Quartz: a serial novel

In order to save their world, the mages of long ago plunged it into eternal night.

Now rare veins of quartz provide light, heat, and food to a dying world. And Rafael Grenfeld has just learned that the biggest quartz pillar of them all, the legendary Tower of Light, exists. Unfortunately, his informer died before revealing its location and he’s stuck in the hostile totalitarian state of Blackstone.

Desperate to find the Tower of Light for his people, Rafe forms an uneasy alliance with the mysterious and maddening Isabella. They’re not the only ones interested in the quartz. The Shadow, chief of the Blackstone secret police, is also hunting for it. As darkness-loving demons devour souls and dangerous magical artifacts resurface, Rafe must tap into the lost powers of the mages in order to find and secure the quartz—before his world is destroyed by famine and war.

Quartz is a serialized novel that updates on Tuesdays, with Saturdays available for a donation of $5 per episode. Donors will also receive the complete novel as an ebook in a format of their choice once the serial is finished. Thank you for your support!

You can sign up to have episodes delivered straight to your Inbox or RSS feed reader. Check out the right sidebar for any episodes you may have missed!

Episode Sixty Seven

Chapter Twenty Four, Part Four

Oakhaven

The hiss of steam and blast of whistle startled Rafe awake. He tried to stand and hit his head on the ceiling. When the worms of light stopped crawling in front of him, he realized he was alone. The chair was still. Sable Monarique was gone.

He touched the lumps in his pockets. The Keys were still there.

The noises from outside, though, indicated activity. The thud of boxes, the indistinct shouts of men. A far-off whistle tooted—ferry or train?. The floor rattled and a roar engulfed all other noise. Metal squealed as brakes were applied. A train, then. Rafe gingerly lifted a corner of the curtain and peeked out. There was not much to see besides a barricade of boxes, but the several-storey cavern with its overhead lightsand iron galleries was the Oakhaven train station. So far, Sable seemed to be keeping her promises.

But where was she?

Sable didn’t show, but her two chair-bearers did. They hoisted the sedan onto their shoulders with rather more vigor then they ought to have, considering that it was occupied, and brought it out from the concealing embrace of the boxes. Rafe planted his hands on the sides to steady himself as he tried to pretend he was a feather.

“You there! What do you have? Has it been inspected and cleared?” The tone of the voice was fussy and puffed up with self-importance.

One of the chair-bearers rumbled apologetically, “It’s Mistress Monarique’s chair, sir. She won’t travel without it. Public chairs give her a headache. Ain’t made right.”

The official snorted. “Well, having to deal with her and all her baggage gives me a headache. Put that down and let’s have a looksee, shall we?”

The chair was put down rather ungently, but then it was supposed to be empty.

Rafe sank deeper into the seat in a futile attempt to make himself disappear, or blend into the seat. He hoped the official was blind, or at least very near-sighted, but his luck didn’t seem to be running that way recently.

“What seems to be the problem, Officer?” Sable’s voice was like golden honey. “Surely there is no trouble over me taking my chair aboard my private train?”

Rocquespur’s private train, more like. Rocquespur’s attachment to her must be great for her to speak so.

“Well, no, ma’am. It’s just that I have to inspect and clear everything…”

“But of course, Officer, and I have been making sure all my servants are doing their best to assist you and your people.” Sable was slightly breathless; Rafe could just imagine the adoring megalamp look she was bestowing upon that hapless bureaucrat. “In fact, one of your people just looked over the chair, did an exhaustive search, even going so far as to move all the cushions in case a fugitive were hiding underneath. How absurd, really, since I was just in there not too long ago. In fact, here’s the-oh!” Sable drew in an exaggerated breath. Rafe was hard-pressed not to snort. She had probably put her finger against her rounded lips, to better show them off. “The stamp must have fallen off! It can’t be too far away, Officer. I’ll send someone to look for it.”

“Oh, well, there’s no need, ma’am. Why don’t I just…?”

“Oh, but there is, Officer! I’ve already paid my duties on this item and Rocquespur will be so angry with me if I have to present him with another bill! I don’t know, but money just slips through my hands, and I’ve already outrun the banker this month.” Sable’s voice drifted away. “Come, let’s look together.” She probably had the official clutched by the arm.

“Ah, ma’am there is no need. Here, why don’t I give you a new stamp right now, and you can be off?”

“Truly?” Sable sounded as if she couldn’t believe that such a paragon of kindness as the customs officer existed.

“Truly.” Paper ripped. “See, here is your stamp.”

“Oh, thank you!”

The chair moved again. The bearers took wide steps from platform to train and set it down in a cargo compartment. They left without a word, leaving the door open.

Police whistles echoed in the station. Wil’s voice, magnified through a loudspeaker, spoke, “The station is closed. No trains are allowed to leave until checked. Shut down your engines.”

Rafe scrambled from the chair and yelled at Sable, still on the platform. “Hurry up! Get on board!” She nodded, ran down to the engine, and swung on board.

The train let out a whistle and began to move. Rafe started to slide the door shut, then paused. Isabella raced down the platform, followed by five members of the Guarda Royal in chest plates and helmets, scattering porters and dodging baggage. Before he knew what he was doing, Rafe reached out and yelled to her, “Here! Grab my hand!”

Isabella veered sharply and ran at him. Her hand found his and he grabbed it hard even as the train hooted and picked up speed. She had to run fast to keep up. Wil shouted, words booming and indistinct. One of the Guarda Royal whipped out his handgun and took aim.

“Hold on!” Rafe held on to the door frame with his other hand, braced himself and pulled Isabella onto the train. Bullets whizzed over their heads as they tumbled together in a heap on the floor.

Rafe sat up. The station grew blurred, but the last thing Rafe saw was Wil’s face as he ran up, still holding the loudspeaker. Their eyes met for one hard moment, then darkness flashed by—a tunnel. The train charged into the open air. Buildings whizzed by, obscured in the cloud of steam, and all the commotion of the station was scraped away by the rasp of train wheels on tracks.

Isabella got to her feet. “They tracked me. They must’ve been watching the house. They got clever and I got stupid.” She said it matter-of-factly, and not to Rafe, but to Sable who’d come in, a frown between her eyebrows.

“You’re welcome,” murmured Rafe, rubbing his shoulder. “I don’t think it’s dislocated, thanks for asking.”

Isabella didn’t deign to reply. She strode out of the cargo compartment with Sable.

Rafe stared for a moment at Oakhaven flying past, wind whistling through the open door. “I think,” he remarked to the chill night air, “it might be more peaceful in this compartment.”

Then he wrestled the door shut, threw the bolts, and went after the women.

He caught up with them in the dining car, carpeted in plush purple velvet with heavy gold draperies. Two tables draped in white linens and chairs carved out of ebony wood stood on either side.

He stopped Isabella with a hand on her arm. She turned to face him; her moon dagger appeared into her hand as if from nowhere.

“The truth now, if you please, Isabella,” said Rafe. “Have you been working with Rocquespur all this time? And why did she put on the song and dance about not believing in the Tower of Light?” He nodded toward Sable, who stood back, arms crossed, watching with head-tilted interest.

Isabella gave an odd little laugh. “Oh, Rafe. I’m not working with Rocquespur. Or for him or even against him.” She moved his hand off her arm with a strange gentleness.

“I am Rocquespur.”

Episode Sixty Six

Chapter Twenty Four, Part Three

Oakhaven

An entire wing of the Assembly building had collapsed by the time Rafe, having caught two trolleys and run the rest of the way, got to it. Several small fires, caused by the destruction of the gas lines, smoldered in the ruins.

Rafe grabbed the shoulder of one of the bystanders. “Has anyone gone in there yet? Or come out?”

“Er… no. They’re waiting for the machines…. Hey, what are you doing?”

Rafe ran towards the building.

Dust and smoke clung to the air, and Rafe, his head full of ka residue, tied his scarf over nose and mouth. He ducked through the main doors, stout oak that had finally broken after centuries of use, ignoring the shouts behind him. The marble inside was covered in plaster dust. Rafe paused, and focused on the Renat Keys, calling to him like beacons.

He picked his way over rubble, through broken walls, and past cracked pillars. Several times he had to stop to find alternative ways, but urgency pressed him on.

Uncle Leo was in there somewhere. The Guarda Publica and the diggers would be here soon.

The Renat Keys sang to him.

He went past the ruins of the gallery where he and Leo had talked. The L’Amagio that had so offended his uncle was crumpled amidst debris, and the Dancing Woman had twisted herself up into knots and would dance no more. Rafe’s foot kicked a piece of quartz which glimmered for a moment as it skidded across the floor.

Eerily enough, the mage lights were still on, and glowed ever more brighter, banishing the shadows, as Rafe went on, down the stairs and into the warm earthy-smelling basement. The walls were cracked all over, and it seemed like the smallest puff of wind, the slightest exhalation would bring the whole building down upon him. Rafe kept his breath shallow as he crossed the floor, and caught sight of a glinting metal wheel half-buried in rubble.

“Uncle Leo.” Rafe clawed away the debris, breaking fingernails, scraping his palms and fingers. The wheelchair was on its side, with Leo slumped in it, eyes closed, blood on his white face. In the console in front of him, the four Keys chirruped happily, brightening in obscene joy. They’d been set into four of its six sockets.

Hush, now. They came away from their sockets easily, falling like ripe fruit into his hand, lights obediently dimming. Rafe slipped them into his pockets, then turned back to his uncle.

Leo stared at him out of unfocused eyes. “What…?”

“You’ll be fine, Uncle,” said Rafe. “Close your eyes.”

Leo stared at him in confusion, then his lids drooped. “So… thirsty…. Hands… hurt….”

Rafe started to lift his uncle out of the chair, then hissed as he saw Leo’s palms, red and blistered from heat. Leo made a strangled sound, then fell limp again, deadweight against Rafe’s arm.

Better for him to be passed out for this. Rafe hoisted Leo on to his shoulders in the wounded-soldier carry he’d learned in the army. Sharp cracks rang out from above. The whole building shifted ominously and rained dust down on Rafe as he jogged for the stairs. He took the steps as fast as he dared, then loped down corridors turned unfamiliar and maze-like, shaking dust out of his eyes as he went. A ka-induced headache slashed at him above his ear, and his uncle, who was a big man for all his age, was a heavy weight. Loud pops and long groans followed him as the building shuddered all over, and Rafe forced himself to keep his pace slow, to watch his footing.

When he reached the great lobby, he almost sobbed his relief at the sight of the collapsed doors, leaning outward, revealing the outside.

Then even the mage-lights flickered uneasily, and from behind him came a long thunderous rumble. Rafe ran for the doorway as the lights blinked out. He caught Leo’s feet hard against the jamb as he threw himself out and down the stairs, landing on his knees at the bottom.

Helpful hands reached out to take Leo from him. “….brave…. stupid…. Watch out! It’s coming down….” The mouths in the grim dusty faces were moving, but their words were drowned out in an oceanic roar as foundational pillars gave way in the basement. Hands pulled Rafe up and half-shoved half-carried him out of the way, back to the safety perimeter the Guarda Publica had established.

Rafe saw the fall of the Assembly building out of the corner of his eye. Leo was laid down on a somewhat clean shawl, looking worse than ever.

“Will he be all right?” gasped Rafe.

Bodies moved in front of him. “Here, I’m a doctor.” Pushed back by interested gawkers, Rafe realized that all the mage lights were out and that some more official-looking people had arrived in sedans, and were climbing down by the light of lanterns. Lords and ministers, he noted, and melted back into the shadows, sliding away from those who would recognize him.

“Rafe! Here.”

Rafe spun, hands clenched, hunching to make himself a smaller target, muscles ready to fight or flee.

Sable waved at him from beside a sedan. “Get in!”

Rafe glanced at the bearers—both tall Monarians who stared stiffly ahead. Sable followed his gaze. “They are my ahimet. I trust them.”

Rafe did not know what ahimet were, but he nodded and dove into the sedan. Sable followed, sat on the bench opposite, her knees touching his, and twitched the curtains shut. She rapped on the wall, and the pole bearers lifted them up.

“You have them?” Sable asked.

Rafe nodded, hating being blind and muffled and cramped in all that velvet. She could betray him in a number of ways now, and tension kept him on edge.

Sable leaned her head back against her seat. “The train is being prepared as we speak. We’re going to take you to the station now and put you on board. Uphold your end of the bargain, and we will uphold ours.”

Rafe gave a curt nod, hands clenched around the Keys in his pocket. If she tried anything, he still had the Keys to direct his clumsy rohkayan powers. If he could take down a wing of Leo’s house, he could turn this one sedan into matchwood.

The thought comforted him somewhat. Sable began to hum, a soft crooning whose tune he could almost place. The headrest was soft and yielding and as he pressed down upon it, the scent of crushed herbs rose up around him.

He had just enough tension left to jerk at that smell, to open his eyes and gaze into Sable’s unfathomable dark gaze, watch her mouth move as she sang, before sleep claimed him.

Episode Sixty Five

Chapter Twenty Four, Part Two

Oakhaven

Sable leaned the end of her cigar into the small flame, placed it against her lips, inhaled deeply. “This is an unexpected meeting, Grenfeld.” She blew smoke through her lips. “Though only on my part, I gather.”

“I have a proposal for Rocquespur,” said Rafe, bluntly. “Information in exchange for his influence. Are you interested?”

Sable dragged in another breath of smoke. Her eyes were half-closed, full lips pursed and thoughtful. The cut of her coat was conventional, the colors sober, but she exuded exoticness. From her dark skin to her name, chosen to emphasize her otherness, she was immediately fascinating. Rafe, watching her, understood why Rocquespur might desire such a woman.

From what else he’d heard, she was formidable in areas other than the theater.

Sable’s exhalation ended on a cough. She examined her lit cigar. “Dulinea is right. It’s a filthy habit.” She flicked ash on to the street, ground it under her boot.

“I hate to rush you to a decision, but as you probably know, I have authorities to evade.” Rafe smiled at her and kept his posture relaxed for the benefit of any watchers. He stepped in closer, like a man interested in an attractive woman—and she was attractive—and dropped his voice to a flirtatious murmur. “I can offer Rocquespur the opportunity to finally overturn the Dewfleur government.”

“I doubt he needs help from you.” Sable flashed him a mischievous smile, an arch look. “The Dewfleur government, with the help of the Bloodoaks and their harsh policies, is doing an admirable job of undermining itself. Rocquespur is patient enough to let matters run their course and pick up the pieces afterwards.”

“There may not be anything left by that time.” Rafe opened the newssheet in a casual gesture, as if looking for the social calendar. “Foreign-funded anarchist groups. Food-related riots. It’s not just the government that’s in danger; it’s the whole state that’s going to fall apart. Does Rocquespur want to be king of a carcass?”

Sable deftly slid the newssheet out of Rafe’s hand and tapped him playfully on the arm with it. Her eyes still laughed, her mouth twisted into a wry smile. “And you plan to prevent this how?”

“By finding the Tower of Light.”

Sable’s mask slipped for an infinitesimal moment, but she covered it with an airy gesture. “Impossible. No such thing.”

Rafe shrugged, and put his hands in his pockets. “That entire Blackstone mission was about the Tower of Light. I’ve learned that the six Renat Keys together can point the way to it. Blackstone believes it, too—they’ve been looking for the Keys.”

“Of which your uncle has three,” supplied Sable.

“Four, actually.” Rafe turned a smile on her that he hoped looked charming. He certainly didn’t feel charming.

“So you want to find the Tower of Light, do you? What does Rocquespur get out of this?”

“Credit,” returned Rafe promptly. “He gives me whatever I need to find the Tower and when I do, he gets the glory.”

“He is rather resourceful, but he’d have a hard time getting you those last two Keys.”

“He can get me a fast train into Shimmer. They have a Key. I’ll do the rest.”

“And that’s it?”

“No.”

She waited, her look showing she expected this.

“My sister.” Rafe looked out at the starry night sky. “The Guarda Royal have taken her, as hostage. Get Rocquespur to use his influence to set her free. Roland has gone crazy, arresting the kin of dissenters, as if this were Blackstone.”

“Rocquespur to the rescue? Defender of liberties?” Sable said it as if trying the words on for size. She shook her head. “That’s a new role for him.”

“An unlikely one.” Rafe’s fleeting smile was full of black humor. “Do we have a deal or not?”

“I don’t know. I have to….”

Rafe snorted. “Talk it over with Rocquespur? Sel, Sable, this isn’t about deciding whether to upholster the sofa with green brocade, or gold! We have no time. Firenze could be here any moment. You’re Rocquespur’s agent. Make up your mind.”

“And jeopardize my own position?” Sable threw back her head and laughed, in shades of velvet and tones of wildness. “All right, then. I can have you out of here on a train at Seed tomorrow morning.”

“You can be ready quicker,” he told her. “Rocquespur’s private train is just idling at the station. Surely you can manufacture a pressing need to take to the mineral springs of Clearwater by Mold.”

“I suppose. What do you intend to do in the meantime?”

His tone was self-mocking. “Take the other four Renat Keys. From my uncle.”

“That won’t be easy.” Sable eyed him soberly. “He’s been carrying them with him all day. Last I heard, he was at the Assembly building, insisting on looking at moldy old records.”

The mage weapon! Was Uncle Leo desperate enough to….?

A current of ka roiled over Rafe, and he staggered off-balance. Sable steadied him, just as the ground shuddered. “Was is it?” she said. “Another attack?”

“No,” said Rafe grimly, as a web of ka crackled against his skin. “A very stupid venture. Be sure that train is ready by Mold,” he called out over his shoulder, as he ran for the Assembly building.

Episode Sixty Four

Chapter Twenty Four, Part One

Oakhaven

Rafe sat upon a bench in Belle’s Row, pretending to read a newssheet in the light of a gas lamp turned low for the night. For the past quarter stage, sedans and chairs had deposited visitors to a downstairs apartment four houses from Bryony’s place. Voices, laughter and music drifted out upon tendrils of sickly-sweet smoke from the open doors. The visitors were a mixed bunch; Rafe caught sight of some gentlemen of quality, distinguished by the cut of their coats, as well as the flamboyant costumes of theater folk. A gaggle of giggling women hurried past him, the wide sleeves of their quilted crazy-patterned smocks visible under the cuffs of their coats. One of them still wore greasepaint, another’s eyes were outlined in kohl and glitter.

With all this bustle, it would’ve been easy to slip among the party-goers, to step up to the doorway with a smile for anyone whose eyes he met. A tap on a shoulder, a touch on an arm, and he could’ve slid through the crowd, instead of sitting here feeling exposed.

Yet here he was outside in the cold, reading the same headline over and over again—ANARCHISTS DESTROY COMPRESSOR STATION; PALACE ENRAGED—and not moving, waiting for the person he’d never expected to ask for help. He tried not to think of his shattered reputation, of Bryony in the ungentle custody of the Guarda Royal, of Uncle Leo’s face worn and shocked, of foreign meddlers who’d wormed so deeply into Oakhaven that they could fund the antimachinists and set Rafe up to take the blame for it.

And now Rafe had made the decision to throw himself at the mercy of one who might be as deeply mired in all this muck as anyone else.

Rafe twitched his tense shoulders. He was bruised and sore everywhere. His mouth felt as if it had been stuffed with cotton wool, and his exhausted sleep in the storage container and his subsequent hiding place near the canals had done little to remove his tiredness. His eyes felt as if they had been sandpapered. A passerby hurrying into the party house gave him an oblique look before moving on.

Rafe shook his head, tucked the salvaged newssheet into his coat pocket. Foolish, foolish, to sit here like a crippled scooper. Had he made a daring escape from the palace only to be found lurking like some kind of bedazzled lad outside a party, four doors down from his sister’s?

Get in there fast, Rafe. Move.

He eased himself up, knee joints snapping in protest. Another theater troupe—dancers, he guessed, from the fish net stockings beneath the hems of their short flared red coats—swept past him. Several gave him appraising looks from under impossibly-long lashes.

He tipped his hat, part of the attire he’d bought from a no-questions-asked pawnshop. “Evening, ladies.”

One of them stopped. “Hiya, handsome.” Her plump painted lips pursed into a smile. “Going to Leonard’s?”

Rafe smiled back. “Alas, I have not been invited. I’ve been hanging out here all evening, hoping for a glimpse of some theater notables, but so far everyone is wearing their hats low and their coats close. Can’t see enough to accost my favorite actors, which is probably what they intended.” He hoped he projected enough adoration.

The actress smiled more widely and tugged at her coat to reveal more of the dress underneath, bodice barely holding her bosom in. Her companions tittered from a few feet away.

“Consider yourself invited, handsome. I’m Dulinea Darling, by the way.” Her look was both arch and expectant.

Rafe did a quick mental search of the name. A smalltime star, always a sister or a best friend, never the lead. “Charmed, madam. I’d offer you my arm, but I’ve heard you denounce from the stage such antiquated gestures as unbecoming to the modern liberated era. I meekly admit to not having the least desire to bring your wrath and eloquence down on my head.”

Dulinea’s eyes twinkled. “You are well-versed in the ways of the theater. Most unusual and most amusing. So many of the lovestruck swains have more notion of their idols’ waist sizes than of the parts they play.”

“I confess to having applied myself to the study of the theater. Being made to look ignorant in such company as this—provided I garnered an invitation—is not something I would’ve enjoyed.”

“Who would?” Dulinea held out her arm. “Come, let me offer you my arm, so that we may both get what we want, without appearing the least to compromise our ideals. For you, no doubt, were brought up to be polite to women, and I do not balk at being so bold as to instigate it.”

Rafe linked his arm through hers. Female flesh, warm and smelling of perfume, makeup and some kind of lightly-spiced liquor, pressed close to him. Dulinea’s eyes were large and green and bright, simultaneously laughing and mocking. They followed the rest of her companions to the broad steps leading up to Leonard’s, past a series of chairs waiting to disgorge their more elegant and less mobile passengers.

“Good even Dulinea, Rosmerta.” A woman called to them from beside a chair.

The women stopped, exclaiming.

“Why, Sable! How long has it been since we last saw you?”

“Are you coming to the party? Firenze will be here.”

“Then she should leave quickly, because he will surely not rest until she agrees to play Princess Padmeria.”

Dulinea dropped Rafe’s arm. She didn’t exactly shoulder her way through the others, but there she was at the front, facing the other somberly-clad woman, one hand resting on her hip, coat falling open to reveal more of her costume. She half-turned her head, as if on stage, so that everyone could hear her.

“Why, Sable,” she cooed. “Has the Marquis given you time off for good behavior?”

Sable Monarique replied coolly, “He lets me out of my cage for two stages every Sixthday and every Girdlesday. It’s a hard life, but someone has to wear Rocquespur’s collection of silk costumes and drink Shimmer tea, Dulinea.”

The other girls tittered. Dulinea’s smile didn’t change, though her eyes became harder. “We can’t all have your good luck, Sable. Not all of us have wealthy patrons vying to buy our freedom with bonbons and trinkets.”

Unlike Dulinea, who stood in the light, glitter sparkling in her hair, showing slashes of red under her coat, Sable was in the shadows. Perhaps she smiled under her hat, but he could make out nothing other than her rich voice.

“We all value different things, Dulinea. Let’s leave it at that.” Sable lifted a gloved hand, a cigar holder between two fingers. “Care for a companionable smoke?”

Dulinea tossed her head. “It’s a filthy habit, Sable. Isn’t it, girls?” She glared so ferociously at the others that they all nodded their heads. “And it’s cold out. Let’s go inside.” She turned on her heel, and the other girls called weak goodbyes to Sable as they, too, turned. “Coming, handsome?”

Rafe shot her a smile. “In a moment. Lighter, ma’am?” He produced one from his pocket and moved closer, so she could see his face in the lights.

Sable’s eyebrows rose. “Thank you, young man.”

Dulinea snorted and went inside, trailed by her friends.

Episode Sixty Three

Chapter Twenty Three, Part Four

Oakhaven

She was not there.

Rafe stood in Bryony’s dark and empty apartment, lingering violence slick against his skin. The door had swung open at a light touch from his hand. The bolt had barely fit into its shattered socket in the door frame. Bryony’s few items of furniture—graceful wicker chairs and round bamboo tables—lay overturned. A coat and scarf pooled together on the floor, papers lay scattered next to them. The other rooms—Bryony’s small neat bedroom and small bathroom—were untouched by the struggle. Rafe tightened his lips against the surge of emotion at the sight of Bryony’s hairbrush on her dresser, a few dark hairs still caught in it.

They’d already come for her, then, and stages ago. Had Wil ordered her arrest even as Rafe fled Roland’s receiving room? He’d circled Bryony’s building for most of a stage, and he was sure there were no watchers now, but his tension ratcheted up yet another notch.

There was nothing else to be gotten here. Ashes lay in Rafe’s mouth as he turned to leave, and paper crunched under his foot. Without thinking, Rafe bent to pick it up, smoothed it out and squinted at the note written on top of a playbill for a production Rafe had never heard of. Scrawled across the illustration of an overheated swooning woman in the arms of a masked cavalier was a note in flourishes, Bryony, darling, are you coming to the party at Leonard’s right after the show? Do say you will since he is your neighbor! The performance was tonight and Rafe recognized the name of the eccentric playwright and director who was, apparently, giving a party on Belle’s Row. He crumpled up the poster. Bryony would attend neither the performance nor the party.

But… he stilled, hand poised to toss the wadded paper onto the floor. He checked the cast list on the poster and nodded to himself. He knew someone who would likely be at that party. Someone who might be willing to help him. For a price.

Episode Sixty Two

Chapter Twenty Three, Part Three

Oakhaven

Rafe rose and hobbled past boxes of spare parts, stacked lengths of pipe and barrels of nails and screws to the doorway. To his relief, the door swung open into a short wide stubby thumb of a corridor lit with magelamps. Rafe crossed the concrete floor, and pressed his palm against the metal panel on the opposite wall. He was a Grenfeld, part of a family whose blood had intermingled with that of the royal Bloodoaks for centuries. This had worked before when he’d been so small that he’d had to rise up on tiptoes to do it.

A green light flashed across the panel, paused, beeped. The metal door in front of him slid aside with a contented chirp and Rafe stepped into the Oakhaven Machine Room, a chamber of marble, glass and metal. The core of the Machine stood in the far corner, a column of rippled glass that pulsed and throbbed with a white light, hidden behind wires, gears and pipes. A chill emanated from it, and bile rose into his throat. Rafe clenched his teeth against it, jabbed a button behind him and the door slid shut.

He hurried over to the console in the middle of the room, and rolled a wheeled stool up to it. Roland’s reclining chair, big and comfortable, was upholstered in worn leather and bore the imprint of the king’s body. A metal helmet with wires running from it was suspended above the chair, but Rafe didn’t want to be in such close contact with the Machine. Instead he turned to the console with its displays, dials, switches and buttons, labels all worn and indecipherable, and put his hands into an open compartment, wiggling them into the cool metal gloves that Roland had had him try on so long ago.

The king would regret that moment of avuncular affection. Rafe’s smile was sour, even as doubt niggled at him. Would the Machine recognize him? Might it not turn against him, like a dog whose master was threatened?

Then his fingertips touched sensors, and Rafe gasped as a zing, lemon-sour, orange-hot, bit through his skin and leaped into his nerves. A buzz of white light swelled up in his mind, and he fought it down with a determined Not now! This was not the raw energy that had attacked him at Grenfeld or the other agri-caves, but something that had been both sterilized and sharpened. He tasted that energy, its pressure upon his lips and tongue familiar.

The Machine reminded him of Isabella’s daggers.

And then the white haze coalesced, blinked out, and the Machine focused unseen eyes on Rafe.

He let out his breath slowly. This was not the warm regard of a woman, as Roland always described it, but the sardonic detached gaze of an entirely alien being.

Something—a voice—touched upon his ears lightly, as though a film of some kind separated it from Rafe. An almost inaudible voice, almost a sigh, that prickled all over Rafe’s skin.

Welcome, child of the Blood. What… is… your… will?

Shut all the doors leading to this area. Keep everyone out, thought Rafe.

The voice recoiled as if in shock. You… hear? You… do… It drifted closer, like a circling shark, with the casual curiosity of a predator.

Just do it, thought Rafe, jaw tight against the unsettling combination of citrus smell, energy pricks and the bile in his throat. Somehow, he’d bypassed all of the buttons and dials to connect with the Machine itself and he didn’t relish the experience.

This acquaintance would be short-lived.

As you wish. The voice vanished and Rafe sagged as the pressure of that unwavering attention eased. He started as several switches on a panel clicked one way, indicating locking doors. Great. Safe from Roland’s entry for now, Rafe took his hands out of the gloves, and walked over to the panel which controlled the palace machinery.

Sorry, everyone, he thought, and, with steady clicks, he began switching off power and deactivating machinery. On a display next to the panel, power lines dimmed, moving dots paused. Rafe mentally overlaid the display with his own memory of the palace’s layout. He hesitated, then walked over to the corner and reached through a tangle of metal to lay a hand on the cool glass of the column.

Machine?

Yes…? Faint, but still audible, and no longer shooting nausea-inducing sparks into him.

Can I take that courier wagon there—Rafe nodded to a metal flap behind which waited the small machine that brought Roland his meals and messages—to the outside?

For an answer, images blazed in Rafe’s brain—movement along a map with the relevant controls interposed upon it—a perspective that nearly turned his brain inside out. Maps, these are all maps, thought Rafe. He’d worked with maps before. Rafe broke contact and stumbled back to the console where he began tapping out his instructions.

When he was mostly sure that he’d not end up dumped into a coal furnace somewhere, Rafe unbolted the little door behind which the wagon waited. The Machine’s attention followed him, tinged with… what? Wistfulness?

“Machine,” he said, out loud.

Yes? Disturbing. He could hear it without touching the gloves or console. Out loud, he said, “Can you keep Roland out for another stage? Please?”

It wasn’t until he’d already folded himself into the trolley, after winding up the mechanism that would provide the necessary push, when he heard it.

Yes.

Rafe leaned back and unhitched the trolley. He whipped his hand in just in time as the trolley, winched tight and drawn up to the top of a peak in the narrow tunnel, plummeted down its track, heading for the palace kitchens.

Rafe jumped off his ride before it came to a stop at the kitchens, and wiggled out into the dark laundry room, still steamy, smelling of harsh soap and wet towels. He stumbled his way between the tubs and out the door, keeping himself small and hunched as he ducked into the kitchen gardens.

Tiers rose from the center of the room, bearing ceramic pots and raised beds. Rafe grabbed a gardening smock from a row of hooks. With that, and “Gregor’s” clothes, he should pass for a palace servant. He rubbed dirt onto his cheeks and hands for good effect, slouched his shoulders, let his face fall into surly lines (Tristan made a good model) and pulled out a few beets.

The smell of earth pierced Rafe with a strong desire to be back at Grenfeld, to be a farmer rather than a framed fugitive, and his thoughts circled from home to family.

With a jolt, he thought, Bryony!

They knew the affection he felt for his sister; they might use her to flush him out into the open. Rafe pressed past walls of fungus, carelessly squishing several delicacies like ladycaps and swirlstars, and towards the one door he’d left unlocked.

It opened to the underground tunnels. Rafe climbed into an empty storage container and waited tensely until machines came to life all around him. One of those, a forklift whose instructions he had reprogrammed, lifted the container up and hummed away. Exhausted and aching, lulled by the movement, Rafe fell into an uneasy fitful doze.