How much do I love cover reveal time?!
Courtesy of the marvellous Elsa Kroese, here is our cover for Seven Dreams:
As promised, another tidbit of Seven Dreams ahead of release on May 4th. Time to meet the rest of the cast!
In the cloakroom of Dame Halavere’s country mansion, two temporary members of staff were hard at work accepting the many cloaks, coats, mantles, hoods and scarves of their employer’s guests, and assisting them in changing their outdoor shoes into dancing slippers. Teyodin Bambre was a little too tall to be strictly nondescript, but he had covered his shaggy, dark brown hair with a neat wig of an indeterminate hue and had adopted besides a bland expression perfectly suited to his role for the evening. A man of early middle years, he wore his age well, though there were a few tell-tale lines around his eyes and mouth. He attended to the gentleman guests with gracious solicitude; a worthy servant, but never so helpful as to excite comment, or to encourage anyone to remember him.
His colleague, Egg (or Egrenne, though she hated to be addressed by that name) performed the same service for the ladies. She was ten years younger than her associate, in truth, though she could have passed for a few years younger still. Her skin was also a few shades lighter than his darkish brown, though neither could be called pale. Her dark red hair was concealed beneath a black wig, she had bound almost flat the feminine assets which could not help but attract attention, and she was attired in the uniform livery of the Morann family. Teyo did not even glance at her as he went about his business, nor she at him; they were too well practiced at this art to betray any acquaintance with one another.
As Teyo worked, he set about committing to memory every face that appeared before him, together with any memorable details about that person and, if he could contrive it, their name. He also kept his ears open for any snatches of overheard conversation that might help him to determine who among Dame Halavere’s guests was her appointed contact.
They had been assisting the guests for an hour already, and the task seemed endless. Just as the flow of ball attendees seemed to finally be slowing down, a fresh flood of them would burst through the doors, setting Egg and Teyo bustling once more. Teyo’s memory was excellent, but even he was beginning to lose track of the many faces that had passed before his eyes. Most of the conversation he heard, moreover, was vacuous in the extreme and of neither use nor interest to him.
…delightful party… Dame Halavere so beautiful… goodness, but these shoes do pinch! I hope I shall be able to dance in them… careful with that, man, it is the finest silk! Who can that lovely young woman be, there in the violet gown? …heard about Miss Galler? Cannot countenance how she can show her face… shabbiest of refreshments at Sir Tatton’s last week, do hope Dame Halavere’s will be better…
In addition to all of this, Teyo was also obliged to keep track of his companion, friend and co-spy, Jisp. The creature was tiny, lithe and orange-scaled, with a blunt snout and lively black eyes. The sticky yellow pads to her toes allowed her to climb anywhere and everywhere, and he had frequently found this to be a useful talent.
He had discovered his draykon heritage a year ago, and very suddenly. He had been wandering across a field, deep in thought, and abruptly he had not been human anymore at all. He did not know how his sudden transformation had come about — certainly through no will of his own — but he understood it to be an increasingly common occurrence these days.
He had received training since, and one of the best perks of his unexpected heritage was his ability to bond and communicate with animals. He and Jisp had formed a strong friendship soon afterwards, and they were greatly attached to one another.
Not much happening down here, she reported from somewhere beneath a pile of shoes. These things stink.
Okay, switch to the pockets, he instructed her. He could not, as a servant, risk going through the guests’ pockets himself; if caught, he would be instantly dismissed and his part in the evening’s job would be over. Jisp, however, was perfect for the task. She instantly busied herself with climbing the ranks of coats and cloaks which hung on racks behind him, and nosing her way into all the nooks and crannies they contained. She transmitted to him a series of mental pictures of everything that she found within: handkerchiefs, snuffboxes, an occasional pipe or pot of rouge. Nothing of interest.
And then: a note! Jisp painstakingly nosed her way over the scrawled words as Teyo fought to focus both on that and the shoes of the gentleman before him. Midnight by the fountain, it said. Teyo’s heart beat a little faster. Do not wear your… oh. The next word was a vulgar term for women’s undergarments.
Teyo muttered something under his breath as he hung up the next cloak. He was disappointed, though he couldn’t help feeling a flicker of appalled fascination as well. Did the high-and-mighty truly attend grand society events without their underwear, and engage in scandalous trysts in their hosts’ gardens? So much for all their vaunted propriety.
Jisp continued with her explorations without any further excitement. The flow of guests was at last beginning to wane, and Teyo was prepared to give up, when he noticed that Egg was trying to attract his attention. She made a surreptitious signal, which he translated as: Kitchens, half an hour.
Jisp had completed her survey of the pockets of Dame Halavere’s guests, but she was so well entertained that Teyo left her to rummage as she wished. There was little danger of her being discovered, in spite of her bright colours; she had an unerring nose for danger and a remarkable talent for disappearing at a second’s notice. He passed the appointed half-hour in the scrupulous performance of his duties, a footman to the core, and by the time it was over new guests had ceased to arrive, and Teyo was free to depart. He did so speedily, lest his temporary superior, the butler, appear at an inopportune moment and order him elsewhere.
The kitchens were in chaos, of course. A banquet for hundreds of people had to be prepared, and everything must be perfect. Regaled with the sights and aromas of myriad glorious dishes, Teyo was briefly sorry that it would not be possible for him to partake of it. But he was able to palm a tiny fruit tart on his way through, together with a second one for Egg. They were warm in his hand as he slipped through the rear door into the pantries, and down a flight of steps at the back.
He and Egg had explored the house earlier that day, and agreed upon a meeting point. A disused storeroom lay behind a broken door in the cellar. Egg had left the leaning door open several inches, and Teyo slipped inside.
It was almost fully dark. Egg had a tiny glow-lamp for purposes such as these, and she had muted its already subtle light by covering it with a lightweight cloth. Fine cambric, he judged, with a pretty lace border. She had filched a handkerchief from one of the lady guests.
‘Resourceful,’ he murmured, indicating the handkerchief with a nod.
Egg flashed her wide, mischievous grin. ‘I am. Thank you. Find anything much?’
‘A very, very steamy love-note,’ Teyo replied, widening his eyes.
Egg coughed. ‘Anything relevant?’
‘About eighty snuffboxes and a truly appalling number of handkerchiefs. Oh, and Mr. Archiban Binker is to wed Miss Tia Wennan after all, though it was not thought that he would come up to the mark.’
Egg nodded wisely. ‘Wonderful news. I was wondering when those two would get together. Meanwhile, I have been hugely successful.’
‘In that case, you win food.’ Teyo handed her a fruit tart, and devoured his own in one bite.
‘Thanks,’ Egg said, her mouth already full of pastry. ‘Do I win two?’
Teyo shook his head. ‘The degree of your brilliance has yet to be demonstrated. It is not yet certain that you merit two.’
‘You merited one without doing anything at all!’ Egg protested.
‘That’s different. I was the thief of this operation: I get spoils.’ Teyo folded his arms.
Eg sighed. ‘Fine. Come with me.’
This, Teyo had not expected. He followed her out of the pantry, keeping a cautious eye out for passing staff. Egg led him to the other side of the spacious cellar, and Teyo became gradually aware of a faint sound: the sound, perhaps, of somebody writhing about and trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to shout around some kind of obstruction in the mouth. Egg threw open the door to one of the liquor rooms and whipped the handkerchief off her light-globe as she did so, allowing its light to blaze much brighter.
The room beyond was full of fat wooden barrels, probably containing brandy. It also had an occupant. A man in groom’s attire was lying face-first over one of the barrels, his legs and arms trussed up with something that looked suspiciously like stockings. Teyo raised an eyebrow at Egg, who shrugged.
‘What the—’ she said loudly as she stepped forward. ‘Oh, my giddy goodness! Are you all right?’ She had developed the broad vowels and drawling intonation of a local country lass, and when she ran forward to assist the captive, her demeanour was of shock and charmingly dim-witted concern. She soon managed to untangle the stocking which bound up the man’s hands, while Teyo ripped away his gag and the bindings on his legs. He got a good look at the captive’s face in the process, and understood at once why Egg had stuffed him in the brandy cellar.
‘Of course I’m all right!’ spat the man, and shoved past Egg without another word. He vanished through the door, leaving Egg to waggle her eyebrows at Teyo in an intolerably smug fashion.
Because Teyo had seen the man before, of course. His younger years had been neither as productive nor as respectable as he might have liked; he had, to his regret, been a member of the Yllandu. It was never easy to extricate oneself from such an outfit, but Teyo had managed it at last. He had offered himself to the Torwyne Agency of Irbel, and been accepted. For the past four years he had been working with Serena, Fabian and Egrenne to oppose everything the Unspeakables attempted to do in Irbel or Nimdre.
Egg’s captive was Yllandu. He had joined the organisation just as Teyo was leaving, and the two had never been acquainted. He had a distinctive face, however: pale and violently freckled, with a nose that veered sharply to the left.
‘And now we follow,’ Egg said proudly, and darted after the escapee. Teyo wandered after, pausing only briefly when the returning Jisp opted to scarper up his trouser-leg.
Serena had danced once with Fabian, once with the lively and very handsome Lord Darnwell, and once each with Mr. Rostover and Mr. Brackly. ‘Both so eligible,’ she breathlessly confided to Fabian a little later, as she downed a glass of punch.
‘Can you not stop dancing for five minutes?’ he returned in a disapproving tone. His eyes scanned the crowd as he spoke, ostensibly gazing with suitably admiring intensity at all the prettiest young ladies present. Serena knew that he was actually keeping an eye on Dame Halavere.
‘It must be my gown,’ she said modestly, lightly touching the silk. ‘It puts the gentlemen in such a fever of admiration, how can I be expected to resist?’ She smiled winningly.
‘We have work to do,’ he reminded her in a low voice.
‘I am working.’
‘That can be work.’ Serena finished her punch, set down her glass and swapped with Fabian. It was his turn to busy himself about the punch-bowl, and hers to maintain a surreptitious scrutiny of Dame Halavere’s movements, together with those of any other guest who might be behaving in unexpected ways. She noticed one gentleman — Trimble, his name was; an incorrigible libertine — slipping out of the rear door with Mrs. Vasher. Both were notoriously free with their favours, and Mrs. Vasher was doing far too much giggling for Serena’s taste.
‘Probably she is not even wearing underwear,’ Serena muttered under her breath.
‘What was that?’ whispered Fabian around his punch-glass.
Nothing else untoward occurred. Dame Halavere was dancing with Sir Kunley Prosh, a gentleman of advancing years who Serena instantly dismissed as a candidate for intrigue. He was far too simple-minded. He danced rather poorly — only his great wealth made him tolerable either as a ball-guest or a partner, she suspected — and smiled at his pretty partner in such a fatuous way that Serena felt reassured: nothing of the remotest interest could be going on inside that head.
When the dance came to an end, Halavere rejected the invitation of the next gentleman to approach her and made her way towards the garden doors.
Two men came towards Serena at the same moment, their intentions writ large upon their amiable faces, and she made a noise of frustration. ‘I should have brought Teyo into the ballroom,’ she hissed at Fabian.
‘What?’ he blinked. ‘Why?’
‘Because then we could have pretended to escape into the garden for a daring tryst, and I would not be stuck with these people.’
‘Would it have been pretend?’ Fabian asked with interest.
‘We’re going to have to do it the other way,’ she sighed.
‘Oh, no,’ Fabian muttered. ‘Please don’t do that again—’
His entreaties went unheeded. Just as her first would-be dance partner arrived with proffered hand, Serena began to sway slightly on her feet, her hand lifting to her forehead with an intriguing little fluttering motion. ‘Oh,’ she whispered faintly, ‘I do feel so very…’
She was not, in her weakness, able to utter another syllable before she sank into an elegant swoon. For a second, she thought that Fabian was not going to catch her after all. She shot him a glare from under her eyelids and, with a sigh, he broke her fall with every appearance of solicitude. Gone was Fabian Carterett, replaced by the perpetual boredom and faint, spoiled sneer of Lord Bastavere.
‘Oh, no, is it the vapours again?’ he murmured with becoming concern. ‘My poor, dear sister. What could be causing these repeated fits? I do hope it is not anything fatal.’
Serena was too artfully unconscious to be able to attempt any reply, though she made a mental note to smack him for it later. A little crowd had gathered around her, thrusting several bottles of smelling-salts under her nose at once. The aroma made her cough, her eyes watered, and she was obliged to recover.
The operation proceeded with well-practiced ease from there. In a trice, Fabian had explained to the company with brotherly concern that his sister required a little air; he had elbowed away the solicitous advances of the gentlemen and fended off the (largely feigned) concern of the ladies. He gently shepherded Serena out into the gardens, reassuringly unaccompanied, and there she underwent an instant and miraculous recovery.
‘You are so very good at that,’ she said, beaming.
‘I’ve had a lot of practice,’ he said dryly, offering her his arm. ‘I begin to think ballrooms are hazardous to your health. You cannot enter one without falling into a swoon.’
‘Quite right. I will have to give up the dancing and the flirting, and leave them both to Egg.’ She took his arm and they promenaded serenely through the darkened gardens, their path lit by way of dozens of light-globes floating just overhead.
It did not prove difficult to locate Dame Halavere. She had left a trail of heavy perfume, so powerful as to outdo even the exotic flowers for dominance. Serena followed her nose.
The garden was laid out in an ornamental arrangement, framed by tall hedges which divided it up into sections. Halavere’s trail led through a corridor of red-blooming vines and past a grand marble fountain. Serena thought she could hear giggling coming from behind one of the hedges. Fabian tried to turn towards it, but Serena pulled him back, shaking her head.
‘Not Halavere,’ she muttered, with an expressive roll of her eyes.
Fabian snorted. ‘I like this party.’
‘I can’t tell you how uninterested I am in hearing about that. Come on, this way.’
The soft scrunch of feminine footsteps on gravel sounded from somewhere ahead, and Serena and Fabian came to a halt. Peeping around a hedge, Serena observed Dame Halavere, but dimly visible in the moonlit darkness, lingering in a corner of the hedge.
‘She’s skulking,’ she reported in a faint whisper.
‘It’s always so promising when they skulk,’ Fabian replied with approval. He peered around Serena’s shoulder and added, ‘This is an especially promising skulk. She is certainly waiting for someone.’
‘Undoubtedly,’ Serena murmured. ‘Perhaps we could talk about it later?’
Fabian gave one of his soft snorts, and subsided. They waited in silence, until Serena’s straining ears caught the sounds of another set of approaching footsteps: heavier, probably male. The newcomer came into view moments later, and Serena could not repress a smile of mingled satisfaction and amusement. He was dressed as a groom, though his disguise was mediocre at best. He had none of the air of a man of the stables; he displayed the peculiar combination of swagger and furtiveness that marked out all the most desperate characters, and even the once-broken nose of a born brawler. It could virtually be considered a uniform among the Unspeakables. Why could criminals never display any imagination?
She waited in breathless anticipation, but to her disappointment, neither party spoke. The Desperate Character merely glanced about into the shadows in a disappointingly cursory fashion, and then handed something to Dame Halavere. What it was Serena could not, in the darkness, determine, but it seemed to satisfy the lady; she nodded, tucked the thing into a pocket of her gown without looking at it, and immediately withdrew. Serena feared for an instant that she would pass by them on her way back to the house, but she disappeared into the darkness on the other side of the hedge. The Desperate Character returned the way he had come, leaving Serena and Fabian alone.
Fabian stuck his hands into his pockets and stood for a moment in thought. ‘Worth pursuing?’ he eventually enquired.
Serena shrugged. ‘Could’ve been anything.’
‘A grocery list,’ Fabian agreed.
‘A recipe for hair pomade.’
‘The name of his tailor.’
‘A love note.’
‘Mm,’ Fabian said appreciatively. ‘Scandalous.’
‘We had better find out,’ Serena decided. ‘All that skulking has to indicate something juicy.’
‘But how to retrieve it? The pockets of a lady’s ball gown are closely guarded.’
‘Egg could do it,’ Fabian suggested. ‘Or Jispie.’
‘True, but where are they? I don’t want Halavere to have time to use or destroy whatever it is, before we can get to it.’
A hint of wariness crept into Fabian’s tone. ‘What exactly do you have in mind?’
Serena directed at him her most winning smile. ‘Dearest Fabe, seeing as you are quite the handsomest of brothers—’
‘Oh, no,’ he said firmly, cutting her off. ‘I am not seducing a woman again just so you can go rummaging in her pockets.’
‘Actually, I thought that you would do the pocket-rummaging.’ She paused. ‘That came out a little wrong.’
Fabian gave one of his snorts of laughter, but he still shook his head. ‘Absolutely not. Besides, if we don’t have time to find Egg, what makes you think we have time for that?’
‘All you have to do is dance with her. Come on!’
Fabian began to say something else, but Serena had already darted away in the direction Halavere had taken. She had learned the trick long ago of moving quickly and quietly on any terrain, gravel included, and she soon caught up with Halavere. Their hostess appeared to be making her way back to the ballroom, but slowly, and by a circuitous route. Serena and Fabian followed a cautious distance behind, keeping a close eye on her, but she met no one else nor did her hand ever stray to the pocket in which she’d secreted whatever her associate had given her. At last she disappeared back into the swelling music and welcoming lights of the ballroom.
‘Go!’ Serena hissed.
‘Egg’s probably already on it,’ he protested.
‘Egg could be doing a million other things right now.’
Fabian thought about that for a second. ‘I don’t really think that’s possible, no.’
Serena gave him an inelegant shove in the direction of the ballroom. He gave a deep, long-suffering sigh, but he went. Serena trailed inside soon afterwards and observed, to her satisfaction, that Fabian had succeeded in securing Dame Halavere for a dance, and was whirling her around the floor. He was clearly exerting all his considerable powers to please, and not without success, for the lady’s attention was fully focused upon him.
Serena drifted back to the punch bowls. She could rely on Fabe to get the goods; though he was not nearly so talented a pickpocket as Egg, he was certainly equal to this challenge. She was soon solicited for a dance herself, an invitation which she accepted, and a pleasant half-hour or so passed happily away. Fabian danced all the while with Halavere.
They met by the buffet table soon afterwards, and under cover of handing her a laden plate with all possible brotherly solicitude, Fabian hissed, ‘Piece of paper. Blank.’
Serena almost dropped the plate. ‘What?’
‘Nothing on it,’ he clarified.
Serena suppressed a sigh. ‘I know what blank means. How can it be blank? Surely it is some kind of invisible message.’
‘It’s blank,’ Fabian repeated.
Serena drooped over her plate of sweets, disappointed and puzzled. Had Halavere’s contact deceived her somehow? Or did she know, or suspect, that she was under observation and had acted out the whole charade in order to deceive? Perhaps the real meeting was taking place somewhere else, or perhaps it was already over. What if she knew who was here to watch her? Serena thought not, but couldn’t be sure.
‘I think we’d better behave ourselves for the next while,’ Serena said sadly.
Fabian sighed. ‘How boring.’
On the other side of the garden, Teyo and Egg were particularly well-concealed. Teyo’s draykon heritage granted him more than passable skill at sorcery, arts which had long been familiar and widely practiced across the Seven — even if their source had only recently come to be understood. He had cloaked them both in a patch of shadow, making them indistinguishable from the darkness around them. As such, it had been possible for them to creep up very close to Halavere and her contact without being seen.
They watched the exchange in silence, and a touch of disappointment. Halavere didn’t even look at the piece of paper; she merely stuffed it into her pocket and walked off. Teyo had been hoping to see some kind of altercation, which might have revealed more about the purpose of the meeting and the extent of Halavere’s involvement in Unspeakable business. He was obliged to content himself with the knowledge that her evening would grow somewhat complicated as soon as she realised the paper was blank.
‘I’m going to follow him,’ Teyo whispered to Egg, who agreed with a silent nod. They tailed the Unspeakable Gentleman all the way around the edges of the extensive gardens and up to the edge of the wide lawn that surrounded the house. It would be much harder to follow him across all that, and he suspected there would be little point; the man’s purpose had apparently been fulfilled, he had no one further to meet and no other tasks to accomplish, and he was leaving. Teyo thought he could be left to return to whichever rat-hole he was crouching in tonight, and turned back to Egg.
‘Thoughts?’ she said.
‘Think anything else is likely to happen tonight?’
‘Her Dameship is due to throw a fit at some point, but I’m not sure we’ll be able to catch that show.’ This last was spoken with some regret.
Teyo nodded. ‘We’ve got what we came for. Let’s find Rena and Fabe and get out of here.’
Their associates were summoned by the simple means of sending Jisp into the ball room and up the legs of either Serena or Fabian, whichever she encountered first. This errand complete, Teyo and Egg retired to the gates to await the arrival of the stupendous Chartre/Bastavere carriage, which soon drew up. They piled inside, and Teyo sank gratefully down onto the seat opposite Serena.
‘I had no idea the life of a footman was so exhausting,’ he muttered, sagging. ‘Two hundred cloaks later, and my arms hurt like—’
‘Whiner,’ muttered Egg.
‘Only tell me you have something fabulous to report, and it will all be worth it,’ Serena said. ‘Fabe and I failed. We saw Halavere meet someone, but he apparently gave her a blank piece of paper. Maybe a decoy?’
Egg rolled her eyes and groaned. ‘We’ve been working together how long? Four years, isn’t it?’
Serena turned a hopeful gaze upon Egg. ‘You found something?’
Egg gave a snort. ‘What do you think I was doing while you were tearing up the ballroom? Knitting?’
Teyo gave her a reproachful glance, and she patted his knee in brief apology. ‘Sorry, Teyo. I don’t mean to imply that knitting isn’t an exceptionally worthy pastime.’
Teyo nodded cool acceptance of this concession.
‘You switched the paper!’ Serena guessed.
‘Of course I switched the paper,’ Egg uttered with infinite weariness. She took the real paper out of her pocket and thrust it at Fabian, who was sitting opposite. Serena immediately craned her neck to look at it too.
‘I caught Halavere’s contact before the meeting ever took place,’ Egg continued. ‘He stuck out like a sore thumb, did you notice? Anyway, I got the paper off him after I tied him up and chucked him over a brandy barrel.’
Serena and Fabian were too busy consulting over the contents of the note to pay any heed to Egg’s announcement, and she turned a piteous stare upon Teyo.
‘There, there,’ he said soothingly. ‘I know you were brilliant.’
‘I need a pay rise,’ Egg muttered.
‘So, this place,’ Serena said. ‘You two know who it belongs to, right?’ She displayed the note, upon which was written the name Bellaster Park.
Teyo and Egg both shook their heads. ‘High society is your field,’ Egg said tartly.
‘It belongs,’ said Serena with a great sigh, ‘to Baron Anserval.’
‘Who?’ said Teyo.
‘Baron Farran Anserval!’ Serena elaborated in a grand voice. ‘The King of Pomposity! He’s fabulously wealthy. He purchased his barony a few years ago and settled down in southern Irbel, at the incredibly ostentatious Bellaster Park. Since then he’s devoted himself to buying basically everything of any value that comes in his way. The house is stuffed with rubbish by now.’
‘What does Halavere want with any of that?’ Teyo enquired.
‘I don’t know,’ Serena said with a small frown. ‘I might guess that he is an associate of the Unspeakables as well, but probably not? It looks more like he’s a target. In which case, perhaps he’s acquired something that Halavere wants — and, perhaps, that the Unspeakables want too.’
‘A robbery!’ said Egg in delight.
Teyo frowned. ‘Private houses are difficult to infiltrate, especially these grand places. Any chance he’ll be giving a ball soon?’
Serena said nothing, only sighed. Fabian answered instead, with a particularly fiendish grin.
‘That won’t be a problem,’ he said.
Egg kicked him in the shins. ‘Don’t be mysterious. Tell us why it won’t be a problem.’
‘Because,’ he said with relish, ‘The good Baron Anserval happens to be horribly in love with Serena.’
‘He is not,’ protested Serena, sitting abruptly upright with bristling indignation. ‘He is in love with Lady Fenella.’
‘You’re right,’ Fabian apologised. ‘A most vital distinction.’
Serena nodded gravely. ‘I can’t deny that it is a useful happenstance, but it is most tiresome. He really is the most dreadful bore.’
Fabian made a soothing noise. ‘Perhaps Oliver won’t wish us to pursue it.’
Teyo raised his brows. Oliver Tullen, their boss, was typically in favour of their pursuing everything that came up in connection with the Unspeakables; he would certainly send them after this little mystery. Serena knew it, too, for she turned upon Fabian a withering look and made no reply.
‘Yes, I suppose you’re right,’ Fabian said, nodding wisely. ‘You’ll just have to steel yourself, sis, and put up with an hour or two of fervent admiration.’
‘Which hour or two?’ Egg demanded. ‘We have only a place. No date or time, or anything to tell us what’s happening there or when. And we haven’t got much time to figure it out. Switching the paper won’t slow Halavere down for long. She’ll wring the information out of somebody soon enough.’
‘Stake-out,’ said Teyo.
Egg sighed. ‘I suppose.’
‘No matter,’ said Serena with a brilliant smile. ‘There are more of us, now, after all! Many hands make light work, and all that.’
Teyo blinked. ‘What?’
Serena beamed at him. ‘It’s time to go and pick up our new recruit.’
So, since we are fast approaching release day for Seven Dreams, I thought it might be fun to share some chapters from the new book!
Here’s the first chapter. I’ll share another next week.
Seven Dreams (The Lokant Libraries, Book 1)
Few aristocrats across the Seven Realms could match the importance of The Extremely Honourable Lady Fenella Chartre. She was the highest of the high; she knew it, and everybody else knew it too. Few would dare to compete with her for the first place at table, at even the most prestigious of dinner parties. No one would attempt to precede her out of a room. She secured the attentions of the most prominent gentleman present at any event, and without even trying. Her importance gathered around her like a cloak; it was evident in her every movement and gesture, every stitch of clothing that she wore, and every coil of her smooth blonde hair.
Equal in consequence was her brother, The Remarkably Honourable Edlen, Lord Bastavere. Fortunately, his height was a perfect match to his consequence, and permitted him to look down his long nose at the lesser persons around him without much straining his lordship. They made a handsome pair, everybody agreed, and had been enjoying the very best of society for some years.
Today, they had ventured beyond the borders of Irbel and explored into Nimdre. Their extremely large, thoroughly imposing and almost impossibly shiny carriage was making its way, at approximately half past seven in the evening, along a quiet but reassuringly well-kept road in northern Nimdre. It was drawn, of course, by a team of four high-stepping, perfectly-matched nivvens, their pale grey scales gleaming in the dying light. The destination of the noble pair was the grand country home of Dame Halavere Morann, a lady of lesser importance (naturally) but sufficient consequence to attract the interest of their lady-and-lordships. Lady Fenella reclined at her ease, gazing idly out at the darkening countryside as she reflected with satisfaction upon the delights of prestige, importance and superiority which she would enjoy at the Dame’s autumn ball. Her brother wore the faintest hint of a scowl upon his noble features; he had, perhaps, been obliged to forego some more eligible plan in favour of this evening’s entertainment.
‘What a delight it shall be, I am sure!’ said Lady Fenella, in the peachiest of plummy accents.
‘A dead bore, I should think,’ muttered his lordship in reply.
‘Pish,’ said Lady Fenella. ‘You will be able to ignore at least half of the young ladies, and break the hearts of all the rest. You always enjoy that.’
Lord Bastavere ventured no response, and silence fell. Her ladyship resumed her lazy scrutiny of the countryside, and her dark eyes began to drift shut.
In the ordinary way of things, nobody would be so foolish nor so bold as to interfere with their lord-and-ladyship in any way whatsoever. Such a grand, large carriage may, in the course of ordinary logic, appear as a superb prize to adventurers, low-lifes and other such persons as that, but such had never been the experience of this noble pair. Their vehicles, their beasts, their garments and of course they themselves radiated such imperturbability, such an inflexible determination to carry all before them, that no one had dared cross them in the smallest respect.
Until today. Lady Fenella’s reverie was rudely interrupted by a sudden lurch of the carriage as it swerved to one side, two of its wheels leaving the road altogether. After that it came to an abrupt stop, and the sounds of some loud altercation split the evening air.
Lady Fenella thumped her hand upon the roof of the carriage and called, ‘Wendle! What has occurred?’
Receiving no response, and finding that the shouting continued unabated, her ladyship stuck her head out of the window of the carriage. She observed immediately that a desperate figure stood in the road not far away. The man was wearing the customary uniform of general depravity: dark colours, generally black, and a hooded cloak which admirably shrouded his features. His attire may, perhaps, be a little shabby, which suggested to her ladyship’s keen eye that he was not the most successful of footpads. This impression was borne out by the disreputable condition of the rapier he wielded, though she could not deny that he wielded it with apparent skill. Her poor coachman, Wendle, was held at bay by the vicious weavings of this weapon as its wielder whipped it about in a tolerably threatening manner. Her footman stood at a little distance, obviously preparing to rush the swordsman in an attempt to disarm him.
‘What is it?’ said Lord Bastavere in a bored tone.
‘Why, it is a hold-up!’ replied his sister in accents of pure delight. ‘A real one! Though I think it sadly disappointing. There is not even a pistol, only the shabbiest of rapiers.’ She opened the door as she spoke and jumped lightly down into the road, taking all due care to hold the hem of her cerulean silk skirt out of the mud. ‘Hallo!’ she called, with a cheery smile. ‘Goodness, I have never seen a real highwayman before! How very obliging of you to choose our carriage for your exciting adventure.’
The hood-shrouded head turned swiftly in her direction, and the highwayman’s movements faltered in an instant of confusion. ‘Stay back!’ he shouted hoarsely, and in heavily accented Nimdren. ‘I will kill your coachmen if anyone approaches me!’
‘Of course, of course,’ said Lady Fenella soothingly. ‘It is our valuables you want, I suppose? Shall you be absolutely obliged to take my gown? It is undoubtedly fine, and would fetch a great price I am sure, but I am so very fond of it.’ She stroked the beautiful silk as she spoke, heaved a long sigh and began to unlace the bodice.
This gambit confused her assailant very much, for he stammered one or two unintelligible things and blurted something wholly incomprehensible. This proved opportunity enough; Lord Bastavere, who had crept up upon the hapless highwayman unseen, grabbed him in a rough bearhug and shook him until he dropped his weapon. Wendle hastily retrieved it and took it well out of reach.
‘Thank you, my dear,’ said Lady Fenella, with the warmest of smiles for her brother. ‘I would have been very sorry to part with my gown, I admit. Though to save all of our lives, I would have done it!’ This last was added in laudably tragic tones, paired with a brave smile which quivered only the slightest bit.
Lord Bastavere made no reply, busying himself with securing the hands of the highwayman behind him. This appeared to cost him more effort than might be expected, given the tall and powerful frame his lordship enjoyed, and the shorter and undeniably thinner physique of the other. A wrestling match occurred, which Lord Bastavere appeared, incredibly, to be losing.
The reason for this soon became clear. The highwayman’s body began to warp in the oddest way, shimmering and flickering in an alarming fashion. His strength appeared to grow by the second, and soon he threw off Lord Bastavere altogether and ran some few steps away.
Moments later, there stood not a man at all but a draykon. The beast was very large indeed, and appeared all the larger when he reared up upon his hind legs, flexing his vast, webbed wings and roaring a challenge at the carriage and all associated with it. His scales were a dark amber colour, a hue which her ladyship could not help finding utterly charming. He bore besides a long snout, vicious-looking teeth and wickedly curved, opalescent claws.
‘A shapeshifter!’ cried Lady Fenella delightedly. ‘My word! Some say one meets with them everywhere these days, but I did not previously believe it to be true.’
The draykon roared again, and showed himself to be tiresomely determined to charge the carriage. This notion did not appeal very much to her ladyship. With a short sigh, she removed a compact voice-box from a pocket of her voluminous gown and spoke into it.
‘Teyo, we’re going to need you,’ she said crisply in the Irbellian tongue. ‘Be suitably terrifying.’
She put the voice-box away once more, and smiled calmly at the draykon. The creature was certainly enjoying his triumph: he amused himself with a bit more thrashing and roaring, flapping his sail-like wings in a manner he no doubt considered to be extremely alarming. In fact, it was rather alarming. If he chose to attack the carriage, considerable damage would no doubt follow. But he did not, which both relieved and puzzled her ladyship.
Lady Fenella and her brother stood side-by-side, watching. After perhaps a minute, Lady Fenella removed an attractive, bejewelled timepiece from another pocket and glanced at it.
‘What could possibly be keeping him?’ she murmured.
‘There he is,’ replied his lordship, with a nod at the road behind them.
Another draykon came soaring down it, wings spread wide and mouth open in a shattering roar. This beast was considerably larger than the first, his scales gorgeously carmine in hue and his teeth and claws so very impressive, Fenella always felt agreeably faint on beholding them. The second draykon landed near to the first, the ground shaking with the impact, and screamed so violently at his smaller counterpart that the amber-coloured creature shuddered and transformed at once back into a man.
‘I tried,’ the man muttered as he held up his hands.
‘Thank you, Teyo darling,’ said Fenella, with a sweet smile.
The carmine draykon took off once more and soon disappeared into the encroaching darkness, tipping his wings to Fenella as he went.
‘How very exciting!’ Fenella said, approaching the hapless highwayman with a conciliating smile. ‘Poor soul, am I right in thinking that you are sadly short of employment opportunities? I may be able to help you there!’
‘Rena!’ hissed his lordship incomprehensibly. ‘We do not need another one!’
Lady Fenella ignored this magnificently, too occupied in shepherding her fine skirts over the muddy road to pay attention to her brother. ‘I cannot stay for the present — a most pressing appointment to attend to, I’m sure you understand — but if you can contrive to remain here for an hour or two, we shall return for you with all possible haste.’
Her quarry merely stared blankly at her, his mouth hanging open a little.
‘Quickly, quickly,’ said her ladyship, just a little testily. ‘I did say I have an appointment, did I not? And you have already sadly delayed us.’
‘What kind of opportunity?’ said the highwayman at last.
‘One which would make the utmost use of your unusual talents,’ she replied with a smile. ‘Oh, I can always find a use for another shapeshifter. There can be no question about that! It would be of the utmost usefulness. And then there is your talent for disguise. I have seldom seen a woman masquerade more successfully as a man.’
‘Wha…’ spluttered the dark figure. There was neither hoarseness nor gruffness in that single syllable; it was spoken instead in the unmistakeable high, clear tones of a woman. A fairly young one, most likely. ‘How did you know?’
‘My dear,’ said Lady Fenella grandly, ‘You are speaking to an expert.’ Her voice, too, had changed; all of its exaggerated plumminess had disappeared, and a mild Irbellian accent had emerged. She made a curtsey of exquisite gracefulness, a single dimple appearing in one cheek with her mischievous smile, and straightened. ‘We’ll return,’ she said. ‘I would take you along in the carriage, only I would find that a trifle difficult to explain. The needs of the masquerade must always come first, as I’m sure you know.’
With this pronouncement, her ladyship got back into her spectacular carriage — the paint of which, upon closer inspection, might appear to be a little too shiny, and perhaps rather too new — and waited while her brother regained his seat beside her. She thumped twice upon the roof with a suitably commanding air, and the carriage drove off once more.
‘Serena,’ said Lord Bastavere. ‘What was that about?’
Miss Serena Carterett shrugged. ‘I never pass up the chance to recruit, Fabe. Good people are awfully difficult to find when you want them.’
Her brother, Mr. Fabian Carterett, merely sighed and flopped back into his seat. ‘Whatever you say,’ he replied.
They arrived at the ball later than planned, but since that only emphasised their importance, neither one of the siblings considered it at all to be regretted. In fact, many others had had the same happy thought, and their carriage was obliged to wait in line for some minutes before they could be gracefully ejected from it and welcomed into the house.
Dame Halavere’s abode was sumptuous indeed. It bore a suitably symmetrical facade, was several storeys high, and constructed from an excessively attractive (and expensive) silvery-coloured stone. It was sizeable enough to contain twenty bedrooms at the least, and the grounds — though little of them could be seen in the darkness — were extensive. Serena gazed at the whole picture with undisguised covetousness for some moments before she ventured up the several steps to the entrance, her brother solicitously holding her arm.
Dame Halavere herself was stationed near the front of her grand hall, still poised to welcome her guests. She was aged somewhere in her thirties, Serena judged, with handsome features and the pure, snow-white hair that proclaimed her Lokant heritage. She wore it so proudly, in fact, that she had single-handedly overcome some of the wariness — nay, even prejudice — that had greeted the Lokants upon their coming to prominence within the Seven Realms. They were not native to Serena’s world, and wielded strange and powerful abilities which bore little resemblance to the sorcerous magics which were familiar, and trusted, within the Seven. The draykoni, likewise, were but newly restored, though they had become steadily more prominent during the last two years. It fell to individuals such as Dame Halavere to overcome the natural cautions of an alarmed people, and since she wielded such fearsome weapons as a beautiful smile, an undeniably handsome cleavage and all the most desirable trappings of wealth, culture and sophistication, she was doing an admirable job of it.
Serena eyed her with some misgivings, watching closely as her hostess greeted those ahead with perfect graciousness and civility. Halavere was a high-ranking member of a new Lokant organisation. Its inevitably wordy name — the Lokant Heritage Investigation and Training Bureau — was typically shorted to the LHITB, or just the LHB. Dame Halavere had received significant training; Serena’s sources reported that she was a strong medic, but showed little talent at the art of dominating the minds of others. This latter, of course, was responsible for much of the distrust aimed at the Lokants and their part-blood descendants in the Seven. Indeed, if Dame Halavere were skilled at such an art, she could force Serena to see whatever she wished her to see, concealing truths behind a species of illusion. Then, of course, it would be virtually impossible for Serena to discover anything at all about the questionable activities she strongly suspected Dame Halavere of indulging in.
Serena did not entirely trust her sources. If Halavere had concealed her talents in this area, it was better by far that she should never have reason to distrust Serena and Fabian.
Hence the masquerade. Serena gathered the silly, self-important and vivacious persona of Lady Fenella Chartre around herself, drew herself up to her full (albeit not especially impressive) height and stepped forward in her turn.
‘Dame Halavere! Such a delightful ball! I am enjoying myself immensely and I have but just stepped through your doorway.’ Serena curtseyed and simpered, as Fabian made his bow.
‘Ah, the sumptuous siblings,’ said Halavere, with an arch look at Fabian. He did make a very handsome lord, Serena had to admit, especially with that gorgeous blond wig. Ever quick to use every possible advantage, Fabian bestowed upon his hostess a silky smile in response, and held her hand just a little too long.
‘You are most welcome, and I hope you will enjoy yourselves,’ continued Halavere. With that they were dismissed; Halavere turned to greet the next guests in the line, and Serena and Fabian were free to wander into the rest of the house.
The ballroom was gloriously lit up with floating lanterns, and decked with wondrous flowers in hues of indigo, cream and gold. Strains of beautiful music drifted forth, and the air was filled with the delicious fragrances of flowers and edible delicacies. Serena could not repress her delighted smile as they entered, her gaze wandering from the many guests whirling about the floor, to the stunningly decorated walls and the vast bowls full of colourful punch standing on tables along one side of the room.
‘Remember, we are not here to dance,’ whispered Fabian, her delight evincing only a disapproving frown in response.
‘But we must dance a little!’ she whispered back. ‘How very odd it will appear for us to attend a ball without dancing! We do have parts to play.’
‘One dance, and you may dance with me,’ Fabian conceded, and immediately led her onto the floor. The orchestra was playing a mellifluous waltz at that moment, which suited Serena perfectly. Her natural tastes for music, light, colour and liveliness led her to exult in all events of this kind, and ensured that Lady Fenella Chartre was one of her favourites of all the roles she played in the course of her duties.
She was, in truth, an agent of an investigative bureau in Irbel. Their organisation bore strong links to the government of her home realm, but was largely independent and funded by private individuals. Their acknowledged purpose was to oppose crime in all its forms, but its focus was upon organised crime, and upon one group in particular: the largest, most extensive and most ruthless of all the criminal organisations of the Seven.
They called themselves the Yllandu, which meant “Unspoken” in Ullarni. Serena supposed it was intended as a reference to the extreme secrecy of the organisation itself, and all of its activities. The name sounded absurd to her; she and her band tended to call them the Unspeakables instead, which amused them all greatly. But the Yllandu were no laughing matter. The organisation was vast, spanning all of the Realms except for desolate Orlind, and there was no low to which they would not stoop.
More worryingly, they had adopted the new Lokant and draykoni descendants with enthusiasm and had been attempting to recruit all of those who showed even the least skill in any related area. It had been whispered that they had even attempted to sway the founder of the LHB, Lady Evastany Glostrum herself, though of course her ladyship had proved impervious.
Dame Halavere probably had not. Her name had come up repeatedly in connection with several recent crimes, and though they were but rumours, Serena’s superiors had judged it best to investigate. Word had reached them of a meeting that was to take place tonight, under cover of Halavere’s grand ball. The topic under discussion was to be a new job — and not just any job. This job was extremely important, enormously lucrative, and to be entrusted only to the most talented, most loyal, and most reliable of the Unspeakables.
Unfortunately, nobody had any idea what the job was. It fell to Serena and Fabian to keep Halavere under close observation tonight, and attempt to overhear whatever was said at that meeting. There were only a few obstacles in their way: namely the presence of approximately two hundred other guests, the necessity of concealing themselves and their true purpose from their hostess, and the minor complication that they had no idea who Halavere might be meeting. Or whether she would even risk attending that meeting in person.
Fortunately, the Carteretts had one or two other colleagues stationed around the house tonight.
The rest is out May 4th!
Good morning and Happy Easter to all. I trust we are suitably chocolate-stuffed. I’m not, yet, but I have an entire white chocolate cheesecake waiting for me in the fridge, so all in good
I bring news of juicy free books. TWO box sets containing, in total, twelve fantasy and science fiction titles, two of which are mine. Shiny, no?
The first is entitled “Quest: Eight novels of Fantasy, Myth and Magic.” All the books therein are free series starters, so it’s a great way to try out some new authors. Other names besides yours truly include Joseph Lallo, Lindsay Buroker, Mark E. Cooper, Robert J. Crane, Patty Jansen, Jeffrey Poole and J. Thorn. It’s available for free from most major ebook stores (note: if it isn’t free at your local Amazon store yet, it should be soon – give it a day or two and check back!). Get it from Amazon stores, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble and Kobo.
The second is a four-book fantasy and sci-fi bundle by the book blog Strange Charm. This one is free for a limited time, so if you’re interested grab it in the next week or so. It includes my book, Miss Landon and Aubranael, which is usually priced at $4.99; this deal won’t be repeated for the foreseeable future, so do grab a copy quick if you’re interested. Other authors include Rachel Cotterill, S. L. Huang and M. Terry Green. Get it here!
In other news, Seven Dreams is out in a few weeks now, and huzzah for that. If you didn’t grab your copy yet, it’s up for pre-order pretty much everywhere (more details here).
And in other, other news: my next project will be Tales of Aylfenhame 2 (a sequel to Miss Landon and Aubranael). Those who have read it may recall that it is stuffed full of charming fairytale illustrations by Rosie Lauren Smith. I’m happy to report that she is all set to do new illustrations for the second book as well, which makes me very happy. I’ll look forward to sharing those with you all in due course.