Early September sunlight streamed through the oriel window of Kyneston’s Small Solar, throwing a thick golden cloth over the breakfast table. It turned the silverware arrayed in front of Silyen Jardine into a constellation of stars. The fruit bowl in the centre, a dazzling sun, was piled high with pears. They were freshly cut from the trees in Aunt Euterpe’s garden. He pulled the dish towards him and selected a russet-and-green specimen.
With a sharp, ivory-handled knife he cut into the pear. It was ripe and he watched the juice bleed out onto the plate before wiping his fingers. Before he even reached for his coffee cup, the footman who stood one pace behind and to his left was pouring a steaming black stream into it from a burnished pot.
Gavar, his eldest brother, may once have blacked a house-slave’s eye for bringing him burnt toast, but the staff were quickest of all to serve the Young Master. Silyen found this fact gratifying. That it incensed Gavar was a bonus.
As usual, however, Silyen and his mother, Lady Thalia, were the only people in the Small Solar at this hour. As was also customary, there were at least half a dozen slaves going to and fro with the breakfast things. He watched them absently.
So much bustle, all of it so unnecessary. And today Mama was adding yet more to their number. ‘An entire family?’ he said, sensing that some comment was expected of him. ‘Really?’ Staffing was Jenner’s domain. Their mother believed it was important to give his middle brother a sense of usefulness and value within the family. Silyen suspected that Jenner knew all too well how his family truly regarded him. He’d have to be stupid not to, as well as Skilless.
Across the table, Mama was nibbling a brioche as she leafed through some sheets bearing the Labour Allocation Bureau letterhead. ‘The woman is the reason the bureau sent us their papers. She’s a nurse with extensive experience of long-term care, so she’ll take over looking after your aunt. The man is handy with vehicles and restores classic cars, so he can fix up some of those wrecks your father and Gavar insist on collecting. And they’re just starting their days, not coming from one of the slavetowns, so they won’t’ – she paused, searching for the right phrase – ‘won’t have picked up any faulty notions.’ ‘Won’t have learned to hate us, you mean.’
Silyen looked at his mother with dark eyes just like hers, from under the dark curling hair that was also characteristic of his maternal ancestors, the Parvas. ‘You said it was a family, so what about the children?’
Lady Thalia waved dismissively, causing one of the maids to step forward for instructions before realizing her mistake and stepping back again. The slaves that trailed around after the Jardines performed this tiresome dance of servility many times daily.
‘Well, there’s a clever girl of eighteen. Jenner’s been asking for extra help in the Family Office, so I’m assigning her to him.’
‘Eighteen? Are you going to tell them what happened to the last girl who came to Kyneston at and their father, Whittam. But the child had no other privileges of blood.
‘I’m thinking these nice people could look after it,’ his mother continued. Ordinarily, Silyen took a lively interest in his eldest brother’s illegitimate child. Though slave-born bastards weren’t unheard of among the great families, they were usually cast out along with the offending mother.
Fortunately, Leah’s death had prevented that from happening with little Libby, giving Silyen the opportunity to study her at close quarters. As the child wasn’t born to two Equal parents, the laws of heredity deemed she would be Skilless. But you never knew. Silyen was intrigued by what had happened at the gate the night Leah had tried to run. And curious things had happened at Kyneston before – like Jenner’s lack of Skill, despite his parents’ impeccable pedigree.
Libby’s childcare arrangements, however, interested Silyen rather less. He had other things on his mind today. Soon, the Chancellor would arrive at Kyneston: Winterbourne Zelston himself.
Zelston was coming to visit Mama’s sister, to whom he had been engaged in their youth. They still were engaged, presumably, as Zelston was both too in love and too guilty to break it off. But Aunt Euterpe was in no position to walk down the aisle. For the last twenty-five years she had been in no position to do anything at all, apart from breathe and sleep. Well, Silyen had some news about that to share. Zelston would find this visit memorable. Impatience burned within him. His leg was jiggling beneath the table and he pressed his palm down on his knee to still it.
On days like this Silyen could feel his Skill thrumming through him, seeking an outlet. Channelling Skill was akin to playing the violin. That moment when the strings’ vibrations burst forth as music: exquisite, irresistible music. He ached to use it. He didn’t understand how his family could go through life seemingly untroubled by this constant need. Did not understand how Jenner, without Skill, could bear to live at all.
‘They look like honest, dependable people,’ Mother was saying, dabbing crumbs from her mouth without smearing her lipstick. ‘They arrive around four o’clock, so you’ll be needed. Jenner will get them settled in. Here, take a look.’ She slid a photograph across the polished walnut expanse of the breakfast table.
It showed five people on a windswept English beach. A middle-aged man with receding hair and a proud smile had his arm around a trim woman in a zip-up top. In front of them stood a small girl, freckled and pulling a face at the camera. Flanking the trio were two older children. There was a tall girl with long sandy hair twisted into a plait, caught in the act of deciding whether or not to smile, and a blond boy, embarrassed and grinning. The older girl didn’t look like Gavar’s type, which was a relief. The boy earned a second glance. He appeared to be around Silyen’s age, which raised interesting possibilities.
‘How old is the son?’
‘Nearly seventeen, I think. But he’s not coming. I simply couldn’t think of a thing he could usefully do. And, you know, boys of that age can be so difficult and disruptive. Not you, though, my darling. Never you.’ Lady Thalia raised her tiny teacup in a salute to her favourite son – albeit there wasn’t much competition.
Silyen smiled back serenely. It was frustrating, though, that the boy was not coming. Perhaps one of his sisters would prove suitable instead. ‘I can’t imagine there’s anything the youngest can usefully do either.’
‘I quite agree. But Jenner insisted. He wanted the whole family, said we couldn’t split up parents and children. So I met him halfway and said we’d take the little girl, but not the boy. He still wasn’t happy, but he knows my word is final. I worry that because of the way he is, he identifies overly much with these sorts of people. It’s not something your father and I wish to encourage.’
Jenner’s unfortunate deficiency and his inappropriate sympathy for the commoners was another well-worn topic of conversation, so Silyen transferred his attention back to the pear on his plate.
Its dissection was almost complete when the doorbell jangled from the hallway beyond, horribly echoed by a strangled howl. Great-Aunt Hypatia must have brought her pet. As Silyen listened, the howl gave way to low whining. It would be a mercy to kill the creature one of these days – though it might be more amusing to set it free.
‘That’ll be the Chancellor and your great-aunt,’ said Lady Thalia, quickly checking her appearance in a silver cream jug before rising. ‘Your father’s got her down to talk about Gavar’s wedding. When she heard Winterbourne was coming here too, she invited herself into his state car for the journey. Only Hypatia would inveigle a lift from the most powerful man in the land.’ Their visitors waited just inside Kyneston’s carved oak door. Chancellor Winterbourne Zelston cut a stately figure, while Great-Aunt Hypatia was resplendent in fox furs, every one from an animal she’d hunted herself. A third filthy shape lay between them, its thin sides heaving. It scratched occasionally, as if at fleas, though more likely at the sores that badged its protruding ribs. Its nails were untrimmed and curled under, scrabbling against the smooth flagstones.
‘Lord Chancellor,’ Lady Thalia said, dropping a curtsey.
As the Chancellor nodded acknowledgement, sunlight from the vast windows of the Great Hall caught the beads ornamenting the neat cornrows of his hair, casting bright spangles across Kyneston’s walls.
Silyen suspected the man had long cultivated the art of positioning himself for such effects.
Zelston clasped Lady Thalia’s hand, platinum rings gleaming on his dark fingers. An immaculate starched white cuff peeped out beneath the rich black fabric of his coat. His dress suggested a man of absolutes.
But his politics were less clear-cut. Father, the previous incumbent of the Chancellor’s Chair, would issue frequent dinner-table diatribes on its current occupant’s shortcomings.
‘It’s an honour to be back at Kyneston,’ Zelston murmured. ‘I regret that parliamentary business has kept me away so long. I have missed my visits.’
‘And my sister Euterpe has missed you,’Mama replied. ‘I am sure of it, though we cannot truly know. Please do go through to her.’
The Chancellor wasted no time. He issued a clipped ‘Good day’ to Great-Aunt Hypatia, then strode towards the inner recesses of the house. Silyen pushed off from the wall to follow him, stepping carefully over the quivering creature. He gave his great-aunt her customary greeting, which is to say none at all. The Chancellor needed no directions as they passed through the wide passageway lined with Jardine and Parva family portraits. He had been visiting Kyneston since before Silyen was born.
At the end of the passage were two doors. The left revealed a plainly painted room containing an ebony piano, a spinet, and shelves packed with scores. Silyen’s music room, where he practised rather more than music. Zelston, of course, ignored it. He reached for the familiar handle of the second, closed door then paused and turned. Against his dark skin, the man’s eyes appeared bloodshot. Had he wept.
Beyond was the orchard. Pear trees were espaliered against the red-brick wall, limbs spread as carefully as those of a knife-thrower’s assistant. A side table held an array of bottles and a porcelain ewer and basin. Beside the table was a single straight-backed chair.
Zelston lowered himself heavily into it, as if his body were the most burdensome thing in the world. The covers were drawn up to the sleeper’s chest, and one night gowned arm lay on top of the bed covers. As Silyen watched, the Chancellor seized the exposed pale hand between both of his and held it tighter than any nurse would have permitted.
‘You received my letter, then,’ he told Zelston’s bowed head. ‘You know what I’m offering. And you know my price.’
‘Your price is too high,’ the Chancellor replied, not releasing Aunt Euterpe’s hand. ‘We have nothing to discuss.’ The man’s vehemence told Silyen everything he needed to know.
‘Oh please,’ he said mildly, walking round the bed to stand in Zelston’s line of sight. ‘There’s nothing you wouldn’t give for this, and we both know it.’
‘It’d cost me my position,’ said the Chancellor, condescending to meet Silyen’s gaze. ‘Did your father put you up to this? He can’t take the Chancellorship a second time, you know.’
Silyen shrugged. ‘Which is the greater tragedy: a lost career or a lost love? You strike me as a better man than that. I’m sure my aunt thought so.’ The room was still. The only sound was a buzzing, then the audible knock of a pollen-drugged bee against the windowpane.
‘She’s lain like this for twenty-five years,’ said Zelston. ‘Since the day Orpen Mote burned to the ground. I’ve tried to bring her out of it; your mother has tried, and even your father. Those most Skilled at mind work have attempted it, and failed. And you stand there, a seventeen-year-old boy, and tell me that you can do it. Why should I believe you?’
‘Because I’ve been where she is. All I need do is lead her back.’
‘And where is she?’
‘You know that.’ Silyen smiled. It was his mother’s smile – which meant that it was Aunt Euterpe’s, too, given the close family resemblance. Zelston must hate that. ‘She’s right where you left her.’
Zelston surged from the chair, which fell to the ground with a bang loud enough to wake the dead – though not, of course, the woman in the bed. He grabbed the worn velvet lapels of Silyen’s riding jacket, which was an unanticipated development. Silyen heard the fabric tear. He was overdue a new jacket anyway. The Chancellor’s breath was hot on his face. ‘You are vile,’ the man spat. ‘The monstrous child of a monstrous father.’ Zelston thrust Silyen back against the casement, and the rattle of his skull hitting the leaded glass sent birds startling from the trees.
‘I’m the only one who can give you your heart’s desire,’ said Silyen, annoyed at how reedy his voice sounded, though a man’s fist around your windpipe would do that. ‘And I don’t ask for much in return.’ The Chancellor made a noise of revulsion and released his grip. As Silyen straightened his ripped collar with dignity, the older man spoke. ‘The Chancellor’s Proposal allows me, each year, to set one new law before our parliament for discussion at the three Great Debates. And you ask that this year, I abuse that prerogative by proposing the abolition of the slave days, the foundation of our country’s social order. I know that a handful among our Equals believe that the days are somehow wrong, and not merely the natural order of things. But I would never have thought you one of them. ‘You must know that such a Proposal would never pass. Not even your own father and brother would vote for it. Them least of all. And such a Proposal wouldn’t merely ruin me – it risks ruining the country. If word gets out to the commoners, who knows what might happen? It could shatter Britain’s peace. ‘I will give you anything within my power. I can have one of the childless appoint you their heir. As heir of an estate, then lord, you’d have a seat of your own in parliament and a shot at the Chancellorship one day – something you’ll never achieve as Lord Jardine’s third son. But this makes no sense. No sense at all.’
Silyen looked at the man in front of him. Zelston’s dark face was shiny with sweat, his immaculate white silk cravat askew. It was remarkable how much emotion the Chancellor was displaying.
Was that a politician’s habit, all for show? Or were some people really subject to such constant storms of feeling? Gavar was, Silyen supposed. It must be exhausting. He gestured to the overturned chair by the bedside and it flipped back onto four legs.
Gratifyingly, Zelston took the cue and sat down. The Chancellor bowed his head and ran his fingers along his knotted braids. His posture suggested prayer. Though praying for what, or to whom, Silyen couldn’t imagine.
‘Here’s a question for you, Chancellor: what is Skill?’ He knew that Zelston had been a lawyer. This was before his elder sister’s early death elevated him from spare to heir, at which point an unsuspected political ambition revealed itself. Lawyers liked questions – and even more, they liked supplying smart answers. Zelston looked up warily from between his fingers and obliged. He used the taxonomy devised by scholars centuries ago.
‘It’s an ability, origin unknown, manifesting in a very small fraction of the population and passed down through our bloodlines. Some talents are universal, such as restoration – that is, healing. Others, such as alteration, persuasion, perception and infliction, manifest in differing degrees from person to person.’ ‘Magic, you could say?’ Silyen offered.
He watched the Chancellor wince. It was an unfashionable word, but Silyen thought it a good one. How dry and ill-defined those traditional categories were. Skill was not a parcelling-up of small talents. It was a radiance that lit the veins of every Equal. But he needed to speak to the Chancellor in a language the man understood: that of politics.
‘Perhaps you could say that Skill is what separates us’ – he pointed to himself and Zelston – ‘from them.’ He indicated the window, beyond which two garden slaves were grumbling about apple weevils. ‘But tell me this: when was the last time you used your Skill, beyond healing a paper cut when opening a letter, or exercising a little persuasion in political matters? When did you last use your Skill to actually do anything?’
‘We have slaves to do things,’ Zelston said dismissively. ‘The whole purpose of the slave days is to free us to govern. And you want to dismantle this system?’
‘But many countries are governed by commoners: France, where the people rose up against the Skilled aristocracy and slaughtered them in the streets of Paris. Or China, where our kind retired to mountain monasteries long ago. Or the Union States of America, which deems us enemy aliens and bars us from their ‘Land of the Free’, though their cousins in the Confederate States live as we do. Government is not what defines us, Chancellor. Nor is power. Nor wealth. Skill is what defines us. The slave days have made us forget that.’
Zelston stared at him, then rubbed his eyes. He showed all the signs of a man about to give in. Despite his fine words about the country’s peace, he was going to toss it all away for a chance to regain the lost love of his youth. It was almost admirable, if one were inclined to admire such things. Silyen was not.
‘And you think this Proposal will somehow remind us?’
‘I think it will help,’ Silyen said. Which was true, as far as it went.
Zelston let his hooded gaze drop to Aunt Euterpe’s face, then reached out and stroked her hair.
‘Very well. I will lay this Proposal before parliament. We will debate it at Esterby Castle, and then at Grendelsham. And when the Third Debate comes to Kyneston in the spring, you will keep your side of the bargain. Euterpe will be restored to me before I call the vote. Which will go against you. Now get out of my sight.’
Silyen dropped a shallow bow and couldn’t resist a taunting knock of boot heels as he came to attention. He turned before he left the room: ‘Oh, milord Chancellor? You couldn’t have laid a finger on me just now, if I had not permitted it.’ He shut the door behind him.
Silyen went into the adjacent music room. Only the piano would suffice right now – would be big enough and loud enough to drown out just a little of the endless roar of his Skill inside him. He folded back the instrument lid. As he poised his fingers over the keyboard he heard, in the next room, Chancellor Winterbourne Zelston begin to cry.