Friday, September 04, 2009
Free Fiction: End of the Century sample chapters
IT WAS LATE MORNING when Galaad ﬁrst caught sight of the city, looming in the east. The trip from Glevum should have taken six days, but with the winter’s cold, it had taken him nearer ten. Ten days of icy bridges over sluggish streams, the ground hard and cold beneath his thin woolen blanket at night even when he went to the trouble of clearing away the snow, freezing rain sometimes falling from the unforgiving gray skies, and harsh winds blowing when it didn’t. Had he ridden, he’d have made the journey in a fraction of the time, but he’d not been on a horse since the accident, and couldn’t conscience doing so now. Many of the hobnails from the soles of his caligae marching boots were missing, knocked loose and left along the roadside as signs of his passing, and those areas of his feet’s skin not already thickened with calluses were now blistered, bloody, and tender. His left knee was swollen and sore from a fall two days before on an icy patch of road, but while the joint did not have a complete range of motion, it could support his full weight, though lances of pain shot up and down his leg when he did, so that he was able to continue, albeit with a pronounced limp. The bundle on his back was lighter, if nothing else, now that he’d eaten nearly all the supplies of food he’d brought with him from his home in Powys, though of course that meant that had he not reached his destination soon he’d have begun slowly to starve. But it was a point not worth dwelling upon, so Galaad pushed it from his thoughts.
Galaad had never before been this far from home. He’d been born in the municipality of Glevum in the kingdom of Powys, twenty-one years before, and had seldom strayed far from the banks of the river Sabrina. The western kingdoms had been largely spared the ravages of the Saeson invasion of Britannia, so that throughout most of his childhood, Galaad had known peace. By the time he was a full adult with a child of his own, the rest of the island knew peace as well, and had one man to thank for it. But the more Galaad’s steps had brought him east, the more he saw upon the land the scars of the Saeson occupation.
In much of the west, the old order of the Romans had remained. The towns still survived, though their populations had diminished, tenants paid landlords, community farmlands were tended. But as Galaad had walked through regions where the war with the Saeson had been close at hand, it was clear that the public authority had collapsed. Towns stood abandoned, farms gone to seed and houses left to the elements. The remaining Roman nobility had ﬂed across the channel to Gaul, ahead of the advancing Saeson hordes, while the peasantry had retreated to the rural areas of the west, watched over by former town magistrates who now styled themselves as landholders and kings.
But one man was bringing order back to the island, restoring authority and the rule of law. This was the same man who had driven the Saeson back to their huddled enclaves in the south and east, and established his court in the former Roman capital that lay between to hold the two groups of Saeson apart and to act as a bulwark against them for the rest of the island.
If any would know the meaning of Galaad’s strange visions, the young man was convinced, it would be he. Perhaps then the phantom that haunted him could be laid to rest.
Limping, his feet blistered and bloody, his legs and back aching, Galaad approached the high city walls with a prayer in his heart. At the end of a long journey, he had ﬁnally reached Caer Llundain, home of the Count of Britannia and victor of Badon, the High King Artor.
Galaad, for his sins, did not know that his journey was only beginning.
Galaad’s paternal grandfather had been to Caer Llundain, then still called Londinium, before the Saeson revolt and the migrations of the nobility to Gaul, when the city was still crowded with Roman citizens from all over the empire. Ships had sailed up and down the river Tamesa, bringing trade and traders from Gaul, Hibernia, and the Middle Sea, importing wine and textiles, exporting tin and silver. The capital’s streets bustled not simply with Romans and Britons, but were painted in the many hues of the Roman empire—Germanics, Arabians, Syrians, Parthians, Africans, and more. Even with the formal secession of Britannia from the empire more than a generation before, when the emperor Honorius had instructed the nation to look after its own defense, some relations with Rome had been maintained, church envoys sent to the island on rare occasion to root out the Pelagian and Arian heresies, reports of the Vandals’ sack of Rome carried back by traders. Londinium’s brightest hours might have been behind it, its future uncertain, but in those days the city still thrived.
But that had been in the time of the grandfathers. Galaad had grown up hearing stories about the capital in the east, and had dreamt of seeing it at the height of its powers, but that day was long past, the sun that had risen over Londinium long since set. The city was now known as Caer Llundain, no longer a Roman city, but a Britonnic one. And the empire to which it had once been the furthest outpost was also no more, the last emperor Romulus Augustus deposed by the Goths the year before Galaad was born. By the time he had taken his ﬁrst breath, the empire was only a memory.
Galaad was not sure what lay beyond the city walls that loomed before him, but he knew it would not be the cosmopolitan metropolis of his grandfather’s stories. For a young man from a relatively small municipality like Glevum, though, the sheer scale of Caer Llundain was still intimidating. The wall before him stood some eighteen feet high and ran right around the city, constructed of gray ragstone hauled miles inland from Cantium. The bridge he had to cross just to reach the western gatehouse spanned a ditch some six feet deep and nine feet wide. And if the wall itself was not imposing enough, then the foreboding bastions placed at intervals along the wall were sure to do the job. The bastions themselves, ﬁnally, looked like a child’s playthings next to the gatehouse. Almost one hundred feet wide, side to side, the western gate was ﬂanked on either side by square towers of gray stone, their red-tiled roofs towering far overhead, two or three times the height of the wall itself.
Londinium had never fallen to the Saeson, in all the long decades of the war, and looking at the city wall now, Galaad was sure that he understood why.
Two arches opened through the thick city walls, one for trafﬁc leading into the city, one for trafﬁc leading out, and a gatekeeper stood in each, leaning on long-bladed javelins, ridged helmets upon their heads. As the sun climbed to its zenith and the hour neared midday, Galaad stepped off the footbridge and onto the threshold of the gatehouse.
“Who approaches?” The gatekeeper’s tone was bored, almost sleepy, his words slurred and near inaudible. It took Galaad a moment to parse the strangely accented Britonnic speech, and then he hastened to answer.
“Galaad.” He paused, not sure what other information was needed. “From Glevum,” he went on in Britonnic. “That’s in Powys, in the west.”
The two gatekeepers exchanged a look, and one rolled his eyes while the other returned his attention to Galaad. “And what’s your business here, Galaad of Powys?”
“I come to see the High King Artor, Count of Britannia,” Galaad said, in a rush. “You see, I am plagued with visions, and I’m sure that if I were able to relate them to the high king, then he might be able to . . .”
The gatekeeper who had spoken raised his hand, motioning Galaad to silence. “Do you bring craftwork to trade?” He spoke as if by rote, without emotion or passion.
Galaad considered this for a moment, and shook his head.
“Do you bear arms?”
Galaad began to shake his head, then thought better of it. He raised a ﬁnger, begging patience, and slung his bundle from his back. Slipping loose the knotted thong that held the bundle together, he pulled out a blade sheathed in cracked and greasy hide. “I have a sword,” he said, proffering it.
The other gatekeepeer stepped forward, and holding his javelin in one hand took Galaad’s sword in his other. Then, his javelin resting against the crook of his elbow, he tried to pull the blade from the scabbard, but only with repeated attempts and considerable effort would the blade come free. It was an ancient leaf-blade sword, the dulled blade black with rust, the leather wrapping of the hilt pulled and cracked with age.
“It belonged to my grandfather’s grandfather,” Galaad explained, helpfully.
“You must be so proud,” the gatekeeper said, his tone affectless, and ramming the blade back into the scabbard, he returned it to Galaad, then nodded over his shoulder at his companion.
“Um, yes,” Galaad agreed, somewhat confused. He tucked the sword back into his bundle and began retying the thongs.
“You are free to enter the city,” the ﬁrst gatekeeper said, returning to his script. “Know that the law of the High King is supreme here, as it is everywhere his rule extends, and that any infractions against his authority will be severely handled.”
Galaad stood, slinging the bundle back on his back. “I understand,” he said quickly.
The gatekeeper stepped aside, with a quick glance to his fellow, and then ﬁxed Galaad with an amused stare. “In that case, welcome to Caer Llundain, man of Powys. And good fortune to you.”
Galaad smiled and nodded.
“You’re going to need it,” the other gatekeeper added with a rough laugh, his voice low.
Galaad’s smile froze on his face, but instead of answering he scurried ahead, entering the momentary darkness of the tunnel through the nine-footthick wall. A handful of limping steps later, he walked back out into the cold winter light, and found himself in the city of Caer Llundain, home of King Artor.
THE LIGHT OF THE LATE MORNING SUN streamed through the open shutters of the sitting room, dust motes dancing in the beam, while the bones of the breakfast meal idled on the table. The lilting tones of a ﬂute echoed from the paneled walls, an improvised air on the tune of one of Child’s border ballads of Scotland, played by the man who leaned against the mantle, his eyes closed and his expression serene. The woman at the table, intent on the morning’s penny papers, tapped her foot in time, unconscious of the action. It was early June, and outside the temperature already climbed, the Marylebone streets bustling with the morning’s trade and trafﬁc, but within the walls of Number 31, York Place, it was still relatively calm and cool. For the moment, at any rate. There were some, even in this enlightened modern age, who might have considered it untoward that a man and a woman should pass the time together unchaperoned, which unmarried couples could not do without inviting comment, and which married couples seldom did at all. But this particular man and this singular woman rarely bothered themselves with what others might say about them, individually or collectively, and hardly gave the matter a moment’s consideration. “Blank?” the woman said, looking up from her papers and interrupting the impromptu recital. “Yes, Miss Bonaventure?” The man called Sandford Blank lowered the ﬂute from his lips, opening his eyes, and regarded his companion with a slight smile.
“Something catch your interest in this morning’s scandal sheets?” “Not scandal,” Roxanne Bonaventure answered, crossing her legs and turning in her chair to face Blank, folding a section of newspaper and laying
it across her knee. “Or not precisely, rather. A bit of business that, were it to happen closer to home, I suspect you’d ﬁnd of some interest.” Blank motioned with his ﬂute. “Read on, Miss Bonaventure, read on.” Miss Bonaventure nodded and, smoothing the pulp paper against her knee, began to read aloud.
THE HISTORICAL HYDERABAD DIAMOND STOLEN.
CALCUTTA. It is reported from Hyderabad that the historical “Imperial” sold by Mr. Alexander Jacob, the dealer in jewels, to the Nizam has been stolen from the government Treasury of his Highness and replaced by a paste imitation. This has caused a great sensation. It is further reported that the Nizam intended to present the diamond to the Queen on the occasion of the Jubilee. The diamond in question formed the subject of a prolonged suit in India. Mr. Jacob, the original of the Mr. Isaacs of Mr. Marlon Crawford’s novel, was charged in the High Court at Calcutta by the Nizam of Hyderabad with having criminally misappropriated the due of 25 lakhs, which had been deposited at a bank at Calcutta as earnest-money for the purchase of the diamond. The Nizam had in the ﬁrst instance agreed to buy the stone, a gem of remarkable size and brilliance, for the sum of 46 lakhs of rupees, or nearly, and the sum of 25 lakhs was paid as security, pending the completion of the purchase, to Mr. Jacob, who was acting merely as a broker in the transaction. Eventually, owing to the intervention of the British resident, who objected to such lavish expenditures for an article of pure luxury, the Nizam declined to carry out the bargain, and, on Mr. Jacob making difﬁculties as to the return of the earnest, commenced a criminal suit, which terminated in the acquittal of the defendant.
“Stop there a moment, Miss Bonaventure, if you wouldn’t mind.” Blank crossed to the shelves lining the far wall, and climbing up on the rolling ladder, pulled down the most recent Whitakers Almanac. He consulted it for a brief moment, and then slapped the book shut with a satisﬁed air.
“Just as I suspected.” Blank returned the book to its place on the shelf. “Miss Bonaventure, would you be so good as to wire the authorities in Hyderabad, at your earliest convenience, and ask them to take Mr. Jacob into custody? When they have done, they should check him for distinguishing marks, and when they discover the tattoo of a crown of thorns surrounding the initials ‘J.A.,’ they should send word to New Scotland Yard, whom I suspect will be very interested to hear the news.”
Miss Bonaventure moved the paper to the table and crossed her arms over her chest, regarding Blank with a sly smile. “You’ve solved the case, I take it?”
Blank nodded, absently, busying himself with polishing his ﬂute with a cloth.
“Just from listening to me reading a brief summary of the details in the morning’s news?”
Blank gave her a look, quirking a smile, but didn’t speak.
“And this man with the tattoo?” Miss Bonaventure went on. “He’s the one who has stolen the diamond, then?”
“No,” Blank said with a shake of his head, “but he’s the guilty party, all the same.” Returning his ﬂute to its case, he crossed the ﬂoor and sat at the table across from Miss Bonaventure. He contemplating ﬁnishing his morning tea, but it had gone cold while he’d been playing, and he hadn’t the will to continue with it. Glancing up, he took in Miss Bonaventure’s perplexed expression, and explained. “It’s quite simple, really. As you may not be aware, I have visited the government treasury of Hyderabad and was actually brought in to consult on the implementation of its security by the Nizam himself. And I can assure you that, under normal circumstances, the ediﬁce is virtually impregnable. Knowing that there was the matter of twenty-ﬁve lakhs of rupees in the balance, and the Nizam’s rupees at that, it is scarcely credible that the Nizam would not have ordered security heightened. The result being that a stronghold merely virtually impregnable would thereafter be completely impregnable, for all intents and purposes. There are, then, only two alternatives. One, that party or parties unknown succeeded in snatching a near-priceless gem from beneath the nose of the Nizam himself, substituting in its place a worthless paste imitation, or . . .”
Blank paused, looking to Miss Bonaventure to ﬁnish.
She smiled, nodding. “Or they didn’t.”
“Precisely,” Blank answered casually, folding his hands in his lap. “There never was a Hyderabad Diamond. It was paste all along. And this Alexander Jacob, no doubt, had hoped to complete the transaction before the dubious quality of the gem was discovered.”
Miss Bonaventure looked unconvinced. “Surely the Nizam had it appraised before making the offer?”
“Remember,” Blank answered, pointing at ﬁnger at the newspaper article, “Jacob here claims to be acting merely as broker. Doubtless he would also have been in a position to secure the services of a suitable appraiser, or to inﬂuence the Nizam’s choice of such, at the very least.”
Miss Bonaventure arched an eyebrow. “Why did you consult the Whitaker's?”
“Oh,” Blank answered, with an absent wave. “To conﬁrm a suspicion. The name ‘Alexander Jacob’ is a commonly employed alias of a rouge and scoundrel named Jack Alasdair, with whom I have had some previous dealings. The man committed murder, but last year ﬂed before he was apprehended, and remains at large. There was an Alexander Jacob, a dealer in gems, but as the obituary pages of Whitaker's conﬁrm, he passed away in Portsmouth the year before. Jack Alasdair was no doubt surprised to see the obituary notice for one of his well-worn noms de guerre, and found it to his advantage to assume the dead man’s identity abroad.”
“Well,” Miss Bonaventure said, with a sly smile, “perhaps you’ll have another accolade and honor to add to your collection.”
“Ppth,” Blank sputtered, waving his hand dismissively. His feelings about such things were well known. Such pifﬂe was more trouble than it was worth, by half, trinkets to clutter his already full lodgings. Blank’s actions in Cyprus the previous year had earned him the recognition of the Sublime Porte and Number 10 Downing Street alike, but while the Turkish Sultan had presented him with the Atiq Nishan-i-Iftikhar, or Order of Glory, from Salisbury he’d received only a hearty handshake. The medal had already tarnished, and the green-trimmed red ribbon was grayed with dust, sitting on a high shelf. With Salisbury, Blank had merely to wash his hands, ﬁguratively and literally, to be done with the whole affair.
There came a knock at the door. Blank lingered at the table for a long moment, before remembering that, with his valet Quong Ti temporarily called back to China on pressing family business, Blank was himself left without a manservant.
“Would you like me to answer that?” Miss Bonaventure asked with a faint smile.
Blank sighed. “No, I suppose I better had.” Wearily he rose from the table, and crossed to the door.
From the sitting room, Blank walked into a narrow corridor and from there into the entry. Overhead hung a gilt Venetian lantern, in which burned three blue-ﬂamed gas jets. His hat rested on an occasional table next to a vase of orchids, his silver-topped cane propped up against the wall beside it. To his right, through the high doorway, was the library, and beyond that Blank’s own bedroom. How he longed to return to that octagonal chamber and to sleep; but he’d slept ﬁtfully, if at all, these last nights.
Blank mused that it could be a sign, presaging some dirty business in the ofﬁng, this insipient insomnia. It had been some little while since he’d been called upon to do Omega’s bidding, and it was only a matter of time before he would be again. He had never slept well in the days leading up to a summoning, and seldom did for a long period after.
Unlocking the door, Blank found a uniformed ofﬁcer of the Metropolitan Police waiting on the threshold. After ascertaining Blank’s identity, the constable related that he had instructions to escort Blank to Tower Bridge, but was either unable or unwilling to share any further particulars about the matter.
Blank pulled a silver hunter from his vest pocket, consulted the time, and shrugged. “I have no pressing business until midafternoon,” he said to the constable, casually, and then glanced back over his shoulder, to see Miss Bonaventure lingering in the corridor. “Well, Miss Bonaventure, best get your coat and hat. It seems we are needed.”
“Pooh,” Miss Bonaventure said, with a moue of disappointment. “And I’d hoped to ﬁnish reading the papers.”
THE GUY BEHIND THE COUNTER wouldn’t stop giving Alice the stink-eye.
“Alice Fell.” Like it wasn’t on her passport, right there in his grubby mitts.
“And how old are you, miss?”
“Eighteen.” Again, like it wasn’t there in black and white.
The guy pursed his lips and nodded, looking thoughtful. Alice got the impression he thought she was lying, but really, who would lie about being eighteen? Only a sixteen-year-old. If you were eighteen, and looked it, you’d lie about being twenty-one. At least you would in the States. But then again, the drinking age in England was eighteen, wasn’t it? So maybe he had a point.
“And is this your luggage, miss? All of it?”
As if he found it difﬁcult to accept that she’d just gotten off a transatlantic ﬂight with no luggage but a ratty little nylon backpack with an anarchy symbol drawn on it in ballpoint pen. She nodded, trying not to giggle. She’s just realized who his accent made him sound like, and found it funny to imagine Sporty Spice with a bristly mustache working the immigration and customs counter at Heathrow Airport.
“You’ve just arrived on Temple Air ﬂight 214 from New York?”
“Anything to declare?”
Alice had to actively resist the temptation to say “Nothing but my genius,” like Orson Welles or whoever it was had done. Oscar Wilde, maybe? But then, she wasn’t really much of a genius, so maybe she’d have been better off saying “Nothing but my angst” or something equally self-aware and mopey. As it was, she managed to resist the impulse altogether, and just muttered “No” while she shook her head.
“May I look in your bag?” He said it like it was a question, but Alice knew that if she answered anything but “Yes,” she’d be turned right back around and put on a plane back to the States. So she played along, and nodded.
Here was what the guy pulled out of her backpack, which presently represented everything Alice owned in the world:
- A deck of playing cards, wrapped in duct tape.
- A library bound copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass, stamped property of Grisham Middle School, Austin, TX. (She’d stolen the book from the school library when she was in the eighth grade, but she wasn’t sure what the statute of limitation on library theft was, or what sort of extradition policy Austin ISD had with the United Kingdom, anyway, so she kept the fact that the book was stolen property to herself.)
- A trade paperback edition of Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.
- A copy of the 2000 edition of Frommer's London From $85 a Day (shoplifted from the Waldenbooks at Lakeline Mall which, again, Alice failed to mention).
- Two T-shirts, one pair of denim jeans, three pairs of socks, and three pairs of undergarments.
- Two packs of Camel Light cigarettes, one opened and one unopened.
- An antique silver match holder, or “vesta case,” engraved with the initials “J.D.” and a stylized dragon’s head, containing thirty-two wooden matches.
- A wallet containing an American Express credit card, an ATM card, four hundred and ﬁfty-two dollars in American bills, and seventy-two cents in American coins.
- A Ziploc bag containing various toiletries, including toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant.
- A half-dozen tampons.
- A Diamond Rio 500 Portable mp3 player, with headphones.
- Three spiral notebooks, one completely ﬁlled, one partially ﬁlled, one entirely empty.
- Four Uni-ball Vision Micro roller pens, all with purple ink.
- A vial containing 125 milligram doses of divalproex sodium, brand name Depakote, an anticonvulsant, prescribed to an Alice Jean Fell of Austin, Texas.
That, along with the clothes she had on—leather jacket, blue jeans, eight-hole Doc Martens, and black Ramones T-shirt—was all that Alice owned in the world. And her nose ring, she supposed, if someone wanted to get technical. And the ink in her three tattoos. And the platinum ﬁlling in her left rear molar.
“Reason for your visit to the United Kingdom, miss?”
Alice shifted her gaze away from the mustached Sporty Spice, trying to think of a convincing lie.
The truth was, she was on a mission from God. Or she was completely batshit crazy. There wasn’t much middle ground. But she was pretty sure that neither answer was likely what Sporty Spice wanted to hear, and that either answer would greatly diminish her chance of walking through the door and getting on with it.
Alice looked up from the counter, and with a smile, said, “Pleasure?”
Sporty Spice narrowed his eyes, pursing his lips again, making his bristly mustache stand out at all angles.
Alice was sure that the guy thought she was a drug mule or something like that. As if any drug mule worth their salt would show up to the airport with a nose ring and dyed-black hair, less luggage than most kids carried to a regular day at high school, stuffed into a backpack with the word “FUCK” scribbled in purple ink next to the carefully wrought anarchy symbol. Wouldn’t she be better off wearing a sign around her neck that said, “Please give me the full body cavity search, I’m carrying drugs,” and cut out the middle man?
An eternity later, the guy pulled out a little stamp, carefully laid Alice’s passport on the counter, and after stamping it a couple of times handed it back to her.
“Enjoy your visit, miss.”
Alice stuffed all of her junk into the backpack, slung it on her shoulder, and moved on before Sporty Spice had a chance to reconsider.
She breezed by all of the tourists and businessmen wrestling with their heavy luggage, or waiting around the carousels at baggage claim. She ﬁshed her sunglasses out, put them on, and stepped outside. It had been one hundred degrees outside and sunny when she left Austin the day before. Here, it was sixty degrees at most, about as cold as it got at night back home, this time of year, but just as sunny.
Alice pulled a cigarette from the half-empty pack and lit it with a match from the silver vesta case her grandmother had given her just months before. Months before, she’d been Alice Fell, the girl from that accident no one liked to talk about, ﬁnishing up her junior year at Westwood High School, watching her grandmother die by inches.
Now, she was all by herself in London, and she was on a mission.
That, or she was completely batshit crazy. The jury was still out . . .
GALAAD WAS LOST ALMOST IMMEDIATELY. Within moments of passing through the gate in the city wall, he had no earthly notion where he was or where he was going. Embarrassment and frustration rose red in his cheeks, and he struggled to seem anything but completely out of place. It wasn’t as if Galaad was a rustic, after all. Both of his grandfathers had been born Roman citizens of Britannia. He’d studied civics, geography, and history, and his ﬁrst language had been Latin. He was a devout follower of Christ, duly baptized, and while the Church in Rome might reject Galaad’s sect of Pelagianism as heresy, it made his belief no less sincere. And he’d spent his entire life within the city walls of Glevum, a former garrison town and home of the Twentieth Legion. So why was it that he felt a complete bumpkin on the streets of Caer Llundain? The streets thronged with men, women, and children from all over Britannia and beyond. Though Galaad knew that they must seem deserted compared with the time of his grandfather’s visit, much less the capital’s height of importance in the days of empire, to him it seemed a mad crush of people. Groups of ten, ﬁfteen, twenty people clustered at intersections, haggling in makeshift markets over craft goods, livestock, textiles, wine, and grain, each word accompanied by a brief cloud of exhalation in the frigid air. Galaad was thankful for the cold, though, which served to dampen the stench of dung and urine from the cattle, sheep, horses, and dogs everywhere, some tethered or bound up in pens of wooden stakes and twine, others allowed to wander at will. Better that the animals’ leaving should crunch icily underfoot than assault the senses on the wind.
Galaad, who had rarely seen more than a handful of strangers at once, and precious few altogether, was unsure how to address himself to them. His ears were met with a riot of languages and accents, everything from the reﬁned Latin of the noble class to the gutter Latin of the streets, from the Britonnic of Galaad’s countrymen to the clipped Gaelic tones of Hibernia. And though the weather was unwelcoming, there seemed a certain festive tang in the air, as though the city dwellers were anticipating some enjoyment to come. And one could hardly blame them. Midwinter was just days away, though whether any given citizen of Caer Llundain intended to celebrate the pagan solstice, the Roman festival of the unconquered sun, or the Christian observance of the birth of the Messias, it was impossible to say.
As he turned corners, one after another, quickly losing his way, Galaad slowly came to realize that for all its crowded intersections and rough market stalls, the city was far from full. Some of the buildings he passed were of Roman design, walls of ﬁred brick roofed with interlocking red terra-cotta tegulae and imbrices, but where the tiles had slipped loose or broken, they had been left in disrepair, the gaps like missing teeth in a broken smile. And all of the Roman buildings were older structures, ancient when his grandfather had been a boy. All of the newer construction Galaad saw was of less ambitious design and of meaner materials, little more than wattle-and-daub structures with thatched roofs. Worse, many of both varieties, Roman and wattle, stood untenanted, empty and abandoned, the doors and windows like the eyes and mouth of bleached skulls through which the cold winds whistled.
Finally Galaad had no choice but to intrude on one of the conversations he passed, and beg for directions. He was desperate to ﬁnd the home of the High King, to plead his case.
The pair of men he approached—a Gael with bright red hair and drooping mustache in plaid breeches and rough woolen tunic, a long sword hanging at his belt, and a Briton wearing a dull yellow cloak of thick wool bound at his shoulder with a bronze clasp—regarded him coolly when he inexpertly interrupted their exchange.
“Your pardon, friends,” Galaad began in Latin, “but I am a stranger in your city, seeking the home of the High King.”
The two men looked at each other, in evident confusion, and then back to him.
“I don’t . . .” the Briton began in Britonnic, ending with a halfhearted shrug, while the Gael just regarded him with barely disguised contempt.
Galaad nodded, and then repeated in Britonnic. “I am a stranger here, and seek the High King’s home.”
“Can’t help you there,” the Briton said, with another shrug. “I’m not from here, myself.”
“He’s holed up in the old procurator’s palace,” the Gael said impatiently, waving a hand off towards the south and east, then turned his attention back to the Briton. “Now look, I won’t be telling you again . . .”
“Um, your pardon again, friend,” Galaad interrupted, reluctantly. “But where might I ﬁnd the procurator’s palace, in that case?”
The Gael sighed, dramatically. “On the east bank of the stream Gallus, near where it cuts under the wall and enters the Tamesa.” He paused and took in Galaad’s blank expression. “It’s a palace. It’s three stories high. You can’t miss it.”
The Gael turned back to the Briton, eager to conclude their business, but Galaad remained rooted to the spot, looking helplessly in the direction the Gael had indicated, his confusion evident.
“Um . . .” Galaad began, raising his hand.
The Gael sighed again, even louder, and shook his head. Without looking at Galaad, he said, “Let me guess. You’ve no earthly notion where to ﬁnd the stream Gallus, have you?”
“Well, no,” Galaad answered, “but what I meant to ask was . . .”
“Can you ﬁnd your arse with both hands?” the Gael said, glancing sidelong at Galaad. “Assuming that someone drew a map for you and started you off right?”
Galaad blinked, unsure how to respond, cheeks burning with embarrassment.
“So I can assume you’re not a complete imbecile, in that case?” the Gael continued.
“Come now, Lugh,” the Briton said, looking with pity at Galaad.
“No, you come now, you great wrinkled teat,” the Gael said to the Briton. “I’ll not be chastised by a thief for failing to coddle and cocker some hapless rustic.”
“Thief?!” the Briton sputtered, indignant.
“And why not?” The Gael sneered. “That price you quote is thievery, plain and simple.”
“Now look, I have a reputation to protect . . .”
“Ach!” The Gael waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “You can shove
your reputation in your bung-hole. I’m through with you.”
The Gael wheeled around and pointed a long ﬁnger at Galaad.
“You,” he ordered. “Come with me.”
With that, the Gael spun on his heel and stomped away, imperiously.
Galaad looked from the retreating Gael to the Briton, who stood eyes
wide and red faced, mouth open but unspeaking. “Well . . . Here now . . . Wait!” the Briton said, shouting at the Gael’s back.
When the Gael failed to turn, but continued up the road, Galaad shrugged and, hiking the thong of his bundle higher on his shoulder, hurried after him. The Briton, for his part, stood his ground, wearing an expression of helpless resignation.
The Gael’s long strides carried him down the road at speed, and Galaad was out of breath by the time he caught up, limping on his swollen knee as quickly as he was able.
“He’s still watching, isn’t he?” the Gael said out of the corner of his mouth, just as Galaad came abreast of him.
Galaad glanced back over his shoulder and nodded. “Yes. Yes, he is.”
The Gael chuckled and smoothed down his long mustache with thumb and foreﬁnger. “Beauty.”
Galaad felt completely out of his depth. “Um, friend? Where are we. . .?”
“Relax, tadpole. I was on my way to Artor’s place anyway, when I ﬁnished my business with that cheating bastard, so you’ve only provided the opportunity to stage a strategic retreat. He’ll strike a fairer bargain when next I seem him, the fat bag of suet.”
“Who?” Galaad knit his brow in confusion. “Artor?”
“What?” The Gael looked at him, lip curled. “No, that bastard.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, then added with a chuckle, “Artor’s parentage is none of my lookout.”
They reached an intersection, and the Gael steered Galaad to the right, heading south towards the river Tamesa.
“If you’ll forgive me, friend,” Galaad said, timorously, “might I inquire after your name?”
“Lugh,” the Gael said simply.
“Well met, Lugh. My name is Galaad. I come from Glevum, in Powys to the west.”
“Sure,” Lugh said, with evident disinterest.
“Do you wonder why I come to the court of the High King?”
Lugh shook his head. “Not really.”
“You see,” Galaad went on, undeterred, “I am plagued by visions, since this summer past, and I’m sure that if any were able to divine their meaning, it would be . . .”
“Honestly,” Lugh interrupted with an impatient wave. “I’m not interested.”
Galaad was crestfallen. “Oh,” he said, hanging his head.
They continued on, winding their way through narrow cobblestone streets in silence. They passed a large timber building of recent vintage, in better repair than most Galaad had seen, and he’d have known it for a stable from the sound of wicker and bray from within, even if he hadn’t caught the pungent aroma of horse dung on the wind. He got a better glimpse inside as they walked by, and Galaad could see that the animals within seemed to live better and more comfortably than many of the human denizens of the city.
Galaad could not suppress an involuntary shudder at the proximity of the stable. Ever since the accident he could not look at a horse without being reminded of that spring day, of that bright morning, of the sight of blood on stones before the darkness rose up to swallow him. It always came in quick ﬂashes, brief glimpses, but the remembered pain was writ across his face, like the passage of dark clouds across a full moon.
He glanced at his companion, to see if his disquiet had been noted, and was surprised to see that Lugh’s face was screwed up, as well.
“Stinking beasts,” Lugh said with a sneer. “If it were my lookout, we’d have served their roasted ﬂesh at table months ago, and I’d not be haggling with traders for scraps to feed the city.”
“Whose horses are those?” Galaad asked.
“Whose do you think? The lot of them are Artor’s in name, though in practice the possessions of his captains and cavalry.”
Galaad’s eyes widened slightly, and he glanced back at the stable with swelling admiration. Artor’s cavalry that had been instrumental in the war, employed against an enemy with no horses, and no knowledge of their use had they possessed them. It had been ﬁve years since the ﬁnal victory at Badon, when Artor, then just a war duke, had defeated the Saeson under the leadership of Octha Big Knife and Bödvar Bee Hunter. In honor of the victory, Artor had been raised to the position of High King and given dominion over all of the kingdoms of Britannia. Artor had gone on to reassert authority in the north and west, even beyond the wall of Hadrian, and again his cavalry had proved essential.
They continued on, until at last they came to a tall building on the east bank of a broad shallow stream, near where it entered the Tamesa. It was built of the same Cantium ragstone as the city walls, the roof red with imported Italian tile. It was an imposing structure, the high arch of the entrance, the serried ranks of the windows high overhead. And though its age was evident from the red tiles missing from the roof, the crumbling mortar of the walls, and the stained and dirtied stones, it was clear that the structure was sound. And with the guard that stood ready at the entrance, hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword, his eyes wary and watchful, it was likewise clear that it was a structure which could be well defended, if the need arose.
“This is it,” Lugh said simply, pointing with his chin. They crossed a low bridge over the stream, and made for the entrance. “Used to be palace of the procurator, then fell to the keeping of a number of lesser municipal ofﬁcers before Artor and his lot took it over.”
“It’s magniﬁcent.” Galaad was breathless. The palace was easily grander than the most lavish villas of Glevum.
Lugh shrugged. “It’s drafty and damp, if you ask me. But then, no one does.”
They reached the entrance, and the guard treated them to a wry smile. Galaad steeled himself to endure another barrage of mocking, but was surprised to ﬁnd that he was not the object of the guard’s derision this time.
“How goes it with you, Long Hand?” the guard japed. “Not troubled by your injuries, I hope?”
“They plagued me a little last night as I pleasured your mother,” Lugh returned, “but I managed to do the job, still and all.”
The guard’s grin fell, and he tightened his ﬁst around his sword’s hilt.
“Draw your iron if you feel up to it,” Lugh said, a slight smile curling the corners of his mouth as he laid his hand on the handle of his own blade. “But remind yourself that there is a reason you stand sentry outside Artor’s door and I sit at his table.”
The guard set his jaw, eyes narrowed, but relented, relaxing his grip on the hilt and letting his hand fall to his side.
“This one is with me.” Lugh motioned to Galaad with a nod. “Keep watch out here, why don’t you, and raise the alarum if the Saeson horde should swim up the Gallus.” He then glanced over his shoulder at Galaad. “Come along, tadpole.”
With that, Lugh disappeared through the entrance. Galaad glanced at the guard, who seemed to quiver with frustrated anger, and hastened after his guide.
As they made their way through the corridors of the palace, Galaad burned to ask Lugh why the sentry had called him “Long Hand,” but the Gael’s dark expression and the quickness of his pace suggested the question would not be welcome. Instead, he followed along, taking in the faded grandeur of the building and its ﬁxtures. Sculptures stood atop pedestals in recessed alcoves, likenesses of long-dead emperors and forgotten gods. They passed outside into an enclosed garden, the hedges bare and leaﬂess, the dead grasses underfoot rimed with hoarfrost. Then they reentered the building on the far side and came at last to a large reception hall, semicircular in shape, thronged with people, two dozen or more.
“Wait here,” Lugh said, pointing along the wall, where a low bench sat. “Artor will be along presently, and then you can bore him with your strange tale yourself.”
With that, Lugh turned and moved off into the room’s center to join a knot of men talking closely, leaving Galaad on his own.
Galaad, eyes wide, sat on the stone bench and tried unsuccessfully not to look like a complete rustic. It wasn’t as though he could help himself, though. These men gathered here, he knew, represented a larger sampling of humanity than he’d ever witnessed before. From their modes of dress and the varied accents and dialects Galaad could hear, he knew that they were representatives of the various client kingdoms of the island, from as far as beyond Hadrian’s Wall in the north and the shores of Demetia in the west, and among them perhaps envoys from the Hibernian dynasts or the nations of Gaul beyond the channel.
The center of the audience chamber was dominated by stibadium dining couches surrounding a pair of semicircular sigma marble tables, placed with their straight sides facing one another so that the whole formed a large marble circle. At the head of the table was a heavy oaken chair, delicately gilt with hammered gold, which like the couches now stood empty.
The ﬂoor under Galaad’s feet felt warm, no doubt with a Roman heating system hidden beneath, and was elaborately mosaiced. The mosaic was a disquieting mix of Christian and pagan imagery—representations of the Messias balanced by depictions of Bellerophon upon winged Pegasus slaying a monster, the Virgin Mother opposite Apollo and the seasons, cherubim vying with chimera, and at their center the Chi-Rho—suggesting that one of the previous tenants had practiced Gnostic heresies.
It was only midday, but with the warmth seeping from the ﬂoor into Galaad’s tired feet and the long miles he’d already walked since dawn, he felt himself already growing torpid and weary. He was lulled by the susurration of voices of those gathered in the room, the crowd steadily growing as the moments passed. His lids were heavy over bleary eyes, and he found himself almost lulled to sleep sitting upright on the hard stone bench when the voices around him ceased, of a sudden.
Galaad’s eyes opened wide, and he sat bolt upright, half convinced that he’d dozed and the room had emptied while he slumbered. But no, the room was even more crowded than before, though now silent. The reason for the sudden cessation of conversation was the ﬁgure which now stood at the entrance in the chamber’s far fall. Having just entered, he paused, surveying the room.
This newcomer was tall, and though perhaps near the end of his fourth decade of life, carried himself with the ease and alertness of a much younger man. Draped over his back was a red cloak, so dark it was almost purple, clasped at the shoulder with a large bronze brooch. Beneath this he wore a linen tunic dyed a deep blue, bound at the waist with a broad leather belt, and a pair of white breeches, their bottoms stuffed into the tops of heavy cavalry boots. Around his neck was the torc of the High King, a thick woven braid of gold with the head of a dragon sculpted at either end. His beard and mustache were neatly trimmed, and his brown hair hung straight to the nape of his neck. Finally, at his belt hung a long sword, the spatha of a Roman cavalryman, but the simple soldier’s hilt replaced with one of ﬁnely wrought gold and silver.
This was the man Galaad had come to see. This was Artor, High King, Count of Britannia.
At an unspoken signal from Artor, the knots of conversation dispersed, and everyone moved to ﬁnd their accustomed place. A dozen men sat themselves on the couches, Lugh among them, leaning against the carved cusps of the table’s edge. With a start, Galaad realized that these were the captains of Artor’s cavalry, the elite of his ﬁghting force that had driven the Saeson from Britannic lands. He looked with newfound admiration at his Gaelic guide.
As Artor took his place in the gilt chair at the head of the marble circle, his sword laid across his knees, the remainder of those gathered in the hall arranged themselves behind the couches, respectfully.
Galaad realized that he’d risen to his feet at some point, unknowingly, and sheepishly sat back down on the bench.
“God give you a good day, gentles,” Artor said to the room, somewhat wearily. “What business have we today?”
In the hours that followed, it was not only Galaad that struggled to stay awake. Several others, Artor himself chief among them, seemed forced to shift themselves upon their seats constantly, blinking hard and forcing their eyes open, as the apparently endless parade of petty business was marched before them.
Galaad wasn’t sure what he might have expected the day of a High King to be like, nor what type of industry he would have assumed a Count of Britannia would have turned his hand to, but he was certain that it would not have included the sort of trivial disputes and mean concerns which he heard aired that afternoon. This kingdom disputed the demarcation of borders with its neighbor, that tribe complained that those upstream polluted their shared waters in deﬁance of long-held custom, these farmers protested that the landlord to whom they were tenant refused the services for which their taxes made him liable. But the pleas were not limited to those under Artor’s dominion. Merchants from the Middle Sea carried grievances that their trade agreements with the High King’s government were not being honored, their monopoly on the export of tin infringed by business arrangements that Britannic sellers had made with their competitors. The envoy from a Gaulish king protested that Artor had not supplied the copper and grain which the treaty between their two nations demanded. And a Britannic missionary who worked to convert the subjects of the High King of Hibernia to the Roman religion carried word that the landholder of Alt Cult’s soldiers once more raided the island and had again begun to take Christian converts as slaves, as they had in the days of the late Patricius.
One of the captains seated at the marble circle snored gently, head lolling, and Galaad began to suspect that for men who had been bound together on the ﬁeld of battle, there were far more engaging pursuits than the dreary business of statecraft. Even Artor, who seemed better at hiding his thoughts than many of the others in the room, seemed far less than enthused.
Galaad busied himself identifying those he could from the stories he had heard. Artor was easiest, of course, but only slightly less easy to name was Artor’s counselor, the man who called out the supplicants to address the High King and who silenced them when he felt they had spoken long enough.
Caradog, so the stories went, had once translated the Sais tongue to Britannic for the High King Vitalinus, long before Galaad was born. Later, he had fought against the Saeson at the side of Artor’s father, Utor. It was said that Caradog had gained his strangely bent arm in battle, but that for all of its withered appearance it was stronger than the limbs of any other three men combined.
The afternoon wore on, and the hall gradually emptied, as supplicants stated their case before the High King, heard his judgement, and departed. Soon, the only ones in the room were Artor and his twelve captains seated about the marble circle, and Galaad sitting on the stone bench at the back of the hall.
“Is there any more business?” Artor asked, stiﬂing a yawn.
“None that I know, majesty,” Caradog answered, consulting the tablet laid on the table before him.
“In that case . . .”
Galaad began to panic. He felt sure he’d been forgotten, or else overlooked, and that his long journey to Caer Llundain would have been for nothing. With all the courage he could muster, he half rose from the bench into a standing position. He opened his mouth, intending to speak, but succeeded only in emitting a faint squeaking sound. He intended to try again, but never knew if his attempt would have succeeded, as in rising he jostled the bundled slung over his shoulder, causing it to slip far enough to one side that his grandfather’s grandfather’s sword slid loose from the bindings.
As the sword tumbled to the ﬂoor, Galaad grabbed for it, desperately, but even as he watched every inch of the fall, he felt as though he were moving through frigid water, so slowly did his limbs seem to move. So it was that he seemed to have moved but fractionally by the time the sword clattered to the mosaic ﬂoor. The deafening sound of metal on stone resounded on the hollow ﬂoor, coming back even louder.
Galaad looked up, horriﬁed, and found that all thirteen pairs of eyes in the hall were directed at him.
“Ach, I forgot!” Lugh said, snapping his ﬁngers. “This little tadpole has a story for you, Artor.”
The High King glanced from the Gael captain to Galaad and raised an eyebrow. “Do you, now?”
Galaad opened his mouth once more, and discovered he’d forgotten entirely how to speak.
“My name is Galaad, and I come from Glevum, in Powys, in the west.”
Galaad stood facing the gilt chair of the High King, his hands twisted into white-knuckled ﬁsts at his sides, trembling with nervous anxiety.
“I know where Glevum is,” Artor said, his tone surprisingly gentle.
“Oh.” Galaad blinked, and swallowed hard. “Of course. Well, as I say, my name is Glevum . . .”
“I thought your name was Galaad,” Caradog said, glancing up from his tablet.
“Um, right, of course, my name is Galaad. And . . .” He broke off, his breath catching in his throat. He’d already forgotten his own name, so nervous was he, and now found that he’d forgotten what he meant to say. That is, he knew what he had in his head to say but could not for his life recall the words he needed to say it.
“Relax, friend,” Artor soothed, folding his hands on the sheathed sword that lay across his lap. “There’s no reason to be afraid.”
“But I’m afraid there may be, majesty,” Galaad said, eagerly. “That’s just the problem. I don’t know what the woman is showing me, but I think it could be something fearful indeed.”
The High King narrowed his eyes and leaned forward in his chair. “What woman?”
Galaad took a ragged breath and tried to will himself to calm. “I’ll try to start at the beginning. You see, two springs ago there was an accident, and I . . .” Galaad broke off, involuntarily reaching up and touching the scar that ran above his hairline, just above his right eye. “No,” he said, resolute. “That’s not the beginning. I’ll start again. It was last summer that I ﬁrst saw her.”
“Saw who?” Lugh asked, his tone impatient.
“The White Lady,” Galaad answered. “At least, that’s what I call her. At ﬁrst I thought she was the Holy Mother, but then I began to suspect that perhaps she was instead one of the goddesses of our grandfathers. Perhaps she was Ceridwen, who made the potion greal in her magic cauldron, on her island in the middle of a lake.” He shook his head, lips pursed as though he’d just eaten something distasteful. As a follower of the precepts of Pelagianism, he knew there were many paths to the divine, but still the thought of pagan goddesses contacting him made Galaad uneasy. “But perhaps it doesn’t matter who she is, only what she is showing me.”
“So you see visions of a woman,” Artor said, his tone slow and deliberate, like one speaking to a child or an imbecile. “And she shows you things.” Galaad nodded, eagerly. “What things?”
Galaad closed his eyes for a moment, and he could see the vision before him, as clear and bright as if he saw it beneath the midday sun. The visions came at ﬁrst only in his sleep, but in time had visited him in the waking hours of daylight, as well.
“It is a tower of glass,” he said, opening his eyes. “It sits atop a smooth-sided mound, round on one end and pointed the other, which is itself upon an island in the middle of a lake or sea, connected to the mainland by a spit of land.”
Artor nodded, his lips drawn into a line. “Go on.”
“The White Lady is within the tower,” Galaad continued. “I’m not sure how I know, but I do. And I feel that I must go there and help her, but I don’t know why.”
“Help her?” Caradog looked at him askance. “Why does she require help, this imaginary woman of yours?”
“I don’t know,” Galaad said. “I simply know that she requires help, and that I must give it to her.” He paused and took in the hostile glances from around the table. “She doesn’t speak to me in words, you see. Only images. Only feelings.”
“I have a feeling,” Lugh said with a smile, lacing his ﬁngers behind his head and leaning back. “I feel like you’re a lunatic.”
Galaad’s face burned with shame commingled with anger. He remembered others saying much the same thing, not long before. The townspeople of Glevum had whispered behind their hands as he passed, saying that his injury had done more than give him a scar, but cost him the use of his senses, as well. And his own wife, to whom he looked for support when everyone else had turned their backs, had looked away, saying she wanted nothing more to do with him.
As laughter rippled around the table, Artor steepled his ﬁngers and regarded Galaad thoughtfully.
“This island you speak of,” the High King said at last. “You say the hill is shaped like the bob on a mason’s plumb line, yes? Round on one side and coming to a point on the other?”
Galaad nodded, dispirited, expecting some fresh mockery.
“I know of such a place.”
All eyes turned to the High King, and Galaad’s mouth hung open, his jaw slack.
“Have you ever been in Dumnonia?” Artor asked.
“No, majesty.” Galaad shook his head.
“There is an island there just as you describe,” the High King went on.
“I saw it years ago, when I was in the area with the forces of Ambrosius.”
“And was it then topped by a glass tower?” one of the captains asked.
“No,” Artor said, either not noticing the captain’s ironic tone or choosing not to acknowledge it. “But in every other particular it coincides with this man’s tale. The island is linked to the Dumnonian coast by a thin sliver of land, just as he says.”
“You’re not suggesting that this man is telling the truth, are you?” Caradog asked, aghast.
Artor offered his counselor a smile. “Apparitions appearing to men of Powys? Towers of glass?” He shrugged. “It seems difﬁcult to credit, to say the least.” He paused, and then turned his attentions back to Galaad. “But I’d like to hear more about this, still and all. Galaad, was it?”
Galaad nodded, eagerly, when he realized the High King was awaiting a response.
“You will stay here in the palace tonight as my guest. Does that suit you?”
Galaad gaped, and then quickly nodded his assent. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, majesty.”
“Good.” Artor rose to his feet and hung his sword once more at his belt. “Well, that’s an end to it, gentles. I, for one, am starving.”
With that, the High King turned on his heel and retreated from the audience chamber.
Galaad stood stock still, unsure what to do, his hands gripped tightly on his bundle. Fortunate for him, as the rest of the captains ﬁled out of the room, one of them, a tall, fair-haired man with clean-shaven cheek and chin, came to his rescue.
“Come along, then,” the man said in well-formed Latin. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
ONLY TWO WEEKS REMAINED until the observance of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and London already swelled with well-wishers and dignitaries from all across the empire. Sandford Blank and Roxanne Bonaventure gazed idly out the windows as the four-wheeled “growler” cab rumbled through the thronged streets, while the police constable sat opposite them, stone-faced and unspeaking. The participants in the Jubilee procession, the jewel in the celebration’s crown, had been gathering for weeks. The Colonial contingent were mostly encamped at Chelsea, while the premiers of the eleven self-governing colonies had been put up at the Cecil, the largest hotel in Europe. There were no rooms to let anywhere in the greater London area, nor would there be for weeks, even months, following the Jubilee. The city, never provincial, had taken on an even more cosmopolitan feel in recent weeks, with the parks and cafés, music halls and theaters crowded with a Babel of a hundred tongues, the more sedate tones of London attire enlivened by the introduction of the colorful silks and linens. Sikh businessmen rubbed elbows with Chinese diplomats, while Malay ladies exotic and serene ﬂuttered their long lashes at Australian cattle ranchers, and West African policemen far from their usual rounds walked the streets ill at ease in the ﬁrst boots they had ever worn. Union Flags ﬂuttered from streetlamps and posts, draped from window sills and awnings, and when the wind blew gave a sound like a ﬂock of birds taking ﬂight, the snapping ﬂags closely approximating the ﬂapping of wings. It had been ten years since the queen’s Golden Jubilee, but if the preparations were any indication, this new celebration threatened to be even more ostentatious.
Blank remembered all too well the events of 1887, which seemed to him no more than a heartbeat before. He only hoped that the anniversary of the queen’s sixtieth year on the throne cost him not as much, personally and professionally, as her ﬁftieth anniversary had done.
Finally, the Tower of London hove into view, its ever-present ravens starkly black against the morning sky, and the police constable called for the drive to stop.
As Blank helped Miss Bonaventure down from the cab, he noted that while the bascules of Tower Bridge were raised, the stairs leading to the elevated walkways overhead were closed to the public, blocked by one of their escort’s brothers in arms. Blank could hardly imagine that it mattered, since in the short years since the bridge’s opening virtually all of the foot trafﬁc had remained on the ground while the bridge was raised, preferring to watch the bascules rise up and down to climbing the steps and crossing more quickly. But for whatever reason, the authorities did not want anyone to ascend, just now. He could only surmise that it had something to do with their summons from his house in York Place.
With that in mind, Blank did not wait for their escort to ﬁnish clambering down from the growler, but set off across the pavement towards the guarded steps with a will. Miss Bonaventure followed close behind, her heels dogged by the police constable as quickly as he was able. As it happened, their escort did not catch up with Blank until he’d reached the bridge, made his way through the crowd, and stopped just short of the steps leading to the elevated walkway.
“Sorry, sir,” said the constable barring their way, “but there’s no admittance to the stairs, just now.”
“I shouldn’t worry,” Blank said, smiling. “I expect you’ll ﬁnd your masters are expecting me.”
Just at that moment their escort huffed up, coming abreast of Blank and Miss Bonaventure, panting. “S’alright, Cogsgrove. This’n is Sandford Blank.”
The constable’s eyes widened, and he took in Blank’s appearance—gray coat, waistcoat, and trousers, bowler hat, and silver-topped cane, an orchid in his buttonhole—before ﬁnally stepping to one side. “Go on up, guv. They’re waiting for you.”
Blank couldn’t imagine what the constable had heard about him to elicit that sort of reaction, but he hoped it was down to the cases in which he’d been called to assist Her Majesty’s Government, and not for the less savory aspects of his past which he hoped would remain hidden and forgot.
Miss Bonaventure in the lead, Blank following close behind, and their escort bringing up the rear, they mounted the stair.
The warm June wind whistled in their ears as they stepped out onto the western walkway, blowing through the white-painted girders of steel that formed the walls, a crisscrossed thatch of sturdy steel beams with large open spaces in between the intersections. To their left, a short distance off, was the eastern walkway. To their right snaked the River Thames, the Tower of London on one side, Southwark on the other. Ahead of them, under a tarp stained dark by the blood seeping through, was clearly the reason that they had been summoned.
Blank remembered another bridge, and other bodies. Watermen had loved “shooting the bridge,” riding under the old London Bridge at high tide, when the water level on one side could be as much as six feet higher than the downstream side. But it had been a dangerous pastime, to say the least. “The bridge is for wise men to cross over, and for fools to go under,” or so the popular saying of the day went. But old London Bridge had been pulled down long years ago, and Blank doubted that one in a hundred Londoners had ever heard that saying, or knew the stories behind it if they had.
Whatever had befallen the body under the bloodied tarp, Blank suspected it wasn’t something likely to engender quaint and good-humored popular sayings, however quickly forgotten and lost to history.
There were two men standing just the other side of the body, one a stout, ruddy-faced Irishman with a full mustache, his hands folded behind his back, the other of a more delicate nature, holding a handkerchief over his nose and glancing with distaste at the bloodied tarp. Even if Blank hadn’t recognized them at ﬁrst glance, he would have known them in an instant as a policeman and a bureaucrat, respectively.
“Ah, Blank,” said William Melville, superintendent of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch. While he apparently was striving for lighthearted, he could not entirely hide the tone of disapproval in his voice, and his expression of distaste on seeing Blank was a close cousin to the bureaucrat’s sour look. “About time you made an appearance.”
“Sorry to keep you gentlemen waiting,” Blank said, having to raise his voice slightly to be heard over the whistling wind. He ﬁngered the orchid at his coat’s lapel. “I had the deuce of a time ﬁnding the right ﬂower for the day. I’d thought to go with a lily, but they so often seem to give an unnecessarily funereal look, don’t they?” He paused and glanced at the body that lay on the ﬂoor of the walkway between them. “There again, perhaps funereal would have been more appropriate to the day, at that.” He paused, and then tipped his bowler back on his head with the silver-chased top of his cane. “But where are my manners. You remember my associate, Miss Roxanne Bonaventure?”
Melville nodded in Miss Bonaventure’s direction, dismissively. It was only after seeing Blank’s gaze ﬂicking meaningfully between himself and the bureaucrat at his side that Melville ﬁnally said, “Oh, yes, of course. Blank, this is Chalmers.” He nodded to the thin man behind the handkerchief, as though that was sufﬁcient.
“Lionel Chalmers,” the thin man said, holding out a hand like a dead ﬁsh he was desperate to discard. Blank took the proffered hand. “I’m here representing the prime minister himself.”
“Oh, Salisbury, is it?” Blank smiled. “And how is old Bobby, at that?”
Chalmers bristled, brow furrowed at hearing his lord and master being referenced so casually, but refrained from making any comment. Which, Blank quickly surmised, said a great deal about the circumstances in which he now found himself.
“What’s this about, Melville?” Blank was suddenly all business, his mannered pose of indifference, for the moment, abandoned.
He and Melville had had run-ins before, having met the ﬁrst time during their separate investigations of the Torso Murders. The case had dragged out from 1887 through to 1889, without clear resolution. Blank did not doubt that Melville felt the sting of leaving the case unsolved, especially considering that the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, New Scotland Yard, was built on the site of the unsolved Whitehall Mystery itself. But if Melville felt a sting, then what Blank felt was more like a gaping wound. It haunted him that he was never able to solve the Torso Murders, in all the years since. He was sure that, had he not been distracted momentarily from his responsibilities, allowed for a brief moment to feel that he could live as a normal man and give in to his hidden passions, then the case would have been solved, and sooner, and the nameless victims of the Torso Killer would have remained unharmed. As it was, they were anonymous, unknown, bodies found with head, arms, or legs severed and missing, discarded in the street like yesterday’s rubbish. Five vicious murders, and then they’d stopped as suddenly as they’d begun.
He’d assuaged himself a bit with the knowledge that he’d soon afterwards solved the Whitechapel Ripper case—though in circumstances that the public could never know—but it came as cold comfort, if any. He had pledged never again to allow his personal appetites to distract himself from his responsibilities, and to date never had.
“Look, Blank,” Melville said, eyes narrowed, “it’s not my decision that you be called in. If it were down to me, my boys’d take care of this business all on our own. But the P.M.”—Melville rolled his eyes towards Chalmers— “doesn’t quite agree, and here we ﬁnd ourselves.”
“As I’m sure we’re all aware,” Chalmers said, sounding breathless despite his Eton accent, “the Queen’s Jubilee Procession is scant days away, and the remit of Special Branch in this instance is to ensure the safety of the Queen herself, not be mired in the trivial investigation of . . .” His expression of distaste deepened, and he ﬁnished, “. . . sordid murders.”
Blank could see his point. About the queen and her procession, at any rate, if not perhaps the trivial nature of murder investigation. It had been nearly ten years to the day since Melville had covered himself in glory by foiling a plan by Irish nationalists to blow up Westminster Abbey while Queen Victoria attended a service of thanksgiving there during her Golden Jubilee. If he’d not been Irish, there was every chance he’d have ended up winning his spurs, but instead of a knighthood, he saw his Special Irish Branch rechristened simply Special Branch, and his charter expanded from protecting crown and country against Fenians, republican dynamiters, and anarchists, to facing down all and sundry dangers to the empire. It had been four years since Melville was promoted to superintendent of Special Branch, raised up from the rank and ﬁle, and in that time he’d carried out his assigned ofﬁce with vigor. It was a lofty height for the son of a baker and publican to reach, and Blank could see that Melville was ever mindful of his station and responsibilities.
“So it is murder, then?” Miss Bonaventure said, stiﬂing a yawn. “I was beginning to wonder.”
Blank ﬂashed her a quick smile, then turned back to lock eyes with Melville. “Miss Bonaventure is quite right. Shall we see what we were brought here to see, or will you let us get about our business?”
Melville’s expression darkened, but he motioned for the constable who’d escorted them to ﬂip back the tarp.
It took a moment for the shapes and curves to resolve themselves into a uniﬁed image. It seemed to Blank as if his mind were refusing to process the visual information his eyes were providing, but while his thoughts recoiled, his exterior betrayed no turmoil.
It was a woman, or rather was the partial remains of what had once been a woman. Both hands had been severed, and the head cut off, and all three were missing, nowhere in evidence.
Blank remembered another Jubilee, other bodies, and suddenly even a practiced indifference was out of the question.
Blank examined the body more closely. The cuts were clean and precise, skin, muscle, and bone sheared off in an even plane.
“Given the amount of bleeding,” he said, kneeling down, his cane laying across his knees, “I deduce that the hands were severed some time before the victim was decapitated.”
Melville grunted in assent. “That’s what we came up with, as well,” he said, begrudgingly.
“I’ve never seen cuts like these,” Blank said.
“And here I thought you had seen everything, Blank,” Miss Bonaventure said, in a ill-advised attempt to mask her own squeamishness with levity. Blank shot her a hard look, and her weak smile grew even weaker. Subdued, and looking away from the bloody remains, she went on. “But no, I’ve never seen the like, either.”
“I take it the head and hands have not been retrieved?”
“No.” Melville shook his head. “No sign of them, same as . . .” He bit the words off, but Blank knew what he’d been about to say.
Same as last time.
“No sign of them,” Melville repeated, his jaw set, his lips drawn tight. “It was a doxy reported it in this morning. Nobody else much comes up to the walkways, so the girls make pretty free use of them.”
“Or are freely used, themselves,” Blank said absently. “And not freely, at that.” He scowled. “But at too dear a cost, oftentimes.” He used the end of his cane to lift the hem of the dead woman’s skirts. He examined her shoes, and then peered up her legs, at which Chalmers blushed, turning his eyes away from such indecorous probing.
Blank straightened up, tugging down the front of his waistcoat.
“Though you haven’t said as much, Melville, I agree with your surmise that the victim was a streetwalker, given the state of her footwear, the condition of her clothing, and her evident poor health at the time of death. I ﬁnd it unusual, given that she was dispatched in a place frequented by those of her profession, that she evidently was not engaged in the act of congress at the time of the murder, nor is there any indication that her body was misused in that fashion following her death. The nature of the wounds is indeed singular, and worthy of some study, but despite the superﬁcial resemblance to a case with which we’re both intimately familiar, I fail to see the case’s signiﬁcance. As a single murder, it is a matter for pity, but hardly worth the attention of Special Branch.”
Melville narrowed his gaze, but didn’t speak.
“Unless,” Blank said, tapping the butt of his cane on the ﬂoor, “this is not a single murder.”
Chalmers looked nervously at the superintendent, who quieted him with a rough wave of his hand.
“This is the third such body to be found,” Melville answered in even tones. “The third in as many weeks.”
Blank nodded. “But you’ve managed thus far to keep news of it out of the papers. That couldn’t have been easy.”
Melville blew air through his lips with an explosive noise and shook his head ruefully. “Pack of vultures, the lot of them.”
“And both of the other bodies were in similar states?” Miss Bonaventure asked.
Melville locked eyes with Blank, and paused for a long moment. “Yes,” he said at length, nodding. “All three cut up like that, all three with the same clean shears.”
Blank found himself feeling an unexpected and unexplainable welling of sympathy for the superintendent. He knew how the Torso Murders must have eaten at Melville these last ten years, and it couldn’t have been easy to be ordered to hand over the present investigation to another, knowing that there might be a connection between the two.
“Given the nature of the injuries,” Chalmers put in, “there was some discussion at the highest levels that this might be a matter for the Strangers . . .”
“What?” Blank interrupted, ﬂabbergasted. “Absalom Quince and his lot? Them?”
Melville shook his head, a scornful expression curling his lip. “That lot is worse than you, Blank.”
Blank ﬂashed him a tight smile. “Thanks for saying so, friend.”
Melville sneered, while Chalmers struggled to gain control of the conversation.
“As I was saying, the question arose as to whether this should be a matter for the Strangers, who while not ofﬁcially sanctioned by Her Majesty’s Government, have nevertheless prove invaluable in a number of recent instances . . .”
“Lunatic ghost chasers,” Blank muttered under his breath.
“However,” Chalmers said, soldiering on, “given your own history, Mr. Blank, and your role in the speedy resolution of that unfortunate matter in Whitechapel, it was decided instead that you should be approached in this matter.”
“Well,” Blank said, dofﬁng his hat in obvious mockery, “I thank you for this consideration.”
Chalmers either failed to detect Blank’s sarcasm or chose not to respond, instead turning his attentions to Melville.
“The prime minister has issued speciﬁc instructions that this matter will not be made available for public consumption. The newspapers are not to be informed of any aspect of the investigation or of the murders themselves until such time as the prime minister deems appropriate. With the Jubilee in the ofﬁng and the city already crowded with dignitaries, the last thing we need is another sensation such as the Whitechapel murders engendered. It might be good for the sales ﬁgures of the penny papers, gentlemen, but it will do Her Majesty’s Government no good at all, and even less good for you all, should you allow it.”
Chalmers glanced from Melville to Blank and Miss Bonaventure and to the constable who stood a few yards off, indicating that the prime minister’s wrath would know no bounds of rank or privilege were news of these murders to be made public.
“I believe you mean ‘worse’ instead of ‘less good,’” Blank said. “But I think we all take your meaning.” He turned to Melville. “I’ll solve this one, Melville. You have my word on it.”
Melville drew his mouth into a tight line, but nodded. He evidently could not tell whether Blank had meant the words as a taunt or a reassurance; Blank did not really know himself.
“Now,” he said, resting on his cane, his hands folded on its silver head, “if this is the third murder, I want to know everything that you have on the previous two.”
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