IN THE BEGINNING
It began, as all great things do, with love.
The earth was barren, and it was vast, and Night covered the sterile land, swathing it in darkness. The moon rose over nothing, the stars shone for no one; save for Fate, watching from the heavens, alone but for the sound of the wind over dust and the scream of perfect silence. All was still.
As ages passed, as the earth turned unchanging, Fate fell into despair. None could share with her the might and beauty of the heavens, and though she was perfect, she was also alone, so terribly alone, so much she couldn’t bear it. To save herself from an eternity of solitude, Fate reached through the aurora and touched the earth. She envisioned, in her infinite wisdom, what could and should be. She saw the perfection of a world she could create: the oceans, and the forests, and the mountains, and the aurora, and the billion creatures who could walk the earth. Then Fate felt something new, something so powerful and immense she wept, desperate to make it real: love.
And with a breath, she began it.
From Fate, came life. Guided by her hand, sculpted over eons, life became tree, became bird, became beast, became mankind. The world came to be.
But mankind was not like the beasts that had come before. Where they walked the earth, they changed it; burning forests, halting rivers, flattening ground, building houses of mud and reeds. If they continued unguided, what Fate envisioned could topple and the world would once again return to dust. What should be could never be.
As her hand weakened, as what she had wrought became too vast to manage on her own, Fate brought forth those who would aid her. She fashioned them from blood and magic; they were faster, stronger, ageless beings; her watchers on earth, shaping the world as it was meant to be, as Fate had seen it those eons ago. They were the Harbingers: those who heard Fate, who followed her word, who hid in the annals of humanity, forever working in the shadows. To them, Fate’s word was the only the law. They served her, and no one else.
It was for this purpose that on January 17th, 1869, Violet Sainteclaire was born.
That morning a whisper tumbled from the northern aurora, through that billowing green and yellow that lit the polar sky, and touched her brow, gentle as a kiss. Then her parents cried, and held her tightly, and stood in the warm snows of Svalbard under the great World Tree—the tree that had lived and grown as tall as a mountain, its branches holding the aurora since time immemorial—and sang. They thanked Fate for choosing their daughter; just as Fate had chosen her father, and her mother, and all the hundred Harbingers that stood under the tree that night, singing loud enough that Fate might hear them through the sky.
And when the song was done, they stood in silence, happy and bright, at that sacred place where the immaterial met the earth.
CHAPTER 1: IN WHICH VIOLET VISITS A CHURCH
It was just before midnight on December 3rd, 1890, and if anyone had been out that night, they would have seen a twenty-one-year-old Violet Sainteclaire arguing with a cat. They would also have heard, once they got over the absurdity of it all, that the cat was clearly winning.
“It’s not going to make a difference, if you look here or at home,” the cat purred. Her feline tongue strangled the words. “You’ve been at this for two weeks, and you’re no closer to receiving orders than I am to catching the starling that roosts in my eavestroughs.”
“I’m just trying it out,” replied Violet. “Nothing else seems to work, so why not?”
“Because if you do that here, you’ll get arrested,” the cat said. “The soldiers will take notice of you if you act like a loon in the middle of the night.” Mrs Fogg trotted beside Violet down the snowy cobblestone street, tail high in the air, her black fur melting into the darkness. For all appearances she seemed like any passing stray, but for one unsettling feature: the vermillion brightness to her eyes and the rim of orange around her pupils, as though they were on fire. A witch’s eyes. “I don’t know about you,” Mrs Fogg continued, “but I’m in no sort of mood for an altercation with the soldiers. They’d arrest the likes you before you could say ‘Oh dear, I don’t have any papers,’ and then I’d have to break you out of prison in addition to all the million other things I need to do this week.”
“Then this is no time for berating me. Be helpful and keep watch outside,” Violet said.
“I’d rather you saw sense and went home.”
“And I’d rather you—and I mean this with full offence—shut up.”
The old church doors groaned on their hinges as Violet slipped between them, snow from the blizzard blowing in on a torrent behind her. From the new heat came the musty smell of stone and wood, and just below that, the sweet sickliness of perfume that had gone sour. Incense, Violet thought, like the sort priests swung about on chains as they moved between the pews. During the day, there would be hundreds of visitors where she stood, praying and kneeling and chanting, singing hymns and holding hands. So late at night however, Violet was the only one there. Every sound she made bounced off the circular walls, yelling back at her before vanishing to the tops of vaulted ceilings.
Mrs Fogg waited at the ajar door and sat half-outside, her glowing eyes staring down the next road. With a cat on watch, Violet knew she’d be safe.
She didn’t have long. Violet closed her eyes and dove within, plunging into the illusory depths of her consciousness. In her mind’s eye, the world was not unlike the labyrinthine streets of London: wide and dark, gloomy tunnels of stone, like catacombs that led deep into the belly of the earth. She ran down the dreaming darkness, searching for words, or a whisper, or a sign from her master. Distantly, a waver of silver vanished around corners, always too far for her to catch it, and Violet swore she could hear it giggling.
“Damn it all,” Violet hissed under her breath.
“Oh, dear. Silent, is she?” Mrs Fogg purred from afar.
“Shut it. I asked you for help, not condescension.”
“Be mindful that you’re speaking to a cat, Lady Sainteclaire. If you didn’t expect condescension, you are very stupid.”
Violet continued through the catacombs. Nothing. She took a left, around a rocky staircase. Nothing again. Then a right, past a murky pond. Wait, maybe—no, still nothing. A trick of the light.
“Do you think if I put bird seed on the front porch, the starling would come down to eat it?” Mrs Fogg asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe. Hush.”
“The way I see it, birds can’t be very smart, can they? I don’t think it would know it was falling for a trap.” Mrs Fogg paused, an idea occurring to her. “Unless the starling was like me. Do you think that’s possible?”
“I really don’t. Please be quiet.”
The catacombs widened, and along the walls lay piles of junk, some covered in dust and mildew. They were bits and pieces of Violet’s past, the oldest memories rusting away as she forgot them, the newest glittering and bathed in light. In one hallway lay a pile of white snow, twinkling like diamonds, and beside it, scattered ultramarine leaves that were almost translucent. In another hall, a miniature train puffed along a track, clouds of steam wafting from its stack. Violet marched straight by a bottled galaxy, stars swirling within the glass, refusing to look at it.
Her foot hit something strange, like a roll of rubber, and Violet glanced down at it, squinting at the brown and green scales under her boot. What was that, a snake? That couldn’t be right. When in her life had she ever encountered a snake? She might have come across one or two in her travels, but for one to be here, in the catacombs …
Violet’s eyes snapped open, heart hammering. She stood and lit one of the iron candelabras with a flick of magic, and a faint glow lit her face. Her eyes flashed, reflecting the flame, as though her pupils were mirrors.
“So,” she said to the fire, voice low, but hoping she would be heard. “I assume that was some sort of sign, but as I’m not psychic, it’s meaningless. Talk to me. What now?”
“I came here. I did as you asked. I’ve been in this city two weeks now, and I’m getting a bit cross with you, to be perfectly honest. Please don’t make me wait again.”
The candelabra’s flames flickered as though blown by a breath. Violet froze, waiting, the flames did not move again.
Fate’s last order had come two months before, whispered through a Parisian au pair, and it rang in Violet’s ears now, echoing.
GO TO LONDON.
She’d followed her orders, without question, just as her master expected of her, but Fate hadn’t spoken since then. Every morning, Violet walked through the city, watching the faces in the bustling crowds, hoping she’d receive her new orders from someone among them. Every night, she returned to her bed and ran the catacombs, still aimless. It seemed as though Fate didn’t know she’d arrived—or didn’t care.
An hour earlier, she’d thought of an idea, one that Mrs Fogg thought was ridiculous and had tried to talk her out of. Now Violet had to agree with her.
Violet had thought that perhaps she hadn’t been enough in London for Fate to consider her orders finished. Now, waiting smack-dab in the middle of the city, she should be. As much as she could figure, this was as close to London’s centre she could get without jumping into the river or trespassing on Legion property. Appropriately, it was a church. Fate might appreciate the thought.
Violet stood still, waiting, but still nothing happened. No one came to speak to her, no one came to give her orders. Temple Church simply sat, dead as the stone effigies which decorated the floor. The only indicator that time hadn’t stopped came from the stained-glass windows—which once held Jesus and the Virgin Mary, but then held eagles and golden laurels—dancing with the light of the candles, glittering from being polished every day. Violet scowled at the windows, an unsettled feeling in her stomach, as though there was something wicked about them.
Her voice rose. “For someone whose word is sacrosanct, you don’t like to speak much, do you?” The flames didn’t even flinch. “So I’ll just sit tight, then? Spend another few months waiting, shall I, until you feel bothered enough to bless me with another three words?”
A blurry black shape rocketed towards her, and Mrs Fogg jumped onto Violet’s toes, whispering hurriedly: “Lady Sainteclaire, someone’s heard you—”
Metal clunked from far away—an iron door handle—and a nervous voice called out. “Hello? Is someone there?”
Violet blew out the candles. That wasn’t Fate’s voice. It was male, and too human.
“Whoever you are … I’m calling the guard! So you’d better leave, if you know what’s good for you!”
But Violet and Mrs Fogg had already rushed out the door, vanishing into the blizzard. The wind buffeted Violet’s hair, whipping it into her face. She held her collar to her cheeks and kept to the shadows. The soldiers would be at the church in seconds, if that man yelled loud enough.
Sure enough, a small group of soldiers marched past her. Their matching uniforms were a deep, navy blue, their scarlet belts clasped with heavy buckles. Stamped on their hats, as it was stamped on the banners that hung from the church, and the lampposts, and the shops, and the monuments, a yellow eagle stretched its wings and screamed, clutching two arrows in its talons. An Aquila, the pride of ancient Rome, now the pride of London. The soldiers never looked up. The darkness hid Violet from their weak Mortalis eyes, but she watched them with the keenness of an owl, her limbs locked and still.
Violet ducked into an alleyway and waited for them to pass. She shouldn’t be out this late. No one should be, but especially not her. If the soldiers caught her, they’d see what everyone else in London did: black hair, long and wild against her back, deep tanned skin, a round face, and narrow, ferocious eyes, green like a pond; then, when they got through that, plain with alarm, they’d see more: rough boots, worn from travelling, a fur-lined coat to survive outside in deep winter, and a skirt barely past her knees from being re-hemmed a dozen times. They’d see one word; one Violet had not heard until she left Svalbard:
They’d arrest her the moment they laid eyes on her. At least they would try to.
“You could ask the Legion to arrest your starling, Mrs Fogg,” Violet whispered. “I’m sure they’d be keen enough.”
Mrs Fogg, curled behind Violet’s leg to shelter herself from the wind, snickered. “You know,” she said, “I might.”
A slow, trailing pair of soldiers meandered near the mouth of Violet’s alley. Their boots were a shiny beetle black, and they bore the English Royal Legion’s colours. The proud yellow eagle screamed on their chests and along the front of their hats.
“Why ain’t we runnin’ again, Connell?” asked the first soldier.
The second soldier, limping, fired up a cigarette. “Because if anyone’s going to catch a thief, it’s not going to be the soldier with asthma or the one with the bum leg. We should focus on our health, I say, and not concern ourselves mightily with tasks beyond us.”
“You’re absolutely right, my good fellow, pass me one of them coffin nails, then. A bit of smoke is supposed to be good for me lungs.”
When the soldiers turned the corner, Violet exhaled in relief, then decided to call it a night. It was still too early in winter for this sort of nonsense weather, but the sky didn’t seem to care. There was no use braving the blizzard for nothing, Mrs Fogg agreed, so Violet held her chest with her arms, shivering, nose freezing as she inhaled, breath puffing as she exhaled, and walked back to where a warm fire would be waiting.
Through the wall of falling snow appeared Wych Street. It was a sweet, quiet place, dripping with icicles and coated in a heavy layer of snow, the road so narrow a single cart could barely squeeze through at a time. Violet stopped at a small hotel squashed between an apothecary and a knitting supply shop. Mrs Fogg’s Home Away from Home, the sign above the door read, under a wooden cut-out of a cat, Where we’ll have you feline-good. Someone had decorated it for the holidays, but Violet couldn’t guess what they’d been thinking when they did. The doily curtains clashed with the red-painted windowsills, the Christmas baubles hanging from the awning weren’t the right colour (orange, blue, and purple), and the holly-berry wreath covered almost the entirety of the door, so Violet had to push it aside to grip the handle.
“Evening, Lady Sainteclaire!” a bright voice greeted when she entered. Seated behind the reception desk, Mrs Fogg’s daughter Lucy smiled at them. Though Lucy’s black bun swarmed with fly-aways and ink splattered her dark nose, despite the hour she didn’t seem tired in the least. Her eyes beamed behind her enormous glasses.
Without a word, Mrs Fogg blew past Lucy through a door marked Staff Entry, presumably to get to the warm fireplace beyond it as fast as possible.
Violet kicked the snow from her boots, in no hurry. “You’re still working?” Violet asked Lucy. “Your mother doesn’t give you any time off, not even through the night?”
“Oh, I can close up the desk whenever I’d like,” Lucy said, “but I adore working at night. The city feels … sleepy, but it’s sort of wonderful, wouldn’t you agree?” Violet didn’t have a chance to deny that. “Besides, I’ve got something to occupy myself with. Do you think we need new chairs for the lobby, or a bigger wreath?”
“Chairs,” Violet said without needing to think on it, with a sideways glance at the gaudy striped chairs lining the far wall.
“Done and done,” Lucy said, and she leaned over a pile of papers in front of her, her glasses threatening to fall from her nose. “I managed to find some room in the budget for new appointments, but I’ll have Mum look it over before I buy anything. She’s much better with the numbers, you know, from her time at Oxford. I’m thinking orange and teal for the chairs, to match the ornaments.” Violet grimaced, but Lucy didn’t seem to notice. “But you can help me look through the catalogue later. Did you find what you were looking for?” Lucy asked.
“No,” Violet replied shortly. “Does your mother expect me to follow her, you think?”
“Oh, most certainly. The day my mother gives up on a project is the day I bury her in a hatbox. There’s no getting out of it, not even if you were out late. Mum thinks that you moved on to rabbits a bit fast, they might be too lively, so you’re going back to the rats tonight. She wants to see if you can master them by the end of the week.”
“Wonderful,” Violet groaned, then walked through the staff door to Mrs Fogg’s stuffy sitting room.
Even at her young age, Violet had formed several opinions of the world.
The first was that no matter where she went, and no matter what wonders she saw, there was nowhere better than home. The mundane could never hope to compare with magic, no matter how pretty.
The second was that humanity, young and spread out and impossible to predict, was very odd indeed; and as much as Violet tried to learn how Mortalis society worked, it changed wherever she went, and she never quite got a grasp on it. How they got on without magic, she’d never know.
The third, and most recently formed opinion (she’d only had it two weeks), was that she hated cats. They were meddlesome, and annoying, and left hair all over her things, and they were terrible at enchanting, and at baking, and had the most insufferable little voices she’d ever had to bear. Violet hadn’t hated cats before. She’d rather liked them, actually, especially when they fell asleep on her lap. Then she met Mrs Fogg.
“Sit down,” meowed the feline in question. She sat on the coffee table, tail swishing off the side, and scowling—as much as her furry little face could scowl—at Violet. “We don’t have much time tonight, thanks to your idea.”
“It can’t wait until I’ve had some sleep? Or maybe until I’ve taken off my coat?”
“It can wait for both, if you want me to send a letter to your mother and tell her that you’re shirking your duties. This is part of them, whether you believe me or not.”
“I’ve made it this far without much magic, I can go another night.”
“No, you can’t! If you end up in a situation where you need magic and you can’t use it properly, you might as well be a tadpole trying to play the piano, all the good you’ll be to your master.”
“And if I practice, you’ll shut up?”
Mrs Fogg’s tail swished faster. “No,” she said. “Sit.”
Mutinously, Violet removed her coat as slow as she could and folded it on the sofa. Only when she was done (and as Mrs Fogg’s tail swished so fast she was likely to take off) did Violet take her seat. She grimaced at the rat’s cage in front of her. Violet didn’t want to know how Mrs Fogg kept up the constant supply of half-dead rodents.
Stretching her hand as far away from her body as it would go, Violet reached into the rat cage. It felt like she was squashing a damp, furry coin purse. One that wriggled.
“Now look within,” said Mrs Fogg, her voice suddenly quiet and lulling. “Find the silver, and draw from it.”
Violet closed her eyes. She listened to the sounds around her, letting them fill her ears. There was the howling wind, battering the windows, the slight rush of snow on cobblestone, the tick of Mrs Fogg’s fish-shaped clock. She sprinted through the catacombs, and something glowed far away from her, silver and wavering, so Violet chased it, intent on capturing the magic, forcing it down her fingers to heal, but the silver ran, and then it faded, as though it were laughing …
Her hand tightened, and the rat made an indignant squeak, and then it caught fire.
“Lucy!” Mrs Fogg screamed. “Lucy, come put this out!”
Quick, small footsteps came running and Lucy appeared, a jug of water in her hands. She dumped it on Violet, extinguishing the flame, as the rat—despite its broken leg and half-moon wounds that looked suspiciously like bite marks—made a valiant effort to escape Violet’s hands, its fur smoking.
Violet dropped the rat back in the cage.
“Well …” Mrs Fogg said, “at least it didn’t explode this time.”
Lucy smiled encouragingly. “That’s something! Improvement every day, isn’t that right! Shall I get you both something to eat, Mum, to help you concentrate? Or some wine, for the opposite?”
“Both, I think,” said Mrs Fogg. “We’ve got a long night ahead of us.”
Violet scowled at the rat cage. There were ten of them in the cage the week before. Now there were four.
“Don’t feel too discouraged, Lady Sainteclaire,” said Mrs Fogg. “If your parents are any indication, you are destined for greatness. You need only apply yourself.”
“At this rate?” Violet scoffed. “Maybe in a hundred years I could manage to produce something that would remind you of them. They were nothing like me at my age. I heard it from someone who came to Svalbard once, a Harbinger from Santo Domingo, that when my mother was eighteen, she could topple buildings with a single punch. And my father—well, this isn’t certain, but just from hearsay—he could murder someone with his mind—his mind!—by age thirty. I can’t even mend a rat’s leg.”
Mrs Fogg chuckled. “And when I was your age, I didn’t know the difference between clariomancy and aeriorhythmancy. And now …” Mrs Fogg looked at the fireplace, and the coals burst into an inferno, blasting the room with heat. “Focus on what your mother and I have taught you. With practice, it will come.”
Violet spent the rest of the night practicing, and in the morning, there were only two rats left.