The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden (5 page)

BOOK: The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden
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Deadnettle turned a corner. “You are a fool if you think any of them wouldn't do the same as he has done,
given the chance. No human has ever given us a reason to trust them.”

Her silence beside him seemed to deepen, and guilt twinged within him at her frown.

“How could they give us a reason? We have never asked one for help, Deadnettle. We hide away.”

“We will never ask such a thing. Never. You are not a fool, Marigold. But even if one were good-hearted and kind, of which I have seen no evidence, I believe Mordecai to have peculiar gifts that allowed him to summon us and keep us here. I have tried to ascertain the nature of them, but I cannot. I am certain, though, that we are trapped here unless we find our own way out.” And that, thought Deadnettle, meant pinning all of their hopes on Thomas.

It was tempting to give up now.

•   •   •

The park was empty, it being far too early for most to be awake, and those who were did not have the leisure to lounge about on dew-sodden grass instead of delivering eggs or milk or newspapers. To be safe, Deadnettle put his finger to his lips and made sure of Marigold's understanding nod before he kneeled down and prized the bottom stone out of the plinth on which a statue perched. It came free with a faint scraping noise that was overloud in the quiet dawn.

A sack of coins was wedged into the gap behind, emptier than it once was, but it hadn't been enormously full to start with. On the day, thirteen years earlier, that Mordecai had worked his human magic and dragged the faeries to England from their own land beyond the mists, none of them had been expecting it to happen. What had gone into the pouch was simply whatever the faeries had had in their pockets at the time.

Since then, they had not had chance or reason to spend much of it. Heavy silver coins with strange lettering around the edges tended to attract all manner of unwanted attention.

Well, spending was a risk Thomas would have to take. Another test. Deadnettle counted out several, polished one on his cloak, and held it up to the curious light caused by the meeting of the fading moon and the growing sun.

Wintercress.
Her sharp, beautiful profile glittered. To look at her was to know that she was special, the faery queen. Deadnettle touched her forehead, then nearly dropped the coin as he felt Marigold's eyes on him. Quickly, he put the pouch and the stone back in place and stood, composing himself for their next tasks.

Their journey across the river took them within hearing distance—which was still quite far for a faery—of Thomas's home. Deadnettle stood, listening, until he could
be certain of two things: that the boy was awake and speaking with his mother over his breakfast, and that he would indeed accompany her to the market.

They stopped next at the graveyard gates.

They crossed the river in silence that lasted until Marigold stopped him at the graveyard gates. “Let me,” she said, and as with the last time they were in this place, he let her even though he shouldn't have. She grasped the iron, and muffled her scream as the new angry brand lay itself over the healing one.

“It didn't hurt much,” she assured him. He had no choice but to believe her.

The soil had been softened by their digging, and Thomas's, and so it was quick work to pull Thistle from the earth and replace him with the coins Deadnettle put into another small pouch. He saw the moment comprehension broke across her small face as to why they were not just leaving her friend buried, but she did not mention it until they were almost back at the river again. Panting, they laid the body down, wrapped in its musty cloak, on the muddy bank.

“It's been hurting you,” she said, and there was no hint of question in her voice. But she did not look at him, instead busying herself with finding heavy enough rocks with which to weigh Thistle down.

“Yes,” he agreed. “And this is not the time for me—for any of us—to be weaker than we absolutely must. Humans”—he spat into the water—“and their cruel, silly faery stories. Painting us as cunning, conniving, sneaky creatures, when nothing could be further from the truth. Any lie we tell hurts us, even when told to a thieving monster such as Mordecai.”

By herself, in a burst of strength, Marigold pushed Thistle's body into the dark, black waters. “There,” she said, calm as the river itself. “Now it won't be a lie. We've done with him what we do with everyone who leaves.” Her face twisted suddenly into disgust. “Mordecai should do this himself,” she spat. “But he would have to touch us then, wouldn't he?”

“Yes,” Deadnettle whispered. The relief was immediate, the burden lifted from him as surely as the stones were dragging Thistle to the bottom to join the others, where no one would ever find them. Peace, for them at least, but some for Deadnettle, too. Already he ached less, and his muscles felt stronger, despite the long and taxing night. “Thank you.”

“Why do they tell such stories about us?”

It was
nearly
irritating, Marigold's almost ceaseless talent for asking questions to which he had no good answers, or none of which he could be certain, but
instead a sadness lapped at him like the water at their feet. “I suppose because it would have been difficult to make us sound evil, back in the time when our land and this one were one and the same. Lies are reflections; in this case, a mirror was held to the truth so its exact opposite was told.”

Marigold nodded and looked up at the lightening sky. “Where are we going now?”

Filled with more energy, lighter on his feet, Deadnettle took Marigold's hand and led her to the market. She seemed suddenly weary, but it had been an exhausting time for her, too. Mordecai wouldn't be looking for them until afternoon, the fancy ladies who visited the Society preferring to drink tea in bed until at least midday, or whatever it was that such women did.

It wasn't difficult to locate what, or rather whom, Deadnettle required next. Mordecai and his fellow spiritualists were at the forefront of the craze that swept the country for contacting loved ones who had already crossed to the beyond. Indeed, it could be said that Mordecai was leading and the others scrapped at his ankles like terriers, but the fad had created people who catered to every aspect of the Mysteries.

Whether anyone but Mordecai actually succeeded in efforts to contact the dead, or see into the future, or
anything else these people claimed to do, was a different question, but said people were certainly easy enough to find. Especially in the poorer areas of the city, and those were everywhere. He instructed Marigold to wait outside for him and knocked on the door. Curtains twitched at the window, a face appearing over the notice advertising her gifts—dubious though they certainly were—as a clairvoyant. Deadnettle doubted she did much custom at home, but she wouldn't turn anyone away. Locks slid. She looked precisely as such a person might be expected to, dark haired and plump and lips stained with carmine, and Deadnettle doubted she could see beyond the present hour—or was bright enough to remember the past, come to that.

Perfect.

“You going to give me a good reason why I should move my pitch?” she demanded, when he explained what she was to do. “Never been to that market in my life. No one down there interested in tomorrow. They know it'll be the same as today, the same grubbing about to make a living.”

Deadnettle withdrew two large silver coins from the pocket of his cloak. “These are good reasons. Do you need better ones?”

Her eyes widened. She shook her head.

“I thought not. Where is your sign?”

It was a crude thing, cheap wood and flaking paint, but
no matter. The woman opened her mouth when Deadnettle dipped his finger into the same bottle of midnight-blue ink with which he had first written to Thomas and began to stain the wood with words she could not read, but she remained silent, hushed by the weight of the silver.

“The boy will come to you,” Deadnettle said. “You will know him when you see him.”

He told her what to say.

C
HAPTER FIVE

Pasts and Futures

T
HOMAS PUT DOWN HIS BOOK.
It wasn't fair, really, Mam expecting him to do his lessons this morning. He'd been ill at the theater, and Mam had put him to bed as soon as they'd arrived home. Charley had jumped out soon as they'd crossed the river and scampered off to where he was sleeping this week, ratty with the driver for not letting him have a turn at the reins.

That
had been exciting, riding in a posh hansom. Almost worth swooning in the first place, only not, because he'd lost any chance he had for sneaking off to speak to Mordecai. Much as he'd protested that he was perfectly fine, soon as he'd been carried outside to take the air, Mam wouldn't hear of going back inside to see the rest of the
performance. She'd argued with the man, too, the one who'd helped them into their seats and then helped them outside, when he insisted on paying for the carriage, but—and this was the most shocking bit of unfairness—eventually she'd let
him
have his way.

He yawned, and Lucy glanced sharply at him. “I reckon you need a mite more sleep,” she said, but Thomas shook his head. He had woken very early, while it was yet dark, and though Thomas was quite used to being awake in the small hours, he wasn't accustomed to seeing them from the direction of the morning, as it were. A strange dream echoed for the instant after he opened his eyes, and then it faded away.

A voice, calling out in the night, calling to him. He could guess only too well where such a thought had come to him, and he shivered.

It wasn't right, disturbing the dead like that. Couldn't be right. And, somehow, his real family were tangled up in it.

A muffled
thump
came from the other room, and Silas emerged, bleary, scratching at his whiskers. He splashed water on his face from the jug and bowl in the corner before blinking at Thomas and Lucy.

“Back to yerself this morning?” he asked. “Good. I told ye it was silliness to go. Keep your strength up today. Holiday's over. We'll be out with the shovels again tonight.”

The dark thing inside Thomas flicked a lazy arm. No. He couldn't. Not now. Not after the voice in the theater and with the memory of the last grave he'd dug up.

“I ain't going.”

Silas's mouth opened and closed, but no words came out.

Neither could remember the last time Thomas had defied him, bold as brass like that.

“May I ask why not?” Silas asked finally. There was an odd tone to his voice, almost mocking, but that wasn't precisely it, and it quickly went away. “Look, lad, I know you saw an awful thing. It's been an odd few days, right enough. Best thing to do is get back to work. You won't feel no better with an empty belly, and this is how we put food on the table.”

“And we won't starve if we leave off one more night,” said Lucy. “Let 'im rest, Silas.”

“Fine,” muttered Silas. A moment later, the door slammed. Thomas's shovel rattled on its nail on the wall. Lucy wiped her hands on a rag that only served to make them dirtier and sighed.

“How are you feeling, poppet?”

She had not called him
poppet
in longer than it'd been since he'd refused to do whatever Silas asked. And Thomas knew that he couldn't answer her, not honestly, because he
wasn't certain himself. It had been, as Silas'd said, an odd few days.

Strange
wasn't the half of it, really.

“Do you truly not know where I come from?” he asked. The lines on her face seemed to deepen, but possibly that was a trick of the firelight, which could turn shadows to ghosts and flames to staring, screaming faces.

“We don't.” Lucy sighed again, and it was just now occurring to Thomas how easily he'd stopped thinking of them as Mam and Papa. As if part of him had always known that the reflection in the mirror glass—and now the face in the grave—looked nothing like either one, or even a mixture of the two. “I always fancied the man who visited sounded like 'e was from the south somewhere, but that don't mean nothing these days. And he spoke that quiet, I couldn't be sure regardless.”

South. It wasn't a great help, even if it were true and not a flight of fancy—or an outright untruth. But it was something, perhaps.

South
could mean a great many places, names Thomas had only heard or spelled out with his finger on torn maps. Brighton, Torquay, Glastonbury. Strange people with their strange accents brought from those streets to the lanes of London, words sometimes so thick and garbled Thomas could hardly understand them.

The same feeling that had come over him the last time he'd been in the graveyard came again now, of the sheer vastness that lay all around, and that it was hiding something.

“May I go find Charley? I'll be back 'fore we go to the market.”

Charley'd likely be up near the river, and the river, why, that was almost in Shoreditch, and that's what the bearded, toppered man had said the previous night, wasn't it? The Shoreditch Spiritual Society.

Lucy whirled to fix Thomas with a stare that fixed him in place sure as a nail would. “Not today. This is your home, Thomas. Silas and I are your family. We's the ones who wanted you. I might not've been raised with much, and we might not as have much to give you, but I was brought up to believe that means something, and you'd best believe it too.”

“Yes'm,” Thomas whispered. Guilt ran up his back like a thousand of the spiders that shared his blankets. Shoreditch would have to wait.

“Good lad. But if you're desperate to be outside these walls, can't say's I blame you. Let's head off now. Wrap up warm, and we'll go see if we can get the butcher to give us a piece of stew meat without asking an arm and a leg in return.”

After finding Thistle in the grave, the note written in its bizarre, spiky letters, the tickets, and the séance, Thomas wondered if the fact that there were still things as boring as mutton to be thought of wasn't perhaps the strangest part of this whole business.

•   •   •

There wasn't, in fact, much need to wrap up at all. A warm sun shone on the soot and muck in the gutters outside, making even the filth seem bright and new and pleasant. Inside his pocket, Thomas kept his hand wrapped around the coins he'd fetched from his box so they wouldn't jangle.

They weren't worth an arm and a leg, but he didn't want to give them to Lucy or the butcher.

He needed them. It was possible that whoever had left the note and the tickets had truly wished for Thomas to speak to Thistle at the theater, and the answers were farther afield than Shoreditch. Brighton, Torquay, Glastonbury. He would need the coins to get there.

If he could sneak away.

It took an absolute age for them to reach the market, or it felt so. Lucy kept stopping to greet people, and Thomas was forced to do the same so nobody would think him rude, especially not Lucy. He needed her in a kindly mood when they finally reached the square crammed with ramshackle stalls and bright, frayed bits of bunting. He smiled
at the mother of the Robinson girls and an old man with a walking stick and a young chap whose mongrel wove in and out between Thomas's ankles.

A few feet at a time, they edged closer to the market, until Thomas could hear the shouts of the stall holders, each trying to tempt customers to buy from them and not from the thieving swine across the way.

It made Thomas smile. They were thieving swine, of course. Every last one of 'em.

So was he, when it came down to it, thanks to Silas. But not anymore.

“Be a love,” Lucy said. “Take this and go fetch us an onion.” She waved a package of meat wrapped in cheap newspaper in the direction of a farmer's table, the vegetables wilted and brown. With her other hand, she slipped a penny into Thomas's palm.

Someone tapped on his shoulder. Thomas turned and faced a pretty girl in a worn, mud-colored cloak. She gave him the oddest stare Thomas had ever been on the pointy end of, but that was girls for you. The Robinson twins were always giving him funny looks too.

“Hello,” she said. Her voice wasn't quite as strange as her expression, but there was something a bit off about it.

“Hullo,” said Thomas, there being no reason to be rude.

“Are you lost, child?” Lucy asked.

“Oh, no,” said the girl. “It's only that my . . . my uncle gave me a coin to get an ice, but I've looked, and they're so big, I'd never finish one myself. I've no one to share it with, so I've been waiting until I saw someone who might like to.”

The ices. Thomas wanted to see them every time he made this outing with Lucy. They couldn't buy one, of course, but he could look while his mouth watered at how he imagined they would taste, as bright on his tongue as their colors were. Cherry red and blackberry purple.

“Well, that's right kind of you,” said Lucy. “You sure you was given that coin to spend on sweets?”

“Oh, yes.”

“May I? Please?” Thomas asked.

“Oh, I daresay you may. Hurry back, mind, and bring the onion with you.”

The girl put her hand inside Thomas's, comfortable as if they were the best of friends, and pulled him into the crowd.

“What's your name?” he asked her. “Seeing as we'll be sharing an ice, feels only proper to know.”

She smiled at him. “Mari—Mary.”

“Quite contrary?”

She looked puzzled. “Pardon me?”

“You know,” Thomas urged, “the rhyme.
Mary, Mary,
quite contrary . . .
” In fact, he himself couldn't remember the rest.

“Oh,” said Mary. “Yes. I mean, no. Just Mary.” She scowled a bit, but quickly turned her mouth upward again.

The ices were on the other side of the bustling square. The cobblestones underfoot ran slick with stinking stuff that could no longer be called water, though it had leaked from the fishmonger's big barrels of thrashing creatures. Jostled and bumped, Thomas and Mary fought their way through to the stall, where the ices sat glowing brighter than the jewels in the theater.

Surely tasted better too. True to her word, Mary bought a large one and led him to a sheltered spot between a baker's and a stall hung the whole way around with golden spangles. He didn't have time to look at what it sold, but he knew it hadn't ever been there before and decided to look when they were done, for Mary was already enjoying the ice, and she
had
offered him half.

Thomas'd never eaten anything so good. The flavor burst like fireworks on his tongue, sweet and sour all at once in the way the best summer raspberries were.

No sooner had Mary swallowed her last mouthful than she dropped the now-empty twist of paper at their feet and gave him another odd stare. “I must go!” she said. “Isn't all that gold pretty? I just noticed. Thank you, Thomas!”

“But—”

But she was gone, dashed off and swallowed by the crowd. Perhaps Thomas was now
attracting
strangeness, and this sort was certainly more pleasant than graves or ghostly voices.

He stepped out of their spot, peering around for a grocer's, remembering the onion, and then turned to look at the sign in front of the glittery new stall.

He spun, squinting through the crowd for any glimpse of the girl. She had called him Thomas, though now he thought on it, she hadn't asked his name.

She was gone, and only the stickiness on Thomas's lips assured him she had been real in the first place.

The sign was real.

Charlatans
, Silas always spat about such people. Liars and fakes, dishonest souls out to rob a man of his last copper, which was a bit rich from a man who stole what little the dead had left.

Thomas didn't know if it was usual for them to be out in the open like this, with a sign proudly proclaiming it, but all sorts ended up in and around the market, trying to scrape by a living. It wasn't just meat and vegetables.

FORTUNE-TELLER
, read the sign. And under that . . .

Under that were those same strange letters as were on the note in his pocket, the ones it made his head ache to read.

COME IN
, they said.

Inside, a funny smell stung Thomas's nostrils. Something foreign and strange, wafting from the shadows.

Inside, it was painted with shadows.

“Hello,” said a voice.

A candle burst to life.

If forced to close his eyes and imagine such a person, Thomas would have described a fortune-teller who appeared exactly as this one did. Plump, with long eyelashes and bright red lips, surely the result of carmine, which Thomas knew of only because Silas had once given Lucy some as a present. Her thick hair was jet-black where it wasn't streaked with white as pale as milk. Everywhere, she glittered with enough gold to make Silas reconsider robbing only from the dead.

“A young one. A long future.” She smiled. “And what is your name, young one?”

BOOK: The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden
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