As they were brought inside, Micah took Arsha’s hand and lead her away. Rachael was left alone with Dayaram, struggling to match his long strides as he lead her down a corridor flanked by doors on both sides and decorated with elaborate tapestries. She had little time to take in the artistry as they moved past, but Rachael couldn’t help but notice that most of the tapestries seemed to depict strangely fantastical beings; a man with a body made from cogs and gears, a floating cape with the suggestion of a body within, an androgynous figure holding up a needle and thread, and a lithe woman whose body seemed to be carved of jade all caught her eye, though briefly.
Distracted, as she tried to catch glimpses of the images they passed, she was caught by surprise as Dayaram stopped at a door and tapped lightly.
“Come in,” a voice called out, less a request than a command.
Dayaram turned the handle and held the door open, ushering her in. Swallowing, her throat unbearably dry, she stepped through into a study that was too large to seem cosy, but dimly lit in a way that felt warm and enclosed. The walls were lined with bookshelves and tapestries. A pair of wing-backed chairs were set in front of a fireplace, where a few large logs glowed a steady red.
In one chair, facing slightly away from her as she entered, an old man sat with his eyes fixed on the glowing embers. His thinning hair flowed down over his shoulders in neatly brushed silver waves, and his grey beard was thick and well groomed. He wore a long, loose fitting tunic and pyjama trousers of white linen. His bare feet were propped up on a small footstool, toes wiggling in front of the fire.
He looked up as she entered and smiled warmly. She heard the door close and looked back to see that Dayaram was still with them.
“Ah, Miss Barnes, welcome. Please, please, sit down,” the old man said, gesturing at the chair opposite his. His voice had a hoarse, soft quality to it.
She took a seat, as Dayaram knelt by the fire to add some fresh wood. Sheets of red and orange flame leapt up from the grate, and a crackling sound filled the room.
“Ah, that’s better,” the old man said. There was a kindly note to his voice, as he folded his hands across his lap and basked in the warmth of the fire for a moment.
Dayaram moved to the small table between them, where a large silver tea tray had been set down.
“Tell me, my dear, do you take milk and sugar?” the old man said, with a genial air.
For a moment she said nothing, watching his expression as he patiently waited for her answer, willing that placid mask to crack. The fire popped and hissed, and she heard the gentle chiming of a silver teaspoon against the sides of the cup as Dayaram prepared his father’s tea.
“Ah, thank you, Darry. You really should have let the servants handle this, my boy. You do trouble yourself so.”
“It’s no trouble father.”
Accepting the cup, the old man turned to look at her again.
“Milk. No sugar,” she said, stiffly.
“No sugar? Well there’s a surprise,” he said, smiling at his son. “A child who doesn’t have a sweet tooth. You know, my boy Rakesh takes three sugars in his tea, and against all reason he’s still as thin as a rail. He gets that from his mother’s side of course, just like his brother here.” He sighed, gently. “Poor Naveen takes after myself. No wonder he exercises so much.”
The old man gave his son another warm smile, and patted the man’s arm gently.
“Now, why don’t you give us a little time alone, eh?”
“Just call if you need anything father.”
Dayaram turned and swept out of the room, closing the door softly behind himself as the old man sipped his tea.
“Ah, that boy. He’ll smother me with love.”
“Yeah. It’s really touching,” Rachael said, trying not to sound too sardonic.
“Oh it’s quite alright my dear, you needn’t pretend to feel anything other than contempt for me. I extend you these courtesies because I am an old man and it pleases me to do so. You’re quite welcome to take that cup and throw it at the wall if you’d prefer. I’m sure the thought crossed your mind.”
He wiggled his eyebrows conspiratorially at her. For a moment her fingers tightened around the handle of the tea-cup, which rattled against the saucer. She watched a little trickle of tea spill down the side and pool in the saucer.
Gently, with great care, she set the cup and saucer down on the table and moved her hands to her lap. Manindra said nothing, but Rachael caught his self indulgent smile as he sipped his tea again.
“Thank you, by the way, for agreeing to speak with me. I do appreciate having a chance to clear the air a little. Ah, manners. I haven’t even introduced myself.”
He set the cup down, and folded his hands across his belly.
“I am Lord Manindra Bhandari of House Bhandari, and I am quite delighted to meet you young lady. You have, I must say, caused more than a little bit of a stir around here.”
“Is that what you call it when your boys try to kill someone.”
“Ah, so dramatic. It was only your companion we tried to kill, my dear. We had no intention of harming you in any way. You are far too valuable. For all his remarkable talents, the boy was expendable, and something of a problem I’m afraid. I have little sympathy for problems.”
Manindra smiled as he spoke, but there was an edge to his tone, like a razor. Perfectly precise. He was trying to get a rise out of her, she knew. As soon as Rachael saw it, she felt a coolness spread through her, as she settled in a familiar space, where the thinking part of her seemed to have stepped back from what was happening, watching from a distance. It was difficult, to keep her hands from forming fists, keep her expression from turning to a snarl, but she forced the anger down, buried under an icy coldness that seemed to numb her whole body.
Instead of meeting his gaze, she let her eyes wander about the room. The tapestries depicted the same figures she’d seen out in the hallway, but one in particular drew her attention. A woman whose body seemed to be comprised entirely of golden leaves, her face concealed behind a white porcelain mask that left only the mouth and chin exposed. Rachael felt a shudder of recognition, as she remembered a ride in an empty train carriage that seemed a lifetime ago. She could almost hear a voice like dry leaves whispering her name again.
“Fascinating, aren’t they?” Manindra said. There was a curious softness to his tone. “I wonder, how much has Chandra told you?”
Rachael scowled, and Manindra’s eyebrows rose a little.
“Not enough, I suspect,” he added. As the old man continued to gaze at the figures, her curiosity finally got the better of her.
“What are they?”
“We call them the Dreamwalkers, though they’ve had many names throughout the ages. They are ancient, as old as human civilisation. These depictions have been found throughout the ruins of the Ur.”
He seemed to notice her look of confusion.
“The first people,” he continued. “Or at least, the oldest recorded civilisation, and certainly the first to find the means to travel beyond the Hearth, and out here into the Borderlands. There is much we still don’t know about our oldest history, but we do know that after the Ur discovered the ways, they left the Hearth behind, and we suspect it was they who created the Veil, in order to prevent anyone from following them.”
Manindra’s eyes remained on the tapestry for a moment longer, before he turned to regard her again.
“I suppose you’d like to know why I asked to speak with you?” he said, taking another sip of his tea.
“Because this is the part where you tell me your evil plan, right? That’s what bad guys are supposed to do, right?”
She was actually surprised when the old man burst out laughing. Tea slopped over his hands and he carefully set the cup down, smiling as he wiped himself clean with a small white handkerchief.
“Oh my. You’re blunt. I like that,” he said, with a gleeful smile. “Well then, if you must know my dear, my evil scheme is thus. Having learned of the present danger through some close allies of my own, I sent my boys to London to find and capture you, preferably before you could awaken one of the Seeds in the middle of the city you call home, and unleash a nightmare on untold millions of innocents.”
Despite the lightness in his tone, there was a cold edge to Manindra’s expression. Some hard and sharp, like a knife. She forced herself to meet his gaze, in spite of how badly she wanted to look away.
“Right, because you’re so big on caring about other people.”
He shook his head, sadly.
“Do you really still think in such simple terms? I will gladly admit that I did all these things for purely selfish reasons. Gaining control of the Seed would have allowed me immeasurable influence with the Guild Council. Of course, in doing so you would have been spared the awful responsibility of destroying an entire city. So tell me, precisely what harm would have been done if I had succeeded in my nefarious plan?”
“Your men attacked us,” she replied, struggling not to sound petulant. “They had guns, and… That thing. That animal.”
“None of which would have been necessary if you had not proven to be such a remarkably elusive quarry, young lady.”
“You didn’t have to…” she began, before he cut her off, coldly.
“Yes. We did. You should be thankful that I consider you so invaluable a resource, my dear. Had the Inquisition found you first, they might well have placed far greater importance on preventing you from ever reaching the Seed in the first place. Perhaps the bullet that found your shifter friend might have been aimed at you instead.”
A sick sensation roiling in her stomach, Rachael swallowed hard, trying not to let the queasiness show.
“Maybe it should have,” she said, quietly.
Manindra shook his head and looked down at his cup.
“Well, what’s done is done. What I want, my dear, is the Seed. Controlling it would stop the danger it poses, and would grant me a powerful bargaining tool. My own motives may be of no interest to you, but perhaps you might take this chance to undo the harm to the city that raised you. If you were to refuse Professor Chandra’s offer of adoption… If you willingly give yourself over my care… I have the resources and the knowledge to close the rift and safely contain the seed itself. All we need is you.”
“And what happens after that?”
“You remain in my care. You are too valuable, and too dangerous, to be granted freedom. But I can keep you from falling into the hands of the Inquisition, who will, I imagine, see you as little more than a curiosity to be studied. You will live here on my estate as my ward. I cannot imagine you will want for anything.”
“Yeah, no thanks mate. I’ll pass.”
“Tell me, do you really imagine you have much choice in this matter?”
Rachael said nothing, deciding it was better to hold her tongue as Manindra watched her with a pitying expression.
“Ah, but of course, you still imagine you have a third option. Rishi hasn’t told you.”
“Told me what?” Rachael said, eyes narrowing.
Manindra sighed, heavily.
“That was cruel of him, to let you hold on to a false hope.”
Still regarding him with a wary gaze, Rachael held her tongue, waiting to see what the old man had to say for himself.
“The young man who was with you in London… Doubtless he told you that you were connected to the Dreamwalkers in some fashion. To one, in particular I imagine.”
As Rachael tried to mask her surprise, Manindra turned to regard the tapestries again.
“The Lady of The Falling Leaves,” he said, casting a glance back in her direction. “You recognised her image. Tell me, did he offer to take you to her? Was the Seed perhaps to be your means of finding her realm?”
Rachael said nothing, but she had no doubt that Manindra had already found his answer in her silence.
“My dear child, you have been chasing a phantom,” he said. “The Dreamwalkers are all long dead. Every last one of them. Their deaths are recorded in every Ur ruin we have uncovered. Their history was written into their walls, crafted into the architecture of their cities. Every Guild scholar knows it.”
He gestured towards the books that lined the study walls.
“I will show you a hundred texts that all say the same. You will doubtless find the same books on Rishi’s shelves, if you care to look.”
Finally, she could not contain herself anymore.
“So what?” she snapped. “You honestly expect me to believe any of that? You gonna convince me that Justin was just lying to me this whole time?”
“Not lying. Merely mislead,” Manindra replied, calmly.
“You really expect me to buy that?”
“Tell me,” he said, leaning forward a little, eyes bright with curiosity, “your young friend. Did he claim to have met the Lady of The Falling Leaves in person. To have been to her realm?”
“He…” Rachael paused for a moment, skewered by the old man’s question. “He went there in his dreams,” she finished, with none of the fire she had felt surging through her only a moment before.
The old man regarded her sadly.
“Dreams, my dear, are the substance of all true magic. The same magic that would have granted him his particular abilities. Fatework, it is called.”
“He said it had been years,” Rachael said. She meant for the reply to sound forceful, but the words came out like a mumbled excuse.
“Time moves strangely in dreams. I’m sure you’ve experienced this for yourself. Even memories are just dreams of a different sort,” he said. “Did it not all seem just a touch too convenient? For someone like yourself to discover that she was secretly the heir to an ancient legacy? A lost princess, perhaps? Was the young man to be your knight? Your prince? Wasn’t it just a little too perfect, to learn that there was a new life waiting for you, just beyond the other side of the curtain?”
His voice was soft, almost kindly. In the silence after he spoke, Rachael heard the crackling of the fire in the grate, as the old man sipped his tea.
“So what am I then?” she said. “Cause you still went to a whole lot of trouble. And that Seed thing still did something.”
“There is a grain of truth in what you were told. You are an heir to the legacy of the Dreamwalkers, if distantly. Some tiny part of your lineage doubtless traces back to their kind. Enough to make a connection. Growing up in the vicinity of a buried Seed saw to the rest. The Seed was searching for someone to awaken it. It found you.”
He sighed, again.
“You are an echo, my dear. Nothing more. Your connection to the Seed is, indeed, quite valuable. But there is no one waiting for you beyond that gate. The Lady’s halls are abandoned and empty.”
Calmly, Manindra leaned forward in his chair, regarding her intently.
“You, and your young companion, have been manipulated from the very beginning, and as a result you now have the blood of an entire city on your hands,” he said. Uncomfortable with his icy gaze, she looked away.
“Like you care,” she snarled. “You think you’re any better?”
“Because I am selfish?” Manindra said, seeming entirely unsurprised. “Everyone is selfish. Anyone who pretends to act only for the good of others is a liar and a fool. I seek power and influence, and I offer a chance to wash your conscience clean. Both of us selfishly saving the lives of millions.”
Rachael turned to look at him again, her eyes cold and hard.
“Doesn’t sound like much of an offer to me,” she said.
“What else would you seek?” Manindra said, raising an eyebrow. “Freedom? The only freedom is power, and that is something you have never known. You were born powerless, and you will die powerless. You will always be caged, girl. It might as well be a gilded one.”
Rachael said nothing. Eyes narrowed, she met his gaze, and forced herself not to look away.
“Tell me,” Manindra said, softly, “is Rishi Chandra really any different? Has he offered you anything that I haven’t?”
She began to protest, and faltered. Now that she thought about it, it seemed hard to pin down just what the professor had promised her.
“I see,” Manindra said, with obvious disappointment. “Well, run to him, if you wish. He will fight for you, I have no doubt of that. As with all things, Rishi will fight to the bitter end. And I will destroy him, utterly, and without mercy. I will ruin him, and everyone he holds dear. His daughter, his friends, the crew of that charming little ship he rides about on. They will all suffer to protect you. And it will not make the slightest bit of difference.”
Manindra’s voice was cold and soft, like the sound of a blade being sharpened. His eyes, fixed on hers, were icy cold, and Rachael felt no doubt at all that the man believed every word.
“Why would I care for what happens to any of them?” she spat back at him. “I don’t owe them nothing.”
“Really?” Manindra leaned back in the chair and smiled. “Then tell me, if they have offered nothing that I cannot, why sacrifice yourself for them?”
Still smiling, Manindra nodded to her.
“Think on it, young miss. I thank you. This has been most enlightening.”
Rachael made no move, didn’t say a word as the old man touched a small crystal inset into the table, which made a gentle chiming sound. She sat in awkward silence while the old man sipped his tea, until the door opened and Dayaram stepped in. Looking up to see his son standing in the doorway, Manindra shook his head sadly.
“What on earth do I pay all these servants for, dear boy?”
Dayaram just smiled as he awaited his instructions. She couldn’t help but notice that when Dayaram smiled, it was only his lips that moved. His eyes remained as cold as ever. Especially when he smiled at his father.
“Well, if you will insist on being my personal adjutant, Darry, would you be so good as to see the young lady back to her companions,” Manindra said.
“As you wish father,” his son nodded and turned to her, holding the door open. She got to her feet, taking one last glance at the old man as he stared contentedly at the fire. Then she turned away and followed Dayaram out of the room.
They walked through the long corridor once more, as Rachael felt the figures on the tapestries staring down at them.
“He scares you, doesn’t he,” she said, softly. Dayaram made no sign that he had heard. “That’s why you want to be so close to everything. You’re trying to see just how bad he’s lost it. Just how dangerous he’s gotten.”
Still Dayaram walked, without a word. They crossed the entrance hall, and approached a large set of double doors. He stopped, with one hand on the door. Before he could turn the handle, Rachael looked him in the eye.
“Believe me,” she said, “it’s as bad as you think. It really is.”
When he spoke, his words were like steel scraping over ice. There was coldness in his eyes, but she also suspected just a hint of fear.
“So long as you remain a guest in our house… Young miss… You would do well to mind your words.”
Dayaram opened the door and ushered Rachael through into a spacious dining hall. As she entered she saw that everyone else was already seated. Only Manindra had yet to join them. However her attention turned quickly to the two figures she had not expected to see at the table. Even without their long red coats, Rakesh and Naveen were easy to recognise.
Naveen had his hair tied back, and was sat by Vaneeta’s side, chatting with the woman in a hushed tone. Closer to, Rakesh was sat back from the table with little Mohan and Jeevan sat on his knees, bright eyed and laughing as the young boys both did their best to shout over each other.
Rachael didn’t dare move. She watched them both, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. She couldn’t seem to match Rakesh’s smiling face to the haggard look he had worn when she last saw him, standing on top of the Shard Building with a sword clutched in one hand. Then the man looked up at her as his nephews continued to bombard him with questions. His smile remained, but saw something dangerous behind those eyes. Something hard, like steel. Then the moment passed, as Rakesh returned to answering the torrent of questions that Mohan and Jeevan assaulted him with.
Dayaram lead her to the table, seating her by Arsha’s side before taking his place just to the right of the head seat. She noticed that the professor was seated to the left, and wondered if that was important. Then the doors swung open again, and a hush fell on the room. Manindra Bhandari entered, his steps slow and measured as he surveyed them all. A nervous Vaneeta swooped in to gather up her young boys as Rakesh and Naveen stood to their feet. Their expressions now quite serious, both men went to meet their father.
“My boys,” Manindra boomed, suddenly beaming as he clapped a hand on both of their shoulders. It was funny, Rachael thought, how the old man could be half a foot shorter than both the young men, and yet seem to tower over them. Watching closely, she saw the look in the old man’s eyes as he regarded both of his sons carefully. A look of deep disappointment. There was a brief conversation in hushed tones, that she could not make out. Then all three of them went to take their places at the table. Rachael felt a knot tightening in her stomach. She wondered if she would be able to eat anything at all.
As dinner began, all but the oldest of the boys were ushered away to the kitchen. Only Vasuki remained, seated between his uncles. Rachael couldn’t help but notice the sour glances he kept throwing in their direction. A strained but polite conversation filled the room. Rachael began to hope that she could stay quiet and be ignored, but it wasn’t long before Manindra turned his attention to her. Smiling delightedly, the old man bombarded her with questions about where she had come from. He seemed genuinely delighted by ideas like ‘the internet’ and ‘mobile phones’. She mumbled brief answers as best she could. It was difficult to endure the barrage of questions without wanting to grind her teeth and simply refuse to speak any more. Throughout it all, Manindra listened attentively, seeming for all the world like a kindly grandfather.
When dessert finally arrived, she felt too exhausted by the conversation to even lift a spoon. She was desperately thankful when other conversations began to overtake the old man’s questions. Finally Manindra excused himself, and this seemed to signal that they were free to go. She noticed that the old man’s sons followed close behind him as he left the room. Too tired to put much thought into what that might mean, Rachael slipped down from the table and made her way out onto the balcony.
She leaned out over the railing and found herself looking down over the town below them. There was a gentle breeze, but the air was still unpleasantly warm.
She heard the door, and looked across her shoulder to see Micah stroll out onto the balcony. He leaned against the stone railing and stared up at the sky. Rachael found herself uncomfortably aware of the shape of his face, the strong line of his jaw captured in the glow of the ghostlamps that swayed above them.
“Hey,” she said, turning to sit on the balcony. Her throat felt dry.
“What’s up?” he said, apparently unconcerned by her precarious perch.
“Nothing, I just,” she paused, trying to gather her thoughts, “you know… Needed some fresh air.”
“Yeah, me too.”
He nodded, and went to stand at the railing beside her. Reaching into his pocket, Micah produced a small cloth bag, from which he extracted a slightly crumpled looking roll-up.
“Here, give us one of those then,” Rachael said, as Micah put the cigarette to his lips and struck a match.
“Oh no, not a chance. Filthy habit,” he said, taking care to blow the smoke away from her.
“Mate, I grew up on the estate, yeah?” she said, doing her best to sound nonchalant. “I’ve smoked ciggies before.”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” he said. “I’ll get to watch you cough your lungs out, and then you can watch as Milima murders me. ‘Lona will probably help too.”
“I won’t tell,” she said, pouting just a little.
“Not happening, kid. Nice try though.”
With a sigh, she slipped down off the railing and turned to look at the view. In the far distance she could make out the lights of Firecrest, and below the streets around the estate were lit by the orange glow of the furnaces.
“Fates, you see it like this, it’s almost beautiful,” Micah said, softly.
“It’s a bit like home,” she replied. Micah just nodded as he took another drag. For a moment she found herself staring down at the railing, trying to work her way around the lump that had formed in her throat.
“Hey, um, I wanted to say thanks, for today,” she said. “It was… It was really fun.”
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” Micah said. “I was going stir crazy anyhow. I’ve never been good at being cooped up, you know?”
“Yeah. Me too.”
“Well, maybe I’ll take you out again tomorrow, if the professor’s crazy enough to have us stick it out here.”
“I… I’d really like that.”
“Just, don’t get your hopes up, OK?” he said. She was surprised by his look of concern, though she couldn’t really say why.
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “It’s just… I really was crazy about ’em, you know? Even when I started drawing, it was all just pages and pages of horses. Whole books of ’em. I mean, I knew it was stupid. Rich girls get horses, not dirt poor scabbers living on the estate.”
She looked up at the tall windows above them.
“Guess some things are the same wherever you go.”
“Seems like it,” Micah said, nodding.
“I suppose where you grew up must have been a lot like this.”
Micah turned to look back over the structure that loom over them.
“Yeah, yeah it was. I mean, different, but the same.”
“So why’d you ever want to leave for?”
“I guess I’ve never really gotten along all that well with most of my family,” Micah said. “They’re good people, but I just never really…”
He tailed off, staring out into the distance.
“I think getting away from that place was the best thing I could have ever done. Yeah, I had it easy there, but I felt… Trapped, you know? When Rishi came along, offered me this chance, I didn’t hesitate.”
Micah looked down at the stub of his cigarette, barely anything of it left, and made an amused sound.
“Go on then, let’s see you give it a try.”
As he held out the cigarette stub for her, Rachael hesitated a moment before taking it. Pinching the cigarette to her lips, she breathed in and felt a choking wave of hot smoke sear it’s way through her lungs. She could see him barely holding back his laughter as she spluttered and coughed. She could feel her ears burning.
“Fates, give me that back,” he said, still smiling bemusedly as he took the stub from her hand and flicked it into the darkness. Rachael watched the tiny ember sail down into the night, like a microscopic shooting star. Rachael watched it go, desperately trying not to meet his eyes. To her relief, Micah just carried on talking as if nothing had happened.
“Look, this stuff with my family… I’m not trying to say it’s anything like what you’ve been through. I know I’ve always had it easy. Even living on the Triskelion, even when I’m freezing to death or sweating my ass off on one of the professor’s expeditions, I still chose this, you know?”
He grinned, suddenly.
“Honestly, I only complain so much because it gets up Ilona’s nose.”
“Jesus,” she muttered, “what even is it with you two? Like, are you a thing or something?”
“Oh Fates, no. No, no, no, no. Ilona is…” He shook his head. “You know what, I’ll get back to you on that one when I figure it out, OK?”
Micah paused for a moment, looking off into the distance again.
“But I care about her a lot,” he said. “All of these people… I know it’s awful to say it, but they’ve been more family to me than anyone I was born with.”
“Yeah,” she said. “That… That kinda makes sense.”
“It’s not who you’re given, you know? It’s who you find. That’s what counts,” he said, his smile strangely subdued. He gave her shoulder a squeeze and turned away from the railing.
“Hey, Micah,” she called after him. He stopped, and looked back.
“Don’t mention it.”
He smiled and slipped through the door, leaving her standing in the warm night air. She closed her eyes and listened to the sound of the wind.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.