The Duchess of the Shallows

A Fantasy Book Excerpt by Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto

The Duchess of the Shallows

by Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto

A fog-bound city. A secret society. A daring heist. Let the game begin.

A Book Excerpt from the novel ‘The Duchess of the Shallows’
Contact info for Neil McGarry & Daniel Ravipinto
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* In the Shadow of the Status Quo (pg. 13) –
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Chapter Four: What the fire forged

Smoke was not all she remembered from that night; there was also the darkness and the light, two extremes that burned each other to ash, leaving nothing else behind. The darkness had been a deep yet unrestful sleep. She was dreaming that old dream, of someone there in her room, hovering over her bed, only inches away, a gray shape that was insubstantial and yet there in some terrible way she did not understand. And then that figure reached forth and pushed on her chest so hard that all the air went out of her lungs in a rush and she could not gasp even a breath to scream. Several times before she’d woken Father, or Justin, or Marguerite when she’d fallen from bed, thrashing her way back to wakefulness; her brother had been annoyed to have been disturbed, her sister amused. but her father would only nod as if he understood and rock her until she fell asleep once more.

But when she thumped to the floor that night, for a moment she thought that she hadn’t woken at all. The gray figure was still there, barely visible in the flickering light from the hall, and in her mouth was a hot, acrid taste. Then she understood she was seeing great gouts of smoke pouring in her open bedroom door, along the ceiling and then down the walls towards her. Her father’s house was on fire.

The house had been large and rambling; the attics reached to the heavens and the cellars to the depths of the earth, and in her memory, always full: of furniture, of food, of people. But that night, all she could remember were empty rooms. Marguerite’s just next to hers, with the bed sheets pulled down and the windows open but no sister there to smile calmly and tell her it was all right. And the door to Justin’s, down the hall near the servants’ stairs, stood ajar but he was not there. And the kitchens were empty and the dining hall and the sitting rooms. All of them empty of everything but smoke and fear and silence.
And she was alone, a little girl in her white nightgown, and she stumbled through the rooms and corridors of that house and found no one. They’d left her all alone.

She was still all alone, stumbling from the alley and blindly along the cobbles of the Shallows. All those years and nothing to show for it and no one to help her as she ran through the dark. Lysander was a thousand leagues away in some bright place where darkness was unknown and no one’s mouth was full of the bitter taste of smoke and fear. Nor Noam, as reliable as the fog at nightfall until a letter told him that he no longer need pretend he had one extra daughter. Just her. Alone again.

She found the foyer and the great stairs that lead to her father’s chambers — his bedroom and his library and his study — where he must surely be. He was just upstairs, maybe even still asleep and she would find him and they would flee together.

But the fire had completely engulfed the upper floors, and halfway up the stairs the smoke became a solid wall of black and the heat was like an oven, drying her still-flowing tears and making the skin on her face feel stretched and tight. She had tried three times to brave that heat, calling for her father, for Justin or Marguerite, for anyone. She remembered the moment when she knew that no one was coming to help her.

Had the fire that night tempered something inside her into Steel?

She fell, then, there in the street, and the wet cobbles against her hands were a reminder that she was not standing on that then-endless staircase. And yet she could still see it, as the gray and the black filled her eyes and her nose and her mouth and all she could hear was the roar and the crackle of flame. She told herself that night had been years ago, and not always still happening even if she saw it in her dreams. For the fire had gone out, hadn’t it? Things burned hard in Rodaas, didn’t they?

She kept a hand on the purse she’d taken; some part of her still clear enough to remember that. She clutched the leather as if it were a rock in the tide that pulled her back and under once more.

She didn’t remember stumbling back downstairs, but the next thing she knew she was in the cool dark of the garden. The night air was cold against her skin and needled through her nightgown even as she felt the heat of the house behind her. The light made strange, capering shadows across the grass, and she saw that every upper window of the house was alive with fire.

They could not have forgotten her, no. They could not have left her, here, alone, while the walls burned down around her. And yet somehow she knew they had, and she was all that remained of House Kell.

She choked back a sob, leaning drunkenly across the mouth of an alleyway. She’d left the Wynd far behind, but she did not recognize this street. How was that possible? She’d lived in the Shallows for as long as she’d lived in that house. Eight long years she’d hidden in this warren, a mouse amongst mice, keeping quiet as she’d always been told.

She’d run around the grounds looking for someone, mindlessly following the wall that enclosed the estate, but she only ended up where she began and none the safer. She fell into the grass, defeated, and never knew how long she lay there before Gelda found her. Gelda, who had been her nurse for as long as she could remember, the closest thing she’d ever known to a mother. There had been a wet nurse when she was little, they told her, someone to feed the child who had killed her mother coming into the world, but Duchess (no —Marina, she had been Marina then) remembered only Gelda. She was a spare, gray thing of gristle and sinew and hard angles, a paradox of much warmth and little patience.

Gelda had draped an old, musty-smelling cloak about her, pulling up the hood, and hurried a sturdy pair of shoes onto her feet. She bundled Marina close, and then out the garden gate.

She stumbled along now as she’d stumbled then, through darkened streets. Gelda had brooked no questions, driving her on as silent as evening fog. The house was only their winter home, but surely the country estate had not burned. Had Father and Marguerite and Justin gone there? Why hadn’t they come for her? She’d asked Gelda all that and more, but the old nurse simply tugged her silently along, ignoring questions and pleas alike. Before long, Marina stopped asking.

She couldn’t imagine how Gelda passed Beggar’s Gate at night—she had no memory of that—but pass it they did, and gone farther and farther down the hill, until they reached the Shallows…

and then she staggered around a corner and she found herself standing in the same place as her memory. She’d approached the bakery in a different way—she’d wandered further down the hill and then tracked back without realizing it—but there she was, as she had been eight years before, and this time without even Gelda. The little building with the long eaves and the solid stone doorstep looked much the same as it had so long ago.

Noam had answered at the nurse’s first knock, as if he’d been waiting just behind the door.

Take her,” said Gelda, handing Marina to the baker without preamble. “And now we’re quits.” She remembered those words as if they were written on the inside of her eyelids.

Wasn’t me you owed,” Noam had snapped, and taken her inside.

She lay her head on the doorstep as if it were a pillow and shivered, holding back a storm inside her.

The bakery had seemed to her child’s mind impossibly small and cramped, but at least she was no longer alone. Gelda had gone and Noam had taken over for the old nurse, whom she’d never seen again. He’d sent his wife and daughters into another room and explained to her that things were different now, that she was no longer Marina Kell and that she should never again mention that name. She remembered large, coarse hands on her shoulders, hard blue eyes staring grimly into hers, the smells of yeast and sweat.

As a part of his family she’d have to carry her own weight. Everyone worked, down to the smallest of his girls, her “sisters”, the youngest of whom had been born only two years before Duchess (not Marina, anymore) had arrived. He had declared that she was Duchess who worked at the bakery and nothing more. There would be wool and cotton instead of silk and satin, and no room of her own but a loft shared with his daughters. He’d taught her how to knead dough, stack loaves, make pastries and count coins. He’d shown her how to survive in the Shallows, both with her wits and her knife, and after awhile even she started to forget she’d ever been anything else. She’d been Duchess for so long that the girl she had been before no longer seemed important. She’d had her life with Noam and his wife and the sisters who were not her sisters, and later Minette and Lysander and the market and gossip with Daphne and Lorelei at the Vermillion. And if there were nights when Duchess wept silently into her straw mattress after the family was asleep, nights when the grief and fear and anger threatened to overspill and send her running out into the Shallows…well, those were no one’s business but her own. No one saw the tears or heard the grinding of clenched teeth, or knew of the midnight oaths that one day she would have no need of any of them. She would be strong and rich and free, and no one would ever again send her running from fire into fear. She would never again be the girl who had huddled in the garden like a mouse, waiting for a family that would never come.

Only in rare moments would memories of that old life stir: in the smell of some high lord’s perfume in the market, or the swirl of a noblewoman’s dress as she climbed into a carriage, or the cultured laughter of one of Minette’s more upscale customers. Then, despite everything Noam had taught her and everything she had lived since that terrible, fiery night, she would for one instant remember who she had been.

She lay there for what seemed like hours, her head against the stone, shivering and remembering. Eight years of bread and pastries and angry glares and cramped rooms and nothing to show for it but four florin and a brass mark. All the secrecy and the lies and the hiding had brought her right back to where she began: thrown out, left to the dubious mercies of the city. No one came for her then, and no one would come for her now; the only difference was this time she was not surprised.

She sat up some unfathomable time later, still sniffling, wiping at her eyes and nose, the faint taste of smoke still on her tongue. As she did so, the coin bag slipped from her hand, its contents spilling out under the the light of the slowly sinking moon.

She lay there for a long moment, watching the light glisten along the edges of coins. That purse, she realized, contained more than mere coppers; there lay what she had to show for her time in the Shallows: her wits, and her luck, the nimbleness of her fingers and the quickness of her feet. She’d been attacked by a man who was larger and — possibly in the long run — faster, and she’d bested both strength and speed with her steel and her wits.

She was no true thief, she knew, but on this night she suddenly felt damned close to it. Sweeping up the contents of the purse, she could for the first time truly imagine herself following the same path as One-Penny Will, or even Naria of the Dark.

After awhile she picked herself up out of the mud and headed back to the garret, thinking hard even though her mind seemed as tired as her feet. The task Hector had set her was madness, but perhaps it was a madness she could manage. The risks were great, but so were the rewards, and whether she succeeded or failed, her path was her own. Passing up this opportunity meant only that she’d spend her days waiting for the next pull of the string that would send her life spinning out of control. She was damned if she’d turn back now, she resolved, climbing the rickety stairs to Lysander’s door. The only way forward was through.
The night of the fire was not this night, she reminded herself, and one drunken ruffian was no Baron Eusbius. Still, she reflected as she undressed and fell exhausted into bed, everyone started small. With a last glance at the purse she’d taken, she thought it was as good a start as any.

She was soon asleep and dreaming not of fire and flight, but of Noam’s kitchen in the early morning. She was searching desperately for yeast, but no matter where Duchess looked she found only flour.

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