A Lane of Locks
by Faith Mudge
Doors should not appear from nowhere. I feel very strongly about this.
Walking into the residence of Absolution Crane gave me a horrible sense of dislocation. From the outside, the wall had been about a foot taller than myself and we had been able to hear sounds from the street on the other side – the rattle of carriage wheels, the shouts of drivers, the wails of a distant siren and her sisters. Once inside it was clear only the doors had anything to do with that part of the city. We were standing on a wooden gantry that ran the entire circumference of a vast ovoid chamber, like the belly of an enormous ship. The ceiling vanished into darkness somewhere far above me; the ground below was almost as obscure. For a few minutes I just stood there, gripping a tarnished brass railing and wondering how to get the door back.
A flame broke out on Agnes’s shoulder. She stifled it with the flat of her hand and sighed. “Let’s find Apothecary Crane, shall we?”
The stairs deposited us in a forest of oddments. Piles of strange treasure tottered high on either side, leaving only the narrowest of paths to pass between. We walked past stacks of feather mattresses and heaps of ship’s rigging, a wooden chest spilling jewels, a gilded sarcophagi, the startled-looking statue of a man wearing a crown. I counted turns, determined not to be lost again. At last we came to a clearing defined by a circle of ornate iron street lamps, in the middle of which sat a billiard table and a cage suspended from the ceiling by a very long chain.
“Hello?” Agnes called cautiously. The place might be a warren, but its acoustics were excellent; if the apothecary had not known where we were from the moment we set foot through the door, he must know by now. How many other patients were wandering around that labyrinth? Would they all come out again?
“You smell like scaredy-bird.”
The voice was hoarse and male and alarmingly close. I whirled around to see a white one-eyed rat thrusting its nose between the bars of the cage. It bared yellow teeth in what was unmistakeably a leer.
“Hello, poppet,” it rasped.
I jerked back instinctively. Rats should not speak English. Rats shouldn’t smile.
“Are you the apothecary’s assistant?” Agnes asked coolly.
The rat spluttered indignantly. “Assis’ant? Assis’ant? Oh, I’ll not be forgetting that, me girl, I’ll be putting the quakes and plague on you for that – “
Agnes looked him over, wrinkling her nose. “You’re not the apothecary. A rat, perhaps, but a rat in a cage? I don’t think so.”
An arm wrapped around my shoulders, bringing with it a smell of cities and storms. “That’s marvellous logic, my dear. Flawed and a little confrontational, but still, well thought of. Who is your pretty friend?”
Absolution Crane was a woman. She was very tall and very thin and glittered in a disturbing sort of way. This was, I realised, because her black frock coat was sewn all over with shards of broken glass and metal filings. On her feet, contributing to her towering height, were a pair of precariously high heeled black boots; on her head, a tricorn with a dagger thrust through one side like a feather. Her grin was very wide. What big teeth you have, Grandmama, I thought, and wished I had not.
Agnes introduced us. Absolution Crane stared at her intently while she spoke.
“My, my,” she purred, “where did you come by that combustion curse? It must be terribly uncomfortable! Take a seat at once!”
She pushed me. I thought I was going to land flat on my back, but the wide leather arms of a wingback chair caught me halfway down. Crane slid around me so smoothly it seemed as if she had wheels attached to her outrageous shoes and snapped her fingers, summoning up a rocking chair from the shadowy junkyard. Agnes sat with enviable composure, and though flames licked up and down her legs, the chair did not burn.
“We were accosted by an incubus last night,” she explained. “We used necessary force to repel him, but as I woke up hours later covered in flames, I assume he did not take the rejection with dignity.”
Crane tutted. I noticed, as her long fingers prodded experimentally at Agnes’s burning leg, that each had an extra joint. Her skin was the colour of sand and it glittered a little too, when it caught the light just so.
“No incubus could manage a combustion curse,” she said matter-of-factly. “Their magic is all glamour and shadow, no knack for detail. Have you annoyed a trow lately, perhaps? Caught it picking your purse, denied it silver?”
Agnes shook her head. “I don’t recall any trouble with trows.”
“Then the incubus must have paid them a pretty penny or two to do it for him,” Crane decided. “They’ll have made an effigy of you and be poking it with hot coals. You have some sort of protection, I’m thinking, a charm…?”
Reluctantly, Agnes extended her wrist. A silver bracelet slid out from under her cuff. It was a thick chain of twisted links, with two keys hung on it and a small wooden heart. Crane caught at the pendant, hissing a little as the wood brushed her skin.
“Rowan,” she murmured. “Ah. Perchance you have been cursed before?”
Agnes smiled tightly. “I prefer to be prepared.”
“Where rowan goes, rue will follow,” the white rat sang.
Absolution kicked absently at the cage, her attention fixed on the charm for a moment longer before she let it go. “This won’t be half of half enough,” she announced. “The Valentine must have taken something of yours for the spell to catch and the flames won’t stop until that thing is yours again, or the trows grow bored with the work. Or the effigy is ash. That may take awhile.”
We waited. She poked interestedly at a flame on Agnes’ shoulder.
“What should we do?” I asked, at last.
The apothecary grinned again. “There’s a question! I could remove the curse myself, with some time and effort – for which I must be duly compensated. Or I could give you a map to the trow den in question, and you could remove it yourself, and only perhaps make things worse. It’s entirely up to you, or rather it is entirely up to your personal finances. Think it over a minute.”
“But she’s on fire!” I protested. “Isn’t that doing her harm?”
“Of course it is. Within a day or two the charm will fail and her skin will start burning. It may kill her, eventually. I can sell you a charm to delay that.”
Seeing my horrified expression, Crane spread her hands. “Everything has a price. Sabbath here will tell you that.” She tapped the white rat affectionately on the nose. He hunkered down, teeth bared. “Do tell me you’re not the tiresome sorts who think I should make everything better for the satisfaction of it? Because I don’t like those people at all.”
There was still the hint of a smile on her face, but no warmth.
Agnes eyed the nearest statue. “No. We’re not like that at all.”
“Splendid!” Crane threw herself onto a crimson love seat that had not been there a moment before, crossing her ankles comfortably. “What will you have, then?”
“That would be worth a week of dreams,” Crane said thoughtfully, “but I’ll accept your first memory of summer.”
“A memory of sunlight,” Agnes offered quietly, “one of my own choosing.”
“Then I’ll need three memories.”
“I’ll give you two, both of summer.”
“Make them of the sea.”
“One, then, of sunlight and the sea.”
Crane reclined in her chair, studying Agnes as if she could see through her skull to the promised memory within. “Does it involve your mother? Some clients are partial to mothers.”
“It can,” Agnes said. I looked at her, appalled.
Crane clapped her hands decisively. A small twist of paper fell from between them and rolled across the floor, fetching up against my feet. I bent and unrolled it; the scroll was covered in the intricate lines of a very small map.
“I’ll take it now,” the apothecary said. “You may think my terms excessive,” she added, and I realised she was talking to me, “but I deliver what I promise, which is considerably more than you can say about life in general. Isn’t that so, Sabbath?”
The rat muttered something profane. Crane laughed.
“He used to be a pirate, you know,” she remarked. “The bloodiest blade on the seas! Then his ship caught the wrong tide and washed up in redder waters than even he knew how to bear. Ruthlessness stood him in good stead for a while, but he took a little too long to understand some people should not be cheated. He knows some wonderful shanties, though, so it’s not all bad!”
“Really,” I breathed faintly.
“You are a sweet thing,” the apothecary said, giving me an appreciative look. “Such lovely green eyes. Have a care someone doesn’t steal them away.”
My eyes might be pretty, but they couldn’t catch the movement between Crane lounging back in her chair and being suddenly on her feet. Even Agnes flinched. She sat very stiffly as Crane approached, but took the tiny vial she was offered and drained the contents without hesitation, like she had done this before. A shudder passed through her, and Crane caught her hand, pushing the vial close to her mouth; one jewel-coloured breath refilled the vial and Agnes slumped, one hand going to her forehead with a dazed expression. I came to my feet and hesitated, utterly unsure what I should do.
Crane drew back with a small sigh, cradling the vial carefully between both hands. “Never mind, pet,” she said quietly to Agnes. “The sea will give you another memory, one day. Better take her home,” she added to me, “let her sleep. Don’t lose the map, mind; you’d have to pay for a replacement.”
“Is it worth so much?” I asked, staring at Agnes. “A memory of her mother?”
“You have a map to one of Candlebridge’s trow dens and the warren inside,” Crane said slowly. “That is worth a very great deal, and memories are what she has to give. You would be surprised what people will sell to get what they want. What would you pay, after all, for the right Door?”
She snapped her fingers and a roll of tapestry tumbled down, revealing a door suspended in midair. It was otherwise plain, painted a well-weathered white with a round brass knob. A sound broke in my mouth.
It was the servant’s entrance at Musgrave Park.
It was my home.
“This would cost more than memory,” Crane said calmly. She snapped her fingers and the illusion disappeared. “Doors are not lightly made. But you probably have something within you worth the making – most people do – the question is, would you sell it, and would you still want to go home if you did? I am an apothecary, my dear, I give people what they ask for and they pay me what they have. It’s a fair arrangement.”
I tore my eyes away from the empty space where a wish had been and pulled Agnes to her feet, holding her upright when she swayed. I had to leave this place.
“Wait,” the apothecary called. I turned a little, holding Agnes like a talisman – then had to let her go and reach out as something shining spun through the air into my hand. It was a key.
“You know the way now,” Absolution Crane said. “Good luck fighting the fires.”
© Faith Mudge 2014