The Bell Tower, Chapter One: Rain
*Author's Note: This is the sequel to a book I wrote last year entitled "The Whispering Gallery." I originally posted it on Facebook, but the notes feature isn't really fiction-friendly, so I am returning to my beloved AP for the sequel. If anyone is desperate enough to read the first book, email me at thetravelingmagpie @ gmail. com and I'll send you a PDF copy of The Whispering Gallery, with the stipulation that you have to give me a bit of a critique. :D Enjoy, and as always, any questions, suggestions, or comments are welcome!*
In the storm-dark sky above the City, a single raindrop was about to fall.
It was the First Drop, an honored position among raindrops – or it would have been if raindrops could contemplate such things. This particular raindrop was nothing special, but its mission was one that would have far reaching consequences. As it hung, trembling, from a tiny shred of raincloud, it might have felt pride in its assignment, or perhaps fear – but it was only a raindrop, after all, and felt nothing but the tug of gravity below and the gathering electricity of lightning above.
Finally, the cloud had enough of this melodramatic display of non-nerves and gave a little shake. Tossed earthward, the tiny drop plummeted toward the City.
Slate roofs grew from the size of paving stones to their true proportions, and hungry gutters held grey mouths open to receive the deluge that followed the First Drop. Low places waited to be filled, including all of those little pockets and hollows where water would run in and meet up with all the dank, dark puddles that were already waiting in those deep places that never truly dried up. But our droplet’s destination was none of these – no, it fell, turning end over end through the air with a thousand of its brethren following, and with a smack, splattered into the glass windowpane of a house on Grosvenor Street. Specifically, the glass windowpane of the bedroom of one Matty Lee.
Inside, Matty – or, properly, Mattalyn Rene Ilsa Lee, thank you very kindly – glanced up with a start.
“Oh, Mama,” she said, setting down the hat she had been about to put on her head. “It’s raining.”
Mrs. Lee turned from the bureau and looked out the window. Following the First Drop, hundreds and thousands pelted the City streets, turning the cobblestones dark and chasing finely dressed neighbors into their houses. Mrs. Lee sighed.
“I was afraid it might,” she admitted.
Matty fingered the fine lace on her sleeve-cuffs. To be perfectly honest, she was a little relieved. “Tomorrow, maybe?” she said, trying to sound as disappointed as a normal daughter might.
She was trying very hard to be a normal daughter.
“Tomorrow your father and I are going for tea with the Beaumonts,” Mrs. Lee said. She gave Matty a little smile, her thin lips softer now than they had been for as long as Matty could recall. “I’m sorry, darling. Perhaps this weekend.”
Matty smiled weakly. “That would be nice.”
Her mother crossed the spacious bedroom in three graceful strides and wrapped her dainty arms around Matty’s shoulders. “You’re such an agreeable child,” she said, squeezing gently. “Much more like your father than me.”
Matty relaxed into the embrace and breathed in the rosewater scent of her mother’s dress – a new walking gown trimmed in a blue that matched Mrs. Lee’s bright eyes.
“I know,” Mrs. Lee said, stepping back and holding Matty’s shoulders so she could look her daughter in the eye. “What say you to a round of paper dolls? Butler just brought the mail up, and I do think I spotted a Fletcherman’s catalogue in the stack.”
Paper dolls. Matty’s smile didn’t waver, but if her mother had known her a bit better, she would have seen it for the painted china-doll smile that it was. She wanted to exclaim that she wasn’t exactly five years old, and she’d already saved the entire city from being enslaved by the Mayor, and wasn’t that worth something – like a day free from bobbins of lace and silly gossip and pointless strolls through the park so that everyone could point out the flaws in her new frocks?
Her parents, though, didn’t know about the Mayor or the Machine or…or any of it. She had decided not to tell them. It was a secret that weighed on her like a wet quilt, smothering and smelling of must. And whenever her mother suggested a new frock, or a trip to the park, or tea with some frill-for-brains society person, the secret pushed against her lips, begging to be shouted to the world.
But she kept it in.
“I’ll get the cardboard,” she said instead, hurrying out the door of her room toward the writing parlor.
At least it wasn’t extra dance lessons. Matty loved to dance, but there was something disconnected between her brain and her feet, and when she got flustered she couldn’t remember the steps to save her life. And since Miss Banesh, the dancing instructor, was very critical and looked like a starved pelican, Matty was flustered very often.
Mr. and Mrs. Lee were trying very hard to make up for fourteen years of lost time – nearly fifteen, actually, thought Matty. Her birthday was in two weeks. And she understood that her parents had been held in thrall by the Mayor’s terrible Machine, and that it wasn’t their fault they didn’t know what to do with a two-weeks-shy-of-fifteen-year-old daughter. For that matter, Matty barely knew what to do with parents. She had been in the Machine’s fog as much as they had, and just as they had barely been able to remember that they had a daughter – let alone care for her the way she needed – Matty had barely realized that she needed her parents. She was still getting used to the flood of emotions that filled her every time she woke up in the morning and remembered that her mother and father were waiting for her at the breakfast table. Surprise, amazement, and joy were chief among those emotions, but lately there was a fourth: dread.
Not that I dread them, Matty thought, grabbing several sheets of thin cardboard from the drawer in the writing desk. I’m just afraid that I’m…
A disappointment. She wouldn’t even let herself quite think the word, but it lingered above her head like a miniature storm echoing the one outside as she walked down the stairs and into the parlor.
“Mama, I have the…” Matty let the words die away. The parlor was empty. Through the half-open doors at the other end of the room, she heard voices echoing from the front foyer.
“…Short and Blakeney are bringing in some odd reports,” one of the voices was saying in the sort of tone that isn’t worried about being overheard, but is naturally cautious. Matty silently placed the cardboard on a chair and crossed the room, grateful for the thick carpet underfoot muffling her steps.
“Several of our people have disappeared,” the voice continued. “Or rather – some of Short’s people. It’s possible they’ve just gone to ground, but that seems unlikely.”
“I’ve seen Mr. Blakeney’s latest memo,” Mr. Lee replied. Matty peeked around the doorjamb and saw her father standing with a brown-haired man and a blonde woman in a red scarf. The strange man and woman both carried brown parcels, and Mr. Lee was writing something as he spoke.
“He mentioned that there’ve been a few strange cases at the hospital down by the docks – St. Beatte’s, isn’t it?”
The woman nodded, shifting her grip on the parcels and freeing one hand to sweep a short strand of hair out of her face. It was a nice face, thought Matty, if a little sharp.
“Five cases so far,” she confirmed. “All of them from middle-class families who can afford to get them the care they need. But I’ve heard rumors of others without family or means – who knows how many there actually are?”
“But what is it?” Mr. Lee asked. He finished whatever it was he was writing, blew gently on the ink to dry it, and folded the paper into an envelope. “Take that to Lady Short for me and tell her to reply before tomorrow night. The usual drop.”
The strange man took the envelope and slid it into his pile of parcels. “We don’t know what it is,” he said, answering Mr. Lee’s question. “All we know is that they were all turned up on the front steps of their family’s homes completely unconscious. Nothing rouses them.”
Matty spun around, flushing guiltily. Her mother stood behind her, catalogue in one hand and a disapproving look on her face.
“I was just—”
Mrs. Lee pursed her lips. “I realize you may not know better,” she said in a voice as stiff as starched napkins, “but listening at doors is not a pastime for proper young ladies.”
Matty rubbed her foot against the other leg. “Sorry, Mama, I was only curious.” And who ever claimed I was a proper young lady? I saved the City. Proper young ladies don’t save cities. And besides – who said I wanted to be a proper young lady?
Mrs. Lee must have heard the thin layer of rebellion in Matty’s voice, for she shook her head and slipped the catalogue into a desk drawer.
“Perhaps you ought to go to your room,” she said. “It seems paper dolls are not as interesting to you today as things that are none of your business.”
Matty felt her face go hotter, and a dozen half-formed, indignant phrases bottled up behind her teeth. But all that came out was a muttered, “Yes, Mama.”
But as she climbed the stairs to her bedroom, Matty gritted her teeth. She couldn’t handle being in this clean, perfect house, being the clean, perfect daughter for one more moment. She had to escape.
She was going Down.