The House of Light – or the New Palace of Westminster, seat of the Parliament of Equals – was four centuries old. Yet it stood as ageless and unblemished as the day it was made.
As their chauffeured Rolls pulled in beneath the Last King’s Gate, Bouda Matravers craned past her papa’s ample form to admire it. Its crenellated spires were as lofty as a French cathedral and its gilded roof glittered like a Russian palace. But only those familiar with it noticed these details. Tourists and field-tripping students gawped at the House’s walls, each a sheer and seamless expanse of glass.
Inside was the debating chamber that housed eight tiered ranks of twinned seats, 400 in total. Here the lord or lady of each estate sat, with their heir beside them. Bouda was one of those heirs. But no one on the outside peering in would ever see them.
That was because the House of Light’s windows looked onto a different place entirely: a shining world, in which nothing could be clearly distinguished. The more curious fact – witnessed only by the Equal parliamentarians and the dozen commoner parliamentary observers permitted to enter the chamber – was that the view through the windows was exactly the same on the inside. On whichever side of the glass you stood, that eerie, incandescent realm lay on the other.
Cadmus Parva-Jardine had known what he was doing when he Skillfully raised up this building from nothing on that day in 1642, Bouda thought, as she swung her – a show of strength. But Bouda knew it to be far more than that. The House of Light demonstrated the glory, the justice, and the sublime inevitability of Equal rule.
Nothing expressed that rule better than today’s special date in the parliamentary calendar. Excitement fluttered within her as she steered her father, Lord Lytchett Matravers, inside the House and through spacious corridors hung with red silk. Papa was unsteady on his feet. Her sister Dina had put him on some kind of healthy-eating plan again. However, Bouda suspected that the glasses of tomato juice Daddy had drunk at breakfast had actually been Bloody Marys, and strong ones.
But then it was Proposal Day, so perhaps a little celebration was warranted. The very first Chancellor’s Proposal had been made by Cadmus. It had established Britain as a republic, governed in perpetuity by the Skilled. In the centuries since then, the annual Proposals had ranged from the sensible – such as 1882’s suspension of the legal rights of commoners during their slavedays – to the sensational. Chief among the latter was the 1789 ‘Proposal of Ruin’. This had urged Britain’s Equals to obliterate the city of Paris and crush the revolution of French commoners against their Skilled masters. That had been narrowly defeated – an unforgivable act of cowardice, in Bouda’s opinion.
The first Proposal she had heard and voted upon had been Lord Whittam Jardine’s last. This was seven years ago, at the end of his decade-long incumbency as Chancellor. He had unsurprisingly proposed removing the one-term restriction upon the office.
Bouda had been just eighteen and newly installed as Appledurham’s heir. But her sights were already firmly set on a match with Gavar Jardine, so Bouda had supported the Proposal. Her father did likewise. (Daddy had never been able to refuse her or Dina anything.) The vote went against Whittam. But Bouda had eventually achieved her goal, and was now engaged to Kyneston’s heir.
It wasn’t Gavar himself that she wanted, though. That fact wasn’t lost on Bouda as she caught sight of her fiance. She and her father passed through the great doors to the debating chamber, and she felt the Skillful wards tingle across her skin. Gavar stood straight ahead, beneath the marble statue of his ancestor Cadmus.
He was as handsome as any girl might wish, but his skin was blotchy with anger and his mouth set in a petulant sneer. Beside him was his father. Both men were tall and auburn-haired, their shoulders squared back. But where Gavar’s emotions were plain in his face, his father’s expression gave away nothing at all. All Bouda could tell from their watchful posture was that they weren’t happy, and that they were waiting for someone.
For her, she realised, as Lord Jardine caught her eye.
Cold trickled through her. What was wrong? She was so close now to her prize of marriage into the Founding Family that she didn’t know what she’d do if thwarted.
She swiftly sorted through the possibilities. Nothing had happened that she knew of that might jeopardise the alliance. She hadn’t woken up one day ugly or Skilless, nor had her father’s vast wealth vanished. Indeed, the only stumbling block on their way to the altar had been provided by Gavar, in the form of a bastard child sired on some slavegirl. Bouda’s affront at the brat’s existence had been surpassed only by the fury of Lord Jardine, but she had contained her emotions. Her future father-in-law had been impressed with Bouda’s cool response to the whole distasteful episode.
She nodded an acknowledgement to them then looked around the chamber. Thankfully Lord Rix, who was Daddy’s best friend and her and DiDi’s godfather, was waiting over by the Matravers seats. He could keep Daddy entertained with his usual convoluted anecdotes about racehorses. She waved at Rixy and gave her papa a kiss on the cheek, a whispered ‘Be with you in a minute’, and a gentle shove in the right direction.
Then she hurried to hear what Whittam and Gavar had to tell her.
It was nothing she could ever have expected.
‘You can’t be serious?’ she hissed.
‘Silyen informed me of it only last night,’ said her future father-in-law. While he spoke, Gavar was watching the chamber to see if they were noticed, but only Rix was looking their way, concern plain in his face. ‘While buttering a bread roll at dinner, as casual as you like. I assure you, it was as much of a surprise to me as it appears to be to you.’
‘Appears to be?’ Bouda didn’t care for the insinuation in those words. But she couldn’t make sense of what Lord Jardine had just told her. ‘Silyen has bargained with the Chancellor, using Euterpe Parva – and he’s asked Zelston to Propose abolition ? We’ll be a laughing stock if this gets out. How could you let it happen?’
‘ I let it happen?’ Whittam’s eyes were flat and assessing. ‘You are quite certain your sister has nothing to do with this?’
And there, thought Bouda, was the one aspect of her life she couldn’t control: her daft, darling sister, Bodina. Dina was a fashionista, a party girl, and prone to handing wads of Daddy’s cash to ridiculous causes such as animal rescue, international poverty relief – and abolition.
It said much for Bodina’s naivety that the money she was so happy to spend was derived entirely from slavery. The Matravers fortune was maintained by Daddy’s BB brand, named for his daughters. It churned out electrical goods by the million for export to the Far East. It was said that half the homes in China were equipped with BB hairdryers, foot spas, rice cookers and kettles. It was BB’s use of slave labour – the corporation had factories in several slavetowns – that kept prices competitive.
It was a source of fond exasperation for Bouda that despite her sister’s scruples about slavery, Bodina was perfectly willing to live off its proceeds. With her love of travel and couture, DiDi burned through cash.
‘Why on earth would Silyen do something at Dina’s behest? They barely know each other.’
Whittam’s face twisted; he had no answer for that. So this was pure speculation. Relief flooded through Bouda. Her arrangement with the Jardines wouldn’t be ending today, over this.
‘Your sister is attractive.’ The lord of Kyneston shrugged. ‘She has a certain nubile charm that might turn a boy’s head.’
‘If you think that would have any effect on him, my Lord, then you plainly don’t know your youngest son at all.’
At his father’s side, Gavar gave a vulgar snort. Bouda and her husband-to-be might have little in common, but one thing they could agree on was their dislike of Silyen.
‘No,’ she pressed, indignation rising at her future father-in-law’s blatant attempt to shift the blame for Silyen’s outrageous act from his family to hers. ‘All Bodina thinks about right now is her heartbreak, and the next party to help her get over it. You need to look closer to home for an explanation. It was only a matter of time: Jenner, a Skilless abomination; Gavar, father to a slave-born brat; and now Silyen, an abolitionist. Congratulations, your sons are quite the set.’
And she really shouldn’t have said that. Coolness and control at all times, Bouda. An angry flush bloomed above the salamander-printed neckerchief at Lord Whittam’s throat, and crept up his face. Gavar’s fists had clenched. These Jardine men and their touchpaper tempers.
‘I apologize unreservedly,’ she said, ducking her head and baring her neck submissively. ‘Forgive me.’
She gave it a few moments for her sincerity to sink in, then looked up and met Whittam’s eyes. Beside him, Gavar looked fit to throttle her, but to her great relief his father’s face was composed.
‘You apologize like a true politician, Bouda,’ he said, after a pause in which Bouda was quite sure she did not breathe at all. ‘Promptly and prettily. One day, you may find that’s not enough, but for now it will suffice. We will discuss this later, once we are sure that my youngest son’s words were not some jest in remarkably poor taste. Come, Gavar.’
He turned and Gavar trailed after him to Kyneston’s twinned seat in the centre of the first tier. It was directly opposite the carved majesty of the Chancellor’s Chair. The old joke ran that this gave the Jardines the shortest possible distance to walk to their preferred seat in the House.
Lord Whittam intended for Gavar to sit there one day. Bouda knew that her wealth made her an acceptable bride. But in their arrogance, it hadn’t occurred to the Jardines to wonder why Bouda herself might seek such a match.
She took a calming breath and made her way to the Appledurham estate seat at the centre of the second tier, right behind the Jardines. Its prominent position had been secured through hard work, not heritage. None of Bouda’s ancestors had been present the day the House of Light rose shimmering from the ashes of the royal Palace of Westminster.
No, Bouda’s family fortunes were of more recent date. A couple of centuries ago society of the day by taking to the seas as captain of a cargo ship, only to sail back from the Indies an obscenely wealthy man. No one had raised a murmur when he did it again the very next season.
By the third year, half the great families of Britain were in his debt, and soon after a loan default meant the Matravers seat in the seventh tier had been traded for one far better situated, whose spendthrift lord had offered it as collateral.
Even after all this time, the taint of trade hung about the Matravers name. There was only one thing that would expunge it, Bouda thought.
Her glance darted down over the Jardine father and son, and lit on the angular shape of the Chancellor’s Chair. The shallow, high-backed seat was borne upon four carved lions. A shattered stone was lodged beneath it: the old coronation stone of the kings of England. Lycus the Regicide had broken it in two. This had been the throne of the Last King – the sole object spared in Cadmus’s incineration of Westminster Palace.
In the centuries since the Great Demonstration, no woman had ever sat there. Bouda intended to be the first.
Reaching the seat where her father sprawled, fingers locked across his claret velvet waistcoat, Bouda bent and kissed his cheek, prodding him lightly in the stomach. Lord Lytchett tossed back his mane of ivory hair and hauled himself upright to make room for his darling girl. She slipped easily through the narrow space and into the heir’s chair on his left.
As Bouda sat, smoothing her dress, a thunderous sound echoed through the high chamber. It was the ceremonial mace, striking the outside of the thick oak doors. The doors opened only for those qualified by blood and Skill: lords, ladies and their heirs. Not even Silyen, for all his supposed gifts, would be able just to walk in here. But Cadmus had created a provision – one long overdue for reform, Bouda thought – for a dozen commoners to witness parliamentary proceedings.
‘Who seeks admittance?’ quavered ancient Hengist Occold, the Elder of the House, in a voice that didn’t seem loud enough to be heard on the other side.
‘The Commons of Great Britain most humbly seek admittance among its Equals,’ came the formal response, in a clear female voice.
The old man’s hands worked in the air with surprising deftness, and the doors swung inward to admit a group of people.
Outwardly, there was nothing to distinguish the twelve well-dressed newcomers from those who filled the chamber. But these were merely the OPs, the Observers of Parliament. Voteless. UnSkilled. Commoners. Not, Bouda thought, that you’d know it from the way that bitch Dawson, their Speaker, was decked out in the height of Shanghai fashion.
Rebecca Dawson, a dark-haired woman in her fifties, led her group to their allotted place: the back bench along the west side of the chamber. It was opposite the tiers of estate seats and behind the Chancellor’s Chair. She held herself perfectly upright, despite wearing towering Brazilian heels. The Speaker and Bodina could probably spend hours talking about shoes, Bouda thought. Shoes and abolition. Both equally pointless topics.
As the OPs settled themselves the air thrummed again, to trumpets heralding the Chancellor’s approach. The sound thrilled Bouda as much now as it had the very first time she’d heard it. The current, unworthy incumbent of that great office swept into the chamber, and with a final gesture from the Elder of the House, the doors closed.
Bathed in coruscating light that streamed through the south end window from the shimmering world beyond, the black-and-white figure of Winterbourne Zelston ascended the steps to the chair. He unclasped his heavy ermine and velvet robe and swept it into the waiting hands of the Child of the House, the youngest heir present.
The Chancellor sat. Parliament was in session.
Before the Proposal came the regular business. Usually, Bouda took a keen interest in the routine affairs of state, but today she was distracted by thoughts of the coming announcement.
Down on the chamber floor Dawson was up on her hind legs, yapping away. She was objecting to a perfectly logical scheme to assist the long-term unemployed by returning them to slavery for twelve months’ respite.
So Bouda tuned her out and gave the matter further thought. Could Silyen really do as he had promised, and revive Euterpe Parva? Could Zelston still love the woman so much that he would risk his job over such an insane Proposal?
And this was hardest of all to understand: why, given that the Proposal would surely fail, would Silyen ask for it?
She turned over what she knew of the boy, and to her surprise found that it wasn’t much. Silyen was rarely present at Kyneston’s social events – the garden parties, the hunts, or Lady Thalia’s interminable chamber opera evenings. He would occasionally turn up for family dinners, eating sparingly and offering sly, barbed remarks. These were usually at the expense of his eldest brother, and Bouda had to repress her urge to laugh. The family all maintained that Silyen was powerfully Skillful, but Bouda had never seen any direct evidence.
Although there had been moments. Feelings. She’d never been able to put her finger on one, but sometimes at Kyneston she’d experienced small sensations of wrongness. Conversations that she couldn’t clearly remember. Objects that didn’t feel entirely right in her hand. Even the taste of the air felt off sometimes, static and heavy.
She usually put it down to Gavar’s generosity with the contents of his father’s wine cellar. She’d even wondered if it was due to the charge crackling through Kyneston’s vast Skill-forged wings.
But she couldn’t be sure.
When the recess bell sounded, Daddy levered himself up to head for the Members’ Parlour and its cake trolley. His disappearance gave Bouda the opportunity to have a long-overdue conversation. She looked for her quarry. Sure enough, Lady Armeria Tresco was there, in the furthest row of seats. Alone.
The Tresco seat in the chamber matched the location of their estate of Highwithel: peripheral. Had Highwithel’s heir not broken her sister’s heart, Bouda might one day have found herself a frequent visitor. She was glad this was no longer likely. The Tresco estate was an island at the heart of an archipelago: the Scillies. They were the southernmost point of the British Isles, off the tip of Cornwall. Beyond Land’s End.
That was quite the best place for feckless Heir Meilyr and his ghastly mother. If only they’d stay there.
Lady Tresco looked up as Bouda approached. She had been rifling through a worn leather handbag. Possibly for a hairbrush, given the woman’s dishevelled appearance – though then again, it seemed unlikely she owned one.
Armeria gave Bouda a pleasant smile, closed her bag, and placed it on the adjoining heir’s chair. The conspicuously empty heir’s chair.
‘Meilyr’s still not with you, I see,’ Bouda said. ‘Any word from your prodigal son?’
‘None, I’m afraid,’ replied the older woman. ‘Believe me, your sister would be the first to know. But he’s been gone more than six months now. Bodina must be over the worst of her disappointment, I hope?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Bouda. ‘Quite over it. He could long since be back at Highwithel for all she cares. I was only asking on my own account, as I’ll be sending out the wedding invitations soon. Just the one for the Trescos, then?’
‘You never know,’ said Lady Tresco unhelpfully. ‘So that’s happening soon, is it? Congratulations. Your star really is rising.’
‘Thank you.’ It was an automatic response. ‘And yes, at Kyneston in March, after the Third Proposal Debate and the vote.’
‘The Third Debate? How fitting for such a politic union. Well, I shall see you before then at Esterby for the First.’
And with that, Armeria Tresco retrieved her handbag and recommenced sorting through it.
Bouda stood there a moment, astonished. Had she just been dismissed? It appeared that she had. At least no one had seen it happen. But still. She felt her cheeks flame as she turned away and descended to the second tier. She would look as florid as dear Papa.
At least she’d gleaned a little information for Dina. Or rather, had no news – which was most definitely good news, in Bouda’s opinion. Her little sister’s passion for Meilyr Tresco had been quite genuine, but sorely misplaced. Meilyr was an affable creature, but of the same absurd political persuasion as his mother, and Bouda held him chiefly responsible for filling DiDi’s head with abolitionist enthusiasm.
Even the way he’d broken things off with Dina had been vague and unsatisfactory. He’d simply told poor DiDi that he wanted to go and ‘find himself’, suitable husband could be found for her. Dina needed someone solid and reliable, who understood the family’s interests. Bouda had a few possibilities in mind.
Papa was back at their seat, an emergency, napkin-wrapped slice of cake stuffed down the side of his chair. Greedy Daddy! She pinched his cheek indulgently and whispered in his ear. ‘From what I heard from Lord Jardine earlier, this could be interesting.’
Then the trumpets again; the Chancellor again. The chamber fell expectantly quiet. Zelston walked to the chair, but remained standing. His expression was grim, and clutched in his hand was a single-sheet order paper. He launched straight in. ‘It is my prerogative as Chancellor to introduce for the House’s consideration a Proposal of my choosing. You will all be aware that a Chancellor’s introduction of a Proposal does not necessarily signify that he supports it. It may simply be a matter that he believes merits discussion. That is the case with my Proposal today.’
This disavowal brought jeers and catcalls from some of the more troublesome Members.
‘What an endorsement!’ yelled one, from his place on the sixth tier.
‘Why’d you bother, then?’ mocked another, from somewhere rather closer to the seat of power.
The Chancellor didn’t dignify them with a response. He looked around the chamber, level and composed, though Bouda saw the paper tremble in his hand.
‘At the conclusion of this session the Silence will be laid upon all Observers, and the Quiet accepted by all Members.’
There were murmurs of surprise and displeasure from the assembled Equals. Bouda sat forward in her seat, tense and excited. She had never seen the two ancient acts of Silence and Quiet bestowed publicly.
Of course, to call it ‘Silence’ was misleading. The act didn’t really silence a person; it hid their own memories from them. It was forbidden to lay the Silence on one’s Equals – though practice obviously couldn’t count, Bouda had long ago decided, or how would anyone ever master it? All Chancellors had to be able to perform it, so from childhood Bouda had practised on her sister. Darling DiDi hadn’t minded.
The only permitted use of the Silence was within the House of Light, when it was laid upon commoners – the Observers. They were sometimes privy to Proposals or other business deemed too sensitive, too incendiary, to become common knowledge. Once the Chancellor had bestowed the Silence, the OPs would remember nothing of his Proposal until he lifted it again.
The parliamentarians themselves, the Equals, would accept the Quiet. This was a lesser act, but still effective. You retained your memories, but could not speak of or otherwise share them with those outside the sanctioned group – in this case, the Members of Parliament. Rumour had it that many a family secret was protected by hereditary Quiet.
Speaker Dawson looked like she wanted to protest. Bouda rolled her eyes. Historically, of course, the Silence had been used in ways that were perhaps less than desirable. Possibly it still was. Gavar and his pals had acquired a reputation at Oxford for parties attended by commoner girls that guests found strangely unmemorable the following day. But here in the House of Light, both acts were perfectly legitimate.
The Chancellor stood impassive until the hubbub had died down. Then he took a final look at the order sheet in his hand, as if he couldn’t quite believe what was written there.
Bouda watched eagerly, one hand pressed to her mouth. Even her father had hauled himself upright and was listening with interest.
Zelston spoke. ‘I Propose the abolition, entire and immediate, of the slavedays.’