Yet another unquestionable rule, set in place for their safety, and enforced by her father—at a cost.
Almost ten years ago, when the reaper virus had first emerged, decimating the world’s population, Lily’s father had become a stranger. Gone was the fun-loving man she’d adored… replaced by a bleak-eyed patriarch.
Not that she blamed him, how could she? It was the virus that changed the world, the structure of everyday life regressing; disintegrating.
When the virus claimed her mother and brother, just days apart, her father had responded without hesitation. He’d turned their home into a fortress, offering everyone within, relative or not, a choice. Remain, protected, or take their chance outside… From that point on, no one questioned his dictate, nor how he provided for them.
But Lily had sometimes wondered… on days she heard him behind the study door, fevered, excited words pouring from his lips, too muffled to decipher. What toll did such responsibility take on a sane mind?
Now, standing in front of that same door, at the boundary of her father’s domain, Lily gripped the tray she carried and rapped her knuckles on heavy oak.
The sound was hollow, lifeless.
Movement: leather soles tapping across wood, timbers creaking as they flexed. A click, as the key turned in the lock, and a ribbon of dusty light that widened rapidly. But no squeak of metal hinges—maintained with care, they moved in perfect, well-oiled silence.
“Ah… tea.” Her father’s figure filled the study doorway. Lily’s heartbeat quickened. Usually their maid, Miriam, brought him his tea, but today he’d requested she do so. Staring at him, she wondered why.
His body was too thin, accentuated by his height; it was as if time had worn him away. His hair and skin were bone-white, ancient looking. But Barnabas Wright’s intellect was as sharp as ever, seeming to snap out at her, from eyes the colour of slate. “Come in, Lily. Place the tray on my desk if you would…”
Shock surged. He was inviting her inside? Tremors raced along her spine, spreading through her body to shake the tray, until the clink of china filled the tense atmosphere.
Then she moved—obeying—her booted feet pacing forward. Mentally, she catalogued everything: the weight of the tray, the coolness of her skirt and petticoats as they swirled around her ankles; the pinch of boning as her ribcage expanded on an agitated breath.
She was finally here.
The study, generously proportioned, had a high, plaster-embellished ceiling suspended above book-lined walls and glass display cases. These housed an array of grotesque-looking curios. Small, half-decayed corpses (of what, she couldn’t tell), fused onto jointed metal armatures that glinted in the golden glow of the oil lamps. Lily tried not to stare.
It was only as she approached her father’s desk that she realised he wasn’t alone. A silent, cloaked figure stood in a darkened corner of the room—watching her. Lily’s step faltered, but only for a moment.
Ignoring the figure, she relinquished the tray and turned, hands clasped in front of her, chin raised, gaze steady. “Forgive me, I was unaware you had a guest, Father. Would you like me to fetch another cup?”
Barnabas shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. However, if I may introduce you, Lily? This is Lord Oscar Darwin… your fiancé.”
Eyes wide, Lily’s gaze moved from her father, to the cloaked figure, and back again. “I… I don’t think I…”
Before she could finish, Barnabas waved an impatient hand. “Don’t prevaricate, child, you heard me well enough. I grow too old to ensure your safety and have arranged for Lord Darwin to take the burden from me. He will protect you—and is a man worthy of the honour.”
Lily remained speechless. Shock and disbelief held her in place.
Stepping from the shadows, the cloaked figure crossed to her side. Large in build, and as tall as her father, his step was strangely hushed.
Like the door hinges.
Reaching out a gloved hand, Lord Darwin took her fingers in his. Beneath the soft leather, his flesh felt hard, almost rigid, with no warmth to it at all.
“I understand that this must be a shock to you, Lily, but there is no time to explain. Travelling is dangerous, and night provides a measure of cover. We must leave as quickly as possible if we are to reach our destination before dawn. As I have promised your father, I will protect you, but speed is essential.”
Lily’s head jerked from side-to-side. Why hadn’t her Father warned her?
Barnabas stepped forward, eyes cold, as they’d been since the loss of his wife and son. “No arguments, child, you will go with Lord Darwin and accept him as your husband. It is my wish, Lily.”
…and her father’s wishes were always obeyed.
Lily stared at the hand holding hers, then into the shadowed features of Lord Darwin. Mutely, she nodded.
They exited through the back door, hurrying across shadowed lawn to the gate that led to open countryside. Glancing back, Lily tried to memorise the view… the only home she’d ever known. Members of the household watched them silently, expressions bemused, some raising a hand.
When her father secured the house, he’d retreated from Lily’s presence; his grief too raw. These people had made her life bearable—and now she was leaving them, with little more than a hurried wave and tears burning her eyes.
“I didn’t say goodbye,” she whispered, distress making her stumble. It was a long time since she’d felt like this… felt anything.
The man at her side tightened his hold. “I’m sorry. We have no time for farewells. Cavalry is waiting.”
“Cavalry?” Lily frowned. They’d cleared the gateway, emerging into the fields behind her home. Lord Darwin secured the locks her father insisted on and deposited the keys inside his cloak before drawing out a small, metallic object.
A whistle? No. A soft whir of sound and a cascade of pin-point lights… a signal.
Out in the fields the night shifted as something responded. Lily’s fingers tightened around Lord Darwin’s. Fear took hold, her nostrils flaring around cold air.
Distinctive perfumes, sweetly sour, rushed in on a single breath—musk and sweat. The smell of oil too, unmistakeable in a world reliant on cogs and springs. Then a faint hiss, like levers, and the clicking of… gears? Whatever it was drew steadily closer.
Muscles tensed, ready to run, Lily couldn’t help but lean forward, even as fear of the unknown built within her. It was heading towards them… “What is that?” she asked.
A large, velvety nose bumped against her cheek, accompanied by Lily’s shriek of alarm, hastily muffled, and a puff of warm air tickling her neck.
Her companion chuckled. “That is Cavalry, my horse… a miracle of modern technology, as am I, thanks to the skill of the perfectionists and your father specifically.”
Lily turned, looking with interest at the man who was almost a stranger to her. “I don’t understand, Lord Darwin…” but the words petered out as a whimper of surprise replaced them.
Her fiancé had silently lowered the hood of his cloak, leaving his face unshaded.
“My name is Oscar. Don’t you think you should call me that, Lily?” he asked, staring at her with hazel eyes. Lovely eyes, fringed with dark lashes… but that wasn’t the surprise.
No, that was the fact that his lower forehead, right cheek and part of his chin were moulded from polished glass, through which a whirling mass of clock-like cogs were visible, fused to the bones of his skull, yet moving freely. Reaching out, Lily brushed her fingers against the cold, clear glass. She’d never seen anything quite so fascinating.
For a brief moment, Oscar’s eyes closed, as if he relished the contact. When he opened them again, a look of satisfaction gleamed in their depths.
“I knew you’d understand… how could you not? You are your father’s daughter.
“As you see, I’m a survivor of the reaper virus, as is Cavalry. Your father repaired his right hind leg using the same techniques employed on humans.”
“Father repaired a horse?” That didn’t sound like the man Lily knew.
Oscar smiled. “He wanted to experiment on something bigger…”
“And now Cavalry is going to carry me to safety?”
Oscar didn’t reply, the only hint of his thoughts a subtle hardening of his jaw. It seemed their mode of transport wasn’t up for debate.
“Then I suppose we’d better get going,” Lily said, turning so he could boost her onto the saddle. But when he swung up behind her, she twisted round, her gaze calm. “You know, the future is something we’re going to have to talk about… and you needn’t think you can push me around either… but I’ll accept a ride for now. Even if your charger is black, and has a gammy leg.”