Foreword: A Lane of Locks was originally meant to be published all in one post, but it grew a bit…long. The first two parts are being posted today, and the last two will go up tomorrow. Just for clarification, as I’ve seen other writers who post free content have had problems – this story is my original work, the sequel to last year’s ‘A City of Leaves’. I very much hope you enjoy it!
A Lane of Locks
by Faith Mudge
“The hand is mightier than the sword,” the red-winged woman said, “and the heart mightier than the hand.”
Her eyes were entirely black and faceted like those of a fly, fringed by the most improbable looking lashes I had ever seen. I caught myself staring and looked at her hands instead, trying to unravel what she meant.
“The hand is…I beg your pardon, what does that actually mean?”
The woman gave me the flat look of all eyes everywhere when someone asks a stupid question. She took her cup of vanilla chai and departed to her table. It was shared by a lady in a black cheongsam with green tendrils laced through her hair and an elderly daemon in a dusty frock coat.
“That’s the Festival of Keys for you,” Agnes remarked, coming up beside me with a tray of empty cups. “As if anybody in this city needs an excuse to talk nonsense.”
Agnes was my benefactor, font of wisdom and friend. She was also the owner of the Chamomile Heart tea shop, where I had been in service for the past three festivals, and I was currently staying in her spare room. I had lost track of the favours I owed her. The living arrangements were intended to be temporary, while my brother Robert and myself were finding our feet, but that had proved more difficult than I had anticipated; and I had never expected it to be easy.
I was born in England, in the middle of the 19th century. In that age of steam and steel, fairies were a fancy of nursery stories. But then Robert was taken, and I followed, and I found him here in Candlebridge, imprisoned in a psychotic Game of the Gentry. It was only with Agnes’s help I was able to free him, and some nights he still woke screaming. He would not tell me what they had done to him, and I was not sure I wanted to hear.
To summarise our circumstances: we had no family, no currency, and only a passing grasp of how reality was meant to work in this world. I feared we would be Agnes’s houseguests for a long time yet. It was an achievement whenever Robert set foot outside; as for me, every morning meant fighting the impulse to hide in bed instead of going out to face another day.
Added to our other difficulties were the vagaries of each Candlebridge festival, which turned a place already incomprehensible into one positively raving mad. I had, since my arrival, survived five of the nine that made up the city’s calendar. The Festival of Keys would be my sixth.
“At this time of the nonne it is traditional,” Agnes continued, disappearing into the kitchen at the back of the shop, “which is to say, unavoidable, for people to come up and ask you riddles or tell you things you will need to know, but don’t know you need to know quite yet. I’m not sure which you just got.”
“When will I find out?”
“Once a goblin came up to me in the street and told me ‘the fire does not consume, only transmute’, and I still haven’t the foggiest what he meant.” Agnes emerged, covering a yawn. “It’s also traditional to give people keys. Not keys to anything specific, just the odd ones that don’t fit anywhere. It’s good luck.”
“I know.” I gestured to my reticule, hung on a hook behind the counter and bulging with uninvited gifts of theoretical luck. “I don’t know what to do with them all.”
“Keep them until next festival, then give them away,” Agnes advised. “I expect those keys have travelled more around this city than I have.”
She returned to her circuit of the tea room, stopping at the table of the red-winged woman and her friends to listen attentively to some complaint or remark. Managing the counter was her duty, but she had taken to handing over the till every so often, giving me practice at preparing the different orders. Today was proving a trial. I had had to call her over twice, once when I could not make out a lady’s request – phrased as it was half in French and half in high-pitched tweets – then again when the next customer wanted a ghastly combination of blackcurrant leaf and jasmine. Agnes drew me aside for that one.
“Ignore the good sense of your taste buds and just give him what he wants.”
“But it will be undrinkable – “
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from serving tea in Candlebridge, there is no such thing as undrinkable. Unthinkable is quite another matter, and not your problem. If we have the ingredients in stock, just make it.”
The last customers of the day were a sullen young man in a toga and a wizened creature – resembling an unpleasant combination between a very old monkey and a very large spider – that was perched on his shoulders. One set of legs were hooked around his neck, two more tangled in his long hair. It grinned at me malevolently the entire time it was in the shop. The man did not meet my eyes once, staring blankly at the counter as he muttered a request for gunpowder. I was not entirely sure he meant tea, but that was all we had, so I just nodded, made up the tea and waited for the two of them to go away.
It was a very delicate balance, in this city, between living a moderately civilised existence and being dead or enslaved.
I was glad to turn over the ‘Closed’ sign – my feet were sore and a headache had become rooted behind my eyes. While Agnes wiped tables and ran a broom across the floor, I piled the dirty dishes high in the kitchen sink and put out the dish of cream that was the agreed daily payment between Agnes and the shop’s resident bruney. I had never seen it myself, and even Agnes was very vague on what it looked like. Apparently it was so self-conscious that it would only come out when no one was there to see.
“And for God’s sake,” she had told me, when I first started helping in the shop, “don’t spy or you’ll drive it away! Then it will be you doing all the dishes.”
“Good night, sir,” I called softly, as Agnes pulled the door shut. The Chamomile Heart was shuttered and silent, with no sign that magic of any sort was about to take place. The door was solid, the grain of wood scratchy under my hands. The lane outside the shop was paved in large round cobbles and quite as grimy as any lane in London.
But this was not London. Here, it was always safe to assume that something magical – and possibly terrible – was about to take place. Agnes had lived here for thirteen nonnes; her definition of ‘ordinary’ was nothing like mine.
Even she was not prepared for the devil waiting in the dark.
He was leaning on one elbow against a door across the lane. At first all I could make out was the lit end of his cigarette and the oddly sweet smell of the smoke; he was just a man. Then he lowered the cigarette and smiled by its burning light.
“Hello, lovely,” he said. “Come talk to me.”
I stopped where I stood, my hands frozen in the act of pulling my scarf straight. He’d stepped forward as he spoke and now I could see him properly. Loose-limbed and lean, he was dressed like a highwayman from a penny dreadful in a greatcoat and cravat, dark curls spilling across his shoulders, his broad-brimmed hat tilted up so I could see his long smiling mouth. I was seized by a sudden fierce desire to kiss it.
Fortunately, Agnes seized me first. “Find your prey elsewhere, sir,” she said coldly, clamping her fingers around my arm and swinging me about. She added as a hiss in my ear, “Incubus. Double-dyed bastard. Keep walking.”
I shook my head, blinking, trying to clear away the glamour. “Incubus?”
“A devil of the night,” she muttered, pushing me ahead of her. I stumbled, and fell against the lapels of a black coat. I had not seen the incubus move, but now he was in our way and his hands were curled around my wrists.
“I call that rude,” he said softly. “Interrupting a conversation that way. And I have so much to say to you.”
Agnes tried to lever his fingers loose. “Leave her alone,” she growled.
“It won’t do her any harm,” he said, laughing. “I only want to play.”
I felt giddy and strange, as if I had been drinking a great deal of wine, but those words made my eyes snap wide. The smiling devil bent his head towards mine.
I hit him with a wrench.
A solid piece of iron can do a good deal of damage to a real man; when iron strikes a human, however, it doesn’t send him reeling back with a burning welt across his cheek, spitting terrible things from between his teeth. We didn’t wait to see what might happen next – Agnes grabbed my hand and we ran down the street, scrambling aboard the first bus that came along, my heart pounding with the rattle of wheels as it put yard upon yard of distance between us and the incubus.
When we reached the flat Robert took one look at my face and dropped his book with a half-uttered question. I burst into tears before he could finish and he gathered me into his arms, looking at Agnes for explanation instead, which she gave as briefly as she could.
“Incubi are seducers,” she told us both wearily. “The ones I’ve met, anyway, which is thankfully not many. They get tired of their lovers fast, are always looking for a fresh source of adoration, and don’t often hear the word ‘no’. Where did you get that wrench, Geraldine? Iron is hardly easy to come by.”
“I traded for it,” I said, my hands curling defensively around my elbows. “At the goblin market on Fortune Bridge, when I first got here. I was…I needed to feel safe.”
Robert’s arm tightened around me. “What would he have done to her?”
“Maybe no real harm if she’d managed to keep moving – though that’s hard to do with a head full of valentine smoke. Night devils like the lost, the grieving…people who will welcome them in. This one expected an idle amusement and got a scar for life.”
“He deserves it,” Robert said vehemently.
“I’m not arguing that,” Agnes said. “I just wish it hadn’t happened outside the shop.”
“Oh God,” I breathed. “You think he’ll come back? What will he do?”
She gave my arm a reassuring squeeze. “Don’t worry. I doubt he’ll come back. Incubi are not Gentry; the only magic they have is glamour, and he’d probably think twice before taking on the bruney. Household wights fight dirty when their ground is invaded. The worst he can do is probably break a couple of windows.”
Hours later, Agnes caught fire.
* * *
“I shouldn’t have hit him with the wrench.”
“Oh, Geraldine, stop it.” Agnes sat fully dressed in the bath tub, a wet blanket draped around her shoulders. The flames did not seem to hurt her, though she said they itched terribly, but anything that came in contact with them could and did burn. Her mattress was ruined and her room reeked of charred wool. Robert was on the floor beside the tub, wearing a badly buttoned shirt that was drenched all down the front from the bucket he’d had to hurl over her.
“It might have nothing to do with the incubus,” she suggested. We both stared and she sighed. “Well, that’s a possibility, even if it is an unlikely one. Either way, it’s pretty clear that I’m under a curse.”
I sank down on the floor opposite Robert. “What are we to do?” I asked, twisting my hands in my lap. “Can anything be done?”
“Of course,” Agnes said patiently. “I’ll go to an apothecary and have it removed. This sort of thing happens, people go to their regular apothecary for anything from a minor bewitchment to a broken ankle. They should be able to fix this.”
“What is the name of your apothecary?” Robert asked.
“I don’t have one,” Agnes admitted. She shivered and leaned forward to pull the plug, letting the bath drain before running more hot water. “I managed without. They’re pricey.”
My stomach twisted. In my own world, I had money, or rather my father did. We had lived at Musgrave Park, the largest house for miles around; my name had been good credit in any shop I chose to visit. If a friend had been in trouble there, I could have been constructive. As it was, I could offer nothing but useless sympathy.
“Besides which,” Agnes added, reluctantly, “apothecaries scare me a bit.”
I looked up, astonished. In the time I had known Agnes, I had seen her face goblins, daemons and every other manner of strange thing with unshakeable equilibrium. She treated everyone she met without fear or judgement, which was a wonderful thing but also an intimidating one when I could not do the same and could not bring myself to tell her so. If apothecaries frightened her, God help me.
“It’s silly, though,” Agnes said firmly. “I’m sure all those stories are medical ignorance, like you get with dentists. As long as I can pay, I’ll be perfectly – oh, damn!”
While she was refilling the tub, she had let the blanket slide and little flames had broken out across her shoulders. I rolled onto my knees and caught the blanket, dragging it up to smother them. She hunched miserably underneath it.
“What can I do?” I asked, appalled. “Where does one find an apothecary?”
“You don’t,” Agnes said grimly. “They find you. Wait until morning, you’ll see.”
© Faith Mudge 2014