Chapter Six: The Clerk’s Office

Click here to read from the beginning.

***

The rain had begun in full force by the time Jonathan Lytra and his companion left the palace. The prince had dressed in the dark blue coat that signified a member of the armed forces. A shining medal proclaimed his identity, as though anyone could be in doubt. He wore three flintlock pistols and kept spare powder and bullets in an oiled pouch on his belt. His brown hair had been re-brushed and tied.

Eva had no weapons, but was dressed sensibly in a plain but functional charcoal dress that buttoned up to the collar, with close-fitting sleeves. She looked much more subdued, less like a noblewoman than an assistant. But her eyes still blazed with the arrogance that came with status, and few who noticed her could really be in doubt of her superiority.

Jonathan waited until Eva had entered the carriage before he climbed in behind her. They said nothing to one another once the doors were closed, and the carriage set off with all speed. As it rattled down the broad avenue, its inhabitants seemed interested in looking at everything but each other, and Eva contented herself with peering out the window from time to time in the manner she had forbidden to her daughter the night before. But she was no longer in the prison carriage, being whisked off to answer impossible questions – now she was in the princes carriage, attended by the prince’s footmen. And there was nothing at all shameful in being seen in such company as that.

The clerk’s office was not so far from the centre of town, but they were forced to take a roundabout route that doubled or tripled their travelling time. There were roadblocks that prevented anyone from taking the road that led past the train station – and as it was one of the largest in the city, this naturally presented some problems as to transportation.

The scent of well-kept gardens and clean streets was slowly replaced by the smell of ash and smoke as they passed the station. This in turn was replaced by the more unsavoury smells that are ever present in an urban sprawl. The course of human life is rarely pretty, and never pristine, and here people were crammed into every possible situation with little care for the cleanliness of themselves or others. Eva turned pale and drew a handkerchief from the pocket of her dress to cover her nose. Jonathan almost wished he could do the same. They maintained silence.

At last the carriage pulled up to the clerk’s office. It was situated in an unassuming building with a whitewashed exterior and a blue-tiled roof. A modest sign at the door proclaimed that several others rented the space as well. The clerk’s office was on the second floor.

It had been cleared out in advance of their arrival, and as Jonathan exited the carriage and extended his hand for Eva, he caught sight of two uniformed men, standing smartly to either side of the entrance. He nodded to them and they saluted as he passed. The guards’ eyes flickered to the noblewoman beside him, but they were far too well-trained to comment on its strangeness.

To be certain of his guest’s safety, Jonathan took pains to precede her up the stairs to the second floor and into the office of the clerk. If he expected any obvious traps or hired gunman waiting in anticipation of their arrival, he was perhaps disappointed. There was nothing in the room but peeling paint, a scratched and dented floor, several filing cabinets, a crammed bookshelf, a writing desk and a chair, all in a similar state of dilapidation.

“Are you sure this is the man?” Eva asked archly.

“The materials in his possession seem to suggest it,” Jonathan replied. “He maintains his innocence, of course.”

“It is just – ” she knelt and tugged on a drawer doubtfully – “He hardly seems wealthy enough to afford the purchase and smuggling price of such materials.”

“Oh, he certainly wasn’t acting alone.” Jonathan waved the thought off with a sardonic smile. “Someone else must have paid for them, and given them to him.”

“I should think that to have a patron wealthy enough to do as you imply would have benefitted him a little more than this,” she returned. She pulled a stack of papers from the opened cabinet.

As she rifled through them, Jonathan approached the bookshelf and took one of the plain black books that sat squashed in beside all its brothers. It was a scrupulous and detailed account of transactions and audits concerning merchants, tradesmen, fishermen – he caught at least fifty names as he flipped through it. He was not familiar with any of them.

“The Falconer will have his hands busy with this,” he murmured. Then, a little louder, he said, “What have you found over there?”

“Bank transactions,” she replied. “Hundreds of them. You said he worked for the bank?”

“As far as I know,” Jonathan said.

“Well, I’m not entirely sure he was supposed to bring these away with him,” she said. As Jonathan approached her, she stood and held out one of the papers.

The statement documented a money transfer of no small sum. It had been paid following a ‘transaction of material goods,’ and at the bottom were the original signatures of both the client and the provider.

Daniel frowned at the paper. “Odd,” he murmured.

“What’s odd?” Eva asked carelessly as she opened another drawer.

“Didn’t you say that Daniel had answered to an urgent letter from Lord Shroud?”

At the mention of Daniel’s name her attention was immediately caught. She turned her head to look at him. “So I believe.”

“He’s listed as the recipient of these goods, whatever they are.” Daniel scanned the paper again, but the information was sparse. No list of materials transferred was present. “That makes two connections to him in this. The Falconer will doubtless be pleased.”

She sighed, and seemed to deflate. It seemed she had been hoping for some greater revelation. She began looking through papers once more. “There must be thousands of papers in here,” she said. “Were he pilfering from the bank somehow, is it so great a surprise that the name of a rich man would come up?”

Perhaps, thought Jonathan. But why would Shroud have signed for the goods himself? Such a thing was the housekeeper’s job – unless discretion required that no one else be informed. He was about to repeat his thoughts aloud when something made him pause – and listen. “Stop,” he commanded.

His tone was so forceful that Eva had lifted her hands from the drawer before she could think about what she was doing. “Why?” she asked. “What – ”

He put one hand up to silence her again. He narrowed his eyes, and cocked his head first to the right, then to the left. He held his breath and tried to listen beyond the beating of his heart, which had suddenly tripled in speed and sound. But beneath that, he could hear something.

Steady ticking.

He had no time to warn her. He could only lean forward, grab her by the hand, and wrench her away from the filing cabinets. He spun her around and pushed her towards the floor, but now he was being aided by the force of an explosion that surged out from a cabinet in the corner. The blast carried them both down in a tangle of limbs, his body arched over hers as a human shield.

It was not an explosion like the one in the train station had been, nor had it been intended for such a purpose. It was not meant to destroy the building –  only the cabinets and their contents, and the sharp, hot smell of burning paper and metal soon filled the room. It was over before either of them really understood what was happening. The skeletons of the cabinets and their contents stood awash in flame.

Jonathan pushed himself onto his elbows, and found himself staring into Eva’s wide, grey-green eyes. Her mouth was open in a soundless emission of terror. When she focused on him, her mouth snapped shut. But her hands, still clamped around his shoulders, betrayed the strength of her fear.

“Are you all right?” he asked. It was a stupid question, but she nodded. Her grip relaxed and he was able to climb to his feet. When he offered her his hand, she let him do most of the work to bring her upright again, and continued to lean heavily on his arm.

Burning paper fluttered like a flock of small, unconcerned birds. In the corner a merry blaze was going, but it had not yet reached the rest of the room. Shouts came from below, and they heard a distant thundering on the stairs. The guard was coming to see what injury had befallen their precious prince.

“There’s little to retain us now,” said Jonathan. “Shall we?” Eva nodded.

He was about to leave when he spotted one un-burnt piece of paper, crumpled on the floor. It was the transaction between Lord Shroud and his commoner compatriot. If nothing else could come of the day, at least he had this one piece of evidence. He stepped forward and bent to retrieve it.

A sound finally emerged from his companion. It was a muffled scream.

He turned back. Eva’s hands were clapped over her mouth and any sign of composure was gone. He started toward her automatically. “What…” he said.

“Your back,” she whimpered through her fingers.

He couldn’t see it, but suddenly he could feel it, penetrating the shield that his adrenaline had put up over his nervous system. Splinters bit into his skin and burned in his back. And when he reached back with his hand to check the damage, it came away wet with blood.

***

Click here to read Chapter Seven.

Tracks, Chapter Five: A Morning of Captivity

Click here to read from the beginning.

***

The next morning Eva and Kate attended the king promptly as he broke his fast. Their suite had, as promised, lacked for nothing, and the ladies were able to spend the night in physical, if not mental, comfort.

Eva could not help but notice that the king ate very little for breakfast. The sight of food seemed to appall him and he turned away dish after dish. He attempted to mask his obvious discomfort through pleasant conversation, but although he did not touch on the events of the previous night, the pleasantries were strained and awkward.

Jonathan arrived halfway through the meal, looking slightly disoriented and upset. He bid them all a good morning, though he avoided making eye contact with Eva and the smile he gave to Kate seemed a little delirious. He sat down with barely more than a salute to his brother and tore into a roll.

“Any news?” he asked Phillip during one of the more painful silences.

Phillip raised one eybrow, as though to suggest that his younger brother lacked decorum. Nevertheless, he wiped his mouth on the corner of his napkin and answered. “Nothing, for the moment. The Falconer has yet to report.”

The words had hardly left his mouth when a steward entered. Bowing to the king, he announced that the Falconer Imnir awaited his pleasure.

“Under normal circumstances, I would postpone state affairs to after breakfast, for I find it gives terrible indigestion and makes for irritated or impatient guests. But today you might wish to hear his news. Should I call him?” he asked.

“Your wish is ours, Your Majesty,” Eva replied. Her face betrayed no emotion other than polite attentiveness. Kate looked as though she wished to say something sarcastic – then rearranged her expression so that she bore the same look as her mother.

Phillip nodded to the steward. The man bowed again, then departed. A minute later, the Falconer strode in. He was dressed in the same attire he had worn the previous evening and the tangled state of his hair suggested that he had neither slept, nor stopped to make himself presentable. He walked up to the king and bowed perfunctorily, then stood with his hands folded, waiting for permission to speak. He ignored Eva and Kate completely, as though he had never spoken to them in his life, let alone arrested them not twelve hours previously. Though he had worked through the night, his eyes were still bright and fierce. He looked as though he could easily have another night with no rest.

The king was sipping a cup that looked like tea but smelled strongly of brandy. He nodded his permission and the Falconer began.

“Preliminary searches have yielded no evidence that Lord Gallow was a collaborator,” he said. “My men will continue to search the city for the responsible parties, but I would request permission to follow the Southern road. If he were apprehended on the way to respond to a call of emergency, we may still be able to find clues.”

“So you believe us now,” Kate said.

As soon as the words left her lips, she seemed to realise it had been a mistake to utter them. The Falconer appeared to notice her for the first time – his face snapped toward her and his cold gaze settled on her. She blanched, but did not – could not – tear her eyes away. After a long moment he replied. “What I believe is that preliminary searches have yielded no evidence that your father was a collaborator,” he said in his peculiar cruel tone. “I am not convinced that you are not a family of liars.” Following this statement, he turned back to the king, leaving Kate speechless and pale with fury and fear.

Jonathan seemed on the point of speaking, but Phillip did not reproach the Falconer for his speech out of turn, nor even acknowledge that he had heard the exchange. “By all means, pursue the Southern road if you think it will bring useful information. How long do you expect to be away?”

“Not longer than the day. If Lord Gallow was abducted it could not have been so far along the road. While I am away, Gilltrin will serve as an adequate substitute for domestic matters. My other teams will, of course, continue their search within the city.”

“Go, then,” Phillip bade him. With one last bow, the Falconer turned away and left the hall as swiftly as he had come.

***

When breakfast was finished, Eva and Kate retired again to their suite. Here Eva pressed Kate to write some of the letters she was owing to several friends and acquaintances who wished to be well-remembered by their family. Kate sat down to the task with much agitation, and crumpled her first three attempts on the floor complaining of the imperfect penmanship.

“Do not be so aggrieved by the Falconer,” her mother said gently after the last outburst. “It would only please him.” Kate was silent. “He enjoys having the last word and the feeling of superiority, particularly over those who surpass him by birth. He is a common man whose uncommon talent for heartlessness has made him some degree of useful. But he has never demanded the respect that established families and estates have – he has only inspired loathing and fear.” Her speech was perhaps unfair to the Falconer, but Eva had never seen much in him to respect, and no reason to be more civil than was demanded by society. And his behavior that morning had irked her at least as much as Kate – perhaps more so, for when Kate went back to writing, with a slightly mollified air, Eva concentrated very avidly on the book she was reading, yet never turned a page.

An hour or two had passed when the personal manservant of Jonathan Lytra called on them. His master, he said, requested Lady Gallow’s presence at her earliest convenience.

Eva had half a mind to tell the footman to go away, so that she could let Jonathan wait for as long as she pleased. But it was never a good idea to get on the wrong side of princes, and she feared it might have something to do with Daniel. So she contented herself with shutting her book with a very loud snap and telling Kate that she would be back within the hour. She followed the manservant out with all the silent displeasure she could muster.

Jonathan sat in his office, an ordinarily sunny room. His writing desk sat just in front of a wall made of windows that let in all the natural light he could wish for as he worked. Unlike Phillip’s dark and comfortable office, his seemed bright, clean, austere.

Today, there was not sufficient light to read his papers without the aid of a desk lamp. Dark blue clouds roiled above the palace, heavy with rain. The first few, fat drops had already fallen into the courtyard directly outside his window.

When Eva came in he waved his manservant away and the man disappeared, shutting the door discreetly behind him. Eva sank into her customary curtsy. “Enough of that,” he said impatiently. “Come over here. I need to ask you something.”

“I am at Your Majesty’s disposal,” she said, without much sincerity.

His clear blue eyes bore into her own grey-green ones. “Was Daniel responsible for the arson at the train station?” he asked.

Two bright red spots appeared in her cheeks and her insolence was replaced by rage. “How dare you – ” she began.

“Answer!” he commanded.

“He was not, and never could be, the responsible party,” she snarled through gritted teeth.

At once, his manner seemed to change. He sat back in his chair and exhaled slowly. He seemed relieved, as though the exchange had put to rest all of his fears. “That’s good,” he said. “I’m glad to hear it.”

She stared at him for a moment. “I beg your pardon,” she said finally, “but is that the only reason you called me to your office? To ask me a simple question, the answer to which I gave you last night?”

“No,” he admitted. “But I did feel the need to ask. The Falconer never judges a man based on his character, so he will suspect your husband until indisputable proof is found that Daniel is either guilty or innocent. But I do judge character. And not only am I convinced that I can judge my friend’s character to be honest, true and loyal, but you have persuaded me that you believe what you say.”

“I suppose I am glad to hear it,” she said as she fiddled with the cuff of her gown. Her voice was still full of resentment.

“Let’s not think on that any more,” he said gently. He was trying to make amends, though she felt he did so very poorly. “I also called you here to inform you of something.” He pulled a note from his stack of papers and, as he spoke, glanced at it for reference. “At 9:45 this morning, well after the Falconer took up his pursuit on the Southern road, a man was arrested. In his home were found several items of equipment that would have been invaluable in any endeavor of arson. This man was a clerk and an accountant. It is my thought that his papers, if searched, might provide some clue as to his compatriots and patrons. I intend to make a preliminary investigation of the property before seizing it and bringing it back here to be studied.”

“Wouldn’t the Falconer prefer to do it, or set one of his men to the task?” she asked.

“It is I who am master of him, not the other way around,” he replied with a touch of coldness. “I do command the army as part of my duties, and they will be the ones to seize the property. And while the Falconer is making his own investigations, this is not something I feel can wait. I merely thought it might relieve you to know that the investigation is moving forward and, with good fortune, your acquittal might be secured before matters get more complicated.”

Eva nodded, as though she understood the sense in everything he said. Then, “I want to come with you,” she told him.

Jonathan’s quick manner evaporated. “What?” he repeated stupidly.

“I’m as much a part of this as you are, and my future is at stake. For the sake of my husband and my daughter, I wish to go with you.”

“I…don’t think that will be possible.”

“You owe it to me,” she murmured. “You, who have always doubted the rightness of things.” That made him turn a bright red, and he looked down at the table. “I have a quick eye, you know that. I might be of some help to you.” And you owe me. Those words, cruel and cutting and undeniable, still hung in the air.

***

Click here to read Chapter Six.

Problematic Updates

I thought that updating would be a simple matter. Twice a week, I thought. That should be easy enough. After all, I write every day and so I have seven days in which to get all of my material together.

Now, of course, I’m not sure what I was thinking. Updating twice a week has almost always been a matter of going down to the wire. I’ve always woken up on Tuesday or Thursday morning wondering how I’m going to manage it. And every Thursday, when I’ve made my last post, I promise myself that over the weekend I’ll get a good backlog going and this time, I’ll be really prepared for Tuesday.

Every single time. I never learn.

The facts are that I have three jobs and I’m writing my Master’s thesis. On Mondays I work for my professor. Thursday through Sunday, I give guided walking tours around Copenhagen. In the evenings I’m often too exhausted to write and when I have extra time during the day, I’m either hurriedly collecting research or I’m working on my THIRD job, content writing for a web site that needs to go live in September.

I’m never short of ideas, only on time. I’m hoping to get a chapter together by Thursday, or at least some kind of complaining poem. Thanks to any readers who are sticking it out with me. I hope my life becomes a lot less hectic soon, and I can focus on my writing.

Tracks, Chapter Four: Midnight Meetings

Click here to read from the beginning.

***

Siege City’s wealthiest quarter was a carefully constructed neighborhood of mansions, parks and gardens bisected by well-paved streets, a sudden oasis of calm on the edge of the urban sprawl. The wide avenues were lined with beech trees and here and there the front of some large estate overlooked the road. Lilac hedges were in vogue, and their pale flower clusters waved like hands in the breeze. Their scent was a refreshing change from that of the usual stench of the city.

It was cooler here, and darker, as though the suburb were trying to convince its inhabitants that they had escaped to the country for the night. The street was illumined by little magical lights that hovered and buzzed like fireflies, dipping and swerving over the prison carriage as it made its stoic way down the lane – large enough for three such carriages – and towards the palace.

The quarter was kept clean by an army of civil servants who emerged in the early hours of the morning to clear away the horse leavings and remove any accumulated detritus. But it was far too early in the night for them to be out. In fact, the prison carriage passed several parties that were still in full swing. The soberer of the guests stared after it and wondered very loudly who might be inside and what the transgressor had done. Some of the more inebriated shouted at the driver. He ignored them.

Within, Kate tried only once to twitch aside the curtains and peer out at the lane as they crossed it. Her mother placed one hand against her own, keeping the curtain safely in place and denying any curious onlookers the satisfaction of recognizing the carriage’s guests. Kate had been hurriedly dressed in her riding clothes and provided with a coat, which she clutched to her as though it were the only thing that could protect her purity.

They were kept company by a guard who sat across from them, watching stoically but saying nothing. Every so often Kate threw him an insolent glare, which seemed not to phase him. Eva sat still and upright, her own face a mask of calm.

The prison carriage rattled over the main boulevard and they came into view of the palace. It was a gargantuan construction of white marble veined with green and gold, shaped like a crescent moon. The low semicircle of buildings was crowned by the central tower with its three iconic, copper-toped spires. Tonight the palace was mostly dark, but Eva felt more exposed than she ever had been in her life as she disembarked from the prison carriage.

When the guards approached Kate, she tried to shrug them off with angry words. A soft reproach from her mother silenced her and she accompanied them with sullen obedience. Eva, for her part, stood erect and proud. She moved with such ease and composure that her guards, out of some habitual respect for her nobility, did not hold her but formed a kind of ring around her that moved up to the palace doors. Any onlooker ignorant of the night’s earlier affairs would not have been able to tell whether she was a prisoner or a person of importance.

Eva had initially feared that they would enter through the main doors, pass through the large antechamber and make their way into the audience hall where King Phillip usually held his court. It was early enough in the evening that some festivity endorsed by the king might still be well attended. Had she been presented to the king while some feast was underway, she might not have been able to bear it.

But tonight the audience hall was dark. They were led past it, through the antechamber and down a hallway that wound around and up towards the palace’s private apartments. Eva had been in such apartments a few times, but Kate never. Daniel had often disappeared into one of them or  another for business, and once in a while she had accompanied him.

The guards’ boots thunked on the stone floors in a steady beat that she thought would wake the entire palace. They trundled down the small but well-lit corridor without conversing, and the atmosphere soon became stifling. She was almost grateful when they stopped before the heavy oak door, watched by the king’s page. Upon seeing their party, he slipped inside and was absent for only a few moments before he returned. Nodding to the guards, he took up his post once more.

They entered the open door and it closed behind them with a heavy noise that seemed to promise the fate of the two women on the other side.

The private office of King Phillip was small but comfortable, a private chamber not far from his room. He sat in a large armchair before a wooden table that served today as a desk. The dark circles beneath his eyes suggested that he had been sleeping, and woken to receive the captives. He wore only a thin golden circlet on his head to remind his guests of his royal position.

He was a thin man, with sallow skin that seemed to hang loosely from his bones. He had only recently recovered from a wasting illness that had kept him trembling in his bed, tossing and turning and bathed in sweat like a child trapped in some perpetual nightmare. As a result his clothing hung loose as well, and his blue eyes lacked the brightness that had once been hailed as a sign of his great intellect. He was writing when the guards entered the room, with a glass pen that skated over the page and barely betrayed the trembling of his hand.

There was one other man in the room, and he paced back and forth with an almost frenzied agitation. He resembled the king in looks, but where the other seemed tired, weary and weak, he was full of energy and fire. His brown hair had been hastily combed and pulled back, as though he, too, had just risen from bed. The two figures shared the same long face, sharp nose and those piercing eyes, but the countenance of the man who stood was far sterner than that of his seated companion.

The guards bowed to the king, who lifted his pen and dismissed them with a flick. He barely looked up. They then shuffled back out the door, leaving Eva and Kate at last.

As soon as they had gone, Eva dropped into a deep and graceful curtsy. After a moment, her daughter imitated somewhat awkwardly. With bowed heads they awaited the word of the king.

That word was a little while in coming. When Phillip was finished writing he set down the pen and looked at them with a downturned mouth, tapping his index finger on the table. When he had finished scrutinizing the pair, he said at last, “Rise.” They immediately did so. “Please, sit if you wish. Do you require water, or wine?”

“Nothing, Your Majesty,” Eva said. She did not sit, but clasped her hands in front of her and returned the king’s gaze with one just as frank.

“I trust you are well?” he asked. Eva did not move.

Her hands did not unfold, her head did not dip in that manner of customary politeness. She kept her grey-green eyes fixed upon his face. When it became evident that she would not reply, he cut to the chase. “Do you know why you have been asked to attend on me tonight?” he said.

Eva shook her head.

“Someone planted a number of explosive devices in the train station. We do not know when, we only know that they were activated at half past two. No one was present in the station when it exploded. The night train had already left. But the train tracks were destroyed.” She inhaled sharply. “Soon after the Falconer reported that he had found evidence enough for a warrant and would be making an arrest. Do you deny that a messenger delivered a missive to your house earlier this evening?”

“No,” Eva replied.

“And it exhorted your husband to leave the city with all haste?”

“Do you believe the word of a messenger boy over the lifelong friendship that your family has maintained with my husband?” Her tone was carefully neutral, but the second man in the room looked down at the floor and even Phillip’s eyes flickered away before they returned to her face.

“I wished to speak to Daniel Gallow myself,” he said at length. “Perhaps we might have been able to laugh it off together. Perhaps he might have been able to advise us on our next course of action, as he has done so many times in the past. Instead I received another note from a guard who rode ahead. Daniel wasn’t in the manor and no one has been able to locate him.” He rubbed his hand over his face. “Can you say something on his behalf?”

She looked down at her hands. “He did receive a message,” she said softly. “From Lord Shroud. Surely he has told you that our southern holdings are failing. Floods have ruined most of the crop and we need more farmhands than we have to salvage what we’ll need for winter. My husband was negotiating with Lord Shroud for the loan of some hands. You know how Shroud can be with negotiations. But there must have been some fresh disaster down south. Why else would such a message be sent?”

“But you also understand,” Philip interrupted her. “On the very night our city is attacked by an arsonist, your husband very quickly and very quietly disappears. I do not believe that he is guilty,” he added quickly. “But the Falconer is in charge of the city’s security, and if he has reason to question someone, they probably know something that will be of help.”

Eva’s mouth was set in a thin line and her hands were clasped so tightly in her lap that they were turning pale.

“You are invited to stay here tonight as guests,” Philip said. “Nothing you need will be withheld from you. The matter will be resumed in the morning, with the Falconer present. I am sure that Jonathan will be more than willing to escort you to your suite.” He nodded briefly to each of them, then turned back to the paper he had been scrutinizing before they had arrived. His dismissal was evident. Both Eva and Kate curtsied to him, then waited for Jonathan to pass them and open the door.

He seemed quiet – almost embarrassed – as he led them away from the office and further into the twisting hallways of the palace. They walked for some minutes in an awkward silence. Jonathan offered no pleasantries, and Eva did not seem to desire them. They ascended another flight of stairs and emerged into a broad hall lined with a few large oak doors.

Jonathan pulled a silver key from his pocket and approached the nearest door. Unlocking it, he turned to them. “I hope you find the suite suitable to your needs. Should you require anything you may ring for a servant.”

“Go on, Kate,” Eva said softly. Her daughter quickly curtsied, then slipped through the door into the rich quarters beyond. But Eva made no move to follow her. She stood with her hands folded, gaze fixed boldly on Jonathan. He could not return it. He looked steadily at the floor and drew in breath several times, as though preparing to speak, but exhaled it in a sigh each time.

At last he found his words: “It wasn’t my idea.”

“He is your best friend,” she said in an iron voice. Her fingernails bit into her arms. “How could you be so quick to suspect him? To allow his arrest?”

“You heard my brother, there was little choice in the matter. The Falconer had evidence and he wished to pursue it.” His eyes lifted from the floor and settled on her.

“Your lapdog attacks first and asks questions after. We have been humiliated. How long do you think it will take for word to get out that we were arrested? It doesn’t matter that you call us guests and it will not matter if we are released tomorrow. The damage was done the moment the prison carriage pulled into our drive.”

“The Falconer has very good instincts,” Jonathan mumbled.

“Not this time,” she hissed.

“Of course I don’t believe that it’s true,” he said in an almost supplicating voice. “But the initial evidence is strongly against him. We thought that summoning him would both appease the Falconer and give us time to root out the culprit.” His eyes seemed to plead some kind of forgiveness, or at least understanding.

Eva pushed on the door to the suite. Before entering, she turned to him one last time. “Had he been in your place and you in his, he would never have allowed something like this to happen. Never. He would have opposed it to the very last.” Without bidding him good night, without curtsying or even acknowledging an end to their conversation, she disappeared into the suite and slammed the door. Jonathan was left speechless and motionless on the other side, in a torment of uncertainty and self-loathing.

***

Click here to read Chapter Five.

Tracks, Chapter Three: Unrequested Visitors

Click here to read from the beginning.

***

The mansion of Daniel Gallow was a stately work of neo-classical architecture, commissioned by some ancestor who had seen much more in old-world charm and style than in the need to flaunt his wealth. Naturally, when a man is the friend of a king, he doesn’t have to show off much before everyone falls into whatever trend he is setting. In the case of Daniel Gallow, who had been the childhood playfellow of the royal family, imitating his lifestyle seemed to be a surefire way of keeping the style of the court. When Daniel had married his dark skinned princess seventeen years before, most of the court women dyed their hair black and adopted the looser, flowing garments of the lady’s country. More recently, the Gallows had made it fashionable to have a minimalist garden, with long stretches of grass interrupted only intermittently by some artfully placed bush or trimmed hedge.

The Falconer cared nothing for gardening, and nothing for style. He strode up the stone path towards the long mansion and his guard came behind,trampling the carefully tended grass as they fanned out to form a semicircle around him.

When he reached the front door, he picked up the heavy brass knocker clutched forever in the talons of a stone eagle. He dropped it three times in total, then waited with the affectation of a man who had all the time in the world.

When the door opened to reveal the impassive form of the butler he said, “Retrieve your master, his lady and his daughter with all haste.” The man recognized his livery, nodded and slipped away.

When the door was opened again, it was only the lady who looked out on the Falconer and his assembled men.

Eva Gallow was still dressed in her evening finery, with her hair half unbound as though she had been interrupted just as she was about to retire. Her hair fell around her face and tumbled down to her waist in a cloud of curls. She had been girlish when she first came to court, and her beauty had grown with age, despite childbirth, innumerable poxes and the stress of living in a volatile and vicious social environment. Most men were half in love with her smooth honey skin and shining black hair.

If there was one person who did not soften any cruel thoughts at the sight of her, it was the Falconer, and there was certainly no love lost between them. But princesses, even former ones, do things only with the height of courtesy. “Good evening, Lord Falconer,” she said, and curtsied perfunctorily.

He bowed in reply. “I am surprised to see you so ready to receive us, my lady. I am not interrupting any other planned engagements?”

“No,” she replied. “We returned from one not so long ago, and I simply have not yet gone to bed.”

His eyes darted behind her. “I requested your manservant to fetch your husband, and your daughter as well. Are all your servants so intolerably lazy?”

Her voice brought a chill to the summer air. “My husband is out, and my daughter not suitable for presentation in mixed company.”

“Lord Gallow is out at so late an hour?”

“He said it was urgent.”

“What was?” The Falconer’s lip twitched, as though he were suppressing a smile.

If anything her voice grew even colder. But her tone did not shift and with all the manners of an ice queen, she said, “I did not ask.”

“You did not think it strange that your husband wished to attend to business so late in the evening?” He raised his eyebrows as though to be suggestive.

“When my husband says something is urgent, I do not detain him with pointless inquiries.”

His tone became flat and hard. “What happened, exactly?” he demanded. He crossed his arms and planted his feet on either side of the path, and stared at her with his cold eyes. For a long moment she met that gaze, but at last her eyes dropped and she replied in a somewhat subdued voice.

“He received a letter, and upon reading it said he must go. He did not say where, and he did not say when he would return.”

“Did he take the letter with him?” the Falconer asked.

“I do not know,” she admitted.

“Then you won’t mind if we look.”

She unfolded her arms and placed one hand against the door frame to block his path. “I do mind, Lord Falconer. What right do you have to disrupt our peace at this hour, insult my servants and invite yourself to rummage through our personal belongings?”

“I’m glad you asked,” the Falconer replied in his silky voice. He put a hand into his pocket and drew out a square of paper. As he unfolded it and handed it to her, he said, “You are under arrest for suspected arson, destruction of the king’s property and treason. Please do not struggle.” As he spoke, his guards approached and two of them placed their hands gently but firmly on her arms.

Eva did not try to shake them off. She stared at the warrant, her wide eyes growing wider as she processed the contents of the paper before her. “You put Kate on this warrant,” she said at last. Her voice was thick and confounded.

“You may send a maid to fetch her, but I’m afraid she’ll have to be accompanied by a guard,” the Falconer replied.

Eva nodded to a maid. “Please tell my daughter to dress with all haste and get her cloak,” she said. The girl scurried away and the guards marched their unprotesting charge back down the stone pathway, to the carriage that waited.

***

Click here to read Chapter Four.

Tracks, Chapter Two: The Departure

Click here to start from the beginning. 

***

Somewhere far, far away from the feverish activity surrounding the train station, a man sat in the study of his grand house. He was bent over a large book with a pen, and with one hand traced the lines already written on the paper, while occasionally making notes with the other.

He was not a young man, and he squinted in the lantern light. His brown hair was streaked with grey and his forehead was deeply lined. His face was lean and strong, though, with a clean-shaven chin and bright blue eyes, a proud nose and a mouth that constantly twisted in reaction to one thought or another. Every so often he paused while reading, looked a moment to the side, then moved the pen furiously as he muttered a note.

A little bell strung at the door of his study rang sweetly. Daniel Gallow looked up from the massive volume. Despite the lateness of the hour, he did not seem surprised by a visitor’s arrival. He instead pushed back his chair and proceeded with some haste out of his rich, dark study and down the hall.

His manservant bowed as he approached, and opened the front door of the manor. A messenger stood without, clothed in a plain brown coat and trousers and shifting restlessly from one foot to the other. He was breathing deeply and evenly, as though he had hurried to the front door and now wished to pretend he was in no great rush. A creamy white envelope was clutched in one hand. “From Lord Shroud, sir,” he said as soon as he saw Daniel, and he shoved the envelope toward the man. He did not even stop to bow.

“Thank you,” Daniel replied neutrally as he took it. His duty safely discharged, the messenger wasted no time but briskly walked back down the stone path that led to the manor. His horse waited at the end, just as impatient as its master. Its flanks were steaming despite the summer night.

The whole thing gave Daniel a bad feeling.

He turned away from the door and it was closed behind him. His fingers worked at the seal on the envelope, checking for signs of tampering before prying the wax loose. All seemed in order. The only thing that gave him pause was the hasty scrawl that spelled out his name, and the little ink spots that surrounded it on the envelope. There was a small streak, as well, where the ink had not been allowed to dry thoroughly before some hand had come into contact with it. It was not, therefore, the carefully composed missive he had been hoping for.

A rustle of cloth caused him to look up and twitch the letter, unopened though it was, to his chest.

His wife, Eva, stood in the door of the sitting room. She still wore a fine purple evening gown with a square neck and silver trim, long dagged sleeves, a fitted bodice and a skirt that brushed the floor. “Who’s calling at such an hour?” she asked. Her voice was lower than that of most Lanthian women, and spiced with the eastern accent she had never quite eradicated. He loved listening to that voice. Even after seventeen years its cadence made his stomach jolt. But tonight, he had no time for such emotions.

Daniel forced his thin lips upward into a smile. “Lord Shroud,” he replied. “Where is Kate?”

“She is readying herself for bed, I believe,” Eva replied.

“Go and ensure it.”

If she was offended by the dismissal, she didn’t show it. She merely inclined her head and turned away. Daniel went into the sitting room and shut the door behind him. After a moment’s pause to collect his scattered thoughts, he pulled a single sheet of paper from the envelope, unfolded it and studied its contents.

The message was short, and to the point. He read it over three times, just to make sure. His face seemed to age another twenty years in just a few minutes. When Eva opened the door to the sitting room again she saw him standing rigid, the note crumpled in one hand. His face was a mask of composure; only his hands, trembling slightly, indicated that all was not well.

“Are you all right?” she asked, putting a hand on his shoulder. Her touch seemed to jerk him out of his reverie.

“No,” he said almost reflexively. Then he took a deep breath, looked around, and said, “No,” again. He took his wife’s hands in his own. “I have to leave immediately. There has been an emergency. I can’t waste any time.”

Her grip tightened on his and they stared at one another for a long moment. In that moment a kind of understanding passed between them. Fear crept into her dark eyes. “When will you be back?” she asked quietly. She already knew the answer.

“Not for some time, at least.” He tried again to smile, but the effort was a useless one and they both knew it.

She nodded. “Retrieve what you need. I’ll make things ready for you.” He inclined his own head in reply, then hastened back to his study to ensure that everything was in its proper place.

Daniel Gallow’s study was orderly and well arranged. This meant that he wasted as little time as possible in collecting a few necessary papers. He then went over to a cabinet on the right hand side of the study. Taking a large iron key from his pocket, he unlocked the cabinet and removed from within a long flintlock pistol. He attached it to his belt, then picked up a bag with the necessary accessories. After a brief last look around the room, he nodded. He had all he needed here. He shut the volume on his desk with a precise finality. He did not know when – or whether – he would get a chance to resume his work.

***

Eva had dismissed the stablehands, and she waited alone. The horses seemed to have detected her mood and they shifted uneasily in their stalls. She had cleared away some of the straw stacked in the corner, and now the edge of a trapdoor poked out. She stood next to this trap door now, her hands clasped tightly together. At her feet lay an unlit torch and a saddlebag.

She started as her husband opened the door of the stables, then heaved a deep sigh. She rubbed at the back of her neck, as she always did when she was nervous or upset. Ordinarily Daniel would try to comfort her – but tonight, time was of the essence. He crossed to the trapdoor, knelt down and pulled it open, all without saying a word to his wife. A dank, damp smell emanated from beneath. The passage would likely be muddy and moldy. He was in for a few uncomfortable nights. Swinging his feet into the opening, he found with his boots the strong hemp ladder that was secured by two iron rungs hammered into a floorboard. It extended some ten feet and ended just above the floor of the passage. He turned and placed his hands on the ground.

Eva knelt in front of him, and handed him the torch and saddlebag. Several times she drew in a breath, only to exhale again after a moment or two. She seemed to be casting about for something to say. He brought one hand up to cup her cheek. “I love you,” he promised.

She kissed him desperately, wrapping her thin arms around his shoulders and clutching him as though she never intended to let go. She smelled of sweat and rain and the tears she would shed later. “I love you,” she replied when they broke apart.

She watched as he descended the ladder into the gloom. When he dropped to the tunnel floor he looked up once, lifted his hand in farewell, then disappeared. Eva took a long, sharp knife from her dress and with a few able saws severed the rope from its holding and sent it thumping to the floor of the passage. She set the trapdoor back in place, then stood. She brushed a few spare pieces of straw from her dress. Then she set to work shoveling the straw back over the door, until its outline was completely obscured.

***

Click here to read Chapter Three.

Tracks, Chapter One: Fire and Glass

They spun through the air like snowflakes, glinting in the light and turning over and over as they fell. All around them the fire sent ripples of light over their sharp edges and turned the glass fragments into prisms.

The blaze had become instantly uncontrollable. Whoever had planted the explosives arranged everything perfectly and when the station had erupted it bloomed like a flower – a flower with petals of glass and flame, with leaves of charcoal and a stem of twisted iron shards.

Within minutes the royal Falconer was on the scene, with a swarm of city watchmen crawling over the wrecked shell of the building with water buckets and fire charms. More watchmen had been posted outside the royal residence and still more had begun to conduct a search of the city. Another round of explosives could be anywhere.

Though it was cool for summer, the blast of fire had baked the air and the Falconer was sweating in his uniform. One thing they could thank the interminable rains for – the fire hadn’t caught on to the buildings in the area. They were too wet.

A watchman came up to him and smartly saluted. He nodded once, a sharp motion, and the man said, “We’ve checked inside, sir.” His face was red and streaked with soot.

“What did you find?” the Falconer asked in his cold, crisp tones.

“No one was inside. But…the tracks are destroyed, sir. And no one knows how to repair them.”

The Falconer rubbed his smooth chin. Destroyed. Everyone knew the trains were a relic, an unsolvable puzzle. There was no way of knowing whether they would ever be repaired. Surely the arsonist had known this. But was it his goal, or a means to an end?

“Return to the barracks. Any watchman not previously on duty is instated as of now. I consider the city in an emergency situation until the arsonist has been found. Send word to Solldyr – he is to raise the city walls immediately.” The man saluted again and departed.

They would find the arsonist. The Falconer had no doubt. But if he had any associates that might be in the city, they couldn’t be allowed to escape.

Glass powder and ash settled onto his coat. He stood with his arms folded, watching. All around his watchmen scurried, pushing gaping citizens out of the way as they smothered the remnants of the fire. At last a lackey scurried up to him and murmured something in his ear. He smiled at the news, his chilling smile that stopped men in their tracks and gave children nightmares. Then he followed the man away from the wreckage and towards the palace.

***

Click here to read Chapter 2: The Departure.