They threw flowers as she walked down the street; carnations, roses, tulips and daffodils filled the air and then fell to the pavement. She walked over them, her heels crushing green leaves and stems, her soles pressing petals apart. Her hair fell over her face, and her dress, old-fashioned and heavy, ornate with lacework (women in the crowd whispered to one another that prisoners in the Coteille had hand-sown every inch) seemed to wallow around her. Fragrance rose from the torn flora and little eddies of wind pulled it this way and that, dispersing among the crowd and bringing faint smiles to faces. Finally, when she was barely ten steps away from the armoured car, someone called her name. She paused in mid-step and a hand, so pale and white that the nearest people in the crowd could see the blue tracery of her veins lifted to her hair as though to draw it back.
“Marguerite!” The voice came from inside the armoured car and was snake-strike sharp and fast. If words were weapons this was a glass-barbed whip; lifting and tearing skin then retracting as fast as it came, readying for another blow. Marguerite’s hand sank back down to her side and her foot came down on the trumpet of a daffodil and she continued walking. Behind her now, a young boy pushed his way to the front of the crowd and threw an armful of lillies after her. They pattered to the floor like the briefest shower of rain.
“Get in the car,” said the voice as she reached the door, but she was already ducking her head and looking inside. On the back seat was a long, bony woman wearing the uniform of the Unconscious Ministry: a high-collared grey jacket with red piping on the lapels and cuffs and the Blinded Eye embroidered on the breast pocket. On a pull-down seat opposite her was a jackalope wearing a silvered collar attached to a thin metallic leash that in turn was tied to the inner door-handle. Marguerite stepped in, and folded herself up on the back seat. Someone outside the car closed the door with a soft, but definite, click, and the engine started instantly.
The bony woman waited until they had driven beyond the edge of the crowd before she spoke again.
“Tell me why we shouldn’t confine you to the Coteille.”
Marguerite tried to swallow but her throat was dry and it didn’t work. She felt slightly nauseous, not least from thinking about the Coteille, the prison-ship moored a mile offshore, visible to people walking along the harbour’s edge. Far enough away that no-one jumping over board had a chance of swimming to shore, yet close enough that you could hear the screams on a balmy summer’s evening. If you listened for them.
“I don’t actually care what you think,” said the bony woman. “Your silence is gratifying. You will not, however, be going to the Coteille. I think there are better uses that can made of you. Your talents. Don’t you, Marguerite?”
“Y… Yugh… Yes,” she managed. Her throat was too dry for words, and too sore from screaming. For a moment there was a memory of a silver belltower on a desk in front of her, a student looking puzzled and tapping a bell with a tiny silver hammer and… and… no chime. She remembered there being no chime. It was incredibly important.
The jackalope, seemingly a rabbit crossed with an antelope, long curving horns projecting from either side of its skull, growled and bared teeth that were all incisors, teeth that no herbivore had ever needed.
“There, there,” said the bony woman. “It’s quite all right, Virgil. She won’t hurt you.”
Marguerite shrank away from it, pressing herself into the corner of the car. Only the gentle purr of the engine told her that they were still moving, the windows were opaque and there was no sensation of movement. She reached out with her mind for a moment, forgetting herself and felt the car grow somehow thin in a direction she couldn’t point in. Buildings appeared in her thoughts, a church with a steeple and a tiny graveyard on the left, a couple of shops, one a butcher’s on the right. The road appeared silvery and the car appeared to be a redd–
The bony woman slapped her with a hand that felt like it was made from steel.
“Bad girl,” she said. The jackalope bared its teeth, and its eyes glinted.
A shrill screech emanated from the bony woman’s jacket and, without taking her eyes off Marguerite, she reached into an inside pocket and produced a mobile phone about as large as the palm of her hand. She touched the screen with her thumb and ripples like water spread out from where she touched it, stilling the screech. She raised it to her ear.
“Carmen,” she said, her words crisp and clipped. “I have her, yes. She’s behaving passably. No. No, the vote went the other way. I can’t talk to you about that now.” There was a long silence, and then, “Deadwood, and I didn’t tell you that.”
She lowered her hand, her thumb pressing against the screen again, and looked at the jackalope. “He’s rather pretty, don’t you think? His horns are unusual, they have a corkscrew thread. It’s supposed to make them especially vicious.”
“Pretty,” said Marguerite, her voice so hoarse it was more a whisper.