Here’s a first for GavReads – I’m pleased to be hosting an extract of The Glass Republic by Tom Pollock. I was lucky enough to have a chat to Tom for The Readers podcast, where I talked to him about John Le Carré, being a YA writer and, most importantly, dragon eggs.
The Glass Republic is the second part of the The Skyscraper Throne trilogy that was started with The City’s Son. I hope you enjoy.
‘Gwen’s not so bad,’ Pen said, stretching out on the cold concrete floor. ‘At least, not next to the crowd she runs with. They’re . . .’ She groped for the right word.
‘Toxic?’ the girl behind the mirror put in. For reasons of mutual convenience, they’d agreed she was ‘Parva’ rather than ‘Pen’.
‘I honestly think that if Iran stockpiled Gwen Hardy’s friends, the Americans would invade. There’s probably a UN convention just against Trudi Stahl.’
Parva laughed, the sound echoing through the glass. ‘Well, here’s to your new crew—’ The reflected girl rummaged around in her ostrich leather handbag and, to Pen’s astonishment, pulled out a bottle of wine. ‘I hope they make you happy.’
‘You’re drinking now?’
‘Pen,’ Parva said patiently, ‘in the last four months I’ve been kidnapped by a barbed-wire monster, ridden to war at the head of an army of giant scaffolding wolves and rejoined school in the middle of term. There’s only one girl I know who deserves a drink as much as I do, and I’ll happily share.’ She unscrewed the cap and swigged straight from the bottle before offering it to the lips of Pen’s own mortified reflection.
Pen shrank back. ‘But I never—’ she started.
Her double grinned at her through the mirror and said, ‘But I’m not you any more.’
Pen knew that. She’d plied Beth with careful questions, feigning idle interest, and learned as much as she could about the Mirrorstocracy in their city behind the mirrors. The girl on the other side of the glass had come from her – she was composed of all the infinite reflections of her that had been caught between the two mirrors – but that was when their co-existence had ended.
Pen and Parva had diverged from that moment in time like beams of refracted light; now Parva had her own feelings, her own life, built up in the weeks since she’d first stepped into whatever lay outside the bathroom door in the reflection. She drank wine, ate meat and swore like a squaddie with haemorrhoids. Much to Pen’s chagrined envy, she’d even managed to land herself a job, although she wouldn’t say doing what.
But still, she had been Pen: for nearly seventeen years they’d been one. Parva had seen everything Pen had seen, felt everything Pen had felt. It was like having a sister, a bizarre twin – a twin who understood everything. Not even Beth could do that.
‘I want to show you something.’ Parva blew softly over the neck of the bottle and the liquid pipe-sound echoed through both bathrooms. ‘Give me your hand.’ In the mirrored bathroom she extended her hand towards Pen’s reflection.
Pen reached into the empty space in front of her and felt warm, invisible fingers close over her skin.
‘What are you—?’
‘Shhh.’ Parva was digging in her handbag again. She pulled out a phone and earbuds and put one bud into her own ear and the other into the ear of Pen’s reflection.
Pen heard the crackle of an old-fashioned waltz and felt her double’s ghostly hand on the small of her back.
‘Come on,’ Parva said, ‘one–two–three, one–two–three!’
And then they were off, dancing to the creaky music. Pen followed the rhythm uncertainly, her feet stumbling a little, her arms curved around empty air. In the mirror, she saw her expensively dressed double leading her.
‘One–two–three, one–two–three – that’s it.’
Pen felt her arm lifted over her head and she spun under it as Parva whooped. Pen found herself laughing as they pirouetted around the tumbledown toilets like they were a twenties ballroom.
‘Where did you learn this?’
‘One–two–three. It’s the job, they’re teaching me all kinds of things, it’s—’
‘Ow!’ Pen abruptly broke away. She hopped in a circle as pain spiked through her foot.
‘Sorry!’ Parva winced. ‘I’m not used to leading, and, uh . . . the shoes are new, too.’
‘Yeah, I noticed them.’ Pen slid down the bathroom wall and tugged off her trainer and her sock. The impression of Parva’s vertiginous heel had gone all the way through to the skin, but at least there was no blood. ‘You have to go back to Reach to hoist you into them?’
Parva smiled from the mirror. Jokes about the slain Crane King were part of their routine. They felt weirdly daring, disarming the memories of their abduction.
‘I managed by myself,’ she said. ‘Just.’
‘Pretty fancy. Are they from the new job too?’ Pen clutched theatrically at her heart. ‘That’s it: that’s the lethal dose. I am now officially too jealous to live. Fancy new shoes, fancy dancing lessons – at least say your new boss is a slave-driving creep.’
Parva shrugged. ‘Sorry, sis. The new boss is really sweet, actually. Everyone is – well, most of the time.’
‘Most of the time?’
Her mirror-sister frowned. ‘It’s nothing really, just . . . the very top people here – only some of them, mind, and only some of the time – but . . . The way they look at me. I feel like they’re watching me when my back’s turned. Sometimes – sometimes I can’t shake the feeling they mean me harm.’
Pen sighed. That sounded familiar. ‘I reckon, after everything, maybe feeling like that’s normal for us, you know?’
‘I guess.’ Parva chewed her reflected lip. ‘They just look at me funny.’
‘Hate to be the one to break it to you, hon,’ said Pen, ‘but you are toting three-fifths of the western world’s total supply of scar-tissue around on your face.’ She smiled gently. ‘So, are you actually going to tell me what this magic new job is?’
Parva was about to speak when the distant sound of the period bell carried through the window glass.
‘Tell you next time,’ the girl in the mirror said. It was what she always promised, like Scheherazade, keeping back one last story.
Pen pouted and headed for the door. ‘Whatever. Have fun at work.’
Pen paused in the doorway. The lonely note in her double’s voice was stronger now.
‘Chatty,’ Pen said dryly. ‘Supposedly, she’s still living at home, but I don’t think Paul sees her much. Things are okay, but a bit . . .’ She struggled to phrase it. ‘She thinks I—’
‘—blame her,’ Parva finished quietly. ‘You do, a bit. I do. It’ll take time.’
Pen didn’t reply.
‘Listen . . .’ Parva hesitated. ‘Do you think . . . do you think she’d come here? I get why you haven’t told her about me yet, but – well, it would be good to see her, you know?’
Pen imagined leading the silent, grey-skinned girl here; letting her in on this one last secret, and a resentful flare ignited in her throat. She loved B, but this was her sanctuary, her respite from the life she was living because of Beth.
The resentment burnt out fast. She loved B, and so did Parva. And unlike Pen, Parva hadn’t seen their best friend in months. ‘I’ll ask her.’
‘Thank you.’ Parva smiled in relief. ‘What you got now?’
‘English: Richard three.’ Pen mimicked a movie-trailer voice: ‘The hunch is back!’
Parva snorted at the weak pun. ‘With jokes like that, it’s a good thing you’re pretty.’
‘Narcissist,’ Pen countered.
Her double laughed. ‘Get out.’
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