Unhonored is the second book in the intriguing gothic novel in the Nightbirds series from the partnerships of New York Times best selling author Tracy Hickman and Laura Hickman. This gothic fantasy series begins with Unwept.
Ellis Harkington is trapped in limbo between life and death, struggling to escape the domination of an evil force masquerading as her friend, Merrick. Only Ellis has ever escaped him, and now that she has discovered the truth, he wants to make sure she can never escape again.
Merrick's dark power has turned the seaside town of Gamin, Maine, into a place of nightmares. The town is transformed into a decaying succession of infinite rooms, bottomless stairwells, and boundless corridors filled with never-ending masquerades, balls, and banquets. Each pageant is about the life Ellis lived before her return—each revelation more terrifying than the last.
Ellis is desperate to find her missing cousin and leave, but there is no exit from the House of Dreams except, perhaps, through a séance to contact the living.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
Release date: October 11, 2016
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Print pages: 272
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HOUSE OF DREAMS
Margaret Emma Kendrick stood shaking in the endless, dark space.
She sensed there was floor beneath her boot-shod feet and felt the rough cloth of the dress draped over her. There was nothing else that existed and while she dreaded the suffocating nature of the experience, she had also come to expect the same. It served her best, she knew, to hold perfectly still, to try not to move and to wait for the new world to appear.
She perceived more than saw the mirror gathering itself together before her and shuddered.
She did not want to look at the demon in the glass, another self on the far side of the reflection. She imagined it to be a terrible thing, a monstrous version of herself that was biding its time, waiting, somehow, to reach through the glass and tear her life from her throat. Worse still, she was unsure which of them was the real Margaret and which of them was merely the reflection.
This was the part that she hated the most: the dreaded aspect of coming into being. She wondered vaguely if this was what birth was like: emerging in horror from the darkness into a new existence. She had no experience to answer such a question, she mused, for she had never been born.
Yet she had done this before. She had been banished to the Umbra more times than she could count and returned to play again when a new Day was decreed. Each time, emerging from the nothingness into a parody of living had unsettled her. She enjoyed playing at life but she hated starting to live. She dreaded being recalled from the simplicity of nothingness. Coming into being terrified her every time.
Her eyes perceived shadows emerging from the nothing around her, giving shape to the oval mirror before her. An outline of a figure stared back at her from the glass. It was a vague and faceless outline. Margaret filled in its features with her imagination and still could not stop herself from shaking.
The woman staring back at her, quivering in the near darkness, was plain-faced and careworn. Her red hair was pulled back from her square face and braided at the back in what Margaret considered a careless manner. Her green eyes bulged slightly and seemed to stare back at her as though daring her to wish she were different from who she had become. At least she had kept her red hair. She found it difficult to look at her reflection as she trembled in the flickering light of a lantern that was becoming more real as it brightened next to her.
The drab dress. The effort to carry her shoulders back and her carriage erect against the weight of her station. She had hoped to be more this time—so much more—but the Book decreed the parts that each of them must play. Her position and false memories came to her then, rising up from somewhere beyond conscious thought and helping her know who she was to be in this life, this new Day.
She knew her part. She was a servant. A lady’s maid and that was not the worst of it.
She was a lady’s maid to her.
Margaret clenched her teeth at the thought. Her of all people.
“Margaret Emma Kendrick,” she murmured to her image reflected in the mirror. “It’s going to be a hard Day.”
Margaret reached down and picked up the lamp. As she held it higher, the extent of the room around her became evident. She did not know nor particularly care whether the walls had been there all along or whether they came into being when she looked for them. Such considerations, she grimly thought, were above her station. It was her servants’ quarters, barely more than a closet in many ways with just enough room for the mirror, her narrow bed and a chest of drawers. There was even a window, although the panes of glass were so black with darkness that they looked as though they had been painted with it.
She wondered, quite rightly, if there was anything beyond the glass as yet.
Margaret turned toward the door that had appeared opposite where the bed lay and, impulsively, reached for the handle. Suddenly she hesitated, her fingers poised to grasp the tarnished brass knob but stopping short of closing around it. Is there the house beyond? she thought in a sudden panic. Has it returned as it was before she left us or is there nothing but a void across this threshold?
She glanced downward toward the floor and the gap beneath the door. A dim, warm light was brightening there.
Margaret drew in a deep breath, held it, and then opened the door.
There was a poorly lit hallway beyond, undecorated and lined with plain doors on either side. The hall was lit with feeble gas jets flickering at intervals from where they hung in fixtures from the ceiling. At the near end of the corridor, Margaret could make out a tight staircase leading down into the house. As she turned to look down the hallway in the other direction, she could see that the light from the gas jets ended just twenty feet from where she stood with her own lamp still in her hand. Beyond there the walls became vague and shadowed, falling away into impenetrable nothingness. As she watched, the gas jet in the next fixture sprang to life with a soft chuffing sound, pushing back the darkness and revealing more of the corridor. Moment by deliberate moment, the ceiling fixtures puffed into life and with each increased illumination brought more of the corridor into existence.
“Echo House,” Margaret muttered to herself. “A new name for so old a place. So you are awakening at last. How long have you slept in our memory?”
Margaret turned back toward the stairs and peered down over the railing. The staircase ran downward and then ended in a solid wall with an ornate pane of Tiffany glass. It was completely without reason for the downward staircase to end in a wall yet, Margaret reflected, that was the nature of the house.
This place was familiar to her. She had been here before. She had played a different part then and far more suited to her liking but the house … Oh, yes, the house she knew all too well.
Margaret sighed. She was not yet used to the way she looked or the new role that she had to play. She was happy, if such a term could be used about her, to have any part at all in this new life. Merrick had been very clear to her about that. This was her part in the Day and she would accept her position or have no life at all.
She closed her eyes. She had been a princess once, the focus of suitors’ and courtiers’ attentions and by her command those who had offended her had been banished. She had been a lady-in-waiting of a great empire, too, and at her word gladiators had received their final blow. When the harbor town had become the Game, she had clawed her way up the society of Gamin and had often been a serious contender to beat them all, take control of the Day, and make her own Book.
But she had always been a princess, never been the queen; a lady-in-waiting but never empress. She had always stood in the shadow of someone else, never to glory in the light of the Day.
That was always that other woman’s role.
Now a new Day had dawned. Merrick had decreed it and she and the others had been pulled from the blissful nothingness into another Game, another pretense.
For Margaret, another chance.
She heard a growing sound roiling up from the far end of the hall. The echo of laughter, the thudding tread of feet and the muffled sound of indistinct words. Margaret held her lamp high as she moved down the hall. She passed the closed doors on either side—most likely more servants’ quarters although, she mused, Merrick had never been particularly careful about the sensibility of his own architecture. The gas jets flared to life before her, revealing, or creating, more hallway in front of her as she walked. Still, she clung to the lamp for she knew that every door before her could still open onto darkness.
Margaret soon came to where the hallway ended in a pair of white double doors gleaming in the light of her lamp. She reached out with her free hand, pulled the door open and stepped through.
She emerged into an enormous, closed arcade. The limits of its arched ceiling remained dark and indistinct twenty feet overhead as though they had not yet formed from the shadows. The light from Margaret’s lamp did not reach as far as the end of the colonnade but the sounds of the approaching troop could be distinctly heard from that direction.
In a few moments, they came into view: a laughing, chattering parade of characters who had been summoned from the Umbra to take their roles and play their parts in this new Day that was just dawning here in the Tween. Huntsman, horseman, groundskeepers, maids, cooks, gentlemen in morning coats and ladies dressed to receive and be received … All of them came laughing and staggering out of the shadows and into existence. The great parade continued as the arcade became more real and the gas fixtures set into each column roared to life. As light filled the space, the characters in the parade suddenly gasped their approval and delight, scurrying and clambering suddenly in all directions as they scattered to populate the house.
Within moments, Margaret was standing alone on the fitted, polished tiles of the arcade floor. She held perfectly still, for she knew if the house was this solid around her then the lady of the house was drawing near.
That was when she heard it.
The shuddering breath.
The gasping for air.
“And so the new Day begins,” Margaret muttered to herself. She turned toward a credenza next to the doors that she had just passed through. She set down her lamp and trimmed it down until the flame was low. She kept her hand around the back of the glass at the top and extinguished the lamp with a single puffing blow. She left the lamp there for she knew that she would have no need of it again and stepped quickly over the tiles toward the far end of the arcade. There, a staircase had appeared rising up to a second-level promenade. A plush carpet with the pattern of red roses against a black background was held firmly to the stairs with brass carpet runners. Margaret lifted the front of her skirt with both hands as she hurried up the stairs toward the sound. At the top of the stairs was a set of ornately carved oak doors richly stained and polished but Margaret did not bother with those for the sound was coming from a narrow hallway that exited from the promenade to her right.
Margaret slipped quietly into the narrow passage. It appeared to be intended for servants to move through the house, for the finish work here was far less grand than in the arcade that she had just left. The sticks of the wainscoting were painted but had a rough finish and the floor was bare wood. The hall itself jogged in mazelike angles as though it had been fitted as an afterthought around and between more important rooms. There were more doors here, each one closed, which she passed at the regular intervals and gave them no further thought, for the sounds of the labored breathing were getting more pronounced.
It was around the next corner that she found her.
Margaret’s sudden appearance startled the other woman, causing her to cry out as she stumbled backward into the corner of the alcove closet.
She wore the dark green jacket and the matching skirt of a traveling suit, both of which were soaked completely through. The left sleeve of the jacket and the blouse underneath were torn and stained even darker with blood. The long skirt, too, was heavily stained on the left side. Her hair was completely undone, hanging in thick, wet strands that clung to her about her face and shoulders. She was shaking visibly and, as Margaret watched, slid down the corner of the alcove until she crouched on the floor.
“So there you are, Lady Ellis,” Margaret said in a voice filled both with annoyance and relief.
“M-m-margaret? Is that you?” Ellis stammered between ragged breaths.
“And who else would I be?” Margaret replied, holding her hands together in front of her in her sternest, most disapproving manner. “You’ve given all the household quite a fright. Everyone has been looking for you. Wherever have you been?”
“I’ve been … running. I’ve been running for ever so long,” Ellis replied warily.
“Running, my lady?” Margaret sniffed. “Running to where?”
“Out.” Ellis said the word as though it were both obvious and puzzling. “I have to get out, Margaret, you know that.”
“Well, there’ll be plenty of time for that later,” Margaret said in slightly dismissive tones. “And I’ll certainly not be letting you go about in a state like that especially with the hall decorated and the guests arriving! You have to dress…”
“Dress?” Ellis glared up at Margaret. “Don’t you understand? I have to get out of here!”
“Out of here? To where?” Margaret asked with impatience. “Truly, mistress, you have been away far too long!”
“I haven’t been anywhere, Margaret,” Ellis said as evenly as she could manage. “Though it hasn’t been for lack of trying.”
Margaret rolled her eyes and sighed. From her perspective, the house seemed to have just appeared moments ago but here Ellis looked as though she had run the legs out from under herself for quite a while. Time could be funny in the house, she thought. Maybe the house had not so much appeared around Margaret as she had appeared in it. No matter. She extended her right hand down toward the crouching, bedraggled figure shivering in the corner before her. “Come with me, my lady. We’ll get you out of those wet things and into something decent and fit for company. Perhaps when you are warm and rested, you’ll be able to think more clearly.”
Ellis hesitated for a moment, and then reached up and took Margaret’s hand.
Margaret led Ellis back down the twisting hall, smiling to herself.
They had all played this Game before.
This time, Margaret knew she could win.
Copyright © 2016 by Tracy Hickman and Laura Hickman
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