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.

***

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.

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 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.