They had sat numbly in the car, speaking only to rage, sob, or – in Abi’s case – to offer plan after plan of how she was going to get Luke’s assignment to Millmoor overturned. Dad was quiet, and Mum made the driver pull over while she checked him for concussion.
Her reassuring verdict calmed Daisy down, and allowed Abi to focus on her brother. For the remainder of the journey, Luke was the sole thought in her head. Until they reached the wall.
‘That’s Kyneston on the left now,’ said the Labour Allocation Bureau woman at the wheel. She had been morning’s disaster. ‘It’s the oldest and the longest wall in the country: eight million bricks. Most of the Equals didn’t bother enclosing everything, just the house and immediate grounds. But not the Parva-Jardines. They did the woods, the whole lot. You see it?’ Despite herself, Abi’s attention shifted.
She buzzed down the car window, as if that would somehow bring her closer to the ribbon of brick that wound around the lush green fields, wrapping up England’s landscape like a present – to be opened by the Equals only. ‘It’s not very high,’ she said in surprise. ‘I always thought the walls would be much taller than that. It doesn’t look like it could keep deer in, let alone slaves.’
The woman gave a short, barking laugh, as if she’d told a good joke. ‘It keeps them in all right. But it’s not the bricks that take care of that. Not even the Equals themselves can get into or out of that place, except when the Young Master lets them.’
‘The Young Master?’
That must be the youngest Jardine son: Silyen. Abi knew that Skill was woven into most of the estate walls – a legacy of Black Billy’s Revolt of 1802. That had begun when a blacksmith led an army of labourers against their lords at Ide, and ended with the smith being tortured to death using monstrous implements he had first been Skillfully compelled to forge. Immediately after, the Equals had begun raising walls around their estates. It was said that some of the most powerful families additionally had gatekeepers, to maintain the centuries-old layers of defensive Skill. And the Jardines were the most powerful of all – the Founding Family. Were the gatekeeper stories true? And if they were, Silyen Jardine – just seventeen years old – was surely an odd choice for such a responsibility. A bit like entrusting Luke with the sole key to the house, Abi thought, only to feel the sharp stab of her brother’s strange one, even among them lot.
Never seen in a car; goes everywhere on horseback.’
Abi flushed. She caught the woman’s eye in the rearview mirror and saw something unexpected there: concern.
‘No, don’t you get interested in any of them. That’s the only safe way for folks like us. You see nothing, you hear nothing, and you do your job. People see these estates as a soft option, but I’ve heard stories that’d freeze your blood. When my time comes, Millmoor will be good enough for me, among my own kind.’
Abi sat back in her seat, cross and embarrassed. Who in their right mind would prefer a slavetown to this lush, open countryside? The air on her face through the open car window was fresh and sweet. No, she’d made the right choice in getting her family to Kyneston, she was sure of it. And she’d ensure Luke made it here, too.
The car’s wheels crunched over stones as it pulled onto the side of the road. There was nothing special about the spot, just more road and wall, same as there had been for the past ten minutes. Kyneston Estate must be huge.
‘Here we are,’ the LAB woman said. ‘Out you hop, and good luck. We’re half an hour early, but I could use the head start to get back up north. I’m sure that after all the effort you made to get here, you wouldn’t be thinking of disappearing.’
‘But there’s nothing here,’ said Abi. ‘What are we supposed to do, just wait? Will someone come and get us?’
‘I don’t know any more than you do, love. My instructions were to get the four of you here for 4 p.m. This is the spot. The GPS says so.’
‘Well, the GPS must be wrong.’ But the woman was having none of it. She was back hauling out their bags.
‘Have a quick ten years,’ the driver said. Then she closed the vehicle windows so quickly you’d think the air was poisoned. Gravel flew from beneath the tyres as the car turned and sped off.
Mum slumped down on the small heap of their possessions, the fight temporarily gone out of her. Dad stood beside her, staring into the distance, still smarting with humiliation and impotence at his failure to rescue his son. At least Abi hoped that was it, rather than delayed concussion. Either way, they had both better snap out of it soon, or the Jardines would take one look and send the lot of them to Millmoor to join Luke. Daisy settled into the clipped grass verge, making a chain of her namesake flower. Abi told her not to wander into the road, and got a do-you-think-I’m-stupid look for her pains. Checking her watch, she decided there’d be time for a brief exploration.
Ten minutes to jog in the direction they’d been travelling, with the same time to get back, still gave her ten minutes’ grace before 4 p.m. It proved an unrewarding exercise. The wall continued, low and featureless, exactly like the section they’d driven along. When it was time to turn, she paused to inspect the brickwork and was startled to discover that it gave off a faint radiance. It was barely perceptible in sunlight, but at night the wall would glow.
Abi worked up the courage to touch it. Her hand recoiled of its own accord – she’d been expecting something like an electric shock, she realized, but nothing had happened. Bolder, she brushed her fingers against the old mottled brickwork. But the wall appeared to be perfectly normal, apart from the dim luminescence. Was that Skill? Abi wondered if she could climb over, but this probably wasn’t the best moment to attempt it. She made it back to her family with time to spare, relieved to see that her parents were finally making some kind of small talk.
The remaining minutes were spent helping Daisy with her flower chain. Abi looped it round her sister’s neck. Let their new masters see she was only a little kid and should be treated as such.
‘Horses!’ said Daisy, hearing the muffled clop of shod hooves and eagerly looking up and down the road.
‘Not here,’ said Abi. ‘They’re on grass, on the other side of the wall. It must be someone coming.’ Was it the Young Master, who went everywhere on horseback? She climbed to her feet and the four of them stood together, facing the wall. Which is stupid, thought Abi, because there’s nothing there apart from solid bricks. Unless they’re going to blast a hole in it – or fly over. But she couldn’t make herself smile at the ludicrous image because the truth was she had no idea what the Equals could do. Nobody did.
You just saw them on the TV or the internet, or in celebrity magazines. They looked like everyone else, to be honest. Groomed and gorgeous, of course, but all that took was money, not Skill. Information on the Equals’ true abilities just didn’t exist. Apart from the famous stories of the Equal Revolution – Lycus the Regicide’s unnatural killing of King Charles, and Cadmus Parva-Jardine’s Great Demonstration when he built the House of Light – History textbooks banged on about affairs of state, not Skill.
In her favourite novels, hot male Equals blew up Ferraris and mind-controlled bad guys, but Abi was hardly going to put much store by their accuracy. The best clues were news reports from the handful of countries that, like Great Britain, were ruled by the Skilled. Such as Japan, where the entire country’s cherry trees burst into blossom in a single instant every spring, in a public display of the Imperial Family’s power. In the Philippines, were Britain’s Equals capable of? Abi wasn’t sure. But she was about to find out. A mixture of excitement and apprehension closed up her throat.
This was what she’d postponed her future to discover. Could it possibly be worth it? Then it happened almost too fast for astonishment. Daisy squealed. Directly in front of the Hadleys a gate appeared. The ornamental ironwork was a gilded riot of cleverly wrought birds and flowers. It reared up to twice the height of the wall and gleamed with a strange, intense light. Through its elegant, open tracery, two male figures on horseback were now visible.
With a start, Abi realized that they were both close to her own age. One wore a navy-blue cable-knit jumper and sat upright on a beautiful chestnut horse. His hair was the same rich russet – the famous Jardine colouring – and his face was open and handsome. The other horse was an unremarkable, all-black animal. Its rider sported muddy black jeans and creased tan riding boots. His jacket lapel was ripped and flapped loose. Surely the redhead was the Young Master, and the other a favoured slave, perhaps a groom. But the black horse’s rider was the first to urge his mount towards them. He flicked his fingers carelessly and the massive gates began to swing open. The two horsemen passed beneath the entwined initials that surmounted the arch: the Parva-Jardine family monogram.
It seemed to Abi that the top of the P tenderly kissed the J, and the curve of the J embraced the P. The scruffy young rider swung a leg over his saddle and dropped lightly to the ground. He handed up the reins to his companion and walked to where the Hadleys stood. Abi felt the power crackle off him like static, lifting the hairs along her arms and neck, and knew instantly that she’d got it all wrong. This boy, not the other, was the Young Master. He didn’t look much. Around the same age as Luke, he was taller than her brother, but skinnier. Badly in need of a haircut. But dread squeezed Abi’s insides as he approached. He stopped in front of her father. Dad opened and closed his mouth in silence, clearly unnerved. The boy reached out a hand and touched Dad’s shoulder. It looked like the gentlest of gestures, but Steve Hadley crumpled slightly as if he’d been winded, and a soft groan escaped his mouth. The Young Master’s expression was almost bored, but beneath the mess of hair Abi saw his eyes narrow in concentration. What was he doing?
Daisy stood next in their makeshift line. Abi felt proud of her little sister’s fearlessness as the boy brought his hand down even more lightly, and Daisy blinked and swayed like a flower in the breeze. Mum, when touched, merely ducked her head and winced. Then Silyen Jardine stood before Abi, and she swallowed as he reached out . . . . . . and it was like the giddy pull of standing in a high place and looking down; like the queasy surge of terror after shoplifting just that once for a dare.
It was the millisecond after downing an unwise triple shot of Sambuca on her eighteenth birthday; the stunned joy of opening her exam results in the kitchen that day, before she remembered she’d be doing her days, not going to uni. Her heart raced madly – then stopped, for just an instant. She was suddenly cold to her core, and felt naked in a way that had nothing to do with clothes. It was as though something had carefully turned her inside out and inspected everything she contained. Then, finding nothing of use or interest, had put her back exactly the way she had been – to outward appearances, at any rate. When the boy’s hand lifted from her shoulder Abi shuddered and thought she might be sick.
The Young Master was already back in the saddle, exchanging brief words with the second horseman before kicking into a canter away through the gate. Abi wasn’t sorry to see him go. The labour bureau woman’s words came back to her, about her preference for her ‘own kind’. Neither Abi nor her family were among their own kind any more. The second rider came towards them, leading his glossy chestnut horse.
‘You must be the Hadleys,’ he said with a smile. ‘I’m Jenner Jardine. You’re very welcome to my family’s estate.’
‘Are you nicer than that other one?’ asked Daisy. Abi wanted the ground to swallow her up, even as her mother’s face blanched.
But astonishingly, the young man before them simply laughed. ‘I try to be,’ he said. ‘And I’m sorry for what you just experienced. It’s unpleasant, but necessary. I do ask Silyen to at least warn people, but he never does. He says he finds their reactions interesting.’
‘It was horrid,’ said Daisy. ‘Why don’t you do it, then maybe it wouldn’t be so bad?’ Abi wanted to put her hands over her sister’s mouth before anything even more ill-advised came out.
‘I can’t,’ was the unexpected response. ‘I mean, none of us could do it quite like Silyen, but I can’t do it at all. I possess as much Skill as you do, Daisy Hadley. I presume you are Daisy,’ he added gallantly, ‘unless you are Abigail, and a little on the small side for your age, while this tall young Daisy here . . .’
Jenner Jardine turned to Abi, while Daisy spluttered and giggled and assured him that no, no, he had them the right way round. Abi had been going to apologize to the Kyneston scion for Daisy’s big gob. And she had intended to ask him what he meant about having no Skill, because they all had Skill, all the Equals.
But her words died behind her lips when she looked at Jenner Jardine. Not from a distance on his horse, or with one eye on her indiscreet little sis, but properly at him. He had warm brown eyes and coppery hair. His face was dusted all over with freckles, and though his mouth was wider than usual in a man, it was balanced by strong cheekbones. Abi took in all these details, yet none of them really registered. She felt giddy again. Felt naked again. But none of it was due to Skill. And it didn’t leave her cold. No, not cold at all. Jenner was looking at her oddly, and Abigail realised she had been staring. Her cheeks scorched. or rejected as useless. Her humiliation burned away in a flare of anger and guilt about her little brother. It was Abi’s carefully crafted plan that had exposed Luke to the pitiless judgement of the Jardines. His banishment to Millmoor was all her fault. She shook her head, dizzied by the force of this realisation.
‘Are you all right?’ There was a firm hand grasping her elbow. Jenner. Then an arm around her shoulder. Her father. The hand let go.
‘Skill can affect people sometimes,’ Jenner said. ‘If you’ve never been exposed to it, you need to acclimatise. It’s strongest with Silyen around, but you might feel it again when my father and older brother return from London. Let’s get you all to your cottage. I’ve put you over in the Row; you’ll like it.’ Jenner led the way. He didn’t get back on his horse, but walked alongside them.
Dad hefted his and Abi’s bags onto his shoulders, while Mum swung hers and Daisy’s, one in each hand. Daisy scampered back and forth, admiring the horse and peppering Jenner with questions about it. Abi walked by herself, off to one side, trying to make sense of everything that was roiling through her.
‘Oh!’ Daisy’s exclamation was so loud that the small group stopped, alarmed. ‘Look,’ she said, pointing back the way they had come. ‘It’s gone. Is it invisible?’ Where the shining gate had been was a single, unbroken expanse of wall. The Hadleys stared.
‘You were right with “gone”,’ Jenner said, coaxing his horse to a stop. ‘The gate only exists when one of my family calls it into being, and it can be summoned anywhere along the wall. That’s why there’s no driveway and no roads inside the estate. It’s also why my father keeps busting the suspension on the classic cars he loves so much, and why Sil and I prefer to get around on horseback. Gavar takes his motorbike. It can only be opened by Skill, though. That’s why just now . . .’ He trailed off.
‘Why are you telling us?’ said Abi. ‘Isn’t that sort of stuff, I don’t know, a state secret or something?’
Jenner fiddled with his horse’s bridle, pausing before replying. ‘Kyneston isn’t always an easy place to be. Sometimes people think about trying to leave.’ He turned to Abi. ‘My brother told me that before we arrived, when you were still on the other side, you did a bit of exploring. No, don’t worry’ – for panic had wrapped its fingers tightly round Abi’s throat and squeezed – ‘you didn’t do anything wrong. But just . . . try not to be too interested in things. It’s easier that way.’
He sounded subdued, and Abi suspected he wasn’t talking generally, but recalling something specific and distressing. Was it ridiculous of her to want to comfort him? It was ridiculous.
‘Try not to be too interested?’ she said, a touch sharply. ‘Isn’t your family motto “ Sapere aude” , “Dare to know”?’
‘Trust me,’ Jenner said, those brown eyes on hers. ‘There are some things it’s better not to know.’ He turned away, and they all walked on in silence.
It was around a quarter of an hour later – Abi could see from Daisy’s face that she was about to do the ‘Are we there yet?’ thing – when the ground sloped upwards to a small rise. And as they crested the top, what she saw stole her breath. Kyneston. She’d seen pictures of it, of course: in books, on the TV and online. Seat of the Founding Family. Once the home of Cadmus Parva-Jardine, Cadmus the Pure-in-Heart, peacemaker and chief architect of the Slavedays Compact. The pre-Revolutionary part of Kyneston was built of pale, honeyed stone. Three storeys high with soaring windows, it was topped with a small dome and edged with a parapet crowded with statuary. But the rest of it shone almost too brightly to bear. From the main body of the house, two great glass wings stretched out, each as wide again as the original frontage. These had been Skill-forged by Cadmus, just as he had raised the House of Light, seat of the Equals’ parliament. In the low afternoon sunshine, the two wings were like greenhouses filled with exotic blooms of fire and light. Abi first shaded her eyes then had to look away entirely.
‘It’s beautiful,’ said Daisy. ‘And very shiny. Do you live there?’
‘Yes,’ said Jenner Jardine. ‘It is, and I do.’ He was smiling, genuinely pleased at Daisy’s pleasure. He loves this place, Abi realised. Although if what he had said about the gate and his lack of Skill was true, he was as much a prisoner here as they were.
‘Look,’ said the young Equal, directing Daisy’s gaze to a petite female figure appearing from behind a topiary hedge. ‘There’s my mother, Lady Thalia. She and I look after the house and grounds. She does everything Skillful, and I take care of the rest.’
‘And who’s that?’ asked Daisy, as a second person appeared. Then she gasped, a hurt, shocked little sound that made Abi fleetingly wonder if Jenner had pinched her. Abi glanced at where Daisy was looking, at the second figure now emerging from the hedge-line. It was another woman, her hair a steely coif, her shoulders mantled in what looked like dozens of fox furs. A leash was wrapped around one gloved hand. And at the end of that leash, crouched on all fours and naked, was a man.