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Authors: C. S. Quinn

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BOOK: Fire Catcher
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Chapter 24

‘What was that?’

The snap of Lily’s voice assailed Charlie as soon as he closed himself inside the fumigation cupboard. He froze, immobile, hardly daring to breathe. The fuming chamber was divided from the room by a metal grill, affording him an excellent view into the adjoining room. And inside the dark cupboard he was invisible.

The walls of the fuming chamber were peeling and stained reddish brown from mercury fumes. A selection of low wooden stools were ranged in a semi-circle to allow several occupants to be treated at once.

Lily was sat on one, her red skirts arranged around her legs. On the next was a bullish man, dressed plainly but well, in a thick leather coat and boots. He wore a swooping cavalier’s hat and a moustache in the style of the King. A pet monkey sat on his shoulder.

Charlie linked the facts together. Military clothes, large muscular body. Dressed like a soldier of fortune good enough to forgo political allegiance. Sword worn with the self-possession of experience.

An inconstant general with a pet monkey. The Earl of Amesbury.

So Lily was a spy, Charlie deduced. Working for Amesbury.

‘Did you tell them not to fume us in here?’ Lily’s voice came again.

Amesbury waved a thick hand. ‘They have instructions to leave us well alone,’ he replied.

Lily was staring in Charlie’s direction, but so far as he could tell, she couldn’t see into the dark confines of the cupboard. For a moment he thought she meant to investigate, but then she walked to an unlit brazier ready-filled with tinder.

Charlie caught his breath. He had seen a flash of his key, looped
around her wrist by the ribbon. Lily had taken out a tinderbox and was lighting the brazier. She turned and began speaking to Amesbury again. Charlie strained forward to hear as the cracking of burning wood rose.

‘Find Torr,’ Amesbury was saying. ‘You’ll know him by the mystic tree tattooed on his chest and neck. Discover what he knows of Blackstone.’

‘You’re sure Torr was a friend of Blackstone’s?’ asked Lily.

‘They were friends,’ said Amesbury slowly. ‘War can change things. Blackstone gambled everything fighting the cause. His estates, his fine name. His wife’s large dowry. All were lost to Cromwell.’

‘Where will I find Torr?’ asked Lily.

‘One of my informants told me a place,’ said Amesbury. ‘I can’t say for sure he’ll still be there.’

The wood spat sparks, drowning out the next words.

Charlie watched as Amesbury handed Lily a piece of paper. She studied it carefully. Then she leaned forward and dropped it into the brazier. Charlie watched helplessly as it burned away to ash.

‘The faction of the Sealed Knot which travelled to Holland,’ said Lily. ‘Torr was one of them?’

‘Torr was one of the Brotherhood,’ agreed Amesbury. ‘He was always interested in mysticism, alchemy, things of that nature.’

‘Their powers . . .’ began Lily.

‘It’s more legend than fact,’ said Amesbury. ‘I don’t know how much is true. The Sealed Knot Brotherhood consorted with alchemists and mystics in Holland. It’s said they learned of the highest alchemy.’

‘Lead to gold?’ said Lily.

Amesbury nodded.

‘The universal marriage. The duality at the heart of matter. Lead into gold.’

Lily looked thoughtful.

‘Can such a thing really be?’ she asked.

‘Stories get twisted,’ said Amesbury, ‘particularly where alchemists are concerned. But the Brotherhood had secrets which could make them very rich men. Their papers could make vast wealth from nothing. That was how I heard it.’

‘But their secret was lost?’ said Lily. ‘Blackstone hasn’t the power to make lead from gold now?’

‘Some say the young King Charles grew fearful of the Sealed Knot’s powers and destroyed their workings,’ said Amesbury. ‘Others tell it that Blackstone’s own maid hid the papers.’

Lily considered this. She was fingering the key at her wrist, Charlie noticed.

‘Is this why Blackstone needs soot?’ she asked eventually. ‘He tries to recover the secret through experiment?’

Amesbury shrugged his great shoulders.

‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘My intelligence is that he has stolen fifty barrels. Perhaps he tries to re-create the lost alchemy.’

Lily frowned in thought.

‘You were of the Sealed Knot too,’ she said. ‘Surely if they could make vast riches, you would know of it.’

Amesbury shook his head.

‘We fought among ourselves, after the King’s death,’ he said. ‘Fine brave men that we were,’ he added. ‘Blackstone and his troops were held under siege during the war. There are only whispers of what happened. They ate cats, candles. Some say worse. I didn’t recognise Blackstone when he returned. His starved body had grown gross. And his eyes . . . He wasn’t the man I knew.’

‘Do you think he’s dangerous?’ asked Lily. ‘If his men are making fireballs . . .’

‘Every man of the Sealed Knot was dangerous,’ said Amesbury. ‘We protected the monarchy at all cost. There was nothing we wouldn’t do. But Blackstone . . .’ Amesbury considered. ‘He wasn’t the bravest. But he was the most ruthless and fearless. There’s a rumour he survived plague and it unhinged him. Confused his thoughts. Robbed his memories.’

‘If Blackstone has switched loyalty,’ said Lily, ‘his skill at warfare could now threaten the King.’

‘I don’t know if Blackstone is dangerous to the King,’ said Amesbury. ‘Certainly he is one of those who has reason to be. If Blackstone has those papers, then he could be the destruction or salvation of England. Whichever he wills.’

Amesbury stood.

‘The King needs me,’ he said. ‘The fire spreads. This will be another blow to his authority. Perhaps the last.’

Lily nodded as he moved to the door.

‘I will discover what I can,’ she promised.

Amesbury nodded and left. Lily sat for a moment, watching him. Then she pulled out the same handkerchief that had been in her lap in the carriage.

This time Charlie had a clearer view. There was a siren, or a mermaid, picked out in simple stitching with long hair flowing down her back. Something about the stitching made him catch his breath. He was suddenly sure he recognised the seamstress. Charlie tucked the revelation away for future use.

Lily stared at the handkerchief.

‘I will find you,’ she said. And then she folded it up and tucked it back in her dress.

Chapter 25

A commotion sounded from the back of the Candlemakers’ Guild. Three guildsmen were wielding an eighteen-foot iron firehook with difficulty.

Blackstone moved towards them.

‘I come from the King,’ he said, showing his royal seal. ‘The palace says the fire will be out by morning. There is nothing to fear.’

The nearest chandler eyed Blackstone with suspicion. His hair was cut short in the Puritan style and his plain clothes suggested he would rather Cromwell had stayed in power.

‘What would the King know?’ he said. ‘We hear His Majesty has not even been to see the blaze.’

‘The King must call for buildings to be pulled down,’ intervened a second chandler. He was a young apprentice of the kind Blackstone was familiar with. A Catholic slaving for the lowest guild privileges. ‘The gale has whipped the flames too high to save Cheapside,’ said the apprentice. ‘If buildings are pulled our hall will be spared.’

Blackstone smiled. ‘On the King’s instructions every guild is expected to buy a fire engine. Where is yours?’

The Puritan looked uncomfortable.

‘It was an expense we meant to meet next year,’ he admitted.

Blackstone looked meaningfully at the elaborate ceremonial hall. ‘A fire engine you should have,’ he said. ‘If your guild keeps only an old firehook, then you only have yourselves to blame. Only the King may grant authority to pull buildings and he does not,’ he concluded.

The guildsmen watched with dismay as he walked away from them. Blackstone smiled to himself as they began bickering about the best course of action. Moving to the north-western corner of the hall, Blackstone’s gaze fell on three barrels.

His guild contact had obeyed all of his instructions. The consignment had been left in the allotted place. The barrels were marked as containing bales of candlewick. But Blackstone knew different. Each held six pounds of gunpowder.

Carefully he took out his bottle and unstoppered it. Then, checking he wasn’t being watched, he dropped the chunk of lead into the open mouth. The bottle began to hiss loudly. Blackstone stoppered it quickly and placed it on the ground.

Then he turned and walked out of the guild.

As Blackstone made his exit the guard made a mocking sign of the cross and spat.

Blackstone hesitated. He judged he had a few seconds to spare. In a smooth movement he grasped the guard by the throat and wrenched his head up and back. The guard’s neck snapped cleanly. His head lolled, an expression of shock frozen on the dead features.

In an easy movement Blackstone slung the corpse back into the guild. A few chandlers were looking at him open-mouthed. Blackstone moved swiftly down the entry steps and on to the safety of Lothbury. A chandler had just started to shout for his arrest when the explosion hit.

The first blast blew a cloud of splinters and fire from the entrance of the guild. Then a deep rumbling came from the belly of the hall. As the other barrels fired the building twisted, shook and then exploded in flames.

Turning on his heel, Blackstone’s vast bulk swung away on to Ironmonger’s Lane. He vanished into the shady backstreets as the Chandlers’ Guild continued detonating behind him. A cloud of smoke had risen high above the city and was settling fiery dust and ash over the surrounding wooden roofs.

The crackle of flames brought another feeling, a purity. Blackstone felt sure Teresa’s sin would be purged. Burned away. He could not quite get his mind around the memory. Blackstone grasped at it and it twisted away, dancing at the edges of his conscious. The nearest he could describe it was a taste or a smell. Something bitter on the back of the tongue. Dry,
papery.

Chapter 26

Charlie watched Lily tip water on the brazier, sending up a plume of angry smoke. He debated the next best step. Wait until she was in the stairwell, he decided, and catch her there. The enclosed space would muffle any noise and he could take back his key without risk of the house guard.

Lily exited the room and Charlie listened to her footsteps make their way down the corridor. Then he quietly opened the door to the fumigation cupboard and slid out.

A rustle of skirts alerted him just in time to a powerful kick aimed squarely towards his groin. Charlie dodged to the side and the foot connected hard with his thigh, lifting him from his haunches and sending him sprawling to the floor.

He looked up to catch a glimpse of Lily’s furious face before she descended on him in a tumult of blows to the side of his head. Charlie raised his arms to protect his head, hoping to wait out the assault, but as the violence rained down, it became clear she had no intention of slowing the attack. Instead she began to layer the volley of kicks with a vocal crescendo built mostly of profanities.

Charlie rolled to one side as her tiny foot cracked repeatedly into his collarbone. He needed her to ease up the attack before he could press his advantage.

‘Does Amesbury know,’ he gasped, ‘you carry Blackstone’s handkerchief?’

The onslaught abated slightly. Charlie lunged his legs forward, wrapping them bodily around Lily’s skirts and bringing her tumbling to the floor. He caught a flash of pure hatred in her expression as she fell past him. Charlie turned quickly, pinning her down with her arms tightly beneath her and placing a hand over her mouth.

He looked back and forth along the corridor but all was silent. Lily was quiet suddenly, as if the fight had gone out of her, and very slowly he took his hand away from her mouth so she could speak. She looked oddly limp, her dark eyes trained on his. Then he saw the knife.

‘Get off me,’ she said, ‘and I’ll consider sparing your life.’

Charlie’s hand shot out, pressing at the tendons of her wrist. She gasped and her fingers opened, letting the knife fall. She glared at him furiously.

‘I told you before,’ said Charlie. ‘I’m not one of your perfumed lords.’

‘The house is guarded,’ she said, glaring. ‘I need only scream.’

‘So scream,’ said Charlie, balancing his weight to pin her down and working off the key at her wrist. ‘And,’ he continued, waving the freed key and refastening it around his neck, ‘you’ll never get to keep half of what this key opens.’

She was silent for a moment.

‘You’re offering to give me half of what your key opens?’ she said eventually.

‘You have information which could help me,’ said Charlie. ‘I heard you. You’re working with Amesbury to find Blackstone.’ He dangled the key. ‘I’m looking for Blackstone’s chest.’

Lily thought about this. ‘So you need my help?’

Charlie smiled. ‘I don’t need your help. I need your information.’

‘How do I know the key opens anything of value?’

‘Because you already know what it unlocks,’ said Charlie. ‘Amesbury told you.’

A cycle of emotions flitted across Lily’s face.

‘The secret of the Sealed Knot?’ she said finally. ‘Lead into gold. But you said the chest contained marriage papers.’

Charlie hesitated, wondering whether to admit there was no tangible treasure in the chest.

‘Alchemists speak of a universal marriage,’ he said. ‘They are obsessed by it. Amesbury told you himself. And alchemists use allegory and codes.’

Lily looked unconvinced.

‘The chest is a Dutch sea chest,’ persisted Charlie. ‘It holds papers which Blackstone has killed to discover. Does it not make sense that those documents hold the sacred secrets of the Sealed Knot?’

He waited for this to sink in.

‘Let me up,’ she said. Carefully he shifted his weight, keeping a close eye on her knife hand.

‘Swear it then,’ she said, sitting up. ‘Swear you will give me half.’

‘I swear it.’ He extended his hand.

She took it, seeming pleased with the arrangement.

Lily rose to standing, examining her red dress for damage.

‘How did you know about my handkerchief?’ she asked, adjusting the low front.

‘Because I know who stitched it.’

Lily’s dark eyebrows furrowed.

‘It was embroidered a long time ago,’ said Charlie. ‘By my mother.’

Lily’s eyes snapped to his.

Charlie nodded. ‘I’ll tell you all I know,’ he said. ‘Only if you swear there’ll be no double-dealing. You’ll tell me true in your part.’

Her face darkened in affront.

‘Is that what you think of gypsies?’ she demanded. ‘Perhaps you think we steal babies as well?’

Charlie said nothing. He’d heard they ate them.

BOOK: Fire Catcher
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