The climactic concluding novel in the spellbinding magical contemporary fantasy Aetherial Tales trilogy
A painting, depicting haunting scenes of a ruined palace and a scarlet-haired goddess in front of a fiery city, arrives unheralded in an art gallery with a cryptic note saying, "The world needs to see this." The painting begins to change the lives of the woman who is the gallery's curator and that of an ancient man of the fey Aetherial folk who has mysteriously risen from the depths of the ocean. Neither human nor fairy knows how they are connected, but when the painting is stolen, both are compelled to discover the meaning behind the painting and the key it holds to their future.
In Grail of the Summer Stars, a haunting, powerful tale of two worlds and those caught between, Freda Warrington weaves an exciting story of suspense, adventure and danger that fulfills the promise of the Aetherial Tales as only she can.
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FREDA WARRINGTON, who was born in and lives in Leicestershire, England, is the author of twenty novels. This is her third Aetherial Tales novel, her first series to be published in the United States. The first, Elfland, was named Best Fantasy of the Year by RT Book Reviews.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Even when the machines were silent, Stevie could still hear them. Ghosts thronged the empty factory: women in long dark skirts and men in overalls, busy in the dusty gloom. Their work clothes had no pockets or cuffs to trap even a speck of gold dust. The workers mouthed soundlessly at each other, lip-reading over the whir of lathes and the steady thump of presses … she wondered at the long hours, the sweaty heat, their overcrowded backstreet homes with shared toilets in outhouses, and no running water …
Stevie shook her head, pushing the ghosts away. Overactive imagination. She “saw things” so readily that doctors had diagnosed visual migraine, or even some odd form of epilepsy. She wasn’t the only member of staff to sense presences, but her visions often went to extremes.
A pounding noise broke her trance.
“Stevie, are you there? Someone can’t read the ‘Closed’ sign.”
“Okay, Fin, I’ll get it.”
The old jewelry firm, Soames & Salter, was a museum now. Over thirty years ago, the owners had retired. Unable to sell the unmodernized business, they’d simply locked the doors and walked away, leaving a time capsule of work methods that had barely changed from 1880 to 1980. Tools had been left strewn on benches, dirty teacups abandoned … this sense of sudden desertion was so carefully preserved by the curators that it made visitors shiver.
Stevie made a last check that all lights and machinery were switched off, then closed the door on the old factory and hurried through the museum gift shop.
The person banging on the entrance door was not a late visitor, but a wet and fed-up-looking delivery driver, his van parked crookedly against rush-hour traffic.
He presented a large packing crate, addressed to Stevie Silverwood, Museum of Metalwork, Hockley, Birmingham. As she helped him drag the case inside, he muttered apologies for the delay, blaming “problems at the depot” over the weekend, and that they’d tried to deliver the previous day only to find the museum closed.
“Yes, we’re shut on Mondays,” said Stevie. “It doesn’t matter, I wasn’t expecting a parcel in the first place.”
She signed his electronic notepad, said her thanks—receiving a curt “Orright, pet” in return—and relocked the door behind him. A note stapled to the crate was close to falling off. Stevie detached the scrap and frowned at it.
The world needs to see this, stated the scribbled handwriting.
“Oh, really?” she said aloud. “Is the world ready for it, whatever it is?”
Outside, streetlamps splashed the rainy grey dusk. Stevie watched the van pulling away into the sluggish traffic along Vyse Street. Although she’d turned off the main lights before he arrived, a parade of car headlights flashed over display cases full of jewelry, glinting on shelves stacked with local history books and souvenirs. Enough light to read by.
Please exhibit for me. Sorry can’t explain. D.
“Who was that?” Fin, her assistant, called from a back room that served as an office-cum-kitchen. Stevie could hear the soft rattle of computer keys.
“Grumpy courier with a parcel,” she called back.
“Didn’t know we were expecting a delivery.”
The crate stood waist-high, heavy but manageable. She laid it flat, grabbed a screwdriver from a drawer behind the counter and set to work. Removing the screws and prizing off the wooden lid took only a minute. Inside she found a thick sandwich of bubble wrap, apparently protecting a canvas of some kind. She sat back on her heels, puzzled.
“Surely I didn’t arrange an exhibition and simply forget about it?” Raising her voice, she called, “Fin, is there anything in the diary?”
“Someone’s sent us artwork, I think.”
The sender had sealed the package in overzealous haste, as if to make unwrapping it as frustrating as possible. Stevie took scissors to the job. A sea of bubble wrap mounted around her as she pulled off layer after layer.
“Who’s the artist?” said Fin, emerging from the office.
In her heart, Stevie knew, but she needed to be certain. “See if you can find the documentation.”
Fin inspected the crate and freed a label from a see-through sleeve. “Sent five days ago from a place called ‘the Jellybean Factory.’ North London postcode … Does that ring a bell?”
Stevie frowned. “Oh, yes, it’s familiar. So’s the handwriting.”
“If someone’s sent them on spec, that’s naughty. It is normal etiquette to ask first.”
“Unless I agreed to something that’s slipped my mind. Am I going nuts?”
“I reserve my right not to answer that,” said Fin, pushing her reading glasses into her curly brown hair.
Stevie pulled a face at her. She liked Fin, who was energetic, blunt and good-hearted. They made a good team. “Seriously. We didn’t, did we?”
The annex housing the gift shop, café and further galleries had been refurbished in sleek modern style, in contrast to the factory. A large open arch led into a second room that they used as exhibition space. A clockmaker’s bench occupied one corner. Fin glanced in and said, “There’s not much spare wall area, and we’ve got the needlework guild next month … Any clues?”
“There’s a note.”
Fin took the scrap, dropping her glasses back onto her nose. “‘ The world needs to see this’?” She raised an eyebrow. “Modest. What was the artist thinking? ‘Hmm, shall I submit my masterpiece to a famous institution in London or New York? No, I’ve a better idea—I’ll send it to an obscure gallery in the outskirts of Birmingham.’ Mysterious.”
“Hey, not so obscure! We didn’t win a ‘best small museum’ award for nothing, you know. We’re world-famous.”
“Okay, but still … Who’s D?”
Stevie didn’t answer. As the last pieces of wrapping and protective paper floated away, she rose to her feet with the object between her hands. The weight was unexpected. It was not canvas after all, but a wooden panel shaped like a Gothic arch, covered by two hinged flaps.
Stevie carried the panel to the counter and spread the side leaves at angles so that the structure stood up on its own. She felt a thrill of magic in opening the panel to reveal the artwork inside, like a child with an Advent calendar window.
She saw a vibrant wash of orange and red, lots of bright gold leaf reminiscent of a Byzantine icon, a pair of fiery female eyes staring at her … In the gloom, the effect was luminous.
“Wow,” said Fin behind her. “This is your brain on drugs!”
The central image showed a goddess-like figure in a mountainous red desert. In the foreground lay a tumble of stonework: a fallen temple? The female, stepping from behind the stump of a column, had auburn hair swirling around a pale golden face with glaring eyes. A face or a mask? Her complexion had the sheen of fur, and strong-boned features more feline than human. A regal, feral cat deity. One hand was holding a crystal sphere up to the heavens, the other pointing at a molten yellow fissure in the earth.
The brushstrokes were so precise and detailed that everything seemed to be in motion, vibrating and rushing around the central figure. There was so much light and energy, it hurt the eyes.
The side panels showed equally enigmatic visions. On the left sat statues of a king and queen, side by side like pharaohs in a ruined palace. On the right, a silver globe emitted a beam of light towards the stars. In the background stood a priest-like figure with a severe expression.
Stevie was silent, wondering.
“The artist’s gone a bit crazy with the gold and silver leaf, hasn’t he?” said Fin. “I need sunglasses. The way he’s caught the light is amazing, but it looks like everything’s vibrating. I wouldn’t want it on my wall, would you? Imagine confronting that, with a hangover.” She bent closer. “I can’t read the signature.”
“I can. I know the artist.” Stevie gave a soft laugh. “I went to college with him. Danifold.” A strange shiver went through her. “Well, bloody hell.”
“Daniel Manifold,” said Stevie. “We used to call him ‘Danifold.’ I’d know his work anywhere. He was obsessed by Byzantine religious icons and that was his thing, adapting those methods to his own ideas. He was always arguing with his lecturers, who frowned on his non-modern style, but he stuck to his guns. This is amazing.”
“What’s it supposed to be, though? It’s all sort of … wrong. It doesn’t look like any religious subject I’ve ever seen.”
“No,” said Stevie. “He took the style and played with it. Dreams, folklore, myths … whatever came into his head, I suppose.”
“He sounds very creative.”
“You could say that. Passionate. Driven.”
“So, have you been in touch with him lately?”
“No, hardly at all since we left college.” She smiled wistfully. “Since he’s working in London, why would he send stuff to me? It doesn’t make sense.”
Fin began to pick up discarded wrapping, only to stop with a panicked glance at the clock. “Damn, look at the time! I have to collect the kids from the minder. I’ve counted the cash, locked it in the safe and put the figures on your desk. Everything’s d...
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