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The Phenomenals: A Tangle of Traitors, Page 2

F. E. Higgins

  But nanyone had come forward. In fact, as far as Citrine knew, it was she who had been the last person to see her father, when she had waved at him. She had been over the events of that fateful day many times. She was not an eavesdropper by nature, but when, after supper, she had heard the harsh exchange of words coming from the study she had instinctively stopped at the door. Edgar and Hubert held very different ideas about how to run the Capodel Manufactory – that was not in dispute – but this row seemed different. It was obvious from the exchange that Edgar had done something to upset Hubert.

  Citrine had heard Hubert ask him, in utter dismay, ‘Are you stealing from me?’

  And Edgar had answered, ‘If you keep things from me, how else am I supposed to find out about them?’

  And then the row had continued along the usual lines; Edgar complaining that Hubert didn’t trust him and wouldn’t give him more responsibility at the Manufactory, and Hubert reiterating that Edgar wasn’t ready.

  And that was when Citrine had knocked and walked in. Of course they had stopped arguing then, but there was a look on Edgar’s face that she hadn’t seen before.

  She had forgotten about the exchange because that was the night Hubert had not come home. When she did recall it some days later she had toyed with telling Chief Guardsman Fessup, but decided against it. It proved nothing, and Edgar would doubtless have made life even more difficult for her if she caused trouble for him.

  Decisively Citrine replaced everything in the envelope and put it away. Then she drew the black cloth that covered the mirrors and jumped up. From the drawer in her nightstand she took a green velvet drawstring bag. Then she threw on her long grey cloak and hurried out of the room.

  Shortly after, Citrine emerged from the house into a walled courtyard. Passing the stable block she noted an empty stall – ‘Good, that means Edgar is out’ – and rounded the back of the stables to a derelict lean-to. She lifted the door slightly as she opened it to stop it scraping the ground. Inside, a dark shape under a canvas cover almost filled the space. Citrine pulled away the cover and looked with pride and excitement at her father’s Trikuklos. She ran her hand over the polished mudguards and patted the leather dust-hood. It was an intriguing vehicle. Designed around a triangular metal frame, it had three large wheels with angled spokes for extra strength. It was powered by two broad pedalators attached to a covered chain and steered by long handles with soft grips. The hood clipped to a glass weather-screen at the front and folded back like that of a perambulator.

  Hubert Capodel had been one of the first people in Degringolade to own a Trikuklos, but now they were a common sight on the streets. Edgar still preferred horses, claiming they required less effort.

  Citrine climbed in and put on the gloves and goggles that lay on the front seat, then pedalated the vehicle out of the lean-to and across the courtyard to the wall. Behind a curtain of ivy there was a small door, which, using a key hidden behind a loose brick, she opened and expertly manoeuvred the vehicle through the narrow space. As soon as the door closed the ivy fell back and her secret exit was hidden again.

  With a grin Citrine pedalated away at a frightening speed down Collis Hill. She loved the freedom the Trikuklos afforded her and relished the knowledge that Edgar had no idea how she defied him. In the months since Hubert’s disappearance, he had slowly and insidiously restricted her liberty. He hired a stern governess, who accompanied her everywhere and taught her at home. And he forbade her from going to the Manufactory. Edgar’s excuse for these draconian measures was that they were for her protection, in case the same thing happened to her as had happened to her father, whatever that might be.

  In Mercator Square Citrine steered slowly between the stalls until she reached a black kite wagon set back a little from the main thoroughfare. She put on the brake, climbed down and was about to knock on the wagon door when it opened. A sun-wrinkled, aged lady stood there smiling broadly.

  ‘Citrine, how lovely to see you! I had a feeling you would come.’

  ‘Hello, Suma.’

  Inside the wagon Citrine took a seat under the window, on a soft upholstered bench, and Suma sat on a spoon-back easy chair opposite. A small stove in the corner radiated welcome heat, a black pipe carrying away the smoke through the roof. Citrine looked around, as she always did, taking in the familiar objects, noting new additions. On one shelf there was a row of five cachelot teeth, each nearly six inches high and exquisitely engraved with scaly fish and octopuses and curling waves in black and brown ink. On another shelf there was a sculpture of a hand, and at the far end an intriguing, if repulsive, leech barometer.

  ‘Cold, though not cold enough for snow, and the leeches tell me rain is coming,’ said Suma. ‘And how are you, my dear? A difficult week, this.’

  ‘I can’t believe it’s a year,’ said Citrine. ‘Edgar is . . . well, as bad as ever. I hardly see him these days – he’s always at the Manufactory or at his club. I don’t care to see him, if I am honest. Is that a dreadful thing to say? I am not sure he thinks of Father at all. I thought it would be a good night to spread the cards.’

  ‘Of course, but try to calm yourself or it will affect the outcome.’

  Citrine loosened the string on the velvet bag and took out a rectangular box made from the blackest Gaboon ebony with inlaid mother-of-pearl stars sprinkled randomly across the lid. Inside it lay a deck of cards in a baize-lined depression. She gave the deck to Suma and the old lady handled them with great care, though they showed all the signs of having been much used. She shuffled them expertly with her gnarled yet nimble fingers. From the bottom of the bag Citrine retrieved four polished dice; one seven-sided, one nine-sided, one eleven-sided and the last thirteen-sided. The facets of the first three were scored with varying numbers of parallel lines. She tossed them on to the table.

  ‘Lucky number three,’ she said, counting the visible score lines.

  Suma nodded. ‘Now the fourth.’

  Citrine rolled the fourth die, the facets of which were covered with pictures, and it landed with a large black bird uppermost.

  ‘Corvid spread,’ said Suma, and she cut the pack and took the top card. She did this eight times in all, then placed four of the cards face down in a vertical line and two horizontally on either side, in the shape of a bird.

  The cards were decorated with intricately drawn scenes – in the top corner of one a three-sided occupied gallows, on another a woman weeping at the feet of a fortune teller, and elsewhere what appeared to be a sacrifice, human or animal it was not possible to tell.

  At Suma’s nod, Citrine picked two cards from the left wing and one from the body. She set them in a straight line and turned them over. Her face fell instantly. On the first card a pair of coal-black corvids fought over a gold coin; on the second, seven corvids perched on the arm of a gibbet; but the third card was the most distressing. It showed, in graphic and scarlet detail, three hook-beaked corvids with oily black plumage pecking and pulling at the bloody entrails of a dead body.

  ‘The Thief, the Traitor and Death,’ ventured Citrine doubtfully. She looked at Suma, who smiled approvingly. ‘What does it mean?’

  ‘Remember what I said?’ said Suma. ‘The art of card-spreading cannot be taught. I can only guide you, and even then there is no guarantee that you will succeed.’

  ‘I see no answers about my father,’ said Citrine. ‘I’m just not good enough, am I?’

  Suma touched her lightly on the arm. ‘Citrine, you understand the cards better than most, but there are many ways they can be interpreted. Sometimes, the harder you look for answers, the more questions you throw up. And, remember, some will believe in them blindly, others will heed only the cards that promise good fortune and the rest, like Edgar, will dismiss them altogether.’ She looked down at the doom-laden cards before her. ‘Only time will tell how these play out.’



  ‘Spletivus!’ oathed Vincent in admiration. ‘That’s what I call a clock.

  After nearly a day’s walking Vincent was worn out, but his fatigued spirits were invigorated by the sight before him. He stood now in Mercator Square, in the heart of the city of Degringolade, staring up at the magnificent Kronometer. The tower was constructed from thirteen close-set burnished steel columns and the mechanical workings of the clock were clearly visible between them; numerous golden interlocking cogs turned haltingly in alternate directions, and a gleaming black pendulum swung back and forth, hissing as it passed through its wide arc, causing shards of reflected moonlight to shoot off into the night sky.

  Inscribed into an angled slab at the base of the tower were the words:

  Omnes vulnerant, postuma necat

  ‘ “All hours wound, the last kills”,’ said a voice, causing Vincent to jump. ‘Cheerful, eh?’

  Vincent turned to see a young boy at his side.

  ‘New to town, are you?’

  Vincent nodded, quickly assessing the youth and concluding that he was not a threat. ‘And I am confused by your clock,’ he laughed, pointing at the clock face. ‘The dark tells me that it is evening, but what in Aether is the time?’

  Vincent was right to be confused. The Kronometer’s face was round and numbered as usual, but it was also divided into four parts. Each part had a large letter – N, L, P and C – and a separate small dial.

  ‘Nox, Lux, Prax and Crex,’ said the youth helpfully. ‘Night, day, afternoon and evening. In Antithica the light is divided into four segments, Nox being the longest, Crex the shortest. The segment hand has just touched Crex and the dial hand is on six, so it is 6 Crex.

  ‘You mean six o’clock?

  ‘Nanyone says it like that round here. You’ll learn – if you stay, that is.’ The youth touched his hand to his left shoulder and hurried off.

  ‘Hmm,’ mused Vincent. ‘We’ll see about that.’

  Quickly, unnoticed, Vincent slipped in behind one of the columns of the tower. Instantly he was hidden from view, as he liked to be. He began to climb, using the internal latticework of the structure as rungs, until he was high enough to look down on the marketplace and the surrounding buildings below. He settled in, quite securely, behind the pendulum, disturbing a flock of corvids as he did so. He blew on his hands, the metal was cold, and contemplated his position, both metaphorically and literally.

  You could learn a lot about a place when no one knew you were there.

  Casting an eye over the city Vincent could see that it was a place worthy of the Kronometer. The buildings were constructed from a curious combination of stone and metal. The rooftops were steeply pitched and were made from brazen sheets of riveted metal rather than tiles. The skyline was a ragged silhouette of domes and steeples, pinnacles and cupolas. Grotesques and gargoyles and dripstones were in abundance under the eaves, and all about decidedly lifelike stone corvids perched in small niches and over windows and doors.

  Vincent sniffed. There was a distinct smell in the air, like burning caoutchouc, originating, he decided, from five tall chimneys smoking in the distance. On each chimney were painted three large intertwined letter Cs. But what in Aether was that terrible wailing?

  Vincent listened as it came and went, a long haunting ‘Reeeeee’. Then the wind changed and it faded away altogether, so he looked again to Mercator Square. There were pedestrians aplenty still, making their way home at the end of the day, and horsemen and, to his delight, more than a few Trikukloi. He knew of this novel mode of transport, a vehicle with three wheels rather than four legs, steered and powered by a single person, but he hadn’t seen one in actuality. Some said it would soon outdo the horse and cart; others, generally the older generation, sniffed and said that it was not a natural way to travel. Degringoladians were obviously forward in their thinking.

  But there’s something odd about these people, he thought suddenly. The way they walk down the street, with little hesitations, and how they constantly touch the walls.

  Intrigued, Vincent climbed down and stood at the base of the tower. The wailing was audible again, though much quieter, and here he could see better what was going on. The passers-by weren’t actually touching the walls; they were brushing small amber projections with their fingers as they passed. And instead of tipping their hats to acknowledge friends or to say goodbye, they gestured to each other the way the youth had to him earlier, rapidly tapping their own left shoulder. Then Vincent nearly laughed out loud. Did his eyes deceive him? This place was a pickpocket’s paradise! These people carried their purses in full view.

  And he was right. Everyone, young and old, carried small purses of varying colour and size quite visibly, attached by means of a short string to a button on their jacket or cloak.

  Vincent, invigorated by the novel and perplexing nature of the city, forgot his exhaustion and took a walk among the maze of booths and stalls in the square. The stallholders were distracted, busily clearing away, and he filched fruit and bread freely as he went with a sleight of hand that came from not just practice but an innate talent. Ribbons of bunting hung between the stalls; black triangular flags painted with ghoulish faces in red bordered with symbols in gold. A leaflet fluttered around his feet and he picked it up.





  Vincent shook his head in disbelief. Crystals? What nonsense was this? He stuffed the leaflet in his pocket and walked on until he found himself at the steps of a black kite wagon. A large corvid perched on the corner of the angled roof and watched him with unblinking eyes. The doors were open, but the curtain behind was closed. Nearby an old sandwich board declared:




  Vincent laughed softly. Somehow it didn’t surprise him to find such a person in Degringolade. His father had had little time for such people, pouring scorn on fortune tellers and table-knockers.

  I earn my living from honest thievery, he used to say. I don’t lie to anyone. Those card-spreaders, they look you in the eye, tell you a pack of untruths and still take your money!

  Vincent smiled wryly. What would his father have thought of Degringolade? Above all he had been a practical man. Yes, he would have laughed at the purses on view, but he would not have laughed at the obvious wealth in the city. Together, father and son, they would have stood in the shadow of the Kronometer and planned an evening’s work. It was the large houses on the hill they would have targeted, in particular the white mansion Vincent had spotted from on high. Whoever lived there did not lack for money. Vincent flinched as a familiar sharp pain stabbed at his guts. His father wasn’t here. He would have to plan and thieve on his own. It was something he was still getting used to.

  The corvid suddenly took flight, startling him back to the present. Something to the side of the wagon caught his eye. A Trikuklos.

  Vincent almost rubbed his hands with delight at the sight of the vehicle and immediately went over to examine it. He pressed one of the tyres with his thumb, and the thick rubber yielded ever so slightly. Should be quite a comfortable ride, he concluded, having not yet forgotten the distinctly uncomfortable seat he had endured on his way here. He opened the door and ducked his head in under the hood for a better look. He was thus engaged when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

  ‘May I help you?’ asked a quietly sophisticated voice.

  Vincent pulled his head out and straightened. A green-eyed girl, perhaps a little older than he, was standing beside him. She was the owner of the machine; that much was obvious from her garb, namely leather high-cuffed gloves, a hat with ear flaps and a pair of large goggles presently hanging around her neck.

  Vincent flashed his smile, the one that always charmed. ‘Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Vincent Verdigris.’

  The girl looked at him coolly. ‘I am Citrine Capodel,’ she said with that air of confident
entitlement Vincent had heard many times before. ‘Now, please excuse me. I must go.’

  ‘Your Trikuklos, it’s marvellous,’ he said, stepping back, but not quite enough, so the girl had to brush past him to climb in. He took great pleasure in unsettling her sort. And in burgling them.

  ‘Kew,’ she said politely, and then took off, expertly negotiating the narrow aisles between the stalls.

  Vincent watched her go. As soon as she was far enough away he shook her purse out of his sleeve. He loosened the strings and looked inside, to find only greyish crystals. He dipped in a finger and licked it and immediately spat. ‘Uurgh!’

  ‘Unrefined sea salt,’ said a woman’s voice. ‘Bitter as bile.’

  Vincent looked up, gurning, still trying to rid his mouth of the taste. An old woman was standing on the steps of the kite wagon.

  ‘Suma Dartson at your service. Would you like your cards spread, young man?’

  ‘No, thanks,’ he said. ‘I don’t believe in all that sort of stuff.’

  ‘New here, are you?’ she asked with a knowing look. ‘I wonder how long before you change your mind. “That sort of stuff” is the lifeblood of Degringolade.’

  ‘Is that so?’ Vincent made no attempt to hide his scepticism. He looked boldly at the woman but found it hard to hold her gaze, sensing that she was immune to his smile. ‘So what’s all this bunting about?’ he asked, strangely compelled to break the silence. ‘Not exactly cheerful, is it?’

  ‘This week is the Festival of the Lurids,’ replied Suma. ‘The Ritual of Appeasement is only days away. But you have your salt already. And I have something for you too.’ She disappeared inside the wagon.