The Chemickal Marriage finishes a story begun in The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters and continued in The Dark Volume. However much this present book may stand apart as a discrete narrative, a few notes regarding what has come before may prove useful.
Celeste Temple, a plantation heiress from the West Indies of twenty-five sharp years, her engagement to Roger Bascombe summarily terminated without explanation, found herself in the position, some three days later, of shooting him dead in a sinking dirigible. Mr Bascombe had joined a mysterious cabal (funded jointly by the financier Robert Vandaariff and the munitions magnate Henry Xonck) whose control of the nation was scuttled, along with the dirigible, by the very unlikely alliance of Miss Temple, the criminal assassin Cardinal Chang and Captain-Surgeon Svenson of the Macklenburg Navy, a foreign spy.
When these three escaped the wrecked airship, they thought their enemies vanquished: the Comte d’Orkancz, inventor of the blue glass, had been run through with a sabre; Francis Xonck had been shot; Harald Crabbé had been stabbed; and the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza had leapt to her death. Betrayed by these supposed underlings, Henry Xonck and Robert Vandaariff had already fallen prey to blue glass, their minds wiped clean, their bodies animal husks.
However, the dying Comte had been alchemically preserved, his memories captured in a glass book by a resilient Francis Xonck, who was unaware of how mortality would taint its contents. Xonck and the Contessa, the latter evidently a swimmer, hurried to recover the threads of their plot, even as Temple, Svenson and Chang raced to forestall them. All parties were met by a new cabal, an alliance of former underlings who understood the power of the blue glass, if not the science behind it, and stood determined to defy their former masters. At the Xonck factory in Parchfeldt, all parties convened for the infusion of the Comte’s corrupted memories into the body of Robert Vandaariff, seeking at a stroke to command the one man’s science and the other’s fortune. Once resurrected, however, the pawn overcame his ignorant masters, deliberately provoking an inferno in which, once more, many lives were lost.
That night Miss Temple escaped the burning factory, only to see Cardinal Chang and Doctor Svenson cut down before her eyes. In the woods, Miss Temple met up with Elöise Dujong, the Doctor’s love, and Francesca Trapping, the seven-year-old heir to the Xonck fortune. But the Contessa caught them in the dark, stealing the girl and the dark volume, leaving Elöise dead and Miss Temple only half alive, but determined for revenge.
Miss Temple eyed the clock with a characteristic impatience, for she much despised lateness in others. She pulled the green clutch bag onto her lap, aware that sorting its contents had become a ritual, as if she were some old woman with a set of clacking beads.
A purse of money. A notebook and an all-weather pencil. Matches. A beeswax-candle stub. Two handkerchiefs. A sewn cloth pouch of orange metal rings. Opera glasses. A small black revolver whose recoil did not spoil her aim (she had practised on empty bottles in the hotel cellar and could nearly hit them). Ammunition. Gold.
She had paid Pfaff well. If he did not come, she was betrayed. Or – Miss Temple pursed her lips – Mr Pfaff was dead.
Miss Temple cinched the green bag shut. The clock’s silver bell chimed the half-hour. She called to her maid: ‘Marie, my travelling jacket.’
Five weeks had passed since her return, five weeks spent wholly on revenge.
It had taken Miss Temple two days to regain the city from the wilds of Parchfeldt Park. The Contessa’s metal-bound case had not cracked her skull, and the wound on her forehead had eased its throbbing by the time she reached the canal and slept a few hours in the cover of its reeds. Tentative fingers told her the gash had gummed to a tolerable scab, and she walked for hours, dizzied but no longer sickened, to the Parchfeldt railway head, where she finally boarded a coach to Stropping Station, into the heart of the city.
She had gone back to the Hotel Boniface, for her enemies would find her no matter where she hid – she must visit her banker, she must have clothes, she must hire violent men, all of which would draw the notice of any diligent foe. When she arrived at the hotel’s doors, filthy, bloodied and after a fortnight’s absence, the staff said nothing apart from a single polite inquiry as to whether she required a doctor before a bath was drawn or whether, preparatory to either, she might prefer a meal.
She huddled naked in the copper tub until the water went tepid. A maid stood deferentially in the dressing-room doorway with fresh towels, nervously glancing between the dull face of the soaking woman and the sharp knife Miss Temple had insisted stay within reach, atop a wooden stool. Dressed enough to have a doctor examine her, Miss Temple had kept the weapon in her lap. The white-whiskered man applied a salve and bandage to her forehead, frowned at the fading weal of a bullet above her ear and left a powder to aid her sleep. Miss Temple ate two slices of buttered bread, stopping at the first flicker of nausea. She dismissed the maid, locked the corridor door and wedged it with a chair, did the same for the door of her chamber and curled into bed, the blade under her pillow like a snake in wait beneath a stone.
She slept for three hours before her fears rose up to wake her. She lay in the dark. Chang. Svenson. Elöise. Their deaths could not be undone.
Her survival felt like a betrayal, and every small comfort arrived with a sting. Yet Miss Temple had withstood such stings all her life. The next morning she made her first list of everything she ought to do and found herself filling two diligent pages. She set down the pen and wiped her nose. In truth it was simpler to keep one’s heart a stone. She rang for breakfast and a maid to curl her hair.
She sent to her aunt in Cap-Rouge, requesting the return of Marie (of her own two maids, the one who could read), and then spent the day – making a point to be accompanied by footmen from the Boniface – attending to her most basic needs: bank, clothes, weapons and, most important of all, news.
She did not fear for her immediate safety. When her train had arrived, the platforms of Stropping Station were no longer thick with dragoons. Brown-coated constables had been posted to manage the openly hostile crowds of travellers, but their only charge was to maintain order, not search for potential fugitives. Nowhere had she seen posters offering a reward for her capture, or for that of any of her former companions.
She scoured the newspapers, but found only a standard refrain of imminent crises: the Ministries paralysed, the Privy Council in disarray, business at a standstill. For Miss Temple, this was excellent: the more the world was hampered, the freer she would be to act. She sallied out, a hotel footman to either side, gratified by the frayed tempers that seemed to catch at every inconsequential jostle.
Her journey that first morning did not stretch to any destination she might deem provocative – that is, she did not venture near the St Royale Hotel, the Foreign Ministry, Stäelmaere House, the Macklenburg diplomatic compound or the Hadrian Square residence of Colonel and Mrs Trapping. All these places might have become bolt-holes for enemies that still lived. When the Contessa’s spies found her at the Boniface, all well and good. She would not be so vulnerable.
And if her other great enemy had survived the destruction at the Parchfeldt factory? Miss Temple had last glimpsed Lord Robert Vandaariff face down in a pool of black slime, about to be swarmed by an angry mob … yet had he lived? It would be a fool who assumed otherwise.
Miss Temple paused (the scarlet-coated footmen halted obligingly with her) at the cobbled road’s sudden descent, gazing at a district of the city she had never visited. One footman cleared his throat.
‘Shall we turn along the avenue, miss?’
Miss Temple strode ahead, down to the river.
Cardinal Chang had mentioned it once, and the detail – a proper name from his secret life – had taken Miss Temple’s mind with the attractive force of a silver buckle to a magpie. When she stood in the street outside the Raton Marine, she was unprepared for the surge of tenderness that filled her heart. The tavern lay in a nest of filthy streets, with the buildings to either side tipping like old drunkards. The people in the street, openly staring at the finely dressed young woman with two liveried servants, seemed to Miss Temple like humanity’s bilge, beings who could scarcely take two steps without leaving a stain. Yet in this place Cardinal Chang had been known – these ruins were his world.
Again the footman cleared his throat.
‘Wait here,’ said Miss Temple.
A scattering of men sat outside the tavern at small tables – sailors, by the look of them – and Miss Temple passed through to the door without a glance. Inside, she saw the Raton Marine had been fitted out to serve a broad clientele – tables near the windows with light enough to read, and tables in shadows even the brightest morning would not pierce. A staircase led to a balcony lined with rooms for rent, their open doors draped with an oilcloth curtain. Her nostrils flared in imagining the reek.
Perhaps five men looked up from their drinks as she entered. Miss Temple ignored them and approached the barman, who was polishing a bowlful of silver buttons with a rag, depositing each finished button with a clink into another bowl.
‘Good morning,’ said Miss Temple.
The barman did not reply, but met her eyes.
‘I have been directed here by Cardinal Chang,’ she said. ‘I require a competent man not averse to violence – in fact perhaps several – but one to start, as soon as is convenient.’
‘Cardinal Chang is dead. If he were not, I should not be here.’
The barman looked past her shoulders at the other men, who had obviously overheard.
‘That’s hard news.’
Miss Temple shrugged. The barman’s gaze flicked at the bandage above her eye.
‘You have money, little miss?’
‘And I will not be cheated. This is for your own time and attention.’ Miss Temple set a gold coin on the polished wood. The barman did not touch it. Miss Temple set down a second coin. ‘And this is for the man you would recommend for my business, taking into account that it is Cardinal Chang’s business as well. If you knew him –’
‘I knew him.’
‘Then perhaps you will be happy to see his killer paid in kind. I assure you I am most serious. Have your candidate present this coin at the Hotel Boniface, and ask for Miss Isobel Hastings. If he knows his work, there will be more in its place.’
Miss Temple turned to the door. At one of the tables a man had stood, unshaven, with fingerless gloves.
‘How’d he get it, then? The old Cardinal?’
‘He was stabbed in the back,’ said Miss Temple coldly. ‘Good day to you all.’
Two restive days went by before the coin was returned. In that time Miss Temple’s headaches had gone, her maid had arrived (bearing a querulous letter from her aunt, thrown away unanswered), and she had begun regular practice with a newly purchased pistol.
The newspapers said nothing of the Duke of Stäelmaere’s death, and thus no official appointment of a new head for the Privy Council, though the Council Deputy, a Lord Axewith, had assumed a prominence simply through his regular denials of irregularity. No word of Robert Vandaariff. No word of the Parchfeldt battle. No mention of the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza. No one called round at the Boniface to arrest Miss Temple. It was as if the Cabal’s machinations had never taken place.
Miss Temple had taken another room on a lower floor for business dealings, ignoring the attendant overtones of impropriety. She knew that to the staff of the Hotel Boniface she had become an eccentric, tolerated as long as each breach of decorum was plastered over by cash. Miss Temple did not care. She installed herself on a sofa, the clutch bag on her lap, one hand inside the bag holding her pistol.
A footman knocked to announce a Mr Pfaff. Miss Temple studied the man who entered, and did not offer him a chair.
‘Your name is Pfaff?’
‘Jack Pfaff. Nicholas suggested I call.’
‘At the Rat.’
Jack Pfaff was at most a year older than Miss Temple herself (a ripe, unmarried twenty-five). His clothing had at one time been near to fashion – chequered trousers and an orange woollen coat with square buttons – as if he were a young fop fallen to poor times. Miss Temple knew from his voice that this was not the case, and that the clothes represented an impoverished man’s desire to climb.
‘You can read? Write?’
‘Both, miss, quite tolerably.’
‘What weapons do you possess – what skills?’
Pfaff reached behind his back and brought out a slim blade. His other hand slipped to an inner pocket and emerged with a set of brass rings across his fingers.
‘Those are nothing against a sabre or musket.’
‘Am I to fight soldiers, miss?’
‘I should hope not, for your sake. Are you averse to killing?’
‘The law does prohibit the practice, miss.’
‘And if a man spat in your face?’
‘O goodness, I would step away like a Christian.’ Pfaff raised his eyebrows affably. ‘Then again, most incidents of face-spitting can be laid to drink. Perhaps it would be more proper to cut a spitting man’s throat, to spite the devil inside.’
Miss Temple did not appreciate trifling. ‘Why does this Nicholas consider you fit for my employ?’
‘I am skilled in opening doors.’
‘I requested no thief.’
‘I speak broadly, miss. I am a man who finds ways.’
Miss Temple bit back a tart remark. A man like Pfaff, now unavoidable, must be met with intelligence and a smile.
‘Did you know Cardinal Chang?’
‘Everyone knew him – he cut a rare figure.’
‘You were his friend?’
‘He would on occasion allow a fellow to stand him a drink.’
‘Why would you do that?’
‘You knew him, miss – why would I not?’ Pfaff smiled evenly, watching her bag and the hand within it. ‘Perhaps you’ll enlighten me as to the present business.’
‘Sit down, Mr Pfaff. Put those things away.’
Pfaff restored the weapons to their places and stepped to an armchair, flipping out his coat-tails before settling. Miss Temple indicated the silver service on a table.
‘There is tea, if you would have some. I will explain what I require. And then you – with your doors – will suggest how best it can be done.’
Miss Temple soaked again that night in the copper tub, auburn hair dragging like dead weeds across the water. Her thoughts were stalled by fatigue, and the sorrow she strove to avoid loomed near.
She had told Mr Pfaff only enough to start his work, but his mercenary trespass of the roles formerly occupied by Chang and Svenson left Miss Temple feeling their absence. Even more troubling, close conversation with Pfaff had awakened, for the first time since leaving Parchfeldt Park, the spark of Miss Temple’s blue glass memories. It was not that Pfaff himself was attractive – on the contrary, she found him repellent, with brown teeth and coarse hair the colour of dung-muddled straw – but the longer he had remained in her physical proximity, the more she felt that dreaded bodily stirring, like a stretch of invisible limbs too long asleep.
In the copper tub, Miss Temple took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, inching herself towards the brink of her fears. In her struggle against the Cabal, she had exposed herself to the contents of two blue glass books. The first had been deliberately compiled by the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza as an opium den of pleasure and violence. Staring into its swirling depths, Miss Temple had experienced the bright, hot memories of innumerable lives – in her thoughts and in her limbs – and Miss Temple’s literal virtue became a mere scrap of protest before the debauchery she had known. Ever since, this book’s contents had lurked beneath her thoughts, and a glimpse of skin or smell of hair, a mere rustle of cloth, could call forth pleasures sharp enough to drop Miss Temple to her knees.
The second book had contained the memories of but a single man, the Comte d’Orkancz, preserved in blue glass by Francis Xonck aboard the sinking airship in the very moment the Comte’s life bled away. The great man’s mind had been captured, but the contaminating touch of death had corrupted its character, twisting the aesthete’s discrimination into a bitter disdain for life. Miss Temple’s glimpse of this second book had left her gasping, as if her throat had been coated with rancid tar. Ignorant of the tainted nature of these memories, the remaining factions of the Cabal had convened at the Xonck Armaments works at Parchfeldt and agreed between them to infuse the book’s contents into the emptied mind of Robert Vandaariff – hoping at a stroke to regain the Comte’s alchemical knowledge for their use as well as take control of Vandaariff’s fortune, the largest in the land. Resurrected in Vandaariff’s body, the Comte, despite his unbalanced soul, had quickly triumphed over his former servants: Mrs Marchmoor, Francis Xonck, Charlotte Trapping and Alfred Leveret were all dead. Only the Contessa had survived to stand against him … only the Contessa and Miss Temple.
At Parchfeldt Miss Temple had received her own revelation. As she walked through the factory, she had suddenly known the task of each machine. However poisonous, her touch of the Comte’s memories had provided insights into his science. If Robert Vandaariff did still live, it was possible that Miss Temple – throughout her life indifferent to any study – could anticipate the Comte’s dire imagination.
Stunned by grief, both books had lain dormant in Miss Temple’s mind, just long enough for her to hope they might remain so. But now, prompted by the unsightly yet provocative vision of Pfaff’s tongue dabbing at his cup rim for a drop of tea, they had returned. Naked and alone, Miss Temple knew she must make herself mistress of these wells within her, or forever be their slave.
She sank deeper, until the water touched her chin, and extended one leg so her pale foot dangled, dripping. She listened for Marie, heard nothing and settled her hips with a squirm. The fingers of her right hand grazed the hair between her legs, teasing the skin beneath. Miss Temple shut her eyes, willing her thoughts to a place she had never allowed herself, apart from the one impulsive moment in the darkness of Parchfeldt, the rash action she was sure had been the ruin of them all. She had kissed Cardinal Chang. She had felt his lips on hers, had pressed her tongue into his mouth, had thrilled at his firm grip upon her body. Miss Temple’s left hand traced circles across her inner thigh as the fingers of her right slipped further down, stroking her arousal to a glow. She frowned against the press of blue glass memories, pursuing her own private need, the slicking quickness beneath her dipping fingers. A flick of bile from the Comte’s memories – she swallowed it back and bit her lip, concentrating. Chang had pushed her away, arching his back as the Contessa’s blade struck home – she opened her legs to imagine him between them, pulling his sweet weight onto her body. Her thumb swirled a tight circle and she gasped, ignoring another chorus of lurid incident inside her, cleaving again to Cardinal Chang. He had carried her shivering body from the sea after the sunken airship – she sank two fingers deeper still – he had cradled her, nearly naked, white with cold. She pushed her foot against the tub, holding her desire firm, cutting through the noise in her mind like a ship through the foam on the sea. She knew he was dead, even as the remembered strength of his legs drove her deliciously near the breaking of an almost painful wave. She knew she was alone, even as the crest of pleasure finally spilt, flushing her breast like a bird’s – opening her heart as it had never been in life, and thrusting it beyond the living world.
She slept more deeply that night, waking after five hours instead of three. With a determined grunt Miss Temple rolled onto her front, face deep in her pillow, her fingers digging beneath her body. This time it was easier to keep the foreign memories away – perfumed seraglio, church confessional, the back of a jouncing wagon – each banished by a fierce deployment of her memories of Chang. When she again lay spent, the pillow moist with her hot breath, Miss Temple began to sob. She wiped her nose on the edge of her pillowcase. Another hour of fitful dozing and she rose, pushing the hair back from her puffy eyes.
She was still at her writing table in her shift when Marie entered hours later, a box tied with ribbon in her arms.
‘Sent from downstairs, miss – and just in time for your day …’
At Miss Temple’s curt nod, the maid set the box on the bed, pulling apart the paper inside to reveal a new pair of ankle boots, the leather dyed dark green. Her old pair had been placed in the wardrobe, split and scuffed by too many perils to name. She hiked up her shift as Marie fitted both feet in turn. Miss Temple flexed each arch and felt the bite of hard, new leather. She crossed to her pillow and flipped it up, revealing the knife. With a satisfying ease the blade slid into the lean sheath the shoemaker had – under protest – stitched inside her right boot. She dropped the shift and caught Marie’s troubled expression.
‘Stand up, Marie,’ she snapped. ‘Tea first, then ask what fruit is fresh.’
Mr Pfaff sent four more men to the Boniface for her scrutiny – ex-soldiers, discharged from colonial duty – jobless men inured to following orders and unafraid to fight. As the men stood towering above her in a line, Miss Temple imagined how the Contessa would serve each a special smile, applying a delicate adhesive of desire to their purchased loyalty. Miss Temple was not ugly – if her face was too round, her limbs were well formed and she bore a complete set of bright teeth – but she wanted no piece of these men’s desire. She gave them money, her grey eyes coldly fixing theirs as the coins were taken.
With a pang she remembered her pact with the Doctor and the Cardinal. But she did not want to be encumbered – her heart could bear employees, but no longer allies. To Pfaff and his men she was a source of money. They could have no great opinion of her character – and with no ready way to prove herself otherwise, she did her best not to despise them in return.
Three of the new men were sent out of the city to gather news: Mr Ramper to the factory at Parchfeldt, Mr Jaxon to Tarr Manor (whose quarry had provided the Cabal with raw indigo clay) and Mr Ropp to Harschmort House. The fourth and most presentable, Mr Brine – late Corporal Brine, 11th Territorial Fusiliers – Miss Temple kept near her at the Boniface, with the firm provisos that he never enter her private rooms unless requested, nor on any occasion – requested or no – insinuate himself with Marie.
Mr Pfaff himself brought a steady stream of information. The Contessa had not returned to the St Royale. Harald Crabbé’s widow still occupied their home, as Roger Bascombe’s mother remained sole resident of her son’s. The homes of Leveret and Aspiche were quite empty apart from servants. Xonck’s rooms had not been touched. Of all the addresses on Miss Temple’s list, only one had received any sort of return. Confirmed by several witnesses, Charles and Ronald Trapping had been delivered home by two uniformed dragoons.
As Pfaff helped himself to a seat, Miss Temple passed him another page from her stack of papers. ‘The Comte’s house in Plum Court – it appears derelict, but the rear garden held a greenhouse where he worked. Also the art dealer that exhibited the Comte’s paintings. And then the Royal Institute. If Vandaariff is alive –’ She sighed. ‘How can there be no word whether the richest man on three continents has died?’
‘Soon now,’ Pfaff chuckled indulgently. ‘Once Mr Ropp returns from Harschmort –’
‘The Royal Institute,’ continued Miss Temple. ‘Since every one of the Comte’s laboratories was destroyed, he may have sought other facilities. Also, he will need particular supplies to rebuild – and in such quantities that must reveal the effort.’
‘An excellent stratagem.’
‘It is, actually,’ said Miss Temple.
Pfaff stood with a smile, and called to Mr Brine, who sat impassively on an upholstered stool. ‘Keeping the mistress safe, then, Briney?’
To Miss Temple’s disgust, both of Mr Brine’s cheeks flushed pink.
Cramming her hours with tasks brought welcome exhaustion that served to insulate her grief. In the night she cleaved to Chang, but through her days, passed in a world that so assailed Miss Temple’s senses, he was gone. It was a widening divide she fought to ignore.
Mr Ropp did not return. Pfaff speculated the man had received better work elsewhere, or given himself over to drink with his advance wages. When Mr Jaxon delivered his report from Tarr Manor (the house occupied by Roger Bascombe’s cousin and her young son, the quarry empty and unguarded), Pfaff sent him – at Miss Temple’s insistence – after Ropp to Harschmort, this time with instructions to approach Robert Vandaariff’s mansion cautiously on foot, through the dunes.
The longer she waited the more the Boniface felt like a prison. Without revenge to shape her character, doubt gnawed at Miss Temple’s mind. Her efforts had been directed against Robert Vandaariff – since, as master of the blue glass, he represented the greatest threat. Yet the Contessa was Miss Temple’s primary enemy – her nemesis – and had eluded her altogether. The woman had fled Parchfeldt with the glass book that held the Comte’s memories. She had also captured young Francesca Trapping. Heiress to the Xonck Armaments fortune, the child offered the Contessa brutal leverage over Vandaariff.
Miss Temple had promised Francesca safety. Would her present efforts prove any less bankrupt?
Miss Temple emerged from the cellar of the Boniface, her gloved hand smelling of gunpowder, and returned to her rooms by way of a rear staircase, ascending just in time to see Mr Pfaff and Mr Ramper, returned from Parchfeldt, proceed rapidly past.
‘Tell me exactly,’ whispered Pfaff. ‘And are you sure he was there, not just some mucker from the train?’
Ramper, taller than Pfaff by a good five inches, stopped where he was and leant very close to Pfaff. Pfaff did not flinch.
‘He was in a brown coat,’ snarled Ramper, ‘looked like he’d been living rough – but no poacher, no woodsman and no farmer. He was watching the gate.’
‘How do you know he wasn’t some gypsy, sniffing out salvage?’
‘Why would a gypsy follow me through the woods? Or take the same train?’
‘Then why didn’t you damn well take him?’
‘I thought if I followed him I could find out who he was.’
‘I told you – once I got past the constables –’
‘He was gone. Superb.’
‘No one would go to that ruin without a reason – the same damned reason I had.’
Ramper raised a hand to knock on Miss Temple’s door, but Pfaff caught it mid-air.
‘Not a word,’ Pfaff hissed. ‘The factory, yes, but not this … figment. We don’t scare the mistress.’
Miss Temple emerged from the stairwell, grinning broadly.
‘There you are, Mr Pfaff,’ she called. ‘And Mr Ramper – how good to see you safely returned.’
Pfaff spun round, his hand darting instinctively behind his coat. He smiled in greeting and stepped aside so Miss Temple might reach her door.
Mr Ramper had not entered the Parchfeldt factory itself. The gate was barred and strongly guarded. The grounds outside were pitted with artillery craters, but he saw no bodies. The white walls were blackened by flame. The machines inside – if they remained – were silent, and the smokestacks on the roof were cold.
Miss Temple asked if he had examined the canal. He had: there was no traffic to be seen. She asked if he entered the woods to the east. Mr Ramper described the shell holes and fallen trees amongst the stone ruins. Without noticeable tightness in her voice, Miss Temple asked if he had found any bodies there. Mr Ramper had not.
She poured more tea before turning to Pfaff.
‘After a reasonable period of refreshment, of course – I will have Marie fetch brandy – Mr Ramper will direct his efforts to these machines. If they have been moved, then surely someone with knowledge of the canals can confirm it. If they have been repaired, then an inquiry to the Xonck Armaments works at Raaxfall may help us, for it is there the Comte’s devices were made.’
‘The works at Raaxfall are shut down,’ said Pfaff. ‘Hundreds of men without a wage.’
‘Mr Ramper – the men guarding the factory, did they wear green uniforms?’
Ramper looked at Pfaff before responding. ‘No, miss. Local men for hire, it seemed.’
‘The Xonck factory had its own small army,’ Miss Temple explained. ‘Perhaps they have accompanied the machines.’
Pfaff considered this, then nodded to Ramper, who stood.
‘Do wait for your brandy, Mr Ramper. Mr Pfaff, what of the Royal Institute?’
Pfaff smiled, and rubbed his hands in a gesture Miss Temple was sure he’d copied from the stage. ‘No one’s let it spill, but there’s money in the air. I’ve found a glassworks by the river, apparently turning away work – I’m off tonight to see why.’
‘Then let us speak this evening, when you have returned.’
‘I will not return until quite late.’
‘The hotel staff will not admit me.’
‘Mr Brine will wait in the lobby – it is the simplest thing.’ She turned brightly. ‘Mr Ramper, perhaps you will finish this plate of biscuits – one dislikes their persistence in a room. And, Mr Brine, if you would come with me – I believe Marie has explained there is a fault with the lock on my window.’
Mr Brine obligingly followed Miss Temple to her chamber, pointedly averting his eyes from her bed as he advanced to the window. He turned, his face quite wilfully blank, at the sound of her closing the door behind them.
‘There is little time, Mr Brine,’ she whispered. ‘When Mr Ramper leaves the hotel, I want you to follow him.’ Brine opened his mouth to speak, but Miss Temple waved him to silence. ‘I am not interested in Mr Ramper. My fear is that his brown-coated man did not lose him at all, but has followed him here, and will follow him away. Say nothing to anyone. Exit through the rear of the hotel – I will send you on an errand. If Mr Ramper is under scrutiny, follow this brown-coated person as best you can. Is that clear?’
‘Silence is a provocation, Mr Brine.’
‘Yes, miss. But what if the fellow wants you? If I’m gone, you’ll be alone.’
‘Not to worry.’ Miss Temple patted her clutch bag with a smile. ‘I have only to imagine the man a brown glass bottle and I will pot him square!’
She did not have to fashion an excuse for Mr Brine to leave after all, for when they reappeared Pfaff himself sent Ramper and Brine on their way, expressing a desire to speak to ‘the mistress’ alone. Once the door closed, Pfaff reached into an inner pocket and removed a green cheroot, wrapped tight as a pencil. He bit off the tip and spat it into his teacup.
‘I trust you do not object?’
‘As long as you do not foul the floor.’
Pfaff lit the cheroot, puffing until the tip glowed red.
‘We have not spoken of Cardinal Chang.’
‘Nor will we,’ replied Miss Temple.
‘If I do not know what he did in your employ, I cannot succeed where he failed –’
‘He did not fail in my employ.’
‘However you paint it. The Cardinal’s dead. I do not care to join him. If my questions intrude on delicate matters –’
‘You overreach yourself, Mr Pfaff.’
‘Do I? The Cardinal, this doctor – how many others? You are perilous company, miss, and the less you make it plain, the more I am inclined to nerves.’
‘You have spent your time investigating me,’ said Miss Temple with a start, knowing it was true.
‘And learnt enough to wonder why a sugar-rich spinster took up with foreigners and killers and disappeared for a fortnight.’
Pfaff rolled ash onto a white saucer. ‘If a woman can look past the Cardinal’s scars, what business is that of mine? We all shut our eyes in the dark.’
Miss Temple’s voice dropped to an icy snarl. ‘I will tell you your business, Mr Pfaff – and if I choose to straddle twenty sailors in succession in St Isobel’s Square at noon, it is nothing you need note. I have paid you good money. If you think to defy me, or if you think I care a whit about your leers or the threat of scandal, you have made a very grave mistake.’
Only then did Pfaff realize that Miss Temple’s hand was in her bag and the bag now tight against his abdomen. Very slowly, he raised both hands and met her eyes. He grinned.
‘It seems you’ve answered me after all, miss. Forgive my presumption – a fellow acquires worries. I understand you now quite well.’
Miss Temple did not shift her bag. ‘Then you are for the glassworks?’
‘And will send word, however late the hour.’
‘I am obliged to you, Mr Pfaff.’
In a show of bravado she dropped her bag onto the side table and snatched the last tea biscuit, snapping it between her teeth. Pfaff took his leave. When she heard the door close, Miss Temple sighed heavily. Her mouth was dry. She spat the biscuit back onto the plate.
Miss Temple looked up at the clock. She still had time. She found Marie in the maid’s little room, mending buttons, and explained what to tell Mr Pfaff on the unlikely chance that Miss Temple did not return. When Marie protested this idea, Miss Temple observed that the thread Marie was using did not exactly match the garment. After Marie had promised for the third time to relock and bar the door behind her, Miss Temple tersely allowed that the girl might avail herself of a glass of wine with supper.
The corridor was empty, and Miss Temple met no other guest on her way to the kitchen. Ignoring the looks of the slop boys and tradesmen, she walked to the corner, peered into the street, saw no obvious spy and hurried from the hotel, keeping her head low. At the avenue Miss Temple hailed a carriage. The driver hopped down to help her to her seat and asked her destination.
Miss Temple had never been in the grand Library before – it held no more natural attraction than a barrelworks – and in its stiff majesty she saw a monument to a high-minded struggle interminably waged by others. She approached a wide wooden counter, behind which stood waxy, bespectacled men whose dark coats were dappled with grey finger-swipes of dust.
‘Excuse me,’ Miss Temple said. ‘I require information.’
A younger archivist stepped to serve her, eyes dipping down the front of her dress. The counter drew a line just below her breasts, making it appear, to Miss Temple’s chagrin, that she had jutted herself forward.
‘What information is that, my dear?’
‘I am searching for a piece of property.’
‘Property?’ The archivist chuckled. ‘You’ll want a house agent.’
On his upper lip swelled a pale-tipped pimple. Miss Temple wondered if he would pop it before next shaving, or leave the work to his razor.
‘Do you keep property records?’
‘By law we collect all manner of records.’
‘Well, depending on what exactly you want to learn –’
‘Ownership. Of property.’
The archivist grazed her bosom one last time with his eyes and sniffed diffidently.
The third-floor clerk was on a ladder when Miss Temple found him, and she pitched her question loud enough to hurry him down in haste to lower her voice. He marched her to a wide case of black leather volumes.
‘Here you are. Property registers.’ He turned at once to go.
‘What am I to do with these?’ Miss Temple gave the bookcase an indignant wave. ‘There must be hundreds.’
The soft dome of the clerk’s head was bare, black hair dense around each ear in vain compensation. His fingers shook – did she smell gin?
‘There does happen to be a great deal of property, miss. In the world.’
‘I do not care for the world.’
The clerk bit back a reply. ‘Every time property changes hands, there must be a record. They are arranged by district …’ He looked over his shoulder, longingly, to the ladder.
‘Why don’t you have properties arranged by the owner’s name?’
‘You didn’t ask for that.’
‘I’m asking now.’
‘Those records are organized for taxation and inheritance.’
She raised an eyebrow. He led the way to another case of black-bound books.
‘The letter p,’ she said, before he could leave.
‘The letter p encompasses five volumes.’ He pointed to the top shelf, high above them both.
‘You’ll need a ladder,’ observed Miss Temple.
It had been the Doctor that spurred her thought. Her last vision of Svenson had been in Parchfeldt forest with Mr Phelps, corrupt attaché of the Privy Council, peeling back the Doctor’s gashed tunic and attempting to staunch the blood with his own coat. Like everyone else at the Ministry, Phelps had been under the sway of Mrs Marchmoor, her mental predations eroding his health and sanity. At the end he had been set free by Svenson’s suicidal duel with Captain Tackham. Phelps had not returned to the Ministry, yet who knew what secrets he possessed? She opened the first of the five volumes and sniffed at the dust. Phelps could also tell her about the Doctor’s final moments, when she herself had fled. She thrust the image from her mind and licked her finger. The fragile page caught, leaving a damp mark, and Miss Temple began to work.
After twenty minutes she sat back, noting with displeasure the grime on her fingertips. The sole address for any ‘Phelps’ was a tannery on the south side of the river. This could not be where a Ministry official lived. It had been a fool’s errand anyway – how many in the city took rooms, like she herself, at some hotel or block of flats, without leaving any record of ownership? She would delegate the task of finding Phelps to Pfaff. She stood and looked at the scatter of black books, wondering if she was expected to reshelve them, before deciding that was ridiculous.
But then Miss Temple hurried to the ladder and shoved it loudly to the volumes marked r. It took her two trips to get them to the table, but only five minutes to find what she wanted. Andrew Rawsbarthe had been Roger Bascombe’s direct assistant. Another drone sacrificed by Mrs Marchmoor, Rawsbarthe had perished in Harschmort House. Through Roger, Miss Temple knew that Rawsbarthe was the last of his family, living alone in an inherited house. If Phelps sought a place to hide, there would be few better than the abandoned home of an unmissed subordinate. Miss Temple scribbled the address in her notebook.
The pleasure of her discovery bled easily into confidence and Miss Temple decided to return on foot. Her path kept to avenues lined with banks, trading houses and insurance firms, yet Miss Temple was not large, and the crowded walkways became a gauntlet of bumps and jostles, with never an apology and often an oath. This was the discontent she had seen in the Circus Garden, but further inflamed. She turned at a knot of men storming out of the Grain Trust, shouting insults over their shoulders, and was nearly flattened by two constables swerving towards them, cudgels ready. Chastened, Miss Temple veered to the tea shops of St Vincent’s Lane, where one could always find a carriage. The city felt unmoored, a reactive writhing that brought to mind only unpleasant visions of beheaded poultry.
As she crossed the lobby, the desk clerk caught her eye and raised an envelope of whorled red paper.
‘Not ten minutes ago,’ he said.
‘Who is it from?’ The envelope bore no writing she could see. ‘Who brought it?’
The clerk smiled. ‘A little girl. “This is for Miss Celeste Temple,” she said, and so directly! Her hair was near your colour – brighter, though, quite nearly crimson, and such fair skin. Is she a niece?’
Miss Temple spun behind her, the sudden movement attracting the attention of other guests.
‘She is gone.’ The clerk was now hesitant. ‘Climbed into a handsome black brougham. Do you not know her?’
‘Yes – of course – I did not expect her to arrive so soon. Thank you.’
It had to have been Francesca Trapping. But how could the Contessa be so confident as to send the child in by herself – was she not afraid the girl would run? What had been done to her?
Miss Temple walked calmly to the rear stairs, beyond any eyes. She took out her revolver and began to climb.
The door to her rooms swung silently open at her push before stopping against the broken leg of the chair Marie had propped against the knob. Miss Temple glanced at the extra bolt: sheared away.
She eased into the foyer, not daring to breathe, her eyes – and the pistol barrel – darting at every piece of furniture. The maid’s room door was open. Marie was not there.
To her own bedchamber door a second red envelope had been affixed with a knife. Miss Temple tugged it free. At the sound, a cry of fear echoed from within.
‘Marie?’ Miss Temple called. ‘Are you hurt?’
‘Mistress? O my heavens! Mistress –’
‘Are you hurt, Marie?’
‘No, mistress – but the noise –’
‘Marie, you may come out now. They are gone. You will be safe.’
Miss Temple pushed the front door closed, no longer bothering with the chair. She turned to the sound of her own bolt sliding back and Marie’s pale face peeking out.
‘We will call for supper,’ Miss Temple said. ‘And a man to repair our lock. Corporal Brine will be back directly, and I promise, Marie, you will not be left alone again.’
Marie nodded, still not prepared to step into the parlour. Miss Temple followed her maid’s gaze to the two red envelopes in her hand.
‘What are those?’ Marie whispered.
The lock had been replaced and Miss Temple’s inevitably frank talk with the manager, Mr Stamp, concluded. Stamp’s mortification that his hotel had been so effortlessly penetrated by criminals was exactly balanced by his resentment of Miss Temple for having attracted said criminals in the first place, and it had taken all of her tact – never amply on supply – to settle the matter, for she knew his truest wish, finance notwithstanding, was to turn her out. Mr Brine appeared in the door some minutes later, out of breath, for the tale of the attack had reached him in the lobby and he had run all the way up the stairs. After Brine had asked to see for himself that Marie was well – which Miss Temple allowed only on the hope that such attention might persuade the maid that much sooner to effective service – she received his own report, a tale that eased her mind not at all.
He had indeed found the brown-coated man, who had not only eluded Ramper at Stropping, but had looped around and followed Ramper to the Boniface. Upon Ramper’s departure, the man had trailed him to Worthing Circle, where Ramper had hired a carriage. The brown-coated man hired a carriage of his own, but Mr Brine had not been able to engage a third carriage in time and had lost his quarry. With a shake of his head – the square nature of which made the gesture more like the swivelling of a wooden block – he described the man as ‘weedy and queer’, with a large moustache. The brown coat was out of fashion and too large for its wearer.
At this point Mr Brine burst into another apology, but Miss Temple abruptly stood, forcing Brine to stop speaking and rise with her.
‘The fault is mine alone, Mr Brine. You warned me. If you would let me know when Mr Pfaff sends word.’
She sat on her bed with the two red squares upon her lap, turning each in her hands for any hint of what they might contain. That the envelopes came from the Contessa seemed clear: the first to trumpet her command of Francesca Trapping, the second to make plain Miss Temple’s mortal weakness. Neither fact could be gainsaid. She plucked the knife from her boot and sliced open the first envelope. The red paper was stiffer than it appeared. Inside was only a snip of newsprint, by the typeface recognizably from the Herald.
–grettable Canvases from Paris, whose Rococo Opulence languishes in a mire of degenerate Imagination. The largest, abstrusely entitled The Chemickal Marriage, happily eschews the odious, irreligious Satire of Mr Veilandt’s recent Annunciation, but the only Union on display is that of Arrogance and Debauchery. The Composition’s Bride, if one can bear to thus describe a Figure so painstakingly degraded
Miss Temple had seen the artist’s work and did not dispute the assessment, though she did not know this particular piece. That the decadent artist Oskar Veilandt and the Comte d’Orkancz were one and the same was not widely known, for Veilandt was supposed to have died in Paris some years before. If she could acquire the entire article from the Herald, she would certainly learn more.
Miss Temple took up the second envelope, heavier than the first, and cut along its seam. She peeked inside and felt her breath catch. With delicate care she drew the blade around the next two sides, peeling it open as fearfully as if it were a box that held a beating heart.
The envelope had been pinned to the door quite deliberately to avoid damaging the small square of glass it held – no thicker than a wasp’s wing, and the colour of indigo ink pooled across white porcelain. She glanced at the door. This had come from the Contessa. The glass might hold anything – degrading, deranging, unthinkable – and to look inside would be as irrevocable as leaping from a rooftop. Her parched throat tasted of black ash … the Comte’s memories told her that the thinness of the glass allowed only the simplest inscription, that the memory must be brief.
The skin on the back of her neck tingled. Miss Temple forced her eyes around the room, as if cataloguing its reality might give her strength. She looked into the glass.
Two minutes later – she glanced at once to the clock – Miss Temple had pulled her eyes free. Her face was flushed, yet her transit of the glass fragment had not been difficult: the captured memory was but the viewing of a roll of parchment … the architectural plan of a building she did not know.
The Contessa had wasted her strategic advantage to acquaint Miss Temple, an enemy, with an unhelpful newspaper clipping and an equally pointless map. Obviously each might be useful, if she knew what they meant … but why would the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza desire Miss Temple to become even more entangled in her business?
Taking into account the curiosity of maids, Miss Temple hid the clipping and glass square beneath a feathered hat she never wore. The red envelopes were left in plain sight on her desktop, each now containing arbitrary swatches of newsprint.
The night brought only a terse note from Mr Pfaff: ‘Glassworks engaged, following on.’ Because Ramper and Jaxon passed messages through Pfaff, she heard nothing from either man, and Pfaff himself sent no further word that morning nor the next entire day. Miss Temple strode through the hotel, to her meals, to the cellar, even once on a whim to the rooftop in hopes of spying the brown-coated man in the street. She saw nothing, and clumped back to the red-flocked corridor of the topmost floor, where Mr Brine stood waiting.
At her chambers the evening editions had arrived and lay on the sideboard. Miss Temple took the pile in both hands and retreated to her writing desk, holding the papers on her lap without looking at them.
The journey to Harschmort House was a matter of hours by train, somewhat more by coach, and perhaps as much as an entire day on foot. Mr Jaxon had been gone five days, and Mr Ropp above a fortnight. That both had vanished into the mystery of Harschmort confirmed that Robert Vandaariff had survived. If the brown-coated man served Vandaariff, did it not mean, upon his trailing Ramper, that Ramper would disappear as well?
The Contessa had found her. She was wasting time. Her enemies were moving.
Miss Temple shoved the papers onto the floor. The sun was setting. She sorted through her bag. She could wait no more.
‘Marie, my travelling jacket.’
The maid had been safely installed in the room Miss Temple kept for business, the hotel’s footmen within earshot of the door. Miss Temple again left through the kitchens, Mr Brine at her side. With no idea whether they were being watched, she had to assume they were.
The art salon where the Comte’s paintings had been shown was locked and its windows dark.
‘I don’t suppose you can open the door?’
‘Not without breaking the glass, miss.’
Miss Temple cupped both hands around her face and pressed her forehead to the cold surface. The gallery walls were bare. She sighed. From her previous visit she knew there was no room for a very large canvas in any case. The Chemickal Marriage must be at Harschmort.
She whispered for Brine to look as well. When his face was nearer she spoke evenly and low. ‘Behind the gallery agent’s desk is a mirror. In that mirror – do not turn, Mr Brine – is a figure crouching in the shadow of that dray-cart. Would that be your brown-coated man?’
Brine sucked breath through his teeth in a hiss.
‘Excellent,’ said Miss Temple. ‘We will walk away without a care. I doubt the man’s alone, and until we locate his confederates, we cannot act.’
They kept to well-lit avenues. At the next intersection Mr Brine leant close to whisper: ‘If he’s got fellows, they haven’t shown. If you’ll allow me, miss, perhaps we can trap him.’
Brine took her elbow in his massive hand and guided her to a smaller lane of darkened markets, the cobbles strewn with broken boxes, paper and straw. Once around the corner, Brine skilfully folded his own bulk behind three empty barrels. She walked ahead, pulling the pistol from her bag and then making a show of waving into the glass door of a shop, hoping it would appear as if Mr Brine had gone inside and left her waiting.
Silhouetted against the brighter avenue, a figure crept into view … head darting to either side like a snake. Miss Temple continued her performance with impatience. The shadow came closer, straight past the barrels …
Mr Brine rose, but the brown-coated man was warned by his shadow and avoided the swinging cudgel, fleeing back into the crowds. Miss Temple dashed towards them both, pistol raised, but it was no use. Their quarry had been flushed, and they would not trap him so easily again.
Mr Brine blamed himself bitterly, well past Miss Temple’s patience, and she was driven to change the subject, making conversation when she would have preferred to think. They had engaged a carriage and every time the man peered out of the window he was reminded of his failure and began to mutter.
‘I say again, Mr Brine, it does not signify – indeed, I am happy to be rid of the man, for now we may engage in our true business of the evening.’
Brine kept looking out, his large head mocked by the lace curtains bunched against each ear. Miss Temple cleared her throat. ‘Our true business, Mr Brine. Do attend.’
‘Beg pardon, miss.’
‘There will be ample opportunity to demonstrate your skills. Albermap Crescent, No. 32. As its occupant has died, I shall rely on you to make our entry – preferably nothing to attract the neighbours.’
They left the coach and waited for the sound of hoof beats to fade. No. 32 lay in the centre of the Crescent’s arch, and entirely dark.
‘I expect there is a servant’s entrance,’ Miss Temple whispered. ‘Less on view.’
Mr Brine clutched her arm. The topmost windows had been covered with bare planks, but from one of No. 32’s three brick chimneys rose a wisp of curling smoke.
They hurried to the side door. The stones around it were smeared with a grainy paste, like mortar, and Miss Temple looked to see if the house next door was being repaired.
Mr Brine squared one shoulder near the lock and drove the whole of his weight against the door with a resounding crack. Miss Temple shut her eyes and sighed. She followed Mr Brine in and shoved the broken door shut. In the silence of Andrew Rawsbarthe’s pantry they waited … but no answer came.
She slipped the wax stub from her bag, struck a match and led them to the kitchen proper, the grit on her shoes rasping against the floorboards.
‘Do you smell … cabbage?’ she whispered.
Brine shook his head. Perhaps the ghostly trace lingered from Rawsbarthe’s final meal. She motioned Brine on with a nod. They must find the third chimney.
The hearth in the main room was cold, and Mr Brine’s index finger drew a line of dust across the sideboard. The front door was locked and barred. The staircase was steep, the wood reflecting the candle like a dark mirror. The old steps creaked, thin complaints at their intrusion. When Miss Temple reached the empty landing, she pointed to the ceiling with her revolver. Brine nodded, his cudgel ready. But the staircase did not continue up. If Mr Phelps was using the house to hide, it must be in an attic …
Far below them, quite unmistakably, came the creak of the pantry door. Miss Temple blew out the candle. At once her heart sank. Behind them shone a double line of smeared footprints, glowing palely with the moon. She looked down at her boots and saw them rimed with the mortar from the doorstep – some phosphorescent paste? It had been a snare. Their location would be plotted for the man downstairs as neatly as a map. She desperately scuffed her boots across Rawsbarthe’s carpet, then pulled Brine’s head to her ear.
‘Guard the stairs,’ she hissed. ‘Surprise him. I will find the way up!’
In Rawsbarthe’s wardrobe she pawed through hanging clothes, hoping a ladder might be tucked behind them. Her foot caught on an open trunk and she stumbled full upon it, wrinkling her nose at the iron tang of blood. The trunk held jumbled clothing – impossible to see more without light – but her fingers confirmed, by the amount of stiffened fabric, how very much blood there had been.
She groped across the bedchamber. Her luminous footprints muddled the floor. Between the basin and the bookcase lay three feet of open wall. Miss Temple felt along it until one blind finger found a hole ringed with painted iron. She hooked the ring and pulled. The wall panel popped free on newly oiled hinges.
She dashed back, skidding to a stop in the doorway. Mr Brine lay flat on his face, a pistol barrel hard against the base of his skull. Glaring at Miss Temple was a man whose brown coat was buttoned tight up to his neck.
She heard a breath to her left, in the shadows. She dodged back, just ahead of hands attempting to seize her, and bolted through the opened panel, fumbling for a latch to hold it shut. The first kicks were already cracking the wood as she flung herself up a ladder, climbing with both hands and feet. At the top she bulled through a hanging flap of canvas and sprawled into the sudden brightness of an attic room. By its iron stove stood a tall, thin figure in his stockinged feet, wearing steel-blue uniform trousers and a seaman’s woollen jumper. He had not shaved. His right hand gripped a long-barrelled Navy pistol and his left – fingers shaking and skeletal – held an unlit cigarette. Miss Temple screamed.
Doctor Svenson sank to his knees, setting the pistol to the floor and extending both pale hands, speaking gently.
‘Celeste … my goodness – O my dear girl –’
At the final splintering of the panel below Svenson sharply pitched his voice to her pursuers: ‘Stay where you are! It is Celeste Temple! There is no concern, I say – wait there!’ He nodded to her, his blue eyes bright. ‘Celeste, how have you come here?’
Miss Temple’s voice was harsh, her throat choked equally with surprise and rage.
‘How have I come here? I? How are you alive? How – without a single word – without –’ She jabbed her pistol at his own. ‘We might have shot one another! I ought to have shot you!’ Her eyes brimmed hot. ‘And just imagine how I would have wept to find you dead again!’
Mr Phelps had given her cocoa in a metal mug, but Miss Temple did not intend to drink it. She sat on a wooden chair next to the stove, Svenson – having put on his boots – near her with his own mug. The abashed Mr Brine perched on what was obviously the Doctor’s bed, the frame sagging with his weight. On either side of Brine stood Mr Phelps – balding, his watery eyes haunted, yet no longer so openly ill-looking – and a sallow-eyed man introduced as Mr Cunsher, whose voluminous brown coat had been hung on a hook. Without it Cunsher looked like a trim woodland creature, with a woollen waistcoat and patched trousers, all – in contrast to the Doctor – scrupulously clean.
‘Celeste,’ offered Svenson, after yet another full minute of silence, ‘you must believe I wanted nothing more than to speak with you.’
‘The Doctor’s wounds should have killed him,’ explained Phelps. ‘He was confined to bed for weeks –’
‘I was fortunate in that the sabre cut across the ribs without passing beneath,’ said Svenson. ‘A prodigious amount of blood lost, but what is blood? Mr Phelps saved my life. He has seen the error of his ways, and we have thrown in together.’
‘So I see.’
Svenson sighed hopelessly. ‘My dear –’
‘If they were followed, we must leave,’ muttered Cunsher. He spoke with an accent Miss Temple could not place.
‘We were not followed,’ Brine protested gruffly.
‘Cunsher has been our eyes,’ said Phelps.
Miss Temple sniffed. ‘He went to Parchfeldt.’
‘And he has watched your hotel. Your movements have been observed by our enemies. And your fellows –’
‘Have been taken,’ said Miss Temple. ‘When they went to Harschmort, I know.’
‘Celeste,’ Svenson’s voice was too gentle, ‘you have been very brave –’
Miss Temple resisted the urge to fling the cocoa in his face. ‘Chang is dead. Elöise is dead. You tell me I am watched, that my efforts have been undermined. If I could find you, are your efforts any better? I should not be surprised if the Contessa herself has taken the house next door just to laugh at your useless sneakery.’
No one spoke. Miss Temple saw doubt on Cunsher’s face, and disdain on Phelps’s. Mr Brine looked at the floor. Doctor Svenson reached towards her, gently pulled away the mug and set it on the floor. Then he took Miss Temple’s hands in his own, the fingers long and cold.
‘I say you are brave, Celeste, because you are – far braver than I. Despair gives a hero’s strength to anyone. To be a heroine in life is altogether different.’
Miss Temple grudgingly tossed one shoulder. Doctor Svenson looked to the others.
‘And I expect she is correct. We should depart at once.’
They walked single file through the houses behind Albermap Crescent, Phelps in the lead, then the Doctor and Miss Temple, Mr Brine at the rear. Mr Cunsher had stayed to feed all evidence of their inhabitation to the stove. He would join them further on.
‘Why can we not simply return to the Boniface?’ asked Miss Temple.
‘Because I do not care to deliver myself into my enemy’s hand,’ Phelps whispered without turning. He waved them through a battered wrought-iron gate. ‘Keep low … do not speak … with any luck no one will see …’
Beyond the gate lay shuttered houses, riven walkways choked with weeds and an open common. Through the darkness Miss Temple perceived a host of canvas tents and winking lanterns, and snatches of talk in other tongues. Svenson took her hand. She wondered if she ought to take Mr Brine’s, so no one would be lost, but did not. A dog barked near one of the tents, and a chorus of yaps rose all around. The party broke into a run, outpacing the human calls that followed the dogs, challenges sent out to passing ghosts.
Their way ended at a high stone wall. Phelps began patting at it like a blind man. Miss Temple looked back. The dog had again provoked the chorus of its fellows.
‘I expect that’s Mr Cunsher,’ whispered Brine.
‘Who is Mr Cunsher?’ Miss Temple asked.
‘A man known to the Ministry,’ said Svenson. ‘You would call him a spy.’
‘But not from here.’
‘No more than you or I, which recommends him, this city being a snakepit … ’
Miss Temple realized the Doctor had quietly drawn the Naval revolver.
‘At last … at last,’ muttered Phelps, and she heard the turn of a key. ‘Quickly, inside and up the stairs.’
‘A relic of an older time.’ Phelps’s whisper rebounded off a brick ceiling. He tamped the lamp wick to a lower flame and slid a fluted glass over it. ‘A portion of ancient city wall – a tower left to secure river traffic, and then left again as a useful hole for stuffing things and people one’s government ought not to have. I learnt of it from the late Colonel Aspiche, who stumbled across it as a subaltern. Once assigned to Palace duties, he sought out the key … a key which I took it upon myself to, ah, take.’
‘Colonel Aspiche was horrid,’ said Miss Temple.
Phelps sighed. ‘I am sure you must have found him so – as you must find me. Ambition has made apes of better men, and far worse.’
‘How do you feel?’ asked Miss Temple, not interested in another apology. ‘The sickness from the blue glass – has it passed? Are its effects reversed?’
‘In the main, though not without cost – I do not think I shall ever sleep the night through without some dream of her staining my mind. If Doctor Svenson owes his life to my efforts, I owe my sanity to his.’
Svenson smiled tightly, snapping open his silver case for a cigarette. ‘You ask what I have done these weeks, Celeste, apart from tending my own wounds. Do you still have the orange metal rings? Cardinal Chang stuffed a quantity into my pocket – I assume he did the same to you.’
Miss Temple flushed at the memory of Chang’s fingers thrusting into the bosom of her dress, for it had become a fixture of her intimate relief. Svenson hesitated at her silence, but then went on. ‘The qualities of this orange mineral counter those of the blue glass; thus the rings enabled each of us to resist the powers of Mrs Marchmoor. You will remember the liquid we used to cure Chang’s wounds in the airship. I was able to distil a kind of tincture from my supply of rings. Crude, to be sure, yet it minimized the poison in Mr Phelps. With time and proper tools I could do more – if I knew what the alloy was, I could do more still.’
He knelt and studied her face. ‘The glass woman rummaged in your thoughts too. At the factory, you appeared nearly consumptive …’
She turned from his gaze. ‘I have made a point since to eat fresh fruit.’
Svenson smiled, and it seemed he might touch her cheek, but instead he stood. His unshaven beard was darker than his hair and gave a masculine cast to his sharp chin that she had not previously discerned. Indeed, standing above her in his boots and rough clothing, the Doctor exuded an altogether disturbing maleness.
He was staring at her. Of course he was – he quite naturally wanted to know everything – but Miss Temple found herself unable to speak. Her cheeks burnt. How could she tell him about Chang? How could she speak about her secret needs? How could she explain the derangement she risked from even his kind hand?
The silence was broken by Mr Brine offering a match for Svenson’s unlit cigarette. Mr Phelps shifted the conversation to food, removing from a satchel several meat pies and a green bottle of sweet wine.
Over the meal, Mr Phelps related their own experiences since the Parchfeldt wood. They had joined a ragged party of fleeing men – minions of Mrs Marchmoor who did not question their presence – finally reaching St Porte and a surgeon for Svenson’s wounds. Two days by dray-cart had seen them to the city and the refuge of Rawsbarthe’s home, where the Doctor fell into a fever. Phelps had risked returning to the Foreign Ministry only once, to find his offices ransacked and abandoned – indeed, like the offices of all senior staff.
‘Who is in charge?’ asked Miss Temple.
‘The Foreign Minister, Lord Mazeby, still lives, but has ever battled dementia – thus Deputy Minister Crabbé’s untoward authority. Junior attachés, such as my own aide, Mr Harcourt, have been promoted, but true policy must lie with the Privy Council, or the Crown. The Queen is old, however, and the Duke who ruled the Privy Council dead. A non-entity like Lord Axewith may take his place, but what does that serve? The entire government, and industry as well –’
Miss Temple interrupted to suggest he speak to what she did not know already.
In the ensuing pause Doctor Svenson cleared his throat and more fully described Cunsher as an agent provocateur, personally loyal to Phelps, who had employed his services abroad. At this, Phelps resumed the tale: while he had seen to the Doctor’s recovery – and then the Doctor to his own – Mr Cunsher had set to investigating their enemies. A recitation of Cunsher’s discoveries was again interrupted by Miss Temple – she knew about the St Royale, and the factory, and the Institute, and –
‘But you were unaware of your own danger!’ barked Phelps. ‘Villains watching your hotel and attacking the men in your employ!’
‘Whose villains?’ asked Miss Temple. ‘From the Contessa, or Vandaariff?’
‘We suspect the latter,’ said Svenson. ‘Not even Cunsher can get near Harschmort. It is a rearmed camp. The Cabal spread a story of blood fever to justify Vandaariff’s confinement at their hands, and one would expect at least an announcement of recovery, to allow him back into public life – but none has come.’
‘What of the Contessa?’ asked Miss Temple.
‘Nothing,’ spat Mr Phelps. ‘Not one sign.’
The tower had a primitive barracks, six musty bunks, now echoing with Mr Brine’s snores. Miss Temple peered across the room, unable to see whether Svenson and Phelps were asleep, though she assumed they were.
A dream had awoken her. She had been in Harschmort, standing before the Dutch mirror, naked but for a green silk bodice. Someone was watching from behind the glass and she felt a keen pleasure in imagining their hungry eyes as her hands traced the sweep of her white hips. She wondered who it was and turned her buttocks to the glass. Someone she knew? Chang? In delicious provocation, Miss Temple bent forward and reached between her legs … and in answer, like delight’s inevitable consequence, the room changed. The mirror was gone, revealing the niche behind it and her observer. Stretched upon the velvet chaise was the dead-eyed, grey-skinned corpse of Elöise Dujong.
The threads of sleep slipped away and with them the chill of horror. But, as she stared at the bunk slats above her, bowed against the weight of Mr Brine, Miss Temple felt the dream’s hunger remain. Her mouth tasted sour – the wine, along with her own spoilt essence – and she ran her tongue along her teeth in hopes of subduing her desire through disgust. But the urge would not subside. She sucked the inside of one cheek between her teeth and bit hard. The others were too near. They would hear – they would smell –
In an abrupt rustle of petticoats Miss Temple rolled from the bunk and padded to the other room, hugging herself tight at the stove and rocking on cold bare feet. She forced her mind to the dream. What did it mean to bare her lust to Elöise, of all people? Miss Temple was not at heart shamed by her desire, only that so much of what informed it derived from other minds. Was her feeling of debasement more truly a matter of pride?
Elöise had been married. She had loved men – perhaps even the Doctor, in some bare-planked room at the fishing village. At this thought Miss Temple’s imagination flared: Svenson’s unshaven face kissing the pale skin above Elöise’s breasts, her dress pushed up her thighs, his knees bent with effort. Miss Temple whimpered aloud, and in sorrow. In her dream, desire had been grotesque. But that was wrong, and the truth came cruelly in the gaze of care her imagination placed between Elöise and the Doctor, her liquid brown eyes up to his clear blue. Miss Temple wiped her nose with a sniff. What made desire unbearable was love.
She turned at a sound. Doctor Svenson stood in the doorway.
‘I heard you rise. Are you well?’
‘Aren’t you cold?’
‘I had a dream.’ Miss Temple exhaled with more emotion than she cared for. ‘Of Elöise. She was dead.’
Svenson sighed and sat near her in a chair, his hair across his eyes.
‘In mine she lives. Small consolation, for I wake to sorrow. Yet my memory retains Elöise Dujong in this world – her smile, her scent, her care. She is that much preserved.’
‘Did you love her?’ Her back was to the stove, her dress bundled forward so it would not singe.
‘Perhaps. The thought is a torment. She did not love me, I know that.’
Miss Temple shook her head. ‘But … she told me …’
‘Celeste, I beg you. She made her feelings clear.’
Miss Temple said nothing. The thick stone walls cloaked them in silence.
‘You were with Chang?’ the Doctor asked. ‘At the end?’
Miss Temple nodded.
‘The night was chaos. I remember very little after the ridiculous duel –’
‘It was not ridiculous,’ said Miss Temple. ‘It was very brave.’
‘I heard you call and guessed something had happened to Chang. I did not know until this night it was the Contessa. Nor that she killed Elöise.’
Svenson had changed, as if the blue of his eyes had been run through a sieve. Again she wondered at his wound – how raw the scar, how long, imagining the blade slicing across the Doctor’s nipple –
She whimpered under her breath. Svenson half rose from his seat but she kept him back with a shake of her head and a half-hearted smile. The Doctor watched her with concern.
‘I have been quite out of the world,’ he said softly. ‘You had best tell me what you can.’
Her story poured out, everything that had taken place from the clearing where Elöise had died to Albermap Crescent – Pfaff, the vanishing of Ropp and Jaxon, the red envelopes, the Comte’s painting, the scrap of inscribed glass. She said nothing of her own distress, the books roiling inside, her deracinating hunger. She said nothing of Chang. Yet, as she spoke, she found her attention catching on the Doctor’s features, the efficient movement of his hands as he smoked, even the new rasp to his voice. She found herself guessing his age – a decade older than she, surely no more than that – his German manners aged him next to a man like Chang, but if one only looked at his face –
Miss Temple started, deep in her own mind. Svenson had stepped closer to the stove and rubbed his hands.
‘I am growing cold after all.’
‘It is cold,’ replied Miss Temple, holding out her hands as well. ‘Winter is the guest who never leaves – who one finds lurking behind the beer barrel in the kitchen.’
Svenson chuckled, and shook his head. ‘To keep your humour, Celeste, after all you’ve seen.’
‘I’m sure I have no humour at all. Speaking one’s mind is not wit.’
‘My dear, that is wit exactly.’
Miss Temple reddened. When it was clear she had no intention of replying, the Doctor knelt and scooped more coal into the stove.
‘Mr Cunsher has not come. He may be hiding, or in pursuit – or taken, in which case we cannot remain here.’
‘How will we know which? If we leave, how will we find him?’
‘He will find us, do not fear …’
‘I do not like Mr Cunsher.’
‘Upon such men we must rely. How long did it take until you trusted Chang?’
‘No time at all. I saw him on the train. I knew.’
Svenson met her determined expression, then shrugged. ‘Harschmort is too perilous until we know more. Our struggle has become a chess match. We cannot strike at king or queen, but must fence with pawns and hope to force a path. Your Mr Pfaff –’
‘Went to a glassworks by the river, which led him somewhere else.’
‘And Mr Ramper went to Raaxfall. Phelps and I have hopes to waylay Mr Harcourt as he leaves the Ministry –’
‘We should go back to the Boniface,’ Miss Temple said. ‘As it is watched, my arrival may provoke one of these pawns to action – which you and Mr Phelps can observe. I will be safe with Brine, and with any luck Mr Pfaff will have returned.’
‘Spelt out like that, I cannot disagree.’
She smiled. ‘Why should you want to?’
Breakfast was quick and cold, well before dawn. Fog clung to the stones. The streets on the far side of the tower were of a piece with the tents on the common they had passed in the night – even at this hour crowded with faces from other lands, tiny shops, carts, mere squares of carpet piled with copper, beadwork, spices, embroidery. Miss Temple found herself next to Mr Phelps. Unable to shed her distrust, yet feeling obliged because of the Doctor’s alliance, she did her best to strike up a conversation.
‘How strange it must be, Mr Phelps, to be so uprooted from your life.’
The pale man’s expression remained wary. ‘In truth, I scarcely note it.’
‘But your family, your home – are you not missed?’
‘The only ones to miss me are already dead.’
Miss Temple felt an impulse to apologize, but repressed it. Behind them Svenson listened to Mr Brine describe his service abroad, apparently spurred on by the dark faces around them.
‘When you say “dead”, Mr Phelps, do you refer to your former allies – Mrs Marchmoor, Colonel Aspiche and the others?’
Phelps’s lips were a thin, whitened line. He gestured at the market stalls. ‘Have you spent all your hours in that hotel? Do you not see how we are stared at?’
‘I am not unaccustomed to dark faces, Mr Phelps, nor their attention.’
‘Have you not perceived the disorder in the streets?’
‘Of course I have perceived it,’ said Miss Temple. ‘But disorder and unrest have always been the lot of the unfortunate.’
‘Don’t be a fool,’ Phelps replied under his breath, angry but not wanting to draw attention. ‘Everything you see – the fear amongst these colonials, the anger of the displaced workers, the outrage with the banks, our paralysed industry – all of this comes directly from my misguided efforts. And your virtuous ones.’
‘I do not understand.’
Phelps exhaled, a chuff of clouded air. She saw the strain in his eyes, a vibration of guilt. He did not like her, she knew, but, more, Phelps did not like himself. She gave the man credit for his awareness of the latter dislike colouring the former – thus the sigh, and an attempt at explanation.
‘Those you name as “the Cabal” insinuated themselves into the highest levels of every ministry, the Palace, Admiralty, Army and Privy Council. Even more importantly, through the subversion of men of industry like Robert Vandaariff and Henry Xonck, they influenced mills, banks, shipping lines, railways, a gridwork of influence and power – all of it suborned through their Process, and all, on their departure in that dirigible, left awaiting instructions, free will expunged.’
‘And I have worked against them –’
‘Yes, and unintentionally, through your success, delivered the nation from one dilemma to another. When the Cabal’s mission to Macklenburg failed and its leaders were undone, this gridwork I describe was left without command, even without sense. Various minions attempted to take the reins – out of ambition, I make no bones, for I was of their number – Mrs Marchmoor and the Colonel, but there were others too with a scrambling knowledge of what plans had been in place. This second crop was defeated at Parchfeldt, as we deserved – but that victory has only allowed the nation’s sickness to deepen.’
Phelps shook his head. ‘The sickness of rule. The Cabal has hollowed out the rule of this land like a melon – and what remains? What remains of the nation? In governance there is ever but a narrow margin between acceptance and revolt. Quite simply, Miss Temple, that margin is gone.’
‘But why should you care?’
Phelps stammered, aghast. ‘Because I am guilty. Because others have died without the chance to repent.’
Miss Temple sniffed. ‘What does repentance do, save ease a villain’s conscience?’
Phelps turned down a lane of smithies, where the air rang with hammers and the breeze was warm. He spoke abruptly, his voice unpleasantly crisp.‘We went back to Parchfeldt. While Cunsher spied out the factory. Did the Doctor tell you? No. It had been weeks – cold, rain – the wild. We went back for her. We took the body to her uncle’s on a cart. Dug a grave in the garden.’ He twisted his mouth to a grimace. ‘Who’ll do that for you or me?’
When Miss Temple spoke her voice was small.
‘Did you look for Chang?’
‘We did.’ Mr Phelps took her hand to cross the busy road. ‘Without success.’
Mr Spanning, the assistant manager, was just unlocking the hotel’s front door as Miss Temple and Mr Brine arrived. Mr Phelps and the Doctor had gone to secure a carriage and would meet them outside.
‘Early morning?’ Spanning offered, eyes flitting across their rumpled clothes.
Miss Temple had not forgotten Spanning’s willingness to accept the Cabal’s money, nor her own threat to set his over-oiled hair aflame. He smoothly preceded them to the desk.
‘No messages. So sorry.’
Mr Brine leant over the lip of the desk to look for himself, but Miss Temple was already walking to the stairs.
‘Will you want tea?’ called Spanning with arch solicitude. ‘Brandy?’
By the time Miss Temple reached her own floor the revolver was in her hand. Mr Brine pressed ahead of her with his cudgel. The door was locked as they had left it.
Inside, nothing had been touched. Miss Temple sent Mr Brine downstairs to wake Marie. While he was gone, she retrieved the two red envelopes and their original contents, tucking them carefully into one of her aunt’s serial novels (Susannah, White Ranee of Kaipoor) to protect the glass. Her eyes caught her old ankle boots. The bold green leather had been chosen out of spite, of course, at the disapproval of Roger Bascombe’s cousin. She disliked the memory.
Miss Temple waited for Mr Brine in her parlour, a growing tension in her hips. Why was she alone? Why was she always alone?
She shifted and felt the seam of her silk pants pull between her legs. How long before Mr Brine came back? With one hand she bunched up her dress and petticoats so she might slip the other beneath. How close had she come to depravity in the barracks bunk, pleasuring herself in plain view of the Doctor, the noise waking every man in the room? Did she not risk the exact same mortification now, if Brine were to enter with Marie and find her red-faced and gasping? She worked her thumb through the gap in her silk pants and grunted at the spark of contact. And if it was not them entering, but Svenson? She imagined his shock at her brazen need. Was the rest of his skin so pale? She grunted again and shut her eyes, then with a sudden stab of anger pulled her damp hand free.
Was she such an animal?
Anything was possible – it was a lesson her blue glass memories made clear – but because a thing was possible did not mean she ought to want it. She had opened her heart to Chang. It did not signify that he was dead (or that she had only been able to do so because he was dead). She exhaled through her nose and rose to wash her hand.
They met the carriage in front of the hotel.
‘No word from Mr Pfaff,’ Miss Temple said, and handed her aunt’s novel to Doctor Svenson, who opened it to reveal the red envelopes. ‘You all ought to look into the glass, in case you recognize the building it shows.’
Phelps studied the newspaper clipping. ‘Is it worth a stop at the Herald? The complete text might tell us where to find the painting, and thus the man.’ He saw the glass in Svenson’s lap and swallowed with discomfort. ‘I will never see that shade of blue without a headache. Are you sure it is safe?’
‘Of course I am.’
Svenson looked up from the glass and blinked. ‘I have no idea what this is.’ He offered the envelope to Mr Brine. ‘Just look into it; do not let the experience surprise you.’
‘You seemed so sure they are watching us,’ said Miss Temple. ‘Still, we remain unmolested. Can it be they do not care?’
‘Perhaps they know where we will go,’ offered Svenson.
‘But how?’ asked Phelps. ‘Do we?’
‘If they have captured Cunsher or Mr Pfaff, they may know enough. Or’ – Svenson flicked a fingernail against the red envelope in his hand – ‘they have laid an irresistible path for us to follow.’
Phelps sighed. ‘Like visiting the Herald.’
Miss Temple turned to Mr Brine, lost in the blue card, and gently tapped his shoulder. Brine started and the envelope slipped off his knees, deftly caught by Doctor Svenson. Brine at once began to apologize.
‘There is no harm,’ Miss Temple said quickly. ‘The blue glass is immersive. Did you recognize anything?’
Brine shook his head. Miss Temple wished he might say something clever, feeling that his dull presence reflected on her. Mr Phelps steadied himself to enter the glass. He came out of it moments later with a sneeze – again the Doctor saving the glass from breakage – eyes watering and his nose gone red. Phelps dug for a handkerchief and mopped his face.
‘My constitution has been spoilt. Dreadful stuff.’ He blew his nose. ‘But, no, I’ve no idea of the place, save to say it looks large.’
‘Could it be a portion of Harschmort?’ asked Miss Temple.
‘It could be anything.’
‘Anything can be anything.’ Miss Temple slumped back in her seat, taking in the passing street. ‘Why are we riding to the Ministries?’
‘We’re not,’ Phelps protested, ‘not strictly – yet I had thought, perhaps, if we did waylay Harcourt –’
‘Ridiculous,’ said Miss Temple. ‘I did not spend a miserable night in hiding to deliver myself to Ministry guards. By your own logic, we are in this coach – at liberty – because our enemies allow it. The Contessa has sent these envelopes to spur us to action. That means she must be desperate.’
‘If it were so pressing, her hints would be clearer.’
‘Perhaps they are clearer than we know,’ said Svenson. ‘A clipping about the Comte’s painting and an architectural plan – in glass, which links it too with the Comte. May we suppose the structure is the home of the painting?’
‘Then must we visit the Herald after all?’
‘Possibly,’ continued Svenson, ‘yet if the Contessa possessed the entire clipping, why send only this part?’
‘To force us to visit the newspaper.’
‘Or the opposite,’ replied Svenson. ‘She could have given the whole page. Do you see – in reducing the text she also omits extraneous facts that might distract us.’
‘You speak as if she can be trusted!’ cried Phelps.
‘Never in life, but her actions can be deduced from her appetites, like any predator’s.’
Miss Temple plucked the clipping from Mr Brine, who currently held it. She reread the text and then turned it over. At once she snorted with disgust.
‘I am an outright ass.’ She held the scrap of paper out for them to see. ‘Our destination is Raaxfall.’
Phelps gave an exasperated sigh and looked to the Doctor for support. ‘That is an advertisement for scalp tonic.’
‘Yes,’ said Miss Temple, ‘look at the words.’
‘No, no –’
Phelps read aloud. ‘New guaranteed formula for medical relief! From Monsieur Henri’s Parisian factory! A recipe for healing, restored vitality and new growth!’
Miss Temple stabbed her finger at the paper. ‘Factory – medical – formula – healing – new growth! Those words – in reference to the Comte d’Orkancz –’
‘But they aren’t in reference –’
‘He is on the other side of the paper! Put them together! It is the Contessa’s way!’
Phelps shook his head. ‘Even if that is so – which I doubt – how do you possibly reach the conclusion of Raaxfall? If anything “new growth” would point us to a repaired Harschmort, or even back to Parchfeldt!’
Miss Temple swatted the paper again. ‘It is obvious! “Monsieur Henri”!’
‘ “Monsieur Henri”?’
‘O surely not –’
She shifted to face him, willing her expression to blankness, as if she would accept his impartial verdict. He pursed his lips.
‘I would not perceive the interpretation myself –’
‘Ha!’ cried Phelps.
Svenson was not finished. ‘However, the puzzle was not sent for me to solve, but to Celeste … and the Contessa is one to know her target.’
Miss Temple smiled, but her victory was tempered. Her cleverness had been fitted like a jigsaw piece into her enemy’s plan.
Raaxfall emerged as a sooty smear of workers’ huts clustered on the river’s curl. The banks bristled with an unsavoury dockfront, the wood as black with tar as the water was with filth. Everything in the town seemed blasted and cracked, even the ashen sky. The carriage took them to an inn where the driver might wait as they partook of a meal, it being by then near noon.
‘I have entered the Xonck works but once, for a demonstration of a new model carbine for territorial service – there were disagreements on the size of projectile required to stop native militia.’ Phelps cleared his throat and went on. ‘The point being, the works are outside Raaxfall proper, and less a standard mill than a military camp, with discrete workhouses built to protect against inadvertent explosion. At the inn we may find men put out of work who will know more about the present occupation and can show us a less visible approach than the main road.’
Miss Temple felt the grit beneath her boots as she climbed down, aware in this drab town of the colour in her clothes – green boots, dress of pale lavender, violet travelling jacket – and her chestnut hair hanging in curls to either side of her face. Mr Brine’s stout wool coat was the colour of dark porter, while Mr Phelps still availed himself of Ministry black. Doctor Svenson was last to appear, once again in the steel-grey greatcoat of the Macklenburg Navy. He stood tall next to Miss Temple, tapping a cigarette on his silver case.
‘I thought your coat had been lost,’ she said.
‘Mr Cunsher was able to liberate a spare from the diplomatic compound – along with my medical bag and my cigarettes.’
‘Extremely so. I wonder if we will see him again.’
They were the only patrons at the inn. The luncheon came as bleached of colour as the town – everything boiled to the near edge of paste. The men drank beer, while Miss Temple made do with barley water, impatient at how much time they seemed to be wasting. She stood well before the others had finished.
‘I will be outside,’ she announced. ‘Do take your time.’
‘What if you are seen?’ asked Mr Brine, a white potato spitted on the tip of his knife like an eye.
‘Seen?’ she replied waspishly. ‘We have been here half an hour. That cheroot has been smoked.’
Their blunt entry to the town was Mr Phelps’s way of disputing her leadership, and the insistence on a meal – though they had not eaten since dawn, and did not know when they might eat again – another way to curb her personal momentum. She stood outside and scanned the dark huts, all scalded brick and planks tarred with paper. The air was crisp in a way she might have enjoyed, save for the metal tang in which all of Raaxfall seemed steeped. She saw where the road stopped at a towered gate, like a castle made of iron instead of stone.
They had asked at the inn after Mr Ramper, but he was not remembered. Who was at the Xonck works? The townspeople did not know. Was anyone there at all? O yes, they saw lights, but could say nothing more.
She looked up and saw doorways around the battered village square now dotted with pale faces. Had they never seen a violet jacket before? Miss Temple walked towards the river. Here too she passed faces, young and old and those aged too soon by work, peering at her and then stepping forward to follow. As the citizens of Raaxfall crept into view, they reminded Miss Temple of rats on a ship, emerging from every possible crevice. She picked her way to an especially long wooden dock, to its very end, ignoring the people behind her – none yet bold enough to follow onto the pier – and gazed over the water.
Just beyond the river’s bend was her first glimpse of the Xonck works proper: high loading docks and a canal leading deeper inside. She looked directly below her. Several small oared skiffs had been roped to the pilings.
A skittering clomp caused her to spin. The townspeople now formed a wall across the pier. Another clomp. A stone had been thrown from the crowd. Miss Temple looked with shock into the blanched faces and perceived that she was hated – hated. The fact stung like a swinging fist. Her first impulse was to pull out the revolver – but there were a hundred souls before her if there were five, and any such step would justify their rage.
A ripple of bodies burst through the centre of the mob: Doctor Svenson, harried and out of breath, Brine and Phelps close behind.
‘Celeste – we did not see you –’
The three men dropped their pace to a rapid walk, aware that the mob was slowly following them onto the planking. Svenson reached her and spoke low.
‘Celeste – what has happened? The townspeople –’
‘Pish tush,’ she managed. ‘There are boats below: I suggest we secure one.’
Quite belying his bulky gait on land, Mr Brine swung himself over the pier like an ape, seized a rope and slid into an open skiff. Mr Phelps and Doctor Svenson took out their pistols and at this the mob halted, perhaps thirty yards away.
‘Citizens of Raaxfall,’ called Phelps, ‘we have come to discover why you have been put out of work – why the Xonck factory has barred its doors. We are here in your own interests –’
With his city accent Phelps might as well have been Chinese; nor did the presence of Miss Temple – and a foreign soldier – help to make any credible show. Another rock whipped past Phelps and splashed into the water. Svenson seized Miss Temple with both arms and held her over the edge – she squawked with surprise – where she was caught about the waist and hustled to a seat in the bow.
‘The rope, miss.’ Brine returned his attention to the pier.
Miss Temple tore at the knot linking the skiff to the pilings. Another rock struck the water, and then three more. Phelps’s pistol cracked out as Doctor Svenson dropped into the skiff, the entire craft tipping as his weight came home.
A cry came from above, and Mr Phelps’s black hat struck the water, floating like an upturned funereal basket. The man himself lurched into view, blood pouring from his cheek, and stepped into the air. He plunged into the river and came up gasping. Mr Brine extended an oar to his flailing hands, and Svenson snapped off six deliberate shots above them, emptying his revolver, but keeping the mob back from the edge long enough for Brine to gather Phelps and push off.
Brine stroked at the oars to propel them away from the teeming mass that lined the dock. The stones came in a hail, but, barring two that bounced dangerously off the wood, they were only splashed. Phelps slumped between the thwarts, water streaming from his clothes, a handkerchief held against his face. The natives of Raaxfall hooted at their ungainly retreat as if they’d chased a gang of armoured Spaniards off a palm-strewn strand. Phelps shrugged off Svenson’s attempt to see the wound and took up an oar, pulling with Brine. The Doctor shifted to the tiller and when enough distance had been gained turned the small skiff east.
No challenge came from the Xonck docks as they neared, fully visible in the afternoon light. The main canal into the works was blocked with a gate of rusted metal bars, like a portcullis sunk into the water. They bobbed before it, unable to see into the shadows beyond. At Svenson’s nod the other men pulled to the nearest floating dock. Miss Temple scrambled out with the rope. She looped it around an iron cleat and held it tight until the Doctor could tie a proper knot.
‘Here we are,’ sighed Mr Phelps. ‘Though I confess it seems a wasted journey.’ He peered at the lifeless canal.
‘How is your face?’ Miss Temple did not feel responsible for what had happened at the pier, but nevertheless appreciated Mr Phelps’s bravery.
‘It will do,’ he replied, dabbing with the handkerchief. ‘Stoned by an old woman – can you believe it?’
‘Can all that truly be a response to no work?’ Svenson had opened the cylinder of his revolver, and from a pocket he retrieved a fistful of brass.
‘No work in the city anywhere,’ offered Mr Brine.
Svenson nodded, slotting in the new shells. ‘But when exactly did the Xonck works close?’
‘After we returned, some three weeks now.’ Phelps patted his coat and looked behind them. ‘My weapon is in the river.’
‘It cannot be helped,’ said Svenson. ‘But before this recent stoppage, did not the people of Raaxfall enjoy near total employment? The marriage between a crocodile and the birds that pick its teeth?’
‘You can imagine the wages Henry Xonck would pay – they will have no savings to last out one bare week, let alone three.’
The Doctor sighed. ‘You are right, of course … yet I cannot credit poverty with such an unprovoked attack. On strangers, no less – on a woman!’
‘Why should you think it unprovoked?’ asked Miss Temple. The three men turned to her in silence. At once she flushed. ‘Do not be absurd. I did nothing but stand in the air!’
‘Then what do you imply?’ asked Phelps.
‘I do not know – but perhaps there is more to their discontent than we understand.’
‘Perhaps. And perhaps this same mob tore your Mr Ramper to pieces in the street.’
They climbed rusted stairs and met another wall of iron bars. The Xonck works were a honeycomb of huts and roads, bristling with towers and catwalks. It was divided by earthen redoubts and moats of sickly green liquid and caged blast tunnels, the earth around each entrance black as coal.
‘The lock is on the other side,’ Svenson said, slapping a wide metal plate. ‘Nothing to pick or even to shoot open. We need a field gun.’
‘There must be someone within,’ observed Phelps.
‘No one especially mindful,’ said Miss Temple. ‘We are veritable tradesmen at the door.’
‘We might climb,’ offered Mr Brine, pointing up. The fence was ten feet high, topped with sharp spikes.
‘Surely not,’ said Phelps.
Miss Temple went onto her toes to peer through the bars. ‘Do you see that barge?’
Svenson screwed his monocle in place. ‘What about it?’
‘Was it not at the Parchfeldt Canal?’ she asked. ‘I recognize the rings of red paint around the mast.’
‘Perhaps it came from Parchfeldt with the machines.’
Miss Temple turned to Phelps. ‘From the river here, could one reach the Orange Canal – and Harschmort?’
Phelps nodded. His hair was plastered to his skull, and Miss Temple saw that the man was shivering. ‘But if they have gone to so much trouble, where is everyone? What is more, if the people of Raaxfall are so exercised against the factory, what has stopped them from storming it? Not their own reticence, I am sure, yet – no, no! What is this?’
His last words were petulantly addressed to Mr Brine, who had nimbly clambered halfway up the fence.
‘Mr Brine,’ Miss Temple called. ‘There are spikes.’
‘Not to worry, miss.’ Brine gathered himself just beneath the spikes, curling his legs, then recklessly sprung over them, slamming into the other side of the fence with a clang. Miss Temple gasped, for a spike had gouged through his sleeve.
‘Not to worry,’ he repeated, and lifted the arm free. Brine landed with a solid thump on the other side.
‘Well done!’ cried Miss Temple.
‘Is there a lock?’ called Svenson. ‘Can you –’
Before Mr Brine could reply, he was surrounded by a dozen sudden lines of jetting smoke, each lancing towards him with a serpentine hiss. Brine staggered, eyes wide with shock, then toppled off the platform and out of sight.
Miss Temple had the sense not to scream, and instead found that she – like both men – had dropped to her knees.
‘What happened?’ she whispered. ‘Where is he?’
‘Is he killed?’ asked Phelps.
She quite quickly began to climb, fitting her feet like a ladder.
‘Good God!’ cried Phelps.
Both men reached for her legs but Miss Temple kicked at their hands.
‘He will die if I do not help him.’
‘He is dead already!’ called Phelps.
‘Celeste,’ whispered Svenson. She was too high to pull down without causing her harm. ‘It is a trap. Think – you render Brine’s sacrifice without purpose –’
‘But we cannot go back!’ she hissed.
‘You are being stubborn.’
The fence seemed higher from the top than it had from below. Brine’s strategy to reach the other side would not work for her – she’d not the strength, nor would her dress clear. She grasped the base of two spikes and called down.
‘You must support my foot.’
‘We will not,’ answered Phelps.
‘It is the simplest thing – one of you climb beneath and let me rest a foot on your shoulder – and then I will step over as if the spikes were daisies.’
‘Or I shall fling myself like a savage.’
She felt the fence shake and then Svenson was below her, gritting his teeth.
‘I will shut my eyes,’ he said, then looked up directly beneath her legs and began to stammer. ‘For the height, you see – the height –’
‘The danger is on the other side,’ called Phelps. ‘You will set off the trap!’
‘A moment,’ she said to Svenson. ‘Let me gather my dress …’
Somehow his shyness gave her a confidence she had not had. She raised one knee and slowly settled it on the other side, digging her toes between the bars. The line of spikes ran straight between her legs, but she did not hurry, shifting her grip and gathering the dress to swing her second leg.
The small platform behind the gate floated in a sea of dark space. The only way off it was a ramp – Brine had clearly missed it in his fall – descending into shadow.
‘The shooting smoke,’ said Svenson. ‘It may have been bullets, or darts … can you see where they came from?’
Miss Temple eased her body lower. The metal plate that covered the platform … it sparkled.
‘There is glass …’
To either side of the gate stood tall, thin posts, each with a vertical line of dark holes, as if they were bird houses, all facing the platform and anyone trying to break in. Miss Temple measured the distance to the ground and the width of the metal plate. She gathered her nerve, quivering like a cat. She flung herself towards the darkness.
She landed on the ramp and rolled, scrabbling with her hands to stop herself sailing off the edge. She rose with a sudden urgency and scuttled to the top of the ramp.
‘Celeste – that was incredibly foolish –’
‘Be quiet! You must either climb over after me or hide.’
‘Is there no lock?’ asked Phelps.
‘I cannot reach it without being killed – the metal plate, when one treads upon it, the trap is sprung – you will see for yourself. You must leap past it. The task is nothing, a girl has done it before you. But you must hurry – someone is coming from below!’
Phelps reached her first – spraggling and damp at Miss Temple’s feet. He motioned Svenson on with both hands. The Doctor had cleared the spikes with only a minor catch on his greatcoat, but clung uncertainly.
‘I do dislike high places,’ he muttered.
Beams of light stabbed up at them. Svenson jumped, clearing the metal plate by an inch, and lurched into their arms. Miss Temple put two fingers over his mouth. A voice rose in the darkness, harsh with amusement.
‘Look at this one! Right in the chops. You lot see if he’s alone …’
Their only exit was the ramp, exactly where a gang of men was approaching behind a raised lantern. Miss Temple took hold of her companions, pulling them down.
‘Lie flat – do not move,’ she whispered. ‘Follow when you can!’
She pressed her green bag into Phelps’s hand and then started down at a trot. She reached a landing and turned into bright lantern light.
‘Where is Mr Brine!’ she cried shrilly. ‘What has happened? Is he alive?’
The man with the lantern caught her arm with a grip like steel, the light near enough to burn her face.
‘What are you doing here?’ he snarled. ‘How did you pass the gate?’
‘I am Miss Isobel Hastings,’ she whined. ‘What has happened to Mr Brine?’
‘He’s had a bit of a fall.’ The man wore an unbuttoned green tunic, the uniform of the Xonck militia. The others with him were similarly dressed – all sloppy and unshaven.
‘My goodness,’ cried Miss Temple. ‘There are five of you, all come to rescue me!’
‘Rescue?’ scoffed the leader. ‘Take her arms.’
Miss Temple cried out as she was seized, doing her best to shove forward. ‘I am looking for my – my fiancé – his name is Ramper. He came here, for his work – Mr Brine told me – I paid him to help me –’
‘No one comes here, Isobel Hastings.’
‘He did! Ned Ramper – a great strapping fellow! What have you done with him?’
The leader looked past Miss Temple, and made to aim the lantern at the ramp above. She kicked his shin.
‘Where is he, I say – I insist that you answer –’
The man’s backhand struck her face like a whip, and she only kept her feet for being held. The leader marched down the ramp and barked for the others to follow. She could not place her steps. After the first few yards they simply dragged her.
She was dropped to the floor in a cold room fitted with gas lamps.
‘That one on the table.’
Men crossed in front of her and carried the deadweight of Mr Brine to a table of stained planks. Brine’s eyes were shut and his jaw was mottled and crusted with blue, like a French cheese from a cave.
‘And the sweetmeat on the throne.’
Miss Temple rose to her knees. ‘I can seat myself –’
The men exchanged a laugh and shoved her into a high-backed seat, made from welded iron pipes and bolted to the floor. A chain was cinched below her breasts and another pulled across her throat. Behind her came the creak of a door.
‘Who did you find, Benton?’
The voice was thin, as unhurried as swirling smoke. The lantern man – Benton – immediately dipped his head and backed away, ceding any claim.
‘Miss Isobel Hastings, sir. Says Ned Ramper’s her fiancé. Came with this great lump to find him.’
‘Can she speak?’
‘Course she can! I wouldn’t – not without your order –’
Miss Temple sensed the thin-voiced man behind her, though the chain stopped her from turning. ‘Tell me, Isobel. If you will forgive the impropriety.’ A finger insinuated itself into a curl of her hair and gave a gentle tug. ‘Who is your friend on the table?’
‘Mr Brine. Corporal Brine. He is a friend of Ned Ramper.’
‘And he led you here? Did you pay him money?’
Miss Temple nodded dumbly.
‘Six silver shillings in his pocket, sir. No one touched it.’
‘Does six shillings pay a man to die, I wonder? Would it be enough for you, Benton?’
‘Way things are now, sir … I’d call it a decent wage.’
‘And who paid Ned Ramper, Isobel?’
‘Is that important?’
He pulled her hair sharply enough to make her wince.
‘Leave what’s important to me.’
‘A woman. She lives in a hotel. I don’t like her.’
‘Ned would not tell me. He thought I would follow him.’
She felt his breath in her ear. ‘But you did follow him, didn’t you, Isobel? What hotel?’
‘She lives at the … the St Royale.’
Benton glanced suddenly at the man behind her, but when Miss Temple’s captor spoke his voice betrayed no care.
‘Did you see this woman yourself?’
Miss Temple nodded again, sniffing. ‘She had b-black hair, and a red dress –’
‘And this fellow here – Brine – she’d hired him as well?’
Miss Temple nodded vigorously. Her captor called softly to Benton.
‘Empty his pockets. Show me.’
Benton leapt to the table. Miss Temple quickly counted – there had been five on the ramp … here she saw Benton and three more, digging at Brine’s clothing like vultures. The fifth man must have gone to collect their master. Was he standing guard at the door behind her? The hand tugged at her hair.
‘And what of your pockets? Have you no purse or bag?’
‘I lost it, climbing over the gate. When Mr Brine fell, I was so frightened –’
‘Not so frightened that you died.’ He called behind him. ‘See if it’s there.’
Footsteps signalled the fifth man running for the ramp. Miss Temple’s blood froze. If he discovered Svenson and Phelps –
‘He had this.’ Benton held the clipping from the Herald. ‘ “-grettable Canvases from Paris”. Don’t know what “-grettable” is, not speaking French.’
The paper was snatched from his hand as Miss Temple’s captor stepped forward. She glimpsed only a shining black coat before he was off without a word.
Benton watched him go, his posture lapsing back into feral comfort. He turned to Miss Temple with a satisfied smile.
‘Maybe I should search your pockets too … every little pocket you possess.’
A footfall in the darkness did not shift his hungry gaze. ‘Find her bag, then?’ Benton drawled.
‘Step away from the woman.’
Doctor Svenson strode into the light, the long Navy revolver in his hand. Benton swore aloud and reached in his tunic. The pistol roared in the echoing room like a cannon and Benton flew back, shirt-front spraying gore. Another shot shattered the leg of a man near the table. Two more, rapidly snapped from Miss Temple’s smaller weapon, drilled the back of a fellow dashing for the door. Mr Phelps came forward with Svenson, their guns extended towards the fourth man, his hands in the air.
‘Down on the floor,’ growled the Doctor. The man hurried to comply, and Mr Phelps bound his limbs. Doctor Svenson looked to the open door, then to Miss Temple.
‘Are you hurt?’
Miss Temple shook her head. Her voice was hoarse.
‘Is he – is Mr Brine –’
‘A moment, Celeste …’
Svenson knelt over the man with the shattered leg, then stood and tucked the gun away, stepping clear of the blood.
‘It is the artery,’ he muttered. ‘I meant to wound …’
Even as he spoke the heavy breathing fell to silence. Had it been even one minute? The Doctor crossed to the table, saying nothing. Miss Temple cleared her throat to get his attention. She nodded at Benton.
‘The key to these chains is in his waistcoat.’
Phelps returned Miss Temple’s revolver, with her bag, and helped himself to the unlamented Benton’s.
‘They will have heard our shots.’
‘They may assume their own men did the shooting,’ replied Svenson. He turned to Miss Temple. ‘We heard some of your interrogation.’
Phelps frowned. ‘Their leader’s voice – I’m sure I ought to place it, but the circumstances escape me.’
‘Whoever he is,’ said Svenson, ‘they have taken Mr Ramper – and who knows what he told them.’
‘It cannot have been much.’ Miss Temple straightened her jacket. ‘Not if they believed the Contessa to have hired him. But I must look at Mr Brine.’
Svenson stood with her. ‘His neck was broken in the fall. It is perhaps –’
‘A blessing,’ she said. ‘I know.’
Blue glass had been driven into Brine’s jaw, each spike sending out veins of crystallized destruction, like the limbs of embedded blue spiders. Svenson indicated a spot on Brine’s chest, then others on his abdomen and arms. In every case, peeling away his clothing revealed the hard, mottled skein of penetration.
‘Glass bullets?’ whispered Phelps.
Svenson nodded. ‘I cannot see the purpose. I doubt they alone would have killed him.’
Miss Temple dug in her bag for a handkerchief and walked to the door. ‘We cannot get back over the wall. We must go on.’
‘I am sorry for your man, Celeste,’ said Svenson. ‘He was a brave fellow.’
Miss Temple shrugged, but did not yet face them.
‘Brave fellows arrive by the dozen,’ she said, ‘and fate mows them flat. My own poor crop did not last at all.’
At the end of an echoing tunnel they met a metal door.
‘This explains why no one came,’ said Svenson, tugging on it. ‘Thick steel and entirely locked. We will have to return to see if one of those villains kept a key.’
‘Already done,’ said Phelps with a smile. ‘Courtesy of the late Mr Benton.’
He spread the ring of keys on his palm, selected one and slipped it in. The lock turned. Phelps stepped back and readied his pistol.
‘Do we have a plan, as such?’
‘Quite,’ offered Svenson. ‘Discover what Vandaariff has done here – find Mr Ramper – glean what we can about the Contessa – then manage our own escape.’
Miss Temple simply pulled open the door.
If the works above ground were a broken honeycomb, spread before them now was the hive itself: cages of iron, walls of blistered concrete, great furnaces gone cold, assembly tables, dusty vats, and staircases near and far, extending to the shadows.
‘Ought we to divide our efforts?’ whispered Phelps. ‘The ground is so large …’
The Doctor shook his head. ‘Even separated we could not search it in a week. We have to think: where would they locate themselves – why would they? In a foundry? With the ammunition stores? What serves them best?’
Phelps abruptly sneezed. ‘I beg your pardons –’
‘You have a chill,’ muttered Svenson. ‘We must find a fire.’
‘We must find that man. Perhaps if we climb the stairs we may see more.’ Phelps sighed and finished his own sentence. ‘Or be seen and get a bullet. Miss Temple, you have not spoken –’
She was not listening to either man. She had clearly never seen this place before … and yet …
She opened her bag and removed the glass square. Selecting a row of high columns as a touch point, she looked into the glass. For a moment, as always, her senses swam … but then the same columns were there … and wide circles that must be the chemical vats … and a furnace whose slag she smelt from the door. Still, recognizing the map did not tell her where they ought to go …
The Contessa had sent it to her. Just as Miss Temple had deciphered the clipping, so she ought to decipher this. The message had been sent some days ago – before Ramper had been taken – it was nothing to do with now. The key lay in the past. In the Comte’s past …
Her throat seized at a rancid nugget of insight from the Comte’s memories. She spat onto the ground and shut her eyes, finally managing to swallow.
‘The map!’ whispered Phelps.
The square of glass lay shattered. Miss Temple wiped her mouth on her sleeve.
‘We do not need it. There is a room, fitted for the Comte’s research, from when they built his machines. We would have walked right past …’
They crouched behind crates stencilled with the Xonck crest. Twice they had heard steps nearby – more fellows in unkempt green – but avoided discovery. Ahead lay a well-lit door that echoed with activity, a guardhouse. Miss Temple pointed to a smaller door half the distance on.
‘But it has no guard,’ whispered Phelps. ‘It seems a disused storeroom.’
She darted out, forcing them to follow. The final yards had her heart in her throat, waiting for the thin-voiced man to appear … but then her hand was on the cool brass handle. They slipped inside.
Phelps carefully shut the door and turned the lock, one hand tight across his mouth and nose. Miss Temple crept forward, face pinched against the pungent reek of indigo clay.
Mr Ramper lay on a table, naked and white as chalk. Across his body were craters – each as large and deep as an apple – where both flesh and bone had been scooped away: abdomen, right thigh, left wrist (the hand severed), near the heart, left shoulder, right ear – each cavity offering its own appalling anatomical cross-section.
‘The glass bullets,’ whispered Svenson. ‘All transformed flesh has been removed … and, good heavens, preserved.’
She followed his gaze to a row of meticulously labelled jars, each dark with thick liquid in which floated a fist-sized, jagged blue mass. Svenson delicately peeled back one of Ramper’s eyelids. The pupil had rolled into his skull, leaving a dead white egg whose veins were shot with blue. Svenson put two fingers to the carotid and stepped away.
‘I do not think he died at once.’
‘Interrogated?’ asked Phelps.
Svenson indicated two of Ramper’s open wounds and against her wishes Miss Temple leant forward to look. ‘The variance in the clotted blood – the colour. I would hazard that during some of these excavations the poor man still lived.’
‘And there are more,’ said Phelps. ‘My God … they must be from the town … no wonder their rage …’
Beyond Ramper lay five men and one woman, naked and despoiled, their discoloured flesh indicating a longer tenure in the room. Miss Temple’s eyes drifted to their hands – callused, with broken, dirty nails – and then, despite herself, to their genitals, exposed and mournful. The lone woman’s breasts hung flat to either side of her ribs, framing a bloody cave at the base of her sternum.
A rustle of papers startled her. The Doctor stood at a long table piled with bound journals and surgical tools, his face an impassive mask.
‘He has documented every step,’ said Svenson quietly. ‘For weeks. Keeping records … every one of these people – each step scrupulously observed.’
Phelps nodded towards Ramper’s corpse. ‘God forgive me – but does he note anything the poor man might have revealed?’
The Doctor thumbed the notebooks quickly. Phelps glanced to the door. Miss Temple stared at a body whose eye socket was a coagulated well.
‘Whatever the Comte’s insanity,’ muttered Phelps, ‘this room cannot explain Vandaariff’s occupation of the entire works.’
Svenson turned to Miss Temple, his eyes wide. An open journal lay in his hands.
‘What is it? What have you found?’
Instead of answering he marched past her, past the tables, to the cluttered shelves, the journal dropped, both hands pawing the wall.
‘Doctor Svenson?’ she asked, suddenly afraid.
‘What has happened?’ hissed Phelps.
The Doctor found the hidden door and pulled it wide. On another table lay a man secured with chains, naked, pale and still. Miss Temple screamed. Cardinal Chang’s eyes snapped open.
When he woke everything had changed. One moment Chang had been face down in the forest, his life bleeding away … and the next – a next he frankly did not expect to occur – he was chained to a table, or so he guessed from the iron bite across his chest and waist and around each limb. The coarse planks scratched his back and buttocks. He was naked and quite blind.
A rasping attempt to speak echoed strangely, and he realized his head was encased in metal. He extended his tongue to sketch a rectangular opening, sealed tight. The inner edge was crusted … was it porridge? It seemed someone was keeping him alive.
He arched his back, bracing himself for agony. The chains held tight … but where was the pain? The wound in his back ought to have killed him – how could it be so neatly healed?
How much time had passed? How had he survived?
He shifted his body against the wood. He retained his limbs, his extremities, but the area where the wound ought to have been was numb. He turned his head and the helmet bit around his neck.
Chang started at a hand on his bare abdomen, a friendly pat. He pulled at the chains and demanded to be freed. The words crashed around his ears, but then the metal plate over his mouth slid open. A wet cloth was shoved inside and his nostrils flooded with the reek of ether.
When he woke again he was lying on his face, neck awkwardly bent by the helmet, something sharp probing his back. He lay still, concealing his wakefulness, until a spike of pain shot the length of his spine, and he gasped aloud. The mouth box was opened, and again came the ether.
He woke and slept in an incessant, arbitrary cycle, always aware of someone around him, intrusive hands, constant observation. How long had he been here? His existence made no sense. Had he not fouled himself? He could not remember. Or had he died after all – was he in hell?
He blamed such thoughts on the chemical nightmares and strove to concentrate during each lucid period, to recall the world he’d lost … his rooms, the Slavic Baths, the Library and the opium den. The irony did not escape him. Had he finally found the oblivion he had courted for years?
And Celeste? Chang reflected with chagrin on their last minutes in the wood. Like a fool she had kissed him, and like a greater fool he had responded. What had he been thinking – to take her there in the bracken? And then what? He could just imagine the awkward – no, that word was far too weak – the unconscionable afterwards: mortification, guilt, stupidity. He’d enough on his conscience. He hoped she had outrun the Contessa, found Svenson, made her escape. He ran his tongue across his lips, remembering the sudden softness of her mouth. And her hunger. As a man whose most common intimacies arose from negotiations in a brothel, Chang knew it was Celeste’s expression of need that had pierced his reason like a nail. But sense had returned. He tried to imagine the two of them strolling together in a street. Even had he desired it – and he was quite sure he did not, for the girl, however beddable, was also wholly absurd – to entertain the idea, in this world, was like planting corn in the snow.
He woke, eyes screwed shut against a painful glare. The helmet had been removed. Chang squinted and saw it on the wall: hammered brass, with two glass eye plates – round, like the eyes of an insect, now painted black. The earpieces and mouth box had likewise been bolted tight. It was a helmet designed to protect the wearer during the smelting of indigo clay.
He was a prisoner of the Comte d’Orkancz, whose rotted mind now lived in the body of Robert Vandaariff. Who else? The others were all dead. Chang had done his best to kill the Comte and failed. His skin went cold. Had he been kept alive only for revenge?
A voice reached him from beyond the glare, soft, chuckling.
‘You have been so long away from any light as to be a mole.’
Chang blinked and made out a padded chair. In it, business attire shielded by an oilcloth apron, sat Robert Vandaariff.
‘You are under my protection.’
Vandaariff used a thin black cane to rise and advanced to the table. His steps were brittle and, as he entered the light, his face revealed new lines of age.
‘Reincarnation disagrees with you.’ Chang’s voice was raw. ‘You look like a fishwife’s dinner.’
‘And you have not seen a mirror.’
‘Now that I’m awake, might I have my clothes?’
‘Are you cold?’
‘I am naked.’
‘Are you ashamed?’ Vandaariff’s eyes drifted across Chang’s body. ‘A handsome man – barring the scars, of course. So many scars … knives mostly, by the stitching. But your face … the damage there is singular – and to most tastes horrifying, I’m sure. The eyes are abnormally sensitive – even when asleep you flinch from a lantern. Do you mind my asking the cause?’
‘A riding crop.’
‘Viciously applied. How long ago?’
‘Where are my clothes?’
‘I’ve no idea. Burnt? No, Cardinal Chang, you remain almost as you were born. For one, to increase the difficulty of slipping away, were you – ever resourceful – to manage it. But, in the main, it makes you easier to study.’
‘Such a hopeful question. I will ask one in return, now we are speaking. What do you remember?’
The words hung between them, and Chang knew his inability to recall a thing since the forest was a direct result of something Vandaariff had done. With nothing else to say he could only hope to provoke the man.
‘I remember putting a sabre through your guts on the airship.’
‘But that was not me at all,’ Vandaariff replied mildly. ‘That was the poor Comte d’Orkancz. I was at Harschmort House, left behind by all my former friends.’
‘Left an idiot, you mean. I saw you – him – and I saw everything at Parchfeldt! How in hell did you survive? That mob was set to tear you to pieces.’
‘Very good. The airship and the factory. And after that? What, Cardinal Chang, do you remember next?’
Chang pulled against the chains and exhaled through his nose.
‘If you have done anything to me – I promise you –’
‘Done? I have saved your life.’
‘Why would you do that?’
‘Another excellent question. You are abrim.’
Chang turned at a sound to his left – a panel flush with the wall, swinging clear. A tall man in a shining black coat stepped through, silk rustling against the doorframe. Though he was not old, white hair hung to the man’s collar, and his skin was as brown as a Malay sailor’s. He sank into a silent bow and then spoke gently, tamed.
‘My apologies, my lord …’
‘Another incident at the gate. A single man. Not from the town.’
‘Not from the town? Gracious, is he alive?’
‘He is.’ The white-haired man met Chang’s gaze without expression.
‘Bring him, Mr Foison,’ said Vandaariff heartily. ‘We will seize the opportunity to learn.’
Foison bowed and left the room. What town? Chang could see nothing to place where he was. If only he were not so weak. Through the door came the sounds of men lugging a burden. Vandaariff rubbed his hands as if this bespoke an awaited meal.
‘What of the others?’ Chang could not help himself. ‘Celeste Temple, Svenson, the Contessa?’
‘Do you not know?’
‘I’ve asked, haven’t I? Tell me, damn you!’
‘Why, they are all dead,’ answered Vandaariff. Then he smiled. ‘That is, dead or entirely mine.’
Chuckling, he limped through the door and pulled it tight. The walls were not so dense as to stop the screams. It was a relief when Foison finally re-entered with the ether and sent Chang to darkness.
He was shocked to wakefulness, face down again, by a sudden freeze across his lower back, sharp as an animal’s bite.
‘Do not move,’ Vandaariff intoned. ‘It will only prolong the struggle.’
‘What … struggle is that?’ gasped Chang, his chin grinding into the planking.
‘A struggle of metals.’ The chill curled to the base of Chang’s spine. ‘Alchemy tells us of different metals linked in a lattice of power. The natural blood of your body, Cardinal Chang, is suffused with iron – thus we have begun with a vector of quite traditional magnetism.’
‘You’re insane, mad as a foaming dog.’
‘Your body was depleted of course – vital salts, ethereal compounds. After this restoration, the true work may begin …’
Just beyond the light stood Foison, silent, white hair glowing in the shadow. The cold seeped past Chang’s pelvis to his legs. His teeth were chattering.
‘I killed you once. I’ll do it again.’ Chang could scarcely speak. ‘What true work?’
‘A cloth in his mouth, Mr Foison. It would be a shame if his shivering broke a tooth.’ Vandaariff leant to Chang’s ear. ‘The true work of heaven, Cardinal.’
Their final conversation had been prefaced by the entrance of Foison. In the man’s hand was a ceramic bowl with a wooden spoon sticking out. He saw Chang was awake and set the bowl aside. Inside lay a sickly dollop of grey paste.
‘Is that what I’ve been eating? If you free my hand I could feed myself.’
Foison ignored him, glancing instead to Chang’s groin.
‘Do you need the bucket?’
‘And you’re cleaning me as well? I trust the privy-work hasn’t spoilt your lovely sleeves.’
Foison only pulled at the chains and, satisfied with their sureness, left the room.
‘What about the true work of my supper?’ Chang called mockingly.
The cold had left his body eventually, the gradual warming keeping pace until he burnt with fever. This too had passed. His back remained numb around the wound, but Chang no longer felt an invalid’s weakness.
Vandaariff hobbled in with the cane, a leather satchel tucked beneath his arm. He set the satchel down and dug a gloved hand inside. Chang heard clicking, like the beads of an abacus, and Vandaariff emerged with a fistful of blue glass cards. He laid them on the table as if he were playing Patience, eyes unpleasantly bright.
‘No apron?’ Chang asked.
‘Are those for me?’
‘You will look into them. I prefer not to prise back your lids, but Foison is within call.’
‘What events do they hold? What do you want me to see?’
‘Nothing at all,’ said Vandaariff. ‘I want your body to feel.’
The first card plunged Chang into the midst of a rousing country dance, a farm girl to either side. Fiddle music sang in his ears. Vandaariff pulled the card away and he was back in the nasty room, panting, sweat on his limbs.
Vandaariff raised the second card. Chang balanced on the edge of an icy rooftop. Three yards away, across an abyss of five flights, stood the next building. Men ran towards him, shouting, waving clubs. He steeled himself and leapt – and once more Vandaariff pulled the card away. Chang’s breath heaved. His body pressed against the chains.
‘Who are these people? Whose memories –’
The third card was a banquet. The fourth card a horserace. The fifth a game of whist. In the sixth he strangled a man with a silken rope. In the seventh he lay on a brothel sofa with a thin-limbed whore bouncing energetically above him. Vandaariff pulled the glass away and Chang looked down at his arousal, mortified and angry.
‘Enough,’ said Vandaariff, smiling. ‘Unless you would prefer that last again?’
‘Choke on your own blood.’
‘An admirable performance. A foundation upon which to build.’
Vandaariff returned the cards to the satchel. He removed a second batch. These cards were like nothing Chang had ever seen, for they were not blue … instead, each glinted with different colours. The first was mottled with streaks of red.
‘We start with iron.’
The card contained no experience, no memory, no human life. Chang’s senses fogged and he gagged at the taste of blood filling his throat. Vandaariff pulled the card away and selected another, greenish and flecked with copper …
One after another Chang absorbed their depths. Where before the glass had implanted memories, here the transaction lay beyond his mind, as essential forces passed from the glass to his body. Each time he felt both sickened and more strong, Vandaariff tempering Chang’s body like a blacksmith working steel. When the cards were back in the satchel, pain echoed in his bones and knotted his organs. His teeth burnt like coals in a fire. Vandaariff reached into his coat and came out with an eighth card, bright orange. He gripped the back of Chang’s head and thrust it before his eyes. Chang arched against an explosion of agony near his spine.
When it was finally taken away, Chang could barely breathe.
‘I’m going to cut your throat,’ he gasped.
Vandaariff took off his gloves and snapped the satchel closed.
‘Three days, Cardinal. In three days you may well do just that thing.’
But the next day he heard voices in the other room. Then the door was flung open by Doctor Svenson, with Celeste Temple screaming like a fool. Svenson leapt to the chains but Chang stopped him with an urgent whisper. ‘Where are we? Where is he? Where is his man?’
‘The Xonck works at Raaxfall – there are soldiers just outside –’
Another figure in the doorway – was it Phelps? ‘They have heard – they are coming!’
‘Leave the chains!’ Chang hissed. ‘Against the wall – hide!’
Svenson had already shut the door. The Ministry man pressed himself into the corner. Celeste Temple stood like a stone, staring at Chang’s body. Finally she noticed Svenson waving vigorously and dropped under the table. The girl would kill them all.
For a moment he heard nothing … then the hidden door swung open, shielding Svenson behind it. No one stepped through. Chang jerked his head as if woken and blinked at the light. He could see Foison’s shadow, and a gleam of metal in his hand.
‘What now?’ Chang called hoarsely. ‘Where is your master?’
Foison took a single step into the doorway, offering no clear shot to Svenson or Phelps.
‘Where are they?’
‘What are you talking about?’ Chang cocked his head. ‘Has the cat misplaced its mice?’
Chang looked past Foison, hearing more footsteps.
‘Benton’s dead, sir!’ The man was out of breath. ‘Everyone but Hennig – two men, he says, with guns – left with the girl!’
‘He didn’t see, sir. We’re looking everywhere –’
‘Bring Hennig. Send word to Lord Vandaariff.’
‘But, sir – if we find them – no one need know –’
‘If we find them, we will then send word of that. Do it now.’ The man ran off. Throughout their conversation Foison had kept his eyes on Chang, who could not decide whether his captor was Asiatic or, instead, some Lapp or northern Finn.
‘There are footprints outside. I came to ask. You might have heard.’
‘Not a thing,’ said Chang.
‘You are fortunate they did not find you.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Because you … are the property of a jealous, jealous man.’
Foison drove his body hard against the door, slamming it into Svenson, then he spun, whipping the knife in his right hand towards Phelps, who cried out, the bright blade sticking out of his topcoat. Foison slammed the door again, still harder – Chang could see Svenson’s legs buckle – and then opened it wide, another knife in his hand, and kicked the still-struggling Doctor in the ribs.
The chain across Chang’s chest and arms went slack. Foison turned at the sound, but Chang took hold of the chain and cracked it at Foison like a whip, the last hard link snapping at the man’s forehead. Foison sprawled into the wall.
Miss Temple stood, her fingers rapidly working free the other chains, eyes blessedly averted from Chang’s body. Svenson was on his knees, an unwieldy Naval revolver jammed into Foison’s belly. The white-haired man lay on his back, blood on his face, his teeth bared in pain.
‘He has pinned me to the wall,’ hissed Phelps, pulling at the knife that held him.
Miss Temple hurried to assist Phelps, who did not seem to be injured. Chang gratefully slipped off the table to crouch near the Doctor.
‘We did not expect you,’ said Svenson. ‘We thought you dead.’
‘As I you,’ replied Chang.
‘These fellows will kill us.’
‘They will try.’
Chang slapped Foison across the face, and then wrenched him up by the collar.
‘I require your clothes.’
He left the white-haired man his undergarments and boots, for Foison’s feet were small. He turned his back on the others to dress. Foison’s trousers were black leather, but the white shirt was silk and draped Chang’s skin like cool water. Decent once more, he reached for the jacket, but paused at the expression on Svenson’s face.
‘Dear Lord … Cardinal …’
‘I beg your pardon,’ Chang snarled, turning his head. ‘I have lost my glasses, I cannot help it if my eyes offend your delicacy –’
‘No, no – good heavens, no – your spine –’
Both Miss Temple and Phelps stood in shocked silence. It was the last thing Chang wanted to think about. He could move without pain – that was what mattered. He slipped into the coat, a surprisingly good fit, given the discrepancy of shoe size, and jerked his chin at their prisoner.
‘Get him on his feet.’
Foison’s hands had been tied behind his back. Chang picked up the second knife – Foison’s coat still held another pair sheathed within it – and held it flat against the man’s throat.
‘Must we take him with us?’ asked Phelps.
Chang raised a hand for silence, then pointed to the door. At his nod the Doctor pulled it wide, revealing Chang alone in the doorway, Foison before him like a shield.
The clicking of pistol hammers came like a chorus of crickets – at least ten men, standing in the cover of more tables and the colourless corpses they bore.
‘If you interfere, he will die.’
‘If you touch him, we’ll shoot you to pieces,’ replied the man to his right, in a green Xonck tunic, three stripes on his sleeve. His revolver pointed straight into Chang’s ear.
‘Then we understand one another,’ said Chang. ‘As much as I would enjoy killing this man, in exchange for safe passage, I will not.’
This was the moment. If they had orders to prevent an escape at all costs, the bullets must fly. But Chang did not believe these men possessed such autonomy. Foison ruled them with as tight a hand as Vandaariff ruled him. Chang pressed the blade into his captive’s brown throat, against the vein. The Sergeant lowered his pistol and barked at the others. They fell back.
Chang looked at Svenson. He had no idea where they ought to go, yet it was crucial this ignorance not be conveyed to their enemies. But the Doctor turned to Miss Temple. She swallowed with a grimace, and her words came out a croak. ‘Follow me. The tunnels.’
Chang kept his face a mask, but marvelled at the size of the factory – furnaces, silos, catwalks, assembly tables, projectile moulds, cooling pools. He walked backwards, holding Foison between them and the gang of soldiers, whose guns still tracked their every move.
Foison did not speak, though his eyes remained fixed on those of his sergeant.
‘This coat of yours cannot have come cheap,’ Chang whispered. ‘I did not think silk wore well enough for the expense.’
‘Silk is surprisingly warm,’ observed Doctor Svenson. ‘The north of China is very frigid.’
Chang ignored the interruption, watching the Sergeant, not ten steps away, and hissed into Foison’s ear, ‘What will your master say, I wonder?’
‘This changes nothing,’ replied Foison. ‘Three days. You are his branded stock.’
Miss Temple’s sharp call stopped Chang’s reply. ‘We require a key.’
A gate of iron bars blocked the tunnel. At Foison’s nod, the Sergeant came forward and unlocked the gate. Doctor Svenson held out his hand.
‘You shall not follow.’
Again Foison nodded and the Sergeant gave over the keys. They slipped past the bars, and Chang called to the soldiers as Phelps relocked the gate.
‘We will leave him further on, unharmed.’
The Sergeant opened his mouth to protest, but Foison shook his head.
Chang continued to walk backwards until the light had gone and their view of the soldiers with it. Then Chang drove a punch into Foison’s kidney and forced him to kneel.
‘What are you doing?’ Svenson whispered.
Chang had the knife at Foison’s throat. ‘What do you think?’
‘You gave your word …’
‘This man will kill us all. Don’t be a fool.’
‘If his men find him dead,’ hissed Svenson, ‘they will hunt us all the more!’
‘They are already hunting us. Without their leader, they will hunt us poorly –’
‘But you have given your word!’ whispered Phelps, aghast.
Chang wedged a knee into Foison’s back and pushed him face down in the dirt. ‘You do not know how he has wronged me.’
‘We do not,’ said Phelps, ‘but you cannot execute a helpless man –’
‘He is helpless because we have bested him. Are you an idiot?’
‘We have all given our word with yours,’ said Svenson. ‘I understand your impulse –’
‘Sanity is not an impulse!’
‘What on earth is happening?’ asked Miss Temple. She stood beyond the others, sagging against the wall.
‘This man must die,’ said Chang.
‘He cannot,’ said Phelps.
Svenson reached over to her. ‘Celeste, are you well?’
‘Of course I am. Have we not promised to let him live?’
Chang growled with frustration, then impatiently extended his hand to Phelps. ‘Give me your damned handkerchief.’
Having stuffed the cloth into Foison’s mouth, Chang bound Foison’s legs, pulling the knot as tightly as he could.
‘This kindness means nothing,’ he whispered. ‘If I see you again I will kill you.’
Foison remained silent, and Chang resisted a final urge to kill him anyway. He padded on to where he heard the others breathing.
‘I cannot see,’ he whispered. ‘Celeste, do you know where you’ve led us?’
‘Those men will pursue, and quickly –’
‘Yes, but do we seek the canal, or the front gate?’
‘Where are we now?’
‘The blasting tunnels. They run in all directions.’
The girl’s assurance frayed Chang’s patience. ‘How do you know this?’
Phelps cleared his throat. ‘There was a map of glass, sent by the Contessa –’
‘That is not it at all,’ croaked Miss Temple.
‘Perhaps we should press on,’ suggested the Doctor.
‘If we talk while we are walking, I will lose my way.’
‘And our pursuers will hear the echo,’ added Phelps.
‘Go how you please,’ Chang snarled. ‘We will follow like blind lambs.’
Chang’s poor eyes could discern but shadows in the chiselled ceiling, and he was forced to keep a hand on Mr Phelps’s coat-tails, last in line, wincing when his bare feet caught the edges of broken stones.
It was not the reunion he had expected, with Celeste Temple in particular. What in the world was Phelps doing here? And why had they stared so at his wound? Svenson was not one to talk – unshaven and more gaunt than ever, the man looked like he’d crawled from a crypt.
Where was Elöise Dujong? Probably somewhere minding the Trapping child …
Knowing the others could not see, Chang reached beneath the jacket and under the silk shirt … his finger ran across the ridges of a new scar, but from the scar itself he felt no contact. He gently probed … below a thin layer of flesh lay something hard.
At the tunnels’ end the ground was damp, the gravel sunk with river mud.
‘These tunnels would have been used to transport the Comte’s machines,’ explained Miss Temple. She coughed and then, to Chang’s surprise, she actually spat. ‘Do excuse me – beyond is the canal, and beyond that our boat, unless someone has sunk it. We can return to the city, or press on to Harschmort.’
‘Are we prepared for Harschmort?’ asked Svenson. ‘Two of your men have disappeared there – Cunsher himself would not risk it.’ He turned to Chang. ‘And you, Cardinal … in all gravity, had I the space and the light to examine –’
‘Who is Cunsher?’ Chang broke in curtly. ‘And what men?’
Svenson fell behind and whispered a brief and thoroughly frustrating account of their doings since they had seen him last. However gratifying it was to hear of Tackham’s death (and Chang could not help but be impressed by the Doctor’s courage), the rest of Svenson’s narrative strained any impression of sense – an alliance with Phelps, dependence on this Cunsher, and then acceptance of Miss Temple’s own ridiculous scheming. Jack Pfaff? And how many others – apparently dead? Arrant foolishness aimed at taking her money and abandoning her to peril when that was gone.
‘You had no idea she was pursuing such nonsense?’ he asked the Doctor.
‘She found me. Once I realized – well, the girl is determined.’
‘Damned little terrier.’
Svenson smiled. ‘A terrier with her teeth around a wolf’s leg, I agree. Nevertheless –’
‘We’re here again.’
‘We are. It is a comfort to have you.’
Chang shrugged, knowing he ought to return the sentiment – that it was good to have Svenson by his side – but the moment passed. He had scarcely spoken to the Doctor since their sojourn in the fishing village on the Iron Coast and almost laughed to remember how Svenson had been expected to tend any and all ailing goats and pigs.
‘And the Contessa?’
For a moment Svenson said nothing. ‘Only the two red envelopes. The woman has otherwise vanished, with the book and the child.’
‘Rosamonde is the most dangerous of all.’
‘So experience would indicate.’
Abruptly Chang realized that the Doctor had said nothing of the person he ought to have mentioned most of all. ‘Where is Elöise?’
The question had come without consideration of her absence, and an instant later Chang regretted it.
‘Your Rosamonde cut her throat.’ Svenson’s voice betrayed no emotion. ‘Phelps and I went back and made her grave.’
Chang shut his eyes. No words came. ‘That was good of you.’
‘We looked for you as well.’
He turned to the Doctor, but could not read his expression at all. ‘I am happy not to have obliged.’
The Doctor nodded with a wan smile, but took the moment to turn his attention to whatever Phelps was asking Miss Temple. Chang fell back a step and let the conversation end.
They crouched in the shadow of an empty barge. Ahead was the sunken gate to the river. Chang scanned the catwalks and iron towers for any watchman with a carbine.
Miss Temple pointed to a platform just visible beyond the docks. ‘That was where we entered,’ she said. It was the first time she had addressed him since the tunnels. ‘Set with a snare of glass bullets.’
‘No guards in sight,’ said Phelps. ‘Perhaps they have placed their trust in another trap.’
‘Or do they wait for another reason?’ asked Svenson. ‘The Comte’s arrival?’
‘The Comte is dead,’ replied Chang drily. ‘He told me so himself.’
Mr Phelps sneezed.
‘Are you wet?’ asked Chang.
Phelps nodded and then shook his head, as if an explanation was beyond him.
‘O this waiting is absurd,’ snapped Miss Temple, and she marched from cover towards the gate. Chang sprang after, hauling her back. She sputtered with indignation.
‘Do not,’ he hissed. ‘You have no idea –’
‘I have no idea?’
Before she could vent another angry syllable he loped down the pier, bare feet slapping the planks. If he could but satisfy himself that the gate was locked …
It was nothing but luck that the first shot came an instant before the others could move, and that it missed. At the flat crack of the carbine Chang hurled himself to the side and rolled. A swarm of bullets followed – the new rapid-firing Xonck weapons he’d seen at Parchfeldt. Tar-soaked splinters flew at his eyes. He scrambled behind a windlass wrapped with heavy rope. The slugs tore into the hemp but until the snipers moved he was safe. At the barge, Miss Temple knelt with a hand over her mouth. Svenson and Phelps lay flat, none of them thinking to look where the shots had come from, much less of returning fire.
Not that they would hit a thing – their pistols would be inaccurate at this distance, and the sharpshooters too well placed. Chang looked behind him: a wall he could not climb, a locked gate he could not reach. Now that they had been seen, it was a matter of minutes before a party arrived on foot.
Above, a hemp cable rose from the windlass to a pulley, from which hung a pallet of bound barrels. A chock held the windlass in position. Chang grimaced in advance and bruised his bare foot kicking it free.
The gears flew as the rope whipped upwards, and the pallet of barrels dropped like a thunderbolt. Assuming this would draw all eyes, Chang burst forth, racing for the barge, waving for the others to run. The barrels crashed onto the wharf behind him, and quite suddenly he was lifted off his feet, the entire dockfront shaking. He landed hard, ears ringing, smoking wood all around him, and began to crawl. Svenson pulled him up and they ran. Chang looked back to see a massive column of smoke obscuring the gate and the canal, lit from within by bolts of light, an angry stormcloud brought to ground.
‘What on earth?’ managed Mr Phelps, but no one had the breath to reply. They were running blindly, simply racing down any clear avenue that appeared. Then, looking left, Chang saw a flash of black.
‘A tunnel!’ he cried, and veered towards it, the others raggedly at his heels. But the tunnel was blocked by an iron grille.
‘Shoot the lock!’ cried Phelps.
‘There is no lock,’ snarled Chang, who nevertheless dug his fingers into the grille-work and pulled. ‘The bars are set into the cement.’
‘It is a blast tunnel,’ said Svenson, ‘for testing explosives. Pull in the centre – better yet, step away.’
Chang realized he had been pulling at the edge of the grille, trying to wrest it from the stone. But the centre of the iron mesh was blackened from who knew how many exhalations of scalding gas. Svenson raised one heavy boot and stamped hard. The bars shook and bent inward. Phelps added his foot to the Doctor’s and one corroded joint snapped clean. They kicked again and two more gave way. The Doctor fell to his knees and strained with both hands, bending the damaged metal enough to clear a hole.
‘Hurry. Celeste, you are smallest – see if you can fit!’
Miss Temple carefully inserted her head and writhed forward. The cage caught her dress but Svenson disengaged it and she was through.
‘It smells dreadful!’ she called. Chang crawled in. He knelt alongside Miss Temple, the two of them together for a moment while Svenson and Phelps each insisted the other enter first.
‘I was foolish,’ she said quietly. ‘I’m sorry.’
Chang did not know if she meant having darted forward to the gate on the dock, or their kiss in the Parchfeldt woods. He had never heard Miss Temple apologize for anything.
‘What’s done is done.’ He reached for Svenson’s flailing hand.
Where Miss Temple passed with a stoop, the men were forced to bend low. Chang called forward irritably, ‘Do you know where this takes us?’
‘No. Would you prefer we turn back?’
Mr Phelps sneezed. Svenson rummaged in his pockets, and then a wooden match flared. The tunnel, walls blackened and stubbled with chemical residue, receded far beyond the match light’s reach. Svenson took the opportunity to light a cigarette, speaking as he puffed the tip to red life.
‘The main gates will be guarded, and we are no party to force them.’ The match went to his fingertips and Svenson dropped it, the flame winking out mid-fall.
‘I should like a pair of shoes,’ said Chang.
‘And I should like to examine your spine,’ replied the Doctor.
‘Whilst we are being hunted in the dark, I suggest it be postponed.’
‘Perhaps we could find that man again,’ said Phelps, ‘with the white hair –’
‘His name is Foison.’
‘The thing is, I believe I have seen him before.’
‘Why didn’t you say so?’ snapped Chang.
‘I was not sure – and we have been running!’
‘Where did you see him?’ asked Svenson.
‘At Harschmort, it must have been – ages ago. Not that he spoke, but when one serves a man of power, as I did the Duke of Staëlmaere, one observes the minions of others.’
‘So he was Robert Vandaariff’s man?’ asked Svenson.
‘But Vandaariff’s body holds another,’ said Miss Temple. ‘Robert Vandaariff is gone.’
‘Does Mr Foison know that?’
‘Why should he care?’ asked Miss Temple, crawling on. ‘The man is a villain. I think you should have killed him. O there now – do you mark it – the air is warmer … is there a join with another passage?’
The Doctor lit a second match. Chang turned his eyes from the flare and noticed, above them in the cement, a perforated hatchway.
‘Here it is …’
He slipped his fingers through the mesh and lifted the hatch from its place, then hauled himself up into darkness, where his bare feet touched cold stone. The Doctor’s match died and he lit another. Chang reached to Miss Temple.
‘And so Persephone escaped from the underworld …’
At this she pursed her lips, but took his hand with both of hers. He lifted her out, then helped Phelps. The Doctor stood in the hatchway, head and shoulders in the room, holding the match aloft. Miss Temple laughed aloud.
‘I am a goose! See here!’ From her bag she pulled a beeswax stub and gave it to Svenson to light. ‘I had forgotten!’
‘O for all love,’ muttered Phelps sullenly.
Chang shared the sentiment, but was happy enough to see where they were: a square chamber with a stone-flagged floor. At the base of each wall lay a scattering of straw, and bolted into the cement at regular intervals – almost to resemble an art salon – were long rectangles.
Doctor Svenson sniffed the air. ‘Vinegar. As if the chamber had been scoured.’
Miss Temple took the candle from him, walking closer to a wall. ‘Look at the straw,’ she said. ‘It has all come out of this burlap sacking …’
The scraps of sacking had been painted with crude faces, and within the straw lurked tattered strips of clothing.
‘Straw mannequins,’ Chang said. ‘Test targets …’ Crossing nearer, he could see the rectangles were of different materials: hammered steel, smelted iron, brass, oak, teak, maple studded with iron nails, each to test an explosive’s power. The power of a prototype explosive set off within the chamber – its gasses venting to the tunnel – could be measured against all kinds of surfaces: wood, armour, fabric, even (he imagined a row of hams hanging from hooks) flesh, all from a single blast.
‘Take care for your feet,’ said Doctor Svenson, joining them. ‘Celeste, hold your light closer to the straw.’
She knelt and Chang saw a glimmer near her boot. She gingerly pulled the straw away to reveal a gleaming chip of blue glass. Miss Temple lifted the light to the rectangle above. Its oaken planks bristled with tiny glass splinters, like a cork board stuck with pins. Higher up, still whole, perched a small, spiked blue disc, perhaps the size of a Venetian florin. Chang bunched the silken sleeve over his fingers and tugged the disc free. The edge was sharp and the spikes as regular as a wicked, wheeled spur.
‘A projectile?’ asked Svenson. ‘Grapeshot?’
‘But why blue glass?’ countered Chang. ‘A broken gin bottle will cut just as well.’
‘What have you found?’ called Mr Phelps from across the room, sniffling.
‘The poor man needs a fire,’ Svenson muttered, before calling back. ‘It is blue glass, perhaps part of a weapon.’
‘Will they not be searching for us?’ Phelps replied. ‘Should we not flee?’
Miss Temple plucked the disc from Chang’s palm. Before he could protest she raised it up to her eye.
‘Celeste!’ gasped Svenson. ‘Don’t be a fool!’
Chang forcibly pulled her arm down, breaking the connection.
Her eyes were wide and her face had flushed – but with anger, he realized. Miss Temple thrust the glass back into Chang’s hand.
‘I saw nothing,’ she growled. ‘It is not a memory but a feeling. Deeply felt, obliterating wrath.’
Chang looked to the shredded straw. ‘What does rage matter when the target’s cut to ribbons?’
‘There is a door,’ called Mr Phelps thickly. ‘I am going through it.’
Svenson hurried after Phelps. Chang caught Miss Temple’s arm and turned her to him. ‘You insist on risking yourself –’
‘That is my own business.’
Her cheeks were still red from the glass, and Chang recalled the forest at Parchfeldt. She had been striking his chest in fury before lunging up to kiss him. He imagined slipping a hand through her curls right then and pulling her face to his.
‘Impatience gets a person killed,’ he said instead. ‘And trying to make up for past mistakes only muddles your thinking.’
‘What of these men you hired, or Jack Pfaff – what of Elöise – what of shooting Roger Bascombe –’
‘I should have spared him, then? And the Contessa – shall we spare her as well?’
‘Are you coming?’ called Doctor Svenson, his words edged with a finite patience.
‘You know full well what I refer to,’ muttered Chang, wishing he had not said a word.
‘An ordnance room,’ explained Svenson, indicating the high scaffolds holding kegs of powder. ‘The racks allow ventilation – and do you mark the slippers?’ A pile of grey felt slippers lay heaped just inside the doorway. ‘To cover one’s shoes, so there is no chance of a spark from a hobnail – an old habit from ships. And there, do you see?’ Svenson pointed to a portion of empty scaffolding against the wall. ‘View-holes into the blast chamber, bent like the mirrored periscopes one uses in trench-works, so no random shot can plunge through, yet still allowing the engineers to view the explosion.’
Mr Phelps had rallied, or perhaps was abashed at his show of peevishness. ‘These barrels are not yet stored away – if they are newer, might they not hold the explosive we saw at the canal?’
Chang took one of Foison’s knives and set to prising the lid from the nearest barrel, grateful for an excuse not to talk. He did not relish companionship for its own sake and often felt, perhaps perversely, that the people one knew best were the most difficult to bear. Over-familiarity with their habits made even the smallest interaction grate, while the obverse notion – of being that much more on view himself – was even worse.
He wedged the knife under the lid and saw Phelps had joined him.
‘If it is the same explosive, might the jostling of your knife set it off? It did strike me as especially volatile.’
Chang applied a slow, strong pressure. The edge grudgingly rose until he could fit his fingers beneath and wrench it clear.
‘Merciful hell,’ muttered Mr Phelps.
Instead of any kind of powder, the barrel was filled with blue glass discs, sharp-spurred, coin-sized … thousands and thousands of them. Chang scooped up a handful and threw it against the wall, but the discs only shattered. Clearly these new glass weapons were not the source of the explosion on the wharf.
Outside the ordnance chamber was another tunnel laid with rail. Miss Temple screwed up her mouth, as if she’d taken a ladle of fish oil.
Svenson reached out with concern. ‘Celeste –’
‘Left at the crossroads takes us back to where we found Chang. Right and straight ahead lead to other blasting chambers … but I believe I know our exit.’
She glanced at Chang, as if daring him to disagree. When he said nothing, she wheeled away. What had happened to her? Chang could feel Svenson watching him, but he had no desire to speak of what he did not understand.
At the crossroads they entered another blast tunnel proper, the men again reduced to ungainly scuttling. Chang managed to slip ahead of Phelps, but he reduced his pace so the Doctor and Miss Temple were soon some yards ahead. Then Chang stopped altogether.
‘Have you hurt your foot?’ asked Phelps.
‘No. It seemed prudent for us to talk. If you are playing Svenson false I’ll cut your throat.’
‘I beg your pardon –’
‘If you cause harm to Miss Temple I’ll hack off your hands.’
‘Harm? Have I not shared their peril? Why would I have saved Svenson’s life –’
‘I have no idea. Didn’t he break your arm at the quarry?’ Chang clamped a hand around Phelps’s wrist. ‘You’ve taken off the plaster, but no doubt the bones remain fragile …’
Was it the insistence on sparing Foison that had fired Chang’s suspicion? Foison’s knife had only pinned Phelps to the wall – on purpose? Had Phelps not delayed them with his snivels and sneezes, perhaps enough to allow recapture? He squeezed. Phelps gasped and tried to pull his arm away.
‘Doctor Svenson is a man of principle! In killing Tackham he saved my life as well!’
‘Where is the Contessa?’
‘If I knew that, I would not be in a stinking tunnel with a madman! I have thrown over my entire life –’
‘Why should I trust a man who’s done his best to kill me?’
‘Because everything has changed!’ Phelps hissed. ‘The city is in chaos!’
Chang seized the man’s damp cravat and twisted the knot against his throat. ‘All part of your mistress’s plan, I think.’
‘Listen to me,’ Phelps wheezed, ‘I think you are a criminal – and that your kind deserves death – but you hardly threaten the state. We need you now – as you need me!’ Phelps jerked his chin towards Svenson and Miss Temple. ‘Do you think they know the codes to summon the militia, or can counterfeit diplomatic ciphers? When it comes to the final battle –’
‘I will be watching your every move.’ Chang released his grip and turned after the others … half expecting a bullet in his back.
If Chang’s bluntness accomplished nothing else, it would make Mr Phelps keen to prove his value, if he was honest – and, if dishonest, that much more likely to misstep, from fear. That he would also hate Chang with a burning fire was neither here nor there.
Miss Temple crouched with Svenson beneath another metal hatchway, waiting for Chang and Phelps to catch up. The Doctor studied Chang’s blank expression but said nothing. Phelps only cleared his throat and apologized for keeping them.
‘But you’ve found another room, it seems,’ he said. ‘How cunning.’
‘It is not a room,’ whispered Miss Temple, ‘but our exit.’
Chang lifted one foot, for the ground was damp. ‘You’ve brought us to a sewer.’
‘Try your luck with Mr Foison,’ she replied. ‘I’m sure he’s forgiven everything.’
This time Svenson shifted the metal hatch cover, then pulled himself from sight. A hand came down and Miss Temple went next, then Chang. He emerged into another cement chamber, but one lined with massive cisterns, each with a spigot the width of a 12-pound cannon at its base. He did not bother to assist Phelps.
‘They contain different solutions,’ Miss Temple explained, her voice thick, ‘released into the tunnels to stifle various kinds of explosive residue. The Comte was taken with the … engineering.’
‘How will that get us out?’ asked Phelps, rising stiffly. Miss Temple pointed to the largest cistern of all, filling one corner of the room and reaching near the roof beams.
‘Because that is full of water – to flush away the other chemicals – and the pipes that feed it run to the canal.’
‘I am just beginning to dry!’ moaned Phelps.
‘But Celeste,’ said Svenson, ‘we have tried the canal – the defences are too strong.’
Miss Temple shook her head impatiently. ‘Not the canal gate at the river. We have walked entirely beneath the works, away from the river and near a spur of the Orange Canal itself, used to ferry goods in the opposite direction, to the Raaxfall railway head. These pipes pass under the border fences to reach the water.’
‘You want us to swim through the pipes?’ squawked Phelps. ‘The plan is blind idiocy!’
Miss Temple was stricken by another fit of choking. It did not stop, and she bent over as if she might be sick. Svenson glared at Phelps, who shrugged and fished out a damp handkerchief to blow his nose. Miss Temple straightened. Her eyes were red and moist.
‘There are valves,’ she rasped. ‘The water can be turned off or reversed – they also use the pipes for drainage. It will be noissome, but the distance is not far, and we may pass through.’
‘How do we enter?’ asked Svenson.
Miss Temple looked to the top of the cistern, high above. ‘There is a ladder – it may require a bit of a jump.’
‘Ah. Perhaps –’
Chang slashed his hand through the air to indicate silence. They followed his gaze to the hatch, which Phelps had not replaced, and the flickers of light that danced in the tunnel beneath.
Chang waved them brusquely to the cistern of water, where Miss Temple told the other two men which valves to close. The squeaking valves were heard in the tunnel: lantern beams stabbed into the chamber. Chang crossed to a smaller cistern, wrenched at the spigot head and leapt clear of a spew of green liquid. The chamber floor was angled exactly for this purpose, and the steaming chemicals gushed straight at the hatch. Chang ran for the ladder. Phelps was in the lead, then Miss Temple, and finally Svenson, climbing with the speed of a tortoise.
Shouts of outrage echoed from the tunnel, then the crack of lantern glass bursting from contact with the liquid. Chang shoved the Doctor’s rump without ceremony. A hand rose through the sick green flow and then a gasping, shaking head – one of the Xonck soldiers, more intrepid than the rest. Chang looked up to see Phelps’s feet disappearing into a pipe above the cistern pit, Miss Temple right behind, balanced on the slippery rim. Svenson reached the top of the ladder but quailed at the four-foot gap to the pipe.
The soldier hauled himself clear and saw them, his shaven head gleaming green. He aimed a pistol at Chang’s back, but the hammer clicked impotently – the chemical wash had done something to the charge. He tried again – more heads rising to the hatch rim – then threw the gun aside and drew a wicked knife. Miss Temple had entered the pipe, but Svenson stood fixed.
‘It is just like the gangplank of a ship!’ cried Chang.
‘I despise gangplanks!’ But the Doctor lunged forward. Three reckless storklike steps and he was there, Miss Temple catching his arm.
Chang readied one of Foison’s knives. The bald soldier had reached the ladder. Chang considered throwing the knife, but he’d not Foison’s skill. Another two men stood at the hatch, pistols snapping without effect. Chang ignored them, waiting for the bald soldier – climbing with one arm, the long knife held upwards. The green liquid had bleached his uniform yellow, and his coat seams split at the effort of his arms. Chang feinted a cut at the climbing man’s face, which was aggressively parried – but all Chang sought was blade contact. He deftly turned his wrist so the silver tip of Foison’s knife drew a sharp line along the soldier’s hand, cutting deep. The long knife leapt from the man’s grip. Chang snapped a fist into the soldier’s nose, the man’s feet went out from under him, and he slid down the rungs. Chang crossed the cistern rim as quick as a cat and was gone.
Like fools, the others were waiting in the pipe. He shouted them on, but then caught Svenson’s foot and called for a pistol. He could not count on all their pursuers’ firearms being disabled. Svenson passed back his revolver. Chang crawled furiously, then turned and aimed for the diminishing circle of light at his heels. He squeezed off four roaring shots and slithered on – the pipe was coated with slime – then turned and fired two more.
The pipe angled abruptly down and Chang slid out of direct range with relief, and just in time, for the metal behind him echoed with gunfire. He pressed himself flat, but the ringing ricochets spent themselves at the turn. He kept crawling. The pipe changed its construction – intrusive ridges where each individual piece had been riveted together. Chang clipped his knees and elbows groping forward.
More shots came from the cistern, but nothing found its mark. Chang feared the other end of their journey. Surely Foison’s men knew where the pipes led, and might run over land more quickly than they could crawl like worms. Abruptly Chang’s face met the grimy sole of Doctor Svenson’s boot. He swore aloud, spitting, and the Doctor’s whisper reached him. ‘Do you hear it?’
Chang listened. Of course … far more effective than any scramble of men, Foison would simply reverse the valves. He wondered how it had taken them this long to think of it. Chang slapped Svenson’s foot.
‘Go on, as quickly as you can – we cannot go back!’
‘We will drown!’
‘And if we go back they will shoot us! For all we know we are near the finish!’
They scuttled like crabs before a looming wave. Chang heard Phelps’s cry, though by then the water’s rush echoed all around them.
‘I am to it! O – the cold – O damnation!’
The icy black water swallowed them all. Chang used the riveted ridges as ladder rungs, hauling himself forward against the current. Again he struck Svenson’s boots, and shoved the Doctor to go faster. The pressure in Chang’s lungs flowered into pain. He felt a tightness in his ears but pressed on, the idea of drowning like a rat in a drainpipe still worse to bear.
Then Svenson’s feet were no longer there, and Chang’s fingers found the pipe rim itself. He wriggled his way through and shot for the surface of the canal, breaking into the air with a gasp. The others were bobbing near him, pale and heaving, hair plastered to their heads. Chang spun round, searching the banks for men with carbines.
‘We have to go on,’ he gasped. ‘They will be here.’
‘Go where?’ called Phelps, teeth chattering. ‘Where are we? We shall catch our deaths!’
‘This way, sir! There is a rope!’
A crouching man in a long brown coat had appeared on the canal bank, a hat pulled low over his eyes.
‘O Mr Cunsher!’ exclaimed Phelps. ‘Thank God you have found us!’
The small hut felt like a room at the Slavic baths. Their clothing hung on lines and steamed in the heat of a squat metal stove so stuffed with coal that one could not approach within a yard. A separate line had been draped with a sheet from the cabin’s cot, and behind lurked Miss Temple, unseen.
Chang wrapped a blanket around himself and cleared his throat, as if the sound might clear his mind. Svenson sat with a mouldy blanket of his own. Phelps had taken the other bedsheet and now stood like a dismal Roman, his bare feet in a pan of hot water.
The strange foreigner had pulled them from the canal and led them pitilessly through brown scrub woodland to a scattering of squat shacks – stonecutters he said – one of which he unlocked with a hook-ended metal pin. Cunsher spoke only to Phelps, gave an occasional respectful nod to Svenson, and ignored Chang and Miss Temple altogether. He had found their carriage in Raaxfall, heard the explosion and observed the movements of guards at the gate, finally deducing that the canal was the only possible exit within his reach. Cunsher then left them, muttering something to his master that Chang had not heard. To Chang, the drainpipe was no sensible option to occur to anyone. He was glad for this second rescue, but trusted the fellow no more than he trusted Phelps.
It was not suspicion that now gnawed his peace of mind. Whatever their danger, Chang found his thoughts quite irresistibly settled on the proximate nudity of the young woman, not ten feet away behind a single pane of threadbare cloth. He could hear her bare feet on the floorboards, the creak of her body on the wooden stool. Were her arms huddled for warmth or modesty – or were they raised to recurl her hair, breasts exposed and high on her slim ribcage? Chang shifted on his own seat, willing his thoughts elsewhere against tumescence. How long had it been since he’d had a woman?
‘Are you warm enough, Celeste?’ Doctor Svenson called.
‘Yes, thank you,’ she replied from behind her curtain. ‘I trust you will recover?’
‘Indeed.’ Svenson selected a cigarette from his silver case, a civilized veneer already returned to his voice. ‘Though I must admit – when the water rose, my heart was in my throat. You did very well to drive on,’ he said to Phelps. ‘The slightest hesitation would have done for us all.’
Phelps shuddered. ‘It does not bear thinking. Though one begins to understand why men of adventure are so grim.’ He made a point of looking at Chang. Chang said nothing, his own gaze taken by the long, livid scar across the Doctor’s chest. Svenson inhaled deeply, then thought to offer his silver case to the others.
‘Were they not drenched?’ asked Chang.
‘Ah – it is the case, you see.’ Svenson snapped the silver case closed so they all might hear the catch of its clasp, then popped it open again. ‘Tight as a clam. Will you partake? Tobacco is highly restorative.’
‘It hurts my eyes,’ said Chang.
‘Truly? How strange.’
Chang turned the subject before Svenson recalled his earlier keenness to examine him. ‘As soon as our clothes are dry, we must move on.’
‘We need food,’ croaked Phelps, who had accepted Svenson’s offer. His words were broken by coughing. ‘And rest. And information.’
‘But we have learnt much,’ said Svenson. ‘The new explosive, the glass spurs – that they are inscribed with an emotion instead of a memory.’
‘We’ve no idea what that means.’
‘Not yet, but have you ever eaten hashish?’
‘I beg your pardon,’ said Phelps.
‘I am thinking of the glass – the anger, a state of pure emotion –’
‘You think the glass contains hashish?’
‘Not at all. Consider Hassan i-Sabbah and his guild of assassins, who entered a state of deadly single-mindedness under the combined influences of religion and narcotics. Think of the Thuggee cult of India – incense, incantations, soma – the principle is the same.’
‘Not unlike the Process,’ observed Chang.
Phelps managed to exhale without coughing. ‘The glass may answer for the narcotic, yet if the spurs hold no memory, where is the instruction? Without thought, how can Vandaariff direct those stricken?’
‘Perhaps he cannot.’ Svenson sighed ruefully. ‘Do not forget, the man believes his alchemical religion. We mistake him if we seek only reason.’
Chang knew Svenson was right – he had seen the unsettling glow behind Vandaariff’s eyes – yet he said nothing about the ‘elemental’ glass cards, or the too-rapid restoration of his own strength. He ought to have described the whole thing then and there – if there was any man to make sense of things, it was the Doctor – but such disclosure would have led to a public scrutiny of his wound. Chang waited until Svenson put more coal in the stove before carefully stretching the muscles of his lower back. He felt no pain or inhibition of movement. Was it possible that Vandaariff had merely healed him, and that the others had stared only at the vicious nature of the scar?
A faint but high-pitched gasp came from behind Miss Temple’s curtain. The three men looked at each other.
‘Celeste?’ asked Svenson.
‘Do go on,’ she replied quickly. ‘It was but a splinter on my chair.’
Svenson waited, but she said nothing more. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Goodness, yes. Do not mind me in the least.’
The trousers were not completely dry, but Chang reasoned that wearing them slightly damp would settle the leather more comfortably around his body. To hide his wound from Svenson he made a point of shucking off his blanket with his back to the wall. Tucking in the silk shirt, stained by its time in the canal, he caught a flicker of movement at the edge of the curtain. Had she been peeking? Disliking the entire drift of his thoughts, Chang strode past the others and slipped into the cold afternoon sun.
The hut was surrounded by squat pine trees. Chang did not relish another bare-footed tramp through twigs and stones, but saw no alternative, and so set off, keeping to the mud and dry leaves. As he reached the other huts, he saw one whose door hung open several inches. Smoke rose from the chimney – indeed it now came from several huts, none of which had seemed occupied before – and from inside he could hear footsteps.
Chang snapped his head back from the door at the wheeling movement of a pistol being drawn and the click of its hammer.
‘Do not shoot me, Mr Cunsher.’
If Cunsher was in the service of their enemies, this was the perfect opportunity to blow Chang’s head off and explain it away as an accident. But the man had already lowered the gun. Chang stepped inside and nodded to the stove.
‘Our company does not suit you?’
Cunsher shrugged. His accented speech slipped from his mouth as if each ill-fitting word had been oiled. ‘One smoking stove reveals our refuge. Four stoves make a party of stonecutters. Here – for you.’
Cunsher tossed a pair of worn black boots in Chang’s direction. Chang saw the leather was still good and the soles were sound. He wormed his foot inside one, stepped down on the heel, and then rolled his ankle in a circle.
‘It’s a damned miracle. Where did you find them? How did you know the size?’
‘Your feet of course – and then I have looked. Here.’ Cunsher took a pair of thin black goggles from a wooden crate. ‘Used for blasting. The Doctor related your requirements.’
Chang slipped the goggles on. The lenses were every bit as dark as his habitual glasses, but came edged with leather to block peripheral glare. Already he felt his muscles relaxing.
‘Thank you again. I had despaired.’
Cunsher tipped his head. ‘And you are dry. The others? We should not wait.’
But Chang subtly shifted his weight so he stood between Cunsher and the door. The man nodded, as if this too was expected, and thrust his hands into the pockets of his coat.
‘You do not know me. These enemies are strong – of course.’
‘You’re Phelps’s man.’
Between the thick brim of his hat and the even thicker band of hair below his nose, Cunsher’s face was lined and his eyes were as brown and sad as a deer’s. ‘You are like me, I wonder. We have stories – stories we cannot tell. Your Ministry had business where I lived, a business that in time allowed me to … execute a relocation.’
‘And you have served Phelps since? Served the Ministry?’
‘Not in its most recent campaign – which has assailed you, and whose part in it my employer most earnestly repents. But otherwise. I was abroad.’
‘Vienna. When in time I came back –’
‘Phelps was gone.’
‘What is not gone? All your nation. One has seen such change elsewhere.’
‘Because a crust of parasites is getting scraped off the loaf? Worse could happen.’
Cunsher caught a tuft of moustache in his teeth and chewed. ‘Parasites, yes. Hate the oppressors, Cardinal Chang – there I am with you. But fear the oppressed, especially if they receive a glimpse of freedom. Their strength is, how to say, untrained.’
Cunsher reached into the wooden crate and came up with a small cracked teapot in the shape of an apple.
‘I had thought to make tea for the young lady,’ he said glumly. ‘There does not seem now the time.’
His body low, as if he were discerning the way by smell, Cunsher led them to a rutted cart road, and along it to the railway station at Du Conque.
As they waited for the train, Miss Temple stood apart under the station eaves, frowning at a faded schedule posting, for all the world the same insufferable girl who had made Chang and Svenson swear an oath on the roof of the Boniface. Chang found himself annoyed by her standing apart. Did she expect him to make a point of walking over to inquire after her health?
Svenson spoke of the need to search the train for any agents from Raaxfall and Chang grunted his agreement. In the presence of Phelps he could hardly speak freely, though the change in Svenson was clear. The Doctor’s starched manner had been leeched by loss to the brittleness of an old man’s bones. Quite casually, for he was abashed to realize he had not yet done so, Chang asked the date. Phelps informed him it was the 28th.
Two months since Angelique had died. Chang wondered what would have become of Angelique had she possessed Miss Temple’s privilege – then scoffed at his own sense of injustice. Angelique well born would have tolerated his presence even less.
The train came at last. When the conductor arrived, Miss Temple opened her clutch bag, speaking tartly to Phelps. ‘I assume you have money for yourself and your man. I will pay for the Doctor and Chang.’
Phelps sputtered and felt in his coat pocket for a wallet of wet bills. Miss Temple took her tickets and stuffed them into the clutch bag with her change.
‘I am obliged, my dear –’ began Svenson, but Chang hooked the Doctor’s arm and pulled him out of the compartment.
‘Your idea to search.’
They need not have bothered. Five carriages found no one from the Xonck Armaments works. At the far end, Svenson stopped for a cigarette.
‘As to our return. You have not been in the city. We would do well to avoid the crowds at Stropping.’
‘It can be done.’
Svenson nodded, inhaling sharply enough for Chang to hear the burning paper. Chang sighed, feeling obliged and resenting it.
‘I did not know about Elöise. I am heartily sorry.’
‘We failed her.’
Chang spoke gently. ‘She failed herself as well.’
‘Is that not exactly when we depend upon our friends?’
The silence hung between them, marked by the rhythm of the train.
‘I do not have friends, as a rule.’
Svenson shrugged. ‘Nor I. Perhaps in that way we fail ourselves.’
‘Doctor, that woman –’
‘The Contessa. I promise you. She will pay.’
‘That is very much my intention.’ Svenson dropped the butt and ground it with his boot.
Returning, they met Miss Temple in the corridor, clearly on her way to find them.
‘Is anything wrong?’ asked Svenson.
‘Nothing at all,’ she said. ‘I mean no disrespect to Mr Phelps and his foreign agent – but – both of you – I thought the three of us might be together. If there are things we ought to say. Aren’t there?’
Chang saw Cunsher watching from the far end of the carriage. On being seen, the man retreated.
‘What things?’ asked Svenson.
‘I do not know,’ she replied. ‘But so much has happened and we have not talked.’
‘We have never talked,’ said Chang.
‘Of course we have! At the Boniface, and at Harschmort, and on the airship – and then at Parchfeldt –’ Her eyes met his and she swallowed, unable to go on. Svenson took Miss Temple’s arm and indicated the nearest compartment, which was empty.
She sat in the middle of one side, leaving Chang the choice to sit next to her, which seemed too forward, or opposite – where he installed himself against the window. The choice passed to Svenson, who settled on Chang’s side, leaving a seat between them. Miss Temple looked at each man in turn, her face reddening.
She took a deep breath, as if to start again, but only let it out with a slump of her shoulders. Svenson slipped out his silver case.
‘Did you not just have one?’ asked Chang waspishly.
‘They do sharpen the mind.’ Svenson clicked the case shut and tapped the cigarette three times upon it, but did not light it. He cleared his throat and addressed Miss Temple, far too stiffly. ‘Indeed, it has been some time since we three were together. All the days with Sorge and Lina – but you were not strictly with us then, were you Celeste?’
‘You both left me!’
Chang rolled his eyes.
‘O I know you had reasons,’ she added, with an impatience that made Chang smile. She saw the smile and went on with a venom normally reserved for disobedient maids. ‘I have said this to the Doctor, but perhaps you will appreciate that I have passed the last five weeks believing you had both been killed through my own foolishness. It was a terrible burden.’
‘Now we are alive you may unburden yourself, I am sure. Do you wish to dissolve our little covenant and go our separate ways, is that it?’
‘Go?’ She glared at him. ‘How? Where? We all heard that white-haired serpent – that you were the property of a jealous man. Can you walk away? Can the Doctor, after Elöise? Can I? Is that all you think of me?’
Svenson cleared his throat. ‘Celeste –’
‘Our agreement holds. To the death of the Contessa. To the death of the Comte – whatever body holds him. After these things, I do not care.’
Her last words carried an air of drama, and the men exchanged a tactful glance. Again, Miss Temple reacted with fury.
‘Elöise is a corpse because we were not stronger, and both of you – and I – would be rotting too but for blind chance – how many times? I will not have it. Who else will do our work? Who else will stop them?’ She flung herself back and appealed to the ceiling. ‘O this is not what I wanted to say.’
Chang did not require Svenson’s look to know he must say nothing. The Doctor’s voice was gentle. ‘We have all been frightened –’
‘Being frightened is appalling,’ Miss Temple whispered. ‘There is nothing for it but rage, and I am so tired of being angry.’ She looked down at her hands, flushing red, though her eyes remained fierce. ‘I’m sure it is easy for you to laugh.’
‘I do not believe you. I do not believe either of you.’
Chang jerked his head to Svenson. ‘What has he done?’
‘He is unpleasantly kind. As if I could forget how I have failed – as if I ought to. You have no idea.’
‘Idea of what?’ asked Svenson.
‘How late. How late it already is.’ Miss Temple abruptly stood, and reached the door before the Doctor had gained his feet.
‘Celeste, wait –’
‘She has Francesca and the book. He has the money to make his madness real.’
But Svenson held out an open hand. ‘All that is true. But please … what else did you want to say? The three of us. When you say it is “late” –’
‘I’m sorry. I would not want to further bruise Mr Phelps’s feelings,’ said Miss Temple. The door slid shut behind her.
Svenson struck a match and puffed his smoke to life. ‘She is agitated.’
This did not strike Chang as worth reply. He recalled the sabre scar across the Doctor’s chest and wondered, not for the first time, what truly drove the man.
‘Celeste has changed. Her sense – her moral sense.’
‘Did she tell you this?’
‘Of course not. I cannot explain it otherwise. She has ever been collected –’
‘Unless she is bursting into tears or a rage, certainly.’
Svenson’s tone grew sharp. ‘Perhaps you have your own answer.’
‘What does that mean – why should I?’
‘You question my observation – I ask for yours.’
‘I’ve no idea in the slightest!’
Svenson passed the hand with the cigarette over his brow, wreathing his head with smoke.
‘We are men. We meet our fate as a duty – as our lot. But her fate surpasses expectation. The book that held the Comte’s corrupted mind – it was in Celeste’s possession. Did you not wonder how she could guide us through the munitions works?’
‘Of course I wondered.’
‘You did not ask.’
‘When should I have done so? When the dock was exploding? In the damned pipe?’
‘Well, that is why, I think. She has touched that book, gazed inside.’
‘Why did you even go to Raaxfall?’
‘I told you, Celeste received a map of the works, in glass, from the Contessa.’
‘And you went! Of all the idiocies –’
‘Our journey saved your life.’
‘Do you think that is the end of it? What else did you accomplish without understanding? What task did you perform for her?’
Svenson rose and stalked from the compartment. Chang suppressed the urge to call the man back. He shut his eyes behind the stonecutter’s goggles and settled deeper in his seat.
His thoughts rushed elsewhere, worrying a phrase of Miss Temple’s like a sore tooth: ‘Whatever body holds him.’ She had referred to the Comte, his essence scattered to Vandaariff, a glass book, even part of Miss Temple herself – and as long as that book existed, what prevented his incorporation into one new victim after another? Chang was not concerned with imaginary incarnations. He could think only about himself, chained to the table, suffering the procession of elemental glass cards. No sleep came.
When the train met the tunnels outside Stropping Station, Chang rejoined the others. He was surprised no one had come to fetch him – taking it either as a measure of respect for his ordeal or disapproval of his temper – and so simply stood and faced them, cracking the knuckles of both hands.
‘The conductor is gone to the front,’ said Phelps.
‘Good. As soon as the train stops we will exit through the rear. Follow me. We will cross the tracks and leave the station in secret.’
They waited at the rear of the train. Miss Temple’s eyes were red. Chang looked to her right hand and saw the fingertips smeared, as if she had been reading newsprint. A bead of black stained her collar.
The train’s brakes seized with a screech and Miss Temple staggered, steadied by Doctor Svenson. Chang peered out of a compartment window. Setting off from the platform at a trot was a squad of brown-coated, truncheon-wielding constables. Across Stropping, similar knots of lawmen prodded passengers into groups, escorting them through the station like criminals.
‘Open the door! We will be stopped any second.’
Cunsher, in the lead, called back, ‘It is locked!’
Chang rushed into the corridor. ‘Kick it open! The place is thick with policemen!’
‘Policemen?’ cried Phelps. ‘But why?’
Chang shouldered through to Cunsher, whose kicks had done nothing. The train gave out the massive hiss of an exhausted dragon. The air was split with police whistles. Svenson pulled them aside and extended the long Navy revolver, firing three rounds point-blank into the lock plate. Chang kicked and the door flew wide. He leapt to the gravel and turned for Miss Temple. A constable shouted to stop. Letting the others come after, Chang raced away, Miss Temple’s hand tight in his, headlong for the nearest train.
‘Under! Under!’ he cried, and dived first. The stones stung his knees and elbows, but Chang rolled out the other side. He caught Miss Temple’s shoulders as her head appeared and they were up and scrambling towards another train. Miss Temple held up her dress (the clutch bag leaping about on its strap), all attention focused on keeping her feet.
Out from under the next train, Chang finally looked back: no police in sight. He sighed with relief. If the search had been particular to them, the constables would not have given up so easily. From the number of officers spread across the station floor, he guessed their orders had been limited to managing passengers in general – and to give chase would have meant leaving other travellers with little or no escort. Besides, lacking Chang’s knowledge of the remote corners of Stropping, the harried lawmen would assume that any fugitives must return to their cordon sooner or later, when their capture would be far less strenuous.
Svenson slithered from under the last train, smeared with soot.
‘You spoke the truth about unrest,’ Chang called.
‘Lovely, isn’t it?’ huffed Phelps, just behind the Doctor.
‘Who could order such measures?’
‘Any number of utter fools,’ Phelps replied grimly. ‘But it means the Privy Council.’
Cunsher emerged after Phelps, holding his soft hat in place as he crawled. Chang took Miss Temple’s hand, proud of how well she had managed. Despite her outburst on the train, this was the same Celeste Temple who’d kept her wits on the airship.
‘This way. There is a climb.’
The side exit to Helliott Street from the railway tracks had always felt like Chang’s private possession, discovered on a pillaged Royal Engineering survey years before and employed sparingly. But now, mounting the metal staircase, his boots scuffed into newspapers, wadded fabric and even empty bottles. Miss Temple pulled her hand free to cover her nose and mouth.
‘Are you not choked? The stench is horrid!’
Chang’s own sense of smell scarcely existed, but as he squinted above them he perceived a huddled shape blocking the way. He climbed and gingerly extended a toe to the pile of rags. It was a man: small, old, and dead for at least a week.
‘Step carefully,’ he called behind, and then to Miss Temple, ‘I should not let your dress drag.’
Two more corpses cluttered the top of the stairs, propped against the iron door like sacks of grain – women, one gashed across her forehead. The wound had suppurated, and bloomed in death like slashed upholstery. The second woman’s face was wrapped in a shawl save for the hanging mouth, showing a line of stumped brown teeth. Chang heaved at the bolt, then kicked the door open. The two bodies toppled into the cold light of Helliott Street. Chang stepped over them onto the cobbles, but as always Helliott Street was abandoned. Cunsher helped him shove the door closed again, sealing the corpses back into their tomb. Chang wiped his hands on Foison’s coat and wondered what had happened to his city in so short a time.
‘At the end of this street is the Regent’s Star,’ he explained, ‘as nasty a crossroads as this city holds. Any of its foul lanes will offer rooms to hide …’ Miss Temple had been scraping something from her boot, but now looked up to meet his gaze. ‘Unless anyone has another suggestion.’
‘As a matter of fact, I do,’ she replied. ‘I did not think – or rather thought I could find our enemies only by their own clues – in any event, I am a goose for not perceiving the significance of my dressmaker, Monsieur Masseé. As you may imagine, a woman known to have money is besieged like Constantinople: she must submit to this fashion, that fabric, this fringe, or, if you please, a perfectly unnecessary toque. And so used am I to this beseechment, even from dear Monsieur Masseé, that I did not mark a suggestion some days ago to avail myself of an elegant bolt of fabric sworn to have arrived straight from Milan. Indeed, I rejected the offer out of hand – crimson silk is not only beastly expensive, but also unseemly for anyone not in an Italian opera. And yet I thought only of myself, not of who would buy that rarest, exquisite silk, in that colour, demanding a specific complexion and temperament.’
She raised her eyebrows expectantly, waiting.
‘You think the Contessa desires new dresses?’ asked Phelps. ‘Now?’
‘All her things are lost at the St Royale. It was an entire bolt of cloth. A woman of fashion wanting any of it would buy all of it, to prevent anyone else from duplicating her prize. We need only find who did buy the fabric, and where it was delivered.’
‘So you do not literally know where she is?’ ventured Svenson.
Miss Temple rolled her eyes. ‘Monsieur Masseé’s salon is directly down the Grossmaere. Shall we?’
‘Of course not,’ broke in Mr Phelps. ‘Look at us! We cannot dream to enter such an emporium – and you yourself could only do so by presuming upon a very established familiarity. Miss Temple, you have been immersed in a canal. You offer to expose yourself gravely for our benefit, but whatever information you hope to acquire will be more dearly bought, if not rendered beyond price, if such bedraggled men as we come with you –’
‘Do you think I care for such exposure? I am more than willing to pay for what I ask.’
‘Society is not only a matter of money,’ said Phelps.
‘Of course it is!’
‘For all your pride,’ Phelps answered harshly, ‘Roger Bascombe was not a titled prince. Despite the advantages some wealth may have afforded you, Miss Temple, real status is something you have not glimpsed.’
Miss Temple scowled. ‘I have never found disdain for money to be a compelling force.’
‘Who stands with you now, Celeste?’ asked Svenson quietly. ‘Are we swayed by your banknotes?’
Miss Temple threw up her hands. ‘That is not the same at all!’
‘You will be seen,’ insisted Phelps. ‘When all of this is over, if you do expect to retain any place in society –’
‘I have no place!’ Miss Temple shouted. ‘I am a New World savage! And I expect this present business to end my life!’
She turned on her heel down the narrow canyon of Helliott Street. The four men avoided each other’s gaze, watching her small form diminish.
‘Deftly managed all round,’ muttered Svenson.
‘But the idea,’ protested Phelps, ‘that a ridiculous bolt of fabric –’
‘Hiding is not about concealment,’ said Chang, ‘but revelation. A fugitive is given away just like an animal – by instincts that aren’t, or can’t be, denied. A badger spreads its scent. The Contessa has her finery.’
‘I should look in the home of some sympathetic great lady,’ agreed Cunsher, ‘where the signs you mention may be laid to another’s appetite.’
‘But she has the child,’ said Svenson. ‘Francesca Trapping would be a burden.’
Chang shook his head. ‘For all we know, the girl is chained in a wardrobe, licking glue from hatboxes to stay alive.’
Phelps wrinkled his nose. ‘Cardinal Chang –’
‘Licking hatboxes if she’s lucky.’ Chang stepped to Svenson and slapped the dust from his coat. ‘Doctor, since your uniform suggests some respectability, will you run after Miss Temple so she does not launch on any additional journeys alone? Phelps, I would suggest you visit the offices of the Herald and locate the full text of this clipping about the Comte’s salon. Mr Cunsher, perhaps you might discover whether any further red envelopes have arrived at the Hotel Boniface. As we near the end of business hours, I recommend speed. Let us meet in two hours at some public place. St Isobel’s statue?’
He turned sharply to leave, but Svenson called behind him, ‘What of you? What will you do?’
‘Find a fresh pair of stockings!’ Chang shouted back. Under his breath, he muttered, ‘And wrap them tight around Jack Pfaff’s neck.’
Ten minutes took Chang to the river. The streets were filled with huddled figures – men passing bottles, children watching his passage with large eyes, women with hopes as cold and distant as a star. He assumed these were foreign dregs, washed into the city without language or a trade, but from snatches of conversation – and cries for money he ignored – he realized they were displaced citizens, refugees in their own city. Chang increased his pace. He had no wish for any entanglement, nor for the constables these unfortunates would inevitably attract.
To his right lay a fat Dutch sloop, painted the warm yellow of a ripened pear. The craft was anchored well out in the river, and on its deck stood armed men. He had seen such caution before, with especially valuable cargo, but the sloop was not alone. In fear of pillage, the entire river was choked with vessels keeping a night-time distance from the bank.
The building on the corner of his own street remained derelict and Chang entered through an empty window. He drew one of Foison’s knives, but advanced without incident to the roof. He picked his way across four buildings, and dropped in silence to a fifth, landing in a crouch. The windows around him glowed with candles and lamps, but no sign of habitation came from his own open casement. Chang gave the window a shove, waited, then eased himself in. No one. The floor by the window was caked with feathers and white-streaked filth.
Few objects caught Cardinal Chang’s sentiment, and most of those – his red leather coat, his stick, his books – he had already sacrificed. Within his genuine regret for their loss, he nevertheless detected a vein of relief … the more of his past that disappeared, the less he felt its cold constraint.
He lit a candle and, scraping the crust from the sill, pushed the window shut. He quickly stripped off Foison’s clothing and laid out his own – red trousers with a fine black stripe, a black shirt, a fresh black neckcloth and clean stockings. He stood for a moment, exposed to the waist, shaving mirror within reach, but then pulled the fresh shirt on, telling himself he’d neither the light nor time to examine the wound. Cunsher’s boots he kept, but availed himself of stockings, a handkerchief, gloves and a spare set of smoked dark glasses. The goggles had been a godsend, but he could not wear them and fight – too much of his vision was blocked off.
He knelt at his battered bureau, pulled the bottom drawer from its slot – a clatter of pocket watches, knives, foreign coins and tattered notebooks – and set it aside, pausing to pluck up an ebony-handled straight razor and drop it into his shirt pocket. He groped into the open hole, face and shoulder pressed to the chest-of-drawers. His fingers found a catch and an inset wooden box popped free: inside were three banknotes, rolled tight as cigarettes. He tucked them next to the razor, one at a time, as if he were loading a carbine, and turned his attention back to the box. Underneath the bank-notes was an iron key. Chang pocketed the key, dropped the empty box into its space and shoved the drawer back into the bureau.
He shrugged his way back into Foison’s black coat. It was warmer than it looked, and remained a trophy after all.
The Babylon lay on the edge of the theatre district proper, convenient to several notorious hotels – no surprise, given that its stock in trade lay less in strictly recognizable plays than in ‘historical’ pageantry, with the degree of accuracy proportionate to the lewdness of the costumes. The only offering he’d seen – whilst stalking a young viscount whose new title had prompted a naive rejection of past debts – Shipwreck’d in the Bermudas, featured sprites of wind and water, strapping seamen, and shapely natives clad in leaves that tended to scatter before the mischief of said sprites. Befitting an institution so shrewdly dedicated to fantasy, the Babylon permitted no crowd of admirers at its stage door – an alley where no money could be made. Instead, its performers escaped the theatre through a passage to the St Eustace Hotel next door, with both champagne and easy rooms in staggering distance, from all of which the owners of the Babylon exacted a share.
The rear door had attracted the attention of at least one man of secrecy and cunning. Cardinal Chang strode to it unobserved and opened the lock with his recovered skeleton key, determined to cut Pfaff’s throat at the slightest provocation.
It was too early for even the curtain-raising circus acts, but backstage would soon fill with stagehands (often sailors with their knowledge of ropes and comfort with heights) and performers, getting ready for their work. Chang found such entertainments dire. Was there not ample pretence in the world, enough mannered screeching – why should anyone crave more? No one in Chang’s acquaintance shared his disgust. He knew without discussing the matter that Doctor Svenson admired the theatre greatly – perhaps even the opera, not that the distinction mattered to Chang: the more seriously a thing was taken by its admirers, the more fatuous it undoubtedly was.
The man he pursued loved the theatre above all things. Chang found a wooden ladder, bolted to the wall, climbing in silence above painted flats and hanging velvet to a narrow catwalk. Jack Pfaff adored beauty but lacked the money to join the ogling fools in the St Eustace, settling to be a hungry ghost in the shadows. Past the catwalk was another lock, the opening of which must ruin any hope of surprise. Chang did not need surprise. He turned his key and entered Jack Pfaff’s garret.
Mr Pfaff was not home. Chang lit a candle by the sagging bed: peeling walls, empty brown bottles, a rotten, rat-chewn loaf, jars of potted meat and stewed fruits, once sealed with wax, knocked on their sides and gobbled clean, a pewter jug near the bed with an inch of cloudy water. Chang opened Pfaff’s wardrobe, an altar of devotion filled with bright trousers, ruffled cuffs, cross-stitched waistcoats and at least eight pairs of shoes, all cracked and worn, yet polished to a shine.
Pushed against the far wall, angled with the slant of the rooftop, was a desk fashioned of wood planks laid across two barrels. A square of newsprint had been spread, and atop it lay an assortment of glass.
Most might have come from a scientist’s laboratory – fragile coils to aid condensation, slim spoons and rods – but two pieces caught Chang’s eye. The first was broken, but Chang recognized it all the same – a thin bar ending in a curled circle: half of a glass key. The Contessa had described keys that allowed a person safely to examine the contents of a glass book – and then asserted that all such keys had been destroyed. Chang turned the fragment in his hand. The original keys had been made by the Comte from indigo clay. The broken one in his hand was as clear as spring water.
The second piece was more confounding still: a thin rectangle, the twin of the Comte’s glass cards, yet so transparent that it might have been cut from a window. Chang held the card to his eye without any effect whatsoever … yet its size, like the construction of the key, could be no accident. Someone without a supply of indigo clay was nevertheless learning to make the necessary objects.
The city was full of glassworks large and small – no doubt Pfaff had isolated the proper one after a great deal of legwork. Chang searched the desk, under the newspaper, even lifting the planking to examine the barrels, but found no papers, no list, no helpful notes. Not that note-taking was Pfaff’s style. The information would be in his head and nowhere else.
Apart from the wardrobe, Pfaff’s possessions were few and without character. Crammed in a box and set on the street, they would denote no particular man. Chang thought of his own rooms, so recently rummaged. His books of poetry might offer a measure of identity – but was a taste for words so different from that for gaudy clothing? Would Pfaff ever come back to his rat’s nest above the theatre? Would Chang ever return to his own den? He had longed for his rooms – but the place answered his deeper need no more than a dream. Like a wolf whose forest has been cut down, Chang knew his life had irrevocably changed, that in some profound way it was over. The crime, the corruption, the violence, everything that fed him had only become more virulent. He ought to feel alive, surrounded by dark opportunity. But change was not a force Cardinal Chang enjoyed. He blew out the candle and descended quickly.
As he stepped off the ladder a giggling woman dressed as a shepherdess burst in from the corridor beyond, no doubt accustomed to the always-closed rear door providing a private alcove. She stopped dead – Chang’s glasses had slid down his nose – and screamed. Behind her stood a shirtless man in trousers of white fleece – a costumed sheep. The woman screamed again, and Chang’s left hand shot out, taking hold of her jaw. He shoved her into the man, throwing them off balance, and swept out the razor. The pair gaped up at him. Chang wheeled away. He strode down the alley, angry at how close he had come to carving them both, his jaw still tight with the desire to have done it.
He had an hour before meeting the others, not that he cared to keep them waiting – but how could he replicate Pfaff’s labour in an hour? And where was Pfaff now? Had his investigation taken him too near the Contessa? Did he still trail her or had he been killed? If he had fled, it had not been to his garret. Was there any way to guess where the man had gone to ground? One possibility was a brothel. Miss Temple would have advanced him money …
He tried the South Quays. Pfaff was not there. Chang spoke to the strong men minding the door and then to the skeletal Mrs Wells, whose surprise at finding Cardinal Chang alive actually distracted her from demanding a fee for their conversation. Back on the foul cobbles of Dagging Lane, Chang frowned. However early the hour, he had never seen the South Quays so quiet – he could not ever remember actually being able to hear the fiddle players scraping away in the main parlour. Was Mrs Wells so worried as to seek goodwill from a villain like Chang? As he could imagine no person of less sentiment than the beak-nosed brothel-mistress, he had to admit the disturbing possibility.
Pfaff could have found a room at any of twenty waterfront inns, but Chang had no more time to search. He made his way from the river, keeping to the wider streets. The narrow alleys remained thick with the disaffected poor, and he’d no care to arouse either their resentment or his own sympathies. Chang stopped abruptly – sympathy and resentment, that was it exactly. Pfaff’s pride: he would seek a refuge where he felt protected, not anonymous. Chang had not wanted to show his face so soon, but there was one obvious place he could not avoid.
By the time he reached the Raton Marine, mist had risen and the tables outside had been abandoned. Chang pushed his way in and crossed to Nicholas, behind the bar. Both men ignored the sudden rustle of whispers.
‘I was told you were dead.’
‘An honest mistake.’ Chang nodded to the balcony and its rooms for hire. ‘Jack Pfaff.’
‘Is he not doing your business?’
‘The men he hired have been killed. Pfaff has probably joined them.’
‘The young woman –’
‘Misplaced her trust. She came here for help and found incompetence.’
Nicholas did not reply. Chang knew as well as anyone the degree to which the barman’s position rested on his ability to keep secrets, to take no favourites – that the existence of the Raton Marine depended on its being neutral ground.
Chang leant closer and spoke low. ‘If Jack Pfaff is dead, his secrets do not matter, but if he is alive, keeping his secrets will quite certainly kill him. He told you – I know he told you, Nicholas – not because he asked you to keep his trust, but because he wanted to brag, like an arrogant whelp.’
‘You underrate him.’
‘He can correct me any time he likes.’
Nicholas met Chang’s hard gaze, then reached under the bar and came up with a clear, shining disc the size of a gold piece. The glass had been stamped like a coin with an improbably young portrait of the Queen. On its other side was an elegant scrolling script: ‘Sullivar Glassworks, 87 Bankside’. Chang slid it back to the barman.
‘How many lives is that, Cardinal?’ drawled a voice from the balcony above him. ‘Or are you a corpse already?’
Chang ignored the spreading laughter and stepped into the street.
He broke into a jog, hurrying past the ships and the milling dockmen to a wide wooden rampway lined with artisans’ stalls. It sloped to the shingle and continued for a quarter of a mile before rising again. Once or twice a year the Bankside would be flooded by tides, but so precious was the land – able to deal directly with the water traffic (and without, it was understood, strict attention to such notions as tariffs) – that no one ever thought to relocate. Remade again and again, Bankside establishments were a weave of wooden shacks, as closely packed as swinging hammocks on the gun deck of a frigate.
The high gate – as a body Bankside merchants secured their borders against thievery – was not yet closed for the night. Chang nodded to the gatekeepers and strolled past. Number 87 was locked. Chang pressed his face to a gap near the gatepost – inside lay an open sandy yard, piled with barrels and bricks and sand. The windows of the shack beyond were dark.
His appearance alone would have caught the attention of the men at the gate, and Chang expected that they were watching him closely. He knew his key would not fit the lock. In a sudden movement Chang braced one foot on the lock and vaulted his body to the top of the fence and then over it. He landed in a crouch and bolted for the door – the guards at the gate would already be running.
The door was locked, but two kicks sheared it wide. Chang swore at the darkness and pulled off his glasses: a smithy – anvils and hammers, a trough and iron tongs – but no occupant. The next room had been fitted with a skylight to ventilate the heat and stink of molten glass. Long bars of hard, raw glass had been piled across a workbench, ready to be moulded into shape. The furnace bricks were cold.
No sign yet of the guards. Past the furnace was another open yard, chairs and a table cluttered with bottles and cups. In the mud beneath lay a scattering of half-smoked cigarettes, like the shell casings knocked from a revolver. The cigarette butts had been crimped by a holder. Behind another chair lay a ball of waxed paper. Chang pulled it apart to reveal a greasy stain in the centre. He put it to his nose and touched the paper with his tongue. Marzipan.
Across the yard lurked a larger kiln. Inside lay a cracked clay tablet: a mould, the indented shapes now empty, used with extreme heat to temper glass or metal. Each indentation had been for a different-shaped key.
From the front came voices and the rattling of the gate. To either side of the kiln stood a fence separating the glassworks from its neighbours. From the right came the scuttle of poultry. Chang picked up a brick and heaved it over. The crash sparked an cacophony of squawking. He then vaulted the opposite fence, away from his diversion, landing on a pile of grain sacks. At once he continued to the next fence, vaulting it and then three more in turn, meeting only one dog – a speckled hound as surprised by Chang’s arrival as he by it – and no human bold enough to interfere. The final leap set him on a stack of wooden crates stuffed with straw. Whether they held exotic fruit, blocks of ice or Dresden figurines, he never knew. He straightened his spectacles and walked without hurry past a family sitting to supper, out the front, and away from the curious crowd converging on the disturbance four doors down.
He did not doubt Pfaff had been there. Was that why it had been abandoned? The crimped cigarettes conjured up the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza. Was the marzipan a treat to buy Francesca Trapping’s good behaviour? Chang was late to meet the others, but even if he’d two more hours to search it hardly mattered – the trail was dead.
He hurried north, slowed by streets crowded not only with the disaffected but also with all sorts of respectable men and women, wreathed in the grim determination of travellers at a railway station. Chang pushed on with an unpleasant foreboding. The crowd’s destination was his own.
When he finally reached St Isobel’s, Chang had to crane his head to see the saint’s statue. Screeching street children dashed across his path, as high-spirited as feral dogs. The crowd around him recoiled – first from the children and then more earnestly from the black coach cracking forward in their wake. The driver lashed his team, threatening the whip to anyone in his way. The coach windows were drawn, but, as it swept by, a curtain’s twitch gave a glimpse of the white-powdered wig of a servant. Once the coach was past and the whip out of range, resentment swelled into curses hurled at the driver’s receding head. Chang wormed towards the statue, his patience frayed by the press of bodies.
He realized that he was squinting, despite the hour, and looked up. The sky was aglow with torchlight from the rooftops of the Ministries lining the far side of the square. Was there an occasion he had forgotten? A gala for the Queen? The birthday of some inbred relation – perhaps the exact idiot inside the black coach?
Phelps waved his arms above the crush. Cunsher and Svenson stood near with Miss Temple dwarfed between them.
‘At last!’ called Phelps. ‘We had despaired of finding you!’
Chang pushed himself through to meet them. ‘What in hell is happening?’
‘An announcement from the Palace,’ Svenson replied. ‘Did you not hear?’
Before Chang could reply that if he had heard he would not have asked, Miss Temple touched Chang’s arm.
‘It is Robert Vandaariff!’ she said excitedly. ‘He has emerged, and will call on the Queen and Privy Council! Everyone looks to him for rescue! Have you ever seen such a gathering?’
‘We have waitied for you,’ Phelps yelled above the noise, ‘ but our thought is to move closer and observe.’
‘Perhaps even brave a rear entrance to the Ministries,’ added Svenson.
Chang nodded. ‘If he meets the Queen, there will be a regiment around them – but, yes, let us try.’
They edged around the great statue, the martyr scoldingly content in her sacrifice. Chang tugged Svenson’s sleeve and gestured to Miss Temple, who had taken the Doctor’s other hand. Svenson nodded. ‘The fabric was gone, and all purchased by a single customer.’
‘Not who so much as where.’ Svenson pointed to the row of tall white buildings. ‘Sent to the Palace.’
‘Or someone well placed at court.’
‘That could be one of five hundred souls.’
‘Still, it fits with where we thought the Contessa might be hiding.’
Chang glanced at Miss Temple. ‘You were right after all, Celeste.’
‘I was indeed.’
It was not a remark Chang had any desire to answer, so he called to Cunsher. ‘Did Pfaff leave word at the Boniface?’
Cunsher shook his head.
Cunsher shook his head again.
‘The maid is frightened.’
Before Chang could ask Phelps about the Herald clipping, the air was split by the bray of trumpets. Horsemen in bright cuirasses had formed a line between the crowd and the Ministries and pushed forward to clear a lane. Every third horseman had a brass trumpet to his lips, while the men in between rested drawn sabres against one shoulder. The crowd gave way.
Chang searched for some other avenue. He saw the black coach again, in the thick of the crowd, and a figure – only half seen – slipping from it. At once the driver whipped his team into motion. But who had been left behind?
‘What is it?’ Phelps went to his toes, following Chang’s gaze. ‘Do you see Vandaariff?’
The trumpets came again and Svenson touched Chang’s shoulder. Behind the horsemen came a train of coaches, skirting the square. In an open brougham sat Robert Vandaariff, hatless, waving to the sea of staring faces. Lord Axewith of the Privy Council sat opposite. They swept through the ceremonial iron gate that marked the Palace proper.
Miss Temple pointed across the crowd. It took a moment for Chang to place the man she meant – barrel-chested in a black greatcoat. She shouted again, her words lost in the trumpets and the noise. Ropp was Pfaff’s man, a former soldier. Had he escaped from Harschmort? Miss Temple pushed towards him. The Doctor tried to catch her hand. Ropp vanished in the shifting crowd, then reappeared. Something was wrong. Ropp walked stiffly, as if his torso were made of steel. Had he been stabbed? Miss Temple hopped up and down, waving. Ropp finally turned to her squeaks. Even at thirty yards Chang was shocked by the man’s dull eyes. Ropp tottered and thrust a hand into his topcoat, as if he were clutching a wound.
Chang’s mind cleared. The white-wigged figure in the coach had been Foison. The barrels at the Raaxfall dock. The boxed carapace of Ropp’s body.
‘For God’s sake – get down!’
Chang tackled Miss Temple, doing his best to cover her body. His ears were split by a deafening roar as a blast of smoke and fire consumed the air. An inhuman high-pitched shrieking, dense as a cloud of arrows, whipped at the crowd, which answered with a chorus of blood-curdling screams. Chang raised his head, glasses askew, ears throbbing. All around them bodies were flattened, pulped, writhing – a perfectly scythed circle of destruction. Where Ropp had stood was a scorched and smoking hole. A grey-haired woman thrashed beside Chang, mouth flecked with foam, a blue glass spur embedded in her eye. As he stared, the white orb filled with indigo and the woman’s screams turned from shrill agony to blind wrath.
Doctor Svenson’s mind was elsewhere. After years of bleak service to the Duchy of Macklenburg, he had glimpsed in Elöise Dujong another possibility – had felt his heart crack into life – only to have that hope laid bare as the groundless optimism of a fool. He blamed no one save himself, mourning Elöise yet allowing no claim to her memory, for he had shamed himself enough as it was. Instead, still haunted and, if he could admit it, stunned, Svenson had thrown himself back into service as soon as his health allowed – assisting Phelps and Cunsher. Now he had been reunited with the quite obviously disturbed Celeste Temple, and the wilfully grim Cardinal Chang, but the company of these comrades reminded him only of what he’d lost. As he stood with his back to the cold stone of St Isobel’s statue, he wondered how much of his life had passed without purpose, every abdication punctuated with a crisp bow and a click of his heels?
The Doctor exhaled sharply and shook his head. He had his own discipline, and his own pale fire.
The action saved his life. Svenson heard Chang’s warning and at once dropped to the ground, the hail of glass shards screaming past his head.
He staggered up, ears ringing. Next to Chang lay an old woman, one of hundreds brought down. Though never in an outright battle, Svenson had witnessed accidents involving artillery ordnance and seen his share of shredded human beings. St Isobel’s Square had been thronged. Svenson stared at the scorched black spot where the bomb had detonated.
All around him, victims struggled with an unholy energy – howling and lashing at whomever they could reach, flailing like horses in a coach collision – unable to rise, unable to comprehend their condition. Chang rolled off Miss Temple, who seemed unharmed. Behind him, Phelps and Cunsher, both alive, wrestled with a man in a blood-spattered waistcoat. The man roared, and, as he twisted the dark stains on his waistcoat cracked and broke apart – the blood from his wounds had congealed into glass. Without a qualm Chang delivered a solid kick to the man’s jaw, freeing Phelps and Cunsher. The Doctor read Chang’s lips as much as heard his words.
‘There is nothing here! Hurry!’
The cavalry sounded their trumpets, at last moving to restore order, and with a dreadful prescience Svenson saw what would happen. He shouted, stumbling in the opposite direction, hauling Miss Temple with him.
‘This way! We cannot be caught between!’ Chang spun, his expression shot with impatience. Svenson pointed to the advancing horsemen, his own voice strangely far away. ‘The glass! The anger!’
The first cobblestone flew from the crowd – hurled by a tottering, blood-swept man – knocking the horsetailed helmet from a rider. A woman, blue-faced and screaming, charged blindly into the advancing line. A trooper reined in his horse, and the animal reared. Any sane person would have fallen back, but these two rushed on, the man catching a hoof in the chest that knocked him flat. The woman cannoned into the horse, scratching with her nails, even biting, until the soldier struck her down with the guard of his sabre. But by then dozens more had attacked the horsemen. The trumpets sounded again, to no effect.
Chang wheeled round and they forced a path away. Behind erupted more screams, shouting, trumpets. A wave of madness had overtaken the entire square. Phelps called to Chang, ‘If you had not shouted when you did –’
‘We must keep on,’ Chang broke in. ‘If we can reach the river –’
‘Wait,’ said Svenson. The ringing would not leave his ears. ‘Is this not the opportunity we desired?’ He looked to the white buildings of the Ministries and the Palace beyond. ‘In this chaos, might we not find an entry – find Vandaariff?’
Chang turned to Phelps. ‘Do you know a way?’
Phelps nodded. ‘I did not spend my life in that beehive without learning something –’
His words were cut off by the crash of gunshots.
‘Jesus Lord!’ cried Phelps. ‘Do they fire on their own people?’
The mob roared in echo of his outrage. The soldiers’ reprisals had only provoked the rest of the crowd to action. This would be an out-and-out riot.
Without another word Phelps drove for the Ministries, Cunsher at his heels. Doctor Svenson took Miss Temple’s hand, only to notice that Chang had taken her other.
‘It was Foison in the coach,’ Chang called over the noise. ‘They made Ropp into their weapon.’
‘But how?’ Miss Temple’s cheeks were wet with tears. ‘What did they do to him?’
‘The Process!’ Svenson shouted. ‘Overturning a man’s mind is the Comte’s first principle.’ He flinched at the crash of an ordered volley. The crowd ahead of them roiled and then split before a squadron of black-jacketed lancers, each man’s high czapka sporting a single red plume.
‘Behind!’ yelled Phelps. ‘Cross behind!’
The horsemen clattered past – lances menacingly low – and the way was momentarily clear. Phelps dashed forward and they followed at a run. With a shock Svenson saw an entire column of infantry advancing behind the lancers.
‘Are they planning to kill everyone?’ Chang yelled across Miss Temple’s head.
Svenson had no reply. Only moments ago a single line of cavalry had seemed an ample expression of force.
A line of constables blocked their final passage to the Ministries. Phelps shouldered his way to the front.
A constable with frightened wide eyes spun to face him, but Phelps retained an official bearing that won the man’s attention.
‘Why are only you officers posted here? Does no one realize the danger?’ Phelps’s voice sharpened. ‘I am Mr Phelps, attaché to the Privy Council. What provisions have been made for securing the underpassage?’
Phelps pointed past to the maze of white buildings. ‘To Stäelmaere House! Through it one can access both the Ministries and the Palace. How many men have you posted?’
The constable gaped at Phelps’s extended, damning finger. ‘Why … no men at all.’
‘O Lord above, man! There is no time!’
Phelps burst through the line of policemen. The constable darted after. ‘Wait now, sir – you can’t – all these people – you cannot –’
‘They are with me!’ snapped Phelps. ‘And no one will bar my passage until I am personally assured of the Queen’s safety!’
‘Of course the Queen!’ Phelps directed the constable’s attention to Mr Cunsher. ‘This man is a foreign agent in our service. He has information of a plot – a plot employing significant distraction, do you understand?’
The constable, for whom Svenson was by now feeling a certain pity, looked helplessly to the square, echoing with screams and gunfire.
‘Exactly,’ said Phelps. ‘I only pray we are not too late.’
The constable gamely followed to a cobbled lane descending below Stäelmaere House.
‘Down there?’ he asked, dismayed by the darkness.
Phelps shouted into the cavern, ‘You there! Sentries! Come up!’ No soldiers appeared and Phelps snorted with bitter satisfaction. ‘It is the grossest oversight.’
‘I’ll run to the guardhouse –’ offered the constable.
Chang caught the constable’s arm. ‘If the attack has already begun, we will need every man.’
He pulled the constable with them, tightening his grip as the man’s countenance betrayed his doubts. They descended to a dank vaulted chamber. Phelps hurried to a heavy wooden door and pulled the knob. It was locked.
‘Safe after all,’ ventured the constable. ‘So … all is well?’
Doctor Svenson spoke gently. ‘You need not worry. We wish your Queen only long life.’ The constable’s expression sank further. ‘Restored health.’ Svenson’s words ran dry. ‘Dentistry.’
Phelps peered at the door’s lock while Cunsher and Chang combined to secure the constable: wrists and ankles tied and mouth stuffed with a handkerchief.
‘Dentistry?’ asked Miss Temple.
Svenson sighed. ‘I had the privilege of the royal presence, when the Prince was first received.’
‘I suppose one would not see it on the coins.’
‘A rotting dockfront hardly inspires monetary confidence.’
‘Surely there is carved ivory or porcelain.’
‘The monarch lays her trust in the Lord’s handiwork,’ replied the Doctor.
‘One enjoys all manner of advancements not strictly from the Lord.’
‘Apparently matters of the body have their own strictures.’
‘Surely she styles her hair, and uses soap.’
Svenson tactfully said nothing.
‘Royalty are in-bred dogs,’ said Chang, joining them, ‘yapping, brainless, and fouling any place they can bring their haunches to bear. What is he doing?’
This last was directed at Mr Phelps, but Chang did not wait for an answer, crossing to Phelps and repeating his question directly.
Miss Temple whispered to Svenson,‘It is a pneumatic vestibule.’
‘A room that moves up and down. I travelled in it with Mrs Marchmoor and the Duke, and with Mr Phelps.’
‘Do you accept his repentance?’ asked Svenson quietly.
‘I accept his guilt. One does not care why a cart-horse pulls.’
‘Chang fears Phelps will betray us. Did you not mark their discussion in the blast tunnel?’
‘What discussion?’ asked Miss Temple, a bit too loudly.
They turned at the sound of Mr Cunsher clearing his throat. Miss Temple took interruption as censure, and addressed Cunsher directly: ‘It is easy to repent when one has lost.’
Cunsher studied her face, which Miss Temple bore for perhaps three seconds before returning the stare doubly hard.
‘Any luck with the door?’ called Doctor Svenson.
‘The problem,’ Mr Phelps replied, ‘is that there is no lock.’ He nodded at a metal key plate. ‘To summon the car, one inserts the key, at which point the vestibule car descends. Only when the car is in place will the door open. Even had we an axe, we could only reach the empty shaftway.’
‘Then why did you bring us here?’ snarled Chang.
‘Because the way is unguarded. The hallways of Stäelmaere House connect to the Palace on one side and to the Ministries on the other. This was the private exit for the Duke himself – only his most intimate servants and aides know of it. Once inside we can search for the Comte – for Vandaariff – in any direction.’
‘Is there no signal?’ asked Miss Temple. ‘Some sort of bell?’
‘Of course,’ huffed Phelps, ‘the use of which will alert those inside. We will be taken and killed!’
‘Perhaps I do not understand,’ Svenson offered. Phelps had so deftly managed the cordon, it was dismaying to see him at such an impasse. ‘If we do ring the bell –’
‘Whoever hears it may well send the car down. But ringing the bell after the Duke’s death will spark all kinds of suspicion. The car will rise to a reception of armed men.’
‘And that is because we lack a key.’
‘Yes. Without a key, it will only return to whoever sent it down. It is a protection against any stranger using it. With a key, we could go to any floor without pause –’
‘But that could still deliver us to armed men,’ said Chang. ‘You have no idea.’
‘I descended from the Duke’s rooms to this sub-basement without stopping,’ announced Miss Temple rather unhelpfully.
‘We should press on to the river,’ muttered Chang.
‘I disagree,’ replied Svenson. ‘The idea to infiltrate is sound, a chink in our opponent’s armour.’
‘Entering a lion’s den does not constitute a chink.’
‘Then I will go,’ the Doctor snapped. ‘I will go by myself.’
Miss Temple took his arm. ‘You will not.’
Chang sighed with impatience. ‘Lord above –’
Phelps raised his hands. ‘No. I have brought us here – no one else need take the risk. Stand away.’
He pressed a disc set into the keyplate. Somewhere above them echoed a distant trill.
They waited, the sole sound the muffled breath of the constable, which they all chose to ignore. But then came a mechanical thrum … growing louder.
‘Well begun at least,’ Phelps said with a brittle smile. ‘Someone is home.’
His relief was cut short by the click of Cunsher pulling back the hammer of his pistol. Svenson dug out his own and soon they all stood in a half-circle, weapons ready. The car descended, settling with a clank.
The door opened wide. Beyond an iron grating, the vestibule car was empty. Phelps shoved the grate aside and stepped in.
‘I will go where it takes me, and if all is safe return to collect you.’
Chang shook his head. ‘All of us together may be able to overcome resistance – if you are taken alone, it will expose everyone.’
‘And there is no time,’ added Svenson. ‘Vandaariff is in the Palace now.’
Svenson entered the car and turned, averting his gaze from the figure of the trussed, wriggling constable. Overruled, Phelps slammed the iron gate home and the car rumbled into life. Cunsher took Chang’s arm, looking up. ‘Count the floors …’
They waited, listening. Cunsher nodded at a particularly loud clank.
‘Do you hear? We have passed the cellars.’
Svenson gripped his revolver. Another clank.
‘The ground floor,’ whispered Phelps. ‘Which offers passage to the Ministries.’
‘We’re still climbing,’ said Cunsher. They waited. The cables above them groaned. Another clank.
‘The first floor.’ Phelps nodded to Miss Temple. ‘The Duke’s chambers.’ Another loud clank. ‘We will reach the second, with passage to the Palace. Of course the corridor leads not to the Palace proper – first to suites of older apartments, where no royal has lived these fifty years – but technically speaking –’
‘Who will be there?’ hissed Chang.
‘I have told you!’ replied Phelps. ‘Absolutely anyone!’
The vestibule came to a shuddering halt. The iron gate slid into the wall and a wooden door was before them. Its lock snapped clear. Before the door could be opened from the other side Chang kicked it wide. An elderly man in black livery took the door across his chest and sprawled on the carpet. In a second Chang was above him like a ghoul, his razor against the servant’s throat.
‘Do not! Do not!’ Phelps spoke quickly to the stunned old man. ‘Do not cry out – it is your life!’
The servant merely gaped, his webbed old mouth working. ‘Mr Phelps … you were pronounced a traitor.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Phelps. ‘The Duke is dead and the Queen in danger. The Queen, I say, and there is little time …’
Svenson inhaled, tasting the dank air of a sickroom. Stäelmaere House had been the glass woman’s lair, staining all who came there with decay. The Duke’s old serving man showed dark circled eyes, pasty flesh, livid gums – and this after weeks of recovery. Phelps interrogated the servant. Svenson walked to a curtained window at the corridor’s end.
‘Where are you going?’ called Chang.
Svenson did not reply. The corridor was lined with portraits, intolerant beaks above a progression of steadily weaker chins, watery eyes peering out between ridiculous wigs and lace collars as stiff and wide as serving platters – an archive of the Duke’s relations, whose exile to the upper floor reflected the degree to which they’d been forgotten. Was there a plainer emblem of mortal doom than the extravagant portrait of an unremembered peer?
The Ministry of War blocked his view of St Isobel’s Square, but beyond its slate rooftops echoed regular spatters of musketry. That gunfire continued after the lancers and the column of infantry only confirmed the extent of the uprising, and the savagery employed to put it down.
To his left was a small wooden door. Svenson put an ear against it. Miss Temple motioned to return. Instead, the Doctor carefully turned the knob and eased the door open: a bare landing with a staircase leading down and, unexpectedly, continuing up. Was there a higher floor Phelps had not mentioned? He walked back to the others.
‘What did you see?’ asked Miss Temple.
‘Nothing at all,’ he said. ‘There is more gunfire in the square.’
‘Even better for a distraction,’ said Chang, stepping behind Svenson and Miss Temple and herding them along. Chang leant close to Svenson’s ear. ‘What did you see?’
Svenson shook his head. ‘Nothing – truly –’
‘Then what is wrong with you?’
By then they had reached Phelps, who laid a hand on the door behind him and spoke in a nervous rush. ‘Stäelmaere House is all but abandoned, under quarantine. The lower floors are a sick ward. The Privy Council has shifted to the Palace, and Axewith and Vandaariff will meet in the Marble Gallery, only a minute’s walk from the Queen herself. Axewith must be desperate, practically begging Vandaariff for the money to solve the crisis –’
‘But is money the issue?’ asked Miss Temple.
‘No, which Axewith does not understand. Without sound strategy, Vandaariff’s entire treasure is but a bandage on an unstitched wound. The crisis will continue, and Vandaariff has to know it.’
‘Then why appear?’ asked Chang. ‘Why associate himself with Axewith’s failure?’
‘Perhaps he only seeks an excuse to enter the Palace,’ said Cunsher.
At this Phelps opened the door and hurried them through. ‘We are now in the Palace. We will quietly descend and proceed east – east, I repeat – until the décor changes first to lemon, and then to a darker yellow, like the yolk of a freshly poached egg. It is a question of concentric layers – ah … here is the balcony.’
Svenson forced a yawn in hopes it might end the nagging whine in his ears. He looked at the faded and splitting blue wallpaper. Why had this wing of the Palace been allowed to go to seed? When had its last royal resident died – and was its lack of care an expression of poverty or grief? Svenson found the squalor a comfort.
Phelps started down the staircase and Svenson followed, last in line, the revolver heavy in his hand. His eyes darted along the opposite balconies, recalling a mission to Vienna long ago, a search for documents that had brought him to an abandoned brothel … bedsheets spread across a barrelhead, upon which a consumptive whore played cards with a one-legged pensioner –
Phelps hissed from the foot of the stairs and pointed to a heavy door. ‘Remember the walls: blue, then lemon –’
‘Then a poultry yard, yes,’ Chang sighed. ‘We have grasped the sequence.’
‘It is a precaution if we become separated.’
‘We will only become separated if we are seen – and in that case we all know enough to run for our lives.’
It was an ill-timed remark, for as the sour words left the Cardinal’s mouth Mr Phelps opened the door. Directly before them stood a detachment of the Palace guard in helmets, doublets and hose – holding halberds of all things – and a group of men in black topcoats. One of these, with pale hair and a waxed moustache, yelped in shock, staring at Phelps.
‘Harcourt!’ cried Phelps, but Cunsher lunged at the door and slammed it closed. The door leapt in his hands as the soldiers pushed from the opposite side.
‘Run!’ shouted Chang, seizing Miss Temple’s arm. ‘Run!’
The door was flung wide and an axelike blade shot through, nearly severing Cunsher’s arm. The others fled, but Svenson raised the revolver with an unfamiliar coolness and fired into the mass of men. The two in front sprawled, but a guard behind came on, his long weapon aimed at Svenson’s chest. A third bullet and this man toppled into the guards behind him.
The fire drew their pursuers, and Svenson retreated up the stairs, hopping like a hare as a halberd stabbed through the railing. He fired again, splintering the rail, and scrambled upwards. His companions had vanished. His boot slipped on the carpet. The last of the halberdsmen charged up the staircase. Svenson deliberately squeezed the trigger. The man flew back in a windmill of limbs. No one took his place.
At the top of the staircase Svenson dropped into cover, just ahead of a hail of bullets tearing at the wall – halberds finally succeeded by modern weaponry. Svenson charged back to Stäelmaere House, racing for the pneumatic vestibule.
It had been called to another floor. He pelted down the corridor to the little door by the window. To go down would only deliver him to his enemies. Svenson took the staircase leading up. The door was unlocked. He tumbled through, shut it behind him and – blessedly – found a key sticking out of the hole. He turned it, heard the sweet sound of a bolt going home and let out a deep, heaving sigh of relief.
His coolness of mind was gone. Svenson’s fingers were shaking. He looked down the attic hall, its angled ceiling echoing the rooftop. Twenty yards away, in a flaming silk dress, stood the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza.
At once the Doctor raised the revolver, aiming for her heart. The hammer snapped on an empty chamber. He squeezed again – nothing. The Contessa stumbled back, lifting her dress with both hands. A rush of hatred enflamed the Doctor’s body and he ran at her, already tasting the satisfaction of cracking the pistol-butt upon her head.
She ran but he was faster, seizing a fistful of her dress. He pulled hard and she spun towards him, eyes blazing, swinging a small, jewel-encrusted handbag. Svenson swore at the stinging impact and launched a roundhouse blow with the pistol-butt that struck her shoulder. The Contessa overbalanced on her heels and fell. Doctor Svenson stood over her, ignoring the blood on his face, and snapped open the cylinder of the revolver. With a flick of his wrist he dumped the spent shells onto the carpet and groped in his pocket for more.
The Contessa dug in her handbag and pulled out a fist wrapped with an iron band from which protruded a vicious sharp steel spike. Svenson retreated two quick steps and slotted another cartridge into place. She struggled to her feet, weighing whether to attack him or to flee. He did not care – he would quite happily shoot her in the back. He slammed the cylinder home, having loaded three shells – more than enough – and extended the weapon.
‘If you kill me now you are a fool, Abelard Svenson.’ She spoke quickly but without desperation, a statement of fact. ‘Without my knowledge you will fail.’
Behind them, the staircase door flew open and two uniformed guards tumbled into the corridor. Svenson spun round and fired twice, the shots roaring in the cramped confines. The Contessa bolted and he dashed after her. At the end of the corridor stood a narrow door. Svenson fired his last bullet and the panel near her head split wide. She slammed it shut but before she could turn the lock he crashed through. She slashed at his throat but the blow went wide. Svenson tackled her to the floor.
‘You idiot!’ she snarled. ‘You idiot!’ She kicked with both legs, but her dress had caught them up. He dropped the revolver and pinned the spike-hand down. Her other clawed at his face – more scratches, more blood – but he caught that too and slammed it to the carpet. He lay atop her, both of them panting, inches away from one another.
With a shock his gaze found her pale throat, strung with garnets, and then her bosom, heaving with exertion. He lay between her legs. His groin pressed to hers. He met her gaze and swallowed, stupefied.
‘The door! The door!’
She stabbed her mouth at his nose, teeth flashing, and nearly snapped it off. Svenson rolled back with a cry and the Contessa flew to her knees. But instead of running she leapt for the door and turned the bolt. Had the guards followed? Had he shot them? He did not even care. He fumbled for the pistol. The Contessa faced him with malice and disdain, hair in disarray, breathing hard. The knob was worked roughly from the other side.
She brushed past, but his weakness had broken the spell of hate and he did not attempt to bring her down. Svenson stumbled after the woman he was sworn to kill.
The Contessa obviously knew the Palace. Within seconds, her twisting path had shaken their pursuers. Svenson kept close but never within range of her spike. At last, with an angry snort, she dropped the pretence of ambushing him, and, with this tacit suspension of hostility, they moved still more swiftly. Her movements remained sure – he remembered the woman navigating the forest of Parchfeldt with the same wolf’s confidence – and he held himself ready for when she must finally turn and attack. But the Contessa pressed on, glancing only to make certain he followed.
The apartments they passed through were unused, the tattered blue wallpaper familiar from before. Soon they trespassed into occupied (and lemon-papered) rooms, picking past the detritus of the court’s poorest relations. More than anything, Doctor Svenson noticed the papers – bundles of correspondence testament to the endless pleading for place and favour that made up life at court. How many days had Svenson stood at the side of Baron von Hoern, as the great man dismissed such petitions as if he brushed tobacco ash off his sleeve.
Had the others been taken? Though Doctor Svenson so often found reason to question his own courage – altitude, women, an especially haughty clerk – he knew his quick work with the pistol had saved their lives. Still, he felt no satisfaction. Other men might perform marvels, but if Svenson possessed a talent, its employment carried no mystery, and was no matter for praise. Stopping the soldiers had been his task, and was scarcely more than a postponement, after all.
They reached an apartment whose wallpaper in the gloomy gaslight suggested a more bilious discharge than Phelps’s sunny yolk. Here the Contessa – finally, decisively – turned to face him. He closed the door they had come through. She indicated an empty chair.
Instead of sitting, Doctor Svenson reached into his pocket for more shells and began to reload. The Contessa watched him carefully, then opened her jewelled purse and dropped the spike inside. She snapped the purse shut, ignoring the clicking work of his fingers, and crossed to a small sideboard cluttered with bottles. She pulled the cork from one and poured ruby port into a glass. Svenson closed the recharged cylinder. The Contessa sipped her port.
‘You’d have a score of men upon you before my body strikes the floor. We are well inside the Palace.’
‘Just above the Marble Gallery, I should guess.’
‘Honestly, Doctor, you have pursued me this distance –’
Svenson extended the pistol. ‘To hear you talk. Do so, madam, or be damned.’
Why did he not pull the trigger? This woman had murdered Elöise.
He watched her breathe. Her complexion had reclaimed its lustre, her violet eyes were as sharp as ever, and yet … he thought of his own weeks of healing … had the Contessa changed since the disaster at Parchfeldt? He knew her body bore new scars – a wound on her shoulder, another at her thigh. However, just as her wit and grace complemented rather than contradicted a savage heart, Svenson saw her beauty enhanced by these injuries – and wondered at the emotional wounds that had come with each, that lingered within …
His eyes dropped to her bosom. He hurriedly raised his gaze, only to meet a contemptuous flip of a smile.
‘You are not all grief, then.’
Svenson felt his face redden. He shifted the pistol to his left hand and reached for his silver case. ‘Whose apartment is this?’
‘As long as we are quiet, we will be safe.’
He returned the pistol to his right and aimed it at her heart.
‘You will answer me, madam.’
‘My goodness. Well – we are above the Marble Gallery, as you said, in the rooms of Sophia, Princess of Strackenz. Do you know her?’
‘No? One assumes the German aristocracy to be its own small-minded village, fed by petty rivalry, drunken duels and spouse-breach. Your late master, Karl-Horst von Maasmärck, was especially keen on the latter, with whoever he could entice for two minutes into a closet.’
‘Sophia of Strackenz has been exiled these many years.’
‘Poor thing. Now that I think of it, arranging for your prince to encounter Sophia would have made for an exquisite wager – he had no end of reckless appetite, and she is an outright hag. Would you be so very kind, while we are waiting?’
He had set a cigarette between his lips. She snapped open her jewelled bag and removed a black lacquered holder. He extended the silver case and the Contessa made her selection, fitting the black-papered tube into the nib.
‘You have resupplied yourself with your Russians.’
‘You have managed a new dress.’
‘Many, many of them – nothing says beggar like fine clothes twice-worn.’ She lit her cigarette and exhaled. ‘How strong these are.’
‘Why Strackenz? She has no sway at court.’ Svenson puffed his cigarette to light, then answered his own question. ‘And that is the idea itself. Protection from the unloved Sophia provides sanctuary without exposure.’ He studied the sparsely furnished room. ‘And where are these many, many dresses? Does that explain your presence in the attic of Stäelmaere House – garment storage?’
She sneered through blown smoke. ‘And what explains your presence? That Oskar comes to the Palace to save the nation? Did you hope to shoot him down?’
‘It seemed worth the attempt.’
‘Is it coincidence to find you here too, just when Lord Vandaariff has arrived?’
Svenson had taken several steps as he spoke, and he realized she was watching him closely, as if he were near an open flame. He stepped decisively to the high-canopied bed.
‘Doctor Svenson –’
Svenson extended the pistol and carefully flipped up the pillows. Underneath lurked a blue glass book, like a cobra at the bottom of a basket.
‘Poor Sophia,’ he said. ‘Does she sink her mind in its depths every night – living glories she’d never know on her own? Does she even bother to eat and bathe?’
The Contessa laughed. ‘She was fat to begin with, and never fond of a wash.’
‘She will die.’
‘Not while I need her.’
Doctor Svenson brought the pistol-butt down with a crack onto the book, starring the thick cover and punching a gritty hole in the centre.
‘Hell’s damnation!’ snarled the Contessa.
Svenson struck the book again, cracking the cover into shards and splitting the layers below. The Contessa spat with fury.
‘Doctor! The Princess is an empty-headed, greedy – she is despised – O the waste!’
A final blow broke the book to pieces, like the battered carcass of a horseshoe crab. Svenson wiped the pistol on the bedlinen.
‘You have no idea –’
‘But I do – and besides, you have another.’
‘I do not!’
‘You have the volume tainted by the Comte’s own mind. This isn’t it – the Princess would be driven mad. This was a book of allurement, a honeyed trap filled with pleasures. With any luck it is the last. And, now we come to the topic, you do not look ill – which means you’ve found a way to consult the Comte’s corrupted book without harm. Where is it?’
‘Where is Francesca Trapping?’ the Doctor demanded. ‘In an attic room with your clothes racks?’ He gestured to the shattered book. ‘Is she enslaved? Have you flooded her mind with wickedness as well?’
‘As well.’ The Contessa laughed. ‘As well as Celeste Temple? Tell me, does she tremble? Does she drool? Can you smell her like a barnyard mare?’
Svenson raised the pistol.
‘Doctor, if you act the fool we will be taken. They search from room to room – they are not all idiots – we are only safe here a few minutes more.’ She reached to what he realized was a second door, painted to appear flush with the wall. ‘If I intended to betray you, Doctor, I would not have brought you here.’ She put her head to the panel, listening. ‘Indeed, it did occur to me, while you strove to take my life, that our meeting might well serve us both.’
‘What do you think Oskar will demand, for his money and guns?’
‘Whatever it is,’ said Svenson, ‘Axewith will give it to him.’
‘What Oskar wants, Lord Axewith does not have.’
She smiled, allowing Svenson to guess what things – or persons – she meant. From outside came the chime of a silver bell.
‘Exactly on time.’ The Contessa ground her cigarette on the tabletop. ‘If you would just tuck the gun behind your back?’
She sailed into a lush corridor ablaze with light. Standing not ten yards away were three men in stiff black topcoats: a pair of Ministry officials and a grey-bearded figure with a blue sash.
‘My dear Lord Pont-Joule, what a relief it is to see your face!’ the Contessa cried. ‘The rumours one hears are frightful! Is Her Majesty safe? Has there truly been violence?’
The blue-sashed lord bowed kindly, but his deep voice rumbled with disapproval. ‘Who is the man behind you, madam? Sir – what uniform is that? Whom do you serve? How are you here? Is that blood on your face?’
‘It is Abelard Svenson!’ The Contessa’s voice dropped to a whisper. ‘Captain-Surgeon of the Macklenburg Navy. Surely you know him – he is a fugitive!’
Svenson whipped the pistol from behind his back. The Contessa gave a yelp and leapt to the side of Pont-Joule, who stammered angrily, even as the Ministry men – evidently unarmed – advanced towards the Doctor with earnest, awkward stances copied from boxing matches.
‘Now, sir!’ cried Pont-Joule. ‘That will not do – you must surrender! You cannot escape! You will not harm the lady –’
His next words were lost in a gurgling choke, his stiff white collar dark with spurting blood. Pont-Joule’s aides turned in time for the first to take the Contessa’s spike into his throat. The second stood in shock, covering his mouth with one hand. The Contessa came for him, but before she could land her blow Svenson struck the man behind the ear. The man arched his back and fell. Without a pause the Contessa knelt down, hiked her dress out of the way and opened his throat with a stroke of her hand.
‘Are you a savage?’ cried Svenson. ‘Dear God –’
‘He has seen us both,’ she answered flatly. A bead of red had caught her cheek. With a grimace of irritation the Contessa wiped it off with a fingertip, and then impatiently stuck the finger in her mouth. She stepped carefully past the spreading pools and called to Svenson, white-faced, rooted to the spot. ‘Pont-Joule is the Queen’s Master of Comportment.’
‘Etiquette and safety – if we are past him, we are past the cordon of soldiers, who will now be posted at every exit. But our way should be clear – come.’
‘Then we cannot escape?’
‘O Doctor, for shame! When the cradle waits unguarded at our feet?’
Svenson hurried after her into what could only have been the Marble Gallery – a gaudily elegant chamber draped with crystal. Their footsteps echoed across the chequered parquet floor. They were alone.
‘Is it not a lovely room?’ the Contessa called, her voice echoing. She spun like a girl, arms outstretched, laughing. Svenson came doggedly after, glancing at the wide chair on a dais that must have once held the Queen. Two more were set near it for Axewith and Vandaariff. Tables were still laden for tea, with plates of thickly iced pink petits fours. The Contessa snatched one up, took a bite with a satisfied growl, then dropped the rest onto the floor, walking on.
In the sickroom of his heart, Doctor Svenson condemned these three new murders … but again found himself shrugging off the guilt. The Contessa paused at the double doors, her composed features studying his face. He could imagine how she had seized every chance to flirt with poor Pont-Joule over these past weeks, just to make possible so deft a slaughter. The wall panels framing the door were set with mirrors, but the man reflected there bore scant resemblance to the officer he had once been. This figure was unshaven and hollow-eyed. Even his hair seemed to signal with its lack of colour the weight of withering experience.
It had not been fear that kept him from shooting her in the bedchamber. He knew it was better for anyone who remained in the Doctor’s affections that he had been the one to collide with the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza. Phelps or Cunsher would have hesitated and been slain. Miss Temple and Chang would have shown no quarter, killed her or been killed in turn. But their principles were founded on hope, and his reflection showed a man cut free. Svenson admitted expediency. Alone amongst his comrades, he might sacrifice himself – might make such an alliance, murder innocents, sink to unanticipated depths – and so spare them all.
‘What a stricken face,’ observed the Contessa. ‘I tell you we are on the verge of a most profitable collaboration –’
Svenson seized her wrist and pinned her spike-hand against the door. She stared at him, eyes questioning and fierce, but his face was calm – indeed he felt altogether absent from his own body as it moved. Her left fist was ready to swing the jewelled bag. He deliberately shoved the pistol into his belt.
He caressed the soft curve of her jaw. She did not move.
His hand slipped lower, trailing the soft pulse in her throat with a fingertip, and then with a deliberate slowness slid his outspread palm over her bare collarbone, her bosom, and down her torso, feeling the silk and whalebone, until he reached her thin, cinched waist and the exaggerated sweep of her hips. Still the Contessa said nothing. Svenson sensed the span of her body between his fingers. He moved higher and squeezed again, feeling her ribs beneath the corset.
‘There is blood on your face,’ she murmured.
‘A way of dressing for the occasion.’
He released her and stepped away, pulling the revolver from his belt. The Contessa’s voice remained hushed.
‘For a moment I feared you might try to kill me … and then I understood that you have every intention of doing so. You have changed, Abelard Svenson.’
‘Is that so strange?’
‘When any man changes there ought to be fireworks.’
‘You still have every intention of killing me.’
The Contessa extended her left hand, the jewelled bag dangling, running her own fingers – pressing hard, her lips curling into a smile – the exact length of the scar from Tackham’s sabre.
‘I saw you, you know,’ she whispered, ‘bleeding on the ground, groaning like the damned … I saw you kill him. I thought you would die, just as I thought I had killed Chang. It is not often I underestimate so many people.’
‘Nor the same people so many times.’
The pressure on his scar was repulsive, but arousing. She lifted her fingers. ‘We overreach ourselves.’ Her cheeks held a touch of red. ‘Whatever your new provocations, there remains very much to do.’
At a pillared archway the Contessa raised her hand and they paused, peering into an ancient hall of high tapestries and cold stone walls. A row of tables ran down the centre of the room, arranged with bowls of floating white flowers.
Svenson craned his neck. ‘This room seems old – and, judging by the medieval decorations, quite out of fashion and unused.’
‘How do you account, then, for the flowers?’
‘A floral penchant of the Queen?’
The Contessa laughed. ‘No, because of the drains – the horrible drains! It is a wonder the entire royal household does not perish from disease. This chamber is particularly fragrant – but, while relining the pipes with copper would be an unthinkable expense, it is entirely acceptable to spend a colonel’s salary every fortnight on fresh flowers.’
‘Is this where the Privy Council meets, with Stäelmaere House under quarantine?’
The Contessa shook her head, enjoying her riddle. ‘Axewith took the Regent’s gatehouse. Because it boasts a portcullis – which tells you all you need to know about Lord Axewith. No, Doctor, there is no hope of getting anywhere near Oskar himself – he was always a coward, and he will have soldiers as thick around him as his old bearskin fur. I wonder if he’ll get another one? The real Vandaariff would never wear such a thing, but I don’t suppose anyone will care.’
‘Then where have you brought me?’
She pulled Svenson back into hiding. ‘We each have our talents, Doctor, and I have brought you where my own may shine. Observe.’
At the head of a cloud of men, all burdened with sheaves of paper, satchels, rolled documents, leather-bound ledgers, strode a thin young man with fair hair, the tips of his moustache waxed to a darker maple: Harcourt, the man they had collided with in the doorway. Svenson knew – from his days recuperating in Rawsbarthe’s attic – that Harcourt was an obsequious fellow whose advancement had come from never questioning his superiors’ commands, no matter how criminal. With so many riddled by sickness, Harcourt had vaulted to real power. Phelps had taken the news with dismay, but Svenson could see the burden did not weigh lightly on Harcourt’s shoulders. The young man’s face was haggard, and his voice – rapping out commands to the crowd that clustered behind him like a burlesque of some multi-limbed Hindu deity – reduced to the flat crack of a toad.
‘The port master must receive these orders before the tide; requisitions to the mines must not be sent until after the morning’s trading; these judges called to chambers as soon as the warrants are approved; local militias marshalled for property seizure. Disbursements set against the Treasury’s reckoning as of today, we must draw down to demonstrate our need – Mr Harron, see to it!’
Harcourt swept on to the nest of tables. The Contessa pushed into Svenson as a determined portly figure – the dispatched Mr Harron, with a thick portfolio, each page dangling a ribbon weighted with a blot of wax – hurried by without stopping.
‘Will you drink something, Mr Harcourt?’ asked one aide, more concerned with an alluring ruby decanter than with property seizures.
‘There are hours left in the day,’ sniffed Harcourt. ‘Send to the kitchens for strong tea. Where is the list from Lord Axewith?’
‘It has not yet come, sir.’
‘Vandaariff will dictate terms to us all.’ Harcourt rubbed his eyes and exhaled. He took up a new stack of documents, at once thrusting a page at another aide. ‘Make sure the commanders understand – there is to be no official record of casualties, nor any death benefits charged to the paymaster. They are to draw on Lord Axewith’s fund. Go.’
The aide bustled out and the next – they were all of an age with Harcourt – stepped up with a ledger and a pen. Harcourt blinked at it, wearily. ‘Just remind me?’
‘Transport tariffs, sir – to widen the Orange Canal, from the new Parchfeldt spur down to the sea.’
‘Ah.’ Harcourt scribbled his name but kept the pen, his eyes hovering over the ledger. ‘Parchfeldt.’
The young man took his master’s hesitation for a chance to speak. ‘Do you know how long the quarantine will go on, sir? In Stäelmaere House?’
‘Am I in the College of Medicine?’
‘Of course not, sir – but you served the Duke, were aide to Mr Phelps –’
‘Attend to your canals, Mr Forsett!’ Harcourt slapped the ledger shut, nearly upsetting the inkpot. ‘What in God’s name is keeping Pont-Joule? And where in blazes is that tea?’
But his last words were drained of wrath – indeed, were quite infused with stammering anticipation. The Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza had appeared before him, the red dress shimmering like a gemstone.
‘Sweet Christ,’ Harcourt croaked. ‘To your errands – at once, off with you all!’
‘What of your tea?’ squeaked Forsett.
‘Damn the tea! Drink it yourselves! I must meet with this lady alone!’
Harcourt’s officials hurried out, clutching their papers as if fleeing a house fire. Harcourt’s attention stayed fixed on the woman, and his lower lip trembled.
‘M-my lady …’
‘I told you I would return, Matthew. You look tired.’ The Contessa stood opposite Harcourt, the bowl of white blossoms between them like a ceremonial offering.
‘Not at all.’ Harcourt’s nonchalance was betrayed by the twitching of one eye. The Contessa set her jewelled bag onto the table and snapped it open, extracting a pair of silk gloves dyed to match her dress.
‘Such service, to manage a nation at risk,’ she said gently. ‘Is it truly recognized? Does such sacrifice ever find reward?’
Harcourt swallowed. ‘In the absence of other – experienced – Minister Crabbé – with the sickness that has pervaded –’
‘That terrible woman …’ The Contessa shook her head, her gloved fingers clicking as they sought inside her bag. ‘Can you imagine if anything like her should appear again? Or a score of them at once?’
Harcourt stared at the gleaming blue rectangle the Contessa had extracted.
‘This is for you, Matthew … for you alone.’ She offered her hand across the perfumed bowl and smiled shyly. ‘I trust you will not think the less of me.’
Harcourt shook his head, gulped and snatched the glass card. He raised it to his eyes, licking his lips like a hound. His pupils expanded to black balls and his jaw fell slack. Mr Harcourt did not move.
‘Come out, Doctor. The fellow is so earnest, it would be a shame not to share his misfortune.’
Svenson felt like a pet who’d been whistled for. ‘How long until his people return?’
‘We have at least … O … three minutes?’ The Contessa leafed through the papers in Harcourt’s portfolio.
‘That is no time at all!’
‘More than enough …’
She pulled a sheet of parchment free, reading it quickly. Harcourt gasped – in pain or ecstasy – but his gaze did not shift. Svenson inched closer, curious as to what held Harcourt in thrall.
‘Time, Doctor, time …’
‘What are you hoping to find? You might have waited until he had the news of Vandaariff’s demands –’
‘I have told you, Doctor, that does not matter.’
The Contessa shoved the parchment at Svenson and went back to the portfolio. The page was a list of properties to be temporarily seized by the Crown: railway lines, shipping fleets, mines, refineries, banks, and then, ending the list, at least fifteen different glassworks.
‘Curious, isn’t it?’
‘That demand has to come from Vandaariff – it’s all been planned in advance.’
The Contessa raised an eyebrow at his slow arrival and continued to sort through the mounds of paper. Harcourt gasped again.
‘What is the memory on that card?’ Svenson asked her.
‘Nothing to concern you …’
‘It must be extremely alluring.’
‘That is the intention –’
‘Because he does not wrench himself free. Thus you do not offer him information, but a sensual experience. As this is not your first meeting, I presume each new card draws him deeper into enslavement. Do you have such a storehouse of them? I assumed they had been lost.’
The Contessa plucked two small pages from a portfolio, folded them to tight strips and slipped each into the bodice of her dress. ‘Doctor, you will find a door behind that tapestry – the Turks besieging Vienna. Though if those are Turks I am a Scottish donkey, and if that is Vienna – well, not that it matters. The experience of one Florentine winehouse apparently equips a man to describe the world. Still, there is but one thing worse than an artist who has not travelled.’
‘The artist who has?’
She laughed. Too aware of his pleasure at sparking her amusement, Svenson lifted the tapestry and found a wooden door. The Contessa plucked the glass card away. Harcourt jackknifed at the waist with a shuddering cry, both hands digging at his groin.
‘Until we meet again, Matthew,’ she cooed. Svenson ducked to escape Harcourt’s eye, but need not have bothered. Harcourt had curled into a grunting, sobbing ball.
As soon as the Contessa closed the door, the light was gone. On instinct, Svenson edged away, to set himself beyond her spike.
‘Where are you?’ she whispered.
‘Where are we going?’
‘Stop running from me, you fool – there are steps!’
As she spoke, Svenson’s right foot skidded into space. He nearly overbalanced, toppling into the darkness, but managed to claw a handhold on the uneven walls. Before he could recover he smelt her perfume, and felt her breath warm at his ear.
‘You will break your neck – and we have not even made our bargain.’
‘What bargain is that?’
‘Go down – carefully, mind – and I will tell you.’
The steps were narrow and worn from a century of footfalls, and his boots slipped more than once. ‘Where does this take us? Where in the Palace?’
He felt her whisper on his neck. ‘Do you know the Palace?’
‘Not at all.’
‘Then it will be a surprise. Do you like surprises?’
‘O Doctor – you waste the glory of the world.’
‘I shall endeavour to bear it.’
The Contessa nipped Svenson’s ear.
At the foot of the stairs his hand found another door, and her whisper reminded him to open it slowly. From behind another tapestry they entered a circular room with walls of stone.
‘It is a tower,’ said Svenson, his voice low with caution.
‘Well observed.’ The Contessa brushed past – Svenson flinched and brought up an arm – to the room’s exit, an open arch that left him feeling nakedly vulnerable. She peered out. Far away were indefinable sounds – trundlings, calls – but nothing near. The Contessa turned and Svenson retreated several steps. She raised an eyebrow at the distance between them and smiled.
‘It is the particular character of royal dwelling places to possess such oddities, because they are in a constant state of being rebuilt and then abandoned and then rebuilt again – what was once a castle must become a house, and then with fashion a different sort of house. Portions are devoured by fire, or cannon, or rotting time – doors are bricked over with haste, walls no longer connect, and – as you see – whole staircases misplaced without care. The myriad adulteries of a court hang upon such lore – such secrets are guarded, after all. But secret-keepers die and it can be possible to have such rooms as this … reliably to one’s self.’
‘And in answer to your persistent questions. Twenty yards through that wall is the Greenway, and beyond it the river.’
She pointed to a wall upon which hung a wide mirror, the silver spotted with decay. Below the mirror was a divan draped with blankets so tattered as to predate living memory. Svenson sensed a sneeze just looking at them.
‘Then we’ve come quite a distance.’
Further speech died in the Doctor’s throat, and he licked his dry lips. There had been ample opportunity to end his life on the dark staircase. What did the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza possibly need that he should still breathe? He nodded deferentially to the woman’s bosom. ‘You preserved two papers from Harcourt’s portfolio.’
‘I did indeed. Will you retrieve them?’
‘I should prefer you did not mock me, madam.’
‘We all prefer, Doctor, it does not signify.’ She slid two slim fingers beneath her bodice, then drew them out with the papers pinched between. ‘I will happily exchange a view of their contents for another cigarette.’
Svenson took the papers and handed the Contessa his case, making sure she was occupied before beginning to read. She exhaled a jet of smoke and then, rolling her eyes at his caution, crossed to the divan, swatted a dusty corner, and sat.
The first document brought a lump to Svenson’s throat: a dispatch from the Foreign Ministry’s attaché in Macklenburg describing the upheaval in the aftermath of the Crown Prince’s death. Konrad, Bishop of Warnemünde – the ailing Duke’s brother – was now the power behind the throne, filling vacant positions with his own appointees. Svenson sighed. Konrad had been the Cabal’s hidden agent in Macklenburg, enabling their acquisition of lands rich in indigo clay. He refolded the letter with a heavy heart. Had the Cabal reached Macklenburg as intended, Konrad would have remained a strictly managed puppet. In the absence of his masters he had simply adopted their ambitions. Had their success in destroying the dirigible accomplished anything at all?
Svenson read the second document twice, then extended both pages to the Contessa. She nodded without interest to the divan next to her and he dropped them on it, stepping nearer. The second page was the Contessa’s death warrant, signed by Matthew Harcourt.
‘I thought he was your creature.’
‘Serpent’s teeth, Doctor – we all have felt them.’
‘I am surprised you did not end his life.’
‘You do not know what the glass has shown him.’ She suddenly chuckled. ‘And the perfection of his people returning to find him thus – it is a small compensation.’
‘His career will be ruined?’
‘His career is nothing to me – but his heart, his dreams? Those have been spoilt forever.’
Svenson collected his case and lit a smoke of his own. He nodded to the folded paper. ‘What will you do?’
‘That changes nothing. It has not gone out. And if it had – well, you are a fugitive yourself. If caught, your head will be pickled and sent back to Macklenburg in a cask, evidence of this government’s friendship.’
‘And what of you?’
‘Being a woman, as befits an honourable nation, I will be treated far worse.’
She looked up at him, and then to the archway.
‘What is it about an open door that so fires a body for mischief? As simply joyful as a sweet breeze or the embrace of hot water – do you not agree? About open doors, I mean, about their spark.’
The Contessa ground her cigarette into the divan and hooked a foot behind the Doctor’s knee, pulling until he stood between her legs. She parted his greatcoat with both hands, eyes fixed somewhere near his belt buckle.
‘That is an intrusive, large pistol in your belt. Do you mind?’
Before Svenson could reply she had eased the weapon from its place, sliding the long barrel clear, and dropped it atop her papers. He looked into the crease of her white breasts. Perfume rose from her hair. He ought to take hold of her soft neck and squeeze. This woman had killed Elöise. No greater good, no compromise could justify –
The Contessa laid one hand – still in its thin silk glove – flat upon the Doctor’s groin, her palm conforming to the stiffening shape beneath. He gasped. She did not look up. Her other hand caressed the outside of his leg. He looked wildly about and saw the jewelled bag, pushed away, the spike inside. Her fingers closed about his length. She dragged along the fabric with her thumbnail. He quickly gripped her hand with his.
‘You – ah – you mentioned a bargain …’
‘I did … and you never answered me about open doors.’
‘Your point seemed indisputable.’
‘What a charming thing to say – I appreciate being indisputable … most ardently …’
She pulled away his hand, taking the cigarette from his fingers. She inhaled once, then flicked it into a corner. As she exhaled, the Contessa unbuckled the Doctor’s belt with three sure, unhurried movements. Her fingers returned for a single delicious slow stroke, and then, with the same easy efficiency, set to unbuttoning his trouser-front. Unable to contain himself, Svenson reached down and gently sank his fingers under the Contessa’s bodice and corset. For the first time she met his eyes. She smiled, warmly – to his shame the whole of his heart leapt – and shifted her posture to give his hand more room to grope. His fingers went deeper, until the tips curled beneath the curve of her breast, the edge of his hand dragging against the soft stud of her nipple. His other hand smoothed the hair from her eyes with a tenderness at odds with his desire.
With a two-handed wrench the Contessa peeled his trousers to his thighs and then with another ripped open his knitted woollen undersuit, bursting the buttons to his ribcage. She laughed at the flying buttons and then chuckled more deeply – with pleasure and, Svenson wanted to believe, appreciation – at the sight of his arousal. One gloved hand wrapped around his extended flesh, the grip of silk perfectly exquisite. The Contessa coyly bit her lip.
‘True bargains are tricky things, Doctor … would you not agree?’
‘They are the soul of civilized society.’
‘Civilization?’ Her hand resumed its measured stroke. ‘We live in the same riot as old Rome and stinking Egypt … my goodness, there it is …’ Her free hand reached to push aside his underclothes and expose the pink whorl of his scar. ‘That you did not die is a miracle.’ Her hand slid upwards, and, as she stretched, the Contessa’s full mouth came closer to her stroking. ‘But bargains, Doctor … between the likes of us, we have no need for such veneer.’
‘What would you offer, then?’
The Contessa grinned at his dry tone. ‘Well … I could give you what I gave Harcourt. The card is in my bag.’ She smeared a bead of fluid across the sensitive plumskin with the flat of her thumb and the Doctor hissed with pleasure. ‘The experience it holds is singularly transporting … if transport is what you want.’
‘And if I decline?’
‘Then perhaps I could give you the key to Oskar’s grand strategy.’
‘You know what he plans?’
‘I have always known. He is complicated, but still a man.’
As a man well in her power Svenson let this pass. ‘And in exchange I would do my best to stop him. Is that why I am alive?’
‘O Doctor Svenson,’ she cooed disapprovingly, ‘we are alive for pleasure …’
Her head dipped and the Doctor gasped with anticipation of her tongue, but instead he felt only the cool tease of her blown breath. The Contessa rose and with both hands took his greatcoat’s lapels and shoved him into her place on the divan. Bared and straining, trousers balled at the knees, with the pistol to one side and her jewelled bag to the other, he looked up at her. The Contessa gathered her dress – revealing her splendid, shapely, stockinged calves – and knelt astride him, her thighs upon his own, the mass of red silk covering his body near to the neck. His stiffness pulled against her petticoats. He gripped her waist.
‘This means nothing to you,’ he gasped.
‘What a ridiculous thing to say.’ Her voice was husky and low.
‘I remain your enemy.’
‘And I may kill you.’ She nudged her hips forward, sliding herself along his length. ‘Or make you my slave.’
‘I would rather die.’
‘As if the choice were yours.’
She drew her tongue over the gash below his eye. Svenson shifted his hips, seeking her with a blind nudge, but the Contessa edged away. His hands slid to her buttocks and pulled her closer, encountering another tangled layer of frustrating silk. The Contessa chuckled and raised her face. Too late he saw that she had reached into her bag. Before he could blink her gloved fingers had a blue glass card before his eyes, sticking Svenson as fast as an insect impaled on a board.
The Doctor’s mind traversed the entire cycle of experience inside the card but without understanding. So immersive were the colours that he lost all sense of space, and so vivid the curving lines and modelled forms that their images vibrated inside his brain, as if they’d been accompanied by silent explosions of gunpowder. More confusing still was the disconnection between the chaotic tableau before him and the still position of his body – and the body of the person from whom the memory originally came, the mind from whom this card had been harvested.
But slowly the space around him cleared …
A brightly lit room … an enormous room, for the canvas it held was immense.
Another cycle swept by, his attention lost in the details of swirling paint. The back of his mind throbbed with warning. Was this Harcourt’s card after all? But no, Harcourt’s transfixion had been erotic, and such was not, despite the extreme arousal of only moments before, his present experience. No … the emotion here was fear, controlled through great force of will, a deep-rooted dread emanating from the vision before his eyes, and in the sickening realization that far too much of the painting – and thus the intentions of its maker – remained incomprehensible.
This fear was especially strange coming from the body of the Contessa, for the memory came from her mind. However much the painting set the senses ablaze, he could not deny an anxious, thrilling tremor at feeling her body as his own – the weight of her limbs, the lower pivot of gravity, the grip of her corset …
The Contessa had learnt to make glass cards herself, from consulting her book. No doubt Harcourt’s card was also infused with some incident from her own life. Why had she sacrificed her own memories? Was her desperation so great as to warrant boring these holes into her own existence? Such questions the Doctor could only sketch in the backroom of his thoughts, as the greater part of his attention was devoured by the painted spectacle.
In form, the composition resembled a genealogical chart, centring around the joining of two massive families, each branching out from the wedded pair – parents, uncles, siblings, cousins, all punctuated by children and spouses. The figures stood without strict perspective, like a medieval illuminated manuscript, as if the painting were an archaic commemoration. Svenson felt his throat catch. A wedding.
This was the Comte’s canvas, mentioned in the Herald … what had it been called? The Chemickal Marriage …
That this was the work of Oskar Veilandt brought the canvas into clearer focus. The obsessively detailed background, which he had taken to be mere decoration, became a weave of letters, numbers and symbols – the alchemical formulae the Comte employed throughout his other work. The figures themselves were as vivid as Veilandt’s other paintings – cruelly rendered, faces twisted with need, hands groping for fervent satisfaction … but Svenson’s gaze could not long alight on any single figure without his head beginning to spin. He knew this was the Contessa’s experience, and that his path by definition followed hers.
Still, she had looked again and again, staring hard …
And then he knew: it was the paint; or, rather, that the Comte had inset slivers of blue glass within the paint; and sometimes more than slivers – whole tiles, like a mosaic, infused with vivid daubs of memory. The entire surface glittered with sensation, undulated like a heaving sea. The scope was astonishing. How many souls had been dredged to serve the artist’s purpose? Who could consume the lacerating whole and retain their sanity? His mind swarmed with alchemical correspondences – did each figure represent a chemical element? A heavenly body? Were they angels? Demons? He saw letters from the Hebrew alphabet, and cards from a gypsy fortune-teller. He saw anatomy – organs, bones, glands, vessels. Again the cycle played through. He felt the Contessa’s heroic determination to carve out this very record.
Eventually, Svenson was able to fix his gaze on the central couple, the ‘chemickal marriage’ itself. Both were innocent in appearance, but their voluptuous physicality betrayed a knowing hunger – there was no doubt of the union’s carnal aspect. The Bride wore a dress as thin as a veil, every detail of her body plain. One foot was bare and touched an azure pool (from which Svenson flinched, for it swam with memories), while her other wore an orange slipper with an Arab’s curled toe. One hand held a bouquet of glass flowers and the other, balanced on her open palm, a golden ring. Orange hair fell to her bare shoulders. The upper part of her face wore a half-mask upon which had been painted, without question, the exact features of the Contessa. The mouth below the mask smiled demurely, the teeth within bright blue.
The Groom wore an equally diaphanous robe – Svenson was reminded of the initiation garments of those undergoing the Process – his skin as jet black as the Bride’s was pale. One foot was buried in the earth up to the ankle, while the other was wrapped in shining steel. In his right hand he held a curved silver blade and in his left a glowing red orb the size of a newborn’s skull. His hair, as long as hers, was blue, and, like his mate, the upper portion of his face was masked – a blank mask of white feathers, save the eyes that shone through were bright ovals of glass. Svenson knew that each eye, perhaps more than anywhere else on the canvas, contained charged memories that might make sense of the whole. But the Contessa had not dared to look. The cycle of the card ended, and swept the Doctor helplessly back to its dizzied beginning.
He blinked and saw the tower chamber, the blue card safe in Cardinal Chang’s gloved hand. At Chang’s side stood Miss Temple, frowning with concern. Doctor Svenson sat up like a yanked puppet, only to find that his clothing had been completely restored. The pistol lay to his side. They stared as if he were mad.
‘What has happened?’ he asked, his voice cracking.
‘What has happened to you?’ Chang replied.
Svenson turned to the open arch, saw no one beyond it, then pointed vaguely at the tapestry hiding the staircase door. He saw the exasperation in Chang’s sneer, and the confusion on Miss Temple’s brow. They had not done up his trousers. It had been the Contessa. But when? His arousal had passed – he could not suppress a downwards glance – but under what circumstances?
Cardinal Chang held up the blue card. ‘Where did you get this?’
‘The Contessa.’ In his companions’ presence his complicity with the woman seemed utterly indefensible. ‘I met the Contessa –’
‘How could you have been such a fool to look into it?’
‘I tried to kill her – I failed – somehow we ended up fleeing from the guards –’
Miss Temple took his hand and sat next to him. ‘You must tell us everything.’ Her gaze caught the glass card in Chang’s hand. ‘And you must tell us what you saw.’
Doctor Svenson kept the tale decorous, aided by the fact that any impropriety with the Contessa lay beyond their imagination. Whenever his narrative faltered, Miss Temple or Chang would cut in with a question whose answer allowed an elision. Interwoven with their questions were details of their own struggle. Under the cover of Svenson’s gunfire they had fled deeper into the Palace. A wave of soldiers had swept each floor, but they managed to hide. When Miss Temple related this last, Svenson was sure he saw her cheeks redden.
‘Where did you conceal yourselves?’ he asked.
‘A wardrobe,’ muttered Chang. But Miss Temple, compensating for her blush, seemed determined to dismiss all mystery.
‘The trick of it being that a wardrobe full of clothing does not allow two people in it, and a wardrobe without clothing does not hide them if a diligent searcher opens its door. Further, it does not do at all to heave out half the contents to strike the proper balance – a heap of clothing serving as advertisement for close scrutiny.’
‘Quite the puzzle,’ offered the Doctor.
Her blush returned.
‘We saw nothing of Phelps or Cunsher,’ said Chang brusquely, shovelling earth on the subject of wardrobes.
‘Nor I,’ said Svenson. He described the death of Lord Pont-Joule, the Contessa’s enslavement of Princess Sophia and Mr Harcourt, and the two purloined documents.
‘And you left her alive.’ Chang’s voice was flat, as if the fact of Svenson’s action was damning enough. ‘And she spared you. Why?’
‘For the same reason she sent the red envelopes to Celeste’s hotel. She is not strong enough to defeat the Comte on her own – now that the Comte is Robert Vandaariff.’
‘What did she want you to do?’ asked Miss Temple.
‘I cannot say – yet the answer lies in that bit of glass. Infused with her own memories.’
‘Uncharacteristic,’ said Chang. ‘Such harvesting is for the lower orders.’
Svenson nodded. ‘There is no way to explain. You must each look into that card.’
Already seated, Miss Temple took the card first. Svenson remained next to her. Though she’d displayed no ill-effects from viewing the glass map, he wanted to be sure that this more potent card did not provoke any. She gasped softly as the cycle completed, but he detected no sudden pallor, no chill upon her skin. Chang watched with a sour expression.
‘How long should we allow her to look?’
‘Another minute.’ Svenson spoke quietly, as if Miss Temple were asleep. ‘The level of detail is prodigious, almost impossible to comprehend.’
‘What is it? You have not said.’
‘The Comte’s great painting. The one mentioned in the cutting from the Herald.’
‘That cannot be coincidence. Did Phelps find where it is, where it had been shown?’
‘I do not know.’
‘He did not tell you?’
‘We were distracted by the crowd –’
‘But that fact is extremely important! I assume you told him about your errands. Was he hiding the information deliberately?’
‘No – yes, we did ask him, but he was not – excuse me …’ Svenson rubbed his eyes.
‘What’s wrong? Are you sick?’
‘In a manner of speaking. It is the glass card – the bodily perspective. One inhabits the Contessa herself.’
Chang took this in, then snorted with a wolfish appreciation.
‘Indeed,’ said Doctor Svenson drily. ‘One is taken aback in unexpected ways.’
Both men turned to Miss Temple. Svenson realized he was staring and cleared his throat. ‘The Contessa made a deliberate examination of that man’s masterwork – again, one assumes she had a reason.’
‘Where is the memory from? Or when? Does she tell us where to find the painting?’
Svenson shook his head. ‘The very scale places the execution in the past. The Comte simply wouldn’t have had time in these last months. What’s more, as the clipping cites Oskar Veilandt, it more likely dates to before the artist remade himself as the Comte. As to location, that would have to be someplace large.’
‘I have to think we would have seen it already – we have walked miles through those halls.’ Svenson was painfully aware that only one of Chang’s questions had been answered: the Contessa had spared the Doctor’s life, for her own reasons … but why had Svenson spared hers?
‘I assume she cannot hear us,’ said Chang.
‘I should not think so.’
‘You say the Contessa makes her own glass. I agree. She may have made Miss Temple’s man Pfaff as much her creature as that Princess.’
‘Does Celeste know this?’
‘She knows not to trust him. What about you?’
‘Me? I should not even recognize the fellow –’
‘No. You are continually distracted. Yes, you were injured – and certainly your losses weigh upon you –’
‘No, no – I am perfectly able –’
‘Able? You left this monstrous woman alive!’
‘And my presence of mind with a pistol kept both of you from being taken.’
‘Perhaps, but if we cannot rely upon –’
‘Do not become agitated –’
‘Do not presume to be my master!’
Svenson’s words were sharper than he intended, the venting of too many worries, and they echoed off the stone walls. Chang’s hands balled into fists – in the silence Svenson could hear the stretching of his leather gloves.
‘Cardinal Chang –’
‘There is no time for any of this,’ Chang announced coldly. ‘It must be half nine o’clock. Wake her up.’
Distracted by her experience, Miss Temple did not notice their anger. She insisted that Chang too must look, promising to pull the card away after two minutes. Once he was installed on the divan with the card before his livid eyes, she turned to Doctor Svenson with a shrug.
‘Five minutes will do just as well. You are right to say one cannot get one’s mind around the painting, if one can even term it that. Beastly thing.’
Svenson studied her face for a toxic reaction. This painting went straight to the Comte’s alchemical cosmology, to his heart.
‘One does not appreciate being stared at,’ she told him hoarsely.
‘My apologies, my dear – I am worried about you.’
‘Do not be.’
‘I’m afraid I must. Did you – well, from the Comte, did you recognize the painting?’
‘In fact I did not,’ she replied, ‘or, I did, but not in the detail I should have expected – I should have expected to lose my last meal – but it struck me like the memories of a distant summer. The awareness of being there, but no longer the knowledge.’
‘Because the memory comes through the Contessa?’
‘Possibly, though I couldn’t say why. Perhaps the Comte wasn’t himself at the time.’
‘You mean opium?’
‘I don’t mean anything. But I’m sure we will puzzle the matter out. I have a great fondness for reading maps, you know, and you must have experience with codes and ciphers – we are halfway home.’
‘It is more than that, Celeste. Think of the thirteen paintings of the Comte’s Annunciation, and the alchemical recipe they contained for physical transformation. Think of Lydia Vandaariff.’
Svenson recalled the hellish scene in the laboratory at Harschmort: the Comte in a leather apron, cradling a snouted device of polished steel, Karl-Horst von Maasmärck lolling in an armchair, stupid with brandy, and Robert Vandaariff’s daughter tied to a bed, a pool of bright blue fluid between her legs. Whether she had been impregnated by the Prince or by the Comte himself barely mattered. Sailing to her wedding in Macklenburg, oblivious to all that had been done, the young woman had grown rapidly more ill, as poisons strove to remake her issue for a madman’s dream.
Miss Temple shuddered. ‘But it cannot have worked. Lydia would not have given birth to … to any living … I mean – transformed –’
‘No,’ said Svenson. ‘I am sure she would have died. But what is death to the Comte’s – now Vandaariff’s – madness? And this new painting is more than three times the size of the Annunciation. We know it is a recipe for something. We must not delude ourselves at how terrible it may be.’
‘That is the snap of it,’ said Miss Temple. ‘Now he has the money.’
‘Exactly. His plot with Lydia was done in the shadows, indulged by the others in exchange for what they saw as his true work with the blue glass.’ Svenson sighed. ‘But now, what he only imagined before, he can make real.’
‘Or so he believes.’ Miss Temple shook her head. Her voice was ragged but firm. ‘And where is Francesca Trapping? Has she been harmed?’
Svenson was surprised by the leap in Miss Temple’s thought. ‘The Contessa would not say. My guess is that the child has been hidden in the Palace, yet with the Contessa’s flight I think she must have been moved.’
‘Have they enslaved her too?’
‘Children are resilient,’ said the Doctor, without confidence.
‘But she will remember.’
The words carried a quiet gravity. Svenson waited for her to say more. Chang inhaled through his teeth – the cycle of the card coming full circle. The Doctor nearly pulled the card away. He dreaded to receive Miss Temple’s confidence, despite his curiosity as to what she might say.
Miss Temple sighed heavily, almost a groan. ‘We were together, you know … the Contessa and I, in a goods van, from Karthe. I was cold, and so tired.’
‘Were you harmed?’
Miss Temple’s voice took on a pleading tone. ‘I did nothing wrong. She is a wicked woman.’
‘Celeste.’ Svenson knelt in front of her. ‘Elöise told us you had looked into a glass book – Celeste, you cannot blame yourself –’
‘Of course I can’t! I did not ask for this – this – infestation! I cannot think! I cannot go two minutes –’ Her cheeks went red and she covered her face with both hands. Svenson touched her knee and Miss Temple yelped. He stood at once, blushing. ‘I have tried,’ she whimpered. ‘But even with her – her of all people. She sees through my skin. I cannot think but I am overcome. God help me – God help me!’
He had tended her through fever, bathed her, applied poultices, yet, as Miss Temple so boldly revealed herself a creature of appetite, the Doctor felt his view of her could shift. Was he such an ape? Was he so fragile? He bit down hard on the inside of his cheek, tasting blood. Miss Temple pulled her hands away and Doctor Svenson saw, without question, her tear-brimmed eyes dart to his groin.
‘Chang and yourself – you mentioned a wardrobe – did you –’
‘Did we what?’ she asked hopelessly.
‘Did you see anyone else?’
‘In the wardrobe?’
‘In the Palace.’
‘Hundreds of them! That was why we had to hide!’
‘Yes – of course –’
‘It was terrible! That tiny space! Do you not understand?’
‘I do – my poor dear – but – does Chang – I mean to say, did you –’
His gaze slipped to her bosom, and, before he could shift it, she had seen. To Svenson’s dismay Miss Temple’s expression altered in an instant. Within her undimmed agitation appeared first a flash of unfeigned hunger and directly after a grimace of contempt that shook him to his core. Then her face fell into her hands. Her huddled shoulders shook.
He felt the cold isolation creep back into his bones. The girl was a quivering ruin.
‘My dear Celeste. Gather yourself. Say nothing more. We will find the Contessa. We will find the Comte.’
‘They think it all a perfect joke!’
‘That is laughter they will choke on. Be brave still, and wipe your eyes. There is no shame. We must reclaim Cardinal Chang.’
When the card was removed, Chang cursed and set to rubbing his eyes and the skull around them. Svenson heard a new note of hoarseness in Chang’s voice, and noted the pallor of his lips, the shine of fluid at his nostrils.
‘Are you ill? Is it the card?’
‘It is nothing at all.’
‘You should let me examine you.’
‘We have wasted enough of the evening.’
‘You have not seen the wound – truly, if you would just –’
‘No.’ Chang slipped his dark glasses back into place. ‘I am perfectly well. Certainly compared to either of you.’
Despite Chang’s bad humour, Svenson was glad for the distraction. Miss Temple had done her best to restore her face, turning away as if to examine the tapestry.
‘The floors above are thick with people,’ said Chang. ‘We cannot hope to pass unseen. That no one has come down and found us is only due to their fear of past contagion.’
‘What contagion?’ asked Svenson.
‘The sickness! The glass woman’s legacy!’
‘But we are well away from Stäelmaere House, under the Palace – not twenty yards from the river.’
Chang pointed through the archway. ‘Twenty yards will take you to the Duke’s own cellars.’
‘But – but the Contessa told me –’
‘But why would she lie?’
‘To aide her own escape. Or provoke your capture.’
‘But you two fled deeper into the Palace,’ said Svenson. ‘Why come back?’
‘We knew no other way out,’ Miss Temple said. ‘And hoped we might find others in hiding – as we in fact did.’
‘Then we may be near Phelps and Cunsher. If they are taken, we must rescue them.’
Chang exhaled with impatience. ‘That would be the height of folly. To search means throwing away our own lives and abandoning all hope of stopping Vandaariff and the Contessa. Phelps and Cunsher know this.’
Svenson did his best to swallow his irritation, hating how expressing simple decency rendered him, in Chang’s eyes, a sentimental fool.
‘Well, then, if we search for Vandaariff –’
‘Vandaariff is gone,’ Chang scoffed. ‘He only came for his fireworks in the square, and for the pleasure of his hosts’ abasement.’
‘Then where do we find him?’
‘Harschmort. Raaxfall. Setting off another blast in Stropping Station. Anywhere.’ Chang jerked his chin at Miss Temple. ‘Ask her.’
‘I have no idea.’ Miss Temple spoke quietly, and to his dismay Svenson realized she had just consulted the Comte’s tainted memories, surely to compensate for displaying her weakness a moment before. He had told her to be brave, but hadn’t intended self-punishment.
Between Chang’s distemper and Miss Temple’s distress, the Doctor felt it was for him to set their path. But he could not make sense of the most basic facts. Had the Contessa left him to be captured? Why reveal the Comte’s painting if she simply wanted to see him hang? Svenson fought the urge for a cigarette. What had the Contessa told him, exactly? And once the Doctor had eventually wrenched himself from the blue glass card, left to himself, would he not have followed her direction?
‘What are you staring at?’ Chang asked.
Svenson pointed to the mirror. ‘The other side of this wall.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Nor I. Follow me.’
The Doctor crossed to the archway. As Chang stood, his boot slid, scraping on the floor. Svenson turned to see him pick something up, and frown.
‘Some idiot’s button,’ muttered Chang, and he threw it away.
There was no other side of the wall they could reach. The corridor ended in a stack of barrels. ‘I told you,’ said Chang. ‘We are in the cellars.’
Svenson frowned. ‘She acquainted me with the Comte’s painting to provoke some action. Saying I was near the river must have been deliberate, to send me in that direction …’
‘The woman is a vampire,’ said Chang. ‘Cruelty for the sake of being cruel.’
‘Cruelty would have meant taking my life.’
‘If the Contessa was civil it must have galled her terribly,’ Miss Temple observed, ‘like playing courtesan to a bitter enemy.’
‘Wait.’ The Doctor pointed. ‘Look at the floor.’
Thin lines of grit curved across the tile from beneath the barrels, as if they had been moved. Chang reached for a barrel and Svenson helped him shift it, revealing a metal door set into the stone. Hanging from the knob by a leather loop was a notched brass tube three inches long.
‘The pneumatic vestibule,’ Svenson said. ‘And here is the key.’
Inside the panelled box, Svenson paused. ‘Do we follow the Contessa, or escape?’
‘She may have returned to the attic, to Francesca,’ said Miss Temple.
‘We don’t know that the child is there,’ Chang cautioned. ‘I say we descend to where we entered and hope it is not thronged with soldiers.’
Acknowledging this logic, Svenson thrust the key into the slot and stabbed the lowest button on the brass plate. The car vibrated with life. They descended without speaking – all three with weapons ready – but when they heard the tell-tale clank the car did not stop.
‘I thought we entered directly below the cellars,’ said Chang.
‘Perhaps we did not pay attention,’ said Miss Temple. ‘Perhaps it was two stops below.’
‘Then there is another floor further below.’
A second clank and the car came to a halt. Chang pulled the iron gate open and set his shoulder against the tarnished metal door beyond it.
This was not the underpassage to Stäelmaere House. Instead, they had been delivered to another tunnel, with a tiled floor like a bath house. A single lantern, lit within the hour judging by the level of oil, had been left on the floor. Next to it, like a malicious rose, lay a third red envelope.
It was empty save for a scrap of white tissue, smeared with a scarlet imprint of the Contessa’s mouth. Svenson said nothing. Chang scowled with displeasure. Miss Temple put her nose to the tissue, and observed that it smelt of frangipani flowers. They began to walk.
‘This cannot have been simple to construct,’ said Svenson. ‘The digging must have displaced the coach traffic above us for ages –’
‘Nothing of the kind has displaced anything,’ called Chang, walking in the lead. ‘This can only be the old Norwalk.’
This meant nothing to Svenson or Miss Temple. Chang sighed. ‘The Norwalk fortifications were dismantled to lay the Seventh Bridge, and the new Customs House.’
‘I have been to the Customs House,’ said Miss Temple. ‘To learn about trade.’
‘That does you credit,’ said Svenson. ‘It is the rare heiress not simply content to spend.’
Miss Temple made a bothered face. ‘I did not want to be cheated – sugar-men are famous scoundrels. But, once I was inside, tiresome is not the half of it –’
Chang cleared his throat. They stopped talking. He went on.
‘The Norwalk formed one wall of the original Citadel. I would guess this was once a lower catacomb.’
‘But why has it been remade?’ asked Svenson. ‘New tile and fresh paint.’
Chang reached into his coat for his razor. With the handle he scratched a line in the plaster and blew the dust away. ‘Replastered these past two months.’
‘Before or after the dirigible went into the sea?’ asked Svenson.
Chang shrugged. Miss Temple held up the lantern.
‘We forget this. Someone lit it. We must keep on and make her tell us everything.’
A quarter-mile brought the tunnel’s end: a wooden door, and another red envelope left atop its polished handle. Chang tore it open, glanced at the paper and passed it to Svenson with a snort.
My Dear Doctor,
As a man of evident Vitality you would have found this Lair in Time, but Time is no good Friend.
The Task is beyond any single Agent.
Do not let Love blind your Eyes. Ample Time remains to settle our Account.
Miss Temple raised her eyebrows impatiently and Svenson handed the paper to her.
‘Why should she mention “love”?’ asked Chang.
‘I expect she means Elöise,’ Svenson replied, wondering if it were true, wondering – despite his surety of the woman’s heartlessness – just how the Contessa viewed their encounter. And how did he view it? ‘She will say anything to mitigate her guilt if she requires our aid.’
Miss Temple thrust the paper back. ‘I will not be a party to her bargains.’
‘If we find the Contessa,’ said Chang, ‘no matter where, she is to die.’
Svenson nodded his agreement. It was not that he wanted to spare the Contessa – and he did not, truly – but he saw in his companions’ resolve a wilful denial of the fact that their struggle now stretched beyond the individuals who had wronged them. And if he did keep the woman alive to defeat the Comte, would Miss Temple and Chang come to hate him just as much, at the end?
The ‘lair’ certainly looked to be inhabited by an animal. Clothes, however fine, were strewn across the floor and furniture, unwashed plates and glasses cluttered the worktops, empty bottles had rolled to each corner of the room, a straw mattress had been folded double and shoved against the wall. Despite the Contessa’s detritus, it was clear the low stone chamber had been refitted for another purpose. Metal pipes fed into squat brass boxes bolted to the wall. The chamber reeked of indigo clay.
Svenson touched the pipes to gauge their heat, then put his palm against the wall. ‘Very cold … could that be the river?’
Chang slapped his hand against the wall. ‘Of course! I’m a fool – the Seventh Bridge! The turbines!’
‘What turbines?’ asked Miss Temple. ‘You say such things as if one mentions turbines over breakfast –’
Chang rode over her words. ‘The supports of the bridge contain turbines – it was an idea for flushing sewage –’
‘These pipes hold sewage?’
‘Not at all – the plan was never implemented. But we know Crabbé and Bascombe plotted against their allies – so of course they required their own version of the Comte’s workshop. The bridge’s turbines, with the force of the river, would serve up enough power to satisfy even these greedy machines.’
‘And I assume the Contessa learnt their secret from her spy, Caroline Stearne.’ Miss Temple waved the reek from her face. ‘But why has she abandoned it?’
‘That is the question,’ agreed Svenson. ‘This night she has given up her refuge at the Palace, and now a quite remarkable laboratory …’
‘There is the matter of her death warrant,’ said Miss Temple.
‘It did not appear to trouble her especially.’
‘Also, if she lit the lamp and left the envelopes to get us here,’ said Chang, ‘where did she go?’
They did not see any other door. Svenson searched behind the mattress and under the piles of clothing, pausing at a wooden crate. The crate was lined with felt and piled with coils of copper wire. Next to it, in a tangle of black rubber hose, lay a mask, the sort they had all seen before in the operating theatre at Harschmort.
‘As we guessed, not only was our view of the painting leached from her own mind, it seems the Contessa did the leaching herself.’
‘How can she be sure the machine selects only the memory she desires?’ asked Chang. ‘Does she not risk its draining everything?’
‘Perhaps that is determined by the glass – a small card can contain only so much.’ Svenson moved on his knees to one of the brass boxes. It was fitted with a slot in which one might insert an entire glass book, but above this was another, much smaller aperture, just wide enough for a card. ‘I agree, however, that to do this alone is insanity. How can she rouse herself to turn off the machine? We have all seen the devastating effects –’
‘Did you see them in her?’ asked Miss Temple, just a little hopefully. ‘Thinning hair? Loosened teeth?’
‘Here.’ Chang held out a tiny pair of leather gloves, dangling them to show the size. ‘The Contessa took precautions after all.’
‘They would not fit a monkey,’ said Svenson.
‘Francesca Trapping,’ said Miss Temple.
‘The sorceress’s familiar.’ Chang hoisted himself onto a worktop to sit. ‘But I still don’t see why she’s left the place, nor why she’s bothered to lure us here …’
His words trailed away. Svenson followed Chang’s gaze to a china platter, blackened and split, piled with bits of odd-shaped glass, most of them so dark Svenson had taken them for coal. But now he saw what had caught Chang’s eye: in the centre of the platter lay a round ball of glass, the size and colour of a blood orange.
‘The painting,’ Svenson said. ‘The black Groom – in his left hand …’
Chang picked up the reddish sphere and held it to the guttering lantern above them.
‘It is cracked,’ he said, and pushed up his dark glasses.
‘Chang, wait –’
Doctor Svenson reached out a warning hand, but Chang had already shut one eye and put the other to the glass.
‘Do you see anything?’ asked Miss Temple.
Chang did not answer.
‘I wonder if it is infused with a memory,’ she whispered to Svenson. ‘And what could make it red?’
‘Iron ore, perhaps, though I couldn’t speculate why.’ Svenson sorted through the remaining pieces on the platter – several were obviously the remnants of other spheres that had broken, but none were of the same deep shade.
‘If this is indigo clay … the refining is not what we have seen. I would guess each piece has been mixed with different compounds – no doubt to alter its alchemical efficacy –’
Miss Temple stared at Chang, who remained gazing into the glass ball, as still as a stone.
Svenson swore in German and rushed to Chang’s side. He wrenched the ball from Chang’s grip. A warm vibration touched his hand, but nothing that stopped him from setting it back on the platter.
‘Is he poisoned?’ Miss Temple squeaked. ‘Save him!’
Chang’s naked eyes stared at nothing. Svenson felt his forehead and his pulse. He tapped Chang’s cheek sharply, twice. Nothing. ‘His breathing is not strained. It is not a fit … Celeste, do you have your rings – the rings of orange metal?’
She rummaged in her clutch bag and came out with a canvas pouch. The Doctor extracted a single ring and – feeling something of a fool – held it close to Chang’s eye. Chang did not react. Svenson pressed the whole pouch against Chang’s cheek.
Like a wine stain seeping through thick linen, the skin in contact flushed pink, then red, then went purple, like a deepening bruise. Miss Temple shrieked.
‘What is happening? Take it away!’
Svenson dropped the pouch. A pattern had been scorched onto Chang’s face, the colour of cherry flesh. The Doctor looked hurriedly around him.
‘The mattress! We must set him down –’
Miss Temple leapt to the mattress, dragging it close. Svenson lugged Chang off the worktop and they laid him down. Already the scorched ring had faded again to the pink of health. How had the effects reversed so quickly? Svenson seized Chang’s shoulder and belt. With a heave he rolled the man over, face down on the mattress.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Celeste, when you saw Chang’s wound, at Raaxfall, did you query your own memories of the Comte?’
She nodded, then choked in the back of her throat. ‘I found nothing.’
‘As I thought. You see, he is attempting something new. Our friend will not be another Lydia Vandaariff.’
The Doctor lifted Chang’s coat. The brief glimpse at Raaxfall had been in poor light.
‘Celeste, please look away –’
She shook her head. Svenson raised the silk shirt.
The wound lay to the right of the lumbar vertebra. The original puncture had been enlarged through what looked like at least three different surgeries, expanding the scar to the shape and size of a child’s splayed, thumbless hand. The scar tissue was an unsettling vein-blue, with a rough, thickened surface like the hide of a starfish. But it was the flesh around the wound that had made them gasp in the wicked room at Raaxfall, and the Doctor winced to see it again. Like dye dropped into a milky basin, virulent streaks of red radiated from the centre, as if signifying a flowering of infection.
‘The same colour as the ring against his face,’ Miss Temple whispered.
Svenson delicately palpated the discoloured area. The flesh was cold, and beneath it his fingertips met an unnatural resistance.
‘Something has been placed inside.’
Her voice was small. ‘Will he die?’
‘If the Comte had wanted to kill him, he would be dead. We saw the other bodies –’
‘Then what has happened? Can you remove it? Why has he collapsed when he was perfectly fine?’
Svenson caught her flailing hand. ‘Clearly he was not fine. I cannot hope to remove it, even had I the tools. Whatever is implanted lies too near the spine. The slightest mistake and he is a cripple.’
‘That isn’t true!’
‘Please, Celeste – you must let me think –’
‘But he will die!’
Svenson looked helplessly around him, searching for any idea. The orange metal had always been effective in reversing the predations of the blue glass, but its application here had worsened Chang’s condition … could it be as simple as that, a matter of opposites? Svenson crawled to the china platter and pawed through the jumble of glass … was all of it so discoloured? He shouted to Miss Temple.
‘The card – the blue glass card!’
She dug in her bag and he snatched the card from her grasp, protecting his fingers with his coatsleeve. He rolled Chang onto his back. The man’s eyes remained disturbingly open. Svenson dropped to his knees and thrust the card before them.
At first he saw no reaction, his close observation echoed by Miss Temple’s silence as she held her breath. But then the pink colour began to drain away. Had that happened when Chang looked into the card, to view the painting? Svenson had no clear memory. Chang’s breathing thickened. His skin went paper-white. The blue card made things worse as well. Svenson yanked the card away and heaved a sigh of relief as these latest symptoms too reversed themselves.
‘It is not science,’ Svenson said helplessly. ‘It is not medicine, playing with a life as if it were a cooking pot, adding this and subtracting that. I am sorry, Celeste – desperately sorry –’
He turned, expecting to find a face in tears. But Miss Temple stood at the platter. He saw her hand close around the reddish ball, but he was on his knees, and Chang lay between them. Svenson’s reaching arm fell short.
Miss Temple’s shoulders heaved with convulsions. He spun her round, tearing the ball from her grasp and hurling it against the wall, where it shattered. Miss Temple’s eyes were dead. Black fluid rimmed her mouth.
‘Celeste! Celeste – you idiot girl! Celeste!’
She did not hear. He eased her down, but her eyes refused to clear. Oily bubbles bloomed between her lips, but he could not make out the words, if words they even were. She arched her back against a bout of choking. Doctor Svenson knelt between his fallen comrades, ridiculous victims, and groaned aloud.
A cupboard door below the worktop popped open, driven by the heel of a diminutive black boot.
He blinked. The cupboards. They had not looked in the cupboards.
She wriggled out legs first, stockings stretched around a colt’s knobbed knees, then little hands pulled her body into view. Francesca Trapping stood and brushed at her very rumpled dress in an automatic gesture that had no effect whatsoever. Her red hair was all tangles and snarls, her face unclean.
‘You are alive,’ Svenson whispered.
Francesca took in Miss Temple and Chang, nodding as if their conditions were steps in a recipe she had memorized.
‘There is little time.’ Her shrill voice was raw. ‘By tomorrow Oskar will have had his way.’
With a shudder Svenson saw the teeth in her mouth had gone grey.
‘Francesca … what has she done?’
‘What was required. What she has done to you.’
It had not been her intention to act rashly. But the impulse to snatch up the red ball was a spark of clarity within the riot she had felt since Chang had been recovered. Her delight at his survival, an unexpected flood of joy, had been immediately displaced by a host of clamouring thoughts and images – and none of that turmoil touched the man himself. In the tunnels, on the train, even when Chang held her hand, the distance between them was agony. A sea of feeling lay within his heart, she knew, as she knew it held her only hope of peace – yet he remained, as ever, untouchable and withheld.
And so she had entered the red sphere. A frightening energy suffused Miss Temple’s mind, as if the glass were reacting to her – measuring … examining. This was not the brutal plunder of a blue glass book, with a victim’s mind drained whole. In the red sphere Miss Temple felt her mind being explored like a stretch of uncharted coastline. Unfortunately, the Comte’s knowledge provided no more detail beyond another glimpse of the painting, the apple in the Groom’s black hand. She was sure this examination was but a first step of its function, a preface to some larger task, like a wall being scrubbed before receiving new paint.
And then, quite suddenly, the spell was broken, its work unravelled. This was the flaw in the glass. At once the foul tide in her rose, and her mouth formed words, a last memory. The Comte had whispered in her ear … no, not to her, but to Lydia Vandaariff, as his alchemical poisons remade her body. The young woman had been terrified – that had given him pleasure – such fear had seemed appropriate …
‘I do not like her,’ said a small rasping voice. ‘I should prefer to let her die. She let Elöise die. Elöise loved me. She did nothing. The Contessa did not say she would come, or him. Just you. We ought to leave them here.’
‘You must let me work …’ muttered Doctor Svenson.
‘Why is her mouth black? Has she drunk ink? What is she trying to say?’
A damp cloth cooled Miss Temple’s face. She rolled her head to the side. The red mist dimmed. Three words congealed inside her mind.
‘Flesh of dreams,’ Miss Temple croaked. The Doctor wiped her mouth and then held her hair away as she coughed. She saw the mattress, Svenson on his knees, and, behind him, legs dangling from the worktop, an unkempt little girl. Francesca Trapping bore the bitter expression a hungry cat might bestow upon a duck too large to acknowledge its authority.
‘Where is Chang?’ Miss Temple managed.
‘Just behind you,’ said Svenson. ‘He came to his senses two hours ago – now he sleeps.’
‘Two hours? Is he safe? Is he whole?’
‘He is – we have been more worried by you.’
‘I am perfectly fine.’
‘You are not. Celeste, my lord, between Chang’s wound and your own reckless –’
‘What did he see? What did he tell you?’
‘Nothing. We did not speak. He did not want to speak. Once the danger passed –’
‘It was cracked,’ said the girl, as if this fact was proof of their collective stupidity. ‘Of course he woke up.’
Svenson helped Miss Temple to sit. ‘I will not chide you. You live, and that is all that matters.’
She looked past him. Chang lay stretched on the floor, hands folded like a statue on an old king’s sarcophagus.
‘You said something as you woke,’ said Svenson.
‘The red glass ball was nothing the Comte had made before.’ Miss Temple hiccupped wetly. ‘But “flesh of dreams” was something he said to Lydia – it came to me now for a reason.’
Svenson sighed. His face was haggard. ‘Alchemy is about equivalents – balancing one element with another, transformation through incremental change. The nearest analogy would be symbolic mathematics. The Comte of course transposes chemical compounds with living bodies. But the language operates like a code – and so a phrase like “flesh of dreams” will have an equivalent, opposite concept –’
‘The flesh of life,’ said Francesca, chewing a thumbnail with her teeth.
‘Exactly,’ said Svenson. ‘And that tells us how he thinks – that the opposite of life is not, as most would have it, death, but dream.’
Miss Temple frowned with distaste. ‘Lydia’s pregnancy. The flesh of dreams is born from the ashes of the flesh of life.’
‘For what purpose?’
Svenson snorted. ‘And what can that word mean to that man?’
Miss Temple was aware of Francesca watching her. How many hours had she been left alone? Francesca’s arms were marked with smears of soot … or were they bruises? Miss Temple felt a pinch in her throat.
‘Is there someplace I might … spit?’
‘A chamberpot, here – and somewhere is a bit of food, and water –’ The Doctor’s voice dropped off, in sympathy, as she bent over the chamberpot and let fly.
‘There isn’t time.’ The child’s voice was a whine. ‘We were waiting for her. Now we have to go.’
Miss Temple met Francesca’s disapproving gaze and held it until the girl turned away. She waited for the girl to look back. When Francesca did so, pressing her lips together at being caught, Miss Temple stared even harder.
‘I did not let Elöise die.’
‘Celeste – the child is hardly responsible –’
‘She needs to know what is right.’
Francesca Trapping muttered to herself. ‘I know perfectly well.’
The chamberpot prompted Miss Temple to notice the fullness of her bladder. The single room offered no privacy beyond a meagre half-barrier of cupboards, behind which she would have to crouch, with Svenson only a few feet away hearing all. Instead, she picked up the chamberpot and crossed to the door. On her way, she impulsively took Francesca Trapping’s arm in hers. The child squawked in protest.
‘We will return directly,’ Miss Temple called to Svenson. ‘Girls together, don’t you know.’
Svenson opened his mouth, coughed instead, and pointed vaguely to Chang.
‘Yes – while you – right –’
Miss Temple hauled the squirming girl into the corridor. She dropped the chamberpot with a clang. ‘Will you go first or me?’
‘I will not go at all.’
Feeling she must make an example, Miss Temple resentfully hiked up her dress and sat, daring the girl to say one mocking thing. But Francesca only stared. Disliking a silence broken only by the rattle of her own urine, Miss Temple cleared her throat.
‘We have been searching for you. You should know that the Doctor was very much in love with Elöise and grieves for her particularly. As do I. We also grieve for your mother, and your father, and your uncle – yes, even him, for his death no doubt has given you pain. Your brothers are safe at home.’
‘I know how my brothers are.’
‘Have you visited them?’
The girl looked away.
‘No. Do you see? You don’t know – you have been told. What else have you trusted that woman to say?’ Miss Temple stood, rearranging her petticoats, and indicated the chamberpot. Again the girl shook her head. ‘It will be a long journey,’ said Miss Temple, annoyed that she had come to parrot every exasperating aunt or guardian she had ever known. With a shrug the girl took her place on the chamberpot, gazing sullenly at a point between her shoes.
‘The Contessa sent you to my hotel,’ said Miss Temple. ‘You did not try to go home.’
‘Why should I have done that?’
‘Because she is extremely wicked.’
‘I think you’re wicked.’
The retort flung, Francesca squirmed on her seat and said nothing. Francesca’s face was naturally pale, but now it was pinched and drawn. Had the girl been eating? Miss Temple imagined the woman flinging scraps at Francesca’s feet with an imperious sneer – but then recalled her own experience in the railway car, the Contessa breaking a pie in two, passing bites of a green apple with an insidious amity.
‘So the Contessa is your friend,’ she said.
‘She is very beautiful.’
‘More beautiful than you.’
‘Of course she is. She is a black-haired angel.’
Francesca looked up warily, as if ‘angel’ had a meaning she did not expect Miss Temple to know. Miss Temple put one gloved finger beneath Francesca’s chin and held her gaze.
‘I know it is frightening to be alone, and lonely to be strong. But you are heir to the Trappings, and heir to the Xoncks. You must make up your own mind.’
She stepped back and allowed the girl to stand. Francesca did so, the dress still gathered at her spindled thighs. ‘There is no water,’ she said plaintively.
‘I did without water perfectly well,’ muttered Miss Temple, but she opened her clutch bag and dug for a handkerchief. With a grunt she tore it in half, then in half again, and held the scrap to Francesca, who snatched it away and hunched to wipe.
‘A soldier does not need someone’s handkerchief,’ observed Miss Temple.
‘I am not a soldier.’
Miss Temple took the girl’s arm and steered her to the door. ‘But you are, Francesca. Whether you want to be or not.’
‘You are returned, excellent.’ Doctor Svenson rose to his feet, working both arms into his greatcoat, a lit cigarette in his mouth. Chang stood across the room. Miss Temple perceived the shift in each man’s posture at her entrance. They had been speaking of her. Her sting of resentment was then followed by an inflaming counter-notion, that they had not been speaking of her. Instead, at her entrance, they had ceased their discussion of strategies and danger, matters to which she could neither contribute nor need be troubled by.
Despite his crisis Chang seemed every bit as able as before – and far more so than anyone imprisoned for weeks ought to be. One look at Svenson showed the man’s exhaustion. That he had been unable to kill the Contessa, of all people, was proof enough. Miss Temple resolved to help him as she could, just as a colder part of her mind marked him down as unreliable.
‘How best to return?’ asked Svenson. ‘The vestibule key allows us some choice –’
‘You don’t go that way.’ Francesca marched to the cupboard doors and pulled them wide. Inside was a metal hatch. ‘You need a lantern. There are rats.’
Svenson peered down the shaft. ‘And where does that – I mean, how far down –’
‘To the bridge,’ Chang answered. ‘The turbines.’
Miss Temple called to Chang. ‘Are you fully recovered?’
Chang spread his arms with a sardonic smile. ‘As you find me.’
‘Is that all you can say?’
‘I looked into something I should not have, like a fool.’
‘What did you see?’
‘What did you see? The Doctor described your ludicrous imitation.’
‘I looked in the glass ball to provoke the Comte’s memories – to learn how to help you.’
‘And in doing so only endangered yourself.’
‘But I discovered –’
‘What we already know. Vandaariff has made glass with different metals. The red ball figures prominently in his great painting, and thus no doubt is highly charged within his personal cosmology. An alchemical apple of Eden.’
‘But you –’
‘Yes, I have a foreign object near my spine. Apparently.’
‘It could kill you!’
‘It has not yet.’
‘It was the Comte’s alchemy that killed Lydia Vandaariff.’
‘She was killed by the Contessa.’
‘But she would have died – you well know it! He only cared about the thing inside her – his blue abomination –’
‘Do you suggest I am with child?’
‘Why will you not tell me what you saw?’
Her voice had become too loud, but, instead of matching her, Chang answered softly, ‘I do not know, Celeste. Not a memory, not a place, not a person.’
‘An ingredient,’ said Svenson. ‘Neither one of you has described the experience as concerning memory – and you have both retained your minds. Logic thus suggests the red glass is not a mechanism for capture but for change. Is that right, Francesca? You did see the Contessa make the ball of red glass, didn’t you?’
‘She was very angry. The man made a mistake.’
‘Mr Sullivar,’ said Chang. ‘At the glassworks.’
‘He stoked the oven too much. The ball cracked and wouldn’t work properly.’
‘Did she make another?’ asked Svenson.
‘Didn’t need to.’ Miss Temple flinched, both at the child’s deadened teeth and at the bright gleam in her eyes.
Chang insisted on going first, with the lantern. Once down, he held the light high to guide their descent. Miss Temple bundled her dress and wriggled through the hatchway, aware that Chang’s lantern showed him her stockinged calves – and more, depending on the exact gather of her petticoats. She paused in her climb, ostensibly to make sure of her clutch bag, but in truth to indulge a tremor at prolonging her exposure. She imagined Chang’s gaze rising from her legs to her face as she reached the ground, each studying the other for a sign of intent. But her nerve failed and she finished facing the brickwork, turning only at Chang’s brusque offer to take her hand. She held it out to him and hopped to the tunnel floor. Chang called for Svenson to send the child.
The tunnel was new brick, more secret construction on the part of Harald Crabbé and Roger Bascombe. Miss Temple walked behind Chang, happy to let Svenson hold Francesca’s hand, and wondered when her fiancé, Bascombe, had last walked these halls. Had he still loved her then? Had he ever come from here to her arms, all the more thrilled at keeping his secret?
Brooding on Roger Bascombe made Miss Temple feel foolish. She shifted her attention to Chang, fighting the impulse to reach out and run a finger down his back. She started at a touch on her own shoulder. Svenson indicated a growing rumble in the walls.
‘The turbines. We are under the bridge.’
Miss Temple nodded without interest. She had imagined the sound was the river itself, flowing past in the dark, an enormous serpent dragging its scales across the earth.
The iron stairs echoed with their footfalls, and the sound launched flurries of motion above their heads.
‘Bats.’ Chang aimed the lantern at a niche of cross-braced girders. The little beasts hung in rows, wide-eared, small teeth polished white by darting tongues. Miss Temple had seen bats often, whipping across the veranda at twilight, and these did not disturb her. She enjoyed their little fox faces, and smiled to see such awkward things wheel about so fast.
Francesca stared down through the gaps in the iron staircase. Miss Temple forced herself to remember their first meeting in the corridors of Harschmort. She had tried to be kind, and when she had seen Francesca again at Parchfeldt, had there not been some sympathy between them? The child’s tangled hair made plain she’d not been cared for. But the Contessa’s habitual thoughtlessness hardly explained Francesca’s deadened teeth.
Miss Temple did not remember herself at seven years of age with any clarity. Her mother was well dead, of course, but who had been her father’s housemistress? There had been nine in turn, and Miss Temple ordered her youth through the prism of their reigns, consorts to a relentless, unfeeling king. At seven the housemistress was most likely Mrs Kallack, a harsh lady whose Alsatian husband had died of fever soon after bringing her to the tropics. Mrs Kallack’s success in the house was due to her ability to meet Miss Temple’s father with utter subservience, and then, like a two-headed idol, wreak his brutality on the rest of the household. Miss Temple had hated her, and recalled with grim satisfaction when Mrs Kallack was found dead in the fields from heatstroke. She had stood over the body with a gang of housegirls, everyone wondering what could have taken the woman so far from the great house. Mrs Kallack’s fingers were red with the clay of the sugar fields, as if she had clawed in the dirt before death, and her false front teeth had come loose in her mouth. One of the housegirls had laughed aloud, and Miss Temple – understanding for perhaps the first time the responsibilities of her station – had kicked the housegirl’s shin. Before the young woman could do anything in return – and, luckily, for if she had, it would have meant the skin off her back – her father’s overseer arrived with the wagon.
She wondered how Francesca Trapping carried the indigestible knot of her parents’ murders. Miss Temple knew she ought to take her hand – especially since Doctor Svenson had all but shut his eyes as they climbed, gripping the rail – but she did not. The child made her angry.
At the top of the staircase they found another metal door, fastened with heavy chain looped round an iron hasp. As they passed through, Chang plucked a tuft of fabric snagged on the hasp’s ragged edge: a scrap of wool the colour of an overripened peach. He showed it to Francesca.
‘I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen this before?’
She shook her head. Chang flipped the fabric to Miss Temple.
‘What is it?’ asked Svenson.
‘Ask them.’ Chang stood and walked on.
‘It belongs to Jack Pfaff,’ Miss Temple said, and then called at Chang’s receding back, ‘He was charged to investigate the glass – this only suggests he was successful. You are determined to mistrust him!’ She held up the scrap of cloth. ‘Here is welcome news! Jack Pfaff – in my employ – may even now have her at bay!’
Chang turned to face her. ‘And where would that be?’
‘How should I know? I do not even know where we are!’
‘We are on the Contessa’s errand,’ said Doctor Svenson flatly. ‘The Contessa charged Francesca to lead me to a certain place –’
‘Then why won’t she tell us where?’ asked Chang.
‘Because I would guess she doesn’t know the name. Do you, child?’ Francesca shook her head. ‘No,’ continued Svenson, ‘the only way is to get there. The Contessa is nothing if not mercurial – yet perhaps Mr Pfaff has managed to best her after all.’
‘Did you see Mr Pfaff?’ Miss Temple asked the girl. ‘What did he do?’
‘I can’t say,’ Francesca replied. ‘When he was there she put me in the cupboard.’
The brick passage echoed with a gust of cold wind. Chang crept ahead to an open arch, then waved them forward.
‘We’ve reached the bridge from the northern piling,’ he whispered.
Miss Temple clapped a hand across her mouth. ‘The entire bridge is swarming with soldiers!’
‘Not only the bridge.’ At Chang’s silent indication she saw the dockside was ringed by soldiers in torchlight. On the river lay ships moored out in the channel, and on their decks stood more men in uniform.
‘Then it has begun,’ said Svenson. ‘Harcourt authorized property seizures across the land, for the public good.’
‘Are the people taken as well?’ asked Chang. ‘Earlier this evening the riverside was thronged with the dispossessed.’
‘Perhaps they went to the square,’ suggested Svenson.
‘Not so many – every damned street was crawling.’
Whatever Chang had seen before, the cobbled riverfront was as well ordered as a military parade ground. Miss Temple picked out officers on horseback, troops mustered into line. The bridge itself bore a cordon at each end, limiting traffic – those few allowed to cross did so between uniformed escorts. Chang spoke to Francesca.
‘If we are seen by the soldiers, we will be captured, and he’ – Chang nodded to Svenson – ‘for he has made havoc in the Palace, will be shot. Which direction do we go?’
Francesca pointed to the nearer end of the bridge, back at the heart of the city.
Chang stood. ‘Doctor, if you would pass me the lantern.’
‘Will it not be seen?’
‘Indeed, but there is seen and seen, you know.’
They crept after Chang onto the bridge proper. He pointed to a railing ten feet away.
‘Go now – as quick as you can, over the side – Celeste, you first.’
Miss Temple did not like to baulk – she knew Chang had chosen her to lead only because he could not ask the height-stricken Doctor or a seven-year-old-girl – but neither did she relish hanging over the edge of such a wicked drop. Nevertheless, she ran as instructed and was rewarded by an iron ladder on the far side of the rail. She climbed down, the dizzying abyss of dark water answered by a small platform five steps below, and smiled at Chang’s cunning. A narrow catwalk extended under the bridge all the way to the river wall – to aid repairs, she assumed – which would allow them to pass unseen beneath the sentries. At a tremulous whisper from Francesca, Miss Temple rescaled the ladder and brought the girl down, then helped Svenson, whose passage was every bit as tentative. She heard the crash of breaking glass above them – and then a piercing shout.
‘Fire! Fire on the bridge!
The alarm spread in a roar through the soldiers. Chang vaulted the railing and landed beside them like a cat.
‘Go! Go!’ he hissed, and drove them on, bent low.
‘You threw the lantern!’ whispered Svenson.
‘No drawing moths without a flame, Doctor. Quiet now …’
The catwalk dead-ended at the bridge wall, high above the riverfront. The cordon lay right over their heads. The citizens demanding passage had been shouted to silence by the officer in charge.
‘A lantern, by God. Get men searching! Enough of this nonsense!’
The officer broke off, railing at someone in the crowd hoping to slip past, and his sergeants began to detail the men to search. Soldiers would appear at the ladder, and on their catwalk, and soon.
‘We appear to be trapped,’ Svenson whispered, readying his pistol.
Miss Temple hurried to the inner rail. They were no longer above the water, but this meant they faced a prodigious drop to the stone bankside. What had Chang said about the old Norwalk? That the bridge and the buildings around it had been raised on the foundation of the old fortress … she leant over the rail. A firm hand caught her shoulder.
‘What are you playing at?’ snarled Chang.
‘I am looking at the wall. It is your fortress – look for yourself.’
Chang peered over the rail, then whipped off his glasses. ‘I can’t see a damned thing.’
‘There are old windows,’ said Miss Temple. ‘Or not windows but whatsits – slitty bits of stonework, for arrows – your old fortifications –’
‘She’s right.’ Svenson had taken Chang’s place with an uncomfortable swallow. ‘But it’s yards away – we’ve no rope, we cannot reach it.’
‘Of course we can’t reach that one,’ said Miss Temple.
‘There is a line of them. If they extend away from us, then there must also be one directly beneath our feet!’
Miss Temple began to hike up her dress, but Chang thrust her aside and quickly dropped from view, hanging by his arms. At once he came back.
‘It is no more than climbing down from a coach. Hand me the child first …’
The far end of the catwalk echoed as soldiers landed on the planking. Miss Temple and the others sank to their knees.
‘The girl!’ hissed Chang, invisible below them. Svenson lifted Francesca over the rail so her legs dangled. The child said nothing, face pinched and white, when Chang’s hands shot out and seized her waist. Miss Temple pushed Svenson to the rail and he flung himself over, knobbed fingers squeezed tight. Chang’s arms reached for the Doctor’s kicking legs.
The soldiers came nearer, playing their lanterns along the girded undercarriage of the bridge. Miss Temple slipped over in silence, sliding down until her hands were out of view, grasping the lowest edge of the catwalk. She hung in place.
Above her lantern light danced across where she’d stood. Sentries patrolled the bankside below. If even one soldier noticed the lights and looked up, she would be found. A gloved hand caught Miss Temple’s foot and another her waist, and then both hands squeezed, a sign she should let go. Soldiers stood directly above her. She opened her hands. For an instant it did not seem as if Chang could bear her weight, but then his hands were joined by the Doctor’s and she felt herself pulled through a crusted opening of stone.
‘It stinks of birds.’ Miss Temple rapped her boot against the wall, knocking away the clotted grime. The soldiers had moved on after finding the catwalk empty, and they were able to talk.
‘Better birds than vagrant beggers,’ replied Chang.
‘I would not think a soul has been here since the bridge was built.’ Svenson held Miss Temple’s beeswax stub above his head and studied the walls. Beyond the windowed crevice lay a wider passage, once used to house sentries. ‘Another corpse, architecturally speaking. Do we simply wait here for the bridge to be opened?’
‘We could wait eight years,’ said Chang. ‘They control the entire river.’
‘I wonder if Mr Pfaff escaped them,’ said Miss Temple. ‘Though who knows when he was there. Perhaps he has been captured.’
No one answered her, which Miss Temple found irksome. Francesca Trapping peeked out of the narrow window.
‘Come away from there,’ Miss Temple said.
Francesca did so, but then walked past Miss Temple to Doctor Svenson and pulled at his arm. ‘I am supposed to take you somewhere else.’
Svenson dredged up a smile. ‘Then let us see what we can find. The work here was hastily done …’
He led her further into the alcove, tapping at the wall, a mixture of old stone and new brick, until the impact of his boot echoed hollowly. He looked to Chang and Miss Temple with a raised eyebrow.
‘Perhaps it’s a colony of rats,’ offered Chang. ‘Burrowing out their home.’
Svenson held the light to the join of the floor and the oddly angled wall, then passed the candle to Francesca. He braced his hands against the wall for leverage.
‘Steel-toed boots, you know …’ He kicked and the bricks were driven in, for the mortar was honeycombed with mould. A few more kicks and he was chopping at an opening with his heel. The crusted stones tumbled into the darkness as they came loose, and soon the Doctor had cleared a gap wide enough to writhe through.
Miss Temple wrinkled her nose at the dank air rising from the hole. ‘What do you suppose is down there?’
‘Apart from rats?’ asked Chang.
‘I am not frightened of rats.’
‘Then you should go first.’
She saw he was smiling, and, though his tone annoyed her, she recognized his teasing as a kindly overture. Why did it seem impossible to have a conversation that did not leave her feeling cross?
‘Do not be absurd,’ said Doctor Svenson seriously. He dropped to his knees, extending the candle through the hole and then his head. He waved his remaining hand in the air. Chang caught it and, so braced, the Doctor crawled further. Finally Svenson squeezed Chang’s hand and Chang pulled him back into view. In the candlelight, the Doctor seemed to have emerged from some fairy portal, aged ten years, his hair floured with cobwebs and brick dust. He brushed it away with a smile.
‘If we had not seen Crabbé’s tunnel I should not have known what to make of it – but it is indeed another part of the old fortress. Utterly derelict, yet I cannot think but it will take us somewhere.’
Svenson insisted on widening the hole for the ladies, prising away what bricks he could without risking the wall’s collapse. This done, he led the way – sliding down a slope of rubble to a shallow stone trench. Soon all four of them stood beating dust from their clothes.
‘I do not see one rat anywhere,’ said Miss Temple.
‘I am glad of it,’ whispered Francesca.
Chang smiled. ‘We can only pray something larger has not eaten them.’
With a disapproving glare the Doctor led them in the direction least cluttered by debris. Miss Temple wondered who had last been in this place – some man-at-arms in polished steel? She felt she ought to have been frightened – outside the candle’s meagre glow the passage was pitch black, and the air hung heavy with rot – but her foolishness with the red glass ball seemed long ago, and their escape from the bridge had fuelled her confidence.
‘If we do reach the Customs House, I am sure I can find our way, having been inside it.’
Svenson called over Miss Temple’s head to Chang, ‘What is your guess as to the time?’
‘Near sunrise. We may meet porters, but it is unlikely any staff have arrived.’
‘The porters will not bother us,’ announced Miss Temple.
Francesca Trapping shrieked and thrust herself against the Doctor in fear. Miss Temple’s heart leapt at the child’s cry, but she could not see what had provoked it. She felt Chang at her shoulder and saw the knife in his hand.
Svenson advanced with the candle. Across their path lay a jumble of blackened shapes, bound together by twists of rotting leather.
‘Bones,’ said the Doctor simply. ‘Not old – not ancient – nor would any person be buried in a fortification’s corridor.’ Svenson studied the squalid heap. ‘I make it at least three men … but I cannot say what has killed them.’
He lifted the light towards the roof of their tunnel. ‘This has been more recently bricked in, of an age with the bridge, I would guess.’
‘Deceased labourers.’ Chang turned away and spat. ‘Their bodies hidden away.’
‘Hardly unusual,’ said Miss Temple quietly.
‘What does that mean?’ asked Chang.
‘It means people always die doing this work – making things like bridges and spires and railway stations –’
‘Or growing sugar cane.’
Miss Temple met Chang’s gaze and shrugged. ‘People walk on bones every minute of the day.’ She leant forward and gave Francesca’s arm a friendly squeeze.
They emerged into a basement corridor, startling a round-faced porter with a mop and bucket, his uniform protected by a cotton apron. His expression of surprise vanished abruptly when he saw the dust upon their clothes.
‘You were at the cathedral.’ His voice was hushed.
‘I’m afraid we lost our way,’ replied Doctor Svenson.
‘Of course you did.’ The porter’s head bobbed in sympathy, and he pointed behind him. ‘It’s back through the trading hall. But I didn’t think – they’re not letting people in, even family. Only from the hospital –’
‘I am a physician,’ said Svenson quickly.
‘O – well then. I’m told the Shipping Board is given over as well – not that there’s trading today, nor any shipping –’
The porter hesitated, as if he doubted his licence to say more. His eyes fell to Miss Temple and the girl. ‘If you don’t mind my speaking, it’s no sight for a lady, or a child. No sight for anyone. Straight from hell itself.’
‘Thank you for your kindness,’ said Miss Temple softly. The porter excused himself, fumbling for words. He hurried away, but not before Miss Temple noticed that the water in his bucket was stained red.
On her visit to the Customs House, Miss Temple had been shown the famous trading hall like a child visiting a grist mill is shown the great wheel. She had dutifully murmured amazement at the clamour around the dais, where busy clerks posted the latest figures in chalk. Her father’s agent had escorted her to the firm’s own office above the fray, hoping to shed her presence after a single cup of tea, but Miss Temple had insisted on examining every ledger, matching her resolve against that of the crisp-cuffed men forced to attend her. In the end she had affected a grudging satisfaction, aware that reticence and a scowling demeanour were her best defence against thievery. She had decided to get a recommendation from Roger for someone to study her accounts independently. No doubt that person would have been enmeshed with the Cabal, and she shuddered to think how near her holdings had come to being plundered …
But now the enormous trading hall was silent. Heatless shafts of morning light fell onto rows and rows of oblong bundles, quite unmistakably human beings, covering the entire floor. At first it seemed the trading hall had been given over as a dormitory for Chang’s dispossessed, but then she perceived their utter stillness, the shapeless huddling … there had to be hundreds … hadn’t the porter said the Shipping Board had been so consigned as well? He’d said something else … the cathedral –
Moving through the bodies were several cloaked figures, some standing, some bent low, making observations. Were they Ministry officials? Or perhaps the bereaved searching amongst the dead – only a few let in at a time, out of decency? One figure waved to the others. A lantern was shone on the corpse in question, and a satchel brought forward. The crouching man rifled the bag’s contents, but his back was to Miss Temple and she could not see his work.
The crouching figure rose and hobbled along the row of bodies – an elderly man, walking with a cane. He must be a doctor, or a savant from the Royal Society. Surely the authorities had found the glass spurs, but had they placed them as the source of the chaos?
Before Miss Temple could step forward or call out – not that she would have called out – Cardinal Chang pulled her from the archway.
‘The scale of it,’ Svenson whispered. Miss Temple assumed he meant the slaughter, but then the Doctor waved back towards the storage room in which they had emerged. ‘The bridge closed, the riverfront seized – now the Customs House shut down? And the Shipping Board? There are private warehouses that could be guarded to contain rumours, but they use this – by design. We know the explosions were deliberate – and now, just as deliberately, the city is strangled to a halt.’
‘Axewith and Vandaariff,’ said Chang. ‘This is why they met.’
‘But why?’ asked Miss Temple. ‘Even if Vandaariff wishes everything in ruins, why should the Privy Council agree to –’
‘The oldest lure of all,’ said Svenson. ‘He has given the Ministry an excuse to expand its power. Whether Axewith is a pliant fool or a knowing rogue scarcely matters. If money cannot move and the streets are filled with soldiers, who can fight him?’
Miss Temple did not understand at all. ‘But how does expanding Axewith’s power serve Vandaariff? I should think it makes it harder for any villainy to occur. As you say, soldiers on every street corner –’
‘But whose soldiers?’ Svenson asked with a vexing certainty. Miss Temple knew her mind was not strategic – the month after next might as well be Peru – but the Doctor spoke as if the world were a chess game worked out three moves in advance.
Chang eased himself between them, speaking quietly. ‘Whether this carnage justifies the soldiers or conceals their purpose, they are in place – and, especially after the gunplay in the Palace, they reduce our efforts to skulking.’
‘As being in hiding has reduced the Contessa’s,’ added the Doctor, ‘and if we are in her position, perhaps we can better understand her own intentions. Remember, she was in the Palace, but showed no interest in Vandaariff’s meeting with Axewith –’
‘All the more reason not to emulate her methods,’ replied Miss Temple.
‘That she follows a separate path does not make it wrong.’
Miss Temple huffed. ‘But all that has so exercised you – the soldiers, these writs, the Ministry – if those have nothing to do with the Contessa, then why do we speak of her? There are only the three of us – which would you have us address? Vandaariff, the Ministries or the Contessa?’
Svenson sighed. ‘We must address them all. I cannot see which holds the key.’
‘But that is impossible –’ Miss Temple stopped at a sour exclamation from Chang. ‘What?’
‘Keys. I had forgotten. The book that contains the Comte’s memories. The Contessa forged glass keys to read it safely.’
Miss Temple clenched her throat. ‘Even with a key that book is deadly.’
‘The Contessa is no fool.’ Svenson laid a gentle hand on Francesca’s shoulder. ‘She would recruit an exceptionally brave assistant to do the reading for her.’
The girl acted as if she did not hear, idly rubbing her shoe against the floor, proud of her secrets.
The cloaked figures had left the trading hall. At Chang’s insistence they clung to the edge on their own way across, creeping beneath the great chalkboards upon which the previous day’s figures were still visible. Atop the dais stood a massive clock, large enough to be seen from the floor. Its ticking echoed oddly – perhaps the machine contained a double works to prevent winding down in the midst of trading. To Miss Temple, the doubled ticking only made clear the narrowness of her luck. But for Chang’s swift action in the square, she might well have lain amongst these anonymous dead.
They were nearly to the other side when Svenson pressed Francesca’s hand into Miss Temple’s, to the dismay of both.
‘A moment. Keep going, I beg you.’
The Doctor dashed through the lanes of bodies to where the party of cloaked men had been. He knelt, lifting the covering from several corpses in turn. Svenson went still, staring down, then hurried to rejoin them.
Chang extended a hand for silence. They had reached the other side, and he cautiously peered into the column-swept portico. Miss Temple detected voices echoing from the front entrance.
She turned to ask what Svenson had seen, but the words died in her throat. From the field of corpses three figures had risen, wrapped in sheets like ghosts on the stage. Then the sheets fell away to reveal three cloaked men, positioned to block any angle of retreat. Beneath their cloaks Miss Temple glimpsed flashes of green. Soldiers from Raaxfall.
A dry chuckle drifted from the portico and from the columns emerged three more soldiers, Mr Foison and the man – the one amused – who’d hobbled with a cane.
‘Forgive my little ruse,’ called Robert Vandaariff. ‘Spirits from beyond! And yet you were fooled – of course you were, so inevitable as to be dull.’ The soldiers with Foison fanned out, blocking their way forward. Chang had a knife in each hand. Miss Temple tugged the revolver from her bag and felt her back touch that of Doctor Svenson, who faced the men behind.
‘The corpse I examined,’ Svenson whispered, ‘the transformed flesh had been removed, for study.’
‘For the future, Doctor! What convenience to find all three of you at a stroke …’ But then Vandaariff saw the girl. His voice took on an ugly tremor. ‘Sweet hell, the child. Is the Contessa dead?’
‘Don’t you want her dead?’ asked Miss Temple.
‘Eventually – O everything eventually. And how do you do, Cardinal? Counting the hours?’ But Vandaariff kept his gaze on Francesca. ‘Step away – let me see her. She is mine by rights, legally so. I am chief shareholder of Xonck Armaments and have been named guardian of all three Trapping orphans. Once their uncle Henry succumbs I will adopt them formally. Would you like that, my dear?’
The girl stood as still as a frightened rabbit. Vandaariff’s eyes glowed as he appraised her.
‘Your father – your true father – was a dear old friend. You have his eyes, and hair – now so wild …’ Vandaariff stretched out a shaking hand. ‘Come to me, Francesca. I know your sacred origins. I know your destiny. You are a princess of heaven. An angel.’
He sketched a shape in the air with stiff fingers. Francesca bit her lip. Her reply was faint, but everything the Comte d’Orkancz could have desired.
Miss Temple seized a handful of Francesca’s hair with enough force to make the girl gasp, and pressed the pistol to her skull. ‘I’ll kill her first. And then I’ll kill you.’
Francesca squirmed. A glint of metal in Foison’s hand showed a palmed throwing knife, but he did not act. The Customs House must have been full of soldiers, like the bridge. But Vandaariff did not summon them.
Keeping hold of the child’s hair, Miss Temple suddenly shifted her aim to Vandaariff. The spell was broken. Foison’s arm whipped forward. With a sharp ringing the knife was knocked wide by Chang’s own flung blade. Doctor Svenson’s revolver roared in her ear. Miss Temple squeezed the trigger of her own pistol, aiming at Vandaariff’s head, but only plucking his high collar. Before she could fire again, Chang shoved her roughly back and met the charge of Foison’s three men with a knife in one hand and his razor in the other.
She collided with Francesca, who fell, causing Miss Temple to sprawl in turn and lose the pistol. Francesca scuttled away. Miss Temple got to her knees, intending to crawl after, but instead tripped one of Foison’s soldiers – careening from Chang with a spurting wrist. She whipped the knife from her boot. As the soldier groped for her throat she slashed at his fingers. He rose before her, then arched his back with a scream. Another of Foison’s knives had buried itself in the man’s body, clearly intended for Miss Temple.
A gunshot made her turn. Doctor Svenson lay on his side, the last cloaked soldier tottering above him with a smoking revolver. Between them crouched Francesca, somehow tangled in a corpse’s cover sheet. Miss Temple flung her knife at the cloaked man’s face. It struck harmlessly on the shoulder, but caused him to spin, whipping his pistol towards her. The Doctor fired, punching a hole under the man’s clean-shaven jaw. Francesca clapped both hands over her ears. Svenson slumped back, clutching his chest.
Two more soldiers lay at Chang’s feet, a knife-hilt sticking from one’s throat. Chang flicked the blood from his razor and stepped deliberately between Foison and Miss Temple. He snatched up a cloak, twirling it around his wrist. Foison drew two more knives from his silk coat.
The two men advanced with feral precision. It was the first time Miss Temple had seen Chang treat an enemy like an equal, and it frightened her more than anything.
Vandaariff had withdrawn from the mêlée, back to the columns, and now stood waving. Behind him, at last, came the calls of soldiers. She blinked. Vandaariff was waving them away.
Because their meeting had been a surprise, she realized, an interruption. Vandaariff’s true business in the Customs House could not stand scrutiny – the soldiers would take matters in hand, clear the area, scour the premises for confederates …
What if Vandaariff had not come to the trading hall for bodies at all? Had his artist’s indulgence delayed his departure, after his true errand?
The square. The cathedral. Why not the Customs House too? Vandaariff would know when it would be released for normal work and filled with men – would know to the minute. The doubled ticking –
More voices filled the portico, the soldiers calling out at the sight of the battle. Any moment they must burst forward. Miss Temple saw her own pistol. She snatched it up.
Her shot splintered the wood of the clock case.
‘Celeste, what are you doing?’
It was Svenson. Behind her Vandaariff’s voice rose to a shriek. She marched closer, for a better shot. Her second bullet missed entirely.
An officer loudly ordered everyone to drop their weapons. Miss Temple extended her arm, imagining the clock a brown glass bottle, and fired.
Blue smoke spat out at the bullet’s impact, an instant ahead of the blast, a deafening wall of smoke and debris that choked her breath and blotted out all sight. Miss Temple was lifted off her feet and landed hard. Her last thoughts boiled with unreasoning fury. She wanted nothing more than to blind Robert Vandaariff with her own two thumbs.
She came to her senses at a blaze of agony in her left arm.
‘Pauvre petite,’ said an unpleasant voice. ‘You will regret your waking. Hold her, please … she may still be subject to the infusion.’
Firm hands clamped Miss Temple’s shoulders, and above her face loomed Mr Foison, white hair hanging down. Robert Vandaariff stood near in his shirtsleeves, an apron over his clothes. He held a pair of forceps and, as she watched, insinuated their tip into a gash running perhaps four inches along her forearm. She protested, but he only thrust deeper, beneath a crust of blue that sealed one end of the wound. With a wrench that made Miss Temple cry, Vandaariff prised up the crystallized flesh. He tore the patch free with his fingers and dropped it on a plate. Despite the pain, Miss Temple felt her thoughts clear. Vandaariff set the forceps next to a porcelain basin and washed his hands. Next to the basin she saw a lock of auburn hair, quite obviously her own.
‘Not a serious wound,’ he said. ‘Mr Foison is perfectly capable of dressing it. I have done enough for you. That you live at all, that I have not melted your soft body for candle fat …’ He sniffed and reached for a towel. ‘It goes against tradition.’
Vandaariff tucked the lock of hair into a pocket, collected his cane and hobbled to a cabinet lined with bottles – but not, she realized, bottles of liquor. He poured out an ugly mixture, like milky weak tea, swirled the glass and drank it off. ‘You were only touched the once.’ He wiped his mouth with a napkin. ‘Your luck persists.’
‘You do not have Francesca.’ Her voice quavered, for Foison had begun to wrap her arm. Her wool jacket was gone, her dress ash-blackened and tattered.
‘Why do you say that?’
‘I suppose you do not care – being so brave – that your friends were blown to rags. Only that you managed to vex me.’
Miss Temple’s body went cold. ‘I do not believe you.’
‘By all means, Miss Temple. Believe your heart.’
She gasped again as Foison knotted the bandage. He stepped away, and Miss Temple pushed herself up. She lay on a wooden work table in a strange room panelled with polished steel. Had there been time to reach Harschmort?
‘But this is your own natural advantage,’ Vandaariff went on. ‘Celeste Temple acts without the impediment of remorse. Though it was clever to realize a device had been set for tomorrow’s trading. And decent shooting to strike it.’
‘Are you always so generous when you’ve been bested?’
‘Bested? Miss Temple, the bee is but part of the hive, the single piraña one of its school. In the world of men, such multiplication of effort is accomplished by wealth. This is my advantage. And when such a device is set off by my enemies in the presence of officers of the 8th Fusiliers? At a stroke it is proved that I have nothing to do with such destruction – I was there only to search for a missing old friend, don’t you know, arranged as a favour from Lord Axewith. And the blame is laid fully upon the three individuals who have continually thwarted my plans. I could not have asked for more.’
Her throat closed against any reply. Foison coughed into his hand.
‘Indeed,’ agreed Vandaariff. ‘Off with you. But indulge my frailty – you’ve seen the animal.’
With a cold efficiency, Foison looped her limbs into leather restraints and pulled tight. Then he was gone.
The precaution was hardly necessary. Miss Temple could barely breathe. She saw Svenson clutching his chest and Chang, his back to the blast, unprepared … she looked down at her bandaged arm and wilfully clenched her fist. Pain shot up her arm and tears stung her eyes. Vandaariff was lying. She had been kept alive to be ransomed, and only Svenson and Chang would so preserve her. They had escaped with Francesca, Vandaariff’s desired prize.
Vandaariff shuffled beyond her view, making a menacing clatter of metal and glass. But, instead of the stink of chemicals or indigo clay, the room was suddenly suffused with the pleasing odour of cooked eggs and melted butter. He returned to his seat with a lacquered tray.
‘You have not eaten, I know.’ He plucked up a fresh white roll and tore it at the seam, fingers stiff as the talons of a bird. He smeared butter into the bread, then dipped a spoon into a Chinese pot and withdrew a gleaming lump of plum jam. He shook this onto the butter and cut – the shaking knife edge ringing on the plate – a wedge of soft white cheese. The finger’s-width of cheese fell off the knife, and with an exasperated grunt Vandaariff smeared it into the roll with a gnarled thumb. He wiped his hand on a napkin and sighed at the effort.
Miss Temple’s last meal had been at Raaxfall, and so poor she’d left half on her plate. She watched the tray closely. Her arm throbbed.
‘One must eat, you know, for strength.’ He swirled the eggs with a fork and raised a quivering morsel, dripping yolk. He swallowed with difficulty, as if it were a mouthful of small bones. He set down the fork and took an awkward bite of the roll. Vandaariff’s teeth were not ill favoured for an older man, but his hesitation to bear down made Miss Temple wince that one might break away. Vandaariff chewed, breath flaring his nostrils, and finally forced the bolus through. He wiped his lips and grimaced, dropping the napkin onto the tray.
‘Does it not agree?’ Miss Temple asked. ‘I would have thought you ate for pleasure. Even for art. The Comte d’Orkancz told me everything in life came down to art. Then he made me pay for his coffee. I suppose that is an art as well.’
An appreciative smile graced his lips. ‘Do you not worry for your life?’
‘I am alive to be ransomed.’
She could not tell if he laughed at her delusion or at the chance to correct it. ‘You are like a fox intent on its prey, never noticing that the forest around her is aflame.’
‘I am not. And, if I am, my prey is still you.’
‘But when you so brightly speak of ransom, you should realize that those who might reclaim you do not know to what extent you have been harmed. One bit of glass has scratched your arm – who is to say five more did not scratch your face? What if one exploded straight into your mouth and turned your tongue to stone? You could not tell them what had happened. You could never tell anyone anything.’ He poked the cane at the hem of her dress and dragged it up above the knee. ‘The trick about art, Miss Temple, is to understand how each moment is compounded into another, tempers another. You see the weakness in my body. I see the fever in yours. Does either one of us see true?’
‘I have no fever.’
Vandaariff snorted derisively. ‘I could light a match by touching the tip to your skin.’
He flipped the cane in the air and caught the opposite end, then pushed the handle – a smooth brass ball – along her calf.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Claiming my property.’ The brass ball slid up her thigh. Miss Temple squirmed.
‘You are vulgar and coarse – and no gentleman!’
‘An artist is never a gentleman. And a lady ought to be a better liar than you.’
The cane nudged the seam of her silk pants. Miss Temple shrank from its touch.
‘You are withered and old! You torment me because you cannot do anything else!’
He turned the brass ball with a delicate, teasing motion, and spoke with an airy distraction. ‘If I wanted your submission, I could put a piece of glass before your eyes. If I sought your degradation, I could summon Foison’s men to rape you through the afternoon. Do you think I would not dare?’
Miss Temple shook her head quickly. The cane pressed hard against her and she whimpered in fear. Vandaariff tugged her dress above her waist, and then her petticoats. He looked down with a musing expression, as if she were a food locker whose jumbled contents might just constitute a meal. He spread his palm against her pelvis, measuring the soft flare, then pressed down. He took her hips with both hands, hefting her body. His stiff fingers cupped her buttocks and squeezed.
‘Wide enough,’ he announced, ‘should other plans fail and you still live. I do appreciate your spark.’ He shoved her petticoats higher.
‘I beg you,’ she whispered. ‘Please –’
‘My interest is entirely contingent, I assure you.’ He caught the waist of her silk pants and pulled. The silk ripped. He pulled again, with a grunt, and they came away. ‘After Rosamonde’s book, you are not intact in any practical sense of the word. Time enough has passed to show you made no mistakes with young Bascombe. But since then, with your mind so swimming – and I know it’s swimming, Celeste – have you remained so careful? This last day with Chang … more time with the Doctor … and how many others have crossed your path at that hotel?’ His thumb stroked the curls between her legs. ‘Have you surrendered or been strong? Or have you found strength to be something else?’ He laid his palm above the hair, against her belly, as if to listen through it. ‘I prefer to think you failed – the guilt burning even as you’ve quenched your need, with one of those paid-off soldiers – yes, Mr Ropp behind you, thrusting away. I imagine you soaked in the history of the world, so many generations of mindless rut.’ His hand slid lower, his thumb dragging along her folds.
Miss Temple flexed her fist again, but Vandaariff merely took her gasp as a sign of enjoyment.
‘What do you want?’ she pleaded.
‘Your confession.’ His motions became forceful, his smile more fixed and contemptuous.
‘Confess to what?’
‘You are hurting me –’
‘Pain is nothing. Desire is nothing.’ Vandaariff’s lips had stretched with effort, tight across his teeth. ‘Trappings of useless vessels … flawed from the start …’
Miss Temple yelped. Vandaariff raised his fingers, pinching between them three reddish hairs. He flicked them away and plucked again.
‘What are you doing! Stop it!’ She cried out over her shoulder towards the door: ‘Mr Foison!’
‘All signs of age must be expunged. Age is corruption, ash, decay –’
‘Stop! Mr Foison!’
‘The alchemical Bride bears no blemish. She is without colour, holds the moon – she cannot be marked –’
His fingers sank into Miss Temple’s hair and seized hold, tugging her pubis. She raised her hips to stave off the painful wrench, whimpering –
The door opened behind her. Vandaariff turned, eyes unfocused.
Vandaariff followed Foison’s gaze to Miss Temple’s exposed body and released his grip. He wiped his hand across the apron. ‘Is there word?’
‘Just now, my lord.’ Foison extended a folded page to his master. Vandaariff slid a crabbed thumb beneath the wax seal. In her shame Miss Temple did not look at Foison. She stared at Vandaariff, watching the paper tremble with his fingers.
‘We will depart at once.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
With an easy movement Foison caught the upturned hem of Miss Temple’s dress and swept it down, over her legs. Vandaariff stuffed the note into his pocket.
‘It plays out exactly to plan.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
Vandaariff awkwardly pulled the apron strap over his head. Foison slipped behind to untie the knot, draped the apron on the chair and handed Vandaariff his stick. Vandaariff brought the brass handle to his nose, sniffed, then dabbed his tongue across the ball. He gave a disapproving grimace and hobbled from the room.
As efficiently as he had bound her, Foison released the leather straps. Only after sweeping her legs together could Miss Temple meet his gaze, yet Foison was watchful and withheld. Not unlike Chang, but without Chang’s animal temper … yet that was not true – they were different animals. Where Chang was a loping cat, Mr Foison was a cold reptile.
‘Can you walk?’ he asked simply. ‘It is only to the coach.’
‘And then where?’ What she wanted was to curl into a ball.
‘Where else?’ Foison said, helping her to stand. ‘The Contessa.’
They entered a courtyard ringed by tall stone buildings. Miss Temple gazed around her.
‘The Royal Institute,’ said Foison. ‘Lord Vandaariff is a significant patron.’
‘I believe the Comte d’Orkancz conducted experiments here, with Doctor Lorenz. Did you know them?’
But Foison’s attention was taken by smoke rising in a cloud from what looked like an open cellar door, across the grassy court. Green-coated guards hovered around it with buckets of water and sand. Two black coaches waited under a massive archway. Foison hoisted Miss Temple into the first coach. She slid into place opposite Vandaariff. Foison glanced over his shoulder.
‘A moment, Lord Robert –’
‘I have no moment. Get in and order the men on.’
‘There is a small fire –’
‘Let the scholars deal with their fire.’
‘Evidently supplies of chemicals have been stored nearby – it will be a matter of minutes to shift them and then attack the blaze. Not doing so risks –’
‘Risks what?’ snapped Vandaariff.
Foison hesitated. ‘Why, the Institute itself, my lord.’
‘Fascinating.’ Vandaariff leant to the open coach door and sniffed. He sat back in his seat. ‘Let it burn. I’m done with the place.’
‘But Lord Robert –’
‘Get in, Mr Foison, and order the men on. I have no spare time. Not in this world.’
With a grim expression, Foison shouted to the men to drop their buckets and be about their orders. He swung himself next to Miss Temple and rapped on the roof to set the coach in motion. Vandaariff’s seat was piled with the day’s newspapers and, already deep in the Courier, he did not acknowledge their departure.
The other newspapers announced two more explosions, at the Circus Garden and the White Cathedral, with a death toll of at least a thousand, for each blast had provoked a violent riot. A second headline blamed the disaffected populace of Raaxfall – a man from that distant village was recognized before the Circus Garden blast destroyed him. Miss Temple guessed the man was another of Vandaariff’s prisoners, repurposed as a weapon. The Ministry had announced new measures to protect the national interest.
Vandaariff closed the newspaper. If he took any pleasure in his success, his flat interrogation of Foison did not betray it.
‘All is prepared?’
‘Yes, my lord. The second coach follows. I have instructed the driver to follow the Grossmaere, as it is lined with hussars.’
‘Your face is bruised.’
‘It is, my lord. Cardinal Chang.’
‘I find it ugly.’
‘I will strive to avoid further injury.’
Vandaariff paused, measuring possible insolence. ‘We have not discussed your failure at the Customs House. Six men, and yourself – against two men and a negligible woman. And how many of your six are of any use to me now?’
‘None, my lord. The explosion –’
‘I did not ask for excuses.’
‘No, my lord.’
‘The men are of no account. I must rely upon you.’
Vandaariff slipped a finger between the black curtains of the coach window and peered out. Miss Temple knew she should keep silent. But Vandaariff had shamed her, and as she watched him – withered neck and knobbed hands – she felt her hatred rise.
‘I saw your painting.’ Vandaariff looked up, without expression. ‘O I am sorry, I meant to say the Comte’s painting. I forget of course that the Comte d’Orkancz is dead.’
‘He is dead,’ said Vandaariff.
‘And thank goodness. What an odious, vulgar, canker-brained, preening madman. Perhaps it’s something in your manner that recalls him.’
‘Gag her mouth.’
Miss Temple laughed. ‘Don’t you even want to know which painting? Or who showed it to me? You are so very sure of yourself –’
Foison had a cloth between her teeth, but paused at a sign from Vandaariff.
‘I have quite a collection of the Comte’s works at Harschmort.’
Miss Temple spat the kerchief from her mouth and flexed her jaw.
‘Bought for Lydia’s wedding – yes, so thoughtful. Is it St Rowena and the Vikings that shows a rape on a church altar? The Viking bracing himself on the crucifix –’
‘This was the painting you mean?’
‘No, the painting I saw was not at Harschmort. It was called The Chemickal Marriage.’
The smile on Robert Vandaariff’s lips became perceptibly more stiff.
‘You cannot have seen that painting. It does not exist.’
Miss Temple smirked. ‘Perhaps you tried to buy it and were refused! Of course the composition is demented – depicting a marriage, I suppose, but of symbols. An allegory.’ She turned to Foison. ‘Allegory is for donkeys.’
‘That painting was burnt.’
‘Was it? Well, it’s odd because the Bride in question wears a mask of the Contessa’s face. Isn’t that strange? The Groom is black as coal, with a red apple in his hand, except it isn’t really an apple – more like a beating heart, and made entirely of red glass –’
Foison pulled the handkerchief tight between her lips. Vandaariff leant closer.
‘Sooner than you imagine, Celeste Temple, I will reclaim you, and service you on an altar. In that the Comte d’Orkancz had things exactly right!’
Vandaariff sank back. He shut his eyes and reached a shaking hand to Foison.
Foison opened a satchel and removed a squat bottle of dark glass. Vandaariff drank, a thin line of milky fluid escaping down his chin. He wiped his face with a black silk handkerchief, folded it over and then mopped his brow.
Composure restored, he addressed her again. ‘I have not thanked you for the delivery of such excellent mules, Mr Ropp and Mr Jaxon. Discharged soldiers, they told me – amongst other things. Amongst every thing. And Mr Ramper as well – still, even a stricken animal can be used. You must know that from your plantation. Scrape off the meat and burn the bones for fuel. Will you be pleased to see the Contessa?’
Miss Temple made a noise in the back of her mouth.
‘Tell her anything you like.’ He reached into his coat and came out with another handkerchief, white silk this time. ‘But when you have the chance, Miss Temple – and you will, for the Contessa will underestimate you, as she always has – you would serve us all by cutting the lady’s skin … with this.’
In the opened handkerchief lay a blue glass spur. He chuckled, a guttural wheeze, and refolded the handkerchief. His crooked fingers reached across the coach and stuffed it down the bosom of her dress.
‘Created expressly for our own shared nemesis. Dig it into her arm, across her lovely neck – wherever is in reach. Then I suggest you run.’
The coach came to a halt. She heard the ring of bolts being drawn and the scrape of an iron gate. Vandaariff nodded, and Foison bound Miss Temple’s hands.
Her heart went cold. She had not truly believed it until the handkerchief had been tucked into her dress. She was being given to a woman who sought her death. Why not to Chang and Svenson? What could the Contessa offer more precious than Francesca Trapping?
Foison opened the door and leant out to unfold a metal stair-step. Miss Temple drove her bound hands against his back and sent him flying through the door. She hurled herself at Vandaariff, snarling like a dog. Her hands found his throat, the rope between them digging his wattled flesh like a garrotte. He batted weakly at her face. He gaped, eyes wide, tongue protruding … and then let out a horrible stuttering gasp. Laughter. She met his insane, encouraging nod and squeezed as hard as she could –
Foison’s strong hands wrenched Miss Temple away and hauled her out of the door. With a snarl of his own he flung her down with enough force to drive the breath from her body. Wet grass and earth were cold against her cheek. She gulped for air. Foison was tending his master. She heaved herself up – only to drop again secured in place. One of Foison’s knives – thrown from the coach – pinned her dress to the ground. Before she could yank it free her wrists were caught by a hand in a leather gauntlet. Miss Temple looked up to a semicircle of men in green uniforms.
Foison emerged from the coach and called to the driver, who started his team, turning back the way they’d come. Foison retrieved his blade.
‘Make sure of her.’
As they walked Miss Temple’s stomach rose. She shut her eyes against the bile in her throat and sucked air through her nostrils.
Something in the smell … the Comte had been here before …
She took the first statues for more green uniforms, for the stones had been overcome by moss. Soon they appeared in lines between the trees, stained by years of leaf-fall, tipped by sinking earth or knocked headless, even toppled, by falling tree limbs. A cemetery …
Miss Temple’s nausea sapped any notion of escape, and she followed Foison through the woods and down a proper row of tombs. Even here the stones were cracked and crumbled, swathed in green, the names scarcely legible, abandoned … had so many families passed out of time? She turned her attention to the statues: mournful figures, some with wings, some humbly shrouded, facing down in grief or up in supplication. In their hands were open books and closed, torches, laurels, lilies, roses, harps, keys – and on the tombs so many inscriptions, from the Bible or in Greek or Latin.
None of it touched Miss Temple, for she was too near the Comte’s estimation of such piety. To his mind, and thus persuasively to hers, such trappings of grief and hope were akin to a toddler’s scrawl.
The skin of her elbow stung from her awkward fall, and, unable to reach with her hands, she rubbed it against her stomach. She had risked everything in attacking Vandaariff, but Foison had merely pulled her away. At the Customs House, he had twice sought her life with a thrown blade. She had become a valued commodity.
Beyond a spiked iron gate stretched a dim avenue lined with vaults. The gate stood between Egyptian obelisks, but their plaster had crumbled to reveal red brick, the work of an especially unscrupulous builder.
Foison unlocked the gate. The vaults had no names across their lintels, only metal numbers nailed into the stone. At the avenue’s end was a vault with the number 8, deliberately placed sideways. Foison sorted another key, then surveyed the sky above them. Miss Temple was reminded of a snake tasting the air with its tongue.
The vault door scraped open, and from inside the tomb rose a golden light. Someone waited inside.
Foison went first. He’d no weapon ready, nor had he brought a lantern. Miss Temple came next, prodded by a fellow with a cutlass, and then the others in a line. Instead of a horrid vault lined with niches, they entered an anteroom gleaming with blue ceramic tile. The far wall was fashioned like an ancient city gate, with a crenellated top and narrow windows, all aglow.
‘The entrance to Babylon,’ said Foison, removing her gag. ‘The Ishtar Gate.’
‘Ah.’ In Miss Temple, vanished cultures met a sense of justice as to their vanishing.
‘In Ishtar’s temple is eternal life.’
A flicker of recognition came from the Comte’s memories. Miss Temple tried to place the source … was it the light? She saw no candles or lanterns – the golden light came from the other side of the blue wall.
Foison opened the gate with an elaborate key with teeth like a briar’s thorns. His men thrust Miss Temple through and slammed the gate. She cried out, naming Foison a coward and his master a degenerate toad. There was no reply. She heard the vault door close, and the cold lock turn.
The tomb was bright without the aid of a single lantern or candle. The floor was copper, polished near to a mirror. She recalled the metal on the walls of Vandaariff’s room, and the sheets of steel hanging amongst the machines at Parchfeldt. A thread of bile burnt her throat like an incision and she knew: this interior part of the tomb had been a commission to prove the Comte’s abilities – an unknown artist first brought to Vandaariff’s attention by a new and intimate adviser, the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza …
Miss Temple held up a hand and waved, making tiny shadows. The decorated ceiling was honeycombed by dozens of shafts that rose high to the surface and drew the sunlight down, directing the beams with mirrors and colouring their glow with glass.
More grimly, however, the shafts meant Miss Temple’s earlier assumption had been wrong. No one else had entered the tomb – she had been abandoned. She looked for an edge to slice through the cord binding her wrists, but the walls and floor were smooth. The room’s only feature was a slab of white marble, carved to depict silken bedclothes pulled open across it.
Two names were carved: Clothilde Vandaariff and, in fresh-cut letters, Lydia Vandaariff. No dates or epigraphs accompanied the names – nor, in the case of Lydia, could the tomb contain a body. Miss Temple wondered if it was her fate to serve as Lydia’s proxy.
She sank down against the stone. Her forearm throbbed, and it seemed she had not slept in days. She curled on her side, yet, despite her fatigue, the solitude only gave Miss Temple’s mind more opportunity to seethe …
When they had collided with Mr Harcourt and the Palace guard, Chang had seized her hand. They did not speak as they fled, but then a reckless turn left them in a dead-end room, with no time to double back.
‘The wardrobe,’ he hissed, pushing her to it. Chang leapt to a writing desk and dragged it beneath the room’s single high window.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Get in the wardrobe!’
Chang vaulted onto the desk and opened the window. Did he think to draw pursuit away? He hauled himself through to the waist. He held a handful of papers from the desk and flung them out.
‘A trail to follow,’ he said, jumping down. ‘The ledge is wide and the roof is flat – why are you not in the damned closet?’
Chang yanked it open and propelled her into a line of hanging garments.
‘There is no room!’
The back of the wardrobe had hooks from which cloaks had been hung and Chang shoved her beneath them. Then the doors were shut and he was with her, limbs overlapping, bodies crammed together. Chang squeezed her arm, his words faint as a sigh.
‘They are here.’
Miss Temple heard nothing. She had reached to steady herself and taken hold of Chang’s belt in the dark. Chang had shifted, settling his weight, and one knee rolled forward, gently, to press between her legs. The corners of her mind began to crawl.
From outside came a scrape of floorboards – someone climbing on the desk. She tightened her grip. She wanted to lean forward and kiss his mouth. She tipped her body against the hardness of his knee. She bit her lip to keep silent.
With another shudder she heard his breath in her ear. ‘Do not be afraid …’
She almost laughed aloud. He thought she shook with fear. She squeezed his hand. It would be the simplest thing to guide it to her breast.
The door to the wardrobe opened. The hanging clothes were jostled. She went still at the chok of a blade thrust home above her head. Another thrust, near her hand – chok! – and then a third, piercing the cloak directly between them. The blade was pulled free and the wardrobe door slammed shut.
They waited, Miss Temple at the edge of her control. Chang patted her hand. She rocked her body forward in a last sensual grind before he crawled cautiously out.
She pushed the cloaks away, feeling the heat in her face. He reached to extricate her. She did not meet his gaze.
Miss Temple opened her eyes. She jumped up, sure she had heard the jingle of metal.
A key scratched at the lock, slipped in, then turned. Miss Temple crept to the wall. The door swung inwards. She would kick as hard she could, jump through the door –
‘I know you are there. Do not attempt to break my head.’
It was a voice she knew. ‘Mr Pfaff?’
Jack Pfaff peered around the doorframe. ‘As ever.’
Miss Temple restrained herself from rushing to his arms, content to present her still-bound wrists. Pfaff drew a knife and smiled as the cords gave way. Miss Temple began to rub the vivid marks, but Pfaff put his own hands on hers, chafing the skin to life.
‘What have they done to you? And your poor arm!’
‘It is nothing.’ She pulled her hands away, disquieted by a lingering ache from her dream. ‘Where have you been? How did you get a key to this awful prison? Who told you I was here?’
‘First, we’ll make you safe.’ Pfaff took Miss Temple’s uninjured arm. ‘Can you walk?’
‘Do not doubt it.’ Miss Temple made a point to lift her dress with both hands, despite a stab of pain. ‘But you must answer as we go. Where have you been?’
‘Following the glass, as we agreed.’ Pfaff laid a hand against her back, yet such was her relief that she did not slap it away. ‘As for the keys to this place, I found them in the outer door, as was arranged.’
‘Arranged?’ Miss Temple spun to face him.
‘We’re not out of it yet, miss. You must trust me and play along.’
‘Play along with what?’
‘Kicking and cursing will be enough. I shall take your weight with my other hand, so it will appear that I drag you by the hair. Here we go!’
Pfaff shoved the vault door wide. One insolent hand snaked round her waist while the other seized her curls. Before she could protest, Pfaff deftly tripped her ankles, so he entered the lane dragging her behind. She did her genuine best to kick and scratch, and shrieked aloud when – having jostled him off balance – Pfaff did yank her hair so hard she feared it would rip.
He staggered through the Egyptian gate. No black-cloaked men, no green uniforms, only a single coach with a shabby fellow holding the reins.
‘There!’ Pfaff cried, speaking loudly. ‘And I’ll have no more of your nonsense!’
He shoved her in the coach. She scrambled onto her back, kicking out. He caught her foot and closed the door. The driver cracked his whip and eased his team forward. Pfaff paused … listening … then sat back with a smile.
‘I think we’ve done it –’
Her boot landed square on his kneecap. He clutched it with both hands, hissing with pain. ‘O! O – damn you to hell!’
‘If I had any weapon now you would be dead,’ she spat. ‘If you ever take such liberties again I will see your back flayed white!’
Pfaff rubbed his knee. ‘You’re an ungrateful witch. Do you know where we are? How many eyes observe our every move?’
‘I will not be trifled with.’
‘That is no answer!’
‘I am not obliged to answer. Do you remain in my employ or don’t you?’
‘I am not in the habit of accepting such abuse from anyone.’
‘But you are in the habit of flinging a woman without care like a bale of cloth?’
‘You’ve seen worse, I’m sure.’
To these hot words she said nothing, taking the moment to settle her dress. Pfaff smirked at its condition.
‘What’s he like, anyways?’
‘Robert Vandaariff. I once caught a glimpse of his hat, on Race Day at the Circus. Did he mention the Contessa?’ His gaze drifted across her body. ‘Did he … mistreat you?’
‘What is that?’
She pointed to a leather notebook poking from Pfaff’s orange coat.
‘Why, do you know it?’
‘Of course I do. You were under the bridge. You took this from Minister Crabbé’s laboratory. That notebook belonged to Roger Bascombe.’
‘It did indeed. I’ll admit, Miss Temple, I only half believed your stories – but now …’ He broke off with a grin, showing his brown teeth. ‘I kept it for you. Don’t you want to peek inside?’
‘I do not.’
‘Liar.’ He tossed the notebook onto her lap, then laughed at her discomfort. ‘You act like I’ve given you a scorpion.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘Come, how else could I learn where you were, or collect you without being killed? You thought the glassworks would lead to Vandaariff, but they led to her.’
‘Why should she want me saved? She hates me.’
‘She described you to Vandaariff’s messenger as her intimate.’
Pfaff gave his own sceptical shrug. ‘It saved your life.’
She could not read him – did Pfaff remain her man or not? She did her best to soften her tone. ‘Do you know, Mr Pfaff, that every man you hired in my service has been killed?’
‘That’s a pity. I think Corporal Brine quite liked your maid.’
Perhaps Pfaff never felt sorry about anything. Chang’s ill-will for the man stewed inside her. Why had she ever defended him?
‘Why was I taken to the Vandaariff crypt?’
‘Because it is isolated, I suppose, and easy to observe.’
Miss Temple knew this was wrong, and berated herself for not having examined every inch of the place. But there seemed nothing to find – the Comte had so little expressed himself in its making. If the real Ishtar Gate indeed had blue tile, the Comte’s improved artistic version would have been made from coal and painted blood red.
‘Where are we going?’
‘Nowhere at all until I’m sure we aren’t followed …’
Pfaff pressed his face against the window. Miss Temple scooted to the opposite side. She did not recognize these streets.
‘Was there a second explosion today? At the Shipping Board?’
‘Explosions all over.’ Pfaff peered out, distracted. ‘Terrible stuff.’
‘The blasts are Vandaariff’s doing – to provoke unrest. Who knows what he plans next, while you waste our time. Do you?’
Pfaff closed the curtain. ‘Do I what?’
‘Know where he is!’
‘And you smile to say it! Of all the imbecilic –’ Miss Temple’s tirade was cut short by a sharp knock against the coach. ‘What was that?’
The window near her head was shattered by a fist-sized chunk of brick. She squeaked, flinching from the flying glass. Luckily most was caught by the curtain.
‘Perhaps you’d best lie down,’ offered Pfaff.
Cries rose around the coach and Miss Temple recalled the faces on the Raaxfall dock. Their driver cracked his whip. The coach broke forward and the shouts began to fade. Pfaff slapped his hands together.
‘That should peel them off.’
At the high-pitched cry of distressed horses behind them, Miss Temple peered through the broken window. Another coach had been stopped in the road, surrounded by an angry mob. The blasts had brought the unrest of Raaxfall to the city proper – and Pfaff had exploited the discontent to strip away pursuit. Who knew how close they’d come to harm as well? If the driver had been injured, or a coach wheel snapped … she was appalled at the reckless disregard.
‘So where are we going now?’ she demanded.
Pfaff laughed aloud. ‘Where else, little mistress? Home.’
Pfaff said nothing more, and Miss Temple would not ask. Roger’s notebook lay on her lap, but she had no wish to open it until she was alone and unobserved. While it might contain useful information, she did not trust her own reactions. What if there was fawning praise for Caroline Stearne’s ankle or her opalescent skin? Opalescent was exactly the sort of word Roger would have used.
They arrived at the Hotel Boniface. She gripped the notebook tightly as she climbed down, ignoring Pfaff’s outstretched hand. She considered shouting to the footmen, but she’d no firm idea how she stood with the hotel or the law, and further scandal might allow the management finally to expel her. Instead, she advanced to the desk and asked for any messages. There were none, but her asking allowed the clerk to take in the scorch marks on her dress, and her bandaged arm.
‘You see what has overtaken me.’ Miss Temple swallowed bravely. ‘St Isobel’s Square … I cannot speak of it.’ The clerk’s suspicion turned to cooing sympathy. For the moment, at least, Miss Temple had outflanked disapproval.
‘Very good!’ Pfaff chuckled, as they climbed the staircase. But Miss Temple found she actually was unsettled – and truly unable to speak of what she had seen in the square and at the Customs House. She had no experience through which to comprehend such carnage. Her eyes began to burn. Why now, treading soft familiar carpets, should she weaken? She quickened her pace to keep ahead of Pfaff, so he would not see.
‘Are you well?’
‘My arm hurts.’ They were at the door. Pfaff cut in front and rapped three times. Miss Temple turned to dab her eyes. The door opened to Marie’s anxious face.
‘O, O mistress –’
Miss Temple pushed past – all she wanted was to be alone. ‘I will need a wash and new clothes and supper and tea – strong hot tea before anything –’
‘I am perfectly well, I assure you. I – I –’ Miss Temple clutched Roger’s notebook and groped for words. ‘Marie – Corporal Brine –’
Pfaff easily took Marie’s shoulder. ‘Briney’s all right, Marie – he’s with the others, asked we pass along his regards – what about that tea?’
‘But – but – mistress –’
Disgracefully grateful for Pfaff’s imposition, Miss Temple pushed on as if she had not heard. Three steps brought her bedchamber and she shut the door and turned the key. She dropped Roger’s notebook on a side table … and went ice-still.
The Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza sat on Miss Temple’s bed, her cigarette holder smouldering like a stick of Chinese incense. She did not smile.
‘Once more, circumstances prevent me from taking your life.’ The Contessa savoured the catch of smoke, then spat a blue jet from the corner of her mouth. ‘You look a fright.’
Miss Temple retreated to her writing desk. Were there scissors in the drawer?
‘Is Mr Pfaff your creature?’ Her voice cracked. In shame, she forced it low. ‘I saw no scars around his eyes.’
‘Not everyone requires the Process – in point of fact almost no one does.’
‘But he – for several weeks, I employed –’
The Contessa sighed. ‘Do you still not understand? The cream of this city ached to be chosen for the Comte’s machines. Clawed each other like cats for the privilege. Slavery amongst the mighty is simple – one only has to make it fashion.’
‘Mr Pfaff is no one’s idea of cream.’
‘He is his own. Enough – you cannot look like you’ve been tumbled in a cowshed.’ Miss Temple turned to the door. ‘Do not call your maid. She has been sent away.’
‘Downstairs for tea or to the surgeon’s with a broken jaw – I’ve no idea. We will pretty you and depart, without incident and without notice.’
‘I will not budge.’
The Contessa raised her voice to an authoritative bark. ‘Mr Pfaff!’
At once came a sharp yelp of pain from beyond the door, unmistakably from Marie. Miss Temple shot to her feet.
The Contessa spoke swiftly, with annoyance. ‘You can do nothing to help her but obey.’ She tugged the cigarette from its holder and dropped the butt to the floor, snuffing it as she stood.
‘Where are we going?’
‘Not until you change, Celeste.’ For the first time, the Contessa smiled. ‘Afterwards, everything. But first you must at least pretend to be civilized …’
The woman’s fingers pulled at the back of her dress, each touch pecking apart Miss Temple’s concentration. She had fought at the Customs House, and tried to strangle Vandaariff in his coach, but now it was all she could do to stand.
The Contessa peeled the fabric from Miss Temple’s shoulders and then the sleeves over each hand, like a magician extracting two scarves from a hat. The Contessa yanked the dress to the floor. Miss Temple obediently stepped free of the pile.
‘What happened to your arm?’
‘It was cut by flying glass. At the Customs House.’
‘And were you very brave?’ The Contessa’s hand traced its way without hurry around the circuit of Miss Temple’s hips.
‘Why are you here?’ she whined.
‘Better to ask why you are here,’ replied the Contessa.
‘This is my room.’
‘I thought it belonged to sugar and slaves.’
‘Then who owns your suite at the Royale – pulchritude?’
Miss Temple cried out as the caressing hand struck her buttock hard enough to leave a mark. The Contessa crossed to the wardrobe. Miss Temple plucked the Comte’s silk handkerchief from her corset, but she’d no time to unwrap the glass spur before the Contessa had returned. Her breath blew warm against Miss Temple’s nape.
‘You smell like a pony.’ The Contessa snatched up an amber bottle, Signora Melini’s Mielissima, and came back with a basin of water. ‘Arms up.’
Miss Temple complied. The Contessa roughly swabbed Miss Temple’s armpits with a cloth, then her bosom and neck, and last, with smaller strokes, the planes of her face. Miss Temple held still, a kitten submitting to the ministrations of its mother’s tongue. The Contessa dropped the cloth into the basin. With pursed lips she applied the perfume far more liberally than Miss Temple ever had, under her arms, at her wrists, behind her ears, and then, like a drunken signature to end a night of gambling, dragged the moistened stopper across the nooks of her collarbone. She replaced the stopper and threw the bottle carelessly onto the bed. With a sudden flicker of suspicion, the Contessa thrust a hand down Miss Temple corset, probing for anything hidden, and then swept in either direction, searching beneath each breast. Finding nothing, she pulled her hand free and then bent forward for a last sniff.
‘At least no one will take you for an unperfumed pony.’
The Contessa snatched up a dress, fluffed it wide and lifted it over Miss Temple’s head.
‘But that is a dress for mourning –’
Her words were lost in a mass of black crêpe silk. She had worn it but once, for the funeral of Roger’s cousin, at the beginning of their courtship. The sudden purchase, entirely for his sake, had pleased her immensely.
‘Arms in the sleeves. Be quick about it.’
She realized that the Contessa’s dress, which Miss Temple had taken for a dusky violet, was in fact closer to a shimmering charcoal. ‘Who has died?’
‘O who has not?’
The Contessa cinched the laces with as little regard for comfort as a farmer trussing goats. Her hands darted purposefully, flicking the skirts free of Miss Temple’s feet, batting the dress over her petticoats, and alternately tugging down the bodice and lifting her bosom. Throughout it all the silken handkerchief remained in Miss Temple’s hand, balled tight.
The Contessa stepped back with a sigh of resignation. ‘Your hair would shame a sheepdog. Have you a hat?’
‘I dislike hats. If you would allow my maid –’
The Contessa took Miss Temple’s curls with both hands. They stood near to one another, the Contessa fixed upon her task and Miss Temple, shorter, gazing at the other woman’s throat, inches away.
The Contessa frowned. ‘With charity, one could say you looked Swiss. But we are already late. What did you make of Oskar? Is he in health, Celeste? In his mind?’
‘We scarcely spoke. I had been injured –’
‘Yes, he must have liked that. Probably wanted to eat you whole.’
‘Why did you not kill Doctor Svenson?’
The question had flown from Miss Temple’s mouth. ‘You left him alive with the glass card.’
‘Half of him wants to die, you know. Because of Elöise. Because of you.’
The Contessa met her censorious gaze and laughed outright, her pleasure the more for being taken unawares. Still smiling, she opened the door and walked out, leaving Pfaff to collect Miss Temple. He hooked her arm with his, but paused at the side table where she’d set Roger’s notebook.
‘She’ll need a bag,’ he called. ‘It will look odd not to have one.’
The Contessa snorted from the foyer – a judgement on such propriety or, more likely, Miss Temple’s taste in bags. Pfaff snatched up a handbag, deftly stuffed the notebook inside and shoved Miss Temple through the door. The Contessa rolled her eyes.
Pfaff looked hurt. ‘It matches perfectly well.’
‘Like a headache matches nausea. Perhaps it will attract sympathy.’
Marie had vanished, and, though Miss Temple considered shouting to the desk clerk for rescue, in the end she allowed herself to be swept into the street. The door to a shining coach was held by a footman in rich livery. Miss Temple climbed up first and took the instant of solitude to return the silk handkerchief to the bosom of her dress. Pfaff installed himself next to her and the Contessa opposite, flouncing her dress with a deliberate thoroughness. Though she carried a black clutch, large enough to keep her cigarette holder, it was of no size for a glass book. Once more Miss Temple wondered where the dark volume had been cached. She cleared her throat.
‘That footman’s uniform – I mean – are we truly –’
‘Celeste,’ sighed the Contessa, ‘if you can guess, must you ask?’
Pfaff only smirked and tugged at the lapels of his coat. Miss Temple could not think what the man seriously hoped to attain. That he had shifted his banner to the Contessa made Pfaff’s character more clear – one might as well protest a bee being drawn to a more splendid flower. She recalled Mr Phelps insisting, so rudely, about society’s divisions. As deluded as she saw Pfaff to be, so the Contessa saw Miss Temple – and no doubt there were circles where the Contessa appeared a garish parvenu …
The streets around them clattered with hoof beats. Their coach had attracted an escort of horsemen. Miss Temple stared at the Contessa.
‘What is it, Celeste?’
‘The Vandaariff crypt.’
‘You wanted me to see it.’
‘This insistence on confronting me with what I already know –’
Miss Temple nodded to Pfaff. ‘Does he know?’
‘Why should I care?’
Pfaff’s lips turned in a tolerant smile, as if he saw past the Contessa’s disdain. ‘I already told her – the tomb is isolated, easy to watch –’
‘How did you know I’d been taken?’ Miss Temple demanded. ‘Was it that Francesca Trapping never appeared with Doctor Svenson?’
‘If I cared for the child I should not have left her behind. She is nothing to me. No more than the Doctor.’
‘But you spared his life. And have gone to some effort to save mine.’
‘None of which, Celeste Temple, changes our understanding.’
Despite the Contessa’s tone, Miss Temple sat back and grinned, showing her small white teeth. Both Vandaariff and the Contessa had preserved her life when she ought to have been slain, each to employ her against the other. They were fools.
‘That’s a repellent little smile,’ said the Contessa. ‘Like a weasel about to suck eggs.’
‘I cannot help it,’ said Miss Temple. ‘I am excited – though you have not told me what I am to do when we arrive.’
‘Nothing at all. Remain silent.’
‘And if I don’t?’
‘I will cut your throat and spoil everything. And then what will I tell Cardinal Chang?’
The Contessa raised one eyebrow, waiting for her words to penetrate.
‘How else do you think you were redeemed? For a chocolate cake?’
‘You gave Chang to Vandaariff?’
‘When a thing is already owned, one prefers the term “restoration” –’
‘But where was he – how did you – he would never –’
‘My goodness, we are here. Do try to honour the Cardinal’s sacrifice. Remember – respectful silence, humble grief, pliant nubility.’
The Contessa pinched Miss Temple’s cheeks to give them colour, then swatted her out onto a walkway of red gravel. The Contessa joined her, taking Miss Temple’s hand. Pfaff remained in the coach. A richly uniformed man strode towards them, cradling an enormous busby, as if he’d come from beheading a bear. He clicked his heels and nodded to the Contessa, the gesture as sharp as a hatchet stroke.
The Contessa sank into an elegant curtsy. ‘Colonel Bronque. I apologize for our delay.’
The Colonel scrutinized Miss Temple with an icy scepticism, then ushered them on with a sweep of his gold-encrusted arm.
‘If you will. Her Majesty is never one to be kept waiting.’
Chang ignored the gunshots. It was up to Svenson to deal with the men behind them. The slightest break in concentration and Foison would have Chang’s life: he could no more heed the commotion around him than a surgeon marked a patient’s screams.
The razor was open in Chang’s right hand. In his left he held a black cloak, long enough to tangle a blade and which, accurately thrown, could baffle Foison’s vision. Foison matched him with two knives, balanced to throw, made for thrust, heavy enough to snap the razor clean. Instead of broad strokes to keep Chang back, Foison would favour point: one blade to entangle Chang’s defence, then the other for the kill. Chang’s options were more limited. The razor might spill quantities of blood, but to incapacitate a man like Foison the edge must reach his throat. Nothing less would prevent the second knife from stabbing home.
An observer would have sworn that neither man moved, but to Chang it was a flurry of threats and counters signalled in subtle shifts of weight, flexing fingers, pauses of breath. Skill ran second to what advantage could be seized from circumstance: a blade, a chair or a shove down a staircase, Chang hardly cared, and expected the exact lack of courtesy in return. He was no fop to entertain the notion of a duel.
Fast as a bullet, Foison moved, a high thrust at Chang’s face. Chang whipped the cloak in the air, hoping to catch the knife-tip –
Both men were blown off their feet in the roar of flame and debris, and the whistle of flying glass.
Chang rose and pushed off the cloak that had caught the debris of the blast. Not two yards away, Foison groped for his knives in the smoke. Chang’s swinging fist caught him below the eye, and then a merciless kick dropped Foison flat.
Chang’s ears rang. The soldiers’ shadows already danced in the portico. Any moment the trading hall would be swarmed. A writhing movement at his feet – the kicking legs of Francesca Trapping, her body shielded by the arms and greatcoat of Doctor Svenson. Chang pulled the girl to her feet and raised Svenson by the collar, unsure if the man was alive. The Doctor’s hand slapped at Chang’s arm and Svenson erupted into a coughing fit, dust caking his face and hair.
Chang did not see Celeste Temple.
All around lay corpses whose white coverings had been blown away by the explosion. With the dust and smoke and so many women and children amongst them, it was impossible to isolate one small body with auburn hair. The fact entered his brain like a bullet. Body. The dead were everywhere. Nothing else moved.
He had failed her. Without further hesitation, Chang sprinted to the nearest archway, the girl beneath one arm and Doctor Svenson hauled along by force.
He kicked out a window, heaved his squirming burdens through, then compelled them the length of the alley to a low brick hut. He knew exactly where they were.
The girl was in tears.
Chang snatched two lanterns, set them alight and crossed to a greasy stone staircase, leading down. He held one out, impatiently, for the Doctor.
‘Hold hands, the way is slick.’ Chang’s voice was hoarse. They kept the wall on their left and the dark, stinking stream to the right, until they reached a place where the steps were relatively clean, and at Chang’s gesture the others sat.
‘We are in the sewers. We may travel unseen.’ Svenson said nothing. The girl shuddered. Chang held the lantern to her face. ‘Are you hurt? Can you hear me – your ears?’
Francesca nodded, then shook her head – yes to hearing, no, she was unharmed. Chang looked to Svenson, whose face was still streaked by white dust, and nearly dropped the lantern.
‘Good Lord, why did you not speak!’
The bullet hole was singed into the front of Svenson’s greatcoat, directly above his heart. Chang tore open the coat … but there was no blood. For all their running, Svenson’s front ought to have been soaked. With a wince the Doctor extracted his mangled cigarette case, a lead pistol slug flattened into the now misshapen lid. Svenson turned it over so they could all see the opposite side – bulging from the bullet’s impact, but never punched through. He worked a handkerchief gingerly under his tunic, pressed it tight against his ribs and then pulled it out to look: a blot of blood the size of a pressed tea rose.
‘The rib is cracked – I felt it running – but I am alive when I ought not to be.’
Chang stood. Francesca Trapping’s eyes gazed fearfully up to his. Behind him in the dark, the trickle of sewage. He felt the smoke in his lungs, heard its abrasion when he spoke.
‘I did not see Celeste. I could not find her.’
Svenson’s voice bore the same ragged edge. ‘You were occupied with that fellow – you saved us all.’
‘No, Doctor, I did not.’
‘Celeste set off the explosion. She fired into the clock. I don’t know how she guessed it held another explosive charge. Who knows how many lives she saved – if it had gone off tomorrow …’ Svenson placed a filthy hand across his eyes. ‘I could only reach the child –’
‘I do not blame you.’
‘I blame myself – quite fiercely. She was … Lord … a remarkable, brave girl –’
‘I will have that bastard’s head.’
Chang’s words echoed down the sewage tunnel. Doctor Svenson struggled to rise, and placed a hand on Chang’s shoulder. Chang turned to him.
‘Are you well enough to go on?’
‘Of course, but –’
Chang pointed to a wooden door above the stairs. ‘You will be in the lanes behind the cathedral – the blast there will explain your appearance, and you should be able to walk freely.’ He shifted his gaze to Francesca. ‘You will take the Doctor where the Contessa asked?’
The child nodded. Chang clasped Svenson’s arm and took up the lantern. ‘Good luck,’ he managed, and strode into the dark. The Doctor called after him.
‘Chang! You are needed. You are needed alive.’
Chang hurdled the fetid stream in a running leap. They were lost behind him. He increased his pace to a jog, already caught up with all he had set himself to do.
The great Library, like every other civic institution, was shot through with privilege and preference. Inside it lay elaborate niches, like endowed chapels in a cathedral, housing private collections that the Library had managed to wrest from the University or the Royal Institute. Though every niche held one or two bibliographical gemstones, these collections attracted more dust than visitors, access being granted only through referenced application. Chang had learnt of their existence quite by accident, searching for new ways to reach the roof. Instead he had found the hidden wing of the sixth floor, and with it the old Jesuit priest.
The Fluister bequest would never have attracted Chang’s interest under normal circumstances. The fancy of an admiral in whom a curiosity for native religions had been instilled by a posting to the Indies, and whose prize money had been lavishly spent on acquiring any volume relating to the aboriginal, esoteric, heretical or obscure – to Chang it was a fortune wasted on nonsense. To the Church, Admiral Fluister’s bequest – pointedly made to the public, yet diverted into its present inaccessible location through proper whispers in the proper ears – represented an outright gathering of poisons. Conquering through kindness, the Bishop had offered the services of a learned father to catalogue such a haphazard acquisition. The Library, caring less for knowledge than possession, had naturally accepted, and so Father Locarno had arrived. Ten years at least he had sorted through the Admiral’s detritus (it was an open wager amongst the archivists as to when the porters would find Locarno dead) with scarcely a word to anyone, a black-robed spectre shuffling in when the doors opened and out only when the lamps were doused.
In Chang’s experience, there were two kinds of priests: those with their own life history, and those who had taken orders straight away. The latter he dismissed out of hand as fools, cowards or zealots. Amongst the former, he granted one might find men whose calling rose from at least some understanding of the world. In the case of Father Locarno, his nose alone set him in that camp, it having been deliberately removed with a blacksmith’s shears. Whether this marked him as a reformed criminal or an honest man whose misfortune had led to a Barbary galley, no one knew. It was enough to speculate why this weathered Jesuit had been given the task of managing the Fluister bequest – which was to say, Chang wondered how many of the books Father Locarno had secretly amended or destroyed.
He stepped into the Fluister niche. Father Locarno sat, as he ever had in Chang’s experience, at a table covered with books and ledgers. His grey hair was bound with a cord, and his spectacles, because of the nose, were held tight by steel loops around each ear. The exposed nasal cavity was unpleasantly moist.
‘Esoteric ritual,’ said Chang. ‘I have questions and very little time.’
Father Locarno looked up with a keen expression, as if correcting others was a special pleasure. ‘There is no knowledge without time.’ The Jesuit’s voice was strangely pitched, vaguely porcine.
Chang pulled off his gloves, dropping them one at a time on the table. ‘It would be more truthful to say there is no knowledge without commerce – so, churchman, I will give you this. The Bishop of Baax-Sonk has not been in his senses since visiting Harschmort House some two months past. Many others share the Bishop’s condition – Henry Xonck perhaps the most notable. It has been ascribed to blood fever. This is a lie.’
Father Locarno studied Chang closely. They had never done business, though surely the priest had heard rumours from the staff.
‘Do you offer His Lordship’s recovery?’
‘No. His Lordship’s memories have been harvested into an alchemical receptacle.’
Father Locarno considered this. ‘When you say receptacle –’
‘A glass book. Whatever he knew, any treasured secret he kept, will be known to those who made the book.’
‘And who would that be?’
‘I would assume the worst. But I should think this much information will allow your superiors to take some useful precautions.’
Father Locarno frowned in thought, then nodded, as if to approve at least this much of their transaction. ‘I am told you are a criminal.’
‘And you are a spy.’
Locarno sniffed with disapproval – an instinctive gesture that flared the open passages on his face. ‘I serve only the greater peace. What is your question?’
‘What is a chemical marriage?’
‘My goodness.’ Locarno chuckled. ‘Not what I expected … not a common topic.’
‘Not uncommon in your field of expertise.’
Locarno shrugged. Chang knew the man was now rethinking the Bishop’s fate – and every other recent change in the city – in respect to alchemy.
‘This blood fever – now Lord Vandaariff has recovered, perhaps His Lordship the Bishop –’
Chang cut in sharply, ‘There is no cure. The Bishop is gone. This chemical marriage. What does it mean? Is it real?’
‘Real?’ Locarno settled back in his chair, the better to expound. ‘Your formulation is naive. It is an esoteric treatise. The Chemickal Marriage of Johann Valentin Andreæ is the third of the great Rosicrucian manifestos, dating from 1614 in Württemberg.’
‘A manifesto to what purpose?’
‘Purpose? What is enlightenment without faith? Power without government? Resurrection without redemption?’
Chang interrupted again. ‘I promise you, my interest in this ridiculous treatise is immediate and concrete. Lives depend upon it.’
Chang resisted the urge to snatch up his penknife and rumble ‘Yours’. Instead he placed both hands on the table and leant forward. ‘If I had the time to read the thing, I would. The explosions. The riots. The paralysis of the Ministries. One man is behind it all.’
‘The Comte d’Orkancz. You may also know him as the painter Oskar Veilandt.’
‘I have never heard either name.’
‘He is an alchemist.’
Locarno released a puff of disdain through the hole in his face. ‘What has he written?’
‘He has made paintings – a painting named for this treatise. I need to know what he intends by it.’
‘But that is absurd!’ Locarno shook his head. ‘These works are all inference and code precisely because such secrets can be perceived only by those who deserve the knowledge. Such a treatise may indeed tell a story, but its sense is more akin to symbolic mathematics.’
Chang nodded, recalling Veilandt’s paintings in which shadows and lines were actually densely rendered signs and equations.
‘For example, in such works, if one refers to a man, one also means the number 1. The Adept will further understand that the author also refers to what makes a man.’
‘I’m sorry –’
‘For what is man but spirit, body and mind? Which, of course, make the number 3 –’
‘So the number 1 and the number 3 are the same –’
‘Well, they can be. But the triune –’
‘What in all hell –’
‘Three-parted, for heaven’s sake! Body, spirit, mind. That triune constitution of Man will equally stand for the Nation and the three estates that form it: Church, aristocracy, citizenry. In today’s parlance one might substitute government for aristocracy, but the comparison holds. Moreover, the three estates – as every man carries the shadow of sin – necessarily contain their opposite, fallen aspects: the bigotry of the Church, the tyranny of the state and the ignorance of the mob. This duality is precisely why secrecy is of paramount importance in communicating any –’
‘This is exactly the nonsense I had hoped to avoid.’
‘Then your errand is hopeless.’
‘Can you not simply relate the thing as a tale?’
‘But it is no tale. I do not know how else to put it. Events occur, but without narrative. In its place comes only detail, description. If there is a bird, one must know what colour and what species. If there is a palace, how many rooms? If the seventh room, what colour are the walls? If the Executioner’s head is placed in a box, what kind of wood –’
‘Nevertheless, father, please.’
Father Locarno gave a querulous snort. ‘A saintly hermit attends a royal wedding, along with other guests. The guests undergo several trials, and a worthy few are admitted to the mysteries of the wedding. But before the young king and queen can be married, they and the royal party are executed. Then, by way of more rituals and sacrifices, they are miraculously reborn. This journey – the Chemickal Marriage – is emblematic of the joining of intelligence and love through the divine. The Bridegroom is reality, and the Bride – being a woman – is his opposite, the empty vessel who attains perfection through union with that purified essence.’
‘What do you think?’
Chang snorted. ‘Is it an instruction book for madmen or for a brothel?’
‘Those outside the veil rarely perceive –’
‘Again, the Bride and Groom. He is also reality and she –’
‘Is possibility, fecundity, emptiness. Woman.’
‘How bracingly original – fecundity and emptiness at the same time. And this king and queen – the Bride and Groom – are executed?’
‘Then brought back to life?’
‘Reborn and redeemed.’
‘And what is made, in this spectacular marriage – when these two become one?’ Chang’s voice became snide. ‘Or, excuse me, three – or also six –’
‘They make heaven on earth.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘The restoration of natural law.’
‘What does that mean?’
It was Locarno’s turn to scoff. ‘What informs our every dream? The return of Eden.’
In the lowest basement Chang availed himself of a porter’s luncheon, trustingly left on a table. He ate standing, and stuffed the last bites into his mouth before lifting the sewage grate with both hands. He emerged some time later in the shadow of St Celia’s madhouse. Chang washed his hands and face at its carved fountain – an infant baptized by Forgetfulness and Hope – and slopped water onto each boot, the worse for a second journey underground.
Three streets past St Celia’s was Fabrizi’s. Chang’s visit was brief – and cost the second of his rolled banknotes – but he was once more armed: a stick of ash with iron at the tip and, inside it, a double-edged blade, twelve inches and needle-sharp. Signor Fabrizi himself said nothing with regard to Chang’s absence or his present disarray, but Chang knew full well the picture he made. He had seen it himself too many times, men risking all on a last desperate throw – a gamble, it was obvious, they had already lost. If one ever saw them again it was only being pulled from the river, faces as shapeless and swollen as an uncooked loaf.
Before leaving, he had asked Father Locarno if there was anything unique to The Chemickal Marriage that might have explained its singular attraction for the Comte.
‘The messenger, of course.’
‘Of course? Then why not mention this before?’
The priest had huffed. ‘You wanted the story.’
‘The hermit is summoned by an angel, whose wings are “filled with eyes” – a reference to Argus, the hundred-eyed watchman slain by Hermes –’
‘A reference to what purpose?’
‘The messenger – the Virgin – is a figure of vigilance –’
‘Wait – the Bride is a multi-eyed virgin who is slain?’
Locarno had shaken his head in exasperation. ‘By Virgin I refer to the angel.’
‘Not the Bride?’
‘Not at all –’
‘The Bride is not a virgin?’
‘Of course she is. But the angel – the emblematic Virgin – messenger, summoner – also presides over the executions, the wedding and the rebirth. She is called Virgo Lucifera, and is quite unique to this particular work.’
‘Have you no Latin? Lucifera. Light. The virgin of enlightenment.’
‘A creature of tenderness and mercy, then?’
‘On the contrary. Angels have no more emotion than birds of prey. They are creatures of justice, and therefore relentless.’
A covetous pride infused Locarno’s speech. Chang turned with a shiver. There was enough cruelty in the world without its being worshipped.
Halfway back to St Celia’s was an apothecary’s, where Chang purchased a three-penny roll of gauze. As the clerk measured the cloth to cut, Chang’s gaze passed across the bottled opiates behind the counter. Any one would exhaust the coins in his pocket, requiring him to use the final banknote. He stuffed the gauze in his pocket and walked out before temptation got the better of him.
He hurried towards the high walls of St Albericht’s, a seminary given over to the Church’s more worldly concerns: finance, property, diplomatic intrigue. Was the blast at the cathedral damaging enough to force the Archbishop to shift his residence? Chang slipped into the shadows opposite St Albericht’s and was gratified by a veritable parade of displaced churchmen.
Something about the look Fabrizi had given Chang – that presentiment of doom – sparked a reckless daring. He emerged behind two black-frocked priests escorting an elderly monsignor in red, a satin toque capping his bald head like a cherry atop a block of ham. Chang stepped hard on one priest’s ankle. The man stumbled and when the second priest turned Chang knocked him, arms a-flailing, into the gutter. Chang’s arm hooked the Monsignor’s neck and dragged him into an alley, out of sight. It took perhaps five seconds to remove the long scarlet coat, and fewer to snatch the wallet beneath it, hanging by a strap across the old man’s chest.
He left the Monsignor slumped against the bricks. It was not often that Chang practised open thievery, but he was of the opinion that priests had no possessions themselves, only goods in common. Cardinal Chang, as common as they came, was pleased to liberate his share.
As he rushed on, Chang felt a distracting lightness. Attacking the priests might have been impulsive, but he’d never been truly at risk. No, the sharp edge to his mood was entirely due to time, as if death were a destination his nerves already sensed.
He had lost her. Undeserving people had died before – why was she different? Her mulish presence had destroyed his solitude, just as her ignorant ideals had exposed his complacency. The three of them on the Boniface rooftop. Without his realizing, Celeste Temple had come to embody Chang’s notion of the future. Not his own future so much as the possibility that someone might, with all the ridiculous attending symbolism, be saved.
Chang was unable to imagine a life beyond this fight.
When the ground began to rise, Chang ducked into a filthy alcove whose use as a privy had overtaken that for assignations. He balled up Foison’s silk coat and threw it into the corner. He tucked his glasses inside the fine red coat and did up the buttons to its high collar. He then wound the gauze around his eyes, thinly enough to still see, but so his scars peeked out. He left the alcove and continued with a slower pace, tapping his stick, until he reached the high stone steps. Almost immediately a man in an attorney’s robe offered Chang his arm. Chang accepted with a gracious murmur and they climbed together.
The ancient bones of the Marcelline Prison had been laid as an amphitheatre, built with the seats climbing naturally up the slope. The marble had long been stripped away to drape church fronts and country homes. All that remained of the original edifice was an archway carved with masks, jeering and weeping at each soul ferried through.
At the top of the steps Chang thanked the attorney and tapped his way to the guardhouse, introducing himself as Monsignor Lucifera, legate to the Archbishop. As hoped, the warder found it impossible to look away from Chang’s bandaged eyes.
‘I was at the cathedral. Such destruction cannot, of course, deter my errand. I require a man called Pfaff. Yellow hair, with an ugly orange coat. He will have been taken by your constables at the Seventh Bridge, or near the Palace.’
The warder paused. Chang cocked his head, as if listening for the man’s compliance.
‘Ah, well, sir –’
‘I expect you require a writ.’
‘I do, sir, yes. Standard custom –’
‘I have lost all such documents, along with my assistant, Father Skoll. Father Skoll’s arms, you see. Left like the poor doll of a wicked child.’
‘How horrid, sir –’
‘Thus I lack your writ.’ Chang could sense a restless line forming behind him, and made a point to speak more lingeringly. ‘The document case was in his hands, you understand. Shattered altogether. One would have thought poor Skoll a porcupine for the splinters –’
‘Jesus Lord –’
‘But perhaps you can make it right. Pfaff is a negligible villain, yet important to His Lordship. Do you have him here or not?’
The warder looked helplessly at the growing queue. He pushed the log book to Chang. ‘If you would just sign …’
‘How can I sign if I can’t see?’ mused Chang. Without waiting for an answer he groped broadly for the warder’s pen and obligingly scrawled – ‘Lucifera’ filling half the page.
Chang made his deliberate, tapping way inside, to another warder with another book. The warder ran an ink-stained finger down the page. ‘When delivered?’
‘Last night,’ Chang replied. ‘Or early this morning.’
The warder’s face settled in a frown. ‘We’ve no such name.’
‘Perhaps he gave another.’
‘Then he could be anyone. I’ve five hundred souls in the last twelve hours alone.’
‘Where are the men arrested at the Seventh Bridge – or the Palace, or St Isobel’s? You know the ones I mean. Delivered by the Army.’
The warder consulted his papers. ‘Still don’t have any man named Pfaff.’
‘With a p.’
‘Surely you have those men all rounded into one or two large cells.’
‘But how will you know if he’s there? You can’t see.’
Chang rapped the tip of his stick on the tiles. ‘God can always smell a villain.’
Chang had three times been in the Marcelline, on each occasion luckily redeemed before proceedings advanced to outright torture, and it was with a shiver that he descended to the narrow tiers. Chang did not expect the guards to recognize him – the cleric’s authority granted him an automatic deference – but a sharp-eyed prisoner might call out anything. If Chang was recognized, he had placed himself well beyond hope.
The corridors were slick with filth. Shouts rang out as he passed each cell – pleas for intervention, protests of innocence, cries of illness. He did not respond. The passage ended at a particularly large, iron-bound door. Chang’s guide rattled his truncheon across the viewing-hole and shouted that ‘any criminal named Pfaff’ had ten seconds to make himself known. A chorus of yells came in reply. Without listening, the guard roared that the first man claiming to be Pfaff but found to be an impostor would get forty lashes. The cell went quiet.
‘Ask for Jack Pfaff,’ suggested Chang. He looked at the other cells along the corridor, knowing the guard’s voice would carry, and that if Pfaff were elsewhere in the Marcelline he might hear. The guard obligingly bawled it out. There was no response. Despite the increased chance of recognition, Chang had no choice.
‘Open the door. Let me in.’
‘I can’t do that, Father –’
‘Obviously the man is hiding. Will you let him make us fools?’
‘No one will harm me. Tell them that if they try, you will slaughter every man. All will be well – it is a matter of knowing the sinning mind.’
The cell held at least a hundred men, crowded close as in a slave ship. The guard waded in, swinging his truncheon to make room. Chang entered a ring of faces that gleamed with sweat and blood.
Pfaff was not there. These were the refugees Chang had seen in the alleys and along the river – their only sins poverty and bad luck. Most were victims of Vandaariff’s weapon, beaten into submission after the glass spurs had set them to a frenzy. Chang doubted half would live the night. He extended his stick to the rear, waving generally – since he could not see – but guiding the guard’s attention to where a vaulting arch of brick created a tiny niche.
‘Is anyone lurking in the back?’
The guard shouted for the prisoners to shift, striking the hindmost aside with a deep-rooted, casual savagery. A single man lay curled, barely stirring, his face a mask of dried blood.
‘Found one,’ muttered the guard. ‘But I don’t –’
‘At last,’ cried Chang, and turned away. ‘That is the fellow. Bring him.’
The guard following with his burden, Chang tapped his way back to the first warder.
‘The Archbishop is most deeply obliged. Will I sign your book again?’
‘No need!’ The warden made note of the prisoner’s number, then carefully tore out half the page. ‘Your warrant. I am glad to have been of service.’
Chang took the paper and nodded to the slumping man, upright only by the guard’s vicious grip. ‘I require a coach – and those shackles off. He will do no further harm.’
‘But Father –’
‘Not to worry. He’ll have confession before anything.’
As soon as the coach was in motion, Chang tore the bandage from his head and used it to wipe the blood and grime from Cunsher’s face. The cuts above the man’s eyes and the bruising around his mouth spoke to a punishing interrogation, but Chang detected no serious wound.
Chang tapped Cunsher across the jaw. Cunsher flinched and rolled away his head. With a sigh, Chang wedged his other hand under Cunsher’s topcoat and pinched the muscle running along his left shoulder, very hard. Cunsher’s eyes opened and he thrashed against the pain. Chang forced Cunsher’s gaze to his.
‘Mr Cunsher … it is Cardinal Chang. You are safe, but we have little time.’
Cunsher shuddered, and he nodded with recognition. ‘Where am I?’
‘In a coach. What happened to Phelps?’
‘I have no idea. We were taken together, but questioned apart.’
‘At the Palace?’ Cunsher nodded. ‘Then why were you sent to the Marcelline?’
‘The officials who took us were fools.’ Cunsher probed for loose teeth with his tongue. ‘Did you take such trouble to find me?’
‘I sought someone else.’
Cunsher shut his eyes. ‘That you came at all is luck enough.’
In the minutes it took the coach to reach the Circus Garden, Chang explained what had happened since they had parted, revealing the loss of Celeste Temple only in passing.
‘The Doctor goes with the child to the Contessa’s rendezvous, but I cannot guess what she has gone to such lengths to show him, save this painting.’
‘Has she not already shown you the painting?’ asked Cunsher. ‘This glass card –’
‘But the actual canvas must be the heart of whatever Vandaariff plans.’
Cunsher frowned. ‘My being sent to prison shows how low my interrogators set my worth – a foreign tongue is a useful tool to suggest one’s idiocy – but it suggests the contrary for poor Phelps.’ Cunsher pressed the gauze to his oozing cheekbone. ‘Either he remains at the Palace, or he has been given over to Vandaariff. Or – and most likely – he is dead.’
‘I am sorry.’
‘And I for you. But this is what I wanted to say. Phelps did go to the Herald –’
‘Did he learn the painting’s location?’
‘The salon was in Vienna.’
‘Indeed, and the only reason the Herald printed the report was the rather large fire that consumed the entire city block, along with every piece of art in the salon. With regard to Veilandt’s œuvre, it was not seen as a loss.’ Cunsher’s puffed lip curled to a wry smile. ‘To the empire.’
Chang could not believe it. The painting was gone? What, then, was the point of the Contessa giving Svenson the glass card?
‘Do the others know?’ He shook his head, correcting himself. ‘Does Svenson?’
‘No, Mr Phelps told me as we walked to the fountain. Lord knows where the Doctor truly has been taken.’ Cunsher grimaced at his thumbnail, bruised purple, and brought it to his mouth to suck. ‘And conditions in the city?’
Chang’s reply was swallowed by an oath as the coach came to a sudden halt. He stuck his upper body out of the doorway. The street was a tangle of unmoving coaches. Trumpets clamoured ahead of them, followed by a menacing rush of drums and the crash of stamping boots. Chang ducked back inside, speaking urgently.
‘The Army holds the road – we should escape on foot, before there is violence.’ Chang leapt down, ignoring the protests of the driver, and extended a hand to Cunsher. ‘Can you walk?’
‘O yes, since I must. If we are blocked from above the Circus Garden, then this is … Moulting Lane? Just so – and if we keep to it as far as the canal –’
But Chang had already set off. The smaller man followed gamely, calling to Chang as they threaded a path through the debris.
‘The soldiers are not constables – that is, they do not think of suspects and disguises. The likes of us may escape notice.’
‘Unless they have been ordered to detain everyone,’ replied Chang. ‘You know full well how many of the men in your cell were innocent.’
Cunsher looked over his shoulder at another flourish from the trumpets. A gunshot cracked out, then a spatter of five more. Cunsher stumbled into a box of rotten cabbages and came to a stop. The next chorus of trumpets came laced with screams.
Chang took Cunsher’s arm and hauled him on. ‘God is nowhere a part of it.’
The Duke’s Canal was a narrow channel of green water, so choked with bridges and scaffolding that it vanished for wide stretches, then tenaciously reappeared, like an elderly aunt determined to survive her younger relations. But the route was bereft of soldiers and, mindful of Cunsher’s weakness, Chang spared a moment for a nearby tavern. He bought them each a pint of bitter ale, and pickled eggs from a crock for Cunsher. The small man consumed his meal in silence, sipping the beer and chewing as steadily as a patient mule.
‘Were you at the cathedral?’
Chang turned to the tavern’s brick hearth, where a grizzled man in shirtsleeves sat with a serving woman. Chang nodded.
‘When will it be stopped?’ the woman asked. ‘Where is the Queen?’
‘Queen?’ The man rumbled. ‘Where’s the old Duke? He’s the one we need! He’d lay ’em down like mowing wheat – damned rebels.’
‘A mob went to Raaxfall,’ called the barman. ‘Burnt the place like a pyre.’
The pensioner at the hearth nodded with grim relish. ‘No more than they deserved.’
‘Were the rebels from Raaxfall?’ asked Chang.
‘Of course they were!’
‘And yet we are just come from the Circus Garden,’ said Chang. ‘No one from Raaxfall in sight. Soldiers are shooting folk in the street.’
‘Rebels in the Circus Garden?’ piped the girl.
‘Dig ’em out!’ The old man slammed his tankard onto the bench, so the foam slopped over his hand. ‘Right into the grave!’
Chang took a pull at his mug. ‘And what if they come here?’
‘But if they do?’
The old man pointed at two rust-flecked sabres over the hearth. ‘We’ll have at ’em.’
‘Before or after the soldiers burn the entire street?’
The mood in the tavern went cold in an instant. Chang set down his mug and stood. ‘The Duke of Stäelmaere has been dead these two months.’
‘How do you know that?’ called the barman.
‘I saw his rotting corpse.’
‘By God – you’ll speak with respect!’ The old man rose to his feet.
‘There’s been no announcement,’ said the girl. ‘No funeral –’
‘Where are the funerals for the dead in the Customs House?’
‘What kind of priest are you?’ growled the barman.
‘No kind of priest at all.’
The barman stepped back nervously. Cunsher cleared his throat. He had finished the third egg. Chang set two coins on the counter, and flipped a third to the serving girl on his way to the door.
‘If you cannot see who you are fighting, then you ought to run.’
‘I see no use in scaring these people,’ Cunsher observed as they continued along the canal. ‘Does one blame sheep for their shyness?’
‘If the sheep is a man, I do.’
Cunsher scratched his moustache with a forefinger. ‘And if they did rise, like the mob that burnt Raaxfall – would you not despise them just the same?’
They walked on. Chang felt the man’s eyes.
‘What is it?’
‘Your pardon. The scars are extraordinary. How are you not blind?’
‘A gentle nature preserved me.’
‘Everyone is very curious to know what happened. Doctor Svenson and Mr Phelps discussed the matter one evening, in medical terms –’ At Chang’s silence Cunsher caught himself and bobbed a mute apology. ‘You are perhaps curious about my own history. The facts of exile, life left behind –’
‘No doubt it is a commonplace. How many souls does each of us preserve in memory? And when we pass, how many pass with us, remembered no more?’
‘I have no idea,’ Chang replied crisply. ‘What do you know of the Contessa’s patron in the Palace, Sophia of Strackenz?’
Cunsher nodded at the shift in conversation. ‘Another commonplace. An impoverished exile with the poor taste to have become unattractive.’
‘The Princess is insipid to an exceptional degree.’
Chang frowned. ‘The Contessa does not act without reason. She sequestered herself in the Palace while employing the glassworks and Crabbé’s laboratory. Now she has abandoned them all – as if an event she had worked for, or awaited, has finally occurred.’
Chang stopped. Cunsher came up to him and stood, breathing hard. When he saw where Chang had brought them, he clucked his tongue.
‘You grasp my idea,’ offered Chang.
‘Quite so. Court society is about patronage.’
‘And her target’s elevation is recent.’
‘Brazen, of course, but that is the lady.’
Given his appearance, Cunsher offered to remain outside and observe.
‘And if you do not reappear, or are exposed?’ he asked.
‘Escape. Find Svenson. Make your own way to Harschmort and put a bullet in Vandaariff’s brain.’
Cunsher twitched his moustache in a smile. Chang crossed to a mansion guarded by black-booted soldiers in high bearskins – elite guardsmen. The officer in charge had just given entry to a society lady with a beefy jawline and hair stained the colour of a tangerine. At Chang’s approach the officer resumed his former position, blocking the way.
‘Lieutenant. I require a word with Lady Axewith, if she is at home.’
‘At home is not the same as receiving, Father. Your business?’
‘The Archbishop’s business is with Lady Axewith.’ Chang was an inch taller than the grenadier and studied the man over his glasses, an ugly stare. The Lieutenant met it for perhaps two seconds.
‘How do I know you’re from the Archbishop?’
‘You don’t.’ Chang reached into the cleric’s coat and extracted a scrap of paper.
‘This is a prison warrant.’
‘Do you know how many criminals have been taken these last two days alone? Do you think the prisons can bear it?’
‘What is this to Lady Axewith?’
‘That’s for her to decide. Your choice is whether thwarting an archbishop puts paid to your career.’
It would be an exceptional junior officer to withstand such rhetoric, and the way was cleared. Chang stumped into the courtyard, leaning hard upon his stick, wondering if the Contessa had already spied him from a window.
Born Arthur Michael Forchmont, Lord Axewith succeeded to his title only after a withering year had claimed the uncle, cousins and father standing in his way. Lacking opinions of his own, he happily accepted those of the Duke of Stäelmaere, and at His Grace’s demise this tractability marked him as a reliable heir. Earnest, bluff, and blessedly disinterested in drink, the future Privy Minister had spent the bulk of his first forty years in the company of horses (even a fondness for stage actresses was affectionately tolerated by the public, as the assignations seemed limited to actual horseback riding). Upon his ascension to the title and entry to politics, Lord Axewith had chosen a wife and in turn that wife had doggedly given birth on a regular basis – seven births in near as many years, with four surviving. And for her pains, his child-ridden spouse now found herself the first lady of the land.
Chang could imagine the tide of flattery that had swelled around the wife of the new Privy Minister, bringing with it inclusion and isolation in equal measure. The Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza could hardly have found better circumstances in which to insinuate herself; too insignificant for any real interest at court, she would appear to be the safest soul in whom Lady Axewith might confide …
Two more guardsmen stood inside. A butler advanced with a tiny silver tray.
‘I have no card,’ Chang told him. ‘Monsignor Lucifera, sent by the Archbishop – Lady Axewith will not know me.’
The butler indicated a well-proportioned parlour. Chang’s eyes fell on a soft upholstered chaise. The prospect of stretching upon it pulled at him like a throbbing tooth. He shook his head.
‘No doubt many suitors beg for Lady Axewith to intervene with her husband. I have come for the lady herself, on a most private – if you will understand me – and intimate matter.’
The word hung in the air and Chang wondered if he had gone too far. An ‘intimate matter’ first and foremost meant accusations of scandal.
‘From the Archbishop?’ asked the butler.
Chang nodded gravely. The butler glided off without seeming to move his legs.
Chang stood in silence with the guards. The well-made walls would have muffled a gunshot. He wondered if the furnishings resembled what Celeste Temple had desired for her house with Roger Bascombe. A house was the venue through which a young woman’s every social ambition would be expressed. For the first time he realized that Celeste must have been well into the work before Bascombe had severed their engagement. Did her desk at the Boniface still contain those lists, the letters of inquiry to tradesmen, or had she burnt them, ashamed at those catalogues of outlived desire?
The butler returned, his voice as warm as old amber. ‘If you would follow me.’
Cardinal Chang had been employed by his share of wealthy clients, but strictly through a veil of intermediaries. His presence in a fine home usually came about through a forced lock or an unguarded window – which was only to say that Chang’s experience of the polite society of women was limited in the extreme. He knew there was a proper protocol, laid out with iron-bound rigour; yet, as he entered the foyer of Axewith House to call on the wife of the new head of the Privy Council, Chang might as well have been calling on the Empress of Japan.
‘He told the newspapers that trains were not stopping because of the rebels. But his diary claims otherwise. In truth, the entirety of the line from Raaxfall to Orange Canal –’
Upon Chang’s entrance the speaker went silent. He recognized the dress and hair – this was the lady who had preceded him through the gate – but the whole of her face, like that of the other eight women in the room, was concealed behind a mask of hanging tulle. What was more, despite the greedy cadence of gossip, Chang very much felt as if he had interrupted a formal report.
The butler murmured an introduction and slipped away. The women sat without any indication of precedence. Chang fell to a respectful bow. He did not know what Lady Axewith looked like.
‘How kind of you to call, Monsignor.’ This was a woman to his left, thick forearms poking from tight satin sleeves. ‘I do not recall you amongst the Archbishop’s retinue, though it seems a face one is bound to remember.’
She sniggered into one hand. Chang nodded in reply. At this the woman giggled again, along with several others.
‘Would you care for tea?’ Another lady, with a ribbon around her throat.
‘No, thank you.’
‘Then we shall go straight to your intimate matter. A provocative entrance.’
‘And unpleasant, Monsignor.’ The woman with tight sleeves shook her head. ‘A pernicious preamble used to justify anything.’
‘Even to put soldiers in one’s foyer,’ added the woman with the ribbon. ‘For protection, of course. Have you come to protect us too?’
‘Having met the Archbishop, I should not expect charity.’ This was the woman with tangerine hair, whose voice had lost its lilt.
‘Lucifera is a wicked-sounding name, for a churchman,’ observed the woman with the ribbon.
‘The name is from the Latin, meaning light.’ Chang addressed the far end of the room, the women who were so far silent. ‘As Lucifer is Lightborn, the first of the angels. Some say the Virgin Lucifera presides over executions, weddings and rebirth. An angel.’
This woman had not yet spoken. Her pale hair, the colour of sea-bleached wood, fell onto a sable collar. Moderately stout, not too old. Just above the collar, he saw a silver necklace with blue stones.
‘Presides how?’ she repeated.
‘Some would call it alchemy.’ A disdainful twitter danced around the room.
‘I’m sure the Archbishop cannot have sent you to raise such forbidden topics.’
Chang silently crossed to her. He took the teacup from her saucer. He brought it to his nose – he could not smell a thing – and sniffed. ‘That you hide yourselves shows you have some minimal awareness of the risk …’ He emptied the contents onto the floor and then released the teacup. It landed on the carpet with a bounce, unharmed. The woman laughed.
‘If you suspect the tea, I am already doomed. That was my second cup!’ The other women laughed with her, their amusement falling suddenly silent at the realization that, as they had watched the cup, Chang had slipped a dagger from his stick. The blade hung inches from the chain of blue stones that ringed – Chang was sure – Lady Axewith’s throat.
Chang kept his voice as courtly as before. ‘With the confusion at the cathedral, how simple would it be for a man to bluff an entry and end this woman’s life?’
He brought his heel down onto the teacup, grinding the shards. ‘Are you so very sure of yourselves – your network of intelligence? Did she tell you nothing?’
Lady Axewith could not help but touch her throat. ‘She?’
‘Where is the Contessa?’
‘What Contessa? Who are you?’
‘Someone who has seen her face in a bride’s mask.’
‘Tell her. She will see me – her life depends upon it.’
‘I am afraid there is no Contessa –’
‘Do not lie! Where is she? The Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza.’
Chang’s fierce pronouncement of the name was followed by a sudden hushed silence. Then the entire circle of women erupted with laughter.
‘Her? Why should anyone want her?’
‘That vulgar Italian? She is no one at all!’
‘Strackenz’s lap dog!’ called the woman with the ribbon, setting off a fresh cascade.
‘Dirty Venetian,’ said the woman with tangerine hair. ‘Mind like a monkey.’
‘Who gave you her name?’ asked another. ‘Pont-Joule? Some other rake with personal experience?’
‘One of the guardsmen?’
‘She skulks in the Palace as if it were an alleyway –’
‘Rubbish through and through!’
‘Diseased. I know it for a fact!’
‘Truly, Monsignor,’ Lady Axewith observed acidly, ‘who knew the Church contained such wits? I am in need of more tea – though you have robbed me of my cup! Byrnes!’ A bald-headed footman arrived with a fresh cup and saucer and set to pouring around the room, a dutiful bee in a bed of overblown peonies.
Chang did not know what to do. Their response was not, he was sure, put on for his benefit. To these women, the Contessa’s independence, her disdain, her association with outrageous figures such as the Comte or Francis Xonck, would inspire only resentment and ridicule. For the first time he understood that the women whom the Cabal had drawn to its inner circles – Margaret Hooke or Caroline Stearne – were not themselves high-born. Women of real social power had been targeted for harvest – their memories absorbed into a glass book – and then flung aside. But if he had guessed wrongly, if she had not organized these ladies to gather information for her … why had the Contessa gone to the Palace?
‘Tea, Monsignor?’ The servant hovered near, cup and saucer in one hand and a silver teapot in the other. The man was slender and the pot was heavy, his grip made unsure by pearl-grey gloves.
‘No.’ Chang restored the dagger to his stick, turning his gaze to Lady Axewith. Her eyes, above the veil, were animated, but the whites shot with blood. His gaze dropped to her fingers. Did they all wear gloves? No, only Lady Axewith.
‘Perhaps our false Monsignor will confess the true reason for his visit …’ This was the woman with the ribbon. ‘Which is to serve notice that our enterprise is known!’
‘Yes,’ said the woman with tight satin sleeves. ‘If we are to quiver in fear, should we not know by whom we have been warned?’
‘Is it the Archbishop?’
‘Is it the Ministries?’
Lady Axewith shook her head. ‘Those parties would never send such an agent.’
‘Then who?’ cried the woman with tangerine hair. ‘Is he one of these rebels after all?’
She was on her feet and tugging on a hanging bell-pull. Chang met the prim satisfaction in her eyes, and spoke calmly.
‘You take great pride in yourselves – and, no doubt, as an organ of intelligence, none can match you in the city. So, with respect, I tell you this. The explosive devices detonated across this city were packed with spurs formed of blue glass. These glass spurs were produced in quantities at the Xonck works at Raaxfall, a fortress – I assure you – your supposed rebels have never penetrated. The authorities know this. They have told no one. I leave you to your own conclusions.’
By the time he rose from his bow, the butler stood waiting in the open doorway.
At the end of the corridor, Chang bent his head to the butler’s ear. The butler’s silence transmitted disapproval, but he nevertheless led Chang to a tiny anteroom. Inside was a modern commode, and, above it, for ventilation and a touch of light, a transom-window. Chang stood on the seat. The window was hinged and he hauled his body through, finding handholds in the crevices of brick. He flicked the window shut with his foot. Any search would first be on the ground …
Chang crouched in an upstairs corridor, listening. Even if he had guessed correctly, there was little time. Voices rose from the foyer, women requesting their coaches. Chang hurried along the hall, opening doors – a bedchamber, a closet, another commode – and finally found one that was locked. His hand on the knob, he heard footsteps behind it, but then the sounds faded, rising upwards … a stairwell. Chang waited a count of ten, then forced the bolt. The sharp crack brought no cry of alarm. Was he already too late?
Two flights up Chang saw the butler knocking on a door.
‘My lady? It is Whorrel. Answer me, please – are you well?’
Whorrel turned at Chang’s approach, but Chang overrode any protest. ‘Don’t you have a key?’
‘It is the lady’s own retreat – the cupola room –’
Chang pounded with his fist. No response. ‘How long has she been from your sight?’
‘But how did you – the soldiers were instructed –’
‘I cannot say! Only minutes –’
Whorrel sputtered as Chang once more forced an entrance. Again, the jarring snap was met with silence. Chang pushed inside and saw why.
Lady Axewith lay on the carpet, staring at a pane of swirling blue – a single page detached from a glass book. Her mouth was open and saliva dripped onto the glass. The nails on Lady Axewith’s bare hand were ragged and yellowed, as if each fingertip had begun to rot. Unmasked, her lips were scabbed, gums blazing, nostrils crusted with a pink discharge.
Whorrel rushed for his mistress, but Chang caught his arm.
‘What is wrong with her?’ asked Whorrel.
‘Pull her away. Now.’
The butler tried to raise his mistress to a sitting position, but she fought to stay near the glass. Chang drove his foot into the plate, snapping it to pieces. Lady Axewith wheezed in protest. He heard the clutch in her throat and stepped clear as she spattered vomit, first onto the broken shards and then, tumbling into Whorrel’s arms, over the front of her own dress. Her eyes rolled in her head and her hands clutched at the air.
‘Sweet Christ! Is it a fit?’ Whorrel looked helplessly at Chang. ‘Is it catching?’
The window behind the writing desk was open. Atop the desk sat a box lantern, wick alight, next to a pile of coloured glass squares. The squares fitted across the lantern’s aperture, tinting the light: a signal lamp, and it could even be used during the day, if the receiver possessed a telescope. Chang scanned the nearby rooftops, then – cursing his dullness of mind – set to searching the desk.
‘I cannot allow any trespass!’ cried Whorrel. ‘Lady Axewith’s private papers –’
But Chang had already found a small brass spyglass. He squinted into the eyepiece, easing the sections back and forth to find his focus. Foreshortened gables and eaves slanted up and down like theatrical scenery of painted waves. He wiped his eye on his sleeve and peered again. An uncurtained upper window … a desk, a table … and another lantern.
‘What shall I do? Shall I call a doctor?’
The butler had dragged his mistress clear and wiped her face and front. Her eyelids fluttered. The silver necklace of blue stones gleamed below her throat. Chang wrenched it free, snapping the clasp. Lady Axewith screamed. Whorrel reached for the necklace, but Chang held it at arm’s length, as if the man were a child after a sweet. He raised the necklace to the light, peering into a blue stone. His body met its delirious contents like a lover, and it was only Whorrel’s touch on his shoulder that broke the spell. Chang shook his head, marvelling at the Contessa’s raw practicality. The harvested memories of an opium eater were every bit as addictive as the drug itself, only more portable and easily hidden – so simply insinuated into the life of this respectable lady and in constant contact with her skin. His eyes caught the shattered plate of glass on the floor and he shuddered to think what extremities it had contained to deepen Lady Axewith’s dependency.
He dropped the necklace on the floor and stamped on the stones, smashing each one to dust. Whorrel struggled to stop him and Chang shoved the man against the wall.
‘The necklace is poison,’ Chang said hoarsely. ‘Search her things for the blue glass. Destroy it all. Do not touch it, do not look into it, or it will be you rotting to pieces.’
‘But what … what of Lady Axewith?’
‘Destroy the glass. Find a doctor. Perhaps she can be saved.’
Chang strode out and down the stairs, Whorrel’s plaintive cry echoing above him. ‘Perhaps? Perhaps?’
Chang walked wordlessly past the Lieutenant at the gate. Around the first corner he broke into a run for the front of St Amelia’s. Cunsher dodged through traffic to join him, and in a few broken, huffing sentences Chang explained what had occurred.
‘She was just there,’ said Chang. ‘I’m sure she saw me enter.’
‘Constanza Street,’ gasped Cunsher. ‘Or such would be my guess.’
Constanza Street was blocked by another picquet of horsemen. Cunsher skirted behind the crowd waiting to cross. Chang had no idea where Cunsher was going, but followed – Cunsher was like a startled mouse that always managed to find a hole, no matter the circumstances of its discovery.
‘The soldiers will block her progress as much as ours.’ Cunsher’s mutter was only half audible. ‘So, what does the lady do? The further from Axewith House she appears, the better, thus – ha – she will exit from the rear –’
‘And to the opera!’ Chang groaned. ‘Its cab stand is three streets away!’
They burst across the avenue in a desperate rush, dodging into the first narrow alley they found. Chang’s longer stride took him past Cunsher at the first turn. The alley’s end showed a narrow slice of the opera’s stone façade. Cunsher careened into a side street, but Chang sped on, straight for a line of black coaches. The foremost coach, drawn by a pair of mottled grey horses, was just pulling away.
He raced after it, shouting at pedestrians to clear his path. The grey team had entered the wide roundabout in front of the opera, beyond which it would vanish into the city. Chang bowled into the roundabout, dodging horses and curses equally, and leapt to the island at its eye, a vast fountain. Funded by colonial interests, the fountain celebrated the splendours of Asia, Africa and America with three goddesses, each atop heaps of indigenous plenty – deities, beasts and native peoples all spouting water from their mouths with an equal lack of dignity. Chang hurried round the circle, pacing the coach – hidden now behind two tribeswomen riding a tiger – and readied himself to dash back into the road.
Quite suddenly the coach pulled short and the driver stood, slashing his whip at something on the coach’s far side. Seizing his chance, Chang crossed the distance and leapt onto the door, reaching through the unglazed window. At the impact, the Contessa spun from the window opposite and swore aloud. She hacked at his fingers with her spike, but Chang thrust his stick through the doorway. The tip struck the Contessa like a fist and drove her back to the corner of her seat. Chang swept himself in, kicking the spike from her hand. Before she could find it Chang had his stick apart and the dagger poised.
The coach had stopped. Through the far window Chang caught a glimpse of a small figure in brown, just beyond the driver’s whip. Cunsher had anticipated correctly, once again. In his hands were cobblestones, to throw. The mortified driver called to the Contessa – was she in danger? Should he shout for the soldiers?
The dagger touching her breast, Chang caught the swinging door and pulled it shut.
‘Drive on!’ the Contessa shouted, her eyes never shifting from Chang’s. ‘And if anyone else gets in your way, run them down!’
‘You will forgive me,’ he said, and snatched up her spike, half expecting the Contessa to attack him in the instant his attention was split. She did not move. He felt the weight of the custom-made weapon, recalled its impact near his spine. Chang threw it out of the window.
‘Well, the highwayman in full daylight. Will you cut my throat now, or after my ravishment?’
Chang settled in the opposite seat. They both knew that had his object been her life, she would be dead.
‘Who was your confederate, the gnome with the moustache? If I’d a pistol I would have shot him dead. And not a word of protest would have been raised – just as no one cares when a lady’s coach has been waylaid.’ She cocked her head. ‘How is your back?’
‘I run and jump like a stallion.’
‘The spine is damnably narrow – in the dark, one’s aim goes awry. I don’t suppose you would remove your spectacles?’
‘Why should I?’
‘So I can see what he’s done, of course. You’d be surprised how much one can tell – the eyes, the tongue, the pulse – I do not venture to bodily discharge in a moving coach. Oskar would have made a fine physician, you know, within his particular realm.’
‘His realm is monstrous.’
‘Ambition is always monstrous. You should have seen him in Paris – the house in the Marais, the stench – and that was just his painting!’
Chang slid the dagger back into his stick. The Contessa tensed herself as he reached deliberately to her and pressed a gloved finger on the exact spot, just below her sternum, where his stick had struck home.
‘Do not doubt me, Rosamonde.’
‘Why would I do that?’ She dropped her eyes. ‘That is tender.’
Chang was suddenly aware how simple it would be to turn his threat to a caress. She would not have stopped him. The woman’s appetite was as flagrant as a peacock’s feathers and as private as – well, as any woman’s inner mind. She laid a hand on his wrist.
‘I had words with Doctor Svenson –’
‘Release my arm or I will hurt you.’
The Contessa restored the hand to her lap. ‘Must you be so unpleasant – so stupid?’
‘I am stupid enough to have you in my power.’
The Contessa sighed with exasperation. ‘You carry the past like a convict carries chains. What has happened means nothing, Cardinal. Time may change every atom of our minds. Whose youth has not held a quaking fool, distraught, disgraced – a razor’s edge from taking their own life? And for causes that, if one can call them to mind after even four months, are no more worth dying for than last year’s fashions are worth ten pfennigs to the pound.’
‘You speak to excuse yourself.’
‘If you will take my life at the end of things, Cardinal, then you will, or I will take yours, or both our skulls will serve as Lord Vandaariff’s finger-bowls. But until then – please.’
The Contessa laid a hand across her brow – her left hand, he noticed, remembering the gash across her right shoulder. Did she still favour it?
‘I do congratulate you on the costume,’ she said. ‘The irony sings.’
Chang nodded towards the driver. ‘Where were you going?’
‘Does it matter? I’m sure you have your own plans for everything.’ The Contessa shook her head and smiled. ‘Now I am the sour cloud. Did you know Doctor Svenson nearly shot me dead? I trust his not being here means the child has finally spurred him to business. I do not recommend the use of children, in all truth. They whine, they forget, they are hungry – and the tears! Good God, every way you turn there is snivelling –’
‘Where were you going?’
She glared at him, her cheeks touched with colour, then laughed – still a lovely sound, for all that the merriment was forced.
‘Where we can, Cardinal. Every thoroughfare between the Circus Garden and the river is blocked and Stropping Station is its own armed camp. Thus’ – she arched an eyebrow – ‘the mighty Robert Vandaariff takes the city in his all-powerful fist.’
Chang nodded to the window. ‘But our present path takes us straight to the Circus Garden.’
‘I am aware of it, yet I think we have a few minutes to extend this fascinating talk.’
‘You speak of Vandaariff’s fist. According to Doctor Svenson, these explosions apparently elude your concern.’
‘On the contrary, I am inspired to avoid large gatherings.’
‘Is that why you quit the Palace?’
‘The Palace is in actuality as dreary as a beehive – the buzzing of drones –’
‘Enough. On every front where Vandaariff has extended himself, you have only ceded ground. The explosions, his control of Axewith, martial law, property seizures – you have opposed none of it.’
‘How could I? Have you?’
‘I have tried.’
‘With what result, apart from Celeste Temple being blown to rags?’ The Contessa reached for a small clutch bag at her side. Chang caught her hand and she disdainfully opened the bag to reveal a flat lacquered case and her cigarette holder.
‘How did you know that?’ he asked tightly.
‘How do you think? From the wife of a deputy minister who heard it directly from Vandaariff himself – what else is that gaggle of harpies good for? I am at least informed.’ The Contessa wedged a white cigarette into her holder. She set a match to the tip, shut her eyes as she inhaled, and then let the smoke out through her nose. ‘Sweet Christ.’
Her momentary surrender to pleasure – or, if not pleasure, relief – brought the taste of opium back to Chang’s mind. How simple it would have been to preserve just one of Lady Axewith’s jewels. The Contessa waved the smoke from her face.
‘Oskar was never like the rest of us. He truly is an artist, with the calling’s every dreadful quality. He seeks no sensation for itself, but only to further his work.’
‘But Oskar Veilandt is not Robert Vandaariff. You saw what happened at Parchfeldt – if you have tasted that book, you know what he’s become. Whatever may have guided his intentions before –’
‘I disagree – or, yes, he has changed his destination, but not the path. Not his style.’
‘You cannot pretend this chaos is what the Comte d’Orkancz would have done.’
‘Of course not, but neither does he care about it now.’
‘I have seen him care for nothing else!’
‘You are wrong. He stretches the canvas and sets his paints in order. He has not begun.’
‘But the city –’
‘The city can burn.’
‘But Axewith –’
‘Every lord and every minister can burn as well – to Oskar they are mindless ants.’
‘But how can you stand apart –’
‘For the moment, I am trying to survive.’
Chang snorted with disbelief. ‘The day you are content with mere scrabbling –’
‘Don’t be a damned fool!’ hissed the Contessa. ‘That day has dawned. Ask the corpse of Celeste Temple if it hasn’t.’
At the Contessa’s instruction, the coach left them in a trim French-styled square of gravel paths and flowers. Chang helped the Contessa to the cobbles, scanning the park for any sign of Vandaariff’s agents. The Contessa thrust coins into the driver’s hand, whispering in the man’s ear. Before Chang could overhear she had broken off, walking along the square.
‘This way, Cardinal, if you insist on coming.’
Many of the large houses bore brass plaques, some announcing a nation’s diplomatic mission, in other cases an especially exclusive practice in medicine or the law. That the streets were empty seemed a strangely opposite reaction to the city’s turmoil. Were these enclaves so protected? The Contessa paused at a narrow alley next to the Moldovar Legation. She took his hand, turning so as not to drag her dress against the wall, and held a finger to her lips for silence. He had assumed their destination to be the embassy, but instead it was the mansion next door, a servant’s entrance, he would have said, though the alley was too narrow to allow deliveries. The Contessa rapped lightly, then looked past Chang’s shoulder.
‘Is that man watching us from the street?’
He turned, like an idiot, and then it was too late. He felt the edge against his neck – a blue glass card snapped raggedly along its length.
‘I have not been entirely honest,’ the Contessa confessed.
The wooden door opened, to Chang’s utter disgust.
‘Well, look who it is!’
Jack Pfaff gave the Contessa an adoring smile.
Pfaff relieved Chang of his stick and led them in. The ground floor of the house had been converted to the needs of a consulting physician, with examination rooms, surgery and a private study, where the proprietor awaited them.
‘Doctor Piersohn, Cardinal Chang. We have little time – Cardinal, if you would remove your clothes.’ The Contessa nodded to Pfaff, who pulled apart Chang’s stick. She rummaged in her bag and set to fitting a cigarette to her holder. Chang had not moved.
‘Your clothes, Cardinal. Piersohn must examine you. We must send an answer at once.’
‘What answer?’ Chang gazed coldly at Piersohn, who stood behind his desk. The Doctor was short and barrel-chested. His protuberant eyes were ringed with the faintest excrescence of dried plum: the fading scars of the Process. Piersohn’s thick hair matched the surgical coat he wore over a patterned waistcoat, and shone with pomade. His hands were chapped like a laundress’s. Chang wondered what sort of practice Piersohn actually pursued.
‘To Robert Vandaariff, of course,’ replied the Contessa. ‘He has offered an exchange, and I must decide how best to prepare the one sent.’
‘Prepare for what?’
‘For God’s sake – will you take off your coat at least? I promise you I have seen a man in his shirtsleeves and will not faint.’
Chang began to undo the red silk buttons of the cleric’s coat. He glanced at Pfaff, measuring the distance between them. The Doctor, behind the desk, could be discounted, and the Contessa had made the mistake of sitting down. The dagger cane would be an unfamiliar weapon to Pfaff, and, once Chang’s coat was off – their request put his best weapon straight in hand – it would be a moment’s work to whip it across Pfaff’s eyes and step past the blade. Two swift blows and Pfaff would be down. Chang did not even need to recover the dagger. He could snatch up an end table and dash out the Contessa’s brains.
He slipped off the scarlet coat and took casual hold of the collar. ‘If you hope to exchange me, may I ask what you will receive in trade?’
The Contessa blew smoke at the ceiling. ‘Not what, but whom. I was not strictly forthcoming during our ride. Celeste Temple lives. Vandaariff has her, and offers her to me, in hopes that I will hand over Francesca Trapping. However, my intuition says he would be even more delighted to get you.’
Chang blinked behind his dark spectacles.
‘That is a lie, to make me cooperate.’
‘It is not.’
‘Why should I trust you, of all people on earth?’
‘Because our interests are one. Besides, Cardinal, can you afford not to believe me? Will you fail her yet again?’
The Contessa’s face might have been made of porcelain for all he could penetrate her thoughts. He knew she viewed his compliance with contempt.
‘Where do you gain in this? Celeste Temple is your enemy.’
‘She remains useful – providing Oskar has not too much despoiled her, of course – another reason time is of the essence. Because I will not deliver Francesca Trapping –’
‘As you’ve given her to Doctor Svenson.’
‘I have done nothing of the kind. She is quite easily recovered.’
‘You underestimate him.’
‘The question is whether I have underestimated you. If you do not choose with speed, I must refuse his offer, and Miss Temple will surely die.’
‘What would you have done had I not found you?’
‘Something else. But once you did appear, I was able to oblige everyone. Our driver has carried word to Vandaariff.’
‘Then take me to him and be done with it.’
‘I said I was obliging, not that I was stupid. Take off your shirt.’
She tapped her ash into a dish of liquorice sweets. ‘Near the base of the spine, Doctor. Any adaptation will be there.’
Chang draped his coat over a chair and set his spectacles atop it. He hauled his black shirt over his head, restored the spectacles and laid the shirt next to the coat. Piersohn had come around the desk, pulling behind him a standing tray of shining implements.
‘So many scars.’ The Contessa studied Chang’s bare torso. ‘Like one of Oskar’s paintings. Sigils, he calls them – as if some ancient, lost god has scratched its name on your flesh. Isn’t that a charming thought, Cardinal, fit for poetry?’
‘Fit for a graveyard,’ said Pfaff. He aimed the stick at a line along Chang’s ribcage. ‘How’d you get that one?’
‘Do you mind, sir?’ snapped Piersohn, waving the stick away.
Pfaff only lifted it out of reach and then, as soon as the Doctor’s attention returned to his tools, darted it forward, tapping Chang’s scar. Chang snatched at the haft, but Pfaff, laughing, was too quick.
‘Please, Jack,’ the Contessa called genially. ‘The time.’
Pfaff grinned, his point made, and gave the Doctor room.
‘If you would turn, and place your hands there.’ The Doctor indicated a leather-topped table. Chang did as he was asked, leaning forward.
‘Christ in heaven!’ blurted Pfaff. ‘Is it plague?’
‘Be quiet, Jack!’ hissed the Contessa.
Chang felt the rough tips of Piersohn’s fingers palpate the perimeter of his wound.
‘The original puncture just missed the spine on one side and the kidney on the other – a shallow wound, and lucky, as the blade pulled upwards –’
‘Yes,’ the Contessa said impatiently. ‘But what has been done? That colour.’
Piersohn pressed against the object Vandaariff had placed in Chang’s body. Chang clenched his jaw, not at pain, for he felt none, but at a queasy discomfort. Each time Piersohn touched the wound, Chang sensed more clearly the piece of glass inside him. Piersohn reached to feel Chang’s forehead.
‘The inflammation,’ the Contessa asked, ‘is it sepsis or an effect of the stone?’
‘As far as I can determine, the discoloration is inert, almost a kind of stain.’ Doctor Piersohn resumed his pressure on Chang’s back. ‘Is this painful?’
The Contessa leant over the arm of her chair so she could see Chang’s face. ‘Did he say anything? You must tell me, Cardinal, even if you took it for nonsense –’
Chang stared at the table. He could feel the heat in his face and sweat under each eye. ‘He told me I could cut his throat in three days.’
‘Just that. As if it were a joke.’
‘When?’ The Contessa shot to her feet. ‘When did he say this?’
‘Three days ago. Today is the day. Believe me, I am perfectly willing to take him up on his offer –’ Chang turned at the rattle of Piersohn taking something from his tray. ‘If that man draws a drop of blood I will break his neck.’
The Contessa whispered in Piersohn’s ear, ‘Pray do not mind. He is deranged.’
‘That seems all the more reason to mind, madam.’
‘Is drawing blood strictly necessary?’
‘All manner of tests depend upon it.’
‘Derangement, Doctor, mere derangement –’
‘But what threads bind him to reason? Without knowing the programme of his new master –’
‘I have no master!’ shouted Chang.
The Contessa nodded to one of the squat bottles. ‘Very well, Doctor. Do what you can.’
The Doctor doused a ball of cotton wool from the bottle, staining it a pale orange. ‘Now, let us see. If the inflammation recedes –’
‘It won’t,’ said Chang quickly. Piersohn paused, the cotton suspended inches from Chang’s lower back. ‘Doctor Svenson attempted a similar procedure, with the same orange mineral, with drastic results.’
‘Doctor Svenson?’ asked Piersohn. ‘Who is he? Did he even know how to apply –’
The Contessa grasped the Doctor’s arm. ‘Drastic how, Cardinal?’
‘I was not in a position to take notes,’ replied Chang. ‘The inflammation deepened and spread. He also applied blue glass, with an equally dismal effect – a congestion in the lungs –’
‘An imbecile could have foreseen that,’ sniffed Piersohn.
‘Shouldn’t you cut him open?’ asked Pfaff. ‘If we want to see what it is, that’s the simplest way.’
‘Why don’t I open up your head?’ Chang growled.
‘Hush. I have an idea of my own.’ Chang felt the Contessa’s slim fingers on his spine and tensed himself. ‘Try the iron.’
Piersohn dunked another cotton ball from a second bottle. Chang inhaled sharply as it touched his wound, icy cold. He could not hear them speak for a hissing in each ear. He arched his back and broke the contact.
‘A palpable reaction,’ muttered Piersohn, ‘but it fades already. Perhaps if we try the metals in sequence –’
‘What in hell are you doing?’ demanded Chang. It was as if he had returned to the table at Raaxfall.
‘Isolating the alchemical compound, of course.’
Chang flinched again. The taste of ash curled his tongue.
‘Why, look at that. Do keep going, Doctor …’
Chang shut his eyes, wanting to pull away, to thrash Pfaff to a pulp, to kick Piersohn across the room, but he did not move, knuckles whitening as he squeezed the table. Celeste Temple was alive. If he was not exchanged, there was no telling what Vandaariff would do.
The next application sent sparks across his vision. The one after that was like he’d been pricked with a hundred needles. The one following – against every bit of reason – sparked a vivid scent. Chang had lacked the ability to smell for more than ten years, but now he shook his head at the searing aroma of cordite. The next set off a fire in his loins and for the instant of contact he felt like a bull in rut, snorting air through each nostril with the shock of it. Then the cotton ball was removed and he gasped with relief, barely noting the Doctor’s procedural murmur.
‘And last of all, quicksilver …’
Each of the other applications had brought a sudden, specific reaction, but this last swallowed Chang’s senses as wholly as if his head had been forced into cold water. His bearings were lost in a swirl of visions from the Comte’s painting. His hands were black … his foot sank into the fertile earth of a new-tilled field … he was naked … he wore a swirling robe … he held a sword bright as the sun… and all around him faces, in the air like hanging lamps, people he knew – laughing, begging, bloodied – and then before him knelt the Contessa – blue teeth, one hand groping his thigh, and in the other, offered up, vivid red, visceral, oozing –
He was gasping, his face pressed into the leather table top. What had happened? What had been done to him?
‘It is the worst result,’ the Contessa was saying. ‘All tempered into one.’
‘That is impossible,’ replied Piersohn. ‘Whatever his intention, the chemical facts –’
‘A moment, Doctor.’ Chang felt her touch. ‘Are you with us, Cardinal Chang?’
‘Can you remove it?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
Chang pushed himself to his feet, and called harshly to Piersohn, ‘Can you remove it without killing me?’
Piersohn shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, whatever has been implanted, enough time has passed that the seeding –’
‘Seeding?’ Chang kicked the standing tray, crashing it back into the Doctor’s desk.
‘That is the Comte’s own term,’ protested Piersohn.
‘For what?’ shouted Chang. ‘What has he done?’
Piersohn glanced warily at the Contessa. ‘He made many notes – untested theories … a procedure for the assimilation of glass within a body.’