Chapter 1: Beginning
Even though this story is set in London - all of London, not just the parts Above - some say it actually started in Rome. To be specific, one particular and peculiar aspect of Rome.
That is where the story might have begun, but it is difficult to say exactly when, as time has always moved as strangely in Roma di sotto as it has in London Below. Suffice it to say that it was a long time ago, and leave it at that.
It started as a very young girl with a very old knife picked her way through the catacombs beneath the catacombs of the via Appia, following a trail that was old long before the Legions strode the cobbles far overhead. Her footsteps were soft, but by no means tentative. From time to time she stopped, lifting her head and flaring her nostrils to better take in the faint movements of the air and the scents it carried. The girl was nearly as dark as the shadows of the catacombs themselves, with only a flicker of light off the edge of her knife to betray her presence. Her hand was so small it barely closed around the bone hilt of the knife, but she held it as if it she had been born with it.
Perhaps she had.
Or perhaps this was the moment when she was to be born - born into her true name and true nature.
It was a long, strange story that had brought the knife to the girl and the girl to the tunnels beneath the catacombs, but all that mattered now was the quarry she hunted. The ancient she-wolf’s footprints were bigger than her own, but still she pursued, and still she grew closer, following the scent of wet dog and stale blood as if it were a shining ribbon.
The gleam of her smile mirrored the gleam of her knife. Before, she had only killed to eat - squirrel and rat and the occasional dove - but this was different. She was too young to put the idea to words, but this hunt had purpose. The hunt was the purpose and the purpose was the hunt. As it always had been.
As it always would be.
When her knife finally sank into the wolf’s neck, bright arterial blood sprayed forth, filling her mouth and washing her eyes. It washed away her past and filled her with new knowledge. By the time she had pried the she-wolf’s fangs from its skull as a trophy (they would make a lovely necklace) the only name she knew was the only name she would ever be called again.
She was Hunter.
She saw no need to look past her new knowledge for anything more. No need at all. She had a purpose and a weapon, and all she needed now was prey.
And so it begins.
In another way, the story did start in London. Well, a short distance outside London, if you wish to be precise. This beginning took place in the spring of 1642, when a butcher found himself a piglet.
Some might think it was a coincidence that it was the same year in which began the events that inexorably led to the beheading of a king seven years later.
Other people knew better.
Anyhow, back to the piglet.
The butcher had not been looking to buy a pig, or anything else for that matter, as he had just made a bad bargain for three head of inferior cattle and was wondering how best to explain this to his lady wife. So perhaps instead of a pig, he was looking for a reason to delay his return to London Town. That might explain why, when he heard a scuffle and squeak in the woods by the side of the road, he stopped to investigate.
Something - a largish something - had crashed through the greenery and churned up the mud. Thanks to his trade, the butcher was quick to recognize splashes of blood, even in the dim light of the forest’s edge. For a moment, he thought to head back to the road, but then he heard a faint cry. It sounded almost like a child, but he soon found that was not the case.
A dozen yards or so from the edge of the forest, he saw something small and black and bristly. A piglet. Half-boar, from the look of things, but too small to have broken all those branches and torn up the ground like that.
At least, he assumed it was a piglet. It had trotters, and a snout, and a squeal, and it was more or less pig-shaped. The butcher smiled as he pictured how it would fatten up on scraps from the shambles, making a fine Christmas dinner for himself - or for someone else if he would rather have the coin than the meat.
And thus, he took the stunned, starved little thing, threw it in a sack, and took it back to his shop by the Fleet Ditch. Despite the fact it was barely April, he hummed the Boar’s Head carol to himself all the way back into town.
By Lammas-tide, the piglet had grown to the size of a full grown animal and beyond. It ate everything the butcher gave it and more. There were fewer rats in the shambles than he might have expected. The butcher tried not to be too concerned when his wife mentioned that the lack of rats was odd, considering there was also a sudden lack of cats.
Still, he thought, such a large pig would fetch a fine price come Christmas, no matter that the Roundheads were opposed to the very idea of such a feast.
By the fourth Sunday in Advent, the beast (he no longer thought of it a pig, not since the first Sunday in Advent) had killed three men and lamed another. The butcher himself had lost two fingers to it.
And so, when the beast finally crashed out of its enclosure and charged bellowing towards the Fleet ditch, the butcher did not even think of Christmas supper or lost profits. He simply watched long into the night, knowing something very important had started, but not what, or why.
There was another beginning, too, one that might best start ‘once upon a time.’
This beginning has its own rather complicated story that follows, but it also began several other stories the way a butterfly carelessly flapping its wings a bit more northwards than southwards began the Ice Age.
It was a classic tale about a poor but clever lad. How clever? Well, clever enough to realize that being stalwart and good and noble was far more likely to win him a knife to the back than it was a pocket full of riches.
Anyhow, once upon a time, this poor but clever lad (who had fallen upon hard times and out of the world more or less completely - through absolutely no fault of his own, of course) sat beneath a ramshackle bridge and listened intently to a ginger cat of tender feet and exquisite smugness. The lad didn’t trust the cat, and the cat most certainly didn’t trust the lad, but they were both aware that this was the way of the world so no hard feelings, right?
“You’ll need a title, of course, if we’re going to pull this off,” the cat told him. “Something to command respect.”
The lad liked the sound of being a Duke. Very much.
“No, no, no…” said the cat, running a paw over its tidy white chin. “You want respect, but what you don’t want is too much attention. People like the Earl or the Ravens or one of the Seven Sisters will take the wrong kind of notice if you puff yourself up too much. You’d be a threat, not an asset. You’ll be something they can’t afford to ignore, and there’s times it pays to be ignored. What you need is something that’s borderline anonymous. Something that has power, but the kind of power that stands behind someone else’s throne and can duck out and run when the time comes, savvy?”
The boy nodded, tucking away this bit of information just as he had so many others.
“Something like a Marquis, perhaps,” the cat suggested a bit too casually.
The lad said he would think about it, lacing his words with the kind of studied boredom that he learned from the cat. This skill had already served him well on more than one occasion.
The cat yawned and stretched. “You do that,” it said. “Now we need to go find ourselves a duck egg. There’s a little trick you’ll need to know, about life. Particularly, your life, as unlike me, you’ve only got the one. There’s a cost, of course, but…” For a moment, the cat looked more solemn than smug. “It’s a dangerous world out there, laddie-my-boy, and you need to be prepared.”
And so it began. Wings flapped, a storm brewed, and deep beneath the Fleet ditch, something that wasn’t a piglet continued to grow and grow and grow…
Another beginning was barely perceptible and easily missed. It was little more than an idle, fleeting thought in the mind of a young noble of London Below.
Lord Portico wasn’t much given to untidy thinking, being something of a scientist, but his mind wandered all the same as he grafted yet another forgotten room into a house with no doors. This time, it was a small Regency study with soft blue walls and delicate plasterwork, full of cool gray light and the quiet ticking of a clock. While none of the rooms in his house were literally connected to one another, they were arranged in a particular sequence. This room happened to abut - functionally and metaphysically speaking - a study from the 1950s or thereabouts. The study even had a flight of ceramic ducks ascending one dun tartan wall. Rather than books, it had a huge telly placed like an altar in front of a worn, olive-green chesterfield.
The two studies completely didn’t go together, except that they absolutely did. They snugged in quite nicely next to each other as if they had always been meant to be that way.
Portico was pleased with his work, and in the midst of that pride and pleasure, the idle thought wandered in.
Earlier that day, he had watched as his aged father once again tried and failed to moderate a debate amongst some of the Seven Sisters. This time, it was the Ladies Serpentine, Olympia, Carnaby, and Marylebone who could not come to an agreement over a matter of who had which rights to which of the lost parklands impinging on the Below.
Portico remembered thinking as he watched this farcical attempt at diplomacy that things never changed, that they never would change, and that he would be having that very same debate with those very same ladies ten, twenty, or even fifty years from then.
The fiefdoms of London Below were just too different to ever get along in any way. Everyone knew that.
Just like these two studies, he thought idly.
The thought almost slipped past into nothingness, but it managed to get stuck on something, and it kept flickering and flickering through his mind, becoming less and less idle with each flicker. Then, thought became idea and idea was put in motion.
Things did not go as smoothly as he might have hoped. After one frightening and nearly lethal miscalculation, Lord Portico knew he would need significant help to make what started with an idle thought into a solid reality.
A number of favors were called in or promised, and eventually he had a name - Islington.
He also had a location. And a shortcut.
Unfortunately, the Angelus shortcut could only be used once. After that, there was a little matter of something that was by no means a piglet between him and his goal.
It took Portico five more years before he found a solution and a small obsidian figurine (maybe Celtic, maybe not) of something that may or may not have been a boar.
Then, his real work could begin.
In the end, perhaps, this was the true beginning:
It happened a little over three years ago, when Richard Mayhew accepted a job in London.
It wasn’t the best job in the world, but it was in London, and everyone knew The City was the only place to be if you wanted to work in securities and finance (which he did want to do, didn’t he?). Plus, the woman who hired him gushed that it was obvious that he had great potential, and that he had every chance of going quite far.
Richard smiled at the compliment, but it was one of those smiles that looked stiff around the corners and didn’t quite reach his eyes.
He had received similar compliments in the past. For some reason, he often felt as if people looked at him and only saw potential - not him. An ex-girlfriend had once rhapsodized about Richard in terms that at first made him think she was talking about a run-down cottage that just needed a fresh coat of paint, a few new plantings, and a completely gutted interior to turn it into something darling and desirable. He wasn’t sure what it said about himself that he was not the one who ended that particular relationship.
Inevitably, people seemed disappointed when they finally saw past the potential to what was currently right in front of them. No one ever had cause to complain about him, exactly, but somehow Richard got the feeling that he was always falling short of the mark in some undefinable way.
So, it was no surprise that he had some anxiety dreams the next few nights after accepting the job. A few were the usual sort of dream, workplace variations on the kind of dream where you show up naked for a final exam in a class you forgot you were registered for and could no longer drop. No one seemed to notice that he was naked, though; they only told him brightly that he had potential and was destined to go quite far.
Unfortunately, he had no idea how to answer any of the questions on the exam. He couldn’t even remember what the class was about, or why he had signed up for it in the first place.
Richard woke up from those dreams wondering if maybe London was a mistake after all, and that he should call back that small financial planning firm in Aberdeen and see if it was too late to accept their offer.
The dreams that really gave him a turn and knocked him awake with his heart hammering in his throat and his stomach sour with dread were the ones where he was walking through some sort of cave or tunnel. He grasped a spear in a hand that was far too rough and dirty to be his own, and he held tight to something that felt like a smooth but oddly shaped stone in his other hand.
He would need both stone and spear. He knew this. Somewhere further down the tunnel was something large and smelling of forest and stale blood, something rough and hot-breathed and alive. It knew he was there. It was waiting for him. It had always been waiting for him.
When he raised the stone (and why wasn’t he getting ready to throw the spear, for fuck’s sake?) his hand was not as rough as it had been earlier in the dream. It was, however, covered in swirls of what looked like blue paint.
In the dream, he held out the stone and stepped forward. Something stepped out of the shadows to meet him and he woke up with a shout.
He didn’t remember anything when he woke up, and not just the dream. For a few minutes after waking, he wasn’t sure he even remembered his own name.
Or rather, he felt like he remembered something that was both more than and less than a name.
After three nights, the dreams left him alone for as many years. Then, one night, as he was on his way to dinner with his fiancée, he stopped (over the fiancée’s vigorous protests) to help a strange young woman in distress.
He dreamed again, and this time - for the first time - he remembered fragments of the dream.
And so it begins.
Chapter 2: Rising
They were square in the middle of things, so of course they had to stop to argue. Why should things be any different now?
Yes, Richard was now the “Warrior” or some such, and had been given the freedom of the Underground (whatever that meant), but there was still such a thing as being prudent. Hunter had been the best, er, hunter in London Below, but that hadn’t stopped her from getting herself killed in a spectacularly painful and pointless manner.
Some things were just plain stupid, no matter who you were, and Richard felt quite rightly that risking an encounter with foggy, life-sucking tentacle beasts fell square into that particular corner.
To Richard’s complete lack of surprise, the Marquis brushed this perfectly valid concern aside like so much lint.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the Marquis snapped from down on the tracks. He held out his arms, but the look on his face suggested that Richard had maybe three seconds before he let those arms fall back to his sides and left Richard to shift for himself. “Those creatures only come out when a train is in station. As far as I know, they actually ride beneath the trains themselves.”
“Oh, now that’s comforting…”
“Besides, Lady Door is waiting. And not very patiently, I would imagine.”
The Marquis pointedly said nothing about the people who were in hot pursuit of them and could now be heard in what could only be charitably described as ‘the distance.’
Richard sighed, then crouched down and gingerly eased his passenger into the Marquis’ grasp. He could have just jumped down there, but any kind of jostling was to be avoided. They had learned quickly that any harsh or sudden motion caused Ingress to thrash and cry out.
The only good thing about it, not that it was good, was that it was a sign of life. Otherwise, Ingress might as well have been dead for all the reaction they got from her. It was just as well Door was not with them.
Ingress whimpered slightly as the Marquis tightened his grip so he wouldn’t drop her. He then ran off into the tunnel and up a few narrow steps to a service walkway without looking to see if Richard would follow.
Of course Richard followed, checking over his shoulder as he did and wondering how far away the circus folk were. Uncomfortably closer than they had been a few minutes ago, judging by the volume of the hoots and laughter and growls coming from behind them.
He hurried after the Marquis, slipping a very large, very old knife from its sheath as he ran. It sat comfortably in his hand. He was more than ready to use it if he had to, and…
Well, that was reassuring and disturbing all at the same time. He elected not to examine the thought too closely. Besides, they weren’t too far from Marble Arch and Door. Once there, they would be safe.
Reasonably safe, anyhow.
And that would be the end of that, he thought. Ingress would be home, the sisters would be reunited, and all would be well. The end.
At least, that’s what he tried to make himself think, but he had a nagging feeling that this particular story was barely even halfway over.
Everything important was happening without her. Door paced back and forth in the breakfast room and tried to think of something she could do.
She had always hated the sort of book where the heroine sat around being helpless and useless while Other People did all the important and exciting work. That was what she resented most, really - the sense that she had been forced into a role that had nothing to do with her while Richard got to play hero and the Marquis played his… what? Mentor? Sidekick? Friend?
None of those terms worked quite the way they should.
Door grabbed at her hair and gave a vicious shake to clear thoughts that were doing her no good at all. There was solid logic behind her grudging agreement to stay behind. She was known as Lord Portico’s daughter, and many of the performers of the Oxford Circus would no doubt still know her on sight, and so she had to stay here and do nothing but pace.
If only she had not begged to accompany her father on his visits to the Circus! At the time, it had seemed a huge treat for a tiny girl, as she got to sit watch the dancing dogs and the clowns on their scooters while her father discussed politics and alliances with the Ringmistress. She began to know some of the performers by name. Some even became friends. The Bearded Lady would give her tea and biscuits, and the tallest of the clowns had knit her a ruffly orange scarf. Even the stern, scary Ringmistress had the occasional smile for her by the end.
When the Ringmistress crouched down to tell Door that she took after her father, and that this was a very good thing, Door was giddy for days from the compliment. She very much wanted to be like her adored father, but now she wanted to be like the Ringmistress, too.
But then, on their last visit, her father had literally pulled her away from ringside while a quartet of poodles was performing a mazurka. She protested and said he was hurting her arm, but her father told her to be quiet with a harshness that stunned her into silent tears.
He had never spoken to her like that before, and he never spoke to her like that again. He also never took her back to the Circus. Eventually, he told her why.
“I miscalculated. I thought the Ringmistress understood the need to create accord among the different fiefdoms, but…” He paused for a moment, then shook his head and let out a long, weary breath. “I asked too much of her, in the end. I overreached. I’m sorry, but you must never go back there, Door. I fear what would happen to you if you did. La… The Ringmistress and her kin have long memories and are not inclined to forgive.”
“But I thought she was your friend?” Door had cried herself to sleep for two nights straight, thinking of friends she would never see again.
Her father stroked her hair gently, and gave her a small, sad smile. “Oh, she was - and I like to think she still is in some ways, but for some people, it’s harder to forgive the people they care about than someone who doesn’t matter.”
The circus folk might not have known who Ingress was when they purchased her, but the instant anyone saw Door and her at the same time, they would have been recognized as sisters, and that would have been a disaster. The thought terrified her and broke her heart at the same time.
If the Ringmistress learned who she had bought from the child-peddler at the Floating Market, she no doubt would have found something far, far worse to do to Ingress than turn her into another one of the Circus’s performing dolls. Door could’t risk it, no matter how badly she wanted to be there to help.
Richard, though… Richard was not yet well-known throughout the Underside, although that was changing rapidly. As for the Marquis, his notoriety was of the sort that no one was really surprised when he turned up anywhere. Without Door, the two of them might be able to make a deal and get Ingress out of there without any fuss and bother.
Yes, it was logical, but no, it didn’t make her any less heartsick about the situation. All she could do was…
Door stilled and held her breath as if trying to hear the faintest of noises, but it wasn’t a noise she was after. It was something she felt, rather than heard.
Someone who was not her had opened one of the few outside doors into her realm. Door opened a way to the entrance hall as fast as she could, roughly silencing the part of her that said what if it’s another Croup and Vandemar?
Well, if it was, she would deal with it, but it wasn’t. It was Richard, too quiet and too covered with blood.
“It’s not mine,” he said in response to her gasp of dismay, and it wasn’t the feeble and anxious attempt at a joke she would have expected. He didn’t sound horrified, or hysterical, or anything at all, really.
“Are you hurt?” she finally asked, because it was obvious that Richard was far from all right. He clutched Hunter’s knife so tightly she wondered if he would be able to let go without breaking his fingers. “Were you able to…”
“No, he is not hurt, and yes, we were able to.” The Marquis sauntered into the hall just then, and Door nearly pushed Richard aside.
Ingress was in the Marquis’ arms, and even though she was too pale and too still, her chest rose up and down and up and down and she was alive.
Door ran to take her from the Marquis, but the man stepped back sharply, a firm don’t clear in the narrowing of his eyes.
She turned to Richard, who still hadn’t moved or turned. He seemed to be staring at the place she had been as if she were still there. “What happened?”
“The transformation had already started by the time we got there,” Richard said. It sounded like rote recitation.
“Needless to say, the Ringmistress was not willing to sell a work in progress. We had to otherwise… appropriate what we came for,” added the Marquis. He raised an eyebrow. “I suppose we could have bought you a different child if you had wanted. It would have been much easier.”
Door ignored him. It was easier than slapping him, and that might have caused him to drop Ingress. She ran a shaking hand over Ingress’s dark red hair. The last time she had seen it, it had been done up in two long, unruly plaits. Now it had been cropped into a sleek, tidy bob that was too sharp for her sweet face.
“They came after us. They nearly caught us, but…” Richard stopped, and then he finally looked at her, face drawn with pity and anguish. “We got her back, Door, but she won’t talk and she won’t wake up. Maybe she’ll be get better, maybe… I don’t know. I don’t know how any of this is supposed to work.”
“She won’t wake? At all?” Door asked. She held one of Ingress’s hands between hers and stared into her sister’s face. Ingress’s skin was pale, except around her eyes, where it had gone dark and fragile-looking. Finally, she let go of Ingress’s hand and held out her arms. “Here. Give her to me.”
The Marquis hesitated. Door waited, unwavering.
“Be careful,” he said with surprising gentleness as he passed Ingress over. “Don’t jostle her. She won’t move on her own, but if you startle her, she will kick, and…” the Marquis paused, then swore. Door looked up to see him grimace and pat at his chest. Something oozed through his jacket. Bits of it were yellow.
“Is that… egg?” Richard exclaimed.
“It was,” the Marquis said crisply, or rather as crisply as a man could while trying to keep the remains of an egg from sliding down from beneath his jacket to make contact with his trousers. “In addition to that favor you already owe for my help in this escapade, you - or rather your sister - owe me a new duck egg.” He flicked fragments of sticky blue-green shell from his fingers with no concern for where they landed.
She could see Richard struggling not to ask why the Marquis would be carrying a raw egg inside his clothing. She rather wished he would ask. That would be more like the Richard she knew and… well, was fond of.
“I need to wash up,” Richard said, abruptly walking away touching the picture that would take him to his rooms. He was gone before Door could say anything.
“I’ll be taking my leave as well,” the Marquis said. “I should be back in a few days with that item you promised to keep safe for me in return for today’s errand.”
From the way he leaned hard on the word promised, Door knew that she would probably have cause to regret locking away whatever treasure it was the Marquis wanted her to protect.
He left, and Door found herself wanting to call him back and protest that the Marquis had not kept up his end of the bargain. Door didn’t truly have her sister back.
She looked at the picture Richard had touched - a cozy cottage bedroom - and tried not to wonder if the Marquis had also failed to bring Richard back.
There had to be something she could do. She had survived Croup and Vandemar. She had survived Islington. They, on the other hand, had not survived her. So why did she feel so miserably at sea?
The spear fit in his right hand as if it belonged there, as if it had always been there. He drew nearer his prey, placing each foot carefully to avoid slipping on gravel or black ice. The wind lashed across the highlands, much too sharply for this time of year. The weather had turned against them, as had the land before it.
The token was an inconvenient weight in his left hand, but he dared not put it down. It was as important as the spear in this hunt, although no one could explain why.
He was almost out of time. He heard a snuffling and rumbling, and his hand clenched tighter around the spear. So close, so close…
Damp breath puffed hot against the back of his neck. He yelled, and turned -
- and Richard’s eyes flew open. His heart hammered so hard in his throat he thought he would be sick from it. He closed his eyes and tried to quiet his mind, but it insisted on churning through everything that had as they ran from the Circus. Without wanting to, he remembered looking back and he remembered seeing a mob rounding the corner in the tube tunnel behind them.
They were barely past Bond Street and the Circus was closing in on them quickly.
The Marquis ran slowly, burdened down as he was, but Richard matched his pace, making sure to guard the rear. Anything that wanted to get to Ingress would have to get through him, first, he told himself. The thought felt less panicked than he would have expected. Less panicked and more fierce.
Richard kept looking back, even though movies and books all said this was the one thing you should never, ever do. First, he saw the glint of sequins and patches of bright motley far away. Then, he saw a flash of yellow high above the rest of the mass - it was the Ringmistress, and she was at the head of the pack.
The Ringmistress was terrifyingly gorgeous. She stood well over six feet tall, not counting the canary yellow bowler hat that she wore like a crown. Unlike other dignitaries he had met in London Below, the Ringmistress was not given to layers of velvet and lace. Rather, she could have stepped straight out of Swinging London, right down to the yellow-and-black checkered shift dress and white patent go go boots. The same could be said for the clowns and acrobats who were right behind her - one and all looked dapper and mod and more than a little ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence.
Bad as the clowns were, the Ringmistress was worse. She wasn’t just tall, she was strong enough to keep a full-grown leopard straining hard against its leash. When he looked back again, she was close enough for him to see lush, white-painted lips pulled into a snarl.
The Marquis was visibly struggling, breathing hard and slowing down fast. He nearly stumbled more than once. Richard reached over to take Ingress from him, thinking to spell him a bit, maybe help them make up some ground, but then some instinct made him look back one last time.
Sight and action came at once. Someone all in yellow and black and white hurtled towards him. Then his arm was around the person’s neck, and he felt the hot blood cover his hand (and his arm, and his leg, and his face) and he yelled at the Marquis to run, damn you, run. All this was before he had time to think.
Then, he thought. Or maybe it was more fair to say that his thoughts hit him all at once like a pallet of bricks dropped from a height.
What had he done?
Everything froze. It was less than a second, but it felt like much, much longer. The shock lasted until Richard saw that the Ringmistress was very much alive and standing about twenty yards down the tunnel, holding up a hand to keep her minions at bay behind her.
At his feet was ten stone of dead leopard. To his horror, the animal’s eyes were still open and its mouth seemed to be set in an expression of dismayed surprise. He remembered killing it the way he might remember breathing.
The Ringmistress held back her people and gave Richard a look that he couldn’t tear away from. Her left eye was masked by a swath of slicked down platinum-blonde hair. The right, pale green and ringed with startlingly thick black lashes, fixed him like a pin fixes a butterfly.
Richard hefted the knife and thanked God that the Marquis was enough of a self-serving bastard that he had no doubt kept on running, taking Ingress with him. It was his job now to buy them time. Everything else was forgotten. It felt unnaturally natural to shift his weight, shoulder dropping back so that his knife-hand would have more power behind it.
Then the Ringmistress gave him a closed-mouth smile that seemed strangely familiar, and with a flick of her hand, her troupe turned and went back the way they came.
The Ringmistress waited, staring. Richard returned the stare. If she came at him, he could take her down like he had the leopard… He saw how it would happen, he waited for it to happen, and his stomach gave a little flip at how easily it all flowed through his mind. He swallowed hard, then wheeled around and ran hell-for-leather after the Marquis and Ingress.
He didn’t turn back to look, but he was certain the Ringmistress watched him until he was well out of sight.
He was safe, he told himself, back in the present. They were safe. He wasn’t in the tunnel anymore and he wasn’t having disturbing thoughts about killing or attacking anyone. He was in the bedroom Door had found for him, with its old-fashioned wooden bed, the uneven ceilings, and the window looking out onto a dozy winter landscape from some other time.
Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching him.
Then he heard a faint and not at all threatening cough, and became aware of a slight dip towards the end of his bed. He opened his eyes.
Door sat on the edge of his bed. She smiled at him, only somewhat apologetically. Richard was slowly coming to terms with the fact that in London Below, ‘personal space’ was only an interesting theory to most people.
“You were asleep for nearly fourteen hours,” she said quietly. From the look of the deep circles under her eyes, the same could not be said for her.
He reached out and she took his hand, squeezing gently.
“Has she - ”
Door shook her head. She was struggling and failing not to look completely wretched. “There hasn’t been any change. I can get her to take some broth if I lift her head and put the spoon to her mouth, but that’s all. I don’t know what else to do.”
Richard understood her frustration. As a warrior (whatever the hell that was supposed to mean, anyway), there was absolutely nothing he could do for Ingress. There weren’t any leopards or giant circus women to fight.
Part of him wished there were. He told that part of him to shut up.
Richard ran a thumb over her knuckles. “Well, you’ve been sitting up with her the entire time I’ve been asleep, haven’t you?”
There was a flash of guilt. “Well, mostly. I did leave her for a little bit…”
Well, of course she’d have to go to the loo and such, but that was hardly worth mentioning.
“…I went to my father’s study to look around.”
Now that, Richard was not expecting.
Door went red at the look he gave her, perhaps reading his curiosity as judgment.
“I have to do something, Richard! I need to figure out what the Ringmistress did to her, so I can figure out how to fix it.”
It took him a moment, but he got it. “Your father’s journals. There might be something about the Ringmistress in there.”
Door nodded. She had explained why she couldn’t go to the circus with them. From the sound of thing, there had once been nice people at the Oxford Circus.
“He had worked with her off and on for years. I know he was hoping she would back his ideas for uniting London Below. There was something about her I knew he wasn’t telling me, though.” She squared her shoulders and sat up straight but she looked more tired than she had when Richard woke up. “Some big secret. Something scary.”
“More scary?” Richard squeaked, and something in Door’s expression relaxed ever so slightly. It came close to being a smile. She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek, a quick brush of lips that was there and gone before he could even think to do anything in return.
“Get some rest,” Door said. She did not need to say that he would probably need it.
“Wait!” he called out as she stood up from the bed. “There’s something… I was too worried about how we were going to get out of there so I didn’t pay close attention, but the Ringmistress said something, when the Marquis and I were looking at her dolls.”
He couldn’t remember her exact words, but remembered being confused.
Fortunately, he knew exactly who to talk to to clear up the confusion.
Chapter 3: Turning
The Ringmistress made her rounds, assessing the aftermath of the recent theft. Most everyone had recovered from the chase. Lenny the Leopard hadn’t, of course.
So, the first visit on her rounds was to the animals. Miasma, the keeper, was still a bit sniffly over Lenny, but there was a watery smile as well.
“Stupid bully cat,” she said, dabbing at runny mascara with a lime green handkerchief she had pulled from somewhere in her suede catsuit. “At least dear Lenny got to go out fighting, just as he would have wanted.”
Indeed he had. That had been a most interesting and worthwhile demonstration, even if it had cost her a member of her troupe. Still, Miasma had it right: Lenny had died as a proper leopard. The poor darling may have been happier in the circus than he was as that drug lord’s ‘pet,’ but chasing and killing was his true calling.
She made her way through the old bunkers and forgotten wartime storage areas that were now her troupe’s performance space. The bright hangings and painted partitions cheered the place up a bit, but it still seemed far too stark without the swirling lights they ran for the shows.
She met the clowns’ questioning looks with a cool glare, and they quickly went back about their business, affixing more mirrors and fresh paint to their refurbished Vespas. Their curiosity about the recent chase and why it was called off would go unsatisfied until the end of time.
“Rehearsal in two hours, m’lads,” she called up to the acrobats who were lounging about in the rigging like drunken fruit bats. She got a desultory wave that said nothing about whether or not they had actually heard her.
The sideshow artists required a mix of coddling and stern words - rumors about just who it was that had been stolen from them were starting to circulate, and she had to put a stop to ill-thought sentiment before it took root. They would get the child back soon enough, she reassured them, and it seemed to take. Still, the Bearded Lady was disconcertingly silent and thoughtful. That would bear watching.
As for the dancing dogs, she only had to throw them a few biscuits, and the day’s upset was completely forgotten.
Then, there was the visitor waiting in her office. Said office was the dead end of an unfinished service tunnel, curtained off from the rest of the Circus’s territory with strings of plastic discs in bright, happy orange. Inside was a cerise rug with long, ropy shag and two white plastic chairs that put one in mind of eggs. The fact that the seat cushions were a deep yellow only added to the impression.
The person waiting there clearly had nothing to do with circuses. She moved the wrong way, stiff and formal as if all she knew was how to stand perfectly still or curtsy. The mismatched blacks of her corseted leather dress and lace petticoat stood out sharply against the sunny colors of the Ringmistress’s world.
“You’ve confirmed it, then?”
Her guest nodded. “Yes. The man accompanying the Marquis de Carabas was Richard Mayhew. The new Warrior.”
The Marquis was well known to her, but Richard Mayhew was so far only a hint of a rumor. And as she listened to her spy’s information - patchy as it was - her fascination grew.
“That would explain why the tosser had Hunter’s knife,” the Ringmistress observed. It would also explain how he got the drop on Lenny. She tapped her fingertips together. “Oh, this is interesting.”
Her spy hesitated before sharing her next bit of information. “He is also closely associated with the Lady Door of Marble Arch. He is living in the House Without Doors, but it is uncertain if he is merely a hired bravo or if she has taken him as a paramour.”
The Ringmistress went very still and silent for a moment, fingers frozen mid-tap. So Portico’s eldest daughter was behind this, as she had halfway suspected. It was another matter entirely to have that suspicion confirmed and learn that the girl was willing to set her thieves and mercenaries against her. This, too, was interesting, but in a way she did not appreciate in the slightest.
“I see. Thank you, Desiderata. That will be all I need from you today. I’ll expect your usual report on Herself’s doings tomorrow, ducky.”
She called two of her more formidable clowns to escort their spy safely to the edge of her territory. Then, she had one more stop to make.
The children were having their tea in a group as always. A few sat quietly next to the others, happily undisturbed as they lost themselves in books. Some talked in large groups, laughing and shrieking and shoving, while others were quieter and more reserved, preferring to talk to only one or two others at a time.
There was one little boy, half starved and glassy-eyed, who sat well apart from the others. He looked wistfully at them from time to time, but ignored the entreaties to come join them.
Perhaps he was used to such offers of friendship being used as a trap. Children could be so cruel, but none of her children were. They were family - the best kind of family, and very soon poor, sweet little Georgie would see that for himself.
Fading bruises on his face and body and circular burns on his arms and back spoke of the kind of life he must have had before disappearing into the Below.
“Your parents?” she asked gently, touching the back of a beige-painted nail to one of the more healed burns.
The boy nodded, ducking his head as if expecting a swat for tattling. Eventually, though, he began to talk, filling in more of a story the likes of which the Ringmistress had heard over and over again. Things never seemed to change.
They never would.
“And so you ran away to join the circus!” she exclaimed with a broad smile.
The boy nodded, this time showing a little more life in those glassy eyes. He looked over longingly to where the dolls, happy and clean and dressed in bright, cheerful colors, drank their tea and read their books and chattered about their next performance. There were two of them she was thinking would make good acrobats and one who was brilliant at throwing knives, but it would be a while yet before she could let them grow up. But at least they would be able to grow up one day. Some of the others were far too damaged for that to ever be a possibility.
“You were right and brave to come here. Family can only hurt you, but you know that already, don’t you, lovey? Parents. Brothers. Sisters,” she said with a hiss. “They’re the ones who hurt you most. Now, Georgie, it’s time to start a new life and forget all about that rot. Come with me, lovely boy.”
It would take some serious grooming for him to truly be lovely, but that was a minor detail and one that was easily fixed. A simple haircut and some new clothes could do so much.
She led him back to her office and helped him into one of the white chairs. He was so small and the chairs were so deep that his feet stuck straight out. She then went to a small refrigerator that had been patched into the Tube’s electrical system, and she took something out. “I’ve only got the one left, so you’re lucky you didn’t have to wait any longer than this.”
She held the object out to him. “Careful not to drop it, Georgie-lamb. Now, I’ll just need you to hold on to this for a little while, and it will soon be over. When you wake up, you’ll have an all-new family. A better one.”
“That’s another egg you owe me.” This time, the Marquis had stuffed his pockets with sufficient handkerchiefs, because life was simply not cooperating with him. He sopped up the remains of egg as best he could. At least he had only invested less than a day in this one.
“I said I was sorry, but it’s a stupid place to carry an egg. And what are you doing with an egg stuffed down your shirt, anyway?” Richard demanded as if the Marquis would give up the answer simply because he had asked.
“Nothing that’s of any concern to you.” The Marquis dabbed the last of the egg from his skin and tossed the crushed shell over his shoulder.
Richard’s eyes narrowed in an expression the Marquis recognized all too well from mirrors. “This has something to do with the thing you’re asking Door to keep for you as payment, doesn’t it?”
It was easy to forget that ‘naïve’ and ‘earnest’ did not always equal ‘stupid.’ The Marquis knew someone had given him that advice at one point, but who that someone was, he could not recall.
Ah, well. If he didn’t remember it, then it couldn’t possibly be important.
“Perhaps, but it’s still nothing that’s of any concern to you,” the Marquis said.
Richard stood between the Marquis and the ladder he had been about to climb to the surface. He seemed unusually impassive for Richard. Rather than standing there with his chin jutted out and arms crossed in a feeble and ultimately futile declaration that he was Not Moving, he simply did not move.
“Let’s not make this any more unpleasant than it has to be,” the Marquis said, expecting Richard to fold like a fan.
Richard didn’t move. Neither did the Marquis.
“Ingress isn’t waking up,” Richard finally said.
The Marquis knew he betrayed something at the news, but he quickly schooled his expression into its usual indifferent calm. He’d received some valuable advice about that at one point.
Odd, that he couldn’t remember where he had picked up something of such value. It was almost as odd as the sense of obligation that came out of nowhere and nearly made him say ‘what can I do?’
Richard sighed, and pulled a hand down his face. “Look, I know you only look out for yourself, and you never do anything for anyone else unless there’s something in it for you, but I also know Door’s family is important to you. Also, after everything the three of us have been through together, I was starting to think… Anyhow, I was hoping you’d be willing to help her out.”
For free? Never mind his previous thought - in this case naïve and stupid went skipping along merrily hand-in-hand.
“Door isn’t the one who came to me just now.”
“She’s with her sister,” Richard snapped. “Listen, let’s just say that I’ll owe you a favor - how about I agree to be your bodyguard or lackey or footman or whatever on one of your schemes, and you agree to answer a question for me.”
Oh, this was practically unsporting…
“I’m not sure,” the Marquis drawled. “There is one other very small favor I’m also owed before I can consider extending my services to you or the Lady Door again.”
Richard, to the Marquis’s utter lack of surprise, agreed without hearing the terms. And so, that is how the two of them ended up stalking ducks in Regent’s Park Zoo.
The highlight of the afternoon, as far as the Marquis was concerned, was watching from a comfortable distance as Richard ran along the edge of the pond, flailing wildly as a female mallard attacked his head.
“Behold the mighty Warrior!” the Marquis proclaimed.
Richard used some language the Marquis was honestly surprised the man even knew. Eventually, his assailant gave up and retreated to its nest with a volley of scolding quacks. Richard looked horribly and amusingly guilty about the whole thing.
“Here’s your bloody egg.” Richard smacked the blue-green egg into the Marquis’ hand nearly hard enough to crack it, which would have been the irony cherry on the travesty sundae. “What do you need with an egg anyway, and why the hell do you keep putting them inside your shirt?”
The Marquis gave his best impression of a man who had not just shoved a raw egg inside his clothing.
“Is that the question you wanted to ask?”
He quite enjoyed the way Richard’s face went pale at the sudden reminder of how deals generally worked in London Below. Something, however, prompted him to take pity on the man.
“No, of course it’s not what you wanted to ask.” He smiled in a way that was not meant to be reassuring at all. “So, what is it?”
Richard studied him for a good, long moment, and there was something in his gaze that reminded the Marquis very much of Hunter - and not in an entirely pleasant way.
“When we were at the Circus, the Ringmistress said something about one of the things she did to turn those kids into her happy little puppets. She said it was similar to something you already knew about - I don’t remember her exact words.”
Yes, he remembered that, just as he remembered the very pointed look he had received at the comment. It had rather puzzled him at the time. Still, he ran through a mental list of a rather large array of spells and tricks, but nothing seemed to fit.
“I know a number of ways to, shall we say, adjust someone’s perception of an event. Very convenient when you need to maintain plausible deniability, but do I know a way to take someone’s personality and memories right out of their body? No.”
“Spells? Like whatever it is you’re trying to do with that egg?”
The Marquis stalked off along the shoreline. The weekend crowds at the zoo unthinkingly altered their paths to avoid colliding with him. “This is starting to become an obsession with you. In fact, it’s borderline unhealthy.”
Of course, Richard followed him, not at all hampered by a crowd that didn’t notice him, either. “I’m not the one who made a big deal about getting another duck egg. Why a duck? Why not a chicken?”
“How many times do I have to tell you this doesn’t concern you before you finally start to believe me?”
A big part of putting one’s very life into another object for safekeeping was that no one else should know about it. Something wasn’t very safe if it wasn’t also very secret.
“Until I’m certain it has nothing to do with what’s wrong with Ingress, is how many!”
The Marquis stopped short and turned, holding one arm out straight to keep Richard from crashing into him and breaking yet another egg.
“As you can imagine, there are plenty of people out there who would very much like to kill me.”
Richard’s lack of surprise was more annoying than it should have been.
“This,” the Marquis said, lightly resting a hand over the egg’s new home, “is one of many ways I have of thwarting their desire. I am entirely, absolutely, and perfectly certain it has nothing to do with Lady Ingress.”
Yes, the spell had certain side effects, but he none of the ones he recalled were anything like what had happened to Portico’s youngest child. Just in case, though, he tried to remember back to when he had learned the trick.
He wasn’t sure what expression crossed his face, but he did see that it caused Richard’s brows to draw together in worry.
It had always been a little troubling that he couldn’t remember exactly who had taught him the trick to stashing his life in an egg.
Now, though, it had suddenly become a lot troubling.
He told himself that was the only reason he agreed when Richard asked him to go back to the circus, but the only person he had never been any good at fooling was himself.
Her father’s earliest journals were written, not recorded, and Door missed seeing her father’s face and hearing his voice as she went through the entries. Her inner ear kindly read his words in her father’s gentle tones as she pored over each entry.
As best she could tell, the Oxford Circus had been around a long time, probably since before her father even met her mother. There were allusions to the Ringmistress taking in lost children and making them part of her troupe, but there was no judgment, no condemnation in her father’s words. She could almost hear the fondness in his voice.
Door stopped reading for a moment, almost crushed by the sheer weight of missing him all over again. But she quickly steeled herself and kept reading. She refused to fail Ingress. Not in this.
At last, Door found a name to go with the title of Ringmistress. It was nothing more than a careless mention, but its meaning was clear.
For a moment, just a single moment, she felt like screaming at her father for his stupidity. How could he bring a child - bring her - there? What was he thinking?
Part of her said there was no point in trying to save Ingress. What she had read told her she was doomed to lose.
The rest of her desperately cried no! She would not give up!
Despair clutched at her, but Door held firm and made herself think of Ingress. What she read told her she had almost no hope of winning, but she wouldn’t give up. She couldn’t.
This was what she had to do. Even if the Ringmistress hunted her down and fed her to the tigers. Even if Ingress never woke up again. Even if everyone she knew would have told her this was a lost cause from the start.
They told Father the same thing, she thought, and it didn’t stop him.
Well, Croup and Vandemar had stopped him, but Door chose not think too much about that.
Going to bed didn’t seem like a very useful thing to do at all, but that was what Richard ended up doing anyway. According to the Marquis, the circus was doing a one-time-only performance for the Shepherd Queen that evening, so there was no point in going after the Ringmistress until the next day.
Given what little Richard had heard about the Shepherd Queen, he was inclined to agree. This would be difficult enough as it was.
“We may as well get some proper rest before then,” the Marquis said, giving Door a look that could have pierced concrete. She looked ready to protest, but when she yawned when she meant to speak, she quickly realized she had no ground to stand on.
From what Door had told them about the Ringmistress, they would need every bit of their strength and wit about them.
Of course, what Door had said meant absolutely nothing to Richard, but it clearly meant something to the other two. Door had constantly peeked back over her shoulder as she imparted the news as if bracing to be punished for uttering the words out loud. The Marquis’ eyes went wide with surprise, and then his face settled into something grimmer than Richard had ever seen from him before.
They both seemed to wait for him to ask them the inevitable questions about what it all meant and how bad could it be, but Richard stayed quiet other than to agree with the Marquis that they would all be better off well-rested.
He didn’t want to think too much about what tomorrow would bring, and what he might find himself doing to other people as part of it.
He really didn’t want to think about how part of him was looking forward to it.
Of course, thinking about it was exactly what he did, as he laid in bed all too awake with his hands folded behind his head and his brain spinning wildly. He had been a securities analyst, once upon a time. He had killed a monster simply by happenstance, and next thing he knew, all of these strange thoughts and instincts were waking inside of him.
What the hell was happening to him?
“What’s happening is that you are finally growing into your potential,” Hunter told him.
Richard’s head jerked up. Sure enough, Hunter was sitting in the rocking chair by the window, barely distinguishable from the darkness.
“You’re dead,” he pointed out.
“Yes…” she said in a tone usually reserved for the terminally dim, “and you’re dreaming.”
“Ah,” he said, as if that actually explained anything.
“That was well done, with the leopard.” The praise was grudging, but there was a note of respect there as well.
“I didn’t mean to - ”
“Of course you meant to kill it. It meant to kill you, after all. You responded as a hunter, not as mere prey. Are you saying you think of that as a bad thing?”
Well, when she put it that way, not exactly. But it still bothered him.
“I think it’s a bad thing that there’s part of me that enjoyed what happened.” It was easier to say in dreams what he was afraid to admit even to himself when awake.
Outside, a full moon had emerged from behind winter clouds and he could see her tilt her head curiously. “Why shouldn’t you enjoy doing what you were meant to do?”
“I’m not a killer!”
His breathing sounded quite loud in the awkward pause that followed.
“You’re a hunter and a warrior. Killing is a large part of the job description.”
Richard leaned forward and groaned, clutching at his head. He was only those things by accident, he wanted to protest. It wasn’t that he didn’t like finally feeling brave and competent and confident and all those other things that always seemed to elude him before coming to London Below. He did.
He didn’t want to lose that. He felt like himself in a way that he had never missed because he had never before known to miss it. It was all new, and yet it felt like something long forgotten and now remembered.
He remembered it the way he remembered the weight of a spear in a rough, hairy hand.
In a slender, blue-painted hand.
In his own hand.
It felt right. It felt natural. It felt like everything his career in securities should have been but never in a million years would have been. The hunt was his purpose, and his purpose was the hunt…
“And right now you’re wondering how long it will be before you betray your friends for a better weapon, or for a chance to hunt a bigger, more challenging prey.”
Of course she could see into his thoughts. She was something his own subconscious had simply vomited up into a dream so he could torture himself.
“You have it the other way around, Richard. That thought about the purpose being the hunt was mine before it was yours.”
That made no sense at all.
“We are the same, Richard Mayhew.”
He gave a harsh laugh. “I doubt it. I wouldn’t look half so good in leather as you do.”
Death hadn’t made her ‘don’t be stupid’ look any less withering.
“We were both born into this role, although it took you a much longer way to find your way onto the proper path. As for me…” She looked away, and her profile stood out sharp against the window. “I lost my way so long ago I never even knew how lost I was until I came to the end of that path.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, because it seemed like the sort of thing he should say.
“Don’t waste your sympathy. I found my way back at the very end, as did the Beast.”
The Beast? But how…
“The hunt is the purpose and the purpose is the hunt. This is true for both hunter and prey. It is true just as it is true that for the warrior the fight is the purpose and the purpose is the fight. But ask yourself this, Richard Mayhew - what is the purpose of the hunt? Of the fight?”
Of course that was when he woke up, because that was how his life worked.
Chapter 4: Falling
The three of them didn’t say much as they made their way to Oxford Circus. Richard seemed unusually grim while the Marquis seemed strangely unsettled.
Door couldn’t blame either of them a bit. This had little chance of working, but it was the only thing she could think of. If they could get round the Ringmistress’s guard, they might be able to approach one of Door’s old friends. Then, everything would depend on whether or not her old friends were truly her friends.
After Islington, after Hunter, she knew better to count on that.
Richard tensed suddenly, his hand dropping to the knife at his hip. A second later, the Marquis cursed under his breath, and Door felt something strangely like relief.
She had been waiting for something to go wrong, so when two clowns and two beasts stepped out of the shadows, her first thought was ‘well, at least that’s over with.’
The clowns wore the bowlers that marked them as being among the Ringmistress’s closest attendants, and they were both dressed in plain white shirts and trousers. One had a streak of bright blue eyeshadow over his left eye. The other had hot pink over his right eye. One held a tiger by the collar. The other, a lioness. Both, of course, had the requisite red rubber noses on.
“Oi. You lot. Come wi’ us. ‘Erself wants to see you.” said the one with the tiger.
The Marquis gave the others a questioning look. Door thought for a moment, then nodded.
She liked to think it meant something that the clowns hadn’t set the big cats on them straightaway. One clown led the way, while the other fell behind them as guard.
“I hate clowns. I always thought they were more scary than funny,” Richard whispered.
“That is perhaps the most reasonable thing I have ever heard you say,” the Marquis whispered in return.
Door shushed them both. Soon, they came to a wooden partition that spread the width and height of the tunnel. It had been painted in huge swirls of yellow and black. A cascade of silver beads hung down the middle, presumably masking a doorway.
“Milady, gentlemen - would you please step inside? Our mistress awaits,” said the clown with the lioness. He pulled a swath of beads aside, revealing an off-kilter opening.
“After you,” the Marquis drawled.
Door and Richard stepped through the door at the same time. They were greeted by darkness and a sudden burst of guitar and keyboard.
“The Who?” Richard said in surprise.
“I don’t know,” Door said.
“Er, it’s the name of the band,” Richard explained. The keyboards deedled up and down in a catchy rhythm. “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
“I don’t know - she’s tricky. You’ll need to be very careful.”
“It’s the name of the song,” he said with strained patience.
“Oh,” she said. She suddenly had a lot more sympathy for Richard must have felt when he first came to London Below. She probably owed him an apology.
The guitar came back in with a crash, along with a heavy drumbeat and a flash of light.
“Welcome, welcome!” boomed a rich alto voice.
Door blinked away the blindness from the sudden spotlight just in time for another light to flare to life in the center ring.
The Ringmistress stood in the exact center of the ring, hips cocked to the side. The light glinted off the sequins of her tangerine minidress, making the black of the bullwhip she held at her side look that much more stark. The yellow bowler and asymmetrical bob were exactly as Door remembered.
“May I introduce our special guest, the one, the only, Lady Door of Marble ARCH!”
There was a smattering of applause from the darkness, which was quickly drowned out by the Ringmistress’s roar of “And now, let the show BEGIN!”
Lesser lights cut through the darkness in reds and golds and purples, swelling and diminishing as they swung and swirled across the brick arches high above. The acrobats riggings threw harsh lines of shadow here, there, and everywhere, and mirrored balls scattered the lights into millions of stars across the walls and ground. Bright silks spooled from the ceiling and acrobats in wildly patterned leotards spun down along with them to dance in midair. In a series of whoops that drowned out the music, a fleet of aerialists swooped down on trapezes.
“Oh, this isn’t good,” Richard said as the flecks of light from the mirrored balls seemed to double. It took Door a moment to notice what he’d seen, given she was still seeing spots.
Those new flashes of lights weren’t from the mirrored balls. They were from the dozens of very sharp knives the acrobats tossed back and forth as they cavorted overhead.
One knife buried itself in the sawdust between Door’s feet, making an emphatic point. Richard moved closer to her, and a little ways in front.
Outside the ring, Door saw eyes - human and animal - flash in the swirling lights. A woman in a skin-tight suede outfit sashayed forwards, flanked by two snarling bears. She also wore a boa like, well, a boa. Clowns and tumblers and sideshow performers in all sorts of motley began to crowd around the edge of the ring. A small horde of miniature poodles wove through the crowds, looking up in vain hope of treats.
“They’re all around us,” Richard said.
“I know.” She’d heard the murmurs coming from behind them.
The music began to fade, but the acrobats continued to sail over their heads, ready to release a storm of knives at any moment.
“Have you come here to steal another one of my darling children? We don’t think much of that, now do we, laddies?” the Ringmistress called cheerfully into the dark. There were hoots and cackles from the crowd, but Door’s eyes had finally recovered to where she could see some of the faces in the crowd. Some of the faces were sad, and confused.
Some of the faces were also familiar. Door made eye contact with one of the clowns, who gave a slight nod. She also felt a surge of warmth as Richard moved closer to her.
“I came to get my sister back!” she called out. Her voice sounded thin and weak compared to the Ringmistress’s but she also thought it sounded more confident.
The Ringmistress’s false-lashed eyes went wide in mock surprise. “Oh? You have? Well… I suppose you wouldn’t want one of your precious Openers out on her own and on the loose. The people of the Marble Arch have to guard their secrets and their power, don’t they? But you’ve already stolen that poor little girl away from me, so how could you possibly want her back? If anything, I should be asking you to return her to me.”
Door’s face went hot with anger and she couldn’t keep from trembling. Richard asked her something, but she couldn’t hear him over the pounding in her ears.
“What did you do to her?” she shouted.
Some of the people in the crowd started laughing. Others looked deeply uneasy. One or two seemed close to tears.
“Do?” came the mocking reply. “I didn’t do anything to her.”
“But you have!” Door would not cry. She wouldn’t. “Whatever you did, she’s not my little sister any more!”
The Ringmistress walked forward slowly, her narrow spotlight matching her pace without a hitch. Her bullwhip uncoiled, and the end of it traced arcs in the sawdust as she wove her hand lazily back and forth. She gave a cruel grin. “No. You’re right. She isn’t your sister any more. She’s not yours at all. The child has a new family now, and the sooner you return her to where she belongs, the better off she’ll be.” She waved a hand towards a red and white striped tent off in a corner of the vast underground space. “She’ll be happy here. Just like the others.”
Even in her shock, Door saw that Richard’s eye was drawn sharply to the tent before he went back to flicking his gaze between the clowns with their bludgeons and the bears with their claws. His frown turned more puzzled than worried.
“Keep her talking,” he whispered. “There’s something we’re not getting, here.”
The Ringmistress drew closer, eyes never leaving Door. “Do you think I didn’t recognize your sister the moment I saw her at the Floating Market? All those poor, poor children…”
She almost sounded sincere. Door turned to see how the Marquis was reacting to all of this, and… he wasn’t there. When had he left? Or had he even come in with them?
“I can only take one or two at at time, you know, but the instant I saw her, I knew. That gorgeous hair,” she said, reaching out to stroke Door’s dark red hair. Door flinched, remembering when that same hand had made the gesture in affection rather than contempt. “Those opal-colored eyes. So unusual. So striking. For a moment, I even thought it was you, caught in some strange spell, but I learned the truth from the merchant. He bought her from her previous jailers. Once Croup and Vandemar vanished, they figured they might as well realize a profit from the girl.”
Once again, Door could hardly breathe from the unfairness of it all. The Rat Speakers had sent word about the sale almost as soon as it had been executed, but she and Richard had still arrived at the Floating Market ten minutes too late.
“She wasn’t yours to buy! You had no right to wipe her mind clean. Whatever it is you did to her, undo it. Now!”
The sneer she got in response twisted the Ringmistress’s oval face into something truly ugly. “What good would that do her? Do you want her to remember that her family was murdered? That she was stolen away to serve that beast, Islington?” The pale green eyes were strangely bright. “Do you think she wanted to remember how the sister she loved so much left her to such a horrible fate?”
Door howled with rage, and she lunged for the Ringmistress. Something stopped her, but the Ringmistress still stepped back, wide-eyed at startled.
“Door, stop.” Richard held her tight. She kicked at him and lashed out with an elbow, and even though he hissed with pain he did not let go. “You’re just going to get yourself killed.”
“I told you, she has a new and better family now,” the Ringmistress said although she sounded shaken. Door could now hear a discontented muttering off to the side.
“That’s funny,” Richard said, but he didn’t sound at all amused. “When the Marquis and I came by - ”
“Under false pretense,” the Ringmistress snapped.
Door felt Richard’s chest rise and fall in a sigh behind her back. “When the Marquis and I came by, you were talking about selling us one of the children. You were even starting to bargain with us. That’s an odd definition of ‘family.’”
“I never would have sold.” Some of the Ringmistress’s composure was starting to return, but the crowd behind her was slowly losing theirs. “I only spoke as if I would. There’s a difference.”
“You wanted to see what we would do.” It was almost a question, as if Richard was only figuring this out as he went. “That’s why you let me go, back in the tunnel.”
The Ringmistress scoffed, but her eyes flicked to the side, nervously checking on her people. “I knew Hunter had been killed. I was surprised to see that she already had a successor. Does she keep you the way Serpentine kept Hunter?” She let the innuendo rip full force. “I heard your lady and Serpentine broke bread together, after her family was killed. Was that where she learned how to make you heel like an obedient pet? I could have killed you. I should have killed you, when I saw that you had Hunter’s knife. But I was curious to see who it was you went running back to.” She looked back at Door, face twisting again.
Door met the look levelly. Her own anger was starting to abate. That wasn’t hate she saw on the Ringmistress’s face. No, not at all…
“Oh, please. Try being honest with yourself for once.” Under other circumstances, it might have been funny how everyone turned at once to the source of the new voice entering the conversation.
The Marquis made his way through the crowd. Ahead of him walked an elegant woman in a tightly corseted black dress. She walked with the peculiar gait of someone who was being encouraged to keep up the pace by having a very sharp knife held to her back. Door recognized her outfit - what was one of Serpentine’s attendants doing here? Entering this place should have meant her death.
“That’s not why you let him go. You let him go for the same reason you didn’t have the three of us killed on sight by the charming thugs you sent to greet us.”
“As if anyone could actually kill you,” the Ringmistress sneered.
The Marquis seemed more than a little discomfited for some reason. “You know me a little too well. I’m not certain I like that. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. What I’m interested in is this very clever bit of work.”
With the hand that wasn’t holding a sharp object to someone’s back, he reached into his jacket and pulled out a large gray egg.
“Shut up, Richard,” he said.
“I didn’t say a thing!” Richard protested, followed by a muttered what is it with eggs?
“This,” the Marquis said, holding the egg up even higher, letting it rest precariously in the cup of his palm, “is a swan’s egg. You can do some very interesting things with different eggs. I know what you can do with duck, or grebe, or owl. Hmm… I wonder what on earth you could possibly do with a swan’s egg. Let’s find out, shall we?”
He lifted his hand so that the egg sat squarely in the path of a golden spotlight. Then he snatched his hand away, letting the egg fall. Before anyone could even shout in alarm, he caught it neatly.
The Ringmistress flicked her eyes to the rigging overhead. “If you drop that egg, do you think your friends will be able to dodge all of my acrobats’ knives?”
“So it is important.” The Marquis tucked it back inside his jacket, where it made less of a bump than would have been expected. “Thank you for the confirmation. “Or rather, they are important. You have at least twenty that I could see, each neatly labeled with a name.”
Door knew without being told what the label on that particular egg had said.
“Look at the clowns,” Richard breathed into her ear. “Look carefully, past the funny noses and the sticks with nails in. I see it now. Can you?”
She could. The clowns were both frightened and determined, and they made sure to keep themselves between Richard and the red and white striped tent that held the Ringmistress’s children.
The clowns were guarding them. Not as they would guard a pile of gold or other valuables, but the way one would guard a child from a threatening stranger.
So many things began to fall into place. Things the Ringmistress had said just now. Things Door had seen all those years ago when her father had brought her here as a special treat.
Earlier, Door had wondered what he had been thinking, bringing her here when he knew who the Ringmistress was.
Now, she knew.
He had been thinking she would be perfectly, completely safe. The Ringmistress and her people would never have let anything happen to her. And then her father had made one well-meaning and yet unforgivable error.
For some people, it’s harder to forgive the people they care about than someone who doesn’t matter.
Door reached up and gave the hand on her shoulder a gentle squeeze. Trust me, she said silently. Richard let go of her without any hesitation, but as she stepped forward he stayed close behind her.
Everyone’s attention was on her now. She took a deep breath, and curtsied. Everything went silent. Even the swish of knives flying overhead came to a halt.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice ringing clear through the vast underground space. “For saving my baby sister and trying to ease her pain and fear.”
The Ringmistress looked stunned, her mouth hanging open like a haddock’s. Then, the sharpness returned to her face, and her eyes narrowed as she prepared to say something cruel, but a wonderfully familiar voice cut through the crowd.
“Mistress, please.” The Bearded Lady pushed through to the front of the crowd. Door thrilled to see her again. She looked the same, except for the streaks of gray now running through her silky chestnut beard. “Listen to her. This time, please listen,” she pleaded.
Door remembered hearing the same pleading as her father had dragged her away from the Circus all those years ago. She remembered crying because she missed her favorite babysitter.
The Ringmistress turned back to Door, drawing up to her full - and considerable - height and glaring down sternly. Door fought to keep from laughing, because the family resemblance was so obvious now that she wondered how she ever could have missed it.
“I know you know what it’s like to have a sister. You also know what it’s like to lose a sister, don’t you, Lady Carnaby?”
Cries and whispers of shock ran through the crowd. The Lady Carnaby, the youngest of the Seven Sisters, had not used that name in over three decades, not even among the new family she had created for herself.
Only the Bearded Lady smiled knowingly as she closed her eyes in grief.
“I know what it’s like to have a sister betray me,” the Ring… Carnaby snapped.
“Do you even remember why you fell out?” the Marquis said, exasperated. “Do any of you, any more?”
“You remember that it hurt,” Door said, heart growing lighter and lighter as everything became clear. “You remember how horribly it hurt, and that’s why you take all those lost children and take away the memories of what their families did to them. You wanted to give them a new life. A safe, happy life.”
To the side, the Marquis now stared at the swan’s egg as if it had suddenly turned into a pit viper.
“You only wanted to help Ingress, didn’t you?” she said, tears starting to flow despite the fact that she was smiling. She felt Richard’s hand rest lightly between her shoulder blades, offering her strength if she needed it, but knowing she needed to be the one to finish this. “She had lost her family, and all you knew about me was that I had gone to your sister for help.”
Carnaby stood very still, blinking brightness away from her eyes as she stared at the ground.
“That’s what my father did, that made you so angry, wasn’t it?” Door said gently.
“He had been talking to Serpentine behind my back. She and I…” Carnaby said in a voice that was too soft for the center ring. She stopped talking abruptly and touched a finger to the corner of her eye. “And then he had the gall to ask me to…” she snarled.
Door knew all too well what it was like to fight not to cry.
“You two were close, once,” Door said, finally putting together a few offhand remarks from her father’s notes. Carnaby was the baby of the family, and once upon a time, Serpentine had doted on her and Carnaby had worshiped her in return. Among the Seven Sisters, they had been the closest, and so the rift between them must have hurt the most. “He wasn’t trying to betray you, Lady Carnaby.”
Part of her must have known that. It explained so much. Why it had been so easy for Door to find out exactly where Ingress had been taken after the Floating Market. Why the Ringmistress had let Richard and the Marquis go. Why they had all but been invited back into the ring. Yes, there had been threats and danger, but there had also been a stray hope running through it all, pulling her actions this way and that. Even if she hadn’t realized it consciously, Carnaby had heard the promise in the words that had driven her into such a rage.
“He just wanted the two of you to have that closeness back.”
Carnaby gave a gasp of pain and clapped a hand to her mouth. She would not look Door in the eye.
“You want that, don’t you? And you know why I want Ingress back.” She took a deep breath. “So will you? Give her back to me?”
There was a long pause. She could hear quiet weeping from here and there in the crowd. Door remembered how the Circus folk had loved their Mistress. It was good to see it was still true.
Door waited, Richard standing quietly and steadily behind her. Carnaby looked to the Bearded Lady, who smiled gently and gave a slight nod.
Carnaby took a breath, squared her shoulders and stepped forwards, holding out a hand to Door, who took it gladly.
The Bearded Lady (that was how she thought of herself, as her original name carried too many memories of a life she no longer wished to think of) basked in the lingering glow of hugs and of promises from sweet Door that she would love to come for tea, and that yes, she would bring Ingress once she was feeling better.
She had missed the child, and had worried about her so. Then, when she had heard what happened to Lord Portico’s family…
Oh, she couldn’t bear to think of it, even now. Those poor, poor children.
But she had sent Door away smiling, just now, all her tears wiped away. She even had herself a fine young man, the Bearded Lady thought smugly. She was doing well despite everything that had happened to her, and wasn’t that just wonderful to see?
Soon, she thought, dear Carnaby would see that letting the child go had only made her chosen family grow bigger.
And speaking of children… There was another child who needed seeing to, quite badly. The Bearded Lady sighed as the glow from the recent visit fizzled and faded.
She headed back to the main office, and pulled aside the orange curtain. She was one of the few who could enter that space without invitation, and she did not use the privilege lightly.
Carnaby sat in one of those atrociously uncomfortable egg-shaped chairs. A photo album was open on her lap. She slammed it shut as soon as she saw that the Bearded Lady had come in.
“I’m fine,” she snapped, and yes, she did look as imperious and in control as she ever did, but the Bearded Lady knew better, oh yes, she did.
More to the point, she knew Carnaby knew she knew better. So, when she stood in front of the chair and held out her arms with a “come here, love,” Carnaby didn’t even pretend to hesitate before flinging herself out of the chair into and into a tight hug.
Carnaby may have been one of the most powerful women in London below, but that didn’t stop her from weeping in great, gasping sobs as the Bearded Lady stroked her back and swayed gently back and forth.
“There, there, love. Just cry it out. I’m here. I’m here…”
Eight hours after they returned from the Oxford Circus and broke the egg, there was no change. Ingress still slept as soundly as before. The rise and fall of her chest was the only movement she made. Door perched on the edge of Ingress’s bed and clenched her fists in her lap to avoid the temptation to prod or shake.
“Lady Carnaby did say it would take a while for her to come back to herself,” Richard reminded her, and Door told herself not to yell at him. Richard was always kind and trusting by default, and it was one of the things she loved about him.
She just had to remind herself of that the few times it threatened to drive her crazy.
“It would have been nice if she had also said something about what she meant by ‘a while.’” Door snapped. She half expected Richard to tell her to go get some rest, but he just stood there quietly and watched alongside her for the next twenty minutes or so.
“I’ll bring you some food, if you want, and that book you were reading,” he said at last.
She caught his hand when he rested it on her shoulder, and she didn’t let go for a good moment. “Thank you,” she said, and then he left her to her watching.
“That was Richard,” she told Ingress. “He helped save you, you know. I think you’ll like him. Well, I hope you will, because I like him and I’m planning to keep him around for a good long time.”
Nothing had been said, but she knew that Richard was of the same mind. She would have been happier about that if only she could be sure that the last member of her shattered family would also be there to complete the picture.
Richard came back with a bit of cheese, some biscuits, and her book, and left her to her waiting.
Three more hours went by. Another eight minutes passed, and then it was exactly twelve hours since Lady Carnaby had released Ingress’s life.
If Door hadn’t turned her attention from her re-read of Persuasion to her sister’s face at just that moment, she wouldn’t have seen the faint flicker of eyelids.
But she did catch it, and so she waited for another ten minutes, hardly daring to blink as Ingress slowly drifted into wakefulness.
Her sister’s eyes opened, but her face remained as blank as if she were still asleep. Then, she blinked.
“I… I know you. Don’t I?” she asked, plaintive and puzzled and breaking Door’s heart into a million slivers. But, when she reached out to pet Ingress’s hair the way she always used to, she told herself it was not imagination that she saw a brief flicker of recognition in those bright eyes.
“Yes, love. You do know me, and I know you,” Door said as she stroked her sister’s hair. “And you have no idea how very much I missed you.”
And you have no idea how much I still miss you, she thought as she looked at the blankness on Ingress’s face and fought to smile instead of cry.
The very next day, a woman in black lace and severe leather corsetry quietly left the Oxford Circus just as the audience was starting to queue up for the matinee. In her black-beaded reticule was a thick envelope sealed with a blob of bright yellow wax bearing the impression of a grove of seven trees.
On her way out, she encountered a woman wearing a bouffant hairdo and a suede catsuit flecked with bits of lion and tiger hair. Desiderata gave Miasma a curt nod of acknowledgement and received a cheeky wink in response.
The spies employed by the Seven Sisters to keep an eye on their siblings were all known to each other, of course. They kept silence out of professional courtesy and a desire to avoid retribution. Plus, there were times when a casual chat over lunch to exchange information was far more enjoyable and efficient than some of the more tedious and dangerous forms of spycraft.
Desiderata made her way with swift calm out of Lady Carnaby’s domain, but when she reached Night’s Bridge, she hesitated. The Darkness would not touch one of the Serpentine’s attendants, but there was the matter of what Serpentine herself might do to a messenger who delivered a letter with Carnaby’s colors.
She found Serpentine sitting to tea, but as there were only bad times to deliver this news and no good times, Desiderata handed her the letter with no further pause.
Serpentine merely raised an eyebrow, and took the letter. That frightened Desiderata more than any overt expression of displeasure would have. Then, Serpentine put the letter on the table and finished her tea as if nothing had happened. Her attendants waited, eyeing the letter as if it were an unexploded bomb.
Once she was done, Serpentine picked up the letter and pried off the seal with a knife that was still smeared with jellied eel.
Serpentine frowned to see that the letter was seven pages long, but that was the only sign of any feeling she displayed until she reached the third page of the letter. Then, her face went cold and still in a manner that made Desiderata and all the other attendants step back.
“Leave me,” Serpentine ordered.
The attendants wasted no time in obeying.
Serpentine read through the rest of the letter without anyone around to see how she reacted. Then she read it again, far more slowly, sometimes going back to check an earlier phrase or to re-read something over and over in case its meaning changed between readings.
At last, Serpentine sat at the head of her long and empty banquet table with the letter loosely clasped in her hands, and she was quiet for a very long time.
“What happens next?” Richard asked.
“I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit, actually.” Door clutched her mug of cocoa in both hands, seemingly more interested in warmth than chocolate. She looked as desperately tired as he was, which meant that like him, she was too tired to fall asleep properly.
Ingress, on the other hand, was genuinely asleep. Not long after waking up, she had drifted back into sleep and had been that way for nearly twelve hours. She sprawled out rather impressively for such a tiny girl, and every now and then she shifted and muttered as if in a dream.
Genuine or not, both he and Door were waiting anxiously for the next time she woke up and trying not to hope too much.
“I want to go through my father’s notes again,” she said. “Before, I was only going through looking for references to the Ring… I mean, Lady Carnaby. I wonder if my father didn’t tell me who she was because she wanted to keep it a secret or if he didn’t want me to be frightened of her. I mean you saw how I reacted when I found out - and I’m babbling again. You really should stop me, Richard.”
This last bit was said through a yawn. They were finally starting to move through ‘too tired to sleep’ into the realm of ‘about to pass out.’
“Well, I don’t really know anything about the Seven Sisters, and I was frightened of her,” he said. “I’d say it’s a perfectly sane reaction.”
Door giggled a bit more than she might have if she weren’t so knackered.
“My father thought of her as a friend, and I do remember liking her once I got past how tall she was… I was very small as a child!” she retorted in response to Richard’s snort of laughter.
He didn’t say anything in response to the retort, but he could feel his eyes crinkle in a smile as he bit back the obvious comment. From the not-at-all-angry glare Door gave him, he knew she had heard what he had not said loud and clear.
“I heard from the Marquis that Lady Carnaby is talking to Serpentine again.” There was the instinctive flinch at saying Serpentine’s name aloud, but it was not as strong as Richard remembered. “I don’t know if they’re good talks or not, though.”
“But it’s something?” Richard offered, and was pleased to see that Door nodded in satisfaction.
“The last time any of the Seven Sisters were even in the same room to argue was long before I was born. I try to imagine that being Ingress and me, and I can’t. It must be so miserable.” She shook her head. “So yes, it’s something. A very big something, I think.”
She was thoughtful for a moment, and then she smiled, loopy with glee and fatigue. “Maybe even an impossible something. And we did it.”
Richard thought about Hunter’s last words to him and felt something finally begin to settle deep inside.
“Yes. You did. You, Lady Door of Marble Arch, helped make peace between two of the Seven Sisters.” He hesitated for a moment, knowing that he might make Door cry at what he said next but also knowing that he needed to say it.
“I think your father would have been very proud of you.”
Door did cry, but she also put down her mug and slid onto his chair and hugged him tight. He held her until quiet tears and joyful laughter turned to deep, quiet breaths and both of them fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Chapter 5: Ending
Hunter’s story finally came to an end after she was laid to rest in a missing part of Hyde Park. The place she was buried had been lost and nearly forgotten for over a century. Nearly forgotten.
One person in particular remembered.
Five days after a letter made its way from Soho to Knightsbridge, a regal figure in dingy white leather and tattered silk stepped out of a small grove of trees that had not been there a moment before. She picked her way through the too-tall grass, heading unerringly for a tombstone that was still shrouded by the morning mist coming off the nearby lake.
None of Serpentine’s usual attendants had accompanied her on this journey, so she did not bother to guard her expression as she rested her hand on the stone. No name was cut into the stone, nor any date. Instead, it had been carved in a relief in the Etruscan style. It showed a girl, and a wolf. They might have been dancing, or they might have been fighting - it was impossible to tell which.
Serpentine leaned down and kissed the top of the grave. Her eyes shut for a moment, perhaps in pain, perhaps against tears. Then she straightened to her full height and glared down at the stone.
“You stupid, stupid woman…” It could have been a hiss, or perhaps her voice broke slightly at the end. No one had been allowed close enough to overhear and perhaps wonder just who she was talking to. Serpentine stared at the grave a while longer.
“You chose your successor wisely at the end, if it was in fact you who did the choosing,” she told Hunter. “I did doubt at first, for rather obvious reasons, and I will admit to being… surprised how it worked out.”
This was not something Serpentine would ever admit out loud again, and especially not to Richard Mayhew.
At last, Serpentine gathered her skirts and her wits about her, and strode away from the grave. She never looked back and she never again returned. Ahead of her, a tall figure tentatively stepped forward from the grove of trees. Few details were visible in the mist, but Carnaby’s yellow hat stood out like a minor sun.
Serpentine took a deep breath through her nose, settled her shoulders back, and went forward to meet her sister and to see if it was possible to end a separation that had gone on for far too long.
Another story ended as well, but this ending was more like a capstone to a series of endings that had been laid down throughout the years.
One of these endings happened three and a half centuries ago when an old butcher’s shop near the Fleet Ditch went up in flames along with more than ten thousand other homes, shops and churches. Many would say it was merely a coincidence that the flame burned especially hot near a pen that had once held something that was not a piglet.
Other people knew better.
Before the end, the place where a Beast disappeared into London below was rebuilt until there was nothing to show what it had once been. Even the Fleet had been paved over and largely forgotten.
Some might say it was deliberately forgotten. Just as well, actually, as by the end, the Fleet was more a sewage culvert than the clean, clear river it had once been.
In fact, nearly a quarter century before the fire, the Fleet’s story ended when a beast disappeared into the river and into London Below. The river was so changed by then that it was no longer the escape it should have been, but a trap. When something that wasn’t a piglet fell into something that was no longer free-flowing water, the Fleet finally lost hold of its last, faint memory of ever being a river.
Similarly, the Beast no longer remembered what it truly was. There was no more ‘I,’ no more ‘want,’ no more memory of wild winds and heathered crags. There was only pain and rage and a fractured recollection that in battle, it might finally find respite from the fire that consumed its mind.
The Beast should have lived out its days roaming the depths of Epping Forest, just as a saner self had once roamed the Scottish Highlands, free and unencumbered. A butcher’s pen was no place for one of its kind, but when it freed itself from one prison, it was only to fall into another. The time of the ritual passed unmarked, and lands both Above and Below tore themselves to pieces.
It took centuries before its savior arrived to end its pain. The savior had the spear, but had lost the stone in the muck of the labyrinth. That was little matter, as the Beast’s mind was so lost that the stone no longer worked as it should have. Peace was such a distant memory that all the stone did was blind the Beast to the bearer’s presence.
The spear struck true, cutting into the Beast’s throat. Blood was spilled, and blood was tasted, and the life-magic began to work as it should have for all that the life-giving was not voluntary. In its last moments, the Beast looked upon the man that had finally slain it, and recognized in him the same thing it had recognized in the man’s distant ancestor.
It remembered a different time, and a different ending.
The hunter finally found the quarry after a long, exhausting hunt. As mandated by a tradition that was so old, no one knew when it had begun, the hunter held out the stone carving of a boar. The living boar in front of the hunter saw that the whorls in the carving echoed the blue whorls painted along the woman’s arms, face, and belly. The painted face was resolute, but her eyes betrayed the same sadness that was in the boar’s. The boar touched its nose to the token in reverence and recognition. It knew what the carved figure of itself meant.
It was time. Their long, joyous dance was over. The hunt had served its purpose, and it was time for both hunter and quarry to give way to the greater purpose behind it all.
The boar raised and turned its head, exposing the most vulnerable part of its neck.
The hunter’s blade struck true, and she wept as the boar’s lifeblood soaked the ground at its feet. She was still weeping as she reached down and daubed the boar’s blood into her eyes and her mouth. Then, she flung the spear as far from her as she could, trusting it would eventually make its way into its keeper’s hands.
The boar’s blood soaked deep into the ground, and what it watered, no one could truly say. As for the hunter, she returned to her husband and king to help him with the long, hard work of restoring their people to what they should have been. She had lost one child to the war that had torn their clan apart and another to the sickness and famine that followed, but maybe the one she carried now could grow up in peace and bounty.
The cycle repeated itself at intervals across the centuries and across the land, echoing similar rituals in other parts of the world, until at last the boar was reborn in blood and violence in a wood north east of London Town. It should have spent the next few hundred years there, roaming through the woods and growing fat on forage and acorns until its time came, but it was ripped from the land it should have loved and died for, and was unceremoniously thrown into a sack.
When the Beast (who no longer knew it was a boar after being shut away from wood and sky for so long) finally died, there were no portents or omens. The ritual was only a shadow of what it should have been, but in the end its blood allowed a new Warrior to find his way through the labyrinth and protect his people.
More importantly, the boar died a boar. Its last thought was a distant memory of bright sun, chill wind, and the scent of heather.
So, in a way, the ritual was a success after all. In any event, a few years afterwards, the ground on one of the lesser slopes of the Brecon Beacons shifted and churned. Turf turned over on itself, revealing deep, blood-red earth and something else that was small, black, bristly and pleasantly surprised to be alive and outdoors.
It was probably only coincidence that on that same day, the (mildly touched, or so some said) Lord Mayor of London announced that he wished to look into uncovering and cleaning up some of London’s long-buried rivers, including the Fleet.
Other people know better.
One ‘ever after’ began very shortly after the Lady Ingress woke from her enchanted sleep. The Marquis de Carabas sprawled in one of the Lady Door’s kitchen chairs and pulled a duck egg - this one still perfectly intact for the moment - from inside his shirt. He held it up in front of him by his thumb and middle finger, high enough that he had to look up slightly to contemplate the green-blue egg that still drew in the threads of his very life.
Maybe it was only his imagination, but he thought he felt a slight and not very pleasant tug between his heart and the egg.
As long as he didn’t let go of the egg, he had at least two hours before the spell would require him to put it back over his heart, so the Marquis’ contemplation was pleasantly unhurried. It was also accompanied by a very good wine of Lord Portico’s that he had had the foresight to procure and uncork before taking out the egg.
This would mark the fourth time he had placed his life inside an egg and locked it away within a filigreed silver box, safe from any and all harm. He had gone for decades without even thinking about his life and where it was. Why should he, if it was locked safely away?
Why should he think about things that were so lost he could barely remember them?
If he could go another two days without breaking the egg, the spell would be set, and unless he did something stupid like drop the egg before he could lock it away, his life would be safe enough until the next time he got himself murdered (it was inevitable, really).
The explanation of the spell and its stipulations spooled through his mind in snide, raspy tones that were once again familiar.
This time, he not only remembered the voice that delivered the explanation, but thought he saw a glimpse of stripy ginger fur and a neat white chin. He wondered if he would remember it in two days’ time, once the spell was complete.
“This,” he said to no one who was currently there, “was a truly valuable lesson.”
Valuable, as so many others had been, but like all things of value, it came at a price. He had learned that lesson, but he was still not sure he truly understood it.
He contemplated a bit more, and poured himself another glass of wine. Then another. And another. Eventually, there was nothing left in the bottle but dregs, but he was far from being drunk.
In fact, now that he had thought about it a while, he decided he was rather in the mood for an omelet. Door’s kitchen had plenty of herbs and some good cheese on hand, and as for the egg…
That was easily provided.
The moment the shell cracked, the Marquis felt the tugging stop and something indefinable begin to return to where it belonged.
And that, he thought, was the end of that.
Ingress’s long nightmare of a story ended with an idle comment ten days after her life began to return to her body. For nine days, she had flatly refused to go anywhere in the House Without Doors except her bedroom and one of the lesser bathrooms.
Door spent the best part of every day with her even though Ingress spent much of that time asleep. While Ingress slept, Door read through her father’s notes and made her own notes about which fiefdoms to approach first, and how. New alliances would have to be chosen and ordered very carefully - she wanted to end feuds, not trigger new ones. She also made annotations and additions where her own experience contradicted her father’s guesses.
Of course, any information that had been supplied by Islington was immediately labeled as deeply suspect.
During the few times Ingress was awake, Door put aside her work without hesitation, prepared to spend the next hour or so doing whatever it was Ingress wanted to do - which wasn’t anything.
So, they talked. Hesitantly, and with long, uncomfortable silences. Ingress’s memories were slowly returning, but she talked about them as if they were things that had happened to someone else. The only emotion she ever showed was stark fear of something that was waiting out there, waiting to take her and hurt her.
Door waited as patiently as she could, and tried not to wonder if the Lady Carnaby had lied about the spell’s undoing.
On the tenth day, in the middle of talking about nothing in particular yet again, Ingress shyly asked about the flowers in the conservatory. Had anyone been watering them?
Door gently assured her that they had. A few minutes later she excused herself and dashed off to find Richard and tell him to buy or find or steal some new orchids and camellias and ferns, don’t ask stupid questions, just do it and hurry.
Ingress’s question had been so soft, so tentative, that Door had nearly missed something important. That question, idle as it sounded, was the first sign that Ingress was willing to go beyond the tiny space she had deemed ‘safe.’ It was also the first sign that she actually wanted something.
When she returned to Ingress’s room, Door asked a few tentative, careful questions and deduced that Ingress had not seen what had happened to their mother. Ingress had simply heard a gasp, and then the world went dark.
Maybe Mr. Vandemar had taken her before Mr. Croup had killed their mother, or maybe that memory was one of the pieces of Ingress that was a casualty of the Lady Carnaby’s spell.
Either way, returning to the conservatory would probably hurt Door far more than it would hurt Ingress. The last time she was there, it was to see to their mother’s body.
Maybe it was time to lay that particular nightmare to rest as well.
So, she smiled at her sister and asked, “Would you like to go visit the plants again?”
That horrible blank look returned for a heartbeat, but then Ingress blushed and nodded a quick ‘yes.’
“Let’s go on Sunday morning. You’ll be feeling much better by then, I would think. Richard and I can pick up some scones at the next Floating Market,” and discreetly replace some dead plants in the meanwhile, “and we’ll have a picnic breakfast. What do you think? Yes?”
At first, Ingress looked dubious at the mention of Richard, who was still mostly a stranger to her. Then, her forehead crinkled the way it always did when she was trying to concentrate. “I think you told me about him. While I was sleeping?”
Door simply nodded, not trusting herself to say anything just then.
Then, at last, Ingress smiled. “I’d like a picnic,” she said.
It was all Door could do not to crush her sister to bits in a great big hug. Yes, Ingress still had a long way to go, and at some point Door would have to explain what had happened to their father, mother, and brother, but all that was set aside for the moment as Door reveled in one bright and important truth:
Her sister was back.
The nightmare was over.
“You again?” It had only happened once before, but Richard was already tired of people visiting him while he was sound asleep. It wasn’t very restful.
Hunter rolled her eyes at him, but Richard thought she seemed more amused than exasperated.
“This is the last time, Richard Mayhew,” she said. There was something lighter mixed in with her usual gravity. “Then I will receive one last visitor at my final resting place. Personal business. After that…”
She waved her hand in a gesture that carried quite a bit of theological and existential import, but no real explanation.
“Ah, I see.” He didn’t. “So, what brings you here this time?”
Hunter gave an easy, rolling shrug that hinted at the strength in her arms. She sat down on a rock that hadn’t been there before, and the generic everyplace of his dream gave way to green mountains and soft gray skies. The wind kicked up a bit, almost too chilly to be comfortable.
“I came to say farewell, Richard Mayhew.” Richard heard the words as a wish, or maybe a command: fare well. “Have you been taking good care of our knife?”
Richard spluttered. “Of course!”
Hunter smiled, and it was the first time he’d seen her do so where it didn’t have a threat behind it.
“And do you enjoy the hunt? The fight?”
“Of course,” he said, not as vehemently as he had before. It was part of who he was, a part of him that he had lain fallow for a very long time.
Odd, how so many other people had seen glimpses of something in him that he hadn’t even known was there.
“I also think I know how you got lost, Hunter.” He said nothing about how she had betrayed them for the chance to make a crowning kill, and how that betrayal had cost her her life.
She raised an eyebrow at him as if to say ‘do tell.’
“The hunt is enjoyable. It really is. It makes me feel alive. Real. More me. It would be so easy to see it as an end in itself.” He thought of the Seven Sisters, who held on to a grudge for the grudge’s sake, not for any memory of what the grudge was about. He thought about some of the people at his old job in London Above, who went for more money and more power without ever thinking of what they would do with it once they had it. “If I’m not careful, it could become all I could ever think about.”
Hunter nodded sadly. “Yes. And I had no teachers to set me right, when I stepped wrong so early. So, do you now know the purpose of the fight? Of the hunt?”
Richard thought for a moment. He recalled jumping straight into a leopard’s path so it wouldn’t take down the Marquis. He had stood firm in the face of a well-armed circus troupe with no hope but to slow them down enough so that the Marquis could get Ingress to safety. He remembered not harming a duck that attacked him for stealing one of its eggs, but being prepared to inflict grievous harm on the Ringmistress if it meant restoring Ingress’s life.
He also remembered standing just behind Door, simply so that she knew he was there as she spoke truth to a woman she both feared and loved.
Before he could even say anything, Hunter inclined her head in respect.
“I see you do. Goodbye, Richard Mayhew.”
The dream ended as if someone had simply flipped a switch.
He sat up, and blinked groggily in the morning light. He smiled to see that the winter landscape outside his bedroom was slowly giving way to spring.
Door would be awake by now, he thought as he got up and threw on some clothes. Awake and waiting for him.
They had tickets to the Oxford Circus later that day. Apparently, he, Door, and Ingress would be sharing a ringside box with Serpentine. After the show, the Bearded Lady would happily look after Ingress while the adults joined Lady Carnaby to talk business. The work of uniting London Below would go much more quickly if even some of the Seven Sisters were united.
From the sound of things, Maida and Cheyne could be easily swayed if approached in the right manner (whatever that was). Olympia and Finchley were more liable to cling stubbornly to old hurts even to their own detriment, and Marylebone had made an art form out of being unpredictable.
There was a very good chance things would not go well. But Door had her father’s ability to win friends, and Richard would be there if things went unexpectedly south. If they could convince the Marquis to lend his cleverness on occasion, then maybe…
There was a slim chance things would go well.
And that chance, he decided, was very much worth fighting for.
He finished dressing, did what he could to set his hair to rights, and went to find Door.
They had a long day ahead of them, and their work was only just beginning.