I stepped down from the steam-powered coach a little way away from Beecham’s Hotel. My invitation had instructed that I should arrive at the stroke of the twelfth hour. The clocks were just striking eleven-half, so I had some time.
I paid off the cab driver with a note Papa had slipped to me and sauntered slowly towards the hotel, observing. Those entering the building had two things in common: age and affluence, of which I possessed neither.
My dads and I had spent some time last night ensuring I was correctly outfitted. Papa had wanted me to dress in my best clothing. Dad and I had informed him he was a fool. My best clothing was nothing compared to what I saw on the backs of those entering Beecham’s Hotel. I would have stood out to anyone who glanced my way, guilty of trying to fit in where I obviously did not belong. Instead, I had chosen the suit I wore to my graduation. It was still fashionable but did not draw the eye. It allowed me to pass unnoticed, which was exactly what I wanted.
My invitation was burning a hole in my pocket. It was a test. I would not fail. I needed to enter unseen, as there were extremely well-dressed staff stationed throughout institutions such as Beecham’s that would eject people who weren’t fabulously wealthy on sight. Hopefully, my age would cause such people to act with restraint. I would merely be given a few quick blows with a cudgel and be tossed in an alley behind the hotel. Were I any older, it might not stop there.
I would not be seen. I would not make any mistakes. This was a second chance at life that I would not squander.
I approached the entrance to the hotel. The red brick building loomed over me, tall and proud. The establishments that neighboured Beecham’s could not afford to keep their buildings free of the pollution that spewed from the nearby industrial district. Beecham’s spotless façade was only possible thanks to a veritable army of cleaners. In fact, as I squinted up at the top floor, I spotted a small girl with a rope and a brush working away at that exact task. There were few other establishments in the city of Selen that could afford such extravagance.
I turned my eyes back to the hotel entrance. I mustn’t hover outside for fear of attracting attention. There was a heavy set, elegantly dressed woman helping a family down from their carriage. She had a cudgel at her belt. The time had come for me to either step inside the hotel, or walk past and forget this whole thing ever happened.
The hotel had an automaton operating the revolving door at the front of the building. I had initially considered this my natural entry point, but most people I saw had simply avoided the thing and used a smaller door to the side. Occasionally, the automaton would hiccup steam or make a loud PING sound, which explained people’s wariness.
There was a sizable group of patrons approaching the hotel entrance, just behind a slightly scruffy-looking individual. I quickened my pace slightly and slipped in at the tail end of the group. We headed for the reception desk, but the group splintered as we approached it.
A couple of members drifted towards arm chairs placed nearby whilst another inquired of a staff member where she might be able to find a water closet. The rest of the group stood impatiently behind the scruffy individual who had entered the hotel ahead of us. This person was apparently trying to persuade the hotel staff of their bona fides. Their efforts were in vain. Two heavy set staff members appeared and led the individual through a door marked ‘employees only’. As soon as the door was closed, muffled thumps and cries started filtering through.
This was good news for me, at least. There was less of a security presence now. Glancing about, I spotted a sign showing the way to the dining room. I strolled towards it with feigned confidence. I was attempting to appear as if I was far too busy to be bothered by anyone, but this is a difficult look to affect in an unfamiliar environment.
The dining room was guarded by a tall, haughty looking woman wearing a white shirt and a bow tie. She was standing to the left of the grand entrance to the dining room, next to a floral display and a lectern which, presumably, concealed her stash of alcoholic stimulants.
My confident stroll would see me reach the dining room in only a few minutes. This trajectory would lead to a confrontation with the haughty woman which would not end well for me. I can affect a well-bred accent if needed, but it is always a gamble, and I could not afford to gamble in this instance.
I walked past the dining room and stood just outside of the haughty woman’s vision. I drew out a notebook I had concealed in my pectoral pocket and pretended to study it, waiting until several people approached the dining room together. When this happened, I stalked back into view of the dining room’s entrance.
Just as I had hoped, the haughty woman was deep in conversation with the group. Her back was to the floral display. I had maybe twenty seconds in which to act. I pocketed my notebook and, walking with the easy confidence of someone who absolutely knows what they’re doing and isn’t in the least bit terrified, I slipped between the floral display and the wall of the dining room, past the haughty woman.
I emerged into a roped off section cluttered with trolleys containing cheese and dessert course options. A waitress was busy helping herself to a portion of cheesecake. Her eyes widened as she saw me, but I didn’t give her a chance to think about what someone of my station was doing in Beecham’s dining room.
“Pardon me,” I said, “I am in search of the facilities, could you perhaps assist me?”
The waitress could not, of course, answer me, given her mouth was brimming with cheesecake. Instead, she nodded, smiled and pointed me deeper into the restaurant. Off in the distance, I could see a sign for the water closet.
I thanked my glutinous friend and slipped her a little hard currency, hoping I would not need to do this many more times. My funds were extremely limited.
Ignoring the water closet, I strode out into the restaurant. Tables were sparsely scattered and about sixty percent of them were occupied. I was looking for one table in particular.
There it was. There she was.
Even from behind, I recognised her from the pictographs I had seen of her in the newspaper. Lady Marie Callas: owner of the largest rare bird sanctuary in the region, and occupant of a mansion a few kilometres south of the village of Irinna.
She was a slight woman who appeared to live in exquisitely tailored business suits. Her hair was black and cut to a length of a few centimetres, and her skin was an exotic pale colour that was rare in the city of Selen.
I circled her table until I was able to approach her from the side. It would not do to sneak up on her from behind like some sort of thief, nor would it be appropriate to approach from the front as if I had every right to be in her presence. I most certainly did not.
“Lady Callas?” I asked, once I was a mere metre from her side. My voice carried to her ears well enough and was then lost in the bustle of the dining room. “My name is Susan Fletcher. You were kind enough to invite me to dine with you.”
Susan Fletcher was not the name I gave at the time. Susan Fletcher is not my real name, but I will be writing as if this were the case. I am, for reasons that will become clear, compelled to assume a pseudonym when writing this account.
My hostess turned and positively beamed at me before nodding slightly in my direction. I bowed in return. She smiled once more and indicated that I should take the seat opposite her at the table.
This was going unexpectedly well.
I sat. I snatched the napkin from the table and smoothed it out on my lap so as to have something to do with my hands. I looked up to find Lady Callas watching me.
“If I may be of any assistance, my lady...” I offered, attempting to imply that I would dearly love to be of help if she would only tell me what it was she wanted.
Lady Callas smiled. It might have been my imagination, but there seemed to be a touch of the wolf in her smile. Her grin lasted for slightly too long and showed more teeth than propriety dictated. “Oh you may, you may indeed,” she said. “First, permit me to explain how you came to my attention.” As she spoke, she made a small twirling gesture with the fingers of her right hand. The movement drew my eyes to her hand and, as that hand passed near her face, to her predatory eyes. My attention became locked on those eyes.
“I have been in need of someone with your skills for some time. For reasons I will explain, this person must be around your age, they must be skilled, and they must be highly motivated.”
Nothing Lady Callas was saying explained how she selected me, specifically. She had just described everyone at my exclusive private school, as well as dozens of my peers in schools across the city.
“You stood out from the crowd for several reasons,” Lady Callas continued, glancing idly at the menu. “You won a scholarship to attend your school, so you are obviously intelligent. You earned your place there in spite of your family’s disadvantages, rather than buying your way in as your peers did.”
“Your work at the school paper was commended twice in your first year and four times in your second year. You were recently honoured by your school for your achievements, something that happens rarely. I have read some of your work. You are a talented writer.”
That last remark meant very little. There are a great many talented writers in Selen.
“As the sun rose yesterday, I had a list of names. By the afternoon, my list was much shorter and you were at its head. Can you guess why?”
My brain fired off possibilities but none of them fitted the situation. Nothing had changed over the last few days that would increase my standing in the eyes of a stranger. I opened my mouth to give some sort of reply, but I couldn’t think of anything.
Lady Callas smiled. “You received a letter from the University of the Silver Key, informing you that they are unable to offer you a scholarship to study on their Modern Journalism course.”
“You have no offers of scholarships from other universities,” said Lady Callas. “Your talent has only taken you so far. Your family’s lack of money has been your downfall.”
How, exactly, did she know any of this? Correspondence of this sort were supposed to be confidential.
“As a result of these circumstances, I consider you to be exceptionally motivated. If you are offered a second chance to get your life back on track, you will work like a daemon to repay the kindness. Of that I have no doubt.”
My mouth was suddenly very dry. “Are you offering me a commission, my lady?” I asked.
“A pot of Ukon and a selection of items from page two,” Lady Callas said to a waiter, before turning back to me. “I am indeed offering you a commission. You should consider yourself very fortunate that I am in the business of giving people second chances.”
I flushed. “Thank you, my lady.” My heart sang. My stomach began to cartwheel about the place and had to be restrained by my ribs. With a commission, I would not need to study journalism at one of those institutes of higher learning. I would not need the contacts or insider information I would have acquired through their courses. With a commission, I would be years ahead of my peers.
Access to prestigious journalistic establishments can be achieved through one of two routes: The first route asks that you attend a good university, make contacts and work your way up through graft, luck, and social lubrication.
The second route involves commissions. Aristocrats occasionally decide to shine light on some aspect of society they disagree with, typically by commissioning a special investigation by some great writer of the age. This lucky individual will probe every aspect of the matter. She will get to the truth by any means necessary, and the results will be published at great expense by the aristocrat. Such commissions are notable events. One famously led to the fall of the House of LaCroix. Another exposed of the origins of the Angel Plague.
Lady Callas smiled, angelically. “I must warn you that this will be a dangerous assignment.”
“Danger does not worry me,” I lied. With an offer like this on the table, I was not about to admit to my fear of spiders, heights, snakes, needles, dogs, horses, thunder, germs, blood, intimacy, rainbows, twins, snow, clocks and, occasionally, my own reflection.
“You will be infiltrating a secret society,” said Lady Callas.
A secret society? My heart sank. Conspiracies and grand hidden organisations are relics of the past. This is the eighth century. We should have left such things behind. Even so, if Lady Callas was a crank who was wasting my time, I would still get paid for my efforts if I played this right. “Tell me more, my lady,” I urged, leaning in.
Lady Callas’ face shifted into an infuriating grin. “I would rather not. Your status as an outsider is precious. I would not wish to colour your impressions of us.”
“Then you are a member of this society, my lady?”
“Oh, certainly I am. We will be holding an initiation ceremony in a week’s time. At this very moment, other members are scouring the area for people of your age who have the right qualities to join us. You, alas, do not meet the criteria, but I shall claim that you do. I will say I am to take you as my protégé. You will witness the initiation ceremony first hand.”
That, at least, was slightly interesting. “Will I be permitted to publish what I witness?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” Lady Callas said. “I have decided that this society has existed in the shadows for too long. The secrecy involved has led to the stagnation and corruption of those who lead us. Two days after the initiation ceremony, I will reveal the society to the wider world, and your observations will be crucial. I will require you to provide me with an initial article the day after the ceremony, with more to follow later. Together, we will shine a light into a dark corner of the social order.”
This was strange. Lady Callas seemed sincere. She did not seem the sort of wide eyed, fast talking fool who insisted that the world was flat. Curiously, I found myself believing some of what she was saying.
“I must warn you,” Lady Callas continued, “that if you are discovered to be an impostor whilst at the ceremony, I will not be able to save you. You might not leave alive.”
A tingling sensation rushed across my skin and I suddenly felt as if I was watching this conversation through someone else’s eyes. Had I heard that correctly? I shook myself. I was probably getting excited over nothing. Even if everything Lady Callas said was true, I shouldn’t let hope get the better of me. Hope was a cruel master. This second chance to improve my station in life – to pursue a career as a journalist – was becoming increasingly slim, but I would not squander it.
Waiting staff arrived with our cakes and tea. Lady Callas smiled at them whilst they arranged things and murmured a word of thanks as they faded back into the woodwork.
When we were alone once more, she reached into an inside pocket of her suit and drew out a small cloth bag. She slid it across the table towards me.
“This,” she said, “contains instructions, as well as an item you will need to pass as one of us. Look inside it now, but whatever you do, do not reveal its contents to the rest of the room.”
I reached for the bag, but Lady Callas caught my wrist before I could draw it towards me. I looked up. Lady Callas’ expression was deadly serious.
“I have not understated what an opportunity it is that I am offering you,” she said “But I must remind you of the danger. It is real. You are taking your life in your hands by accepting this assignment and, once you have seen what is in that bag, it will be too late to back out. If you do not wish to proceed, you must say so now. If you see what is in the bag and change your mind about accepting the assignment, I will need to... take steps. No one here will try to stop me.”
I did not look away from my patron’s steely gaze. I wanted her to know how serious I was about this second chance. I would not let this slip away from me. I would get my life back on track by any means. At any cost.
Lady Callas released her grip on my wrist. Without breaking eye contact, I drew the bag towards me. Finally, Lady Callas blinked. I looked down at the bag. It was closed with a simple draw string. I pulled gently at the string and held the bag in my lap so that I could peek into it without revealing its contents to the room.
I opened the bag just enough to allow light inside. Inside was a sheaf of paper. Those were my instructions. There was also a bracelet. The tempo of my heartbeat increased.
I looked up at Lady Callas. “Is this what it looks like?” I asked.
Lady Callas nodded.
The bracelet was made of human teeth.