Gilded Cage – Vic James

She heard the motorbike first, then the galloping horse – two distant points of noise in the darkness, converging on her as she ran. Apart from her boots striking the ground, Leah wasn’t making a sound, and neither was the baby she held close. But their pursuers didn’t need to hear them to find them. The only place she could run to was Kyneston’s perimeter wall, and the only hope of escape once she got there was the infant bundled in her arms, her daughter Libby. The moon was alternately covered and revealed by high, rapid clouds, but the faint radiance of the wall shone steadily along the horizon. It was like the streak of hallway light beneath a bedroom door, comforting children waking from nightmares. Was that what her life at Kyneston had become: a nightmare? It had once seemed to fulfil all of her dreams. The roar of the bike engine was closer now and the thudding hooves had fallen behind. Her pursuers could only be Gavar and Jenner. Both were way off to the left, bearing down in a line that headed straight for her. But Leah had reached the wall first. She slumped against it for a moment’s relief. One hand rested on the ancient masonry as she dragged in a breath. The wall felt cool beneath her fingers. It was slick with moisture and furred with moss, jarring with the illusion of warmth from the unnaturally glowing brickwork.

But that was the power of Skill for you. There was nothing natural about this place or the people that lived here. Time to go. ‘Please, my darling. Please,’ Leah whispered to her child, pulling aside the edge of the blanket she’d knitted and kissing Libby’s silky head. The baby fussed as Leah gently untangled an arm and took her small hand. Chest heaving with terror as much as exertion, Leah leaned on the wall and pressed her baby’s palm to it. Where the tiny fingers touched the weather-beaten brick, a greater brightness bloomed beneath them. As Leah watched, the luminescence spread, flowing through the mortar between the bricks. It was weak, but visible nonetheless. And – there! – the light jumped and climbed upward, stronger now, becoming firmer, sharper. It took on outlines: an upright, then an arch. The gate. From the darkness came a mechanical snarl. The motorbike engine being choked off.

Dying. Then another, closer sound broke into the night: a leisurely handclap. Leah recoiled as if it had been an actual slap. Someone was waiting there. And as the tall, slender figure stepped into the spilling light she saw that, of course, it was him. Silyen. The youngest of the three Jardine brothers, but not the least. He brought them into Kyneston, all those serving their days, and it was his Skill that kept them here on his family’s estate. How could she have imagined he’d let her escape? The slow applause stopped. One of the boy’s narrow, nail-bitten hands gestured at the vaulting ironwork. ‘Be my guest,’ Silyen said, as if inviting mother and child in for tea. ‘I won’t try and stop you. I’m rather fascinated to see what little Libby is capable of. You know I have . certain theories.

’ Leah’s heart was pounding. He was the last one of them that she’d trust. The very last. Still, she had to take the offered chance, even if it was no more than a cat momentarily lifting its paw off a mouse’s back. She studied his face as if moonlight and Skill-light might reveal the truth of his intentions. And as Silyen met her eye for perhaps the very first time, Leah thought she glimpsed something. Was it curiosity? He wanted to see if Libby could open the gate. If she could, maybe he would let them both through. Purely for the satisfaction of seeing it – and just perhaps to spite his eldest brother. ‘Thank you,’ she said, in little more than a whisper. ‘Sapere aude?’ ‘“Dare to know” indeed. If you dare, I will know.’ Silyen smiled. Leah knew better than to mistake it for compassion or kindness. She stepped forward and pressed Libby’s hand to the faintly outlined gate, and beneath the baby’s sticky fingers it blazed.

Like molten metal flooding a casting mould, it bloomed with brilliant life: an efflorescence of ironwork, leaves and fantastical birds, all topped with the entwined ‘P’ and ‘J’. It looked exactly as it had that day, four years before, when Leah arrived at Kyneston and it had swung open to admit her. Just as it had looked, no doubt, hundreds of years ago when it was first created. But the gate remained shut. In desperation, Leah grabbed one of the wrought-iron vines and pulled with all her strength. Libby began to wail loudly. But the din no longer mattered, Leah thought with dull hopelessness. They wouldn’t be leaving Kyneston Estate tonight. ‘Ah, how interesting,’ Silyen murmured. ‘Your child – that is, my brother’s child – has the blood to wake the gate, but not the Skill to command it. Unless, perhaps, she’s trying to tell you she doesn’t want to leave her family.’ ‘You’re not Libby’s family,’ Leah spat, roused to fury by her fear, hugging her baby more tightly. Her fingers cramped from struggling with the unyielding metal. ‘Not Gavar, not any of y—’ A shot rang out and Leah fell to the ground crying aloud. Pain raced through her body as fast and bright as the light through the gate.

Gavar walked over unhurriedly and stood above her where she lay, tears leaking from her eyes. She had once loved this man: Kyneston’s heir, Libby’s father. The gun was in his hand. ‘I warned you,’ Gavar Jardine said. ‘No one steals what’s mine.’ Leah didn’t look at him. She turned her head, resting her cheek against the cold ground, and fixed her gaze instead on the blanketed bundle lying a few feet away. Libby was howling with hurt and outrage. Leah’s heart yearned to touch and soothe her daughter, but for some reason her arm no longer had the strength to reach even that short distance. Hooves clattered to a halt nearby. A horse whickered and two booted heels hit the ground. And here came Jenner, the middle brother. The only one who might intend good, but who was powerless to act. ‘What are you doing, Gavar?’ he shouted. ‘She’s not some animal you can just shoot.

Is she hurt?’ As if in answer, Leah let out a keening sound that died in an airless gasp. Jenner hurried to kneel beside her and she felt him wipe the tears from her eyes. His fingers were gentle against her face. ‘I’m sorry,’ he told her. ‘So sorry.’ In the dimness that gathered around her, which the shining gate did nothing to dispel, she saw Gavar tuck his gun beneath his coat before bending low and gathering up their daughter. Silyen walked past, towards the great house. As he went, Gavar turned his back and hunched over Libby protectively. Leah could only hope he would be a kinder father than he had been a lover. ‘Silyen!’ she heard Jenner call. He sounded distant, as if he stood in the Kyneston Pale calling across the lake, although she could still feel his palm cradling her cheek. ‘Silyen, wait! Can’t you do anything?’ ‘You know how it works,’ came the response, so faint that Leah wondered if she had imagined it. ‘No one can bring back the dead. Not even me.’ ‘She’s not .

’ But maybe Jenner trailed off. And Gavar had surely hushed Libby. And the gate must have faded away, its Skill-light extinguished, because everything went quiet and dark. 1 Luke It was an unusually hot weekend in mid-June and sweat pooled along Luke Hadley’s spine as he lay on his stomach on a blanket in the front garden. He was staring blankly at a spread of textbooks. The screaming was distracting, and had been going on for a while now. If it had been Abigail trying to revise, Daisy and her pals would never have been allowed to make such a racket. But Mum had inexplicably gone into overdrive for Daisy’s birthday, which had turned into the party of the century. Luke’s little sis and her friends were careering round behind the house shrieking at the tops of their voices, while some unforgivably awful C-pop boyband blared through the living room window. Luke stuffed his earbuds in as deep as they’d go without rupturing anything, and turned up the volume on his own music. It didn’t work. The catchy beat of ‘Happy Panda’ was backed by the delirious vocals of ten-year-old girls massacring the Chinese language. Moaning, he let his face fall forwards onto the books spread out on the grass in front of him. He knew who he’d be blaming when he failed History and Citizenship. Beside him, her own exams long since completed, Abi was lost in one of her favourite trashy novels.

Luke gave it the side-eye and cringed at the title: Her Master’s Slave. She was nearly finished, and had another pastel-covered horror lined up. The Heir’s Temptation. How someone as smart as his big sister could read such rubbish was beyond him. Still, at least it kept her distracted. Uncharacteristically, Abi hadn’t nagged him once about revision, even though this term’s tests were the most important until he finished school in two years’ time. He turned back to the mock exam paper. The words swam before his eyes. Describe the Equal Revolution of 1642 and explain how it led to the Slavedays Compact. Analyse the role of (i) Charles I, the Last King, (ii) Lycus Parva, the Regicide, and (iii) Cadmus Parva-Jardine, the Pure-in-Heart. Luke grunted in disgust and rolled onto his back. Those stupid Equal names seemed designed to confuse. And who really cared why the slavedays had begun, hundreds of years ago? All that mattered was that they’d never ended. Everyone in Britain except the Equals – the Skilled aristocrats – still had to give up a decade of their life. Those years were spent confined to one of the grim slavetowns that shadowed every major city, with no pay and no respite.

Movement caught his eye and he sat up, scenting distraction. A stranger had walked up the driveway and was peering through the windows of Dad’s car. This wasn’t unusual. Luke jumped up and went over. ‘Brilliant, isn’t it?’ he told the guy. ‘It’s an Austin-Healey, more than fifty years old. My dad restored it. He’s a mechanic. But I helped. It took us more than a year. I could probably do most of it myself now, he’s taught me so much.’ ‘Is that right? Well, I reckon you’ll be sorry to see it go, then.’ ‘See it go?’ Luke was nonplussed. ‘It’s not going anywhere.’ ‘Eh? But this is the address in the advert.

’ ‘Can I help?’ Abi had appeared at Luke’s shoulder. She nudged him gently. ‘You get back to your revision, little bro. I’ll handle this.’ Luke was about to tell her not to bother, that the man had made a mistake, when a stampede of small girls hurtled around the house and thundered towards them. ‘Daisy!’ Abi yelled repressively. ‘You’re not to play round the front. I don’t want anyone tearing into the road and getting run over.’ Daisy trotted over to join them. She wore a large orange badge with a sparkly ‘10’ on it, and a sash across her chest bearing the words ‘Birthday Girl’. ‘Honestly.’ Daisy folded her arms. ‘It was only for a minute, Abi.’ The man who’d come about the car was looking at Daisy intently. He’d better not be some kind of pervert.

‘Birthday girl, is it?’ he said, reading the sash. ‘You’re ten? I see . ’ His face went funny for a moment, with some expression Luke couldn’t work out. Then he looked at the three of them standing there. It wasn’t a threatening look, but it made Luke put his arm round his little sis and draw her closer. ‘Tell you what,’ the man said. ‘I’ll give your dad a call some other time. You enjoy your party, young lady. Have your fun while you can.’ He nodded at Daisy, then turned and ambled off down the driveway. ‘Weird,’ said Daisy expansively. Then she gave a war-whoop and led her pals in a prancing, cheering conga back round the rear of the house. ‘Weird’ was the word, Luke thought. In fact, the entire day had felt not quite right. But it wasn’t until he lay awake in bed that night that it all came together.

Selling the car. The fuss over Daisy’s birthday. The suspicious absence of nagging over his own exam revision. When he heard hushed conversation floating up from the kitchen, and padded downstairs to find his parents and Abi sat at the table studying paperwork, Luke knew he was right. ‘When were you planning on telling me and Daisy?’ he said from the doorway, deriving a grim satisfaction from their confusion. ‘At least you let the poor kid blow out the candles on her cake before your big reveal. “Happy Birthday, darling. Mummy and Daddy have a surprise: they’re abandoning you to do their slavedays.”’ The three of them looked back at him in silence. On the tabletop, Dad’s hand reached for Mum’s. Parental solidarity – never a good sign. ‘So what’s the plan? That Abi’s going to look after me and Daisy? How will she do that when she’s at med school?’ ‘Sit down, Luke.’


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Updated: 19 June 2021 — 00:10

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