Book One of the Merlin’s Gambit Trilogy
Whiteladies Road & the Enchanted Tea Rooms
“Right, correct me if I’m wrong, but the story so far goes something like this: You hold a press conference designed to get people’s hands in their pockets to rebuild your version of St Gall–”
“It’s not my version of anything! It’s a reconstruction of what we’ve dug up! You already–”
“Whoa, there, li’l lady!” Marius countered, all weirdly wild west fashion. “Just calling it as I see it.”
The Marius she’d known all these years seemed to have taken a holiday and left this very strange one in his place. Vanda wasn’t sure she understood what was going on any more. The strangenesses she’d been experiencing for the past eighteen months seemed now to have just reached Bristol. She deferred to silence and keeping a wary eye on things from now on.
He had brought her to an equally strange little complex that she’d never even seen, much less been to before. She thought she knew Bristol quite well, especially the area around the university campus, but apparently there were still places that should have been on her list to explore.
A book shop, he’d said. This was a funny little old-fashioned indoor market with a bookshop on one side, a tea room on the opposite side, where they were now sitting, drinking their tea; both at right-angles to the street, and an antiques shop along the back parallel to it. All linked in some strange sort of a way … and as Vanda was evaluating her strange, new surroundings, the thought popped into her head … under the name of Sal’s Emporium.
All three businesses were looking out onto a central, glass-domed atrium, which bathed it in a surreal greenish-hued light, and the complex had been built so that the façades of each maintained a unification as they mirrored the circular masonry-carved bowl of the fountain that served as its centrepiece. Water tinkled as it fell into a curved bronze dish set atop its bowl. As Vanda’s eyes took in the statue from which the water spilled, her attention immediately focused as it found something that did not fit on a statue of its kind. An angel, with a hammer in one raised hand and a staff in the other. But the water was spilling, not from the angel, as she would have expected it to have done, but from the mouth of the beautifully-carved head of the dragon that wound its way from bottom to top of the staff.
It was all colourful, in a rich, dark, mysterious velvet-swathed way. And confusing. It put her in mind of Turkish Delight and all things olde worlde, but not with extra e’s on them just for the sake of it. No, this place felt like the real Old World without such fustian extras. It felt intoxicating and very dangerous. And it felt so Interesting, with a capital I, that Vanda wanted to explore, NOW–.
“Now, if you’re still with me, my dear.”
Marius’s voice pulled her out of the trance she must have fallen into and she blinked her eyes a good few times before she could see clearly enough to focus on him again. “Oh, yes. Of course. You were just … seeing things for what they’re called, weren’t you. Umm, yes. Carry on. As you were,” and she laughed a silly little high nervous squeak of a laugh that didn’t belong to her.
From her new position on the ceiling she could see Lily-Anna listening to Marius as he recounted to her the salient points from their conversation earlier.
“So, the lovely Brian turns up during the press conference and pretty much knocks your socks off with his offer to fund the re-con-struc-tion.” He put his head comically to one side, pulled a funny face and waggled parenthetical fingers up and down at the sides of his ears, just to let her know that he’d got the point. Lily-Anna looked up at him shyly through her eyelashes and squeaked nervously again. Vanda wondered if Marius had even noticed that her personality and mannerisms had changed entirely.
As Marius continued, Vanda willed Lily-Anna not to give herself away. “Then you go to this Chalice Well place where someone you were in a previous life starts telling her hard luck story through you.” Lily-anna smiled sweetly. “Brian turns up for a meeting, finds, what shall we call them, strange things? in the Brothers’ Library. Tenpole tells you all the gen he’s been digging up on Brian and suddenly Alfred Newton and the Maharajah Duleep Singh are involved, not to mention a diamond the size of Eqypt.” At the mention of the Maharajah Lily-Anna’s eyes lit up and she took a deep breath as if to speak but seemed to change her mind and remained thoughtfully silent. “Brian goes to the loo and comes back so sure that the two of you should be off on the next boat to find whatever it is that Lily-Anna couldn’t that you’ve already formulated a plan so to do. How am I doing so far?” At this last statement Lily-Anna let out a small, shrill scream of excitement and accidentally knocked over Vanda’s teacup.
With a shocking bump Vanda found herself back in her own body again, looking out through her own eyes, her fingers resting in a puddle of hot tea in her saucer. “Ouch, that’s hot.” She dabbed at them with a linen napkin that was on the table next to the saucer. “Well, I just wanted to talk it all through to see if I’m doing the right thing, really. After all, besides Tenpole, you are my closest friend.” She managed to say all of this as if she’d actually been the conscious one sitting there all the time.
A maid in a starched white apron and a frilly cap came to clear up Lily-Anna’s mess and take their lunch order.
“And what does Doctor Williams say to all of this, then?” He appeared not to have noticed anything amiss about the events of the last few minutes.
“Not much. He’s far too pre-occupied with Borre-style carvings and trap doors where they shouldn’t be to be thinking about anything else. Probably won’t even notice I’m gone.”
“So, you will go then? You’ve decided?”
“All but, yes.” She grinned. It made her realise just how exciting the prospect was now beginning to feel to her. Just how much she was looking forward to a new adventure. With a man. With Brian.
Their lunch arrived. Salmon sandwiches, with white bread and the crusts cut off, cut into fours and placed on … A doily? Who used doilies these days? She noticed that the china was just that, china. Not the usual mass-produced rubbish she was used to finding in the eateries she frequented. Lifting the lid of the teapot she noticed that it was full of leaves, not bags but real tea leaves, and realised that while she had been stuck in her happy Old World trance, and then floating around on the ceiling watching Lily-Anna, the tea must have been poured through the strainer that was sitting on the maid’s counter in a silver holder made specifically for the purpose.
Eighteen months ago, all of this would have seemed beyond weird. Now, it was just rather exciting. She realised for the second time in as many days that that’s exactly what it was … Fascinatingly, spine-tinglingly mysterious and intriguingly, thrillingly adventurous. And she couldn’t wait for more of the same. She, Vanda, couldn’t wait to unravel more of the mysteries and revel in their intricacies and, if the past couple of days were anything to go by, mysterious they most certainly were going to be. She felt like she’d been lucky enough to enter a parallel universe with its very own set of rules and actions that she was quickly grasping and implementing, supernatural and otherwise. Yet she couldn’t help wondering just how much of this Marius was seeing and understanding himself, how he came to be so caught up in it, and how entangled he was likely to become before he needed to be rescued. There was a distinct whiff of enchantment about this place, surely he couldn’t have failed to sense it. Or was he carried along by its glamour without the power to break its spell?
“Marius?” Vanda began, trying to sound cute rather than nosey. “Why haven’t you ever told me about this place or brought me here before?”
“It’s never come up before. The need has never arisen.”
“So, why has it arisen today?” she continued, still aiming at cute.
“The bookshop has a great many oddities and curios that I deemed may be of interest to you, my dear. If you believe you are to be following in the footsteps of this Lily-Anna, then this bookshop is the closest thing to the one in Whiteladies Road that she talked of in her, oh what do you call it, regression, um, thing.” He waved his hands in frustration at his lack of understanding of the correct terminology.
“Marius, I didn’t say the bookshop was in Whiteladies Road. How did you know that it was? And, anyway, this is Park Street,” she added matter-of-factly. “Not Whiteladies Road.
“You…you… you must have said it! How…how would I know unless you had?” He stammered, sounding flustered, irritated.
“Mm, if you say so,” Vanda answered, knowing that she had not, could not have done so. She hadn’t known it herself. Indeed, this was the first time she’d even heard anyone mention Whiteladies Road in connection with Lily-Anna’s bookshop.
“And,” he continued, carelessly, as the maid came to clear their plates and refill their teacups, strainer in hand. “I have reason to believe that this part of Park Street was in Whiteladies Road in the 1860’s.”
Vanda looked up and across the atrium, from the tea room into the bookshop. It wasn’t large. The windows that fronted both shops were Georgian in description, and had small panes of glass, mirroring those of the tea room, exactly. The frames were painted two shades of green and the glass also had a green tinge. It made her wonder if genuine new Georgian windows in ordinary small town shops would have been painted thus and their glass tinged likewise.
There was a man in the bookshop, a small, neat man putting books in the shelves, neatly. She watched as he disappeared through a door-length deep-red velvet curtain into what, to her deep surprise, she could see, and see just as clearly in her mind as if there were no wall blocking her view, was a smaller room with piles of books in various stages of packing and unpacking on the surfaces of several desks and benches. The bookman glanced up at the taller man, who was standing to one side of the doorway peering intermittently through the break in the curtain, as if his presence were irksome to him.
Ok, so there was Lily-Anna and her popping into Vanda’s body at opportune moments; and there was this place going all 1860’s on her when it had no right to exist at all, and she doubted that she’d even be able to find it again even if she tried; but what she was now seeing was something else entirely and the phrase as if by magic was the only one she could think of to describe it: Vanda could see not only the taller man but also the very distinctive tattoo on his upper arm underneath his long-sleeved shirt. She could also see the pendant of the same design that hung on a chain around his neck, underneath his buttoned-up collar. But that was far from all she could see.
He looked pre-occupied. As she began to wonder what reason a man hiding behind a curtain would have to look that way, her mind searched for the answer. When it found it, so shocked was she that her elbow slipped off the round edge of their table and she almost fell off her chair. In his pocket was a crumpled piece of paper upon which were his instructions. She could read them clear as day:
WATCH THIS LADY, follow her, without being seen, and DO NOT LOSE HER. Do her no harm, only report back what she does and where she goes.
It was signed M, and there was a recent passport-sized image of her attached to the note.
“Vanda?” Marius stood up as she lunged towards the floor, instinctively placing himself to catch her. “Are you all right, my dear? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost. Although I wouldn’t have thought that would have worried you with all your recent goings on … ” He continued to babble on in like manner, but she didn’t hear him.
Vanda continued to absorb this most recent attribute to her new senses as the maid cleared away their empty china plates and cups, wondering at their precision in picking out such detailed and hidden information. Marius followed the girl to the counter to take care of the bill, and Vanda watched him carefully. Although he had his back to her, she could see his reflection quite clearly in a mirror behind the counter, and she heard the rhythmic tinkle of a coin no larger or heavier than a silver sixpence as it hit the glass counter, spinning slightly, followed by his injunction to the maid to keep the change for herself.
He sat back down at their cleared table and smiled affably at her. “So, when do you plan to leave? And do you have even the devil of an idea where you’re actually going to yet?”
“No. I have absolutely no idea. On both counts, I’m afraid.” She returned the smile. “Isn’t it exciting? I, who have never so much as crossed the road without an instruction in triplicate, who have lived by the rules of one or another institution since the age of seven, am off to nowhere, don’t know when, with someone I’ve known for less than three days. What could be more exciting than that?”
“You’re looking rather radiant on it, my dear. Mysteries are obviously good for your spirit. And all for the sake of a legacy the terms of which you neither know nor understand? I do hope you’re not acting too rashly. Is there no other way the reconstruction of your monastery could come by its funding?”
“Oh, Corbin-Chase has uttered a few impromptu proposals. Nothing concrete. And you can bet your life whatever should come from that department would be far too little, arrive too damned late, and have a thousand sticky tentacles attached to it by way of conditional sub-clauses.”
“Dear Gideon,” Marius’s smile took on a distinct salaciousness as he savoured the name on his lips. “Lovely boy, was he, but far too superficially conniving and cabalistic for his own good. Always giving the game away long before all the other players had had a chance to learn the rules. No patience or finesse, just raw, dark beauty.” He savoured this last observation with a lewd sparkle in his eyes.
“Tell me about this place, Marius.” Vanda changed the subject before she had to listen to a bawdy summation of all the pupils Marius had tutored whom they both knew in one way or another. “How do you come to know of it?”
“My sister owns it.”
Vanda had not expected a straight answer. But she had expected that even less. “You have a sister?”
“One is allowed to have relatives, is one not?”
“Well, yes, but you’ve just never mentioned having a sister before. One so close by, too.” For the past eighteen months her universe had changed shape under her feet more often than she cared to remember, and here it was doing it again. But this was Marius, the man whom she had known for so long that he represented, along with her Aunt Viola, one of the few constants in her life; who, from the moment she had arrived in college to see him this morning, had been acting so strangely and revealing aspects of himself to her that she simply could not square with the man she knew. She had no idea what it was with him that had changed, or why it had changed. Let alone what she was supposed to think, feel or do about it. All she knew was that it had. For the second time in her experience, life as she knew it was a thing of the past, and that, it seemed, even extended to the people she trusted most. Whatever he was hiding, it was something big. She could feel it. “What’s her name? Is she here? Can I meet her?”
He laughed roundly and put his hands gently on her cheeks. “Her name’s Sal. Hence this humble emporium bears the mark of Sal’s Market. She is here, yes. And, once she and I have discussed a little bit of business, yes, you can meet her.”
His words, emporium and Sal, struck against the images already appearing in her mind earlier. She wasn’t surprised. Like a dog with the scent of an archaeological bone fresh up its nose, she was curious, very curious, and digging.
“I’d never have considered you a businessman, not in a million years.” It was out of her mouth before she had the time to button it. She clamped her hand to her mouth, wishing she’d had the foresight to do it sooner.
“No, no, you’re right, my dear. I am no businessman. I am merely the mouthpiece and the window dressing to her level-headed business mastery.” He stood and positioned himself behind her chair. “Would you care to wander thither?” He indicated with his outstretched palm towards the bookshop opposite, pulling her chair out of the way as she stood in agreement. The maid bobbed a half-curtsy to Marius as they left.