Feathers & Bones
Fume was a city of darkness. The buildings were tall and angular, built from black stone and dark wood, each one reaching up to six floors high, casting shadows across the winding streets. Kate was standing upon a wide balcony at the top of the northern wall, alongside a spiral staircase leading down into the city itself. From that vantage point she could see the rest of the city’s outer walls circling round like encompassing arms reaching far beyond the horizon, and the pointed roofs of the tower-like buildings scratching at a layer of fog that balanced across them like a sickly blanket.
Every building was an exaggeration of what a building should have been. Where Morvane had ordinary houses, Fume had clusters of tall towers huddled together like whispering old men and streets of grand homes with black slate roofs all shimmering with frost. It was powerful, aggressive and magnificent all at once, all built upon the bones of Albion’s ancestors. Kate had expected to see riches, but nothing like this.
She looked behind her. The wardens had to be close, so she grabbed the handrail of the curling staircase that wound in upon itself impossibly tight and headed down.
The metal steps creaked and wobbled beneath her, but she kept going, clinging on to the central post for balance and hitting the ground at a run, not daring to catch her breath as the staircase swayed with the weight of someone following behind her. The towers looked even taller now she was underneath them: immovable monuments to the dead that not even the High Council would dare to strip away. She ran between them on to the nearest street, past railings that circled the towers like iron skirts, and squeezed through the first gate she could find, ducking down behind a neatly-trimmed hedge and trusting it to keep her hidden as she spied on the road.
Carriages trundled leisurely past her hiding place, but no wardens came and she was just about to creep out and risk checking the staircase when she heard a familiar voice close by.
‘One more sound out of you, and I will slice you ear to ear.’
Kate peered round the side of the hedge. Standing there as ominous as the city around him was Silas, with Edgar by his side, bound to him by a wrist chain.
‘I should have killed you when I had the chance,’ said Silas, raising a hand to the sky and letting his crow flutter down to land proudly upon it. ‘You always were trouble.’
‘She won’t follow us, you know,’ said Edgar, his nervous voice a little higher than usual. The crow glared down at him, watching his every move. ‘Kate doesn’t even know her way around the city. She won’t know where we are.’
‘She’ll know.’ Silas stopped for a moment, making Kate retreat further into her hiding place. ‘I would have stripped that station bare in search of her if it would not have attracted unwanted questions,’ he said. ‘Perhaps this way is for the best. I have you now, Mr Rill. The Winters family have always looked after each other and you are as good as family to that girl from what I have seen. Wherever I take you, your friend will not be far behind.’
‘Don’t count on it,’ said Edgar. ‘Kate’s a lot smarter than you think.’
‘We shall see.’ Silas reached his hand into the street and a horse-drawn carriage with a blue crest on its door pulled up to the pathside. ‘The Museum of History,’ he said to the driver. ‘And don’t spare the whip.’ Silas carried his crow inside and tugged Edgar in behind him like a disobedient dog. The reins snapped hard and the grey horse trotted forward.
Kate didn’t have to think about what to do next. If she lost Edgar now, she could lose him for good. She darted out from her hiding place, ran straight for the carriage and grabbed hold of the luggage rack hooked on to the back. But the horse gained speed more quickly than she expected. Her boots caught on the cobbles and she tripped, wrenching her arms as she tried to hang on. Her fingers clamped tight, letting her feet drag painfully along the ground until the horse slowed to take a corner and she was able to keep up with it again. With her legs back under her control she managed to jump up, hooking her left foot into a twisted loop of ornamental metal that caged the carriage’s rear axle.
The whip cracked, the horse sped to a gallop and the carriage wheels spun at a racing pace until it was cutting through the streets faster than a wolf could run. Kate’s right leg hung down painfully as she clung to the rack’s cold metal, and she forced most of her weight into her left leg, trying to keep her balance. No one paid her any attention. There were dozens of carriages on the streets, many of them with people tucked into the luggage racks or riding on the roof - servants, she guessed from their bedraggled states - but none of them were travelling as fast as the one under Silas’s command.
The carriage raced along streets decorated with sinister stone statues, past low buildings topped with staring gargoyles that spat meltwater down on to the paths below. The driver was definitely taking Silas at his word. The whip cracked hard every few seconds and the horse sped on, forcing well-dressed men and women to move aside to let it speed through. Most of the streets looked much the same as the rest, built to match perfectly the architecture of the old ages that made up the oldest parts of Fume. Kate was starting to think they were going around in circles when one of the wheels hit a stone on a tight turn and the carriage lurched sharply, almost sending her catapulting out on to the road. She clung on as it bounced along into a wide street lined with huge grey buildings until, with a snort of relief, the horse finally slowed to a stop.
They were at the bottom of a high curve of shallow steps, looking up at the once-grand face of what had to be the Museum of History. If people had ever used that place as a museum, they were nowhere to be seen now. Its windows were tall and thin, tinted with green glass, every one of them still intact. A strange feeling hung around that building. The same quiet stillness that settled over cemeteries, as if the dead were standing on those steps still watching the living. Kate was willing to guess that housing a museum was not the only way that building had spent its many years of life.
The carriage door swung open before Kate had a chance to move. Silas stepped out and pushed Edgar up the steps, heading for a door at the top while Kate unhooked her foot and dropped down from the luggage rack. Her left leg stung as the carriage rolled away and she limped up the steps, sneaking into the museum through an unlocked side door once Silas and Edgar had walked in through the front.
The door led into a short corridor and through to a narrow room lined with glass cases. There was no one around. From the look of the cobwebs hanging thickly from the ceiling, the museum had been abandoned for a very long time. Every case was empty, each one lined with faded fabric that bore the dark shadows of necklaces, rings and gemstones that had once been held inside.
There were six doors leading out of the room, not including the one she came in through, and all of them were shut tight. The first one she tried opened to an odd chemical smell. It was dark in there and there was no sign of Edgar, so she tried the second, which opened on to a staircase leading down to a lower floor. Kate thought she heard noises echoing below: sharp footsteps heading the opposite way, but her experiences with cellars were bad enough to make her hesitate on the top step.
Silas.’ A woman’s voice carried from behind a door to Kate’s right, taking her by surprise.
The voice was strong and commanding and Kate matched a face to it at once. It was the woman she had seen in her vision at the boarding house. The one Silas had gone to meet there. The woman called Da’ru.
Kate opened the third door as silently as she could and peered through the gap, hearing Silas’s voice on the other side. ‘Be careful, my lady. Remember where you are. Your voice is loud enough to call the dead.’
Da’ru was standing beneath enormous skeletons of long-dead creatures that were hanging down from the ceiling and Silas walked towards her, his expression caught somewhere between obedience and hate. Kate could see most of the hall from where she stood, but Edgar was not there. The chain was no longer in Silas’s hand. There was no sign of him anywhere.
‘You have had long enough,’ said Da’ru. ‘Where is the girl? My officers informed me that you kept one prisoner separate from the rest on the night train and yet she has not been delivered to the High Council. Why?’
‘There was a commotion at the station,’ said Silas. ‘A boy was causing trouble and I had to deal with him.’
Kate pushed the door a little further and stopped when it creaked slightly. No one noticed, so she stuck her head round to get a good look at what was going on.
‘And the prisoner?’ said Da’ru. ‘Where is she now?’
Silas hesitated, his eyes narrowing as he chose whether to lie to her or not. ‘Secure,’ he said at last.
‘Then you do have her?’
Silas nodded firmly, and his jaw twitched with anger as he waited for Da’ru to speak.
‘I should not have to come looking for you,’ she said. ‘Your first duty is to me. The only reason you are not locked away beneath the council chambers is because you have proved yourself useful. My name is feared for good reason, Silas. And you above all others should fear me the most.’
Silas took another step towards her. ‘I fear nothing,’ he said.
‘Then I suggest you pay closer attention to your work, or that will soon change.’ Da’ru locked eyes with Silas without a hint of fear and Kate did not doubt the seriousness of her threat.
Boy!’ Da’ru’s voice echoed around the hall.
Footsteps rattled along the upper level of the building and a young boy’s face appeared on a gallery encircling the main hall. ‘I haven’t found anyone yet, my lady,’ he said, bowing as he spoke. ‘I’ll keep looking.’
Da’ru turned back to Silas. ‘Where is she?’
Silas glared and said nothing.
‘You would not be here if the girl was not close by,’ said Da’ru. ‘You will hand her over immediately, or I will have you thrown into a cell and charged with treachery.’
‘Your presence here threatens everything I have set in place,’ said Silas. ‘Leave. Now.’
Da’ru smiled, raising her chin to expose her bare neck, and Kate saw something cruel and terrifying behind the beauty of her face. ‘Do not test me,’ she said. ‘You are nothing but a dog on a lead to me, Silas. The rest of the council may still trust you, but I know how much you would like to kill me if you could. You could take your revenge against me, right here and now, but you know what will happen if you do. Without me, the blood within your veins will slow and die. Your body will wither and what is left of your soul will be sealed inside your rotting bones, unable to live and forbidden to die. Your world will be silent. Your name forgotten. My wardens will bury your worthless body where it will never be found and the only battle left for you to fight will be against the worms as they slither upon your skull and feast upon your eyes.’
Silas stood unflinchingly before her, neither of them willing to give the other an inch.
‘You already know that there are far worse punishments than a simple death,’ said Da’ru. ‘The half-life of the veil is a torturous place and immortality lasts a long, long time.’
Silas glanced in Kate’s direction, just once, so quickly that she might not have noticed it. He relaxed his shoulders a little and the tension in the room lifted as it looked like he was about to back down.
‘Return to the chambers,’ he said to Da’ru. ‘I will deliver the girl. Assemble the council and tell them we shall perform the first procedure tonight.’
‘The council does not waste its time upon empty promises. She should be ours already.’
‘Leave her to me,’ said Silas, bowing his head a little and taking a small step back. ‘Trust me, my lady. Everything is going to plan.’
Kate backed away from the door. Silas knew she was there! But she couldn’t leave. Not with Edgar still in there somewhere. She ran as softly as she could back between the display cases. The boy was searching upstairs, he mustn’t have found Edgar up there. Then she remembered the footsteps in the cellar. The second door was still hanging open, waiting for her.
The steps beyond were tight and cramped, leading down into a huge dark space broken only by pillars that held the main floors up. Sunlight crept in through flat windows squashed against the ceiling, but it was still too dark to see anything near the middle of the room. Kate followed the wall, staying close to the light, and walked past high tables stacked with specimen jars; some empty, but most sickeningly full. There were birds, frogs, fish, spiders, beetles and flies, all dried and pinned to stands inside the green glass, or drowned in thick choking liquid that kept them preserved against time.
Something rattled on the other side of the enormous room.
Kate froze.
‘Edgar?’ Her whisper was lost in the darkness.
Stuffed birds hung down from the ceiling and old feathers covered the floor, their spines crunching beneath her feet as she followed the edge of the table towards the noise. Then the sound came again.
A line of doors were set into one of the longest walls and one of them rattled hard as she made her way towards it. They looked like storage cupboards, but the one that was moving still had a key sitting in its lock.
Kate crept cautiously to the door and whispered through the keyhole. ‘Edgar? Is that you?’
Kate turned the key quickly, the door swung open and Edgar - who had leaned against it to listen to her voice - flopped straight out on to the floor.
‘Ow! You could’ve warned me!’ he moaned, trying to stand up. His wrists were tied behind his back and Kate knelt down to free them. ‘How did you know where I was?’
‘Shhh! They’ll hear you.’
‘Silas … he just left me in there!’ said Edgar. ‘I was almost out though. One of my thumbs was loose, and that door would’ve given in eventually. Not bad, I’d say.’
‘We have to get out of here,’ said Kate, helping him up once she was done. ‘It’s not just him any more. There’s a woman here. I think it’s the councilwoman. She’s right upstairs.’
‘Da’ru is here?’
Kate clamped a hand over his mouth. ‘Yes. Not so loud. I know the way out. So just follow me and keep quiet.’
Edgar nodded and she let him go. ‘Lead the way,’ he whispered.
Kate followed the tables back towards the cellar steps, trying to ignore the eerie faces of the dead creatures glaring out at her from the jars. The silence was frightening and she was just about to say something to break it when Edgar grabbed her arm.
‘Kate,’ he breathed. ‘Stay still.’ But it was too late. Kate looked over to where the steps began and saw a tall figure standing there. Silas. His grey eyes shone with an eerie light. His voice echoed powerfully around the cellar.
‘There is no way out, Miss Winters,’ he said, stepping into the dappled sunlight. ‘The rules have changed. You are in my world now.’