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Authors: Emma Newman

All is Fair

BOOK: All is Fair
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ALL IS FAIR

BOOK 3 OF

THE SPLIT WORLDS

 

Emma Newman
 

 

For the Alchemist
 

 

1

Fifteen hours after the Sorcerer announced it was the perfect day to take over the Agency, Max finished the preparations. He sat in the chair at the head of the table in the Agency’s largest meeting room, satisfied his sweep of the area was complete. There were no indications of sorcerous magic, no residue of Fae magic picked up by the Sniffer, and the traps were laid. He looked at the gargoyle standing by the window ready to give the signal. It looked back at him, eager for something to happen in a way Max couldn’t remember.

“Tell Ekstrand we’re ready,” he said and the gargoyle closed the curtains, counted five seconds and then opened them again.

“We wait bloody ages for him to give us something useful to do, and then he wants it all done yesterday.” The gargoyle’s grumble was accurate enough. Max would have preferred more time, but Ekstrand hadn’t listened to his concerns.

After a few moments of peering out into the grey mists of the Nether the gargoyle said, “Acknowledged. Get the stick ready. I hope Ekstrand realises that it’s his fault if this doesn’t work.”

Max pulled it out of the pocket of his raincoat. The rod looked like it was made of smoky quartz tipped with copper, and was covered in sorcerous formulae. As Ekstrand had instructed he twisted the top two inches forty-five degrees until the formulae glowed and then thrust it through the floorboards by his feet. It went in as easily as a pin in corkboard and disappeared out of sight, leaving only a neat round hole in the wood.

“What now?” the gargoyle asked.

“We wait.”

A tremor shook the building, making the upturned glasses in the centre of the table rattle against the wood. The gargoyle gripped the stone windowsill with its claws. “He’s not being subtle,” it said. “Look!”

Max followed its stony gaze out the window and saw the mists turning red. Everyone else in the Agency headquarters who’d been woken by the shaking would probably take one look out of the window and–

The door banged open and a man in pyjamas burst into the room, hit the nearest chair and stumbled forwards. He recovered his balance and gripped the chair back as he looked around the room in confusion. The door closed behind him with a slam. Max recognised him as Mr Derne, the head of the Agency.

“What the bloody–” He saw Max sitting at the far side of the conference table and then the gargoyle. “Who are you? What–”

The door opened again and another man – this one pulling a dressing gown over his pyjamas – ran into the room and crashed into the first. There was a burst of swearing and exclamations when a woman and a third and fourth man arrived in the same manner.

“That’s all of them,” Max said to the gargoyle, which signalled with the curtains again.

The movement distracted them and the group quietened.

“What’s going on?” one of the men asked.

There was the sound of shouting in the room above and someone beating on a door. The woman glanced up and then at the other men who had come into the room. She looked older than most of the puppets allowed their wives to look. It had been a while since Max had been in a room with a woman who had a few grey hairs. Max had been given the chance to carry out only a few days’ surveillance, but during that time he’d heard Derne call her Matty when they were alone. Max guessed her name to be Matilda.

“We’ve been compromised,” she said. “I ran out of my room straight into this one and I suppose you all did too. A Sorcerer has found us.”

“Shit.” One of the men frowned at Max. “You’re an Arbiter, aren’t you?”

Max nodded. “And you’re the ones who run the Agency. Feel free to sit down.”

None of them did. Max kept his attention on the one he’d identified as the boss. He’d recovered faster than the other men but he wasn’t as calm as the woman. She was one to watch too. It wasn’t clear exactly where she was in the hierarchy but she was one of the most trusted of the inner circle.

For the past week, Max had been watching three rooms, including the one they sat in, using the same scrying beetles Ekstrand had sent into the Chapter building to see what happened to those within. He would have preferred an opportunity to thoroughly brief Ekstrand before coming through but the Sorcerer had been unavailable. Petra had said it was because he was at war with the Sorcerer of Mercia, which was clearly demanding, but Max agreed with the gargoyle’s appraisal: Ekstrand was actually only remotely useful one day a week. As they’d arranged outside, the gargoyle sat behind Derne to identify him for Ekstrand.

“How dare you break in?” Derne said. “How dare–”

He stopped when a burning line described a doorway in the stone wall and a Way opened out onto the Nether. Mr Ekstrand strode through, wearing his black suit, cape and top hat. As it had been when speaking with the puppet and at the Rosa party in Aquae Sulis, his face was obscured. He pointed at the group with the silver tip of his cane as the doorway returned to stone behind him. “Sit down.”

They complied.

“I am the Sorcerer Guardian of Wessex and now the owner of this Agency and the information contained within its walls. Operations will continue as they always have, but I will be informed of all decisions made outside of the day-to-day running, and will veto any I disagree with.”

“You will not,” Derne said. “We’re outside of the Heptarchy and a long way from your domain. You have no right to do this whatsoever.”

Ekstrand smiled. “As you so rightly point out, you are outside of the Heptarchy and indeed outside any recognised domain. Therefore you have no protection from any third party so I can do as I please. I don’t care if this upsets you and I have no interest in what you may think your rights are. You are parasites, living off the Fae’s puppets, and have no moral high ground to speak of.”

“And what if I refuse?”

“Mr Derne,” Ekstrand sighed. “I understand that you and your employees use Fae magic here on a daily basis. I am quite certain the Fae are unaware of how you profit from this, and indeed how you profit from their own puppets without any tithe paid. It’s a common courtesy you’ve failed to extend to them. I’m sure they would be fascinated to learn of your existence. If you have no interest in working for me then I will simply open a Way to the Royal Court in Exilium and introduce you to the King and Queen personally.”

Derne opened his mouth to speak but the tallest man leaned across the table. “Better to deal with a Sorcerer than a Fae, Geoffrey.”

Derne looked at Matilda who met his gaze and nodded slowly. “He’s right. You need to discuss terms.”

“Those are simple,” Ekstrand said. “I have no interest in money so you don’t have to worry about that. I just want access to all of the files on the puppets you hold here and to have any questions answered.”

“For now,” Derne replied.

“Yes, for now,” Ekstrand nodded. “I may want more in the future but I can be certain I’ll never want a share in your profits.”

“It can’t be that simple,” the woman said.

“I’ve already made a slight alteration to your foundations,” Ekstrand said. His words sparked an exchange of nervous glances between those sitting at the table. “I will know who goes in and out, and when. If you contact any third parties to appeal for help, I’ll destroy this building and deliver you all to the Fae. So it’s quite simple really.”

“It could be a lot worse,” the woman said to Derne.

“I could have killed you all as you slept,” Ekstrand agreed. “But you’ll be so much more useful alive.”

Derne gave a heavy sigh. Max knew he wasn’t going to argue any more but he was far from cowed. He’d expected them to be terrified and wondered why they were so ready to accept the terms. He hoped Ekstrand’s “slight alterations” were enough. They needed a Chapter to keep a constant watch, not a single Arbiter and gargoyle. And there were other things that needed attention, not the least of which was the war with Mercia and the murder of most of the Sorcerers of the Heptarchy. London’s corrupt Chapter was still on his mind, too.

“Now, I have a question for you,” Ekstrand said. “Where are the anchors for the building?”

“You want to know why there isn’t an anchor property in Mundanus,” Derne replied. “It’s easier to show you.”

 

Cathy was still half asleep when the glass was brought to her lips but the pungent smell of aniseed was enough to make her groan. “What is this stuff?”

“Medicine,” the nurse said. “Drink it all up now.”

She obeyed, used to being given potions to ease pain and draughts to help her sleep. The ointment that had been rubbed into her hands smelt of Lord Poppy’s magic and had made her retch the first time it was applied. Now the wounds in her hands left by the thorns she’d pulled from Sophia’s neck were nothing more than pale red marks and they would fade over time.

She couldn’t remember most of the days since the attack. She had confused memories of the mundane hospital and none whatsoever of how she got home again. Sometimes she thought she remembered Will being there but then suspected those were dreams. She knew the nurse had been using Charms to keep her sleepy – it was common practice in the Nether, when one was injured or very ill – but that morning had been the first when her head had felt clear.

Today’s medicine was the most foul tasting she’d had to date and burned her throat as it went down. It made her cough, which caused the wounds in her chest to hurt, and she tried her best to stop. For a few minutes all she could do was let herself sink into the pile of pillows and catch her breath.

There was someone in the room with her; even with her eyes closed she could sense it. Hoping it was Will instead of the nurse, she opened her eyes and saw a man standing at the end of the bed. The nurse had left.

He wasn’t her husband and he wasn’t Fae; that was something at least. It took a moment to place him.

It was the man from the Agency she’d shocked with her determination not to be conned. “Mr Bennet?” Had he found the bug she’d planted on him for the Arbiter? But that was weeks ago.

“Mrs Reticulata-Iris,” he replied, but there was something in the way he said it that made her nervous. That and the fact he was in her bedroom. A folder was tucked under his arm.

“Why… What are you doing in my room?”

“I wanted to speak with you in private.”

The adrenalin was helping her now and she struggled to sit up straighter. “Surely you understand I’m not receiving visitors. If there’s something urgent to discuss then talk to the Steward.”

“That wouldn’t be appropriate,” he replied, now standing beside her. His chin was just as non-existent as before, but she didn’t remember his eyes being so narrow and hate-filled.

She was dressed in only a nightgown, high enough in the neck to cover her wounds and dressings, but not substantial enough to make her feel comfortable in his presence. She pulled the sheets up higher. “Your being in this room is not appropriate. Please leave.”

“Our business won’t take long. A great deal has changed since we last spoke. I know all about you now.”

The medicine was still burning; it felt like it was fizzing in her stomach and threatening to come back up again. “I don’t know–”

He leaned over her, making her press back into the pillows. “I know about your time in Mundanus, your love affair and your betrayal of your family. I know who you called on your mobile phone before the attack, your personal bank account details and that you still keep the flat in Manchester for when you plan to escape. Everything.”

Her heart was pounding so hard against her ribs Cathy feared it would open the wounds again. She tried to think of something to say, some way to wipe the sickening look from his face, but there was nothing except panic.

“I’m certain you wouldn’t want Dame Iris to know of such things,” Bennet said. “I know how traditional she is, and how difficult to please. A simple matter of paying me one hundred thousand of the Queen’s pounds would ensure she would never know.”

“You’re blackmailing me?”

He smiled. “I’m proposing an exchange of money in return for a crucial service. It’s not a huge amount. It is, in fact, exactly what you deducted from my original estimate of your estate costs for the year. Isn’t that fortuitous? It makes it so much easier for me to explain away the amount in a revised bill and it gives you the convenience of merely having to sign this piece of paper to authorise the transfer of funds to correct an administrative error.”

“If you think I’m going to–”

“I think you’re going to sign, Mrs Iris,” he opened the file and pulled out an invoice with an authorisation of payment. He pulled a pen from the inside of his jacket. “I think your husband’s wealth makes this a trifling amount of money to pay for peace of mind and the preservation of your lifestyle. And I think the curse will stop you from telling anybody about this.”

As he spoke, the burning spread up from her stomach into her chest. The medicine! He nodded and looked at the glass. “Yes. The nurse didn’t know, for what it’s worth. You’ll never be able to seek the antidote if you can’t speak or write about it and I can assure you, a generic Curse Lifter won’t work against one made specifically for you. So there’s only one thing to do, isn’t there?”

BOOK: All is Fair
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