Copperhead

Ironskin (Volume 2)

Tina Connolly

Tor Books

Chapter 1


A HOUSE OF HYDRA

The door was grey, ash and soot and smog grey, the grey of a city choked on its own failure. The full iron mask, padded though it was, was ice-cold in the frigid November night. Helen slipped one lilac-gloved finger under the chin of the mask and angled it so she could better see out of the eyeholes. Yes. Even here at the Grimsbys’, the stoop and sidewalk and bushes were blanketed with misty shreds of blue.

The fey.

Bits of the fey.

With one hand Helen found her sister Jane, standing just behind her. With the other she reached for the copper doorknocker, then stopped as her fingers closed on the rapping bit—the coiled tail of a seven-headed copperhead hydra. The emblem of the Copperhead Society was spreading faster and faster these days, almost as fast as the blue bits of fey that lay quiescent throughout the city.

But Mr. Grimsby was the leader of Copperhead. It was his house, his meeting. And her husband, Alistair, would want to take the lead.

Helen’s fingers fell away and she stood there in the frosty air, ice crystals on her breath and Jane’s cold fingers squeezed in the grip of her gloved hand. Two patient women. Protected. Waiting. Helen turned to Jane and with frost in her breath mouthed, "Soon."

Jane nodded. Unlike Helen, her face was bare—and yet not, for she had thin iron strips embedded in her skin that outlined her perfect, inhuman features. The strips ringed her eyes, followed the curve of her cheekbone, ran along her jawline—an eerie but not ugly effect, especially when contrasted with the perfection of her face. Those iron strips, Helen’s iron mask—all to protect the two women from the deadly fey. Jane’s green eyes glittered in the cold and Helen suddenly thought of all she could do, would do, to help the vulnerable women like herself, to help Jane. Helen would redeem herself yet.

"Hurry, hurry, girls," said a refined voice behind them. Alistair Huntingdon squeezed between the two sisters to bang imperiously on the doorknocker. "This is the most dangerous part of the trip, Helen. You must hurry inside."

I have my iron mask on, Helen thought rebelliously, but all she said was, "Of course, darling."

Alistair pointed one yellow-gloved finger at a patch of blue coiled on the front lawn, a handsbreadth from the iron railing that would be poison to it. "I say, is that one moving? I swear I saw it move."

Helen’s nerves twitched as he pointed, but she willed herself to stay calm. The blue bits of fey coated the city these days, covered everything not iron. She had even seen a motorcar with blue mist clinging to its rubber tires. But the bits of fey were mostly silent, mostly still.

Mostly.

Luckily the door was opened then by a man who looked more brawn than butler, who muttered through the ritual "An’ ye be human, enter," and then with a hefty white-gloved hand brought them forcefully over the iron threshold and inside.

The air was warm. It would be close before the night was out, Helen thought, stuck in that room full of hot tempers and single-minded men. Or was it that her nerves were busy jangling, now that they were here, now that she needed to convince Jane of what they were to do tonight … and under whose noses?

A homely maid took their wraps. With relief, Helen reached to unbuckle her iron mask, but her husband stopped her. "Could be dangerous."

"Security seems tight enough," said Helen. "Besides, do you really think this house—of all houses—isn’t fully iron-barred at each door, every window? The fey can’t cross that without invitation. Jane and I will be safe."

"I would trust Grimsby with my life," said Alistair immediately.

"Good," said Helen, reaching again for the buckles.

"But not yours. Consider, my pet. Remember that a fey almost took you over before. No, I’m not risking that again."

"Seems like if you paid for this face you ought to let people see it," said Helen, or rather, she didn’t say it as she knew it would be just one teensy remark too far. No point in letting her wretched tongue ruin all of her evening’s plans over the urge to get a dig in, especially when his face was already going white around the nostrils. She pulled back into delightful, chattering Helen, and said, "I understand you’re looking out for me, Alistair dear! Very sensible of you and of course I shall obey. It did occur to me though—one teensy little thought—if I were to go unmasked, then I would be the most beautiful woman in the room. All the other women with fey faces like mine will be too afraid to go unmasked. But I could be so charming that I win everyone over—to your cause, of course. For your goals."

A covetous spark leapt to Alistair’s eye. "Perhaps there is merit in what you say. As you say, Grimsby’s house is surely the safest in town. He hates the blue scum even more than I do, if possible."

"Excellent," said Helen, and unbuckled her mask and handed it to the homely maid before her husband could rescind his permission. "Now, Jane, if you’re finished, let’s go to the powder room and smooth our hair after those mussing buckles, shall we?" She flashed her brilliant smile around the room.

Helen took Jane’s arm and whisked them away into a small powder room. Helen had been to the Grimsbys’ once before, in the short halcyon time between marrying Alistair Huntingdon seven months ago but before the blue fey appeared in the city, and Copperhead rose up along with it. Well, those days hadn’t been entirely perfect, but they seemed so now. This house had been hung with tiny yellow lights—the new electricity coming into vogue. Before the Great War, relations had been amicable, if distant, with the rarely seen fey, and a steady trade of fey technology had kept humans supplied with clean energy—"bluepacks" that ran all the lights and cars and trolleys. But eight years ago the fey attacked. The Great War started between the two races, and trade stopped, leaving humans bereft of all their borrowed technology. Humans had struggled to pull society back from collapse, while fighting the forest-dwelling fey—an enemy of blue mist that could emulate humans—or worse, animate their dead bodies. The war dragged on for nearly four years, then abruptly the fey disappeared. Slowly people dared hope they were gone for good—slowly hope and laughter and silk stockings returned to the city. That dance seven months ago had been lovely and perfect, one of those few evenings when Helen had felt as though she fit in with her new, rarefied society. She had worn a slinky green velvet dress and coppery T-strap shoes, her red-gold hair all over curls. And she had been pretty. Plain pretty, not inhumanly perfect …

Helen came back to reality with a sigh and turned away from the mirror. "Now, Jane," she said. "Tell me who you need to meet tonight. The most important candidate is Millicent Grimsby, but so many women of The Hundred will be here with their husbands. You should be able to meet a fair number of them." Her tongue beat with the urge to say what Jane needed to do with Millicent, but she held it. Millicent’s safety was riding on her. She could not tip their hand too soon, even to Jane. The less Jane knew till the last second, the less she could give away in a glance, a look, a misplaced word at the end of a sentence. Oh, when she thought of that horrible Mr. Grimsby … Helen told her racing heartbeat to still, but her heart never obeyed her.

Jane looked at her sister from under level black brows. "Does he always order you around like that?"

Helen blinked and with an effort brought her worries and plans back to the present, ran through the past few moments since disembarking from the motorcar and entering the Grimsbys’. She smiled, ordering it to reach her eyes. "Now, Jane, don’t you concern yourself with darling Alistair." She turned back to the mirror for something to do, smoothed copper-blond curls around her inhumanly perfect face. "All of The Hundred of us are in danger. Isn’t it good that he’s concerned?"

"Well," said Jane.

"Besides, you saw how well I handled him. Everything is tout à fait."

"You did, and I’m impressed," said Jane. "You always were good at smoothing ruffled feathers. But about Alistair—"

Helen whirled back. "Tell me whom you need to meet," she cut in, because she could see Jane was gearing up for another of her dreary arguments about feminine inequality, and when stubborn Jane met stubborn Helen, the battle could last all night. Jane did not understand about necessary compromises. "Do you have a list of The Hundred or something?"

"I do," said Jane. "But I don’t think that will be necessary."

She pointed over Helen’s shoulder, and Helen turned and looked into the large room. Heartache throbbed, remembering it as she had last seen it, the ballroom, the music, dancing so light on her toes in time, in time, in time.…

Focus, Helen. It is a bare sober room now, with dark dresses and long hard benches. No rumbas, no foxtrots, and if the occasional sharp laugh escapes into the close air it is because these women will not be completely contained by fear. Focus, Helen—until she saw what Jane meant.

At least half of the seated women were wearing iron masks.

"All right then," said Helen.

"That’s a third of them right there," breathed Jane. The two sisters stood, looking at the cold iron masks dotting the room.

Over the last several years, a hundred of the richest women—and a few men—had secretly had their faces worked on by one Edward Rochart, an enigmatic artist who was now Jane’s fiancé. Every woman had come back a dazzling version of herself—and in most cases the changes were even deniable, put down to a "restorative holiday" in the countryside.

But the idyll had turned sour—Jane had discovered six months ago that the "fey beauty" of The Hundred was exactly that. They had each had their old face replaced by a mask—a mask made of the dangerous fey themselves.

And anyone who had fey attached to their bodies was at risk of being taken over by the fey. That was the secret to how the fey had animated dead bodies during the war—they had killed humans with bombs that coated the victim with their own fey substance—little bits of themselves. Then they could move in. But dead bodies only lasted so long. The Fey Queen had figured out how to use Rochart to get these women to coat themselves in fey voluntarily—an unwitting accomplice to a plan to take over the city from the inside, fey slipping into highly placed women and erasing their personalities completely.

It had even happened to Helen. Only Jane’s quick application of an iron spike into her arm had killed the fey and saved her. Helen shuddered, remembering the moment. The whole fey slipping into Helen through the bit of fey on her face, crackling through her thoughts, erasing. Telling Helen things would be so much better if she simply didn’t exist, and Helen, feeling that that might be true …

"I just don’t understand why I’m getting so much resistance," said Jane. Jane was on a mission to make each of The Hundred safer by returning their original human faces to them. But she was not making as much headway as she had hoped.

"Because once you have been the most beautiful woman in the room, it’s impossible to give up," Helen said.

"It’s pathetic to be so focused on appearance," said Jane sharply. Jane’s face had been scarred for so long due to fey shrapnel from the Great War that she came at this from a different angle, Helen thought. Jane had just wanted to be normal. But everyone else had always been normal. And now they had a chance to be extraordinary.

"It’s not pathetic at all," Helen said softly. "Just think about the power you hold. You have always been just another face. And now everyone turns to you, asks your opinion. Those men who run your lives—suddenly they will do anything for you, if you favor them with a look. There is a touch of fey glamour at your command, yes, but more, there is just the fact that suddenly everyone thinks you are somebody. You are worth something."

"And that’s enough to set against cold hard facts?" said Jane. "The cold hard fact that if you go outside without your iron mask, a fey could take you over and you’d be gone like that?" She snapped her fingers.

"What cold hard facts?" returned Helen. "How many people were in that ballroom when it happened to me? Only a handful of people saw it actually happen—and look, here I am, right as rain and twice as sparkling. It’s much easier to pretend that the danger isn’t as real as you say it is. Especially when their option is their old face back." She took a breath before the slightly pointed jab, but she needed Jane to see how much she was in need of Helen’s help. "Besides, you probably wave their old face around in front of them when you try to convince them. Hard to be thrilled by the idea when you’re looking at your nasty old face, stretched and hideous from drying on the wall."

"Give me some credit," said Jane.

Helen raised her eyebrows.

"Well. Maybe once," said Jane. "But I’ve learned since then. And I’ve learned how to reverse the sags and stretch marks during the facelift procedure."

"But they’ll never be beautiful again," said Helen.

"No," Jane admitted. "There is that."

It was almost time to tell Jane her plan. The first part of her plan. But how would Jane take it? Jane was so self-sufficient, and she was not used to thinking of her younger sister as helpful.

"So tell me which one is Millicent Grimsby," Jane said. "I can’t tell one masked woman from the next."

Despite the worry in the air, Helen laughed, and pulled her sister out into the crowd of dark suits and gowns. You still saw women around town in the popular sherbet hues, but tonight they were in darker colors: navy, black. Yet the women had not sacrificed any more than color. Gowns were still bias-cut and clingy. Sheer stockings, still dear due to the factory problems since the Great War, clung sleekly to every calf. Heels were high, adorned with jeweled pins and rounded toes. Hair was curled or waved—earlier in the year it had been longer, but you were seeing bobs more and more, perhaps as a minor rebellion against the tension in the city, the curfews, the iron masks. Helen herself was in deep plum silk charmeuse—she looked washed-out in black—the jacket ornamented with large pearl buttons.

Men were less interesting, sartorially speaking, but tended to be quite conservative still. Suits had become spare and close-fitting at the start of the Great War, and they still looked the same. Women would find ways to rebel against conservative dress, Helen thought, but men seemed fine to continue on indefinitely. Really, the only item of fashion for men that had changed in the last six months was the introduction of those copper lapel pins in the shape of a writhing hydra.

Copperhead.

Helen studied the dresses, the figures, and the hair before saying, "She’s over there, by the fireplace." She did not know Millicent terribly well—Helen’s marriage seven months ago had been followed a month later by the advent of the fey to the city, and the men of Alistair’s set had grown more and more cautious in letting their women leave their houses. But Helen would recognize those mousy shoulders anywhere, that tilt and droop of the small figure. With her perfect face hidden behind iron, there was no fey glamour to offset her timidly curved form. Millicent always seemed to be making herself smaller.

"So, this Millicent," said Jane, as Helen pointed her out. "What did you want to tell me about her? You seem bursting with some news. I brought her face as you asked, but you just told me not to ‘wave it around in front of her as I try to convince her.’" She eyed her younger sister. "I don’t suppose you’re finally going to let me do you, are you?"

"Not yet," said Helen, and she lit up inside, for now was the moment. "Because I need every ounce of fey charisma I can get. I have a plan, a great grand plan." A breath. "I’m going to help you."

Jane looked dubious. "Even with the bit of fey in your face, you wouldn’t be able to do the facelifts right away. I barely have the ability to wield the fey power to do it, and that’s after months of practice."

"No no no," said Helen. "I’m going to help you talk The Hundred into it."

Jane looked nonplussed. "Thank you for your offer, but I don’t see how your presence will help. I’m the one with the experience with the facelifts and the history with the fey. Surely if I tell them the facts, they’ll understand that it has to be done."

Helen raised her eyebrows at Jane. "Really?" she said. "How long have you been working at this task? Half a year?"

"Off and on," said Jane. "But I’ve been studying to do the facelifts, too. It hasn’t been all talking to the women."

"And you’ve managed to convince how many of The Hundred?"

"Well. Six," said Jane.

Helen squeezed her sister’s arm. "So don’t be a goose, silly. This is exactly where I come in. Look, I might not be perfectly tactful always—"

Jane raised her eyebrows at this.

"—but your idea of tact is to force out the words ‘in my opinion’ as you tell someone exactly what you think of them."

"So what’s part two of this grand plan?" Jane said dryly to this tactless comment.

"I’ve already talked to Millicent," Helen said, and the words she had told herself to keep in tumbled all out. Her face lit up, glowing with the joy of the surprise of it, with the good she was going to accomplish for Millicent, for Jane. "She’s all ready for you. She wants you to replace her face. Tonight."

Jane turned a shocked face on Helen and shoved her younger sister into the nearest alcove to whisper furiously at her. "Tonight? It’s not a haircut, Helen. It’s a serious operation. It’s not something I can just do, just like that."

"You can," insisted Helen, heart rat-a-tat. "But you have to do it secretly, upstairs, while everyone is downstairs. It’s her only chance." Jane couldn’t say that she was wrong, that she was foolish. This was new Helen, determined to make things come out right. "You have all your supplies, don’t you?" Helen pointed at the carpetbag that Jane carried everywhere.

"I suppose," said Jane. "But—"

"But nothing; you’re just nervous, now that I’ve done it so quickly and gotten everything ready to go." The words tumbled headlong from her lips. The mad rush, the intrigue, the heady thrill of brink-of-success: it all made her feel so alive.

"True, but I have justification for nerves," said Jane. "It’s a dangerous operation at the best of times. To do it with no warning, on a tight timeframe, no room for error?" She shook her head. "You just don’t understand."

Helen felt the familiar pressure against her skull in response to people telling her she was wrong, that she didn’t understand, that she couldn’t do something. The pounding in her head thudded as her will rose up, flattening everything before her like the sound of a bell spreading across town. "No, you don’t," she said, and it was with tremendous effort that she kept her voice low, whispering the words right into Jane’s ear. "Mr. Grimsby won’t let her go anywhere. Won’t let her leave the house. Says it’s unsafe—though with the iron mask it’s perfectly safe—well, at least as safe as it is for anybody. She’s a prisoner, Jane. And she wants this done—but he won’t let her. Says he doesn’t trust you. Something about dwarvven connections and rabid women’s lib ideals."

That lit a spark in Jane’s green eyes, as Helen had known it would. It was simple truth, but Helen knew how to deploy incendiary truth.

"Well," said Jane. "Well." She rocked back on her heels. "I will talk to her. Tell her about the procedure. My goal is to help them all, obviously. But tonight, with no warning? Perhaps she will be sensible and let us pick a day next week—do it with more preparation."

Millicent wouldn’t, Helen was sure. Poor Millicent Grimsby had begged and begged for an outing, and finally Grimsby had brought her, iron-masked and heavily guarded, to a Copperhead meeting of the men at Helen and Alistair’s house. Safely ensconced in Helen’s bedroom, Millicent had poured her heart out and Helen’s own heart had burst in response.

It was up to Helen to save her, and it had to be tonight. Jane would just have to understand.

Helen showed Jane how to slip around to the back stairs and wind her way to the garret. After a suitable interval, she caught Millicent’s eye and gave her the nod. The small woman in the iron mask did not nod, did not move. But Helen knew she knew.

It was quite dark outside now. The room pressed together, quieting and erupting by turns as people found seats or decided to stand. The room was packed, for which Helen was immensely grateful. She found a spot that seemed perfect for sneaking away.

Men—leaders—came into the room in a clump. They had been off somewhere with Grimsby. Her husband, Alistair, was among the gang of men. They spilled into the room like a pack of hunting dogs, jostling each other as they moved to the front. Before Grimsby stirred them into a passion over Copperhead, they had spent all their time drinking and gaming. When they moved, when they tumbled and rolled, she saw the puppy dog in them still. Helen was glad she did not have her mask on, obscuring her vision. The electricity was at half the brightness it had been for that dance in the spring. It was dim yellow, unlike the familiar blue light of her childhood. Before the Great War.

The men straightened as they drew closer to the front and the strange sheet-covered lump in the middle of the room. They no longer reminded her of anything tame, but something fiercer, colder, and they stood straight around each other as if they were one pack surveying their quarry. Everything drew still as their presence filled the room, all eyes turned to the front. Helen searched around, checking for her escape route, and in doing so caught a tiny flicker of movement by the window—a lithe man in closely fitted black leaned on the windowsill as if he had always been standing there. But what then would have drawn her attention?

Boarham and Morse—Grimsby’s two particular right-hand men—moved to flank the machine. Morse was stoop-shouldered and pinch-faced, the meanest of them all. Boarham was heavy, lumpy, toadying. "We will begin," said Boarham, "by updating you on the preparations that have been made as we remain under siege by the fey. Later in the evening will be the event you are most anxious for: Grimsby will reveal his new weapon that—we hope—will eventually annihilate the fey for good."

Breath caught at the word, at the hope. Annihilate.

"We move ever closer to our goal," Boarham said. "One People. One Race." All around her, fingers flicked out to touch their hydra lapel pins in solidarity. "But first a moment to remember James Morrow, who since our last meeting was a casualty of the fey blight, when the blue carpeting his front garden turned out not to be powerless bits of many different fey, but one whole fey, lurking in wait with a concealed fey bomb.…"

Now.

It was not Helen’s style to move quietly. She moved by chatter and misdirection. But for this moment she needed to slink, and she did, moving like a bit of sunlight falling noiselessly through canopy leaves.

Her blood pounded as she climbed the garret stairs, slipped through the door.

The garret was irregular and pocked with gables. A cluster of candelabra lit the area with the most headroom; the rest of the garret fell away into dark piles of unwanted things as it sloped to the black wooden floor. It smelled of mildewing wood; of the sour poison of mothballs; of beeswax. Millicent lay in the center of the light, a small dark figure on a daybed draped with a white sheet. Jane worked efficiently around her, setting out her tools on a heavy scarred chest. No matter what nerves Jane had professed, as always, her sister seemed as cold as ice.

It was going to be done. Her plan would work. Helen wanted to clap her hands and burst into speech, tell the two women a million things, but she restrained herself, moving noiselessly over to the white daybed, still like falling sun.

Helen remembered the day Mr. Rochart had worked on her—the small white room, the deep sleep as he etched around the skin of her face to replace it. She had had such peculiar dreams. Strange to think that her sister had learned to carry out the same fey-powered operation.

Millicent had been staring out the slanted skylight at the fog that obscured the stars, but now she turned her face to see Helen, and pressed her hand. "It will be all right," she said softly. "I have told your sister everything. She will help."

"Excellent," said Helen, wondering what "everything" was.

Jane turned from her preparations. "You did a good thing by setting this up," she told Helen.

Helen warmed at the praise. She felt almost holy in that moment, filled with doing things right.

"We’re going to get her out of here tonight. And then deal with you-know-who." Jane and Millicent exchanged a significant glance.

"Good," said Helen. "Wait, what?"

"Millicent has to get away from this house for good," said Jane. "As soon as I make her safe from the fey."

Helen did not like Mr. Grimsby one bit—the Copperhead leader seemed the coldest of any of Alistair’s friends—and heaven knows none of them were worth much; but still, she was shocked. "Leave her husband?"

A small tap on the door, and before the women could react, it opened and a little boy sidled around the splintering doorframe, a jar clutched in his hand.

"Oh dear, Tam," said Millicent Grimsby, and she sat up and hurried to the small figure at the door. She bent down so he could whisper in her ear, his hand clenched on her dark skirts. In the flicker of candlelight, the contents of the other jar appeared to be moving.

"I’m sorry," Millicent said, standing up again. "Tam is supposed to be asleep, but he saw Miss Eliot from the staircase and wanted to ask her about her iron. He’s really a sweet child—I’m so sorry, I know it’s quite inappropriate, but you have no idea how stubborn he gets."

"I can imagine something of it," said Jane with a rueful smile, and she knelt by the boy, one flickering taper in hand. "My face has iron in it," she said. "Do you want to touch it?"

Tam put his free hand to Jane’s face, considering. "What does it do?" he said.

Helen saw Jane search for an explanation, not because she was flustered—Jane was much better with small children than Helen was—but because it was complicated to explain. Jane had been an "ironskin," one of those hit with fey shrapnel during the war who wore iron to cover the grotesque, poisonous scars. Rochart had made her a new, fey-perfect face to replace her disfigurement. Now Jane had thin iron strips set right on top of the fey skin in her face to keep the fey from taking her over. At least Helen could remove her iron mask when she was indoors, but poor Jane would never look normal again.

"The iron helps keep me safe from the fey," Jane said at last. "Like the iron strips around your door and windows."

Tam looked up at Mrs. Grimsby, puzzled.

"This house was built post-war," Millicent said to the boy. "It’s too new to have iron. Your father is working on the problem, but with the fey suddenly everywhere, iron’s gone short again."

Helen saw Jane roll her eyes at that and she hastened to intervene before Jane could go off on one of her rants about how the city folk didn’t have any sense, building without iron in the first place. "I just realized that’s a bug jar," said Helen to the small boy. "Are you collecting bugs?"

"For my snake," he said. "I found a little garden snake. He’s green."

Helen shuddered in delight. "And you collect live bugs for him? My goodness."

Tam offered her a shy smile, possibly uncertain whether she was teasing him. "Do you want to feed him one?"

"Not now, Tam." Millicent Grimsby shook her perfect face and Helen saw again how very young she was, younger than Helen herself, who was barely eighteen and a half. (Though she felt she had aged a lifetime in the last six months; it was a mercy her fey face didn’t show eye bags and wrinkles or she was sure she would have them.)

"After we visit with your mother," promised Helen.

"Tam is not mine," Millicent Grimsby said quietly in response. "His mother died in a motorcar accident, poor thing. I’m the second Mrs. Grimsby, you see. Married last winter. My mother thought he was such a catch.…" Her voice trailed off, lost, and Helen overflowed with sympathy again. What kind of mother would tell this poor girl to accept frightening, fanatic Mr. Grimsby, wealthy though he might be?

"Can I stay and play with the birdcages?" said Tam.

"Oh, sweetheart," said Millicent. She led the boy to the door and whispered something in his ear. He nodded and squeezed her fingers before plodding back down the staircase. Millicent Grimsby stared after the small disappearing form, her fingers knotted together. She wheeled and turned on Jane, her mousy form straightening, filling with iron. "You need to make them all safe, Jane," said Millicent. She moved into the light. "Make them listen to you."

Jane pressed Millicent’s small hands. "That’s where Helen comes in," she said. "She’s going to help win all of The Hundred over to our cause. And soon."

Warmth flooded a tight knot in her chest. Jane did want her to help. Jane trusted her. Jane saw that Helen was worth something. And deeper, inside—don’t screw up this time.

Millicent turned her big brown eyes on Helen, and even Helen, with her own fey charm, felt the fey allure. "I’m so glad you’re on our side," Millicent said. "You know what it’s really like to be attacked by the fey. You can be a real leader of the cause."

Jane was the real leader, thank goodness, but Helen was not about to rile up Millicent before the dangerous surgery. "Of course I will," she said easily. "But did you say you’re going to run away?" She could see it now, little Millicent and her small frightened boy, in flight, on the run. A dangerous mission, fleeing through the cold winter winds …

"Not run away," said Jane. "She is her own person and Mr. Grimsby does not own her. We are leaving for her own good."

Helen waved semantics aside. "And it must be tonight," she added, seizing onto the new plan. "Mr. Grimsby won’t let Millicent have her iron mask, so she can’t leave on her own. She needs your help."

Jane nodded. "I must make her safe and then we need to go, now, while we still can. We’ll take Tam with us. You will go downstairs and pretend not to know a thing."

"I am excellent at that," said Helen. She turned back and said, "Wait, though. What’s this about convincing The Hundred soon? These things take time, you know."

Millicent and Jane exchanged a significant glance as Millicent got back into position on the daybed. "There’s movement afoot," Jane said. "Things are about to come to a head."

"Things?"

Jane whispered over Millicent’s body. "The fey, Helen. The fey are rising again. Some follower of the dead Fey Queen, we think, has riled up the fey—is planning to infiltrate the city just as the Fey Queen had planned, by taking over the women. We can’t allow this opening for a foothold. We need every one of The Hundred safe as soon as possible." Jane looked at Millicent for confirmation, who nodded. Jane stretched out a hand and laid it on Helen’s, a reverse of when Helen used to comfort her during times of ironskin stress. "But the walls have ears … and we must hurry to get Millicent and her son out of here. Come to my flat tonight after the meeting and I’ll tell you the rest. You promise?"

Helen was not at all sure how her plan to give Millicent back her face had snowballed into Helen going down to the wharf to find Jane’s flat in the frostbitten November night, but she nodded to quick skip over the part where people wanted her to promise things. Promises were such cold, hard-hearted, rigid things.

Millicent Grimsby lay down. Then she sat up, took Helen’s hands, and squeezed them. "You won’t let him find out you helped me escape, will you?"

"Who, Mr. Huntingdon?" said Helen, startled by the woman’s concern. "Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine."

Millicent set her lips and nodded.

"Now just relax," said Helen.

Millicent Grimsby lay back down, closing her eyes. Her thin hands clenched the sheets, the knuckles white.

Jane carefully took some of the precious fey-infused clay from the water bag inside the carpetbag and smeared a thin layer on her hands, adding to the power she could control. Jane placed one hand on Millicent’s forehead and one hand on her heart, till the woman’s eyes fluttered, and finally stopped. Her breathing and heartbeat slowed.

Then she was as still as marble.

"One hundred of them," Helen said softly.

"And you’re key to this," said Jane. "You have one purpose for the next week. Convince every last one of them. Be single-minded. I’ll do the rest."

Helen swallowed. "But what if—?"

"No buts," said Jane. "I’ve got my own plans that have to happen. Scalpel, please, and then you’d better go. You’ll need an alibi—isn’t that what the detectives call it?"

Helen wiped the scalpel with carbolic disinfectant and passed the handle to Jane. In her fey trance, the woman seemed like a lifeless doll, as if there had never been a mind activating that beautiful, silent face.

* * *

The crowd downstairs was on recess as Grimsby and stoop-shouldered Morse fiddled with the machine under the sheet. It might be a meeting, but it was still society. The earthy smell of liver pâté trickled by as more of the homely maids passed canapés and drinks. What was this fashion for unpleasant-faced girls? thought Helen. But she supposed it was Grimsby’s grim fanaticism again. Fey had always been drawn to beauty in humans—the faces that The Hundred wore were fey-beautiful. The ugliness of the serving girls was proof. No fey here. Grimsby himself was perhaps the perfect Copperhead leader in that regard. He had a hard, unfriendly look, and his features were too sharp and jutting to be at all pleasant.

No fey here.

Nervous energy coursed through her as she wended her way through the crowd, smiling and nodding. As she had told Alistair, going without the mask made her the prettiest woman there, and it was obvious in the way heads turned to track her passage. Normally she would have basked in the attention—the pleasure of it hadn’t completely worn off, when among these people who hadn’t been quick to welcome her after her marriage. But tonight she did not want attention. Tonight her heart beat a steady thrum at what her sister was doing upstairs.

Helen was determined to help Jane. She remembered full well the moment of fey takeover. Only Jane’s quick action plunging an iron spike into Helen’s arm had killed the fey inside her, saved her life. Helen had roused from her fey trance a day later to find a team of the best doctors in the city hovering over her bed, waiting for any movement.

But were things really as dire as Jane had said just now? Why the sudden haste? The earliest of The Hundred had received their fey faces several years ago. They were all being very careful these days, going out with their iron masks. But all the blue bits of fey did was sit there—well, mostly. Still, surely they weren’t gearing up for some takeover of The Hundred like Jane said, like Alistair and Copperhead thought. Frankly, it would be ridiculous. What no one seemed to remember was that the Fey Queen’s plan had been to have fey secretly infiltrate those women and men and land themselves in influential positions, ready to take over from the inside. You couldn’t secretly infiltrate if everyone knew you were coming, could you?

And Helen was determined to help Jane, to convince the women Jane couldn’t. But quickly? She thought through some of the women she knew off the top of her head—the self-absorbed wife of the prime minister, there in grey. (She had not sacrificed her apricot-hued shoes, though.) Stubborn Alice Pennyfeather. Close-minded Lady Dalrymple. All transformed from their workaday selves into ethereally beautiful women, and their social status similarly elevated. Even with the iron masks, The Hundred ran the social scene. No, as much as Helen liked a good intrigue, even she was sensible enough to know that she would need more time than a few days.

The men straightened up, the crowd herded back to their seats. They squashed onto the long benches, stood in the makeshift aisles, ranged long legs along the windowsill. There was silence, and in it Grimsby said quietly, "This is what you have come to see."

The cloth was whisked away to reveal a strange device. The center was a large copper ball, full of ridges and rivets. It looked like claws clasping each other, or perhaps snakes that writhed over the copper ball. It was held firmly in an open cube of iron, crisscrossed with wrought iron that curlicued in a curious pattern. In the front of the box was a child-sized door.

"In this box," said Grimsby, "I have trapped a fey."

Murmurs, tremors. Men who would shout if it weren’t improper.

With a great creaking and grinding, the copper ball slowly opened its interlocking layers. Inside hovered a blue ball of light. When the copper was completely opened, the light burst out of the ball and flung itself at the open door of the iron box.

The guests shrieked and ducked.

But the blue light did not seem to be able to pass beyond the threshold. It thudded to a stop right at the boundary of the open door. Then it launched itself at the side wall, coming to a stop a hairsbreadth from the wrought iron. Back, forth, up and down, till it was spinning around and around the cage with savage ferocity.

"There, you see?" said Alistair. "Completely trapped."

"And well-deserved," shouted someone from a bench, someone who had had too much wine.

"It’s beautiful," whispered Helen, so quietly that no one could hear her. No one must, or could have, and yet next to her was a slight man in black, and he gave one short sharp nod, not looking at her. But that could be about anything.

Her fingers twisted her handkerchief as if to tear it. How far along were Jane and Millicent? So long to carefully take off the current face, so long to press down the old face and bind it in place, so long to return Millicent from that still-as-death sleep. Helen’s fingers wanted to burst out of her hands, fly like birds to check on the women, flutter at Mr. Grimsby, claw his eyes out for being so hateful to poor Millicent.…

"I captured this fey by using one piece of a fey as a seed," said Grimsby. "The machine finds all the other pieces of that particular fey and draws them in, restoring the whole fey to itself." He grinned cruelly. "Ironically enough, it runs on fey power."

"And then that fey you captured can be destroyed forever," put in Alistair, his face sharp and blue in the glow. "Show them, Grimsby."

A hint of malice crept across Grimsby’s face at Alistair’s words. Now he bent his tall bony frame to the machine. If he had made it, why didn’t he make it to measure, thought Helen, for Grimsby seemed like some kind of strange praying mantis folded around too-small prey.

A switch—a thrum as the machine turned on. The blue light keened with pain. It mutated wildly, turning itself into all manner of things—a frog, a tree, a sparrow. A face, shining out of the light—low gasps as it formed the face of a small child, tears running down its face. "Help me," it said, and the words thrummed inside Helen’s skull. She felt a tremendous compulsion to run over and let that child free—and by the looks of it, many of the others felt that, too.

The thrumming grew louder. The face splintered and reformed, struggling to keep its shape. "He’s caught me, he’s caught me. Help—"

A small boom like an implosion, and it was gone.

Grimsby turned off the machine and straightened up with a smile. "No mess, no fuss," he said. "We have never been able to destroy a fey before, unless it was trapped in a human. But this? Very tidy. One People. One Race."

Silence in the room as men and women grappled with what they had just seen. Helen felt as if she would be violently ill. She twisted her fingers together, focused on that sliver of pain to distract her.

Finally a female voice said, "Forgive the impertinence, but how do you get the piece of fey into the machine to begin with? Who bells the cat?"

Helen looked, but she could not see who had spoken. Grimsby smiled, as if this question was on cue, as if he had waited for just this opportunity. Helen did not like that smile. She put a hand to her seat, starting to turn, wondering if she could slip away. But one of the homely maids was standing there, Helen’s iron mask in her hands.

"When I turn on the general setting it pulls in the first piece of fey it can find," Grimsby said. "A dangerous setting, you can see, to have fey come rushing at you." A calm, meaningful voice. "More dangerous still for those who have fey lurking in their skin. I need every endangered woman to be thoroughly shielded, please." Heads swiveled as he nodded at Helen.

With shaky fingers Helen buckled her mask in place. She needed to get upstairs to warn Jane. But the maid was there and all eyes upon her.

"Windows open," Grimsby said, and Helen saw that Millicent was right, that there was no iron bolted into the wooden frames. The cold November air rushed in. Grimsby folded himself around his device again, long fingers sliding over the copper curves till they found the heavy lever. He pulled it down.

The masked women gasped and Helen knew they felt it, too.

A strange, almost hypnotic pull, tickling around the edges of the iron mask. Eerie, but faint, a fingernail-on-chalkboard sensation that she did not like but could withstand. She wondered how strong the compulsion would be without the iron mask. Would it suck the bit of fey right out of her face, or would it make Helen herself get up and throw herself inside that machine?

"Nothing’s happening," grumbled one of the men, and several iron-masked faces turned his way, staring.

"Increasing power," said Grimsby.

He cranked the copper wheel, and suddenly there was blue in the small room, blue out in the middle of the benches. In the middle of the guests—right through the guests, who screamed. A masked woman fainted, and several men stood, angry and red-faced.

"The piece of fey is resisting," said Grimsby, eyes gleaming. "It must be a bigger piece than I expected. More massed intelligence. It’s attempting to form a shape." His eyes narrowed. "Except…"

Except this figure had a familiar face.

This figure held a scalpel.

"Jane," said Helen, and it did not seem to matter how loud the room was, she was heard. The name carried around the room in waves as Helen pushed her way to the space that had formed in the center of the room.

It was a wavy blue picture of Jane, Jane who had been bending over a still form on a white bed. But Jane wore iron, Helen thought—and then she saw that the blue light was most sharply focused on her hands, the hands that she had smeared with the fey-infused clay.

Jane looked up and through Helen. Her eyes were glassy with concentration, filmed over with white fatigue. Her mouth seemed to be shouting something Helen could not hear. Millicent’s fey mask was off, the face underneath red and horrifying. Helen could not look away, even though it felt as though she was being sucked back a great distance. The blue air whirled around her, and her ears popped as the pressure in her head grew tighter and tighter, and Jane seemed to be farther and farther away.

"Jane!" Helen shouted. "Jane!"

Jane looked directly at her then. Her dark hair was wild and blowing about her head. The attic furniture loomed behind her like a crouching beast. Jane held Millicent’s old face in her hands, clutching it in front of her.

<<Impressive>> Helen heard, and it seemed to be a voice in her head alone, or not even a voice, but the memory of a voice, a thought of one. <<Not what we expected, is it?>>

Now Jane was straight, the scalpel was gone. She was arching, shrieking. The strips of iron on her face glowed, brighter than the rest of the blue that made up the strange picture of her. Voices screamed. Jane turned and Helen thought Jane was facing her, thought Jane saw her. Jane’s lips faintly moved and Helen read, "Stop it … stop it … stop it.…" Jane seemed to bend in the direction of the copper machine. Stooping, still shouting, "Stop it, stop it."

Behind the copper ball Grimsby’s face was backlit from the blue glow, and she could not tell if it was cruelty or fear she read there.

"Turn it off, turn it off," Helen yelled at Alistair, but he shouted back, "Do you want the fey to be freed? I’m not going near it!"

Helen was not conscious of thought in that moment, but if she had stopped to examine the impulse that made her feet pick up and run forward, not away, it would have been something like: If it destroys me, it destroys me—but it will not hurt Jane.

There were those whose lives were worth something. Those who were trying to do good. Those who were determined as all hell to set things right in the world, and didn’t waste their days spouting off nonsense about "one race" or the cut of their hemline.

Those people needed to be around to save the rest of them from themselves.

Helen threw herself onto the lever and shoved it down with all her might.

And then everything went dark.


Copyright © 2013 by Christine Marie Connolly