Read The Crooked Sixpence Online

Authors: Jennifer Bell

The Crooked Sixpence (5 page)

Valian tapped his foot. ‘If I tell you all that, I'll be breaking the law.'

Ivy's thoughts returned to the underguard's
Notice to Arrest
message. ‘I doubt that's a problem for you,' she remarked. ‘And anyway, do you have a choice?'

He stared at her for a long moment without breaking eye contact. Eventually he said, ‘Fine. Follow me.'

Apart from Ivy's footsteps, the narrow passageway leading off from the cave was unnervingly quiet. It was lit by the same glass discs and smelled faintly of incense. Ivy dragged her fingers over the grainy walls as she walked behind Valian, looking for signs of wires or plugs, but there didn't appear to be any. With a shiver, she wondered what was powering everything if it wasn't electricity.

Valian looked over his shoulder and noticed her examining the walls. ‘They call this an arrivals tunnel,' he said. ‘There's a whole network of them down here. We're under Blackheath, in London.'

Ivy froze. ‘London?!' She tried to process that. Bletchy Scrubb was six hours' drive from London, so how had they come all that way in a . . .

‘The suitcase,' she asked. ‘How does it work?'

Valian's shoulders tensed. ‘I can't tell you here. There might be an Ug waiting round the next corner. Follow me.'

They continued in silence for another ten minutes, snaking through a labyrinth of – as far as Ivy could tell –
identical
tunnels. She stumbled along, her mind full of questions. Eventually Valian stopped at an intersection of three passageways. He checked that they were clear before speaking. ‘There's only time to explain it once, so you'd better keep up.' He pointed to one of the glass lights. ‘Do you recognize this?'

Ivy stared hard at the object. It was about the size of a side plate, glowing with cool yellow light. There was a conical bit sticking up in the middle and a grooved lip around the edge. At first she couldn't identify it, but then she realized that if you took it off the wall and turned it on its back, it would look a lot like . . .

‘A lemon squeezer,' she said, surprising herself. ‘We have one in our kitchen at home.'

Valian pointed to the ceiling. ‘And that?'

Ivy tipped her head back and gasped. Hanging from the roof of the tunnel by a short length of chain was a metal colander, the kind used to drain spaghetti. Silvery wisps of smoke leaked out of the holes and then dissolved into the air.

‘Colander?'

Valian nodded. ‘It filters the air down here so that we can breathe. The lemon squeezers give out light. They're a bit like lamps, except better for the environment – and no electricity bills.'

‘They . . .
what
?' Ivy shook her head, resting a hand against the wall. ‘How is that possible? The ones at home can't do that.'

Valian shrugged. ‘That's because the ones at home are all
common
. The lemon squeezer and the colander here . . . They're both
uncommon
.'

Uncommon
. The word struck a chord in Ivy's mind. The underguard who'd arrested Seb had mentioned that his paperclip was uncommon . . .

She looked down. ‘Right . . .' she mumbled, trying to follow Valian's explanation. ‘So if an object's uncommon, it means it can do something amazing. But how? Is it, like . . . magic?'

‘Magic?' Valian gave a wry smile. ‘Hate to ruin your fairy tale, kid, but magic doesn't exist.'

Ivy felt her cheeks flush. After everything she'd seen that morning, it wasn't
that
stupid a suggestion. ‘OK, well then, what makes uncommon objects special? How can you tell the difference between that lemon squeezer on the wall and the one I have at home?' She swallowed as she watched the clean yellow light coming from its centre. ‘I mean, apart from the fact that it's glowing.'

‘For most of us, that's the only way you
can
tell,' Valian said. ‘There are some people who can . . . Well, that's not important. As for what makes them special,' he continued, ‘let me ask you a question: what's the most powerful force in the world, the most incredible and extraordinary thing in existence?'

Ivy frowned. She was no good at riddles and she certainly didn't have the patience for them right now. ‘I don't know.'

Valian's dark eyes glittered. ‘Us,' he said. ‘
We
are. Most of the time we die and go on to the next world, right? No problem. But sometimes we don't go on, we get stuck; or rather
part
of us – the soul, the spirit, the eternal bit, whatever you wanna call it – gets stuck . . . in an object.'

The hairs on the back of Ivy's neck stood on end. ‘
WHAT?
'

‘Shh,' Valian whispered. ‘Keep your voice down.' He glanced nervously down each of the three tunnels, then rummaged around inside his leather jacket. Eventually he retrieved a tattered roll of paper and opened it out in front of her. ‘There's more. Here – read this.'

Ivy's heart was racing now. She could feel pressure building behind her temples again as she looked down at the piece of paper.

NOTICE OF THE PROCLAMATION OF
THE UNDERMART OF LUNDINOR

At 12 midday following the day on which it is announced by the four Quartermasters of the Undermart:

All manner of uncommoners, alive or dead, may take notice that in the Great Cavern of Blackheath under the Olde City of London, and the passages, caves and chambers adjoining is now to be held an undermart for Christmas Day and the twelve days following, to which all traders may freely resort to buy and sell according to the Liberties and Privileges of the Great Uncommon Trade (GUT).

The notice was signed at the bottom in swirly handwriting:
Mr Punch, Quartermaster of the Great Cavern, Guardian of Lundinor.

Ivy raised her eyes slowly. The pain in her head was getting worse. ‘This doesn't help. I've never even heard half of these words before. What does
undermart
mean?'

Valian rolled up the notice and stuffed it back into his jacket. ‘Undermarts are markets that only sell uncommon objects. There's one in the caves down here, called Lundinor. We're sent these notices the day before they open for trade.'

Ivy blinked. ‘A market?' She didn't know what she was expecting, but it wasn't that.

‘Classic mucker reaction,' Valian muttered, smiling.

‘You keep calling me that,' Ivy complained. ‘I don't even know what it means.'

‘The people who are welcome in undermarts are called
uncommoners
,' Valian explained; he sounded bored. ‘Everyone else is a
commoner
, or
mucker
for short because of that saying
common as
—'

‘
Muck?
' Ivy guessed. ‘How nice.'

His face darkened. ‘Yeah, well, uncommoners don't like outsiders. You can't just join the Trade. You inherit the right to be an uncommoner through your bloodline. If your parents were uncommoners, then you will be too. There's no other way in, and that's the way uncommoners like it.'

Ivy was puzzled as to why Valian kept describing uncommoners as if he wasn't one of them.
If it runs through the family
, she thought,
then his parents must have been uncommoners too. He's not exactly an outsider.

‘Muckers are banned from undermarts,' he continued. ‘And if an uncommoner reveals anything about the Great Uncommon Trade to a mucker' – he ran a finger across his throat – ‘the underguards get cranky.'

Ivy looked at him. It was obvious that he was risking his life by explaining all this to her, just so that she would retrieve something for him. She wondered, with a cold feeling of unease, what could possibly be that important.

All of a sudden something bright yellow and squealing came streaking down the tunnel towards them.

‘Mind out the way!' called a shrill voice. ‘Coming through!' A woman in a fluorescent workman's vest and knee breeches was riding something – Ivy squinted: was that a
doormat
? – like it was a skateboard, except that it didn't have any wheels and just hovered in mid-air. Valian dodged nimbly aside, but Ivy had to launch herself against the wall.

‘Sorreeeee!!' the lady called as she zoomed past. ‘I've just bought it! Haven't learned how to use the brakes yet!' Her voice followed her down the tunnel and out of sight.

Ivy winced as she straightened. Valian pulled up his collar and rolled his eyes. ‘We need to go –
now
.'

Minutes later, they came to a stop in front of a mountain of rucksacks, all piled on top of each other like rocks after a landslide.

‘Damn it.' Valian bent forward, picked up a bag and chucked it behind him, where it landed with a soft thud. ‘Well?' he asked Ivy. ‘Are you going to help? We need to get through these.'

She tentatively grasped the looped handle of the nearest rucksack. As her hand closed around it, a soothing wave of heat rolled up her arm like a warm breeze. She concentrated as she held on, trying not to let Valian see her reaction. She didn't need to be a genius to understand what was going on. Every time she touched something uncommon – whether it was the silver coin, Valian's suitcase, or any of the bags down there – she could
feel
that they were different.

The more she thought about it, the more uncomfortable she felt. It couldn't have been happening to the others; Seb hadn't mentioned anything about it after he came through the suitcase, and Valian didn't react when he picked something up.

So what was different about her?

‘Don't be fooled by the huge number of bags down here,' Valian said after a few minutes. He heaved aside a heavy sack. ‘Uncommon objects are still rarer than moon rock. A common person could go their whole life and never come across one. Uncommoners use special methods to find them. That's why Lundinor only opens three times a year; everyone spends the rest of the time getting hold of something worth trading. Right now we're in the middle of the winter trading season – that's when Lundinor opens, from Christmas Day till Twelfth Night.'

Ivy struggled for words; there was too much to say. The more Valian explained, the more frighteningly real Lundinor became. ‘This whole thing is insane,' she said finally, dropping a bag on the floor. ‘You know that, right? How come no one knows about this? Think of all the amazing things people could achieve using uncommon stuff. You could probably save lives.'

‘Or end them.' Valian snatched at another handle. ‘Part of the reason uncommoners keep the Trade secret is to prevent uncommon objects from getting into the wrong hands. There's a whole guild of traders whose job it is to conceal the uncommon world from muckers, just to protect them.'

He shoved a few more bags out of the way and then looked up at the shrinking pile. Behind it was a dark, square hole in the wall. A selection of leather belts hung from a row of hooks beside it. ‘Elevation shaft,' Valian explained, pointing. ‘No one uses it much any more. It'll be the safest way for you to travel.'

As Ivy considered the dark hole, her mind returned to her brother. She pieced together what Valian had told her. If, as a mucker, she was banned from undermarts, it was going to be harder than she thought to get Seb back. ‘The underguards . . .' she said. ‘They're like your police, right?'

Valian lugged a heavy canvas backpack out of the way. ‘They're meant to be.'

Ivy pictured Officer Smokehart with his – she now guessed –
uncommon
toilet brush, and hoped Seb was all right. She reached down for the strap of one last rucksack; it was making a funny chattering sound. When she bent closer, she spotted something tied to it – a tortoiseshell comb.

‘Careful!' Valian yelled. He grabbed the bottom of the bag and threw it onto his pile. As it hit the other bags, it made a strange clicking sound before falling silent.

Ivy stared at it. ‘What the—?'

Valian reached into his jacket pocket and brought out his comb again. ‘Remember this?' He stroked it gently, and in a startling instant the plastic teeth transformed into real gnashing canines and incisors, set into brown plastic gums.

Ivy shrank away, aghast.

Valian shrugged. ‘It's an anti-pickpocket device.' He stroked the comb in the other direction and then tucked it back into his pocket. ‘Objects have different uses when they turn uncommon,' he said, scrambling over what was left of the rucksack mountain. When he reached the rail of trouser belts, he threw one back to Ivy and took another for himself.

Ivy jumped up to catch it.

‘Uncommon belts kinda do what normal belts do,' he called, fastening the buckle. ‘They hold things up.' He raised the belt above his head and was instantly lifted off the ground.

Ivy felt dizzy as she watched him float up to the cave roof. She looked down at the belt in her hands. Shifting all those warm uncommon rucksacks had left her palms sweaty, but there was something else she had noticed every now and then.

Whispers.

Careful not to let Valian see, she held the belt to her ear. If she listened closely, she could hear voices. She couldn't tell what they were saying – they seemed to hover at the very edge of her hearing – but she wasn't imagining it. If the heat she felt was real, then the voices were too.

She took a deep breath and clutched the belt tightly. She'd have to figure out what was going on later. Right now she needed to focus all her energy on rescuing Seb.

She peered over at Valian, who was sinking back towards the remains of the rucksack mountain by lowering the uncommon belt past his waist. Once safely down, he stepped over to the elevation shaft. ‘Just copy me,' he called. ‘We don't have much time.' He lifted the belt over his head and immediately rose up off the floor. Using his elbows to nudge himself clear of the walls, he headed into the shadowy hole and floated upwards.

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