In an alternate London where illogical magic has turned the Industrial Revolution on its head, Bannon and Clare now face hostility, treason, cannon fire, black sorcery, and the problem of reliably finding hansom cabs.
The game is afoot..
Bannon and Clare
The Iron Wyrm Affair
The Red Plague Affair
The Ripper Affair
The Damnation Affair (e-only)
For more from Lilith Saintcrow, check out:
Gallow and Ragged
Trailer Park Fae
Dante Valentine Novels
Working for the Devil
Dead Man Rising
Devil's Right Hand
Saint City Sinners
To Hell and Back
Dante Valentine (omnibus)
Jill Kismet Novels
Jill Kismet (omnibus)
A Romance of Arquitaine Novels
The Hedgewitch Queen
The Bandit King
Blood Call (coming August 2015)
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Iron Wyrm Affair
A Promise of Diversion
When the young dark-haired woman stepped into his parlour, Archibald Clare was only mildly intrigued. Her companion was of more immediate interest, a tall man in a close-fitting velvet jacket, moving with a grace that bespoke some experience with physical mayhem. The way he carried himself, lightly and easily, with a clean economy of movement – not to mention the way his eyes roved in controlled arcs – all but shouted danger. He was hatless, too, and wore curious boots.
The chain of deduction led Clare in an extraordinary direction, and he cast another glance at the woman to verify it.
Yes. Of no more than middle height, and slight, she was in very dark green. Fine cloth, a trifle antiquated, though the sleeves were close as fashion now dictated, and her bonnet perched just so on brown curls, its brim small enough that it would not interfere with her side vision. However, her skirts were divided, her boots serviceable instead of decorative – though of just as fine a quality as the man’s – and her jewellery was eccentric, to say the least. Emerald drops worth a fortune at her ears, and the necklace was an amber cabochon large enough to be a baleful eye. Two rings on gloved hands, one with a dull unprecious black stone and the other a star sapphire a royal family might have envied.
The man had a lean face to match the rest of him, strange yellow eyes, and tidy dark hair still dewed with crystal droplets from the light rain falling over Londinium tonight. The moisture, however, did not cling to her. One more piece of evidence, and Clare did not much like where it led.
He set the viola and its bow down, nudging aside a stack of paper with careful precision, and waited for the opening gambit. As he had suspected, she spoke.
“Good evening, sir. You are Dr Archibald Clare. Distinguished author of The Art and Science of Observation.” She paused. Aristocratic nose, firm mouth, very decided for such a childlike face. “Bachelor. And very-recently-unregistered mentath.”
“Sorceress.” Clare steepled his fingers under his very long, very sensitive nose. Her toilette favoured musk, of course, for a brunette. Still, the scent was not common, and it held an edge of something acrid that should have been troublesome instead of strangely pleasing. “And a Shield. I would invite you to sit, but I hardly think you will.”
A slight smile; her chin lifted. She did not give her name, as if she expected him to suspect it. Her curls, if they were not natural, were very close. There was a slight bit of untidiness to them – some recent exertion, perhaps? “Since there is no seat available, sir, I am to take that as one of your deductions?”
Even the hassock had a pile of papers and books stacked terrifyingly high. He had been researching, of course. The intersections between musical scale and the behaviour of certain tiny animals. It was the intervals, perhaps. Each note held its own space. He was seeking to determine which set of spaces would make the insects (and later, other things) possibly—
Clare waved one pale, long-fingered hand. Emotion was threatening, prickling at his throat. With a certain rational annoyance he labelled it as fear, and dismissed it. There was very little chance she meant him harm. The man was a larger question, but if she meant him no harm, the man certainly did not. “If you like. Speak quickly, I am occupied.”
She cast one eloquent glance over the room. If not for the efforts of the landlady, Mrs Ginn, dirty dishes would have been stacked on every horizontal surface. As it was, his quarters were cluttered with a full set of alembics and burners, glass jars of various substances, shallow dishes for knocking his pipe clean. The tabac smoke blunted the damned sensitivity in his nose just enough, and he wished for his pipe. The acridity in her scent was becoming more marked, and very definitely not unpleasant.
The room’s disorder even threatened the grate, the mantel above it groaning under a weight of books and handwritten journals stacked every which way.
The sorceress, finishing her unhurried investigation, next examined him from tip to toe. He was in his dressing gown, and his pipe had long since grown cold. His feet were in the rubbed-bare slippers, and if it had not been past the hour of reasonable entertaining he might have been vaguely uncomfortable at the idea of a lady seeing him in such disrepair. Red-eyed, his hair mussed, and unshaven, he was in no condition to receive company.
He was, in fact, the picture of a mentath about to implode from boredom. If she knew some of the circumstances behind his recent ill luck, she would guess he was closer to imploding and fusing his faculties into unworkable porridge than was advisable, comfortable… or even sane.
Yet if she knew the circumstances behind his ill luck, would she look so calm? He did not know nearly enough yet. Frustration tickled behind his eyes, the sensation of pounding and seething inside the cup of his skull easing a fraction as he considered the possibilities of her arrival.
Her gloved hand rose, and she held up a card. It was dun-coloured, and before she tossed it – a passionless, accurate flick of her fingers that snapped it through intervening space neat as you please, as if she dealt faro – he had already deduced and verified its provenance.
He plucked it out of the air. “I am called to the service of the Crown. You are to hold my leash. It is, of course, urgent. Does it have to do with an art professor?” For it had been some time since he had crossed wits with Dr Vance, and that would distract him most handily. The man was a deuced wonderful adversary.
His sally was only worth a raised eyebrow. She must have practised that look in the mirror; her features were strangely childlike, and the effect of the very adult expression was… odd. “No. It is urgent, and Mikal will stand guard while you… dress. I shall be in the hansom outside. You have ten minutes, sir.”
With that, she turned on her heel. Her skirts made a low, sweet sound, and the man was already holding the door. She glanced up, those wide dark eyes flashing once, and a ghost of a smile touched her soft mouth.
Interesting. Clare added that to the chain of deduction. He only hoped this problem would last more than a night and provide him further relief. If the young Queen or one of the ministers had sent a summons card, it promised to be very diverting indeed.
It was a delight to have something unknown, but within guessing reach. He sniffed the card. A faint trace of musk, but no violet-water. Not the Queen personally, then. He had not thought it likely – why would Her Majesty trouble herself with him? It was a faint joy to find he was correct.
His faculties were, evidently, not porridge yet.
The ink was correct as well, just the faintest bitter astringent note as he inhaled deeply. The crest on the front was absolutely genuine, and the handwriting on the back was firm and masculine, not to mention familiar. Why, it’s Cedric.
In other words, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Grayson. The Prime Minister was new and inexperienced, since the Queen had banished her lady mother’s creatures from her Cabinet, and Grayson had survived with, no doubt, some measure of cunning or because someone thought him incompetent enough to do no harm. Having been at Yton with the man, Clare was inclined to lean towards the former.
And dear old Cedric had exerted his influence so Clare was merely unregistered and not facing imprisonment, a mercy that had teeth. Even more interesting.
Miss Emma Bannon is our representative. Please use haste, and discretion.
Emma Bannon. Clare had never heard the name before, but then a sorceress would not wish her name bruited about overmuch. Just as a mentath, registered or no, would not. So he made a special note of it, adding everything about the woman to the mental drawer that bore her name. She would not take a carved nameplate. No, Miss Bannon’s plate would be yellowed parchment, with dragonsblood ink tracing out the letters of her name in a clear, feminine hand.
The man’s drawer was featureless blank metal, burnished to a high gloss. He waited by the open door. Cleared his throat, a low rumble. Meant to hurry Clare along, no doubt.
Clare opened one eye, just a sliver. “There are nine and a quarter minutes left. Do not make unnecessary noise, sir.”
The man – a sorceress’s Shield, meant to guard against physical danger while the sorceress dealt with more arcane perils – remained silent, but his mouth firmed. He did not look amused.
Mikal. His colour was too dark and his features too aquiline to be properly Britannic. Perhaps Tinkerfolk? Or even from the Indus?
For the moment, he decided, the man’s drawer could remain metal. He did not know enough about him. It would have to do. One thing was certain: if the sorceress had left one of her Shields with him, she was standing guard against some more than mundane threat outside. Which meant the problem he was about to address was most likely fiendishly complex, extraordinarily important, and worth more than a day or two of his busy brain’s feverish working.
Thank God. The relief was palpable.
Clare shot to his feet and began packing.
A Pleasant Evening Ride
Emma Bannon, Sorceress Prime and servant to Britannia’s current incarnation, mentally ran through every foul word that would never cross the lips of a lady. She timed them to the clockhorse’s steady jogtrot, and her awareness dilated. The simmering cauldron of the streets was just as it always was; there was no breath of ill intent.
Of course, there had not been earlier, either, when she had been a quarter-hour too late to save the other unregistered mentath. It was only one of the many things about this situation seemingly designed to try her often considerable patience.
Mikal would be taking the rooftop road, running while she sat at ease in a hired carriage. It was the knowledge that while he did so he could forget some things that eased her conscience, though not completely.
Still, he was a Shield. He would not consent to share a carriage with her unless he was certain of her safety. And there was not room enough to manoeuvre in a two-person conveyance, should he require it.
She was heartily sick of hired carts. Her own carriages were far more comfortable, but this matter required discretion. Having it shouted to the heavens that she was alert to the pattern under these occurrences might not precisely frighten her opponents, but it would become more difficult to attack them from an unexpected quarter. Which was, she had to admit, her preferred method.
Even a Prime can benefit from guile, Llew had often remarked. And of course, she would think of him. She seemed constitutionally incapable of leaving well enough alone, and that irritated her as well.
Beside her, Clare dozed. He was a very thin man, with a long, mournful face; his gloves were darned but his waistcoat was of fine cloth, though it had seen better days. His eyes were blue, and they glittered feverishly under half-closed lids. An unregistered mentath would find it difficult to secure proper employment, and by the looks of his quarters, Clare had been suffering from boredom for several weeks, desperately seeking a series of experiments to exercise his active brain.
Mentath was like sorcerous talent. If not trained, and used, it turned on its bearer.
At least he had found time to shave, and he had brought two bags. One, no doubt, held linens. God alone knew what was in the second. Perhaps she should apply deduction to the problem, as if she did not have several others crowding her attention at the moment.
Chief among said problems were the murderers, who had so far eluded her efforts. Queen Victrix was young, and just recently freed from the confines of her domineering mother’s sway. Her new Consort, Alberich, was a moderating influence – but he did not have enough power at Court just yet to be an effective shield for Britannia’s incarnation.
The ruling spirit was old, and wise, but Her vessels… well, they were not indestructible.
And that, Emma told herself sternly, is as far as we shall go with such a train of thought. She found herself rubbing the sardonyx on her left middle finger, polishing it with her opposite thumb. Even through her thin gloves, the stone prickled hotly. Her posture did not change, but her awareness contracted. She felt for the source of the disturbance, flashing through and discarding a number of fine invisible threads.
Blast and bother. Other words, less polite, rose as well. Her pulse and respiration did not change, but she tasted a faint tang of adrenalin before sorcerous training clamped tight on such functions to free her from some of flesh’s more… distracting… reactions.
“I say, whatever is the matter?” Archibald Clare’s blue eyes were wide open now, and he looked interested. Almost, dare she think it, intrigued. It did nothing for his long, almost ugly features. His cloth was serviceable, though hardly elegant – one could infer that a mentath had other priorities than fashion, even if he had an eye for quality and the means to purchase such. But at least he was cleaner than he had been, and had arrived in the hansom in nine and a half minutes precisely. Now they were on Sarpesson Street, threading through amusement-seekers and those whom a little rain would not deter from their nightly appointments.
The disturbance peaked, and a not-quite-seen starburst of gunpowder igniting flashed through the ordered lattices of her consciousness.
The clockhorse screamed as his reins were jerked, and the hansom yawed alarmingly. Archibald Clare’s hand dashed for the door handle, but Emma was already moving. Her arms closed around the tall, fragile man, and she shouted a Word that exploded the cab away from them both. Shards and splinters, driven outwards, peppered the street surface. The glass of the cab’s tiny windows broke with a high, sweet tinkle, grinding into crystalline dust.
Shouts. Screams. Pounding footsteps. Emma struggled upright, shaking her skirts with numb hands. The horse had gone avast, rearing and plunging, throwing tiny metal slivers and dribs of oil as well as stray crackling sparks of sorcery, but the traces were tangled and it stood little chance of running loose. The driver was gone, and she snapped a quick glance at the overhanging rooftops before the unhealthy canine shapes resolved out of thinning rain, slinking low as gaslamp gleam painted their slick, heaving sides.
Sootdogs. Oh, how unpleasant. The one that had leapt on the hansom’s roof had most likely taken the driver, and Emma cursed aloud now as it landed with a thump, its shining hide running with vapour.
“Most unusual!” Archibald Clare yelled. He had gained his feet as well, and his eyes were alight now. The mournfulness had vanished. He had also produced a queerly barrelled pistol, which would be of no use against the dog-shaped sorcerous things now gathering. “Quite diverting!”
The star sapphire on her right third finger warmed. A globe-shield shimmered into being, and to the roil of smouldering wood, gunpowder and fear was added another scent: the smoke-gloss of sorcery. One of the sootdogs leapt, crashing into the shield, and the shock sent Emma to her knees, holding grimly. Both her hands were outstretched now, and her tongue occupied in chanting.
Sarpesson Street was neither deserted nor crowded at this late hour. The people gathering to watch the outcome of a hansom crash pushed against those onlookers alert enough to note that something entirely different was occurring, and the resultant chaos was merely noise to be shunted aside as her concentration narrowed.
Where is Mikal?
She had no time to wonder further. The sootdogs hunched and wove closer, snarling. Their packed-cinder sides heaved and black tongues lolled between obsidian-chip teeth; they could strip a large adult male to bone in under a minute. There were the onlookers to think of as well, and Clare behind and to her right, laughing as he sighted down the odd little pistol’s chunky nose. Only he was not pointing it at the dogs, thank God. He was aiming for the rooftop.
You idiot. The chant filled her mouth. She could spare no words to tell him not to fire, that Mikal was—
The lead dog crashed against the shield. Emma’s body jerked as the impact tore through her, but she held steady, the sapphire now a ringing blue flame. Her voice rose, a clear contralto, and she assayed the difficult rill of notes that would split her focus and make another Major Work possible.
That was part of what made a Prime – the ability to concentrate completely on multiple channellings of ætheric force. One’s capacity could not be infinite, just like the charge of force carried and renewed every Tideturn.
But one did not need infinite capacity. One needs only slightly more capacity than the problem at hand calls for, as her third-form Sophological Studies professor had often intoned.
His dark green coat fluttered as he landed in the midst of the dogs, a Shield’s fury glimmering to Sight, bright spatters and spangles invisible to normal vision. The sorcery-made things cringed, snapping; his blades tore through their insubstantial hides. The charmsilver laid along the knives’ flats, as well as the will to strike, would be of far more use than Mr Clare’s pistol.
Which spoke, behind her, the ball tearing through the shield from a direction the protection wasn’t meant to hold. The fabric of the shield collapsed, and Emma had just enough time to deflect the backlash, tearing a hole in the brick-faced fabric of the street and exploding the clockhorse into gobbets of metal and rags of flesh, before one of the dogs turned with stomach-churning speed and launched itself at her – and the man she had been charged to protect.
She shrieked another Word through the chant’s descant, her hand snapping out again, fingers contorted in a gesture definitely not acceptable in polite company. The ray of ætheric force smashed through brick dust, destroying even more of the road’s surface, and crunched into the sootdog.
Emma bolted to her feet, snapping her hand back, and the line of force followed as the dog crumpled, whining and shattering into fragments. She could not hold the forcewhip for very long, but if more of the dogs came—
The last one died under Mikal’s flashing knives. He muttered something in his native tongue, whirled on his heel, and stalked toward his Prima. That normally meant the battle was finished.
Yet Emma’s mind was not eased. She half turned, chant dying on her lips and her gaze roving, searching. Heard the mutter of the crowd, dangerously frightened. Sorcerous force pulsed and bled from her fingers, a fountain of crimson sparks popping against the rainy air. For a moment the mood of the crowd threatened to distract her, but she closed it away and concentrated, seeking the source of the disturbance.
Sorcerous traces glowed, faint and fading, as the man who had fired the initial shot – most likely to mark them for the dogs – fled. He had some sort of defence laid on him, meant to keep him from a sorcerer’s notice.
Perhaps from a sorcerer, but not from a Prime. Not from me, oh no. The dead see all. Her Discipline was of the Black, and it was moments like these when she would be glad of its practicality – if she could spare the attention.
Time spun outwards, dilating, as she followed him over rooftops and down into a stinking alley, refuse piled high on each side, running with the taste of fear and blood in his mouth. Something had injured him.
Mikal? But then why did he not kill the man—
The world jolted underneath her, a stunning blow to her shoulder, a great spiked roil of pain through her chest. Mikal screamed, but she was breathless. Sorcerous force spilled free, uncontained, and other screams rose.
She could possibly injure someone.
Emma came back to herself, clutching at her shoulder. Hot blood welled between her fingers, and the green silk would be ruined. Not to mention her gloves.
At least they had shot her, and not the mentath.
Oh, damn. The pain crested again, became a giant animal with its teeth in her flesh.
Mikal caught her. His mouth moved soundlessly, and Emma sought with desperate fury to contain the force thundering through her. Backlash could cause yet more damage, to the street and to onlookers, if she let it loose.
A Prime’s uncontrolled force was nothing to be trifled with.
It was the traditional function of a Shield to handle such overflow, but if he had only wounded the fellow on the roof she could not trust that he was not part of—
“Let it GO!” Mikal roared, and the ætheric bonds between them flamed into painful life. She fought it, seeking to contain what she could, and her skull exploded with pain.
She knew no more.
This part of Whitehall was full of heavy graceless furniture, all the more shocking for the quality of its materials. Clare was no great arbiter of taste – fashion was largely useless frippery, unless it fuelled the deductions he could make about his fellow man – but he thought Miss Bannon would wince internally at the clutter here. One did not have to follow fashion to have a decent set of aesthetics.
So much of aesthetics was merely pain avoidance for those with any sensibilities.
Lord Cedric Grayson, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, let out a heavy sigh, lowering his wide bulk into an overstuffed leather chair, perhaps custom-commissioned for his size. He had always been large and ruddy, and good dinners at his clubs had long ago begun to blur his outlines. Clare lifted his glass goblet, carefully. He did not like sherry even at the best of times.
Still, this was… intriguing.
“So far, you are the only mentath we’ve recovered.” Grayson’s great grizzled head dropped a trifle, as if he did not believe it himself. “Miss Bannon is extraordinary.”
“She is also severely wounded.” Clare sniffed slightly. And cheap sherry, as well, when Cedric could afford far better. It was obscene. But then, Grayson had always been a false economiser, even at Yton. Penny wise, pound foolish, as Mrs Ginn would sniff. “So. Someone is killing mentaths.”
“Yes. Mostly registered ones, so far.” The Chancellor’s wide horseface was pale, and his greying hair slightly mussed from the pressure of a wig. It was late for them to be in Chambers, but if someone was stalking and killing registered mentaths, the entire Cabinet would be having a royal fit.
In more ways than one. Her Majesty’s mentaths, rigorously trained and schooled at public expense, were extraordinarily useful in many areas of the Empire. Britannia rests on the backs of sorcery and genius, the saying went, and it was largely true. From calculating interest and odds to deducing and anticipating economic fluctuations, not to mention the ability to see the patterns behind military tactics, a mentath’s work was varied and quite useful.
A registered mentath could take his pick of clients and cases. One unstable enough to be unregistered was less lucky. “Since I am not one of that august company at this date, perhaps I was not meant to be assassinated.” Clare set the glass down and steepled his fingers. “I am not altogether certain I was the target of this attempt, either.”
“Dear God, man.” Grayson was wise enough not to ask what Clare based his statement on. This, in Clare’s opinion, raised him above average intelligence. Of course, Grayson had not achieved his present position by being completely thickheaded, even if he was at heart a penny-pinching little pettifogger. “You’re not suggesting Miss Bannon was the target?”
Clare’s fingers moved, tapping against each other restlessly, precisely once. “I am uncertain. The attack was sorcerous and physical.” For a moment his faculties strained at the corners of his memory of events.
He supposed he was lucky. Another mentath, confronted with the illogic of sorcery, might retreat into a comforting abstract structure, a dream of rationality meant to keep irrationality out. Fortunately, Archibald Clare was willing to admit to illogic – if only so far as the oddities of a complex structure he did not understand yet.
A mentath could not, strictly speaking, go mad. But he could retreat, and that retreat would make him unstable, rob him of experiential data and send him careening down a path of irrelevance and increasing isolation. The end of that road was a comfortable room in a well-appointed madhouse, if one was registered – and the poorhouse if one was not.
“If war is declared on sorcerers too…” Grayson shook his heavy, sweating head. Clear drops stood out on his forehead, and he gazed at Clare’s sherry glass. His bloodshot blue eyes blinked once, sadly. “Her Majesty is most vexed.”
Another pair of extraordinarily interesting statements. “Perhaps you should start at the beginning. We have some time while Miss Bannon is treated.”
“It is exceedingly difficult to keep Miss Bannon down for any length of time.” Grayson rubbed at his face with one meaty paw. “At any moment she will come stalking through that door in high dudgeon. Suffice to say there have been four of Her Majesty’s registered geniuses recently lost to foul play.”
“Four? How interesting.” Clare settled more deeply into his chair, steepling his fingers before his long nose.
Grayson took a bracing gulp of sherry. “Interesting? Disturbing is the proper word. Tomlinson was the first to come to Miss Bannon’s attention, found dead without a scratch in his parlour. Apoplexy was suspected; the attending forensic sorcerer had all but declared it. Miss Bannon had been summoned, as Crown representative, since Tomlinson had some rather ticklish matters to do research for, cryptography or the like. Well, Miss Bannon arrived, took one look at the mess, and accused the original sorcerer of incompetence, saying he had smeared traces and she could not rule out a bit of nastiness instead of disease. There was a scene.”
“Indeed,” Clare murmured. He found that exceedingly easy to believe. Miss Bannon did not seem the manner of woman to forgive incompetence of any stripe.
“Then there was Masters the Elder, and Peter Smythe on Rockway – Smythe had just arrived from Indus, a rather ticklish situation resolved there, I’m told. The most current is Throckmorton. Masters was shot on Picksadowne, Smythe stabbed in an alley off Nightmarket, and Throckmorton, poor chap, burned to death at his Grace Street address.”
“And…?” Clare controlled his impatience. Why did they give him information so slowly?
“Miss Bannon found the fire at Throckmorton’s sorcerous in origin. She is convinced the cases are connected. After Masters’s misfortune, at Miss Bannon’s insistence sorcerers were hastily sent to stand guard over every registered mentath. Smythe’s sorcerer has disappeared. Throckmorton’s… well, you’ll see.”
This was proving more and more diverting. Clare’s eyebrow rose. “I will?”
“He’s in Bedlam. No doubt you will wish to examine him.”
“No doubt.” The obvious question, however, was one he was interested in Grayson answering. “Why was I brought here? There must be other unregistereds eager for the chance to work.”
“Well, you have been quite useful in Her Majesty’s service. There’s no doubt of that.” Grayson paused, delicately. “There is the little matter of your registration. Not that I blamed you for it, quite a rum deal, that. Bring this matter to a satisfactory close, and… who can say?”
Ah. There was the sweet in the poison. Clare considered this. “I gather Miss Bannon is just as insubordinate and intransigent as myself. And just as expendable in this current situation.” He did not think Miss Bannon would be expendable, precisely.
But he did wish to see Cedric’s reaction.
Grayson actually had the grace to flush. And cough. He kept glancing at Clare’s sherry as if he longed to take a draught himself.
I thought he was more enamoured of port. Perhaps his tastes have changed. Clare shelved the idea, warmed to his theme. “Furthermore, the registered mentaths have been whisked to safety or are presumably at great risk, so time is of the essence and the need desperate – otherwise I would still be rotting at home, given the nature of my… mistakes. I further gather there have been corresponding deaths among those, like myself, so unfortunate as to be unregistered for one reason or another.”
Grayson’s flush deepened. Clare admitted he was enjoying himself. No, that was not quite correct. He was enjoying himself immensely. “How many?” he enquired.
“Well. That is, ahem.” Grayson cleared his throat. “Let me be frank, Archibald.”
Now the game truly begins. Clare brought all his faculties to bear, his concentration narrowing. “Please do be, Cedric.”
“You are the only remaining unregistered mentath-class genius remaining alive in Londinium. The others… their bodies were savaged. Certain parts are… missing.”
Archibald’s fingers tightened, pressing against each other. “Ah.” Most interesting indeed.
Theory and Practice
Her eyes opened slowly, and out of the candlelit gloom Mikal’s face appeared. His mouth was set. For a single vertiginous instant memory rose to choke her; she was convinced she was in the round room under Crawford’s country estate, the walls dripping wet stone and her head aching, the Shield murmuring Easy, Prima, he shall not harm you again. The slumped, torn rag of the body in the corner, the sorcerer who had been her gaoler throttled to death and mutilated; the smell of death and the restraints at her wrists easing as Mikal worked them loose.
Emma’s heart leapt into her throat and commenced pounding with most unbecoming intensity.
She returned to the present with a violent start, disarranging the damp handkerchief on her forehead; a draught of violet and lavender scent unsettled her stomach even further. Mikal’s hands descended on her shoulders; he pushed her back on to the divan. “Lie still.” It was amazing, how he could speak through tight-clenched teeth. “The mentath is with Lord Grayson, he is safe enough. You, on the other hand, took a lead ball to the shoulder.”
It mattered little. If she was still alive and Mikal was alive and conscious, her shoulder was a small problem already solved. Furthermore, she was not trapped in the small room that featured in her nightmares.
The relief was, as usual, indescribable. A mere month ago she had emerged from that stone-walled room, the torn and rotting bodies of her former Shields strewn in the hall like so much rubbish, and had not wept. Even after her nightmares, she did not.
The tears would not come. And that, she reminded herself, was what truly made her Prime. The capacity to split her focus was only a symptom.
“Was that what it was?” She peeled the handkerchief from her forehead. It was one of her own, and doused with vitae. That accounted for the violet-lavender. Her stomach twisted again.
“I drained the overflow. And attended to your wound.” His eyes gleamed in the dimness. “I would counsel you not to move too quickly. You will likely ignore me.”
She crushed the scrap of linen and lace in her palm. Her dress jacket was undone, her camisole sticky with sweat and blood; her loosely laced corset was still abominably tight, and the tingle of a limited healing-sorcery itched in her shoulder. This was one of the dusty, forgotten rooms of Whitehall, full of whispers it did not do to listen overmuch to. The furniture was exceedingly awful, though modern, and she immediately guessed this was part of Grayson’s offices. The dimness was a balm to her sensitised eyes.
“I cannot protect you,” Mikal continued. Under his colouring, he was remarkably pale. None of the blood or gunpowder had tainted his clothes, but a pall of almost visible smoke cloaked him. Or perhaps it was his anger. “You would do better to cast me off.”
Not this argument again. “If you were not in a Prime’s service, you would be executed in less than a day. In case you have forgotten that small detail, Mikal.”
A half-shrug, his shoulder lifting and dropping. “You do not trust me.”
She could hardly argue with the truth. If you throttled one sorcerer you swore to protect, another would be a small matter, would it not? “I have little reason to distrust you.” The lie tasted of brass, and she suddenly longed for a glass of decent wine and an exceedingly sensational and frivolous novel, read in the comfort of her own bed.
Mikal grimaced slightly. He settled back on the stool placed precisely by the divan, glanced at the door. A Shield’s awareness, marking the exit though he had never forgotten it. “I murdered my last sorcerer with my bare hands, Prima. You are not stupid enough to forget.”
Hence, you must be lying, Emma, and I know it. But, as always, it was left unsaid.
So she chose truth. “I might have murdered him myself, had you not.” She held out the handkerchief. “Here. Vitae unsettles me a little, I fear.”
“There was no rum.” A slight, pained smile. He took the linen, calloused but sensitive fingers brushing hers.
An unwilling smile touched her lips as well. “We make do with what we have. Now let us have no more of this cast off business. We have other matters to attend to.”
His chin set. When he scowled, or practised his stubborn look, he was almost ugly. He did not have a pretty face.
Then why did his expression make her heart leap so indiscreetly?
Emma pushed herself gingerly up, tilted her chin down to examine her shoulder. Under the shredded green silk and the torn and stained bit of her camisole showing, pale unmarked skin moved. The tingle-itch of healing had settled more deeply, flesh and bone protesting as it was forced to knit. Well. That was instructive.
“I am sorry. I took the ones on the east side of the street; then there were the dogs. That particular threat was the most critical.”
She nodded. Her hair had come loose, her bonnet was missing, and the silk was ruined. Now would come her admission of mistrust, and his… possible hurt. Or did he care so much what she thought?
Why she cared about a Shield’s tender pride was beyond her. The Shields were to protect a Prime from physical threats and bleed off backlash, nothing more.
Come now. In theory, yes. In practice, no. All we care about is practice, correct? We have not achieved our position by being impractical. And yes, that is a royal “we”, isn’t it, Emma?
One day, that nasty little voice in her head might swallow its tongue and poison itself. Until it did, however, she was forced to endure its infuriating habit of being correct, as well as its habit of being singularly unhelpful.
She eased her legs off the divan, skirts bunching and sliding. A moment’s work had them assembled correctly. She’d bled down the front of her dress, splashes and streaks caught in the material, her hems torn and singed. The edges of her petticoats draggled, also singed. Her boots were spattered with mud and spots of blood, but still serviceable.
Anger was pointless. Anger over some stained cloth was doubly so. She swallowed it with an effort, turned her attention to other things. “The man who fired the initial shot – most probably to mark us – had a protection. I lost him in an alley, but we shall find the trail after we visit Bedlam.”
“The mentath seemed to have some ideas. No doubt he will have more after visiting Grayson.”
Always assuming we can believe a single word spilling from the Lord Chancellor’s forked tongue. Her dislike of the Chancellor was unreasoning; he was a servant of Britannia just as she was.
Still, she did not have to enjoy his company. After all, Crawford had been a servant too. A treacherous one, but a servant nonetheless.
Mikal was indirectly reminding her of the mentath’s capacity as a resource, with a Shield’s infinite tact. She nodded, patting at her hair. A few quick movements, pins sliding in, and she had the mess reasonably under control. Bloody hell. I liked that bonnet, too. “I am sending Grayson an itemised bill for every dress ruined in this affair.” She gained her feet in a lunge, swayed, and sat back down on the divan. Hard.
Mikal’s eyes glinted, yellowish in the dimness. He did not have to say I told you so. He merely steadied her, carefully keeping the vitae-soaked handkerchief away. “You look lovely.”
Heat rose on the surface of her throat, stained her cheeks. “You prefer the dishevelled, then?”
“Better dishevelled than dead, Prima. If you are careful, I believe you may stand now.”
He was correct once more, damn him. As usual. Her legs trembled, but they held her. Mikal rose too, hovering, his hand near her elbow.
“I shall manage quite well, thank you.” Emma exhaled sharply, frustration copper-bright to Sight cloaking her before she pushed it down and away. It was merely another weakness training would overcome. “Let us collect the mentath, then. I am loath to lose him now.”
“Emma.” Mikal caught her arm. “Did you think I had deliberately left the one who shot you?”
His mouth shaping her Christian name was a small victory, one she decided not to celebrate even internally. The thought crossed my mind, Mikal. “I was too busy to think such things. Come, leave that rag and let us find our mentath.”
He did not turn loose of her. Instead, he held her arm – perhaps to steady her, perhaps for some other reason. Emma pulled against his fingers, silk slipping on her bruised arm.
“You need another Shield. More Shields.” Said calmly, matter-of-fact. “A half-dozen at least. A full complement would be better.”
I had four, Mikal. They died protecting me. “I need you to burn that vitae-infested rag and accompany me to wherever Grayson is filling that mentath’s head with useless supposition,” she snapped. “If you are unhappy with my service, Shield, then by all means remove yourself from my aegis and present yourself to the Collegia for extermination.”
He turned pale. Such a thing did not seem possible, given his colouring. “I would that you had at least a single Shield you could trust, instead of losing precious time to backlash sickness because you will not let me perform my function.”
Oddly, it stung. Perhaps because he was correct. Again. “We have no time for this argument.” The divan groaned slightly; she could have sliced ice with the words. Emma took a firmer hold on her temper. It was her besetting sin, that temper. “When this mystery is solved, we shall approach the question of whether I decide to take the responsibility of another Shield or three, or twenty, in addition to my current intransigent Indus princeling. We will make a fine meal for our enemies, yours no less than mine, should we continue in this manner. Now shut up and rid me of that handkerchief, Mikal. I shall find Lord Grayson and Mr Clare, and I expect you to accompany me.”
She tore her arm from his grasp, set out for the door. Her skirts rustled oddly, and the floor was moving most strangely beneath her boots.
The amber prie-dieu, dangling at her breastbone from a silver chain, turned into a spot of warmth. There was enough force stored in it for two strong minor Works, a multiplicity of Words, or merely to keep her upright until dawn’s Tideturn renewed the world’s sorcerous energies. Her sardonyx was drained, and should there be more unpleasantness in store tonight… well.
It did not matter. The best thing was to go from one task to the next, as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
There was a fsssh! and a pop behind her as Mikal called flame into being. The skin between her shoulder blades roughened instinctively. He was armed, and—
It was ridiculous. If he wished her death, he had many opportunities on a daily basis to gratify that urge. She was stupid to waste time and energy fretting about it.
Unless that is part of the plan, Emma. How long would you wait, for a vengeance? And you cannot credit any reason he might give you for how he became your Shield.
Yet had Mikal not betrayed his sworn oath to the sorcerer who had almost killed her, she would be dead, and all this academic.
She twisted the crystal doorknob and stepped into the hall. The dead clustered here, diaphanous grey scarves of ill intent or mere confusion, soaking into the walls. Lamplight – Whitehall was now fitted with gas – ran wetly over every surface, and she heard voices not too far away. One, no doubt, was the mentath. Who had dealt with a sorcerous attack with far more presence of mind than she would ever have expected from a logic machine trapped in ailing flesh.
“Emma.” Mikal, from the darkened room behind her. “I wish you could trust me.”
She did not dignify it with a response, sweeping away. Oh, Mikal. So do I.
In One Fashion or Another
The door was swept unceremoniously open, and Grayson visibly flinched. Clare was gratified to find his nerves were still steady. Besides, he had heard the determined tap of female footsteps, dainty little bootheels crackling with authority, and deduced Miss Bannon was in a fine mood.
Her sandalwood curls were caught up and repinned, but she was hatless and her dress was sadly the worse for wear. Smoke and fury hung on her in almost visible veils, and she was dead pale. Her dark eyes burned rather like coals, and Clare had no doubt that any obstacle in her way had been toppled, uprooted or simply crushed.
Green silk flopped uneasily at the shoulder, a scrap of underclothing tantalisingly visible, but there was no sign of a wound. Just pale, unmarked skin, and the amber cabochon glowing in a most peculiar manner.
Grayson gained his feet in a walrus lunge. He had turned an alarming shade of floury yeastiness, but most people did when confronted with an angry sorcerer. “Miss Bannon. Very glad to see you on your feet, indeed! I was just bringing Clare here—”
She gave him a single cutting glance, and short shrift. “Filling his head with nonsense, no doubt. We are dealing with conspiracy of the blackest hue, Lord Grayson, and I am afraid I may tarry no longer. Mr Clare, are you disposed to linger, or would you accompany me? Whitehall should be relatively safe, but I confess your talents may be of some use in the hunt before me.” Clare was only too glad to leave the mediocre sherry. He set it down, untasted. “I would be most honoured to accompany you, Miss Bannon. Lord Grayson has informed me of the deaths of several mentaths and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Mr Throckmorton’s erstwhile guard. I gather we are bound for Bedlam?”
“In one fashion or another.” But a corner of her lips twitched. “You do your profession justice, Mr Clare. I trust you were not injured?”
“Not at all, thanks to your efforts.” Clare recovered his hat, glanced at his bags. “Will I be needing linens, Miss Bannon, or may I leave them as superfluous weight?”
Now she was certainly amused, a steely smile instead of a single lip-twitch, at odds with her childlike face. With that spark in her dark eyes, Miss Bannon would be counted attractive, if not downright striking. “I believe linens may be procured with little difficulty anywhere in the Empire we are likely to arrive, Mr Clare. You may have those sent to my house in Mayefair; I believe they shall arrive promptly.”
“Very well. Cedric, I do trust you’ll send these along for me? My very favourite waistcoat is in that bag. We shall return when we’ve sorted out this mess, or when we require some aid. Good to see you, old boy.” Clare offered his hand, and noted with some mild amusement that Cedric’s palm was sweating.
He didn’t blame the man.
Mentaths were not overtly feared the way sorcerers were. Dispassionate logic was easier to swallow than sorcery’s flagrant violations of what the general populace took to be normal. Logic was easily hidden, and most mentaths were discreet by nature. There were exceptions, of course, but none of them as notable as the least of sorcery’s odd children.
“God and Her Majesty be with you,” Cedric managed. “Miss Bannon, are you quite certain you do not—”
“I require nothing else at the moment, sir. Thank you, God and Her Majesty.” She turned on one dainty heel and strode away, ragged skirts flapping. Clare arranged his features in something resembling composure, fetched the small black bag containing his working notables, and hurried out of the door.
His legs were much longer, but Miss Bannon had a surprisingly energetic stride. He arrived at her side halfway down the corridor. “I know better than to take Lord Grayson’s suppositions as anything but, Miss Bannon.”
Miss Bannon’s chin was set. She seemed none the worse for wear, despite her ruined clothing. “You were at school with him, were you not?”
Was that a deduction? He decided not to ask. “At Yton.”
“Was he an insufferable, blind-headed prig then, too?”
Clare strangled a laugh by sheer force of will. Quite diverting. He made a tsk-tsk sound, settling into her speed. The dusky hall would take them to the Gallery; she perhaps meant them to come out through the Bell Gate and from there to find another hansom. “Impolitic, Miss Bannon.”
“I do not play politics, Mr Clare.”
I think you are a deadly player when you lower yourself to do so, miss. “Politics play, even if you do not. If you have no care for your own career, think of mine. Grayson dangled the renewal of my registration before me. Why, do you suppose, did he do so?”
“He does not expect you to live long enough to claim such a prize.” Her tone suggested she found the idea insulting and likely all at once. “How did you lose your registration, if I may ask?”
For a moment, irrationality threatened to blind him. “I killed a man,” he said, evenly enough. “Unfortunately, it was the wrong man. A mentath cannot afford to do such a thing.” Even if the beast needed killing.
Even if I do not regret it.
“Hm.” Her pace did not slacken, but her heels did not jab the wooden floor with such hurtful little crackles. “In that, Mr Clare, mentaths and sorcerers are akin. You kill one tiny little Peer of the Realm, and suddenly your career is gone. It is a great relief to me that I have no career to lose.”
“Indeed? Then why are you—” The question was ridiculous, but he wished to gauge her response. When she slanted him a very amused, dark-eyed glance, he nodded internally. “Ah. I see. You are as expendable as I have become.”
Her reply gave him much to think on. “In the service of Britannia, Mr Clare, all are expendable. Come.”
An Insoluble Puzzle
“I cannot understand why it is often so difficult to find a hansom,” she muttered, as she reclaimed her hand from Mikal’s.
“I have applied logic to the question.” Clare’s tone was thoughtful. He shook his top hat, removed a speck of dust from the brim, and replaced it on his head with a decided motion. “And, to be honest, I have never arrived at a satisfactory answer.”
The driver, his own battered stuff hat set at a rakish angle and his rotund body wrapped against the chill, cracked his whip over the heaving, coppery back of his clockwork horse, and hooves clattered away down the dark street. Tiny sparks of stray sorcery winked out in their wake. Gasflame flickered, wan light hardly licking the surface of the cobblestones, not daring to penetrate the crevices between.
“At least we were not attacked during this short voyage,” Clare continued. “I must confess I am relieved.”
Are you? For I am not. An enemy resourceful and practised, not to mention financed well enough to send sootdogs and hired thugs, was likely to have an idea of the finitude of even a Prime’s power. The Tideturn of dawn was distressingly far away, and even that flood of sorcerous energy would not stave off the effects of fatigue and hunger.
Worry about such an event when it becomes critical, Emma. Before then, simply do what must be done. She straightened her back. For Bethlehem Hospital crouched before them, a long pile of brick and stone shimmering with misery.
The very bricks of Bedlam were warped, but had nevertheless been carried from the old site in Bishop’s Gate two decades ago with the Regent’s false economy. Sorcerers had warned against reusing the building materials, but it had done little good.
The sprawling monstrosity, its cupola leering at the sky and running with golden charter-charms, took up a considerable space – physical as well as psychic layers accreted for a good two hundred years since the insane had begun to be “treated” rather than merely confined or executed. In the near distance, the smoke of the Black Wark rose, the kernel of Southwark with its cinderfall and pall of incessant gloomy smoke.
Emma swallowed drily, and Mikal’s hand closed over her shoulder. She stepped away. Any Shield would not like a sorcerer setting foot in this place.
Of course, Mikal was not any Shield, any more than she was any sorceress. There was a time when a sorceress of her Discipline would have been executed as soon as certain proclivities and talents began to show, whether she was Prime or merely witch. A man whose Discipline lay in the Black, rather than the White or Grey, had less to fear.
Men always had less to fear.
Emma raised her chin. Gaslamp glow picked out screaming faces swirling in the brick wall, and for a moment it was difficult to separate the audible howls from the silent ones. It sounded a merry night in Bedlam, cries and screams from the depths of the building muffled by stone, a seashell roar of discontent. The ætheric protections set on the place resounded, a discordance of smashed violins and overstressed stones.
Her prie-dieu warmed further against her chest. It would have to be enough.
She set off for the postern, her heels clicking against cobbles. Her skirt was ragged, and its hem was torn. She must look a sight. Irritation flashed through her and away.
Clare fell into step beside her. “Why is a sorcerer in Bedlam, may I ask? Was there no other sanatorium?”
Her jaw was set so tightly she almost had difficulty replying. “Not with a fully drawn Greater Circle free, no. Llewellyn is no witch or Adept. He is – was Prime; even mad or broken he is not likely to be amenable to containment.”
“Ah. Was Prime?”
Will I have to teach him the classes of sorcerer? “Sanity is a prerequisite for carrying the title. However disputable one considers the term when applied to a sorcerer.” And he is a peer; he cannot be thrown in a common prison. For a moment her skin chilled, and Mikal was close enough that she could feel the heat from him. She knew without looking that his mouth would be set tight in disapproval. So was her own.
“I see.” Clare absorbed this. “Miss Bannon?”
For the love of Heaven, will you not be quiet? “Yes, Mr Clare?”
“Is it advisable to enter through the side door?”
For a man who functioned by logic and deduction, he certainly seemed thick. “The main entrance is closed and locked at dusk. I do not relish the idea of wasting time waiting for the head warden to be called from his divertissements. Also, the more unremarked we can be, the better.”
“I hardly think we will pass unremarked.”
A sharp retort died on Emma’s tongue. Perhaps he was simply making conversation, seeking to set her at her ease. Or he wished to find out if she was as empty-headed, as most men, even fleshly logic engines, considered women to be. “Llewellyn is being held near this door.”
Do you? I fear you do not. The outside guard was half-asleep, propped in the doorway at the top of a short flight of uneven stairs. Heavily bearded and reeking of gin, he blinked as the trio approached, and by the time Emma had set foot on the first step, bracing herself, his eyes had widened to the size of poached eggs and he had straightened, pulling at the high-collared broadcloth of his uniform coat. “Visitin’ hours is one to three—”
Mikal was suddenly there, shoving him against the wall and making a swift movement. The ulp the man made was lost in the sound of the double blow to chin and paunch. Mikal’s fingers flicked, subtracting the ring of heavy iron keys from the broad leather belt. There was a gleam of sharp metal, and the sliced belt thudded to the top step. The man slumped; Mikal lowered him fairly gently.
Clare’s eyebrows nested in his hairline. “Is this really necessary?”
Paused on the second step, Emma strangled a flare of impatience. You are an irritant, mentath. “If Mikal is doing it, yes.”
Mikal already had the correct key selected and inserted into the postern door. “The man reeks of gin,” he remarked. “He was disposed to be troublesome. Petty authority.” His lip curled, disdain clearly visible in the set of his shoulders as well. “He will not remember us.”
“Let us hope as much.” Clare did not sound convinced.
The door opened with a small groan; Mikal glanced inside. He nodded, once, and Emma continued up the stairs.
They plunged into Bedlam’s grey confusion. Gaslamps hissed down the long hall, and she braced herself. For a moment the walls rippled, the entire hungry, semi-sentient pile of stone resonating as it took notice of what she was.
Excerpted from The Iron Wyrm Affair by Excerpted by permission.
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