If she wanted to discover why Luke wasn’t welcome at Kyneston, Abi’s only option was Jenner. But he’d warned her not to ask.
So how could she get him to tell her?
Perhaps if she could win his trust. His admiration. Maybe even his affection?
She snorted at that, and turned back to the heap of unopened mail on her desk. There might be none so daft as a clever girl in love, as Mum would say, but Abi wasn’t that deluded. She wanted Jenner’s affection all right, but she would do even if Luke was at Kyneston with the rest of them.
She picked up the letter opener, a heavy silver knife bearing the Jardine family crest of the salamander embowered – a fire-breathing lizard fenced into a circular garden – and attacked the pile of envelopes.
The fourth one down had handwriting on it that she recognized. Her own.
It was the birthday card they’d sent Luke, returned unopened from Millmoor. ‘Inadmissible’ had been stamped across it. Abi growled with frustration. It didn’t even bear a censor’s mark. They hadn’t bothered to open it and see that it was nothing more seditious than a card, handmade by Daisy. The three-month no-communication period for all slavetown newcomers hadn’t expired yet for Luke, so they’d simply sent it back.
Soon, though. She glanced at the calendar on her desk, the red ring around a date at the start of December, just days away. The three months were up then and they’d all get news on how Luke was doing, assuming he was as desperate to write to them as they were to hear from him.
Abi hoped he was being sensible and toeing the line. Surely life in Millmoor couldn’t be much worse than having a rubbish job and a crummy flatshare out in the real world. Luke probably spent his days packing boxes in a factory, and had a crowd of friends already.
At least that was what Abi told herself. She tried not to think about that guard, Kessler, or the day Luke had been ripped away from them. She didn’t dwell on the fact that Luke – that all of them – were just chattels of the state with no rights at all. She pushed away the image of Dad on his knees, blood streaming down his face, and Luke being prodded into the van with a baton.
Whatever it took to make Jenner Jardine bring Luke here, Abi intended to do it. She’d started with what she did best: work.
In nearly three months at Kyneston, she had already made improvements to how the Family Office ran. She’d created a spreadsheet of the estate year, colour coded and filled with calendar alerts and reminders. She’d asked certain of the key staff – if you could call slaves that – to begin monthly audits.
She’d tried not to come across as a bossy upstart, and they’d mostly listened when she explained that better organization was in everyone’s interests. Her message was that the smoother the house and estate ran, the less chance there was of Lord Jardine or Heir Gavar blowing their fuses. They’d all seen that often enough that they readily agreed. The housekeeper was particularly friendly, and Abi was always welcome belowstairs for a cup of tea and a scone. However, she knew the grizzled Master of Hounds hadn’t taken kindly to this northern city girl bringing her notions to his ancient southern estate.
As for Jenner himself? Well, he was a dream.
He was sweet and funny, hardworking and thoughtful. An itemization of all the ways in which he was generally wonderful would be even longer than Abi’s to-do list.
Gavar was probably the type most girls would go for, but his temper meant his buff physique was more intimidating than appealing. And the Young Master was simply too spooky even to think of in those terms. So, yes, Jenner was the only one of the three she didn’t find scary. By itself this wasn’t a ringing endorsement. But add in all the plus points as well, and Miss Abigail Amanda Hadley had quite a crush going on.
Could he ever feel the same? The sensible bit of Abi’s brain insisted that was impossible. But the illogical bit (which was evidently bigger than she’d ever suspected) continued to hoard small moments, the way the back of her desk drawer accumulated pen lids and paperclips. A glance; an enquiry about her family; a spurious pretext for keeping her late; a hand on her arm while pointing something out.
No single action meant a thing, by itself. But taken together, could they add up to something more?
So she was disappointed to answer his summons to the Great Solar early one morning, only to find the chamber filled with what looked like every house-slave at Kyneston. One of her friends from the kitchens explained that it was the annual pre-Christmas deep clean. Everyone mucked in. Abi was reluctantly collecting a duster when Jenner appeared at her elbow.
‘Not you, Miss Hadley, if I may? I was hoping you might help me in the library.’
He led her there then dithered over whether or not to shut the door. Abi wasn’t much of an expert at ‘reading the signs’, as a flirty schoolfriend had once termed it. But the situation seemed somehow promising.
To hide her confusion, Abi turned to look at what was laid out on the table. Resting on a cover of thick grey felt were three paintings and an unframed canvas, several document cases and some custom-made book boxes.
‘I thought you’d enjoy this more than dusting,’ said Jenner, having eventually closed the door and joined her. ‘With my brother’s wedding to Bouda Matravers at the end of March, as well as the Third Debate, Mother suggested we show off some family treasures to our guests. It’s only once a generation that the heir marries, after all. I’ve been digging out a few possibilities.’
Abi studied the paintings, all portraits. She recognized the subjects of the largest two canvases, but had no idea about the other two sitters. One was a long-necked young woman wearing a dress the same bronze colour as her hair. She petted a large lizard that nestled in her arms. The other, unframed, was a wistful, black-eyed boy aged seven or eight.
‘This is Cadmus Parva-Jardine, the Pure-in-Heart,’ she said confidently, touching the largest picture in its gilded frame shaped like a laurel wreath. Jenner nodded.
Her fingers trailed onto the next. She knew what this man had done. Was it only that knowledge which made his likeness seem both proud and vicious, or did his deeds truly show in his face?
‘Cadmus’s father, Lycus Parva. Lycus the Regicide. He killed Charles the First and Last.’
She shuddered. Lycus had used nothing but Skill to kill the Last King, and the histories said that Charles had taken four days to die on the scaffold at Westminster. It was written that the spectacle was so terrible that pregnant women watching miscarried, and men went mad.
‘This is Cadmus’s mother, Clio Jardine,’ Jenner said, pointing to the woman in the bronze dress. ‘It was painted to mark her marriage to Lycus. You see the walled garden behind her? That’s the Jardine family emblem. And she’s holding a salamander, the Parva heraldic device. Our coat of arms today combines both, although the Parva motto has dropped out of use. Silyen’s fond of it, but it’s a bit too self-effacing for Jardine tastes.’
Abi looked at the painted banner. Uro, non luceo. I burn, not shine. An appropriate match for the salamander, that legendary creature said to breathe fire and renew itself in flames.
Clio gazed sideways out of the canvas. Her face was framed by artful ringlets, her eyebrows painted in bold arches. Her features and colouring, though, Abi had seen before. They were like those of the young man standing beside her.
Abi looked from Clio to Jenner, and it was as if a wall as impenetrable as Kyneston’s own had reared up between them. He might not have the Skill, but he had the blood. These impossible names from history books were his ancestors. His family. His great-great-greats.
Jenner hadn’t noticed her reaction, and continued his tale.
‘Clio was the only offspring in the Jardine direct line. This was before female succession was permitted, so she couldn’t inherit Kyneston. The house was due to pass to a male cousin. But when her son Cadmus’s incredible Skill became apparent as a teenager, he was co-opted as the Jardine heir and given the double surname Parva-Jardine.
‘Cadmus was a scholarly man and lived a quiet life. He married young, and when that first wife died he was grief-stricken and buried himself in his research. You know what happened next: the Revolution. Lycus, the father, killed the king. Cadmus, the son, restored peace. He tore down the palace and built the House of Light, in the Great Demonstration. And after becoming our first Chancellor, he married again. It was the eldest son from that marriage, Ptolemy Jardine, who next inherited Kyneston. But it shouldn’t have been.’
‘Why not?’ said Abi, mesmerized by the unfolding story. ‘Who should it have been?’
‘Someone we never talk about,’ said Jenner. He pointed to the final picture. ‘Him.’
The boy had the large black eyes of Lady Thalia and the Young Master, but none of her sparkle or his arrogance. His expression was soft and sad. The picture wasn’t particularly well executed – the clothing was flat and the boy’s hands were all wrong. But the artist had captured some deep sorrow in the child.
‘Father won’t let this one be displayed,’ Jenner continued, a strange note to his voice. ‘It would have been destroyed years ago were it not the only picture we have which was painted by Cadmus himself.’
‘So who is he?’
Abi was hooked by this secret that she’d never encountered in all her reading about Kyneston and the Jardines. And another, shameful part of her was thrilled that Jenner wanted to share with her this story that plainly meant so much to him.
‘He’s me. He’s the only other rotten fruit on the family tree. The only one in our great and glorious history with no Skill – until I came along.’
And what did you say to that? Abi’s mind raced for an answer, but found none. She didn’t do people, dammit. She did books. A world of difference.
She cast her mind back to the day they had arrived at Kyneston, Daisy opening her big gob and asking why the Young Master had let them through the gate and not Jenner. His easy, gallant response about his lack of Skill. How many years had he been practising those lines until he could say them like that? As if they meant nothing at all, when clearly his life was poisoned at its roots by this awful, inexplicable lack.
‘Take a close look,’ Jenner urged.
There were numerous objects displayed around the boy. An empty birdcage with the door shut. A tulip in its prime, upright in a vase but drab and grey, as if a week dead. A sheet ruled with musical staves but without notes. A violin with no strings. Abi peered at the word written at the top of the blank musical score. The non-existent work was titled in Latin: Cassus.
‘It means “hollow”,’ Jenner said. ‘“Empty”. Alternatively: “useless”, or “deficient”. Which is to say, without Skill. All that’ – he gestured at the flower, the birdcage – ‘that’s what my world looks like, to them.’
Abi still couldn’t think of anything to say. Something careful.
‘If he should have inherited Kyneston after Cadmus, then he must be . . . Cadmus’s eldest son?’
She was rewarded with the ghost of a smile from Jenner.
‘I knew you’d get it, Abigail. He’s Cadmus’s son by his first wife. His name was Sosigenes Parva, but you won’t find it in any history book.’
So-si-je-knees? Even by Equal standards, the name was a mouthful.
‘Doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, does it?’ she said, then flushed at her own presumption. But Jenner laughed, brightening a little.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I’d be the first to agree. It’s a name that if my father had his way, would never be heard again. As it is, after Cadmus’s journals were lost in the Orpen fire, this little picture is the only evidence we have that Sosigenes ever lived.’
Abi knew about the great fire of Orpen. It had happened before she was born, but she’d seen shaky footage captured from a helicopter flying beyond the estate wall.
Orpen Mote had been the Parva seat, where Lady Thalia Jardine and her sister Euterpe were born and raised. It had burned to the ground in a single night. The two sisters had been absent, but Lord and Lady Parva and their entire household had died as they slept. The shock of discovering her parents’ death had plunged Euterpe into the coma in which she still lay.
But more than a house and its inhabitants had been lost. The Parvas’ reputation as scholars had continued down the centuries, and Orpen Mote had held the most important collection of books about Skill known to exist anywhere in the world. That had included Cadmus’s personal library. All destroyed in the blaze.
But Abi had never heard of any journals kept by the Pure-in-Heart. What documents those would be! How cruel to learn of their existence and their destruction in the self-same instant.
Jenner was busying himself with the boxes on the table. He pulled one across and flipped back the lid. Inside was thick foam, cut to accommodate the small painting perfectly. He kept his eyes down as he talked.
‘No one ever imagined there would be another Skilless child. Cadmus was so powerful, you see, that the family decided that Sosigenes’ mother was to blame for her son’s condition. She died in childbirth, so it was easy to conclude that she was weak. In fact, “Sosigenes” means “born safely”, so maybe the birth had been traumatic for him, too. It’s a tidy explanation.’
‘Might that be true?’ Abi said, unsure whether or not this was dangerous territory, but too curious not to ask. ‘And could a difficult birth be the answer for you, too?’
Jenner smiled again, but still didn’t look at her.
‘Mother pushed me out in about five minutes flat, if that’s what you’re asking. Apparently Gavar was an enormous baby, so Sil and I came into the world very easily.’ He pulled a face. ‘I’ve never felt the need for more information on that.
‘The funny thing is, no one noticed at first – about me, I mean. Some babies show their Skill very early. Silyen apparently set the nursery curtains on fire when he was just a few days old. And Nanny was constantly finding birds perched on his crib singing to him. They had to watch him every minute. But it’s also perfectly normal for there to be no strong showing until the age of four or five.
‘Mother swears I did a few things that resembled Skill, but they must have just been accidents, because by my fourth birthday – nothing. Nor by my fifth. Nor my sixth. Apparently, though I don’t remember this, I then announced that I wasn’t going to have any more birthdays. I must have understood that each one was an important milestone that I kept missing.’
He had finished fussing with the box. The painting had been swaddled, the lid closed, the tape secured. Jenner’s hands rested on top of the box, curled around nothing. He lifted his eyes. They were suspiciously bright.
‘The wall still recognizes me, because I have the family blood. The gate appears for me, but I can’t open it. It’s the same for little Libby. When I was younger, there was even some hoo-ha about whether I was my father’s son. As if that could ever be doubted.’
Jenner pushed his fingers through his hair, the exact same colour as his father’s. Tugged, as if he wanted to tear a bit out and show her, as proof of his parentage.
‘Anyway, I know you’ve wondered about it all. I’ve seen it in your face. So now you know. No great mystery.’ He forced a smile. ‘In my own way, I’m even more remarkable than Silyen.’
Abi felt like her heart had been replaced with one that was several sizes too big for her chest. She took a step closer.
‘Yes, you are,’ she told him. ‘Remarkable. Amazing.’
She touched his cheek, feeling guiltily grateful he didn’t have Skill. If he did, he would surely blast her through the bookcases for her impertinence. But he didn’t move, only raised his own fingers to cover hers, as if to confirm that her gesture was real.
Then Abi practically slapped him as she recoiled at the sound of the library door opening.
The box was knocked off the table and Jenner bent to pick it up. That left Abi, cheeks flaming like the Parva salamander, to face whoever had interrupted them.
It could have been worse – but it could have been a lot better. Lady Thalia was walking towards them, the hem of her silken housecoat swinging, while in the doorway waited Lady Hypatia Vernay.
As Lady Thalia cooed at her son over how smoothly the deep clean was progressing, the older woman stared flintily at Abi. She extended her arm and, with a sinking feeling, Abi saw that the elderly Equal’s leather-gloved claw held the end of a leash.
‘Girl, take this animal to the kennels,’ she commanded. And when Abi hesitated, ‘Now.’
Abi didn’t dare look at Jenner, merely bobbed a curtsey. Keeping her head down, she went to take the leash. The dog-man lay on the carpet in the corridor outside. Abi stepped out and heard the door close firmly behind her.
She’d seen Lady Hypatia’s hound several times since that first day, but only ever from a distance. Being confronted with him like this almost froze her with shock.
He was crouched awkwardly, his back forced lower than would be natural for a human on all fours, as if trying to replicate the gait of a dog. His torso was emaciated, and though his legs and arms were sinewy, the muscles looked all wrong. He was entirely naked, coarse dark hair covering much of his legs, buttocks and lower back. The hair on his head was thin and flowed down his neck in a greasy pelt. His age was entirely unguessable.
‘Hello,’ Abi tried, when her voice was back under control. ‘What’s your name?’
The man whined and trembled. If he really had been a dog, his ears would have been pressed flat to his skull, his tail between his legs.
‘No? How long have you been like this? Why?’
His hands pattered against the carpet, the nails snagging audibly. He ducked his head and slung back his haunches, just like a dog in distress.
‘Can you even speak? What have they done to you?’ Abi’s mouth went dry with horror.
The whining came again, louder and more urgent, almost gulping. The last thing Abi wanted was to be caught like that, as if she were the one tormenting the man. Fright made her do what reason would not and she tugged on the leash.
‘Come on, then. Let’s get you to the kennels.’
They crossed the Solar, and Abi sensed the other slaves’ heads turning to stare. She stopped by Kyneston’s great front door. Even though it was closed, icy air leaked over the threshold, and she knew that outside frost lay thick on the ground. Surely the man would catch his death of cold?
She stood uncertainly, until the dog-man himself scrabbled against the door, as if begging to be let out. It hardly seemed possible, but maybe he preferred being in the kennels to the treatment he received at Lady Hypatia’s hands.
The frost hadn’t lifted and the cold was smothering as Abi stepped outside. When she looked back the house was already hidden by fog, which lay over it like a giant white dust sheet. Even sounds were muted. She and Hypatia’s hound could have been the last things alive.
Unnerved, Abi hurried in the direction that she thought the stables lay. The temperature wasn’t much above zero, and the man was already shivering so violently that the leash was jerking in her hand. She looked at the leather loop with revulsion. What if she just dropped it? Let him disappear and report that she’d lost him in the mist.
Except how would he escape? The wall was still there, the gate perpetually hidden without a Jardine to summon it.
Relief thawed her when they reached the cluster of outbuildings. Crossing the cobbled yard, Abi entered the long, low kennels set at an angle to the stables. It was warmer in here, and the smell of dogs was overpowering.
A figure appeared from the gloom: the Master of Hounds. He came forward to meet her with no trace of welcome.
‘Well, if it isn’t Miss Bossyboots,’ he said, sneering. He saw the dog-man. ‘Lady Hypatia’s back, then.’
Abi held out the leash, but the man made no move to take it.
‘Put it in twenty. I keep it separate on account of the noise it makes.’
Number twenty was a metal pen, one of four in a dilapidated section of the kennels that appeared otherwise unused. It had a mesh roof and a barred door that bolted on the outside. Inside, dirty straw thinly covered the concrete floor.
Abi’s hand hesitated over the collar, then she unclipped the lead and the dog-man slunk into the enclosure. He curled up on the straw and buried his head against his naked chest. The soles of his feet were cracked and filthy, and his skin was red and raw from the frosty walk.
The kennel-master came back with a couple of metal dishes, one containing water, the other a mixture of dry biscuits and a pinkish-brown jelly. Dog food. He put them both down and slid them into the pen with the tip of his boot, before dragging the door shut and shooting the bolt.
‘Have you got the leash?’ Abi handed it over, and he hung it on a nail. ‘Can’t leave it with that, who knows what it’d try, eh? Not that I’d blame it, being the dog of a bitch like Hypatia.’
He spat expressively over the pen. Its occupant was now drinking the water, not lifting the bowl with his hands, but crouched over it slurping as a real dog would. The Master of Hounds saw Abi watching.
‘You never seen Lord Crovan’s handiwork before, eh? Lord Jardine reckons the man could teach even me something about breaking in animals.’
He laughed unpleasantly and Abi couldn’t hide her disgust.
‘Oh, don’t you go looking like that, young lady. This one was Condemned, and rightly so. His mistress may be cruel, but he deserved it.’
With a final rattle of the cage door to make sure it was secure, the kennel-master threaded a padlock through the bolt and clicked it shut. He took a ring of keys from his pocket, flicked to a small aluminium one which he unpeeled and dropped into Abi’s palm. Then he sauntered off, whistling. As he disappeared round the corner, the foxhound pack started up barking and whining at the return of their king.
Abi looked at the key, reluctant even to close her fingers around it. She didn’t want to be this creature’s keeper – this man’s, she corrected herself. She would take the key back to the house and deliver it to Lady Hypatia. Let her do with it what she would.
Maybe the old woman would still be in the library. Maybe Jenner would be, too.
Abi gratefully let her mind fill back up with thoughts of the Skilless Jardine son. What he had shown her and what it meant. What had passed between them earlier. What might have happened, had they not been interrupted.
So when the hand seized her ankle, she screamed. The fingers were ice-cold and bone-thin, but strong. Much stronger then she had imagined.
‘Shhh . . .’
The sound was almost unrecognizable as a human voice. If wolves could speak, they’d sound like this after a night of howling. It made the hairs on the back of Abi’s neck prickle up. The grip on her ankle tightened, and sharp nails pierced her sock through to her skin.
The voice rasped again.