Chapter 1: London
SMOKE AND MAGIC
Book One of the Blood and Gold Trilogy
I leaned over the railing of the steam powered vessel for my first look at London, even as the sun set behind me, casting the towering buildings and arching bridge in shades of orange and red. My sturdy travel case stood by my feet, my silver Persian in his wicker carrier. I could hear him snarling and grumbling to himself and suppressed a grin, knowing he would make me pay for stuffing him into his prison as soon as we arrived at our destination.
But that was for later. Right now I focused on the deepening shadows filling in the cobbled streets and stretching long shadows down the rippling waters of the Thames. Smaller vessels bobbed past us, looking worn and miniscule in comparison. I drew a breath, so accustomed to the piercing clarity of sea air by now, I came close to gagging over the side as the taint of rot rising from the river assaulted my nostrils.
But even the rising stink of dead fish and worse did little to dampen my enthusiasm. It was the first time in my four-week trip across the Atlantic that I had something new and exciting to focus on and I wasn't about to miss a moment of it.
"Miss Burdie?" Mr. O'Brien, my over eager porter, smiled his easy smile, the one I'm sure he thought made him irresistible. I'd found it easy enough to resist him, thank you. "A shame about the view. We're almost twelve hours early, makes for a dark entry into the harbor."
"Does that happen often?" I did my best to be polite despite my discomfort. His eyes wandered downward and I knew he wasn't examining the buttons on my new black velvet shortcoat. I gritted my teeth and thought of my mother. She would be very disappointed in me if I turned him into something I could squash with my heel.
Being a witch had its benefits, but not when it came to punishing normals for nasty behavior.
"Not often," he continued our conversation, heavy Irish accent making him difficult to understand. "You'll not have a chance to see the city like this again, more's the pity."
I didn't bother to tell him I'd be leaving the way I came and would have ample opportunity. My temper was known to get the better of me more often than I'd like and this boy was only making things worse.
Choosing to ignore him and his apparent desire for more conversation, I stepped away from the rail, the odor finally getting to me. How could my mood alter so quickly? I was suddenly feeling as sour as the air. The Thames stank like a cesspool and I began to wonder how Londoners could stand it.
Not that my native New York was perfect, by any means. But I didn't recall our harbor smelling like this. My feelings of charity toward the old world and my trip here slid back into the gloom plaguing me the entire voyage-that I had been, in effect, shipped off to jolly old England when I should, in fact, have been home helping my parents with the transition of our coven.
Our present leader's power was waning and quickly, the coven suffering from her lack of ability and her increasing dementia. And while my mother, Thaddea, was certain the take over of power would transition smoothly from one family to the next, she wasn't willing to offer anyone an opportunity to end our family's control after only one generation. The moment the coven elected her as successor, she set in motion her plan to promptly remove me from harm's way.
I stomped my way across the deck toward the gangway as the ship eased into dock, my thoughts as dark as the evening sky. I understood why Mum and Da sent me away. As the only female Hayle, I was next in line after my mother. And while they hoped the acquisition of the family power from the Tremere's would go smoothly, Mum wasn't taking any chances.
It just wasn't fair. My brothers, Damon and Pharo, had been permitted to remain behind. Not for the first time, I railed at the fact I was a girl, and the youngest at sixteen. Da always indulged me, at least according to Mum and the coven, but I agreed with him and often argued the point with my mother. Coven leaders must be strong and fearless, capable of controlling the kind of power that came with such a great responsibility.
And since I knew Gramps had taught her to ride a horse in trousers, Mum had very little she could say in the matter.
I was the first in line to disembark. My feet itched to set foot on soil again, to still the constant roll permeating everything about sea travel. I conveniently forgot the two days I'd spent during heavy seas disgorging the contents of my unhappy innards into the lavatory. I was sure it happened to everyone.
I strode down the ramp, bag in one hand, cat in the other, eyes roving the dock for my greeting party. As I set foot on the glorious ground, I felt my whole world shift sideways and had to catch myself from falling. If the roll of the ship was bad, this sudden heaving was worse, as though the very earth shook beneath me.
"Allow me." A hand met my elbow and O'Brien was there, holding me steady. I glanced up, knowing my shock showed on my face and hating the weakness behind it, especially in his eyes. But he made no effort to take advantage and simply smiled, dark hair falling over even darker eyes. "Rather disconcerting, isn't it?"
I merely nodded, feeling the sway of the ground lessen as a few moments passed. "Whatever is it?"
"Merely your body adjusting to the stillness of land again," he said, letting me go slowly to assure I was still upright and not about to collapse on him out of the blue. How hideously embarrassing. And, for the moment, I feared I'd misjudged him. "You'll adjust again, soon enough, I wager."
Already feeling better, the vague, nauseated feeling I remembered from my two days of sickness lingering with unhappy clarity, I reclaimed my balance on my own and offered my hand.
"My thanks," I said. "For all the courtesies you showed me on board." I swallowed my pride and tried a smile. "I know I wasn't the most genial of passengers."
"Not at all, Miss Burdie. It was surely a pleasure." He really was much kinder than I'd given him credit for and my good feelings toward him grew. And then he went and ruined it all again by looking at my chest. Anger surged within me. I was no object to be admired, but a power to be feared. When he asked, "May I escort you?" my first reaction was cold arrogance.
"Thank you, but I have an escort."
His eyes flew wide, cheeks red under the lamplight. "My apologies for being so forward." He retreated with a bow and I instantly regretted my anger. "Have a safe and pleasant visit to London."
As O'Brien retreated back up the gangway, my anger went with him. I sighed at my own foolishness. I could at least have made sure he secured my baggage for me while I waited for my escort to arrive. My eyes scanned the hansoms lined up near the dock, searching for some indication that one of them was for me.
Then, like a ton of bricks falling from the sky, it hit me. What had O'Brien said? We were half a day early. Which meant no one even knew I was in London yet.
I could have used O'Brien's offer of escort after all.
Not to be undone by a simple matter of time, I shuffled myself off to one side out of the jolting pile of people and dug into my bag. Fortunately, I retained my mother's correspondence with my hosts here. Neatly printed on the crisp envelope was the address I needed.
I marched purposely to a hansom and nodded to the black-clad driver. "Have you been hired, good sir?"
He immediately took my bag, smiling and bowing, teeth yellow from an excess of tobacco, breath vile but face kind. "My pleasure to drive you, lady," he said. My bag quickly found the top of the carriage as I handed him my baggage claim. The door closed beside me. I settled into the cracked leather seat, my blanket over my knees, wicker cat basket on the opposite bench.
Within moments the hansom rocked, once then twice. My driver's face appeared at the window, the soft harbor breeze carrying both the scent of his smoke laden breath and the stench of the quayside into the carriage, enough to make me momentarily dizzy.
I quickly told him the address in question and, to my great relief, he disappeared from my window and mounted the front of the hansom, clucking to his horses and we were away.
Perhaps it was merely paranoia, from being in a new place all alone, but I was certain for a moment a figure in a hooded black cloak watched me from beneath the glow of a gas lit lamp post, head turning as we drove by. Surely it was my overactive imagination and my need for some small comfort, so far from home.
I shrugged it off, certain I was mistaken. And it wasn't as if I were in any sort of danger. Instead, I gave one last look back toward the ship that brought me to London, wishing suddenly I could simply buy passage back to New York and my family. The jab of homesickness was unexpected and made tears rise in my eyes. I firmly grasped my welling emotions. It would not do for the daughter of Thaddea Hayle to show such pathetic sorrow in the face of an adventure.
I turned around and squared myself for the journey ahead, a ride that had nothing to do with the hansom.