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DAHRIA FROWNED, SHADED HER eyes, and turned to where a long-tailed whydah with a crimson beak was calling from a thorn tree.
“What a racket they make,” she observed, put out. We were sitting on the porch of the Willinghouse estate, sipping plumet juice chilled with the last flakes of ice bought from the peddlers a week ago and stored in the house’s deepest stone-lined cellar.
“I rather like it,” I said. There were lots of birds that never braved the smogs of Bar-Selehm, and it was easy to forget just how wild the land was only a few miles from the city center. Dahria rolled her eyes.
“Of course you do,” she remarked. “Being almost feral yourself. I’m amazed you aren’t rolling in the dirt with Grandmamma’s hyenas. And you wonder why I don’t want to be seen in public with you.”
“I am not feral!” I exclaimed, eyeing one of said hyenas as it trotted past and gave us an unreadable look that made the hair on the back of my neck prickle. “City girl, me. Born and raised. Well, raised.”
The Drowning wasn’t strictly the city.
“But not raised well,” said Dahria.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” I said. “And perspective.”
“Oh yes,” said Dahria, lizard dry, “I keep forgetting your years of finishing school up someone’s chimney.”
“You can see a lot of the world from those chimneys.”
“What’s that?” said Dahria, putting a hand to her ear theatrically. “Ah yes, I think I hear the not-so-stealthy approach of a lecture: The Hard Realities of Life in the Slums and Gangs, by Anglet Sutonga, steeplejack.”
“You’d rather I’d spent my school years on embroidery and watercolors, no doubt?” I replied, equally arch.
“Now, there’s an image to conjure with. The steeplejack urchin with a palette of paints and some fine brushes, instead of a bucket of … What do you call the stuff that holds the bricks together?”
“Mortar?” I said, wide-eyed. “How can you not know what mortar is? What did they teach you in those precious finishing schools of yours?”
“Or anything else useful.”
“Not much call for mortar when taking tea with counts and duchesses in elegant withdrawing rooms.”
“Well, it’s a good thing someone knows what mortar is,” I said, “else your elegant drawing rooms would be likely to fall apart and kill you all. And we all know what a great loss that would be.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t know what mortar was,” said Dahria, biting back a grin. “The word merely escaped my memory, it being something unbecoming to a young lady.”
“Ah. That must be it. The word knew better than to sully your mind and fled.”
“Quite right too,” said Dahria, and then she laughed, and I laughed, and for a while we forgot that the world was falling apart at the seams.
* * *
WAS THAT OVERSTATING THE case? Perhaps a little, but I don’t think so. We had known as soon as the newspaper began to scream about the so-called “Arms for Rebels” scandal that the ruling National party was going to be embarrassed, since several of its highest-ranking members had been connected to the illegal supplying of the northern tribes with Bar-Selehm machine guns. What we hadn’t seen right away was how quickly Norton Richter’s Heritage party would seize the initiative, using the crisis in the government to push for more extremist policies. A revised version of Richter’s Bar-Selehm First bill, minimally adjusted to allow small areas of the city to remain exempt, had been forced through, and many of the local black and Lani people would have to move out of white areas of the city by the close of the year. Willinghouse had led the Brevard party charge against the policy shift, but the law had been passed anyway, the Nationals caving to pressure from Richter’s swaggering, uniformed bullies and voting en masse to approve. It wasn’t yet clear how far this would all go, but there were elections on the horizon and the fear—which was widespread—was that there would be huge gains for the Heritage party at the Nationals’ expense, and that a coalition government might well be in power by year’s end, with Willinghouse’s Brevard party stripped of what little authority it currently had. Worst of all, Prime Minister Benjamin Tavestock—a reasonable and occasionally decent man with whom I disagreed about everything—was considered ripe for the plucking, though who might take his position, I couldn’t say.
It was unlikely to be an improvement.
“What are you thinking?” Dahria said suddenly.
“Nothing,” I replied. “Why?”
“You were looking at me in that probing, impertinent way again,” she said. “Like you were burrowing into my head to see what was inside.” She paused, waiting for me to respond, and when I went back to looking at the garden, added a peremptory “Well?”
“You remember that abandoned vault they found under the bank near Mahweni Old Town?” I said. “The police cordoned off the area, and they sent military engineers in to blast it open in the hope of gold doubloons or something from the days of Captain Franzen.”
Dahria screwed up her face. “What are you babbling about, girl?” she said. “Of course I remember. What has that to do with what we were talking about?”
“I imagine seeing inside your head is a bit like that.”
“Very hard to get into and really not worth the effort.”
Again the half flicker of a grin quickly doused in affronted outrage. “You work for my brother!” she exclaimed. “You’re staff. I should thank you to remember your place.”
“I bet you would, but I don’t think it’s going to happen,” I remarked.
Now she gaped, her face full of mock indignation. The fact that she was a little less guarded around me might have come from the assumption that I didn’t matter, that I wasn’t truly a person in the way her society acquaintances were, but I didn’t believe that. I thought it was friendship, closeness, even if that was something we rarely acknowledged aloud, and never in front of other people.
“I should have you horsewhipped!” she said.
“Probably.” I considered my drink. “My ice has all melted. Shall we go in?”
She harrumphed. “I suppose so. Will this summer never end? I swear I’m sweating like a steeplejack.”
“The underclasses are so thin-skinned,” said Dahria with a mischievous grin.
“Maybe we should test how thick-skinned the landed gentry are,” I replied, reaching to the small of my back and sliding my brand-new kukri from its sheath. “I’ve been wanting to test the edge of this blade—”
She made a breathy noise of panic and pretended to run away. I went after her, menacing her with the heavy, curved knife, till she squealed and ran giggling to the door, with me in mock pursuit.
The door slid open, and there was Madame Nahreem clad in formal black, roused by our noise, glaring at us. We stuttered to a silent halt under her imperious stare like naughty children caught out of bed. She didn’t say anything. She just looked. Even in her regular clothes, her countenance with all its labored patience, exasperation, and thinly veiled disdain would have left us chastened for our frivolity, but in the complete and utterly unexpected mourning she had taken to wearing since the death of Namud, we felt young and stupid. We watched Dahria’s black-wreathed grandmother walk silently back into the house.
“If she had been fifty years younger,” Dahria whispered to me, “I might have found myself rethinking the nature of their relationship.”
I gave her a shocked look, but for once she wasn’t joking or being dismissive, her expression serious and sad.
There were codes of mourning for the upper classes, set periods and depths according to one’s status and relationship to the deceased. Six months for siblings. Two for nieces and nephews. A year for a parent or a child. It was all set and officially agreed upon, violation of the code being a matter of great social scandal, though it was also (as Dahria was quick to point out) profoundly unjust. Men mourned their dead wives for only three months, while women were supposed to mourn their husbands for two or three years. But nowhere in the code did it suggest that aristocrats should mourn for lost manservants.
I had liked Namud a lot and grieved for his death, but those feelings could not take away the strangeness of Madame Nahreem’s extensive formal mourning. Since Dahria had avoided her grandmother’s house like the plague, she had known Namud no more than I had, less in some ways. Dahria’s grief at his death—buried deep enough that you had to know the signs to see it at all—was almost as surprising as Madame Nahreem’s, or would be to her white, city friends. Dahria was more careful about what she gave away in front of them.
“Whose is that coach?”
Dahria was gazing down the long, tree-lined drive to where the iron gates were being opened for a glossy black two-horse fly. I stood up and saw, squeezed in on either side of the driver, two white men cradling shotguns.
“Get in the house,” I said. “Tell Madame Nahreem to alert the servants. We have unwelcome guests.”
There was a gun room beside the library on the ground floor. There hadn’t been much in it since Willinghouse’s father had died, but there were still a few dusty hunting rifles and some ornamented pistols in glass-fronted cases. I moved inside, closing the door behind me and bolting it, before making for the gun room. If I was overreacting, I would live with the shame.
I emerged with a breach-loading carbine I had handled once before, my hands hastily relearning how to cock the weapon as I returned to the front of the house, wishing I had felt strong enough to choose one of the longer and heavier hunting guns. The staff had been mostly released for the day, and there were no more than a couple of maids, the cook, a kitchen lad, and a twelve-year-old Quundu footboy. I could rely on no one but myself to protect the house.
There was a small shuttered window that looked out onto the veranda, and I opened it, slotting the rifle’s muzzle through and peering down to where the coach had pulled up at the foot of the entrance steps. The two armed men were already climbing down, one of them stepping back and opening the fly’s side door. They moved efficiently, like men who had spent time in uniform, but though their eyes seemed to rake the house and grounds for any sign of life, the grip they maintained on their weapons seemed almost casual.
I hesitated. Something about this felt strange, stranger than a robbery.
I had, however, already chambered one round and was prepared to fire a warning shot when a tall, slim white man with jet-black hair and muttonchop side whiskers climbed out of the coach. I stared, doubting my eyes, but there could be no mistake.
It was Benjamin Tavestock, First Lord of the Treasury. The prime minister.
Copyright © 2018 by A. J. Hartley