“High holy – ” Valres shouted, before remembering the need for silence. A white glob of candlewax cooled and solidified on the parchment of the book open in front of him, obscuring a passage he had not yet transcribed. This complicated matters, and his inability to express his shock in a less audible manner lent urgency to the situation. Students were not allowed in the rare books library, ever, under any circumstances, and especially not at night when they broke into the building. His family name notwithstanding, if Valres were caught, he would be disciplined harshly, perhaps even expelled from the University. And if he were expelled, his grandmother would force him into the Army, and he had no intention of bleeding to death face-down in foreign mud. He was destined for something far greater.
In the rotunda outside the reading room a door opened and closed. He must have woken the old librarian or caught the attention of a passing porter, and now he had to make a choice. Allowing himself to be caught was not an option, and he had only seconds to decide whether to abscond with the book or leave it behind and return another night. Given that he had not only failed to keep his illicit presence in the library a secret, but had also damaged the book in the process, Valres opted for the former. He blew out the candle with a hurried puff, poured the remaining hot wax on his trousers, shoved the candle in his coat pocket, tucked the heavy book under his arm, and stumbled forward into the darkness.
Without the candlelight, Valres couldn’t see well enough to find his way back to the closet that would lead him through the wall and into the open stacks. At the base of a bookshelf he thought was against the outer wall, he huddled and waited for his eyes to adjust, hoping the process would only take a few seconds because he probably had less than a minute before he would be discovered. The door into the rare books library opened.
“Who’s in here?” It was the librarian’s thin, aged voice. The old man waited several heartbeats before continuing. “I know you are in here, thief. Your shout woke me, and now I can hear your breath. There is no escape.”
Valres’s eyes could make out the shapes of bookshelves, tall shadows blacker than the darkness. But if the librarian really could hear him breathing, he would surely hear him making a run for the closet. Without much thought at all, he took the candle from his pocket and threw it as hard as he could in the opposite direction. It hit a bookshelf and ricocheted against another. “Aha!” the librarian shouted, clearly pleased with himself, and Valres moved for the closet, grateful he’d had the accidental foresight to leave the door open. Inside, he set down the book and carefully shut the door, and then crawled through the small opening in the back wall into the main stacks. Now he faced another choice: whether to replace the panel and the heavy bookshelf that usually hid it from view or simply to flea as hastily as he could.
In the end he compromised, replacing the panel so the librarian wouldn’t see anything amiss if he opened the closet door, but leaving the shelf where it was, even though that would mean never being able to sneak into the rare books room again. Heart racing, keeping his left hand against the shelves that lined the wall, Valres hurried to the far end, made a right turn when he met the corner, and paused at the door before gently pushing it open and slipping into the hallway. The massive doors that led outside and to freedom were only twenty feet away.
Outside, he moved briskly across the cobblestone street, under the bridge, and into the dimly lit alley between Wareford and Queen’s. His heart began to relax and after ten minutes or so he arrived at an innocuous wooden door in the wall to his left. Valres had no idea what the original purpose of this door had been, but for the last fifty years the Order had kept the only key, and he used it now to sneak into the Mason gardens undetected by the college porters.
In his room at the back quadrangle, Valres set the thick tome on his desk, for the first time able to look at it by the light of more than one small candle. It was not a beautiful artifact. The covers were wood, clad in cheap tan leather that still bore some strands of hair from the cow whose skin it once had been. Instead of an embossed metal clasp, there were only two leather straps that could be wrapped tightly around the book and then tied to prevent the parchment from losing its form. This book was one of a set of nearly a hundred that were hastily constructed at the Medcaut monastery on the Cowanshire coast in the early years of the Border Wars and then sent to Claytemple to prevent the loss of the unique manuscripts they contained. Inside was a jumble of texts produced at various times over the millennium during which the monastery had been amassing a library and manufacturing books.
Most of the texts were of little interest to scholars now, save for some important tracts concerning astronomical calculations and a handful of commentaries on the lesser scriptures. All of the major works from the monastery’s flourishing were widely distributed and had been studied extensively for centuries while these volumes sat in the basement of the Claytemple library collecting dust and gathering cobwebs. Four years ago, presumably mindful of his impending retirement and worried about his legacy, Keeper Price had set about convincing the college librarians that the Balinolean was a safer repository for their special collections, and, moreover, collecting the University’s materials into a central system would be the greatest boon to scholarship since the Incorporation. Most of the college librarians had been happy to have a burden lifted from their shoulders, but the Master of Claytemple refused on general principles. The issue quickly became a matter of contention within the University, and some of the other colleges had even demanded the return of their collections. Valres didn’t know the precise details, but there were rumours that the Claytemple librarian had challenged Keeper Price to a duel. Whatever the truth of that story, the Vice Chancellor intervened and imposed a scheme by which the colleges would retain ownership of their collections but would be required to house them in the Balinolean. The Master of Claytemple resigned in protest and wrote a furious letter that was published in the papers in which he not only argued that the move was a violation of the historical independence of the colleges, but also accused the Vice Chancellor of some rather salacious personal activities.
It was these tawdry details that had caught the attention of Valres at the time, but about a year later a small discovery of his own reminded him of the Medcaut volumes. While he had very little interest in modern history, the requirements for his degree dictated that he participate in at least one tutorial on the subject, and so he had opted to study the New Kings with Prof. Chare. The seminal text was Lutrinus’s history, which, of course, Valres had read in secondary school, and so he had hoped to get by without doing very much work. But Prof. Chare was demanding and quick to anger. While reading again the famous chapter concerning the Battle of Denburn, Valres paid particular attention to the description of Cadwallon’s armies. He had forgotten that these soldiers were among the last inhabitants of the island to speak the language of the First Kings, and he was delighted to realize that Lutrinus himself was quite interested in this fact, but Valres became absolutely ecstatic when the monk alluded to some previous work of scholarship about the heresies of the First Kings. Too excited and too impatient to wait for the next tutorial, Valres had gone to see Prof. Chare the very next morning, but his questions met with an aggressive indifference. “Oh. Yes. If it ever existed, it’s been lost. But this is a tutorial about modern history, Mr. Valres, so let’s not get distracted.”
But on the walk home he remembered the Medcaut volumes. If, as the newspapers suggested, every work composed at the monastery had been moved to Claytemple, then Lutrinus’s treatise might simply have gone unnoticed by modern scholars focused on their own agendas. Of course, more than a thousand years separated the composition of the work and the Border Wars – plenty of time for the manuscript to have crumbled into dust. But if he could find it, he could present it to the head of the Order, and then he would be the favorite.
It took him months of sneaking into the rare books room before he found the text upside down on the back of a copy of some other work considered more important during a time when parchment was hard to come by. Valres had only looked over the text for about an hour, but he knew that it was cut up, the original pages having been used out of sequence, and he couldn’t tell if it was complete. He couldn’t believe he had stolen it. If he were caught now, his life would be ruined. Yet, now that the rush of his escape had worn off and he was focused again on the scholarly task ahead of him, he was glad to have the book in his room. As it was, it would be weeks before he had reconstructed the text and studied it, a task which would have taken the whole term if he had to sneak into the Balinolean to work. Valres opened the book and flipped through it until he reached the damaged page. The wax hadn’t completely cooled before he shut the book, and now two pages were fused together near the edges. A letter opener and some patience solved that problem, but the wax had obscured the writing in some places. Valres sighed, smirked, and then laughed at himself. This is why students weren’t allowed in the rare books room.
Lutrinus’s text was incomplete, and Valres had only a thirty-page portion from the middle of the book. If the rest of it had survived, it might be in some of the other Medcaut volumes he hadn’t looked at before he had to steal this one. But after the theft, the Master of Claytemple had removed the entire collection from the Balinolean, and now there was no chance that Valres would ever see them again. As much as he yearned for the complete text, he knew that he had the most important part, and that it was greater than he had dreamed possible. Lutrinus had not merely recorded information about the cosmology of the Vacari for the sake of proselytizing among the last adherents of the old religion, but had compiled the procedures for a variety of rituals. Most of these Valres already knew, and had participated in them when the Order celebrated the holy days. But the gem, the precious jewel, was the ritual for recalling the Gods. Lurtinus called them ‘demons,’ of course, and his snide disapproval seeped through the text and across the centuries, yet here was everything a faithful servant would need to restore the world to its proper order.
The procedures were simple enough, and he understood the requisite prayers better than Lutrinus himself. Yet, there were two points that puzzled him. Lutrinus wrote that the sacrifice must be one who loves the priest more than any other, but this seemed backwards to Valres. Shouldn’t the sacrifice be the one most loved by the priest? He thought it may have been a transcription error, but changing case or voice in Ancient would have required a significant alteration of many of the letters, so that was unlikely. Possibly Lutrinus meant what he had written, but had simply misunderstood something significant. Still, this made Valres nervous. The second point was more poetic, but less problematic. According to Lurtinus, the priest must possess the heart of a black star to perform the ritual. Valres had never seen this phrase before, but he had also never seen anything like it represented in the art of the First Kings. It must be a metaphor, perhaps a poetical way of describing a man willing to kill someone who loved him. It was one thing to love the Gods enough to offer them your wife or your child or your mother; it was something else entirely to reject love and to destroy it.
Valres ought to have reveled in his discovery and then delivered the tome to the head of the Order. Dempsey had become something of a surrogate father to him, and keeping the book for himself, performing the ritual himself, setting himself up as the restorer of the Gods would be a betrayal of the worst kind. But here right in front of him was the means by which he could become the head of a new Order, the voice of the revenging Gods, their savior, their steward. Why should he serve another when he could rule? He summoned Armin and Horton and told them about the ritual. Armin was as excited as Valres, but Horton looked nervous. He was the newest and had not yet participated in a burning or a slaughter, but since Valres had been clear from the beginning that the only way out of the Order was death, he was confident that Horton would play his part.
Valres’s parents despised children only slightly less than they feared his grandfather, and they often left the City without bothering to inform him. Nonetheless, he was surprised not to find them at home only a few days before Jules was due back at Grafton. His grandmother was in one of her fits, and Jules nearly burst into tears when he saw Valres. As the eldest, it had been easier for him to grow up in this home. The old General had still been alive, for one, but because he had been alone for the first ten years of his life, he didn’t feel the absence of his parents so profoundly, and even came to value his independence more than he despaired that he was unloved. It was different for Jules, though. Even with their age difference, and even with Valres himself living at Grafton for half the year, Jules had come to think of his older brother as his best friend. When Valres suggested that Jules might come stay with him at Mason for a few days, the boy was beside himself with glee.
Jules was confused when Valres woke him up just past midnight, but became completely alert when the word “adventure” was used. There was no urgent need to be secretive, but Valres preferred to be cautious, and so they snuck out through the door in the garden and used the alleys rather than the major thoroughfares. It was one of the last remaining warm nights before autumn came, and the streets were full of students making the most of it. For the first time, Valres doubted himself, and wondered if they shouldn’t wait another month, yet he never stopped leading his brother toward the deer park. As he’d instructed, Horton and Armin had left torches burning for them near the edge of the oak forest, and whatever fear Jules felt at the prospect of entering a dark wood at night lost out to the thrill of the mystery.
After about a half mile they came to a clearing in the forest where Armin and Horton had created a wide circle of torches around a small group of boulders. Above them the sky was black and moonless. A cool breeze picked up just then, rustling the leaves, and Valres imagined that the sound was the whispering of the Gods. Neatly folded white robes rested atop the boulders, and now Armin and Horton began to remove their clothes. Jules turned to Valres nervously. “What are we doing?”
Valres smiled. “It’s going to be amazing, Jules. Don’t worry.” Once he had changed into his robe, Jules did the same. The other ceremonial objects rested at the base of one of the torches, and Valres walked over to them and picked up the crown of golden antlers. “Whose turn is it to wear the crown? Jules, do you want it? Actually, better not since it’s your first time.” Valres fixed the antlers atop his head. They were heavy and not well balanced, but with care he walked back to the other three and held out the small bronze scythe to his brother. “You can be the reaper this time. Horton, why don’t you get on the boulders.”
Jules hesitated before accepting the blade. “What do I have to do?”
“You just have to wave it around a bit when I point at you. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the most important part.” Anxiously, Jules looked down at the scythe. Valres smiled at him. “Maybe we should let Armin use the scythe tonight. You can do it next time. Tonight, you can be on the boulders instead of Horton.” Armin followed the cue and took the scythe from Jules and nudged the boy toward the boulders. “I know it’s uncomfortable, but it’s only for a few minutes.”
When Jules was in position on the boulders, Armin handed the scythe back to Valres, and he and Horton took up a position on either side of the boy. Valres stood at his feet and took a deep breath before beginning the chant: olosqanur cubatut cabxul, olosqanur bexetut baquli. The third portion of the prayer was a responsory, and while Horton and Armin were chanting their part, Valres moved around to stand behind his brother’s head. “It’s almost over, Jules. You’re doing really well.” The final part was a benediction for the soul of the offering, a single line repeated seven times: rahatkul olosqiris. When he had spoken the last word, Valres plunged to one knee, grabbed Jules’s hair in his left hand and slit the boy’s throat with the scythe. Still holding the blade, he clasped his brother’s head to his chest so the blood would soak through his robe and onto his chest. The blood must cover the heart of the black star, the text was quite clear about it.
Valres waited until Jules was fully exsanguinated, and then he stood up, dripping with blood. He looked around the grove and up at the sky and down at his own bloody hands. Nothing happened. The ground did not shake, the stars did not fall from the sky, and even the nightbirds were silent. There was nothing. He had murdered his brother for nothing.
It was cold and wet and grey, and the whole world was lost in the fog, even the end of his black clay pipe. An uneven heptagon of not quite two thousand hectares, Maglan Mire was the smallest self-contained area of the massive Dulyn Waste, and Lord Col. Prof. Rawley was going to spend the next two years draining it, and when it was empty the treasures that had been lost in the peat in ages past would be his. He had sold all of his ancestral estates to finance the undertaking, and it was supposed to be his legacy, it was supposed to repair his reputation after the disaster in Bharat, it was supposed to be his victory. But only if he could get started, only if the fog would lift. Rawley bit down on his pipe before yanking it from his mouth and hurling it into the grey nothingness. The pipe was overused, anyway. The ensuing splash was satisfying to his ears, and demonstrating an ability to affect his environment brought some relief from his anxiety. As if in response to the disturbance, far away in the fog, deep in the Mire, some creature howled, low and long, and then fell silent.
The fog did not lift the next day, nor the day after that, but eventually it thinned and the drizzle subsided, and then the fog vanished altogether and it was finally summer in the Waste. The Mire stretched out for miles, a placid sea of bright-green peat moss, occasionally punctured by small islands of rushes and budding asphodel. Seven gentle tors surrounded the Mire, sloping upward in waves of green and tan and brown with crests of tall grey stones. Far to the north, Bleak Tor towered over the others, nearly three thousand feet high, topped with massive pillars of black stone like the ruins of some ancient cyclopean temple. Above the peaks hung a crisp blue sky, full of ravens and dunlins stretching their wings in the sunshine, while hidden among the high rocks a falcon commented on the activity with a series of clipped shrieks.
Rawley took in the splendor of the place and then he took in a puff of liquorice tobacco from his new, unspoiled pipe before motioning for his men to proceed. He had ordered a new type of beam engine from Murdoch Engine Works in Molendinar and arranged at an extraordinary cost to have it shipped down the coast nearly a thousand miles to Tamarmouth, carried by rail halfway to Exham, and then hauled into the Waste by teams of pack animals. Today, his masons would begin construction of a house for the engine and its network of pipes and boilers, while day-laborers would busy themselves with depositing black barrows of coal nearby. After a few days, the operation was poised to commence, and Rawley ceremoniously shoveled the first pile of coal into the furnace.
For a while, everything proceeded smoothly. The engine beam bobbed up and down like a robin hunting for worms, water flowed through pipes and was deposited in huge vats and then slowly drained into a series of long trenches, and workers brought a steady supply of coal, all without incident. But before the end of summer, things began to go wrong. A boiler exploded, peat moss clogged the engine, a miners’ strike disrupted the flow of coal, and something had to be done with the scores of mummified corpses they found as the water receded.
Two years later, Maglan Mire was only half drained, but with the help of a second engine, only one more year passed before it was as dry as it could ever be, and the excavation proper could begin. But this was less of a victory than it ought to have been. For all the trouble that the water had presented, it had not been very deep, coming to a depth of only about a dozen feet even in the center. It was the mud and the muck that was behind all the legends of the peril that the Mire posed to travelers and farmers, and even with hundreds of laborers it was impossible to remove the mud more quickly than the groundwater began to seep through again.
Rawley’s bank accounts emptied before the Mire did. It took luck and an abundance of confidence to convince the bankers at Francis Howlett & Co. that the industry in the Waste was not, in fact, an archeological excavation, but an enterprise with great commercial potential. The loan and the sale of one of the beam engines allowed him to purchase a pair of bucket dredgers that had been used to deepen the Tamarmouth harbor. Disposing of the mud required the construction of a long wooden railway, but harvesting the peat for fuel at least spared the expense of importing coal, and allowed Rawley to maintain the illusion that he intended to repay the bank.
In the cold, foggy winter of the project’s fourth year, the workers at the disposal pit began to find human bones in the mud, and it quickly became apparent that there were thousands of human skeletons in the bottom layers of the muck, trapped there for millennia. Rawley himself had no interest in the human remains – he was on a quest for jewelry and weapons and statues – but Keeper Duncan arranged to have them shipped to the Museum for further study and display, and the newspapers became interested in the excavation. The public attention brought with it some leniency from Francis Howlett & Co when he could no longer afford to make payments to the principal of the loan, and, indeed, could barely keep up with the accruing interest.
The following spring was drier than usual, and with the excavation proceeding apace, they at last encountered the prehistoric ruins of some megalithic temple a full eighty feet below the surface level of Maglan Mire. The time for machines was past, and now Rawley stood atop the highest of the grey stones, intermittently directing workers and taking long draws on his pipe. By the time the ashen clouds of late spring gave way to the fresh sunshine of early summer, the site was largely clear of mud and muck, and Rawley found himself on solid ground in the shadow of what remained of the First Kings. The focal point of the site was the expansive circle of stones nearly four-hundred yards in diameter, with six other concentric circles contained inside. At the epicenter of the temple was a pit of bubbling black ooze perhaps forty feet across, and radiating from this hole like a spider-web were a dozen gigantic fissures, some as much as fifteen-feet wide, all full of the same black substance. Rawley did not know what it was, but when he finally summoned the courage to touch it, he discovered that it was warm and oily, and his hand didn’t feel fully clean for days, no matter how many times he scrubbed it.
Few of the stones were unbroken, and all had toppled before the Mire had grown up around them, many plunging into the gaping cracks. The hanging stones had fallen and crumbled into hundreds of pieces, many small enough for Rawley to lift, but the standing stones had broken cleanly, and they lay still largely intact with their elaborate carvings unmarred by the passage of time. Rawley didn’t know what to make of these, for the standing stones that remained in the gentle meadows south of the City and in the orchid fields across the sea were devoid of markings of any kind. Here, most of the images were of familiar animals such as stags and bulls and great boars, but others were of a type more mythological, with hairy dragons and sharp-toothed sea monsters and men with tall antlers. Some of the stones contained markings that looked to Rawley like a form of wedge writing or a primitive logographic system. If this were true, it would challenge everything that scholars believed about the birth of civilization, and he had discovered it.
Yet, this fact did not overshadow his general disappointment at the lack of treasure. Every night for six years he had dreamed of a temple full of gold and silver and emeralds, but there was nothing of the sort here, only bits of shattered pottery. As the workers continued to remove the last of the mud from the pit, they discovered more skeletons some distance from the standing stones, thousands of them face-down in close proximity, their backs to the temple as if they had been fleeing from it. Here at last Rawley found the treasure he sought: rings, necklaces, broaches, daggers, and helmets. Near one of the skeletons was a pair of golden antlers fixed to a crown, and trapped beneath the remains was a large black stone, an orb with a thousand facets. It was cold and heavy, at least thirty pounds, and when Rawley lifted it from the ground and held it in the sunlight it did not glisten, but seemed instead to devour the light and to burn with its own holy fire. The sky blackened and everything was silent except the stone. It knew him. It loved him. It understood that he was not responsible for all those deaths, those thousands of men who were slaughtered and butchered. It was not his fault; it should have been his victory. But now, here, in the crater that was once Maglan Mire, was the victory for which he had yearned. This was the victory he deserved. The estates were gone, the long line of Rawleys would end with him, but the name would never be forgotten. This stone would rest on a pedestal in the heart of the Museum and it would whisper his name to visitors and they would love him. He had seen to it.
Russell wasn’t charging enough for this job. If he’d realized how close to impossible it was going to be to rob the Beaumont Museum of Art and Archeology and to escape the University quarter undetected, he would have demanded enough money to finally get out of this business and buy a little house somewhere by the sea where he could marry the pretty daughter of one of the local fishermen and start a family. But if he tried to renegotiate now, or even to return the advance to Sark, he would never work again, and he couldn’t afford that yet. The good news was that the University didn’t believe in capital punishment, and if he were transported, he might still get a house by the sea, even if he had to share it with a score of other men and spend his days digging holes and smashing rocks.
Getting into the quarter after nightfall was inconvenient, but hardly problematic. Russell had hoped at first that he would be able to enter the quarter as a visitor during the day and simply remain until nightfall, worrying only about getting out again with the artifact. The University Police, however, kept careful records of every visitor, and no one could enter or exit without an interview at one of the gates. Russell had observed the police for a full week looking for a flaw in their system, but the recent installation of a pneumatic tube meant that when the gates closed at eight o’clock there was no chance of the guards at the City Gate assuming that a visitor had exited through the East Gate. He would just have to find a way over, under, or through the wall.
At thirty feet high and ten feet thick, the University Police no doubt thought that the wall was impregnable. It was nearly so, but after several detailed circuits around the ten-mile perimeter, Russell found three potential entry points. He tried them all, several times in fact, and in the end he decided to make use of an oak tree in the deer park that was just close enough to the wall to be within reach of a well-thrown climbing hook. Once atop the wall, he could secure the loose end of the rope with an anchor and shimmy across and upward to the tree, retrieve his hook and climb down, leaving the rope hanging from the top of the wall so he could use it to get out again once he had the object. This was actually the most complicated of the three options, it took the longest, and it required that he leave evidence of his entrance out in the open while he was finishing the job, but because the police did not patrol within the forest he was less likely to be detected here.
But getting in was the easy part. Getting to the Museum without being seen was far trickier. The Museum occupied almost the precise center of the district, part of a quarter-mile-wide strip of buildings that ran all the way from the City Gate in the south to the sporting grounds in the north. Besides the Beaumont Museum, this block housed the main library, the museum of natural history, performance theatres, and a series of public lecture halls. On either side of this strip were two of the University’s three major thoroughfares, and even if he stayed in the forest as long as he could, he would still have a little over a mile to go in order to reach the Museum, and if he couldn’t find a way onto a roof, he would have to go on foot down one of these well-lit roads. There was very little chance that he would be able to do that without being stopped by a police patrol, and he wasn’t confident in his ability to convince anyone that he was merely a professor returning home from some romantic rendezvous that required the constable’s discretion.
Russell was not optimistic about the odds of completing the job on his first attempt, and he had even considered making a foray dedicated solely to open exploration, but given the impossibility of simply disappearing into the night if something went wrong, it seemed more prudent to try to finish the job as quickly as possible. It was a clear, moonless night, and it was difficult to see in the forest, but once he found the stream he was able to follow it all way to the sporting grounds. He was surprised to find a boathouse at the edge of the forest, and now his urge to explore returned. There was no way to get a boat out of the University because of the grates in the wall, but a boat might be a good way of confusing the police if it came to that.
Ten minutes of brisk walking across the dewy field took him to the back wall of the northernmost colleges. The University was better lit than the rest of the City, and it seemed almost as if night did not exist here. Off to his right, visible through the entrance to the sporting grounds, was Griffith Road, the main thoroughfare that led all the way to the City Gate several miles to the south, its cobblestones reflecting the yellow light of an army of gas lamps. In front of him and high up, Russell saw the solitary lamps atop the gates and chapel towers of nearby colleges. He knew from Sark’s map that the two before him were Downing and Homerton, two of the newer colleges, although he supposed that most of them this far north were relatively recent foundations. Homerton occupied a small plot and as a result had built upward instead of outward. The college’s border with the sporting grounds and its western border with Downing were a pair of residence halls six stories high, whitewashed facades of ornate columns, with largely flat roofs broken at irregular intervals by short cylindrical towers topped with statues of important figures in dramatic poses. A stone railing surrounded the rooftops, and Russell found himself acting instinctively, without conscious deliberation.
A moderate toss landed his hook on the roof where it clamped onto the railing. In the stillness, the clatter of iron on stone seemed louder than it really was, but nevertheless Russell waited to see if lights would go on or windows would open before beginning his ascent. Fully committed to this route, once he was safely atop the roof he did not take the time to look around from this vantage, but jogged southward past the towers until he came to the building’s far edge, where it met the north end of a Downing residence hall. This, unfortunately, had a steeply gabled roof of sleek tiles, but, mercifully, he could reach it by lowering himself from the Homerton balcony. Burdened only by the few tools he’d brought with him, he had no trouble tiptoeing along the roof but he knew if he returned by this route with the artifact, he would have to straddle the roof and scoot across the distance at a painfully slow pace.
When he reached the south end and could look into the adjacent college he was certain he would have to backtrack and start anew. The walls here were half the height of his roof, and the closest building was a cylindrical chapel built in the style of the Ancients nearly fifty feet away, and although he could easily have secured his climbing hook, there was nothing to which he could fix the loose end on this side. But as he was pivoting to return to Homerton, Russell saw that there was a gutter attached to the long edge of the roof only about ten feet above the low wall. It would be a steep slide, and if he missed his catch he would die. Moreover, he wouldn’t be able to return this way, so backtracking would provide the opportunity to find a more useful route. On the other hand, if he had to begin again there was little chance that he could finish the job tonight, doubling the risk of getting caught.
The trick with the slide wasn’t controlling his velocity, but ensuring that his feet didn’t catch the lip of the gutter on their way past, and he executed this flawlessly. The edge of the roof didn’t quite overlap with the lower wall, so Russell had to sway back and forth in order to build up some momentum before he released his grip. As far as he could tell, Hatfield College was mostly yard and garden, with the neo-Ancient chapel in the middle, and only one residence hall that formed the college’s border opposite his position. Hatfield ran the width of the central block and uniquely, or at least uncommonly, had two entrances, one from each of the major roads. A tower loomed over each of them, and he would either have to find a way over one or he would have to make a run across the yard. The tower overlooking Griffith Road was the taller of the two, a full six stories culminating in a gabled roof. But the eastern tower was shorter, and more importantly, each window was equipped with a balcony, and he was confident that he could hop across the face of the tower without actually having to reach the top, so long as he was quiet enough not to alert the porter in the lodge.
In the end, Russell had to jump and climb his way to the fourth floor in order to pass over the entryway. A mechanical clock occupied the space just above the arch, and he could hear the clicking and whirring of the massive gears behind the stone wall. It was 2:07. He’d been at this for more than an hour. At the southeastern corner of the college, the tower wall met the roof of the residence hall, and it took only a moderate leap to reach it. On the other side, the residence hall overlooked a narrow, well lit alley that gently curved back and forth like a great snake. The alley was less than ten feet wide, easily jumped if the building on the other side had been at the same level, but it was two stories taller, windowless and smooth-faced.
Russell walked west along the roof looking for a way across. About halfway to Griffith Road, the building opposite terminated at the western border of this college and met the end of another building, this one running south toward the Museum. To the right of this building was yet another residence hall. Both of these were another five stories taller than the building he’d been scrutinizing, cyclopean gothic structures nearly a thousand years old. Gargoyles loomed over the roof of the shorter building where the vertical wall met the steep roof, menacing figures visible only as shadows in the waning light from the gas lamps in the alley below. After three attempts, Russell managed to catch the nearest of the stone monstrosities with his climbing hook. It wasn’t a good grip and when he tugged on the rope he could feel that it would not hold his weight for long and he would have to climb quickly.
The hook came loose as soon as he shifted his weight to the roof of the building, and he had to roll out of the way to avoid being struck by it. Instead, it clattered on the stones next to him, so Russell lay still for a few moments, listening for indications that he had woken someone. When he stood up and looked around he saw that this college was surrounded by one continuous building, and that the roof stretched southward until it reached a high gothic tower that was part of the gargoyled building to his right, the chapel of the neighboring college. This was a strange design for a transept tower, which normally would have risen out of the center, and it effectively blocked his path.
When he reached the end of the rooftop he found that it did not connect with the tower, but rather came up a few feet short, and he understood now that the chapel had been there first, and this college had built around the odd architectural feature. But this was great news for Russell, because it meant that each façade of the tower was fully decorated with gargoyles, crockets, and tall windows. He would not even need a rope to climb it. About eighty feet above him there was an arcade, presumably the level of the bell, and his plan was to cross to the south face and descend again to the next rooftop, but when he stood up in the arcade and took in his surroundings, Russell was suddenly and profoundly aware that he had never been this high above the ground before, and he was powerless against his desire to ascend all the way to the top of the tower.
The roof was flat and surrounded by a crenellated parapet. A gas lamp occupied the northeastern corner, blinding him, so Russell hoisted himself atop the crenellation on the opposite side. There was a warm wind from the west that smelled of hyacinth blossoms, and for a moment he was afraid to look down. Instead, he stared out at the spires and towers of the whole University, each college with its own gas lamp, a small candle in the vast darkness, but together appearing like a sprinkle of fireflies. Russell looked up at the starry sky, a black canvas punctured by tiny points of white and yellow and blue and red, and he felt as if the stars were gazing back at him, as if they recognized him and hated him for existing. At last he turned his eyes downward. To the north, he could see all the way back to the forest, a great darkness at the edge of the lights. East and west were the main roads, each with a lone policeman on patrol, ignorant of his presence high above them. To the south, very close, was the Museum, and beyond that an open plaza and the Library. If he could will himself to abandon his perch, he would be at his target in a matter of minutes, but even as he felt exposed he also felt safe in his insignificance and he didn’t want to return to the world.
Russell found himself back in the belfry, confused, unaware of having descended the ladder, yet unfazed, even strengthened, by the seeming loss of his own will. Now he moved quickly to the south window and began his climb down to the next rooftop, a flat highway that ended at a thirty-foot cliff, the bottom of which was the roof of the Beaumont Museum. Directly below him, spread out along the wall, were a dozen colossal statues of Ancient gods in snow-white marble, the crowns of their heads at Russell’s level, but many of them with arms raised in violent gestures. Situated in the center, of course, was the sky god, ready to smite his enemies with a barrage of thunder and lightning, and Russell fixed a rope to his gigantic arm with a simple lark’s head knot and slid down to the rooftop.
Now that it was warm and likely to be dry most days, the rooftop was in use as a terrace café, and a host of tables and chairs and potted plants surrounded a square building with many windows, presumably a restaurant or some sort of lecture hall. The double door was locked, but even a novice could have picked it with ease. Inside there was indeed a small restaurant and a well stocked bar, all marble and granite, but most of the space was given over to two lecture halls. Russell paused and took in the opulence of the space and wondered what he might have done with his life if his birth had been more fortunate.
The rooftop level was effectively the Museum’s fourth floor, but the artifact he was here to steal was housed somewhere on the ground level. A building of this immensity would have a grandiose central stair, but also several staircases of a more functional sort tucked away in the corners. Russell had no idea how many police would be in the building, but he guessed only two or three, and that only one of them would be active. The police were here to deal with drunk students not burglars, after all. Any roaming policeman would be carrying a lantern and unconcerned with his own noise, so he was confident that he would be safe so long as he didn’t allow himself to get trapped in a room with only one exit and so long as he could navigate without the aid of a light of his own. He was far more concerned about how long it would take for the missing object to be noticed once he had grabbed it.
There was only one exit from this level, a closed stairwell that ended just one floor below and led to the top exhibition floor, where it was much darker. The Museum was massive, almost a full square mile on each level, so it took Russell a long time navigating through dark rooms of prehistoric jewelry and ancient sarcophagi before he found another stairwell. This only took him to the first floor, and he was certain now that he would have to get to the ground floor by the grand staircase near the building’s entrance.
The grand staircase was actually two stairs linking the ground floor to a broad balcony on the first. Above him, the foyer extended all the way to the roof, where the stars were visible through several small windows. On a clear summer day, this room would glisten, but now the blackness was oppressive and terrifying. Russell approached the white banister and when he understood the situation his heart sank. The door to the police office was only a few feet from the base of the stairs to the right, and only a few more from the others. He could hear them complaining about their wives and the quality of the coffee. More urgently, the ground floor appeared to be lit. Not all the way, perhaps only half the lights were on, but it would be enough to let a passing patrol see him through a window, and there would be nowhere to hide. He would need to be very quick now.
The balcony was still in shadow, so Russell looped a rope around the banister, slid down to the floor, and moved through the hallway beneath the balcony that led away from the entrance and toward the Museum’s most prestigious displays. The hallway opened into a large room, illuminated by a series of small gas lights near the ceiling. In the center of the room was the Museum’s prized possession, a gigantic stone tablet containing the world’s oldest law code, written in a dozen long-dead languages that ages ago were the common tongues of some expansive empire. A host of related objects rested atop pedestals and clung to the walls or sat in orderly cases, mostly small icons or the remnants of fractured sculptures. There were signs next to the exits, one advantage, at least, of having the lights on, and the door at the back was labeled “Treasures of the First Kings.” The door opened into a small, shadowy room, and a quick survey revealed that this was not the room he was after, but he could see bright light seeping through the bottom of a door to his right.
The next room was larger, fully lit, with small standing stones arranged in a circle to give visitors the impression of entering a prehistoric temple. On a white pedestal in the center of the room was his prize, the black orb. When he was closer, Russell saw that it was not really an orb at all, but that it had so many facets that from afar it gave the illusion of smoothness. The blackness, too, was an illusion of sorts, for the stone burned with a blue light deep within, and it seemed to him then that a whole world, perhaps even an entire universe, existed inside it. Russell made to remove the stone, but as soon as his hand touched it everything went dim and began to swirl around him and a strong copper odor filled the room. Suddenly, everything stopped and the world was bright again, and Russell became aware that his lips were wet. His nose was bleeding and a small puddle of red, sticky blood had accumulated at the base of the pedestal. It was time to go. Now, when he placed his bloody hand on the stone, everything grew brighter and his breathing slowed and he felt as if he had been half-dead for most of his life, but now, perhaps for the first time, he was fully alive, and the world was his to command, it was his to burn.
A hurricane of red and black and orange engulfed him and everything was hot, and when it ceased, when the dullness of the world returned, Russell found himself in the office of the Museum guards, wet and hungry. At his feet was a pool of blood, emanating from the corpses of the three guards. Their throats had been sliced open, and two of them had also been stabbed several times. Russell suddenly realized he was holding a knife, sticky with blood. He screamed and dropped the blade and fled from the room, leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind him. Someone said his name and he was calm again and cold and he stopped running. There was more work to be done.
It was late morning on a cold day in late autumn. The sun hadn’t broken through the clouds in months and Henslowe sensed that there would be a steady shower of icy rain before the day was through. The Valres house was a large, free-standing mansion not far from the expansive forest of Walpham Common, symmetrical, whitewashed, with structurally insignificant columns decorating the front. It was a relic from a century-old architectural style, and while the house was not in disrepair, it looked weary and weathered. In its infancy, the house had been the centerpiece of a colony of the newly rich who yearned for the lifestyle of the old gentry but needed to maintain a proximity to their commercial enterprises. Now that Walpham was fully integrated into the ever-growing mass of the City, the district had fallen out of fashion and been largely abandoned by the descendants of its wealthy founders in favor of row houses closer to the theatres and the department stores.
The entrance hall was two stories high and half the size of a rugby field. The floor was black and white granite tiles, and a host of white marble statues were strewn about the room at random intervals. It looked to Henslowe like a well polished chessboard. A thick, scarlet carpet covered the broad stairway that led briefly to the back of the room before branching off in either direction to lead guests up to the next level. On the high, white walls, three massive oil paintings hung above the stairs. In the center was a scene from some city in Bharat that showed a palace or a temple complex of cyclopean stone beehives towering over a parade of elephants. To the left of this painting was a portrait of a curly-haired middle-aged man with impressive sideburns dressed up as a knight in dark armor. This was the old General Valres, one of the principal founders of the Bharat Trading Company, freshly returned from his conquests and newly knighted. To the right was a portrait of his wife, twenty years his junior, wearing an elaborate dress that was probably meant to complement her husband’s antiquated attire. These were the grandparents of the man he was here to see. Slightly behind him, the butler coughed, and Henslowe wondered how many hours of his life this old man had given to waiting on visitors who had been immobilized by the grandeur of the hall.
When Henslowe entered the library, Arthur Valres remained seated in an immense black leather chair and motioned for him to take the place opposite him. Valres was in his seventies, bald, red-faced, with a belly that was on the cusp between plump and rotund. “How do you like your brandy, Mr. Henslowe?” He wheezed a little when he spoke, but didn’t sound out of breath.
Henslowe smiled. He liked a household that didn’t believe it could be too early for a drink. “Neat. Always neat.”
“Good,” Valres nodded. “I don’t trust a man who spoils a drink by putting ice in it. Either he doesn’t really like the drink but feels the need to put on a false face in public, or he can’t hold his liquor.”
The butler poured a generous portion of very old reddish-caramel brandy for each of them before withdrawing from the library.
Henslowe took a large drink. The brandy was sweet and rich and velvety, full of caramel and vanilla. It tasted like winter, yet it warmed him and made him think of summer. “That’s excellent. You must have something very important that you want to me to handle.”
“What do you know about my family?”
“Three adult daughters, all unmarried; no sons. Your wife died a long time ago, and you never took another. You’ve recently sold the last of your stock in the Bharat Company, which some considered a little tawdry and disrespectful to your family’s legacy. The Courier suggested that you have failed to understand that our empire thrives on the good breeding of determined families or something like that, and that you’ve squandered the hard-won fortune of a beloved icon. ”
Valres offered a flash of a smile, as if recalling a joke heard long ago. “The Old General was a Great Man. My father was the frightened, incompetent son of a Great Man, paralyzed by his own fear of failure. If I had realized that when I was an adolescent, I might have made different choices. Or if my grandfather had been able to admit defeat on one front and refocus his attention on me, my present state of affairs might be very different. But I didn’t bring you here to discuss my father’s lack of business acumen.” Valres gestured at Henslowe. “You don’t wear a wedding ring.”
“I’ve never had a wedding.”
“So no children then?”
“I haven’t lived that kind of life.”
Valres nodded slightly, his gaze fixed on the floor next to Henslowe’s chair. “It’s probably for the best in your line of work.” The old man finally picked up his brandy and looked at it as if he’d never seen anything like it before. “My daughters are gone.”
Henslowe let that hang in the air. After a several long seconds, Valres blinked heavily and drained his glass. “The eldest are dead. There was an accident. It’s of no consequence. But my youngest, she is the reason you are here. Clara has run away.”
“Thank you for the drink, Mr. Valres.” Henslowe stood up. “But I’m not in the business of kidnapping women, even to return them to their fathers.”
“Please sit down, Mr. Henslowe. You misunderstand me. I do not want my daughter returned. When she left, she stole an object of great importance to me. I want it back.”
Long ago, Exham had been the last outpost of civilization, a fortress of the Ancients where soldiers kept watch along the border of the wastes and wilds and woods of the West. For the last few centuries it had been the head of a regional industrial empire, full of watermills and textile factories, but with the rise of steam power it found itself too far from any major coal deposits to compete with the tireless factories of the Islands and the North. Now Exham was a city in the first stages of decay, and as his train slowed, Henslowe noticed that several of the riverside factories were lifeless and the adjoining neighborhoods were full of empty houses and quiet streets. When he exited the rail station, he and his fellow passengers were greeted by a host of unemployed laborers begging for help. Many had messages scrawled on boards asking for work, others aggressively offered their services as luggage carriers, while some took advantage of the noise and the commotion to help themselves to the wallets of the disoriented passengers. Valres was confident that Clara had bought off the first man he’d sent after her, but to Henslowe’s eye this looked like a town where a robbery could become a murder without a whole lot of prompting. He was relieved that Ms. Righburn no longer lived here.
The city centre was nearly a mile from the rail station, down a brick lane that twisted around apartment blocks and pubs with faded signs until it suddenly spilled out into a broad garden amidst which sat the city cathedral, a white temple towering over the reddening leaves of the oak trees while cowering below the darkening rain clouds. Another mass of the unemployed huddled near the tall doors of the cathedral, where the curate and some attendant deacons were distributing food. Henslowe circled around the back of the cathedral and found the major thoroughfare that led further into the city centre. This street was lined with specialty shops and pubs and bars with bright signs and there was a crowd of clean, happy, and well-dressed shoppers enjoying the late afternoon. After a few minutes he arrived at the police station, a two-story building of red brick with an iron door and few windows. It looked like a factory, and Henslowe assumed that it probably functioned like one as well. He couldn’t imagine finding a smile in a place like this.
Inside, he showed his license at the desk and asked for the homicide detectives. There were four of them, or at least there were four desks in their office on the second floor, one of the few with a window. When Henslowe knocked on the open door, there were two men in the room, one a young clean-shaven man with a mop of blonde hair, the other about forty, short with a greying beard, clutching an empty tobacco pipe in his left hand while he thumbed through some papers on his desk with the other. He waved his license at them, but didn’t step into the office. “I’m looking for a body you might have found a few days ago. Heavy, bald, thick mustache, nice suit. Goes by the name Warrington.”
The policemen exchanged a glance, and the young blonde stood up and pointed his chin at Henslowe. “Let’s take a look at that license again.” Henslowe tossed it to him, and when he was done with it the blonde tossed it back, lit a cigarette, and took a gulp from a mug of coffee. “What’s this about?”
“My client is interested in him.”
The older man filled his pipe. “Why do you think he’s dead?”
“I don’t. But if you have him, then I get to go home and collect a nice wage for doing nothing more than reading the paper on the train.”
The pair of them exchanged another glance and the blonde started talking. “We had a guy like that – throat was slit. No wallet. Suit from the City, expensive, probably nice before his blood got all over it.” He put the coffee back on the desk and flipped through a notebook. “Hawkes Huntsman and Company.”
“Do you have the man who did it?”
They looked at each other again. “We don’t work this kind of case.”
Henslowe nodded. “I see. You have a client, too. That’s alright by me, everybody needs to eat.”
It was almost dark when Henslowe left the station, but the evening papers weren’t out yet, so it didn’t take long to find a newsagent willing to dig through his stacks to find the leftovers from earlier in the week. Warrington had been found in an alley on the east side of city centre early Tuesday morning. He got confusing directions from the newsagent and headed east on High Street just as the lamplighters began to make their rounds. It should have only taken him ten minutes to reach the alley, but it took fifteen. There was nothing special about it, no sign that anything tawdry had happened, no incriminating evidence behind a rubbish bin, not even any cigarette butts – the detectives had done a good job scrubbing the place. It was probably all they were good at, really.
Icy raindrops descended from the sky without warning, but Henslowe wasn’t done looking around yet. With a sharp move, he turned up the collar of his raincoat and exited the alley at the end opposite of where he had entered and emerged onto a narrow cobblestoned lane at the bottom of a hill where rainwater was already beginning to pool. This was a quiet street, and it looked to Henslowe like this hill was a fashionable district with good homes for good people, or at least rich homes for rich people. He went left, away from the hill, and came to a small square lined with shops and cafes while a quaint equestrian statue of the young Duke of Ilchester busy saving the Empire kept watch.
Through the windows of the building closest to him, Henslowe saw handsome men in paisley vests and white coats arranging tables and chairs in preparation for opening an elegant restaurant. A long bar with brightly lit bottles occupied almost the entire back wall, and in the far left there was a low stage for a band and a floor for dancing. Nearby, a red baize swing door led to the back. Henslowe made for the entrance, where a sign above the door read “The Whitebeam Club.” This was a gambling house. Unsurprisingly, the door was still locked, so Henslowe walked back around the corner, passing by the entrance to Warrington’s alley on his right and found another alley on the left closer to the base of the hill. The Whitebeam occupied a very large building. For no good reason, he went through the alley, his shoes splashing in the puddles. The back of the Whitebeam had three doors, all locked of course, but only one that looked fit for public use, an entrance that bypassed the restaurant and led directly into the casino. Henslowe was confident that Warrington had spent his final hour in this club, but there was nothing to be done about it this early in the evening.
Dinham Cemetery was a long stretch of garden between an old but beautifully maintained parish church and a much newer parish schoolhouse. The rain had not stopped, not even a little, but the lights from the church were enough for Henslowe to navigate around the puddles. The Righburn family owned an extensive plot near the center, occupied by an immense granite mausoleum, almost a small house. In contrast to the size, the mausoleum was sparsely decorated, without even any sign of the family crest, only the name etched into the stone above the plain door. The outside walls bore the names of those who dwelled inside, three generations of Righburns. Ms. Righburn’s grandfather had built this when he began to move the family’s financial interests from agriculture to industry and had relocated from the ancestral estate to an urban mansion, a move that had ensured the continued longevity of the clan. The size of the mausoleum was a testament to his commitment to Exham and to his optimism, not to his opulence. Below the names of her grandparents were those of her mother and her father, but Henslowe was here to read the final name, her brother’s. James Righburn. Twelve years old when he was murdered, an event that had changed Henslowe’s life. Saved it, really. He reached up and ran his fingers across the name. The stone was cold and wet and the edges of the inscription were still sharp.
A figure leaned against a gas lamp at the cemetery gate, the red end of a lit cigarette visible like a warning beacon, puffs of smoke struggling for survival in the cold rain. When Henslowe drew nearer, the figure threw the cigarette onto the pavement and squashed it with his shoe. “Find what you were looking for?” It was the blonde homicide detective.
“Not yet.” Henslowe did not stop for him, but marched toward the waiting cab.
The blonde grabbed Henslowe’s arm above the elbow and stopped him. “That’s my cab. Yours took off.”
Henslowe smiled, amused by the triteness of the scene. “What do you want me to say here?”
“You think I like following you around in the rain on my night off? Do us both a favor. The train station is that way.” He moved past Henslowe and into the back of the cab.
Henslowe watched the cab pull away, its wheels splashing up rainwater and leaving a wake behind it. When it was out of sight he began to walk in the direction of The Whitebeam Club.
The casino at The Whitebeam Club occupied a spacious room lit by hundreds of small lamps along the walls and a dozen chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling. Most of the walls were mirrored, giving the impression that the room was larger and more crowded than it was, and helping to make it bright and cheerful. A four-piece band was playing something Henslowe didn’t know, but no one was giving them much attention. Most of the people in The Whitebeam this early on a rainy night were here to gamble and they were serious about it. A group of old rich men sat around a poker table playing Follow the Queen and not speaking, probably as they did every night. The dealer looked bored. On the other side of the room, an energetic group of young men and women huddled around a roulette wheel, laughing and cheering. One of them was the blonde detective. Every once in a while a couple recently finished with their dinner came through from the other room and took a table, prompting a response from the platoon of anxious white-clad waiters who lined the back wall.
“Same again?” The barkeep kept his distance and kept his hands clasped in front of him.
“Make it a Widow’s Kiss this time.”
The barkeep turned his back to Henslowe and began to assemble the necessary bottles. A tall, thin man in a dark, single-breasted frock coat over a grey vest came around the bar and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll take it from here, Tom.” His voice was smooth, honey-coated, and it almost sounded as if he were singing. He had a thick head of grey hair combed back and carefully parted, a perfectly trimmed and measured mustache, and a face that looked as if it had been shaved and oiled only moments ago. Everything about him was smooth, everything about him was controlled. He picked up the bottle of Calvados and turned to Henslowe with a raised eyebrow. “A Jack Rose?”
The man’s face remained expressionless while he began to pour the brandy. “An appropriate choice for autumn rain. Tell me, do you only drink gin in the summer?”
“You’ve had your pets following me.”
“Not really. You tricked them. It hurt their feelings a little, and they aren’t the sort who like to have their feelings hurt. Do you prefer your Chartreuse yellow or green?”
“Are you going to ask me if I want it over ice, too?”
His lips curled into a faint smile. “Green it is. How long have you been with Valres?”
“That’s a funny way of putting it. Since yesterday, and hopefully not for much longer.” Henslowe placed his elbows on the bar and leaned forward. “The only commodity I have in this world is me, and my business depends on my reputation. I don’t quit a job just because some kid tells me to, even if he has a badge and a revolver. But I want to be clear: I don’t charge enough money to die for my clients’ property. I don’t know what Warrington did to get himself killed, but I’m not interested in making the same mistake.”
The man slid some ice into the mixing glass and began to stir it with a long, spiraled spoon, noiselessly creating a perfect maelstrom of ice and liquor.
Henslowe leaned back. “This city has seen better days, and this casino has seen larger crowds. And it’s only going to get worse, so I can understand your interest here. She’s the heir to a fortune that can see you comfortably to the finish line and even give you some respectability. You have the means to protect her from her overbearing father and his goons. Of course, if they’re reconciled, or if she’s locked up in his mansion, you don’t get anything out of it. How am I doing so far?”
He strained the drink into a coupe glass and then set it in front of Henslowe. “Not bad. But not good. Let’s see how this story ends.”
“But you’ve got it all wrong. Mr. Valres doesn’t want her back, just his property. And he doesn’t want to punish her. He’ll keep his will as it stands, and he’ll reinstate her allowance as soon as I put the stone back in his hands. I’m sure you’ve realized by now that there’s no profit in keeping it.”
The man rapped his fingers against the bar. “You’ve got a real cynical view of the world. You might try reading a sonnet sometime. Enjoy your drink, Mr. Henslowe.”
Henslowe lifted the glass from the bar and held it against the light for a moment before taking a drink. It was cold and spicy at first, but then it gave way to apple and orange and cinnamon, and he was warm and the memory of his walk in the icy rain faded at last and he smiled.
He didn’t see her coming until she was right in front of him. Her hair was black, parted in the center, tied in a loose braid at the back so that it hung gently over the sides of her forehead and draped her ears. High cheekbones and a sharp chin gave her face a diamond shape, ornamented with full lips and sulky eyes made of jet. There was a vacant look to her, and Henslowe couldn’t decide if she was disappointed or disinterested. Maybe she couldn’t either. She wore an emerald dress, silk, with a low neck and no shoulders, and she had left her gloves at home. A silver pendant rested in the soft, pale space between her dress and her neck, a stag with obsidian eyes to match her own. She took the seat next to Henslowe, gave the barman an almost imperceptible nod, pulled a metal case from her clutch, and lit a slender cigarette. It seemed to Henslowe that she was putting herself on display for him, making certain that he wouldn’t forget her beauty when she left the room. The barman placed a glass in front of her, translucent save for a long lemon spiral, and then another in front of Henslowe. She took a swallow and carefully replaced the glass but left her fingers on the stem. She spoke without looking at him. “What did you think of my father?”
Henslowe took a drink. It was a mouthful of gin and not a lot else. “I don’t get paid to have opinions.”
At last Clara Valres turned to face him, a small smile on her lips, as if she had just remembered a joke she’d made earlier and was pleased with herself. “Well, aren’t you something of a soldier? He’s a monster, you know. Maybe you’re a monster, too. Did he tell you that he murdered my sisters?” When Henslowe didn’t say anything, she continued. “No, of course he didn’t. At least we know you have some scruples. But not enough to worry too much about staying on the right side of the law. When he told you what it was, did you even bother to ask for more money?” This time, when Henslowe didn’t answer she gave him a puzzled look and then laughed, a rich, honeyed sound. “You don’t even know what it is. Where have you been living? Did my father manage to find the one illiterate detective in the whole City?”
Henslowe turned away from her and drained his glass.
“You really are a soldier. I’ve offended you. Let’s order another drink and start over. Please?” She gave him a look that was sad but unapologetic, as if it was his fault that she’d broken his favorite toy. “My father is a monster. He’s an insane person, a madman. I think he’s been mad his whole life. And he isn’t alone. George Warrington came here to kill me because my father told him to. Not for money, but for devotion. My father runs a cult, and it’s the real thing: robes, totems, blood sacrifices – all of it. It started when he was at the University, I think, and it’s been going on ever since. I don’t know how many of them there are, but it’s more than just a handful of old men hoping to magic their way back to health.”
Clara paused and picked up her glass and blinked at it a few times before taking a sip. She started to put it down again, stopped, brought it back to her lips, and devoured the rest of the gin in one take. “He murdered my sisters, and I know where the bodies are. I know where all the bodies are, hundreds of them, from forty years of murder. I want to hire you, Mr. Henslowe. I want you to send him to the gallows for what he’s done.”
Clara Valres had been staying at the Brunswick Hotel under a false name, and it was no effort to secure the adjoining room for Henslowe. It was the most opulent quarters he’d ever had – a high bed large enough for five, plush carpet, layers upon layers of drapes, and everything shades of red from ruby to crimson to rust. He thought about all of the nights he’d gone without a roof as a soldier, and with the nostalgic hindsight of a warm, well-fed man he found himself missing the simplicity of those days. At least then it had always been clear who the bad guys were and it was acceptable to shoot them. Of course, he appreciated now that it had never actually been that simple, just that the complexities had been handled by old men in comfortable offices thousands of miles away.
“I need to see the stone.” He didn’t care what it looked like, but he needed to know that it existed if he was going to be able to use it to leverage Valres if matters got out of control, and while he believed her story enough to take her side, he didn’t trust her.
Clara opened her wardrobe and removed a leather satchel. “It’s best not to take it out. It makes people dangerous.”
Henslowe ignored her and began undoing the clasps. Inside was a black sphere, cold and somehow heavier in his hands than it been in the bag. He felt weak and anxious and everything except Clara began to fade until she was a lone figure in a vast darkness, her eyes full of fire. Someone was singing and there were hyacinths. She said his name and he was strong again and the light returned and the melody was gone and he understood.
Something woke him in the night. All he could hear was the sound of rain lashing against the windows, and he suddenly felt chilly. After a moment, though, the noise that had woken him returned. Someone was doing a bad job of picking the lock on Clara’s door. Henslowe checked that his revolver was loaded before going through to the other room where Clara was still fast asleep. He took up a position between the bed and the wardrobe and waited. The intruder managed to spring the last tumbler and the door slowly opened, sending a tiny sliver of dim yellow light across the carpet.
A small man appeared in front of him, a long, curved knife in his hand. Henslowe stepped out of his hiding place and grabbed the man by the wrist, twisting his arm until he yelped and let the blade fall to the floor. He spun the intruder around and marched him toward the back wall, left hand on the man’s chest, right hand holding the revolver in his face. Clara jolted awake and turned on a light but did not yell.
“What are you doing here?” the man stammered.
“Shouldn’t I be asking you that question?”
“That’s Miles Peterson. He’s one of my father’s creatures.” Clara was pulling a robe over her shoulders.
“Go downstairs and send a porter for the police.” Henslowe never took his eyes from Peterson’s.
When Clara was out of the room, he shoved Peterson into a chair and took up a position blocking the exits.
Peterson glared at him. “You can’t stop us. You can lock me up, but when we bring them back, you will be my slave, and I will make you eat that gun.”
Henslowe laughed. “Your kind always baffle me, Peterson. You have a run of bad luck, and you blame it on the phase of the moon or the winter constellations as if the night sky cares about our lives. You touch a rock that makes you hallucinate and you think some dead god is talking to you and that you have to start killing women in order to please him. But you never consider that maybe you’re just bad at cards and that dreams aren’t real. Because you’re special, and even if no one else believes it, you know that somewhere in that vast emptiness there’s an invisible someone who really does love you. And someday he’ll set things right just for you. But things will never be right for you.”
Despite the continued use of the name, Walpham Common had in fact been the private property of Arthur Valres for more than thirty years. Near the center there was a grove among the ageing oak trees, littered now with red and yellow leaves, wet and slippery after three days of heavy rain. Small wooden structures painted white sat at the outskirts of the grove and formed a circle around a group of massive moss-covered boulders. Some of these structures were covered gazebos, others open platforms, but one was a gardening shed, and this was their target. This, Clara had explained, was the entrance to the cellar where they would find the evidence of Valres’s murders.
They descended into the darkness, and when they reached the bottom Clara began lighting the dozens of torches and candles that rested in tall floor sconces around the room. It was dry here, and warm. Henslowe had anticipated a musty odor of decay, but the scent of hyacinths and honey was pleasant and lively and inviting. As the room became illuminated, he saw that it was littered with dozens of stone biers and that atop each of them lay a mummified human corpse wrapped in green cloth and adorned with jewelry of silver and gold. A pastoral landscape was painted on the walls and the ceiling was the blue sky of a summer morning.
Clara returned to where Henslowe stood and touched his arm. “My sisters are over here.” She led him to the back where the corpses of two dark-haired women clad in white dresses lay in the process of dehydration. Their throats had been slit and stitched back together, and their faces were locked in expressions of surprise and terror and disappointment. They had been beautiful once. Clara took a knee and uttered an inaudible prayer and then lingered silently for a moment before standing up and putting on an icy, determined look. “Let’s go visit my father.”
The front door of the Valres house was unlocked, and when they entered the grand hall no one was to be found, but only a few seconds later the butler emerged as if he had been lingering invisibly in the corner. When he saw them he stopped in his tracks, startled, but then quickly recovered his poise. “Miss Clara,” he said calmly. “And Mr. Henslowe. Perhaps you would like me to take your coats.”
Henslowe remained motionless, but Clara removed her raincoat and handed it to the butler. “Where is he, Norris?”
“In the library, miss.”
She smiled at him. “Thank you. I hope you make the right choice.”
Valres sat in the chair where Henslowe had left him, book in hand, a half-empty glass of brandy on the table beside him. The old man was even more surprised to see them than the butler had been, and he had a more difficult time regaining his composure. “I hadn’t expected to see you again, my dear.”
Henslowe didn’t give Clara a chance to respond. “I’ve seen the bodies, Valres. We’re here to take you to the police. You will sign a confession and you will take your punishment. You might be hanged, but out of respect for your grandfather, I’m sure the sentence will be commuted and you will be allowed to live out your remaining days at the edge of the empire he devoted his life to expanding. Get up.”
Valres stayed where he was. “I wish to speak to my daughter alone, Mr. Henslowe. Please excuse us.”
Clara showed the old man a thin smile and her eyes grew hot and fierce. “Oh, I think we can talk in front of Mr. Henslowe.”
Valres sighed, but for a moment said nothing and the only sounds were the lashing of the rain and the whipping of the wind outside. “Now you will see the wrathful dragon, Mr. Henslowe.” Slowly, he pushed himself out of the chair with his arms. “Shall we have a drink? As I recall, the detective takes his neat, but my daughter always needs ice with hers.” Valres moved to a mahogany table beneath a high window and opened a bottle of brandy.
Henslowe took two strides further into the room to prevent the old man from returning to his leather throne, but Valres continued speaking without turning around, watching the storm through the window. “I sought you out, Mr. Henslowe, because you have a reputation for steadiness. I’m disappointed that you’ve let yourself be seduced by my daughter’s serpentine tongue. She has always looked black upon me, even as a child. She is the only one of my girls who never knew her mother, and perhaps I was wrong not to remarry, not to give her a new mother. So she’s taken you to the family crypt. And what? Told you that I murdered them but for some reason choose to keep the evidence a hundred yards from my house? No, Mr. Henslowe, those are lies. But it is not too late for you to be in the service of the righteous.” Valres turned to face them now, an agonizing look of defeat in his eyes. “You’ve broken my heart, Clara. You’ve broken it into a hundred thousand pieces. Is that not enough? Leave the stone and go.”
Clara laughed. “Miles Peterson tried to kill me with a knife right in front of Mr. Henslowe. You can stop acting now.”
Life returned to the old man’s eyes, and his face reddened, and he stepped toward her. “You sulphurous witch, I am the dragon!”
The door burst open and the butler marched into the room and leveled an old pistol at Clara’s head. Without any hesitation, without any deliberation, Henslowe drew his revolver from his pocket and shot the butler in the chest. The old servant collapsed to the floor, and Henslowe hurried to him and retrieved the pistol.
Valres let out an angry scream. “Strike dead all the corners of the earth!”
Henslowe looked over in time to see Clara slip behind her father like a dancer and open his soft throat with a curved dagger. She shouted something unintelligible and then slumped to the floor with the old man, clasping him to her, covering herself with his blood. “You were never the dragon, Father. It was never you.”
It wasn’t too difficult for Henslowe to fix things with the police. Clara had heard a commotion in the library, and when she went in to investigate, she found the butler standing over her father’s murdered body and, fearing for her own safety, she shot him. The revolver was her father’s, of course, but she knew where he kept it in his desk and, really, she hadn’t even realized it was in her hand until it went off. One of the detectives wondered why the butler would have used a knife when a gun was so close at hand, but a few tears from Clara brought that line of inquiry to a close. There was no need to mention the crypt in the woods, and no one asked where Clara’s sisters were. Eventually their absence would require further police involvement, but for now Henslowe’s priority was keeping Clara out of jail and protecting her from the other members of Valres’s cult.
When Henslowe arrived at the Exham police station to interrogate Peterson, he found the cultist hanging in his cell and the wardens at a loss to explain how he had gotten his hands on a coil of rope. The last train back to the City pulled into Wetwood Station so late that even the hotel bars were closed, and not having any whiskey at home he went straight to his office and finished a bottle of twelve-year-old Achadoisin. The storm lifted sometime after Henslowe passed out, and when he awoke the next morning the presence of clouds that were merely grey instead of black seemed like a joyous miracle. He had a lot to do, and he had to do it quickly, but he needed coffee and some time to think about how to handle Clara Valres. Just as he was closing his office door, a messenger boy arrived with an envelope. Inside was a bank cheque for twice his normal rate and a curt note from Clara explaining that his services were no longer needed. Henslowe went back into his office, found the emergency bottle of cheap Glenloch in the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet, and slumped into his chair.
Her father had made a lot of mistakes with his children. The first was keeping their mother in his life, letting her have a say in how they were raised, letting her love them. Everything else that went wrong grew out of that one mistake. Their mother’s love was infectious. It took root in him even without his knowledge. He told himself that he hated his daughters, that he despised them, and that they were mere cattle for slaughter. And it was true. But he also loved them, despite himself, and he was soft on them. Especially with her. Clara’s mother died giving birth to her, or shortly afterward – her father never quite told the same story twice – and he treated her differently. She thought now that some of this was overconfidence, that with two older children ready for the ritual, he could do something different with her, he could raise her as his heir, raise her in his own, true religion.
And she was glad that he had done so. But it was a symptom of his weakness. He thought that Genevieve and Roselyn loved him more than they loved anyone else, he thought he had prepared them properly, thought that he had kept them from knowing the world outside the family mansion. He never knew about the servants they took as boyfriends, he never understood that they had loved their mother more than they loved him, that they continued to love the memory of her. Clara knew all of this, and she could have told him, she could have spared him the agony of defeat. She wouldn’t have needed to murder him, though she had enjoyed that immensely, had delighted in the shock she saw in his eyes and the warmth of his blood as it poured over her.
It was a matter of commitment. Her father never fully committed to one course of action. He had allowed his older daughters to know someone other than him, and both times the ritual failed. He had hedged his bets with Clara, grooming her to be the next head of the Order if he didn’t succeed. But he kept her in the dark about the ritual because he worried that she would stop him. Because he didn’t understand that Clara did not love her sisters. She did not love her father either. In all the universe, in all creation, in all the worlds that hung in the black vastness, Clara loved nothing except the Gods. Nothing. Her father knew this. Or he should have. But he wanted so badly to be the harbinger of their winged vengeance that he was willing to try the ritual again. By that time she had found the book and had come to understand her own destiny. She tried to tell him, but he would not listen. Because he loved himself more than he loved the Gods. He thought he could fool them as he had fooled himself.
Clara would make none of these mistakes. No, she would be the pattern of all patience. She would never love this slimy, pathetic creature in her arms, her son. She would never love him, but she would make him love her and only her. He would never know the truth about the blackness, he would never know his father, he would never know anyone but her. There would be no servants in her house, there would be no nannies, no friends or companions, no siblings. There would be no one but her. And when the time came to slice his throat and pour his blood on the stone, it would be pure, and the earth would shake and the stars would darken, and the Gods would return out of the eons. And it would all be because of her. She would be their vicar, the master of all humanity. She would have the power that her father had craved so much. But she would not care. Because all she wanted, all she had ever yearned for, was to see the Gods made flesh again, to look upon them and feel their love.
Image Source: John Rylands Library, Manchester, UK