Lacquer Cabinet Trick

I admonish you, for the love you bear me and I for the three of you. Let the following pages be seen by no eyes but yours.

The first thing Annie Sheridan said when she regained consciousness was,

‘You bitches again!’

She was still in the process of dying—or at least it must have felt that way to her—so we didn’t hold it against her.

Of course, she wasn’t supposed to be dead. We’d gone to the tenement where we knew Annie to reside only intending to confront her. To convince her, somehow, to change her act, the trick she’d stolen from us. Maybe ask her how she’d done it, though of course she wouldn’t have told us.

The sun was going down: I remember how it painted the rooftops as if with blood. As we went into the dim alley between tall, slumping buildings that led to the yard where we would find her body, a man passed us going the other way. He was short, not much over five feet, but natty in teal and mustard and carrying an air of menace. A scar turned up one side of his lip. I’d remember that scar, later, too.

He leered at us and I felt myself flinch. I had wanted to go veiled, as we sometimes did, but my sisters had argued; we were near enough Limehouse that to go in veils, like wealthy women, would excite more attention than our bare faces. Lisha, who favours our father most, had grumbled,

‘Why should I not show my face? It’s good as any other.’

That was not the point and she knew it, but as ever I didn’t argue. I let her talk me round.

So we found ourselves in a high-walled little yard full of weeds and mud and rubbish. I was taken aback, embarrassed, not to have realised that the great Annie Sheridan—Gentlewoman Adventuress to the Far East, as her poster proclaimed these days—would live in such a place as this. The first of many things we’d find we did not know about her.

And then I spotted her feet, sticking out from under a pile of old boards. I could tell they were hers because she was wearing 花盆鞋, and I had a second to wonder how she walked in them on the cobbles. And then I saw the blood, and realised what it meant, that she was out here still in her stage costume, lying beneath a pile of rubbish.

We had a choice, now. We could leave Annie here, losing her life’s blood on the pavement, secure in knowing we wouldn’t have our acts cribbed anymore, that London wouldn’t have another Chinese act to compete with ours— at least, until the next chancer came along. We could leave her to whatever fate had been assigned her, and be done.

Or, we could take her up in our hands and turn that fate aside.

In these private pages, I will admit I would have left her there. Annie was nothing to me. I didn’t even realise Lisha intended aught else until she said to me, ‘Lift those boards.’

Not a month had yet passed since that evening at the Royal Polytechnic. I could still remember Lisha’s body going taut as a bowstring in the seat next to me. Her breath shallow with anger as we watched 爸爸’s Lacquer Cabinet Trick—the pride of our father’s repertoire and his last gift to us—replicated onstage without even a gloss of adaptation. I remembered the raucous applause and Lisha rising from her seat, striding from the theatre before the curtain had even fallen. Liling and I jumped to follow, apologising to the punters whose feet we trod on.

It still stung her, I knew, a barb in Lisha’s side. So she could not just walk away when we found Annie like that. Anger made her impulsive and her love for our father, her pride in the work he had taught us, would not let the insult go unanswered— even if the one who had insulted us was dead. After all, what obstacle should death be to the three of us?

Liling, too, wanted to make a go of it, to try the madness Lisha was proposing. She wasn’t angry and didn’t yet care for Annie, but she was the youngest and craved excitement, mischief, scandal. She would get her fill of all three, by the end.

And so, even though I’d wanted to go veiled, hated the notice we’d attract dragging Annie’s body home, even in the dark and with a glamour cast over us; once Lisha was decided, I was too. 爸爸 used to caution me: are you a girl or are you a fish, following the rest of the school? It’s no cost to me to admit it, not at this late hour: I have always hung on her coattails. I’ve always paid for it, too.


Allow the audience first to see the inside of the cabinet. Its six corners are visible from within as from without. There are no hidden panels, no trapdoor, no chute. Prove to them you have nothing to hide, and they will accept whatever you present to them.

The grimoire never said what would happen, not precisely. Once the rite was finished, the cellar quiet save for our panting and the soft sounds Annie was making, Lisha seemed perfectly self-possessed, so I knew nothing had gone terribly awry. But she was breathing hard, too, making the lamen around her neck rise and fall. We were all sweating– the oil of myrrh had run down my face, stinging my left eye and making me blink. The air in the cellar under the house, which was normally so cool, had grown close and heavy with magic.

The texts, the Order, the grandmistresses who taught us, they dealt in abstracts: how alignment of the planets changed the efficacy of a rite, which deity’s will worked through which initiate-as-conduit. They were never forthcoming on gross particulars. No one ever told you the Rite of Marbas stuffs your head so full of knowledge you’re too dizzy to keep food down for days. Or that when you kill the lamb for the first Spring Rite, you feel the knife as if it’s being dragged through your own flesh and gristle.

After all there is no glamour, no mystery to a rude gush of blood, the rasp of desperate breath.

Forgive me if I ramble. I don’t have much to do these days but write. And like as not, no one but me will ever read this.

So the grimoire didn’t say what was going on in Annie’s gut, where we’d assumed the knife-wound that had killed her would begin to close. Annie’s animus was, as promised, once again resident in her earthly vessel. But that vessel wasn’t mending itself with any great speed.

Liling and I realised this at the same time, but as ever, she was quicker on the uptake. She dropped her alabaster bowl which broke on the stone flags. She hitched up her robes and darted to the dais, where Annie continued to bleed from more places than was healthy.

Lisha, still holding wand and athamé, had on a calm face, but I don’t think she’d expected so much blood. We were no strangers to it; most rites demanded a little, and even before we’d joined the Order, we encountered it every month anyways. But in the rites as we were used to them, every gesture, every piece of paraphernalia, was carefully controlled, measured down to the least grain of salt, of sand in the hourglass.

This was different: we’d gathered our materials in haste, pilfering Mother’s stocks of herbs and oils, Lisha translating on the fly. We guessed at position and timing by ready reckoning.

So the blood was not just blood. With each flutter of life that returned to Annie, the blood galloped out of her, transubstantiated. It was a manifestation of what we had done, of the choices we had made, and of their results running away from us.

Liling got Annie sitting up on the dais, shoving her hands aside from where they tried in a feeble way to cover her belly. She rent the silk of Annie’s 襖—no longer white, green, and blue but a rusty, uniform brown—to look at her wound.

That was the seed of what later grew between them, I think: Liling was the first to recognise that what we’d been treating as a corpse had become a person again.

Crouching, she gave our older sister this look over her shoulder, a look I’d never seen on her face before. A look that said, see what you’ve done?

‘Hot water!’ She hissed, ‘towels!’

I jumped to obey, pounding upstairs into the cool, bright kitchen. I swooned, gulping air like a beached fish. Going back down was like wading into dark water, and I was nearly sick: the air was thick and metallic and foul.

Only once the rite was well-and-truly ended did Lisha seem to understand the magnitude of what we had done. She became shaky and pale, her eyes darting back and forth. While I bustled around trying to make myself useful, she stared at the dais, the puddles of blood. Annie still prone, her bare foot sticking out of a fold of ruined silk.

I wonder. If the grimoire had forewarned Lisha about the smell, the lurid blood, the gurgle of Annie’s breath. If she’d known about any of the gross particulars, would she still have done it?


Bind the hands and feet of the assistant. Blindfold her.

So Annie. Annie was a mystery. Inscrutable, you might call her. Even later, once we’d come to know each other better, we’d find there were parts of herself she held back from us. She seemed to have a need, always, to keep something back. To keep a secret way open for herself. If she hadn’t, would my sisters and I be in our current straits?

Every magicienne has secrets: your method, who the plants are in your audience. Where it is, the line between your self onstage and your self in day-clothes, and how thin.

My sisters and I had more secrets than most. Our father’s legacy was written in our faces, proclaimed in our daytime profession to be seen and remarked on by all. But our mother’s gift to us, our places within the Order, the divine secrets she’d vested in each of us as we turned thirteen, that was more than sleight-of-hand. It could never be shown to an outsider– though of course Mum had made an exception for 爸爸.

So now we’d got ourselves another secret: what we’d done for Annie. To Annie. We could not let a breath of it pass from between us.

Annie had secrets too. They were like a nested set of 嵌套盒, each lid that lifted revealing another. Even among all us in the trade, no one knew where she had come from, who her people were, who’d mentored her. If she’d really done all the things she claimed. Far beyond professional discretion, these secrets; she wore each one like a piece of her gaudy costume.

And each new layer that was peeled back—it seemed to me at the time—saw her diminished. She lay now in the bed we’d made up for her, pale, mute. Her ruddy face and booming voice, her animation and the great stature that made her so imposing, all of it stripped away by death and what we’d put her through after.

We watched, waited. I sensed a tension between my sisters, caught snatches of hushed argument: even now, Lisha wanted to confront Annie, to make her answer for the insult she had given us. Extract a promise, perhaps, that she would not do so again.

Liling, I knew, though I didn’t yet understand why, wanted to wait. To let Annie recover, at least, this person whose life we had so irrevocably altered.

Whatever we did, we were responsible for her. All of a day and into the next, Annie stared at the wall or out the window or at the fire. I began to wonder if maybe the rite hadn’t gone off correctly after all. If maybe we’d left a piece of her behind, back wherever we’d pulled her out from.

I had this dreadful clenching in my stomach, thinking on it. Thinking how, if she never copied our act again because she never again took to the stage, if we couldn’t get her to speak, to eat or get out of bed, couldn’t get her to wash herself or do the necessary? What then? It was a selfish terror, but it gripped me to my marrow.

And then she spoke. She asked for two things: a bath and a shaving kit.

We dug up an old kit of 爸爸’s and some soap powder. She insisted we go from the room while she did her toilette, and we had a brief, whispered argument about whether to leave her on her own. I wasn’t sure the source of my anxiety, but it seemed possible she might do herself a mischief, re-open her wound. Something.

Liling, who’d been tending Annie, changing her bandages and the like, wanted to give her privacy. ‘She’s healing well enough. Let her alone.’

In the end, we made a compromise. We put up a screen, pretty and embroidered, that 爸爸 had brought from his final trip to Peking. We dragged hot water up the stairs, moved Mother’s zinc tub into the bedroom, and sat on the other side of the room to wait.

We waited, listening to the gentle sounds of the water. Lisha reading a treatise on the intersection of ley lines across Europe, me failing to tat lace, Liling getting up to pace now and again. Lisha’s hand kept sneaking up to tug on her hair; it did this so many times she had to comb it out and pin it all up again.

When an hour had passed and we looked in on Annie, she was just sitting there. The water cloudy, no longer steaming, a little shaving foam floating on the surface. She looked at the middle distance as if lost in thought. Or memory.

Peeking above the waterline, which reached nearly to Annie’s collarbone, was the ragged pink end of a scar. Just a glimpse of the tangle of knife-wounds that I knew must cover most of her torso. I shivered, as if I were the one sitting in cold water.

What had Annie found behind that veil we’d all pierced together? Did she believe in heaven or hell? Which did she think she had seen? Did she feel herself to have been judged?

I’ve recently started to wonder, though perhaps it is only my current circumstances making me melancholy, if we did not in fact remove her from some paradise. I never got to ask, in the end.


Help your assistant to enter the cabinet, seeing that she does not stumble. Proper ceremony is due at this stage, so the audience knows the import of what is happening. They will be watching you closely.

Annie did come back to herself, eventually. We didn’t quite understand until we brought her breakfast one morning and found her gone.

The window was open. Liling peered down at the street below, a line etched between her brows, and put voice to our thoughts:

‘What’s she gone out for? Even if she’s hale enough to run around, what if someone sees her? Whoever it was who, you know. What if she just gets– all over again?’

I’ll admit I wasn’t sure that wouldn’t be the best possible outcome. But Lisha was unnerved by Annie’s absence. 

 Perhaps it was the Order she was worried about: Mum knew—she knew everything that went on beneath her house’s roof—and we’d got away with it because Lisha was her favourite and no one had got hurt. In fact, I think it made her proud. But we had to swear to keep what we had done a secret from the rest of the Order.

Annie’s disappearance, the quantity of blood found near her house, had made the papers by now: killed by one of her creditors, they speculated. If she was seen, if she spoke to someone, who knows what she might say.

Whatever her specific worry, I could tell Lisha was uncomfortable with the risk. With a stray entity wandering around that she could not control. She went to the hall closet and retrieved her scrying bowl, a bottle of silverwater, a bundle of mugwort. Then we heard the creak of the kitchen door.

I was first downstairs. There was a stranger in the kitchen, dressed in a workingman’s hat and a rough wool jacket, such as our steward would wear. I let out a little shriek; I suppose I’d been more on edge than I realised. The intruder, who’d clearly been trying to get in undetected, whirled, one hand on the doorknob leading from the yard into the kitchen. I drew breath to scream.

‘Will you shut up! It’s me, alright?’

I stared, dumb, for a second, and then I understood. Annie had come back to us, dressed as a man.

She threw down a large soft package she’d been carrying and slumped into a chair, tossing the hat onto the kitchen table. She sighed, shaking out her mass of tawny hair.

My sisters spilled into the kitchen behind me, Liling complaining loudly,

‘What are you shouting at—?’

She stopped short, seeing Annie at the table, wearing what I realised was one of our steward’s suits of clothes.

With a slow dawning, like a veil being pulled back, I felt my thoughts become rearranged. When Annie asked us for a shaving kit, I’d assumed she’d use it for her legs, as some ladies did. But now, seeing how these men’s clothes fit her, how her shoulders filled out the jacket like it had been cut for someone with her build, her request for a shaving kit took on new meaning.

There was a long silence. Spots of high colour stood in Annie’s cheeks, but she held our gaze, as if challenging any of us to say something. She stood, picking up the brown-wrapped parcel she had brought with her, and pushed past us, climbing the stairs to her room.


We met Annie again an hour later in the downstairs back parlour, where we could not be seen from the street. She wore a deep-blue day dress: the package she had brought back. Her tawny hair spilled loose and bright over the fabric.

I could see she was much more at ease, now, attired again as a lady but also pale with exhaustion, the lingering pain of her injuries.

It was a strange meeting. We sat opposites, Annie in the chair, my sisters and I crammed onto the settee, as if Annie was a distant relation who’d dropped in for a cup of tea. Slowly, over a pot of 正山小種, she discovered to us the events of that day.

‘I needed something to wear.’

It had been no great trouble, she said, to take a steward’s uniform from the downstairs closet, nor to climb from the window before we came with breakfast. I remembered, suddenly, a newspaper article where she claimed to have scaled Kangchenjunga.

She’d gone to a dressmaker’s, posing as manservant to a lady, where she gave her own measurements and waited around while readymade garments could be tailored. She’d paid on credit, giving our address when asked where to send the bill. That made Liling snort with laughter, and an answering smile quirked Annie’s lips.

I watched Liling’s expression of innocent surprise transform into the smug superiority of a sister who’s been keeping secrets. She’d been the one to care for Annie, to change her dressings those first few days; she’d known all the while, this particular secret of Annie’s, and had kept Annie’s privacy. She’d get an earful about it from Lisha, later.

Annie seemed more comfortable than I’d have expected, revealing this part of herself to us, this secret life it seemed she had been living for many years. Perhaps it was the way we were all sitting: the three of us arranged opposite her, in the manner of an audience.

‘Why didn’t you ask to borrow something from us?’ I asked without thinking; Annie was near six feet tall, my sisters each a head shorter. I approached her in height, but was narrower in the shoulders and thicker round the middle.

Annie shrugged. ‘This way seemed simpler.’

I goggled at that, but I could understand: in our trade, one becomes used to theatrics, to subterfuge. I remembered a reputation she’d had on the European circuit for skipping out on bills by escaping through hotel windows.

What difficulty she had put herself through. What risk, to secure a cobalt-coloured day dress when she was still injured and someone out there in the world wanted her dead. I couldn’t fathom it.

I have often thought I would give it all up—the acts, the tricks, maybe even the rites—if it meant I could walk down the street and not be noticed. I could tell it was not the same for Annie. Though I knew Annie must be a name she had taken and not the one given by her mother, she was not in disguise or pretending to be anyone she was not, when she went about in ladies’ clothes. If she was conspicuous, it was because she chose to be and made her living at it: she had no wish to be or resemble anyone other than herself.

I thought of all the times I had wanted to hide my face. I contemplated all that Annie had done, the lengths she’d gone to build for herself a life without compromise. Something in that self-pride, that defiance, made me ashamed of myself. Something in her terrified me.


Close the cabinet. Secure it with locks and chain. Allow a member of the public to try the doors, and see that they are shut fast. They will not open again until this is over.

We thought long on what to do. Annie could not go home, and even Lisha did not suggest turning her out to fend for herself in the street.

Annie didn’t like the idea of reinventing herself, yet there was no way she could go anymore onstage as Annie Sheridan, not in London. But she might go back to Europe, or to America, and tour her act there. She’d written to a friend she had in Boston, asking her to make some enquiries, but so far no response had been forthcoming.  

While Lisha seemed to think Annie was holding something back just to annoy her, I was inclined to believe her when she said she had no memory of her death. It seemed to frustrate her, not knowing who’d killed her– who she ought to have been wary of but had realised too late. And though she promised not to go out again, agreed to ask us instead if anything was needful, I could tell she was uneasy, restless.

One afternoon found us in the downstairs parlour, window open to let in a green-scented breeze of spring. Lisha and I sat by the fire, going over plans I’d drawn for a new trick. A variation on Cabinet, but more intricate and—Lisha thought—harder to imitate.

Annie and Liling sat in the window playing Bezique. Every so often Liling’s foot would peek out from under her skirts to rub slowly up the side of Annie’s leg. Annie smiled down at her cards, absently cupping Liling’s ankle in her other hand before letting it go.

I wasn’t surprised; once I’d caught Liling come home late wearing another woman’s petticoat. But Lisha kept trailing off mid-sentence, resolutely avoiding looking towards the window, a slow blush creeping up her cheeks.

She’d never said anything. She kept out of Liling’s affairs– she who hoarded every secret piece of knowledge. But I knew they put her on edge, made her tense, in the same way that Annie loose in the city, an unforeseen flow of blood, made her tense.

Annie broke the hush. ‘The mirror ought to be lower down, set in the floor. Or the punters will see her feet.’

Lisha threw her papers down, a muscle standing out in her jaw. Annie’s idea was sound, and I made a note, but Lisha said,

‘I wonder, that you should be so bold as to try and instruct us.’

‘Why wouldn’t I? When I’ve nothing else to do but sit all day playing cards?’

‘You know why,’ Lisha said through gritted teeth.

Annie did. She lifted her chin, her expression mild, ‘It’s a good trick. You should be flattered.’

I could see clear as day that she was goading Lisha, but I could also see that it was working. Every pent-up thing suddenly spilled out of Lisha, roughening her voice,

‘How dare you. Flattered! You would steal from us and expect us to thank you?’

‘A thief, then, am I?’ Annie’s expression was bland as ever, but as she lifted her glass of madeira I saw her knuckles had gone white. ‘Ungrateful?’

‘Yes. You are ungrateful. After everything we’ve done for you–’

‘Everything you’ve done for me?’

Annie surged to her feet, cards falling from her lap onto the floor. Just as Lisha had been waiting for this confrontation, so too had Annie. I tried to shrink into my chair. Liling glared between the two of them, lips pressed into a line.

‘Am I some urchin,’ Annie said, ‘to be taken in off the street? Did I ask you witches to meddle in my affairs? To trap me here in this house so that I cannot go outside without abasing myself in men’s clothing?’

‘But you were dead!

‘Do you think I’ve forgot it? I never asked you to do it. To show me that– that place. And bring me back so I could remember it all my days.’

Delicate tears stood in her eyes. Liling had one hand out, as if arrested in the act of reaching for her. The high, proud colour was back in Annie’s cheeks. She visibly mastered herself, breathing through her nose,

‘I knew the danger. Still do I know it. I always knew that every day I stepped outside my door might be my last.’

Lisha was silent for a time and then, to my surprise, she nodded. Very stiff and formal, she said, ‘You’re right. Please accept my apologies.’

I did not remember ever hearing her apologise before.

Annie grimaced, awkward, as if she got apologies so rarely she didn’t know what to do with one. She cleared her throat,

‘Look. I’m not saying I’d rather be– I’m not saying I’d rather you hadn’t. And. Well. It might’ve been unsporting of me, you know, copping your trick that way.’

Lisha looked up, mouth open. Before she could say anything, accept or reject the apology, a knocking came at the streetside door.

We exchanged glances. It was evening; we were expecting no visitors. Mother was at the lodge, and, anyway, she had a key. Annie was half stood-up, still. As the knocking came again, she shrank away, putting one hand on the windowsill.

A great banging came, now, and a cry of Police!

While I stood frozen, Liling sprang up at once, moving to put herself between the door and the rest of us. We heard the front door crash open and the shriek of breaking glass. Feet thundered down the hall. Lisha scrambled towards the bookshelf where we kept a silver athamé– ornamental but better than nothing. Before she got there, uniformed policemen spilled into the room.

What could we do, then? Raise a fog to cloak ourselves? Call down a hellish wind to impede them? These things take time, preparation, and we had neither.

The coppers, five of them, spread about to surround us.

‘Lisa, Lily, and Lena Shen,’ one barked, ‘you have been accused of the murder of—’

Someone caught my arm. I shrieked, trying to pull away, but he took me round the middle and pinned my arms and dragged me kicking round the settee towards the hall.

I caught a flash of white in the gloom outside the window: the pale froth of a petticoat, caught on the stone at the top of the garden wall.

Liling screamed, ‘Annie! Annie!‘ She hurled invective at the men, voice breaking, and then at Annie. She called her all sorts of names, Annie who’d taught her those words, filthy English words, in the first place. She threw them after Annie as if to give them back to her, before lapsing into Pekingese, and finally into tears.

I watched the petticoat vanish over the wall. I imagined I could hear the fabric ripping as Annie Sheridan tore herself free of us and ran.


The swords pierce the box from all sides. There can be no escape for her.

At the trial, we came to know all that was being said about us. We stood accused of killing our rival, Annie– though they called her by a different name: a name she’d not told us and which we had not asked to know. After it had been in the paper that Annie was missing, thought dead, someone had sent a note to the police. They remembered us, this informant said, from the stalls at the Royal Polytechnic. Remembered us storming out of Annie’s show.

After they took us, the police had found our cellar, and the paraphernalia, though they didn’t twig what it was really for. And they found the blood that we could not fully scrub off the old stone floor.

The first witness who came to the stand had been macassarred and dressed in sober grey, the facsimile of a gentleman, but there was no mistaking the scar that curled his lip. He gave his name as John Sharpe, but we only knew him as the man from the alley; the man we’d seen leaving the place where we found Annie’s body.

Lisha recognised him first. She went rigid, the colour draining from her face. Her hand reached out blindly, gripping my wrist like a vice.

Sharpe—if that was in fact his name—recounted arriving at Annie’s tenement building and finding there a large quantity of blood, and one of her Chinese slippers under a pile of rubble. He described sighting the three of us in the narrow vennel, said our faces were clearly imprinted in his memory. There were not so many Oriental ladies walking around in taffeta, he said, that we could be mistaken for anyone else.

There were other “witnesses”, too: an ancient, chapped-handed laundress, who swore up and down she’d heard us chanting “in some devil’s tongue,” seen us go from the yard with blood all over us. It did not escape my notice, as she passed our bench, that the woman was wearing a brand-new lace collar. Finer than she might afford on a laundress’s wage.

We did not know who had accused us, who was paying these witnesses. Whether it was whoever had wanted Annie dead, making of us a patsy. Or one of our rivals, who’d seen an opportunity when Annie’s name landed in the broadsheets. We could not find out the whole of John Sharpe’s role either– whether, as we thought, he was Annie’s true killer. We were trapped in the dark and could find out none of it. Not without a scrying bowl and a quart of colloidal silver.

So it all came out, with a terrible inevitability, that we’d murdered Annie; sacrificed her, even, to some made-up god. They called us priestesses of dark Eastern magicks. And how could we answer that? Wasn’t it what we ourselves proclaimed on our posters? Wasn’t this what the English public, that now pointed its finger, had expected from us?

They made foul intimations, too, about what we’d done with the body, which of course could not be found. And there was the rub of the whole business: given opportunity to speak in our own defence, what could we say? We could not say we had not been in the place where Annie was knifed, because we had. We could not prove that Annie was alive and well, because we could not produce her person and had no means on hand with which to find her.

It was funny, all this “Eastern magicks” tripe: even with all the mystery and ceremony 爸爸 wound round himself, the blend of 武術 fine-tuned to the least gesture to impress an English audience, he only ever taught us a flick of the wrist, a flourish, a mirror, a light. His water bowl trick, the silk scarves, the acrobatics, the knife catching, even the trick where we decapitated Liling: it was only ever careful illusion.

There was never any blood, no violence to what he taught us; only its image. 爸爸 had been a performer. He taught us how to act, to show ourselves to best effect, how to safely wear our faces, our skins. How to be in the world.

It was Mum, our English mother, who taught us how to be outside it. How to move in the secret places. The rite, Annie, the Order: that was pure, home-grown English goety. English as eel pie; English as mud. You could take it right back to Dee, to Kelley, and keep going back to wherever they got it from before England was England.

And the cardinal rule of the Order, that has protected it these thousand years and more, is that it must remain hidden. This was a public trial. Any word that escaped our lips would fly from the room before we could catch hold of it. It would fledge in rumour and roost in the broadsheets. If the peelers thought to look elsewhere in our house or to examine more closely the books and materials they found therein, any of it might lead them back to an order of society ladies collectively named the Ordo Minervae.

Perhaps the Order could have worked some influence over the proceedings; there were glamours that could be cast, impediments laid. Even without the subtle arts, its members were married to parliamentarians, city worthies, even judges. Any of them might have laid a quiet word into the right ear.

I am sure Mother pleaded with them on our behalf. We could not know what she told them after our arrest—they won’t let her see us—and how much they found out through other means, but we heard the result.

When it came time for her to take the witness stand, Mother wept. She played the grieving widow, dressed all in black despite 爸爸 being dead eight years now. She said we were her dear girls, who never hurt anyone, and we were all she had left of her beloved Chuanli.

‘I have asked friends to help me in my extremity. Family friends,’ she said.

She was looking down at the handkerchief clenched in her hands, but I knew the words were meant for us. She said, ‘No assistance comes. We have been cast aside, and are all alone.’

So whatever her pleas, I knew what the Order’s answer had been.


The audience is listening attentively, now, but they will hear no sound of movement, no cries of pain or struggle from inside.

We each hoped, I think, that Annie would appear to save us. That some veiled figure would rise, towering, from the standing gallery, lift her veil and reveal herself with a dramatic flourish. But she did not. And just as I had been willing to leave Annie in that alleyway, I could not now blame her for doing the same to us.

Though I’d thought we had come to understand each other, Annie had told truth when she said she had not asked for any of it. What we—or Liling and I, at least—had thought might be budding friendship, I realised now was, for Annie, only ever survival.

But that did not make it easier. When the call came and went for any last witnesses, and it became clear Annie was not forthcoming, Liling wept, a groan of anguish ripping its way out of her. Lisha and I remained silent. I didn’t feel anything; not then, and not when the judge read out our sentence.

We were taken in hand to go to the prison, to wait. Before we passed through the front door leading from the courthouse into the yard, a clerk hurried up to us. He carried a dark bundle in his arms and approached the three of us as one approaches a feral animal. The bundle was three ladies’ veils: large and black, thick enough to hide our faces from the gathered public, which we could hear congregating outside.

Liling let out a single, high laugh, on the edge of a sob. When she saw the veils, Lisha looked at me, all her pride gone away; I knew she remembered what I’d asked of her, before we’d gone to see Annie. What she’d refused.

I felt it, then. The surge of anger or grief I had been waiting for during the trial, or perhaps for my whole life. It made me shake all over, rose up in me like hot bile in my throat. I took the veil from his hands, this clerk. I dropped it. I stamped it underfoot.

It was too bright to see for a moment, outside, but we could hear the cries and insults they hurled at us. They called us names they’d invented just for people like us.

Lisha kept her eyes on the gate at the far end of the yard. Liling traded insults with the crowd, spitting at them when they spat at us. A rock hit her on the shoulder and she bent and picked it up and threw it back into the crowd, reached down to find another. A guard came up and shook her to make her stop.

I watched them. I looked at each person I passed, and I saw their anger, suspicion and fear. I wondered if, when the moment had come, Annie had been able to see the face of her killer.


We’re nearly at the end of the trick. Now, all is still.

So here I sit. Lisha says it is Monday. A gaoler told me hangings take place, always, on a Wednesday. I do not know if this is true; perhaps she was only trying to frighten me. Whether it happens on Wednesday or not, I am frightened.

I’ve come to understand something, writing all this. Perhaps, it is like to whatever Annie came to understand as the life was draining out of her under that pile of rubbish. About the delicacy of the threads that hold us to the life we know.

I had believed we’d made a choice in that yard: leave Annie behind or save her. Work that ritual and defy the hand of fate. But that didn’t matter, just as it didn’t matter who’d denounced us, in the end.

There was no choice to be had. Everything had already been decided the moment John Sharpe saw our faces– and before that, all the way back when we were born, looking the way we do. It was all decided in advance. Nothing we could have done would have changed it.

I hear footsteps. A jangle like a bunch of keys. My hand shakes but I keep writing. I feel I must reach some conclusion, but I have none.

The gaoler at our door is tall, taller than the one who shut us in here. Like a granite obelisk in her grey woolen shift. The key in her hand rattles the lock.

If it is time, I hope these pages aren’t burned or thrown on the midden. But I don’t have much hope. And even if they are saved, who here might read them?

But— but it is black outside our tiny window. I have never been to a hanging but I know they are conducted in the light of day.

She steps into our cell, into the light of the single candle we have been permitted. One of my sisters gasps beside me. I rise to stand as Annie Sheridan says to us,

‘Alright then. Up you get, now.’

Open the cabinet. Allow your audience to see: she has disappeared.

Author’s note: This story was inspired in part by the historical rivalry between the Victorian stage magicians Ching Ling Foo and Chung Ling Soo.


Copyright 2024 Eris Young

About the Author

Eris Young

Eris Young is a transgender writer of speculative fiction. Their work has appeared in publications including Escape Pod, Small Wonders, and the Immigrant Sci Fi Short Stories anthology from Flame Tree Press. They are the fiction editor at Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s science fiction magazine.

Find more by Eris Young

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