A skinful of shadows, p.18
A Skinful of Shadows, p.18Frances Hardinge
Too many faces in the crowded streets were taut, gaunt and scabbed. There was a hungry edge in the air, a taste of desperation drawn out for too long. Everything felt flayed and skinless, like the land outside.
It was the beauty that made everything worse. Makepeace boggled at the great buildings, with their fair columns, stone flourishes as fine as lace, and towers that would grace a cathedral. They lifted their heads high, but their hems were drenched deep in stench and filth. It was like seeing a fading court beauty, still in her finery, but mad with age or the pox.
Helen stopped the wagon outside Merton College, and gave orders. As the barrels were unloaded, Makepeace stared up at the college’s golden stone and grand chimneys.
‘We have been assigned lodgings,’ declared Helen. The trio followed a young man who led them through a couple of streets and pushed open the shop door of a whitebaker, a man who made fine, white bread for the better class of person. The baker himself, a skinny but well-mannered man of forty, looked resigned when told that he had received more guests.
He even managed a hollow rictus of a smile when Helen handed him several pieces of paper.
‘What are those?’ Makepeace whispered to Peg.
‘Payment – or they will be once the war is won,’ Peg said stoutly. ‘Then all loyal servants of the King will be able to present those tickets and be paid what they are owed.’
Makepeace started to understand why the baker looked unhappy, and why the shelves of his shop were so bare. The paper tickets were nothing but promises from the King, and probably not much use for keeping the wolf from the door.
The three new arrivals were shown to a single tiny room with a poor flock bed and the smallest of windows.
‘I am sorry we have no better,’ said the baker wearily, ‘but we are jammed to the gills. We already have an officer, a candle-maker, a goldsmith’s wife and a playwright staying with us. So many flee to Oxford for safety – you know how it is.’
‘Did you ever hear of a doctor called Benjamin Quick?’ Makepeace asked.
‘No, I do not recall the name.’ The baker’s brow furrowed. ‘But if he knows his physick, he will be busy and much in demand. Did you know that we have the camp fever here now?’
‘Camp fever?’ Makepeace’s companions exchanged glances, looking surprised and alarmed.
‘The soldiers brought it back with them from the camps outside Reading,’ explained the baker, failing to keep the bitterness from his voice. ‘My wife has been brewing cures – but I fear that making it costs us dear because of the nutmeg, so we must ask coin for it.’ Nutmeg was a rare spice known for its healing virtues, and its nigh-magical ability to protect against plagues and other ills.
‘We’ll only stay until our business is done,’ said Helen briskly, ‘and we’ll gladly pay for some of your wife’s cure while we’re here. Judith – come with me when I go to the King’s court. If your doctor is of good standing, somebody will know of him.’
Makepeace had no choice but to agree. What excuse could she give for shunning the King’s court-in-exile? The idea made her nervous, however. She had no idea how to be courtly, and there was an outside chance that one of the Fellmottes might be there, or a friend of theirs who had visited Grizehayes. She would just have to hope that nobody would be expecting to see an erstwhile kitchen servant at court in silks and velvets.
Left alone in their room, Makepeace and Helen tried to make themselves passably ready for ‘court’. Makepeace changed back into her rich clothes, and hid her calloused hands under gloves. Peg borrowed curling tongs from their hostess, and spent an hour laboriously curling the hair of her companions. She then carefully powdered their faces because they both looked grey as death with tiredness.
Two nights of broken sleep had left Makepeace with a sickly, floating sensation. She was exhausted, but glaringly awake, and wondered whether she would ever sleep again. Bear, on the other hand, seemed to have worn himself out, and was slumbering.
Makepeace liked Helen and Peg, she realized with a little pang. If they ever found out that she had been lying to them, they would probably hand her over to be tried as an enemy spy, but she did not hold that against them. She liked the way they planned for danger with humour and good sense, and without boasting, toasting or waving rapiers at the rafters.
Peg declared that she herself would stay behind to keep an eye on the group’s possessions.
‘This is a hungry city,’ she said. ‘Even honest folk forget themselves sometimes. The Devil has no better friend than an empty belly.’
‘But we brought money for the King!’ said Makepeace, thinking of the fortune in gold. ‘Can he not pay people with coin now, instead of those paper tickets?’
Peg gave a small, sad laugh. ‘Oh no – that will all be spent straight away on the army’s overdue wages! If he had not found the gold . . . well, the whole garrison would have rioted and torn the city apart. Trust me, that would have been far worse for the townsfolk.’
‘Give a man a sword and pistol,’ said Helen, ‘and leave him hungry for a few weeks, and everybody will start to look like the enemy.’
‘Do not look so sad!’ Peg said phlegmatically. ‘Thanks to us, His Majesty’s forces will not crumble or go rogue just yet. For all we know, perhaps we have just turned the tide of the war!’
Makepeace felt her stomach lurch. For somebody who felt no great loyalty to either side, she seemed to have become surprisingly involved in the war. She had wondered about fleeing to Parliament to seek sanctuary from the Fellmottes, but perhaps she had burned that bridge now. If Parliament ever found out that she had smuggled bullion in His Majesty’s service, they might not be understanding.
‘Christ Church is where the King holds court now,’ said Helen, leading Makepeace through the streets. ‘If he is not out hunting he will be there at this time, I think.’
If he is not out hunting. Oxford sat in a ravaged wasteland, ringed about with Parliament’s troops. But of course the King left the city to go hunting. Of course he did.
Christ Church took Makepeace’s breath away. To her eyes, the college looked like a great palace, its carved stone golden-brown like the best pastry.
At the gatehouse, Helen’s papers were examined again, and the pair of them were allowed to enter. Stepping through that entrance was a moment of enchantment.
The smoke, stink and crowds were left behind in an instant. Beyond the dark covered entrance lay a wide, grassy courtyard where well-dressed gentlefolk walked, sat and played instruments. Glossy, well-fed dogs loped and lolled on the grass. A couple of the gentlemen seemed to be playing tennis. Over to one side, a few animals grazed. High, softly golden walls watched on every side, shielding the little paradise.
There was something uncanny about it, as though King Charles were a fairy king who had somehow magically transported his entire palace into the heart of the desperate city.
Helen greeted friends, exchanged pleasantries and archly turned compliments away with a flick of her fan. Then an earnest-looking bearded man drew her aside for a conversation, leaving Makepeace standing alone and acutely self-conscious. To make matters worse, she was almost certain that two men at the far side of the garden were watching her.
One of them looked slightly familiar, but it was only when she noticed his lavish lace cuffs that she recognized him. It was the handkerchief-thrower who had made such an abject apology to Lady April at Twelfth Night.
Perhaps he had recognized her too, in spite of her new clothes. Perhaps everybody had noticed the clumsiness of her gait, and could smell three years of mutton grease and hearth-ash marinated into her skin.
Then she saw him mutter something to his companion, and stroke his fingertip down the middle of his chin. Makepeace felt the sunlight grow cold. It was the cleft in her chin that had caught his eye, then. It was still possible that he had not recognized her, but he might well have guessed at her Fellmotte blood.
Her first instinct was to hide behind one of the laughing groups,
Instead of hiding, she raised her head at a moment where the young men were looking at her. She met their eye and stiffened slightly, as if startled by their brazen staring. They both gave extravagant, apologetic bows, and Makepeace smiled at them in what she hoped was a charming and courtly way. Evidently her smile was welcoming enough for the pair to feel able to approach.
From a distance they had seemed like the same perfectly groomed peacocks as before. When they were closer she could see that war had scuffed them. Both looked tired under the powder. Their fine coats were less well-brushed, and their boots had seen more action than polish.
How strange, thought Makepeace, looking at their faces. Four months ago they looked so much older than me, but now they seem like boys. They look too young for a war.
‘We frightened you,’ said the handkerchief-thrower. ‘We are ogres, and should be punished by your cruellest rebuke. Forgive my rudeness, but I thought that we might have met.’
‘I am not sure,’ said Makepeace, trying to soften her accent a little. ‘I think I may have seen you with one of my cousins . . .’ They had not recognized her as a Grizehayes servant, she was almost certain of that now. She was at court, and must be someone of decent birth.
The handkerchief-thrower exchanged a knowing glance with his friend. ‘I fancy I know the cousin you mean. A close friend of ours. Is he well?’
‘I . . . have not seen him of late,’ Makepeace said cautiously. She was a little taken aback by their cheerful tone. Could they really be talking of Symond as a ‘close friend’? Maybe they had not heard about his defection.
‘Oh, no, of course not,’ he said affably. ‘Now I remember, Symond has turned into a double-dyed traitor, and is forsworn by his family for ever more, eh? No fatted calf for our boy.’ He winked at Makepeace as she stared at him surprise. ‘Do not worry. We are party to the joke, you see?’
‘Oh.’ Makepeace managed to smile, despite her bewilderment. ‘That is . . . good. How . . . did you find out?’
‘Symond told us by letter.’ The handkerchief-thrower leaned forward confidingly. ‘Yours is not the only family betting on both dogs in the fight. I know of a few younger sons who have “turned to Parliament” with their kin’s secret blessing. If the rebels win, and the Fellmotte estates are confiscated, Parliament will gratefully give them to Symond, so at least the lands stay in the family. That’s the Fellmotte plan, eh?’
It took Makepeace a second or two to understand what he meant. So some noble families were playing a dangerous game, to make sure that their ancestral lands were not lost to their bloodline even if the ‘wrong’ side won. It made sense for some noble families to take such drastic measures, but she was quite certain that Symond’s defection was real. The Fellmottes’ rage and shock had seemed perfectly genuine.
‘He has written to you?’ This was intriguing. ‘Have you written back to him?’
‘We let him know the gossip, to stop him perishing from boredom,’ said the handkerchief-thrower. ‘He says he is surrounded by wild-eyed Puritans – a grim-jawed pack who pray at him day and night, and won’t let him have any fun.’
Idiots, thought Makepeace. Sending the ‘gossip’ of court to an enemy officer. No wonder he wanted to stay in contact with these geese!
For a moment she considered shattering Symond’s lie and telling his friend the truth. But if she did, a chance might be lost.
‘Then you can help me!’ she said instead. ‘I need to contact my cousin urgently. Can you tell me where a letter will find him?’
‘Do your family not have your own ways of reaching him?’ He looked surprised.
‘We did, but that is all undone . . . The messenger he chose is dead –’ Makepeace thought that she had better leave the lie vague – ‘and now we must contact him urgently. There are many matters he was handling for the family and he is the only one that knows the details.’
‘If you give me a message, I can add a few lines to my next letter,’ he suggested, a slight frown of suspicion creasing his brow.
‘Forgive me – I cannot! They are delicate family matters . . .’ Makepeace hesitated, then decided to risk her trump card. Discreetly she pulled Lady April’s signet ring out of her pocket, and showed it so that only her two companions could see it. ‘I am here on behalf of my betters.’
The handkerchief-thrower instantly went grey with fear. Clearly he had lost none of his terror of Lady April. If she was the spymistress for the Fellmotte clan, this was hardly surprising. Makepeace felt an unexpected thrill at the reaction. It was a strange and heady thing, this borrowed power. It was giddying to cause fear instead of feeling it.
‘I do not know where he can be found,’ he said hastily, ‘but he has told me where to send letters. I address them to “Mistress Hannah Wise” and send them to a farm just north of Brill, belonging to a family called Axeworth. I think somebody else collects them from there.’
‘You are very kind,’ said Makepeace primly. ‘I know I can trust you to tell nobody.’ She was putting away the ring when she felt a tug at her sleeve. Helen had reappeared at her side.
‘Judith – His Majesty is ready for us.’
Makepeace jumped, and it took a moment for her to understand what Helen had just said. His Majesty is ready for us. Not ‘me’, but ‘us’. She had an audience with the King of England.
Panic overwhelmed her as Helen gripped her gloved hand and pulled her across the quad to an open door. They stepped into a cool darkness, scented with rose-water, past walls painted white, and wood panels the colour of dark honey. Courtiers stepped aside to let them through. As Makepeace passed them she could smell their perfumes, rich with cinnamon and musk.
The room beyond was richly appointed, with a high ceiling, tall windows, silk hangings and some crests mounted high on the walls. Several people stood around the room, but in the centre sat a man in a high-backed chair. King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland. Makepeace dropped her gaze quickly, too used to finding herself before the Fellmottes. If he looked into her eyes, would he not see right through all her lies? If the Fellmottes could do so, then surely God’s appointed could do the same?
‘Kneel,’ murmured Helen quietly. Makepeace followed her lead, and dropped to her knees.
It was only as Helen began to give an account of their journey, and pass over documents and reports to the royal attendants, that Makepeace dared to glance furtively at the King from under her lashes.
He was a little man, as Lord Fellmotte had told Sir Anthony. There was something stiff and careful about the way he moved. In fact, he was stiff altogether, as if ready to bristle at the world for noticing his littleness. His beard was elegant and pointed. There were bows on his shoes. His face was mournful, lined, and marked by a rigid uncertainty. There was something tense and waiting to happen in his manner – perhaps outrage, the baby sibling of dignity.
The King listened to Helen’s report, and nodded.
‘Inform our friends that all will be repaid once the rebellion is crushed. In striking at me, the rebels strike at God Himself – they cannot prosper. Their defeat is certain. And rest assured we shall remember who our friends have been, and who have proven treacherous or backward in offering help.’ Then, to Makepeace’s dismay, he turned to face her. ‘Mistress Grey, I believe you too carry reports for me?’
For a moment Makepeace’s mind went utterly blank. The King’s habit of describing himself as ‘we’ was all too like the Fellmottes. But her skin did not crawl as he looked at her, nor did she feel as if she were being peeled like a fruit. The King could not see into her soul.
She stumbled through an account of Symond’s defection, and produced his letter. The King read it, and the jaw behind his narrow beard tightened.
‘Please carry my respects back to Lord Fellmotte,’ he d
‘Not yet,’ answered Helen, ‘but we shall find out who his friends were at court. Then we may discover who is harbouring him.’
‘Go with my blessing, and bid others offer you what help they can,’ answered the King. ‘In the meanwhile, we are not insensible of the service you have both done our nation this day.’
He slightly extended a hand, allowing each of them in turn to move forward and touch his fingertips briefly. It was said the touch of a king’s hand could cure scrofula, but his fingers felt human, and slightly moist with the heat.
Makepeace felt a little dizzy, but not with awe at the man before her. It was as if History were walking at his heels like a vast, invisible hound. It followed him, but he did not command it. Perhaps he would tame it. Or perhaps it would eat him.
Helen wanted to stay at the college, to learn all the latest news from those recently arrived from other parts of the country. Apparently she was also keen to visit an astrologer she knew.
‘They say that a few months ago Prince Rupert saw fire fall from the sky near here,’ she explained, ‘and break apart with a great crack into balls of flame. Everyone agrees that is an omen of something, but nobody can decide what it means. I would like to have a learned man unravel it, in case it will affect the war.’ She gave a wry but rather forced smile. ‘What a time we live in – even the stars are falling.’
Helen had, however, found somebody who knew of Benjamin Quick.
‘They have not seen him lately,’ she said, ‘but they knew where he was staying a few weeks ago. If you are lucky you may find him there still. He is living with a chandler near Quater Voys, just opposite the penniless bench.’ Helen fumbled in her pockets, and pulled out a small, corked bottle. ‘Before you go, take a spoonful of our hostess’s cure! There is disease abroad, remember?’
A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge / Fantasy / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes