Guardian (Steeplejack Series #3)

Guardian (Steeplejack Series #3)

by A. J. Hartley

Hardcover

$17.99 $19.99 Save 10% Current price is $17.99, Original price is $19.99. You Save 10%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Thursday, January 24

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765388155
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 06/12/2018
Series: Steeplejack Series , #3
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 529,933
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 13 - 17 Years

About the Author

A.J. HARTLEY is the international bestselling author of a dozen novels including the Steeplejack series, the Darwen Arkwright series, and mystery-thrillers for adults. He is UNC Charlotte's Robinson Professor of Shakespeare, specializing in performance theory and practice, and has published several scholarly books on dramaturgy, political theater, and drama history.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

DAHRIA FROWNED, SHADED HER eyes, and turned to where a long-tailed whydah with a crimson beak was calling from a thorn tree.

"What a racket they make," she observed, put out. We were sitting on the porch of the Willinghouse estate, sipping plumet juice chilled with the last flakes of ice bought from the peddlers a week ago and stored in the house's deepest stone-lined cellar.

"I rather like it," I said. There were lots of birds that never braved the smogs of Bar-Selehm, and it was easy to forget just how wild the land was only a few miles from the city center. Dahria rolled her eyes.

"Of course you do," she remarked. "Being almost feral yourself. I'm amazed you aren't rolling in the dirt with Grandmamma's hyenas. And you wonder why I don't want to be seen in public with you."

"I am not feral!" I exclaimed, eyeing one of said hyenas as it trotted past and gave us an unreadable look that made the hair on the back of my neck prickle. "City girl, me. Born and raised. Well, raised."

The Drowning wasn't strictly the city.

"But not raised well," said Dahria.

"That's a matter of opinion," I said. "And perspective."

"Oh yes," said Dahria, lizard dry, "I keep forgetting your years of finishing school up someone's chimney."

"You can see a lot of the world from those chimneys."

"What's that?" said Dahria, putting a hand to her ear theatrically. "Ah yes, I think I hear the not-so-stealthy approach of a lecture: The Hard Realities of Life in the Slums and Gangs, by Anglet Sutonga, steeplejack."

"You'd rather I'd spent my school years on embroidery and watercolors, no doubt?" I replied, equally arch.

"Now, there's an image to conjure with. The steeplejack urchin with a palette of paints and some fine brushes, instead of a bucket of ... What do you call the stuff that holds the bricks together?"

"Mortar?" I said, wide-eyed. "How can you not know what mortar is? What did they teach you in those precious finishing schools of yours?"

"Not bricklaying."

"Or anything else useful."

"Not much call for mortar when taking tea with counts and duchesses in elegant withdrawing rooms."

"Well, it's a good thing someone knows what mortar is," I said, "else your elegant drawing rooms would be likely to fall apart and kill you all. And we all know what a great loss that would be."

"I didn't say I didn't know what mortar was," said Dahria, biting back a grin. "The word merely escaped my memory, it being something unbecoming to a young lady."

"Ah. That must be it. The word knew better than to sully your mind and fled."

"Quite right too," said Dahria, and then she laughed, and I laughed, and for a while we forgot that the world was falling apart at the seams.

* * *

WAS THAT OVERSTATING THE case? Perhaps a little, but I don't think so. We had known as soon as the newspaper began to scream about the so-called "Arms for Rebels" scandal that the ruling National party was going to be embarrassed, since several of its highest-ranking members had been connected to the illegal supplying of the northern tribes with Bar-Selehm machine guns. What we hadn't seen right away was how quickly Norton Richter's Heritage party would seize the initiative, using the crisis in the government to push for more extremist policies. A revised version of Richter's Bar-Selehm First bill, minimally adjusted to allow small areas of the city to remain exempt, had been forced through, and many of the local black and Lani people would have to move out of white areas of the city by the close of the year. Willinghouse had led the Brevard party charge against the policy shift, but the law had been passed anyway, the Nationals caving to pressure from Richter's swaggering, uniformed bullies and voting en masse to approve. It wasn't yet clear how far this would all go, but there were elections on the horizon and the fear — which was widespread — was that there would be huge gains for the Heritage party at the Nationals' expense, and that a coalition government might well be in power by year's end, with Willinghouse's Brevard party stripped of what little authority it currently had. Worst of all, Prime Minister Benjamin Tavestock — a reasonable and occasionally decent man with whom I disagreed about everything — was considered ripe for the plucking, though who might take his position, I couldn't say.

It was unlikely to be an improvement.

"What are you thinking?" Dahria said suddenly.

"Nothing," I replied. "Why?"

"You were looking at me in that probing, impertinent way again," she said. "Like you were burrowing into my head to see what was inside." She paused, waiting for me to respond, and when I went back to looking at the garden, added a peremptory "Well?"

"You remember that abandoned vault they found under the bank near Mahweni Old Town?" I said. "The police cordoned off the area, and they sent military engineers in to blast it open in the hope of gold doubloons or something from the days of Captain Franzen."

Dahria screwed up her face. "What are you babbling about, girl?" she said. "Of course I remember. What has that to do with what we were talking about?"

"I imagine seeing inside your head is a bit like that."

"How so?"

"Very hard to get into and really not worth the effort."

Again the half flicker of a grin quickly doused in affronted outrage. "You work for my brother!" she exclaimed. "You're staff. I should thank you to remember your place."

"I bet you would, but I don't think it's going to happen," I remarked.

Now she gaped, her face full of mock indignation. The fact that she was a little less guarded around me might have come from the assumption that I didn't matter, that I wasn't truly a person in the way her society acquaintances were, but I didn't believe that. I thought it was friendship, closeness, even if that was something we rarely acknowledged aloud, and never in front of other people.

"I should have you horsewhipped!" she said.

"Probably." I considered my drink. "My ice has all melted. Shall we go in?" She harrumphed. "I suppose so. Will this summer never end? I swear I'm sweating like a steeplejack."

"Hilarious."

"The underclasses are so thin-skinned," said Dahria with a mischievous grin.

"Maybe we should test how thick-skinned the landed gentry are," I replied, reaching to the small of my back and sliding my brand-new kukri from its sheath. "I've been wanting to test the edge of this blade —"

She made a breathy noise of panic and pretended to run away. I went after her, menacing her with the heavy, curved knife, till she squealed and ran giggling to the door, with me in mock pursuit.

The door slid open, and there was Madame Nahreem clad in formal black, roused by our noise, glaring at us. We stuttered to a silent halt under her imperious stare like naughty children caught out of bed. She didn't say anything. She just looked. Even in her regular clothes, her countenance with all its labored patience, exasperation, and thinly veiled disdain would have left us chastened for our frivolity, but in the complete and utterly unexpected mourning she had taken to wearing since the death of Namud, we felt young and stupid. We watched Dahria's black-wreathed grandmother walk silently back into the house.

"If she had been fifty years younger," Dahria whispered to me, "I might have found myself rethinking the nature of their relationship."

I gave her a shocked look, but for once she wasn't joking or being dismissive, her expression serious and sad.

There were codes of mourning for the upper classes, set periods and depths according to one's status and relationship to the deceased. Six months for siblings. Two for nieces and nephews. A year for a parent or a child. It was all set and officially agreed upon, violation of the code being a matter of great social scandal, though it was also (as Dahria was quick to point out) profoundly unjust. Men mourned their dead wives for only three months, while women were supposed to mourn their husbands for two or three years. But nowhere in the code did it suggest that aristocrats should mourn for lost manservants.

I had liked Namud a lot and grieved for his death, but those feelings could not take away the strangeness of Madame Nahreem's extensive formal mourning. Since Dahria had avoided her grandmother's house like the plague, she had known Namud no more than I had, less in some ways. Dahria's grief at his death — buried deep enough that you had to know the signs to see it at all — was almost as surprising as Madame Nahreem's, or would be to her white, city friends. Dahria was more careful about what she gave away in front of them.

"Whose is that coach?"

Dahria was gazing down the long, tree-lined drive to where the iron gates were being opened for a glossy black two-horse fly. I stood up and saw, squeezed in on either side of the driver, two white men cradling shotguns.

"Get in the house," I said. "Tell Madame Nahreem to alert the servants. We have unwelcome guests."

There was a gun room beside the library on the ground floor. There hadn't been much in it since Willinghouse's father had died, but there were still a few dusty hunting rifles and some ornamented pistols in glass-fronted cases. I moved inside, closing the door behind me and bolting it, before making for the gun room. If I was overreacting, I would live with the shame.

I emerged with a breach-loading carbine I had handled once before, my hands hastily relearning how to cock the weapon as I returned to the front of the house, wishing I had felt strong enough to choose one of the longer and heavier hunting guns. The staff had been mostly released for the day, and there were no more than a couple of maids, the cook, a kitchen lad, and a twelve-year-old Quundu footboy. I could rely on no one but myself to protect the house.

There was a small shuttered window that looked out onto the veranda, and I opened it, slotting the rifle's muzzle through and peering down to where the coach had pulled up at the foot of the entrance steps. The two armed men were already climbing down, one of them stepping back and opening the fly's side door. They moved efficiently, like men who had spent time in uniform, but though their eyes seemed to rake the house and grounds for any sign of life, the grip they maintained on their weapons seemed almost casual.

I hesitated. Something about this felt strange, stranger than a robbery.

I had, however, already chambered one round and was prepared to fire a warning shot when a tall, slim white man with jet-black hair and muttonchop side whiskers climbed out of the coach. I stared, doubting my eyes, but there could be no mistake.

It was Benjamin Tavestock, First Lord of the Treasury. The prime minister.

CHAPTER 2

THE NATIONAL PARTY WASN'T the enemy, not like the Grappoli were or Richter's Heritage party, but they were the establishment and had been for generations. People like me had little to thank them for and a lot of reason to be suspicious of them, so I dithered, rifle in hand, as Madame Nahreem rolled past me like a great black battleship and began unbolting the front door. I gave her a doubtful look, expecting a torrent of disdainful abuse, but she merely shook her head, then nodded to the window.

I looked.

Emerging from the plume of dust stirred up by the prime minister's coach was another carriage, one I recognized as belonging to the estate. And another behind it, shabbier and unfamiliar. As I watched, Willinghouse leapt down from the first one before it had come to a complete halt and strode purposefully toward Tavestock, touching his shoulder and motioning him toward the house.

Madame Nahreem gave me a meaningful look and said simply, "Go."

I knew better than to ask why, and for once her tone was urgent, but not accusatory. She didn't want the prime minister, his men, or whoever was in the third carriage to see me. My secret association with the Willinghouse family and the Brevard party was still intact, and it was important we kept it that way.

I took the carbine and broke into a trotting run down the long central corridor and up the stairs to the bedrooms, listening as I went. I had just reached the broad landing when I heard the click of the door latch and the murmured greetings of the arrivals. Dahria was standing outside her door, her face tight and still as if she had been carved from ivory. Her eyes met mine, and I felt her anxiety and tension, even if I couldn't see them in her posture. When I took a step toward her, she raised a warning finger, listened for another moment, then said, "I must change."

She vanished behind her bedroom door, and I could hear her hastily putting together something formal and public should she be called upon to meet our unexpected guests.

Unexpected didn't begin to cover it. Willinghouse was the most vocal and conspicuous of the parliamentary opposition's young backbenchers, and the idea that the leader of the government would have anything to do with him outside the Parliament House was hard to imagine.

Of course, Dahria would find this all terribly boring. When her brother started one of his dinnertime rants, she would begin by rolling her eyes and end by threatening to leave the table if he couldn't discuss more pleasant subject matter. But Dahria found everything boring. It was part of her aristocratic deportment, passion of any kind being at best unseemly and at worst a kind of weak-willed collapse into barbarism, but sometimes I would catch a look in her eyes (hastily stilled), and I'd say that the real reason she didn't want us talking politics was because she was scared. If Richter and his Whites First cronies took over, she knew full well that Willinghouse would have a sign — if not a target — round his neck, and not merely because he was their political enemy. Dahria and her brother were both one quarter Lani, and while they might pass unnoticed among white people who didn't know them — Dahria in particular, since she had made blending into polite society her life goal — the family was well known in Bar-Selehm.

That however, sells Dahria short. If she was afraid, it wasn't entirely for herself. I'd have waged everything I owned on it. And it wasn't just fear, either. However much she worked to hide it, Dahria was, under that elegant, feline exterior, a creature of deep and powerful feeling. We never talked about it, but I was sure in my heart that it was true, and it was a good part of why I liked her, snobby, privileged, and tiresome though she frequently was.

Still, however dull she found political meetings, even Dahria would have had to acknowledge that what was happening at the estate today was nothing short of remarkable.

Which is why they are here, and not in town, I thought. This was a meeting, and one they didn't want reported in the press. Possibly one they didn't want members of their own parties to know about.

But a meeting about what?

For a second I loitered outside Dahria's room, but then another door downstairs clicked shut and the already muted voices dropped to almost nothing. I strained to hear more but was startled by the sharp barking call of an alarmed vervet monkey somewhere on the roof. I blinked and decided.

I walked quickly to my room, shoving the door wide and leaving the carbine on the bed, then turned on my heel and half ran back along the landing and down the stairs. At the bottom I made for the kitchens and found Mrs. Tarulli, the cook, busying herself over the stove with a kettle of water.

She gave me a sharp look as I came in, then went back to what she was doing, waiting for me to say something. Mrs. Tarulli was Lani, like me, and I had always felt a certain wary distance from her, as if she was suspicious of my presence in the house. Had it been up to me, I would have spent much of my time in the kitchens, helping out, watching her grind spices and roast meat, but Willinghouse had given me strict instructions not to interact with the staff of the estate. This too was a security precaution, but whatever he had said to explain my presence to them had not worked, and they regarded me as if I had somehow cheated or seduced my way into a place beyond my station. The idea embarrassed and annoyed me, but this was not the time to dwell on that.

"Where are the parlor maid's things, Mrs. Tarulli?" I asked, trying to sound less like a brat from the Drowning and more like the lady of the house.

"Her things?"

"Her smock and apron," I said. "Her cap."

"Over there," she said, nodding to a closet I had taken for a pantry, and adding, as an afterthought, "Miss."

I rushed to it, speaking as I walked. "Are you making tea for Mr. Willinghouse's guests?"

"Yes, miss."

"Good," I said. "I'll take it."

"You'll what?"

"I'll serve the tea," I said.

She was a small woman, probably fifty, but wrinkled and lined from the sun so that she could pass for half as much again. She frowned now and cocked her head in the Lani way.

"That's not your place, miss, if you don't mind me saying."

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Guardian"
by .
Copyright © 2018 A. J. Hartley.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews