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A face like glass, p.1
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       A Face Like Glass, p.1

           Frances Hardinge
A Face Like Glass

  To my one-year-old nephew Isaac, in whose eyes I see the world reflected, and find it to be wondrous and full of surprises


  Prologue: The Child in the Curds


  Stir Crazy


  A Crossing of Paths

  The Imposter

  Lies and Bare Faces


  The Morning Room

  Death by Delicacy

  Desperate Deeds


  Curiosity and the Cat Burglar

  Everything We Need

  Beauty and the Beasts

  The Hunt

  Blind Side

  A Drop of Madness

  The Works

  A Loss of Face

  Tears on Alabaster

  The Rending



  The Screamer in the Dream

  The Master of Craft

  Running Rogue

  Nearest and Dearest

  The Secret Excavation

  That Way Lies Madness

  Up Meets Down

  Trust Yourself

  Cats and Pigeons

  Face Off



  The Child in the Curds

  One dark season, Grandible became certain that there was something living in his domain within the cheese tunnels. To judge by the scuffles, it was larger than a rat, and smaller than a horse. On nights when hard rain beat the mountainside high above, and filled Caverna’s vast labyrinth of tunnels with the music of ticks and trickles and drips, the intruding creature sang to itself, perhaps thinking that nobody could hear.

  Grandible immediately suspected foul play. His private tunnels were protected from the rest of the underground city by dozens of locks and bars. It should have been impossible for anything to get in. However, his cheesemaker rivals were diabolical and ingenious. No doubt one of them had managed to smuggle in some malignant animal to destroy him, or worse still his cheeses. Or perhaps this was some ploy of the notorious and mysterious Kleptomancer, who always seemed determined to steal whatever would cause the most chaos, regardless of any personal gain.

  Grandible painted the cold ceiling pipes with Merring’s Peril, thinking that the unseen creature must be licking the condensation off the metal to stay alive. Every day he patrolled his tunnels expecting to find some animal curled comatose beneath the pipes with froth in its whiskers. Every day he was disappointed. He laid traps with sugared wire and scorpion barbs, but the creature was too cunning for them.

  Grandible knew that the beast would not last long in the tunnels for nothing did, but the animal’s presence gnawed at his thoughts just as its teeth gnawed at his precious cheeses. He was not accustomed to the presence of another living thing, nor did he welcome it. Most of those who lived in the sunless city of Caverna had given up on the outside world, but Grandible had even given up on the rest of Caverna. Over his fifty years of life he had grown ever more reclusive, and now he barely ventured out of his private tunnels or saw a human face. The cheeses were Grandible’s only friends and family, their scents and textures taking the place of conversation. They were his children, waiting moon-faced on their shelves for him to bathe them, turn them and tend to them.

  Nonetheless, there came a day when Grandible found something that made him sigh deeply, and clear away all his traps and poisons.

  A broad wheel of Withercream had been left to ripen, the pockmarked skin of the cheese painted with wax to protect it. This soft wax had been broken, letting the air into the secret heart of the cheese and spoiling it. Yet it was not the ruined cheese which weighed Grandible’s spirits to the ground. The mark set in the wax was a print from the foot of a human child.

  A human child it was, therefore, that was trying to subsist entirely on the extraordinary cheeses produced by Grandible’s refined and peculiar arts. Even nobility risked only the most delicate slivers of such dangerous richness. Without as much as a morsel of bread or a splash of water to protect its tender stomach from the onslaught of such luxury, the unknown child might as well have been crunching on rubies and washing them down with molten gold. Grandible took to leaving out bowls of water and half-loaves of bread, but they were never touched. Clearly his traps had taught the child to be suspicious.

  Weeks passed. There were periods during which Grandible could find no trace of the child, and would conclude with a ruffled brow that it must have perished. But then a few days later he would find a little heap of nibbled rinds in another under-alley, and realize that the child had just roamed to a new hiding place. Eventually the impossible fact dawned upon him. The child was not dying. The child was not sickening. The child was thriving on the perilous splendours of the cheese kingdom.

  At night Grandible would sometimes wake from superstitious dreams in which a whey-coloured imp with tiny feet pranced ahead of him, leaving tiny weightless footprints in the Stiltons and sage-creams. Another month of this and Grandible would have declared himself bewitched. However, before he could do so the child proved itself quite mortal by falling into a vat of curdling Neverfell milk.

  Grandible had heard nothing untoward, for the creamy ‘junket’ was already set enough to muffle the sound of the splash. Even when he was stooping over the vast vat, admiring the fine, slight gloss on the setting curds, and the way they split cleanly like crème caramel when he pushed his finger in to the knuckle, he noticed nothing. Only when he was leaning over with his long curd-knife, ready to start slicing the soft curds, did Grandible suddenly see a long, ragged rupture in their surface, filling with cloudy, greenish whey. It was roughly in the shape of a small, spreadeagled human figure, and a row of thick, fat bubbles was squirming to the surface and bursting with a sag.

  He blinked at this strange phenomenon for several seconds before realizing what it had to mean. He cast aside his knife, snatched up a great wooden paddle and pushed it deep into the pale ooze, then scooped and slopped the curds and whey this way and that until he felt a weight on the end. Bracing his knees against the vat, he heaved back on the handle like a fisherman hauling in a baby whale. The weight strained every joint in his body, but at last a figure appeared above the surface, shapeless and clotted with curds, and clinging to the paddle with all the limbs at its disposal.

  It tumbled out, sneezing, spluttering and coughing a fine milky spray, while he collapsed beside it with a huff, breathless with the unexpected exertion. Six or seven years old to judge by the height, but skinny as a whip.

  ‘How did you get in here?’ he growled, once he had recovered his breath.

  It did not answer, but sat quivering like a guilty blancmange and staring from under pale soupy eyelashes.

  He was an alarming enough sight for any child, he supposed. Grandible had long since abandoned any attempt to make himself fair and presentable in a way of which the Court would approve. In fact, he had rebelled. He had deliberately forgotten most of the two hundred Faces he had been taught in infancy with everybody else. In his stubborn solitude he wore the same expression day in and out like a slovenly overall, and never bothered to change it. Face 41, the Badger in Hibernation, a look of gruff interest that suited most situations well enough. He had worn that one expression so long that it had carved its lines into his features. His hair was grizzled and ragged. The hands that gripped the paddle were darkened and toughened by wax and oils, as if he were growing his own rind.

  Yes, there was reason enough for a child to look at him with fear, and perhaps it really was afraid. But this was probably nothing but an act. It had decided that terror was more likely to win him round. It would have chosen a suitable Face from its supply, like a card from a deck. In Caverna lies were an art
and everybody was an artist, even young children.

  I wonder which Face it will be, Grandible thought, reaching for a bucket of water. No. 29 – Uncomprehending Fawn before Hound? No. 64 – Violet Trembling in Sudden Shower?

  ‘Let’s see you, then,’ he muttered, and before the curled figure could react he had thrown the water across its face to wash away the worst of the curds. Long, braided hair showed through the ooze. A girl, then? She made a panicky attempt to bite him, showing a full set of milk teeth with no gaps. Younger than he had thought at first, then. Five years old at the most, but tall for her age.

  While she sneezed, spluttered and coughed, he grabbed her small chin and with a heavy rind-brush began clearing the rest of the clogging Neverfell curds from her features. Then he snatched up a trap-lantern and held it close to the small face.

  However, it was Grandible, not the child, who gave a noise of fear when at last he saw the countenance of his captive. He released her chin abruptly, and recoiled until his back halted with a clunk against the vat from which he had saved her. The hand holding up his trap-lantern shook violently, causing the little glowing ‘flytrap’ within the lamp to snap its fine teeth fretfully. There was silence, but for the tallowy drip of curds from the child’s long, clogged braids, and her muted snuffles.

  He had forgotten how to look surprised. He was out of practice in changing his expression. But he could still feel that emotion, he discovered. Surprise, incredulity, a sort of horrified fascination . . . and then the heavy onslaught of pity.

  ‘Thunder above,’ he muttered under his breath. For a moment more he could only stare at the face his brush had revealed, then he cleared his throat and tried to speak gently, or at least softly. ‘What is your name?’

  The child sucked her fingers warily, and said nothing.

  ‘Where are your family? Father? Mother?’

  His words had as much effect as coins dropped in mud. She stared and stared and shivered and stared.

  ‘Where did you come from?’

  Only when he had asked her a hundred such questions did she offer a whispered, hesitant response that was almost a sob.

  ‘I . . . I don’t know.’

  And that was the only answer he could get from her. How did you get in? Who sent you? Who do you belong to?

  I don’t know.

  He believed her.

  She was alone, this child. This odd and terrible child. She was as alone as he was. More so than he, in fact, despite all his attempts to hide away. More so than a child that age could possibly realize.

  Suddenly it came to Grandible that he would adopt her. The decision seemed to make itself without asking him. For long years he had refused to take an apprentice, knowing that any underling would only seek to betray and replace him. This child, however, was a different matter.

  Tomorrow, he would organize a ceremony of apprenticeship with his strange, young captive. He would invent a parentage for her. He would explain that she had been scarred during a cheese-baking and had to keep her face bandaged. He would guide her pen to enter her name as ‘Neverfell Grandible’ on the documents.

  But today, before anything else, he would send out for a small, velvet mask.


  On a certain murky hour about seven years after that fateful day, a skinny figure could be seen capering sideways beside Grandible as he growled and slouched his way through the tunnels with a great white loop of braided rope-cheese over one shoulder, and a ring of keys bristling in his fist.

  She was no longer the little cheese-clotted scrap of life that blinked white lashes at Cheesemaster Grandible and so terrified him. Nor was she like her master, grim-jowled, solemn and taciturn, dogged and careful in word and action. No, despite her best efforts she was a skinny, long-boned tangle of fidget and frisk, with feet that would not stay still, and elbows made to knock things off shelves. Her hair was twisted into a mass of short, twiggy red pigtails to keep it out of her face, the cheese and everything else.

  Seven years had passed. Seven years in the cheese tunnels, struggling after Grandible’s round-shouldered rolling gait with pails of milk or pots of hot wax. Seven years turning cheeses on to their bellies, cheddaring, clambering up the wide wooden shelves like a monkey, sniffing scoops of cheese-paste for ripeness. Seven years learning to follow her nose through the darkened tunnels, for Cheesemaster Grandible was stingy with the trap-lanterns. Seven years of sleeping in a hammock strung between the shelves, her only lullaby the fluting of the Whitwhistle cheese as its emerald rind heaved and settled. Seven years of helping Grandible defend his territory from the murderous attempts of other cheesemakers. Seven years of tinkering and taking things apart to fill the unyielding hours, inventing curd-shredders and triple-whisks, and learning the pleasure of seeing cog obey cog.

  Seven years in which Grandible never permitted her to step out of his private tunnels, even for a moment, and never let her meet anybody without wearing a mask.

  And what of those five years that had been hers before she was apprenticed? She could recall almost nothing of them. She tried a thousand times, but for the greater part that section of her memory was as smooth and numb as scar tissue. Sometimes, just sometimes, she convinced herself that she could remember stray images or impressions, but she could not describe them properly or make sense of them.

  Darkness. A luminous coil of purple smoke rising around her and upward. A bitterness on her tongue. These were her only memories of her lost past, if memories they truly were.

  Nobody’s mind ever remains a blank page, however carefully they are locked away from the world. In the case of Neverfell, she had made her mind into a scrapbook, busy filling it with the fragments, stories, rumours and reports she could scavenge from talking to the delivery boys who came to pick up cheeses or drop off milk and supplies, and failing that the wild scribblings of her own imagination.

  By the time she had reached the giddy age of twelve-probably, she knew everything about Caverna that could be learned through nothing more than sharp ears, a good memory, tireless questioning and an overactive imagination. She knew of the glittering Court, teetering always on the tightrope of the Grand Steward’s whims. She knew of the great ceaseless camel trains that crossed the desert to bring wagonloads of provisions to Caverna, and carry away tiny portions of luxuries created by Caverna’s master Craftsmen, each worth more than their weight in diamonds. The overground had its own makers of delicacies, but only in Caverna were there masters of the Craft, capable of making wines that rewrote the subtle book of memory, cheeses that brought visions, spices that sharpened the senses, perfumes that ensnared the mind and balms that slowed ageing to a crawl.

  Hearsay, however, was no substitute for a real live visitor.

  ‘When is she coming? Can I make the tea? Did you see I swept the floors and fed grubs to all the lanterns? I can serve the tea, can’t I? Shall I fetch the dates?’ Questions were too big and wild for Neverfell’s mind to rein, and they always escaped her, usually in packs of six. Questions annoyed Master Grandible, and she could feel them annoying him, but somehow she could never help it. Even his grim, warning silences just filled her with a desperate urge to fill them. ‘Can I—’


  Neverfell flinched back. She lived in a quiet, pragmatic terror of those rare times when her persistence or puppy-clumsiness pushed Master Grandible into true anger. Though she had developed something of an instinct for his moods, nothing ever showed in his face, which remained grimly static and weatherworn like a door knocker. When his temper snapped it did so in an instant, and did not right itself for days.

  ‘Not for this visitor. I want you hidden away in the lofts until she is gone.’

  The news hit Neverfell like a physical blow. In the drab and pungent calendar of her life, a visitor was more than a holiday – it was a blessed intrusion of light, life, air, colour and news. For days before such a visit her excitement would be almost painful, her mind a hornets’ nest of anticipation. For days afterwa
rds her lungs filled more easily, and her mind had new memories and thoughts to turn over and play with, like a child with freshly unwrapped gifts.

  To find herself denied contact with any guest at the last moment was agony, but to be denied a chance to meet this particular visitor was beyond bearing.

  ‘I . . . I swept all the floors . . .’ It came out as a pathetic, broken little mewl. Neverfell had spent the last two days taking especial care to fulfil all her duties, and find yet more to complete so that Master Grandible would have no reason to lock her out of sight before the visitor arrived.

  She felt her throat tighten, and had to blink back the blur of tears. Master Grandible stared at her and nothing changed in his face. No light moved in his eyes. Perhaps he was going to strike her. Or for all she knew perhaps he was just thinking of Cheddar.

  ‘Go and put your mask on, then,’ he growled, and scowled away down the corridor. ‘And no gabbling when she arrives.’

  Neverfell did not waste an instant wondering at his change of heart, but scampered away to extricate her black mask from the heap of tools, ragged catalogues and disembowelled clocks under her hammock. The pile of the velvet was now rough and flattened by years of greasy handling.

  It was a full-face mask with silver brows and a silver mouth closed in a polite smile. It had painted eyes, each with a little hole in the centre for her to peer through. She pushed her pigtails back, and tied the mask in place with its frayed black ribbon.

  Once, many years before, she had dared to ask why she had to wear a mask when visitors came. Grandible’s response had been blunt and searing.

  For the same reason that a sore wears a scab.

  In that moment she had realized that she must be hideous. She had never asked again. From then on she had lived in dread of her own blurry reflection in the copper pots, flinched from the pale and wobbly visage that greeted her indistinctly in the whey pails. She was a horror. She must be. She was too horrible to be allowed out of Grandible’s tunnels.

  However, deep in Neverfell’s tangle of a mind there was a curious little knot of stubbornness. In truth, she had never resigned herself to the idea of a life spent cloistered away among Stiltons. Thus when she had discovered the identity of the woman who had so confidently invited herself to tea a small bubble of hope had formed in Neverfell’s mind.

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