Seven mortal Realms I saw and seven keys had I...
Serena Carterett leads a team of masqueraders, shapeshifters and reformed thieves. Their task? To oppose the criminal Yllandu at every turn. It's a straightforward job — until the Yllandu get their hands on a mysterious stone artefact, and at the behest of a powerful Lokant employer. When a strange riddle appears in the sky, the hunt for the Seven Dreams begins.
Who will find the seven keys, and what do they open? Nobody knows, but Serena is determined to deny the Yllandu the prize. Her team must battle Lokants and sorcerers, scholars and thieves to solve the puzzle first. The hunt will take them all the way across the Seven Realms — and far into the darkness of their own past.
My team of masqueraders-for-hire is headed up by Serena, a natural leader who's never at a loss. Her companions include Egg, a reformed lady thief with zero patience for fools, and Iyamar, a young streetwise shapeshifter who's badly out of her depth. With the ladies leading the way in villainy, too, this is possibly my most female-driven story yet - and it was bundles of fun to write, too. – Charlotte E. English
"Well-crafted story in every way. Superb world building, well-developed characters and settings, well paced, engaging, and interesting."– Amazon Review
"Seven Dreams is a well-written fantasy novel that kept me captivated from beginning to end! The story is intriguing, the world is vividly described, and there is, of course, lots of action. I especially love the characters: they have a lot of depth and their interactions are highly entertaining."– Amazon Review
"Magic version of Leverage! Compelling story with a variety of twists, turns, and surprises."– Amazon Review
Few aristocrats across the Seven Realms could match the importance of The Extremely Honourable Lady Fenella Chartre. She was the highest of the high; she knew it, and everybody else knew it too. Few would dare to compete with her for the first place at table, at even the most prestigious of dinner parties. No one would attempt to precede her out of a room. She secured the attentions of the most prominent gentleman present at any event, and without even trying. Her importance gathered around her like a cloak; it was evident in her every movement and gesture, every stitch of clothing that she wore, and every coil of her smooth blonde hair.
Equal in consequence was her brother, The Remarkably Honourable Edlen, Lord Bastavere. Fortunately, his height was a perfect match to his consequence, and permitted him to look down his long nose at the lesser persons around him without much straining his lordship. They made a handsome pair, everybody agreed, and had been enjoying the very best of society for some years.
Today, they had ventured beyond the borders of Irbel and explored into Nimdre. Their extremely large, thoroughly imposing and almost impossibly shiny carriage was making its way, at approximately half past seven in the evening, along a quiet but reassuringly well-kept road in northern Nimdre. It was drawn, of course, by a team of four high-stepping, perfectly-matched nivvens, their pale grey scales gleaming in the dying light. The destination of the noble pair was the grand country home of Dame Halavere Morann, a lady of lesser importance (naturally) but sufficient consequence to attract the interest of their lady-and-lordships. Lady Fenella reclined at her ease, gazing idly out at the darkening countryside as she reflected with satisfaction upon the delights of prestige, importance and superiority which she would enjoy at the Dame's autumn ball. Her brother wore the faintest hint of a scowl upon his noble features; he had, perhaps, been obliged to forego some more eligible plan in favour of this evening's entertainment.
'What a delight it shall be, I am sure!' said Lady Fenella, in the peachiest of plummy accents.
'A dead bore, I should think,' muttered his lordship in reply.
'Pish,' said Lady Fenella. 'You will be able to ignore at least half of the young ladies, and break the hearts of all the rest. You always enjoy that.'
Lord Bastavere ventured no response, and silence fell. Her ladyship resumed her lazy scrutiny of the countryside, and her dark eyes began to drift shut.
In the ordinary way of things, nobody would be so foolish nor so bold as to interfere with their lord-and-ladyship in any way whatsoever. Such a grand, large carriage may, in the course of ordinary logic, appear as a superb prize to adventurers, low-lifes and other such persons as that, but such had never been the experience of this noble pair. Their vehicles, their beasts, their garments and of course they themselves radiated such imperturbability, such an inflexible determination to carry all before them, that no one had dared cross them in the smallest respect.
Until today. Lady Fenella's reverie was rudely interrupted by a sudden lurch of the carriage as it swerved to one side, two of its wheels leaving the road altogether. After that it came to an abrupt stop, and the sounds of some loud altercation split the evening air.
Lady Fenella thumped her hand upon the roof of the carriage and called, 'Wendle! What has occurred?'
Receiving no response, and finding that the shouting continued unabated, her ladyship stuck her head out of the window of the carriage. She observed immediately that a desperate figure stood in the road not far away. The man was wearing the customary uniform of general depravity: dark colours, generally black, and a hooded cloak which admirably shrouded his features. His attire may, perhaps, be a little shabby, which suggested to her ladyship's keen eye that he was not the most successful of footpads. This impression was borne out by the disreputable condition of the rapier he wielded, though she could not deny that he wielded it with apparent skill. Her poor coachman, Wendle, was held at bay by the vicious weavings of this weapon as its wielder whipped it about in a tolerably threatening manner. Her footman stood at a little distance, obviously preparing to rush the swordsman in an attempt to disarm him.
'What is it?' said Lord Bastavere in a bored tone.
'Why, it is a hold-up!' replied his sister in accents of pure delight. 'A real one! Though I think it sadly disappointing. There is not even a pistol, only the shabbiest of rapiers.' She opened the door as she spoke and jumped lightly down into the road, taking all due care to hold the hem of her cerulean silk skirt out of the mud. 'Hallo!' she called, with a cheery smile. 'Goodness, I have never seen a real highwayman before! How very obliging of you to choose our carriage for your exciting adventure.'
The hood-shrouded head turned swiftly in her direction, and the highwayman's movements faltered in an instant of confusion. 'Stay back!' he shouted hoarsely, and in heavily accented Nimdren. 'I will kill your coachmen if anyone approaches me!'
'Of course, of course,' said Lady Fenella soothingly. 'It is our valuables you want, I suppose? Shall you be absolutely obliged to take my gown? It is undoubtedly fine, and would fetch a great price I am sure, but I am so very fond of it.' She stroked the beautiful silk as she spoke, heaved a long sigh and began to unlace the bodice.
This gambit confused her assailant very much, for he stammered one or two unintelligible things and blurted something wholly incomprehensible. This proved opportunity enough; Lord Bastavere, who had crept up upon the hapless highwayman unseen, grabbed him in a rough bearhug and shook him until he dropped his weapon. Wendle hastily retrieved it and took it well out of reach.
'Thank you, my dear,' said Lady Fenella, with the warmest of smiles for her brother. 'I would have been very sorry to part with my gown, I admit. Though to save all of our lives, I would have done it!' This last was added in laudably tragic tones, paired with a brave smile which quivered only the slightest bit.
Lord Bastavere made no reply, busying himself with securing the hands of the highwayman behind him. This appeared to cost him more effort than might be expected, given the tall and powerful frame his lordship enjoyed, and the shorter and undeniably thinner physique of the other. A wrestling match occurred, which Lord Bastavere appeared, incredibly, to be losing.
The reason for this soon became clear. The highwayman's body began to warp in the oddest way, shimmering and flickering in an alarming fashion. His strength appeared to grow by the second, and soon he threw off Lord Bastavere altogether and ran some few steps away.
Moments later, there stood not a man at all but a draykon. The beast was very large indeed, and appeared all the larger when he reared up upon his hind legs, flexing his vast, webbed wings and roaring a challenge at the carriage and all associated with it. His scales were a dark amber colour, a hue which her ladyship could not help finding utterly charming. He bore besides a long snout, vicious-looking teeth and wickedly curved, opalescent claws.
'A shapeshifter!' cried Lady Fenella delightedly. 'My word! Some say one meets with them everywhere these days, but I did not previously believe it to be true.'
The draykon roared again, and showed himself to be tiresomely determined to charge the carriage. This notion did not appeal very much to her ladyship. With a short sigh, she removed a compact voice-box from a pocket of her voluminous gown and spoke into it.
'Teyo, we're going to need you,' she said crisply in the Irbellian tongue. 'Be suitably terrifying.'
She put the voice-box away once more, and smiled calmly at the draykon. The creature was certainly enjoying his triumph: he amused himself with a bit more thrashing and roaring, flapping his sail-like wings in a manner he no doubt considered to be extremely alarming. In fact, it was rather alarming. If he chose to attack the carriage, considerable damage would no doubt follow. But he did not, which both relieved and puzzled her ladyship.
Lady Fenella and her brother stood side-by-side, watching. After perhaps a minute, Lady Fenella removed an attractive, bejewelled timepiece from another pocket and glanced at it.
'What could possibly be keeping him?' she murmured.
'There he is,' replied his lordship, with a nod at the road behind them.
Another draykon came soaring down it, wings spread wide and mouth open in a shattering roar. This beast was considerably larger than the first, his scales gorgeously carmine in hue and his teeth and claws so very impressive, Fenella always felt agreeably faint on beholding them. The second draykon landed near to the first, the ground shaking with the impact, and screamed so violently at his smaller counterpart that the amber-coloured creature shuddered and transformed at once back into a man.
'I tried,' the man muttered as he held up his hands.
'Thank you, Teyo darling,' said Fenella, with a sweet smile.
The carmine draykon took off once more and soon disappeared into the encroaching darkness, tipping his wings to Fenella as he went.
'How very exciting!' Fenella said, approaching the hapless highwayman with a conciliating smile. 'Poor soul, am I right in thinking that you are sadly short of employment opportunities? I may be able to help you there!'
'Rena!' hissed his lordship incomprehensibly. 'We do not need another one!'
Lady Fenella ignored this magnificently, too occupied in shepherding her fine skirts over the muddy road to pay attention to her brother. 'I cannot stay for the present — a most pressing appointment to attend to, I'm sure you understand — but if you can contrive to remain here for an hour or two, we shall return for you with all possible haste.'
Her quarry merely stared blankly at her, his mouth hanging open a little.
'Quickly, quickly,' said her ladyship, just a little testily. 'I did say I have an appointment, did I not? And you have already sadly delayed us.'
'What kind of opportunity?' said the highwayman at last.
'One which would make the utmost use of your unusual talents,' she replied with a smile. 'Oh, I can always find a use for another shapeshifter. There can be no question about that! It would be of the utmost usefulness. And then there is your talent for disguise. I have seldom seen a woman masquerade more successfully as a man.'
'Wha...' spluttered the dark figure. There was neither hoarseness nor gruffness in that single syllable; it was spoken instead in the unmistakeable high, clear tones of a woman. A fairly young one, most likely. 'How did you know?'
'My dear,' said Lady Fenella grandly, 'You are speaking to an expert.' Her voice, too, had changed; all of its exaggerated plumminess had disappeared, and a mild Irbellian accent had emerged. She made a curtsey of exquisite gracefulness, a single dimple appearing in one cheek with her mischievous smile, and straightened. 'We'll return,' she said. 'I would take you along in the carriage, only I would find that a trifle difficult to explain. The needs of the masquerade must always come first, as I'm sure you know.'
With this pronouncement, her ladyship got back into her spectacular carriage — the paint of which, upon closer inspection, might appear to be a little too shiny, and perhaps rather too new — and waited while her brother regained his seat beside her. She thumped twice upon the roof with a suitably commanding air, and the carriage drove off once more.
'Serena,' said Lord Bastavere. 'What was that about?'
Miss Serena Carterett shrugged. 'I never pass up the chance to recruit, Fabe. Good people are awfully difficult to find when you want them.'
Her brother, Mr. Fabian Carterett, merely sighed and flopped back into his seat. 'Whatever you say,' he replied.
They arrived at the ball later than planned, but since that only emphasised their importance, neither one of the siblings considered it at all to be regretted. In fact, many others had had the same happy thought, and their carriage was obliged to wait in line for some minutes before they could be gracefully ejected from it and welcomed into the house.
Dame Halavere's abode was sumptuous indeed. It bore a suitably symmetrical facade, was several storeys high, and constructed from an excessively attractive (and expensive) silvery-coloured stone. It was sizeable enough to contain twenty bedrooms at the least, and the grounds — though little of them could be seen in the darkness — were extensive. Serena gazed at the whole picture with undisguised covetousness for some moments before she ventured up the several steps to the entrance, her brother solicitously holding her arm.
Dame Halavere herself was stationed near the front of her grand hall, still poised to welcome her guests. She was aged somewhere in her thirties, Serena judged, with handsome features and the pure, snow-white hair that proclaimed her Lokant heritage. She wore it so proudly, in fact, that she had single-handedly overcome some of the wariness — nay, even prejudice — that had greeted the Lokants upon their coming to prominence within the Seven Realms. They were not native to Serena's world, and wielded strange and powerful abilities which bore little resemblance to the sorcerous magics which were familiar, and trusted, within the Seven. The draykoni, likewise, were but newly restored, though they had become steadily more prominent during the last two years. It fell to individuals such as Dame Halavere to overcome the natural cautions of an alarmed people, and since she wielded such fearsome weapons as a beautiful smile, an undeniably handsome cleavage and all the most desirable trappings of wealth, culture and sophistication, she was doing an admirable job of it.
Serena eyed her with some misgivings, watching closely as her hostess greeted those ahead with perfect graciousness and civility. Halavere was a high-ranking member of a new Lokant organisation. Its inevitably wordy name — the Lokant Heritage Investigation and Training Bureau — was typically shorted to the LHITB, or just the LHB. Dame Halavere had received significant training; Serena's sources reported that she was a strong medic, but showed little talent at the art of dominating the minds of others. This latter, of course, was responsible for much of the distrust aimed at the Lokants and their part-blood descendants in the Seven. Indeed, if Dame Halavere were skilled at such an art, she could force Serena to see whatever she wished her to see, concealing truths behind a species of illusion. Then, of course, it would be virtually impossible for Serena to discover anything at all about the questionable activities she strongly suspected Dame Halavere of indulging in.
Serena did not entirely trust her sources. If Halavere had concealed her talents in this area, it was better by far that she should never have reason to distrust Serena and Fabian.
Hence the masquerade. Serena gathered the silly, self-important and vivacious persona of Lady Fenella Chartre around herself, drew herself up to her full (albeit not especially impressive) height and stepped forward in her turn.
'Dame Halavere! Such a delightful ball! I am enjoying myself immensely and I have but just stepped through your doorway.' Serena curtseyed and simpered, as Fabian made his bow.
'Ah, the sumptuous siblings,' said Halavere, with an arch look at Fabian. He did make a very handsome lord, Serena had to admit, especially with that gorgeous blond wig. Ever quick to use every possible advantage, Fabian bestowed upon his hostess a silky smile in response, and held her hand just a little too long.
'You are most welcome, and I hope you will enjoy yourselves,' continued Halavere. With that they were dismissed; Halavere turned to greet the next guests in the line, and Serena and Fabian were free to wander into the rest of the house.
The ballroom was gloriously lit up with floating lanterns, and decked with wondrous flowers in hues of indigo, cream and gold. Strains of beautiful music drifted forth, and the air was filled with the delicious fragrances of flowers and edible delicacies. Serena could not repress her delighted smile as they entered, her gaze wandering from the many guests whirling about the floor, to the stunningly decorated walls and the vast bowls full of colourful punch standing on tables along one side of the room.
'Remember, we are not here to dance,' whispered Fabian, her delight evincing only a disapproving frown in response.
'But we must dance a little!' she whispered back. 'How very odd it will appear for us to attend a ball without dancing! We do have parts to play.'
'One dance, and you may dance with me,' Fabian conceded, and immediately led her onto the floor. The orchestra was playing a mellifluous waltz at that moment, which suited Serena perfectly. Her natural tastes for music, light, colour and liveliness led her to exult in all events of this kind, and ensured that Lady Fenella Chartre was one of her favourites of all the roles she played in the course of her duties.
She was, in truth, an agent of an investigative bureau in Irbel. Their organisation bore strong links to the government of her home realm, but was largely independent and funded by private individuals. Their acknowledged purpose was to oppose crime in all its forms, but its focus was upon organised crime, and upon one group in particular: the largest, most extensive and most ruthless of all the criminal organisations of the Seven.
They called themselves the Yllandu, which meant "Unspoken" in Ullarni. Serena supposed it was intended as a reference to the extreme secrecy of the organisation itself, and all of its activities. The name sounded absurd to her; she and her band tended to call them the Unspeakables instead, which amused them all greatly. But the Yllandu were no laughing matter. The organisation was vast, spanning all of the Realms except for desolate Orlind, and there was no low to which they would not stoop.
More worryingly, they had adopted the new Lokant and draykoni descendants with enthusiasm and had been attempting to recruit all of those who showed even the least skill in any related area. It had been whispered that they had even attempted to sway the founder of the LHB, Lady Evastany Glostrum herself, though of course her ladyship had proved impervious.
Dame Halavere probably had not. Her name had come up repeatedly in connection with several recent crimes, and though they were but rumours, Serena's superiors had judged it best to investigate. Word had reached them of a meeting that was to take place tonight, under cover of Halavere's grand ball. The topic under discussion was to be a new job — and not just any job. This job was extremely important, enormously lucrative, and to be entrusted only to the most talented, most loyal, and most reliable of the Unspeakables.
Unfortunately, nobody had any idea what the job was. It fell to Serena and Fabian to keep Halavere under close observation tonight, and attempt to overhear whatever was said at that meeting. There were only a few obstacles in their way: namely the presence of approximately two hundred other guests, the necessity of concealing themselves and their true purpose from their hostess, and the minor complication that they had no idea who Halavere might be meeting. Or whether she would even risk attending that meeting in person.
Fortunately, the Carteretts had one or two other colleagues stationed around the house tonight.