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Butterflies and Hurricanes

The calling cards arrived with the morning milk. Three quarters of an hour later, as told by the clock that discarded eight minutes every day and gained it back with interest when a certain word was spoken, two gentlemen took their seats in the clean brown parlour. One rotund and one spry, both soberly dressed in black coats and old-fashioned powdered wigs of a lawyerly cast, they polished their brass-headed sticks and looked around while pretending not to. “I’ll bring you a dish of Bohea, Miss Morley,” said her landlady, meaning that she expected her lodger to pay the rent on time this month, and bustled out.

Bohea tea was brought in the better cups. “You advertise your services as a Finder of Things, do you not, Miss Morley?” said the spryer of the two gentlemen, after the usual throat-clearing.

He was avuncular, and Irish. Miss Susanna Morley, tucking both details away in the back of her head along with his companion’s inability to sit still, was conscious of being examined and satisfied that her visitors saw what she meant them to see: a neat, thoroughly buttoned-up woman of thirty or so, with a shine to her hair and a wheat-coloured mourning-brooch on her bosom. “Indeed, sir, my skill lies in that direction.”

“And you render assistance to the skilled gentlemen hereabouts?”

“Yes, indeed. Perhaps you are acquainted with Mr. Q—, who specialises in sanguinary devices of symbolic materiality? Well, Mr. Q— is to contribute a number of novel devices to the collection housed at Number 13 and I have been engaged to assist him. He will provide references, if you require.”

“No references,” said the rotund gentleman in an abrupt, restless undertone. “Get her to sign.”

“Pardon me?”

“Nothing outside this room. Completely secret. Have you got it, Mr. Jones?”

A close-written document unrolled crisply. Susanna scanned it in surprise. At least seven subclauses pertained to confidentiality generally; another two cited, in the vaguest possible terms, whatever she might be about to hear. “If you would,” said the spry smiling Jones.

Definitely lawyers. The rotund gentleman said, “A friend of mine needs a thousand true names. End of the month. A guinea a name. Can you do that?”

It was the fifteenth of the month already. “Certainly,” said Susanna, without blinking. “Is there anything else you want me to sign?”

After the solicitors had gone, little Mrs. Tyndale reappeared to recover her good china. “Well now!” she said brightly. “Isn’t that a lucky thing? And just when your bit of work for Number 13 had run out, too. Oh, there was this letter come for you . . . ”

Susanna took it. Mrs. Tyndale hovered. “Aren’t you going to read it, then?” she asked, after an expectant moment. “I thought it might be Miss Smith writing to tell you when she’ll be back. I do hope her nieces are quite recovered. It was my second boy died of measles, you know. Oh, I did cry.”

Susanna got up and locked the letter away in her writing desk.

“I believe Miss Smith will find it hard to get away,” she said. “Thank you kindly for the tea, Mrs. Tyndale.”

Her landlady’s disappointed curiosity followed Susanna down the steps of Number 12 to the sunlit street, where she alighted as the coal cart thundered off and the pigeon-filled sky flapped sooty wings. Two bricklayers struggled past, bent almost double. A flock of student architects followed. Number 13 had broken open its back wall again, this time to let in three tonnes of alabaster scratched all over with Egyptian blue. Susanna’s gaze was drawn after them, her work momentarily forgotten. She had meant to watch the sarcophagus be swung down into Number 13’s wine cellar. Already the men were readying the ropes . . .

In the distance, the trumpeting of the omnibuses rang out above the roar as some forger or footpad rode up the Heavy Hill. Susanna Morley shook herself. The sarcophagus would have to descend without her. She had work to do.

A thousand true names at a guinea apiece! Whoever could the client be? Susanna mulled that over by the playhouse in the Fields, where she plucked grasses methodically and slit the stems with her thumbnail. Sucked out, the true names tasted of spring. Susanna breathed in, wrote down, moved on. The skilled world was a small one; the world of skilled gentlemen who could afford to deploy aggressive legal intermediaries was smaller. She fingered a dog rose thoughtfully, letting its thorns suggest to her how deep into the sap she would have to reach to wrestle its true name away.

True names, which was to say the secret inner name of a thing that betrayed everything you needed to know about it, were easy to find, though it was a pity you had to crack open a thing’s bones to suck its marrow out. That was why Susanna stuck to plants. At twenty-five true names, Susanna took a walk around the Fields. At fifty, she developed a severe dislike of grass. At sixty-three, when the first specks of rain started to appear, Susanna took up her basket of grass carcasses and headed for the Crown Coffee-house, where sixpence bought her a cup and a seat in the conversation room and, more importantly, a rummage through the heaps of periodicals and pamphlets. Today Abraham was nowhere to be seen. Well, Susanna could squeeze the old magician some other time. She flipped the calling card between her fingers, which tingled. An impatient lawyer and an Irish gentleman called Jones . . .

She found the firm in ten minutes. It was listed in a trade publication, which ranked it highly, in the discreet language favoured by legal men; a cross-reference gave Susanna the names of several partners and a yellowed Seven Dials broadsheet hinted coyly at clients. And there it was, not just in black and white, but bolded:

Gentlemen and other Persons, having visited the fine new offices of Angus & Norden, Attorneys at Law, recall seeing there several curious Devices from the Workshop of Mr. H—, the famous Magician. Eight years ago Mr. H—, who is known for his Sublime Conjuration of Eldritch Horrors, and whose first Master-Piece was among the 39 Devices Bought last year for the New National Gallery, consigned 223 Devices to a Certain Auction House, which sold all but five for an amount Not Less Than £1,900,000. A performance of traditional Conjurations four years later was poorly received. What will Mr. H— do next? Any Person with knowledge of his plans, is desired to revert to the Writer of this Broadsheet. Rumours Abound but Word from Mr. H—’s Country Seat, comes there none.

Susanna scored the page with satisfaction. So the client was the Conjuror Supreme, a maker of disconcerting devices and money. Mostly money. What could he want with a thousand true names? The price of his next conjuration, of course. Now that would be something worth seeing.

She considered hunting for more information, but a plump hand swept her cup away with a happy cry of, “Miss Morley! And how’s Miss Smith, if I might ask? Mr. Humphreys wondered if you might be advertising for a new lady companion, because his cousin’s looking for a new position now her employer’s little boy is off to school, but I said I was sure Miss Smith would be back before you know it. Is she improving at all?”

“The waters at Leamington Priors are doing her a power of good, Mrs. Humphreys,” Susanna said evenly. “Now I must go. Good day.”

The rain held off until the penultimate day of the month, by which time Susanna dreamed, when she slept, in the hushed green language of grass, which whispered like the wind ruffling through white seeded stems and left only a fading impression of sun and sap and water. Her fingers stuck together. Sometimes she forgot she had feet, rather than roots, and tripped over when she went to get up.

She scrawled the final name. It bled black ink across the page and told Susanna it wasn’t complicated, being grass. There wasn’t any hidden inner life. There weren’t any mystic vegetable secrets. You rooted yourself and raised up your blades and drank what the sky sent your way. Sometimes you were set upon by a butterfly. Susanna thought she wouldn’t mind spending a bit of time as a grass stem if she had the chance.

But she was a human, not a plant, and moreover a human with her rent to pay, so she unearthed her sober, feather-free bonnet and went around the corner to the lawyers’ lair. The façade was fresher than Susanna had expected, fronted with white Norfolk brick that had not yet had the chance to collect soot, and the busy flood of legal traffic buffeted Susanna towards the door, where a doorkeeper directed her up a clipped staircase. “Miss Morley?” said a clerk doubtfully. “Why don’t you take a seat? I’ll see if Miss Stock can see you soon.”

It was a very comfortable chair, but it seemed peculiar to Susanna, given how urgently the commission had been represented to her, that she was left to enjoy it for almost an hour. She cleaned her nails, then straightened her skirts, then catalogued her surroundings in terms of doors, chairs and passers by until it was impossible not to look at the cage set flush against the wall just where any visitor to the office would be obliged to admire it. A cloud of butterflies beat blue wings against the frosted filaments and clustered around the sigil hanging, humming, in the middle of the cage. Susanna couldn’t tell how far back into the wall the butterfly cage went. Occasionally, when she looked away, Susanna thought she saw, from the corner of her eye, something indistinct lash out and drag a butterfly back down into the dark.

It was objectively beautiful. Susanna didn’t like it. She had a strong suspicion that there was no back to the butterfly cage, and that the bars cross-hatching the hole in the wall had in fact been put there to keep whatever lay on the wrong side of the concealed portal from escaping into this world. The butterflies, while pretty, were bait.

Like the façade, which set the office off from its dowdier neighbours, where clients might encounter clockwork song-birds or ice palaces intricate in miniature, it was a very modern sort of conjuration. Susanna occupied herself with trying to work out whether the butterflies were real or not, until at last Miss Stock finally found a few moments to spare.

Miss Stock sat behind a barricaded desk in an office heaped high with books and papers, few of which looked lawyerly. She was very well dressed and surprisingly young, with a thinness that verged on vanishing. Susanna folded her hands and waited as Miss Stock leafed through her ledger of true names.

At last Miss Stock looked up. “Well . . . ” she said. “Are they all from plants?”

“Yes, actually. Does it matter?”

Miss Stock hesitated. “It’s just not very varied, is it? I think Mr. Norden was expecting some of them to be from, well, not plants. You know, mice and so on.”

If Mr. Norden, whom Susanna took to be the impatient gentleman, had wanted Susanna to bring back the true names of anything bloodier than grass, he should certainly have said so. “Would you like me to find some more?” Susanna said pleasantly. “How many would you like?”

“Oh . . . two hundred? Can you do that?”

“Certainly, Miss Stock. That will be two guineas a name, I’m afraid, and your client will have to have the proper license if he wants to use them. But judging from your butterfly cage, I would imagine he already does. When will you need them by?”

“As soon as possible?” said Miss Stock. “And could you write them out on banknotes? I think that’s what Mr. Norden wants.”

Susanna’s smile was crystallising around the edges. “Which banknotes? Any?”

“No, there are some special ones. Look, here.”

There was a heavy crate beside Miss Stock’s desk. Miss Stock lifted the crate in her bird-boned hands and set it on a nearby chair as if it weighed nothing. The woman was an automaton, Susanna realised: well, of course she was. No real woman could have had such sleek raven’s wing hair. Of course Mr Norden, with his modish butterfly cage and paranoid clients, would staff his office with automata so beautifully made as to pass for human. Who but a construct, apparently intelligent but without free will, could be perfectly trusted? Miss Stock probably doubled up as a guard for the office and all its secrets at night.

The crate swam with strips of spotted paper. Miss Stock held one up for Susanna to see. THE BANK OF DH it read. Will pay the Sum of — to the Bearer. Miss Stock tapped the word Sum. “Write them there.”

“All the names? Or just the new ones?”

Miss Stock looked blank. “All of them,” she said. “I think. Just fill out all the banknotes. Will that be all right?”

“Of course, Miss Stock,” said Susanna. She should have charged more. It was the Conjuror Supreme: he could afford it. He must have eighty thousand pounds a year at least. “And how would you like to settle your outstanding bill?”

It was not all right. It was going to take several days just to fill out the banknotes, which arrived the following week, by which time Susanna had decided the project couldn’t be that urgent after all. In the meantime, she parted grudgingly with enough of her fee to bring Mrs. Tyndale out in rosy smiles, then tried to find The Bank of DH, and failed, and concluded that Mr. H— had grown tired of making devices and meant to make his money directly, which was certainly the sort of enterprising spirit one expected from a conjuror like that.

She supposed it must be legal. Lawyers were involved, after all. She sat down with the periodicals in the Crown Coffee-house, which told her where to find Mr. H—’s country seat, and she asked after Abraham, whom Mrs. Humphreys said cheerily had been engaged for the final run of the Aquatic Theatre at Sadler’s Wells. “Well, he’s a one, isn’t he?” she added, spying Mr. H—’s name over Susanna’s shoulder. “I remember when he and Marcus Q— and her who married a stone were in here every day. The things they got up to! Of course, that was before they got famous. Now they’re buying their old tat for the nation! If you ask me, this modern magic is all rubbish. Give me a nice bottomless lemonade jug any day.”

“My mother has one of those,” Susanna said absently. “Speaking of old tat, I don’t suppose you’ve been to the National Gallery yet?”

The new National Gallery was crammed into two gilt-encrusted rooms on Pall Mall, attended by a porter and a gloomy person on the lookout for bad behaviour. Susanna fanned herself vigorously. “What a lot of people!” she remarked to the sentinel. “Is it always so crowded?” He nodded glumly. She let the current carry her into the second room, where a crowd had gathered around a rotting sheep’s skull.

She couldn’t smell it at all. That was the first thing Susanna noticed. It lay inside a pentagram chalked onto a blackboard and the stench in that breathless, busy room should have driven all but the most dedicated visitors away. The flesh was falling from the bone. It was riddled with maggots, which lent an unpleasant impression of liveliness to what little skin was left, and crawled with bluebottle flies. Under Susanna’s fascinated gaze, a newly hatched fly emerged from the hollow of an eye socket and began to dry its glistening wings.

Then a tentacle lashed out after it. Susanna jerked back; she was not the only one. In a sudden commotion, tentacles burst out of every orifice and vanished just as quickly, leaving a cloud of flies buzzing wildly within the confines of the pentagram, which sizzled and hissed whenever an insect got too close. Flies fell flaming out of the air.

Gradually, the flies settled down again. Susanna fanned herself shakily. Sweat prickled around her mouth and trickled icily down her spine.

As with the butterfly cage, the pentagram was not there to trap the flies or the maggots or the smell of decay. It confined the conjured horror inside the rotting skull. And it had been drawn in chalk. The slightest smudge could break it. A cup of water might wash the whole thing away.

She glanced sideways and realised most of the other visitors were moving on. Only a shabby, stubbled figure with a fistful of rings still stood there. He seemed unaware that there was anyone else in the room.

There was ink on Susanna’s fingers by the time she went back to the Crown Coffee-house. Her Finder’s instincts had told her to take coffee at midday, and there indeed she finally found Abraham in his usual corner, hunched over coffee and a lump of beef like a friendly old gnome. “Well, missy, I hear you’ve been keeping yourself busy,” he greeted her. “So what can I do for you today?”

Susanna sat on the bench and busied herself untangling her bonnet.

“I happened to hear the Conjuror Supreme has something new in the works,” she said. “I don’t suppose you know anything about it?”

“Oho!” said Abraham, twinkling at her. “So you’re helping out with that, eh?”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“Of course you wouldn’t. You’ve signed a bit of paper, like all the rest. Well, I won’t ask. And I don’t know muchno, don’t you laugh, young lady. All I heard was something about a shipwreck.”

“A shipwreck?” said Susanna with doubt.

Abraham shrugged. “Or maybe it was a sunken village,” he said helpfully. “What I did hear was he’s taken up treasure hunting in a big way. They say he’s running out of money.”

“No! Didn’t he sell a diamond demon cage for over six hundred thousand pounds?”

Abraham winked at her. “Ah, but who bought it?”

“Well, I don’t know. It must have been a prince at least.”

“Nope,” said Abraham smugly. “It was a syndicate. And if you ask around, you’ll recognise at least one of the members. Guess who?”

Susanna read the answer in the lines of the old magician’s grinning face. “No!” she said again. “Why? Because he couldn’t sell it?”

“Not at the price he wanted. You know he sold a bunch of stuff at auction? Broke all the records, but upset the dealers and flooded the market. The value of his devices has been falling ever since. So now he’s looking for treasure. They say he’s sunk what’s left of his fortune into this shipwreck, or whatever it is. What are you doing for him again?”

“You know I can’t tell you.”

“Oh no, so you can’t,” said Abraham. “We’d better talk about something else, then. What a pretty brooch you have there. I wonder whose hair that is?”

Susanna compressed her lips. “As a matter of fact, I picked it up at Smithfield Market.”

“Well, that’s a relief. I thought maybe I recognised that pretty yellow curl. But I was sure your parents would have something to say about a thing like that, and I haven’t heard a peep from them, except your mother hopes you’re doing well. When will you be going back to see them, eh? Your mother said she’ll even put up the young lady, if that’s what it takes.”

“If my parents want to see me, they know where I live,” said Susanna frostily. She got up and began to tie her bonnet back on. “Thank you, Abraham.”

“And Miss Smith? How’s she?”

His creased visage expressed only innocent inquiry. “Since you ask,” said Susanna, goaded, “Liza ran off to Venice with that Covent Garden soprano who pretends to be an Italian contessa and I do not wish them well. And I think you know that already, since as I recall you introduced them, so I rather imagine my mother knows it too. Good day!”

She sharpened her knife in the Fields with undue violence. It felt like running her fingers through a fall of wheaten hair. She was furious with Abraham, and she was furious with herself for being furious, and above all she was furious with her mother, who bore no responsibility at all, for once. She had planned to go out of town for this task, but now she was in the mood to scandalise any number of passing theatregoers. There would be a mouse here, or a sparrow, or someone’s stray lapdog. She was ready to carve the heart out of a mastiff if it came to that.

For these names she actually would need her skill. She concentrated. Already the palms of her hands and her face had begun to feel warm. Her fingertips buzzed. She pressed her knife between her humming hands and told it fiercely to point the way.

Really, she didn’t like working with animals. But she was a Finder, so she Found things, even when it meant doing things she might rather not have done. It was a small skill, as skills went, and it was not going to earn her the wealth or fame of a demon-conjuror like her client, but it was hers and she was not going to back down now. Besides, she had her rent to think of.

She found the rabbit behind the playhouse. It must be sick: it sat sluggishly under a bush and only flicked an ear when Susanna sat down on the grass.

She set her knife down, then leaned under the bush and plucked out the rabbit in one smooth motion. It didn’t struggle. It hung from her hands, limp and warm and downy, and looked up with the mute suffering of a domestic martyr.

Susanna traced, in her head, the liquid lines and sinews and fragile bones that ran together somewhere into one scarlet syllable. It might be written in the head or gut or even the rabbit’s paws. The sick rabbit’s pulse trembled, terrified, against Susanna’s fingers and she trapped it with her nail and mapped it out under the stippled fur until she knew exactly where to find the rabbit’s true name.

She gripped the rabbit with her left hand. With her right, she took up her knife.

Tomorrow, she could dig out her butterfly net and start pulling the wings off insects. Her client would not be satisfied if all she found for him was scales and membrane, though, despite his butterfly cages. Blood was the currency the Conjuror Supreme required. Now that she had seen his first great masterpiece, Susanna knew that.

Susanna had filled out banknotes with the true names of two more rabbits, five house mice, seventeen pigeons, four sparrows, eleven spiders, a bat, one hundred and sixteen assorted insects and a startled fox by the time the clerk came with a one line message of which nothing was clear except its urgency. By now she was familiar enough with Angus & Norden to be only exasperated. Nonetheless she packed an overnight bag and went off to catch an omnibus, trailing the anxious clerk. “Don’t worry,” said Susanna, hanging off the omnibus ladder, which swayed underfoot. A great grey ear flapped in her face. “I’ll catch the mail coach to Gloucester and make my way from there.”

She had meant to sleep on the coach, but of course she couldn’t, so fifteen bone-shaking hours later it took great fortitude not to do more than sit down to lunch at the Bell Inn in Gloucester, where Susanna still was when a six-wheeled horseless carriage steamed into the yard. In it was the well-dressed Miss Stock, who drifted into the parlour and peered around as if she had forgotten why she was there. “There you are, Miss Morley,” she said. Susanna was too startled to speak. “When you’re ready.”

The clerk had sent a geared messenger pigeon ahead, of course. Susanna reflected on that as she settled into the horseless carriage, which was more comfortable than the mail coach, so much so that she felt herself nodding off as the carriage slid out of Gloucester. She let the blue velvet cushions swallow her up. If the Conjuror Supreme required his true names so urgently as to pay for Susanna to bring them out to him herself, he must be ready to perform the conjuration, and Susanna was not going to sleep through that.

She had expected to alight an hour later on the steps of a Gothic Revival pile. Instead she woke up in the dark and discovered the carriage was still on the road; and, furthermore, that she could smell the sea. Miss Stock, fully upright, perused papers by the light of her own glowing eyes. “Did I wake you, Miss Morley?” she said, in her vague automaton’s voice.

Susanna rubbed her eyes and wondered what Miss Stock’s true name was and where to find it. The name might be inscribed in the long bones of Miss Stock’s arm, or underneath Miss Stock’s ribs; or, since Miss Stock had been constructed and not born, her creator might have tattooed it on her creamy skin, perhaps on the inside of Miss Stock’s thigh. It would not, of course, be Miss Stock’s own name as such, but instead the name of whatever had died to animate her. Whatever, or whoever. Susanna had never met such a convincing construct before.

She said, “I thought we were going to your client’s house.”

“They went ahead,” said Miss Stock kindly. “You can go back to sleep. We won’t be there for hours.”

Susanna dreamt of butterfly wings and burnt meat. She was conscious of travelling towards something momentous. She wasn’t sure what, except that it would be spectacular, and expensive, and possibly dangerous. Susanna strongly suspected it would involve the same demon she had already glimpsed twice: at the firm of Angus & Norden and in the new National Gallery. Thirty years stood between the masterpiece and the butterfly cage, but the Conjuror Supreme was still dipping in the same demonic well. He was unlikely to change his spots now.

She drowsed, then fidgeted, then looked out over the pleated cliffs and sullen sea. Slowly the sun sank down ahead of them until the glancing rays blinded Susanna to the road ahead. She looked out only when the carriage rolled to a halt.

They were on a promontory and a monstrous flayed statue, many times life-sized, brandishing a sword that glittered with unhealthy light, towered above them. A crowd of people, some of whom were familiar, stood nearby. The impatient Mr. Norden was there, as was his spry Irish colleague; and so too, Susanna realised, although only after taking in the willowy fair-haired girl draped over him, was the shambling man Susanna had seen at the National Gallery. He was the centre of attention.

The driver handed Susanna down from the carriage. She stared around. A pall of incense hung mistily in the air. All the interior arcana of a major conjuration lay naked to the eye: tables laden with bowls and knives and books and ceremonial widgets; pentagrams and circles and sigils seared into the ground; an army of harried assistants performing cleansing rituals and lighting candles and tweaking the magical machinery. The Conjuror Supreme was talking to his lawyers. A woman was sketching. Several bloodshot men around her were taking notes.

The Irish solicitor spotted Susanna and broke away towards her. “Miss Morley!” he said. “So glad you could make it. Did you bring those banknotes?”

She handed them over. Mr. Jones rushed the banknotes over to the Conjuror Supreme, who seized on them greedily, ruffling through the bundles and pressing his stubbled face into them. They seemed to pass muster. The Conjuror Supreme handed the bag to an assistant, who carried it off to a large pentagram, in the midst of which stood a bronze-bound chest. He locked the banknotes inside.

The sun balanced on the very cusp of the horizon. The Conjuror Supreme positioned himself in a triply warded circle near the water’s edge. “Places, everyone!” he yelled. The assistants scurried to their positions and began chanting and ringing bells. Slowly the sun slipped into the burning sea.

A disturbance appeared in the waves just off the promontory. In a few seconds, it had developed into a whirlpool that broadened and deepened until rocks could be seen, then only a black hole into nothing. The Conjuror Supreme was shouting; his chest heaved and his face was scarlet. Susanna craned her neck: churning in the foam, she thought she saw rigging. The distorted reflection of sails and spars and shattered decks rippled under the water. Within the whirlpool, a barnacled mast broke into view.

An exhilarating wind howled off the cliffs, whipping the waves into rapidly darkening frenzy. Behind Susanna, someone cried out. One of the pentagrams collapsed, then another. She saw claws darting out of the crumbling earth and snatching the bronze-bound chests into the dark. The demon had come for its payment.

Jerking and yawing, the wrecked ship rose towards the surface, screaming as it came. Water thundered from the decks. The roar of broken wood grinding against itself was deafening. “The names!” someone was shouting. “It hasn’t taken the names!”

The ship howled. It was almost afloat and the darkness clinging to its sides and tearing into its rotten sails was not seaweed but the many sawing arms of the demon that for thirty years had been offered peepholes, over and over and over again, into a tastier world. Ever since that first sheep’s head, the Conjuror Supreme had poked holes into the demon’s dimension and barred up the windows that resulted. But there was no way to draw a pentagram on water. If the demon rejected the Conjuror Supreme’s payment, it was not going to go back through its hole.

The portals in the emptied pentagrams oozed darkness like running sores. Only the chest of true names remained untouched. “Do what we agreed!” the Conjuror Supreme cried.

Susanna found Mr. Jones at her elbow. “Miss Morley!” he said urgently. “If you might lend a hand!”

She went with him. She had some thoughts of seagulls, but what she found, to her shock, was Miss Stock on her knees pinning down the Conjuror Supreme’s tear-streaked girlfriend, one arm twisted up behind her back. Mr. Norden loomed over her. “Find her name,” he said.

“I can’t do that!”

“She’s just an automaton, Miss Morley,” said Mr. Jones soothingly.

Another automaton. Susanna supposed she should have expected it: conjurors on or off the stage preferred their assistants beautiful but blank. And constructs, once created, were exempt from the laws on homicide and human magic, if not those of property ownership.

Susanna drew a deep breath. She tried to block out the roar of the wind and the whirlpool and all the shouting, and just concentrate on the girl, who gazed up piteously. Susanna would never have known she was an automaton.

Her hair was the colour of wheat. It fell straight and silky over her bony shoulders and it was the only thing, really, that made Susanna think of Liza. Physically, they were nothing alike. This girl was tall and as flat as a board whereas Liza had breasts and hips and unbuttoned enthusiasm. And of course Liza was in Italy with her opera singer.

Susanna felt for the girl’s pulse under her jaw, then pressed the girl’s temples when that failed. She felt a little breathless. The name. That was what Susanna was looking for. Not her lips or her throat or the fight Liza had stolen from her by slipping off while Susanna was out of town. The automaton’s true name.

Someone put a silver knife in Susanna’s hand. The automaton closed her eyes. With controlled violence, Susanna drove the knife into the automaton’s chest.

She didn’t bleed as a human would have done. She cried out, and spasmed, and her lustrous eyes rolled up in her beautiful head. Susanna thrust her fingers into the wound, feeling for what she knew was there. The heart was as hard as a rubber ball. When Susanna worked it loose, the automaton let out a sobbing sigh and went limp.

The name was written on the heart in gold letters. Susanna glimpsed it under the blood before Miss Stock snatched the heart from her hands and leapt for the third pentagram.

A howl went up. At the same time, the Conjuror Supreme’s voice rang out, inflected with sudden panic. “No! Get back! You can’t–”

There was a crash. When Susanna looked round, the chest of true names had gone. So had the portals in all three pentagrams; and so had the end of the promontory. It had been sheared away, taking the Conjuror Supreme with it. A massive hulk creaked and fell over very slowly onto the glossy black stone where the Conjuror Supreme had been.

Susanna took a breath, then another. She wiped her hands on the grass. There was blood under her fingernails. She felt stunned.

The woman whose name had been written on the automaton’s heart had been young and riotous and desperate to stay that way, even only as the animating force of an old magician’s constructed companion. She had lived for music and parties and money. It was hard to tell whether she had liked life, or what passed for it, as an automaton. The distinction between the animating force and the automaton was a blurred one, particular to each construct, and Susanna could not tell anything from the written name about the woman after she had died. But the woman had seen the constructed body and coveted it and she knew what the Conjuror Supreme was like. At least, she had thought she did. He would save her, she had said. She had not expected her name to be tossed to a demon.

The perfect automaton’s body sprawled lifeless on the ground, blood pooling black and sticky in her gaping chest. Probably she would be reanimated as soon as someone found another name for her.

Susanna got up abruptly. Everyone else had crowded around the shipwreck, which loomed even larger as night fell. The lawyers were shaking their heads. Susanna set her face towards the dark. She was going to find her way to the village whose lights glimmered on the crest of the hill and catch the next coach back to London. And when she got there, she was going to scrub her hands clean and send Angus & Norden her bill and her regrets that she would not be able to assist them in future.

She thought she might write Liza a letter. On the way home, she could work out what she wanted to say.

The first report of Mr. H—’s final performance appeared in The Times alongside several engravings of the treasures recovered from the shipwreck. Susanna leafed through it at the Crown Coffee-house, where she was waiting to meet Mr. Humphrey’s cousin, the reluctant nursemaid who actually wanted to do something much less respectable on the stage. Mrs. Humphreys hovered solicitously. “Him again!” she said. “That was a to-do, wasn’t it, Miss Morley? And do they like the treasures?”

The reporter had been forthright. “Hard to say, Mrs. Humphreys,” said Susanna. A young woman in a drab carriage dress stood hesitating on the threshold. Susanna got up. “Well, no, actually. Not at all.”

About the Author

Julia August offers guided walks by appointment only; please also note that the Hunterian Museum is shut for refurbishments until 2021. Her short fiction has appeared in Monstrosities, The Journal of Unlikely Academia, Women Destroy Fantasy!, Lackington’s Magazine, Kaleidotrope and elsewhere. She is @JAugust7 on Twitter and j-august on Tumblr. Find out more at