In 2013 Angry Robot books will be publishing three Split Worlds novels, the first is out in March and called Between Two Thorns. I’ve been releasing a new story every week for a year and a day, hosted on a different site every time, all set in the Split Worlds. I wanted to give readers a taste of my kind of urban fantasy and have the opportunity to build in secrets and extra bits for those people who, like me, love the tiny details. It’s also been a major part of my world-building work alongside writing the novels.
This is the fifty-first tale in the year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds. If you would like me to read it to you instead, you can listen to it at the bottom of this post. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here. You can also sign up to get the stories delivered to your inbox, one per week for a year and a day.
by Emma Newman
Olivia tried to ignore the way her brother was watching over her shoulder as she poured the liquid into the funnel.
“Careful,” he whispered.
“There’s too much for that bottle.”
She pressed her lips together. He was nervous and only trying to help.
“Are you sure it’s pure?”
“Oh be quiet, Henry!”
The funnel slipped as the last drops left the bottle and one splashed onto her hand. She wiped it off but still felt a terrible rush of despair. She reminded herself it was not hers.
“Why didn’t you wear gloves?”
“Because a bit of silk would make no difference. Henry, please, go and make a pot of tea for goodness sake. It will be ready in a minute.”
Once he’d gone she stoppered the bottle with the cork she’d soaked in vinegar and then coated the top with wax. She wrote “Distilled Despair” on a label and glued it to the bottle.
She put it in the basket with the others and carried it out of the basement. The tea was laid out on the table in the living room and he’d even remembered the napkins. She put the basket down on the sofa and accepted a cup gratefully. She was used to the lack of servants now.
“It’s all ready,” she said. “It’s better to be late and perfect than on time and incomplete.”
“Is that what the old crone said?”
Olivia nodded, not trusting her voice to lie. He sipped his tea and looked up at the clock. The way his right leg bounced up and down reminded her of their father. The hate followed swiftly and she pushed it away. “There’s always time for tea. Ten minutes won’t make any difference.”
“It’s so demeaning,” Henry said. “I should provide for you, not the other way around.”
“No Henry, father should be providing for us. It’s not your fault. And you found us this house. It’s lovely here.”
“It’s only Pimlico.”
“Well I like it. When the other basement room is painted we can run the practice from home.”
Henry’s lips curled with disapproval. “To think we’re reduced to this. What are we to be? Middle class?” He shuddered. “Or… professionals.”
“We’re going to be fine.” Olivia felt just as appalled but feeding his black mood wouldn’t help.
He looked at her then, with such sadness she felt tearful. “You’ll get old.”
“Not if I can help it.” She put the tea cup down. “I’m sure there’s a way to put an end to that nonsense. I’m only about to pass out of my apprenticeship. I imagine there’s much more to learn. My teacher may look like she’s a hundred but I’d wager my thimble she’s three hundred years old at least.” Olivia poured more tea. “I’ve settled on a surname, by the way,” she said as she stirred. “Tate.”
“Oh, it’s hideously common.” He shook his head. “I refuse.”
“I’ll only use it with my clients.”
“I can’t talk about this a moment longer.” Henry stood. “Clients? How positively disgraceful. Check everything is there and I’ll pay the old hag. Then we’ll put this sordid business behind us.”
“This ‘sordid business’ will keep us safe and could make us wealthy.”
He didn’t reply.
She took out the bottles and packets and named each one aloud as she put them back in the basket. “Ten eyelashes from a grieving family, one bottle of distilled despair, a lock of hair from an unloved child, a captured sigh from a love-struck man – and one from a woman – one bottle of pure tears of joy, one of pure tears of grief, a pressed memory, powdered regrets of a dying man and that’s the ones from the woman and liquefied hope. It’s all there. I know that list off by heart, trust me.”
He kissed her on the forehead. “You’ve worked so hard. I’m sorry to be a bore about all of this. Now, wish me luck.”
“You don’t need luck, dear. You’re so charming she won’t care a jot that it’s a day late.” She covered the basket’s contents with a blanket. “Are you sure you don’t want me to go?”
“I’m your brother,” he said, chin high. “The least I can do is dirty my hands with the matter of payment, instead of yours.”
“We’re in Mundanus now,” she said as she kissed him on the cheek. “Things are different here.”
She stood in the bay window and watched him leave. The house was silent and felt huge without him. She hoped the old woman wouldn’t be harsh about the late payment. Whilst Henry hated her, Olivia quite liked the crone. She was a good teacher.
The hours passed. Olivia paced. She practised signing her new name. Olivia Tate. Doctor Tate. Dr O. Tate. Then as dusk fell she saw a stooped figure dressed in a winter coat, hat and scarf walk past the house. The doorbell rang.
Even though she ran, the person had gone by the time she’d opened the door. Her basket was on the doorstep, the blanket inside but instead of bottles and packets, a tiny kitten was mewling up at her. Its fur was the silver-grey of Nether mists and its eyes were amber.
“Henry?” she called down the street and the kitten’s mewling increased. She looked down to see the tiny thing staring at her, something knowing in its eyes. “Henry?”
She retrieved the basket and closed the door. When she picked the kitten up and cradled it in her arms she noticed a piece of paper attached to the kitten’s collar. Two words were scrawled across it: ‘too slow’. Wetting his fur with her tears, Olivia realised the crone had taught her one last lesson.
Thanks for hosting, guys! By the way, on my website, there’s a prize draw for those who pre-order Between Two Thorns and also some information on other launch events.