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WORK IN PROGRESS

A fairy-tale infused historical novel for adults set in the late 18 th century, moving between Imperial China and France during the ‘Terror’ of the French Revolution, and inspired by the true story of a quest for a blood-red rose.

The novel will draw upon ‘The Blue Rose,’ a fairy tale set in China about a quest for an impossible rose.

Extract from "The Butterfly in Amber"

The Butterfly in Amber

Cover art by Jeremy Reston

Falling Down London Bridge

LONDON, ENGLAND
29th August 1658

'There's London Bridge !' Luka cried. 'We're almost there, at last!'

A great stone edifice loomed over them. Shops lined the street, each with houses piled on top, higgledy-piggledy with gables and windows and chimneys that filled the air with a brown haze of smoke. On one side of the cart, a man held up dead hens by their feet, shouting, 'Get your chickens here, young and plump!'

Beside him a woman shouted, 'Asparagus, fresh picked!'

'Live eels-o, live eels-o!'

'Rabbits, rabbits!'

'Pots to mend? Kettles and pots?'

All around their cart, people were walking and talking, running and riding, shouting and cheering, hammering and haranguing. Above it all was the constant churning of the corn-mills built into the arches of the bridge.

Woken by the noise, Sweetheart stirred and sat up, straw surging away from her bulk. 'Sssh, Sweetheart, down, Sweetheart,' Emilia called. Grumpily the old bear lay down again.

'Stupid old bear,' Luka said. 'I wish we didn't have to drag her about with us everywhere.'

Emilia bit back a sharp retort. She knew they were both exhausted from the last few weeks of constant running and hiding, and weighed down with worry over their families. It was harder for Luka, though. She had all her faith invested in the magic of the chain of charms but Luka had no such comfort. He thought the fate of his family rested solely in his hands and, if he could not come up with some way to rescue them, they would all die.

We'll find the butterfly in amber, don't you worry , Emilia promised her family silently. Somehow . . .

It was gloomy between the tall buildings, for the sun was already low in the sky, reminding them that yet another day had passed. Emilia had never much noticed the passing of time before - one day had always passed much like another, marked only by the changes in the seasons. Now she was acutely conscious of every minute, every hour. Each evening, as the sun set in bloody streaks in the west, it reminded her cruelly that her family was one day closer to their trial, one day closer to being condemned to death. Hurry, hurry, hurry , her heart told her, and her tired body tried to obey.

The cart passed under the heavy portcullis.

Screeching birds wheeled overhead. Emilia looked up, only to recoil in horror.

Impaled on long sticks on top of the gate were a number of grotesque human heads, some no more than bone and gaping cavities, others still covered with rotting flesh, their long thin hair blowing in the breeze. The smell was foul. Emilia gagged, and pressed her hand over her mouth.

'Come to London-Town for work, have we, sweetie?' an impudent young man shouted. 'I hear the Keeper of the Heads needs a hand. I could recommend you?'

One of his friends howled with laughter. 'Bad choice of words! The Keeper of the Heads has too many hands up there already, and legs and feet too. Watch out one doesn't fall on you!'

Emilia shuddered, and the young men laughed again. Luka urged the pony on, and Emilia gasped, 'What did they mean? Hands are up there too, and feet?'

'Traitors are cut into four, and a limb placed on every gate into the city,' Luka said flatly. 'Didn't you know?'

Emilia shook her head.

'That's what would have happened to our friend the Duke if they'd caught him,' Luka said.

'Hanged, drawn and quartered.'

'Aye, I'd heard that, but I didn't realise . . . They'd have cut him in four?'

'Eventually,' Luka said dryly. He would have said more, but one look at Emilia's face stopped him. 'Don't you worry,' he said consolingly. 'All our friends got away safely.'

Emilia thought of the Duke of Ormonde, and Tom Whitehorse, and the other friends they had made on their adventures, many of them working in secret to try to restore the exiled King Charles II to his throne.

'Cromwell's head will be stuck up like that one day,' Emilia said, after a long moment. 'They'll dig him up and cut off his head and stick it on a stake.'

'Milly,' Luka said uneasily, half in protest, half in warning.

'Not here,' she said. 'At the palace, where they cut off the king's head.'

'How can you say such things?' he hissed. 'Do you want to be taken for a witch? Hush your mouth.'

'It's true.'

'Maybe so, drabardi, but watch what you say!'

Emilia shut her mouth up and did not speak again. Luka was right, she thought. She must learn not to blurt out the things she mysteriously knew to be true. She must learn when it was wise to speak, and when it was wiser to hold her tongue.

The cart moved out into sunshine, crossing a wooden drawbridge that rattled under the hooves of their pony. With nothing but flimsy wooden railings on either side of them, Emilia had her first view of London . It spread as far as the eye could see on the opposite bank of the river, narrow hovels of timber and straw leaning up against great churches and mansions of stone, which in turn jostled against warehouses and wharves with tall peaked roofs. The water of the Thames rushed through the arches, a long way below.

Then the view of the city was cut off as the cart moved into a narrow, dark tunnel, the buildings on either side leaning together and arm-wrestling for space.

The hair on Emilia's neck prickled. 'I don't like it. Can't we go back?'

Luka glanced over his shoulder. Marching quickly behind them was a company of soldiers.

He scanned the crowd anxiously and saw with a dreadful jolt of his heart the familiar bulk of Coldham the thief-taker some way ahead, searching the faces of the crowd, with more soldiers at his back. There was no way forward. There was no way back.

Luka seized their pack and slipped down from the cart, clicking his tongue to Zizi, who leapt to his shoulder.

Luka seized the ring in Sweetheart's nose.

'What are we going to do?' Emilia whispered, slithering to the ground. Rollo leapt down behind her.

'I don't know,' Luka said. 'Hide? If we get into one of those shops maybe . . .'

People had begun to exclaim and point at the sight of the huge old bear. Some were frightened, and backed away from her, clearing a space around them. Luka and Emilia glanced around for somewhere to hide, but it was too late. Coldham had seen them.

'There they are!' he shouted. 'Seize them!'

Dragging on Sweetheart's chain, Luka dodged and weaved through the crowd, Emilia at his heels. Hands seized Luka's coat and almost dragged him off his feet. Zizi leapt out, clawing and biting. The soldier yelped and let go, and Luka ran on, Sweetheart lumbering behind him.

'Stop or I'll shoot!' Coldham cried.

Everyone shrank back against the walls, or threw themselves down. There was nothing between Luka and the tense black mouth of the pistol but a span of air.

Luka somersaulted over the nearest shop counter. He landed with a thump and was on his feet in an instant. Sweetheart clambered after him, sending vials and bottles of precious spices crashing to the floor. A man in a white turban wrung his hands and wailed. Luka had no time to listen. He looked anxiously for Emilia.

A pistol shot rang out. Time seemed to slow.

No matter how hard Luka tried, he could not force his body to move any faster. Then he was knocked flying by a big, hairy shape.

Rollo!

An instant later Emilia was diving across the counter, smashing all the bottles Luka had somehow managed to miss.

'Hurt?'

'Nay!'

'Let's get out of here!'

'How?'

Luka glanced around wildly. He saw a long, dark, narrow room, the floor covered in smithereens of glass, dried leaves, flowers, bark, dust. The furious face of a dark-skinned merchant, and beyond, a small window out to the river, a trapdoor in the rush-strewn floor, and a ladder to the rooms above.

Luka ducked the merchant's flying fist, then seized the handle of the trapdoor and hauled it up. Below, far below, torrents of water raged through the narrow archway.

He had time only to glance back and see Coldham framed in the dark wood of the shopfront. He had his pistol raised. Luka gulped and looked at Emilia. She shrugged, twisting her mouth in dismay, then jumped through the trapdoor, down, down, down towards the river.

Luka heaved Rollo after her, and the big dog went tumbling down, howling in dismay. Luka crossed his arm protectively over Zizi, then jumped, his other arm dragging at Sweetheart's chain.

Sweetheart leapt too, a huge black shadow crashing down upon him.

Luka could do nothing but fall.

He smashed into the water, and was driven deep under the wild white rapids. The breath burst out of his lungs. Sweetheart hurtled after him, blotting out all the light and air. Luka saw her go past him in a burst of bubbles. He swam for the surface, feeling the remorseless drag of the tide on his body. His head burst free of the water, and was sucked down again immediately. He fought his way up again and managed a quick gulp of air.

Zizi scrambled up his body and perched on his head. Her weight, slight as it was, pressed him down into the water. Then Sweetheart burst out beside him, swimming strongly. Luka hauled on her chain and managed to grab her collar. She dragged him clear of the stone arches, water gushing all about. Desperately he looked for Emilia.

At first Luka saw nothing. Then he saw Rollo's wet, sleek head, held high. Beside him was Emilia, struggling to keep her head above water, her hand on the dog's neck. Sweetheart swam towards Emilia who grabbed weakly at the thick collar.

The bear turned and swam for the far shore, the two children towed along behind. Rollo dogpaddled behind.

Gasping, shivering, water gushing from their clothes, the two children crawled out of the river still clinging to the collar of the huge old bear.

'Sweetheart,' Luka said hoarsely, coughing up river water, 'I will never call you stupid again!'

Boatmen on the river lifted their oars and waved, laughing, while workmen on the busy wharves leant down and shouted at them in high good humour. Emilia and Luka ignored them, too busy trying not to cut their feet on the barnacles that encrusted the rocks.

'What a good bear you are,' Emilia said, letting Sweetheart haul her up the steep steps. 'You saved us, you good girl.'

Luka patted her muzzle. 'Just as soon as I can, I'll get you a whole bucket of ale!'

Sweetheart's eyes brightened at the word, and she surged up on to the wharf, looking around her for an inn.

'I'll have to get us some money first. We're broke!'

They did their best to wring the water out of their clothes and hair. Rollo shook himself furiously, sending a shower of filthy water over them.

'Rollo!' Emilia cried. 'Couldn't you go and shake somewhere else?'

'Criminy, but I'm cold!' Luka exclaimed, rubbing his arms. 'We'd better try and find some shelter, Milly. Night's coming on.'

Emilia suddenly remembered her charm bracelet. Checking quickly, she was greatly relieved to find it was still safe upon her wrist.

'Imagine if it'd fallen off into the river!' she said.

'Lucky!' he said. 'Zizi darling, stop shivering! I know you're cold. We'll try and find a fire somewhere where we can get warm and dry again.'

'Where?' Emilia asked.

'I don't know!' Luka snapped. 'I got us to London , didn't I? And got us away from Pig-face. Let's try and find somewhere to eat and sleep, and we'll go looking for the Graylings tomorrow.'

They hurried along the wharf, damp and shivering. Everyone they passed turned to stare. Someone barged past Emilia, knocking her arm, and disappeared into the crowd. Emilia groped at her wrist in sudden suspicion.

The charm bracelet was gone.

Emilia gasped. Frantically she dragged back her sleeve and shook her arm. Her wrist was bare. Her chest so tight she could not breathe, Emilia spun on her heel, searching the cobblestones behind her, looking all around her in case it had simply slipped off to the ground. There was no sign of it.

'Luka!' she cried. 'My charm bracelet! It's gone!' 'What? But you just had it . . .'

'That boy who bumped me . . .' Emilia started forward a few steps, her eyes searching the gloom, but there were people hurrying everywhere, all of them looking the same with their pinched faces and dark coats. Emilia's knees would not hold her. She sat down on the cobblestones and bent her face into her hands. Luka put a clumsy hand on her shoulder.

'I told you to be careful!' he scolded. 'You should've hidden it away. These pickpockets can take a ring off your finger without you even noticing.'

Emilia could not speak. The shock was too overwhelming. Her brain could not begin to grapple with the consequences. Baba had trusted … all their kin had trusted . . . the charms were irreplaceable . . . how could they rescue their family now ?

'Nothing we can do,' Luka said. 'It's gone now. No point blubbering about it. Come on, Milly, get up.'

Emilia only shook her head.

'Come on, Milly.' Luka tried to speak gently, but he was tired and damp and cold, and his voice was sharper than he meant.

Drying her face on her sleeve, Emilia got to her feet and trailed disconsolately after her cousin. She still could not believe her charm bracelet had been stolen. It had been so quick, so deft. Every few steps she put her hand up to check, just in case the bracelet had miraculously returned. But her wrist remained bare.

They turned into a main thoroughfare and trudged along it, wondering what to do.

Luka asked a few people if they knew of any gypsy folk but they shook their heads and hurried away. Miserably, Emilia thought it was no wonder. She and Luka were bruised and filthy and barefoot, and their animals looked thin and unhappy.

In the countryside, they would have knocked on a cottage door and offered to cut firewood, or tell a fortune, or fix a fence in return for food.

There was no wood to cut in the city, no fences to fix, no kind farmer's wife willing to exchange a cup of tea for some harmless gossip and a bright view of the future.

Luka and Emilia began to beg for help.

People pushed past them impatiently, muttering, 'No, sorry.' A beggar in a tattered Roundhead uniform yelled at them, and shook his walking stick at them. 'Get out of here, this is my corner,' he shouted. 'Go beg somewhere else.'

A few streets later, they passed an inn. The smell of hot food wafted out the window, where a woman stirred a big pot on the fire. The smell made their stomachs growl.

'Do you think they'd give us some food if Sweetheart danced for them?' Luka said.

'It's worth asking,' Emilia said hopefully.

Suddenly they were soaked with a deluge of filthy, stinking water. They gasped and cried out, then looked up. A red-faced chambermaid in a frilly white cap was shaking a chamber-pot at them from the window of the upper storey. 'Get out of here, you filthy thieving gypsies!' she cried. 'We don't want your kind round here.'

'We weren't doing any harm!' Luka yelled back. 'What did you do that for?'

'Get out of here,' she bellowed back. 'Go on!'

Luka glowered at her, holding his arms out stiffly so the muck could drip down on to the cobblestones. The chambermaid snorted with laughter, and banged the casement shut. Luka looked round. Emilia knew he was looking for a rock to throw at the window. His eyes fell on the shelf just inside the kitchen window. There lay a tray of loaves cooling, and a small row of bottles. She waited for him to snatch something and run, feeling a weight of sadness like a stone in her chest. Her uncle Ruben had always said, 'You can't walk straight when the road is bent,' but it seemed to her that the road of the Rom was always being twisted awry under their feet.

Luka heaved a deep sigh and turned away, scraping away the worst of the muck and throwing it on the ground. 'Come on,' he said. Quietly she followed him.

Silently they plodded on down the street, Zizi a shivering ball of damp fur on Luka's shoulder, Sweetheart lumbering behind. Luka never normally walked in a straight and steady line. He always had to find the most dangerous and difficult route anywhere - over stiles and along walls, up a tree and down a vine, on the narrow edge of a gutter, or along a ridgepole. If he had to walk on flat ground, he would skip and run, turn cartwheels or walk on his hands. Luka was always in motion, always laughing and talking and whistling and singing at the top of his voice.

Not tonight.

Tonight he dragged his feet along like a donkey plodding round and round in a treadmill. Emilia followed, so worn out and weary she could have wept. Even Rollo slunk along, his tail between his legs and his ears drooping.

It grew darker. The streets began to empty.

The wind nipped at their ankles and insinuated a cold finger down their necks. Something rustled behind them, and they edged closer together.

Emilia kept her hand on Rollo's back, her fingers deep in his fur, occasionally sniffing and wiping her eyes with her sleeve.

Then she saw fire shadows, leaping against a towering stone wall at the very top of a steep alley. She caught Luka's arm and jerked her head towards it.

'What is it?' she whispered. 'It looks like a campfire.'

They stood, hesitating, staring at the orange reflections.

'Only one way to find out,' Luka said at last, starting forward.

'But what if -'

'At least we might be able to get warm and dry,' Luka said, and led the way up the hill.