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Bridal Bed, chapter 6

Bridal BedFollowing the advice of father’s one-time colleagues, the family made a renewed effort to attend Protestant mass. The state was growing more paranoid by the minute, Archbishop Whitgift was on the warpath again, and it behoved everyone to make a good show or they could end up on some stupid death list.

But that wasn’t the only reason why Will’s life became a series of Sundays. Father joked about his new-found devoutness like a man who had never been young. He didn’t know that Will’s attention wasn’t on the priest. Since the Shakspers no longer occupied a pew at the front, Will could hide among the middle-pew nobodies and quietly observe. Same ritual every time: arrival, slinking into his seat, and then tune out and watch.

Because between the heads of his neighbours, he could see her: smiling at someone, eyes glittering with some jest. She had laughed that way with him, and he had thought it special, but she looked at everyone that way – as if she really saw them, as if she really listened. Served him right for being an idiot. She was out of reach, and he had manufactured her shackles himself.

Next Sunday, same thing. In a matter of weeks, he wasn’t so much attending mass as replaying an identical event over and over, like a child asking for the same old fairy-tale every night, enthralled with the perfection of words learnt by heart. The service droned on as he recorded her movements from a distance, a vast expanse of damp linen and bad breath to protect him while he preyed on her profile. After the service, he hurried out to escape having to exchange polite nonsense, and the space she had inhabited was bright and cold with winter sunshine.

Next Sunday, same procedure. An hour of Protestant prattling he didn’t really hear, and then the flapping of her skirt as she disappeared down the road with her family. Each Sunday was torture, but he wouldn’t miss it. At least they were in the same room. She was there. He counted the seconds, he noted every minute. It was a balance sheet, and he needed more, more, more. Monday to Saturday was a wasteland of fading memories, and only his Sundays stopped the fading. Only Sundays dyed the colours vibrant again.

From time to time he dared to hope that she missed him. He wanted her to notice when he wasn’t there, even though he always was. He wanted to stay at home one Sunday, he wanted her to look up from smiling and laughing with others and notice that he wasn’t there.

But he never stayed home, and if she ever noticed his presence she didn’t give a sign.

It seemed the routine would never change, when one day after the service he ran into her. When he lifted his eyes, his heart seemed to explode in his chest. She shimmered in front of him, like a fairy from one of Aunt Joan’s bedtime stories, like a creature from some other dimension. His memory didn’t lie to him in the dark solitude of his bed: she was the lily, the rose, every damned flower there was.

Moments passed without either of them greeting the other. “How… how are you?” she asked finally, voice low, shudderingly low.

Swallowing down thorns, Will mumbled an answering nicety. Then he motioned towards her hands. “You’re wearing my gloves.”

She averted her eyes. “They’re not yours.”

“I made them.”

“And Dick gave them.”

Will breathed through a throat that was too narrow. The air hurt all the way down and all the way back up again. His fingers twitched a little, fumbling for something more to say, something to keep her chained to him, to never let her leave. But over her shoulder he saw a man by the gate, pale and hawk-eyed, fidgeting and fumbling with his hat as he waited. Her brother?

Agnes made to walk away, and Will blurted, “I thought you’d be in London by now.”

She stopped and shook her head, then frowned. “No.” Then, after a slight hesitation – as if debating the wisdom of what she was about to do – she put her right hand over her left one, pinched the leather and pulled the glove off. Will didn’t understand at first, but then his gaze was drawn to the finger where her ring should be sitting. It was empty. Naked like a defenceless fledgling, cuticles worn and red.

When he met her eyes again they were filled with unspeakable sadness. “He’s… well, he’s there. In London.”

“Yes?” Will held her gaze, half afraid to breathe but desperate to know. “And… when will he be home next?”

Agnes’s lip twitched. “He won’t.”

“But aren’t you…?”

Agnes shook her head. “Too messy.” Her voice was even huskier than usual, shot through with unshed tears. “He said.”

Will resisted an urge to lay a hand on her arm. “And you’re not going there?” he ventured softly, yearning for an explanation but afraid of hurting her worse than she already was.

Agnes cleared her throat and took refuge in quiet anger. “He finds it too messy to marry a country girl now that he’s so firmly established in London. And to be quite honest, I think he…” She swallowed. “But I shouldn’t speculate. It’s just… the worst part is…” She broke off and fumbled in her sleeve for a handkerchief. “Never mind.”

Will breathed shallowly, inhaling the faint perfume from her gloves, from the handkerchief she was pressing to her eyes. “But you were willing to move to London, weren’t you?”

She shrugged, but whether it meant Yes I was, but he won’t have it or I don’t know any longer, Will couldn’t tell. He stared at her, his mind empty like a dug-up tomb. Should he say he was sorry? If anything, he was happy she had escaped that serpent – but at the same time, who could remain unmoved by such distress? Heart torn by the conflict, he searched for something comforting to say, but it was impossible. How could a mere boy of eighteen console a grown woman? What kind of a deluded fool even toyed with the idea that he had anything to give?

Agnes put on her glove again. The soft kidskin slid over her hand, covering the absence of a ring. “It was a beautiful dream.” She smiled sourly, as if mocking herself.

Will only slowly surfaced to the full truth of what she was saying. Her and Dick’s understanding was off, but she was still wearing the gloves – to retain the illusion? Or because a part of her hoped for something else? The flame leapt up in Will’s mind, impossible to quench. He must take this chance, or regret it forever. She would say no, and they would both go back to their lives and never speak of it again, but at least he would have asked. Would have offered her everything.

Breathing in, he realised the enormity of what he was about to do. He would be destroying his chances of going to university forever. Of course he was already too old, but he knew exceptions could be made in certain circumstances. He could find someone to make his case, to help him, to pay his way. But if he did this, if he asked her this question, even that possibility would be lost. Only free young men were accepted at university. Apprenticeships could be annulled, but marriages couldn’t.

No matter.

He let his voice loose on the air, heard it take shape between them. “Would you consider…. marrying me?”

The look she gave him was blank. “I’m… sorry?”

At that moment the gaunt man from the gate appeared at her shoulder. “Are you coming or not?”

Agnes’s eyes flitted from Will to him. “Just… uh, a minute,” she stuttered. “You go ahead, Bartholomew, I’ll catch up.”

Bartholomew scowled. “I’ll not have my sister walk through the country lanes by herself.”

“So wait for me around the bend.”

Grumbling, Bartholomew shuffled off towards the road.

“Come on.” Agnes took Will by the arm and his heart leapt up in his throat. Meek like a lamb, he let her guide him round the side of the church where no one could overhear or even see them. There was only green all around them. Green, and the storm-cloud blue she turned on him.

Breath hitching in his throat, Will realised she wasn’t happy.

“What are you implying?” she demanded. “That because I’m ready to plight myself to one man, I’m loose enough to settle for anyone?”

Anyone? Will’s heart sank. “Not at all,” he mumbled. “I understand if you’re mourning right now, but if you’re… free to… to choose who you want…” He fumbled among the different wordings available and hated them all. “I’d… like to be considered.” He sounded like a legal petitioner, or a would-be apprentice on the lookout for employment. Someone completely unversed in the art of rhetoric.

Choose?” Agnes snorted. “What world are you living in?”

She made to leave, but Will shot out a hand and stopped her. “One where money can be the slave to love.” He blushed at his clumsiness. How could he bungle this so utterly?

Agnes sighed. “You don’t know what you’re saying. You don’t know anything about me. If I were to marry you…” Will made an involuntary movement and Agnes noted it. “I said if.” She hesitated, gaze caught in his. “It won’t happen, William.”

“But…” He snagged on something in his throat and cleared it to ask, pitifully, “Why?”

Agnes looked down at the ground. “You wouldn’t understand.”

He dared to put a hand on her arm. “Try me.”

She shrugged him off, but she didn’t leave. She was still watching the grass at her feet, and her eyelashes fluttered as if to conceal some terrible emotion. She seemed to be working up her courage to reveal something, something important. Will’s heart was thundering in his ears. Please let it be something in my favour. Maybe she’s just afraid of the age difference? Maybe she…

Agnes drew a deep breath and closed her eyes. “If we were to marry – which we can’t – you would be labouring to feed another man’s child.”

Will blinked. The world seemed to have lost focus, lost meaning. He didn’t understand. “… I’m sorry?”

Agnes’s face hardened. “There’s a…” She broke off, fumbled at her throat, tucked a stray hair inside her bonnet. “There’s a child, William.”

Frosty air snaked down Will’s back as he processed the words. Realisation coursed through him like poison. An image of Dick flashed through his mind. Those confident blue eyes, that snake-like smile – the smile that fooled everyone, that charmed and bound with spells too potent to lift. That man – that evil incarnate – had been… with her?

“Don’t tell anyone,” Agnes begged softly. “Not yet. It will be visible soon enough, but I don’t want…”

Her eyes, her pale face. Will shuddered. The world had turned suddenly cold. What was she saying? Don’t tell anyone. She entrusted him – him – with this awful, awful secret – because he was harmless? Because he was the kind of person a woman could follow into the night without fear? The kind of man – no, boy – that wouldn’t hurt a fly, much less a strong-bodied adult female who knew how to take care of herself. A boy who didn’t even know what to do with the opportunity he had been presented with, alone among the trees behind the church. He could kiss her, put his hand up her kirtle, anything. But he did nothing. He could tell himself he refrained out of respect for her chastity, but that was just laughable. What chastity? She had given herself to Dick Field, of all people. According to any law or religion, she was a whore.

“He did… that, and then left you?”

“Yes.” A mere whisper. “But don’t–”

“You’re not preparing to defend him, are you? I mean… you must name him! You are going to name him, aren’t you? When you deliver… you must name him as the father.” Make him marry you, Will’s mind added, and the pain was a lance through his soul.

But unbelievably, Agnes shook her head. “I can’t do that.”

Will grew desperate. It was one thing to lose her to Dick, and quite another to lose her completely. “If you don’t name the father, the midwives won’t assist you. You’ll be cast out. You could even die in childbirth.”

“I know that,” Agnes snapped, angry shield in place again. Her face was hard, but her eyes gave her away. There was fear in them. Fear, grief, and resignation. She had chosen. She would save Dick and lose herself.

Will just stared at her. It was too much to take in. “Does he know?”

Agnes shook her head. “And don’t tell him, William. Please. Don’t tell a soul.”

The sound of her. The anguish. Will knew he had no choice but to obey. On impulse, he reached out and took her hand. She started, but he held it fast. A moment of agony, of panicked hesitation. But even knowing, he would renew his offer. It was all he could do for her, for himself.

Holding on to her hand, he crushed it in his until he didn’t know if he would be able to let it go. “I won’t let you suffer such ill-treatment,” he began, voice steady, even cold. Let her hear the truth of it in the rock-hard finality of it. “I’ll still marry you if you’ll have me.”

At first nothing happened. She just frowned at him in utter bewilderment, her mouth half open as if trying to form words, her eyes wide and riveted on him. Then, just when he was about to repeat his words, she gasped. “I have to go.”

Stabbed by the sight of her walking away from him, he flung his heart after her. “Agnes, I’m asking you to marry me!”

She turned abruptly. “Do you even know what you’re saying?” She sounded aghast.

Will forced it out past the trembling in his throat: “I’ve never been more certain in my life.”

She shook her head. “But it’ll be his…”

“Nobody needs to know that.”

Tears welled up in her eyes. “You’re mad.”

“I know.” A boisterous, crazy laugh that had nothing to do with mirth bubbled out of him. “But if that’s the only way I can save you from the shame of… of…”

“Of giving birth to a bastard?” she filled in, mouth twisted in self-loathing. “Yes, it doesn’t sound very nice, does it?”

Unable to move towards her, Will remained where he was. “You may have given up your treasure to an unworthy man, but that doesn’t make you unworthy.”

“He’s not–”

“If it’s a sin, you make it look like virtue,” he said. “It may be a blot, but beauty without a foil doesn’t exist.” He was delirious now, speaking words he didn’t know where they came from, in a tone so pitiful he felt all his pretence at masculinity melt away. Well, she could have it. Without her, he had no use for it. “Don’t throw away a constant heart.”

Agnes looked as if she was about to laugh at him. Averting his eyes to protect himself from the sight, Will just waited. After an eternity, she made the tiniest motion. He looked up, and caught what almost looked like a nod.

He stopped breathing. “What…? Are you saying…?”

She nodded again, more clearly now, but her face was pained, bloodless. “I can’t wait for him forever,” she said. Then she looked suddenly terrified. “If your offer is genuine?”

“Of course it is.”

“Then I’ll accept your proposal. But William… I won’t…” She closed her eyes briefly. “It will not be a marriage of the… the kind you’re thinking of.”

Will didn’t know what she was talking about, but he didn’t much care. How many kinds of marriages could there be? She would be his, wouldn’t she? She was saying yes?

“I won’t… I won’t give myself to you,” Agnes forced out. “Do you understand? The condition for this match is that you won’t make any physical demands on me. At all. It’s a theoretical agreement. An entry in the church ledger, a shared house, shared finances, nothing more. Can you handle that?”

Will was lightheaded with confusion. She thought they could live together as man and wife without living together as man and wife? It was a contradiction in terms, and yet he found himself bowing his head in acceptance. There was nothing else he could do.

Agnes attempted a wan smile. “Then… I will go with you to church and patch together this sorry affair.”

She turned to leave, and Will took a step towards her. “But…” He broke off, unsure of how to broach such a delicate subject. “Shouldn’t we…?”

“Kiss?” She smiled. “No.”

Will swayed on his feet.

“I told you. Don’t expect any physical favours. That’s not what this is about. Because I don’t…” She made a face, a touch of sympathy in her eyes.

“… love me,” he filled in, his voice a whisper.

“Not in that way.”

The words entered like barbs, but he let them sink into the softest part of his soul, made himself feel it to the full. Any other man would make the preposterous promise and expect to break it, but if he made it, he knew he must keep it. His word was all he had.

“But…” He swallowed. “Is this it? I mean, is this… binding now? I’ve never… Have you… promised?”

For a moment, her cheeks twitched as if in smothered amusement. Then she stepped up to him, took his hand, and gently squeezed it. “I take thee, William, for husband.”

Will’s throat closed with the immensity of that phrase, those time-honoured, well-worn words that were now personal and intimate. He could hardly get them out himself, so unyielding was the tightness in his chest. But if it was the last thing he did, he must say them to her. “And I… take thee, Agnes… for wife.”

She smiled sadly. “Please call me Anne.”

Her Protestant name. The name Dick preferred to call her. Will felt his cheeks flood with blood and vowed never to take the word in his mouth.

Then his wife-to-be let go of his hand and walked away, hurrying to catch up with her brother. Dizzy, Will was left standing in the leafy graveyard, two very different feelings contending for supremacy in his chest. She was to be his, and yet not his. She loved him of sorts, but she loved Dick more. His dearest wish was fulfilled, and left hanging.

And his time in the tannery was at an end. Years before his time, he was about to enter adulthood.

 

Bridal Bed, chapter 5

Bridal BedWhen Goodman Field came home the next day, he found his future daughter-in-law waking by his son, and his apprentice huddled in a corner. Dick was sleeping peacefully, his skin tone approaching normal and the new rag around his arm pristinely white.

“So he’s home to conclude the bargain, eh?” Field grunted as he doffed his hat and cloak. “Well, I’m glad we can get that whole engagement business over with. I suppose you’re already at it like Sir Lucy’s rabbits, eh?”

Agnes’s eyes widened, but Field had already turned his back – perhaps for the best, Will realised, because Agnes’s shocked headshake was more fervent than persuasive.

They’ve done it! his mind screamed.

No, don’t be stupid. She wouldn’t do such a reckless thing. Not when Dick has several years left of his apprenticeship. She wouldn’t give herself to a man who can’t marry her yet.

Would she?

“More business for your old man, then,” Goodman Field grinned and clapped a hand on Will’s shoulder. “We’ll be needing an engagement gift.”

“Oh… Yes, I suppose you do.”

“Although the wool and the money-lending pays better, no?” Field chuckled. “Well, I’ll not pry into other men’s affairs. We all have our flaws, and if we were to punish every petty crime, we’d have a country peopled exclusively with lawyers, and that’s a bleak prospect, wouldn’t you say?” He winked. “Now, go home to your father and tell him we have an urgent order: a pair of lady’s gloves, with a pretty poem to go with them.”

Will glanced at Agnes, but her eyes were blank, empty. As if their nocturnal conversation had never taken place. As if she hadn’t remembered his poetic stumblings from the graveyard, as if he hadn’t told her about little Annie.

Despair coursing like a chill through his veins, he grabbed his damp cloak and left.

When he came home, the house was in an uproar. Little Ned had hidden in the shed the whole night and made everyone panic.

“William! What are you doing home?” mother asked irritably, face red from crying.

“There’s an order for a pair of gloves,” Will muttered, instantly needled by the atmosphere. “For a lady.”

“Gloves? Huh, that’s all we need.” Mother glared at her husband, who rose from the table and strode off towards the hall.

“Fine, I’ll be in the workshop then, shall I?” Opening the door, he called over his shoulder, “What are her measurements?”

Will looked up. “Measurements?”

Father turned. “You didn’t ask for them?”

Will opened his mouth to reply, but where his thoughts usually were, there was only a dense fog. Measurements? Such a banal, everyday detail, and father wanted him to apply it to the woman who had recited his own nascent poem back at him? He wanted Will to sum up her essence in a series of numbers? To calculate the shining darkness of her hair, to put a yardstick to the depth of her eyes? He, who couldn’t even capture it in words?

“I’ll… uh, make the gloves myself.”

Father scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. You compose the poem, I’ll handle the work.”

“No, I’ll do it.”

“Listen.” Father sighed. “We can’t afford to waste skins right now. Our products must be perfect at first try. If you use up a skin for a pair of botched gloves that I have to remake–”

“I’ll make them, damn it! I know her measurements… in here.” Will meant to gesture at his head, but his hand rebelled and settled over his heart instead.

Father groaned and went into the workshop.

“I’ll make them,” Will repeated, going after him. “Please.”

But father was already collecting his tools, eyebrows dipped in displeasure. “Who is this woman anyway?”

“Ag…” Will stopped. Swallowed. “She’s the daughter of Richard Gardner-Hathaway. Of Shottery. She’s marrying young Goodman Field. Richard.”

Father gave him a sceptic look. “And you want to make the gloves.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Will hesitated. Father was too attentive, too… perceptive? Clearing his throat, Will strove to keep his voice light. “I need to develop more skills than tanning. One day I’ll take over your business, not Goodman Field’s. I need to know both tanning and glove-making. What better time to start learning for real?”

“What better time? You mean the best time for that is when this Shottery woman is getting married? William, is there anything I should know about?”

No.”

Father’s lips tightened. He wasn’t convinced.

“I want to make them because they’re for… for my friend.” The word tasted like iron in Will’s mouth. “You know I went to school with Dick.”

Father pursed his lips. “Everyone seems to be mad today,” he muttered, but when Will walked over to the box of templates, he didn’t stop him. Acutely aware of being watched, Will rummaged among the soulless representations of hands large and small, wondering how any one of them could possibly match the reality of Agnes’s living form. But he had to remember, had to snare in logic the magic that was Dick’s future wife.

What had her hands been like? Small and girly or large and womanly? He closed his eyes and summoned her from the darkness of the tanner’s midnight dining room. Her brave smile, her understanding eyes, her hands working the pestle… Heat spread in his face, his scalp. Their basic structure had been… slim but plump. And her fingers were quite short. In another flash of memory, he saw her curl them against her mouth for warmth.

It really had been cold for a September day.

Opening his eyes, he stared down into the box in front of him. The templates were all wrong. None of them could hold a candle to the real thing. He would have to improvise.

But father was still watching, and Will chose a template that roughly corresponded with his mental image. When it became apparent that he would not ask for help of any kind, father turned on his heel and left. Breathing out, Will allowed himself a look out of the window. The afternoon was dull and dark, no sunlight to ease his way. So apt. He should write a poem about it.

Snorting at his own silliness, he leafed through a box of skins, but soon stopped. There was something… a memory, trying to surface. His eyes lost focus as he stared at the layers of brown and beige, none of them good enough. But there was one skin that might fit: the discarded one, from the very beginning of Will’s apprenticeship. Goodman Field had scolded him, even mother had scolded him for it. Too small, they had said. Worthless. Good for nothing. He had meant it to become a present for Annie, but he had never got around to it, and now she would never need gloves again.

Swallowing down stupid emotion, Will crossed the hall and ran upstairs to the room he used to share with Gilbert. Mother called to him about something he didn’t give a shit about, and he closed his ears to her grating voice as he rummaged through the linen cupboard. The skin was still there, at the very back, pushed away by more pressing daily concerns. There it was: soft, lightly coloured, and without a single blemish.

And very, very small. Will remembered the sneer on his Goodman Field’s face, and for a moment he almost understood him. Just one look told him the template would be too big for it.

In its present state. But this was kidskin. There was always a margin of possibility with kidskin.

Back in the workshop, he rolled it tightly and wound a damp piece of cloth around it. The stale old stench of urine oozed out, teased back to life by the moisture. The pungent odour would still cling to the finished product, but by then it would be glossed over with perfume, just like the sordid affair it was meant to celebrate.

A twinge in Will’s chest made him gasp for breath, and he caught himself on the workbench. What was he doing, making the gloves that would bind Agnes to Dick? His fingers cramped on the edge. He wasn’t aware of moving, of folding in on himself, until the unyielding wood pressed into his forehead. This can’t be my life. It’s too stupid. If I saw it on a stage I wouldn’t believe it.

And yet he couldn’t crumble. He had work to do.

As darkness fell, he lit a candle that would have father grumbling in the morning. Then he unrolled the piece of kidskin and proceeded to stretch it as hard as he had ever stretched a skin. He was on fire, glowing with a zeal that felt like a disease, and for every laboured breath he pulled at the skin to the point of ripping.

Time passed somewhere outside his fever. If he grew tired, he didn’t notice.

Clutching his aching back, he finally straightened up. Sweat ran down his face and he wiped his hands on his hose. The first and most physical part of the work was done, but he was far from finished. Putting the template on the skin, careful not to place it against the grain like he had often done when he still lived at home, he cut along the edge – unbearably slowly, afraid of making the tiniest mistake with his useless hand. He blinked away sweat from his eyes and held his breath to minimise the trembling. Where he knew her fingers were narrower or broader, he adjusted the knife, departed from the rules of the trade to accommodate her uniqueness.

As if he had the slightest inkling what he was doing.

We can’t afford to waste skins right now, he remembered father’s words. And Will couldn’t afford to make a subpar product for Agnes, no matter that it was a symbol for her joining with Dick. When the gloves were done, her fingers would rest against this softness he was cutting now. He would get to almost touch her through his handiwork.

Having cut the pieces, he sat in a corner and began the arduous work of stitching it together. Normally his mother and sister took care of the sewing, of course, but with these gloves he had to do everything himself. While he worked, the candle slowly burned down. The needle, illuminated golden, trembled in his cramping fingers. He squinted, eyes dry from his sleepless night, and struggled to attach the difficult thumb parts.

When the sun finally rose through pink and yellow skies, the gloves were finished. Far from perfect and stained with his sweat, but done.

With a groan, he rose from his chair and found mother’s box of embroidery things. All the colours of the rainbow nestled side by side, like Arachne’s threads, and he let them caress his fingers: pink, purple, white. Twines of silk to match the nameless shades in Agnes’s skin.

The lily and the rose: nor red, nor white.

How often had he heard men praise the indefinable colour of a woman’s cheeks but never understood it? Now his brain was hatching words that leapt and swirled, like the flowers that would snake and coil around the gauntlets of the finished gloves. The words longed to touch, to hold her essence in unworthy syllables.

Violet, thou sweetest thief of love.

He blushed at his own nerve. Did he already call her thou in his thoughts? And yet how had they introduced themselves? With first names. Only the strange mood of the misty graveyard could explain such a breach of custom.

Surfacing from the memory, he looked at the threads in his hands. This was something he had never done. Maybe it was the lack of sleep that made him stupid, maybe something else, but he did attempt to start embroidering the gloves even though his hands would no longer obey him. The threads frayed and broke and tangled, and the result was so woeful that he threw the gloves across the room and burst into angry tears, and that was how Joanie found him.

“Will? What are you doing here? What’s the matter?”

He covered his face, but there was no hiding from the evidence. “It’s the bloody gloves. I’ve ruined them!”

There was a surprised silence from Joanie. Then the sound of her steps, a rustle as she bent, and then he heard her stifle a giggle.

“Don’t you dare!” he growled, but he sounded pitiful rather than stern. He was just so exhausted.

“Why don’t you leave the women’s work to us?” Joanie sat beside him and leaned into his side just like Annie had used to do. “You’ve never embroidered in your life.”

Will wiped his eyes. He must be in a really bad way if he gave way to childish tears for a couple of stupid gloves.

“What did you want the pattern to be?”

“Oh, you can’t even tell? Great.”

Joanie perused the miserable stitching. “I’ll do it for you if you give me a hint.”

“It’s supposed to be bloody flowers and stuff!”

“I see. Well, the first rule of embroidery is not to cover too much of the leather with… well, with bloody flowers and stuff, as you call it.” Joanie caught his eyes as if to imprint on him the importance of this one lesson. “You need to leave some space between the decorations. Otherwise, when you look at them, you can’t see anything, because there’s just too much. You know? The pattern suffocates itself.”

Will nodded sullenly. It made sense. “So can you help me?”

“I said I would.”

“But aren’t they ruined already?”

Joanie smiled. “Not at all. I’ll have them ready for you by this afternoon.”

His sister was true to her word, and the gloves turned out very pretty. When Will saw the finished product, his chest seemed to shatter.

Father delivered the gift together with Will’s poem, pointedly written in the sonnet form, and according to the report it was very well received. Dick went back to the city and Agnes went back to Shottery, and though Will’s hands were still sore from his work on the gloves, there was nothing for it: he too went back to his duties. Back to the chains, back to the limbo of tanning.

Because dark-haired angels and London careers were not for him.

 

 

Bridal Bed, chapter 4

Bridal BedShe didn’t. Neither of them did. As Dick quieted and seemed to sleep more peacefully, they just remained by the dinner table, listening to the storm rage its way through the night.

“So you work here.”

Will heaved a sigh. “Yes.”

Did she hear the world of weariness tied to that one syllable? Her expression was unreadable. “So you know tanning.”

He made a face. “I know the outer trappings of it. I know the language. I know the methods, and every kind of skin. But I’m not a tanner.”

She shrugged. “You’re still an apprentice.”

“Yes, but…” He hesitated. What was the point of confessing? She had no interest in his childish grief. But the night was still dark, and there was nothing to do but talk. “I’m not a tanner at heart.”

“I see.” For a long time she was silent, but he could sense her thinking. Then finally she said, “You write.”

Her eyes. He couldn’t speak. They were worse than a priest’s.

He hunched his shoulders a little, and she seemed to notice. There was the afterimage of a smile, he didn’t catch it until it was gone, but the residue was warmer and colder than anything he had ever known.

“How…?” he croaked.

“Your hands.”

“It’s just a cramp,” he began, and then realised she wasn’t talking about his handicap. She was talking about his fingertips. “Oh…”

“I recognise the colour of ink,” she said, and this time her smile wasn’t residual, it lingered in full bloom for him to register and savour.

“Of course.” He wasn’t sure it merited quite so much mirth, but his mouth teetered on the edge of an answering smile.

“So?”

Swallowing, he forced out, “I, uh, there’s, I mean, um…” and other words that didn’t mean anything. She watched him through his meaningless monologue, didn’t seem to mind. Or did she? His usual powers of observation were knocked out of whack by having to speak about himself. Looking down into his lap, at the hand that lay there quill-less but prepared, he made a herculean effort to produce something coherent. “Sometimes I write, yes. It’s been a while, but I’ve… rediscovered it lately.”

Heat poured over his face. What he just said – it sounded too intimate somehow. Like a compliment he wasn’t authorized to give.

A pause, too long. Then: “Well? I’m curious.”

“About…”

She chuckled. “Your writing. Is it a secret?”

“N…” he frowned. “No.”

“So what do you write?”

He should give a simple answer, but suddenly it was as if he didn’t know. That vast array of carefully weighted words, all in the right place to create an infinite web of significance… but now that her eyes were upon him, waiting, assessing, cutting – he didn’t know.

“Uh… this and that.” It was his voice, but it wasn’t his words. His brain wasn’t in them. “Stuff.”

Again that residual smile. “Stuff.”

He swallowed, breath locked in his throat. Was it his turn to speak again? It shouldn’t be, but he was the first to choke on the silence. Her eyes stayed on him, amusement and deadpan seriousness all rolled into one. The ball in his court, but he didn’t know what ball to reach for, didn’t know the game.

“Love poems?” she urged.

“No.” Too quick, but he resisted the urge to elaborate: it would only make him look more foolish.

She nodded, but didn’t look convinced. He was jarred by the thought of being analysed. For the first time in forever he felt like a presence of soul and mind, not only of flesh and blood.

The little love god lay asleep.” Agnes cocked her head. “Or what was it?”

Something strained in Will’s chest, like an animal howling to break free. She had heard? She remembered? “I, uh… That was just…”

A band of nymphs came tripping by.” Her fingers tapped a rhythm on the table. One-two, three-four, five-six, seven-eight. “Maybe you should try the sonnet form.”

“S… sonnet form?”

“Yes. It’s an Italian format with fourtee–”

“I know what a sonnet is!” he burst out, mortified to be so lectured by a woman. How could she possibly know about such things?

She quirked an eyebrow. “You forget that my…” She glanced over at Dick, and a shadow of worry crept back into her face. “That Dick is a printer in the making. He sends me bits and pieces. Apparently there’s a fair amount of English poets turning to the sonnet form at the moment.”

Will was filled with a renewed wish to slash Dick’s arm open. “And who reads it to you?”

Agnes averted her eyes. “I can read,” she mumbled. “My brother taught me.”

“Oh…” Will felt strangely lightheaded. “Yes, well… I taught my sister.”

“The one that…?”

He winced. “No. I never got the chance. My other sister.”

Agnes nodded.

“I wish you could have known her,” he said stupidly, but Agnes didn’t laugh at him.

“What was her name?”

He met her gaze full on. “Anne.”

Her eyes were bottomless in the candlelight. “Yes?” she said softly, and then shook her head and chuckled. “Oh, you mean…”

There was a moment of weightlessness, of timelessness.

“But we called her Annie,” Will said, breaking the spell.

“Oh.”

Agnes flashed a strained smile. A moment passed, but neither of them managed to make anything of it. Instead she stood up and walked over to Dick. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she stroked his forehead. Will should leave, should mount the stairs and leave the pair alone, but he couldn’t. He just sat there watching her, reeling from her words and the impossible connections crisscrossing his life. Annie and Agnes; Aunt Joan and Master Jenkins. They all disappeared, all left him. Went home to their husbands, to other towns, to their heavenly father. And for all their printing and their sonnet forms, no poet had ever truly caught that pain with their wordsmithing: the real world, the constant loss.

Words were pointless and dumb.

And yet the five insidious feet were creeping into his mind, quiet and careful as if they thought they could enter without him knowing. Reopening the boxes he had kept shut, raking among the ashes for a drifting ember to blow on. To coax them into that raging fire once again.

“So…” He swallowed, unsure of how to go on. “He sends you poetry?”

Agnes nodded. “Trophies, of a kind.”

“Anything good?”

She shrugged. He waited for a reply, but got none. Just now they had felt so close, almost intimate, and now a chasm yawned between them.

He really should leave.

But he couldn’t tear himself away. He wanted to sit here in this cramped room for an eternity, listening to her silence. If this was heaven, he could live with it. A tattered collection of furniture and pewter dishes, drenched in a faint smell of urine. He didn’t need the promised euphoria. Her presence was enough, her presence and the itchy worry it ignited in him. He wasn’t happy, but he was alive as hell.

“Isn’t Dick younger than you?” he asked, and immediately regretted it. “I mean… He lives in London.”

Agnes gave him a look that said it was none of his business, but then she mumbled, “Once we’re married, I’ll move there.”

“Why?” It was out before he could stop it. “Don’t you prefer Warwickshire?”

The question was too tinged by his ridiculous despair. She must hear it.

But Agnes just sighed and stared at the black window. “Is it that obvious?” Then she looked down at Dick again. He was snoring lightly, regularly. “Well, London is where he lives,” she said dully. “It’s where he has his career.”

“So you’re giving your heart to someone who leaves you crying in a Stratford graveyard in order to pursue his career in the capital?”

Agnes glared at him, and he didn’t blame her. Who was he to question the economic alliances of his neighbours? He wasn’t even a major yet. He was only eighteen, with nothing to his name but a failing family business and a handful of poetic ashes.

“I wonder that you’re not ‘pursuing a career in the capital,’ as you put it,” she shot back.

The words, so sudden, grabbed him by the throat. “I don’t… I…”

“You’re a man of letters too.” She smiled tartly, almost seeming to laugh on the word ‘man’. Will stared back at her and couldn’t even stutter a protest. “And you admire him, don’t you?”

“What?”

“You don’t take your eyes off him.”

“I… uh…” Will shook his head at the preposterous claim. “That’s really not–”

“Is it because you think he’s smarter than you? Is that the fascination?”

Will fell silent. Her gaze skewered him, he was a fish on land. Desperate convulsions in his chest, air supply dangerously low. Or high? Was he breathing too fast? He wanted to look away so he could find his voice, his self, but her eyes held him hostage.

“I… don’t…”

Images from school, black spots in front of his eyes. The charmer, the nemesis. The way Dick managed not to alienate anyone with his intelligence, but make it work for him instead. His hubris that turned out not to be hubris, just a correct estimation of his prospects. Because he had the makings of a career now. A career that had nothing to do with piss and blood and beaming knives.

Agnes pursed her lips. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer that.”

But I want to. Will’s fingers twitched in that familiar way, wanting a quill. He was restless like an anthill and tender like a bruise. All this time, and no one to confide in. This endless stretch of years, and not a word of confession. Was she right? Did he long to kneel at the feet of intellectual authority?

He would have kneeled for Master Jenkins.

But he didn’t just want to kneel. He wanted to be kneeled to. He wanted to bow his head in respect for a mind on a par with his, and then to surpass, to outdo, to conquer. He wanted to be blinded with awe and then blind the awe-inspiring one in return.

But for that person to be Dick? The thought was caught in a tangle of memories and hate. All Will had ever had from young Goodman Field was resentment and torture. He couldn’t think about it without disturbing that old snake pit of despair, that feeling of utter isolation, because time was meaningless. Your wounds could heal and the thin white line cover them like nothing had ever happened, and then suddenly you passed that way again, the place the blow was dealt, and rrrrip the bloody fronds gaped wide as if you never left. Life saying fuck you and your fake fucking recovery. Fuck moving on, and fuck anyone who thinks they can one-up my backwards timeline.

We’re all just one step away from bleeding to death.

His hands declenched, because apparently they’d been balled into fists for quite some time. A series of nail-cutting half-moons dotted his skin, like a reflection of his inner wounds. His soul was marked by history, by the razor-sharp edges of Dick’s life brushing his, and the blood had dried in secret slashes. It felt right that such imperfections should be outwardly visible, if only for a minute. Like pock marks of the heart.

“What if I’m not good enough?” He whispered the words.

Agnes cocked her head. “For what?”

He recoiled from the enormity of the answer he couldn’t give, not under any circumstances. He had already said too much. Instead he muttered, “It doesn’t matter. I’ll stay here and work. Someone has to.” His father’s words, moulded to almost fit his mouth.

But it was too late. “And what if you are good enough?”

Will stared at her, at this stranger who was suddenly acting the priest in a confessional. “What if I am?” he sneered. “What if I’m smarter than Dick, smarter than Master Jenkins, what if I was meant to go to university? How does any of that matter now? I’m a tanner’s apprentice. I’m stuck for seven years in this hellhole. I’ve missed my chance, and no one will ever know what I had to say, because everyone’s so bloody busy experimenting with the bloody sonnet form!”

Heinous words, ridiculous. Embarrassing and pompous. Hubris in the extreme. And yet they fell into place like pieces in a puzzle, each bit linking to the next in a perfect pattern. He held his breath, afraid to have provoked some jealous Norn of fate, to have jinxed his entire existence, but nothing happened. No hell-finger reached up to strike him down, no chasm opened at his feet.

Agnes just reached out a hand towards his, and he flinched. “Forget it.” His voice was tin against stone. “I was joking.”

 

Bridal Bed, chapter 3

Bridal BedWhen they entered the house in Bridge Street, Dick was stretched out on the dining room bed, panting and sweating, his skin abnormally red.

Agnes stopped short and moaned. “Richard…” The name in her mouth was a world of pain. If Will had imagined the courtship to be one of convenience, that illusion died now.

“He’ll be fine,” his lips formed the words, as meaningless as his graveyard speech, and she gave him the look he deserved: he was in no position to judge such a thing.

Kneeling by the bed, she stroked Dick’s forehead and whispered his name in a futile attempt to wake him up. Will looked away, but he could feel her touch on that fevered face. The jealousy was a hollowing-out of his chest, his head, his whole being. A heart-sucking, brain-fucking annihilation of everything he knew. It was an ache so vague and all-encompassing it practically replaced his sense of self. It was everywhere, in all his veins and all his bones, a dose of poison just below lethal, smudging every tissue with ice.

You have no business caring, he told himself. You don’t even know this woman. In fact, if she cared about Dick, there was probably something deeply wrong with her.

But when she stood up with a forbidding look on her face and strode past Will to the table, he breathed in the wake of her passing to catch the scent of her, and the trace of cow and smoke and bread was a caress of bruises. Helpless to resist, he watched her open a satchel and empty a jumble of bottles and pouches on the scarred wood. Common enough garden herbs, he knew. Aunt Joan had just such a collection. But the way they shivered in the candlelight… it was witchcraft.

Agnes put the herbs in a bowl and mashed them up with some water. Her slender, soft-looking hands worked the pestle, their pallor a dizzying flash in the low light. Lost in the rhythmic motion, Will was blindsided by a memory from Barton: the first time his fingers had found their way down his own hose.

Cheeks burning, he looked up at her face again, at the evidence of a rough life already digging its trenches in her skin. Was this the only choice she had – to bind herself to Dick? Didn’t she realise the danger?

The feeling of rope against his throat made him pull at his collar. Breathing in deeply, he shrugged off the memory of towering elms, of devils in the dusk. That night in the woods… it was a long time ago, but now that he saw Dick sweat and groan in the grips of his fever, Will remembered how close he himself had come to death. Only the timely intervention of leeches had saved him.

At the thought, he blurted, “Maybe we should bleed him?”

Agnes looked up from her bowl. “You have the money for a doctor?”

“No.” Will paused a beat. “But I have a knife.”

Agnes’s hand made a jerk, knocking the bowl to the floor. “Oh no…” She fell to her knees and gathered the shards of crockery in her hands, a sob rising in her throat. “That was my last peppermint!”

Will’s heart made a squeeze. Good. Let the bastard suffer.

But something better in him won out. “I believe you’ll find some in the garden.”

Agnes looked up, anger blooming in her cheeks. “And leave you alone with him?”

Will hesitated. Her gaze dropped to his hand, and it duly cramped, as if to underscore the folly of letting him handle a blade. He balled it into a fist and hid it behind his back. Jerking his head at the door, he said, “I’ll help you look for the peppermint.”

Agnes glared at him for a moment, but then she acquiesced. A resigned lowering of her shoulders, a pained glance at Dick, and then she donned her cloak again.

Outside it was still pitch black. Thrown for just a moment, Will stayed on the threshold, in the honey-warm pool of candlelight that oozed into the night from inside. Big fat drops of rain battered his head and snaked inside his collar while he balanced on the edge.

“Let’s just rip everything out of the flower beds and bring it inside,” Agnes said.

He turned to look at her, convinced she was making a feeble joke, but her face was serious. Panic had stolen her wits, apparently. Panic at the sight of her beloved in the clutches of death.

Will shook his head. “No need.” Venturing into the storm, he felt his way to where he knew the peppermint grew. He squatted and fumbled through the plants, the rain a wet lash against his face. Catching a leaf between thumb and forefinger, he rubbed and smelled it. Nothing. Just a regular plant smell. He pinched the next one and rubbed it. Too pungent.

Agnes kneeled beside him, a hint of warmth shielding him from the wind. “What are you doing?”

“The smell of peppermint is unmistakable. We don’t need to see it to find it.”

“Oh… of course.”

He felt her reach out to help. Their hands collided among the soaked leaves – a momentary spark of fire in the chill – and Will clenched his teeth. He had no business reacting to her presence. She belonged to Dick, and Will would be damned if he let himself want anything of his again.

But who was he kidding? The reason he was out here searching for peppermint at all was because of her. Seeking a cure for fevers not for Dick, but because of her.

A sudden thorn tore a gash in his finger, and he put it in his mouth. Such a tiny wound, but the pain shot through all his defences. When he went back to feeling his way through the herbs, his fingertip stung and ached as if his whole being had gathered in that minor digit.

Within minutes, he lighted on the right plant and tore a few stalks. Agnes found some elder leaves, and they went back inside to find Dick mumbling in his sleep, face dappled with a sickly dew. Seeing him suffer, Agnes stifled a moan, and Will turned to her.

“We need to do it.”

“No.”

“Look at him. He has an excess of blood, and there’s no one else who can do it. If I had gone to Barton before… But there’s no time.”

Agnes’s gaze slid to the storm-wracked man on the bed. Her eyes were wide, with too much white. Her mouth was no longer the soft summer pink of the graveyard, it was pale and strained like a gag.

“Maybe you want to do it?” Will said.

“Maybe I do.”

Her whisper was strangely audible through the howling of the wind, but she didn’t move. Will reached for a knife, and she tensed. She didn’t stop him, but she followed his every move, her eyes black in the flickering light, her nostrils stretched in whitening fear. Will picked up a candle and put it by the bed, where it cast ghostly shadows on Dick’s face. There was a warming of the air as Agnes approached behind him, and the metal glinted in his fist, asking: should he really do this? Or should he give the knife to her?

Moving slowly, he rolled up Dick’s sleeve to expose the inside of his arm. He could hear Agnes breathing and paused, unsure of how to proceed. “A… bowl, perhaps?”

Without a word, she went to fetch one, and Will put it under Dick’s elbow.

“Maybe a rag, too. For…”

Excess blood, he didn’t say, but Agnes stifled a sniffle as she obeyed. He didn’t have to name the horror to make it real.

Feeling dizzy, he looked down at the knife. It was a perfectly ordinary knife, a simple household utensil used for cutting meat and bread. Now to be used on a man’s skin. For a moment his mind filled with the image of the scraping knives in Goodman Field’s tannery, the careful removal of flesh from leather-to-be.

His hand cramped again, clutched the knife tighter. The man at his mercy had once been the boy who had harassed Will throughout their school years. His curse lay on the riverside elm where he had bound Will and where Annie had fallen. When he left for London, Will had been shackled to the tannery in his stead, and now he was aiming to bind Agnes in a golden hoop.

And yet what power did he have now, asleep, unconscious, lost to the world?

It would be so easy.

A sudden chill had Will shivering. Breathing in, he laid the knife against the blue shadow in the crook of Dick’s arm. The world seemed to hold its breath… and then he made the incision. The blade was sharp: only a small nick was needed. Dick groaned softly as blood pooled in the hollow, flowed over and ran in twin streams on either side of his arm into the bowl beneath. Will watched it run – trickling, trickling – hypnotised by the dark red colour. Fluid and fast, it left the body so easily, through such a small hole. Life brimming over, leaving forever.

Staring, dazed, he tried to think: how much blood was enough to alleviate the fever, but not enough to kill? When should he stop the flow?

A hand reached past him and clamped down on the wound, thumb pressing hard. Will swayed where he sat, brushing her arm. She leaned into him, winding a rag around Dick’s arm, movements quick and sure, experience winning over fear. Will breathed her sweat, and her elbow knocked into his ribs as she tied a tight knot.

Scarlet guilt hissed in his chest as he stared at the bowl in his hand, at the trembling, dark liquid. Had he been prepared to let the blood run dry?

When he glanced up, Agnes looked back at him, their eyes a pair of frightened birds above the scene of the carnage. Stripped by that all-seeing gaze, Will got to his feet and put the bowl aside, legs strangely weak beneath him. Wiping his hands, he fought to keep his voice light as he said, “I’ll keep watch over him if you want to sleep.”

 

A world of stars

Chains of Being Cover

Time to make some noise about my latest book. Lo, an excerpt appears!

After trudging through the more touristy parts of SoHo, we finally reach the Aquarian, a pub that allows plus ones but is still moderately tasteful. When I get my card out and press it to the bouncer display, I feel Timon tense beside me, but the laser reads the card and makes a happy chirp: confirmation that I have the requisite aspects to frequent this particular pub.

I usually don’t reflect on it – I’m eligible to enter almost anywhere – but this time, with Timon at my side, I wonder: what is it about my chart that makes me such an attractive customer? And more importantly, what aspects would result in a beep and a red light?

Azods can’t get in anywhere on their own, of course, since they don’t even have a card. But there are also less obvious fences. Some places don’t want people with badly aspected Mars, since it’ll always result in a fight. Shops are wary of Neptune square Mercury and their potentially thieving ways. Even the university has taken to turning away students with Mercury retrograde in the first house. There are challenges, and then there are challenges. No need to put people through the wringer if they don’t have it in them.

“What are you having? Heineken?”

“Kilkenny,” Timon says, and I go to order for both of us. Sure, places like this might pride themselves on their open-mindedness, but there are limits, and the handling of money is one such limit. As the charted one, I’m responsible for my starless tag-along, and my right to bring him can be revoked at the slightest hint of trouble.

While I wait at the bar, I look around the room. It’s filled with the usual rabble of show-offs and hang-arounds. I don’t like the Aquarian. Half the people here are the type to tattoo their chart onto their necks or advertise their most attractive trait with a pendant. But I’ve promised Timon a drink, so the Aquarian it is.

The bartender gives me two overfull glasses and I walk over to the booth Timon has found, foam sliding down my hands. When he takes his glass, our fingers touch and I stiffen. I want to wipe it – because of the beer foam, nothing else – but now we’ve had skin contact, Timon will probably think I do it out of disgust.

My phone beeps and I automatically wipe my hand before reaching for it. Shit. The screen shows a notification from StraightDate. Putting the date into dating, the slogan announces. Cheesy, yes, but I work sixty hour weeks and don’t have the time to look for love the traditional way. I open the latest message to see a flirty smile.

“News?” Timon asks sweetly.

“It’s just this dating site I’m a member of.” I flash the screen at him to make sure he understands. A slow nod is his only comment, and I narrow my eyes. Is there an element of disbelief in there? Fumbling to put away my phone, I clear my throat. “Just so you know.”

Timon snorts. “Know what?”

I shoot him a glare. “What kind of people I date,” I bite out, regretting having notifications on that stupid app in the first place.

Timon gives a wan smile. “I have no problem with who you date.”

“That’s not what I…” I break off with a sigh that sounds too exasperated. “I’m just saying.”

“Well, this isn’t a date, so.”

“I know that.”

“Just… if you were worried.” Timon gives me a mischievous look, but before I can retort something clever, he changes gears. “So anyway, this study you’re conducting…” He takes a sip from his drink. “Were you on the cusp of a breakthrough or something?”

Jarred by the shift, I try to stall. “Why do you ask?”

Timon cocks his head. “It’s my job to know everything. What kind of scopiler would I be if I didn’t draw exaggerated conclusions from flimsy evidence?”

I give my beer a pointed look. “You’d make a great researcher.”

“Hah. Wouldn’t that be a sight to behold?”

I make a repentant face. Someone like Timon can never get into research, so perhaps joking about it is perceived as a taunt? I give him a searching look, but he doesn’t meet my gaze. Instead he studies the pearls of condensation running down his glass.

“Whoever killed the professor doesn’t want the study to go forward, right?” he muses.

I hesitate. “Uh… maybe.”

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? Why else kill an old man who wouldn’t hurt a fly?”

“Well…”

“Which tells me the study was on the verge of a breakthrough, and someone knew. It also means you’re in danger.”

I take a deep swallow from my glass and put it back down too hard. The bang makes me sound angry, but I’m really not. I’m just… sick of it. Of everything. The world feels like an itchy sweater I can’t take off. I have a sudden urge to talk to Feona, even though I know I can’t confide in her. Emotional support isn’t her strong suit. Sure, she can pat a hand and offer advice she’s memorized from a book of quotations, but to actually listen and be there… that just isn’t her. Blame her Aries ascendant or Mars in the eighth house, but Feona Hollander is a doer, not a feeler.

Unlike Timon, who seems able to channel every emotion under the stars.

He’s drumming his fingers on the table now, deep in thought. “Maybe you should take a few sick days. Lie low for a while.”

Sudden anger surges in me. “I can’t let this psycho scare me into silence. I’m a searcher for truth. If I abandon my post, what’ll the world come to?”

Timon stares at me. Then he laughs. “Wow, Doctor Hammond. You do take yourself seriously.”

“And you don’t? What if you started guessing at crime scenes? Plucked theories out of thin air?”

“That’s kind of what I do, actually.”

“I don’t believe that.”

Timon shoots me a cheeky look. “Believe? I thought you were a ‘searcher for truth’. Aren’t you supposed to know?”

I roll my eyes. “Okay, one-nil to the starless.”

Timon falls quiet, mouth open for words that don’t come. Oh, wait… ‘starless’ isn’t a PC word anymore, is it? I seem to remember a columnist cautioning against it in some Sunday supplement or other. As I scrabble to take it back, Timon waves a dismissive hand.

“It’s, um… a bit difficult to keep up, you know?” I attempt to defend myself. “These terms change all the time, and…”

“It’s your job, though, isn’t it?” Timon’s dark eyes issue a blood-freezing challenge, and I swallow drily.

“That doesn’t mean…” I half-whisper, gesturing vaguely. “I mean… I fuck up. I’m so sorry.”

“You said.”

“Yeah, but…” But you’re obviously not forgiving me. I take a sip from my beer to avoid looking at him. Tension hangs heavy over the table, dissuading further conversation. Yeah, I’ve fucked up, but come on. Three months ago, that word was fine. Sure, I’m an ‘expert’, but not in the way Timon thinks. I don’t socialize with Azods, I only work with their blood. I’m in a lab, for stars’ sake. I don’t frequent websites devoted to Azod rights, I only read research papers and tables full of blood metal levels. Where would I even get the memo that ‘starless’ is no longer an okay word?

Not knowing what else to do, I take another gulp, but the beer tastes sour now. Timon looks sullen and unreachable. I want to explain, but it’ll only make things worse. Sighing, I prepare to empty my glass in silence. This was a crap idea to begin with. A doctor and an Azod, pretending at friends? It’s laughable. Bound to go wrong.

Intrigued? Find out what happens in Chains of Being at your favourite online store.

In a world of stars, #WhatsYourSign?

Doctor Hammond is the darling of the constellations. With a genius birth chart and a doctorate in Astrology, everything points to imminent academic stardom. But a danger lurks at the heart of Hammond’s research, and when Timon the Azod enters the stage, a collision is inescapable – because Timon is Hammond’s polar opposite. Navigating the world on intuition alone, he represents the chaos Hammond tries so hard to control. And in a society built on the zodiac, he’s the unthinkable: a man without a chart.

In another part of town, actor Sean Matthews prepares for the role of his life. Together with posh boy co-star Alastair Chesterton, he’s about to make television history. But when the show starts bleeding into reality, Sean has to face some difficult truths – about himself, about Alastair, about reality itself. In the clutches of a narrative that’s stronger than him, he’s faced with the ultimate choice: to play the part he’s been given, or to risk it all and go off script.

Set in a London close to our own, this story shows a world about to crumble – or be born again.

 

 

Love among the stars

So I heard it was a special day today – February 14. I haven’t really caught on to that whole thing, but I do have a brand new excerpt from my upcoming release to share! Yay. 🙂 Planning to set it loose on the world sometime in April.

Meet Timon and Samiel, everyone. 🙂

“Yes, what?”

Samiel jumped. He’d forgotten he was holding a phone. “Oh. Yes, hello, this is Doctor Hammond,” he said, the title almost tripping him up. “I’m calling from the university of –”

“You want me to vouch for Timon? He’s benefic. Oh, and this is D.I. Mannerley if you’re wondering. I’ll be there in twenty minutes. My guys are in the elevator.”

“The police are already here?”

“Yeah, we’ve got a team on every corner today. Saturn retrograde and all, you know?”

But Samiel didn’t know. Saturn retrograde? His forecast hadn’t shown anything of the sort. He’d heard something on the news about a week of overtime for the police, but he’d written it off as disinformation leaked from some hack company.

“Get your hands off me,” Timon barked.

“I’ll call security,” Feona yelled back, and Samiel put the phone to his chest.

“Feona! Feona, he’s benefic.”

“What?” She turned a forbidding scowl his way.

“He’s with the police.”

She scoffed. “The police? He’s a blanky, Samiel.”

“Don’t–” Samiel stopped, uncertain. Should he really tell Feona off in front of all her colleagues just because of one stupid insult? It would set an example, but it really wasn’t fair. She was just shaken up.

But even shaken up, people shouldn’t use words like that.

“Wait a minute.” He put the phone back to his ear. “Are you still there?”

“Huh? Yeah… hey Garett, you can go start the car, I’ll join you in a minute. Yes, what?”

“This Timon… what does he do?”

“Oh, he’s a scopiler. Strictly on a freelance basis, you understand, but we really can’t afford not to use his services. He’s the best.”

“Oh…” Samiel glanced at Timon. A scopiler? That rare breed of people who could intuitively deduce a perpetrator’s chart based on the crime, the forecast for the day, and the chart of the victim. His gaze snagged in the aura of professionalism, of confidence that was so incongruous in an Azod, and for a moment, he seemed to float above the scene. Nothing could touch him: not the pale corpse, not the hubbub, not Timon’s sullen good looks.

And then he was back in his body, and D.I. Mannerley was asking if there was anything else he wanted to know before she went down to the bleedin’ garage.

“Uh… no.” He rubbed his forehead. “Thank you, D.I. Mannerley.”

He hung up, just to be grabbed by a rough hand and pulled away from the doorway. “We’ll take it from here.”

Two policemen barged past him and started ordering people to leave. Inside the office, Timon was squatting by Professor Wright’s lifeless body, lifting a manila folder with a pencil, but he straightened up to accept a pair of gloves.

“You too, scram,” one of the policemen barked at Samiel.

Timon gave him a disgusted look. When he spoke, his soft voice cut through the noise like a knife. “He can stay, Garett.”

The policeman whirled on him. “What?”

“I need details. I can’t read everything on the body. I thought you knew that by now.”

Garett grudgingly let Samiel enter and nudged the door shut with his foot. The turmoil of the corridor was muffled. Grateful but shaken, Samiel watched as Timon folded up his shirt sleeves. It was such an impossible scene: an Azod, busy working, analysing – almost like a normal person.

Of course, the starless weren’t really starless. They’d just had a rough start in life. Many of them were adopted or foundlings. Some had been born in cabs on the way to the hospital, others had been delivered by distracted doctors who didn’t note the time. Some of them knew their sun and moon signs, the slowest moving houses, and sometimes their ascendants. Worst case scenario, they were born on the street by other Azods, and none of the strict routines were in place for them.

But they weren’t actually starless. That was just a term to say they lacked the requisite paperwork. They’d all been born under a particular constellation. The only trouble was that no one knew which one. And so they went through life like ciphers, unpredictable and threatening, unable to get a job since they couldn’t prove they were suited for it.

Well, except for Timon, it seemed. Somehow he’d managed to worm his way into a position of relative power: an impossible riddle. Was Timon so incredibly good at what he did that he’d surmounted the odds?

“You worked for him?” Garett jerked a thumb at Professor Wright.

Worked. Past tense already.

Samiel swallowed. “Yes.”

“Did he have a forecast?”

“Of course.”

“You know where he might have kept it?” Garett picked up the tablet that lay by the professor’s motionless elbow. “In this?”

Samiel stared at the tablet, his mind a blank. it was starting to sink in now. Professor Wright was actually dead. Like dead, dead. Never to return. Not just the head of the research team, but the old man who snorted into his coffee when Feona told her dirty jokes; the huggable human teddy bear who always had five minutes to spare when someone had personal problems; the thundercloud who could disperse a gaggle of reporters with one guttural bellow.

“If it’s password protected, Timon can crack it,” Garett said impatiently.

“Actually, I…” Samiel looked over his shoulder at the safe. “I think he prints them and keeps them in there.”

Walking across the room to open it, Samiel blinked away a sudden film of moisture in his eyes. He couldn’t show weakness now – shouldn’t even possess it, according to his chart. This was just a problem to be solved, nothing else. Treat it like Timon does. Like a puzzle.

“Well, the perpetrator is intelligent, that much is clear,” Timon said, stepping away from the desk. “Probably knows a thing or two about forensic astrology, so they’ve deliberately muddied the waters. Leaving him here instead of moving him to some place that would reveal things about their chart.”

“Like what?” Garett asked, pen and notebook in hand.

Samiel thought he could hear a tiny sigh. “Like burying it, and revealing a strong earth influence?”

Garett scribbled.

“But if they can deliberately go against their chart…?” Samiel frowned. “I mean… isn’t that impossible?”

Timon pulled off his gloves. “Some people can subvert their true charts. Takes someone bright, though. But the science of astrology isn’t one hundred percent exact yet. Shouldn’t you know that, Doctor?”

The subtle stress on his title wasn’t lost on him. One of the articles in his dissertation had treated on that very subject: the free will conundrum. But he’d only passed the needle’s eye a month ago, and he was standing before his murdered boss, for God’s sake. For all his Mercury conjunct Uranus, he couldn’t be expected to be a genius at a time like this.

“They’re never clever enough to hide their motivations, though.” Timon held out his hand towards Samiel. “Phone, please.”

“Oh.” Samiel had forgotten he was holding it. He handed it to Timon, who thumbed an app and started reading.

“Mm, yes… Mars was in the terms of Jupiter last night, so this was motivated by a sense of justice. A vendetta.”

“How can you be so sure?” Garett asked. “If they’re so smart, wouldn’t they choose a time for the crime that would muddy the waters too?”

Timon looked a little tired. “Well, that’s where my intuition comes in. Otherwise anyone could do what I do, you see? There has to be an element of the unknowable, the leap of faith, the insane. Otherwise it’s just another chart.”

“Speaking of charts…” Garett raised his eyebrows at Samiel.

“Oh… yes, of course.”

Samiel unlocked the safe. When the door swung open, Garett pushed him aside and grabbed the whole pile of folders. “We’ll take these.”

“But –”

“This is evidence now.” He gave Timon a wry smile. “Some light reading for wonder boy over there.”

Timon was pacing the room, scanning the ceiling, the walls, the bookcases, the window – noting everything, but taking nothing down. He had a phenomenal memory too? As Samiel watched him, a thought occurred to him: if Timon could read a stranger’s chart in clues left behind at a crime scene, he should be able to deduce his own chart. Or didn’t it work that way? Wasn’t the brain wired to understand itself? Samiel rifled through his memory for any literature on the subject, but couldn’t recall anything.

He glanced at the body by the desk, at the motionless form that had once been Professor Wright, the man who’d dedicated his life to finding the ultimate blood test. If they ever found it, they’d have to call it the Wright test.

But what if scopilers could already do it on intuition alone? What if Professor Wright’s work was all in vain? The body grew blurry, unfocused. What if this Timon guy could just take one look at someone and deduce their stars?

But it probably wasn’t that easy. If it was, scopilers across the country would already have made big money out of it. Samiel’s shoulders fell. What a perfect validation method that would have been – to have a scopiler tell them whether the test results were accurate.

“Alright, well, if you’re done, we’ll have regular forensics come in,” Garett said. He handed Timon the pile of folders.

Timon grimaced at the insane amount of paperwork. “Yay. The old man couldn’t have kept it all in a computer? This will take a month to compile.”

“I’ll help you,” Samiel said, taking himself by surprise.

“Really?” Timon gave him a sly look that made something flip in Samiel’s chest. “Well, thank you, kind sir.” He jerked his head at the door. “Let’s go?”