Tue 1 Dec 2015
by Iona Sharma
On the Monday, Grace put the advertisement for the new apprentice on the door of their chambers; on the Tuesday, she had a couple of interested, and uninteresting, respondents; and on Wednesday, it was the seven hundred and thirty-first Candlemas of the City of London, so Grace went out with all the other Salt practitioners and raised the year’s magic for the City’s lamps, lighting Ned’s as well as her own; and then on Thursday, a little after five o’clock in the morning, Ned knocked violently on her bedroom door and shouted, “Grace! Wake up!”
They’d been raising light magic in the gardens till dusk, and afterwards they had watched the tapers burn away the night into the small hours. If she only had an apprentice, Grace thought ignobly, she could send them to see what was wanted. And then Ned knocked again, and she was on her feet looking for her dressing gown and slippers.
“What is it?” she shouted through the door, thinking reflexively of Zeppelins, and then shaking her head to clear it of that sudden image of fire in the dark.
“A boy came from the station,” Ned was saying as Grace stepped out of her door, casting more light as she went, hanging a luminous globe off the roof. Ned was fully dressed with his battered Virgil closed on his thumb; he didn’t sleep at night, now. “They’re asking for every practitioner – there’s been an accident on the railway bridge.”
Grace breathed in sharply. “Thanet?”
Ned shook his head as they went downstairs. “Not here. Said something about a girl over the water. Grace, this may be our fault,” – and then they were through their chambers and on Middle Temple Lane, standing on cobbles gleaming with last night’s rain.
There was no light in the sky yet and no stars, but across the water, Grace could make out the orange glow on the bridge by St Paul’s. “Come on,” she called to Ned, who was rarely outside these days and catching his breath. They hurried through the deserted gardens, down towards the Embankment. There were not many carriages and motorcars on the roadway at this hour, and over them Grace could hear the distant shouting, the crackling of flames. Looking over her shoulder, she could see the lights coming on throughout the chambers surrounding the gardens, and other figures in flapping mishmashes of hastily-grabbed clothing.
At the entrance to the station, they came up short at a police cordon. The constable looked askance at Grace’s dressing gown – and at the darkness of her skin, no doubt – and then at Ned’s general unkempt air. Reflexively, she and Ned both dipped their heads so their practitioners’ bars were visible through their ears.
“We’re Salt,” Ned said, quickly. “I worked on the signalling systems for the railway.”
“Thank goodness,” the constable said, with unexpected fervour. “You’re to go through.”
On the other side, all was heat and light. Grace realised at once that the cordon had been a magical one made of both Salt and tape: because suddenly the smoke was choking and the heat a vivid presence, and the surface of the platform warm beneath her feet. A half-dozen practitioners had raised their lights and she could see the spilled railway carriages as great sinister bulks looming out of the darkness. Running the debris patterns backwards in her mind, she imagined the accident: a train run straight into the back of another, but the one in front made of stronger stuff so it had stayed upright, its engine and carriages still standing straight on the bridge, with the other train on the station’s landward side, now spilled behind it like confetti. Out of those strewn islands the flames were rising, and in the gloom beneath, there was the shadowy suggestion of moving limbs.
“Oh,” she said, stricken by it, and felt rather than heard Ned step forwards in the dark beside her. His presence was comforting and close, and Grace dismissed the protective instinct telling her to push him back behind the cordon.
“Are you the magical folk?” called another policeman, and without waiting for an answer. “This way, ma’am, please, please…”
Closer-to, Grace could make out people being helped from the shattered carriages by way of splintered doors and windows; others were banging inside, waiting for the rescuers to come. Grace saw Ned look unhappily up and down the track, towards the signalling wires.
“Can’t do anything about that now,” he said, and using his cane to balance, jumped heavily down onto the trackside.
As Grace watched, he leant down beside a woman just pulled from a carriage, and helped her drink some water from a canteen. Without even thinking about it, Grace had begun work herself: she cast spells for cooling and healing, of things as well as people, drawing water up from the river, dumping it on the flames, then beginning again. As the light appeared in the sky, and brightened, more and more Salt folk arrived from Temple: they worked in concert where they could, as to make better use of whatever power they had, and around them the flames burned blue-white with gas. By the time the sun was clipping the horizon Grace’s eyes had blurred with smoke and tiredness. Brought to herself by the aches in her muscles and the ash burning in her throat, she looked around her at the chilled dawn in the east along the river, and the bleak aspect it gave to the passengers and the practitioners, their bedroom slippers incongruous in the light. The fires were still burning low, bright beneath the wooden railway carriages.
“Grace.” Ned was leaning against the platform edge below her, looking up. “Use me, if you must,” he said, with his right hand on his heart.
Grace checked he was fully supported against the edge before she reached into him and did it. It wasn’t perhaps good practice to take the heart out of a layman, but Ned’s qualification as such was dubious, and her doubts were eclipsed by gratefulness as she felt the strength of it.
And, then, somehow, it was morning: the light had risen sufficiently for her to make out the opposite bank of the river, and the slow progress of the injured being taken across the bridge. It was only then, as Grace kept herself still, trying not to fall off the platform edge, that she noticed the flock of starlings fluttering above her, making a neat, low circle about the station. Their wings were soaked through and raining down water, damping the very last of the flames. Grace wheeled around, heedless of anyone who might be in the way, and called out, “Thanet? Is that you? Where are you? Thanet!”
“Grace!” Thanet called, hobbling across the platform, having ducked out from behind one of the shelters. He might have been there all the time, Grace realised gratefully; the three of them in their familiar formation without knowing. “Grace, I’m here!”
Below them, Ned turned, recognisable more by his gait than anything else, his face and hair smeared with ash. “Thanet? Oh, thank goodness.”
Ned leaned against the platform edge again, tipping his head back. Under the starling rain and the efforts of all of them, the fire had died down to smoke, billowing and dissipating across the water. Grace looked down at Ned and up at the remains of the wreckage, and said, “Shall we?”
Between them, Grace and Thanet got Ned back up to platform level, they paid their respects to the exhausted-looking police constables lining the bridge, and the three of them walked slowly and quietly along the Embankment, watching the first of the day’s trams rattle past.
“We were afraid,” Ned said to Thanet, as Grace rummaged for the keys to chambers, “that you might have been on the train.”
“I was late coming back,” Thanet said, his voice hoarse. “It was a girl in trouble, you understand? Didn’t want the neighbours to see. I was walking across the road bridge when I saw the crash. And then, you know, I thought –” He paused, looking pale in the rising light. “Ned, did we do this? I mean – if, say, the signals were faulty, and the train—”
“There will be an investigation,” Ned said, heavily. “We’ll find out.”
“I suppose Mrs Throckley’s not in,” Grace said, opening the door. “After you, Ned. We left in rather a hurry.”
Thanet chuckled grimly as they went inside their sitting-room and opened the curtains, which did little to address the dimness. To make light was properly Salt magic, but Thanet did it regardless. “You know,” he said, “we should think about electricity.”
“We don’t need electricity, we have magic,” Grace said, and then smiled a little. “I suppose they said the same thing about the wheel, once upon a time. Tea for all of us, I think.”
She used the gas rather than magic to heat the kettle, handed steaming sweet cups to both Thanet and Ned, and said nothing for a few minutes. Thanet was methodically picking ashes and burnt fragments out of his hair, and Ned was sitting on the ottoman by the fireplace, his hands shaking violently around the cup. Grace watched them both, and wondered. She had run the practice mostly alone from 1916; after that the nature of Ned’s war service had been mysterious, while Thanet’s had involved driving ambulances around unexploded shells. “If you want to get some sleep,” she said, after a moment, “I won’t open up yet.”
They both nodded, and Grace picked up the loop of heavy keys in time to hear the knock from the other side of the oak door. Normally their housekeeper, Mrs Throckley, would have answered it, but there was silence. Grace thought, knowing her, she had probably gone to the station to see how she could help.
Grace opened the door and looked down at the girl waiting beyond it, perhaps twelve or thirteen, with perfectly oiled braids over both shoulders and a neat dress and coat. “Hello? Can we help you?”
“My name’s Kira,” said the girl, peering back at Grace in her dressing-gown, all-over ash, blood and grit. “I saw your advertisement. I want to learn magic.”
(ii) Lady Day
“Now, before the inquest there’s a libel listed,” Grace said, and was amused to note the slightly hectoring note in her voice. She thought of the old Salt practitioner, Mrs Macomber, who’d taught her in Liverpool when she was a girl of ten, and silently apologised through time. “I’m a practitioner ad litem on the case. You remember what that means?”
Kira, whose braids were done up in blue bows today, looked up at her seriously. “It means,” she said, “that you help the, er. The plaintiff-or-defendant. On a magical case. If they don’t know about it already, I mean. Magic.”
Grace waited, and they advanced a few steps through the Temple gardens, but there was nothing else forthcoming. “I suppose that’ll do,” she said. “And after that, there’s the coroner’s inquest into the rail crash. It may be rather upsetting,” she added, severely. “Talk of dead bodies and suchlike. Are you sure you’ll be able to sit through it?”
Kira nodded, and sotto voce, Thanet murmured: “Still trying to put her off, are you?”
Grace startled. “Kira, we’re early,” she said, looking out over at the gardens, at junior counsel bolting their breakfast in the sun. “Take sixpence and get some rolls from the baker’s, there’s a good girl.”
“For you as well, Miss Thanet?” Kira asked.
Thanet nodded. “Thank you, dear,” she said, and Kira ran off. When she’d gone Grace turned to Thanet with a sigh; once, long ago, they’d not had to fetch their own breakfast. Grace’s father – and Mrs Macomber too, for that matter – would no doubt credit the imminent triumph of the revolutionary proletariat with that particular change in the weather.
“Not putting her off,” Grace said, “at least, not for the reasons you’re thinking. I said I’d let her follow me about and see how she goes, but I’d half-decided to take the notice down before she turned up. Perhaps we don’t need an apprentice, not now.”
“Why is that?” Thanet asked with interest, turning on the spot, and Grace understood what she was trying to say: it was busy and beautiful here now, after the quiet of the last few years. Stallholders sold trinkets for the holding of Bird charms, and tinderboxes full of magical heart’s energy; Salt practitioners unrolled great blueprints out on the grass, to get their colleagues’ advice; up in the barristers’ chambers and the practitioners’, the curtains were pulled back and the plaques and signboards were dusted off, ready for custom. And there were children here: practitioners’ children, who’d never known anything but the Temple gardens and the riverbank, laughing and playing, throwing sparks and bright firecrackers up at the sky (despite the sign: “No Recreational Magic In The Gardens, By Order”). Grace had grown up around the Court of the Tithebarn, the High Court for magical matters up in Liverpool; Ned had grown up here at Temple; and though Grace didn’t like to pry into Thanet’s past too much, there was recognition in her eyes, here, surrounded by all the artefacts of their practice.
“Because.” Grace spread her hands. “Because she’s a sweet girl, and maybe she really does want to learn magic with us, or thinks she does. But with the future of the practice uncertain—” She trailed off. “You know, Thanet. With Ned – how he is, now, and the world so changed. Training an apprentice is a serious business and I don’t know how prepared we are for it.”
“She wants what she wants.” Thanet shrugged. “And in the meantime –” a pause, as they both watched Kira make her way back across the gardens, sedately now and carrying a basket of bread rolls, “—if you want to warn her off, don’t think the dead bodies will do it.”
“I’ll take it under advisement,” Grace said, with some amusement. “Are you ready for the inquest?”
Thanet looked uncomfortable for a moment; she and Ned had both been summonsed to appear after the Board of Trade investigation. “First I’m going with Ned to see the Registrar. We need to – well, to sort things out, before Ned can address the court. It’s Lady Day, you know.”
Grace nodded, pushing her braids away from her eyes. Registration day for practitioners was the first of the quarter days, the old Roman new year. For her own part, she’d have to make a decision about Kira today. “I’ll see you afterwards, then.”
Thanet shook her head. “I’ve another girl to go and see. I can’t be late, she said if I came this afternoon her mother would be out.”
Grace nodded again. “Good luck.”
Thanet smiled and made her own determined way across the gardens, while Grace accepted a bread roll from Kira. “Now remember,” she said, “you’re not my apprentice.”
“Yet.” Kira looked up and didn’t smile, eating her own bread roll; she was entirely serious.
“That’s as well as may be,” Grace said, one of Mrs Macomber’s set phrases to the letter. “But in the meantime you’ll sit in the public gallery and you’ll behave.”
“Yes, Miss May,” Kira said, still calm. Grace shook her head and led the way through out of Temple, up the terraces and stone steps set amidst the greenery, and back into the noisy space of the world outside.
Among the ceremonial morass of the City, the Worshipful Companies of Salt and Birds-in-Flight were, as they put it, outside the precedence: for them, no tussling over orders of procession and entitlements in the manner of the Skinners and the Merchant Taylors and suchlike, but a dignified existence elsewhere. Which might explain the clerk, Thanet thought: he’d wanted a better position, with more gilt-edging and less dust.
On the other hand, perhaps nothing explained the clerk.
“What kind of a name is ‘Thanet’, anyway?” he asked after a minute, lifting his pen in some irritation, so it spattered a long trail of ink over his page. He glared at it, and then up at Thanet, as if it were entirely her fault.
“Perfectly respectable name,” Thanet told him. “I believe there’s an entire region of Kent that goes by it. In fact I know there is, I spent some time there as a young man.”
“As a…” The clerk trailed off, and seemed to give up. Carefully screwing the lid back onto his fountain pen, he went through to the internal door, knocked and put his head around it. “Registrar, there are some –” He turned back, glared again for good measure, “—people here to see you. A Miss Thanet, and…”
He trailed off again. It had been quite some time since Thanet had heard Ned laugh, but he did so now, and there seemed real mirth in it despite a twist of irony to his smile. “As you forgot to ask,” he said, “here’s my card. You might remind the Registrar of the apples and cheese I gave him in the schoolroom, his mother having neglected to provide him with same.”
“Edward Devlin,” the clerk said, reading off the card; he must be new, Thanet thought. If so he was the only such person or thing around here: looking up, the bomb damage to the building and the piecemeal repair work seemed more apparent than ever. The Salt Guildhall had been the first place in London to be bombed.
After a moment the Registrar came out, holding a fountain pen of his own. “I suppose you’d better come inside,” he said, querulously, and then, raising his eyes to the heavens: “Apples and cheese, Ned, really? Are you able to –”
Ned nodded – there were only a few steps – and they followed the Registrar. Thanet kept careful pace with Ned.
“Well,” the Registrar said, sitting in ungentlemanly fashion on the edge of his carved mahogany desk. “I can’t say as I don’t know what this is about. Miss Thanet, are you here for some particular reason?”
“I wouldn’t let him come without me, sir,” Thanet said, smartly bringing her heels together, also in ungentlemanly – unladylike – fashion. Ned looked embarrassed. From above them, the spring sunlight filtered through the room, making the dust on the books and papers even more obvious than usual.
“Right enough,” the Registrar said. “State your case, Ned. Think of it as advocacy in camera.”
Thanet might have been a little thrown by that, but Ned did not seem to be; she remembered from before that it had always been his habit to pace up and down when addressing a judge in chambers, and his discomfort seemed centred on the fact this was no longer possible. He put the cane down with a nearly voiceless sound of frustration and leaned heavily on the back of a chair. “Sir,” he said, “as you are aware, I am a Salt practitioner.”
“One of two in a class of six children,” the Registrar said, with some wryness. “Do skip ahead.”
“I am a Salt practitioner,” Ned said, stubbornly, still leaning forwards with his hands on the chair back. “I was apprenticed and educated at Temple and Wadham College, Oxford, following which I was a practitioner ad litem, in service of the District Court of Farringdon Without. In the spring of 1916, I was asked to fulfil a certain office for the Crown, the details of which I am not able to divulge.”
“Skip ahead, Ned,” the Registrar said.
“Although I remain a trained practitioner-” Ned’s hand went up to the metal bar driven through the flesh of his ear; Thanet, too, found herself with her hand on her own – “I can no longer, ah. Sir, you will be aware I can no longer do magic.” Ned’s hand came down in a gesture of defeat. In that gleam of overhead sunlight, Thanet could see that was there was no rust on his practitioner’s bar – Salt, like salt, had a tendency to rust. “And I do not ask to remain registered as though I could. However, I humbly request that my registration ad litem be allowed to remain. I can still advise defendants and plaintiffs on Salt magic, its history and practice. I merely, cannot – ah.”
He stopped, and this time made no effort to continue. Thanet held a breath for a moment. The Registrar straightened up, his hands clasped. “Ned,” he said, “I’m sorry.”
“You’re not—” Thanet took a step forwards, her heels tapping sharply. “You can’t possibly—”
“Thanet, hush.” Ned held up one hand. “Sir?”
“I knew you’d come,” the Registrar said.
“Did you?” Thanet asked; she had wondered, herself, if Ned would ever return to practice.
The Registrar gave her a sharp look. “I heard about the inquest.”
“I’ve been asked to appear before it,” Ned said. “We both have. I will have to stand and give my name, and my – calling. My nature.”
“I can’t take what you are from you, Ned,” the Registrar said, softly, “and neither can the District Court. But the rules require that you raise a light, at Candlemas. I can’t renew your registration.”
“Oh, no.” Thanet said, involuntarily, and Ned said nothing at all. “Registrar, in the circumstances, surely you understand –”
“Miss Thanet,” the Registrar said, and then changed his mind, addressing Ned instead. “Remember those apples and cheese,” he said, quietly. “Remember your lady mother and her kindnesses. Think about the kind of accusation that you and I would be open to, if I were – less rigorous.”
“No good deed goes unpunished,” Ned said, after a long moment.
“Ned, I’m sorry. I –” The Registrar waved a vague hand, swinging to his feet.”I wish things were different.”
“So do I.” Ned bowed his head, and reached for his cane. “Thank you, Registrar. Thanet and I will be late for our appointment, if we don’t hurry.”
At the threshold, the Registrar called them back. “Ned,” he said quickly, a little embarrassed. “Go on as you are for the remaining quarter days. I’ll smooth things over if there’s trouble.”
Ned stopped and turned around. “As a kindness?” he asked, standing quite still and straight, his cane gripped loosely in one hand.
“Yes,” said the Registrar, sounding defeated. “Yes.”
“Thank you.” Ned bowed his head again, and Thanet kept step with him, the tap-tap-tap of the cane echoing as they went.
The libel case went as well as expected. Grace’s learned friend for the defence called her forth and the jury listened with all semblance of focused attention, though as she turned away from the lectern she heard a juror murmur “negress.” Grace thought, with some spite, a country jury, then brought herself short for unfairness; city folk could be just as bad. The judge quelled the murmurs with a look. It was Justice Devlin presiding and Grace was grateful for it, but it rankled regardless. And then the matter was adjourned to the Chancery and the court’s usual business finished for the morning.
“Next,” called the usher, “the coroner’s preliminary inquest in the St Paul’s and Blackfriars railway crash of the third day of February in this year of our Lord 1919. With gratitude to the District Court of Farringdon Without for postponing its docket, we reconvene at noon.”
As Grace made her way into the public gallery, there was a hand on her arm. “Excuse me, dear – a quick word?”
“Of course,” Grace said, with a gesture behind her back to encourage Kira to stand up. Justice Devlin was taking off her horsehair wig and bundling it away, but she had quite enough force of personality without it, in Grace’s experience. “What can I do for you, your ladyship?” She paused, then added,, “Kira, this is the Honourable Mrs Justice Devlin.”
Kira looked slightly alarmed at the title, and Justice Devlin smiled, clearly amused. “A pleasure to meet you, little one,” she said. “It’s good to see you taking on an apprentice, Grace.” She waved away Grace’s attempt to correct her with something about a trial period. “Speaking of, I must visit and have a conversation with you about your practice soon.”
Grace nodded, though with her heart privately sinking; she had an idea what such a conversation might involve. “Of course, my lady.”
“Good, good. And how are your parents? I hear there’s been unsettled news from Liverpool.”
“The riots were bad,” Grace said, thinking of her father’s understated letters on the subject. “But they’ve been all right, so far.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Oh, also” – she paused, on the point of turning – “how’s my boy?”
Grace hesitated, and Justice Devlin shook her head. “Still refusing to emerge for anything short of major railway disasters, I see. A bientôt, dear.”
Grace smiled faintly to herself, feeling rather like a hurricane had passed through, and sat down next to Kira in the gallery pews.
“Justice Devlin is Ned’s mother,” she explained. “She used to practise from the same chambers as we do.”
Kira nodded, and then shuffled forwards, trying to see through the gaps in the railings. “What’s a libel?” she asked, when it became clear nothing was yet happening in the court below.
“It’s when you write something about someone else that’s not true,” Grace told her, “but everyone believes it anyway.”
“And you were telling them if they’re true or not?”
“No.” Grace smiled. “I told them the pamphlets were made by magic. That makes it a magical crime, you see? And that’s a different thing.”
Kira was apparently turning that over in her mind. “And what’s a knocking shop?” she demanded, loudly enough for the couple of railway men just filing in to turn sharply. “And what’s a Bolshevik one?”
Grace surprised herself by laughing. “Hush, little one,” she said, “it’s a libel case, the knocking-shops are only allegedly Bolshevik – and I will explain it all to you a little later. Sit down now and be quiet.”
Despite the understandably grave faces of the people coming into the public gallery for the inquest, she was still smiling as the usher closed the doors. When silence had quite fallen, the coroner stepped out and said, “Ladies and gentlemen and Birds-in-Flight, thank you for coming to this preliminary inquest into the recent tragic events at Blackfriars Bridge.
“It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that of the seventy people known to have been aboard the rear train, the 5.01 service from Moorgate, thirty-five of them were killed as a result of the accident,” he continued. “Happily, if such a word may be used in this circumstance, the forward train bore only freight, and its driver was uninjured. However, the driver of the overturned train, a Mr Ferguson, was killed at the site of the crash, and his apprentice, a man named Roberts, has been taken to St Bartholomew’s Hospital and is quite unable to give testimony.
“I don’t propose to undertake a detailed hearing of the evidence this morning. From what I understand from the Company,” he nodded at two dour-looking gentlemen on the front bench. “The railway’s magic practitioners are holding the bodies charmed against corruption. However, in the interests of releasing them for burial as soon as possible, let’s begin. ”
The jury were sworn, and then the coroner called his first witness, a woman with dark skin and heavy curls. Her voice was low but not faltering: she spoke of how the journey had been unremarkable; that she took the early train every day. “I was near-sleeping,” she said, apologetically, “we’re all always half-dead on that train. The witches at the riverside had lit the lamps afresh, I remember. Before that night they’d been dimming to nothing. And then we stopped.”
“At the signal?” the coroner asked, then paused. “I apologise, I understand you would have no way of knowing. What happened next?”
“We went on.” The woman unfolded her hands. “Silent, like. I mean the train made no noise but I saw the lights get further away, if you follow me? And then we were going a decent clip at the bridge, and then –” She gestured, a little helplessly, and the coroner’s sympathy was evident in his face.
“That will do fine. Next, please, I call the two practitioners who were originally responsible for the signalling system, Edward Devlin and –” the coroner consulted his notes, “—Thanet. Thank you.”
Ned and Thanet took the stand together. To Grace’s eyes, they both looked insubstantial, washed-out by the slice of daylight falling through the window. “Before I speak any further,” Ned said, abruptly. “Sir, I am no longer permitted to address the court ad litem. I come as a private citizen.”
“Thank you for informing me,” the coroner said, and Grace thought, as her heart was sinking again, that he had probably understood all that was meant by that, and needed to ask no more questions. Once they had confirmed their names for the record, Ned took on the burden of the explanation.
“The connection between the signal box and the train cab is automatic,” he said. “A silver bell is mounted above each driver’s head, in his cab. Should a signalman wish to raise an alert to every train within a fixed number of chains, all he need do is ring his own bell. Every other bell should ring at the same or almost the same moment, and each driver is well-trained to bring his train to an immediate standstill at the sound of the bell, which is itself designed to carry clearly through the sound of the train in motion.”
“I see,” the coroner said, after a moment. “So what went wrong?”
“In my view, nothing,” Ned said. “The system has been extensively checked by my colleague and by the railway’s magical practitioners, and they believe it was working perfectly on the night of the accident.”
“Did you not undertake a review of it yourself?”
Ned was calm. “I’m not able to assist in that kind of work any longer.”
“I see,” the coroner said again. “Is it possible that your current – ah, state – may have influenced your previous work?”
“No, sir.” Ned was still perfectly calm, though Grace could see his hands gripping tightly on the edge of the stand. “Magic once done is done.”
“Excuse me, sir,” Thanet interrupted. “It’s by no means clear that there was any fault in the signalling system at all. It might have been a mechanical fault in the train. It might have been an error on the part of the driver.”
“The Board of Trade is investigating those possibilities,” the coroner said, repressively. “Mr Devlin, where were you on the night of the accident?”
“At home, above my chambers at Temple,” Ned said. “And then at the station, assisting with the rescue effort.”
“Thank you. Miss Thanet, and you?
“On a professional call south of the river,” Thanet said, blandly, and the coroner paused.
“An odd time of day for a call,” he said, real curiosity animating his voice; after all, Grace thought, it was not the place of the coroner to cross-examine. “Could you care to elaborate?”
“No,” Thanet said, still blandly. “My client’s case is confidential and unrelated to the matter at hand.”
“I see,” the coroner said. “Before we conclude this preliminary inquiry, I’d like to hear from Mr Williams, solicitor to the Company.”
One of the dour-faced men took the stand, removing his hat as he did so. “Yes, sir.”
“Perhaps you’ll give us some information about the driver of the train, Mr Ferguson. Was he a man of good character?”
“Yes, sir,” said Mr Williams, and polished his spectacles before going on; Grace, who had a lifetime’s experience of old, solemn lawyers, hid her smile. “He was a hardworking man, not taken to drink. Certainly he was of good character.”
“Was he recently demobilised?” asked the coroner.
“Yes, sir,” said Mr Williams, this time with some confusion as though referring to some alien state. He’d been too old to be conscripted, of course, and it was true that these days the average age of the male lawyers and practitioners at Temple had taken a great leap upwards. “He returned to his employment with the Southwestern Railway in January of this year.”
“Was he of a magical family?”
“No, sir.” The solicitor was quite definite on the point. “It is a matter of policy at the Southwestern that no driver may be of the Salt or Birds-in-Flight. The risk of interaction with the magical control and signalling systems is too high.”
The coroner nodded. “Was Mr Ferguson’s war service a hard one? Was he injured?”
“I am afraid I am not cognisant—” the solicitor said, and the coroner waved a hand.
“We will leave the matter for the full inquest,” said, conciliatory. “In the meantime, however, I will issue interim recommendations to the Birds-in-Flight and Salt Worshipful Companies. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that is as long as I propose to keep you. We adjourn until further notice.”
There was a small murmur from the public gallery at that, and then the sound of people getting to their feet and beginning to file out. Below, Grace noticed Thanet being waylaid by someone she didn’t recognise, a Bird practitioner judging from the bar through their ear, and from Thanet’s aura of deference, perhaps a senior one. After a moment, the coroner and his clerk joined them. The conversation seemed heated, and Grace looked on with interest, before Kira plucked her sleeve and they followed the crowds down out of court, back to Temple. Ned was nowhere to be seen.
Earlier, Mrs Throckley had been talking about collecting together their ration books for scones; now, as Grace and Kira let themselves back into chambers, the scent of baking drifted comfortingly through the house. Kira scuttled down to the kitchen, and in the study, Grace was thinking about what the room had been like during the war years, about the quality of the silence, and how much had changed since Ned and Thanet had come home. When Grace looked up, Kira was standing in the doorway, as though afraid to come further. “Come in,” she said, and Kira seemed to steel herself to it, and took a step inside.
“Are the others not here?” she asked, looking around nervously.
“Not yet,” Grace said absently. “Thanet has a client, I believe. Kira, come here. Come and sit down in front of me.”
Still looking a little apprehensive, Kira did so, so they were facing each other over the bench, like client and retainer.
Grace leaned back. “I said I’d give you a fair trial before I make any decision about taking you on, and that’s what we’re going to do. Let’s start with this: who are you?”
“My name’s Kira, I told you when I first came,” Kira said, with a flash of irritation; Grace hid another smile.
“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” she said. “Names are a funny thing, in magic – they tend to stick. Take me, for example.” She indicated herself with a gesture. “I’m Margaret Grace, actually. When I was your age my mother called me Margaret. But for magic I was Grace, because that was the name I called myself, in my head.”
Kira appeared to consider that. “So I can’t change my name, ever?”
“Not never,” Grace said, thinking of Thanet, “but not easily, and perhaps, not soon. You don’t want to make life difficult for yourself when you’re just starting out.
“Next – what calls you?”
From the look on her face, Kira understood the question. “I don’t know,” she said, tentative, and Grace remembered the same lacuna on the subject when Kira had introduced herself on the step. Too much explanation, perhaps, with which to begin their acquaintance.
“Your mum’s something, your dad’s something else?” she guessed; Kira looked unhappy, but nodded. “So what do you think you are?”
“Salt,” Kira said. “Like – well, like Mum.”
“And me,” Grace said, gently, “and Ned, too.”
“But I don’t know,” Kira said,. “Dad was like the Birds, you know? And sometimes I can do the things he used to do.”
“You’re young, you haven’t settled,” Grace said, with more authority than she felt – she was sure the girl knew that a mixed magical parentage was rare – “If it turns out you’re with the Birds, well. Then if I take you on – if –” she added, sternly. “If I do, then Thanet will have the majority of your magical teaching, and Ned and I will look after you in other ways.”
“All right,” Kira said, looking up with her eyes fierce and determined again. “What comes next?”
“What do you give?” Grace said, giving the words the resonance of a quotation, though in truth, she did not know – and perhaps, no one did – where the recitation had come from. Perhaps with the Salt itself, from the sea.
“Is this like,” Kira said, leaning forwards to listen so her braids bounced, “when Mum makes the cakes?”
“When she’s baking she keeps one aside, sometimes, and then it’s not there any more after but the others taste better.”
Grace laughed a little, but not too much. It wasn’t her place, after all, to comment on another woman’s practice, but the neatness of the trick amused her.
“Something like that. Magic always has a price. Not money,” she added, at the confused look on Kira’s face. “Though it could be, I suppose. No reason why not.” Working quickly in her mind, she raised a light, a tiny globe suspended off the tips of her fingers.
“I did that just with the gift of my own energy,” she said, as Kira looked at the light with wide-eyed, unalloyed joy. It had not been difficult at any point to establish why the girl wanted to learn. “Just my energy,” Grace said again. “So I’m a little more tired than I was. But what if I wanted to light a whole building for a month? Or the whole City for a year?”
“Something bigger?” Kira guessed.
Grace nodded. “That’s right. So what might we do?”
“I’ve seen,” Kira said, again hesitantly, “out in the parks sometimes, they burn rubbish.”
“That’s certainly one way,” Grace said. “You can sacrifice the flames to magic, if you’re careful. There are other things, too.” She hesitated, trying to put it in terms that Kira would understand. “I might give up something I’d made, like your mother and her cakes. Long ago in the Middle Ages people used to give up their arms and legs.”
“Really?” Kira said, fascinated. Grace hurried on.
“And finally. What do you ask for?”
“Light,” Kira said, grinning, and pointed at the one still hanging off Grace’s fingers. Grace grinned in return at her joy.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, exactly.”
“Will I have to do that whole thing every time?” Kira asked, suddenly dubious. “You didn’t have to, when you made your light.”
“Eventually,” Grace explained, “it’ll come to you quick as thinking. Quicker than that, it’ll come to you like breathing. But it’ll be the same in your head, even so: your name, your calling, your gift, and your asking. That’s how magic works.”
“Right.” Kira put her little hands together. “Well, my name is Kira.”
“Good,” Grace said, reserved. “That’s good.”
And Kira looked at her, her eyes still wide with hope, and Grace was saved from facing them by the ring of the outer bell and footsteps in the outer passage.
“Ned?” she called, thinking suddenly that Ned and Thanet would be Mr Devlin and Miss Thanet to any apprentice of hers, and wondering at where the years had gone for the three of them. “Thanet? What is it?”
Thanet was shaking off her coat with far more violence than necessary. “Damn their eyes and damn them all to hell,” she said, caught sight of Kira and gave Grace a quick, miserable look of apology.
“What happened?” Suddenly, Grace thought the worst, imagining an abortifacient gone wrong, and blood tainted with failed magic; she’d seen that before. “The girl – your client…”
“I never got to see her.” Thanet threw herself down into a chair and put her face in her hands. “I’ve just been barred.”
Grace looked at her in confusion. “You mean, Ned…”
“Not me,” Ned said, putting his hat on a hook as he came in and landing heavily in his own chair. “It seems the coroner’s interim recommendation was to bar Thanet from practice until, and I quote, it becomes clear, or otherwise, that her work has not been grossly defective, negligent, or otherwise reprehensible. The Birds-in-Flight Registrar rolled over and agreed.”
“That bloody coroner.” Thanet lifted her head and looked straight at Grace. “Where were you on the night of the accident? Bit of an odd time of day, wasn’t it? Oh, wasn’t it? And now if I don’t get my act together, if I can’t be trusted to work a simple signalling magic—”
“It wasn’t remotely simple,” Grace said, astonished.
It had been the last major project Ned and Thanet had worked on before the war, and had involved months of effort and planning, but most of all Grace remembered the joy they had both taken in it, filling their study with tinkling silver bells, ringing out a different complex melody with each combination of signals.
“Thanet, what exactly did they say?”
“They said, as my work is under suspicion of having caused a railway accident…”
“I’m suspended until further notice. I can’t practise until the situation is resolved.” Thanet pulled a letter from her coat pocket and threw it down on the table. “Bastards.”
Kira was looking on with wide eyes, but Grace found she wasn’t currently concerned about the effect of profanity on the girl’s morals. “Thanet,” she said, firmly. “We’ll talk to them.”
“I tried it,” Ned said, spreading his hands. “I tried telling them the signals were working perfectly on the night of the accident – and by the way, the Board of Trade report has come back. They didn’t find a scrap of evidence that anything had gone wrong.”
“Damn it,” Thanet said, again. “It’s nothing to do with the signals and you know it, Ned. It’s the girls in trouble. It’s always girls in trouble.” With a noise of frustration, she stood up. “I’m going downstairs. I need a drink.”
The door slammed behind her, and Ned looked up at Grace. “I even tried telling them that only I designed the signals.” His eyes flashed with something, not humour. “That Thanet wasn’t involved. After all, they can’t take my registration from me again.”
“I’m sorry, Ned,” Grace said, softly. Ned shrugged, put his head in his hands, then looked up again.
“And now what?” he said, with more bitterness than Grace had ever heard from him. “Jesus Christ, Grace, it’s not – it’s not a job, or a livelihood! It’s my life. It’s all I’ve ever known.”
“And now what, for those already half-destroyed?”
“Ned,” Grace said, sharply. “You’re scaring Kira.”
She wasn’t sure, in fact, if that were true: Kira was still staring wide-eyed at them, though whether it was from fear or interest, Grace couldn’t be sure. Ned hesitated, brought short, and then buried his head in his hands again. “Little one,” he said, and Grace took a second to realise he was addressing Kira. “I apologise, and may you be spared the sins of your fathers.”
From her expression, Kira was unsure what to make of that. A minute passed and Thanet did not return, although Grace could hear her voice rise and fall in the distance, and guessed she was relating a version of the morning’s events to Mrs Throckley.
Surprisingly, it was Kira who broke the long silence, getting to her feet and stepping out into the space of the room. “What happened to you?” she asked Ned with interest. Ned seemed taken aback, lifting his head. To Grace’s amazement, he laughed hoarsely, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands.
“No one’s ever told you,” he said after a moment, “that there are some questions you don’t ask, have they?”
“You don’t have to answer,” Kira said, composedly. “You can say you don’t want to. Do you not want to?”
Ned paused, then again to Grace’s surprise, patted the edge of his own workbench. “Why don’t you sit down, so I don’t have to look up at you?”
For the first time, Kira looked a little abashed, but she sat on the edge of the bench; Ned leaned back in his desk chair. “It’s a long story,” he said, after a moment. “But the short version is that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Salt Guildhall – perhaps you’ve seen it, or what’s left of it? I happened to be on the premises when the first bomb fell. I’m very lucky,” he added, turning to look at her properly. “I didn’t die and I was pulled out after not too long. But I was hurt quite badly and that’s why I walk with a cane. Does that answer your question?”
“Yes,” Kira said. “Thank you. It’s just you tap your cane like my granny does, and she’s blind.”
“The reason behind that,” Ned said, “is an even longer story, and one I don’t always enjoy telling. So I think I’m going to have to take advantage of your get-out clause, if that’s acceptable?”
“Yeah,” Kira said, and then.”I mean, yes.”
“Kira,” Grace said. “Run along down to the kitchen. If you’re lucky the scones will be done.”
Kira stood not upon the order of her going. Grace walked around the open space of chambers for a moment, taking in the old-fashioned beauty of this space she had always shared with Ned, with its high ancient roof and weathered beams. She walked two circuits, and then tapped her fingernail on the side of their kettle, using a little magic to make it steam. “Tea, Ned?”
“Thank you,” he said, sounding almost normal. Grace felt a rush of gratitude for him: for the years of their friendship, for his continued quiet presence, though the world had changed around them both.
When the tea was poured out, she asked, “Why do you tap your cane?” She held up her hands before he could respond. “If you really don’t want to talk about it…”
Ned shook his head and took a sip of tea. “It’s a little beyond the grasp of a twelve-year-old, that’s all. It’s because of” – he gestured – “the other thing. Without any awareness of the salt in my own bones, I’m less aware of – where I am, relative to everything else. Proprioception, I’m told it’s called. The cane is grounding.”
“I had no idea,” Grace said.
“It’s little-studied,” Ned said. “Due to a lack of experimental subjects.”
“Quite,” Grace said, with affection. “No, Ned, I hadn’t noticed that you were tapping the cane on purpose, not in all this time. And I didn’t notice, but she did.”
“Quite,” Ned echoed. “You’ve time to write to the girl’s mother, before the last post goes.”
Grace smiled at him, tentative. “It’ll be lively,” she said, “to have an apprentice about the place. Like the old days.”
Ned nodded. “Grace,” he said, after a minute. “What can I do, now?”
“Help Thanet,” said Grace, with mute, inarticulable sympathy. “Help her clear her name.”
Ned nodded again. “Yes. And apart from that?”
“Scones,” Grace said, holding out a hand to him. He took it, pulled himself up to standing, and they walked down to the dark-timbered space of the kitchen, lit only with pavement lights and gas. Mrs Throckley didn’t hold with magic around food. Grace helped Ned get along, down the steps, and he carried the tea.
Their first visitor of the day was a messenger bird made of light and rainwater, already soft-edged as it landed on Thanet’s hand and said its few words before becoming a puddle at her feet. “That’s a beautiful piece of magic,” Grace said, admiringly, as Thanet reached down to mop up the water.
“Not good news, though,” Thanet said. “I’ve a client up by the docks. I was going to see her, but –” She shrugged, looking frustrated. “I shouldn’t – I mean, I must go by the Guildhall today and talk about my suspension, maybe I shouldn’t—”
Grace nodded. “I can drop in, if you’d like?” she said tentatively. “I can’t do your kind of magic, but I’m going up there anyway – ”
“Would you really?” Thanet’s face lit up.
“It’s no trouble,” Grace said, and led the way down the steps. “Kira,” she called down to the kitchen, “ready to go in five minutes.”
“Thanks so much,” Thanet said, and gave Grace an impulsive kiss on the cheek. “Just let her know I’ve not forgotten.”
Grace smiled and went through to the study, which was colder than it had been a few minutes earlier. Ned looked up at the sight of her and turned away listlessly.
“Oh, Ned, look what a mess you’ve made of the fire.” Grace got down on her knees on the hearthrug, trying to find a speck of red in the embers; it was hard to make out in the sunlight. It was strange, to want a fire on a day as brilliant and bright as this one, but there was an unseasonal chill in the air. “If you’re going to sit here, make yourself of use. Don’t just poke the fire because you can’t think of anything better to do.”
Ned was wearing fingerless gloves, poker in hand. He laid it down, perhaps as some sort of apology. “What would you have me do instead?” he asked.
Grace straightened up, brushing the dust from her skirts, and looked at him with some irritation. “You could look over the accounts,” she said. “You could work out how we’re going to pay the rent next month. You could drum up some business for us.”
He looked like he might say something sharp, but then the idea seemed to catch on his fancy. “I could wear a crinoline and feathers and parade along the Temple gardens, advertising our services?”
Grace chuckled. “Of course.”
“Love potions and murders a speciality, of course.”
Grace held up a hand. “You’d be drummed out of respectable practice but I’m sure you’d look very fetching. Now get up so I can measure you for a sandwich board.”
Ned laughed a little but stood up. “I’ll do the accounts,” he said, “will that do?”
“That’s my boy,” Grace said. “I have to be out this morning, I’m calling on Kira’s mother, so it’s just you holding the fort.”
“Ave atque vale, then.”
Grace gave him the look she reserved for idiots and the classically educated, gathered up her apprentice and the address Thanet had left, and went out.
The accounts were not immensely thrilling, but, as Ned remarked to the kettle when making the tea, the problem of the rent did tend to focus the mind. He lifted his head from Grace’s immaculate figures at the sound of the bell, and was surprised to find no heat in the teacup next to his hand. Mrs Throckley must be out, he decided as the ringing echoed into silence, picked up his cane and went to answer the door. “May I help you?”
The woman on the threshold seemed nervous about coming any further inside. She was tall, with hair pulled back from her face. “Are you a witch?” she asked.
Ned smiled, and said, “You’d best come in. It’s this way, Mrs-”
“Well, Mrs Ferguson,” Ned said, busying himself with the kettle again. “I have a colleague here, a Miss May, who will be able to help you with whatever you require. She’s out at present but I can get you some tea if you’re willing to wait.”
Mrs Ferguson sat on the chair he indicated, but unwillingly. “You’re a witch, aren’t you?” she said, stubbornly, pointing to the bar through his ear. “And you’re here already.”
“Miss May is very good,” Ned assured her, picking up the sugar tongs. “I’m sure you’ll find her helpful. Or Thanet, she’s – wait.” He tipped his head back and called out. “Thanet, are you in? She or he?”
Thanet peered around the door, the trim of her hat providing the answer. “She,” she said, crossly. “I’ve got to go out, Ned, more registration nonsense. I’ll see you this afternoon.”
She disappeared as swiftly as she’d appeared. “Well,” Ned said, bringing his hands together. “Milk and sugar, Mrs Ferguson?”
Once the essentials had been furnished, Ned went through the next couple of lines of Grace’s meticulous record-keeping. He checked the figures, wrote a note, and then looked up at the unmistakable sensation of eyes boring into him. “You are a witch,” Mrs Ferguson said, a little belligerently. “I’ve seen you before.”
“You know,” Ned said, mildly, “the first time I met a northerner, I quite enjoyed being called a witch. It sounded much more exotic than being a common-and-garden practitioner. You’re from Cumbria, then?”
“The Lakes,” Mrs Ferguson said. “I came to London when I was a girl. So you’ll help me?”
Ned laid down his pen and sighed. “Mrs Ferguson, my colleague will be here shortly and in the meantime I have work to do. So if you don’t mind…”
She stared at him over the rim of her cup, but said nothing. Ned wrote another couple of numbers in a column and somehow wasn’t surprised when she said, “Let me tell you about my trouble. My husband…”
“Mrs Ferguson,” Ned said, controlling his temper. “Yes, I am a witch. A Salt practitioner. I am also not far away from losing my registration permanently and I haven’t done any magic for around six months. If you, or your husband, are in trouble, I’m very sorry to hear it, and if you would just wait…”
“What did you do?”
“Excuse me?” Ned stared at her, thrown by the interruption.
“What did you do, for them to take away your registration?”
Ned put the pen down again. “You don’t give up, do you?”
Mrs Ferguson shook her head, moving slightly into the light, and Ned realised she was younger than he had originally thought; her face was drawn, dimmed by the black she wore, but not lined. “No. Mum used to say I was worse than a donkey at the seaside for going where I pleased.”
Ned chuckled and leaned back in his chair. “Well, Mrs Ferguson, it isn’t what I did, so much as what was done to me.” He paused on that thought. “But I’m sure you understand why I think you should go with Miss May – she’s a northerner like yourself, she’s a skilled Salt practitioner, and she’s not under the sword of Damocles.”
“No,” Mrs Ferguson said, thoughtfully clasping her hands. “I’ll take you.”
Ned shook his head. “Mrs Ferguson, I’m not sure you understand-”
“I understand just fine.” She gestured at the room, at the books and papers and spread of mess. “You’ll do.”
Ned gave in. Getting to his feet, he closed the door firmly, and settled back in his chair. “Let’s begin at the beginning,” he said. “You and your husband…”
Thanet’s client turned out to be a woman of Indian descent. She spoke little English but smiled at Grace, put her hand on her heart, and said, “Kamala.” Above her head, flocks of messenger birds glowed, iridescent and luminous, forming out of dispersed water and then filtering off to nothingness. Grace remembered the birds were being used by the union men on the docks, during the general strikes, and smiled at the thought of them taking flight from here, keeping the movement alive from these unassuming rooms above a whelk shop. Kamala’s husband seemed to understand a little more, when Grace explained her errand.
“We’ll send someone else about your trouble,” she promised. “Even if Thanet can’t come.”
He looked at Kamala, and smiled. Kira was busy, feeding the messenger birds with ice chips from her hands – but Grace gestured and she came reluctantly.
Kira’s mother lived by the old West India quays, on the industrial edge of the City. Grace had assumed Kira’s father must work on the docks, but when asked, Kira said, “He died when I was little,” and subsequent questioning revealed that that meant the summer of 1916. Ned had sighed quite heavily at that, Grace remembered, and smiled to herself.
“Don’t wander off,” she said, as Kira darted away, distracted by the trams rattling noisily past towards Victoria. Services had been restored after the crash, but the railwaymen were striking and the streets were crowded with the overspill. When they left the towpath, Kira seemed reluctant again. “It’s a bit cramped,” she said, in tones of apology, and Grace followed her through the little door, opening on a set of steps that led up to rooms behind an ironmonger’s.
“You’ll be Miss May, I suppose,” said the severe-looking woman who met them at the top, wearing a spotless apron and with hair kept in braids very like her daughter’s. “Come in and have some tea.”
Grace sat in the indicated chair and accepted the teacup, feeling herself appraised. “Sugar?” the woman asked, and turned to get it without waiting for an answer.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Grace said, formally, and set down to business. “Mrs James,” she said. “I’m here, on behalf of the Worshipful Company of Salt practitioners, to propose your daughter enter Salt apprenticeship. She’s spent some time with me over the last few months, and I would be honoured to take her on.”
“Salt, then,” Mrs James murmured, and Grace read something in her expression – something like irritation or distrust.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I was under the impression Kira had said – well, if I’ve overstepped, I apologise.”
“Miss May,” Mrs James said, interrupting firmly, “what’s done is done. Kira, honey, get your old mum some biscuits. And your -” She paused, her expression becoming still, “principal.”
At that word, Grace relaxed a little. “Mrs James,” she said. “Are you quite happy for Kira to train with me?”
Mrs James looked at her seriously, but without hostility. “Kira’s father was a white man,” she said. “If he’d been living, things would be different.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Grace said, automatic, and Mrs James acknowledged her with a nod.
“Her father wanted her trained, and I’m going along with his wishes,” she said after a moment. “If he was around still – but then she went to you and you’ve been kind enough and things are how they are. You from Jamaica?”
Grace smiled briefly. “My grandparents were,” she said. “I was born and brought up in Liverpool, myself.”
“That’s no matter.” Mrs James regarded her. “Better with you than anyone else. And a woman is right and proper. You don’t know where the men have been.”
Grace smiled again at that. “In which case I should mention my two colleagues, Ned and Thanet.”
“Thanet a man, is he?”
“Sometimes,” Grace said, and Mrs James raised an eyebrow. “Birds-in-Flight,” Grace added, “not Salt.”
“Thought they weren’t like that any more?” Mrs James said, and then seemed to recollect herself. “No offence meant to your friend. Just you don’t see them too much now.”
“Thanet persists,” Grace said, with a grin. “In any case, she – or he, depending – would be teaching your daughter as well as Ned and myself. Would that be a concern for you?”
“Not if you’ll vouch for them,” Mrs James said, and Grace sighed again and sat back in her chair: it was time to be truthful.
“Mrs James,” she said. “I’m a practitioner in good standing. But Thanet – Thanet’s registration has been withdrawn for conduct reasons by the Company of Birds-in-Flight. And Ned was a practitioner like myself, raised at Temple. But he’s unwell, presently, and it’s unclear what his future in Salt practice will be.”
Mrs James nodded. “Conduct reasons,” she said, suddenly. “Does that mean, helping people they’re not supposed to help?”
“Something like that.” Grace kept her expression even.
“And the other.” Mrs James paused. “Shell-shock?”
“Not exactly,” Grace said. “But it’s very similar.”
“He was an officer, then,” said Mrs James with a grim humour. Grace understood that – officers came home with neurasthenia, not shell-shock, and she didn’t bother to correct the misconception.
“But I have the utmost trust in them,” Grace went on, “and we will all do our best for Kira. She can stay here or she can lodge in chambers – it’s for her to decide, if you’re willing.”
“I’ll come with you,” Kira said, her little voice clear and bright. She was standing on the threshold with the plate of biscuits held in both hands. “I mean – if I can.”
She was looking at her mother, then at Grace. Grace read fear and excitement and amazement in her face, and regret too. On glancing around, Grace noted the room was sparse but clean and tidy, with books and brightly-coloured ornaments, and photographs on the mantel, and suspected this had been as happy as a home as it could be, for those who were left.
“Miss May,” Mrs James said. “I know the way of things. You people look after your own.”
“Of course we do,” Grace said, startled by her tone. “Ned and Thanet and I look after each other, and we’ll look after her.”
Mrs James nodded. “And in the end, you’ll be her family, more than her flesh and blood.”
“We already are her flesh and blood,” Grace said, suddenly snapping to anger. “She’s already one of us. She’s Salt, and so am I, so is Ned. She’s a sister and a daughter.”
“A white man, raised at Temple? You call him your brother?” Mrs James said, then put her hands up, as though holding Grace’s words away from her. “You’ll show her,” she said, quieter now. “A world more than this.” She pointed out of the window at the street outside, at the dusty road traffic, the stallholders, the dock-workers eating sandwiches one-handed from greaseproof paper, at men with trays around their necks hawking trinkets. “She’ll become – not like you, but almost, and she won’t ever come back here and see it the way she sees it now.”
Grace nodded. “That’s true,” she said, honestly. “Temple is my home. It will be Kira’s.”
“Is it the best thing?”
“We will look after her,” Grace said, knowing she wasn’t answering the question, knowing it wasn’t for her to answer. She held still for a moment, letting the moment take its time in passing. “Shall she come with me?”
“Yes,” Mrs James said, finally. “Yes.”
Kira made a small wordless noise of joy, and Grace said, quietly, “Kira, you should say your goodbyes to your mother properly. We’ll come back for your things this evening, if that’s suitable?”
“Yes, Miss May,” Kira said with an obedience that Grace suspected wouldn’t last. She nodded respectfully to Kira’s mother.
“Good luck,” Mrs James said, perhaps deliberately making it unclear which of them she was talking to, and Grace grinned. As they walked down back towards Embankment, Kira seemed a girl enchanted, quiet and with luminous eyes. Of the two of them, only Grace turned to look back – and that was when the rock hit her in the side of the head.
“My husband is dead,” Mrs Ferguson said, flatly. “Nothing to be done for him now.”
“I don’t –” Ned began, and then sat back. “Your husband was driving the train at St Paul’s.”
“They’re going to make out it was suicide,” Mrs Ferguson said, fiercely. “They’ve been round asking. Was he shell-shocked? Was he drinking! They don’t want it to be their fault is all. And my widow’s pension –” Her expression darkened. “I need you to show them it wasn’t. All that signalling and that, that’s magic.”
“I know,” Ned said, sharply. “I was the one who designed it.”
“Then go and find out what went wrong.” She glared at him, and Ned thought that he might be the first focus for her anger she had had, since the accident. “If you designed it, then who’s right to do it but you?”
Ned brought his hands together, fingers lacing and interlacing. “My colleague,” he said, “may lose her own registration over this.”
“All the more reason for you to get to the bottom of it, then.”
Ned nodded. “With all due respect, Mrs Ferguson,” he said. “Why are you so sure it wasn’t – what they say it was? Sometimes,” he hesitated, “a man won’t speak of what’s on his mind, until speaking does no good.”
“Because of this,” she said, still fierce.
She pulled a card from her bag and handed it to Ned, who took it without thinking. Ostensibly handwritten, it had been reproduced by a form of Salt magic with which he was very familiar, and the letters spelled out an invitation to a wedding in Penrith three weeks hence. “The bride is your sister-in-law?” he guessed from the name.
Mrs Ferguson nodded. “It’s a good family. Alfie was right proud. He was going to make them a proper present – maybe proper silverware, he said, like we never had when we were first married. And we were going to go up for it on the railwaymen’s specials.”
Ned put a hand to his head. “Mrs Ferguson, I’m afraid I still don’t quite understand—”
“He had the money for the present on him,” she said. “He was going straight after his shift. Why would he have – if he was going to—”
“Ah,” Ned said, understanding. “I see.” He paused. “Was your husband shell-shocked, Mrs Ferguson?”
She half-stood up, and Ned thought for a mad moment that she would take a swing at him. As he held his ground, his own hands damnably shaking, the moment filtered away into silence. Mrs Ferguson sank bank into her chair and took a moment before she rose again, this time with dignity. “He didn’t return the same as he went,” she said, voice clear. “But did anyone?”
“Not in my experience,” Ned said, with a calm he did not quite feel. “I’ll write to you in respect of my retention.”
“Thank you,” she said, nodding, and gave Ned no look of pity as he took the usual length of time to get to the door and open it for her. “You’ll do,” she said, again, on the threshold, and departed.
Ned turned to go inside but paused, aware of the sounds of the city, rattling trains and distant crowds, and of the soft comforting heat of the summer air. The morning chill had quite dissipated. He sat down on the front step, pulled a battered paperback from his pocket, and began to read.
When Grace opened her eyes she was lying in the dirt, the sky darkening into azure in a narrow slice between the rooftops. “Kira,” she said, blearily. “Kira, where –”
“I’m here!” Kira sounded terrified, her voice high-pitched. “I’m here, the man helped me.”
Grace forced herself into a sitting position, her head spinning sickly. Her hair rained down street dirt onto her shoulders; she’d been dragged here.
“The man?” Grace turned around, the sudden movement prompting another bout of nausea. Grace put a hand to her head and felt her fingers come away sticky.
“Here,” said a male voice, and someone handed her a handkerchief.
Grace pressed it to her head gratefully while she tried to make him out, through the blur: a man in the rough trousers and jacket of a dock worker, his sleeves dark with dirt and oil. “Kamala’s husband?” she said, stupidly.
“Amir,” he said, nodding, beckoning her to follow.
Grace breathed, willing the dizziness to pass, and got gingerly to her feet. From their shadowy, hiding-place in this alley, the street seemed an unknowable mass of people howling forwards. It had been so quiet, before, and the sky so many shades brighter. “How long was I…”
“I don’t know,” Kira said, her little hand creeping into Grace’s; Grace squeezed tight. “These men were throwing stones. They got you, they didn’t get me but they tried, then so many people, shouting – ” She looked up. “Bad words. Then the nice man came running down, he helped –”
“Thank you,” Grace said. “Out on the street she could hear those ‘bad words,’ perhaps worse than Kira knew; she could make out the scrape of metal on metal, and the howl of the mob.
Amir nodded. “Come,” he said, and Grace and Kira both followed.
Further into the shadows the alley grew narrower until they reached a timbered door hanging wildly off its hinges. As Amir led the way in, Grace’s vision adjusted to the half-darkness, and she realised there were others inside: men dressed like sailors and labourers and dockers, with bright eyes in dark faces, and in their murmurs at the sight of her, she heard India again. They were frightened, holding back; she heard the word “coloured”, and then: “namak“.
“Salt,” she said, lifting her hand to the bar in her ear. “Can I help you?”
“Can you help us escape from here?” asked one of the men, stepping forwards. Grace could make out blood on his hands, scraped and raw, and the recent tears in his clothes. “They think-” and there was bitterness as well as fear in his accented, assured English. ” – that they come from war, and we have taken their jobs, their women. They come wanting blood for it. The Musulmans also, and the ones like you.”
“Damn,” Grace said, aware of Kira’s presence by her side. She wondered how long they’d been hiding and if, in coming to find her, Amir had put himself at risk. “Is Kamala all right?”
He nodded, and Grace was grateful. “If we wait,” she said. “If we hide…”
“It is still dangerous,” said the other man. “But if you can – if you can help us fight, then –”
“They’ll destroy me,” Grace said, flatly. She put a hand to the bar in her ear. “Are any of you like me?”
A murmur, in the darkness, and Amir stepped forwards, bringing another man with him. Grace couldn’t make out how many had taken refuge here, and could barely make out what sort of a space it was other than that it must be a small warehouse of some sort and perhaps abandoned.
“This is Raj,” Amir said, and he gestured to his friend’s ear, where it was a clear a metal bar had been dragged forcibly out of the flesh. Grace shivered. “He is like you. Not you. The others.”
“The Birds-in-Flight,” Grace said, but to her surprise Amir shook his head.
“No,” he said, frustrated. “the others.”
He said something in his own language to his companion. “The others,” he said, again but Grace didn’t understand.
“All right,” she said, after a minute. “You two, me, and my apprentice. We’ll have to work together. Kira, you’ll listen to me and do exactly what I say, do you understand? All our lives will depend on it.”
“What,” Amir said. “What you need?”
Grace turned. “Sir,” she said to Amir, “may I borrow your handkerchief again? Thank you.”
She showed it to Kira with some disgust, the brightness of her own blood dimming to dark brown. “Old-fashioned magic,” she said, wearily, “and not done any more for a reason. Come now.”
“The gift,” Kira said, “The blood –”
Grace nodded. The girl learned quickly.
“Come on,” Grace said again, to all of them.
Still holding the handkerchief in one hand and wishing the world wouldn’t spin so insistently, she led the way to the bottleneck of the alley where the mob milled and shouted in the street. Close-to, she felt the heat of all those bodies massed together, the animal anger.
“I need you both to be ready,” she said, with more determination than she felt. “I’m going to take your heart – your power,” she amended, not knowing how common the idiom might be. “Your magical power, you understand? You have to let me take it, I can’t if you don’t.”
Amir and Kira nodded, both looking scared but determined. After a moment, Raj stepped forward, took the handkerchief out of Grace’s hands, and said something under his breath Grace didn’t catch, but she felt the change in the air: the charge of magic rising, fizzing in her teeth. He caught her eye and Grace decided she had no choice but to trust in whatever he’d done. Out on the street, the crowds seemed to be moving with greater focus, and Grace pictured a black or brown body under that mob, and shivered.
“Ready?” she said, and they all nodded.
Grace held herself still, setting her mind on the clear, quiet image of the last time she’d done this kind of magic: Ned on the station platform at St Paul’s, saying, use me, if you must. At once she became more than herself, hearing scraps of what must be Hindustani in her mind, and seeing the flash of Kira’s memories, brightened at the edges by the intensity of childhood. Then Grace stepped into the street, into the mob, thinking of who she was and what called her, of what it was to be Salt, of her own and Kira’s and these strangers’ gifts, and threw a great wave of energy into the air around them.
In another second the mob’s thrown missiles glanced off that invisible surface, as though deflected by a shield; rocks and stones tumbled away, weapons turned on the surface, and even the noise of the screaming, howling mob dimmed and blurred. The mob had been moving haphazardly, dispensing directionless violence, but they had a target now and the noise grew louder. Within the shield, Amir and Raj called the others out from within the alleyway and the men came out from hiding and fanned out, spliting off in every direction.. Kira whimpered and Grace thought mad thoughts about covering her eyes, so she wouldn’t have to see the mob of white men in pulled-down caps brandishing domestic, devastating weapons: boat hooks and tools and cleavers, and whatever they’d brought home from their wars. The barrier was dissipating, burning off their magic: through it she could hear chanting, mostly indistinct, although with the occasional word that rose with clarity above the general roar. Those words, Grace thought, with a return of the nausea, ought not to be spoken, not so close to home. And then she took a steadying breath, poured the last of her own energy into the shield, and grabbed Kira with both arms.
“Run!” she shouted, into the blackening sky above, and didn’t look back.
“Ned,” Grace said, because when she finally stopped running Ned was on the doorstep, as though waiting for her. “Ned – Kira…”
“Thanet’s got her,” Ned said. He took Grace in on his arm as though escorting her to a ball – which he had done often, in those ridiculous pre-war days – and sat her in the consulting room with her feet on an ottoman. Thanet took over after that, knitting the wound in Grace’s scalp with magic light as gossamer, and as strong. Ned was talking to Kira, asking her short, simple questions, and Grace was grateful that she would not have to tell the story, not tonight.
“Kira,” Ned said, finally, standing up. “Would you like anything? Mrs Throckley can get you a cup of hot milk, if you’d like.”
Dumbly, Kira shook her head. She looked so scared, Grace thought, dimly: this girl who had lived through a war, just as much as any of them.
“Then to bed with you.” Ned’s tone was still gentle, and Grace remembered.
“I forgot,” she said, dismayed, “– I thought…”
She gestured, too tired to articulate the thought. She had planned to take Kira back to her mother’s this evening, for one last night at home before apprenticeship – and, in the way of the Temple folk, adulthood – and to make arrangements for her here tomorrow.
But Mrs Throckley was at the door holding the tin cup of hot milk, apparently set upon on someone drinking it, even if not Kira; the look on her face rested halfway between kindness and defiance. “I hope you’ll forgive me,” she said, “but it’s been so quiet since you all came home. I did hope as the little one was staying… come with me, both of you.”
She pointed up the stairs, so Grace had no choice but to follow, with Kira trailing behind. Mrs Throckley went round several turns of the staircase, holding up a kerosene lamp and opened the door on the attic room beneath the eaves, with the porthole light. It had been shut up since the war, accumulating dust. Grace looked around at the room, aired and cleaned, now with a little truckle bed and a lamp beside it, with a pretty bedspread and neat frilled curtains. Despite everything, Kira looked enchanted.
“Mrs Throckley,” Grace said. “It’s perfect. Thank you.”
Strangely, it was that act of kindness that did her in. She waited to make sure Kira got to bed safely, and thanked Mrs Throckley again, and meant to pour a cup of water in the kitchen before retreating to her own bed, but somehow she burst into tears between there and the staircase, and took the arm Ned offered her again, standing at the foot of the stairs, waiting.
“Come,” he said, moving towards the door, “let’s take a moment.”
Out on their front step, the air was heated and still, carrying the distant sounds of shouting across the river toward them and then away again. Ned lit a cigarette and offered it to Grace, blowing smoke visible in the dimness, and once she’d taken a drag she passed it back. They sat in silence for some time, the glowing tip of the lit cigarette from hand to hand the only light other than the City’s lamps and the waxing moon. Neither she nor Ned had smoked before the war.
Finally, Ned threw the cigarette end onto the cobbles and watched it smoulder. “Tell me,” he said.
“We’re falling apart,” she said.
Ned glanced at her, then away. “Grace…”
“What are we here for?” she said, suddenly fierce. “We’re Salt, Ned. We’re here to serve. When people ask for our help, we give it.”
“With contributions to our minor expenses,” Ned murmured. “Such as the holding together of body and soul.”
Grace didn’t smile. “Those men in the alley came for me because of the bar in my ear. They thought I could save them.”
“And you did,” Ned said, mildly. “Didn’t you?”
“I went out into that alleyway yelling and throwing shields and fireballs about,” Grace said, “and then I didn’t even look back. I picked up Kira and ran. They could have been knocked over where they stood right behind me and I wouldn’t know.”
“Getting yourself killed wouldn’t have helped anyone,” Ned said, with an edge to his voice. “Least of all Kira, and she’s your first responsibility. You did exactly the right thing.”
“Did I?” Grace asked, bleakly. “I told Kira’s mother – today, even, it was only this morning – that we could give her the training she needs and deserves. That we could, you and me and Thanet. But Thanet’s being drummed out of practice and you’re – oh, God, Ned, I don’t know what they did to you, but you know what I mean by it – and now Kira and I are being chased down the streets by a howling mob.”
“Yes.” Ned sighed heavily. “Grace – she’s a sweet enough girl and she deserves training. But does it have to be by us?” He paused. “By you?”
Looking at his familiar face, his grey eyes reflecting the light of the cigarette tip still smouldering on the cobbles, Grace was reminded of what she had said to Kira’s mother about Kira, and about Ned and herself: a sister, a brother, a daughter.
“Yes,” she said helplessly. “Yes, it had to be – it had to be us. I’m not sure I can make you understand.”
“All right.” Ned shrugged, taking it philosophically. “I’ll accept that. But you’re not to blame for fools and animals,” he added, suddenly fierce. “And we’ll clear Thanet’s name.”
“What if we can’t?” Grace asked. “What if Thanet’s right, and it’s really about the people she helps? What if it’s really about what she is?”
“Thanet is part of an honourable tradition among Birds-in-Flight practitioners,” Ned said. “It’s a magical practice built on organic fluidity, for heaven’s sake! They’ll come to their senses.”
“What if they don’t?” Grace asked.
Ned shook his head. “This is Temple, Grace. That’s not how things are here.”
“Even if that’s so,” Grace said, sadly, “we have to leave it sometimes. It can’t be the only place in the world for people like us.” She paused and shook her head. “Listen to me, talking as though we’re the ones who need protecting. When did we become such sorry shadows of ourselves, Ned? When were we so bowed and so – broken?”
Ned shook his head again, and she knew there was no answer.
“Arma virumque cano,” he said lightly, and Grace was glad that he still found such comfort in his books. “We came away from Troy, and into greater exile.”
“Speaking of exile,” Grace said. “Your mother is planning to pay us a visit.”
“She’ll have heard,” Ned said. “She won’t come, not now.”
“Not yet,” Grace corrected. “But once all this blows over, there’s the spectre of the rent. Ned, how much longer can we go on? I don’t intend to be melodramatic. I really mean it.”
“It would be,” Ned said, with some difficulty, “grievous, for us to have fought so hard for what is ours. And then, after everything—”
Grace nodded, allowing him the time to finish that sentence, or choose not to. Ned lit another cigarette, and she waited, thinking of how she had kept the practice running even when the windows were blacked-up with crepe and Salt magic was as strictly regulated as sugar and petrol. She had written letters to Ned about it, and had them returned with “Not known” written on the envelopes, by order of the War Office, but in Ned’s own familiar hand. They had laughed about it, afterwards.
“We go on,” Ned said, breathing out smoke. “Like we did before. We just go on.”
“Go on,” Grace echoed, and then fell silent, watching Ned’s hands move to his mouth, and the cigarette tip glowing in the darkness.
The Temple gardens were turning over into autumn by the time the coroner set the date for the full inquest, and perhaps by then, Ned thought, the revolutionary fervour would have dimmed a little in the streets.
“November,” Grace said, looking up from her letters.
“We’ll know by then, one way or the other,” Thanet remarked. He had taken up needlework, to fill the time, and when that palled, carried tea to the workers on strike.
“Oh, Ned,” Grace added. “Mrs Ferguson was by, earlier. She said that the fireman on the train – not the fireman, the other man in the cab, anyway – he’s come around. He’s still at Bart’s, but he’s well enough to speak to someone. I can take Kira this afternoon and –”
“No,” Ned said, quietly. “If you can spare Kira, I’ll take her myself.”
Grace looked at him for a long moment, and then smiled. “It’s good,” she said, “to see you out and about again.”
Ned returned a tentative smile. “Don’t count your chickens. Wait and see if I make it back alive.”
She didn’t castigate him for being overly dramatic, which Ned was pleased about. In the months since the Armistice, he had begun to wonder if his mental condition were infirmity or melodrama, but he was shamefully grateful for Kira’s presence through the noisy, crowded streets, and then for the clean antiseptic quiet of the hospital corridors.
The railwayman’s name was Jack Roberts, he explained, although the nurses called him John, which put Jack in mind of schooldays and visits from elderly relatives, when he’d been a child. “But who’re you?” he asked after a moment, belatedly surprised at the close presence of a stranger.
“My name is Ned Devlin,” said Ned, putting a hand to his ear and dipping his head. The man’s eyes widened with recognition. Salt practitioners were usually called to layings-out, and Ned couldn’t blame him for being apprehensive. “I’ve been retained by the wife of your driver – your friend, Mr Ferguson.”
That the men had been friends was a shot in the dark, but it paid off; Roberts smiled a little, and something eased in his face. “You’re in the pay of Mistress Ferguson?” he said, rubbing at his eyes; Ned suspected that in ordinary life he wore spectacles. “Better you than me, mate.”
Ned laughed a little and sat down in the hard wooden chair closest to the bed, waving to Kira to keep close to him. The man in the bed blinked at the movement, trying to follow it with his head. “That your kid?”
“Tell her to have a grape, everyone’s been that kind, but I’ve no hope of eating them all. So she’s got you to find out the truth of what happened, has she?”
Ned nodded. “Something of that order. I’m wondering, Mr Roberts, if you can tell me exactly what happened in the cab, before the accident. If we can get to the bottom of this, your friend’s wife may take her widow’s pension from the Southwestern, after all.”
Roberts spoke eagerly. “If I can help I will. Alf was a good mate. They told me he went straight off – didn’t feel any pain?”
Ned leaned back; it wasn’t the first time, after all, that a young man had asked him that question. “I’m told that’s so. You had known each other some time, then?”
“Oh, yeah. I’d been a lampman on the railway before the war, and since I got back I’d taken a fancy to driving. Alf said he’d take me along, show me how it was done, so I went down to Moorgate in a ‘bus bright and early. Alf was telling me something about his sister up north somewhere. Getting married in a month and it was going to be quite a do. His wife was sending him out for a present, straight after his shift.”
“When was that?” Ned asked. “Towards the beginning of the journey, or closer to the bridge?”
Roberts paused. “Later – oh, towards the bridge, I recall seeing the lights up across the river. We were at the signal. I said to him, it’ll be a fine morning, no doubt, and he said, if we only could get this train into depot a little quicker! And I said something about how fast they’d let you go, what with the freight trains ploughing out at night, and he said I’d have to sit down and study it all in a book before they’d let me train to be a driver. And then…” Roberts paused again. “The train moved. I said to him, Alf, should we be – and that’s when the other train came out of the dark. I thought the end of the world had come.”
Ned nodded. “I see. Thank you, Mr Roberts, you’ve been very helpful.”
“Don’t see how,” Roberts said. “But I suppose you folk are a rule to yourselves.” He paused. “You’ll do your best for Mrs Ferguson, won’t you?”
“I will,” Ned promised. “Kira, come along. Thank you for your time, Mr Roberts.”
“Wasn’t any bother. Take some more grapes.”
Kira did, and was eating them industriously as she followed Ned out of the ward and through the long hallways, into the brilliant sunshine outside. “Well,” he said. “What did we learn from that?”
Kira inclined her head. “I don’t know.”
“Me neither, little one. Do you feel up to another errand before we return?”
Kira looked at him with all the perspicacity of twelve years old, and all the kindness: she did not turn the question back around on him.
“Come, then,” he said. “Let’s go and take a look at the railway line. Besides, I could do with someone to help me up if I fall flat on my face in the undergrowth.”
It wasn’t quite a joke, but Kira smiled, and they went on past Temple towards Blackfriars.
“Can’t take you across the picket lines,” Ned remarked. “Your principal would have my head.”
“Really?” Kira asked, seemingly more intrigued than anything else by the prospect of Ned’s possible decapitation.
“Really,” Ned said, and true to his word, took Kira around the back of the station, away from the strikers, and through the rusted gates. In another life, he would have been able to rust through any lock. As it was, he was grateful for some railwayman’s carelessness. With a crack, the fencing shifted to allow them through.
“Watch yourself,” he warned Kira, motioning to the thick layers of scrub and weeds where it would be easy to catch a foot. “I thought we might take a look alongside the track where the crash happened, while the strike’s on.”
“So no trains are going to come through,” Kira said, sounding rather disappointed, and Ned smiled to himself; he suspected that aged twelve, he too would have liked to see a train go past from a foot away. “What are you looking for?”
“I might know it when I see it.” Ned paused, tapping the rail with his cane, then leaning forwards to investigate it more closely. “Onwards.”
Kira nodded and they pushed on for a while, her boots kicking up dead grass and gravel. “Were you in France in the war?” she asked, suddenly looking straight at him. “If he’d come back, would my dad have come back like you?”
Given some experience of it, Ned had come to find Kira’s directness refreshing: rather like the cool, pleasant autumn air, after so long spent inside. “I can’t say as to your father, little one,” he said, “but yes, I was. Now, what do we have here?”
He paused as he spoke, and with some difficulty got down to his knees, laying the cane beside him. Reaching out to the track, it was sun-warmed and smooth under his hands, then metallic and chilled in the shadows.
“See, Kira,” he said. “What do you think this is?”
Kira investigated it, lip curling. “It’s like icing on a cake,” she said, after a minute, and Ned was pleased with the analogy; the metallic layer on top of the track surface had spread just like melted chocolate, weatherbeaten in places but mostly smooth. “It’s – yellow? Under the dirt I mean.”
“Yellow,” Ned said, pushing his thumbnail into the battered surface, unsurprised to find it left a mark. “Gold, in fact. A splash of gold on the railway track, just where the accident happened. Now isn’t that interesting?”
“Why is it there?” Kira asked.
“I don’t know.” Ned glanced up along the track, then down. “I think we’ll have to find out. Shall we?”
Kira held out a hand and helped him up, and kept pace with him back to the gap in the railings. She didn’t speak, but Ned thought that perhaps something of the tension had gone from her, and from him, too, here in the mid-afternoon sun, with the occasional chirp of birdsong. As they emerged from the trackside behind the station, Ned caught himself carefully looking up and down to avoid railway men or the local constabulary and any associated difficult questions. The ridiculous furtiveness lifted his mood, as though he were Kira’s age, on an adventure.
“Off you go, Kira,” he said, once steady on his feet again, rummaging in his pocket for tuppence. “Go down to the station and get yourself a chocolate bar or a comic or something else you’d like. Don’t cross the line,” he added, firmly. “Quickly now.”
Ned took the few minutes she was gone to catch his breath and collect himself. The walk had been enough for him to be in pain, though still appreciative of the sunlight and clear air. He expected Kira to come back with a comic – sweets were still rationed for the most part – but it was bright Cadbury’s purple in her hands when she returned. They walked down the Embankment in comfortable silence, Kira munching happily. To Ned’s surprise, she broke off a piece and gave it to him without comment, and he ate it in the spirit given.
“You know,” he said hesitantly. “Chocolate was in my rations, when I was in France. But they never sent it all in the right place and time, so you’d get it all at once or not at all. I used to give it all away to the men.”
Kira turned. “You used to give it all away?” she asked, aghast, and Ned chuckled.
“Yes,” he said, still laughing. “That was the great sacrifice I made in the war.”
But Kira was looking up at him as he spoke, her eyes serious. Ned knew even before she said it that this was the question she had been gathering the courage to ask.
“Do you think you might have met my dad?” she said. “In the war I mean.”
“I didn’t always ask men their names,” Ned said, very gently. “Sometimes there wasn’t time even for that.”
“So you might have? And not known it?”
“I might have,” Ned said, still gently, “yes.”
Kira seemed contented, unwrapping another piece of chocolate and handing it over. She’d learned the habit from Grace, perhaps, of keeping in step with him, and Ned walked along thinking over the puzzle on the railway, breathing in contentment in between the taps of his cane.
That evening there was a knock at the door, just before nightfall; Grace was the one who set down her tea to answer it.
“You’re the chaps who did the work,” said the man on the other side, pulling off a London Underground hat to reveal a forehead slick with sweat. He turned around and charged across the cobbles as though expecting Grace to immediately follow.
“Excuse me?” she called, and he shook his head impatiently and gestured for her to hurry up.
“Come on, you’re needed.” He was looking over her shoulder at Ned, Grace realised. “Signal failures on the bridge and at St Paul’s. Everything’s at a standstill. Come on!”
“Kira!” Grace shouted over her shoulder. “Come on, we’re wanted! Thanet—”
“I’m not registered,” Thanet was saying, but Grace waved him quiet.
The man from the Underground – his name badge announced “WHITWORTH, A.” – led the way down Middle Temple Lane seemingly unsurprised by the extent of his entourage. As they scurried down the Embankment, Grace could see the strangeness on the bridge at Blackfriars – two trains held massively still, like dragons turned to stone – and then they were in the station itself, past the passengers being herded into the street. Whitworth called a lift and pushed the doors open with a shove, gesturing all of them inside, and it was only when the lift was descending silently to the lower levels that he spoke any further.
“At about six o’clock this evening a train was signalled clear through the southbound platform to go on to Waterloo,” he said, expressionless. Grace glanced at her watch; it was coming up on half past six. “There was already a train at the platform.”
Grace inhaled sharply. “Did…”
“No,” Whitworth said, severely. “The signalwoman on duty realised something was amiss and manually altered the signals. At 6:10pm, the precise same thing happened on the northbound side. The train driver jammed on the brakes in time.”
“That can’t happen,” Ned said, sounding disbelieving. “That absolutely – that can’t happen.”
Whitworth continued, inexorable. “At 6:15pm, every train on this part of the network was halted at the nearest station. I was asked by the control room here at Blackfriars to track down a Mr Devlin, who had originally set up the Salt system of magic that prevents collisions between trains on the Underground. I believe, sir, that that’s yourself.”
“Yes,” Ned said, “but you should know—”
His voice was lost in the screech of the doors pulling back: the lift had reached the platform levels, and dusty tiles proclaimed “To The Trains.” Whitworth strode forth and Grace brought up the rearguard, pausing for a moment to peer down the single flight of steps to the deserted platform below. Stray litter skittered across the edge, but otherwise the silence was absolute until they passed beyond a door gleaming with Salt magic at its edges, sealed against fire or flood, and entered the dim control room beyond.
“Got them,” Whitworth announced, as he stepped inside.
It took Grace’s eyes a second to adjust, to take in the two signalwomen sitting at the long benches, the large train operating charts spread out across the walls, and the rows and rows of silver bells, gleaming as though with some inner light. The hum of Salt magic underpinned everything, invisible but inescapable, like the Tube itself beneath London.
“This is Devlin,” said Whitworth, and then, confusedly: “And some others.”
“Grace May,” Grace said, “and this is Thanet, and that’s my apprentice. Ned—”
Ned wasn’t listening to her. With his cane, he had waved the two operators away from the panels. “You hit the killing bell,” he said.
One of the two signalwomen looked cowed at his tone; the other stood up straighter. “Yes,” she said, clearly. “I didn’t trust the system, I shut everything down.”
Ned nodded. “Run it all past me,” he said, and Grace startled at the imperious note in his voice. “Tell me exactly what happened, every detail.”
“We control most of the City from here,” said the signal operator to Ned. “When things started going wrong, the bells rang.” She reached out to a bell halfway along the second row, her finger stopping just sort of its surface. “This one, then” – another bell, just above it – “this one. That was the train northbound. And then…” – she pointed at the one below – “that’s the kill bell.” She gestured at it, as Ned had done: it was the largest bell on the assembly, held at a seemingly unsupported angle.
Ned nodded again, more to Thanet than the signal operator. “You remember the emergency signal,” he said. “A red smoke rises in the window of the train cab, and every driver knows they’re to stop at once. Miss – what’s your name?”
“Miss Lynley, sir.”
“Miss Lynley. What did you – what’s that noise?”
The noise had been bothering Grace for a moment or two, and judging from the way she drew closer, Kira, too: a rumbling sound, like something very heavy beginning to move. “Can’t be a train,” Ned said, unnecessarily, “not if they’re all stopped. I suppose they have all stopped.” He reached out and deliberately, thoughtfully, struck a bell. Miss Lynley and Whitworth flinched; Ned smiled a little dangerously and said, “We designed the system, Miss Lynley. Trust me.”
Thanet stepped through the door and Grace realised he had gone down to the platforms, to check. “They’ve stopped,” he said, authoritatively. “Ned – all right, what the hell is that?”
That was the noise, getting louder now, but losing none of its low resonances and layers, as though whatever it was was at the bottom of a well. Something deeper even than this, Grace thought, and shivered.
“Damn it,” Ned said, making an abortive motion with one hand, holding short of the bells. “Ring one bell, the matching train bell rings, instantaneous or close-as. The drivers aren’t colluding to play Greensleeves for the signal operators’ amusement, I suppose. This doesn’t make sense.”
“What happened to your hand?” Grace asked, suddenly distracted. Thanet had stepped out of the light so Miss Lynley’s left hand, cradled to her and roughly bandaged, was visible.
“That was my fault,” said a soft voice, and Grace looked at the other signal operator, peering shyly through her long brown hair. “I asked Alice to open my lemonade bottle for me.”
“Silly thing went right into my fingers,” Miss Lynley said, pointing to a discarded bottle opener, together with the remains of some sandwiches.
“Thanet will look after that for you,” Grace said, a little amused at herself despite everything. Kira was hiding behind her skirts; Grace seemed to have taken on the role of mother hen and principal to the entire world. Thanet grinned and nodded.
“Just give that here,” he said, cheerfully, already raising some healing magic into the air, when Ned spoke.
“Ned?” Grace said, but he held up a hand.
“Stop. All of you, stop. Don’t touch anything.” Ned stepped forward. “I’ve been an idiot and a fool. Grace – when you were in the alley, with those dockers –”
Grace hesitated, thrown by the non sequitur. “What about it?”
“You had a bloodied handkerchief.”
“Yes,” Grace said, surprised. “Yes, I told you that – Ned, what is it?”
“And the inquest.” Ned was pacing up and down wildly, though everyone else was taking his advice to heart and stood quite still. “The woman on the train said that it stopped, then moved again. Is that right? It stopped, then moved.”
“Yes,” Kira said, with unexpected clarity. “She said it moved again so quietly she almost didn’t notice it.”
“That’s my girl,” Ned said, half-exultant.
“Ned, blood magic is superstitious nonsense,” Thanet said, comfortingly trenchant to Grace’s ears. “You know it.”
“Perhaps we’ve been wrong about that,” Ned said, running his hands through his hair. “Magic is Salt, or Birds,” he said. “Living things, or just things. But the world has changed so much.” He waved his hands, a little helplessly, as though trying to indicate the city above them. “’What passing-bells, for those who die as cattle?’ People becoming things, and things” – he gestured again, at the train operating panels, and the bells – “coming alive.”
“Ned,” Thanet said conversationally, “get to the point before I insert that cane in your ear.”
Ned spread his palms. “Salt, Birds, and iron. Not blood. Iron.”
“A new form of magic?” Grace said. “Ned, that’s…” She paused. “Are you sure?”
“Ferguson, on the bridge,” Ned said. “He brings the train to a stop at a signal. He remarks to Roberts, perhaps even laughing while he does it, that he wishes the train would move faster, with his pockets full of metal, and those passing bells in his recent memory, and all around him a locomotive made out of…”
“Iron,” said Grace, with reverence. “So the train moved, to take him home. Miss Lynley, what exactly were you saying to your friend, before the signal failure?”
Miss Lynley looked miserable. “There’s a dance tonight, down in Clerkenwell,” she murmured. “I was just saying to Cara – I wish everything would hurry up, the last hour of the shift always drags.”
“But what about the gift?” Thanet said. “Do you think Ferguson cut his hand on the controls?”
“Ferguson had the money for his sister’s wedding on him,” Ned said. “It wasn’t burnt away, it was given. Kira and I found the remains of it, the sovereigns, on the railway track.”
“Overpayment?” Thanet asked, and then nodded to himself. “He wouldn’t have been trained – he wouldn’t know how much –.”
“He wouldn’t have known he was doing magic at all,” Grace said, a little excited. “Ned, the Indian man who helped me in the alley. He said he wasn’t like me, but he wasn’t like the others. Not Salt, not Birds, but –” She turned her head.
Whitworth cleared his throat again; he was standing was at the door to the control room, the magical light from its seal soft on his face.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Miss May, Mr Devlin, if I could have your attention, just for a moment.” He pointed out into the tunnel. Grace and Ned exchanged glances, and followed him out, along the tiled passageway and the platform edge. Grace looked over her shoulder for a second; Thanet had gone back to bandaging up Miss Lynley’s hand, and was beckoning to Kira.
“Once,” Whitworth said, without turning, “long ago, they were going to terminate the line here, and not cross the river. Bit of a crush for the trains, though.” He waved casually down at the platforms as he spoke, and the rumble rose again, making Grace shiver again, involuntary and deep in her bones. “Bit of a palaver. So they built a turning loop, under the river. Quite a miracle of engineering, in its day. And of magic,” he added, with a sidelong glance at Ned. “Then of course Parliament came through for them. Straight line extension across the Thames. So they built that” – he pointed down into the tunnel, the Salt lights within flickering eerily – “and they sealed the old loop off.”
They were climbing a small staircase, now, dusty, and in places slick with oil; Ned’s cane slipped and Grace reached out to steady him.
“Can’t bury a thing time out of mind,” Whitworth said. “It’ll rust to nothing some day, but in the meantime we keep an eye. Here’s the door.”
Grace looked up sharply. The door was small, human-sized, and sealed with enough Salt magic to hold down an inferno. “Behind that door,” she ventured tentatively. “Underneath the river –”
Mr Whitworth took the keys from his pockets and opened the door, finishing it off with a muttered string of nonsense syllables: Grace felt the small piece of magic raised, as the door opened onto a wall of black earth.
“It’s not a tunnel,” Grace said, surprised. “It’s not there!”
“It was yesterday,” Whitworth said, calmly, “it was this morning.” And though those words were delivered with utmost calm, something seemed to enter beneath Grace’s skin and begin to crawl. “The tunnel should be there, miss. If it’s not” – and then the rumbling came again, almost too loud to bear, reverberating in Grace’s very being – “it’s shifted of its own accord.”
With slow careful movements, Ned tapped on the wall beside the door, so Grace could hear the hollow resonance.
“The seals,” Grace said, aware of her voice trembling. “The magic’s been disturbed – the sealing, against the river—”
Whitworth touched the bare earth beyond the door, then pulled back. His hand was wet.
“Oh, God,” Grace said, and spun around on the spot. In her mind she was somewhere else – somewhere else dark, perhaps the Salt Guildhall on the day the first bomb fell – but the moment passed and she was here again. Terror fizzed through her veins and a determination she did not feel rose into her voice. “All right, Mr Whitworth, I think it’s time we acknowledge the truth of the thing. The tunnels will need to be evacuated. Can you and your signal operators start dealing with that? And switch off the power?”
“Yes,” Whitworth said, “but there are two trains, stopped just outside the platforms…”
“I know,” Grace said. “Thanet will do any magic you need to help you get the passengers out and through the tunnels. We can’t predict what will happen now,” she added, glancing at Ned, who nodded. “There are iron rings in every tunnel, isn’t that right? We don’t know who might do magic without realising it, or what they might do. Ned, I need you to get Kira out of here, it’s not safe. Go as quickly as you can.”
“What?” Ned looked up, his eyes very bright in the darkness. “Don’t be ridiculous. I should stay. I can help –”
“Ned,” Grace said, breathing in, hating herself for a moment, “you’re a liability.”
Ned flinched. “Grace…”
“If you stay, you’ll be one more thing for me to worry about.” And then, softer, “You’ve done your bit. Let me do mine.”
Ned held her gaze for a minute, then dropped his head. “Understood.”
Grace reached out and entwined their fingers, not caring about Whitworth’s presence. Then she stuffed both her hands in her pockets and took a deep breath.
“Good luck,” Ned said, and went back down the passageway along to the steps.
“Miss May?” That was Whitworth, looking at her with confusion, and worry. “What will you do?”
Grace took another breath, and reached for whatever was left in her that was not fear. She waited another moment as the great rumbling started up again. This time it had a sinister punctuation; the rush and movement of water. As they stood, a first gush emerged from behind the door, filtering through cracks in the packed earth and pouring onto Grace’s boots.
She thought again of the darkness beneath the bombs, and took another breath , and then another, and then she was ready. “I’m going to seal this off.”
“Come on, little one,” Ned said, his coat sweeping the floor as he turned. “Quickly! Thanet – good luck.”
Thanet saluted him ironically. Ned smiled and held out a hand to Kira, who scurried after him with alacrity.
“We’re going back up to Temple,” Ned said, in answer to Kira’s unspoken question, just as the lift doors screeched shut. With a jerk, they began to move upwards. “I think that our next step is to see if we can find the address for the man Grace met at the docks. I wonder if anyone at Temple speaks any Indian languages? Though I suppose there are quite a few – oh, my goodness.”
The lift had jerked to an ungainly stop, causing Ned to reach out with his cane for balance. Kira grabbed uselessly against the walls. They both teetered, balanced, and hung motionless for a moment, waiting for the lift to start moving again, but it did not.
“Mr Devlin,” Kira said, with a distinct quaver in her voice. “Do you think-”
The lights went out.
Ned swore, listening to the rapid pitch of Kira’s breathing in the darkness. He, made two step forwards, thinking to reach for the little girl’s hand – but the lift jerked again at his movement, and this time downwards.
“Oh, that’s torn it,” Ned said, and his voice was lost in another great screeching as metal grated on metal, and they dropped further.
It triggered something: some back-up mechanism powered by Salt, so the base of the lift was lit up in long threads of strange light. It cast a greenish tint on Kira’s face and made the advertisements on the walls, for patent medicines and magically-propelled invalid chairs, into horrible grotesques. Kira whimpered again. In the end, Ned thought, calmly, it seemed inevitable that it would come to this.
“Little one,” he said. “We have about five minutes before the lift falls to the bottom of the shaft. If what I suspect is true, it’s the lift shaft itself, deforming around us. So I need you to stay very calm, do you understand? Stay calm, and do exactly as I tell you. What I’m about to explain to you is the sort of thing you wouldn’t do for quite a few years yet, in your apprenticeship, and I don’t think I’ll have time to repeat myself, so listen very carefully. Are you with me so far?”
Kira nodded, her little eyes wide.
“First, you need to raise a light, in the way Miss May has taught you. Name, calling, asking. Use some of your own energy as the gift. That’s right.”
The light flared into life, with a little raggedness about the edges, but a comforting yellow.
Ned said, “Now hold it with only one of your hands, and with only one part of your mind. Don’t think about it too much. Just let it burn, that’s right. Now close your eyes. Think about Salt, what it feels like when you use the power you have, what it’s like when you can sense it in the world around you. There’s some in the light, it’s a Salt light. Ignore that. There’s some in the air, we’re below the river estuary here. Ignore that, too. What’s left should be very bright and intense, but dimmed in the centre. Can you see that? Eyes shut!”
Slowly, Kira nodded, and from somewhere beneath them they heard the great rumbling sound again, the roar taking on the crackle of metal buckling as well as the slosh of water.
“Right. That is my magic – or, what’s left of it, that I can’t use for myself. Now I need you to reach in – and take it. It’s magic in itself, the taking, so you need a gift. Use some of the light. I’m going to sit down so you don’t knock me over.”
It was Ned’s habit these days to get from sitting to standing and vice versa with some lack of grace, but he made it a gentle movement, ignoring the pain; his cane would be dangerously percussive on the base of the lift. The green light flickered, and vibration built in the metal beneath their feet, but Kira hadn’t moved, eyes squeezed shut.
“Take it, Kira!” Ned said, desperately. “You don’t need my permission. Take it.”
Kira didn’t move and Ned closed his own eyes, listening to the rumbling grow louder, than softer. He fancied he felt movement, although it could be a fevered imagination. “Kira,” he said, quietly, “now.”
The light in Kira’s left hand dimmed. Ned dropped his head onto his knees. He thought, vaguely, that he should have retained some of his own heart, to guide her: so she wouldn’t have to guess what to do next with her arms laden with flame and the lift filling with a smokeless inferno. At last there was movement, a great tearing noise and the cracking open of an internal sky, and everything grew dark and strange, and not a little violent, and it went on for a long, long time.
And then: it was still dark. But a long way off a child was crying, and there was something wet on Ned’s face and hands. He sat up, his head cracking against the wall, and said, wonderingly, “Rain.”
He was in the station, at the surface, and water was curling along the wrought iron awning. “Kira?” Ned called, and then jerked back as she bolted across the deserted space of the ticket hall and landed next to him. “I thought I’d killed you!” she wailed, and Ned leaned back against the wall and breathed.
“It’s all right, little one,” he said, very softly, “I’m very difficult to kill.”
As she cried, he put an arm around her and made wordless, soothing noises, for himself as well as her; there was a great deal of pain, somewhere, that he was ignoring in favour of concentrating on Kira’s bright presence, and the rain falling into his eyes.
“Help me up,” he said, reaching out for a cane that wasn’t there; he leaned on her, mostly, to cross the space of the station floor and come to rest in front of what had been, earlier that day, a London Underground lift. “Oh, my.”
“First we knew of it,” said a voice from behind him; Ned turned to meet Whitworth’s eyes, “the lift hit the top of the shaft like the coming of the end times. Then the doors opened, and your girl –” Whitworth shook his head. “Well, perhaps she’d better tell you herself.”
“I got us out,” Kira said, almost apologetically. There was a strange mixture of emotions on her little face, something between defiance, pride, and misery. “I did… do it right, didn’t I?”
Ned followed her gaze, and limped across to the lift shaft. The outer doors had been pushed back with enormous force and bore signs of having witnessed a very rapid exit. Beyond them was only a great writhing blackness, suggestive of further movement far below. Of the lift cab itself, there was no sign. Ned pictured a mangled mass far beneath the earth, and said, sincerely, “Kira, I think you may have saved both of our lives. Thank you.”
“Oh,” Kira said, more shocked than pleased.
“Mr Whitworth,” Ned said. “Grace, and Thanet— ”
“Mr Thanet is helping with the evacuation,” Whitworth said, with sympathy and concern, “but Miss May hasn’t – not yet.”
Ned nodded and sat down on the floor. Kira came to perch on her haunches beside him, still with that uncertainty in her face.
“Mr Devlin,” she said. “Back when you could still do magic, were you very good?”
Ned leaned back on his elbows and considered.
“I was about the best of my generation,” he said, after a minute. “But I think you’ll be better than I was.”
“Oh,” Kira said, again more shocked than pleased, and Ned sat back again and breathed.
Presently, they heard footsteps, coming closer and closer, rising from the stairwell. Whitworth was looking hopeful, stepping forwards, and then the first of the people emerged from the Underground. They were the usual mixture of travellers, dignified old ladies and paint-spattered workers, some holding their tickets and some not, but all with the same open-eyed, uplifted expressions. Above them, birds were fluttering, their feathers translucent and crystalline, hovering to guide the way. Ned smiled at them and said, to Kira, “Thanet.”
“They brought us out of there,” said a woman in a green coat, to no one in particular.
A boy with a splint on his leg was being helped by two other passengers up the stairs. A man in a pork pie hat held up his hands with reverence to the rain. Ned thought he and Kira must present an odd picture, huddled in the corner of the ticket hall on the floor, but no one gave them a second look, and then he was thinking about the signalbox in Boulogne, and waking with his mouth full of saltwater, and no thought of being alive.
“What now?” Kira asked, finally, when the great flood of people petered into nothingness, as both trains below emptied out.
“Now, we wait,” Ned said. Kira nodded, and settled in beside him.
“That’s the last of them,” Thanet called, sending off another handful of guide birds into the stairwell, and then beginning his descent back into the station. “They should make it out in time – oh.” His feet had hit water. “Grace!” Thanet yelled, into the murk and gloom. “Grace! Where are you?”
“Here,” Grace said, gasping for breath, appearing at the end of the upper passageway that led to the control room. “It’s not –” she coughed and spluttered “—deep enough to cover.”
“Yet,” Thanet said, and took another risky step downwards. Grace looked up. A light appeared above her head, illuminating the black water, sloshing ominously from side to side. The electricity in the tunnels had been switched off, leaving only magical light.
“It’s not too late,” Grace said. ” I mean, Mr Whitworth and his signal operators have already gone up. You can—”
“Shut up,” Thanet snapped. “Until you go, I stay.”
He shivered and took another step. Water began to creep over the tops of his boots.
“No one here but us chickens,” he said, hoping it would not carry, but whispering made the echoes more sinister than ever. “Lead the way.”
“I think,” Grace said, stepping out along the passage, raising small wave. “It’s just that the floodgate seals have failed. It’s not – I mean, if I can just stop it responding to any more magic, I can fix that. By Salt, or otherwise.”
Thanet nodded before realising Grace couldn’t see him. “Wait,” he said, and caught up, so they were walking side by side. “It’s better this way,” he said; Grace looked sidelong at him and gave him a wan smile.
At the platform level, the water was now hip-deep, and the shock of the cold held them both in place for a moment.
“Do you think,” Grace said, through her chattering teeth, “it’s getting harder to breathe?”
It was, the air now foetid and thick around them, but Thanet only nodded. He reached out to grab Grace’s hand before they kept on going, steadying her on the steps beneath the obscuring blackness. Another light hung over the water in front of them, green and cream tiles running off into blackness.
“Careful,” Grace said. “The platform edge—“ Just before Thanet went over it.
For a second, he was only falling. The track rails came up to meet his feet, sending a bone-deep jolt of horror through him, whatever his rational mind was trying to tell him about the power being switched off, and then the water closed over his mouth and nose. His limbs were going slack when a pair of strong arms grabbed him and hauled mercilessly.
“Breathe, damn you!” Grace yelled, her voice shattering into echoes, and then Thanet was on his knees on the platform, the water up to his waist, coughing and coughing while Grace clapped him on the back.
“It’s getting deeper,” he said, and was surprised when Grace shrieked.
“Sorry,” she said, spitting water and pushing her braids away from her eyes. “Sorry, that was either algae going past my leg, or an eel” – and Thanet began to laugh.
“Sorry,” he said, breathlessly. “And thank you, thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Grace said, smiling a little herself, and they set off again. “Thanet,” she said, after a while. “We’ll reach the floodgates soon. If Ned’s right, this isn’t even our sort of magic. What if I can’t fix it?”
Thanet shrugged. “We’ll have to improvise. Perhaps –” he mimed a fingernail across a palm “—it’s really not superstitious nonsense, after all.”
“Urgh,” said Grace, feelingly, and kept on. “Although,” she said, shivering in earnest now, “given the rate the water is rising, and how long we took to get down here – well. If, we don’t seal it—”
“I know,” Thanet said, without surprise. “Well, well. Ned will write us a beautiful eulogy, I’m sure.”
Grace chuckled. “In beautiful Latin.”
Thanet nodded. “Oh, yes. Elegant, loving rhyming couplets.”
“I’d have done that for him,” Grace said, still grinning, but sounding quite sincere. “Even if I had to learn my Latin to do it. I’m glad I didn’t have to.”
“Me too,” Thanet said, splashing forwards. “But we would have survived it, you know. Oh, dear.”
Grace looked up. “Oh, goodness.”
They had reached the floodgates. On one side, the water rushed merrily into the dark through the new tunnel. On the other, water was coming through the rusting gaps in the metal. The flow was moderate, but Thanet could see how the force of it would break through all at once, as with a dam in a river.
“Well,” he said uselessly. “Here goes.”
Grace was quite still, somehow no longer shivering, an expression of utmost concentration visible on her face even in the dimness and the murk. “Got your penknife?” she asked.
Following Grace’s gaze from the iron rings in the roof to the torrents breaking through from the river, Thanet understood the need for desperate measures. He passed the knife to Grace with a shudder, trying not to think about the filth in the water, and Grace closed her eyes and drew the blade across her palm.
“All right,” she said, a little shakily, and then lifted her hands. “Thanet, ask me who I am.”
Thanet caught on instantly. “Who are you?”
“My name is Grace.”
“What calls you?”
“Salt. Although,” Grace hesitated. “Perhaps, more than Salt. Perhaps whatever will be the end of this transformation.”
“What do you give?”
Thanet followed Grace’s gaze down to the black, rank water, then up to the tunnel above, thinking about London, the city that had survived so much: Zeppelins and bombs, strikes and silence.
Grace said, quietly, “Everything I have.”
“That’s what – you know.” Thanet said, understanding this for the first time. “That’s what Ned gave away.”
Grace nodded. “Yes. And even so.”
Thanet shivered. “And what do you ask?”
“Safety. And time.” Grace inhaled, audibly, above the rush of water. “I ask that the floodgates be closed, that the city be allowed the time for transformation, that those who do magic are only those who know what they do.”
Thanet reached out for her then pulled away, aware that this might be the last magic Grace ever raised; or the last thing she ever did. He watched as she placed her bloodied hands on the floodgates.
“Oh,” Thanet said, and then all he knew was the screech of metal and the rise of water, and then rankness and darkness and fear, and then, nothing at all.
At eleven o’clock in the morning on the eleventh of November, 1919, the government’s Birds-in-Flight practitioners raised an elegant and beautiful piece of magic, casting great spectral ravens about the city and the City, not as coercion, but as reminder: when silence fell, it was not a frightening thing but expected, even welcome. In the streets the motorbuses rattled to a halt and the street traders stopped hawking their wares; on the river the boats drifted; and in the courts all dockets were suspended, waiting. In the chambers and inside the Temple gardens, even the clocks were stilled. For two minutes they counted out their silence. They counted out all that had been lost.
Then Grace breathed out, settled back into her armchair, and said to Ned: “Well. We survived it.”
“It and everything after,” Ned said. He was sitting on the floor in front of her, hands raised. “Do you want to try it now?”
Grace considered. “All right. Without the recitation, though.”
Grace closed her eyes and concentrated. When she opened them again, there was light where there hadn’t been light. As she and Ned watched, it spluttered and failed, sending them back into darkness. But Ned reached over and pulled the curtains, letting in the wintry sunlight, and settled back on the floor. “Well done,” he said, and they returned to silence for a while after that, both deep in thought.
“A light,” Grace said finally, sneezed, and then let out a deep breath. “I thought – I thought I wouldn’t be able to do magic again. Tell me,” she added. “If I’m being horribly tactless.”
Ned shook his head. “It was quite a working you did, Grace. Thanet carried you up all those stairs and by the time he got up to ground level he was dry as a bone.”
“So was everything else,” said Thanet, from the doorway. “They’re talking about reopening the station in the new year.”
“I might walk down to the next one along, even if they do,” Grace said, a little embarrassed. “Where are you off to, anyway?”
“Back on my rounds.” Thanet grinned and rubbed her hands together. “And Kira wants to visit her mum, I said I’d take her. We’ll be back this afternoon.”
She bowed, grabbed her hat and went out. A kind of fresh determination had come into her movements, Grace thought, since her registration had been restored: a refusal to compromise in the work that she did.
“Grace,” said Ned, getting to his feet and colonising another armchair. “Are you quite sure you’re all right?”
“I’m – not all right,” Grace said, flexing her hands and considering. The cuts she had made, done with an unwashed penknife and then bathed with dirty river water, had become infected with a vengeance, but they were healing better now, with some sanitising magic and patience. “But I will be, I hope.”
“You will be,” Ned said, certain. “Perhaps we all will. Even Mistress Ferguson – she’s drawing her widow’s pension, I’m told. Her husband has been entirely exonerated of any voluntary role in the accident.”
“How did it go with the railway company?” Grace asked, anxiously.
Ned groaned, and put a hand to his head. “Let us say,” he said, carefully. “That I may not be the most welcome passenger on the Southwestern Railway for the next few – ah, decades. But suffice it to say, I am not being brought up on professional malpractice, and Thanet’s name has been restored to the roll. They did accept that the accident wasn’t our fault, in the end, though that might be something to do with Thanet talking at great length about our dear Miss May risking her life for the good of the railway…”
Grace laughed a little. “I want to ask you something.”
Ned inclined his head. “Mmm?”
Grace hesitated. “I don’t know if you want to tell me, or if you can. But if you can – what was done to you, in the war?”
“Ah,” Ned said, and didn’t speak for a minute, rummaging in pockets, and then lit a cigarette.
Mrs Throckley didn’t like it when they smoked inside, but Grace didn’t bring up the point.
“Dear Grace,” he said, with almost a laugh. “You’ve been so terribly kind. You’ve never asked me that.”
“I’m asking now.”
Ned nodded, and took a drag of the cigarette. “I think the last time I saw you, before the Armistice, was when the Germans bombed the Guildhall.”
“Yes,” Grace said. “I thought you might return to practice then. Be invalided out, or however they put it. You were quite beaten up by the whole affair.”
Ned smiled at her. “I thought so too. When they asked me to come up to the Horseguards I thought it was something in the way of light duty they had in mind. The Minister for War had dabbled in transport, before 1914. He was greatly taken with the silver-bell Salt signalling and recommended me to the War Office. That’s how I got sent to France.”
“To the front lines?”
“Not all the time,” Ned said, still thoughtfully blowing smoke. “It was quite a simple system. Each battalion had its men, its commanding officer, and its practitioner. Salt and Birds alike, though the men liked it to be Salt, Birds could give them courage but Salt could fix the holes in their boots. But every so often the brass behind the lines pulled me out and asked me to think about long-term magical strategies. To devise ways in which we could fight a better war.”
“A better war?”
Ned shrugged and overturned his palms.
“You shouldn’t be able to regret the magic you’ve done, not really,” he said. “You’ve given a gift of something of yourself: you’ve done a true thing, no matter what. But there’s magic you can do without the full recitation, you know. You don’t give a gift. You can drain the salt from a man’s bones – Salt and salt both – and force him to sacrifice himself.”
“And that –” Grace paused. “That changes people – into what you are now?”
Ned shook his head. “No. It kills them where they stand. The Birds did it humanely, if there is such a thing. Put up great fields of magic and if the soldiers wandered in, they just… well, they lost interest in fighting. I heard German soldiers telling their pals all about how they wanted to take up birdwatching, somewhere far away. But I… well.” He shook his head. “The men used to come to me, ask for magic. They knew I was turning men just like them into ash and dust, a half-mile away in no-man’s land, and they saw the bar in my ear and they still came to me.
“Then in the autumn of 1918 they started saying it would be over soon. I didn’t believe it. That war couldn’t end. I was at Boulogne, at any rate. It was a terrible place.” Ned dipped his head for a moment, then lifted it. “German soldiers died in the Salt fields without a mark on them. Men were buried three-deep in the frozen ground. It was a better war.”
It was said with a faint irony. Grace didn’t interrupt.
“Then the message came. The armistice was to be at eleven in the morning: hostilities would cease, and it would be passed down the lines on silver bells. And I –I couldn’t sleep.” Ned looked up. “The guns would stop. But all that magic – all that Salt in the earth along with the barbed wire. Nothing would grow. Children would have their mothers’ fields explode beneath their feet. That war couldn’t end, not like that.”
“Ned?” Grace said, when he didn’t say anything for a minute. “What did you do?”
Ned sighed. “I went to the signalbox, the morning of the armistice. The girl there was from Liverpool, like you. She called me a witch. And then I—I made it safe, I suppose.” He looked up and gave her a very small smile. “I raised all the magic on every battlefield. I pulled it into my hands, into my mouth. I put it in a bowl of water. I’d seen some things by then, I thought drowning would be an easy way to die.”
“And then?” Grace asked.
“I didn’t,” Ned said, bleakly. “When I woke up I didn’t believe it. But the girl from Liverpool rang the bells, and the war ended, and I poured the water into the harbour.”
“It took your own magic with it,” Grace said. “That’s right, isn’t it?”
He nodded, almost imperceptibly.
“But don’t misunderstand me,” he said, with some sharpness. “What I gave, I gave willingly, without regrets. I would have given my life, and yet –” He gestured to take in the room around them. “Here we are.” He shrugged again, and lit another cigarette from the first. “That’s all. Would you like some tea?”
“Yes, please,” Grace said, and as Ned went across to the little gas ring to make it, she raised a light, high above them both, which shone brighter and longer than the first.
That afternoon, Grace had two visitors. The first knock on the door of chambers was tentative, and Mrs Throckley’s voice uncertain when she came through to inform them of their guest. “A coloured gentleman here to see you, miss,” she said. “Says he knows you.”
“Send him in,” Grace said. When the man came in, looking around himself nervously, she grinned. “Amir! I’d been meaning to come and see you. Mr Ramanujan over in Pump Court speaks Hindi, we were waiting for him to have a free day – sit down, do. Ned, this is Amir. Amir, this is Ned Devlin, he’s my friend and colleague.”
She wasn’t sure how much of this spiel Amir had understood, but he sat down in an armchair and accepted a mug of tea, and when Ned tapped the sugar pot, offered a small smile in response. After taking a sip, Amir set down the cup and unfolded a newspaper from the inside of his jacket, smoothing out one of the inner pages and pointing at one headline in particular; Grace skimmed the story of the floodgates at Blackfriars and nodded when she got to the picture of herself and Thanet, taken as they left the station with the tunnels sealed beneath. “So that’s how you found me?”
Amir nodded. He lifted the cup again, then set it down. It took him a minute to speak. “Well done,” he said, finally, with clear enunciation. “And thank you. For – before.”
“I’m glad you got away,” Grace said soberly. “I was so worried. I’m so sorry that that awful thing happened. I think you’re very brave.”
Amir nodded, and smiled at her, then set the cup down once more and stood up.
“Surely you’re not going already,” Grace protested, and he must have understood her tone if not her words, because he smiled again and shook his head.
“Please wait,” Grace said. “Oh, I do wish Mr Ramanujan were here. You know about magic from iron. You could – stay.” She gestured around the room, at the books on the shelves, at her own and Ned’s practitioners’ bars. “Ned and some others are trying to recruit people, like the signal operator in the station, and you – people who can do your sort of magic. You could help them. You could help us, too, we could learn so much from you.”
Amir held her gaze for a moment, then shook his head.
“Not,” he said, again with clear, determined enunciation, “yet. Not yet.”
He bowed on the last word, took up his newspaper, and was gone, breezing past a surprised Mrs Throckley.
“Not yet,” Grace said, thinking of the riots, and the stones thrown, and all that abject fear. “If he doesn’t want to help – then we’ll leave him be. But I hope he does.”
“What an odd bloke,” Mrs Throckley complained from the doorway. “Wasn’t here five minutes and didn’t finish his tea. Grace, dear, do you know if Kira likes pound cake? I’ve a hankering myself, and all the eggs we’d need.”
“I’ve no idea,” Grace said, “but certainly Ned and I would be in favour.”
The cake was just coming out of the oven when there came another, much more stentorian knock.
Grace started towards the door, but was prevented from getting any further by the arrival of a stately galleon carrying a horsehair wig. “Ned, my darling, make yourself scarce, this is ladies only. That’s right, off with you.”
“Good afternoon, my lady,” Grace said, with considerable amusement, as Justice Devlin took Ned’s vacated chair and settled herself into it with a deep sigh. “Will you have anything to drink?”
“No, dear, this is a flying visit.” Justice Devlin reached into her handbag and began polishing her spectacles with a handkerchief. “I know you’ve been through the wars. I’m going to ask Ned to surrender the lease on this house, that’s all.”
“That’s all?” Grace repeated, horrified. “My lady, if it’s a matter of the rent, I know we’ve been behind – but if you’ll allow us just a little more time, I’m sure –”
“Hush, dear.” Justice Devlin put her spectacles back on her nose. “Nothing like that. I want Ned to surrender the lease and I want you to sign another, on new terms. Call it a new business proposition.”
Grace blinked. “What? My lady, I’m afraid I really don’t understand.”
Justice Devlin leaned back in her chair.
“Did you know,” she said, after a moment, “that Ned was born in the Temple gardens?”
“Yes,” Grace said, surprised. “I was the same – I was brought up around the High Court in Liverpool, my father practises there.”
“Grace, my dear, you misunderstand me,” Justice Devlin said. “I meant it quite literally. Ned was born right here, not too far from where we’re standing.” Off Grace’s look, she smiled. “I had a nasty prosecution I didn’t like to leave, and it seems a fourth child may arrive more quickly than the others.”
“My goodness.” Grace said, faintly, finding her imagination not up to the task of envisaging it.
“Things are different, here in the Temple gardens,” Justice Devlin said. “But women must work for what they want: that’s the same everywhere. Last Candlemas, did you light Ned’s lamps for him?”
That was one of her judicial trademarks, the lightning-fast change in subject. “Yes, my lady.”
“Don’t do that again,” Justice Devlin said, sharply. “I propose a simple arrangement: rent as a percentage of your receipts. Thanet’s back on the roll and you’ll be sending the little one out to earn pin money soon enough. I trust I’ll get perfectly reasonable returns, and handsome ones, in time.”
“What about Ned?” Grace asked.
“Ned,” Justice Devlin said, matching her gentleness, “is both my beloved youngest child and about the bravest person I have ever known, save one or two.” Her eyes twinkled. “Oh, my boy hasn’t outlived his usefulness. Quite the reverse, in fact. I fear there will be others like him, in time, and they’ll have need of him then. But that’s not for you to worry about, Grace. I’ll bring the new lease along in time for the quarter day. Look after yourself, darling girl.”
She kissed Grace’s forehead and swept out in a flurry of perfume and skirts.
“Is she gone?” Ned peeped around the door, and came in when he saw the coast was clear. “Grace, what is it?”
“Your mother thinks I should take over this practice from you,” Grace said, spreading her hands.”
Ned took a moment to react, but when he did it was only to take some of the pound cake, sitting out on the table, and reach for the teapot.
“You don’t need my permission,” he said, very calmly, and poured out.
(vi) Christmas Day
“The quarter days,” Grace explained to Kira, while decorating the tree, “are the days on which people enter into contracts, raise auspicious magic, that sort of thing.
“Begin apprenticeships, even,” she added. “It’s been six months and change, little one. Shall you be keeping on with us?”
“Yes,” Kira said, with determination, and Grace grinned.
The new lease had been signed that morning, sealed in Salt, and taken away merrily by her ladyship, whose real errand, she said, had been to deliver a goose. Mrs Throckley was roasting it in the kitchen, filling the house with delicious smells, and Thanet was halfway up a stepladder with two armfuls of holly.
“Why do we always leave our decorating until the last possible moment?” she asked, irritated. “Kira, will you be having your Christmas dinner with us or at your mother’s?”
Kira looked slightly disappointed, and Thanet giggled. “Two Christmas dinners is one of the perquisites of apprenticeship, Kira, don’t worry.”
Kira brightened up. Thanet clambered down from the stepladder, and surveyed her handiwork.
“Now,” she said, “come with me for the last touch.”
On the windowsill, she carefully sprinkled a layer of table salt, and put down a handful of feathers. “For good luck in the year to come,” she explained, to a doubtful Kira. “It’s just a tradition, no magic in it.”
“Then shouldn’t we have iron?” Kira asked, and Thanet nodded.
“Quite right, I should have thought. Ned’s got a horseshoe above his desk – run and ask him for it, would you?”
Kira did, and brought it out to hang off the corner of the ledge.
“Very nice,” Thanet said, and when they went back inside Grace had almost finished with the tree, raising Salt lights on the end of each fringed branch.
“It’s very pretty,” Kira said, sounding a little shy, and Grace grinned.
“Glad you approve, little one. Ned, are you quite sure?”
“Quite sure,” Ned said, looking up from the journal he was reading. “It shan’t be called after iron, after all. Ferrous or Ferric magic, so say the great and the good. There’ll be a Ferrous Worshipful Company before too long.”
“Ferrous magic,” Thanet said, trying it out for size. “I think I’ll stick with Birds-in-Flight, myself.”
“About that,” Grace said, now fetching Kira a footstool, so she could place the star on the top of the tree. “Are you glad to be registered again, Thanet?”
Thanet tossed her hair impatiently over her shoulders.
“Yes, and no,” she said. “They hadn’t any right to take it from me to start with, of course. And the next time I help a girl with loose morals or some such ridiculous thing, they’ll be after me again. But I’ll fight the fight when it comes to me. Kamala is doing well, by the way,” she added.
Grace smiled at her and helped Kira get back down.
“Right, all. Dinner time for witches,” she said, grinning, “and Ned.”
Ned threw a popcorn string at her, following which the party arose and descended to the kitchen, where more Salt lights gleamed on every surface in honour of the occasion, and Mrs Throckley beamed beside a plump and crisply gleaming goose.
Everything was delicious, of course. Kira and Ned pulled the wishbone, and Kira got the wish. When the Christmas pudding emerged from the pot, Kira set it alight.
“Name, calling, gift, asking,” Grace coached, and the flames rose a lovely blue.
“When I was in the lift,” Kira said, a little hesitantly, as they ate it with brandy cream. “With Mr Devlin, and I took the heart out of him – could I, sometime, try again?”
“No,” said Thanet and Grace together, and Ned only laughed.
“You will again, little one,” he promised. “But you’ve so much to learn, yet” – and opened his palm to reveal the silver sixpence.
They sent her home with it, in the end, alongside with gifts of books and sweets from all three of them, and a Christmas cake in a tin for her mother. Thanet offered to take the walk down the Embankment with Kira to her mother’s house, and after they’d gone, Ned and Grace helped Mrs Throckley clean up, presented her with a wrapped gift and a handsome bottle from the Temple cellars, and donned their hats and went out.
“It’s good brandy, that,” Ned commented, in the crisp and frosty air on the Embankment. “There’s another one on the side for us, we should crack it open when Thanet gets back.”
“That’s a plan,” Grace said, putting her hands on the railing, looking out across the river. “Speaking of plans, Ned – what are you going to do with yourself, now?”
Ned considered. “I’ve been asked to help with the new Worshipful Company. After that – well. My mother thinks I could be called to the bar, if you can imagine that.”
Grace chuckled. “I think I can.”
Ned shook his head, a little disbelieving. “I almost forgot,” he said. “Christmas Day, the last quarter day.”
He reached up to the piercing in the top of his ear, and with a hiss of pain, pushed roughly. The metal bar landed neatly in his hand.
“That’s that, then,” he said, quietly.
Grace nodded. “Thanet will be able to clean that up for you,” she said, motioning at the old wound. “Though it’ll leave a scar.”
Ned smiled. “Thank goodness for that. Twenty years of my life ought to.”
“Whatever you do next, you should come home often,” Grace said, earnestly. “Quite apart from anything else, you’ll have to take care of Kira’s Latin. I can read it, I can’t teach it. Forsan et haec meminisse, quite beyond me, et cetera.”
“The world is changing,” Grace said, archly cutting him off. “All around us the world is changing. It may be that a young practitioner trained for modern times doesn’t need…”
“All right!” Ned held up his hands. “I will teach Kira her Latin.” He overturned his palms in supplication. “There is only so much I can bear. Latin will be taught. Greek also. If she has a yen to learn Sanskrit or hieroglyphs I will arrange for a tutor. Après moi, there will be no deluge.”
Grace laughed at his outrage, and settled alongside him on the bench by the water. “I missed you a great deal, when you were gone,” she said, presently. “Which surprised me, as you were quite unbearable when you were here.”
“Slander. I am a respectable Salt practitioner and an officer and a gentleman.”
“One out of three isn’t bad,” Grace said, wickedly, and wondered for a second if she’d misjudged it: but Ned laughed easily enough, and was still smiling a few moments later, as they watched the boats go past on the river.
“I missed you too,” he said, breaking the silence. “And this.” He motioned to the water, to the garden steps behind them, to London in general. “What have you decided to do about the lamp-lighting, in the new year?”
“I thought it would be nice if Kira lit your lamps,” Grace said..
“They’re not mine any more,” Ned said, “at least, they won’t be. That’s as well, though. She can start young.”
Whosoever they belonged to, and at whose hands they were raised, Grace was thinking, there would nevertheless come the seven hundred and thirty-second Candlemas of the City of London, that neither war nor peace could dismay: and they would all, as they had always done, raise and make light.
“It’s getting cold,” she said, rubbing her fingers together for warmth. “Do you want to go in?”
“Let’s stay out a little longer,” Ned said, gesturing along the Embankment towpath, and they kept on through the frosty evening, under a clear sky full of stars.
Copyright 2015 Iona Sharma
Iona is a writer, lawyer and linguaphile, and the product of more than one country. Other than speculative fiction, she’s interested in politics and land rights. Her other stories may be found at generalist.org.uk/iona and she tweets as @singlecrow.