The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden (7 page)

BOOK: The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden
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Two greasy pounds went into Thomas's pocket, well away from the silver, and one disappeared into Charley's palm. It was a great deal more than the promised breakfast, but Charley'd earned it, and what was left would do Thomas a nice while, no matter how many pies he ate. They got the breakfast, too, a dozen sizzling sausages that dripped oil on their fingers and which had cost far too
much, but every bite was worth it. When he needed to, he'd sell another of the strange coins. Whoever had left them for him must have known Thomas couldn't waltz into a shop, bold as brass, and plunk down a coin worth that much.

They were foreign, to be sure, but from where, he didn't know. He had a feeling who would, however. Someone who could sense where a coin had been just by touching it. Would she shriek
old one
the instant she saw him?

“Charley,” said Thomas, chewing. “Who are the
old ones
?”

“How d'you mean?”

“I don't know. It was something—something I heard a man say at the market.” There, that was safe enough.

“We-ell,” said Charley, “there's some as call the faery folk that, don't they? In the old stories? Me mam used to tell 'em to me, 'fore she died.”

“Do they?” Thomas'd had a book of faery stories once, but he couldn't recall it much.

“Hmmm.” Charley bit off half a sausage and swallowed it in one go. “And you know as I believe in that stuff, but I say there's too many tales, strange creatures living in the hills and causing mischief, and don't none of the stories agree with each other. Some say they're kind, gentle creatures, with great magic powers for healing and whatnot.
Like doctors, but without the leeches, you know. Others say they do dark magic and lie to humans or steal from them. Some say they steal babies from their cots, leaving faery children, changelings, behind in their place. You'd think if there was any truth to it, more people would get it right. Or at least agree on some of 'em.”

Indeed, you'd think so,
thought Thomas, but he didn't say it aloud.

Faery folk. Old ones.

Broken.

It couldn't be.

“Do they look like regular people?”

“Some think so. Gracious, what an 'orrid thought, that they could be walking around with us folk never knowing.”

The street blurred in front of Thomas's eyes.

He shook his head. If it'd been a show he was after, he perhaps hadn't paid the fortune-teller enough, even with leaving her every last coin he had.

“You look white as a ghost, Tom.”

Lots of people believed in ghosts. Thought they haunted graveyards and houses, unable to rest, forever. Why couldn't they exist? Thomas never felt alone in graveyards, always watched, always heard. And if they could, then . . .

Dawn was beginning to pinken the sky. Another hour or
two and the market would be setting up. Secretive dealers in stolen goods weren't the only people who never closed up shop. Charley declined to join him, wishing to run off instead to spend his newfound riches on who-knew-what. Likely better not to ask.

“Do something for me, would you?” Thomas felt inside his satchel, drew out two more of the coins, and held them in front of Charley's wide eyes. “Give these to Lucy and Silas for me. Tell them . . . Tell 'em I'll be back soon as I can.”

Two coins, because that was what Silas always let him keep from the graves. Charley took them, nodding. He knew the rules too. The coins would make it to Lucy's purse or Silas's grubby fist. Charley skipped away. Thomas walked slowly until an aproned woman stopped him.

“Hungry, lad? Look as if you could use a square meal or four.”

He still was, even after all the sausages.

Thomas chewed his fifth piece of bacon, elbows on an oily slick countertop, happily aware there was no Lucy to tell him to mind his manners. As if there'd ever been anyone to impress at supper. She'd always made him behave as if the queen, bored of Whitstable oysters on fine china, was coming down to slurp a bowl of watery stew.

“'Nother egg, please,” said Thomas, sliding payment
across the slick counter before the jolly woman in her stained apron could ask for it.

He ate that one, and another after it.

A great tiredness began to over take him, but there was no time to sleep or place to do it. Soon enough, he'd find somewhere. Could go and stay in the poshest hotel in all of London if he liked.

The first shouts of
Finest spuds, won't find cheaper!
were filtering from the market. Thomas slid from his chair and looped the satchel across his body, ready to hold tight as he crossed the square to the golden curtain that beckoned like the sun.

Early though the hour was, the market was already crowded with housewives and pickpockets, charwomen and children. They blocked his way as they bent to look at carrots or pocket watches, but Thomas slipped around them, eyes peeled for the golden flash of brightness.

It wasn't there.

It wasn't anywhere.

“'Scuse me,” Thomas shouted, pushing his way through a gaggle of chattering women and around a very portly man smoking a pipe to a stall piled with ancient, moth-eaten rugs. “Was there a fortune-teller here yesterday?”

“Search me.” The stall keeper slapped his hand down, then coughed as a cloud of dust from one of his rugs billowed up into his face.

Thomas walked around the market twice, and a third time for luck, but none came his way. She was gone. Clenching fingers and teeth, he pushed his way from the mass and ran from the square for the second time, just as confused as the first.

Angry, too. A great red anger bubbled up inside him. Was someone
trying
to completely do his head in?

Nothing made any blasted
sense
anymore.

He took a deep breath.

“I know you're watching,” he said, quiet and firm. “You were watching in the graveyard. You've been watching me. I think you're trying to tell me something, but blowed if I know what. Please tell me. I must know. Tell me what to do next.”

There was no answer. Here, in the midst of the crumbling buildings, there weren't even any trees to whisper.

A single scrap of paper fluttered down from the sky, a snowflake in springtime.

On it, in the strange letters that were becoming all too familiar, was a time and a place. Tonight.

CHAPTER SEVEN

The Shoreditch Spiritual Society

D
EADNETTLE WATCHED THE PIECE OF
paper flutter slowly down, shifting the winds so it would land exactly where he wished it to. These days, that much tested the very limits of his magic.

But land it did, right in young Thomas's hand. That the boy would obey the instruction, Deadnettle had no doubt. Everything he had seen thus far gave him hope of this at least, and hope, in this dark time, was a precious thing indeed.

He had no fear that the boy would look up and see him, for Deadnettle was miles away, atop one of London's many spiky towers. Until now, Deadnettle had chosen to follow the boy closely, but now he resisted the need to be near the
last of Wintercress's blood. He would see the boy tonight, and so he did only what he must in order to know where Thomas was, using his inhuman gifts. In the faery realm, the astonishing senses—eyesight and the like—that they were blessed with were a wondrous gift, but not here. No, here Deadnettle wished to be blind and deaf and to not feel a thing when iron accidentally brushed his skin.

He cautiously skirted some now, an old bit of railing, and slid down a drainpipe. He would return to the Society to wait for nightfall, the time marked by bells every quarter of an hour. Why must this cursed city have so many bells? Every chime sent fire through his rattling bones, an agony like lightning striking in his head. The sound was much softer in the cellar, but even Mordecai, with his magic and
benevolence
, could not silence them.

Iron and bells. They were not the only traps with which Mordecai kept the faeries captive, but they were incredibly effective at ensuring the faeries had no energy with which to fight back.

When darkness fell, Deadnettle ascended to the street, the hood of his heavy cloak pulled around his face. Brown was best, or blue; hysterical ladies tended to scream or faint at the sight of a figure dressed head to toe in black. Deadnettle was not the specter of death they imagined, but it was a terrifyingly close guess, and showing his face to
explain anything would raise a number of inconvenient questions. Thin skin and razor-sharp bones beneath might be explained as illness, but the brightly colored eyes, with neither white nor pupil, were particularly an issue. The time was long past that he had the strength to make himself appear human for a few minutes, though he had once been one of the most adept at it, had practiced it as a party trick back home.

Horses and carriages—some garishly opulent, others barely held together with prayers and rusted nails—passed by, splattering muck as the beasts attempted to put as much space between themselves and Deadnettle as possible and the drivers whipped their flanks. Animals were so much more adept at sensing the
other
. In deference, Deadnettle kept as close to the railing as he could without searing pain, but it was never enough.

He had no sympathy for the passengers, but the horses were as enslaved as he, bound by metal and leather.

Slowly, he walked toward the building that was his prison, though outwardly it was very pleasant. Red brick and white window sashes, stretching the width between two streets. A small plaque beside the tall front doors advertised the business conducted there, but this caused no alarm from passersby. Why, there were three other spiritualists over in Covent Garden alone, two more in
Fitzrovia, including the one named Jensen, with whom Mordecai had argued at the grand performance. Not to mention an enormous number of hacks or charlatans with bits of handwritten card propped up against the windows of dingy rooms facing the street, like the fortune-teller he had found to deliver his message to Thomas.

Some might question why this one was so much nicer than any of the others, larger and reeking of wealth. Some might not. Other spiritualists did, for certain. Jensen was not the only one. But they had never come close to discovering Mordecai's method.

The desire to seek counsel with the dead had gripped Britain as a fever; for those doing the seeking, it didn't do to be overly curious about how such things were achieved.

The plaque was ringed in iron—to mock them, Deadnettle thought. In fairness, and it was quite a challenge to be fair, it was the only piece of metal in the entire place.

THE SHOREDITCH SPIRITUAL SOCIETY

Ha. A Spiritualist. A liar, more like. A warlock, a sorcerer, an evil soul, showing an acceptable face to the citizens of London.

Two well-heeled ladies were emerging. Deadnettle pressed himself into the shadows, unnecessary though it was, for they were not paying him the slightest bit of attention. Eyes bright with amusement and wonder, they
closed the door behind them and stood beneath the lamps on either side.

“I told you, Lizzie, did I not? That man Mordecai knows his business, no doubt. I've spoken to Mother every time I've come!”

“You did. You did. I had my doubts. One hears so many stories, you know. Before tonight I'd half made up my mind that the entire movement was some sort of hoax, or the entire country had gone collectively off its rocker! But this . . .” And here the woman named Lizzie shivered, the light in her eyes changing to that of recollection. “What a strange thing. I'm so glad Peter is doing well.”

“Perfectly fine,” said her friend. “And now you may shun those horrid black dresses and find yourself another husband. The queen might seem to be planning an indefinite mourning period, but you are young yet and far too alone.”

“I might stay that way!” said Lizzie with a laugh. “Go off on one of those big ships and see the world. Wear trousers and drink too much champagne. I rather fancy causing a scandal. That sounds like splendid fun.”

Here, blessedly, they began to walk, still chattering, but Deadnettle, though he could hear them, was able to ignore them.

He crossed the street, strode past the front door and to the end of the long building. Around the corner, in an
alley no wider than a carriage, a small door once meant for servants—still meant for servants, in a way—was set into the brick. “Where have you been?” Marigold whispered as soon as she was on the other side. She was ghostly against the slimy wall, the only light in the cramped, dark stairwell. “He came looking for you!”

“What did you say?” he asked, with a sinking feeling that he already knew.

“To use me instead. I'm younger, see, and stronger. Better.”

All those things were undoubtedly true, but it was difficult not to feel slightly affronted nonetheless. Deadnettle shook it off. “You mustn't let them use you,” he said. “If you can help it.”

“Couldn't be helped this time, could it? Where were you?” she asked again.

He looked around, seeing none of the others. “Making arrangements to see our young friend,” he said in the quietest of quiet whispers.

“When?”

“Tonight.”

“Can I come?”

“You may.”

She clapped her hands, and from down in the cellar came the rustlings of faeries stirring in the state of half
sleep, half wakefulness in which they spent much of their time.

Resting, without using the energy required to dream. And they would not be dreams, but nightmares. Deadnettle made to move toward them. Marigold touched his arm. “Yarrow left us,” she said. This was what they called it.
Left
. Because it was so much more pleasant to think of it as a choice, as a decision to leave this behind and go to a nicer place. Perhaps that's exactly what it was, too.

But whatever it was, it was happening more and more frequently. Deadnettle consulted the list in his head. Twenty-six, now, with the loss of Yarrow. From the hundreds in the old country, there are now twenty-six faeries left, every last one of them in this reeking, filthy basement. Of those, nine had been hatchlings at the time of the Summoning, the oldest, Teasel, now sixteen. He searched and saw her in a corner, combing out her long red hair with her fingers. He remembered taking her outside, hidden beneath his cloak, to practice her magic as it developed, and the pride when she had reached full strength.

Or as full as it would get in London.

Of the rest, ten had never seen their homeland, born here by the unique magic that created new faeries. And six were, while not quite as old as Deadnettle, wizened and sick, with barely the strength to open their eyes.

“Thank you,” he said to Marigold, for there was nothing else he could. He would deal with Yarrow later in the same way he and Marigold had—eventually—dealt with Thistle. He would speak to Yarrow's beloved, Violet, later too.

“You'd best go upstairs.”

Deadnettle gritted his large, sharp teeth.

It would come as a surprise to anyone learning of what was happening here that they were permitted to leave—but where would they go? The city was full of iron, and they had hurt themselves badly trying to cross the magical barrier Mordecai had erected.

Soon they had stopped trying. They stayed in their cellar, where there was no iron, and Deadnettle left only to deal with their dead, for Mordecai would not touch the faeries alive or otherwise.

Such excursions were exhausting. As was the sight that greeted him in the cavernous room. His kin lay huddled on streaked, torn mattresses, under scraps of blanket more hole than cloth.

In contrast, the faeries themselves seemed almost out of place, clean and shining amid the squalor. At first Mordecai hadn't cared whether the faeries ate or bathed, but it had taken only one wealthy madam to tilt her finely coiffed head and ask, in a delicate whisper, about the smell.

“Deadnettle?”

“Samphire.” He patted her on the head, just above the ears that were showing the first hints of pointing at the top. It pained him to look at her in particular, the first hatchling to be born in the cellar, just a few short months after the Summoning. She'd be fully grown soon, would no longer look like one of the humans. Her indigo irises were expanding, drinking up the white around them as if it were milk. When she smiled, the faintest air of sharpness glinted at the tip of each tooth.

“Yarrow—”

“I know,” he said. “I am sorry.”

“And I haven't seen Thistle in days. Is he . . . outside?”

Deadnettle shook his head. “Him, too.”

“But he was younger than I am!”

He would not explain to her, to any of them, the manner of Thistle's death. Far safer to let them believe it had happened in the usual way, for the usual reason. Even in telling Marigold the whole story, he had broken a promise made when Thistle—and Thomas—were yowling new hatchlings.

“I know,” he said again. “I shall return soon.”

There were no locks on the door at the top of the crumbling staircase, not physical ones. There did not need to be. At this hour, Mordecai would be in his private study, away from the lush parlors in which he and the other sorcerers
entertained
. Deadnettle passed through the kitchen and climbed the cramped, winding staircase—again, once used by servants when this had been a beautiful family home.

Some things did not change. In the grand scheme of things, Deadnettle had always been a servant, but back in the faery realm, he had been happy, privileged as one.

Oh, Wintercress.

He shook his head as he approached Mordecai's door. He would not allow himself to think of her here, for the sorcerer to take any more of the dead faery queen than he already had.

•   •   •

Mordecai Thrup was an evil man in a fine suit, made all the finer by the fathomless fortune his successful Spiritual Society had brought him.

“Ah, Deadnettle. You are late. I sent for you three hours hence.”

“My apologies,” answered Deadnettle, bowing low enough to hide his sneer. When he straightened again, his face was impassively blank. “I had business to attend to. We lost another in the night. Your performance was too much for him.”

All of this was, broadly speaking, the truth, though the two facts were unconnected. But it was true enough that Deadnettle could speak the words without pain.

“Another? Was there not one just a few days ago? You must be more careful.” The sorcerer smiled widely. “And I expect a new clutch of hatchlings a half year from now. We must replace the old with the new, if you insist on dying with such regularity.”

Deadnettle took a deep breath. He had taken so many in this room he feared the evil was beginning to seep into him through his lungs, and it would be that, not the iron or the bells or the constant sapping of his faery strength, that would kill him. “I will see what can be arranged,” he said through clenched teeth. “It is not, as you know, so easy for us. Hatchlings are born in quite a different way.”

“This is not my concern,” said Mordecai. “I ask for new faeries, you will provide them. Young, strong ones. The movement is gaining in power and numbers, and I am at its helm. All across London, people speak my name as the guide to the beyond, greater than Bellman or Lestrange or Wellington, and this new one, Jensen. The situation shall not change.”

BOOK: The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden
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