I should include a note of explanation for new readers: the Chandler and Musgrave stories are something I’ve been writing and posting each December over the past couple of years. To make any sense of Candlebridge, I advise you start with ‘A City of Leaves‘. Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it, a peaceful December to those who don’t, and happy reading to all!
A Door to Day’s End
“What happened out here?”
As it was in fact obvious what had happened out there, I hesitated before answering, trying to gauge whether or not Agnes was displeased. Mostly she seemed bewildered. Likely she was wondering why she had allowed me use of her balcony at all. It had started out as no more than creative re-use of the chipped crockery she kept under the sink and cuttings from plants found on the street, but there was a lot of crockery and I had so little to do. In the months since ‘why not, do what you like with it’ the balcony had been transformed from an unlovely but also uncomplicated outcrop of concrete into a patch of what could only be called wilderness. Standing cautiously at the edge, barefoot in her dressing gown, Agnes surveyed the frenzy of green.
“What,” she added, after a few moments, “is…that, exactly?”
“Troubador’s gold,” I supplied. “It’s entirely harmless, I promise.”
Also invasive, as anyone could see: the vine looped thickly through the rickety wooden railings, tangled across a dozen of the other pots and had stretched a few experimental tendrils under the door. I nudged a curtain to conceal them. Truthfully, I should have not brought such a thing home, but I had seen it spilling over a stairway one day, had seen the look on Geraldine’s face. She did not say what she wanted any more; what was the point, when already we lived on luck and charity? She wanted to go home, to England. She wanted clothes of her own, not a wardrobe of ill-fitting oddments. She wanted a place to live that was not borrowed from a friend. I could not give her any of the things she needed. All I could manage was a surprise.
And it was worth it, for at the first glimpse she’d abandoned her toast on the floor and knelt to gather armfuls of the butter-golden flowers. They were the same colour as her hair and the size of her hands, with a scent like nothing I’d ever known: something of sunshine and honey and apple. “Oh, Robert,” she sighed, burying her face in the bouquet. “I love them.”
Agnes smiled helplessly. Seeing Geraldine happy affected her the same way it did me, which was probably why we liked each other, despite having so little in common. “I didn’t know it was your birthday,” she said. “You should have told me.”
“It’s not.” Geraldine handed me her flowers so she could stand, sending a shower of petals across the floor. “I don’t know when my birthday is anymore, the seasons are a mess in this city and it didn’t seem important, given everything…” She made a vague gesture to encompass what ‘everything’ meant: a stolen brother, a cursed friend, dealings with goblins and Gentry and trows. Sliding between worlds, from the reign of Queen Victoria to the Duchess of Candlebridge. Everything, indeed.
“I said the other day it felt like midsummer,” Geraldine continued. “On my birthday, when we were small, we’d go for picnics in the meadow behind the manor. I’d make wildflower crowns and insist Robert wear them.”
“I tried for buttercups,” I admitted. “None to be had.”
Her eyes shone wet, which alarmed me. This was unsafe territory, a hazy space of memory and loss for which I was very poorly prepared. To distract her, I rescued the plate from the floor and she laughed a little tearfully, finishing her cold toast in a few hasty mouthfuls as the morning resumed its natural course. Agnes fetched her hat, Geraldine buttoned up her boots and they went away to serve teas at the Chamomile Heart.
I remained in the flat to sweep up scattered petals, wash the breakfast things and watch the world from a window, which was as much as I could manage at present. It had been one of those days I did not want to lift my head off the pillow; today, I knew, every small trouble would bruise.
The long shadows of early morning could do nothing to soften the strangeness of the street far below, so I turned my eyes upwards. The sky was clear blue and full of cloud sailers. These were floating palaces of the Gentry, a wild architecture of cloud and stone, trailing streamers of steam as they drifted with the wind. During the winter, they sailed away over the sea to warmer climes, but the midsummer warmth had drawn them back like migrating birds.
With a quick tug I had the curtain shut. I lost the rest of the morning on the bathroom floor, my back against a wall, reminding myself how to breathe until the room stopped spinning.
I was brave once, I swear I was. The boy who wore his sister’s wildflower crowns and ate cake in the meadow did not have death on his hands or the ache of fear buried so deep in his bones that he couldn’t drive it out. He believed in fairies – in the flittering fancies he believed fairies to be – and he was brave because he did not yet know how badly he could be hurt.
I was never going to be whole again.
* * *
Once upon a time I wore white armour and my world was no wider than the squares of the Gaming Lawn. All I heard were the orders ringing out from the encircling stands. My hands were slick with blood, my silver blade dripping with it, and I felt nothing at all. Time was meaningless. It was a long dream of days and blood and death.
These things, Geraldine and Agnes knew. What I had never told them was, I gave myself willingly to the board. When I woke in the night, drenched in sweat with a scream behind my teeth, it was not always to the Gaming Lawn my dreams had dragged me. In my head was a whirl of giddy piping, my lungs filled with acrid sweetness, and the phantom links of a delicate golden chain slid tight around my throat.
I chose to join the butchery, you see, to leave the revel.
* * *
Later that day, I climbed the foyer tree.
It had taken a long time to resign myself to the tree. My father had resisted the German notion of bringing in a tree at Christmas; I could not imagine what he would make of the maple that rose calmly through the polished floor of the foyer, raining red and gold leaves, for it was always autumn inside the building. Our caretaker was fiercely devoted to his favourite season.
These days Geraldine bestowed the tree barely a glance on her way out, but my initial bewilderment had given way to something rather close to adoration. I’d often come down here and climb to the highest branch that would take my weight, watching other residents of the building go back and forth about their business without noticing me at all.
We were, I knew, the only humans who lived here. A phouka minstrel dwelt on the ground floor; he disliked the sun but would linger by the door late in the afternoon, smoking nervously on chokingly sweet cigarettes while waiting for his lover (who was usually late, and never apologised, and had delicate, lethally sharp horns jutting through his dishevelled black hair.) In the flat below ours lived a couple I’d rarely seen but whose quarrels were loud enough that we were all far more intimately acquainted than we wished to be with their financial woes and ill-concealed infidelities. Bright feathers often scattered the stairs outside their door. In the flat above, blessedly quiet, were a trio I took to be sisters. They had the faces of human women, Arabic in appearance, but from their backs flared long iridescent wings like those of a dragonfly.
With them lived a small girl, winged likewise, who could often be seen playing around the building. I had never seen her in the tree before, but not long after I settled on my chosen branch I heard a discordant whirring and she landed clumsily at the other end. It creaked ominously. I scrambled hastily to another bough.
“Don’t run away!” the girl cried repentantly. “I won’t knock you off, promise.”
I looked up incredulously. The child wore a blue smock and trousers, feet bare and grubby. She looked about six or seven years old. Of course, she could be an ancient wearing the shape of a child – the Gentry were entirely capable of that unholy artifice – but she moved like a child too, restless and a bit clumsy.
“What do you want?” I asked warily. Child or no, she was not human and not to be trusted. If she thought she could hurt me, she was probably right.
“You’re from the other side,” she said eagerly. “Aren’t you? From the lands of salt and iron, same as Agnes. She won’t tell me what it’s like. Is it true they catch lightning so everyone can play with it? And sail on the sea?”
“I…yes? I’ve been to sea.”
“But how were you not eaten?” she wanted to know. “Are the sea serpents very small there? Are the kraken all asleep?”
I blinked. “There are no sea serpents.” I wasn’t sure what a kraken was.
The girl nearly fell off the branch. Her wings flailed as she righted herself. “That can’t be true! Are you lying? Mama says humans lie all the time.”
“Probably,” I said, sharper than she deserved, swinging my feet to a lower branch. “You shouldn’t talk to me.”
“But I want to!” she wailed. “I’m bored. I want a story.”
I slid the rest of the way to the ground, scraping my hands on the rough bark. Likely it would do no harm to tell the stories she wanted, but I was not a toy any more. I was not obliged to be anyone’s entertainment.
* * *
Geraldine had a good day. Agnes baked bite-size apple cakes for the teashop, in honour of the pretend birthday, bringing home a basketful to share. That night the gramophone played a foxtrot, and Agnes tried to show Geraldine what a foxtrot was, and we ate every cake in the basket while the golden flowers filled the air with their honey-summer-sunshine scent. Later, when I dreamed, I managed not to scream.
* * *
Troubador’s gold, as it turned out, desired dominion over all things and only constant attention prevented it from achieving that goal. Geraldine took bundles of cuttings to decorate the teashop, then took more when customers remarked on the pretty blooms.
“Flower arranging,” she laughed to me as we piled her basket with fresh cuttings. “A useful skill wherever I go.”
“Did you really do that sort of thing?” Agnes asked, curiously.
“Oh yes. Papa had very strict ideas about what was suitable, and I could get up to very little harm filling vases. He also approved of my practicing the piano, and paying calls on every elderly lady in the neighbourhood.” Geraldine toyed absently with a leaf. “Young ladies, he said, could not be trusted. He believed I would spring into the arms of the first gentleman to offer me a compliment, I think.”
Agnes snorted. Geraldine smiled slightly, though it had not been a joke.
She tried sugaring the golden petals and Agnes used them as sweetmeats, decorating cakes or floating in teacups. There was more time for such experimentation now that two women managed the shop rather than one; in the evenings, while Agnes read over the account books and Geraldine darned industriously at her limited wardrobe, they would tell me about their customers, their plans – their shop, though Geraldine never called it that and likely did not see it so. For once, in this small way, I could help them.
I did not always shut myself away within the flat’s familiar walls. Some days I woke and the dread was quieter, bearable enough to walk past the autumn tree to the street outside. Turning left, I would come to the busy thoroughfares and grand buildings of fashionable Candlebridge – the Gentry’s grandeur. So I went right, deeper into the Viridian district, seeking out the Flower Market.
It took place every half-moon between the Festival of Keys and the Festival of a Hundred Nights, and though it manifested in a different place each time, there were always clues for those who knew to look. A path of flowers blooming in gutters and cracked pavement, a trail of unseasonable leaves. The trouble it took to find was always more than rewarded by the market itself, for the stalls sold all manner of useful things – from harmless tinctures and sweets to charmed garlands and lover’s tokens, to…things that were not harmless at all. I had standing orders from Agnes and Geraldine for the soaps and lotions they preferred, and for myself, liked to look at the living plants, utterly foreign as so many were to me. Some of the stallholders were kind, would explain their wares to me in exchange for enthusiasm.
The first paper flower caught my eye, blooming on an alley wall among theatre bills and employment notices, and I quickly picked up the trail. A second flower was about a foot along the wall, the third just visible at the corner. When, curiously, I plucked one, it had the slight resistance of shallow roots. Holding it to my nose, I inhaled the heady scent of new paper and fresh ink. It made me think of a bookseller I’d loved in London, the volumes of Jane Eyre I had bought there. My father held novels in unyielding contempt, so I had sent them to Geraldine in secret and she hid them beneath her coat to read among the hedgerows, where he could not see.
Of what was left behind in England, I missed books every day. Agnes had only a few and we could not afford many indulgences – for an indulgence the printed word was, though there were times I would have given almost anything to climb out of my own head for an hour or two. I followed the flowers with a small smile on my face.
Now that evenings were longer, Agnes had taken to dragging us on the occasional walk so that she could point out local landmarks and make sure we knew our way around. “How can you recognise safe ground if you don’t go anywhere?” she had said, rather severely, when I protested. “Don’t worry, the roads don’t shift about so much here, too much water.” She had a tendency to offer statements like that as if they were reassuring instead of inexplicable.
She was right, though; it was good to know where I was going. The enormous tenements gave way to a warren of little winding streets that twined across and around each other, sometimes plunging into long tunnels or arching into meandering stairways. Houses jostled together, just as they did in the towns I used to know – only here it was not uncommon for a roof to be thatched in feathers or tiled in large gleaming scales, for walls of clay to nudge against stone or brick; for a modest moat to encircle the house and leafy boughs to jut through the windows. There was no uniformity to be seen. It was like walking among the follies of a fanciful opera, playacting at a normal street. But this was normality. It was I who did not fit.
Small streams flowed here and there, offshoots of the great river that gave the city its name, crossed by lesser bridges. Paper flowers bloomed between the planks, poked ivory petals between the cracks of a stairway, beckoning me onward. They were growing together more thickly now, which surely meant I was nearing the Market.
The door brought me to an abrupt halt.
I never used to think about doors, particularly. This one was quite large, good solid wood, set in a deep alcove like the entrance to a shop – and I might have believed it was the entrance to a shop, if not for the fact I did not trust doors at all any more, and this one had an indefinable oddness that sent prickles of unease stinging down my spine. The paper flowers grew in dense clusters across the walls, framing the door, fallen petals a pale carpet underfoot. It felt like a trick. For me? For anyone seeking the Flower Market? I took a swift step back.
Then my eye caught the sign above the door. A small brass plaque was affixed there, floral script forming the name of The Transcendental Library. Beneath that, smaller lettering read:
Those who come with flame shall burn,
Bring the flood and be devoured by the wave,
From such mistakes each conqueror shall learn
Blade shall blunt upon the page
Set thieving foot within
And set the other in your grave.
I ran so fast I slipped and rolled to the ground, the shock jolting through bruised kneecaps. That didn’t matter. Propelled by raw panic, I struggled to my feet and didn’t stop until I stood beneath the foyer tree. There, my legs abruptly gave out. I collapsed among the dead leaves, my breath sobbing between gritted teeth, lungs aching and airless.