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High Times in the Low Parliament

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High Times in the Low Parliament

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Author: Kelly Robson
Publisher: Publishing, 2022

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Book Type: Novella
Genre: Fantasy
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Lana Baker is Aldgate's finest scribe. She has a sharp pen and an even sharper wit. Gregarious, charming, and ever so eager to please, she agrees to deliver a message for another lovely scribe in exchange for kisses and ends up getting sent to Low Parliament by a temperamental fairy as a result. There, she transcribes the endless circular arguments of Parliament. Due to long-standing tradition, a hung vote will cause Parliament to flood Aldgate, killing every human in Aldgate. Things become especially precarious as corpses begin to pile up. Lana must rely on an unlikely pair of comrades--Bugbite, the curmudgeonly fairy and Eloquentia, the bewitching human deputy--to save humanity (and maybe even woo Eloquentia) come hell or high water.



Lana Baker was the finest scribe in Aldgate, but it won her little praise. Certainly none from her mother or sisters, who would have preferred another strong hand at the ovens. She was excused from keeping the books for their busy East London bakery, because though she could pen numbers in columns straight and square, she was a dunce at sums. Always had been. She took great care never to improve.

When forced, she wrote her mother's letters. Ran errands for her sisters in exchange for favors. Stayed out late, slept later, and thoroughly enjoyed her role as family despair.

Many, if not most afternoons, Lana could be found at the Twin Pumps, holding shop with a cup of ale at her elbow. If you wanted a pretty letter, it cost a penny a page, but for a promise, a favor, or a compliment, Lana might be persuaded to pick up her pen and write you a note. She wouldn't write curses, not for any money, but she'd put your name on a scrap for free. Always happy to show off her collection of pens and inks--especially if the girl was pretty.

The girl sitting across from her on a fine spring morning was very pretty, but she'd had some hard luck recently. A livid bruise bloomed across her jaw and nose, and her right hand was bandaged into a stump at the end of her smooth, plump arm.

"I wish I could pen the response myself," Cora said. "But I never learned ambi-hand, and if a scribe can't write her own letter, oughtn't she have someone truly skilled do it?"

Lana pretended to blush. She reached for the letter Cora had placed on the table.

"May I?" she asked.

Cora set down her cup of wine and leaned close, making the most of her big brown eyes. Did she flutter her lashes? Must be some trick of the light, for who could flirt the day after breaking a hand and bashing her face in? But then, perhaps it was a swindle, the bruise a beetroot stain. No matter. As long as Lana wasn't the mark, it was no business of hers.

"This is nice paper," Lana said, enjoying the texture of the thick, smooth sheet between her fingers.

Lana released the crisp folds and scanned the letter. A fairy summons, in an ornate uncial script inked by a skilled hand and, as with everything fairies touched, scattered with glittering scales that clung to everything. The wording was officious, with a short deadline for reply and too many official stamps to count.

Cora sighed.

"It's an honor to be summoned to Parliament. I do so wish I could go." She looked about to cry. "But it'll be months until I can hold a pen again."

Swindle or no swindle, Cora was pretty and also a fellow scribe, so to Lana that meant only one thing: the opportunity to show off. She flipped open the lid of her writing kit, selected a piece of her finest paper, and lined it with a few light passes of charcoal along her ruler. She dipped her favorite pen in a noggin of ultramarine ink.

Lana had a connoisseur's taste for admiration, but Cora laid it on a bit thick, leaning over the table and making admiring noises over every stroke of the pen. Lana could hardly fault her; she was awfully handsome, after all. But when Lana had finished the letter, stamped the corner with her mark, folded it close into a tight package, and addressed it with a flourish, that's when the price came.

"Would you run it along to Ludgate for me?" Cora laid her good hand on Lana's wrist and leaned close. "As a favor, one scribe to another?"

"Well, now," Lana said. "I might be persuaded."

"I'll make it worth your time."

Cora slid round to Lana's side and slipped her fingers featherlight up Lana's thigh. A lengthy negotiation followed, flavored with wine and cushioned with lips soft as promises. Heat rose on Lana's cheeks, neck, breast, and elsewhere. One of the reasons she didn't hold shop at the Twin Pumps more often was that the benches were too hard, but suddenly, they didn't seem hard at all. She was prepared to sit there till doomsday, if possible, kissing Cora. Then a wet rag hit her in the side of the head.

"Go outside or take her upstairs," the landlady said. "Nobody buys pies while you're turning their stomachs."

Cora pulled away. She grazed her lips across Lana's cheek and nibbled her earlobe.

"Take it to Ludgate, yes?" she whispered.

She didn't wait for an answer. When Lana opened her eyes, the hem of her short skirt was just disappearing out the door.

"Kisses will be your downfall," the landlady said.

"Never." Lana laughed. She capped her ink and squared away her kit. "Kisses are life."

"And death, too," said the landlady. "Only such as you think it's a fair way to go."

* * *

A stroll through East London on a warm evening. What could be better? The city burbled with activity, much of it pointed in her direction. Lana could stop at the inker's, test the newest formulas. She could nip into a penmaker's, ogle gracefully turned shanks and shiny nibs, then pop next door to the papermaker's and get treated like a hero for the price of one full sheet. The city was hers, and she was the city's. The finest scribe. Her mother's happiest and most despaired-of daughter. Benevolent and undemanding surveyor of all.

At the bakery on Wood Street, Lana bought a cream bun before turning up Ludgate. As she ascended the hill, the sun dipped to setting, throwing amber light cross the chimney stacks. Children hid from their mothers, sweethearts clutched each other in doorways, and Lana bit into her snack.

The baker was generous with her cream, far more than Lana's mother, and the bun left a dab on her nose. If only she had a friend nearby who would offer to lick it off, but no. She flicked it with her forefinger and dropped the drip on her tongue. Maybe tomorrow, Cora would offer more thanks for favors rendered. Or her childhood friend Felicia might decide to cross the street and claim some kisses. Or if the burly brewer's assistant newly hired at the Twin Pumps hadn't already found an admirer for her broad shoulders and thick wrists, Lana might console her for an evening.

Lana pondered these happy thoughts all the way to Ludgate. High atop the watchtower that bordered Newgate and New Change sat a pink fairy, small as a toddler and half as wide, if you didn't count her peony-colored butterfly wings. She had her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands.

"Good evening, beauty," Lana caroled. She swung her fingertips to her eyebrow in a sloppy salute.

The fairy returned the gesture, not in kind, not even in spirit: two fingers shaped into horns, hooking in the rudest of gestures. It was only to be expected. Fairies were nasty. A girl could go begging for a kind word.

"And a good night to you, too, beauty," Lana sang as she passed.

On the crest of the hill, a great bloom of sunset illuminated London's fairy palace. A famous sight, commemorated in the window of every second print shop, its crystal arches and towers made only more stunning by contrast with the coalfield it sat upon. Two hundred and fifty years hadn't cleaned the evidence of conflagration from the ground below. The rest of the city might be renewed six or eight times since the great fire of 1666, charred beams and blackened foundations long cleaned away or built over, but at Ludgate, the ground hadn't changed. Neither had the fairies that came to live there. They remained as sour as ever.

Lana climbed up to the palace's rose quartz eastern door. No knocker to bang on, no porter to greet. She stood tall and lifted Cora's letter.

"I have a missive. Who will take it from me?"

A spy hole grated open. A tiny face poked through. Delicately etched features, arching brows, narrow eyes of topaz, and skin of watered silk. And teeth: sharp, bared.

"Damn you, legger," the fairy said. "Should we all come running when you call? Tell me who it's for."

"Let's see." Lana tipped the letter and read the direction. "Most Bounteous Beauty Masterwort, Director Legate of the Low Parliament Delegation from Angland." Lana shrugged. Fairies liked their titles. It was nothing to her. "Director Masterwort is resident in London, I believe. May I leave the letter with you, beauty?"

"Cool your heels, waster."

Lana flipped the tails of her coat and sat. The palace steps offered a view over the chimneys and water towers down to the river, where masts danced in a gentle tidal swell. A tidy view. Not one misrepaired or unsightly building--the fairies wouldn't stand for it. No tanneries or fishworks across the river, either, just the vast Bankside farms that grew flowers for the palace.

Lana could just make out a flower barge loaded full to tipping with tulips and making a diagonal toward Pauline Wharf. Depending on how long the fairies kept her waiting, she might see a mountain of flowers loaded onto the chain and dragged on rails into the palace's receiving gate. That would be a sight.

When the crystal door finally opened, a large apricot fairy flew out to hover at the top of the stairs, wings ablur. Her mouth was screwed up as if ready to vomit.

"I'm Masterwort. Give me the bloody damned letter," she said, her voice like crisp, rustling autumn leaves.

Lana offered the letter with a grin and a bow. It would be wrong to say she loved a challenge, for she certainly didn't, but she liked to keep genial while others brewed storm clouds. And she'd had a lot of practice.

Masterwort ripped the letter open. She sighed as she read it, then groaned and beat the heel of her fist into her forehead. Her wings shed apricot glitter. The breeze picked it up and blew it onto the coalfield, gilding the ashes.

"Damn it!" the fairy yelled. "Damn you, damn everyone!"

Lana kept a straight face as the fairy flew in circles, ripping the letter to bits. An entertaining sight, and Lana wasn't the only one enjoying it. Attracted by the fuss, the neighborhood had assembled to watch--mothers, girls, and children stood in the doorways of the printers' shops and bookstores, and hung out of the windows of their homes above. They smiled and whispered, though nobody dared laugh. A fairy tantrum might not be rare, especially for those who lived near the palace, but it was always a sight to see. Better than a street fair or a night at the theater.

When the fairy began to calm down and the entertainment was over, Lana saluted and hopped down the steps.

"Wait," the fairy said. Lana turned on her heel, smiling widely. Masterwort brandished a tattered scrap of letter. "Are you a scribe? These scribbles are your hand?"

"I'd hardly call them scribbles, but yes."

The fairy buzzed close and pointed at Lana's nose.

"And is this your face?"

"Same as my mother grew it, beauty."

"You speak Fairy well enough. Anything else?"

Lana tried to look modest.

"I learned Anglish at my mother's knee. I'm from Aldgate, so I speak Flemish and Français. I have a bit of Gael and Cornish, and a smattering of Suomi, which I picked up from some obliging girls last--"

"Shut up."

Lana bit her lip to keep from laughing. But what the fairy said next took all humor out of the moment.

"You're going to the Low Parliament in Cora's place, legger."

"Oh no, I don't think so," Lana stammered. "My mother--"

"Lana Baker, Scribe Aldgate." The scrap of letter in the fairy's hand had Lana's stamp, iris purple on paper turned golden in the light of the setting sun. "I know your kind. Your mother'll be glad to be rid of a burden."

"I'm her favorite." A lie, and a desperate one.

"You?" Masterwort gnashed her teeth. "You're nobody's favorite anything and never will be. Pack your bags. Go to Parliament and rot."

The fairy darted into the palace, and the door slammed behind her. Lana looked around for help. The neighbors were still watching, but Lana saw no friends there. Not that they could do anything, but a little sympathy would have been nice.

"Don't try smashing your fingers to get out of it," the fairy yelled through the spy hole. "You'll go to Parliament even if I have to send your corpse."

Lana trudged beside the glassed-over drain coursing down the middle of Cheap, watching the filthy water rush to the sump at the foot of Cornhill. Now her ambitions were going the same way. What ambitions, one might ask? Well, Lana might have dug some up eventually, given soft soil and a sharp enough spade.

The landlady of the Twin Pumps had been right, after all. Kisses had doomed her. And romantic as she was, Lana couldn't pretend they'd been worth it.

Copyright © 2022 by Kelly Robson


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