Between Two Thorns
Angry Robot Books, 2013
|Series:||The Split Worlds: Book 1|
|Sub-Genre Tags:||Urban Fantasy|
Fantasy of Manners
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Something is wrong in Aquae Sulis, Bath's secret mirror city.
The new season is starting and the Master of Ceremonies is missing. Max, an Arbiter of the Split Worlds Treaty, is assigned with the task of finding him with no one to help but a dislocated soul and a mad sorcerer.
There is a witness but his memories have been bound by magical chains only the enemy can break. A rebellious woman trying to escape her family may prove to be the ally Max needs.
But can she be trusted? And why does she want to give up eternal youth and the life of privilege she's been born into?
A black-haired faerie was perched on Lord Poppy's shoulder, wearing a dress of blousy poppy petals, the red striking against the black of his frock coat. It was scowling at Cathy as if she'd personally offended it. Cathy realised a look of abject horror was not an appropriate nor a polite greeting for the patron of her family.
She dropped into a low curtsy, breathless with panic. She'd never seen Lord Poppy in person, but her father had, and he'd drummed a healthy fear of the Fae into her at an early age. She struggled to remember the etiquette she'd been taught, but using the correct form of address was hardly going to change the fact that she'd run away from the family, disgraced the Rhoeas-Papaver line, and most probably infuriated Lord Poppy to such a degree that he was there to enslave or curse her. Or both.
"Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver," he said slowly, his voice silken. "What an extraordinary delight to find you at last."
She trembled, keeping her head bowed, not sure what to make of the statement.
"Do stand up so I can see you, my dear, one does prefer to speak to a face rather than a crown of hair."
"It's a very dull brown," the faerie commented as Cathy straightened up. "And such a plain face. I'm very disappointed. She isn't worth–"
"Hush, or I shall send you back to Exilium," Lord Poppy said and the faerie pressed its lips together. "Now..."
He walked towards her, the cane striking the floor with every other step. His supernatural grace made her feel clumsy. His skin was flawless, his long black hair beautiful and his lips as red as the poppy petals. His eyes were pools of black, no iris or white discernible, and as quick as she saw them she looked away, chilled.
"I've been looking for you," he said as she shivered. "But you've been hidden away in Mundanus, in the dark city."
She stayed silent, not trusting her voice.
"My sources inform me that three and half years have passed in Mundanus since you first piqued my interest." He stopped barely a metre away, well within her personal space. Not that one of them would appreciate such a human concept. "I simply cannot understand how you've survived so long all by yourself. You have none of your Mother about you, even after all the effort to breed her beauty into the line, no presence, nothing remarkable whatsoever."
Cathy could barely think as her panic reached its crescendo and then an incredible sense of calm washed through her, as if her body had used up all the adrenalin it had. If she didn't remember the hours of training she'd tried to bury along with most of her other childhood memories, this conversation could be the end of her, or of freedom. There was little to distinguish between the two.
"She survived because of the Shadow Charm, my Lord," said the faerie.
Either they could detect it, or they'd got the information out of the Shopkeeper. The former was more likely. If that was the case, Cathy thought, then they would see the curse too, and if there was one thing she had to do, it was convince them she knew nothing about it.
"Ah, perhaps that's the problem, let's get rid of that first."
Thumb and forefinger poised like pincers, he reached towards her shoulder but stopped just above her clothing. He pinched the air and slowly drew his hand back. She could see nothing between his fingers, but noticed the shadow cast by the stockroom's sprite changing. It looked like a blanket was being pulled off her, one invisible to the eye, but visible in shadow. When it broke contact with her body, it faded to nothing.
"Oh. You're still dull. The Shadow Charm hid her from her family," he said to the faerie, "but it didn't help her to navigate Mundanus... it's such an exciting mystery. My dear," he focused back on Cathy, "you are a tight bud with so many hidden petals yet to unfold."
He scooped up her hand with a fluid movement. His was cool and dry, and she was aware of the clamminess of her own, thinking he wanted to kiss it as many of the men in the Great Families still did. But instead he turned her palm towards the ceiling and bent towards it. An inhumanly long tongue flicked out from between his lips and he licked the tender skin of her wrist.
It felt like a feather, leaving no saliva, just a faint tingling and a wave of nausea.
"Mmmm. No trace of interference as I'd feared and no contact with the Arbiters, that's good. She has potential, but far from realised." He was speaking to the faerie again, as if Cathy were simply an exhibit in a petting zoo. "There's little more to her than what we see here. But the curse is interesting."
That drew the faerie close.
Lord Poppy was examining Cathy's face now, searching for a reaction.
"Curse?" she asked, hoping that only innocence would be seen. It was a tiny thread of a lie amongst a tapestry of deception.
He smiled, his thumb now stroking the inside of her wrist. "So you have been good, after all."
"What curse? I want to see it!" the faerie said, but Lord Poppy swatted it away.
"I'll tell you later." It tumbled in the disturbed air before righting itself with a look of indignation. "Now..." Lord Poppy let go of Cathy's hand and she folded her arms. He took a step back, twisting his cane thoughtfully. "There's something I want to know. When a girl as plain, inelegant and quite frankly graceless as you has the chance to ask for beauty, poise or even just good taste in clothes, why in the Split Worlds would she not?"
So this was the reason this nightmare was weaving itself around her. He knew about her coming-of-age ceremony.
She was the middle child of one of the most prominent Papaver families in Fae-touched society, the Rhoeas-Papavers. Her family had many traditions, most of which she'd strained against and resented as much as the next child, but one in particular she'd managed to turn to her advantage. At the age of eighteen, all children had the right to make a request of the head of the Papaver families. When she was brought in front of the Patroon she'd asked to go to university instead of something shallow, as she'd been coached. Of course it had reached the ears of their Fae patron. No women in Fae-touched society ever went to university and few of the young men did either. So many of their parents, born in a different age, regarded further education as a sure means of ruining a young man. Cathy saw it as a sure way to freedom. They couldn't deny her the request and even though they tried their best to make it as difficult as possible she still got to university several months later.
"Is that the reason for your interest, my Lord? An unorthodox request?" Her voice was a little high, but at least she was able to speak.
"It's more than unorthodox, it's positively scandalous. It was sufficient to catch my eye, yes. But it's also the fact you ran away and have hitherto eluded your family with great success. Your tactics even challenged me, and there are not many who have been able to do that, my dear."
"But you did find me." She wondered what boon the Shopkeeper had received for betraying her, and his air-freshener experiment took on new meaning. He'd been trying to mask the scent of the Fae Lord who'd presumably walked through the shop just before she arrived.
"So I did. But, sly one, you didn't answer my question."
"I wanted to go to university because I wanted to learn."
He wrinkled his nose, as if she'd just belched rather than told the truth. It was important to sprinkle some in amongst the lies.
"Everything I could."
She had to think about that. "Because I had to know the truth about Mundanus."
He frowned. "Why learn the truth about a place you were never destined to be part of? You must have planned to run away, even when you curtsied in front of your Patroon and accepted his gift."
Her body found a new reserve of adrenalin, but Cathy forced herself to think carefully. She had to gamble. "Not when I made the request to the Patroon, my Lord, but later, yes, I did plan to run away. I had to, otherwise I would have failed."
"So something happened that made you want to stay in Mundanus, even though it would age you? Even though it would disgrace your family and you'd live a cursed life?"
"Yes," she said, throat dry. She couldn't reveal everything, she'd never tell anyone the real reason she'd fled her family. But she had to give him a sliver to be believable. "I fell in love with Mundanus. I didn't want to go back and live in the Nether like everyone in the Great Families. I couldn't bear to leave it. So I ran away and hid from my family so they couldn't stop me living there."
Eyebrows high, he sucked in a breath and the hand that had caught hers fluttered over his chest. "Oh! Oh, darling child, I understand. I know what agony it is to fall in love with something we can never have. And what deserves our love and attention more than Mundanus? Poor, empty world, denied our gifts and beneficence for so long!" He clasped her hand again, this time pressing it over his heart, but she felt no beat through the silk shirt. "Now I understand what a delicious creature of passion you are. It was buried so far beneath an inconsequential face and forgettable body that I almost missed it!"
Cathy wondered if this was what it was like to meet someone who was truly insane. Someone so mad that speaking to them demonstrated how the world they lived in was so very different to everyone else's. She couldn't decide whether delighting the insane was good or bad.
"I'm so glad you understand, Lord Poppy." She managed a smile.
"As am I! I arrived with a heavy heart, convinced that I was going to have to turn your tongue into a tethered wasp and then enslave you for eternity for having been so disloyal to your family." He paused as the colour sank away from her lips. "But now I don't have to, because I understand that it was love that drove you, and how can I deny love? And it really is such a relief, as it would have been so inconvenient – everything has been arranged for so long, I was struggling to imagine how I would recover."
Cathy wanted to take her hand back, wanted to run out of the room and disappear, wanted to huddle in the corner of her student digs wrapped in a blanket and cry over a cup of tea. But he was still pressing her palm against the cool silk and showed no sign of letting go. Then she processed what he'd just said.
"Inconvenient, my Lord?"
"Yes, if you'd been unable to return to Aquae Sulis."
It had been a long time since she'd heard that name, and she hadn't missed it. Hers was one of the most powerful families in Aquae Sulis, the Nether reflection of the city of mundane Bath, both places she never wanted to see again. Whilst the mundane city was beautiful and vibrant, full of greenery and the excitements of modern life in the normal world, such as electricity and films, and technology designed to make life easier and more entertaining, its Nether reflection was not. Only a few roads and buildings had been reflected; she had grown up in Great Pulteney Street, the long avenue of reflected Georgian houses owned by her family, and of course, the anchor properties in Mundanus were protected by their clever network of legal expertise and their stronghold on the mundane Corporation of Bath. Now she'd lived in Mundanus – what she had come to think of as the real world – as an independent woman, she couldn't bear the thought of returning to that suffocating existence. "But... but I don't want to go back there. I can't!"
The smile fell from his face. "My poor love-struck one. Of course you're going to go back. As soon as we are finished here you'll return to your family, you'll obey your father and you'll live in the Nether like all of the privileged, serving your patron."
She forced herself to keep still, though the urge to shake her head and scream was almost unbearable. "But... they'll be angry with me," she croaked.
"Undoubtedly. But it doesn't change the fact that you're needed there. Everything has been planned for such a long time that your wishes are quite irrelevant in the matter."
He sounded like her father. Her yearning to make just one decision for herself was always called irrelevant. She forced herself to focus on questions and answers, rather than emotions. "Why am I needed, Lord Poppy? What use could I possibly be? You said yourself that I'm plain and–"
"Your father didn't tell you? Well, it's for him to do so. You'll find out when you get home. But we haven't concluded our business. Now I know you're genuinely interesting and passionate, and most worthy of further attention, I've decided to bestow upon you three wishes."
The conversation that she thought couldn't get any worse suddenly did. Not the three wishes trap. That was only one step up from the wasp tongue.
"I don't deserve your generosity, Lord Poppy," she said, without thinking.
"You'd rather be punished?"
"No!" she managed to catch the retort before it became a squeal. "I'm sure... your decision is the very best for me."
He pressed her palm against his shirt. She was sure there would be a damp hand-print left behind when he finally let her go. "Good. I will be watching what you choose with great interest, Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver, because I am certain that one who asks for such an outrageous wish at her coming-of-age ceremony could dream up something truly spectacular with three to play with."
The faerie started to giggle. It sounded like a mouse being ripped apart by a cat.
"Now, three wishes are no fun at all if there are no rules. So this is the first." Lord Poppy released her hand so he could accompany his words with an excited flourish. "You must impress me."
She was about to clarify whether he meant with every single wish, but she stopped herself. She might need that as a loophole later on.
"The second rule," Lord Poppy continued, evidently enjoying himself, "is that you cannot use a wish to leave Society. There is no denying who you are, my dear, and you are a Rhoeas-Papaver, one of my most cherished family lines. You have had your love affair with Mundanus, it's time for it to end. But I'll let you into a secret," he whispered. "Love affairs are always at their best when illicit and should always be ended abruptly. It heightens the pleasure and keeps the dreaded boredom at bay."
He was talking about her freedom like it was a holiday fling with a barman but she kept silent, not at all certain that she could speak without getting herself into more trouble or bursting into tears.
"There should be a third rule," he muttered, glancing at the faerie. "It's prettier that way. Three wishes, three rules."
"I have an idea!" It pirouetted in delight. "The wishes have to be made before the grand ball opening the season in Aquae Sulis."
"Exquisite!" Lord Poppy blew a kiss to the faerie, rustling the petals of its dress. The tiny creature's wings fluttered so much they left a trail of faint sparkles. "Then you can begin the season as a fabulous success. Or as a faint shadow of yourself. Oh, I didn't mention the penalty, did I?"
Tears or vomiting, Cathy wasn't sure which now. He'd removed the Shadow Charm but instead of delivering her to the family, Lord Poppy was toying with her. He knew as well as she did that it was inevitable they would find her without magical protection and there was no way the Shopkeeper would dare sell her anything useful now one of the Fae lords had personally intervened. She didn't need a penalty to feel absolutely screwed.
"Should you fail to impress me by the first ball of the season, I shall reach into your soul and pluck out that bright source of your initiative. Then you can spend the rest of your life doing as you are told, perfectly incapable of forming a desire or opinion of your own." He waited a beat, but she remained in horrified silence. "I think that's fitting." He glanced at the faerie who nodded with glee.
Copyright © 2013 by Emma Newman
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