Tracks, Chapter Nine: Rain and Mud

Click here to read the previous chapter, or here to read from the beginning.

***

“Who was he?” Phillip said. He looked no better than usual – the circles under his eyes were dark as bruises and the flesh hung loose from his cheeks. His rich velvet collar no longer hugged his neck and beads of sweat could be seen where  his neck met his shoulders. He picked up his cup of wine with trembling hands. Perhaps if they weren’t so weighted down with rings, the Falconer thought, they wouldn’t shake so much.

“He was a man of trivial importance,” the Falconer replied. “Some part of the vaster network, but hardly clever enough to be a ringleader.”

The man had been caught trying to dig his way under the city wall, accessing some of the old sapping tunnels that had been under the city since the Dark wars. He’d acted confused when they first took him, then defiant, as though he could withstand their questioning. Needless to say, he didn’t think so now.

“So? What do you have from him?”

The Falconer pulled a sheet of paper from his coat-pocket. Unfolding it, he handed it over to the king. “A confession,” he began. “And two names. Jeremy Saul – that was the clerk His Majesty attempted to investigate last week – and Hastor Plumm. Our informant claims that Plumm is the man who made the bombs.”

“Mmm.” Phillip took another sip of wine and said over the rim of the glass, “Do you believe him?”

“I do not think we will find a man named Hastor Plumm in the city, whether he ever existed or not. As for Saul, he was very careful to destroy what parts of his office might still be of use to us after his bomb went off. My men have taken the fragments for analysis, but I doubt we’ll have relevant information in good time.”

“You will, of course, still look for this Plumm.”

“Of course,” the Falconer allowed. “And there may yet be names to extract from our dear friend. Perhaps he thought that jotting down one or two would suffice.” Yet he couldn’t know more than four or five of the other participants. No one so low on the ladder would have many names to give up.

“Very well. There is one thing more, Falconer.” Phillip pushed a small piece of paper across the table. It was signed and affixed with his seal. “Lord Enbar is to be the new ambassador to the Darklands. He was scheduled to leave last week. Every day he is delayed is a little more embarrassing to us – so unless he’s involved in this scheme, give this to your guards. They will allow his party past the city gate.”

The Falconer bowed. He recognised a dismissal. And he had much yet to do.

***

Rain and mud. It seemed to be everywhere. The rain trickled down his neck and somehow got between his skin and his shirt, making everything damp and cold even though he was wearing his leather alchemist’s coat. The tips of his boots were not, he had discovered, waterproof, and his toes hadn’t been dry for days now.

He’d gotten rid of his horse after the second day. He probably shouldn’t have stolen it in the first place – but speed was of the essence that close to Siege City. He could’ve gotten twice as much for the horse, he thought as he tugged his coat this way and that in a vain attempt to repel more rain. On the other hand, the man who bought it wasn’t the kind to go to the authorities. Better to cover his tracks than make a little more money.

From then on he’d walked along the road, begging rides from anyone going his direction. Sometimes they let him up, sometimes they pretended they couldn’t see him. Sometimes he had to show a little money first. And he hadn’t slept in a proper bed for nine days, since he’d bolted. Which made the sight of the Red Rose Inn the most welcome thing he’d seen since he’d passed through the gates of Siege City.

It was the only inn along this road for perhaps a day’s ride in either direction, and its size reflected the number of customers it was always sure to have. The long, low buildings were for the poorer ones, who could be sure of a meal, shelter from the elements, and good conversation, even though they’d have no privacy. In other journey’s he’d paid to sleep in those rooms. They provided a fun enough evening, though you always had to keep a hand on your most valuable items.

But not tonight. He skirted the wide buildings and headed for the taller one in the centre, the one for rich men. His privacy would be respected there, and no one would ask questions.

It didn’t hurt that someone else was paying his bill.

When he entered he removed his broad brown hat, shaking water from the brim. Then he approached the high, dark desk, where an apprehensive porter was eyeing him. He didn’t blame the man. He hadn’t shaved since he’d left the city, and his beard had always grown in rather patchy. Mud streaked his thin face and his hair was greasy and needed trimming. He looked more like a vagabond than a functioning member of society.

The porter was trained not to judge by appearances, but he did not seem easy until he’d read over the traveler’s note a good few times. Then he begged his guest’s pardon, but it would be a few moments while he alerted Lord Sand of the man’s arrival.

The porter was evidently hoping that Lord Sand would come down himself, denounce the wretch and have him turned away from the inn. But the servant he sent came back with a note and a purse, and the porter had to allow the scraggly traveler admittance.

“Room fourteen is free for you,” he said with evident disdain, and handed the man a key. The servant who had delivered Lord Sand’s note took his bag and preceded him up the stairs.

The room was likely the smallest the Red Rose Inn had available, but it was more than spacious enough for him. The room was well insulated, with soft rugs all over the floor and a tall bed that would have fit two of him with room to spare. A fire was already lit in the grate. The wide windows were shuttered and the noise of the yard was muffled to a discontent muttering. He felt warmer already.

“I’ll have a bath before my evening meal,” he said. In reply, the servant handed him a note.

Come directly to room 23.

***

“I hope you don’t mind the smell,” he said as he entered a minute later. He had shrugged off his coat and now that the shirt underneath was exposed for the first time in days, it exuded a faint whiff of mildew. Among other things.

The man he faced seemed not to care. He was impeccably dressed and bathed, as though he were about to receive an important guest, or go to the theatre. He wore a tailored waistcoat and silk kerchief, despite the warmth of his room. Currently, he was seated in a fat armchair with his feet up on a little stool. A book rested in one hand. “Help yourself to some wine, Mr Plumm,” he said, and gestured to a bottle of rich red wine sitting next to a plate of game. A half-full glass sat on the table just beside him.

“Please,” sneered the man as he picked up the bottle. “You know my name, just as I know yours.”

“I would not think you would wish to advertise your real name.” Daniel Gallow shut the book and set it down next to his wine glass.

“No one’s looking for John Bevy,” he said. “Not like you.”

“That is true,” Daniel allowed. “But you never know who might be listening.” He looked around the room as if to illustrate his point. It was a private dining parlour, set for two. Bevy took the hint and seated himself in front of a plate. “You can assure me that you came here quite alone?”

“Three days I’ve gone without seeing another soul.” He took a large bite of quail and washed it down with a gulp of wine. On the latter he coughed, and looked on the verge of spitting it out – then he seemed to remember where he was, and made an effort to swallow it instead. “Strong wine,” he commented.

“In the evening I prefer to have one glass of strong wine to three of a less potent variety,” Daniel said. “It helps me sleep.” He stood, and crossed to the table. “What will you do now?” he asked as he sat again, this time across from Bevy.

“Collect my money.” Bevy’s eyes flashed. “Disappear. I have a letter of apprenticeship from Daskill Lant that will get me work in Queensborough or some similar town.”

Daniel steepled his fingers. “I know Daskill Lant,” he said. “We paid him to acquire your materials.” He was frowning.

Bevy in his turn began to feel uneasy. He quashed the feeling with another bite of quail. “So?” he said, and took a sip of wine. It really was good when strong. He could see why a rich man might prefer to have it without water. But a poor man had to stretch a good thing, make it last. He had no doubt that Daniel Gallow had ordered the best wine the inn had to offer.

“So, when the Falconer finds him, the trail will inevitably lead to you. You, who left the city at such a perfect moment, with no apparent reason, just to look for work in a smaller city where you had no contacts and no hope to rise in rank. What was the point of calling yourself Hastor Plumm if your real name will soon be sought out in every alchemical den in the country?”

“Who says the Falconer will find Lant?” croaked Bevy. His throat was suddenly dry. More wine.

“The Falconer finds everyone, eventually. It’s only a matter of time.

“Well, if I can’t make my way, I’ll need something to live off.” Bevy glanced pointedly towards Daniel’s belt, where a fat purse sat attached by the strings.

The older man drew his thin lips back in what might have been a smile, but seemed more like a threat, a baring of teeth. He untied the purse and set it down on the table. Bevy paused in his eating to pick it up and appreciate the weight. “It’s good,” he said finally.

“It’s everything we agreed on.”

“Good, good,” he said again. “But that was before you put me out of work. How am I supposed to subsist without my endorsement from Lant?” He picked up the purse again. “Some secrets are heavy weights to carry,” he said ominously.

Daniel seemed unphased by his demand. He reached into his pocket and pulled out another purse. This was substantially smaller, but when he placed it into Bevy’s hand the man widened his eyes. “Gold,” he said simply. “Pure. It should help you on your new road.”

Bevy smiled, revealing browning, cracked teeth. “To your health,” he said, raising the glass. Daniel obliged, and they drank. The alchemist drained his cup to the dregs, and picked up the bottle. But it slipped from his grasp and clunked on the table. He stared at his hand. It had begun to tremble, and had turned deathly pale.

“I would drink to yours, but I am afraid it would do you no good,” Daniel said in a melancholy voice. Bevy turned wide, wild eyes on him. “It was in the glass,” he clarified. Bevy’s hands clenched convulsively. He opened his mouth, perhaps to shout, but the only noise that came out was a thin whistling as his throat began to close up.

“You were never as careful as we wished, you see.” He seemed to be apologizing. “Lant knew where you were going and who you were. Several of my agents saw you on the road. And…money.” He picked up both purses and swung the smaller one like a pendulum in front of Bevy’s rapidly discolouring face. “We knew you’d ask for more. And you’d bargain for our names. My colleague and I have risked it all for the sake of this one ideal. We can’t let you just sell it.”

Bevy’s clenched hands pushed down on the table and slowly he came away from his chair. His lips pulled back in one last sneer, and one leg moved forward. But his legs could no longer take his weight, and he sprawled on the floor, sputtering his last. Perhaps it was a curse, perhaps a prayer.

Daniel didn’t care, either way.

He had instructed the staff not to disturb him for the remainder of the evening. They would find the body mid morning, most likely, unless someone complained of the smell before then. And by that time, he would be deep into the tangled woods to the north, on his way to the next safe house.

***

Nanowrimo Book Blurb #2

Earth of the near future isn’t as apocalyptic as some might have feared. Flooding has changed the face of the coastal cities – but most have been reclaimed or somehow preserved. Among them is Copenhagen, known for its canal architecture, its culinary movement and its tourism.

At the top of the tourism pyramid stands Henry Salt, the American owner of a hotel chain and one of the richest men on earth. At his right hand stands the controversial artist and misogynist Janus Van der Vindt, whose preservation of women as living statues has sparked debate around the world. Van der Vindt’s art is a mystery and a scientific impossibility, and many are eager to see it fail. So when his living statues begin to disappear from Salt’s hotel lobbies around the world, they’re eager to solve the mystery before anyone else catches wind of it.

Neither of them realizes that the journey will take them into the realms of the spiritual and the impossible. The answers lie not in the hands of normal thieves, but at the heart of the changing world, the nature of art and life, and the mind of Henry Salt’s brilliant daughter, whose fascination with the powerful men around her has a profound effect on their destiny.

***
So, this one’s a bit wordy. The idea has been floating around in my head for years – the living statues were first murder victims turned art, then art turned murder victims. Now they’re something else.
I feel like the last Nanowrimo book blurb was really based around this concept, of a normal storyline turned upside-down. The characters in it were people I tried to make interesting, but they were also tropes, easy to find once I’d picked out a setting.
This blurb is the other way around. I had the characters long before I had any kind of story for them. In fact, I don’t know what kind of story I have for them even now. After all, this is just for Nanowrimo. I haven’t made a big plan yet. But the characters were people I had fun playing around with. And when I moved to Copenhagen, I found a setting into which they fit.
First, you have Henry Salt. He’s a rich man, and a callous man. He likes to work and spend time with Janus Van der Vindt, his artist, primarily because Van der Vindt is controversial. Every time he makes a new piece of art, it’s in the papers. And if Salt commissions that art for his hotel, then his hotel is also in the papers. He doesn’t really care that Van der Vindt has been called a misogynist, a murderer, the antichrist, or a bad human being in general. He’s happy because it helps him make money.
Henry Salt’s most prized possession is his daughter, Medea. Though unattractive at 14, she’s a genius. She’s also attracted in an intellectual way to the 40-something Van der Vindt, who returns the attraction. The idea behind this relationship is not to portray pedophilia, but to make the reader feel slightly uncomfortable, as though their actions aren’t quite appropriate, but cannot be condemned with certainty. This is of course underlined by Van der Vindt’s disregard for other women.
One of the reasons that this book blurb was hard to write was because it’s not really a mystery, nor a fantasy, nor post-apocalyptic literature or action/adventure. I’d like it to have all of those – but not to be any one of them more than the others.
Anyway. That’s another Nanowrimo idea. I’d love to have time enough to write all these novels I’ve been thinking of over the years. Isn’t that how it is with all writers?

Tracks, Chapter Eight: The Midsummer Festival

Click here to read from the beginning, or here to read the previous chapter.
***

A few days had passed before Jonathan and Eva saw one another again. Each morning the king sent a note with his deepest regrets, stating that he had urgent business to attend to. She was happier to take breakfast in her room with Kate. The Falconer was at the palace whenever his duties spared him, and she had no wish to break her fast in his company.

Jonathan’s wounds had hardly been serious. Although quite a fuss was made over him as he was carried into the palace, it was soon deemed that his state of near-catatonia was more attributable to shock than loss of blood, and aside from wincing when he stretched his back, he was quickly back to normal. None of this made the Falconer feel well-disposed towards Eva, though, and this was reflected in the manner of her captivity – a guard stood at her door day and night now, and she was never alone except in her own chambers. She didn’t bother trying to dismiss him. She recognized the Falconer’s hand in all of this. His guard was loyal, and would be until the very end.

Three days after the catastrophe at the clerk’s office, she was invited to sit at the high table, during the Midsummer Festival.

By this time, Lord Gallow had been officially declared missing.

There were no bounties on him yet, and no criminal accusations levelled against him. Far from giving Eva hope, it only served to convince her that the Falconer looked for more evidence before he could make a formal statement.

It would be her first public appearance since the humiliating arrest. No doubt some had noticed the change of activity surrounding the Gallow mansion – the servants and masters no longer came and went, and the front yard was full of soldiers. Those same people would be watching her tonight, gauging her demeanor.

When the time came, she was dressed in a deep blue adorned with golden thread. Her skirt belled at the waist and her long sleeves draped nearly to the floor. Her bodice was cut high and her hair had been pulled up to match.

Her daughter had been dressed in a lighter blue with a softer silhouette, more fitting to her age. Her hair was curled and fell around her face in soft brown waves. Though the family jewelry was still at the Gallow home, the king had generously offered them the loan of any royal adornment they might wish. Kate wore a silver necklace and sapphires in her ears; Eva had placed golden bracelets on her wrists and a shining dark opal pin tucked into her hair.

The Falconer noticed their gems as they joined the retinue that would enter behind the king. His thin mouth tightened and when she approached he inclined his head in the barest acknowledgement of her presence.

The Midsummer Festival was supposed to be one of the grandest affairs of the year. This festival had been planned long before the attack on the station, but the excitement had been dampened by the increased security. In addition to the king’s personal guard, a company of the Falconer’s men stood outside of the palace. Their stoic expressions and tall rifles did nothing to reassure the wedding guests. And for the past three days, the magician’s wall had blazed all around the city, filling the night with an eerie green fire that kept anyone from coming or going. It made for a rather more subdued party than previous years.

As she and Kate joined the retinue they curtsied to the king. He was deep in conversation with one of his advisors and spared them no more than a brief greeting.

Eva stepped back and turned instead to Jonathan, who was speaking politely (though not very comfortably) with a young woman a year or two older than Kate. She was a stunning girl, with auburn hair and deep blue eyes, dressed all in white and gold. Her delicate features reminded Eva of Lady Hartwin, who stood a few feet away in conversation with Aldor, the doctor. Every few seconds her eyes flickered to the girl.

Eva had to stifle a laugh as Jonathan gratefully turned away from his too-charming companion and addressed her. “Good evening, my lady. I trust you have been well? Good evening, Miss Gallow,” he said to Kate, who curtsied. Eva just caught the venomous glare of Miss Hartwin before she slid away.

“Quite well, thank you,” she replied. “But it was you we had reason to fear for, Your Majesty.”

“Not at all. And I am fully recovered now – with the exception of my pride, of course. I have not been so scolded by my elder brother since I flung mud on his best shirt when we were children.”

She stepped closer. “Word from Daniel?” she asked softly.

He shook his head. “No word, no sight. I know he would have written, if he could. That paper you gave me…” He stopped and glanced around. “Perhaps this is neither the time nor place.”

Eva could not help smiling this time. “Indeed. We seem to have driven away your charming companion.”

“Miss Hartwin?” To his credit, he managed not to blush, though he could not look Eva in the face. “She made her debut two days ago. Of course, Aldor wouldn’t let me leave the palace so my congratulations had to wait.”

“I see,” said Eva archly.

It was a poorly-kept secret that every woman of wealth or name in Siege City hoped that her daughter would marry the king’s brother. Ever since breaking off his first (and only) engagement seventeen years before, Jonathan had shown little inclination to marry. Rumours of an illigitimate child had circulated for a while, but had come to nothing. And Jonathan had managed to stave off the advances of every mother-in-law ever since.

“But what of you?” Jonathan turned to Kate. “Your mother was married by the time she was your age.”

Kate lifted one eyebrow and gave him the well-practiced look so common to girls her age. Her large eyes seemed to ridicule him for even thinking her fit to marry one of the idiots in her social circle.

“Of course, we won’t discuss Kate’s debut without her father present,” Eva said hastily.

“Of course,” he acquiesced. He pressed his lips together to suppress amusement.

At last the doors were opened to the hall, and the king and his retinue entered.

The guests in the hall sank to their knees at once, and bowed their heads as the king passed. They were not obliged to keep them downcast once he moved on, of course, and so they were able to peek at the rest of the retinue. Not a few of them were casting glances at Eva and Kate – so they had  noticed the change of pace at the Gallow mansion.

The king’s hall was high-domed and grandly adorned and gilded. The black and white marble floor had space for a thousand guests, and a small stage in the back allowed enough room for the royal orchestra to fit in. The ceiling had been painted by some unnamed master centuries ago, and the once bright colors had faded to the barest outline of angels and saints. At the front of the hall, where the king’s table was laid, five enormous glass windows looked out over the city.

The king’s table had been set with the first course. When he at last took his seat, the rest of his retinue did the same, and the guests below stood. They had their own dining area as well, and the servants had begun to bring out bowls and platters of food for their consumption.

Though Miss Hartwin’s mother did her absolute best to place her daughter at the side of the prince, Jonathan managed to seat himself between Eva and his brother, and across from Doctor Aldor. Aldor took every opportunity to shoot Eva a suspicious glance, as though he, too, felt her responsible for Jonathan’s injury at the clerk’s office.

The festival was a strange thing. There was little dancing and more than a few glanced toward the windows with some apprehension.

Outside, the evening air took on a green caste, like the gates of some hell. Eva tried to ignore it but she saw Kate’s glance drawn more than once out the window and away from the table’s conversation.

The king ate slowly and took the time to discuss many different things with those around him. He seemed in pain whenever he swallowed, and reached often for his wine.

At last he pushed his plate aside and asked Lady Hartwin to accompany him to the floor. As they saw him stand, the orchestra began a slow waltz.

Eva found herself presented with the Falconer’s hand.

She couldn’t refuse. She took it and he pulled her out of her chair and onto the floor. With one arm around her waist he guided her between the other couples.

“I didn’t realize you danced,” she remarked.

“It is not the talent for which I am most known. But I am capable.”

“Why dance with me? You can’t possibly enjoy it.”

“You’re rather hard on yourself, my lady,” he said with a brief, sardonic smile. “But essentially correct. However, I felt this the easiest way to speak with you under the circumstances.”

“What circumstances? And what could you possibly have to say to me?” she asked.

The Falconer leaned forward until his mouth was nearly against her ear. He spoke with all the appearance of a lover to his mistress: “Jonathan’s love for his friend has made him blind to some of the possibilities before him,” he murmured. “He would ride into fire to save your lord. am still watching you – and your lovely daughter. And if you have betrayed us-”

She jerked back and her feet stilled by themselves. Two red blotches had appeared on her cheeks, both the shock of his intimacy and outrage at his intimation. She felt the furtive glances that other dancers and watchers were casting them, and kept her voice appropriately low. “You forget that you are servant and not master,” she hissed. “If the king believes the truth of my claims, then what you think means nothing.”

“The king is not hindered by his emotions,” the Falconer replied. They began to dance again. “He understands the necessity of remaining-”

Before he could finish, the sky outside flared bright green. Many gasped; the orchestra faltered and the waltz fell out of time. Every guest turned towards the windows. Green tendrils shot like flames through the sky, turning every face ghostly pale.

They seemed to be coming from one place in particular, a section of wall far off to the left. Without wishing it, Eva found herself turning towards the Falconer, a question in her eyes.

He caught her look and that thin mouth twitched. “Someone has tried to get in – or out,” he said. “I hope you will forgive the intolerable rudeness, but I’m afraid business calls me away.” He dropped her hands and strode from the hall, but no one noticed him leave.

After a few moments the king signaled to the orchestra, and they struck up again. Rather grudgingly many couples returned to the dance, but conversation was scattered and worried, and all eyes were turned inexorably towards the great windows and the green beacon of light.

***

Click here to read Chapter Nine.

Tracks, Chapter Seven: The Return

Click here to read the previous chapter.

***

“I’m fine,” Jonathan said through gritted teeth. His guard was helping him down the stairs of the office, hurrying him toward the coach while trying to aggravate his wounds as little as possible. Eva followed behind, with one guard at her side. Whether he was there to aid her or to keep her from fleeing, she did not know. Nor did she particularly care.

As they exited the office, Eva turned to look at it. It appeared almost entirely unchanged, its brick front standing exactly as it had when they first approached it. The only indication that anything had happened was the gaping hole where the window had been, with a few sticks of wood poking like broken teeth out of the frame. The guard took her arm and drew her over the broken glass towards the coach.

He handed her in, and made to follow her. She held up a hand. “Ride ahead,” she  told him. “And fetch the doctor.” He nodded.

As soon as they were both in the carriage, it set off. The jostling had an immediate effect on Jonathan, who turned pale. He leaned against the window and closed his eyes, trying to breathe deeply.

“Are you – ” Eva began.

I’m – fine – ” he repeated. The coach ran over a pothole and he gasped.

They rattled down the streets as quickly as they could, but in the middle of the day, their progress could not possibly be what they wanted. And though the soldiers shouted and cursed and threatened, few moved aside for them.

Jonathan let out a series of quick exhales that could only be laughter. “I suppose this is where it would have come in handy to travel with a full retinue. They’d have closed off the entire street for me, all day.” He cracked open one eye and glanced at her, as if to gauge her reaction.

She tried to smile. “Perhaps you should not travel so casually, Your Highness,” she replied.

Something he had said caught at the back of her mind. They’d have closed off the entire street for me. She frowned.

Then she stuck her head out of the window. “Driver!” she snapped, in her most authoritative voice.

Almost against his will, he turned round to look at her.

“Take the coach up past the train station.”

“That road has been closed off, my lady,” he said in a politely incredulous voice. “Surely you recall driving past this morning.”

“I do recall,” she replied. “The road was closed, and it was empty. There will be no one on it to hinder you.”

“But the road was closed as a matter of security,” he said.

“Isn’t this a matter of security?”

He looked down and drummed his fingers on the bench. A few moments later he turned back toward the front, flicked the reins and drove the coach off of the crowded detour-route and onto a sidestreet.

Ten minutes later, the coach stopped again. Eva could hear muffled voices, sharp in tone. Their own driver sounded urgent and angry. The man he was arguing with seemed harassed. Their voices rose until finally the driver snarled, “See for yourself!” and the door was flung open, sending a blinding brightness into the carriage. Eva flung up a hand to protect her eyes. Jonathan tried to do the same, but his hand only made it halfway before it drifted back down.

The man with whom the driver had been arguing wore the uniform of one of the Falconer’s men.

He leaned into the carriage and examined her with one raised eyebrow. She returned his look as coldly as she could. Then he turned and looked Jonathan up and down. He noted the livery of his prince and the finery of the coach. Whether he recognized the lady was not certain, but he knew the gentleman. He withdrew his head, and nodded reluctantly to the driver. “Drive slowly,” he warned. “Avoid the workers.”

The coach set off once more. And though Eva had warned Kate off peering through the curtains, she couldn’t resist taking a look at the damage that had been wrought during the night.

Only yesterday it had been the busiest location in Siege City. Now it was silent as a graveyard.

The dome of the train station had once been the largest of its kind on the entire continent. It had been made of red-gold glass that blazed like a sunset. That dome was cracked open now, like a bloody egg. The tracks that had once flowed into the station were no longer visible for the rubble that extended all the way to the road. Crews had been hard at work all morning clearing that road, but as their coach proceeded they hit numerous stones that made Jonathan wince. The front of the train station, which consisted of twelve tall marble arches, was pitted as though it had been the site of some war.

There were no trains in sight.

Every so often the coach passed some of the Falconer’s men, who made their way slowly over the ground. They seemed to be searching for something. A few glanced up to watch the coach pass. Most ignored it. They wore dust masks and protective leather – perhaps they were looking for another bomb.

When they came to the end of the barricade, the driver exchanged a short word with the man on duty. It was, of course, far easier to leave the forbidden zone than to enter it, and he waved them through after a short pause.

“Are we there yet?” Jonathan asked as they squeaked through.

“Nearly.”

And they were there, soon enough. They pulled into the crescent yard of the palace and before the coach had even stopped, the door was opening. The royal doctor, a man whom Eva had spoken to a handful of times, stepped in. “Your Highness?” he said.

“I’m fine,” Jonathan murmured.

“I’m sure you are,” the doctor replied in a brisk voice. “Help me,” he instructed a pair of assistants who lingered outside of the coach. To Eva he said nothing, but he waved her out impatiently. She hitched up her skirts and clambered down, unassisted.

She could only watch as Jonathan was carefully lifted out of the coach and placed on a stretcher. As it sped off into the side entrance, it was followed by his guard, his driver, a handful of servants and the doctor’s entire retinue, bustling through in a cloud of gossiping worry. As the yard cleared her gaze fell on the figure that remained behind.

The Falconer was watching her with something very much like loathing.

He did not bother to disguise it when he saw that she was looking. When she began to walk towards the palace entrance, he fell in just behind her.

“You blame me for this misfortune,” she said over her shoulder.

“It is possible. Why were you there? Why did he leave without retinue? Why did no one know where he was going?”

“Perhaps he thought you would try to stop him.”

“I would have stopped him. It was a singularly stupid idea from a normally responsible man. And you are not supposed to be wandering around the city.”

She turned on the steps to face him, so he could see that the hatred in his eyes was matched by her own. “I was called a guest by your own king. And though I did demand to accompany him, it was his own decision to investigate. If you think it so irresponsible, why not tell him?”

“I shall,” he replied in that soft voice of his. “And I shall certainly ensure that you never leave the palace without a full guard again. His Highness may be convinced of your innocence and ignorance. I certainly am not.” And with a deft push he turned her back around and walked her up the remaining stairs, into her prison.

***

Click here to read Chapter Eight.

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.