heritage and have her thrown in jail—or worse.

“No no, you misunderstand,” he said, and he came to take her shoulders and gently guide her back to the chair. “My colleagues are living in the past. They didn’t understand what an opportunity they had in front of them. But I understand.”

“Yes?” Her heartbeat quickened. Was he on her side after all? A rosy future opened up once more. The Queen’s Lab—a stepping-stone to really do some good. So much knowledge had been lost since the Great War two decades ago, since people started staying away from the forest. Simple things like what to do with feywort and goldmoths and yellowbonnet. She could continue her research into the wild, fey-touched plants and animals of the forest—species were disappearing at an alarming rate, and that couldn’t be good for the fey or humans. And then, the last several times she’d been home, she’d hardly been able to find the fey in the woods behind her home. When she did, they were only thin drifts of blue.

But Dorie could help the humans. She could help the fey.

She was the perfect person to be the synthesis—and this was the perfect spot to do it. The Queen’s Lab was the most prominent research facility in the city. If she could get in here, she could solve things from the inside.

Surely even Jane would approve of that.

Dr. Pearce smiled, one hand still on her shoulder. “If you’ve met any of the young men who do field work for us, you know they grew up dreaming of facing down mythical monsters.” He gestured expansively, illustrating the young boys’ fervent imaginations. “Squaring off against the legendary basilisk, armed with only a mirror! Luring a copperhead hydra out of its lair, seizing it by the tail before it can twist around to bite you with its seven heads! Sneaking past a pair of steam-blowing silvertail wyverns, capturing their eggs and returning to tell the tale!”

“Yes,” breathed Dorie. She put her hands firmly in her pockets.

“Those boys grow up,” Dr. Pearce said. “Some of them still want to fight basilisks. But many of them settle down and realize that the work we do right here in the lab is just as important as risking your neck in the field.” He perched on his desk and looked right at her. “Our country is mired in the dark ages of myth and superstition, Dorie. When we lost our fey trade three decades ago, we lost all of our easy, clean energy—all of our pride. We’ve been clawing our way back to bring our country in line with the technology of the rest of the world. We need some bold strokes to align us once more among the great nations of the world. And we can only do that with smart men—and women—like you.”

She heard the ringing echo of a well-rehearsed speech, and still, she was carried away, for this was what she wanted, and more. “And think of all the good we could do with the knowledge we acquire in the field!” she jumped in, even though she had not planned to tip her hand till she was hired. “Sharing the benefits of all we achieve with everyone who truly needs them. Why, the good that can be accomplished from one pair of goldmoth wings! From a tincture of copperhead hydra venom! Do you remember the outbreak of spotted hallucinations last summer? My stepmother was the one who realized that the city hospitals no longer knew the country remedy of a mash of goldmoths and yellowbonnet. We worked together—she educating hospital staff, me in the field collecting. With the backing of someone like the Queen’s Lab, I could continue this kind of work. We could make a difference. Together.” She was ordinarily not good with words, but she had recited her plans to her roommate over and over, waiting for the key moment to tell someone who could really help her.

“Ah, a social redeemer,” Dr. Pearce said, and a fatherly smile smeared his face at her youthful enthusiasms.

This was not the key moment.

“But more seriously, Dorie,” he went on, and his voice deepened. “I would like to create a special position in the Queen’s Lab, just for you. A smart, clever, lady scientist like you is an asset that my colleagues were foolish enough to overlook.” He fanned out her credentials. “Your grades and letters of recommendation are exemplary.” He wagged a finger at her. “You know, if you had been born a boy we would never have had this meeting. You would have been snapped up this morning at your very first interview.”

“The Queen’s Lab has always been my first choice,” said Dorie, because it seemed to be expected, and because it was true.

He smiled kindly, secure in his position as leader of the foremost biological research institution in the country. “Dorie, I would like you to be our special liaison to our donors. It is not false praise to assert how important you would be to our cause. The lab cannot exist without funding. Science cannot prosper. We need people like you, people who can stand on the bridge between the bookish boy scientist with a pencil behind his ear and the wealthy citizens that can be convinced to part with their family money; someone, in fact, exactly like you.”

Her hands rose up, went back down. A profusion of thoughts pressed on her throat—with effort she focused to make a clear sentence come out. “And I would be doing what, exactly? Attending luncheons, giving teas?” He nodded. “Greasing palms at special late-night functions for very select donors?”

“You have it exactly.”

“A figurehead, of sorts,” said Dorie. Figurehead was a substitute for the real word she felt.

“If you like.”

Not doing field work,” she said flatly.

“You must see that we couldn’t risk you. I am perfectly serious when I say the work done here in the lab is as important—more important—than the work done by the hotheads out gathering hydras. You would be a key member of the team right here, away from the dust and mud and silvertail burns.”

“I applied for the field work position,” said Dorie, even though her hopes were fading fast. In the terrarium behind him, the adolescent wyvern was awake now, pacing back and forth and warbling. The large terrarium was overkill—their steam was more like mist at this age. It could as easily be pacing around Dr. Pearce’s desk, or enjoying the windowsill. All it would take was a little flicker of the fingers, a little mental nudge on that bolt.…

Dr. Pearce brought his chair right next to hers and put a fatherly arm on her shoulder. She watched the wyvern and did not shove the arm away, still hoping against hope that the position she wanted was in her grasp. “Let me tell you about Wilberforce Browne,” Dr. Pearce said. “Big strapping guy, big as three of you probably—one of our top field scientists. He was out last week trying to bring in a wyvern egg—very important to the Crown, wyvern eggs.”

Dorie looked up at that. “Wyvern eggs?” she said, trying to look innocent. This is what she had just seen. But she could not think what would be so important about the eggs— except to the wyvern chick itself, of course.

Dr. Pearce wagged a finger at her. “You see what secrets you would be privy to if you came to work for us. Well, Wilberforce. He stumbled into a nest of the fey.”

“But the fey don’t attack unless provoked—”

“I wish I had your misplaced confidence,” Dr. Pearce said. “The fey attacked, and in his escape Wilberforce stumbled into the clearing where his target nest lay. Alerted, the mated pair of wyverns attacked with steam and claws. He lost a significant amount of blood, part of his ear—and one eye.”

“Goodness,” murmured Dorie, because it seemed to be expected. “He must have been an idiot,” which was not.

Dr. Pearce harrumphed and carried on. “So you see, your pretty blue eyes are far too valuable to risk in the field. Not that one cares to mention something as sordid as money”— and he took a piece of paper from his breast pocket and laid it on the desk so he could slide it over to her—“but as it happens, I think that you’ll find that sum to be very adequate, and in fact, well more than the field work position would have paid.”

Dorie barely glanced at the paper. Her tongue could not find any more pretty words; she could stare at him mutely or say the ones that beat against her lips. “As it happens, I have personal information on what your male field scientists get paid, and it is more than that number.” It was a lie—but one she was certain was true.

Shock crossed his face—either that she would dare to question him, or that she would dare talk about money, she didn’t know which.

Dorie stood, the violent movement knocking her chair backward. Her fey-infused hands were out and moving, helping the words, the wrong words, come pouring out of her mouth. “As it happens, I do not care to have my time wasted in this fashion. Look, if you did give me the field job and it didn’t work out, you could always fire me. And what would you have wasted? A couple weeks.”

Dr. Pearce stood, too, retrieving her chair. “And our reputation, for risking the safety of the fairer sex in such dangerous operations. No, I could not think of such a thing. You would need a guard with you wherever you went, and that would double the cost. Besides, I couldn’t possibly ask one of our male scientists to be with you in the field, unchaperoned.…” His eyebrows rose significantly. “The Queen’s Lab is above such scandal.”

“Is that your final word on the subject?” Her long fingers made delicate turning motions; behind him the copper bolt on the glass cage wiggled free. The silver wyvern put one foot toward the door, then another.

“It is, sweetheart.”

The triangular head poked through the opening as the glass door swung wide. Step by step…

“Thank you for your time then,” Dorie said crisply. “Oh, and you might want to look into the safety equipment on your cages.” She pointed behind him.

The expression on his face as he turned was priceless. Paternal condescension melted into shock as a yodeling teenage wyvern launched itself at his head. Dorie was not worried for his safety—the worst that could happen was a complete loss of dignity, and that was happening now.

“I’ll see myself out, shall I?” said Dorie. She strolled to the office door and through, leaving it wide open for all to see Dr. Pearce squealing and batting at his hair as he ran around the wide, beautiful office.

 

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