Sunday, June 6, 2021

Book Excerpt: Lying with Lions by Annabel Fielding

Title: Lying with Lions
Publication Date: June 20th 2021
Print Length: 233 pages
Genre: LGBT Historical Fiction
Edwardian England. Agnes Ashford knows that her duty is threefold: she needs to work on cataloguing the archive of the titled Bryant family, she needs to keep the wounds of her past tightly under wraps, and she needs to be quietly grateful to her employers for taking her up in her hour of need. However, a dark secret she uncovers due to her work thrusts her into the Bryants’ brilliant orbit - and into the clutch of their ambitions.

They are prepared to take the new century head-on and fight for their preeminent position and political survival tooth and nail - and not just to the first blood. With a mix of loyalty, competence, and well-judged silence Agnes rises to the position of a right-hand woman to the family matriarch - the cunning and glamorous Lady Helen. But Lady Helen's plans to hold on to power through her son are as bold as they are cynical, and one day Agnes is going to face an impossible choice...

Searching the rooms located deeper in the tunnels feels like wandering the clogged arteries of some diseased, confused brain. It is a burial ground of lives and passions, without system or purpose, both of the man who created it and the heirs who came in his wake. They treated these tunnels, these chambers, as that dark closet in the back of one’s mind where one shoves the thoughts he doesn’t want to deal with.

Agnes opens a door, and is almost blinded by a blaze of golden ingots piled carelessly on the floor - until she crouches down and sees them to be a once-neat collection of bronze plaques transmuted into gold by the candlelight. Gingerly, she lifts the lid of a heavy jewelry box, all brass and mahogany, the fulsome solidity of a bygone age, and blinks upon seeing rounded, milky-pale shapes within. She touches them, expecting cold, but instead they roll into her fingers lightly. She lifts them to light.

Birds’ eggs. His late Grace was collecting birds’ eggs.

She shudders involuntarily upon imagining the rot and mould beneath this fragile, fair surface, and puts them back as neatly as she can.

There are further discoveries. A collection of letters belonging to the years when the now-late Queen was still a child playing with her dolls. A fruit bowl, fine and floridly painted, containing what Agnes, at a closer inspection, realizes to be fragments of bones, and recalls His Grace mentioning his grandfather’s excavations at the ruins of a local abbey.

She thinks that the remains of medieval monks are sure to push her capability for surprise beyond the brink. Then she lifts the lid of another box – faint and modern, once probably used for delivery, but made softer with years – and sees a human face staring at her from the depths.

Her heart jumps to her throat, her blood turns to acid from the fright that shames her. It takes several breaths for Agnes to regain her usual composure, to see that the entity in the box is in fact nothing more than a plaster cast.

Agnes looks closer. She is no judge of such things, but the cast seems to be made very finely, from the soft plumpness of the cheeks to the curl of hair on the model’s brow. Its deathly whiteness extinguishes that of any other object in the room, whether made of porcelain or of paper; it seems to glow, like a statue underwater.

This is why Agnes doesn’t notice at first the little note lying in the box just beside it.

The paper is tinted yellow with time, but only insomuch as her favorite books at home tended to be yellow; she read them slowly, and reread them often. Every hour spent reading was, after all, an hour stolen from doing something tangible and useful, and she rationed them carefully, nibbling lines off as carefully as if she were a prudent mouse in a larder.

The ink in the note has, likewise, faded only slightly.

Take it away’, the first line read, the letters large as if silently screaming. ‘Put it away. My darling boy - starved to death in a house with full larders. That’s not him. It’s eerie. Put it away’.

Blood drains from Agnes’ face as she looks at the small, white likeness with new eyes – at its wonderful vividness, its lifelike shadowed lines. It is not a cast for some glorious statue made for a living model, she realizes. It is a death mask.

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