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Authors: Emma Newman

Between Two Thorns

BOOK: Between Two Thorns
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EMMA NEWMAN
Between Two Thorns
Book 1 of
The Split Worlds
 
For the one who listened to a crazy idea on a summer afternoon and said yes
 
1
 
That night in Bath was the third time Sam’s beer bladder had got him into trouble. The first involved a bus, an empty bottle and a terrible underestimation of its volume. The second was at his wedding, when he’d taken an emergency piss behind the marquee, only to discover that with the stately home’s floodlights behind him, the silhouette of his relief was in plain view from the top table. Five years later he still hadn’t lived that one down.
Clothed in the warm blanket of inebriation, all Sam cared about was finding a secluded spot off the path to ease his discomfort so he could enjoy the walk home without an aching bladder.
The good and sensible residents of Bath were asleep in their beds and the street was far enough away from the centre to be free of drunken locals and lost tourists. The grand Georgian buildings he stumbled past were cast in a soft orange glow by the streetlights, the autumn night mild and still. Despite the crowds and visiting school parties, the endless requests for photo taking and the traffic, he did love the city. It was where he and Leanne had married and built a life together, even though it wasn’t the one he’d anticipated. The tourists would never know the city like he did. The old tree in Abbey Green wasn’t just a nice place to eat ice-cream near the famous bun shop, it was the place he proposed to her. Milsom Street wasn’t just a row of shops, it was the road they had marched down as student protesters back in the days before they somehow forgot how angry they were and got a mortgage.
His wife was out at yet another function with her oily boss and he wasn’t drunk enough to forget it. His friend Dave tried his best to get him slaughtered but ended up drinking himself past slurring into belligerence. Sam had poured him into a cab then decided to walk. He couldn’t drink like he did on a work night, not with a deadline the next day.
His need to relieve himself had become critically urgent by the time he reached the end of Great Pulteney Street. Heading up Sydney Place, Sam saw a familiar alleyway, one that led to the old gardener’s lodge behind the Holburne Museum. It was closed with empty grounds full of trees perfect for his needs so he lurched off the street and into the darkness. He kept a hand on the wall to steady himself, the stone cold under his fingertips. A few steps along he wondered if he’d make it to a tree, when he saw a pair of stout wooden gates open on the right.
A quick glance confirmed there was no one to see him slip into the grounds of the museum. There were trees aplenty, the solid stone wall was behind him and the building was far enough away on the other side of the driveway for him to relieve himself without fear of discovery.
“The perfect crime,” he whispered and then sighed with pleasure.
Once it was done and his trousers mostly zipped up, he turned to sneak back out the gates but a thud and hissed curse brought his attention back to the museum.
Light was spilling from a side door and Sam feared an irate security guard was about to run out. He imagined the news headlines: drunken man caught trespassing after relieving himself in museum grounds.
But then he saw a large bundle spilling over the threshold and the light was now hovering above it like a glowing dragonfly. Sam went back to the damp tree and peered out from behind it.
A man stepped over the bundle, out onto the steps. He was thin, very tall, and his limbs looked too long to be normal. His grace was reminiscent of a harvest spider’s delicate movement. He was dressed in what looked like a black morning suit, something not unlike what Sam had been wearing that night behind the marquee.
Crouching, the man’s long legs folded beneath him as the dragonfly whizzed about over the bundle. He lifted it and Sam realised there must be someone else still inside the museum lifting the other end.
The man took a step backwards, revealing more of the load, and Sam shivered. He’d seen enough films to recognise a body wrapped in cloth, and, from the way the man was moving, it looked heavy enough too. The bundled person wasn’t moving; a dead weight.
“Oh, bollocks,” Sam muttered, not wanting to witness any more. But he couldn’t resist watching as the second person emerged, carrying the feet of the deceased. He was an exact copy of the first, same thin and impossibly long limbs, same clothes, same struggle to carry the body.
“Don’t forget the steps, brother.”
“Will you keep still!” the first hissed at the dragonfly and it hovered over the steps, casting enough light for them to navigate their way out of the museum, as if it had understood.
There was no car on the drive, and Sam could see the main gates were shut. They were turning towards the trees and he understood all too late why the side gate had been open.
If he ran for the gate now, they’d see him, so he held his breath, stopped peering around the trunk and sucked his belly in, hoping they’d be so busy worrying about the body they’d go past his tree without noticing him.
“This is rather demeaning,” one of them moaned. “We hadn’t anticipated–”
“Shush. Concentrate on where we’re going, the Arbiters are going to realise they’ve been distracted more quickly than we’d like.”
“Couldn’t one of the slaves have dealt with this? It’s beneath us.”
“Of course they couldn’t. Stop moaning.”
“Oh!” A tiny, high-pitched voice interrupted their bickering. They were only a few metres away; Sam worried they could hear his heart banging. He hadn’t seen a third person – had they just come out of the museum?
“What is it?” one of the men asked.
“I can smell a mundane. Very close. Euw! A man and he smells horrid.”
The voice was childlike and so quiet. Sam closed his eyes, feeling a rush of self-loathing for putting himself in the path of murderers just because he needed a piss.
The black turned to pink as a light was shone on his face. The sixth beer wanted to make a sudden reappearance. He opened his eyes, squinting, and saw the light coming from what he’d thought was a dragonfly. He’d been so very wrong.
“He’s here,” the tiny thing said.
Sam wondered if something had been dropped in that last beer. He couldn’t remember trying anything at university that could cause flashbacks, even though this felt like it was turning into one hell of a trip.
“What the arse are you?” he slurred. “Tinkerbell?”
It looked like a tiny man, but prettier than any he’d ever seen, wearing a tunic made of dusky pink petals. Its eyes were large, blue, its hair blonde and wispy. It glowed in the darkness and it was pointing at him.
He heard the body being dumped and the two men were there faster than he thought possible. They looked like identical twins, but up close they seemed less human. Their faces were long, in keeping with the rest of them, with sharp features and thin, cruel lips. In the dim light, their eyes looked like blackened almonds.
“What are you doing here?” the one on the left asked.
“Nothing. I didn’t see anything!”
The faerie started to laugh, until it was batted away.
“No one will miss a mundane, they kill each other all the time,” the one on the right said.
Left’s hand shot at Sam’s throat, grasping it tight before he could even take a breath to beg for his life. Instinctively, Sam grasped at the wrist and when his hands closed around it the man leaped back as if he’d been electrocuted.
Sam decided to run but, before he had a chance to move, Right had caught hold of his left wrist and was inspecting his hand, his aquiline nose wrinkling in disgust.
“Oh!” the faerie squealed and covered its eyes.
“He’s protected.”
The brothers were staring at his wedding ring.
“We can’t kill him,” Left said, clutching his wrist to his chest where Sam had grabbed it. “Lord Iron would know.”
Lord Iron? Sam wondered whether he’d passed out halfway through the pee and was just slumped in the autumn leaves having the strangest dream of his life.
“We can’t enslave him, and we can’t rip his mind out,” Right said. “This is almost disastrous.”
“Almost, but he doesn’t have anything of his own,” Left said, peering into Sam’s eyes as if he were trying to see the inside back of his skull. “He’s defenceless.”
Right smiled and blew at the faerie, making it uncover its face. “Bind his memories in chains and put him under the Fool’s Charm,” he instructed, and it clapped its hands in delight.
“Make the chains strong,” Left added, holding Sam’s left hand out as far as his arm could be stretched, “and weave the Charm deep into his soul. We will not be compromised by a filthy mundane, not when there’s so much at stake.”
Right took his other arm and pulled until he was stretched between them, the tree trunk solid against his back. Even though they were thin, they were strong enough to hold him still despite his struggles.
The faerie came closer until Sam couldn’t focus on it without crossing his eyes. Its smile made the back of his neck prickle. It hovered near the end of his nose before moving round to his left ear. He couldn’t hear the wings, but he felt it brush his earlobe. It felt like a bug and he shook his head until Right pinned it to the tree.
The faerie whispered. Sam couldn’t make out the words but somehow his body could. He thrashed in their grip, sweat bursting out on his forehead, tree bark gashing the back of his head.
Spidery men… Dragonflies… Leaves… Gates… taxi… Dave… crisps… beer. Beer, beer, beer.
 
Black.
 
 
2
 
Cathy’s socks were squelching by the time she reached Cloth Fair, a narrow London street tucked beside an ancient church. “Bloody weather,” she muttered and then silently took it back. The sky was the colour of a day-old bruise and the wind was bitter but she still loved it just for being there. She never wanted to see a silver sky again.
The street was as empty as she’d hoped it would be. The weather was too foul for people to linger and everyone had gone home from work. She whispered the words of the Charm the Shopkeeper taught her as she knocked the hammer against the metal plate on the door. In moments there was the sound of a lock being turned twice and then the door opened inward, a haze in the air indicating it was leading directly into the Nether property. Cathy took one last glance down the mundane street and stepped through, feeling the gentlest tingle across her face as she crossed the threshold into the Emporium of Things in Between and Besides. She closed the door without turning around, knowing there was only silence and silver mist where there should be thunderheads.
The shop was closed to customers but the Shopkeeper was still in his usual place behind the glass counter, the only clear surface amidst the thousands of bottles, packets and magical curiosities filling the space from floor to ceiling. He wore his usual tweed suit and bowtie and not a single white hair was out of place. He was reading, but the leather-bound book was resting on the counter-top so she couldn’t see the title.
He peered at her over the top of his glasses. “You’re wet.”
“It’s raining in Mundanus. Horizontally,” Cathy replied. The Shopkeeper pursed his lips at the drops splashing onto the wooden floorboards around her. “Sorry, you know I can’t risk travelling in the Nether. The underground was all buggered up and the bus was too full, it always is when it’s chucking it down.”
“You’ve been spending far too much time in Mundanus. Your vocabulary is bordering on the nonsensical.”
“I do apologise.” She made her vowels as plummy as she could as she peeled off her raincoat. “I like the way everyone talks there. It’s easy… like wearing a T-shirt after being in a corset.”
He cleared his throat. “I wouldn’t know.” He positioned his bookmark and closed the book carefully before taking off his glasses. “It’s your last day.”
“Until the next vacation, yes. Here’s the key to the flat. I left it the way I found it.” She placed it on the counter.
“Mmm.” The Shopkeeper secreted it below the counter. “You’re determined to continue with your rebellion?”
“Yes.”
“And you haven’t been approached by anyone… unusual in Manchester?”
“No. Should I have been?”
“Not at all.” He retrieved a duster and ran it over the nearest shelf even though there wasn’t a speck on it. He had powerful Charms in place to keep it all gleaming; a dusty shop implied a lack of popularity. “But I think it’s a risky place to live, Catherine.”
She shuddered at the use of her full name. “Do you mean Mundanus in general or just Manchester in particular?”
“Both.”
“I disagree. In fact, Manchester is much nicer than London and the people are much friendlier.” They both knew it was too risky for her to live in London all the time, so she condensed the time she worked for him into long weekends in her vacation. The mundane flat he provided was nice enough and in a very unfashionable area that was perfect for her needs.
“All of this is unwise, in fact. Recklessness never did anyone any good, you know.”
“Are you regretting helping me?” When he didn’t reply she hung her coat on the stand, left her bag beside it and came closer. “It’s a bit late for that, isn’t it? You’re in just as deep as I am.”
“As I tell all of my customers, I merely supply the Charms, I leave the moral judgement to the buyer.”
“It’s not that simple and you know it. And anyway, I haven’t done anything immoral. What’s this about? Has my father been here?”
His dusting was getting more flustered. “Your brother came in yesterday.”
She went over to one of the other shelves, trying to distract herself from the surge of anxiety. It didn’t work. “Is he well?”
“He wanted a more powerful Seeker Charm.” When she froze, he added, “Not powerful enough to break the Shadow Charm I gave you, but…” He shook his head. “You didn’t really believe they’d just stop looking for you, did you? Why not seek a reconciliation?”
Cathy frowned at him. He never made suggestions like this before. Even when they made their deal he didn’t try to talk her out of her decision. It was a simple transaction: she would be his bookkeeper in return for the best Shadow Charm he could provide. Why she wanted it and what she was planning to do whilst hidden in Mundanus had never been asked. “There’s no reasoning with my family, they won’t understand.” She rubbed her nose; something had been aggravating it since she came in. “What’s that smell?”
He twitched. “I was testing a new product. Do you like it?”
Cathy sniffed. “It’s like… cut grass. With almonds.” She sniffed again. “I’m not sure it works.”
“Evidently,” he said, abandoning the duster and tugging his tweed jacket straight as he always did when annoyed.
The Shopkeeper plucked a purple atomiser off a nearby shelf. “I can’t sell a Beautifying Mist of Atmospheric Improvement to fine clientele if it makes them behave like a starving puppy.”
“The name doesn’t work. It’s not catchy enough.”
He frowned at her. “Catch-ee?”
“Something… memorable and pithy. In Mundanus this would be called an air freshener. And it would smell nicer.”
“We are not, thankfully, in Mundanus. I’ll send it back to the supplier and tell them to improve the scent.” He noticed Cathy leaning closer, sniffing again, and stepped away quickly. “Do you mind?”
“Sorry. Are you wearing aftershave?”
“I have no idea what that is and I have no desire to. Now, would you kindly rest your olfactory talents and instead turn your attention to the purpose of your visit?”
“Are you grumpy because it’s my last day?” Cathy asked. Usually the Shopkeeper liked to gossip about the latest ridiculous request from a customer, or to show her new stock. He rarely rushed her. Quite to the contrary, she often felt as if he wanted to keep her there as long as he could. Not that he’d ever admit to it.
“I don’t like disruption, you know that.”
Cathy smiled, thinking about how resistant he’d been when she first started to work for him, even though the deal had been his suggestion. He knew he needed help but, after hundreds of years of working alone, it took weeks for him to even begin to explain how he ran the shop. There were still parts of the business she didn’t understand and suspected she never would. “I’ll be back in twelve weeks. Then I’ll come back like I did the last time and get the books all straightened up again.”
He put the atomiser back and looked at her as if he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the best way to begin. “You can’t keep me chattering all day, Catherine,” he finally said, “there’s work to be done.”
He headed towards the office at the back of the shop and she followed, leaving the crowded shelves behind. Unlike the majority of the shops she’d become accustomed to in Mundanus, no two items for sale were the same, and there was no obvious order to their arrangement. She’d come to realise that it was far from a lack of organisation on the part of the Shopkeeper, instead it was a way to keep control whilst displaying the abundance of goods. With no labels, price stickers or signs, it meant the customer was forced to consult him before every purchase. It also deterred shoplifting as there was no way to tell what was being stolen; with curse-bearing artefacts placed next to those that gave amazing boons, it wasn’t worth the risk.
At first, she’d hated having to work for him every holiday, but over the last year she’d somehow grown fond of him. It was probably something to do with his gruff delight whenever she made sense of the ledger, or his veiled compliments whenever she brought in a new system that made the shop easier to run.
It hadn’t taken much to make a difference; he was utterly hopeless at administrative tasks. Thousands of wholesale purchases and sales had been recorded haphazardly in his spidery scrawl. Either he’d never had to refund a customer in all that time or he couldn’t bring himself to record them. From what she could tell, he’d been trading for over three hundred years without any system in place and she had no idea how he’d managed to become such a success and maintain his monopoly. The Emporium was unique, the only establishment that catered for the Great Families.
“I remember the important things,” he’d said when she commented on the chaos. His memory was remarkable. He could recall where the most obscure stock was secreted and he remembered all of the prices, no matter how obscure. She had suspected he made some of them up, noting inconsistencies across the years, but he’d explained that he charged more if the customer was impolite or poorly dressed.
“This would be much easier if you let me bring my laptop, you know,” she said as she followed, the strange smell of grassy almonds tickling her nose. She missed the gentle mustiness.
“How many times have I told you? I will never let one of those machines into my shop.”
She liked to suggest it at least once every few months, but he’d never change. He’d never even seen one, she was certain, but, like most of the people caught in the web of the Great Families, he harboured a deep distrust of technology. The Shopkeeper took it to extremes, however, extending it to most things made of metal and not even permitting coins to change hands within his premises. Thankfully the prices he charged rarely had anything to do with money, but it did make the bookkeeping difficult.
He tapped the lamp on the office desk, waking the tiny sprite inside. It was only the size of a ladybird but could still throw out a terrific amount of light. Only the best for the Shopkeeper.
“I’ve put all of the latest purchases into the
ledger
as you asked,” he announced, as if he had done something remarkable. “And I’ve used my notation system to detail the customers.”
She nodded. “It won’t take me long, I did most of it yesterday.” She’d given up trying to deduce who bought what. If there had been any chance of her finding out, he never would have employed her. She didn’t mind though. Unlike most of the people in the life she’d escaped, she had no interest in what everyone else was buying from him. His legendary confidentiality was the only reason she’d been able to approach him for help in the first place.
It had taken a month of her holiday to get things straight, but she knew she’d be leaving everything in good shape before going back to university. She wouldn’t miss the uncomfortable wooden stool and the cramped conditions. It was more a glorified nook than a back office, and moving anything on the untidy desk made dust plume and irritate her nose. Why he never used the anti-dust Charms in places customers didn’t see she’d never felt cheeky enough to ask.
The Shopkeeper clattered about in the shop. Usually he read as she worked, but he was unsettled today and Cathy felt sorry for him. He didn’t seem to have any friends, though of course she only came when the shop was closed, to minimise the risk of discovery. The news that Tom had been back for a stronger Charm was niggling her; perhaps it had upset him too. She’d hoped her family would give up on her, but it seemed they weren’t ready to give up the search yet. Poor Tom. They probably had him running all over the place casting Seeker Charms before fleeing from the Arbiters. That it was affecting him was the one thing she felt guilty about. He was the only one she missed.
“Have you finished?” The Shopkeeper lurked in the doorway.
“Nearly.”
She’d already assigned a numerical value to the prices of the sold items, making it possible to calculate the profit; all that was left was totalling the column, which she did as quickly as she could. He didn’t return to the shop and she looked back up at him. He was staring at her with such sadness that the anxiety bubbled up again.
“You’re very good at putting things in order.”
It was the first open compliment he’d ever given.
“Thank you.”
“I… I will miss you, Catherine.”
“It’s only a few weeks,” she said again, mustering a smile.
The Shopkeeper drifted away from the doorway to potter about in the shop again.
“All done,” she said less than five minutes later, tucking the stool back under the desk. “I’ll see you in December.”
The Shopkeeper fiddled with the hem of his jacket. “Catherine… would you be kind enough to go to the stockroom for me?”
It was certainly a day of firsts. He only ever let her in the stockroom when he was with her, and that was still rare. It only reinforced how out of sorts he was.
“What do you need?”
“Nothing for me… you’ll see when you go in there.”
He didn’t say it like it was a surprise present, more like he’d found a giant spider in there and couldn’t bear to get rid of it. Then she remembered she was in the Nether, not Mundanus, and one of the few advantages it had was a lack of insect life.
“Please?” he added.
“All right,” she agreed, worried her father might be putting pressure on him. Surely he’d know the only way she could stay hidden for so long would be with the Shopkeeper’s help?
She resolved to go and look in the stockroom and then have it out with him over a cup of tea. They needed each other too much now for her father to ruin it all, and she needed to remind him of that fact, especially before leaving for three months. It would be long enough for him to forget how useful she was.
Leaving the Shopkeeper lurking in the dusty nook, Cathy pushed the heavy wooden door open with her backside and went in before its weighted hinges could push her back out again. She reached for the hammer-cord to strike the large globe hanging from the ceiling and wake the sprite within.
BOOK: Between Two Thorns
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