Millmoor slavetown might be going up in flames, but Gavar Jardine failed to see why that was his problem. Particularly not at eight in the morning.
How could a few incidents and arrests up north necessitate an emergency convening of the Justice Council? What was important enough to drag Gavar away from Kyneston and his daughter in the days before Christmas? It was bad enough that soon there’d be the long trip to the Second Debate at Grendelsham, without this summons to London, too.
Through the leaded windows of the overheated council chamber, Gavar saw that it was snowing. He wondered if the slavegirl Daisy would be playing outside in the Kyneston grounds with Libby. Perhaps making a snowman. They’d better both be warmly dressed.
His father’s whisper in his ear was like a gust of cold blown in from beyond, and it was all Gavar could do not to hunch his shoulders or turn up his collar. He shivered, and tried to focus on the speaker at the far end of the table. It would be easier if the woman’s voice were not so monotonous, her face not so unimprovably plain.
‘. . . seditious literature,’ she was saying, ‘distributed across the city, including dormitories, workplaces, even sanitary facilities. That’s toilets,’ she clarified.
Gavar snorted. Did the commoners think Equals never needed to use ‘sanitary facilities’? Though it was true that some he’d met regarded his kind as hardly human. Gavar had done nothing to disabuse them of this belief. Ignorance bred fear, as Father was fond of saying, and fear bred obedience.
Except something had gone wrong with that pithy maxim, if what the woman was saying was to be believed.
Gavar had listened carefully enough for the first few minutes. Word of Zelston’s asinine Proposal had somehow not only leaked, despite the Silence, but had reached at least one of the slavetowns. The inhabitants of Millmoor were kicking up a fuss and demanding that parliament vote in favour of the Proposal.
It was all too ridiculous for words. What on earth did they think they’d achieve? Nothing, except years on their days. And for the ringleaders, perhaps slavelife and a generous re-education at the hands of Lord Crovan. Anyone insane enough to risk that was probably a danger to society by default.
Crovan was an honorary member of the Justice Council, but thankfully never attended. He rarely left his Scottish castle, Eilean Dòchais, which stood on a small island in a large loch. There he lived alone, apart from a few house-slaves – and the Condemned, the very worst of those sentenced to slavelife.
Whatever Crovan did to the Condemned (no one ever asked) kept him pretty busy. He only turned up at Westminster once a year for the opening of parliament, which was once too often in the opinion of his Equals. Even the House of Light seemed darker when he sat in it. And of course, the man always attended the Third Debate at Kyneston.
When Gavar became Chancellor he would necessarily have dealings with Crovan, he thought unhappily, tuning out the droning narrative of the Millmoor Overseer. The sentence of Condemnation was always uttered by the Chancellor, before the prisoner was delivered straight to his new master.
Gavar wasn’t sure when the practice of turning the Condemned over to Crovan had first begun. Had Father started it? But the man was present at every sentencing, eager to claim his new property. It was all faintly distasteful and one more reason for questioning whether the top job was all it was cracked up to be, despite Father’s insistence that the Chancellorship was a Jardine family birthright.
The whole point about birthrights, Gavar thought resentfully, and not for the first time, was that they came to you automatically. You didn’t have to do anything, except be who you were. To hear Father talk, the Chancellorship was just as much a Jardine prerogative as a place at Oxford’s Domus College. So if it was coming to him anyway, why did Gavar have to serve this tedious political apprenticeship? Did he really have to attend endless councils, committees and legislative debates?
His eyes roamed listlessly around the table. All the usual suspects. His future father-in-law, Lytchett Matravers, had his eyes closed in what he doubtless hoped was an expression of intense concentration, but was almost certainly trapped wind due to a rushed breakfast. Next to him was Lytchett’s chum Lord Rix, who appeared every bit as bored as Gavar felt. He noticed Gavar looking and sent him a comradely roll of the eyes.
Rix was all right, but sat on his other side was Gavar’s bitch-queen fiancée. She was scribbling down notes as if any of this actually mattered. Bouda had placed herself next to Zelston, at the top of the table. If Father was mistaken, and securing the Chancellorship required a modicum of effort even for the Jardine heir, Gavar felt sure his future wife could take care of greasing the wheels.
After all, there had to be some benefit to marrying a harpy like Bouda. As Father had reminded her that day Zelston dropped his little Proposal bombshell, it wasn’t like they really needed the Matravers millions. And Gavar wasn’t currently getting any other benefits either. Bouda had tried to slap him when he had made a perfectly reasonable suggestion following the First Debate dinner. It was so much easier with commoner girls, when you never had to bother asking.
Not unless you actually cared about them.
Gavar clenched his fists beneath the table. He wasn’t going to think about Leah. It only made him furious – and that was what had caused the whole horrendous mess in the first place.
He breathed deeply, feeling his chest strain against his crisp white shirt. Then relaxed again, rolling his shoulders.
It was easier here in London. His anger was always much worse at Kyneston. He didn’t know why. Maybe it was the burden of expectation of it all. There was the house he’d inherit; the portraits of dead ancestors who he would have to live up to. And for what? So he could watch his own heir trudge the same path he had, and in time pass on the estate to them, just as Father would to him, as Grandfather Garwode had to Whittam.
It was all spectacularly pointless.
‘And what can you tell us about the perpetrators?’ he heard a voice say.
It was Rix. Gavar had never heard anyone sound less interested in the answer to a question they’d asked. Anything to alleviate the boredom, he supposed.
‘We have one in custody,’ reported the Millmoor Overseer, slipping a photograph out of a fold of brown manila and sliding it to the centre of the table. ‘He was at the scene of a sabotage of the East Sector Labour Allocation Bureau. It’s believed a presently unidentified female was conducting the intrusion. However, when she was surprised by a Security patrol he made a show of force that enabled her to escape. He was subsequently subdued and apprehended.’
Couldn’t this peon speak plain English? The man had fought the guards to buy the woman time to get away. Under other circumstances it might have been an honourable thing to do.
Gavar glanced at the photograph. It showed a muscular black man, one of his eyes swollen shut. His skin was too dark to make out any injuries, but his T-shirt was heavily bloodstained. He looked about the same age as Zelston, though this man’s skull was shaved and he had none of the dandified Chancellor’s fine clothes and fancy ornaments.
The accident of birth, thought Gavar, recalling another of his father’s favourite phrases. The accident of birth had given this criminal slave and the most powerful man in the land the same skin on the outside, but very different abilities within. And from that difference, their fates had diverged.
Libby had Gavar’s own skin on the outside. His hair. His eyes.
He remembered the boat drifting across the lake towards them that day. Could she really have the same abilities within?
‘You said “Security patrol”?’
Bouda’s officious voice broke into Gavar’s thoughts. He just knew the sound of it was going to grate on him for the rest of his natural life.
The Overseer nodded, her face guarded. Bouda had clearly spotted something the woman had hoped would go unremarked.
‘I presume you mean a routine patrol?’ the blonde girl said. ‘In other words, after several weeks of multiple incidents, including the defacement of your own headquarters, you have managed to catch one perpetrator – by accident?’
The commoner’s expression turned from guarded to dismayed. Gavar almost laughed.
‘You do understand’ – Father sat forward in his chair, the thickly stuffed red leather seat creaking faintly – ‘that the authority of the Overseer’s Office in Millmoor is not your own. It is our authority. That of your Equals and the government of this country. And therefore these attacks, which you have failed to prevent, are attacks directly upon us.’
Gavar had to hand it to his father: the man knew how to make an impression. The room suddenly felt several degrees colder. He wouldn’t have been surprised to see the condensation turning to ice on the inside of the windows.
‘Naturally,’ Whittam went on, ‘the continuance of these outrages cannot be tolerated. Now that you have one of the perpetrators in your custody, I trust that you have taken every step to discover his associates?’
‘Well . . .’
Even Gavar could have told the woman that wasn’t the correct answer.
Whittam leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers and staring over the top of them. It was a posture that, on one humiliating occasion in his childhood, had caused Gavar to wet himself. He’d never forgotten the look in Father’s eyes as the hot liquid trickled miserably down his leg. It hadn’t been anger, merely contempt.
Contempt for a child. No one would ever look at Libby like that. Gavar would kill them first.
Not being a five-year-old boy, the dumpy woman didn’t piss her pants, but she did go pale. Then she lifted her chin ever so slightly and met Father’s gaze. Maybe she had some backbone after all. The slavetowns were hellholes, from what Gavar had heard. You probably had to be tough to rise to the top of one.
‘With every respect, my lord, that is precisely why I am here. The perpetrator has been questioned thoroughly, using all means at our disposal, but has so far failed to give satisfactory answers. I’ve come here today to seek the council’s approval and assistance to implement special measures within our secure facility.’
There was a noise from Gavar’s left that could have been Lytchett snuffling in his sleep or a snort of derision from Rix. What were ‘special measures’? Gavar had no idea. But he remembered Father’s injunction: ‘Never show ignorance.’ He wasn’t about to show himself up by asking. Next to Zelston, Bouda was nodding sagely. It was likely she knew, but then she could have been bluffing. You could never tell with the bitch-queen.
‘Special measures are not to be used lightly,’ came a crisp voice from opposite Zelston.
Armeria Tresco, who else? The sanctimonious old biddy was forever banging on about commoners’ rights; she’d doubtless be the only person to vote in favour of the Proposal at the Third Debate. Unless her heir Meilyr showed up, tail between his legs. Mother and son could be pariahs together. Sweet.
‘The use of Skill to break into the mind of another person is unconscionable,’ said Armeria. ‘We all know the harmful effects special measures can have. They’re well documented. Some subjects have been rendered mentally incompetent for the rest of their lives. When the act is performed by one inexpert in the use of Skill for this purpose, it can even kill.’
So that was what special measures were. Gavar blanched. They sounded horrifying. Or like Silyen’s idea of a quiet evening’s entertainment.
‘Armeria,’ said Bouda repressively, as if speaking to a wilful child. ‘This is a slave we’re talking about. Slaves don’t constitute legally recognized entities, thus the concept of “harm” does not apply.’
Bouda had been the star Law student of their year at Oxford. It was one of the reasons Gavar had opted to study Land Economy instead – although ‘study’ was perhaps an overstatement.
‘I don’t give two hoots about whether this man’ – Armeria tapped the photograph – ‘is a “legally recognized entity”, Bouda. He’s a human being. If you want to talk technicalities, I would remind you that the statute governing the use of special measures states that they are only to be employed in situations liable to lead to loss of life.
‘As I understand it, this man was apprehended at the scene of a rather creative hack of the Labour Allocation Bureau’s network that reset everyone’s status to “Free Citizen”. He may additionally have been involved in damage to Millmoor Administration property, the escape from custody of several slaves held on sub-life crimes, and painting political slogans on Millmoor landmarks. Also the dissemination of literature stating a factually accurate truth – the nature of the current Proposal. None of these are exactly trivial, but I see no evidence that anyone’s life was put at risk as a result.’
Gavar watched the exchange with some satisfaction. Wasn’t it fascinating, he thought, just how quickly Bouda’s milk-pale complexion could turn bright red?
‘Armeria is correct,’ Zelston murmured donnishly, turning to Bouda. ‘The statute is quite clear, and it is the statute which we are required to consider a priori. The broader question of the status of slaves in rerum natura is not immediately relevant.’
Whatever that gobbledegook meant, Bouda plainly didn’t like it. Served her right, thought Gavar. And if she ever tried using that tone with Libby, she’d feel the back of his hand, wife or no.
‘I’m not in favour of special measures,’ announced Rix.
Several heads swivelled to look at him with surprise. The silver-haired Equal arched an eyebrow.
‘What? No one’s dying in the streets, so why should one of us have to go to Millmoor to sort them out? I thought they did our dirty work, not the other way around.’
Lytchett guffawed and slapped his friend on the back for his witticism. Rix smirked. Politics would be more fun, thought Gavar, if there were more in the chamber like him.
‘So it seems . . .’ began Zelston, looking around the table.
‘It appears,’ cut in Father, ‘that further consideration is warranted. The honourable Lady Tresco cites the statute accurately: “liable to lead to loss of life”. However, in her customary zeal she overlooks the fact that this is not about immediate but eventual loss of life. In this case I consider that eventual risk to be high.’
He looked around at his peers, hands loosely interlaced and resting on the smooth tabletop. When younger, Gavar had practised that quelling look for hours in a mirror. He’d never quite got the hang of it.
‘The use of special measures saves lives,’ Father continued. ‘I think you are all aware that in my younger days I took a secondment to Joint Command of the Union States of America. This was during their years of deadlock in the Middle East. They were sufficiently desperate to turn to us and to their Confederate brothers, asking us to use our Skill in support of their military. The same Skill that they have declared an abomination – a belief for which they tore their great continent in half by civil war two centuries ago.’
Lord Whittam Jardine’s war stories. Gavar had heard a few over the years, usually when his father had drunk too much. The man had medals to prove the truth of them, which he kept in a box and never wore. But he had never thrown them away either.
Gavar had once asked, when Father had been uncharacteristically confessional – which was to say, completely trollied – why he had worked with the Union Americans at all. After all, he frequently aired his contempt for the nation that had abolished slavery at the cost of outlawing Skill.
‘It gave me an opportunity,’ Father had said, his blue-green eyes bloodshot but no less penetrating. ‘An opportunity to use my Skill in ways that would be frowned upon back home. I was curious. And I found that I enjoyed it.’
Then he had told a detailed anecdote about exactly how he had used his Skill. It had Gavar putting down his glass of Scotch and not touching it again all night. He had never asked to hear more of Father’s experiences in the desert.
Whittam didn’t elaborate now, thankfully. The slaves would have been sponging the sick out of the council room carpet for days. But he had the attention of his peers as he continued.
‘My role was to apply what we call “special measures” to selected detainees. On more than one occasion, the information I secured thwarted plans that would have caused thousands of casualties and devastated civilian infrastructure. I mean cities,’ he clarified. ‘Philadelphia and Washington DC, to be exact.
‘Sometimes, those possessed of that information were not whom you might expect: not warlords, but teachers. Not religious leaders, but shopkeepers. All routes to knowledge should be explored by whatever means necessary. It is an error to consider anyone incapable of atrocity or above suspicion. Even the littlest child.’
Gavar remembered that part of his father’s reminiscences, and tasted bile in his mouth. He wondered sometimes if Lord Jardine was not a bit cracked. Wondered, too, if it was from him that he had inherited his own tendency to lose control.
To hurt people.
In fact, he sometimes wondered if he could blame every single thing that had gone wrong in his life on his father. Was that cowardly? Maybe. But it didn’t mean it wasn’t true.
The Equals around the table had fallen silent. The commoner woman was looking at Lord Jardine as if he was some kind of god, her mouth agape. Gavar had himself seen that look on women’s faces and occasionally used it to his advantage, but mostly it just repulsed him.
‘So what exactly are you proposing, Whittam?’ asked the Chancellor. ‘Are you volunteering to go to Millmoor and see what can be obtained from this suspect?’
Zelston motioned to the photograph, but his eyes were on Lord Jardine. Bouda’s gaze was darting eagerly between the pair of them. Even Rix was frowning.
‘Oh no,’ said Father, that smile slashing a little wider. ‘I’m volunteering my son and heir, Gavar.’
The rest of the meeting passed in a blur.
The Millmoor Overseer transferred her hungry expression to Gavar. Rix won his gratitude by reiterating his opinion that Equals shouldn’t lower themselves by going to a slavetown. But Father’s intervention ensured the decision was a foregone conclusion. When the vote came, the use of special measures on the prisoner detained in Millmoor was approved. The result was eleven to one, with only Armeria Tresco dissenting.
Bouda Matravers’s hand had been the first to go up.
Afterwards, as Gavar followed his father down the corridor, he heard the dull tear of high heels through deep carpet as Bouda hurried after them. She placed herself in front of Father, blocking their path.
‘Five minutes,’ she said. ‘We need to talk.’
Father’s face was unreadable, while Gavar experienced a fleeting moment of hope that she would volunteer to go to the slavetown in his place. As if. Bouda had the true politician’s disinclination to get her own hands dirty.
Father reached past her and opened the door to a side room. Bouda started talking the minute the handle clicked shut behind them.
‘How did this happen?’ she said, addressing herself entirely to Father as though Gavar were not even there. ‘The observers are under the Silence, and we’ve all accepted the Quiet. How can word have got out? Zelston must have messed up. Performed the acts wrong, or just not been powerful enough.’
She paused. What she’d said was so obvious, it couldn’t possibly be why she had pulled Lord Jardine and his heir into a deserted room for a private conversation.
Father just watched and waited. Gavar had observed, over the years, that this often made people talk, no matter how reluctant they were to share what was in their head. Sadly, he doubted it would work if he tried it on the Millmoor prisoner.
His stomach churned again at the thought of the task he’d been assigned. What would it feel like to carry it out?
What would it feel like to fail?
He’d lived nearly two and a half decades as Lord Whittam Jardine’s eldest son. They left him in no doubt as to which of those options should be more feared.
‘It makes me think Zelston’s not fit to be Chancellor.’
Gavar stared at Bouda as her pent-up thoughts spilled out in a rush.
‘This Proposal should never have been made. Zelston ought to have foreseen something like this. Even if the trouble in Millmoor ends here, it could be Portisbury next, or Auld Reekie the week after. The word is out and we can’t Silence the entire country. Today, until you intervened, he didn’t even have the stomach to take the necessary steps.’
She paused, and drew in a rapid breath.
‘He has another three years left in office. Right now, I’m not convinced that’s in Britain’s best interests.’
Father watched her.
‘What are you suggesting, Bouda?’
And now that she’d spoken the unsayable, Gavar saw Bouda regain her composure, wrapping it back around her as elegantly as a designer coat.
‘I’m not suggesting anything. Merely sharing my little notions.’ She moved towards the door; opened it. ‘I’d better go after Daddy before he finds his way to the cake trolley. That’s never pretty. Oh, and Gavar? Good luck.’
Except he must have said that aloud, because Father rounded on him. His expression was so fierce that Gavar took a step back.
‘She’s twice the politician you’ll ever be,’ said Whittam. ‘As is your brother. I always knew Silyen was the most Skillful of my sons, but I must account him the abler strategist, too. He has the Chancellor doing his bidding, while you and I must scurry around tidying up the consequences.’
And really, had anything changed since he was five years old, Gavar wondered? Anything at all? But he was a man now – and a father himself. When would Father treat him like one? He met Whittam’s eye. The man had to look up slightly at his taller son.
‘Rix is right,’ Gavar said. ‘Why should we scurry? We are Equals, of the Founding Family, not common policemen. Why should I go?’
That wasn’t the right question.
‘You go because the information from this slave is needful,’ said Whittam, stepping nearer, closing the gap Gavar had made between them.
‘You go because I tell you to. Because people are still gossiping about that slavegirl’s death in your supposed “hunting accident”. Doing this may be your rehabilitation. And you go because as head of this family I have the power to decide whether that bastard brat of yours is raised at Kyneston or sent to an UMUS home. At least that way your mother and I wouldn’t have to look at it and be reminded each day of what a disappointment you are.’
His father’s face was only a few inches from his own, yet Gavar found he could barely see it. His vision swam red and black. He was five years old again. But what flowed from him now, hot and stinking, wasn’t a trickle of fear and shame. It was a gush of hatred.
That wasn’t the right answer, Father.
Not the right answer at all.