A City of Leaves

I was serving orange blossom and caramel chai to a tea-time crowd when the Victorian came into the Chamomile Heart, just barely fitting her sweeping skirts through the narrow doorway. Her blonde hair was, by contrast, cut like a pixie’s, short spikes standing out around a slim pale face. She seemed, to my fancy, to be one with the chilly grey afternoon; a black and white image that gained resolution as she entered my tea shop, where the Heart’s lamps bloomed buttery light. I paused, a steaming teapot suspended in my hand, to watch her weave an unexpectedly graceful path between the small spindly tables and their varied occupants. She was watching me too, with what seemed to be equal parts hope and fear. She had recognised me at once for what I was: the only other human in the room.

An indignant cough returned my attention to the customer at hand. He had had to wait a full two seconds for his tea, poor duck. I snagged the outstretched cup and made the tea, ruining it to his taste with three sugars and a drizzle of milk, before tucking his selection of biscuit into the saucer and presenting it with a flourish. By then the young woman was standing to one side of the counter, trying to conceal her impatience by repeatedly smoothing her skirts. They needed it; creased from too much wear and too little care, the once fine taffeta was spotted at the hem with the same mud that marked her buttoned boots, though I had seen her try conscientiously to scrape them off on the doormat. Her face was pale and tired. When the sweet-toothed gentleman had taken his cup and himself off to a corner table, she quickly claimed his place.

But bluntness, it seemed, did not come easily to her. Instead of asking me outright what it was she wanted to know, she regarded the menu of teas scrawled on the blackboard behind me with an air of worried perplexity.

“Lapsang souchong,” she decided, at last.

I whisked the kettle straight back to the boil. “Would that be pot or cup, miss?”

“Oh, pot, if you please.”

“Do you take milk? Sugar? Lemon?”

She shook her head and in so doing endeared herself to me at once. I took pity on her quandary. “You can ask, you know,” I told her, not unkindly. “It’s not the first time, God knows. I am human, if you couldn’t already tell, and I left home in 1923.”

She blushed a pretty shade of pink that transformed embarrassment into girlish charm. “1857,” she confessed.

I smiled and reached out, taking her slender grey-gloved hand. “A pleasure to meet you. My name is Agnes, Agnes Chandler.”

“Geraldine Musgrave.” She shook my hand with a genteel nod. Introductions complete, I twirled quickly to pluck my muttering kettle off the stove.

“How long have you been in Candlebridge, then?” I inquired. Choosing a dainty floral cup from the cabinet behind me, I opened the correct drawer on my side of the counter and used a little silver shovel to measure out leaves. “No offence intended, but you have something of the wide eyes about you.”

She drew herself up even straighter than she already stood and I could see she was a little offended. “Three festivals. Yourself?”

“Thirteen nonnes,” I said mildly, and pinched a smile from my mouth as her shoulders deflated. She had not asked for a biscuit, but I threw in a custard cream on the saucer, because she might need the strength quite soon. “You already know what a nonne is, then? That’s good. I didn’t think to keep track of the nine festivals when I first arrived, I thought time would work the same way on both sides. As if I was in Paris or something!” I shook my head, the smile on my mouth only a little bitter. “It isn’t a spot of expat chat you came here for, though, is it? You want news from home.”

Her delicate eyebrows had drawn into a frown. “Nineteen twenty three? How can that be?” she demanded, with sudden suspicion. “You tell me you have been here to see thirteen nonnes, and yet you come from a year nearly seventy in my future! Are you toying with me, madam?”

I laughed, rather ruefully. “You have come to the city of Candlebridge, where men with wings drink tea in little shops and silver trees make music in the streets, and that is the oddest thing you’ve heard today? Goodness, I feel quite honoured. You must have already realised that time isn’t the same here as it is there, in England, in our world. If you go through a Doorway, there’s no knowing when you might come out – “

The bell above the door tinkled and I broke off at the sight of two new customers, pretty girls with pale green skin and wheat blonde hair, demure in identical sailor suits. “Look,” I said, reaching for the kettle again. “I’m busy just now, but I close in an hour. If you want to wait, or go and come back, we could talk then.”

She looked nervous. So she should. This was Candlebridge, after all. If you left a place in this city you might not find it again that same day, if ever you did at all. Geraldine chose to wait, taking a seat at a table quite close to the counter, as if to keep me under her eye while she sipped slowly at her tea. I made peppermint for the sailor girls, and a strong Earl Grey for a horse-faced gentleman who came in a few minutes later. He had his tea served in a saucer and entertained me, as I brewed the blend, with the tale of a terrible misunderstanding in another café, over what he’d meant when he asked for a straw.

An hour later, when my last customer departed into the fog of a drizzling night and I started to shut up the shop, Geraldine was still there. This was my favourite moment of the day, when I had the place to myself and could indulge in a strong pot of ginger tea, my favourite. With the shutters drawn and all the lamps turned down apart from the one over Geraldine’s table, it was cosily dim as I came to join her, bringing my tray with me. A small selection of the day’s biscuits were arranged on a plate beside the teapot, another small indulgence of mine. It is with small rituals that one makes a life anywhere, after all.

“Have you met anyone else like me?” Geraldine burst out. “I do not mean to be rude, Miss Chandler, but I have waited a long time for news.”

I regarded her over the rim of my cup, surprised. She had essentially met someone from the future and her first thought was the statistical population of Victorians in Candlebridge? Well, there at least I could give good news.

“Quite a few. You would be surprised by how many from your era end up here. I blame the eldritch exodus of the nineteenth century – all those Doorways open, people stumbled upon them in the oddest places. One man told me he stepped through his own front door and found himself on a Candlebridge street. Can you imagine?” I shook my head. “If you want to meet like-minded souls, there is the Queen Victoria Society in Happenstance Squa – “

“Robert Musgrave,” Geraldine said urgently. “Have you ever met with, or heard of, a man named Robert Musgrave? He would have a light build, green eyes, hair the colour of mine but curling…he might have had a moustache…”

I considered briefly and shook my head. “No, sorry. Nothing springs to mind. Who is he? Your father, your husband?”

“My brother.” Geraldine stared down at her empty cup, looking almost sick with disappointment. There were tears in her eyes. “He is my brother.”

“There’s no need to cry – ” I began, awkwardly.

“I can’t help it,” she said simply, and broke down into little gasping sobs that were quickly buried in a lace handkerchief. I looked at her blankly. I was not accustomed to people who could, or would, cry. After a moment I patted her cautiously on the shoulder. She blew her nose and tilted her head back with a determined and completely unconvincing smile.

“I apologise,” she said formally, if a little thickly. “My troubles are not yours.”

She stood up. I stood up with her. “Come and have supper with me,” I offered.

Geraldine shook her head and retreated to the door. Some people have a horror for charity, as if requiring kindness proves one to be deficient in a terribly important way. “No, I mustn’t trespass on your generosity any further. I can manage perfectly well.”

I could have abandoned the unwise impulse then, my humanitarian obligation satisfied, and left the girl to her own devices. There were so many lost souls in this city, and I could not save them all. Some of them did manage – wasn’t I proof of that? I had been lost once, and had saved myself. It could be done.

But she looked so tired. And so young.

“If you think you can manage Candlebridge after dark on your own, my generosity will probably take the shape of a bouquet for your funeral,” I said crisply. “This is my kind act of the week. Don’t turn me down or I may scale back to once a month.” I followed her out into the night air, still scented with rain, and paused on the step to lock up shop for the night. In automatic precaution, I also hung a pomander of defensive herbs over the door, to keep silver-fingered trows from my petty cash box. “It won’t be a fancy supper, mind you,” I added over my shoulder, “and of course you can say no if you want, but if what you’ve told me is true, you will never need friends more than you need them now.”

“It’s very good of you, I’m sure – ” Geraldine began, uncertainly.

“Well, come along then.”

I started down the street. She trailed a foot or so behind in a way that implied she thought I was a bit mad, and wanted the space to run if need be. That, at least, showed some practicality. I turned from the street onto a minor bridge, its wooden railings strung with little pink lights like illuminated roses. A cluster of fireys hovered in the middle, their tiny brilliant wings making them seem more like lights escaped from the bridge than the miniature and somewhat ferocious people they really were. I avoided them with care.

Down the other side of the bridge was a lane papered with tattered old notices advertising the need for a human nanny to a ‘highly respectable’ dryad family (“payment in gold leaf every se’nnight”) and a musical hall masque with leering white faces that grinned and winked at me. I hurried through, refusing to meet their eerie paper eyes.

With excellent luck I arrived at the Silver Station in time to catch my bus. As I climbed aboard and bought my ticket from the densely furred driver, I looked over my shoulder and saw Geraldine behind me, looking up at the contraption she was entering with a distinctly apprehensive expression.

Silver Station was named for the avenue of trees that lined both sides of the street: filigree figs, their gleaming leaves chinking and chiming in the breeze. They were beginning to bud with new leaves – by the Festival of Keys, they would be in full bloom. The inside of the bus was full, so I took the stair to the upper storey. From here you could see the two bronze horses that pulled the double-decker carriage, their strange eight-legged gait disorienting to the eye. Heels clacked against the stairs behind me and Geraldine emerged into the misty night air, pulling her jacket tight around her.

“You have a watch,” she said.

“Goodness, you don’t say.”

“But how does it work?” she persisted, taking the seat beside me. “I was of the understanding that no clock in the city told the correct time.”

“Well, that’s not exactly true. They are in a state of complete disagreement on what time actually is. Any of them might be right, or none of them, or all of them at once – like all philosophical debates, accuracy is not the point.”

“What of your wristwatch, then? What time does it say?”

“A quarter past five,” I said, consulting it. “But that’s habit. It once informed me that it was two in the afternoon when outside it was dark as midnight. The statues are more reliable. You must know the statues?”

Geraldine shivered. “I do. They are very…unsettling.”

“I don’t believe they are alive,” I said, more gently. There was much in the City of Candles that was hard to accept, especially when so little of it could be understood. “They are driven by steam or clockwork, or some alien artifice.”

“The way they move,” Geraldine began, then stopped herself in mid-sentence, straightened her shoulders, and said in a bright tone, “What strange weather this city has, don’t you think?”

“Oh, very,” I agreed. “I thought I’d seen the oddest things the clouds had to offer, and then only a se’nnight ago I wake up to a rain of buttons. Buttons! They are every bit as bad as hail, only they don’t melt anywhere near as fast. Pretty, though. I managed to collect a full set of little gold-rimmed ones that I may use for a blouse.”

The bus drew to a stop and I stood quickly, waiting for Geraldine to clear the way so that we could descend. Her skirts looked particularly awkward to manage in the confined space. “Why do you wear those things?” I asked, curiously. “They don’t look at all comfortable. Even in England, you know, things like that have changed. By my time we women had finally started to stand up for ourselves where clothes are concerned. See?”

I kicked out a leg encased in black trousers and tipped with a plimsoll. Geraldine looked mildly scandalised. I supposed that seeing naked people with scales or wings on the streets was one thing; hearing a woman with my educated English accent rejoice in a fashion as improper as trousers was quite another.

“I like it,” she said defensively, smoothing her voluminous skirts. “All else may have changed, but I can still dress like a lady.”

I shrugged, baffled but not judging. In Candlebridge it was equally likely to see someone in a  toga or kimono as it was to see them in a suit of rose petals, opalescent furs, or simply stark naked. If there was some cohesive fashion that held society together, I for one had failed utterly to see it.

Once disembarked, with the rattle of the bus receding into the distance, Geraldine looked up and down the street uncertainly. “This is where you live?”

I bristled a little, but could not entirely blame her. My street was in the Viridian district, a canyon between monolithic towers that rose against the evening sky in fog-shrouded silhouette. Their concrete grey had been engulfed by the green of conquesting woodbine and climbing roses in outrageous shades – sunset orange, violet, cobalt blue – illuminated at this hour by the golden spill of light from an irregular patchwork of windows. Between the buildings were narrow gated lanes, all murk and heady fragrances, better not to be explored without strong light and a heavy iron frying pan in hand.

“Come along,” I said, striding away up the street. Geraldine hurried to keep up with me, surprisingly speedy despite her skirts. Nudging open one side of the broad glass doors in their heavy wooden frame, we entered a foyer that was not at first easily distinguishable from the outdoors – dried leaves crunched underfoot as we passed beneath an enormous Canadian maple in its full autumn glory. Geraldine made an admiring sound; I gave it a cursory glance in response, not so easily impressed. It had looked like that for as long as I had lived here. The caretaker of my building appeared to favour autumn in all his interior decorating.

Rounding the maple, we reached the stairs. I paused to look apologetically over my shoulder. “I’m afraid it’s up four flights. There is a lift somewhere, but it’s in a different place every day, so frankly it’s easier to walk.”

Geraldine looked momentarily blank, and I wondered if she even knew what a lift was. Casting a last glance over her shoulder at the crisp carpet of red leaves, she followed me into the stairwell. At every landing we passed a neighbour’s door and were subjected to a fragment of their night: a strong waft of spices, the mourning moans of bagpipes, the clearly audible shouts of a passionate argument that seemed to be about the division of mice. A man with a profusion of shimmering feathers cresting down the centre of his shaven skull came bursting out on this landing and pushed past us to the stairs, muttering darkly under his breath.

“Greedy swine!” came a woman’s shriek, following him down.

At last we came to my own door. I gave a small sigh of relief and folded back my sleeve, shaking down the bracelet on which I kept my key. Candlebridge was sometimes wearying in its eternal eccentricity, and it was always good to get home at the end of another demanding day.

We stepped into a room that would not have been out of place in a beach house: long pale floorboards and whitewashed walls, with an airy ceiling of exposed rafters and a faint but pervasive scent of the sea. At the end nearest the door was a long wicker sofa flanked by two comfortably ratty armchairs, all set around a square tea table – at the far end, a pair of French doors opened onto a balcony and were warded with the usual protective bells, looped among the rafters above like Christmas ornaments, interspersed with little pomanders of holly and rowan berry. My flat might be small, but it was my castle. I didn’t really care how unfriendly my security measures looked.

I kicked off my shoes and unbuttoned my coat, tossing it over the nearest armchair, then went around the room turning on lamps until it was cosy with a nice glow. “Sit down,” I told Geraldine. “I’ll fetch us something to eat.”

Being human, and perhaps unused to the private homes of Candlebridge, she was not troubled by the pomanders. She did notice them, but politely did not question my decorating choices, taking a chair instead and sitting obediently. The third door of the room, set halfway along between the other two, opened into a narrow corridor where all my other rooms were crowded together into a single sulky row. I slipped through to rummage the kitchen for edibles. My skills in this domain did not extend much further than tea; I hoped Geraldine’s expectations were not too high.

I returned to her with slightly stale walnut bread, a saucer of cream cheese and a bowl of pears, all circling a fat silver tea service. Courteous as ever, she greeted these offerings with convincing pleasure. When we had both eaten and drunk a little, I put down my plate and went to my gramophone. It occupied its own corner of the room, a grand olive green trumpet on a low bookcase that held, in pride of place, my only three records. Finding them had been like getting hold of hen’s teeth. I chose a jazz favourite, purchased at absurd expense in the goblin market by Fortune Bridge, and returned to my chair with the soft smoky notes drifting behind me. Music is relaxing, and I had the suspicion we might soon need the soothing influence.

“So,” I said, retrieving my plate, “tell me about your brother.”

Geraldine carefully put down her cup and clasped her hands tightly in her lap. She evidently did not want a repeat of the tears in the tea shop. “Robert is four years older than me,” she said. “His proper title is Captain Musgrave. Father arranged the promotion after his service in the Crimea. Before then, he had always said Robert was too weak for war, that he would never be able to hold his nerve on the field. He was wrong, of course, I always knew that, but Robert…was not the same, after the war.” She bit her lip. “When he disappeared, Father believed he had…that he had drowned himself. And everyone believed him, though he’d barely spoken three words to Robert since he came home and I had, I had spoken to him the very morning he went missing and he’d smiled at some silly thing in the papers and said he was going for a walk. He didn’t want to die.”

“Why do you think he came here?”

“I went looking after everyone else had stopped. I knew I wouldn’t find him, but I thought there might be some trace that the others overlooked. I found this.” She pulled at a thin chain around her neck and leaned forward to show me a plain brass button hung on it like a pendant. “This was his, from the coat he was wearing that day. It was caught in some brambles. That was how I found the Doorway. It was a yew tree, hollow inside and so wide around that a man could enter easily – only when I stepped through, there was no earth underfoot. I dropped into blackness and fell for so long, I thought perhaps I had died, and this was Purgatory – “

“Rabbit hole,” I said. “Never trust a rabbit hole.”

“So Robert must have come that way. He must be here. But I have been asking everyone who will speak to me ever since the first day I arrived, and no one has seen or heard of him. I confess,” she said, and it sounded every bit as miserable as a confession, “I am losing heart.”

I leaned back in my chair and regarded her thoughtfully. Having no siblings myself, and a less than model relationship with what family I used to have – possibly still did have, on the other side of the right Door – it should have been difficult to empathise with her position. Oddly enough, though, it was not. She had lost someone she loved and she was doing everything she knew how to get them back. Dear God, but I wished I’d had someone like her looking for me.

“I’ll help you,” I announced.

She blinked at me. “But you said you hadn’t seen Robert.”

“I haven’t,” I agreed. “That doesn’t mean I can’t help you find him. The first thing you must understand is that if other cities are built upon trade, Candlebridge is built upon secrets. Someone knows where your brother is, you can count upon it.”

“I still don’t see what you intend to do.”

I did three things. I stood up, I turned over the record, and I came back to the table with a sheet of paper and a fountain pen. I may not be an expert at dealing with crying strangers, but making plans is something I understand.

“I’ll tell you what we’re going to do,” I said. “We’re going to write a list.”

* * *

“It was a very good idea,” Geraldine said.

It had been a week since we first met and in that time I had learned to distinguish between the different species of compliments by which Geraldine communicated. By this one, what she really meant was: we had failed. Again.

By the pale shimmering light of the silver trees that towered over us, I consulted our list. It was dishearteningly lengthy. That first night at my flat, I had written down everywhere I could think of where a Victorian man might feel comfortable, and several he certainly wouldn’t but might end up in just the same. We had visited tea shops and coffee houses, booksellers and tailors; we had ventured into the jingoistic cloisters of the Queen Victoria Society and the spinning, glittering magpie’s nest that was the Clockmaker’s Guild, and had even risked the dizzying perfumed pools of the grotto nymphs, who were rumoured to have an inexplicable fancy for a man in a top hat. Geraldine had asked questions and I had watched faces and we had come up with no leads at all. It would take days to get that sickly sweet scent out of my hair.

“Well,” I said, “at least that’s something else to be ticked off.”

Geraldine gave a sigh that turned into a yawn halfway through. It was getting late. “What’s next on the list?”

I looked, and felt my heart sink. I had so hoped we would find Robert before we reached this one. When I did not immediately answer, Geraldine looked over my shoulder at the unfolded sheet of paper and leaned close to read my crabbed writing.

“What are the Gaming Lawns? Is that a gambling house? My brother doesn’t gamble, he can’t even remember the rules for whist – “

“No,” I said. “It isn’t a gambling house. Not exactly, anyway.” I looked at the list again. “Let’s find somewhere to quiet to sit.”

Pocketing the list, I took Geraldine’s arm and propelled her down a flight of steps into a small underground restaurant named, inauspiciously, ‘Damnation’. It was lit by a cloud of luminous crimson butterflies and was tremendously discreet, each table concealed from the others by dramatic black velvet drapes, so that all could be seen on entering was the maitre d’ with his translucent blood-coloured wings and little curling horns. He swept us a bow, politely ignoring Geraldine’s choked sound of astonishment, and guided us to one of the curtained alcoves where a few butterflies fluttered near the ceiling.

“I should have asked, do you like chocolate?” I said, as we settled into our chairs. “That’s all they serve here.”

“Is that a devil?” Geraldine whispered, looking panic-stricken at this sudden evidence that she might be in Purgatory after all.

“No, he’s a daemon, and the only association he would have with Satan is if the denizens of Hell had a sudden craving for chocolate. I’ve come here before, it’s very quiet and the food is wonderful, so please don’t say anything rude.”

A waiter, as silent as his superior, came bowing through the curtains at this point to collect our orders. Geraldine looked about for the menu; I plucked a paper flower from the extravagant bouquet between us and pointed out the curlicues of writing encircling the petals. Given her baffled expression, I thought it best I choose for both of us this once, and asked for a starter of liqueurs.

“The Gaming Lawns,” I said, as the waiter departed, “are not a good place.”

Geraldine’s attention snapped away from the flowers. “Why would Robert be there, then?”

“They are…” I searched for an appropriate comparison. “I suppose you could call them a sort of debtor’s prison. It’s difficult to explain. Getting in should be no trouble, but if Robert is there, getting him out won’t be so easy. Anyway,” I added hastily, “let’s not worry about that part just yet.”

Our drinks arrived on the arm of the same waiter. The glasses were short-stemmed, wide-bowled, half filled with foaming chocolate and laced with faery wine. I realised, belatedly, that Geraldine might not have much head for the stuff, but she had taken hers up the moment the waiter put it down and drunk deeply.

“Where is this place?” she asked.

“Fortune Gardens,” I said. “It lies beside the Candleriver, near the goblin market.”

“I know where that is,” she told me, with a shiver of disgust and another deep drink. I glanced at her sharply. She had almost entirely omitted to tell me how she had managed to look after herself since her fall through the rabbit hole, and I knew enough of what that was like not to press her. The goblins of Fortune Bridge attracted the lost and vulnerable like moths to a bonfire; they would buy anything, and there were times when ‘anything’ might be all you had to sell. Hair and nails, teeth and eyes – memories and secrets and dreams – the goblins would buy them all, and you would never get them back. Some, you might not even know you had lost at all. I took another look at my friend’s gamine hair, wondering what else she might have been obliged to sell.

Geraldine had finished her drink. There were hectic spots of colour high on her cheekbones that hadn’t been there before. “I want to go now.”

“All right. It is getting late – “

“No. I want to go the Gamer’s Lawns now.”

“Gaming Lawns,” I corrected tersely. “I really don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why not? What would they do to us?”

I bit a fingernail, thinking about it. In all honesty, I didn’t know. I liked to keep a healthy distance between myself and that place. As long as the Players had no hold over us, we should theoretically be safe, but theory was quite a different thing from practice. I started to say that and realised that I had missed my opportunity. Geraldine was already getting to her feet, pulling aside the curtain. She almost collided with the waiter, whose wings were whirring, his shiny black hooves visibly hovering above the floor. When one of those wings brushed across Geraldine’s cheek it left a red mark like a burn. She staggered, her eyes going wide as she looked up at the fiery daemon with his tray of hors d’oeuvres.

“Thank you,” she said, her voice shaking slightly. “But we won’t be staying to eat.”

The waiter looked at me. I shrugged apologetically, laid down a few coins for our drinks and hurried after Geraldine, who could be fiendishly fast when she wanted to be. I thought about trying to argue with her, and decided against it. In this mood, I was quite sure she would go on her own, and then I would have to come up with a plan to rescue two helpless Musgraves.

I took another look at her face. That, or I would have to rescue the first underling of the Candlebridge Court that she saw from the full force of righteous Victorian rage.

Fortune Gardens was not so far from Silver Station that we needed to wait for a bus. Geraldine walked quickly, but I had longer legs and kept pace with her easily enough. I made a couple of attempts at conversation, then gave up when I saw she was too wrapped up in thoughts of Robert to pay any attention. We left the metallic glow of the avenue behind and turned onto darker streets where the pavement was soft with moss and rivulets of water trickled down high stone walls. The Chamomile Heart was in what you might call a reasonably genteel part of the city. This was the province of the filthy rich. They didn’t need light; in fact, some of them would actively avoid it.

I knew we were nearing Fortune Gardens when my nose started to run. The fragrance was so thick it should have been visible in the night air. Geraldine slowed, losing momentum to amazement as the Gardens came within sight. Even I had to stop, though I had seen it all so many times before.

Flowers rose to choke the skyline with blooms so wide it seemed they could consume the moon. Taller than almost all the private towers that surrounded them, their stalks were thicker around than my arms could reach, the leaves longer than I was tall. Their colours blazed even in the dark, but then it was never truly dark in Fortune Gardens. Flocks of luminescent butterflies like those from Damnation, only untamed and in every colour imaginable, roosted here like renegade lanterns, drawn irresistibly to the insanity of flowers. As we stepped onto the path that wound beneath the soaring stems and arching petals, our echoing footsteps sent clouds of them fluttering into the air.

“Ohhh,” Geraldine whispered. Her hands were clasped under her chin, her head tilted so far back I wouldn’t have been surprised if she fell over. I hooked an arm through hers to pull her onward. Beauty could not affect me the way it once had; I was too used to looking for the poison in every shiny apple, and there was plenty of danger in the Gardens for people like us if we didn’t keep our wits sharp.

The path twisted and coiled under our feet, branching off now and again to slide away between the shadowy stands of flora, but I went straight forward, just hoping I remembered the way properly. It had been a long time since I had last come to the Gardens. Geraldine kept tripping up at my side, blissed on the intense fragrance that filled the air. When we finally emerged on the other side of the flower grove she blinked and staggered like someone waking from a drug-induced daze.

I blew my nose violently. “My sinuses despise you, Geraldine.”

She grimaced, clutching at my elbow to keep upright. “You could have warned me,” she said at last, when she had regained her balance.

“Sorry. I forgot. Hayfever,” I explained thickly, tapping my nose, “the scent doesn’t affect me the same way. Now, give me a minute to remember where we go next.”

I looked around. We were still standing on the path – to the right and left it curved out of sight, but before our feet transformed itself into a long slender bridge, arching over a wide stream. The candles from which both river and city had taken their name floated on the water, each casting a nimbus of criss-crossing reflections. Behind us lay the swaying shadows of the flowers; ahead was a different sort of darkness, smooth and sleek and secretive.

“This way,” I announced, stepping onto the bridge. “We’re almost there, I think. Do you have any sort of plan, incidentally, apart from storming in demanding Robert come forward? If you do, I’d love to hear it about now.”

“If he’s there, I’ll find him,” Geraldine said firmly. “I’ll think of a plan then.”

On the other side of the bridge, we lost the path – or more accurately, the path lost us, sneaking off sideways to slink alongside the stream while our feet sank into a dense carpet of velvety lawn. It was all regulation length, as if someone had gone around just a moment ago with a pair of nail scissors trimming off any upstarts, and rolled steadily upwards at a gentle but seemingly endless slope. In my usual trousers and plimsolls I managed quite well. Geraldine had more trouble. Once or twice I heard her mutter something very unladylike as she trod on her hems yet again.

The slope did end eventually, however, flattening out into a topiary garden. Half-visible shapes loomed out of the night, winged and horned and extravagantly spiked. I jumped, startled, as I turned around to find one daemonic shape right behind me, thorny hands outstretched and frozen in the moment before the pounce. To my relief, the path soon reappeared as well. It took us through an open gateway in a very high hedge that appeared to be infested with gleaming golden beetles and out onto a tiered, paved hillside that overlooked the Game.

It was in some ways rather like walking into a posh English cricket ground on a Sunday afternoon. There were white wicker tables and chairs arranged in little clusters where the spectators could sit in comfort, and waitresses going around with tea trays. Only this was not England. The men lounging in nice suits sprouted ram’s horns from the sides of their skulls and had hooves protruding from the tailored hems of their trousers; the ladies in their filmy gossamer dresses had live flames for hair, or gemstones embedded where their eyes should be. And the Game, conducted beneath the moon’s white, impassionate eye, was anything but cricket.

“It’s chess,” Geraldine said, amazed. “They’re playing chess.”

The lawn below us was a chequerboard of dark and light grass squares, occupied by the familiar outlines of dark and light chess pieces. One of the suited men gestured to a liveried herald standing beside his table and an order rang out: knight to D7. Correspondingly, a white shape moved forward on the Lawn to occupy its new position. I shivered, feeling rather ill.

“But I don’t understand,” Geraldine continued, looking around. “Why would Robert be here? All these people look very rich, very important, and Robert – well, I’d like think that Robert would be too, but given the circumstances – “

“You’re not looking in the right place yet,” I said grimly. “We need to go down.”

There were stairs leading down all the way to the edge of the Gaming Lawn itself. We attracted the occasional curious look from the seated spectators, but overall were not interesting enough to rate attention. When there were only a few steps left between us and the Lawn, I turned to Geraldine and gripped her shoulders tightly.

“Go around the edges and look at the pieces,” I said. “But whatever you do – and I cannot, cannot emphasise this enough, so don’t you dare forget it – whatever you do, do NOT step onto the board. If you do, you have to join the Game. Don’t try pulling any of the pieces off either, no matter who you think they are.”

Geraldine covered her mouth with her hands, suddenly understanding. “Are they people?”

“Yes. No. Not exactly.” I shook my head. “Not any more. Remember how I said it was rather like a debtor’s prison? This is what can happen when you cross one of the gentry. If you break even the smallest deal with them, they can take it very badly.”

“What happens? What happens to those people?” Geraldine gestured wildly at the Lawn below. “Do they just have to act, going through the motions, or when they are lost do they – do they die?”

“That depends on whose pieces they are,” I said. “Geraldine, please. No matter what you see, don’t step onto the board. I can’t do anything to help you if you do. I very much hope Robert isn’t here, but if he is, come and get me straight away. Promise me that you will, all right?”

Geraldine nodded, pressing her lips so hard together that they went white, and hurried down the last few steps to the thick emerald green turf that surrounded the chequered Lawn. She went right; I went left. Some of the chessmen were too far towards the middle of the board to see properly, but there were others so close to the edge I could see their faces clearly. The pawns were captive goblins, bulky with white or black armour, mouths contorted in silent howls of fury and frustration; their eyes swivelled to watch me as I passed. The white queen, though, who stood very close to my side, was a human in pearlescent robes, a bare blade clasped between her hands and a splatter of shocking red on her pale cheek. She was grinning fiercely, not frightened or angry at all. Her grin only widened when she saw me and I was suddenly very grateful that the pieces could not move off the board.

When I was far enough away from her to feel comfortable pausing, I stopped to look for Geraldine. She was stooped on the other side of the board, perhaps trying to speak to one of the chessmen. I should have warned her that they couldn’t talk. Quite possibly, some of them couldn’t think either – it all depended on the spells their Players used to keep them, no pun intended, in check.

As I watched, the second white knight was ordered into motion to counteract a manoeuvre of the black queen. The gleaming silver horse carried him towards me with mechanical precision, stopping only a few feet away, and my heart sank as suddenly as a pebble hurled into a well. Underneath the open-fronted white helmet was a face I had never seen before in my life, but I recognised it. I knew those high cheekbones, the wide-set green eyes and thin blonde eyebrows, from another face.

“Oh,” I said quietly. “Oh, Geraldine, I’ve found him.”

The knight looked up abruptly and met my gaze. He was blank as only the bespelled can be, but there was something in the way he looked at me, some answering recognition, that made me catch my breath. “Geraldine,” I repeated experimentally. “You remember her, don’t you? I’m a friend of hers, Robert. She’s come to find you.”

His gauntleted hands flexed on the reins, as if to urge the horse forward, but it shied backward instead, unable to leave its assigned square. The knight flinched, as though the aborted disobedience had caused him pain. Probably it had.

“Don’t,” I said quickly, holding up my hands. “Please, don’t. I have to leave now, Robert, but I will come back for you, I promise.”

It was very hard to leave with those eyes fixed on me, mutely pleading, knowing I’d given a taste of hope only to snatch it from him. I began to back away but stumbled on someone else’s foot and half-turned to see Geraldine’s ashen face right behind me. She stretched out her hand and I thought for one terrible moment that she was going to run forward. She didn’t – she stopped herself at the very edge, the toe of one boot grazing the place where the grass changed colour, and I clutched her arm in case she suddenly changed her mind.

Robert was staring at her, his eyebrows knitting into a puzzled frown, his lips trying to form the words that wouldn’t come. Then another order rang out from the Player of white, up on high in his nice clean suit, and Robert swung around like a puppet whose strings had been given a sharp jerk. The metal horse took three paces forward, two to the right, and he had drawn a sabre before we realised what he was going to do. I saw the goblin lift its head defiantly just before the sword sliced down and cut it off.

“No!” Geraldine screamed. “Robert, no!

I hauled on her arm, pulling her away from the spreading pool of blood that stained the pale grass red, the same blood left splattered across her brother’s expressionless face. We could panic and rage and flail and scream, or we could go away and make a plan.

You can do anything if you just make the right plan. This was my personal religion, and now it had to prove itself with a miracle.

* * *

“I will kill them,” Geraldine said. “I will kill them all.”

Given that her eyes were swollen from an hour of crying and glistening with a lustre of rage, I could almost believe her. I pulled her gently back into her chair.

“That,” I said, very carefully, “is not a good idea. You have to stay calm.”

“I can’t be calm. Those people have turned my brother into a murderer.” Geraldine buried her face in her hands, her voice choked with more tears. Tactfully not pointing out the inconsistency of her two remarks, I patted her arm soothingly. “What have they done to him?”

“He’s under a spell,” I explained. “It has to be lifted if we are to rescue him.”

“All right.” She took a deep, shaky breath. “How do we do that?”

“I don’t know,” I confessed. “As I understand it, the spell that commands the Game can only be lifted by one of the participating Players. I’ll need time to think.”

“We don’t have time,” Geraldine pointed out. “Agnes, they’re killing each other! He killed that goblin in front of everybody, they don’t care – “

“Exactly, he killed a goblin.” I tapped my pen against my chin, trying to link that fact into my chain of thought. “Now, gentry don’t like goblins. Mostly because goblins are the only ones who can make a member of the nobility keep to a deal when they want to break it. That’s why they turn goblins into pawns whenever they can manage it. A bit of carnage is what the Game is all about, but a captive human is a different matter – especially someone pretty. That’s a matter of status, like having a nice chess set of marble, do you see? Your brother is handsome, and he’s a knight; Players tend to favour their knights. So we’ve got good odds he’ll make it through the night. It’s getting him free that’s so hard. Players don’t just let their pieces go, not unless they’re of no further use.”

Geraldine took out her handkerchief and scrubbed at her face. “That’s horrible,” she said. “No wonder goblins hate them so.”

“Mm,” I said, thoughtfully. “They do, don’t they.”

We sat in silence for a long time, staring at the piece of paper on the table between us. We had made our way safely back to the Chamomile Heart and were sitting under a single lamp with cups of barely touched ginger tea while we struggled to come up with ideas. Already someone had seen us there and assumed the shop was open, but we ignored the knocking until he went away.

Geraldine went suddenly quite still. She took my pen and in precise copperplate letters right in the middle of the paper she wrote, TEA.

We looked at each other and I smiled slowly. “Let’s go talk to goblins.”

* * *

There are three things you need to know about the goblin market on Fortune Bridge. Do not take anything unless you understand the price. Do not eat anything unless you really don’t care about the consequences.

Do not ever underestimate a goblin’s ability to offer you what you want most.

It was in the early hours of the morning by the time we reached the market. Neither of us had had any sleep, and the last thing that we’d eaten had been the chocolate cocktails in Damnation. We were, in short, the perfect targets for a goblin fruit seller and were accosted within five seconds of setting foot on the Bridge. He came up to my knee, grey-skinned with a grin like a mouthful of needles, and balanced in his arms was a golden horn brimming over with the most luscious fruit imaginable. Plump juicy grapes, ruby red pomegranates, even a pineapple – God, it had been ages since I’d had pineapple! We’d had it every Christmas when I was small, Mum’s favourite aunt would send one in a hamper with cherries and wine…

Goblins know things. Perhaps they’re telepathic, perhaps just manipulative bastards. Either way, it made me angry. My memories were private, not up for manipulation by a entrepreneurial dealer.

“No, thank you,” Geraldine told him coldly, every inch the Victorian lady. To my astonishment the goblin let us go without even delivering a sales pitch, recognising a mind made up when he met with it. We wove between the stalls, all designed to be somewhere between goblin and human size – favouring the goblin, naturally – and all spilling over with a hundred heart’s desires. One sold only letters, tied in bundles with ribbon and hung on a row of hooks, rustling together in a passing breeze. Another glittered with musical boxes, each holding one debtor’s deepest secret. Geraldine slowed, unexpectedly, by a bookseller’s stall. Her fingers hovered longingly above a well-worn red volume.

“Father would never let me have novels,” she murmured. “He said they were vulgar and full of wrong thoughts. Robert didn’t think so. When he read a book he thought I would like, he would hide it in my reticule, so that I might read it on my walks. Such wonderful books. I stayed out so long to read the end of Jane Eyre that I was caught in a thunderstorm, and Father almost found out….” She knotted her hands tightly together, as though to prevent their snatching the volume unbidden, and turned resolutely away. “What do you think happened to him, Agnes?”

“It’s not worth the speculation,” I said firmly. “If all goes well, perhaps you will ask him yourself.”

On the far side of the bridge was a stall hung thickly with herbs, filling the air with a fierce pungency. Its proprietor was a tiny creature swathed in so much violet chiffon that all we could see of her were a pair of enormous bushbaby eyes looking out at us from between the layers.

“Goodmorrow, my dears,” she croaked. “What have you to offer Mother Mothkin, then? Something pretty? Something sweet?”

I reached into my bag and ran my thumb over the curved edge of a record. Geraldine put a hand on my arm. “You don’t have to do this,” she whispered. “I still have some hair left. I can sell that. I know you love your records.”

“Oh, tosh.” I pulled it out and handed it over into Mother Mothkin’s startlingly large grey hands. “I don’t even like Bach.”

Baaach,” Mother Mothkin cooed. I felt my eyes widen a fraction and reminded myself of the most important rule of the market – never underestimate a goblin, and if you do, for pity’s sake don’t show it. The record disappeared somewhere into the mysterious recesses of the stall, and Geraldine leaned forward.

“If you please, Mother Mothkin,” she said, all cut glass accent and courtesy, “we need leaves for a dream-maker’s tea.”

The enormous dark eyes flicked up, entirely unsurprised. “Well, well. What wickednesses are you young ones planning?”

Geraldine and I exchanged a look. “Actually,” I said, “it’s funny you should ask. We’d really like some advice.”

All we had to do was say the words ‘gentry’ and ‘plot’, and I think Mother Mothkin would have given us whatever we wanted. I wished I’d known that before I handed over my record. The sun was rising as we left the market with our purchases and headed for home – my home, by unspoken agreement, catching the Silver Station bus and staggering up the stairs to collapse into armchairs.

“I need to get changed,” I said, without moving an inch. “For work.”

“But you’ve had no sleep!” Geraldine exclaimed. “Let me. I’ll look after the shop today.”

“You’ve had no sleep either,” I pointed out, or tried to. The words got mangled in a yawn. Geraldine picked up the gist and wrinkled her nose ruefully.

“You have tramped all over the city with me,” she said, “come to the most dreadful places so that I would not have to go alone, and given away one of your precious records, all without complaint. You are a saint, Agnes, truly you are.”

I laughed. That turned into another yawn. “I’d like that to be true,” I said, “but it isn’t. The truth is, I’m a pretty cold sort. I’ve been in Candlebridge too long. I am not as…well, as human, as I used to be, and I didn’t realise how much I missed it until I met you. You really care about things. About Robert. The only thing I really, really cared about up until a week ago was my tea shop.”

“What about your other friends?”

“I used to have friends. Lots of them. I had a family too – mum and dad, aunts and uncles, cousins. Then I stepped on the wrong train and stepped off into another world.” I smiled crookedly. “You can’t just go back. I mean, there’s no knowing where or when you might end up. Not long after I first got here, I bought myself a passage home and opened the Door onto a street choked up with these bright shiny cars, lights everywhere, people wearing the wrong clothes…it looked no more like home than Candlebridge did. So I stayed here. Devil I knew and all that. At first I was too wary to make friends, too busy keeping an eye out for dangers, and after a while I suppose it just didn’t feel worth it. They couldn’t replace what I’d left behind.”

I was silent for a while. God, I was tired.

“I am so sorry,” Geraldine said quietly. “The only family I have are Father and Robert, and I very much doubt that Father will miss either of us for long. I had to do all I could for my brother, but you did not. You did not have to do anything for either of us. I will owe you my deepest gratitude all my life, whether we are successful in this or not.”

“What will you do?” I asked. “When we are successful.”

She smiled at that, and thought for a minute. “I don’t know,” she confessed. “It will be nice, I think, trying to decide.”

In the end, we both went back to the shop. We made mistakes with the orders and drowsed whenever we sat down for more than two minutes; I had to throw out more than one pot because I’d put the wrong brew in it, but somehow we got through the day without anything truly disastrous taking place. I closed up early and we got to work making ourselves ready for a rescue.

Geraldine’s was the hard part. The spell of obscurity we had bought from Mother Mothkin would do much of the work for us, but it would not hold up to close scrutiny, so we had to do as much as we could to make Geraldine look like a Player’s waitress. I painted her face to china doll perfection, then she took off everything except her white chemise and we put my white linen jacket over the top of that, to echo the uniform of the waitresses. It didn’t look very convincing, but we had to hope it would do.

My part was easy. I did what I knew best: I made the tea.

I also carried the getaway bag as we returned to Fortune Gardens by the dubious light of a crescent moon. The heat of a full thermos banged reassuringly against my hip.

“If it all goes wrong,” Geraldine said, “please run away.”

“If it all goes wrong, I doubt I’ll get the chance,” I told her. “Thank you for suggesting it, though.”

In the topiary gardens, hidden behind the bulk of a leafy chimaera, I fetched out cup and saucer from my bag and carefully poured the steaming tea. Geraldine took it and a deep breath as well. I tried to think of something encouraging to say.

“Just remember the plan,” was the best I could come up with.

She summoned up a shaky smile and walked away with the cup held out before her like a sacrificial goblet. I watched her white outline fade away into the dark, counted to a hundred, then followed her in. Everything looked just the same as it had yesterday night – the laughing audience, the battle playing out below. The circling trays of tea. I stood close to the hedge and waited with all my fingers crossed.

We had come in just after the start of the night’s game. The Player of black gave his command. After an excruciatingly long pause, the Player of white replied with his own. Knights – the knights were in motion.

A waitress stopped at the white Player’s table. Without turning to look at her, without actually looking up at all, he took the offered tea. I was the only one watching as she walked away from him, down the stairs to the Lawn.

He drank.

The black queen was brought forward. I knew from last night’s Game how lethal she could be. She was ordered to her new co-ordinates and I don’t think I breathed until the herald announced the loss of a rook. A rook. Some poor soul who never got his chance at escape, but it wasn’t our knight.

It was the white Player’s turn to make his move. There was a long, long pause. I saw the Player put down his cup. Please have drunk it. He leaned forward to confer with his lady, a lilac-skinned woman with dragonfly wings lazily fanning the air behind her. She laughed.

Please have drunk it, please have drunk it, please have drunk it.

The herald’s melodic tones rang out clear as a bell. “My Lord Player wishes to call out a replacement knight.”

There were cries of outrage from the other Player and his friends, and a hum of interest from the spectators, who sensed strategy and wanted to work out what it was. None of that mattered. The request had been made by the Player himself. He had chosen of his own free will – or what he thought was his will – to dismiss his piece from the Game, replacing it with another. That it was a choice brought about by the judicious sampling of dream-maker’s leaves in his tea was, with any luck, something he would never ever realise.

I slipped away while they were all still talking and raced back through the topiary garden to meet Geraldine at the foot of the slope. She was supposed to be coming out the same way the chessmen went in. I had to wait for some time, pacing restlessly beside the stream, stopping to look up at frequent intervals. The first thing I saw was her white dress against the dark; then I saw the shine of white armour at her side, and triumph sang through my veins like adrenaline’s best friend. We’d done it. We’d really done it.

We’d won.

* * *

It wasn’t as easy as that, of course. Rescue never is. Robert was a mess; he had been under the Player’s spell for a long time. But he could remember Geraldine and even, to my amazement, me – the first thing he said when he saw me waiting by the stream was, “You did come back.” And I think we were all amazed when I started to cry. Geraldine hugged me, and I hugged her, and we both hugged Robert, who was stiff with armour and bewilderment.

We made him take off that armour then and there, throwing it in the water with an almighty splash and helping him into a second-hand greatcoat instead, so that when people saw us on the street they would not recognise him for what he was. Or rather, what he had once been. The white knight had to disappear.

He looked so much like Geraldine, though his hair was curly and long enough to fall in his eyes, and he was much taller. He was very polite, just like she was, not wanting to be a bother and managing to produce pleasantries while the horrors of the Game were still reflected in his eyes. That night he slept on my sofa, and woke up gasping and sweating and sobbing, but Geraldine was there to quiet his panic. I insisted the both of them stay until they sorted themselves out, which I privately thought would take a very long time indeed. Having acquired friends, I didn’t intend for them to be eaten on the street or entangled in another spell while I had the space to accommodate them.

I slept too, deeply as only the truly exhausted and utterly relieved can. In the morning I went back to work at the Chamomile Heart to wait and see what would happen next.

* * *

Which brings me to today, another foggy grey afternoon in the city of mayhem and marvels that is my very own Candlebridge, serving tea to all and sundry who pass through my door. It’s almost closing time, but busier than ever. The Victorian who came through it two festivals ago is circling the tables, a real waitress for now, carrying a tray of tea cups and listening with courteous solemnity to the rambling gossip of an elderly daemon. Geraldine still wears a bustle and skirts, but she’s agreed to try out some plimsolls and I think she likes them.

The door opens again and my other Victorian steps inside, taking off his hat and turning to smile. It’s a hesitant smile still, but he’s at the point when he can leave the house without being attacked by a prisoner’s panic. He’s brave. He’s alive. These are good things.

He comes up to the counter.

“What can I get for you today, sir?” I ask lightly, kettle at the ready.

He leans forward conspiratorially. “I think,” he murmurs, “I think I just saw a Roman centurion in the street outside. Is that even possible?”

I stare at him for a moment. Then I start to laugh, and it’s a long time before I can stop.

“In this city?” I say. “Isn’t everything?”

© Faith Mudge 2013

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