Set in an alternate version of early 1900s England, Copperhead is the sequel to Tina Connolly's stunning historical fantasy debut.
Helen Huntingdon is beautiful―so beautiful she has to wear an iron mask.
Six months ago her sister Jane uncovered a fey plot to take over the city. Too late for Helen, who opted for fey beauty in her face―and now has to cover her face with iron so she won't be taken over, her personality erased by the bodiless fey.
Not that Helen would mind that some days. Stuck in a marriage with the wealthy and controlling Alistair, she lives at the edges of her life, secretly helping Jane remove the dangerous fey beauty from the wealthy society women who paid for it. But when the chancy procedure turns deadly, Jane goes missing―and is implicated in a murder.
Meanwhile, Alistair's influential clique Copperhead―whose emblem is the poisonous copperhead hydra―is out to restore humans to their "rightful" place, even to the point of destroying the dwarvven who have always been allies.
Helen is determined to find her missing sister, as well as continue the good fight against the fey. But when that pits her against her own husband―and when she meets an enigmatic young revolutionary―she's pushed to discover how far she'll bend society's rules to do what's right. It may be more than her beauty at stake. It may be her honor...and her heart.
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TINA CONNOLLY lives with her family in Portland, Oregon, in a house that came with a dragon in the basement and blackberry vines in the attic. Her stories have appeared all over, including in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She is a frequent reader for Podcastle, and narrates the Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake. In the summer she works as a face painter, which means a glitter-filled house is an occupational hazard.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A HOUSE OF HYDRA
The door was grey, ash and soot and smog grey, the grey of a city choked on its own failure. The full iron mask, padded though it was, was ice-cold in the frigid November night. Helen slipped one lilac-gloved finger under the chin of the mask and angled it so she could better see out of the eyeholes. Yes. Even here at the Grimsbys’, the stoop and sidewalk and bushes were blanketed with misty shreds of blue.
Bits of the fey.
With one hand Helen found her sister Jane, standing just behind her. With the other she reached for the copper doorknocker, then stopped as her fingers closed on the rapping bit—the coiled tail of a seven-headed copperhead hydra. The emblem of the Copperhead Society was spreading faster and faster these days, almost as fast as the blue bits of fey that lay quiescent throughout the city.
But Mr. Grimsby was the leader of Copperhead. It was his house, his meeting. And her husband, Alistair, would want to take the lead.
Helen’s fingers fell away and she stood there in the frosty air, ice crystals on her breath and Jane’s cold fingers squeezed in the grip of her gloved hand. Two patient women. Protected. Waiting. Helen turned to Jane and with frost in her breath mouthed, "Soon."
Jane nodded. Unlike Helen, her face was bare—and yet not, for she had thin iron strips embedded in her skin that outlined her perfect, inhuman features. The strips ringed her eyes, followed the curve of her cheekbone, ran along her jawline—an eerie but not ugly effect, especially when contrasted with the perfection of her face. Those iron strips, Helen’s iron mask—all to protect the two women from the deadly fey. Jane’s green eyes glittered in the cold and Helen suddenly thought of all she could do, would do, to help the vulnerable women like herself, to help Jane. Helen would redeem herself yet.
"Hurry, hurry, girls," said a refined voice behind them. Alistair Huntingdon squeezed between the two sisters to bang imperiously on the doorknocker. "This is the most dangerous part of the trip, Helen. You must hurry inside."
I have my iron mask on, Helen thought rebelliously, but all she said was, "Of course, darling."
Alistair pointed one yellow-gloved finger at a patch of blue coiled on the front lawn, a handsbreadth from the iron railing that would be poison to it. "I say, is that one moving? I swear I saw it move."
Helen’s nerves twitched as he pointed, but she willed herself to stay calm. The blue bits of fey coated the city these days, covered everything not iron. She had even seen a motorcar with blue mist clinging to its rubber tires. But the bits of fey were mostly silent, mostly still.
Luckily the door was opened then by a man who looked more brawn than butler, who muttered through the ritual "An’ ye be human, enter," and then with a hefty white-gloved hand brought them forcefully over the iron threshold and inside.
The air was warm. It would be close before the night was out, Helen thought, stuck in that room full of hot tempers and single-minded men. Or was it that her nerves were busy jangling, now that they were here, now that she needed to convince Jane of what they were to do tonight … and under whose noses?
A homely maid took their wraps. With relief, Helen reached to unbuckle her iron mask, but her husband stopped her. "Could be dangerous."
"Security seems tight enough," said Helen. "Besides, do you really think this house—of all houses—isn’t fully iron-barred at each door, every window? The fey can’t cross that without invitation. Jane and I will be safe."
"I would trust Grimsby with my life," said Alistair immediately.
"Good," said Helen, reaching again for the buckles.
"But not yours. Consider, my pet. Remember that a fey almost took you over before. No, I’m not risking that again."
"Seems like if you paid for this face you ought to let people see it," said Helen, or rather, she didn’t say it as she knew it would be just one teensy remark too far. No point in letting her wretched tongue ruin all of her evening’s plans over the urge to get a dig in, especially when his face was already going white around the nostrils. She pulled back into delightful, chattering Helen, and said, "I understand you’re looking out for me, Alistair dear! Very sensible of you and of course I shall obey. It did occur to me though—one teensy little thought—if I were to go unmasked, then I would be the most beautiful woman in the room. All the other women with fey faces like mine will be too afraid to go unmasked. But I could be so charming that I win everyone over—to your cause, of course. For your goals."
A covetous spark leapt to Alistair’s eye. "Perhaps there is merit in what you say. As you say, Grimsby’s house is surely the safest in town. He hates the blue scum even more than I do, if possible."
"Excellent," said Helen, and unbuckled her mask and handed it to the homely maid before her husband could rescind his permission. "Now, Jane, if you’re finished, let’s go to the powder room and smooth our hair after those mussing buckles, shall we?" She flashed her brilliant smile around the room.
Helen took Jane’s arm and whisked them away into a small powder room. Helen had been to the Grimsbys’ once before, in the short halcyon time between marrying Alistair Huntingdon seven months ago but before the blue fey appeared in the city, and Copperhead rose up along with it. Well, those days hadn’t been entirely perfect, but they seemed so now. This house had been hung with tiny yellow lights—the new electricity coming into vogue. Before the Great War, relations had been amicable, if distant, with the rarely seen fey, and a steady trade of fey technology had kept humans supplied with clean energy—"bluepacks" that ran all the lights and cars and trolleys. But eight years ago the fey attacked. The Great War started between the two races, and trade stopped, leaving humans bereft of all their borrowed technology. Humans had struggled to pull society back from collapse, while fighting the forest-dwelling fey—an enemy of blue mist that could emulate humans—or worse, animate their dead bodies. The war dragged on for nearly four years, then abruptly the fey disappeared. Slowly people dared hope they were gone for good—slowly hope and laughter and silk stockings returned to the city. That dance seven months ago had been lovely and perfect, one of those few evenings when Helen had felt as though she fit in with her new, rarefied society. She had worn a slinky green velvet dress and coppery T-strap shoes, her red-gold hair all over curls. And she had been pretty. Plain pretty, not inhumanly perfect …
Helen came back to reality with a sigh and turned away from the mirror. "Now, Jane," she said. "Tell me who you need to meet tonight. The most important candidate is Millicent Grimsby, but so many women of The Hundred will be here with their husbands. You should be able to meet a fair number of them." Her tongue beat with the urge to say what Jane needed to do with Millicent, but she held it. Millicent’s safety was riding on her. She could not tip their hand too soon, even to Jane. The less Jane knew till the last second, the less she could give away in a glance, a look, a misplaced word at the end of a sentence. Oh, when she thought of that horrible Mr. Grimsby … Helen told her racing heartbeat to still, but her heart never obeyed her.
Jane looked at her sister from under level black brows. "Does he always order you around like that?"
Helen blinked and with an effort brought her worries and plans back to the present, ran through the past few moments since disembarking from the motorcar and entering the Grimsbys’. She smiled, ordering it to reach her eyes. "Now, Jane, don’t you concern yourself with darling Alistair." She turned back to the mirror for something to do, smoothed copper-blond curls around her inhumanly perfect face. "All of The Hundred of us are in danger. Isn’t it good that he’s concerned?"
"Well," said Jane.
"Besides, you saw how well I handled him. Everything is tout à fait."
"You did, and I’m impressed," said Jane. "You always were good at smoothing ruffled feathers. But about Alistair—"
Helen whirled back. "Tell me whom you need to meet," she cut in, because she could see Jane was gearing up for another of her dreary arguments about feminine inequality, and when stubborn Jane met stubborn Helen, the battle could last all night. Jane did not understand about necessary compromises. "Do you have a list of The Hundred or something?"
"I do," said Jane. "But I don’t think that will be necessary."
She pointed over Helen’s shoulder, and Helen turned and looked into the large room. Heartache throbbed, remembering it as she had last seen it, the ballroom, the music, dancing so light on her toes in time, in time, in time.…
Focus, Helen. It is a bare sober room now, with dark dresses and long hard benches. No rumbas, no foxtrots, and if the occasional sharp laugh escapes into the close air it is because these women will not be completely contained by fear. Focus, Helen—until she saw what Jane meant.
At least half of the seated women were wearing iron masks.
"All right then," said Helen.
"That’s a third of them right there," breathed Jane. The two sisters stood, looking at the cold iron masks dotting the room.
Over the last several years, a hundred of the richest women—and a few men—had secretly had their faces worked on by one Edward Rochart, an enigmatic artist who was now Jane’s fiancé. Every woman had come back a dazzling version of herself—and in most cases the changes were even deniable, put down to a "restorative holiday" in the countryside.
But the idyll had turned sour—Jane had discovered six months ago that the "fey beauty" of The Hundred was exactly that. They had each had their old face replaced by a mask—a mask made of the dangerous fey themselves.
And anyone who had fey attached to their bodies was at risk of being taken over by the fey. That was the secret to how the fey had animated dead bodies during the war—they had killed humans with bombs that coated the victim with their own fey substance—little bits of themselves. Then they could move in. But dead bodies only lasted so long. The Fey Queen had figured out how to use Rochart to get these women to coat themselves in fey voluntarily—an unwitting accomplice to a plan to take over the city from the inside, fey slipping into highly placed women and erasing their personalities completely.
It had even happened to Helen. Only Jane’s quick application of an iron spike into her arm had killed the fey and saved her. Helen shuddered, remembering the moment. The whole fey slipping into Helen through the bit of fey on her face, crackling through her thoughts, erasing. Telling Helen things would be so much better if she simply didn’t exist, and Helen, feeling that that might be true …
"I just don’t understand why I’m getting so much resistance," said Jane. Jane was on a mission to make each of The Hundred safer by returning their original human faces to them. But she was not making as much headway as she had hoped.
"Because once you have been the most beautiful woman in the room, it’s impossible to give up," Helen said.
"It’s pathetic to be so focused on appearance," said Jane sharply. Jane’s face had been scarred for so long due to fey shrapnel from the Great War that she came at this from a different angle, Helen thought. Jane had just wanted to be normal. But everyone else had always been normal. And now they had a chance to be extraordinary.
"It’s not pathetic at all," Helen said softly. "Just think about the power you hold. You have always been just another face. And now everyone turns to you, asks your opinion. Those men who run your lives—suddenly they will do anything for you, if you favor them with a look. There is a touch of fey glamour at your command, yes, but more, there is just the fact that suddenly everyone thinks you are somebody. You are worth something."
"And that’s enough to set against cold hard facts?" said Jane. "The cold hard fact that if you go outside without your iron mask, a fey could take you over and you’d be gone like that?" She snapped her fingers.
"What cold hard facts?" returned Helen. "How many people were in that ballroom when it happened to me? Only a handful of people saw it actually happen—and look, here I am, right as rain and twice as sparkling. It’s much easier to pretend that the danger isn’t as real as you say it is. Especially when their option is their old face back." She took a breath before the slightly pointed jab, but she needed Jane to see how much she was in need of Helen’s help. "Besides, you probably wave their old face around in front of them when you try to convince them. Hard to be thrilled by the idea when you’re looking at your nasty old face, stretched and hideous from drying on the wall."
"Give me some credit," said Jane.
Helen raised her eyebrows.
"Well. Maybe once," said Jane. "But I’ve learned since then. And I’ve learned how to reverse the sags and stretch marks during the facelift procedure."
"But they’ll never be beautiful again," said Helen.
"No," Jane admitted. "There is that."
It was almost time to tell Jane her plan. The first part of her plan. But how would Jane take it? Jane was so self-sufficient, and she was not used to thinking of her younger sister as helpful.
"So tell me which one is Millicent Grimsby," Jane said. "I can’t tell one masked woman from the next."
Despite the worry in the air, Helen laughed, and pulled her sister out into the crowd of dark suits and gowns. You still saw women around town in the popular sherbet hues, but tonight they were in darker colors: navy, black. Yet the women had not sacrificed any more than color. Gowns were still bias-cut and clingy. Sheer stockings, still dear due to the factory problems since the Great War, clung sleekly to every calf. Heels were high, adorned with jeweled pins and rounded toes. Hair was curled or waved—earlier in the year it had been longer, but you were seeing bobs more and more, perhaps as a minor rebellion against the tension in the city, the curfews, the iron masks. Helen herself was in deep plum silk charmeuse—she looked washed-out in black—the jacket ornamented with large pearl buttons.
Men were less interesting, sartorially speaking, but tended to be quite conservative still. Suits had become spare and close-fitting at the start of the Great War, and they still looked the same. Women would find ways to rebel against conservative dress, Helen thought, but men seemed fine to continue on indefinitely. Really, the only item of fashion for men that had changed in the last six months was the introduction of those cop...
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