Sam knew it was a terrible idea, but once he realised he had to go back to Exilium his course was set. It was like the time he and Dave decided to see who could drink the most tequila without throwing up or passing out. As they matched each other shot for shot he knew it was stupid – perhaps even dangerous – but once they’d had the idea it was impossible to ignore. It was like a cannon already fired; something was bound to be broken, it was just a matter of what.
As he walked out of King’s Cross station and looked down the Euston Road, Sam doubted his plan. It wasn’t much of one anyway: go to the last place the blonde girl had been seen and look for something… weird. The television appeal from her family was still raw in his thoughts. If he hadn’t been watching the news over breakfast he’d be at work now, perhaps even successfully putting the events of the last few weeks behind him and doing what the Sorcerer had ordered: not telling a living soul about his entanglement with the Fae, and getting back to his mundane life.
But he had seen it and recognised the blonde as one of the enslaved dancers in Exilium. Cathy had said there was nothing he could do but everything had changed since then. The Rose had been broken, that’s what they said. Those people might be free, but trapped on the wrong side of the Nether.
He’d tried to call Cathy but the phone went straight to voicemail. She was probably in the Nether and he had no idea how to get there without the Sorcerer’s help. He couldn’t go to the police. What would he say? “Good morning, officer. Those missing blondes – the ones you didn’t seem to notice were being kidnapped – are being held in a beautiful magical prison created for the Fae.” Sam knew they’d either laugh at him or have him sectioned. Neither would help those people.
Sam wasn’t entirely sure he was still sane. At least Leanne had left without being tangled up in it all. She’d already moved to London and he’d promised to join her as soon as he could arrange some time off work. He would never be able to tell her anything about what had happened to him and he wasn’t sure their marriage could survive the strain.
Ultimately he would have to hand in his notice – if he wasn’t sacked first – and move to London. He’d never really wanted to live in the Big Smoke, but since the trip to Exilium he’d lost all motivation for his job. Perhaps a change would be good for the marriage too.
Perhaps he needed therapy.
He walked past the British Library with the slow pace of a lost tourist. He looked up at the higher floors of the huge buildings and down into the drains and gutter. What did he expect to find? A lock of blonde hair? A rose petal? A convenient note detailing instructions for the kidnappers?
“You twat,” he whispered to himself. “What the arse are you going to do anyway?”
He headed back towards the station, thinking it might be best to abandon his childish attempt at heroics and go and visit Leanne at the apartment. He hadn’t even seen it and he was supposed to be moving in soon.
Waiting at a set of traffic lights, he looked up at the huge hotel on the other side and then down the road he was about to cross. Surely they wouldn’t take a girl anywhere near such a busy road? Perhaps they’d led her into a side street like the one he was looking down, away from the crowds and CCTV.
He crossed and turned left, keeping the hotel and station on his right. He’d never appreciated how far back King’s Cross stretched. He passed dozens of waiting taxis and decided to do a circuit of the area immediately around the station. Further down Midland Road he was about to turn back when he saw greenery incongruous with the urban concrete around him. Remembering the intense green of Exilium’s meadows he pressed on, finding a church set back from the road behind ornate iron gates.
The churchyard had been turned into a small park and Sam found its natural peace irresistible. He went through the gates and immediately felt better, as if the place had dropped a blanket around his shoulders to protect him against the quiet violence of the city. He strolled to an elaborate tomb, past an ornate blue drinking fountain and up to the church. He didn’t go inside when he heard music coming from within, not wanting to interrupt anything, so he walked around the back and came across an oak tree with dozens of gravestones stacked at its base.
He stared at the way the roots had grown between the slabs until the stones and the tree looked like they’d always been one. There was probably a metaphor for life and death in there somewhere.
He jumped and looked for the source of the high-pitched voice. It sounded like a–
He crouched and peered into the dark crevice between two gravestones. A tiny face moved out of the shadow for a moment and then an equally tiny hand waved at him. It was the faerie from Exilium, the one who’d led him and Cathy to Lord Poppy.
“Bloody hell! What are you doing here?” he whispered. “I thought you guys were trapped in Exilium.”
“We can come through in the oldest places, if we’re very careful. How clever of you to come here.”
“I had no idea… wait – what do you mean?”
“You want to come back, don’t you? To Exilium?” When he nodded, it clapped its hands. “I’ll take you. Close your eyes.”
He hesitated. The first time he’d met one of them in Mundanus they’d Charmed the fuck out of his brain and practically ruined his life. The second time he met one, Cathy had walloped it with a plate. He was fairly certain this one was actually helpful in Exilium, but not certain enough.
“I promise I’m taking you into Exilium to help you,” it said. “I won’t take you anywhere horrid or turn you inside out.”
Sam remembered the people he had to find. How else was he going to get there? He closed his eyes. There was a brief tickle on his left eyelid, then on the right, and his ears popped.
He was struck by a distinct change in air quality; the grim fumes he’d already become accustomed to in London had been replaced by the sweet scent of flowers.
Sam opened his eyes. The blue of the sky made him ache for childhood summers, playing outside in seemingly endless sunshine, and the grass was so verdant it made him doubt he’d ever seen real grass before.
Then he remembered what Cathy told him: people could get lost there forever if they didn’t stay focused. He looked at the faerie. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen any blonde people here lately? They’re from Mundanus.”
The faerie flashed an excited smile. “Oh, yes! Would you like me to take you to them?”
“Yes! Brilliant!” Sam said, following as it set off. Maybe this heroic rescue thing wasn’t going to be so hard after all.
Catherine sat in her nightdress. Her feet were cold; the slippers were still tucked neatly in their usual place just to the left of her bare toes. Leaden, she leaned back towards the welcoming divot her head had made overnight.
“Oh, no, you don’t!” the maid dashed over to pull Cathy onto her feet. “Time to get up now, Miss Papaver! There’s so much to do. The mistress said I need to wash you quick.”
The nightdress was pulled off her and the sponge rubbed up and down her arms. Cathy watched the activity with complete detachment. “So much to do,” the maid had said. That resonated.
“You must be so excited,” the maid gabbled. Cathy wondered if she’d been talking all along and she just hadn’t realised it.
She was about to ask why when the maid had already moved onto another subject. All she wanted to do was lie down and go back to sleep. Once she’d been washed and dried, an unfamiliar silk dressing gown was tied about her waist.
Cathy could feel a flutter of something unpleasant in her stomach. Had something bad happened? Was that why there was so much noise?
She could hear servants clattering up and down the stairs. The house was filled with the sound of orders being given and occasional shrieks from her sister down the hallway. The latter was nothing new.
“Come on, now,” the maid said. She’d opened the door and was looking at her expectantly. Cathy assumed she wanted her to leave, but walking felt like a distant memory of something she once did to pass the time. “You’re to be dressed in your mother’s dressing room today.”
“Why?” Cathy fought to form her lips around the word.
“It’s tradition, isn’t it?” The maid had resorted to pulling her along.
Again, that sense of something terrible, a long way away from where she was now. She felt a dull serenity as she watched maids carrying all manner of things up and down the stairs. One was running out of her sister’s room in tears, a hairbrush flying out after her.
Then she was in her mother’s dressing room. Aside from a huge mirror, the walls were filled with cupboards and wardrobes. A single red chaise-longue was positioned in the centre of the room.
Cathy was left looking at the pink glow lingering on her skin from the maid’s earnest scrubbing. It was like looking at a painting of herself; she felt no connection to her reflection.
A woman bustled in with two assistants and, after a liberal application of talcum powder, Cathy found herself in the midst of efficient dressing. When she was in silk hose and bloomers, chemise and corset, her mother entered, wearing a blood-red dress with large black buttons. Her sister was close behind, hair half pinned up, a nervous maid trailing after her with a basket of hair clips and other accessories.
“You look well rested,” Mother said.
Elizabeth sat on the chaise-longue. She was wearing a dressing gown over her underwear, judging from her tiny waist. “Now for goodness’ sake get it right!” she said to the maid after taking the basket from her. She picked out a hairpin and passed it to the girl, whose hands were trembling. “What are you staring at?” Cathy realised she’d lost track of herself again.
“Now, now, dear,” Mother said, inspecting her own hair in the mirror. “Today is the one day you have to be particularly nice to Catherine.”
“Already? I thought that was once we leave the house.”
“Elizabeth.” Mother gave her a look that ended Elizabeth’s pout.
“Once my hair is pinned I want you to tighten my lacing, Mama, you’re so much better at it. I want to make Imogen look like an elephant next to me. And I need a new lady’s maid, mine is hopeless.”
Imogen. Imogen Reticulata-Iris. William’s sister. Just the thought of him made that distant flutter spike into a brief burst of something bright and sharp.
“I think I… I was going to do something.” Cathy realised she’d spoken aloud when her mother came over.
“You don’t need to do anything except stand there and be dressed.” She looked into Cathy’s eyes as if checking that a long-lost cat was still missing. “Elizabeth, did you eat anything at breakfast?”
“I had a small cup of tea and not a morsel of food. I’d rather faint than be too full for a tight lacing, Mama. Catherine slept too late to join us. I expected you to be up before the rest of us today.”
“Why?” Cathy asked, but Elizabeth was too busy slapping at the maid’s hand for jabbing a pin into her scalp.
“Are you ready for your dress, Miss Papaver?” The woman was familiar, but it took her a few moments to place her as the dressmaker. “Are you feeling all right?”
“She’s fine,” Mother said. “Start dressing her now.”
Cathy was guided, pulled and pushed into a heavy embroidered gown. It was white. She stared at it in the mirror as the tiny buttons were done up the back. Its crystal beads glinted in the sprite light. Through her muddied thoughts, two facts bubbled slowly to the surface: it was a wedding dress, and this was very, very wrong.
“Is she going to faint?” the dressmaker said as Cathy swayed.
“No.” Mother took hold of Cathy’s arm and clasped her hand tight.
“I had to do something,” Cathy said, trying to shake off the wooliness. “I had to–”
“Hush now, dear.” Mother patted her hand. “You’re just a little lightheaded, that’s all, it’s perfectly natural.”
Elizabeth came over and looked into her eyes. “Oh, Mother, look at her. She can’t get married like that. Did you give her poppy milk?”
“Just so she would have a good night’s sleep.” Mother’s smile was more smug than compassionate. “We’ll make sure she’s bright and wide awake when she needs to be. Now let me see to your lacing whilst they pin Catherine’s hair. The carriage will be here soon.”
As Cathy was steered to the seat, she remembered she’d intended to tear the bed sheet into strips and escape from the window of her bedroom. She wasn’t supposed to be getting married, she finally realised, but the thought was as slippery as a melting icicle. Her eyelids drooped and she found it hard to keep her head up. Nap first, escape later, she thought. There would be time. There was always time for sleep.
Max watched Axon stitch the incision closed as Petra peeled off the latex gloves covered in the dead Arbiter’s blood. In the silence of the cloister the only sounds had been those of the autopsy. Both Petra and Axon were clearly shaken by what they’d seen but Max’s emotions were safely locked away in the gargoyle back at the Sorcerer’s house.
The Sorcerer came to the doorway holding a handkerchief over his nose and mouth. “All done?”
“Yes, Mr Ekstrand, all done,” Petra replied, taking off the apron and washing her hands in a nearby basin of water. “Once Axon has finished, I suggest we repair to the house.”
“Good idea,” Ekstrand replied. “What are your initial impressions?”
Max could see Petra’s hands trembling with fatigue. She’d been working solidly for two long days. Axon had noticed it too. “Perhaps that would be better discussed over a cup of tea sir,” he suggested, tying off the thick black thread.
“I’ll open a Way,” Ekstrand said. “Thank you for your hard work. An admirable activity for a Thursday, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Indeed, sir.” Axon pulled off his gloves. “I’ll see to everything back here once refreshments have been served.” That earned a grateful smile from Petra.