Read a sample from THE PARADOX by Charlie Fletcher
The Paradox is a gothic fantasy adventure that will appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman, A Discovery of Witches and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, from the author of The Oversight.
CHAPTER 1: THE FIRST STEP
Sara Falk had passed through the mirror in one decisive step. Behind her, she left the basement of the familiar Safe House and the support of people who had known her all her life, the tight-knit band of guardians and friends who would have died to protect her, just as much as she would have risked everything for them.
It was thus a hard first step to take away from them, but she took it boldly and decisively, and she did not go precisely alone, nor without means of self-preservation: she was armed to the teeth, carrying a bright candle in one hand and the Raven on her shoulder. She looked herself up and down in the reflection, taking a brief inventory: slender but stout top-boots visible beneath an oiled silk overskirt that emerged from a black riding jacket buttoned tight around her lean body, her hands bunched inside equally black gloves on top of which gleamed two gold rings. The difference she noticed about her appearance, apart from the unaccustomed weaponry, was that she had taken to wearing her rings on the left hand, her recent travails having involved losing the other one and the rings with it–leading her to nearly expire–until it had been miraculously returned and even more miraculously re-attached. Above all that was her face, taut with exhaustion but still, as ever, decades too young for the prematurely white hair pulled tight into a thick white plait which curled round her neck and hung over her right collarbone. The eyes that looked back at her from the mirror were the grey-green of a midwinter sea and, she was pleased to note, steady and determined, despite the tug of exhaustion and the drumming of her heart beneath the tight coat buttons.
“Right,” she said so quietly that only the Raven heard. “Let us go.”
And she took a firm pace forward into the mirror. She passed through the surface of the glass with less resistance than popping a soap bubble, and then she stopped dead.
She lifted the candle. It seemed to flare brighter as she did so. She stared ahead into the uniform corridor created by the endless reflections of the mirror stretching away to a vanishing point lost in the darkness beyond the throw of the candlelight. When she turned round she did not see the back of the mirror she had just walked through, but an identical tunnel of mirrors now stretching away in the opposite direction until it too became lost in the gloom beyond the light. When she looked down, she saw the mirrored ceiling reflected all the way up into eventual darkness, and when she looked to one side, the same endless multiplication of reflections stretched to right and left.
“So,” she said, “a maze it is.”
The Raven clacked its beak in her ear.
“I know,” she replied. “We shall have to mark the starting point if we are to have any hope of returning. I shall—”
The Raven hopped to the ground and shuddered briefly. Then it lofted back on to her shoulder. Where it had stood was an impressive splatter of bird’s mess.
“… I’m sure that will do nicely,” said Sara. “Or if not quite nicely, adequately.”
CHAPTER 2: THE BLOODY BOY
Amos Templebane (mute by birth and Templebane by adoption) had blood on his hands. Figurative blood, since the man he had killed was weeks in the past, and possibly even justifiable blood since the tinker in question had been about to cut Amos’s throat the instant before Amos had backhanded him with the man’s own frying pan, knocking him into the turbid canal in which he had drowned. Amos had walked and thought himself across many leagues of English countryside since that desperate night and in the course of that journey had both come to terms with the slaying, and made a vow that he would never, ever take another life. But arguably unimpeachable though his actions may have been, and admirable though his subsequent resolution was, the fact is that Amos had certainly killed a man.
The cold, detailed murderousness radiating from the mind of the grey-haired woman he had freed from the Eel House as she strode ahead of him across the water meadow was a different order of thing: it was as disconcerting as the discovery that she could read his thoughts just as well as he himself could hear what went on in other people’s heads. Until she had spoken to him in his mind as he passed the little brick building in the dark and persuaded him to unlock it and release her, he had until now thought his ability was unique.
Where are you going? he thought.
She answered him in a voice hoarse and reedy from long disuse.
“To the poorhouse. To the Warden’s bedroom.”
The poorhouse. The words reminded him of his own early years in a similar institution in London. The memories were far from happy ones.
What will you do?
“Take what is mine,” she said.
He had no memory of possessions in his own poorhouse. His memories were of being smaller than everyone else, and having nothing except fear and discomfort.
What is that?
“Revenge,” she said. “For a start, revenge.”
Why must you do violence?
She stopped and looked at him, her face implacable in the silvered moonlight.
“Because I must, Bloody Boy, because I must.”
Why do you call me that? I am not bloody, and I am a man.
“You cannot yet be more than eighteen years old, and you already reek of blood. It was the first thing I noticed about you: even before my eyes saw you, my nose found you.”
Her smile was fragile and terrible.
“Death walks with you, before and behind,” she said. “Life taken and life to be taken. It’s on you like a stench.”
I will not take life.
She snorted and turned away.
“Your will does not enter into it, Bloody Boy,” she said. “Not when fate has other plans.”
He wished he had not given her a knife.
As he followed her towards the squat barrack of the poorhouse, he could see her head was full of blood as she planned her actions: she would stop by a water butt and reach down into the inky depths to retrieve a piece of oval glass, a mirror that she had previously hidden there. And then she would enter the back door of the Warden’s dwelling and slip through the kitchen and ascend the backstairs, keeping to the left-hand side of the treads close to the wall so that they would not creak and give her approach away. She would ease open the bedroom door and cross the floor in two or three fast steps to stand beside the large double bed and its hopefully still snoring occupants, M’Gregor the Warden and his wife. And then—
Why kill him?
“Stop looking at my thoughts,” she said without slowing.
What has she done?
“She is worse than him,” she said. “You will help me.”
There was something in her manner, in her single-mindedness, that was not quite human. It was feral, focused and unthinking. It was as if she had been imagining this revenge for so long that it was now more instinct than plan.
Wait, he thought.
“I have been waiting for long enough,” she said. “I have been waiting for longer than you have been alive.”
She slipped through the hedge and into the small yard at the back of the poorhouse.
What is this place?
“I told you. A vale of tears. It is the Andover Workhouse. It is my prison.”
Just as he had seen her imagine it, she retrieved the looking-glass from the bottom of the water butt, leaning right down into it so that her arm was wet to the shoulder and her hair stuck to her face in wet snakes. She shook the water off and slid it into the pocket of her shift.
Why do you need a mirror?
He was beginning to realise she was mad.
“Wait and see,” she said, and turned to the back door.
She worried the lock with the thin blade of the knife in an intent, nimble-fingered way that told him she had done this before. There was a snicking noise and she eased the door open, revealing the shadowy passage within.
She turned to look at him.
You don’t have to do this. You could just leave. By dawn you can be miles from here.
“You have no idea what I have to do,” she said. “You must help me.”
He took her arm.
She looked at the knife in her other hand. She looked pointedly back at his fingers gripping her arm.
“It would be foolish and dangerous to stop me,” she whispered, “and quite against your own interests.”
My interests don’t need the slaughter of innocents in their bed.
The thought jumped from him before he could cloak it. And before he could stop her she had the knife at his throat. She stared into his eyes. He felt assaulted by the intensity of her scrutiny as much as by the prick of the blade. She appeared to be devouring everything about him, scanning his face, smelling him, feral again, sensing his warmth, his strength, his vulnerabilities…
She pulled the knife back, her eyes still sharp. She pointed up the stairs with a jerk of her head.
“He rapes the boys in the foundling ward. Mostly the boys, the smaller the better. Sometimes it’s the girls. She knows and says nothing. She keeps the books and steals the money the parish puts aside for food and medicine. People die of hunger here, while that milk-fat bitch sleeps on a chest full of money. More than that, she steals from the inmates if they’re unlucky enough to arrive with anything of value: kerchiefs, boots, whatever–she takes them and sells them. She took my things.”
She had not blinked as she listed the crimes of the M’Gregors. He did his best not to break eye contact and stared right back at her.
“He does what he does because he has disgusting urges he has not the strength or character to resist. She looks the other way just because she likes money. She is worse. She knows and she is a woman, and a woman should be a mother; even if she has no blood-kin, she should be a mother to poor children without their own parents…”
She blinked. And now she was shaking with anger. He could feel it coming off her like a hot vibration in the air between them.
“A mother should protect,” she said. “A mother should fight. A mother should punish those who harm.”
But slaughtering them in their beds? This is mad.
She grinned at him, showing her teeth but no hint of mirth.
“Oh, I know. I went mad a long time ago. They saw to that.”
“Then nothing. They could lock me up and take away the things whose lack made me run mad with grief and worse, but they could not control what I did with that madness. They could not stop me making the madness my own weapon. And now they will meet the edge of that weapon. Now they will pay.”
Don’t kill them.
For some reason, a reason he could not yet fathom, it was important that she did not kill the people sleeping upstairs. Maybe it was because, whatever she said about herself being the weapon, the edge that the victims would actually meet was the one on the blade he had handed her earlier. Or maybe it was because he had not really bothered to think enough about the dead tinker, and perhaps the weight of that untallied death, pushed to one side as he had walked away from it, was now suddenly crushing down on him.
He shook his head emphatically.
Don’t kill them.
“I do not forgive.”
Don’t kill them.
“They must be punished. I have told you why…”
Yes. But you lied.
She froze. Just for an instant, but long enough for him to pull the knife from his own belt and get it between them. Her lip curled back in a silent snarl, and then, as she controlled herself, dropped back over her exposed teeth in what was–given the circumstances–a reasonable facsimile of a genuine smile.
He does not rape boys. Or girls. Does he?
She said nothing.
She does steal. You did not lie about that.
Her head cocked infinitesimally. It might have been a nod of acknowledgement.
You told the truth about her. But you lied about him.
Again her head twitched.
You looked into my head. You thought you saw my memories. You thought you knew my past. So you tried to make me think he was a monster from my childhood. You tried to make me an accomplice to murder by lying to me.
“Yes,” she said. “Stupid of me. I have been silent so long, alone for such a span of years that I had quite forgot myself…”
She dropped the knife to her side again and rubbed her hand across her face as if trying to wake properly.
“I have spent so many years without talking, just sitting and thinking and listening to snatches of other people’s thoughts that I did not remember that others gifted or cursed like I–as you are–could read my own thoughts quite as easily. It was half-witted of me.”
It sounded oddly like an apology. She shook herself and turned to the stairs.
Don’t kill them.
“It is not that easy,” she said, looking up at the ceiling and hissing quietly as she spoke. “You cannot leave evil unpunished.”
For one as youthful as he was, Amos knew a lot about evil, and a lot about fear. Raised in a London workhouse as an orphan, singled out by the dark colour of his skin, he had been an obvious target for the bullies. He knew well what it was to get through days avoiding blows and ridicule only to find the nights were worse as all manner of indignities and viciousness were cloaked in the meagre blanket of the dark. Adopted by the Templebanes and moved to the comparative comfort of their counting house on Bishopsgate, his lot had in fact worsened. The indifferent, institutionalised viciousness of the workhouse had been general. The cruelty of his new position as youngest of an artificially assembled barracks of adopted brothers, all encouraged to vie against each other in an atmosphere of competition and betrayal, was specific, personal and focused directly on him. He was young but the imposition of terror and the anticipation of worse was a subject he was already a master at. He had been beaten regularly enough to know exactly how and where to apply the blows to another.
Punish them by not killing them. Punish them by making them live in fear and captivity.
“You suggest I go to the Justices of the Peace? You think they are not all hugger-mugger with each other? You think they will believe a madwoman and imprison them?”
“Well then,” she said, and turned towards the stairs, the blade held low at her side, flashing dully in the last beam of moonlight that penetrated the dark maw of the house.
I think you can imprison them in their own minds. Kill them and their suffering stops. Lock them in fear inside their own skulls and they will suffer as you have suffered.
“And how would I do that?” she spat.
And so he told her. And as he told her she smiled.
“I can do better than that,” she said. “I can do something even more incomprehensible to them, something they will think is so impossible that it will make them think they are run madder than I…”
“You’ll see it too. Come.”