Rogue Magic, the second Magical Empires book.
*This is the new free novel I’m posting here a chapter at a time. This is pre-first-draft, as it comes out. It is a sequel to Witchfinder which will soon be taken down (once edited) and put for sale on Amazon (And at this point I’m hoping that will happen by the beginning of July at the latest). Meanwhile, if you donate $6 or more, I’ll get you a copy of Rogue Magic, once finished and edited, in your favored ebook format. Of course, if you’re already subscribing to the blog at a level at which you get whichever books come out that year, you don’t need to worry. *
Sarah A. Hoyt
The Honorable Earl
When I was very little, I used to have this nightmare where I was locked away in some inaccessible dungeon with a view.
What I mean is, it was some sort of dungeon, and it was very silent and somewhat dark, and I was chained hand and foot to the wall, but through the other wall in front of me I could see my sisters playing and my nanny crying “Master Jonathan,” but I couldn’t reach them.
Even in the dream, I knew something was wrong, because if I were to suddenly vanish and leave my nanny in charge of only the four girls, she wouldn’t cry. More likely she would give thanks fasting. And no one would blame her.
But then as I grew older, I’d come to understand that Nanny would indeed cry, because I was the only male heir, then, before Edward and Reuel were even born. Had I disappeared, the entail on the family title and lands and on Blythe’s Blessings, our all-too-profitable magical business, would have passed to my cousin Eldred. Which meant that Mother and Honoria, Helen, Harmonie, and Hosanna would have been quite destitute and nurse turned out to graze, or whatever it was you did with old servants. So Nanny would have cried, certainly, despite the various frogs in the knitting basket, grass snakes in her bed, and other less savory tricks with which I enlivened my dreary childhood.
I wondered if it was because of those tricks that I was – in a way – condemned to eternity in something very like the dungeon of my nightmares.
“Blythe!” Mamma said, in exactly the same tone she’d used to say “Jonathan!” until three weeks ago, when I’d arranged for Papa’s death and, inevitably, ascended to his dignities.
I blinked and, to my chagrin, became aware of my location which was the breakfast table, across from Mama, who was – in her day – a remarkable beauty, and who remained – I was assured – a very pretty woman, despite her one or two strands of grey, and her less than fresh complexion. Almost as pretty as the girls, and truth, how much older than them could she be. She’d married and had me at twelve, if you were to believe her. Not that she ever said that, precisely, but she claimed to be thirty nine, which would make her nine on the happy day of her marriage to papa. ‘s truth, I thought she’d probably been fifteen or so, so not that far off.
“Blythe!” Mama’s voice had just that nice blend of impatience, command, and a hint that she was terribly, terribly disappointed in me. From the foot of the table she glared at me, then her gaze went sideways to my right, and I looked. And almost dropped my napkin, because one of the footmen was standing there, holding a silver salve, with three letters on it.
I reached over and took the letters – though I’m fairly sure that was not what I was supposed to do, but I could never remember what I was supposed to do. The footman, a tall, not uncomely young man of maybe nineteen straightened up and I said “Er…” because I could never remember the creatures’ names, though Mama assured me that my sainted father never forgot a single one. The sainted must mean he belonged to some very odd religion because according to the dictates of the Christianity practiced in this isles, Papa must now be burning and sizzling in a circle of hell almost as deep as the one I’d someday be consigned to.
“Jon– Blythe!” Mama said, and a shadow of alarm joined the reproach in her voice. I realize I was staring straight ahead which unfortunately meant I was staring at a region of the footman’s anatomy at which no nicely brought up Earl should stare.
I wasn’t nicely brought up. But I also wasn’t interested. I looked up at the footman’s face, which was a shade of red one shouldn’t be able to turn unless one was halfway through becoming a tomato. His name came to me in a flash. He was Thomas, and he was our housekeeper’s son. “Thank you, Thomas. You may go.”
He bowed slightly, still bright red, and turned and went, which, from the purely aesthetic point of view, provided a not-unpleasant view.
Not that I was interested. I wasn’t. Once, when I was very drunk, I’d gone with some choice spirits to this club on Totenham Court Road, where they had boys whom one of my boon companions assured me could do what no girl could.
I suppose that would be correct, insofar as the parts were different, but for my money, give me a well grown wench of twenty or thereabouts, with a compliant disposition and a rounded figure. It would have cost me less of my money too.
Which doesn’t mean a man is either blind or devoid of imagination.
Before Mama could open her mouth – though I could feel her admonition hanging in the air – I turned to the letters, while saying, “Yes, Mama, I know. Blythe. Indeed, your use of the name begins to be tedious.”
I was aware of twin gasps from my left, where Harmonie and Hosanna – whom we called Hanna, because we’d never understood by what freakish lapse mamma had come to pick such a name – sat, and of a smothered giggle from the right, where Helen buttered her toast. Honoria was as dead as Papa, and in as dishonorable circumstances, though I’d managed to scotch that scandal at least. What call a girl had to get herself with child by a dragon, and one who didn’t like women at that, was quite beyond me. But Honoria had always been like papa and, ultimately, unreliable. Which meant it was a good thing she was gone.
I met Helen’s eye with a mildly reproving look, and she looked back at me, all proper, but I swear her eyes laughed. She was the only one in the family who looked like me, with curly dark hair and dark brown eyes, all the rest of the family looking like they’d run in the wash. She might resemble me in other ways. It bore watching.
I looked down from Helen to the letter I’d opened and realized, with a start, that it was from Seraphim Ainsling, Duke of Darkwater, now the royal Witchfinder and Prince Consort, since he’d married the Princess Royale. Who was having more trouble getting used to his dignities than I to mine.
The proof was right in this letter. It started with “Dear Jon” as though we’d still been boys, together, at Eaton – not that he’d ever called me dear, then. No one did. Until the age of twenty I’d thought my name was Jon, No! – and proceeded just as informally with, “There is a problem for which I’m very afraid I will need your help. Without it, the whole world could be lost. Please come see me as soon as you may after twelve” It was signed Seraphim A. and he’d not even bothered to use his signet ring.
I sighed forlornly. First, one is supposed to conform to his dignities, not to toss them aside and ignore one’s own importance. And second, I must be slipping if Seraphim knew I’d be awake shortly after twelve. I wondered what half of London would say if they knew I was awake at nine. How very unfashionable. I’d be quite disgraced.
I set aside the letter, met the eyes of my elder surviving sister, who, from the smile twitching the corners of her lips, seemed to know far too well what was going on in my mind. For a second I tried to remember how old she was. Seventeen? Eighteen? Old enough, at any rate, and I must find some unwary unfortunate to foist her upon in holy – or at least legal – matrimony.
“Helen!” Mama said, disapproval, asperity and a sort of despairing sigh mingling in her voice.
Well, it was neither Jonathan! nor Blythe at any rate. Just like when Nanny suspected the nursery maid, and not me, of having put salt in her tea, it was a relief.
I opened the next letter, noting the cheap paper and the clumsy handwriting of a man who is not used to plying a pen for a living. After opening the twice recrossed page, I looked down to find the signature of Wolfe Merrit.
I frowned at the handwriting, trying to make it out. Even uncrossed, Wolfe was hard to read. A good practical magician, and he kept Blythe’s Blessings and our various magically powered manufactures going as I couldn’t, but his father had been a farner, and it always seemed he’d be more at home with a plow then a pen.
By dint of glaring at the page, I made out the words corruption and magic, and something about one of our factories in the North being in dire trouble.
Well, that would need to be dealt with, and before Seraphim’s demmed noon appointment. Without the factories, I would lack the money to dower Helen, not to mention the money to dower Harmonie. And though I had the vague idea that Hanna should still be in the schoolroom, I also had a feeling she was out already and likely would need a dowry.
I was lucky enough that neither the king nor any of the persons injured had forced me to make restitution on Father’s ill gotten gains, but I could not now let the modicum of wealth we’d managed to wrest from ruing fall between my fingers. My sisters – and my brothers’ too – must be provided for. Yes, I must see Wolfe, confound him.
Helen let out a breath, with the sound of having held it long, and I looked up at her, as I set the letter aside. What was she looking so peeky for?
But she looked away from me, as I picked up the third letter, and that was all very well. I’d have to find out what was going through her head – hopefully not a dragon! – but that would wait till another time.
The letter in my hand was also cheap paper, but it was addressed in an unmistakably female hand and if I had any experience of it – and I did – a well-bred female hand. It had no name of origination. But the beautifully shaped, not at all vulgar handwriting put paid to the notion that it might be from my latest cher amie, who could barely hold a pen. I must remember to give her her conge. It didn’t do for the Earl of Blythe to keep a flirtation that had done quite well for Jonathan who very much hoped not to inherit the title.
I frowned down at the paper, registering that the letter was very short, that it started with Dear Sir, and that the signature was blotched with tears. The last was an unusual enough circumstance, but the text was even more peculiar. “Dear Sir,” it read. “I have understood that you’ve been endeavoring to find me. You must not. Oh, you must not. And you must forgive me the injury I’ve done you. Indeed, when you discover it, you must keep in mind that it was no fault of my own, and all of my circumstances. Please do not think badly of me. Indeed, you must believe me when I say if circumstances were different—”
This was where the blotching started, which extended all the way to the signature.
The strange thing about it was that the letter did not put me off, and I have the greatest dislike of females abuse indeed and who act as watering pots. I mean, once they’ve given in to your advances, what use is crying? And if they haven’t, it’s easily remedied.
But there was to this letter the feeling of a personality, the sense of a woman nearing the breaking point.
And besides, I had been looking for a woman, since that night when I’d ascended to poor Papa’s dignities, after his untimely suicide.
That night, in a not totally unrelated phenomenon, London had swarmed with demons, and while fighting them, I’d met—
Her image rose up before me: red hair, an impudent little face, and the sort of figure I would pay my money for. Only she was not the type who takes money.
She’d told me her name was Ginevra Elfborne, and she’d dressed like a governess. But she’d fought like a warrior for her gaggle of screaming debutants. And she’d disappeared like a lovely dream in the summer heat.
I’m not the type to pine for a bit of skirt, nor indeed for anyone. But I’d not been able to forget Ginevra nor to find her. My polite enquiries had said such a person had never been heard of, by the family she supposedly worked for. My respectable enquiry agents had come back empty handed. And my not so respectable agents had been bewildered and assure me no such woman existed nor had ever existed.
My eyes fell on that line, before the tears blotted her writing: Indeed, you must believe me when I say if circumstances were different—
I was sure the first three letters of the tear-soaked signature were G I N.
There are things you can do to a letter that will tell you where the writer is right then. Particularly a letter infused with tears, as this one was. Nothing a respectable magician will do, of course, but fortunately I was not a respectable magician.
“Blythe!” Mama’s voice said. “Your kidneys!”
Since this referred to my breakfast and not my body, I chose to ignore it. I wasn’t hungry at all. I must get to my office. I had a spell to perform.
And then maybe I’d find the little red-headed imp I couldn’t forget.
Miss Helen Blythe, Sister of the Earl of Savage:
The moment Jonathan left the table, Mother turned to me. I have no idea what set her off. Perhaps it was my look after my brother’s departing form, which was probably both worried because I know very well what Jon is capable of, and wishful because I’ve long wished I’d been a man. If I were a man, I could have moved beyond the circle of good behavior; beyond the circle of what Mama expected from me. If I’d been a man—
“How we’re going to get you married off, when you insist on these distempered freaks, I don’t know, my dear, but you must strive to control them.”
I didn’t know what Mama considered a distempered freak, or even what she’d said beyond those words. I’d heard those words, only. I knew they were addressed to me, because my sisters are good girls and never have distempered freaks. Heaven knows how they manage it. The first answer that ran through my mind was “Oh, do not worry, mama. I don’t want a man. I want to run away and become a pirate Queen.”
I realized I’d said the words aloud, as Mama’s mouth dropped open and her eyes threatened to pop out of her head. Hanna, always the good sister, yelled out, “Mama, mama, she didn’t mean it, she was only funning.”
Only I wasn’t funning. Or not exactly.
The problem with these daydreams I’d had since childhood, and the answers I thought to Mama but never actually said aloud, was that I suspected eventually I would start saying them aloud. Apparently, for my sins, that day had come, and no wonder, what with my perfect older sister having an affair all along, and being pregnant by someone not her fiancé and then dying a month after the birth.
Yes, I know what you heard: about how Honoria had been secretly engaged to the illegimate son – and now heir – of the Earl of Sidell, who had been unjustly accused of necromancy and therefore was in hiding. How there was a secret marriage and how then – fortuitously – his father’s death allowed them to announce it.
The truth is far more interesting, involving forbidden love and madness and an illegitimate baby who will forever be known as his brother’s son. I also have more than a hint of a suspicion that the brother, my now brother in law, is in fact the lover of the king of fairyland.
All this I gathered from unconsidered bits that Mama let fall when she didn’t know I was listening, and also from my assiduous perusal of Jonathan’s private papers, which might be an action unworthy of a gentlewoman, but is absolutely necessary for me to survive in a world where no one tells me anything.
This is what I hate about society, and why I’ve decided to leave it. They expect me to be a babe unborn and never to experience life as it really is. Real life is far more interesting.
“Helen, say you were funning, tell mama!” Hanna said. She was chaffing Mama’s wrists with vinegar and looked at me with that pleading look she gives, which always makes me feel like to deny her would be to kick a puppy or stomp on a kitten.
“Yes, yes, I was funning,” I said. In my code of honor, which I’d come to more or less on my own, it was a great sin to lie, but killing Mama with a heart attack was probably a worse sin. I wasn’t sure, because I hadn’t had the time to think about it, but it probably was. I also judged she would recover far more quickly without me in the room and besides I had work to do. Betsy must be frantic by now. “If you’ll excuse me, Mama,” I said, and before she could answer, I dropped a courtesy and left the room.
I didn’t start running till I was on the stairs and then I took them two by two in a step Mama would consider most indelicate, not the least because it exposed my ankles. Well and good. Soon there would be no problem with that.
Betsy was waiting in my room, and wringing her hands as she’s wont to do. I like her prodigiously much, but I think there is something about being raised to be a servant that makes you… well, anxious about doing anything not quite approved of. It was a miracle, at all, that she had agreed to my plan of leaving this house, and making a life for ourselves. Truth be told, I think the only reason she’d agreed was that she had been my maid for three years, and I’d read her all the same stories of adventure I read myself. I think she was devoted to me, in a way some younger sisters are to older sisters, and that it were not for me, she’d never consider anything unconventional.
I wondered if it was a breach of moral code to allow her to get involved in this. But it was so much easier for us to enlist in the navy and to pass if there were two of us and one could watch the other’s back.
Still, she looked awfully anxious and was wringing her hands together. She stood there, with two carpetbags, and a whole lot of other stuff, and her eyes were tear smudged and she said, “Oh, Miss, I thought you’d never come and that the mistress had figured what was forward and that I was going to be turned out without a character, and you—”
Her mind failed at the thought of what they might do to me, and she started crying. “Don’t be a ninny,” I told her. “Of course no one found anything. We must go, and as soon as possible.” I sat down at my dressing table, pulled a towel around my shoulders. “Quick. Cut my hair, then I’ll do yours. And you must put something on the floor to catch the hair.”
She obeyed, of course, but halfway through cutting my hair she started crying “Oh, Miss, all your lovely curls.” And it was all I could do not to dismiss her from my plan and this venture all together. Only I didn’t dare. If Betsy stayed behind, they would question her, and the girl had no more gumption than a half-weaned sparrow. So, instead, I said, “Stop calling me miss. What is my name?”
“Hank, Mi– Hank.”
“Hank Cutter, Miss.”
I decided to let it go. Like a puppy that you have to train little by little, Betsy would need to be broken of her bad habits.
She wasn’t a very good barber either, but that was good. The rough cut made me look less like one of society’s ornaments. It ended up with my hair mostly at my shoulders, except for the bit where Betsy had tried to cut off my ear, because she was crying so hard she couldn’t see.
Her hair was not much longer than that to begin with, which made sense, because of course, she didn’t have as much time to deal with. It was a whispy blonde and even with it short, it didn’t do much to make her features less round and rosy and feminine.
It was a liability, but I figured some men lived with it too. Fortunately I looked more like brother Jonathan than like my very feminine looking sisters. The shorter hair, roughly tied back, made me look like a boy maybe of seventeen or so, a couple of years younger than I was.
Betsy helped me bind my breasts, and I put on an old suit I’d bought used, because all of Jonathan’s were too fancy for Hank Cutter. Then we got Betsy dressed and I had to wait till she stopped crying, though I suppose very young boys – she’s my age, but looked no more than thirteen in male attire – might cry at leaving home too.
I bundled our cut hair, and stuck it under my mattress, to delay discovery.
Then I took out from my desk drawer the transport spell I’d bought from a vendor so that it wouldn’t have disappeared from our stock and Jonathan wouldn’t know right away. I didn’t think he would care if I disappeared. Certainly not care enough to follow me. Our entire family is selfish, and Jonathan, mostly, cares about Jonathan. But it was no use giving the alarm right away. So I didn’t want to use just my raw power, nor did I want to steal a spell from our stock. It had cost me a shocking price from a street vendor, even though it was stamped with the seal of Blythe’s Blessings.
The thought of the price reminded me to take my remaining money – my quarter allowance, withdrawn and turned into gold coins – and slip the pouch into my sleeve.
Then I turned to Betsy, “Are you ready?” I asked.
“Yes, M– Yes,” she said, and sniffed.
I opened the transport spell and commanded “Take me to Portsmouth.”
A Wolfe At The Door
Jonathan Blythe, Earl of Savage,
The problem, of course, was that I had moved out of Papa’s study. Not that it was a problem, exactly that I’d moved out of his study. What I mean to say was, after all, Papa had blown out his brains while sitting at the desk, and while the servants had done an impressive job of cleaning and I was sure I wasn’t likely to run across forgotten brain matter on the key to the accounts due drawer, yet I didn’t feel comfortable working there.
Truth be told, Papa and I had had no love lost between us. He didn’t understand me and deplored my unsteadiness and I—
I used to think, when I was very young, that my father, unlike the other people around us, wasn’t quite real. Oh, I knew there was elf blood in his line. At least, from the time I was seven or so, I’d heard people mutter about it. Usually, I’d heard people mutter about it while hiding under the drapery of occasional tables in mama’s sitting room during her at homes. I don’t know if mama knew they muttered. But anyway, I knew that Papa had elf blood, and also that this was supposed to make on distant, cold, and – somehow – unreliable.
But papa didn’t strike me as an elf, at least not like any elves I’d read about in the stories in the nursery. Instead, he struck me as… glass. I used to have dreams in which my father was a statue made of glass that had, inexplicably, come to life. Not that I saw Papa very often. In later years I’d wondered at how many children my parents had produced since, even when they were in the same house, they seemed to dislike intensely being in the same room. And yet, from the look of my siblings, and also the fact that she is the most proper of scolds, I was almost sure Mama hadn’t improved the bloodline.
In any case, there was no love lost between Papa and I. When I’d reached the age of reason, or at least the age to leave school and be able to set up my own establishment, he’d paid my bills without protest, and he’d furnished me whatever I needed or wanted, from decent horses to enough money to keep a couple of round heels happy and devoted to me.
But if you added up all the time we’d spent together in our lives, when we didn’t just happen to both be at the same party or dinner, I’d wager – and high too – that it wouldn’t come to more than ten hours, altogether.
Which just goes to show you. There was no love lost, and no reason I should mourn him. And certainly, while I had not held the pistol that blew out his brains, I’d told him that I knew about his malfeasance, and given him reason to blow out his brains.
All the same, I’d found I couldn’t concentrate, attempting to work in the room where he’d breathed his last. Not that I believe in ghosts. Or at least, I don’t believe I would see ghosts. Mostly because I never have, and if I were going to start, it would probably be Freddie, who was like a brother to me and who died on that curricle race. But on the other hand, what a start it would be to have Papa’s sour tones call me from the perusal of estate documents with “Jonathan!”
So I’d moved my study, and I’d moved it to the only room I could think of, which would take all the bureaus and secretaries needed for the task to run the magic business, the manufacturies and the farms: the little receiving hall by the front hall.
And that was the problem. As I came down the main stairs, at a clip, Ginevra’s letter clutched in my head, and trying to decide what spell to use on that writing, to discover my fair unknown, I found our butler arguing with someone.
“Milord will see you at a proper time,” the Butler was saying. His name was Harving and he had been in our service since I was very young. Hearing him talk of Milord always made me expect Papa to show up. “Surely you don’t expect to be admitted without an appointment.”
I stopped, halfway down the marble stairs, hesitating. It was still in time, I thought, to escape back up those stairs. For one, should it become known around town that I am up at shortly after cock’s crow, my reputation will be quite in shreds. People will start referring to me as old somber sides, and probably demanding I live up to my station in life. Worse, they might decide I need to get married and raise up a whole generation of Savages to my title. Which, heaven forfend.
So I froze. The person talking to Harving couldn’t possibly know me. He looked like a rustic, with coarse dark hair which appeared to have been cut by the method of upending a bowl on one’s head and cutting anything that strayed beneath. And he hadn’t shaved that day, if indeed the day before.
But he didn’t dress like a rustic. His suit, though dark brown was of good cut and material and would not have disgraced a respectable merchant.
Still, he could not know me. He did not look in the least like the sort of man to join the groups in which I ran. And I was sure I’d never met him by himself.
I started to turn around, trying to make the movement natural. The man was talking in a low rumble to Harving, and I could feel Harving’s stony rejection of him behind me.
But just as I turned, the man’s voice called out, “Milord! Lord Savage.”
It took me about a second to realize that running like crazy up the stairs was not something an Earl could do. It probably wasn’t something I should even have done as an Earl’s heir. But this didn’t mean I had to like it. I turned around and descended the rest of the stairs, in the most stony manner possible, folding Ginevra’s letter and putting it in my breast pocket.
The rustic was holding his hat and looking up at me as though I were his hope for salvation, and Harving was stonily disapproving, if of me or of the rustic didn’t bear thinking. Being stonily disapproving was his default mode towards me, anyway.
“Yes,” I said, as I reached the bottom step and stood on it, to maintain the advantage of position over the two of them. “And you are? I don’t have the pleasure—”
“No, milor’” the rustic said, and his voice was cultivated, while bearing a trace of the North country. “I’ve been traveling and there would not have been any occasion to have met you, though I have corresponded with you often since– Since the unfortunate demise of your esteemed parent. In fact I only recognized you from your resemblance to your grandfather, which is marked.”
“And you are?” I said, again, coldly. If he’d corresponded with me often and often, he was likely one of our suppliers or managers, but which one? There were a good fifty of the creatures.
“My name is Wolfe Merritt, Milor’”
I made a sound, because of course, Wolfe was our main manager, the man responsible for Blythe blessings. I should in fact have met him, if I’d either given any attention to the business before Papa’s death, or if Merritt hadn’t been on some trip of inspection since papa died.
Which meant this was important business indeed, and Harving should have been standing on position. I dismissed him with, “That will do, Harving,” and feeling Ginevra’s letter like a weight over my heart, I realized it would have to wait. I turned to Merritt, “Come with me,” I said. “Into my study.”
I’d had the study furnished in all new furniture, and it was all light and airy figured walnut. The chairs were comfortable, too, because if someone was important enough to be admitted to my study, he wasn’t an adversary and, unlike Papa, I didn’t view everyone I dealt with as an enemy to be conquered.
“What will you have,” I said, sitting behind my desk and ringing for service.
“Nothin– Nothing milor’.”
“Teetotaler?” I asked.
Something like a shadow went across his face, and his lip tried to lift in a smile. “No, Milor’. But your father didn’t like– That is—”
“Forget my father,” I said. “I’m doing my best to. Now, what will you have?”
“Brandy, Milor’. If it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all.” I approved of a man not afraid to drink brandy this early in the morning, and I relayed the order to the serving man who appeared. Then I turned back to Wolfe, “You were on a visit of inspection to manufactories that were having some trouble, and I do not know why, nor what you found. So perhaps you’d care to enlighten me?”
Wolfe drew in breath, puffed out his cheeks, then let it out with an explosive “Pah” sound. “Well, milor’ That is the problem. In fact, I don’t know… That is, it started as something so uncertain that we couldn’t be sure, but then… But it didn’t seem right, and your father was busy with… with other matters, and this left me to look into it. I thought it was something to do with the spells we’d used last year not being quite right. Sometimes you get flighty head magicians and—” He shrugged.
“Understood,” I said, though I actually understood very close to nothing. Harving himself came in, gave me a disapproving look, and set two glasses and a decanter of brandy on a tray on my desk. I dismissed him with a nod, and poured brandy for myself and Merritt.
As Harving closed the door behind him, Wolfe grabbed for the glass of brandy I extended him, tossed it back in a single gulp, looked at me with woebegone expression and said, “It’s gone rotten milord.”
“What? What has?” I asked, wondering if there was a reason, after all, that Papa didn’t let Merritt drink.
“The Magic, milor’”
“What magic? The spells we sent to the manufactories, or—”
“All of it,” he said. He sighed. “All of it. All the spells sold by Blythe blessings, but the industrial magic sent to our manufactories too. It’s all gone rotten. Mostly it does what you expect, just oddly or weakly, but then there are times when a spell or powering magic will go… disastrously wrong. There was that child in the factory in Liverpool who– never mind. It doesn’t bear describing. But it can’t go on.”
I tossed my brandy down my throat, thinking of all of papa’s ill gotten gains going up the spout and leaving us destitute after all. “I…” I cleared my throat. “What can have caused it?”
“A strain of rogue magic,” he said. “Come from elsewhere.”
“Elsewhere? You mean, one of our rivals?” Despite everything my house had done to Seraphim Ainsling, I couldn’t see him taking revenge. He was one of nature’s noblemen, was Seraphim. Besides, he’d come out well enough, so why would he?
“No, milor’. I mean another world.”
The Devil’s Child
Wolfe Merrit, Overseer to the Earl Of Savage’s properties and manufactories:
I guess my problem has always been birds with broken wings. When I was little those were real. There were any number of birds with broken wings, and of sad naked things fallen out of nests that I’d brought home, all wrapped in my handkerchief, and which my mother let me nurse by the kitchen fire. Most died, of course, though that got less so as my powers came on.
And what can any man who is a cottager and the son of a farmer want with magical power, much less a magical power that’s bent on healing, who’s to know? I misdoubt me that my dear mother was ever unfaithful to my father, besides the fact that I have my father’s same identical face. So, wherever the magical power comes from it must be from very far in the family. Some Lord’s daughter that fell from grace, or some cottager girl who strayed with a Lord.
That was shame enough, that I had the magic, but you couldn’t hide it, and if we tried to then the village was more likely to say that there was something shameful in it and that it was my mother’s fault or my father’s mother even. And so, I was sent to magic school proper, though that meant going to classes at the local elf-orphans home. But I was treated right, as an out pupil, and my mother paid for it with the money from taking in washing, and when a position came up with the Earl of Savage I was ready to take it.
We’d just never told anyone that it was healing magic, because, as my father said, that’s woman’s power, and what did a man want with a woman’s bend on his magic. Not as bad as foretelling, but bad enough. And there was no point making people talk. My marriage was bad enough. And the child.
The thought of Jimmy, as I sat here, across the desk from the Earl of Savage made the doubt come up in my mind again, but I tried not to think of it. I sipped the brandy to steady myself and said, “Yes, sir. It’s gone rotten. It comes apart and it does things as it was not meant to. And that’s the long and the short of it, milor’. And I think the strain comes from another world.”
Which of course, brought to mind Jimmy again, and Jimmy’s mother too.
It was the bird that falls from the nest thing, all over again, that is what my mother said. And she was right too, even if she said it with her temper flaring up and that tone in her voice, like she disapproved. Which she undoubtedly did.
Because what business a farmer’s son has either bringing home a naked elf lady he found wandering the forest, all out of her mind, or marrying her either, no one knew, not even myself who’d done it.
But we’d kept it from the Savages, and the marriage had lasted so little – she’d disappeared right after Jimmy’s birth – that there was no reason they should know.
Except Jimmy. Fairyland was another world, wasn’t it? And couldn’t they be tainting the savage magic through me?
“What did you use to determine that?” the Earl asked. He’s a well setup man and some would say handsome, though as I thought that I heard my mother say in my head that handsome is as handsome does, and right enough, and what the Earl of Savage looks like is his grandfather, and what his grandfather done wasn’t handsome by any description.
“I used the Vanal variations,” I said. “And I ran the Terobynian formulas. It all points to magic from another world, milor’”
He looked at me, his eyes narrowing in speculation. When I knew his grandfather he was an old man, leastwise when I knew him as an employee. I knew of him since my birth, just about. The women in the village called him old Nick and not just because his name was Nicholas, and cautioned any comely young girl – or boy, the old soot not caring much – to keep away from him.
He had been a handsome man, even then, well set up, with a full head of dark hair, and that unlike his son as would make anyone else doubt the relation, particularly since the village – and other villages around – were full of cottager children with that same handsome physiognomy.
The thing was, the old man wasn’t bad. Not when you considered his son. He was a lush and a lecher, and he didn’t do repairs to the cottages, and he didn’t care for the land and let it go to rack and ruin, and it was said he spent more on a pair of horses than a family would make in ten years, and he didn’t care, but he wasn’t bad.
You could sit – I found – and talk to him, and if you had a real problem, he would help you. He had magic enough, and he did a magic examination of me when he hired me, that he must have known about the healing pull in my magic, and he’d never cared.
Yes, I understood I was lucky enough that when I was hired at eighteen the Good Lord had already blessed me with a face that would make no one weep but my mother and that not for joy, and that I was built like the men of the land, squat and blocky and not lank and graceful as old Nick liked them. But to me, in his dealings with me, he was a fair master and a good one.
His son, on the other hand—
It had started with “I like to have the distinctions of rank preserved” all from that pale, tight lipped mouth, with those eyes that looked at you like you were dirt. And while I’m not some kind of radical, nor meaning to overturn the order of society and magic, there is no reason to behave as though you’d like to trample others under your boot, that there isn’t.
So, now I watched the new Earl. I hadn’t exactly cried big tears for the old Earl, not I, but my grandmother used to say “the devil that comes after me will make you fond of me” and that had been the truth right enough with the last two earls, and I wondered if it would be true again. He hadn’t treated me scaly, and he didn’t seem high on the instep. His verifying questions were what any man might ask, faced with the problem. And he looked like his grandfather, though that might not mean anything. He and his sister, Lady Helen, were the only ones in the family that looked like the old devil. I’d caught a glimpse of her, once, long ago, going around a corner, and I remember thinking as you’d never know such a face as the old boy had could flatter a woman but it did.
The Earl of Savage turned from fiddling with things on his desk. He looked tight controlled, like his father, and high strung, and very much in command, but then he looked at me.
I’ve seen a horse look like that, once. He had broken a leg and lay, in pain till we could give him mercy. Only there wasn’t anyone with a pistol, no one who could shoot him, and we didn’t want to hack at him with a knife, and he lay there so long that his screams ceased, and he was alive, but looked like he’d rather be dead. His eyes had been stony with suffering, and that’s what the earl’s eyes looked like.
First you might think they were proud or closed-off, but when you looked close it was just he had gone through so much pain that at some time he’d quite shut off.
He dropped to his chair, behind his desk, and looked at me with those stone-suffering eyes, and said, “Well, what can we do?”
And I said “Milor’” because the man was only ten years or so younger than me, so I couldn’t call him “son” which was a good thing. It would be a right mess if I had, and besides, an Earl is rather too large a naked bird to be wrapped in my handkerchief and brought home to mother’s fireside.
“If we don’t do anything, the manufacturies will close.” A shadow crossed the suffering eyes. “I don’t suppose we can live off the land.”
I shook my head. Old Nick had done for that and well enough. Too many years of selling off any piece that wasn’t entailed. Too many years of taking it all out and putting nothing in.
“No,” he said. “I didn’t think so. And my sisters must have their portions. My brothers, too, must have something to start in life. I suppose I could sell myself on the marriage mart. A title must be worth something, even with my reputation.”
I didn’t say anything. I’d heard some of his reputation, which was that he was following in old Nick’s footsteps. But his tender concern for his siblings was something I’d never heard from Old Nick. No, and not from Old Nick’s son, either.
He rubbed at his nose, a gesture that made him seem all of three years old. “Well. What can’t be cured, must be endured. We’ll do what we can, and hopefully get enough at least for my siblings’ needs.”
Which is when we heard the running steps outside the door and someone burst in, behind me. By the time I turned around, I’d already seen the Earl’s expression freeze, and when I turned around I realized why – the person who’d come running was a maid. Truth be told, she was probably a twinnie, somewhere between kitchen drudge and cleaning maid and no more than 13 or so. That she’d burst running into the Earl’s office bespoke a lack of firmness on the Earl’s part that made me want to throw the whole thing over and go back to the land and be a farmer, like my father. Only at the price corn was bringing… And besides, my older brother Tom had the land.
But the girl bobbed three curtseys in turn, one after the other, then said in a fainting voice, “It is this letter milord. It was on Lady Helen’s bed when I went to make it. And… and her carpet bag is missing, and I thought– I thought you’d want it right away.”
I wasn’t so stupid that lady Helen, the carpet bad, and the letter didn’t add up to an awful picture. My mouth dropped open as the very pale earl of Savage reached for the letter.
It was a whole family of birds with broken wings
Miss Helen Blythe, Sister of the Earl of Savage:
I didn’t know if this was Portsmouth, but I rather doubted it.
Betsy and I landed with a thud and a blast of light and – understandably – there was a time when I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t think.
The problem came after the light vanished, and the sound of explosion had vanished from my head, there was still the feel of being unable to breathe.
The reason for this was clear enough, since we were, in fact, immersed in water. The moment I realized this, I held my breath, containing my desire to open my mouth and gulp in what was available. I didn’t think a lungfull of water would help.
Betsy started to open my mouth and I clapped my hand it, holding her with that arm sort of around her. She was struggling and whimpering, and it was much like holding an oversized heel.
Fortunately I knew how to swim, something Mama says no well brought up girl will know, since it is impossible to swim with your petticoat on. She’s not quite right. You can swim with petticoats on. But I’d much rather swim naked, which was how I’d taught myself on the lake on our property, summer nights.
Breeches were not as easy to swim in as naked, though they were far better than petticoats. So, I kicked to the surface with all my might, pulling Betsy along. I knew where the surface was – I thought – because there was a great light that way.
Wherever we were – it couldn’t be Portsmouth, not even off the coast – there were fish of ever color and shape and if my chest hadn’t felt like it would presently burst, I would certainly have admired them.
As was, I was only aware of my head bursting through somewhere into air, and I took big gulps of air, and moved my hand from Betsy’s mouth – and then had to grab her under the arms, because the silly git was trying to lose consciousness and go under.
After I’d breathed in and out several times, I became aware that this was definitely not Portsmouth.
Look, I haven’t travelled much, and I’m not even very aware of where Portsmouth is. Yes, my governess tried to make me learn geography, but like almost everything she taught me, this was done by making me learn lists “the seven best kings of England”, “the ten most tragic queens” and such. All I’d retained about Portsmouth was that it was a nautical location, with shipyards and that I could hire as a cabin boy there, and eventually make my way to captaining my own pirate ship. I had no doubt I could do that, as I’d read plenty of sea stories and biographies, and I knew plenty of people more dull-witted than I had made such a trajectory. So why shouldn’t I?
Mama would say that piracy was a sin, but of course mama would say that. Mama said all manner of pious and not very significant things, and besides look at how papa had preached morality all the time. But I’d heard Jonathan and Seraphim Ainsling speak once, when they didn’t think I could hear, and what papa had done was no better than piracy and might be worse.
So, those were my reasons for choosing Portsmouth. And I was willing to concede that the streets in Portsmouth might be made of wet cobblestone. They probably were. But I’d seen pictures in books, and those same streets were surrounded by tall buildings, and filled with people
The place we’d emerged…
A few steps from where we’d come up, there was a set of wet cobblestoned steps, leading up to… It could be a cobblestoned street, only it wasn’t. More like a cobblestoned plaza. Only when you blinked and looked again, you realized it wasn’t cobblestones, really, but polished grey granite.
But it was what surrounded that … plaza? Room? That made it unbelievable. I was aware of Betsy first gasping and moaning, then making a startled little cry, as she doubtless also paid attention to what happened around us. But I was too busy with my own wonder.
You see, above the plaza, above us, above this entire space, there was something like the gigantic inverted keel of a very old boat. It shone with a diffuse light, which is what made me think I was swimming towards daylight.
Hanging from the keel – cavernous and black, and just barely recognizeable as wood – hung … strings of pearls. Masses of them.
When we were little, nursie would let us make daisy chains, in spring, and sometimes I would festoon the space over my bed in loops and loops of them. This was like that, but more so, with loops and loops and long ropes of pearls. All manner of pearls, from the small and rosy to the huge and white to the ivory tones in between. They all shone, perfectly visible by the deflected light. And I thought if I could get even a yard of those and go back home, I could set up as an independent lady of means, and no one – No one – would be able to make me marry anyone I didn’t want to, nor die in child birth, as Honoria had.
It was because I was looking up that I missed them. I didn’t hear their steps, which is odd, and I wasn’t aware of their approach until one of them said, “Swim towards the steps, and come up. You are under arrest.”
Then I did look in the direction of the voice and my first thought was that the two men standing on the granite plaza, right in the center, were Roman. This is because they were mostly naked, save for a white loincloth, and carried tridents and a net.
After the first shock I realized that I was confusing with the pictures of Roman Gladiators in the naughty book that Papa kept on the very top shelf of the library, which had all sorts of other Roman things.
But they couldn’t be Roman because… things were wrong. For one, I was fairly sure that Romans didn’t have green hair. And they certainly didn’t have little fins along their arms.
“Don’t make me fetch you with magic, land-heel,” the taller of the two barked. “Come up the steps. You are under arrest.”
I had no idea what he meant by fetching me by magic, though from the feel of him, I suspected he could. But since this was not Portsmouth, it behooved me to find out what it was, before I made him use magic on me.
Though I could tell right away I was going to dislike him excessively.
Jonathan Blythe, The Earl Of Savage:
The door to my study opened, and one of the upstairs maids came pelting in. The sight was more startling than if she had flown in, or perhaps came in doing a perfect ballet step, because the thing is, no way to hide it, maids don’t pelter. At least maids who have been trained under papa’s aegis and mama’s watching eye don’t.
I half rose from my chair, not quite sure what I meant to do, but ready to either ward off an attack, or catch the girl should she be under the impulse of a magical compulsion. Not that either was likely, but both have happened, if one is to believe history books and newspaper accounts. Not that I ever do, because every time I’ve been present at either of these– But that’s a story for another time.
At that time, what I was faced with was this young woman running straight for me, and she was wearing the uniform of an upstairs maid, all starched black frills and white lace.
Fortunately for me, the chair in which Merritt sat was square in her path. This made her stop, and I could confirm that besides the uniform, her face was familiar too, a peaked little face with straggles of blond hair escaping from the cap. I’d be cursed if I had the slightest idea what her name was, but I had seen her go in and out of rooms with warmed bricks for the beds, and the like.
Two things were of concern, besides her running in. First, she was very pale, and her eyes were red rimmed as though she’d been crying. This meant you couldn’t trust her. You never know what a woman will do when she’s been crying. Why, once, when I tried to give one of my peculiars her conge she started crying and… If my skull weren’t as thick as it is, you wouldn’t be reading this.
The other thing was that she was clutching a piece of paper in her hand. I had the odd idea that mama had sacked her, and she was coming to argue the point with me, but that was of course stupid. After all, why would mama tell her she was fired in writing. For one, Mama don’t like putting pen to paper above half and used to get Honoria to write everything for her.
Before I could sort through all this and speak, the girl was bobbing up and down like a jack in box, in repeated curtseys and murmuring something like “Forgive me your lordship,” which was daft enough, but not as daft as Wolfe Merritt standing up and looking for all the world like he expected to ask her for a dance. I mean, I realize she was a woman of his condition and all, but all the same—
“Stop with the bobbing, woman,” I heard myself say, somewhat shocked at how much my voice sounded curt and disdainful, just like Papa’s used to. “You’re making me seasick. What do you mean by pelting in here without knocking, and don’t tell me you weren’t pelting. I know pelting when I see it, and that was pelting.”
The gone, probably more than the inane words stopped her. After all, she had been trained in papa’s household. She stopped bobbing and stood, turning even paler though I’d have sworn that was impossible, and swallowing convulsively. I thought she wouldn’t be able to speak, and I was reaching for the bell to call the butler to come and remove her or something, when Merritt gave me the slightest shake of the head, that signified I shouldn’t do that, and then crossed over to the tray with the brandy, poured a bare finger into my used glass, and took it to the girl. And damme if he didn’t hold her head and put the glass to her lips, and make her drink the whole thing.
We were going to have a drunk housemaid on our hands, not that it wouldn’t perhaps be an improvement on a housemaid who had decided to imitate a jack in box, but all the same, it seemed like it would cause mama of accusing us of trying to debauch this chit and perhaps fire the girl anyway.
But she swallowed, and either because the taste of brandy was a shock or perhaps because it worked fast, she looked towards Merritt and said, “Thank you, sir, I—”
“That’s better,” I said. “What is your name?”
“Annabelle,” she said. And then, catching the slightest of widening in my eyes, because I was sure no maid in the house could be called Annabelle, she smiled a little. “Your mama told me I am to be addressed as Mary while I work here.”
I nodded. Her speech was above her class, too, and I wondered if mama had ordered her to use a lower class of speech while working for us. Thing is, I know mama. Devil of a woman mama. Quite likely to do that sort of thing, she was.
“Well then Mar– Annabelle,” I said. Might as well establish I was neither Mama nor under Mama’s thumb. “What do you mean by coming running in here, without even knocking?”
She started to bend at the knees, but I quelled her with a look. I had the oddest feeling that the corners of her mouth shook just a little at my look. “Yes, sir,” she said. “No bobbing,” she said, managing to convey the impression that under different circumstances, she would be laughing. “But sir, we found this… we found this… in Miss Blythe’s room.”
The “this” she handed me was a sheet of paper, close written in my sister Helen’s sprawling handwriting.
It started very primly if highly improperly with “Dear Jon,” but it went down from there very fast. Or at least I couldn’t in rational calm consider its contents anything but the sheerest lunacy. I read it through three times before the first words stopped all my ability to relate the rest of the letter.
The very first words were, “I’ve decided to run away and become a Pirate Queen.” I blinked at it, in utter horror, and read through the rest of the letter, seeing nothing but disjointed words, three times solid, then looked up at the maid, Annabel, “Is my sister– That is—”
“Both your sister,” she said. “And her maid, Betsy, are gone from the premises, and there were the remains of a transport spell upon her table.
I closed my eyes to make the room stop swaying, surely a side effect of all the bobbing the maid had done. I took two deep breaths and read the letter again, this time making myself pay attention. “I’ve bought a spell which should take us to Portsmouth, where I expect to seek employment aboard a ship and to advance to the post of captain by either my just deserts or, if absolutely needed, mutiny.” Mutiny was underlined. “You need not worry, since both Betsy and I have taken the precaution of cutting our hair and dressing as boys, so our honor shall never be threatened.” I closed my eyes and breathed deep three times. I should have shared with the impudent chit a thing or two I’d heard from my friends who were at sea. “I know you will be very shocked by my taking this step, but once you think about it, I’m sure you’ll know it’s for the best. I’ve been watching you, my dear, dear Jon. Of all the family, you must know you’ve always been my favorite, well, at least since that time when I was very little and you helped me dress the cat as though she were a baby and then laughed with me when she tore through all the clothes and ran off into the bushes cursing. And then you told me a story about some girl called Kitty, and I knew for sure you were not half as starched up as the rest of them, and you had a sense of humor and a heart, Jonathan.” The fact that I had no memory whatsoever of the moment also meant I had had far more alcohol then I should have, but of course, she wouldn’t know it. “And I’ve been watching you since Papa died, and how all of them – every one, from Mama to the prince consort expect you to do your duty, and how you stopped laughing and funning anymore.” Partly because I had cut drastically back on the consumption of alcohol, but what could a delicately reared young lady know of that? “And I know you’ve been in low spirits.” Well, she could say that. Low to none. “And I know, too, that part of it is having to provide dowries for all of us, and having to find us a proper man to marry and all that. I would like you to be sure that I do not intend to marry any man, proper or otherwise, because I saw what happened with poor Honoria, and it’s all very well for mama to say that the proper way for a woman to live is to have children, but if children make you die, I’d rather not. So I hit upon this capital scheme. I always wanted adventure, as you know, because I told you many times how much I wished to sail the ocean.” I must – MUST – make sure when my sisters poured their unwise confidences upon my ears I was not more than three sheets to the wind. “And so, this will do it. Do not fear for me. You know I’m resourceful and intelligent.” And wholly uninformed about the world. Even with all the snooping she did of my papers and all the listening behind doors. I was aware of both of her abominable habits, and I’d kept her in the dark as much as possible, by making sure my important or shocking papers were kept at my club, and that I never spoke in terms she could plainly understand. Now I wondered if perhaps I’d been unwise. “I promise never to sack any ships that belong to you or the family. And if I sack any very great treasure, I’ll be glad to let you have it for the other girls’ dowries, as I suppose they’ll want to marry and even risk having children.” It finished with, “Your affectionate sister, Helen.”
I looked up at Annabel, “You read this?” I asked
Her face had become grave again. “Yes, milord. You see, she didn’t address it, and as it was upon her mantel…”
“I see. Who else read it? You said you and someone else had found it, at least you said “we” – who is we?”
“Oh, only Jane, the other maid, sir. She was making the bed and she found a quantity of hair, both your sister’s and Betsy’s, by the look of it, shoved under the mattress, and sir, she called me in, because I have some knowledge of magic. I saw this letter on the mantel and I read it.”
I might as well face it I couldn’t scotch the scandal. “Jane read it too?”
Annabel gave me the oddest of looks. “She doesn’t know how to read. Just like she doesn’t know how to do magic.”
“I see,” I said. “And you did magic?”
“Not really, sir, as that would have called too much attention, but I did set my hand on the pile of hair, and try to locate where they might be.”
“Apparently Portsmouth,” I said. “I must go there right away and—”
“No, sir.” Annabel looked at me. “I looked at the remains of the transport spell and I could tell something had gone very wrong with it. The magic had twisted, though how it’s beyond me to explain. Putting my hand on the hair confirmed it. Your sister is not as close as Portsmouth. In fact—” She paused, then sighed, as though resigning herself to the inevitable. “In fact, I’d say she’s not in this world.”
A Hearty Dislike Of Fish
Miss Helen Blythe, Sister of the Earl of Savage:
I came up the steps with what dignity I could. It wasn’t much. To any of you considering disguising yourselves as boys, and then being thoroughly soaked, be aware that the bindings slip and things spring free, pushing against the too-tight boy’s coat and revealing very clearly – an in a quite indecent manner – your gender.
On top of that, the breeches clung to my legs, and I’d lost my hat somewhere, so that what hair I had remaining clung to the sides of my face. I had no mirror and couldn’t tell how I looked, but if I looked like Betsy, I must be making a very good imitation of a drowned corpse, reanimated and brought to life in jerky moves.
Betsy was pale, and wan, she kept crying. Her blond hair clung to the sides of her face obscuring most of it, and her nose had gone a quite unnatural pink. To make it worse, she kept tripping on her soaked breeches and boots, and falling.
Some part of me wanted me to be mad at the wretched girl, but all I could think was “what have I done?” and also that this was all my fault for getting both of us in this horrible situation. So I gave her my hand. Hers felt very cold and floppy, sort of like you’d expect the hand of a drowning victim to feel.
“Come, Betsy,” I said, and supported her with an arm around her waist.
What she answered back weren’t words, but an ululation of despair that sounded somewhat like “Woooooooowoooow.”
I thought if Mamma heard it she’d tell Betsy to stop that wretched noise. But if Mamma heard it, that meant she would see me, and I suspected this was an escapade that would cost me far more than not going to a few balls, or getting preached to a lot. This was an escapade even I, myself, was starting to consider must be very ill considered. I went back over my reasoning, in my mind, as I dragged Betsy out of the pool. There were a sort of rough stone steps there, and it became easier to walk once we had water lower than our knees.
I slopped out of the pool, and slopped along the flagstones, and stood in front of the fish-men with the tridents, who were looking at Betsy and I as though we were something the cat had dragged in, and something snapped in me. “I always disliked fish excessively,” I said, in my haughtiest tone, which sounded exactly like what Mamma sounds like when she finds someone has violated the order of precedence and sat her lower than her great rival, Mrs. Piper.
The two men looked at each other, and suddenly laughed. This was far worse than if they’d hit me or something, because when they threw back their heads and laughed, I saw row upon row of very sharp teeth. They had at least three rows of them, all sharp like needles. I jumped back, but they didn’t see because they were still laughing, and I told myself I was being a stupid little coward and found my courage. The one compliment that Jonathan ever made me which I treasured was that I was pluck to the backbone and never flinched, better than most boys. Of course, usually he said that after he’d hit me on the face with a ball and was trying to get me to stop crying.
Betsy had shrieked, and she was crying, but Betsy was Betsy and she’d never stopped blubbering since we’d got here. And besides, I started suspecting she was much younger than I. She might be no more than fourteen or fifteen. It had never occurred to me before. I mean, maids didn’t have ages, did they? They were just there. Even the ones one used as allies.
I whispered, “It is well, Betsy. I’ll get us out of here.” And wished I could believe it. The two men, meanwhile, looked at each other and one of them said, “She will do. Better than we could have hoped.”
And then they told us to walk ahead, and the two of them got behind us. Since I was sure my view behind was as revealing as in front, this did no relieve my embarrassment, but I kept telling myself after all fish didn’t mate with women, and men didn’t have fins. And if I had a fishbowl in my room, surely I wouldn’t be embarrassed by it. So why should I be embarrassed by these men?
We went ahead into what were almost surely natural caverns that had got shaped to look like hallways. The doors were made of wood that looked like it had been at the bottom of the sea a long time. And it would, of course, for where else were people who lived in and under water get wood?
And the feeling had grown on me that these people lived under water. We were in an area with air, but I felt it was a pocket, perhaps caused by underground caverns. I can’t say whence the feeling came, exactly, except perhaps from the very faint murmur of water that seemed to come from all directions, including overwater.
There were murmurs of water of another kind inside the hallways of the cavern complex. It sounded like a million little twinkling fountains, and the sounds merged ill with my squelching boots, and the feel of water trickling down my back.
Also, the whole place smelled mildewy and salty, like long-submerged buildings. Once, when I was little, Jonathan had taken me to the seaside. I don’t precisely remember why. But he’d gone fishing at one of the manors we own near the coast and he’d taken me along, possibly because I’d just got a governess while the other girls were still with nursie, and my governess had travelled with us. In retrospect, remembering some things I didn’t then notice, it is entirely possible she wasn’t exactly respectable. I know Mamma fired her a year later and I wondered if Jonathan had given her her conge. I hadn’t thought of her in years, but I now remembered looks she and my brother had exchanged that made me blush even more than my unbound breasts poking against the boy’s jacket.
But back then I was perfectly innocent, and Jonathan had taken me exploring some caverns at low tide. Tame stuff, of course, little more than small rooms, just above the low tide. I’d thought it was high adventure then. But even then I’d thought it smelled like some very large incontinent creature had relieved itself all over the caves. Now, it seemed like everything around here had been made use of by the same creature. Only it would have to be a much larger creature.
And as though on command there was a sound, like a moo and roar put together, from under my feet, and I jumped, and Betsy dropped to her knees.
She was crying again, and I grabbed at her arms and tried to pull her up, and she looked white as a sheet and was crying, and now the two guards moved forward, and started helping to pull her, but in such a way that it gave me the impression they would drag her on her knees if she shouldn’t stand.
What was scarier was the way they looked. They both looked scared. And one of them said, “It senses her.” And the other “We have to get her out of this place.”
And then they were both dragging us, and I barely managed to pull Betsy to her feet. The incident so unsettled me that I wasn’t more than half aware of passing a lot more doors, and walking down yet another hallway.
The walls around us changed and looked like they’d been carved of pure jade, which I don’t think they could possibly be. The floor under us looked like white marble, which again I don’t think it could possibly be.
And then we entered… a throne room. It is the only way to describe it. There were men and women… well, fish men and fish women, attired in what looked very like court dress. Mind you, it all smelled fishy, and if you looked really close you could tell that the women’s gowns were woven of seaweed and the ornaments might be pearls or they might be seashells, and they didn’t seem to make a distinction. But even so I felt underdressed, and when Betsy started her whoowowowow again, I reached over and clapped my hand on her mouth.
Then I looked up towards the throne.
First let’s establish that he was handsome. I mean, he was a fish man like the others, but he was handsome. He wore a sort of white shirt, and I realized it was the first pure white thing I’d seen down here. I’d bet it was linen too, and not seaweed. And his knee breeches looked to be velvet. I wondered if he went to my world to have them tailored. They were deep emerald green, as were his eyes. His hair was sort of greenish gold, like gold that is starting to tarnish. His features would not have passed unremarked in the ton, wherever handsome men were mentioned. He had a square jaw, and well defined cheekbones, and he wore a white and gold crown as though he’d been born with it.
But when he opened his mouth to speak, it was easy to see that he had the same teeth as the other two. And as for the shirt, the fins along his arms pushed it up in a most unsettling way on the sleeves, and they seemed to pulse with his every movement.
“Ah,” he said, in a tone of great satisfaction. “So that was the disturbance. We caught better than we fished for.”
The fish men who’d brought us here, shoved us in the back, “Kneel to the king.”
But the king made a sound that might be laughter, and grinned at me, displaying his rows of needle-sharp teeth, “No. Do not make them kneel. If my betrothed and her assistant can’t stand in my presence, who can?”
Have I said how heartily I dislike fish?
Jonathan Savage, Earl of Blythe,
I stood up. Not in this world seemed to me the ravings of a maid without much experience of magic, and besides the girl couldn’t be much more than thirteen, maybe fifteen, so she could not possibly know what she was talking about.
That the spell Helen had used must have gone wrong was not surprising. Wolfe had, after all, just been telling me that something had gone seriously wrong and there was rogue magic woven in the spells we sold. I had no reason to doubt Wolfe who was neither a maid, nor inexperienced in practical magic.
But there is quite a difference between a spell going wrong and taking you to a place you didn’t intend to be and a spell taking you to another world. There was a difference of degree. If one steps onto a staircase and the step breaks, one can end up in the lower floor – also, with a broken leg, which happened to me this one time that my friend Marmaduke and I went exploring an abandoned mansion. We’d drunk a bit much, and if Duke hadn’t hit upon the idea of screaming for a watchman who’d then brought help, I’d be a gonner today. But damme, what I mean is, if the step breaks, you don’t end up in the cellars, or in the carriage house.
And while the utter prohibition on magical travel to other worlds had been lifted, since the restoration of the princess Royale and my papa’s death, still it was a serious business and overseen and regulated by the king. When you had such a magically powerful world as Avalon, you had to be very careful that your citizens weren’t up to illegal magics in other worlds less well equipped to detect it. It was distressingly easy to swindle other worlds, when no one could match you in magic – as my papa had shown.
So having spells out there that could and would take you to other worlds was unlikely.
I started to rise from my chair, and told the girl, Annabel, “Do you take us to my sister’s room. I trust the hair hasn’t been disposed of?”
“Of course not, Milor’.”
“Good. It will have to be broken, but—” I realized that Wolfe had risen too, and turned to glare at him. “I trust I can get full silence on this. You realize that I—”
His blunt, peasant-stock face looked like he understood this perfectly well, not just as a warning, but as a reminder that his position was tied to the Blythes. “I would not dream of saying anything, Milord,” he said. “And not just because it would affect both your position and mine. I’m just worried that Lady Helen won’t return safely. I’d– I’d like to do what I can to help you.”
There was to it more than the normal old and faithful retainer touch, and I was trying to think of a way to depress his pretensions that wouldn’t tear it in terms of our working together on the things we must work together on, such as the manufactories, when repeated poundings on the front door shook the house.
What I mean is, they weren’t pounding with the knocker. It sounded like multiple, large men, were pounding on the front door with fists and feet.
Through the din, I heard running feet – I’d suspect Harving – and the door opened. Then the pounding ceased, but there were voices, loud and officious. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, not through the study door, but someone seemed to be shouting orders and Harving’s voice, in return, went from his normal to an almost shriek.
This had gone far enough. I opened my desk drawer and took out my pistol. If there were ruffians forcing their way into the house they must be stopped. And if they came to give us news of wherever Helen had gone, they must be listened to.
So I opened the door to my study and stood in the doorway. And froze.
In the hall were two very tall, rough-looking men, in the black uniform of the newly found Witchfinder Police which was overseen by Seraphim Ainsling, Duke of Darkwater.
The first one turned to Harving and said, “And you said the Earl was not home,” then to me, “Milord Jonathan Savage, Earl of Blythe, you are under arrest at the order of the royal Witchfinder.”
My mouth must have dropped open, and it felt uncommonly dry as I tried to answer. “What? Damme, I told Seraphim I’d be there after noon. Surely this type of unpleasantness isn’t needed?”
They looked at each other. The one who hadn’t talked till then shrugged. Then the other one said, “You are under arrest for unwarranted interference in other worlds.”
“I haven’t interfered anywhere,” I said. I hadn’t even been out of town, except to my country seat, and that not by magical transport, since I ascended.
“That’s all very well, sir, and you can tell it to the Prince.”
“I will tell it to the prince,” I said. I would tell it to the prince in a way he wouldn’t like. What I mean is, there are ways in which to ensure your friends keep appointments, and to do it by sending your minions to arrest him is beyond the line of pleasing. If this was Seraphim’s idea of a joke, I’d make him swallow it.
But something at the back of my head warned that it wasn’t a joke, and that there was something more here than Seraphim’s wish to see me.
I would have to go. There was no doubt of that. These two were not funning. On the other hand, I had the matter of Helen on my hands.
I turned and found Wolfe Merritt’s eyes, fixed earnestly on me. He wasn’t the man I’d choose to deal with this, and bring Helen safely back to me, I thought. And on the back of that, I realized there was no one I would trust to bring Helen safely back to me, and whom I could command to exert himself in that purpose.
Most of the servants were Papa’s handpicked men and women. As for my family – well, Mama would faint, the girls were insufficiently trained and the boys – that didn’t even bear thinking about.
So I turned to Wolfe Merritt, as my last hope in the world, and said, “That matter of the… of the hair, Merritt. I want you to exert yourself in it and… bring it to a safe conclusion as soon as may be. Find the… er… the missing items and bring them back where they belong, undamaged if at all possible. You won’t lose by it.”
I then stepped into the hall and said, “I’m at your disposal, gentlemen.”
Moments later, bowling across town in a black carriage with no escutcheon on the doors, I wondered where I was bound and what this could mean. Most of all I wondered if it was some of Papa’s malfeasance I’d failed to scotch because I hadn’t known it existed, and which was now coming back to crush all my efforts at making our house respectable.
I hoped Wolfe Merritt had taken my hint and would at least try to do something about Helen. What he could do was anybody’s guess since it might very well involve unauthorized travel to other worlds, at least if the maid Annabel was right. And I knew he was a good practical magician but didn’t expect his power to be more than what you got in the lower orders, diluted several times in unmagical blood.
But I’d had no choice. There were no windows in this carriage, and we were trundling along at considerable speed. It was much like speeding forward in the dark of night, towards an unknown destination.
It occurred to me I’d never asked the arresting officers for magical proof of their origin, and I wondered with alarm where the journey would end.
Wolfe Merritt Superintendent to the Manufactories and Lands of The Earl of Savage:
The Earl didn’t check the provenance of the arresting officers – if such they were – but there wasn’t much in that, as anyone even with my limited magic could see, from the power coming off them, that they were powerful enough they could only belong to the Royal House.
Of course, I thought with a pang, although it normally didn’t occur to us, travel into our universe being difficult, since we had more powerful magic than almost any other, it didn’t necessarily mean they were envoys of the king of Avalon in our world. It was something to remember when someone had just said that the Lady Helen had gone to another world, and also when it was obvious that we were getting a streak of rogue magic from another world.
But the Earl didn’t do anything obvious to check it, and I hadn’t even thought about it till it was too late.
As my mother used to say, what can’t be cured must be endured. This looked like one of those times to me. I turned to the chit of a maid, who sat there twisting a very pretty apron that was obviously ornamental, being all white and without a single smudge on it. “You heard what the Earl said,” I said.
She nodded. She looked mortal scared, as though she were afraid I’d turn on her and accuse her of some crime.
Look here, I know that I have one of those faces only a mother would think beautiful and even so my mother always told me things like “it’s not how you look, it’s what you do” and “You’re very well to pass” which I took to mean she wasn’t as easily deceived as mothers are supposed to be. Or perhaps that I was uglier than normal for mothers’ sons. It had never bothered me, and my homely face did all the turns I needed a face to do. Only perhaps, briefly, I’d wanted my wife to love me, but I think the problem there was that I was human and she was fey.
However, my face, such as it was, had never cast anyone into despair or made them afraid for their lives, as this little creature seemed to be. She was maybe fourteen at most, far too old to be my daughter, far too young to be my sister, but she reminded me of my sister Jane who is always afraid of strangers, so I tried to speak kindly to her, “If you would please, Annabel, show me to the Lady Helen’s room, so I may take a look at… at what they left behind and see what magical readings I can glean from it?”
Her eyes widened a little and she said, “You’re a magician, then?” which either meant her magic was very little indeed, or that she was being mendacious. I didn’t answer.
She dropped a curtsey and said, “If you would, sir.”
I didn’t correct her, but followed her, up the back stairs of course, and through a maze of narrow corridors that I identified as the servant part of the house. They were well enough, mind, and clean, but there were no rugs on the floor, the walls were white washed, and the glimpse of the one room I caught behind a half opened door was narrow enough to be a monk’s cell and furnished as one would expect of a monk’s cell, with narrow bed, a wooden box at the foot, and a little table for your candle at night.
None of this was strange to me, as my sister Agnes is in service, and I used to visit her when I was much younger.
We went up two flights of stairs and around a few corridors, and then Annabelle opened the door to what was clearly the main portion of the house. At least we came out onto a landing paved in yellow and black marble, with a gilded table against the facing wall and a mirror in an elaborate frame above it.
She looked one way and another and led me firmly down the hall to a door, which she opened.
The room was not what I expected. I don’t, in faith, know what I expected. Perhaps watercolors on the walls, some musical instrument or some note of femininity. I’ve never, as such, been invited to female bedrooms, certainly had never been inside a room of a well to do female, but my sisters while they lived at home had furnished their space with embroidery and lace, and pretty things, as they could afford them.
This room was somber, almost dark, with a four poster bed in the middle, with a plain white cover over it. There was a vast leather chair next to a very large table covered in books. There was a heavy and ponderous armoire, which managed to have piles of books on top. Various tables, scrupulously dusted, supported yet more books.
For a moment I was taken aback, because I’d never have taken Lady Helen for a blue stocking. But then some of the titles on those books jumped at me, and I realized these books were in fact those things commonly called novels: made up stories of mad passion and dazzling adventure and sometimes both, which contain very little factual knowledge and which in fact, according to preachers, pave young girls’ path to perdition.
I’m not wholly sure about that, as m’ mother likes a good novel, and we’ve all been known to read them when they’re adventure, taking turns reading aloud in the evening, while the girls are busy with their needlework and the men with other small tasks that might offer – and so far as I can tell none of my sisters has found that path to perdition and my mother might be the least perdition-ed woman ever.
But surely these many novels, crammed in every portion of the room, seemed to betray a great urge to run away or to have adventures, or both.
No wonder I thought, but then wondered if it was the novels that had caused the urge, or if in fact without the novels the Lady might have done something worse long ago. I had cause to think that I, myself, would long since have gone insane without the ability to dream of a better life, even if the dream would never come true for me or for that matter for Jimmy. Certainly not for Jimmy.
I realized that while I’d been looking around at all the novels, I’d missed Annabelle lifting the mattress. Under it, like spilled gold and onyx were piles of hair clearly from two very different heads, one pale and sunny and the other black and twisty like an ivy plant. I thought of those dark curls framing the Lady Helen’s face and thought how well they suited her. If I hadn’t known the real thing and far too well, I’d have said her face had a touch of the fey – something not quite human and irrepressible. Only, of course, the fey aren’t like that. That is just what humans think of them. They are in fact almost totally devoid of emotion, or at least of emotions we humans can understand. As lief discuss poetry with an oak as have a talk of love with the fey.
I said, “That is the hair?”
Annabelle nodded. She still looked scared. I reached in and took a double handful of the stuff, and told her she could drop the mattress, and she obeyed, and then, as I lay the hair on the table, I asked, “Why do you look so fearful? Know you something you haven’t told me?”
Her eyes widened in startled shock, then she shook her head, then she said, “No. It’s only…” She shook her head. “There is very wrong magic… I felt very wrong… I don’t know how to explain it.”
It was possible she was telling the truth. I put my hands on the hair, and tried to divine where the possessors of the hair had gone.
The smell of spoiled fish, the roaring of the sea and the feeling of magic hit me so strongly I almost fell.
I let go of the hair, and blinked. I knew now what Annabelle had meant. Wherever these girls had gone was where the strand of rogue magic originated.
In The Halls Of The Fish King
Miss Helen Blythe, Sister of The Earl of Savage:
I beg the gentle readers of this tale to believe I’m not a ninny. I was not the sort of little girl who demanded her brother bring her kitten back to life – oh, I admit, once, but I was very young and Jonathan explained to me the idea of necromancy and I didn’t do it again – I didn’t cry when I got hit on the face by a ball, I didn’t complain to nanny when Jonathan’s friends played horrid practical jokes on me, and I never cried to mamma that I was left standing in the chaperon corner, without dancing, ball after ball.
Life and its unfairness were early apparent to me in that mamma preferred my insipid sisters to Jonathan, who might be a rogue but is certainly interesting. And by the age of five, I’d come to realize that unfairness cannot be stopped or cured.
So it was a shock to hear the words emerge from my lips, in the wowwwowww tones of Betty’s cry, “But I don’t wish to marry youoooooo.”
It is gratifying to me to report this must not be the image I present normally, because the fish man looked shocked. His eyes widened as he stared at me, and then he glanced sideways at other fishmen who stood on the steps of his throne and were probably his counselors. You know the type of look. It’s exactly the same look gentlemen will give you when you start crying at a ball because someone stepped on your flounces and tore them. Not that I’ve ever done it. Well, perhaps my very first ball, but only because the gentleman – would you believe an officer of the Private Guard? – tried to convince me it had been my fault that had somehow got my flounces under his big clumsy foot. After mamma had given me a lecture about how one didn’t argue with gentlemen, certainly not in public, and how this would give me a reputation as an archwife, I’d decided that was another of the manifestations of unfairness and kept my mouth shut, even when gentlemen would say blatantly false things, or talk about my inferior female mind. Instead, I’d amused myself by thinking of replies to give them, but had never uttered.
Of course, mamma says it’s because of that that I spend so much time in the chaperones’ corner, even when there are more gentlemen than ladies at a ball. She thinks it’s because I refuse to utter and glare at gentlemen as though they were “the lowest thing in creation.” I don’t think so. I think most of those gentlemen are used to being glared at because they are the lowest thing in creation. I believe I stay in the chaperones’ corner because I’m not beautiful, and I’m not even plain in the common style. My face is too narrow and long. My chin is too pointy. My hair looks rather like overgrown black brambles, and my eyes are dark and with no brilliancy.
Which is why it would be better for everyone if I became a pirate, but certainly not if I became the wife of a fish man. For one, mamma would never approve.
The fish-king looked scared like any mortal man would at my wowowowow exclamation, but then laughed, as though the looks on his henchmen’s faces had reassured him. “And yet, madam, you will undoubtedly marry me. Your enthusiasm is not needed, only that you do it. And when I marry you, you shall have the consolation of a great position and domain over all my subjects.”
And then, before I could realize what he was about to do — not that I could have done much about it, with his guards behind me – he came down the steps. His movement struck me paralyzed with horror, because though he looked like a man and he wore a gentleman’s clothes, he didn’t move like any man I’d ever met. There must be extra joints in his legs, if legs they were, or perhaps they were merely articulated like the tail of a fish, because when he walked his legs swayed and rippled, in an entirely wrong way.
I felt my gorge rise, but could not move, and next thing I knew he was holding me in his arms. His arms were very cold, and he smelled overpoweringly of fish. And then he kissed me, and his kiss tasted of day-old sardines. Fortunately I must have repulsed him as much as he repulsed me, because he let go almost immediately and looked around at his court, and forced a huge smile – this up close, you could tell it was forced – and said, “Welcome my bride, denizens of the deep. With this marriage we shall keep the intruder at bay and the doom from befalling us for yet another generation. With this marriage we shall be saved.”
The din was unbelievable, and their voices were as weirdly wrong as his walk. Once, when I was very little, I’d tried to talk into a glass of milk. Their voices which were fine individually, when in a chorus sounded just like that.
And he really must not like the feel of me, because as soon as they shut up a little, he looked around and said, with an almost frantic effect, “Take my bride and her attendant to the royal chamber and attire her for the ceremony.”
I had a strong feeling no ceremony engaged in down here would be binding on me, though Mama was quite likely to make me abide by it, because it would get me off her hands, mind. On the other hand, if they used magic, they could bind me to this man… well… man shaped heel, and make it impossible for me to escape. That meant I must escape as soon as possible.
I couldn’t do it from this room. Too many people. People shaped sardines, at any rate. I wondered about the bridal chamber. Perhaps there would be fewer.
As though in answer to my prayers, three fish-ladies detached themselves from the crowd. I noted that they were pretty, or at least would be considered pretty in my world, if they didn’t move in as weird a way as their king.
They undulated towards me, on whatever passed for their legs, and they bowed to me and to Betsy, for whom the novel experience was shocking enough to keep her thankfully mute. I think they introduced themselves to me, but I paid no attention at all, though I retained the vague knowledge that they all claimed to be princesses. Whether that meant they were the sisters of the fish-king I didn’t know.
Mama had once gone on a tirade about how one could never be sure of foreign princes and princesses, because what Russians called a prince might mean a member of the royal family, or, for all we knew, might mean a really good lawyer. She was exaggerating and perhaps exercised by the recent intrusion into our king’s court by an endless stream of personages claiming to be high Russian nobility.
But if one couldn’t be sure with a human court, how much less could one be sure with a fishy one.
For all I knew they all thought they were princesses compared to land people. But I followed them, and they showed a very proper deference, turning back to bow at me, only I wish they wouldn’t, because, really, they did not move right and it made me feel queasy.
They took me into a vast, vast room, as large as the throne room, made of an upturned ship and filled with what must be salvage. At least I don’t think they could – anywhere in this watery world – find enough wood for that highly wrought vanity, that massive four poster bed. And this left aside the row upon row of dresses hanging all along a wall.
The dresses had been embellished sea style with pearl rows and bits of shell, but they were undoubtedly material from my world. At least they didn’t look water stained, so I thought likely they’d been taken from sealed trunks in ship’s storage area, and not from the bodies of dead drowning victims, a thought that caused me to shiver.
Upon a chair was the most ornate dress I’d ever seen, and from its cut not less than fifty years old. Yards and yards of silk lace, and row upon row of pearls and rubies. I wondered what ship could have sunk unnoticed with such a cargo, and then I thought that since this watery world wasn’t really in our world, that meant that it could have sunk anywhere. Then I wondered if it had been caused to sink so I would have a dress, and I felt as though there were ice inside my stomach.
Betsy was crying quietly. The silly goose had got her soaking handkerchief from her sleeve and was attempting to dry her eyes with it.
And my attendants were repeating for the third time, that I should undress, so that they could help me into the dress. Well, then. It was now or never.
I’d best, and quickly, get rid of them, so that I could get out of here. I didn’t know if they had enough magic to stop a transport spell, but they might manage it, or else they might come with me, which would be just as bad.
When leaving home I’d used a purchased spell because I’d thought that would make me harder to track. Well, so much for that. This time, I’d do this in my own way and with my own powers. As for where to go – home to recoup and find out how to go anywhere else, would have to do for now. Mama would be shocked at my hair, and likely watch me like a hawk for a while, but she’d soon forget because Jonathan would do something to scare or shock her. And then I could try again. Given my recently acquired aversion to fish maybe pirate queen wasn’t the best profession for me. Maybe I should become a mountain bandit.
I put on my most haughty airs – it helps to imitate mama – and said, “I will not undress in the presence of strangers. Leave us. My attendant will help me.”
To my surprise it worked. They bowed and left. But I was sure they’d be watching at the door, and when Betsy started warbling, “Oh, miss,” I put my finger to my lips to keep her quiet, then put my arm around her waist, and started to build the transport spell. It felt like I was working against a great, wet weight, like trying to jump from under a soaked wool blanket, but I was always good at contriving ways to do magical things, mostly because I could never do them the normal way. Possibly because of papa’s elven heritage.
Just before I put the last bit of spell in place and thought of home with all my might, I saw a long, long coil of pearls on the vanity. GOOD rosy pearls, which should allow me to endow my sisters and have enough to live independently my whole life. Maybe I’d not need to be a mountain bandit after all. I reached over, took them, clutched them to me, and, holding Betsy, put the last key in place and thought home.
In the next moment I was falling onto a man. The impact of my fall caused him to fall backwards. Betsy landed beside me, on her behind, with a splash.
The man landed with a splash too. We were in bracken water to our ankles, and if this were home, someone was going to get told off for flooding the basements of the house.
“Who are you?” I asked the man.
But he didn’t answer me. He was looking behind me, his eyes wide, and he said one word, “Hell.”
All The Fish In The Sea
Wolfe Merrit, Overseer to the Earl Of Savage’s properties and manufactories:
There are several things you should never, ever, do when wild magic is running rampant in your world, corrupting all magic workings you could perform. Particularly there are things you should not do in a room from which two young ladies disappeared by magical means and almost certainly hadn’t gone where they meant to go.
The first one of them, of course, would be trying to reach through the hair to the creature to whom it belonged and pull her back.
Yes, surely, of course, I know I absolutely should not do that. I passed primary instruction.
What I did not pass was – apparently — the basic test for human common sense. My mother had said so, when I showed home with a wife who was an elf-lady I’d found naked in the forest. I’d protested then, and she’d not said it again. Probably because she liked Jimmy too much to hurt him.
But some would argue my besetting sin was having less brain than the chickens who at least knew how to get out of the wet and go perch.
Faced with that pile of hair, the curly, dark one, the golden one, my hand on it, I thought of Lady Helen.
I’d never spoken to her, but only seen her to look at. She reminded me of my wife, and that’s the truth, even if I rather think the Earl’s family would bring an action at law against me if I ever so much as hinted it outside my own head.
It’s not that she looked like the fey. Most of them are pale and wan, very tall, very thin. My wife was, and even Jimmy has a bit of that look, like he is not real enough for the world. ‘course the king of elves, who came to the princess’s wedding to Darkwater – only some people say as they’d married before, but that’s just gossip – had dark curls, as much as you could see of it, under that head dress of golden leaves, but I figured that came from being half brother to the Darkwaters who are all dark and sharp looking like Greek merchants.
But for all she was neither pale nor excessively tall nor so thin that she looked unnatural, the Lady Helen had something… Something like she wasn’t quite tamed. Like you’ll come along a forest, on a summer evening, and see a deer, and they’re quite tame around our place because the Savages don’t hunt, nor do they like us to. You’ll see the deer there, browsing on leaves, and it doesn’t quite run, but the moment you come around the edge of the leaves, and it catches sight of you, it will get that look in its eyes, like in its mind it’s already galloping away.
Lady Helen gave me the same impression, the same look like at any moment she would turn and kick off her shoes and run, and run into another world, another dimension, the disordered world of the fey where she could be free and finally be herself. Her brother had a touch of it but not as strong, or perhaps I didn’t react as much to it, because he was a man and not a comely female.
Elves will have their glamour.
I can’t put it higher than that, but what I can tell you is that every time I’d seen the lady arrayed in the proper muslins and lace of a debutant, I’d wanted to take her under my arm, toss her across my saddle and run off with her into a land of adventure.
Only of course I didn’t have a saddle, or a horse of my own, and what could I offer an earl’s sister, I who had nothing and came from farmers, and who probably was still legally married to my vanished wife. Insofar as marriage to elves was legal, which was a matter that the courts had been debating for years, in cases more prominent than mine.
So I’d done nothing, and I’d said nothing. I looked around the room with all its books. She couldn’t escape her station no more than I could escape mine, and she didn’t fit it no better. And she’d tried to get away via a fantastic plan. And… Something had gone horribly wrong.
Yes, as soon as the idea that I could free her, I could bring her back to this world by the sympathetic magic in her hair, came to me, I thought that it was a bad idea. The transport spell had gone wrong, after all. All magic was going wrong. Spinning machines were flying off their sockets and sending parts flying all over the shop, destroying other machines and almost beheading two lint boys which had only escaped because I managed to send a protection spell to them in time.
But my protection spell had worked. Perhaps there was something in my contact with fey magic had given me protection.
Before I could quite call myself to sense, I had laid my hand square on the pile of hair, and I started the words of the call-back spell, “Quaero, feri—”
The maid screamed. There was a flash of light, a smell of scorch, a sense, as though the floorboards heaved and moved.
I fell from a great height, but couldn’t see where I was, until I landed. I’d prepared for it, and landed on my feet, my legs held loose, to take the impact. But I wasn’t ready for cold water up to my ankles, and I almost fell. I’d just retrieved my balance, when someone fell on me and someone beside me. In the dim greenish light, I couldn’t see who for a moment, then I realized it was the Lady Helen in front of me, outlandishly attired in breeches and coat, her short hair on end, a splash of greenish something across her face.
She fell on me, and we both fell back into the water, or whatever it was. It smelled like water that had been used and passed through a living thing. Several times. She was so warm, and, despite the reek surrounding us, she smelled so good that I hesitated a moment before pulling her up to her feet and standing myself.
I’d never seen such a beautiful woman, not even my wife in the forest, in all her elven splendor.
But I had no time for daydreaming, as something came from somewhere ahead of us. It’s hard to describe. There was this sound like a big creature splashing in deep water, and then there was … It looked like a shark made entirely out of iron, and it lunged at us.
I said “Hell,” and grabbed Lady Helen and her companion who I assumed was the maid, around the waist, and I pulled them both backward with me, reasoning that if the place forward was deeper water, this would be shallow.
I was right, as we landed in a soft, sort of squishy place, and the creature who hand lunged at us landed where we had been, and glared at us with glowing, vicious yellow eyes, before somehow sliding itself back into the water.
The maid was crying, softly by our side, and the Lady Helen was heaving with deep breaths atop of me, and I thought she was going to cry, and I said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I tried to use the bringing spell to bring you back to your room.”
She took one large, long sigh, and she pounded her fists on my chest. It didn’t hurt. It was much like when my little sister used to try to punch me when she was little. But it was startling. As were her words. “You stupid man,” she said. “You stupid man. I tried to transport us home and your stupid spell had bring us here to this stinky place where you were. Why did you think I wanted to come here?”
“I didn’t. I was in your room. I tried to bring you there.”
She disentangled herself from my arms. She glared at me. “You did not. You can’t have. If you did why am I here?”
“The magic has gone rotten,” I said, pulling myself to my feet and standing. “the magic is doing odd things. That’s why your transport spell went wrong. It’s happening all over the world.”
I thought she was going to cry, but she didn’t. Her lips did funny things but when she said, “Oh!” it was in a tone of great anger. “I cannot believe my cursed luck. Just when I had everything ready to esca—” She stopped as though it occurred to her she was about to give away her grand plan, as though anyone with more sense than a kitten wouldn’t already have figured it out. She really needed a minder. She should be kept inside and warm. The image of my mother’s kitchen fire flashed in my mind, and of Lady Helen all cozy in the big rocking chair, wrapped in mamma’s best quilt. The idea was so incongruous I almost laughed. Instead I said, “It’s worse than that. If it goes on, it will unravel the magic of the whole world, and we all die.”
She glared at me. Then she said, “Even Jonathan? My brother?”
I nodded. It seemed obvious that if everyone died the Lord Savage would too. But people in shock think in strange ways.
Her mouth compressed tight. “Well, we mustn’t let it happen then. He has never had any happiness you know, and it wouldn’t be right.”
I was sure there were a lot of other people who’d never had any happiness, and that she herself must not have much, and that if the Lord Savage hadn’t had happiness, he must have had something that passed for it, if rumors of his drinking and routing were true. But I started to suspect this unhappy girl-woman thought she was going to protect her big brother.
And meanwhile, I was looking around, trying to size up our predicament, and I wasn’t liking it at all. It was far, far worse than I thought or else I was seeing things.
“Who are you anyway?” she asked. “And where are you.”
“I’m Wolfe Merritt, m’lady, the supervisor of manufactories and general factotum to your family. I’ve seen you once or twice, but I don’t think as we ever had occasion to get acquainted. And as to where we are. I think we’re inside something.”
“We’re obviously inside something. The open air doesn’t smell this foul. Well, except near the privies. But what?” Her little maid had picked herself up and was looking at me with huge eyes behind the lady’s shoulder. I hated to say what I was going to say both to the lady false courage and to the maid’s obvious fear. But they had to know.
“No,” I said. I pulled the lady over, and pointed upward, to where the low roof looked like a pink membrane, rising and falling like something… breathing. “I think we are inside something living. A creature.”
Come Into My Web
The Honorable Jonathan Blythe, Earl of Savage:
The carriage started trundling along at last. I’d tried pulling back the curtains on the windows, but they seemed to be of some magical material that would not budge to all my frantic clawing. I was at the point of considering using magic, though in a container with unknown magical potential that was playing with fire near a pile of lint, when the carriage stopped.
The stop was odd. There was no slowing down, and no sound of the horses’ steps spacing further apart. Just one moment we were bowling along, and the next moment we were completely stopped. Just before that moment there had been a tingle, as though we’d crossed through a veil. I filed this away for future thought, though I had no idea at all what it might mean.
When the door opened, I was shocked to find that the outside was enveloped in such dense fog that there was no seeing anything much past the tip of my nose.
Through this sort of grey-whiteness, I perceived what looked like the guards who’d picked me up at my house, but it was impossible to see them clearly through the fog.
In front of me was the open door of an house that looked very much like the building in Cheapside where Seraphim had made the offices of the Witchfinder.
I looked at the door with some misgiving. There was no reason at all to be wary, except that the fog didn’t feel right, that carriages don’t go from full gallop to a complete stop in ten seconds, and that I’d forgotten to scan the envoys for their origin. A glancing magical probe aimed at them now, showed them covered in the full protection of his majesty’s magic, but by that time I didn’t trust any of my senses, including magical.
I considered running in another direction – any direction but that door – but I had a tingle down the middle of my back, and the uncomfortable feeling that if I ran, there would be nothing under my feet.
So I went to the door. At some point a man has to trust in his magic and in his dagger – of which I actually had three, concealed about my person. I always did, because sometimes you come to a point where you need a blade and it saves your life. There was this one time, when Freddy and I were boxing the watch– I swept the thought away from my mind.
As always when I felt in danger, I also felt awake and alive in a way I never managed at other times.
Inside the open door, in the comfortably dim but not dark hall, I noted that everything looked like the ante-chamber of Seraphim’s office. Don’t ask me why, but this made me more suspicious than ever that it – in fact – wasn’t Seraphim’s office. Perhaps it’s a defect in my character?
In front of me a page who looked strangely indistinct, considering there was no fog inside, opened the door and sang out, “The right Honorable, the Earl of Savage, Jonathan Blythe.” And I walked into Seraphim’s office.
There was a fire burning in the fireplace, and Seraphim himself sat behind his massive desk which was, as always, covered in papers. I’d been in Seraphim’s office often enough to know that the desk looked just so, including the two cups of coffee forgotten atop a pile of paper who knew how many weeks ago. Seraphim’s servants at the office were afraid to touch anything, lest they disarrange a field of magic that the prince consort was keeping carefully tamped down.
The man behind the desk was looking through a pile of papers, and said without looking up, “Hello, Jonathan.”
This too was expected and normal, since he rarely did look up. But I had it now, even from this angle, and with the grey light from the windows playing sideways on the man’s bent head and his features. I sighed as histrionically as I could manage it. “You have an odd sense of humor, your majesty.”
The man looked up. I read unguarded surprise in his eyes, and he cleared his throat. “The prince consort can be addressed as his grace but not as his majesty,” he said, sounding vaguely hurt.
I pulled at a nearest chair, felt it with both hand and magic, because in this place it was hard to tell whether it was real or not, then dropped into it. “Yes, indeed,” I said. “I’m very nice on all matters of etiquette, your majesty. I’m fairly sure that I wouldn’t call the prince consort his majesty. Just like I wouldn’t call the king of fairy your grace. Give up, Penn, do. I remember you from Eton.” When he’d been considerably less insane than at this moment. I wondered, fleetingly, if it was the amount of magic that fairyland put out that made its inhabitants insane. Mind you, Gabriel Penn, given his family’s peculiarities and the fact he’d managed to be at the same time a son of the house and a servant, depending on who was judging his status and how it suited them to act, had more than enough reason to go insane long before becoming the king of fairyland. But with all that, he’d always seemed, with Seraphim, fairly sensible for a Darkwater.
Now he looked so disappointed he might have been a child promised a sweet and given a kick. He dropped to sitting on his chair, behind the desk, and stared at me, “How did I give myself away?”
One of the things all the fey delight in is fooling humans. I’d never expected it from Gabriel Penn who until a few months ago had been full human, or at least passed as such, but I wondered if it was a need of fairyland. I ticked his mistakes on my fingers, “The carriage stopped too suddenly, there was no sound of hooves slowing down, there was no sound from the horses in the front of the carriage either, the fog was a bit much and didn’t feel right. It was like being inside clotted cream. Oh, and Seraphim calls me Jon, not Jonathan. And if he’d been fool enough to send for me, as though under arrest – that didn’t ring true either, your majesty – he’d have kept those two men one on either side of me all the way in here. Because he doesn’t trust me more than he can help. Perhaps with good reason. Oh, and your spoofing of the Avalon king’s magic was too perfect, like… like a memorized spell.”
To my surprise, he grinned at me. He looked a lot like Seraphim, though if I remembered correctly, at least when he’d been fully human, he’d been somewhat shorter. He had the Darkwater aquiline nose, the oddly bright eyes, and the dark curls that had all been the old Duke’s – and very liberally spread all through Avalon and not a few other countries besides, given the old man’s proclivities.
Gabriel Penn, a year older than Seraphim Ainsling, Duke of Darkwater, but not legitimate and therefore not the heir, had been raised with the family from childhood, and had attended school with Seraphim, rooming with his younger brother and occupying a slippery position between roommate and valet. As far as I could tell from their interaction, Seraphim considered him a brother and roommate, and Gabriel Penn considered himself Seraphim’s valet. This made it impossible for any one else of us to know how to relate to this strange figure in our midst.
He was still a strange figure. Perhaps more so, since through a series of odd circumstances he’d become the king of elvenland almost a year ago.
His smile discomfited me, and now that he wasn’t bothering to hide it, I could see tendrils of his power spreading all over, so that the person I was facing, what used to be Gabriel Penn, my classmate at Eton and Cambridge, was … something fully powerful and not fully human.
He sighed, a very human sigh, removed one of the several rings on his fingers, and played with it nervously between his hands. “I was hoping,” he said. “To have a little more time to lay out the problem to you, which is why I thought if you believed I was Seraphim…”
Which would be like his believing I was a bunny. Again, what is it about fey magic? Does it render them all a little mad? Gabriel had lived in the world of men and knew the rules. Surely he could have pretended better?
He seemed to read my thoughts, something that always discomfited me. “Time is odd here,” he said. “Or perhaps it is that the change was so great. It feels like centuries since I lived on Earth. One forgets details.”
One might very well, but this one, I thought, was rumored to visit Earth often enough, to consort with his lover, my brother in law, and to spend time with his half-sibling and other family, that one would think one would maintain some grasp on earthly realities.
I didn’t say it. If you argue with a king, you’d best be prepared to kill him. Instead I said, “I have a meeting with Seraphim at noon.”
“I know. I wished to talk to you first. You can decide how much to tell him.”
“I thought you told your brother everything, your majesty?”
He looked puzzled. “Seraphim and I have different… I don’t want to burden his conscience unnecessarily.”
“But you’d burden mine?”
“You have one?”
Touche. I raised eyebrows at him and said nothing, though in fact, I do have a conscience. It’s just constituted differently from other people’s, and I do not even know why.
“Very well,” he said. “My brother will have told you the magic has gone rotten. What he’ll not have told you…”
He sighed. “You know there are many other worlds?”
“Elementary. Else the need for a witchfinder to rescue the magical from a world where it’s forbidden would be none. Besides, we learn it in nursery.” Fine, so fey really made these people mad.
“Indeed. Well… we were taught when very young that fairyland was a parasite world, which sucked magic out of other worlds, and that in fact some of the known worlds without magic were sucked dry by fey. As you know that has been revised to fairyland being the spoke on the magic wheel, the one thing that keeps magic flowing.”
I nodded. All this had been explained through our late and rather unpleasant adventure.
“So…” He brought the fingers of his hands together, tip to tip, a very Gabriel Penn gesture, and leaned forward, colored motes dancing in his eyes in a way that was nothing human. “Suppose there really is a world that is a parasite. It has for years been confused with fairyland, partly because humans ascribe divine attributes to both – erroneously, in our case at least. We’re just… more magical. A world that needs human worlds to survive and that has been careening from world to world, hitting where might, stealing magic and moving on?”
“I’d need some proof before—”
He waved that away. “I can show you proof. Proof enough. Mathematical proof. Marlon worked it out for me.”
Ah. My brother in law was one of the true geniuses of our generation. All the same, I’d talk to him outside this cursed place. Fairyland is not good for even part-elves and it can twist their reason, and if this king was going as mad as the last one, Marlon wouldn’t be far behind. Propinquity and all that.
“So, what would this world be?” I asked. “A… anti-fairyland?”
The thing that had been Gabriel Penn pursed his lips and looked for a second wholly human and very worried, at least if one ignored unseen magical winds making his hair flutter and the tendrils of power extending from him, power that would be enough to kill a mortal man if he held it for a second.
“You humans called it, among other things, Olympus. Also, Valhala, also many other names.”
Jonas Was Not An Instruction Manual
Lady Helen Blythe, sister of the Earl of Savage:
He said we were inside something – inside a living creature. I didn’t shriek. I pride myself on not shrieking. Betsy didn’t shriek, either, but I think that’s because she hadn’t quite understood what he said. Instead, she clung to my arm and looked all around with big, worried eyes.
Part of my mind was misgiving me, because I should never have brought the poor child into this adventure, and the other part of me wondered at my misgiving. The servants had just always been there, and it was their job to do what I wished, was it not?
I looked at the big rough man in the dark suit, with his bad haircut and his blunt features. I had a sudden feeling he would in no way agree with my assessment, since, in a way, he could be considered a servant, could he not?
Laughter bubbled up my throat, and I coughed to disguise it, and when Mr. Wolfe looked at me, I said, very seriously, “It truly is an awful smell, is it not?”
His eyes were grave, and narrowed, as he nodded. “I suspect,” he said. “That we’ve been… swallowed.”
I tried to imagine something large enough to have swallowed us whole, and to contain this immense chamber as well as… surely more? I looked upward, towards the place he’d pointed, the place from which light came. I remembered nanny reading to us about Jonas. That was something I’d never thought would happen to me. Sure, piracy and running away to sea… All right, perhaps my understanding of such things hadn’t been – still wasn’t – perfect, but was it not probable that I could have managed to learn it? Surely, even the pirate world couldn’t be more complex and baffling than the world of the ton.
Mr. Wolfe was walking, decidedly. I said, “Where are you going?” He turned around and looked at me blankly for a moment, then said the one word, “out.”
I hate men like that, who will answer things as though they were obvious when they clearly can’t be. “What do you mean out?” I asked. “You can’t know which way is out.”
He frowned a little. “I think we’re in the alimentary canal of some large creature,” he said. “I think one way or the other we will go out, but we must perforce go one way.”
I thought of the “one way or the other” and shuddered and almost said “you can’t mean it, which was stupid, for it was plain as his square, undemonstrative face that he did mean it.
I bit my lower lip and refused to act like a gabby. After all, if we needed that I’d explain to Betsy exactly where we were. I looked at her glazed looking eyes and felt bad again I’d dragged her into this. No. I was not a monster of cruelty.
I couldn’t however just go meekly so I said, “Why don’t we use magic?”
He clamped his hand on my upper arm and said, “Listen … lady,” the pause led me to believe he’d almost said something quite different. “Listen, look up.”
I looked, to where the pink ceiling that was all too obviously flesh moved. And then I saw it, the almost too subtle sparkle. “It’s a magical animal,” I said.
“I think so,” he said. “Indeed, I do think so. And you will realize with the magic going bad, it would be a very bad idea to use it inside a magical being.”
“I think—” I said, then stopped, because I couldn’t explain to him that I thought we were inside the thing that shook and rattled and tried to break through beneath the fish-men city. But he looked quizzically at me. He hadn’t let go of my arm, and I didn’t make him. He wasn’t holding too tightly, and his human warmth was strangely comforting in this place. “What do you think?” he asked. “You said you were trying to get out before, trying to transport home. Were you two always inside this, since you disappeared?”
“No,” Betsy wailed. It was sudden and decisive. “Noooo. We were in the city of the mermen, and their king wanted to marry Miss.” She paused a moment. “At least I think it was Miss he wanted to marry, as he kissed her.”
Now Mr. Wolfe’s eyes were concerned indeed, as he turned on me. He moved all the while, walking close to a moving, vertical pink wall, on a little ledge that was probably tissue, although I was choosing to think of it as a path. To the right of us, as we followed this ledge, there was a foaming… I’d have thought it was an ocean, except it smelled sulfurous, and was a deep glowing green. I was afraid if we fell in it, we’d dissolve, but I was none too sure that the path would continue. What animal was this? Even when I’d heard it – if that was what it was – beneath the city of the fishmen, I couldn’t tell what it was. An aquatic animal? The idea of the whale flashed again, but I had an idea that whales swallowed a lot of sea water, and surely it would be cleaner inside a whale.
“Tell me,” Mr. Wolfe said.
And to avoid thinking of the foaming green liquid, to avoid thinking the path might run out, I told him everything since we’d got out of my room. For a moment I thought he was amused, when I told him how it couldn’t be any harder to be a pirate than to be a debutant in the ton, particularly given the rumors about my family. But then his face grew grave, and when I told him about the fish place, he said, “This world is not known.”
“Well, it’s not my fault,” I said.
Strange amusement danced in his eyes. “You know, my lady,” he said. “You are, in many ways very young. You remind me of my son.”
“Your son!” I said. And then because I’d rather think of anything than actually where we were, I said. “How old is he?”
He shrugged. “Jimmy,” he said. “Is six.”
“Is he very smart?” I asked. It’s been my experience that high born or low born every parent loves to speak of his child, and I needed Mr. Wolfe to like me and want to help me. But he only gave me an odd look. “He is… very odd,” he said, which made me think that Mr. Wolfe himself was very odd, but I didn’t know what to say.
“The pearls,” he said. “Do you still have them?”
I nodded and prepared to do battle if he told me I had to toss them into the acid bath, or whatever it was on our right. But my tense muscles relaxed, when he said, “I think they might protect us. I think– There is a structure… Can you wind them around your waist, though, under your clothes, so you don’t risk losing them or their being immediately visible? We might met with malefactors.”
I stared at him, “Inside a whale?”
He looked above us. “I don’t think this is a whale.”
“Inside whatever it is?”
“Well, we are here, are we not? And it looks very large.”
I didn’t like the idea. But I shut up, extracted the pearls from my soggy pocket and did as I was told, tying them firmly in a knot. They wouldn’t have been very well concealed, except my clothes were now such a mess that a few bulges would never be noticed.
Mr. Wolfe stopped. “Ah,” he said.
“Ah?” I said.
“Ah. We can’t go any further. “ He showed me pink ledge enlarged into a sort of protuberance, and then ended.
“Oh,” I said.
“Fortunately,” he said. “It looks like I was right about there being people in here.” He pointed with a trembling finger. On the… green liquid, there was a very odd looking ship, with sails that seemed inflated by an unfelt wind. It looked somewhat like the Spanish ships at the time of the armada.
“They can’t be people,” I said, my mind rebelling.
Mr. Wolfe sighed. “Let’s hope they are.”
“And let us hope they have food,” Betsy said, with a small sigh.
I should have been prepared when they came for me, and I should have arranged to receive them in style. I didn’t. I must be losing my edge.
Correction, I had lost my edge. Why else had I written that soppy letter to Jonathan Blythe? What had possessed me, pray? Oh, he was a handsome rogue, all right, and rotten all through, and what business did I have thinking about him, much less being so stupid as to write to him before I left?
But I remembered the way he had fought on that awful night, and the sort hopeless courage in his eyes, that light that was neither enjoyment nor despair, but was both at th same time. And I didn’t want him to think I’d simply vanished, without giving him another thought.
People like him have trouble enough in the world. Well, in this world, at least. They don’t fit too well, and their behavior is seen either as callous or as perverse. It is neither of course, they’re just… different from their kind.
If I had time, if I’d been born in different times and in a different place, if there were no great work that called me, and no greater duty requiring me to attend to it, I’d have spent some time in some retired magical university studying whether people like Jonathan are what gave rise to my people, or perhaps if it is his elf blood that makes him slightly mad in a world not adapted to it.
But I didn’t have time, and this lifetime was not a good opportunity to get to know Jonathan better or to delve deeper into what made him tick.
Which is why that soppy letter was such a bad mistake. And why I should have expected the Witchfinder to send for me shortly after. I could feel him sniffing close and tracking my activities all along, ever since I’d arrived in Avalon. Him and the other. I should have known the moment I let the letter go – and with my tears, yet – one or the other would send for me.
Let’s be glad it wasn’t the other. Though at first I wasn’t sure of that, not when the knocks sounded at the door to my cheap rented room bright and early that morning. I was dressed and ready to go, my valise packed, my coat ready to put on. In fact, I was adjusting my hat over my pile of red, curly hair – ginger, so ugly, as they would think it here – when the knock on the door came.
I did what any half-baked witch would do and sensed through the door, feeling the shape and zing of the king’s magic. Which could be true, or a spoof, but was bad news in either case, so I backed away into the room and tried to cast a transport spell back home. And found the path bricked. And every path around it, equally blocked. Whatever power had sent the men outside my door had taken care to block every magical path around me so that I could not leave.
Which meant I was trapped. Caught like a magical mouse, in a trap. There remained only acting innocent and opening the door, which I did, turning my limpid eyes to the two large men out there, and saying, “Yes? How may I help you?”
They looked at me, and there was no diminution of the suspicion in their eyes, no hint that perhaps they didn’t suspect me of terrible crimes. Of course, they couldn’t suspect me of a crime as bad as what I’d perpetrated on their world. They were tall and dark, and had square jaws and the sort of look that said they’d seen it all and were not going to think me innocent and harmless, no, not even if I chanced to look it.
“Miss Ginevra Elfborne?” the near one said.
“Yes,” I said, and raised my eyebrows, in complete innocence. I wasn’t, of course, but Elfborne was the closest this world could understand to what I was, so I wasn’t even lying.
“By order of his Majesty’s Witchfinder, Seraphim Ainsling, his Grace the Duke of Darkwater, we are taking you into the custody of the department of unauthorized magics.”
“Me?” I said, and aimed for innocence, but my voice fluted out of control all on its own. Oh, I knew I was caught and it was a fair cop before that. But I didn’t expect them to use the full name and titles of either the Witchfinder or the department. In my opinion when people get all fancy with words, the news is bad. It’s very bad. “I mean, why could you wish to apprehend me?”
The one who hadn’t spoken – they looked like twins – shook his head. “Pardon me, Miss, we’re not investigators and we’re not judges. We’re not even judicial mages. We’re just meant to take you to someone who can do what’s needed. By the laws of Avalon, by the writ of Arthur, in the code of Merlin, you’ll get your hearing, and your chance at defense. But now you must come with us.”
I started towards the door, then backed for my valise, picked it up, and, as I walked towards them tried a Cerberus spell, thus called because it had been used once – and only once, mind, before the shields were repaired – for a human to escape Hades. It was the sort of spell that made someone fall into a sleep so you could walk past. Sometimes the sleep lasted very long. One of the worlds has a silly story about a princess and her court who slept for centuries.
Revision. Maybe it’s not a silly story. It’s not unlikely, if it was coupled or followed by a stasis spell so people didn’t eat or breathe in their magic sleep. I don’t know for a fact the veracity of that story, so I can’t bet either way. Betting is bad for the likes of me anyway.
I cast that Cerberus spell with all my might, flinging it at like a net at the magical guards. It flowed around them and then through them, as though they weren’t there, and returned to me quite untouched. I almost screamed with frustration, and more so when one of them smiled and said, “Miss, that will be no use. We’ve been trained.”
This is when I started fearing it was the Other who had sent for me, and the thought so chilled me that I went quietly into a magically protected carriage, from which not even the Pater himself could have transported.
I couldn’t even tell where we were, as the carriage bowled along. I couldn’t even tell – not with magic – where we were when we stopped.
The guards ushered me out and walked with me into a vast building, where men bowed to me – or to them – until we got to a large door, which was opened for us by two uniformed men, who stood aside to let us enter.
He stood behind his desk, a good mahogany desk of graceful design which barely hid the fact that it was in fact a massive piece of furniture, with a top large enough for three normal desks, all of it shockingly piled with papers and clutter.
For a moment, when he looked up, I was afraid it was really the Other and my breath caught in my throat, but then I saw his magic pattern, plain as day, and it wasn’t something he could disguise. It wasn’t even something he was trying to disguise.
He was dark haired, beak nosed, green eyed, as all the Darkwaters, and his magic pattern was all Darkwater, too. Powerful, doubtless. Very powerful. But human and clearly solid and –
Not, definitely not, something with any spark of fairyland in it.
It will tell you how badly I was rattled at that point that the relief made me feel as though my legs had turned to water. It must have shown in my face, because as the man behind the desk rose and bowed to me there was a small smile on his lips.
“Miss Ginevra?” he said. “Pardon me for not calling you Miss Elfborn, but that I know you’re not.”
And this after the relief was a punch in the stomach. “You kn– kn—know? I said, sounding like a low-grade nymph with no more brain than magic.
The smile grew. “Certainly. Or do you think I don’t speak with my brother?”
I closed my eyes. I was hoping he didn’t speak with his brother. Or rather, I was hoping his brother didn’t give him enough access to ascertain the falsehood of my magic’s signature and the tracing of it to a supposed elf mother.
Rats! I thought, which is unladylike, but there it is. Rats! Which is how I was caught, more or less. Like a rat, in an unbreakable cage. And now I would sing for my supper. Or did rats sing? I could never remember how things were supposed to work in this world.
I let myself drop into an armchair facing the desk. When caught Pater always says, there’s two things you can do. One of them is to seduce them. I looked at the man still standing behind the desk, his green eyes full of humorous scrutiny as they rested on me. He didn’t trust me an inch and he was concerned enough about what I was, or who I was, which showed he was no fool. But he was amused by me, which might mean—
I smiled at him, and the echo back had not one drop of lust. He might as well be the Other on that, only if the rumors was truth, this one was just truly bonded to his wife, Avalon’s insipid little found-again-princess.
I sighed. The second path, Pater said, was to act helpless and lost and to appeal to the humans best instincts. I wondered if this one had any.
Jonathan Blythe, Earl of Savage,
I let myself go boneless on the seat for a moment, at the thought of another world, another magical threat. It had been bad enough to be caught in what we’ll call for lack of a better word the elvenland wars of succession.
To be caught in something else, something having to do with myth… I sat up suddenly and narrowed my eyes at the King of Elves. “Your majesty will forgive me, but—”
He grinned “That bad?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“You started with Your Majesty, not Penn, and certainly not Gabriel. That bad?”
I waved a hand away. “Bad enough. Your Majesty will forgive me my presumption, but would you tell me, perhaps how different such a world can be from yours? Isn’t your world considered a myth by mankind in most of the worlds in which magic is forbidden?”
For a moment, he looked genuinely shocked. It is always bad to guess whether an elf is showing his true face but this one looked to be doing just that and to be genuinely shocked. He took a deep breath. “Too far, my dear Jon,” he said, though his tone was not dangerous and he didn’t seem to be threatening me. “I am not responsible for what humans do when they make up stories to themselves of what is real and what isn’t.” He sighed. “No. I beg your pardon. I am human too or at least.” He rubbed the middle of his forehead with two fingers, as though he had a headache. I remembered the same gesture from Seraphim. “Or at least I remember being human, remember it vividly enough I didn’t mean “human” as an insult. No. In some ways I wish I had the luxury of being human still. But it is true that you – we – in our ignorance of deeper magic—“ He puffed out his cheeks and let himself fall back upon his chair, as though despondent. “When I ascended,” he sounded like a corpse describing his own death day. “When I ascended to my current… dignities I found that there were many things that not only do humans not know, but humans can’t know. The way my mind is now… I see in places you cannot see. It’s like having a wholly different sense that is magic and senses magic. You know how you can see magic patterns and the traces of magic, being a magic-user. My people, we… I, now, can see with magic, all the time, like an extra sense. To be honest I always could. Like the language of elves, which is inborn, so that our day-old babes can speak it, so is magic like that, existent, all the time. But I chose not to use it while on Earth. I voluntarily blinded myself to it.”
“But becoming king of elves,” he said, “forced me to open my eyes and forced me also to see things I didn’t wish to see, to know things—
“There are worlds, there are divisions in magic, there are flavors I can’t describe to you. Suffice it to say that fairyland is a whole integral land, that now and then interacts with human worlds. The mythworld is … I won’t say it was created by human minds and human magic. I was, at least in my human form, a Christian, raised as such in the Darkwater household.” He furrowed his brow. “I wonder what the good Reverend Dickson would think of me now, should I show up for the services. But whatever he may think there is no inherent war between my people and Christianity. There is a dispute over whether salvation applies to us, whether pure elves have a soul. I don’t know. I don’t see why it shouldn’t. We’re… close enough to humans. But the myth worlds are different. It might have been created through human belief, through human need for powerful entities in which to believe. It might have been created – Marlon thinks so, at least – through the fall of Adam. He thinks so but can’t prove it with math and I prefer not to follow where he goes just because I trust him.” He grinned at my expression. “My love does not blind me, Jon. He’s a man and therefore fallible. I’m an elf and therefore also fallible. Our fallibility is just of a different order. I don’t allow him here, by the way,” he gestured in such a way, that it might mean this office or his whole realm. “I can’t. He’s too much of fairyland that it would start colonizing his mind, and make it hard for him to live where he has chosen. I visit him, when I can. That is good. It helps me remember being human. And right now, my memory of being human tells me he’s guessing. But in either case, the mythworld is… subservient to humans. I told you it was a parasite. It might not be able to be anything else.”
“Yes, but why would it attack our world now? And why our world in particular. Is it simply our turn?”
The creature who’d been Gabriel Penn shook his head. “Oh no. It is in dire crisis. One of their own, older than rational man, has awakened and it is … making demands. I think they built a prison for it, but I’m not sure how it works. This is disturbing as I think they have taken part of my realm, and are preventing me from seeing it. But their own is… cannibalizing them. Taking all their energy for what it thinks will be an attack on human worlds.
“However, part of what caused him to wake… part of what… Your father, Jon, what do you know about your father’s activities?”
I felt color drain from my face, leaving me blanched and cold. “Good God,” I said. “Not Papa’s activities.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“I know he used magic to trade with and swindle humans. I know he unscrupulously arranged to have travel forbidden to non-magic worlds so only he could do it and his fraud could not be detected. He might have traded in objects of power. I know he was behind the kidnapping of the princess. How can there be more?”
He gave me an odd smile, lopsided. “It is good to know I’m not the only one who has to blush for his relatives.”
“I’m glad to give you pleasure, your majesty,” I said, in my most caustic tone.
He laughed, suddenly. “No, Jon, but leaving that aside. Your father seems to have found a way into mythworld and to have taken part of it.”
“Part of… what?”
He sighed. “I’m not sure. Valkyries. Maenads. What you call them. Warrior women full of vengeance. He found a way to bend some of them to his will, to make them do his bidding. I’ve not found out why yet. But it was those women, dislocated to Avalon who caused the elder god to wake up. It seems they were part of his guard. I’m not sure why your father would do that, or what benefit redounded to him.”
“Some, you can be sure,” I said acidly. “That much is guaranteed..”
“Yes, but I haven’t pinned down what yet, and I’m not sure it matters. When the elder woke, it steered the world towards Avalon, and there it connected to its lost members and… Since it was in dire need of magic due to the awakened elder, its members got a new mission – to take Avalon’s magic. As much of it as possible. This in turn corrupted Avalon’s magic, and the world as we know it will disintegrate without it.”
I opened my mouth to ask him what he cared.
“Don’t,” he said. “I know it’s not my world, anymore, but there’s Seraphim, and Nell, and Caroline and Michael, and yes, there is also Marlon. If I lost them I’d lose most of me. All that remains human in me.” He sighed. “And also, through them they can get to me, and through me Fairyland. Since their need is great because everytime they grow their irrational elders grow, this means they can devour all the worlds. Jon, think. Surely it is worth fighting?”
I stared at him for a moment, my eyes unfocused. “But… why would I be able to do anything?”
He sighed again. “Your mind,” he said. “tastes the same as theirs. Your magic is more similar to theirs than any I can see. Jon, no,” this was in answer to my half rising, offended. “I don’t say it to wound you, and I don’t even say you have anything of them, though surely you know gods copulated indiscriminately. But Jon, my friend, I’m using the only weapon I can. They are an irregular world. Only an irregular man can defeat them. Seraphim is too honor bound. I am not fully human, and… I can think of no one else to call upon.”
I almost asked if his own lover, once a necromancer might not be a better choice, but truth, I knew the man and except for one characteristic he was more conventional than Mama.
“Irregular,” I said, as I pondered it.
Miss Helen Blythe, sister to the Earl of Savage
A Most Fantastical Crew
We stood there on that slippery horrid pink… I tried to think of it as a rock, but I was more or less sure that it was actually a muscle or a gland or … – a part of someone or something – and watched the little boat approach.
As it came closer it became obvious that it was not made of anything sensible like wood. Instead, it appeared to be assembled of bones. Not human bones, thankfully, or I might have given way to strong hysterics which likely would have vexed Mr. Merrit very greatly. As it approached, it looked like it was made of great planks of cartilage, like one finds inside certain sea animals. But its masts had teeth along the length and looked like they had been built of mandibles. And the “cloth” hanging from the mast was pink and horrible, and I suspected was really a flap of skin, perhaps from this same creature inside whom we seemed to be lost.
The whole had a fish-like aspect.
When I was very little, Jonathan had a tutor for only one summer, before papa decided that Jonathan would be better off at school or, as he said, being someone else’s problem. The tutor was a tall, thin man, who coughed a lot, but he had brought with him the most amazing and interesting collection I’d ever seen. He had mounted skeletons of birds and fish, and pinned butterflies beneath glass. When he’d caught me spying into his room, he’d asked me if I wanted to be told about his treasures, and had given me an interesting lecture on each of the skeletons and butterflies and insects that crammed the tiny room my parents had allotted him. I’m not lying, it really was interesting, and I’d probably have gone back to him for lectures, except nanny had caught me in his room and nearly had strong hysterics, and treated me to a very long talk about how some older men like little girls.
At the time it had all gone so far above my comprehension I’d thought nanny had lost her mind. Now I understand what she meant. One hears stories. But it wasn’t so with Mister Brim. He had talked to me as he would have talked to any other interested creature. It appeared he’d been on a three-year-long tour through Africa or South America or some place that is, at this distance, hard to remember. It was where he’d contracted his cough and ruined his health, and that had caused him to return home. But obviously his mind and his passion remained there, and he just wanted to talk about his happy times. Since Jonathan wasn’t much interested, he’d spent an afternoon talking to me.
I thought of him, as that odd little boat came to dock near us.
From a distance, I’d thought that there were little men aboard the boat, but now I saw that they were monkeys. A vast number of monks – I thought chimps – wearing ragged sailors uniforms, but not sailors as in our own navy. More like some exotic navy all silks and odd tailoring. They were little white tunics, and bulky ballooning pants and colorful silk sashes carried around their waists.
I heard Betsy say, “They’re monkeys,” in an astounded tone, beneath her breath, and then the boat was docking up against the soft pink stuff, and a monkey jumped up and tied it with a thick rope of unknown – and best not examined – provenance to something in the protruberance upon which we stood. And Wolfe Merrit cleared his throat, “I say,” he said, in the tone of a gentleman trying to make conversation at a social function. “I say, you wouldn’t happen to know where three forlorn travelers can get shelter, would you?”
The monkey who’d tied the rope looked at us and blinked. It seemed to me that his eyes were far more intelligent than they should have been, and I wondered why I wasn’t scared. I should have been. It wasn’t as though bone-built boats crewed by monkeys were a normal thing in my life.
I could only think that either I’d become too tired and inured by all the successive shocks and incongruencies of the last many hours or that the monkeys were too… entertaining. They looked much like a circus act trained by someone. I wondered whom.
The monkey turned and gestured towards the boat, and another of his fellows came scrambling up, and across the rope. He was better dressed than the others, in that his clothes looked newer and his baggy pants were made of striped silk in gold and silver and red that must at one time have been blindingly bright. He wore a rope of pearls around his neck.
He bowed deeply to us. “My fellow here,” he said. “Does not speak your language. You talked to him. What do you need?”
“I …” This impeccable speech, in the Queen’s English, from a Monkey had stopped even Mister Merrit cold. He cleared his throat again. “Who do I have the pleasure of addressing, sir?”
The monkey bowed. The feeling that I was caught in the middle of a circus act was stronger than ever. “I am Arya,” he said. “Arya the Voluble. Arya of the Nimble fingers.” He looked inexpressibly sad, as though he’d suddenly remembered that his entire family had perished in a horrible way. “Arya, alas, the great sailor. Which I misdoubt my lord Hanuman would believe now.” He sighed, a very human sigh. “For two years now we’ve been lost in the gullet of this beast, having been swallowed in becalmed sees, and how we’ve survived, milord, it would make you weep to watch it, for there are neither forests nor trees, neither fruit nor plant here, and what our lord Hanuman must think has happened to us, when he sent a crew of his best magicians and his most competent tricksters.” He sighed, then opened his arms and showed us both palms in a very human gesture. “I know not.”
I knew not either, save that Merritt hadn’t corrected the “my lord” and that his hand had clasped my arm hard enough to bruise. I didn’t know why, except I assumed something in the monkey’s speech discomfited him.
He finally found his voice and said, “We’re in a beast, then?”
“Oh, aye, a great tentacle beast, like an octopus. My lord Hanuman sent us for to see if we could put it to sleep again, as it’s been for centuries uncounted. Instead it swallowed us whole, and our craft too.” He must have seen us staring at his craft. “Oh, aye, not that. A proper craft, which is moored at our home island. We would not risk it in these daily expeditions to get our living from the gullet of the beast. Because one day we will defeat the magic on it and leave here to go home.”
“Magic,” Merrit said.
“Magic barriers,” the monkey said. “Like a magical strainer. They don’t let anything magical pass out of the beast, once swallowed.”
I shuddered. The idea of living out my life here did not appeal. At my side, Betsy gasped but said nothing, which was a vast improvement over what she would have said just hours ago. The poor girl must be very tired.
“I see,” Merritt said. “then you can’t tell us how to leave?”
“No,” Arya said. “Except that perhaps with your magic and our magic we can confound it.”
“Are there… many other people here?”
“If you mean many other magical creatures, there are other tribes of lost travelers, but we stay away from them, for they don’t consider monkeys quite … creatures that shouldn’t be eaten. We lost a young and well intentioned fool our first week here, and since then we avoid them. Not that I blame them exactly, for men have often eaten monkeys, and there is little to eat here. Except that we’ve found you can take vast strips of the beast’s muscles, and they don’t even taste too badly, and they grow back wondrously fast. If you come aboard my meager vessel now, we shall take you to our village, where you can bathe and get fresh clothes and share our humble repast.”
The Right Honorable Jonathan Blythe, The Earl of Savage,
I was not nearly drunk enough. That was my first thought, followed quickly by the thought that perhaps I was too drunk.
What had possessed me to, once returned from fairy land, stop at the first tavern to drink? And what had possessed me not to continue until I lost consciousness in a puddle of my own vomit and – with any luck – drowned.
What had I been thinking to agree to this mad plan?
Not much, of course. That’s the thing of fairyland. You don’t really think while you’re in it, particularly not with the King of Elves staring at you and telling you that you’re the only hope for both worlds maybe for all the worlds.
Just thinking about it made my hand itch for a bottle of gin and it was not even because I believed what he’d said. I wasn’t sure I believed what he said. I wasn’t sure he believed what he said. “Curse all elves,’ I said in a low growl and for a moment it seemed to me that there was an elf, lying on the ground of the alley, near the wall ahead, staring at me. Same slitty-green eyes. Same suspicious expression. But as I got near, the eyes jumped, and it hissed and ran.
Cats and elves all the same, I thought, and then apologized mentally to cats. They were like elves very pretty and very self-serving, but at least they caught mice. And then I mentally apologized to Gabriel Penn, which tells you how far gone I was, because I reasoned he was probably as decent a fellow as an elf could be, and it was no fault of his own that wasn’t far enough or much at all.
He’d outlined his plan for me. First I needed to find this emissary from the mythworld. As he’d explained it to me, to free the women my father had captured I must find the force that had been sent to our world to discover and free them. And what could papa have done with women of great power and magical prowess? I’d almost bet he’d not done it alone. For that it would take fairy power and dragon power, and the late unlamented Lord Sydell.
These women, I told myself, bringing myself forcibly on track… or perhaps not women, but creatures, were kept somewhere, and their magic gave the myth world a chance to reach in and to corrupt all our magic and feed on it. Papa must have used some containment system that broke when he died. Or when Sydell died.
I hated this ridiculous idea that novels and even fairytales had that once you’d killed the villain all evil was arighted and there would never be anything to worry about again. In my experience it was better to tolerate a middling evil than to destroy it. It was in great part why I’d endured Papa’s low-level, disreputable self-serving lawlessness. Because to stop it meant to step into his shoes. Well, and I’d endure it because truth be told, I knew myself to be equally disreputable and lawless and only not so self serving because I never had much interest in either wealth nor power. Had I been born with a craving for it, I’d doubtless have been poor Papa to the life.
But even when Papa had grown too dangerous to endure, his death had left me tangled in his webs and might have left the world at danger. Though that part might have been Sydell’s fault. The more I thought about that the more I was sure that were it not for Sydell papa would have neither the magical force nor the ambition to have contrived such a complex plan. And that was if he knew about the mythworld, which I would doubt. No, it would be Sydell, with his dragon-senses, who would know about that world and its maidens of power and contrive to use it.
I took a deep breath. I didn’t know if it was the liquor making my mind race, or the gibbering fear of the task I’d been given. And what kind of hero lets himself be given a task by the king of elves? I must be out of my mind.
But then again the king of elves, himself, had told me I was no hero, was I? I was just Jonathan, the irregular, Jonathan who stood outside the norms. In Eton and at Cambridge it had got me punished often enough – though doubtless nowhere as often as I deserved.
And now it had got me this – Gabriel Penn laying out his plan then extending both hands to me as to a dear friend or a family member – and saying “You will do it, will you not, Jon? I can count on you, can I not?”
“But your Majesty,” I’d tried, my use of his title perhaps serving to put him on his guard. “Your Majesty, surely you see that it’s not so easy or so clear?”
He’d laughed. “Of course it’s not, Jon, or I’d have no need of you.” His hands felt perfectly normal too, warm and human. “Look, Jon, if it were something normal, something that people would understand, something that human senses could see was right and just, I’d ask my brother. I wouldn’t send you behind his back.”
And I’d let myself be talked into it. I’d let myself be sent back in the black carriage with the fairy horses, all the way to my world, where the coachman had stopped in an alley, and opened the door and bowed to me.
The fact that the coachman, like coachmen in all dread legends ever, seemed to be just a scrap of denser shadow in the night, had not made me feel any more reassured by this. And the fact that he had bowed to me and said, “Good luck milord,” in a voice that seemed composed of gravel dragging on a river bottom also didn’t reassure me.
Nor did the fact it was night. I had been supposed to meet with Seraphim at noon, blast it all, and I imagined from the darkness in this alley that I’d come back in the darkest of the night.
Or not. After all the lantern was still lit over the nearest tavern, and a quick survey within showed me that it was the normal after-dinner rush of locals. Of course, having gone in to make a survey, I’d consumed my share of blue ruin, to the extent of coin found in my pockets. I resolved then and there that I would in future do my level best to make sure that I had enough money to drink enough to ensure never wakening, no matter what I meant to do, or who was likely to arrest me, or mock arrest me at my own house.
As it was, I’d drunk just enough to be befuddled, and not nearly enough not to know it.
I pulled from my pocket the stone Gabriel Penn had given me. Green, it glowed like that cat’s eyes, and he said “It will know where the person you seek is. Once you find where she’s held, all you have to do is get near her, and this stone will help you find the means to get inside and free her.”
“It is then,” I asked. “Some king of lock pick?”
Gabriel looked confused. “No. Our devices are not that simple. You’ll know when you have need of it what you can do.”
Which reassured me about as much as the surgeon telling you that once he applied a magical salve your privates would not wither and fall off, or at least he was almost sure of it. That was a damned Frenchman, off the coast, after this time when Ferdie and I had gone to visit this place that claimed to have real mermaids.
I remembered the problem, which seemed to be magical, and I remembered feeling I could not be in worst straits ever. But now I wish I was back there, even with the open sores.
On the other hand the salve had worked, despite the surgeon’s dubious comments on it, and perhaps this would too.
My panicked back brain informed me that this was unlikely, and at least the surgeon had not been an elf, but I decided that it was just being difficult.
Then I took a deep breath, pulled the stone out again, and, closing my fingers around it, felt it tremble in my hand. It is hard to explain, but it felt like being pulled by an eater child towards an object. I walked where it was pulling.
Did this do anything at all? Anything that would allow me to free this would-be rescuer of warrior maidens. “She’s half of one, herself,” Penn had said. “In fact I think her mother is one of captives. My brother thinks containing her will contain the magical rot but it is no such thing. But you know Seraphim. You’ll never be able to explain to him. You’ll just have to free her, and then contrive to show him he was wrong.”
Which pitted me, Jonathan Blythe, the despair of his masters and the shame of his house, against Seraphim Ainsling, Duke of Darkwater, one of the premier gentleman magicians of the world, married to the princess royale, and to make things worse, the king’s own witchfinder.
This was not going to end well.
Miss Ginevra Mythborn
“You know, it really is too bad of you to waylay me like this,” I said, and crossed my legs below the knee, in a way that looked like I was relieving the tension of my position, but which, in fact, gave me a chance to display my ankle by folding an edge of the skirt “accidentally.”
Yes, the Witchfinder was bonded – married to the princess Royale – and quite faithful to her, it was rumored at least. But that didn’t mean he was dead, and most men in this land had been so deprived of the sight of female flesh that a displayed ankle was enough to set their hearts aflutter.
But Seraphim Ainsling, Duke of Dark Water, the King’s Witchfinder, didn’t even flick a look of interest at it. I remembered it was said that his wife had been raised in, and still sometimes visited other lands, and I wondered if he’d grown inured. I’d been in a world, once, where full nudity was the norm, and men wouldn’t even look – unless they were alone with you and then they did. It seemed to me to make life very bland, taking the pleasure of the daily looks women cast men and men cast women – a pleasure that costs nothing. Well, except in this one word—
I disciplined my mind forcefully, and looked up at the Witchfinder. Too late I realized I’d advanced my lower lip in what could be regarded as a pout, and looking up at his eyes, I found them full of amusement. He’d understood our play as well as I did, and I amused him. I, who had made men cry, and driven more stable men than he to despair and suicide, amused His Grace. I tried not to grit my teeth. It would only amuse him more.
“I know why you came over,” he said. “And what hooks you set into our world. What I’m not sure of, or not absolutely, is how the hooks were set, or how to remove them. I am also, pardon me, somewhat at a loss to parse out your history. Are you born elsewhere and elsewhen but raised here? The marks on your magic seem to show that, but of course your magic is so unusual. And are you a standard siren, or something else entirely?” On the word siren he looked towards my ankle, and then up at my face, and I realized he was teasing me.
It was such a shock, such a surprise, that it robbed me of power of speech. Not that it would have done him any good, could I have spoken, as I had absolutely no idea what I was, something very hard to explain to him. The Pater might know what I was, but even then I doubted it. The old soot was as likely to sleep with whatever crossed his path as Jonathan Blythe, with perhaps even less regard to gender. And what he’d got me from only he knew. Or perhaps he didn’t.
As for the rest. “I’ve been in many worlds,” I told him, my voice flat of emotion, because it was, and also because there is absolutely no reason to give the opposition more tools than you can help.
“Of course you have,” Ainsling said, and smiled civilly, and walked behind the desk. “As a sort of all purpose agent, and assassin for your… For your king, at least, though he might be more for all I know. In fact, among your people, he might very well be your king, your lover and your father, might’n’t he?”
I felt blood climb, hot, from my neck to my cheeks, and said, “Not among– Not myself,” because again, it was hard to defend. I’m not sure what Pater is, exactly. He’s not my lover. I’ve done things that would make Seraphim blanch, but not that. Not because Pater – likely – sired me, but because of what Pater is. As well lay with a bout of the plague as with the Lord of the Thunderbolt.
Then I felt it, the little jab beneath the surface of my magic, and I realized what Ainsling was doing. And I cursed myself for several kinds of fool.
Look, the first thing they teach you, at schools for the control of magic – they don’t teach magic as such. That you’re born with. They teach you to control it and aim it – is that emotions make your shields less efficient. Anyone trying to interrogate you, and unable to force a truth spell beneath your defenses will try to get a rise out of you.
In my defense, most men didn’t try. Not around me. The type of power I have seems to strike most men with a sort of wonder and awe and they either find me repulsive – this happened a lot while I was growing up in Avalon, and for the longest time I thought that it was my ginger hair – or they treat me with a respect normally reserved to elderly and infirm females who have the capacity to disinherit them.
I never had to do anything to command respect. Even raised in a home for magical orphans, even taken to balls to meet likely husbands, even while wearing threadbare clothes and last year’s fashions, I’d never had any trouble commanding respect. In fact, the opposite used to gall me. My friends, whom I objectively knew were not half as beautiful – let alone accomplished – as myself, found husbands within two or three balls, but most of the time I wasn’t even asked to dance, and just stood there, like a mannequin, while men bowed to me and treated me as though I were a duchess in disguise, but never talked to me, or… much less, dared touch me.
There I was, as dignified as a chicken taken to fair, with her legs tied down, and there they were, acting like I could smite them without thinking. Which I could, of course. Which is why I was three years older than all the other girls, too. It had taken that long for them to teach me to control my magic.
It wasn’t until Pater had sent his agents to find me, that I’d discovered what had been wrong, then learned to enjoy it. And learned to turn it upside down, as it were, so men couldn’t help being attracted, and wishing to talk and touch. Which had been very useful, the last ten years in the places Pater had sent me.
To find out, now, that both the awe-inspiring facet of my power, and the seduction ability had failed me, was like walking down a familiar path in the night, and feeling the ground give out under you.
But then I realized that Ainsling wasn’t much happier than I was. The amusement had gone out of his eyes, and his mouth quirked in a way that might betray amusement, but betrayed bitterness most of all. He sat behind his desk and looked at me. “Here is the thing, Miss … Mythborn. We are not savages. We use magic for everyday things. I understand your land – or so my brother tells me – attaches here and there, bleeding magic from the worlds it touches. I can give you a hundred such worlds where you can bleed the magic and cause no disruption. In some of them, in fact, magic being illegal, taking it away from the poor unfortunates who can’t help having it would be an improvement. In Avalon, though, we’re not savages, and magic powers all our civilization. We can’t allow you to bleed our world, and I’m amazed you’d even try. Surely, you must know if you try, it will be a battle to the death between our worlds.”
I almost told him, then, why his world. It was a calculated risk, and Pater had said I could take such. I looked up at him, and was about to tell him we had no more choice in this than he did, but the door opened suddenly.
In the doorway stood a young man, who looked much like Darkwater but was younger – at that age when men are no longer boys but are not yet men.
“Michael!” Darkwater said, standing. I sensed shock, and concern. “What are you doing here, past the guards, past—”
“It’s Gabriel,” the young man said, and I shivered, understanding that to be the name they gave the other, their half-mortal brother.
“What is Gabriel?” Seraphim asked.
“I think that’s the thing,” Michael said. “It’s not Gabriel at all. Fairyland has been breached and has its own kind of… changeling.”
I opened my mouth to say fairyland couldn’t be breached, then thought it might be if– And then I ran for the door.
It was the work of a minute, to get up off the seat and run. But the magical net stopped before I reached the door, and the Witchfinder said, “No, you don’t. A moment, Michael. I’ll see Miss Ginevra safely stowed, and then we can continue this talk without evesdropping.”
In The Lair Of The Monkey God
Miss Helen Blythe, sister to the Earl of Savage:
“What darling little monkeys they are,” Betsy said, as yet another bowl of steaming soup was put in front of her.
The soup was hot and fishy, and I felt the great need of some bread. But Betsy had eaten two bowls, and I’d eaten three, because it was hot and filling. And they’d got all three of us baths, first, and how and where they’d found or managed to distill clean water without salt I didn’t want to know – but obviously they must have some to drink too. We’d taken turns in a large tub, with plenty of soap to hand, and Mr. Merrit had insisted that I bathe first and then Betsy before he made use of the rather used water.
They’d found us clothes also, produced with great reverence and a great deal of signs and gesturing between them, while the few monkeys who could talk exchanged words.
The clothes were new, though they smelled musty, and Arya the Voluble, Arya the right hand of Hanuman, as he always insisted on referring to himself, had explained to us that they’d been gifts which they were taking to the lady of the many eyes and the lord of the star bow while sailing “on the power-filled oceans of our own native land” when “suddenly we found ourselves here in this dank prison, and with lamentations we have kept the dresses, for there are no women among us, and certainly hour chance for offering appeasement to the great one of the silvery hands has passed now.” They had not used the men dress either because “you must see it is all wrong proportioned for us – and to sew it anew would cause the ruin of the garment. But I’m glad to have it for our honored guests.”
And so the honored guests were dressed and I must say I’d never fully appreciated the difference clothes can make to one’s judgment of a man. In his normal, sober day to day clothes Mr. Merrit looked like what he was: a man who worked for my family. A man of decent habits and frugal living. His face, no one could have recommended, being blunt-featured and almost surly, and his hair – cut short and very badly – was a course and unremarkable dark brown or black. He would pass unremarked in any street, save maybe for people who had had dealings with him.
In the clothes procured for him by the monkeys – whom he kept whispering to Betsy and myself we should call apes, because chimpanzees are apes, a nicety the monkeys themselves didn’t apply – he looked… Well, not handsome in the sense of having beautiful features, but—
The clothes he’d got were a blood-red pair of pants, loose and caught at the ankles much like what the monkeys wore; and a bright green top with embroidered little flowers in gold. Around his waist was a sash in green, gold and red, which I suspected served to hold the pants up, as whoever the lord of the star bow was, he clearly was broader at the hip than Mr. Merrit. With his blunt features, his eyes narrowed in concern, he looked exotic and vaguely dangerous. If only, I decided, I could have convinced him to tie a headband around his forehead, he would have looked like a pirate king. But the idea of making him wear a headband made me wish to giggle, and I had to remind myself of the predicament we were in, lost in a confusing world with allies who were equally lost and who might be unreliable. One of mama’s acquaintances has been in India – indeed she says he’s not quite the thing, being a nabob but not at all of good birth or a person of consideration – and he talks a lot, and I thought I remembered the name Hanuman as that of a trickster god, like Hermes in Greek mythology, who if I remember was a shocking thief and a liar, and not at all the thing, as mama would say. And the thought that Hanuman might be one such stopped the giggling in my throat.
Besides, I was sure I looked a complete fright myself. Or at least, I looked part shocking and part fantastical and, had she seen me, mama would have much need of her smelling salts.
Whatever the great one of the many eyes and the silvery hands might be, she was about my height thought perhaps rather more… ample on the top. The skirt fit about right, though. Both were wretchedly large on Betsy who could have used the tunic almost as a dress and – her insisting on the skirt for the sake of modesty – who had forced us to do a hasty sewing job on both tunic and skirt.
Betsy had first been amazed the monkeys had thread and needles, but I pointed out that sailors must, after all, be provided with those commodities. Then she’d tried to convince me that we should sew both “properly” in tiny stitches that hid the work – the kind of repair she was wont to do on my clothes. I’d talked her out of it, urging that we didn’t have enough time, but I could tell it pained her, because she said those were the first quite new clothes she’d ever had. I made a note to get her clothes that were not hand me downs as soon as we got back home. Then it occurred to me we might never get home, and I felt heartily guilty for involving her in this, it now being clear she had not the least desire for adventure and had only followed me because she liked me and felt some misguided loyalty to me.
She looked well enough in her borrowed garments, I thought. They effected the same sort of transformation on her as they effected on Mr. Merritt. In her day to day clothes, she was just Betsy. And in boy clothes she looked odd and rather too plump in all the wrong places. But in the green gown embroidered with silver, except for her very short hair, she looked like a little lost princess trying to pass as someone unremarkable.
My own transformation, as I said, would be less of that kind and more of the shocking kind. The top of my own garment was a sort of little tunic in dark blue embroidered with silver and gold tread, and there were tiny bells sewn to the hem of the tunic, which jingled when I moved. The skirt was also blue and gold and silver, with bells all along the hem, voluminous but made of very fine silk which tended to cling to my limbs when I moved. So did the top, a problem worsened by the fact that I had no way to bind my breasts, and no corset or support was provided.
I’ve heard that fashionable ladies often wore nothing underneath their dresses and misted the fabric so it would cling. This didn’t need misting, and I was very much afraid I was shockingly fashionable. Mr. Merrit had taken one look at me, turned a dark purplish red, and since then talked while staring at my feet which were still wearing the very scuffed and dirty boots that had been part of my male costume.
He talked to me now, coming back from a discussion with the Monkeys. “Arya says we can talk to Hannuman now. Miss Blythe, I must entreat that you try to pay him the reverence due his status, no matter how nonsensical or strange he may act. I need not remind you, we are entirely in his power.”
I wondered what he thought I would do, but I assented, and presently we were led into a sort of cave, with Arya leading the way, Mr. Merrit after, and Betsy and myself bringing up the rear.
The cave had big heavy doors which were opened to make the way, and two monkeys holding lances straightened up.
Inside it looked like a palace, which had to be by magic. First because I perceived the “cave” was the same pink tissue as everything else, and I wondered if this were a boil in the poor monster’s flesh in whose gut we were uninvited guests. And second, because no one could have brought marble floor tiles and silk wall hangings unless their ship had extended to other dimensions.
They certainly could not have brought the throne, massive and heavy in itself, and seemingly made of gold, but – what was more – set on a platform with twelve steps, covered in silk tapestries.
We looked up and up and up. Atop the throne was not, as I’d expected, a monkey but a rather good looking man, of swarthy complexion, with glossy black hair and very intent and lively black eyes. He smiled at what must have been my obvious surprise, and spoke in a good English accent, “Ah, Miss Blythe. This is my other form. It makes it easier to converse with mortals. And we must converse, for I wish a boon of you.” For a moment my heart sank, as I wondered if this one too would have need of a human wife. But then he said, “Of all of you.” And to what must have been our blank stares, he added. “You see, I need your help to escape this vile prison.”
A Night Escape
Akakios Phillandrus, Earl of Yelverton:
I’d let them change my last name, and I suppose “friend of mankind” was appropriate. At any rate, we had no last names, and with the herd I’d only been known as Prince Akakios. And I’d accepted the diminished title that Night Arrow, king of Fairyland, had negotiated with the king of Brittania.
It didn’t matter, at any rate. I’d known when I left the herd with lady Caroline that I’d never go back again. The prophecy said that to help restore the true king I must give up fairyland, and I did. With a light heart? Does anyone ever give anything up with a light heart when they’ve known nothing else? All I knew from birth was the herd. Even before I changed into my centaur form the first time at five, and was taken from my mother to the company of my father’s herd at six, the village was all the wives of the herd, and the children were those who went with me when I was moved to the herd, as same-year-colts and friends and companions.
I made the decision, I thought, with open eyes, but I hadn’t thought through all that it entailed. No one could.
I know I am lucky to end up with a title and a fortune, but I’d thought that perhaps the Darkwaters would take me into their family circle and treat me as one of them.
Nothing prepared me for this school.
I did not get sent to Eton. I believe it was well meant. I was older than most students there, already, and also, I was too odd.
So instead I was sent to St. Agur’s. St. Agur’s was a school originally funded by monks. It wasn’t exactly a school for delinquent children. And it wasn’t exactly a school for magical orphans, like those, charity and not, which dotted the land and catered to byblows of noblemen and common people; people conceived of elves and other fairykind; and the inexplicably magically talented commoner.
Instead, it was a combination of all three. Oh, not delinquents as such, but young gentlemen who had trouble accommodating to polite society, sometimes because their parents had only recently ascended to their honors.
It wasn’t hell, exactly, but within a month I’d decided it was one of the antechambers. I’d also decided first that His Grace of Darkwater could not know what it was like, and then that he probably did, and didn’t realize how hellish it would be for me.
First, because the things I thought were most hellish might not have bothered a normal human. For instance, the first time I got severely scolded I didn’t realize it. I got told that my performance in the game field wasn’t “quite the thing” and it wasn’t until the shunning administered by my classmates that I realized I’d transgressed rules by playing as we played in the herd, with full body and full force. To have to reign in and fit in made me feel awkward, and I couldn’t behave like all the others if I tried.
Second because what made it truly hellish was the confinement. I knew I couldn’t change into horse form in this world, and therefore must learn to live as a human. But I dreamed every night of galloping through open fields, of running unhindered for miles, as we had in the herd. I dreamed of fragrant fields, and I wondered how my orchard was doing back home.
It was as though I were a prisoner in this human skin, and unable to break out of it.
The Duke of Darkwater would see only that there were many boys my age and older, that we were almost all new to the nobility of this land, if not to this land, and that I might make friends.
I hadn’t made friends. There was a lad who was a lion shifter, and who’d become sort of a protégée, but being 5 years younger than I, he was more little brother than friend.
I’d applied myself to my lessons – even with the herd, I’d been always eager to learn – and tried to get through this as fast as possible.
The one bright spot in this existence, and the reason St. Agur’s had been picked was that Caroline – Lady Caroline, that is, the sister of the Duke of Darkwater – whom I’d met in my adventures, and who was my affianced wife, bound by promise to marry me as soon as we came of age, had been put in a school just down the road. My school was all male and hers all female. We got together with her school for dances and picnics, for strolls in the park and for such social activities, so I saw her once a week. And though I still wasn’t allowed to run, I could always talk with Caroline, and she would always understand me.
So when I woke up in the middle of the night with the warning running in my head, my first thought was of her. And when I realized I was mid-shift, my only thought was of her.
I got off my bed, quickly, before it collapsed under my weight, and thanked all divinities that the Duke of Darkwater had paid extra to get me a private room. I stood, on my four hooves, in the little room, and looked at myself in the mirror. They’d made me cut my hair at shoulder length, but other than that, I looked as I did when I ran with the herd.
And that was wrong. There shouldn’t be enough background magic on Avalon to allow me to shift. Wrong in the sense of disturbing, was also the warning that had awakened me, my father’s voice in my head, telling me the king had been replaced and kidnapped or killed by an hostile power, and that my land was under attack. He said the prohibition on me to reenter fairyland might be moot, but if not, yet I must contact Lord Darkwater and make him help them. The king of fairyland was Darwater’s half brother. This concerned the family. And Darkwater was the king’s Witchfinder, tasked with dealing with all magical problems from other worlds, and this was in his purvey.
This too necessitated Caroline. But it was the middle of the night. I could wait till tomorrow and ask for someone to send a message to Duke. But, other than the sheer consternation at finding me in Centaur form, and perhaps demands to shift back, which I wasn’t entirely sure I could, magic feeling the way it did around me, I doubted they would send a message, or send it soon enough.
The easiest thing would be to take advantage of my own hooves – harder than the ones of Earth horses, and not in need of shoes – and get Caroline, and make it to the Darkwater estate as fast as hooves can carry me.
I looked at my image in the mirror and frowned. Dark curls, broad shoulders, a bare chest. The thing was, in the herd, I’d gone barechested, of course. It was how we lived. Oh, sometimes we tied on cloth for decoration, or bandoliers in which to carry things, but we didn’t wear clothes unless in human form. BUT here, if seen running like this through the road, I’d be taken for some wild invader from fairyland. And besides… My image looked at me from the mirror with pursed lips, Caroline was a young lady of good breeding. My bare chest would shock her.
So I opened my closet and brought out a clean shirt, and a jacket. Stepping as carefully as I could so as not to wake the house, I went to the washstand where a pitcher kept water warm for morning washing up, and washed my face and hands. I didn’t need to shave yet, which was good, as I didn’t wish to light a lamp.
In the band I’d have tied my hair back with a bandana, but here, I simply tied my hair back, as I did for lessons.
If you think creeping down a corridor and three flights of stairs on horse’s hooves is easy, you should try it yourself. There is a reason people rarely ride horses up the stairs or, worse, down them.
It seemed like years later, and was probably half an hour, when I eased the latch on the back door and erupted out into the moonlight. I was sweaty, shaky, nauseous, and feeling like this was the worst thing I’d ever done, and not just because of the climb down the stairs. I was very afraid the Earl of Darkwater would disapprove. But there was no remedy.
I closed the door again carefully, and waited till I was off the grounds and on the road to gallop. Galloping felt so good I had to force myself into the grounds of St. Claire’s, the girl’s school.
Caroline had shown me the window of her dormitory. I knelt to pick up pebbles from the driveway and started throwing them at the window.
Presently it opened. I whispered as loudly as I dared at the form that appeared on it, “Caroline Ainsling. I must see Caroline Ainsling.”
From the window came a giggle and something that was not a whisper, though it might have thought it was. “Oooh, Ainsling. It’s a centaur. And he wants you.”
The Earl In The Ointment
Jonathan Blythe, Earl of Savage,
Not only was I not nearly drunk enough, but my demmed brain was trying to work, despite the alcohol I’d ingested. The thing in my pocket had started glowing and tugging me in a specific direction, and after a long, stumbling walk, I found myself in front of Seraphim’s offices.
The worst part was that a cold breeze, from the river, had almost completely cleared my head by then.
Thoughts were assembling themselves, painfully, slowly, against the remnants of magic glamour, against the confusion of the gin.
It went something like this,
“Strap me, when have I found Seraphim to be on the wrong side of things?”
“And if he’s not, why am I trying to fool him.”
This was followed by, my own mind trying to be reasonable, something it had never been very good at, and which the encounter with fairyland’s king hadn’t helped,
“Gabriel Penn says his brother is too honorable for what needs to be done.”
This was not a good enough comeback and my sarcastic side was ready to pounce, “Is he now? The same Seraphim Ainsling who eloped with the Princess Royale on the eve of her marrying a foreign prince, and who presented king and court with a consummated marriage is too honorable for what needs to be done? Damme, Jon. How many infants will you have to throttle and how many maidens rape?”
This almost sobered me up completely, and the thought wouldn’t leave my mind. What I mean is, well, Seraphim is honorable, I suppose, in comparison to me, but then so are most creatures, including some cut purses. What I mean is, I’m my father’s son, not honorable at all, or dear Papa would still be alive and causing trouble in the world for the sake of his purse.
But the thing is, the thing is, Seraphim is the son of his father, too, the old soot we knew as Old Darkwater, and who, frankly, wasn’t that far off my father’s morals, only in different ways. You’d be safe around him for loyalty, and you’d probably come away better off for money because he was no good at holding on to his, but strap me if you could trust him with your peculiar, or your monkey for that matter. Not that I blamed him exactly. I’d never tried bestiality – had even less interest in it than in boys, so it hardly seemed worth the trouble – but Freddie had once told me that—
I brought my reeling thoughts back in order. The thing was that Seraphim was not a dead bore, either. When he came across me in Eton and I was up to some jolly prank, he never told. He might pull me aside and beat the startch out of me if he thought what I was doing would hurt others, but most of the time he’d just roll his eyes and say “you’re going to come home weeping from that one, Jon.” And he wouldn’t tell anyone, not even afterwards, when the cockatoo had been found in the master’s umbrella. Which goes to show you. He wasn’t a tell tale either.
And if something were right to do, if there were really kidnapped warrior maidens, if I really had to find them to keep the world of myth away, if– If any of that was true, then Seraphim would listen and help. There was no need to go behind his back. And it might be very ill advised. Because Seraphim… what I mean is, he’s a right one.
I became aware too, that I was far more befuddled than the blue ruin I’d drunk would account for. Which meant that Gabriel Penn – or Night Arrow, or whatever he was just now – had given me a whopping shot of magic to confuse me.
Question, why confuse the senses of someone you just enlisted as an helper?
Answer, You’d only do that if you thought the fully awake man would discover something you didn’t want him to know. And the shot of believe-me and I-am-right magic he’d given me, meant the truth was either right in front of my eyes, or truly heinous, and definitely not what his elf majesty had told me.
Which meant my instinct to get drunk had been right. There’s only one thing against that kind of spell and it is to tilt yourself off your magical axis enough it loses its grip. Alcohol will do it. So will a good petit-mort but I hardly had the time for that. Besides I was used to being drunk. During the last year of Papa’s plot, as I caught hints of what it was, I’d been drunk all the time, at least at a low level, just to keep myself from jabbering with fear.
It also meant I should trust my instincts. Jonathan Blythe, himself, might not be very smart. None of my masters thought so, at lest. And as for the Earl of Savage, I wouldn’t give two nubbins for the blighter. I’d known his predecessor. But the instinct of the inner Jon, the creature who’d got me out of scrapes more often than not, was, if not infallible, at least pretty close to it.
So the inner Jon said trust Seraphim and I’d trust Seraphim. It was as well the magical device was pulling me that way, anyway.
I walked up to the sentinels, tipped my hat, “I need to see Seraphim,” I said, purposely not calling him His Grace or The Witchfinder, to let them know I was an old and valued acquaintance. Damme, my brother in law who was his brother out-of-law had married his ex-fiance who was my late sister. What I mean is, his half-brother’s lover was raising my nephew who was his own half brother. That made us relatives, I think. Though the coils of connection would make a village gossip’s head hurt.
They took a moment to recover from the familiarity, and by then I was hallway into the entrance room. One of the guards ran after me, “Sir, Milord! His Grace is in conference – he said not to be disturbed!”
“Trust me, he needs to see me,” I said, and smiled, my best smile, which seemed to confuse him. Possibly because I never learned a respectable way to smile.
“Milord!” he said, but I was already ahead of him and knocking on the door to the office proper.”
From inside came Seraphim’s voice, “Who knocks?” I had the impression of a hastily suppressed babble of voices at the knock, but couldn’t be sure.
“Savage,” I said, which it occurred to me if we hadn’t been thrown together so much since Papa’s demise might be misinterpreted.
“Come,” Seraphim answered from within.
The gadget in my pocket was pounding against my high and felt hot.
The guard retreated muttering, “First Lord Michael, now this. As well hang a curtain.”
I opened the door. And stopped, in sheer shock. Because you see, in the office was my beautiful unconue, or to put it another way – since I was also the despair of my French masters – that beautiful piece of ginger nonsense I’d met when fairyland met Avalon and who’d helped me fight off demons and then disappeared without a trace. Except from my heart.
She was wearing a rather tight on the bodice … looked like a ballgown. Peach. Or pink. And definitely mouth watering, even if an odd choice for a ginger.
And she was between two guards. And Seraphim was half standing out of his chair. And his brother stood nearby.
I had a second, to take in the entire tableau, and then Miss whatever her name was, dove towards me, and the guards restrained her just in time.
But she screamed, “Oh, please. He has a magical bomb in his pocket. If you won’t let me do it, you defuse it. Or we all die in seconds.”
I could see the magic in the Earl’s pocket and I could see it was unstable. I didn’t know what it was meant to do when it exploded, but it hardly mattered. In a room crammed with high magic users, what that bomb would do was kill us all, or at least make us unable to use magic for the rest of our natural lives. But since the physical effects of its explosion would pull the building down on our heads, it would kill us either way.
I jumped, a spell half-formed in my mind, and communicating itself to my fingers, something that could not possibly be done by these people, but which my power lent itself to. I was almost sure, anyway, that this was a spell of my people’s.
Putting my hand over it told me otherwise. It wasn’t a spell of my people’s.
I knew it, confusedly, at the back of my head, even as I tried to removed it through the honorable Jonathan’s coat fabric, failed, and plunged my hand into the pocket, grabbed the thing again. I kept the damper spell on it as I ran towards the door, past the guards.
All this time I’d been trying to get out, and past those guards, and now here I was. I didn’t think that my captors had even thought to follow me.
Out in the cool air, in the plaza outside, sweat stinging my eyes, I thought only where to throw it. There were houses in every direction in London, and I didn’t want to pull the building down over some sleeping family. And then there were magic users all over too.
I threw it the only way I could think of, towards the fountain with the lion in the middle of the plaza. It was actually a monument to Richard the Lionheart and showed him in both his human and his lion form.
The bomb, which now revealed itself to be a small square of black glass hardly bigger than my palm, fell just short of the fountain. Okay, the chance of its being defused if it fell in water were low, but at least there had been a chance. Now there was none. It fell outside the stone parapet.
And since I’d removed the dampening effect from it, it blew. It blew with incredible force, and explosion of light and sound, and I stood there, and would, I guess, have been stoned to death by fragments of statue.
It seemed like I stood there an hour, and the bits of statue were coming at me at an almost imperceptible pace, except that the Honorable Jonathan bore me to ground and covered me with his body, as he shouted, loudly, “To the ground men, are you daft?”
I knew it was the Earl from the shout. I’d know that voice anywhere, as I’d heard it that horrible night, among the invasion of demons.
He lay atop of me. He was warm and heavy and smelled strongly of gin. He was taking his weight on his elbows. He whispered in my ear, “Miss Ginevra Elfborne. So good to meet you again.”
I wanted to plant a knee where it would hurt him. Which was stupid, since I seemed to think fondly of him. Actually, maybe it wasn’t stupid at all. I despised myself for thinking fondly of him. There had been so many men, and so many saner ones.
But his light, teasing tone made me want to hurt him. I thought he didn’t care at all. And then he whispered, “I’ve been looking for you all over, and I thought I’d go distracted.”
And I stopped feeling like I’d like to hurt him and sighed. “I had—“ I started. Pebbles and stones and bits of statue were pelting on him. I could hear them fall on him and around us. A tinkle of glass announced the breaking of a window on this building somewhere. “I had things to do. I had…”
“Yes,” he said. “I think you did.” The rain of fragments was slowing down. “Now, I think it’s safe. Get ready to run.”
Suddenly he was off me, and grabbing my hand, and pulling me up in a fluid movement, and then he was running, fast, away from the office of the witchfinder, and towards an alley. And then down that alley, like a man who knows his way, and down another alley, and up another, and then up a flight of rickety stairs that smelled like urine and vomit, and into a salon.
I had barely had time to register that the salon was dingy, decorated in the fashion of twenty years ago, and that the woman – at least I think it was a woman. At least it was wearing a dress – in the middle of it was enormous and frog-like, before Jonathan gasped out. “Higgins. We need a room. Fast.”
The… almost surely woman, nodded. “I guess you do, Jon. First room on the right is free.”
The first room on the right was a bedroom, which didn’t shock me, of course, but it was clean and looked comfortable, which did. There was a high bed, with curtains, and a large sofa, and a small table with glasses and a bottle, and it all smelled clean.
Jonathan saw me looking at the bed and said, “Never mind that. I brought you here because it’s a highly illegal brothel for magical creatures. Never mind. If you hear strange sounds, ignore them. What I mean is, it’s shielded against magic. Now, it is my impression you were a prisoner of Seraphim’s, and also that you were the one who set the hooks of the rogue magic into my world.
“I would very much like to hear your explanation of why.”
Wolfe Merritt, Overseer of Properties and Manufactories to the Earl of Savage:
If I’d met Hanuman in human form on a London street, I knew what I’d consider him. A bounder or a loose fish.
I’m not saying this because of his dark skin, or because he acted and dressed like the native of warmer climes than England. One of the things about the great leaps in magic and understanding over the last century is that we’ve come to see a lot of the magic abroad is not backward, just different and that with a little logic applied to it – which I grant you the natives rarely have done up to that point, but neither had our ancestors a hundred years ago – it can serve to do things our magic can’t do.
And at any rate, when not raised in their culture and in their often barbarous ways, people of other climes often are very good sort of folk, and very solid. I’d seen it myself, when one of my mother’s friends had taken in a young Indian boy, brought home by some wealthy family who discarded him when they thought his magic too dangerous. He’d been brought up by good village folk from the age of six or so, and at my age he was as solid and respectable an Englishman as you could want.
But there was to Hanuman a feeling of slick slipperiness, a feeling that he might at any moment change his mind or the rules of any agreement with anyone.
And then it occurred to me that as far as that came he was the culture of the warmer climes incarnate. If gods were anything, were they not the outwards projection of that primitive thought which had molded the culture? Or perhaps they preexisted the culture – I conceded, unable to remember my lessons in applied myth, which at any rate were scant and basic enough at the grammar school I’d attended – but had been picked because they fit the collective character early on.
In either case, it boded nothing good for this Hanuman fellow.
I must have given him the look I would give a bounder or a pretender, in my own circles, because he gave me a delighted grin, his teeth sparkling in the light of the lamps. He had a gold tooth, which shocked me, because certainly gods would have no need of dentistry. Then I realized that coating teeth with gold, or painting them, or inscribing symbols on them was long a practice of the human race.
“You disapprove of me, Mr. Merritt?” Hanuman said.
I remembered what I had told Miss Blythe about not disrespecting the god, no matter how outrageous he was, and felt I should have taken my own medicine. “No, your … majesty,” I said, because divinity I recognized but one and he was not a monkey-king.
He grinned wider. “Ah. A man of thought. But feel free to disapprove. I believe our principles are opposed, as you’re a man of consideration and thought and deep planning.” He shifted on the throne, continuously, as he spoke, as a very young child might fidget, but also as a Monkey might. I realized his dual nature might be affecting how I saw him, and I tried to relax. “But see,” he said. “We have need of your deeper thought, and your planning. It is against my nature, of course, thought there are plans I can lay.”
“Indeed,” I said, remembering his reputation as a trickster god. “I have known your majesty to be referred to as cunning.”
He grinned again, then sighed. “I do well enough when I can use people’s preconceptions against themselves, and trick others into doing what I wish, but you tell me, Mr. Merrit, how one can trick this,” his hand gesture encompassed the chamber we were in and everything above and beside. “This creature of ancient myth, formed before man was fully rational and when gods were only things that made noise in the night and which sometimes left the carcass of one who strayed from the firelight half-eaten by the way side in the morning.” His eyes sparkled at my reaction. “What? You think we know not that we originated from the minds and the wistful magic of men, before men knew they had magic. We know. At least we know.” He put emphasis in we. “Myself and mine are well aware of it. This brutish beast, though…” He once more made a gesture, towards the thing that encompassed us. “I don’t think it is aware of anything but a brute desire to be out in the daylight of magic and feeding on the worship of men again, and that we cannot give it.
“And if our presence in its gut does not dispose it to kill us—“ He paused. “We’ll die of starvation ourselves, or of boredom.” He sighed. “We were in transit between our world and another myth world, carrying a load of precious cargo when, out of nowhere it rose from the dark, tossed sea, and swallowed us whole. And here we’ve been since. And we grow weary.”
“I see,” I said. Because what else could I say? “And you wish to leave. Where would you go if you leave here?”
“To your world, I guess,” he said. And he made a little gesture. “Such it must be at least until I get my bearings. Oh, do not suspect me of ill intentions.” He laughed. “Though I can see where you’d get the idea. Yes, myself and mine also crave worship and human attention, but we do not need it. Not in the brutish way this thing does. And besides—“ He took another deep breath. “And besides I suspect not even our ancient devotees would want us now. But something must be done, and the worlds of myth set in their proper sphere again, and for that we must leave the gut of the beast. And for that we need human magic, and human minds.”
I was willing to believe most of what he said. Most of it. But there was still that elusive, slippery quality to him. And I had heard stories.
As he gestured for his monkey servants to bring candles and maps, I wondered if something this cunning, this slippery, this seemingly pleasing could not manage to reestablish himself on Earth, should he get there, and whether we wished to unleash it on unsuspecting mankind.
Myth And Man
Jonathan Blythe, Earl of Savage
I’d tossed her on the bed. It was the sort of bed you expected at Mage Place – big and soft, covered in velvet and crowded in lace pillows. She lay against the lace pillows, panting, her breasts pushing out on her dress, her skirts in a pile and exposing the exquisite form of a well turned and very white ankle.
I took a deep breath and thought of snow storms. After all, with a creature – whatever she was – such as she was – whatever that might be – one could never be sure these little displays were unintentional.
In fact, I’d wager quite a lot on their being intentional. And I never gamble to lose.
“Tell me why you set the blight on my world,” I said. “And what it means.”
She was looking at me, her eyes slightly crossed as though she were trying to look at my magic. She would too, I thought, but that was besides the point. But what she said next shocked me nearly out of my skin, “Who are you?” she said. “Really?”
That had never occurred to me as something that might be in question. I blinked at her. “You know who I am,” I said. “Jonathan Blythe, for my sins the Earl of Savage.”
But she shook her head, not so much calling me a liar but as though she’d asked me the time of day and I’d answered “cow.” She shifted among the lace pillows and so far forgot herself as to cover her ankles. “You weren’t supposed to be able to follow me,” she said. “None of you were. I let out a burst of magic, as I ran. Not even on purpose. It’s something like the ink a squid releases when scared.”
I refused to discuss ways in which this lovely woman – well, this lovely female creature, anyway way – was like a squid. Instead I cast back my mind over the last few moments in Seraphim Ainsling’s office. No. There had been no difficulty at all to following her. She’d taken the bomb from my pocket and run. Now I found there were obfuscating measures. Lovely.
How long before Seraphim set sniffers on our trail to find out why we’d maliciously exploded a statue? He’d probably think I was in league with the lovely Ginevra, too.
I’d like to be in league with her all right, but not that way. And in fact I was starting to wonder if I wanted to be associated at all. Some people, no matter how tuppable, are not someone you can live with. Or even consort with for a limited time.
Her eyes focused again, and she tried to give me what she probably thought was a smile, but which was really a small grimace. Then she shook her head. “Which story should I tell you?” she asked, worriedly, and frankly more as though she were speaking to herself than to me.”
“The truth,” I said. And heard my voice become frighteningly like Papa’s when he used to say the same thing to me in childhood. “Or I’ll know about it, and it will be the worse for him.”
Her eyes widened a little bit, and for a second the cross-eyed look was back in her eyes. Then she gave me a little prim school girl nod, rearranged herself so she covered her ankles and held her skirts down around them with her hands, and said, in a tiny voice, “I told witchfinder a great deal of lies.”
That was the truth, I realized, and at the same time I realized that her demure little girl act was just as much of a ploy to get me to go easy on her, as her showing her ankles and enticing me had been a ploy to distract me. I didn’t hold it against her. After all we each must fight with what we had, and what she had was a female form, a weak but pleasing body and the inherent chivalric conventions of my society. Of course she would use them to protect herself or gain advantage.
But I didn’t let the understanding show in my face. Instead, I said sternly. “I know, but now you’re going to tell me the truth.
She looked distressed, opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again. What came out was pretty close to a wail, “But don’t you understand that would be breaking all the rules?”
“What rules?” I asked.
“The rules of the… for lack of a better world, Mythworld.”
“You are entirely of them, then?”
She gave me a very odd look, like she thought I’d taken leave of my senses. “Of course not,” she said. “If I were, I wouldn’t be able to be here, in your world. That’s why…” She made a gesture midair and I was very careful to watch, in case it was some of her spells. “That’s why Zeus had so many half breeds with humans and why… Of all of our people very few pure bloods can walk between worlds. And it is between worlds. They can’t stay too long near the world of men.” Her eyes crossed again. “Hermes for ins– You’re not Hermes, are you?”
“I’m Jonathan Blythe,” I said, with unwonted patience. “Earl of Savage.”
Again the little head shake, as though I’d just informed her I was a particularly showy kind of duck or something equally inane. “Well,” she said, as though conceding points. “My mother was human.”
“I see,” I said. “Then why did you turn against Earth and set evil magics on us.”
She blinked at me. “Why, to save Fairyland, of course.”
Wolfe Merritt, Manufactories and Properties Manager for the Right Honorable Earl of Savage.
After a while it became clear how to outwit the beast. We couldn’t use magic alone, not while fully enveloped in the creature – or at least not unless we laid the spell in an unusual way.
Which is how we found ourselves, with ropes around our waists walking single file along one of those narrow ridges that I believed were the very flesh of the creature in whose gut we were trapped.
We consisted of the king Hanuman and his monkeys, most of them in Monkey form — though Hanuman himself had a disturbing tendency to shift in and out of his ape form – and myself, and Miss Blythe, and Betsy. We brought up the rear, or rather I did, with Betsy walking ahead of Miss Blythe, and Miss Blythe ahead of me. This formation was necessary in case one or the other of the girls should lose their footing on the slippery pink ledge.
When Betsy slipped, miss Blythe would hold her, and likewise if she slipped, I’d hold her. As for me, I took great care not to slip, as we’d been told that the foamy liquid foaming a foot or so beneath us, and filling a cavity the size of a natural lake was – in this part of the beast – pure acid. Hanuman had said one of his monkeys had fallen in it, and they’d not even retrieved the skeleton.
This was born out by the smell which was much like what I’d smelled once at an engraving plant – acrid and acid, seemingly burning the nose as we breathed.
Which was a concern, since, if this didn’t work out, then we would be in the liquid, anyway. Or at least I would be, having made up my mind to that I would be first to try this. My magic, my responsibility, my fate.
“Are you sure this will work?” Miss Helen Blythe asked, leaning back so that I could hear her, and, in the process, almost slipping. I put an arm around her waist and tried to tell myself it was all to keep her from tripping and dissolving. The thought of Miss Blythe dissolving, or indeed suffering any untoward fate was unbearable. I’d come on this adventure to protect her, and I was a full grown man, with full knowledge of the vagaries of the world and its traps. If anyone deserved to pay for any mistakes made it was me. She was little more than a girl out of the schoolroom, and she couldn’t have known how unadvisable this adventure was. She certainly couldn’t have known about the rogue magic plaguing the world and what effect it would have upon her.
I debated whether I should lie to her, but I had a feeling this young woman had already had too many lies in her short life and would be bound to know if I prevaricated. “No,” I said. “I’m not even more than half confident. But there doesn’t seem to be any other choice. So I’ll do it, I’ll be the first to go. And then, if I fail—”
“We’ll be trapped in the beast’s gut forever?” she asked.
“Well, no,” I said. “At least you get to live. And if you or Hanuman don’t come up with another scheme in no time, I’m much mistaken.”
“But then why try it at all?” she asked. “Surely one of us three will come up with another scheme soon.”
“Not that I can think of,” I said. “And Hanuman is impatient. Besides, this scheme has some hope of working. Perhaps not high, but some hope.”
She shivered against me, and I realized I still had an arm around her waist. I let go, but took hold of her upper arm, because she must be guarded against chance slips.
“How horrid,” she said. “Well try one thing after another and each of us will fall into this terrible liquid and be destroyed. Or die some other way, till in the end there is only Hanuman and his monkeys. Perhaps we’re not the first humans he’s recruited?”
I bit my lip. “We shouldn’t think such gloomy thoughts,” I said.
“Why not? If they are true? What are the chances of your succeeding?”
I sighed. “Three in ten, maybe. Not that one can calculate magic chances precisely in these circumstances and under these situations. I don’t have my magical charts.”
She looked back, her little face pale amid the dark curls. “Doesn’t God disapprove of self murder? Don’t you have anything– anyone you’d live for?”
“My son—” I said, before I could stop myself, and thoughts of my child put a heavy weight in my heart. Mom would do the best she could for him, but it might not be much. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure I could do much more. Magic children weren’t meant to live in the normal world.
“You have a son? Then you have a wife too?”
“No, his mother—”
We stopped, because Hanuman had stopped suddenly, and there was much shuffling and holding as we grabbed each other to keep from slipping.
Hanuman was in a larger, projecting promontory, if such terms can be used when inside an animal.
We all filed after him into this little projecting platform, standing cheek to jowl in such a way that it barely contained all of us.
“Well, Mr. Wolfe,” he said. “The time has come to try your magic.”
As he spoke, one of his monkeys was clambering up into the dim depths of what looked like a cavern ceiling above us, but must be the upper walls of the creature’s stomach. He affixed a hook to something there, and from the hook there dangled a rope.
The rope was brought to me.
“Climb up, Mr. Merrit, and show us how it’s done.”
“No!” Miss Blythe said. “Let me try it. He’s the greater magician and he—”
“No, indeed, Miss Blythe,” Hanuman said. “His magic it is and he must bank on it.”
I hadn’t climbed a rope since my days in school, but this one had been knotted so I had somewhere to edge my feet. That said it was still hard at my age, to engage in such athletics. Particularly hard when the monkeys stopped holding the rope and it swung vertically, like a pendulum on a clock, with me doing the turn of the weight at the bottom.
The base of the rope disappeared into the liquid and gave off a most strange smell.
You see, the thought was that this was the largest chamber within the creature. And that I must be in it, as far away from the flesh as possible, and then let go even of the rope because that was still attached to the creature, while the spell took effect. If it worked, I’d be transported back to Earth. If it failed…
I’d made little pre-packaged spells for everyone, contained in the powder inside tiny transparent envelopes whose provenance I’d rather not know.
As I climbed the rope, it was hard to avoid the thought of that lake of acid below. But I must climb as high as possible, so I had more room to fall – and perhaps transport – before I hit. The question was, of course, had the magic gone rotten here too?
No use asking.
I was sweating by the time I made it to the top.
Tearing the little envelope – I really didn’t want to know its provenance. It was rather like sausage casings – with my teeth, I released the powder and said the one activating word, “Abras.”
And then I let go of the rope, and fell, tumbling head over heels towards the lake of acid and certain death.
Into Peril and Darkness
Lady Caroline Ainsling, sister of the Duke of Darkwater
It would have to be Maryanne who opened the window of course. Nine times out of ten, if someone had thrown pebbles at our window – a distinct possibility since Maryanne had the morals of a cat. A bad behaving cat – I’d be the one to answer, as I was usually up later and actually studied and prepared for my lessons, long after she was sleeping the sleep of the pampered, the pretty and the rich.
Not that we were exactly poor. Well, not since my half-brother Gabriel, the king of fairyland, had handed my brother Seraphim a chest of ancient gold. And that was before Seraphim had married the princess Royale. I had to assume the king wouldn’t allow his son in law to be rolled up into debtor’s prison. He certainly wouldn’t if Nell had any say in it.
But Seraphim believed that we shouldn’t spend the ready just to make ourselves comfortable and happy. He believed in noblesse oblige and also that the patrimony of the Darwaters was a sacred trust to be passed on to his children and their children, world without end. While he didn’t evade his duties to his non-inheriting siblings, he treated us with the same parsimony he treated himself.
Why, except for the year when he was pretending to be a dandy, mostly to hide the fact that he and Gabriel were up to something very illegal indeed, he didn’t even much care how he dressed. These days you were likely to see the prince consort and king’s witchfinder, rolled into one unassuming person wearing dark suits more likely to be worn by servants, and forgetting to eat most of his meals, unless Nell made sure he had food taken to him. And he preferred walking form our house in town to his office, rather than sending for the carriage.
Generally, Seraphim was a very un-duke like duke, which meant I was a very unladylike lady, I suppose. I’d been sent to the boarding school – St. Ursula of the Fields – with the minimum troseau and equipment. So many underclothes, so many walking dresses, so many uniforms. Seraphim had told me, from his own experience at Eton, that if I’d brought more than that I’d be ridiculed and called a pampered princess. He was wrong.
What he’d missed is that, unlike Eton, this was a school for well born girls. And that all sorts of exceptions were made.
Cher Maryanne, for instance, whose parents were newly ascended to the nobility, but quite rich, had brought her weight in jewelry. She was fond of acting all sorry for me, and telling me what a pity it was I hadn’t brought so much as a pearl necklace.
I had to keep telling myself that no, I couldn’t strangle her with her diamond rope.
And then this being a school for young ladies, the academic subjects were treated oddly. Take history for instance. It had been my favorite subject, both under my governess and on my own. But I’d liked to know why things happened and how. In this school it was all memorization of names, dates, and things that were irrelevant, like funny stories about a queen’s hair style. Things that I suppose were good to teach you to make small talk, but not good for anything else.
The only good parts were the money management courses, and the management of estates, and even those were taught stilted, as though girls would never need to do the full job. If I asked a probing question, I got told my husband would guide me in the difficult places. My husband. Poor Akakios who was to feel the role was a stranger in this world, far more than I was.
Not to say I was discontented with my fate. Akakios – I think I fell in love with him when first I saw him, and rescued him from an iron cage in fairyland. I didn’t know it, because I hadn’t known what love was. It’s not the slightest thing like in books, where it’s all heart flutterings and things. It was more a feeling of belonging. We were meant to be together, and were happy when we were together.
I was sure when Akakios and I were married and in our own house we’d be fine, but it was so long till then. My weekly or so meetings with Akakios when the two schools met to go on walks or for teas or such were the only fun part of this waiting time. I could always tell him anything.
So I wasn’t in the least angry when he came to me. I was only upset Ursula – who’d been brushing some strange potion into her hair, and therefore awake – was the one to open the window.
“Ainsling,” She said. “There’s a centaur asking for you.”
I got up from my desk, turning on the magelight and thinking, of course, that it was just Akakios and that he would be, of course, in human form, but that news of what he was must have spread. I sighed. We’d kept it silent long enough. Most girls believed he was half-Greek. But it was inevibitable it would come out.
Imagine my surprise when I looked out the window to see him standing there, just like he had in fairyland. Well, not just like. He was wearing a jacket. And a shirt. And a cravat. For some reason, the fact he’d gone through the trouble of tying a high, snowy linen cravat around his neck made my eyes tear up.
And then I realized that for him to be in centaur form…
“Caroline,” he said, urgently. “Caroline. I need your help.”
“What do you need?” I said.
“Please? I must talk to you.”
“Sure. Hold on.”
I wasn’t sure what I was about to do, as I turned around to face Maryanne’s grin. “A centaur, isn’t he? Your fiancé? I know that you—”
I shook my head at her. “You don’t even know what’s wrong, do you?”
“What?” She had beautiful blue eyes, large and round, and all the young men from the boy’s school swooned over them. Well, all besides Akakios.
“He shouldn’t have shifted into a centaur in our world. There isn’t enough magic.”
“But… but… but…” she said. “We have shifters!”
My mind must have made some sort of decision, because I was opening the little cupboard where I kept my clothes, and taking out my riding clothes, putting them on, binding my hair. “Yes,” I said. “But centaurs aren’t normal shifters. Like … naiads or dryads they don’t exist in our world. Their … internals don’t work without enough magic. A centaur, no matter how carnivorous, can’t eat enough to keep both bodies alive. And the lungs aren’t enough for both bodies, either. Think, woman! That’s why when magical creatures are brought to our world they have to be kept under magical conditions, and they usually die anyway, after a short time. He shouldn’t have been able to even shift, much less stay conscious while shifted.”
And now Maryanne was quiet and I’d worried myself into a fret. What if Akakios suddenly lost whatever magic was keeping this going and—
No, he’d just shift. It was a built in safety mechanism.
Maryanne seemed to realize I was fully dressed, and gasped. “You can’t mean to go out now. You know the porter will stop you!”
True. Which was why I pulled the sheets from my bed, tied one to the other and to the leg of my bed, before throwing it out the window.
Maryanne’s “I should give the alarm,” was met by me with a stern face. “I’ll tell them about the gardener boy if you do.”
“But I’ll be punished if you don’t come back before morning call.”
I didn’t tell her I’d be back before morning call. It was rather like lying. I had a feeling that this trouble was much too big for that. Instead I said, “No. Tell them you were asleep and saw nothing. Then cry. They let you get away with anything when you cry.”
Which was true, and puzzled me, since I could never cry on command.
She dithered at the window as I climbed down the rope ladder, but didn’t untie it, as I half feared she would.
At the bottom, Akakios put out his arms to receive me. He smelled of sweat and fear, and he looked pale, but he hugged me close, for just a moment. We’d never really had much physical contact, of course, because of chaperonage.
“Thank you for coming down,” he said. “I had a dream-message from my father.”
He told me about Gabriel being maybe kidnapped, maybe killed. I refused to admit he could be killed. “I’d know if one of my brother’s was dead!”
“Caroline, Night Arrow is—”
“No, I’d know.” I said. He calls Gabriel Night Arrow, which is the closest translation of his elf name. I didn’t know, of course, Gabriel was alive. I couldn’t know. But I was trying to keep my fear at bay with words.
Akakios must have sensed that and didn’t argue. He pulled back my hair gently and said, “I’m glad you put on your riding habit, because we must go to the duke your brother and see what he can do.”
“And if he can’t—”
“Then we will somehow cross over to fairyland and go to my people.”
Belle Dame Sans Merci
The Right Honorable Jonathan Blythe, the Earl of Savage
The lovely Ginevra, sitting incongruously amidst a welter of pillows, in a consciously prim little-girl position, widened her quite distractingly silvery gray eyes at me, and said in that pat tone that she had set a blight on my world to save fairyland.
It wouldn’t fadge. I let the rasper fly over my head, and smiled at her, my best unnerving smile, the one I used to grace dad with when I was trying to hide something from him, and he had no idea what – besides knowing it was, as he would put it “monstrous.”
“How fascinating,” I told her, my voice even.
The lovely grey eyes widened again, this time with surprise. “What?” she said. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, nothing. Only I didn’t know someone so magical and so lovely could be so foolish.”
There was a beat of confusion, and I’d swear it was genuine. “I’m not—“ she said, then sighed. “But it’s true.”
“You had to set a blight on the Earth of men to save… fairyland? And what was fairyland in danger of?”
She squinted her eyes at me. “You stupid man,” she said, with a force that showed that she meant this at least. “Don’t you understand anything? All of those lies that floated for years, about fairyland being a parasite upon the worlds are true of the myth world. My guess is they got confused because some types of creatures – centaurs and mermaids, for instance – live in both. But in the end, milord, myth is a parasite. It needs human belief and human emotions to keep going. And it is a wholly separated world supported only by the world of humans. Except what your father did—” She paused. “Your father and the dragon thought they were so clever, setting spells to confuse the succession here, the oldest of all worlds, and then getting this world and fairyland enmeshed. They thought of course that your Earth would acquire much magic from fairyland, an alliance of sorts. They didn’t realize that magical worlds are not like the nations of this world and able to ally or break alliance. It’s not a political thing. It’s a magical thing.
“When their spell broke, the worlds became entangled, and fairyland bled onto your world. And then my world saw it, and spilled demons onto fairyland. The king was mad and unable to defend it. I had to… I had to call their attention elsewhere, so that they would feed on another world, not fairyland. You don’t understand, nor does the All-Father either, that if they suck fairyland dry they’ll kill all the other worlds. My– The All Father said that he would keep it to a minimum.
“But just the initial infusion of magic from fairyland woke the old ones. The old, old ones. The unreasoning ones. They will feed without limit. There is nothing we can do to that. So I had to attach the magic elsewhere. And I’d grown up here.”
I rubbed my hand from top to bottom across my face and caught myself up half way through the gesture. I was trying to remove a magical veil, but damnme I had no idea that the veil was there. All I knew is that none of this could be true, even if it had the ring of truth.
Careful now, Jonahtan, I told myself. Whatever she is, you know she is a siren, and her type of magic is likely to be one that you can neither detect nor fight.
But she had said that I had fought it without trying before. Yes, and likely that’s a lie too. I felt very impatient, suddenly, and it occurred to me that it was likely this was how normal people felt about me, never sure if they had me by the head or by the heels. My. I must be a thoroughly ramshackle fellow. No wonder so many people hated me so heartily.
She was looking at me as though trying to get a reaction, and it occurred to me the last words she said, and I said before I thought, “Well, that I understand. Having grown up here, also, I have often wished to destroy it. But none of this makes any sense, milady. If you think I’m going to believe that somehow what you describe caused Gabriel Penn to wish to blow his brother and his brother’s office up to kingdom come, you’re fair and far out. And I’d wager good money what received me on that side was Gabriel.” I warmed to my theme as I spoke. “You see, I have known Gabriel since we were boys, and I know his expressions, his gestures, the tone of his voice. There is nothing, nothing that could imitate him that perfectly.”
She made a sound deep in her throat. It might have been laughter or a sob. “Of course it was Gabriel,” She said. “But it wasn’t Night Arrow the king of fairyland. You don’t understand.”
“Clearly,” I said. “I must be very dumb. How disheartening this all is. I must be as hen-brained as mama. And I always used to think myself needle witted.”
She shook her head. The sound came again, half sob and half laugh. “I wish you were. It would be easier to explain this to you. Instead you keep thinking you know the rules. Son of Adam, you don’t.”
“I’ll have you know my Papa’s name wasn’t Adam.” It was a weak gest and it got not even a courtesy laugh. She glared.
“You don’t understand anything. Our people don’t play by the rules of fairyland. In a way we could call us the anti-fairyland, only that our world isn’t too organized and strict. It’s more chaotic than fairyland, more dependent on belief and ideas.” She frowned at me. “Part of the reason fairyland is at danger, oh foolish one, is that the king isn’t whole.”
“I’ve seen him. He looks whole to me.”
She shook her head. “Inside. It is a horrible thing for a land to be ruled by someone who hates it. It is far worse for a magical kingdom to fall to that. Only fairyland can’t, because the king is the land. Except this king hates fairyland and that portion of himself that rules it. And he’s split himself neatly in two.”
“You’re telling me Gabriel Penn has become two people?”
“If it were that easy,” she said. “Then we could send the mortal Gabriel back to Earth, and Night Arrow could rule fairyland. He’s supposed to, you know. It is his destiny. In Fairyland, you can’t fight destiny.”
“None of this,” I told her. “Makes any sense.”
“It wouldn’t,” she said. “We are older and deeper than sense and so is fairyland. Look, Night Arrow wants to save fairyland. And Gabriel Penn wants to destroy it. Even if it would take himself with it. Perhaps particularly if it would take himself with it. His mind does not do well – it is to human for the magical confines the … the inhuman aspects of fairyland.”
“Again, I say, if you think that Gabriel in any circumstance would be willing to kill his brother to destroy fairyland– And why should he, since his brother is on Earth?”
“Because he knows Seraphim would find that I’d got the Mythworld to attach here, instead of to Fairyland. And he knows – or suspects – that Seraphim could fix it. And he can’t allow that. I don’t know if he realized it would kill his brother – a magical bomb is different, and I don’t think he thought through the logistics of exploding buildings and masonry. I think he’s desperate enough he just thought of the ah—non physical effects of a magic bomb, which don’t kill anyone.”
“What do they do then?”
“They render you deaf and mute to magic for a year or so. Time enough for Penn to consign Fairyland to the maw of Mythworld and kill it and himself.”
“But … but Seraphim would be trying to solve the blight on this world,” I said. “Once he figured out that it was set here.”
“Oh no,” she said, and her voice sounded horrified at my stupidity. “Oh, no. You don’t rightly perceive it at all. Once the Witchfinder figured out that Fairyland would be eaten if the mythworld were detached from this world, then he would try to find a way to save that too. He knows whence magic comes.”
My head was reeling. “But then,” I said. “Why didn’t you find it?”
“Because I don’t think there is a way. The king of fairy might think there is, but there isn’t. Better to let the mythworld devour your world, and then for both to wither out of contact with the other worlds, than for it to devour fairyland, and unspool the other worlds with it.”
Her face grew all hard lines, her eyes stern. “We must sacrifice your world and do it quickly. We must let mythworld devour all that—Well, fortunately neither you nor I love anything in this world, do we? – because we must let mythworld eat this world. To save fairyland. Only we have the king of fairy and… and the All Father working against us.” Her face broke down and she was suddenly all little girl again. She sniffled, and tears shone in her eyes. “And I don’t know how to do it.”
Interlude with Monkeys
Wolfe Merritt, Manufactories and Properties Manager for the Right Honorable Earl of Savage.
I hit so hard that for a moment I wasn’t sure at all I had survived.
I’d let go of the rope inside the gut of a fantastical beast, as I said a spell to restore us to our right world. Beneath me was a pool of acid. If the spell didn’t work, I was going to die in a horrible way.
And for a moment I wasn’t sure I hadn’t. I fell hard, and my brain rattled, and I might have lost consciousness for a little while.
At length I became aware of soft grass under me, of a smell of flowers, and therefore that I could not be in acid, in the gut of a monster.
But I can’t have been unconscious too long. Opening my eyes, I saw Lady Helen falling, just near me. She fell, as I had, onto a cushiony grassy mound, and rolled down, and lifted her head, glaring at me, “You!” as though she were surprised to see me, or perhaps as though I’d engineered her fall.
I was vaguely aware of her maid, Betsy, falling near us, and then another man, I wasn’t sure whom, but I caught sight of a human form falling.
This was followed in short order by the sound of chattering monkeys, and a lot of noise like tree leaves being ruffled. I turned over and saw that there were indeed trees. We were in a clearing. It was a good thing we hadn’t fallen through the trees. I suspect while not as lethal as the acid, it would be just as bad.
Betsy was gathering herself, and Lady Helen was still glowering at me. “You,” she said again.
I blinked at her, because it still felt like the tumble had made it impossible for me to think, and she said, “Where are we?” She crossed her arms. “Where did you bring us?”
I looked at her, then around me, then up at the trees, where Hannuman’s monkeys were chittering and swinging from branch to branch. “Somewhere,” I said, “not inside the monster.”
A male chuckle answered that, and turning around I saw it was Hanuman, himself, in human form, and I had a moment to rejoice he was wearing clothes. “Indeed, it’s not,” he said. “And you should be grateful enough for that, milady. An eternity I spent in that vile place. This is not it.”
I got a feeling he knew where this was, and a strong pit-of the stomach clench of anxiety that it was nowhere I wanted to be, but I didn’t say it. Instead I said, mock-cheerfully, “It could be somewhere pleasant,” I said. “it could even be your country estate, and your brother somewhere nearby.” As I said it I thought my mother and my son would be nearby too, and I longed for that with near painful need. To walk into mother’s kitchen, to have—
“I think not,” the Monkey-king said, at the same time that Miss Blythe said, “The power aura is all wrong!”
“Where are we?” I said with nascent alarm. The monkeys were approaching now, very quietly, walking like men, closing in.
“We’re in my world, Mr. Merrit,” the Monkey king said, and grinned ingratiatingly. “The Myth World.”
A Centaur in London
Lady Caroline Ainsling, sister of his Grace the Duke of Darkwater,
Perhaps the decision to go to London wasn’t the best we’d ever made. London was not that far, but it was far enough, and the London road from our schools would be the most traveled of all roads around. Plus the journey would take us well into daylight.
I think it took Akakios only half an hour or so to realize this. What he did then surprised me. He stepped off the road, and it seemed to me into the dense woods. I was about to tell him that this was foolishness and that he would twist his ankle in some badger hole, when he started running.
I’ll never be able to explain it, but what it felt like to me, was as though we were running in a dense wood, only trees jumped out of the way when we approached, and Akakios galloped like no horse I’d ever ridden, each leap seemingly miles long.
It wasn’t till he stopped, in a very different sort of wood, one that seemed manicured, and had a lawn near the cluster of trees in which we stood, that I found the breath to say, “What did you do?”
“That was—” he said, and paused for a deep breath. Indeed, his jacket and coat were wet with sweat. “That was a bit of transport magic, the sort of thing we used in Fairyland.”
“Did you—Did we cut through fairyland?”
He shook his head. “No. Too dangerous. If we have to go into it, we have to go into it, but for now, no. No, this is a magic called Broken path.”
“I’ve never heard of it,” I realized my voice came out a little shrill. After all, one likes to be sure of one’s magic and what it can do, and after all, again, when one has been exquisitely well educated in magic, one expects such a handy thing as this spell to have been taught to one.
“No,” he said. He’d calmed down, but I could feel beneath my hands, clasped across his chest, the ragged beating of his human heart. Centaurs have two. One in their human chest and one – and a bigger set of lungs – in their horse body. Needed, of course, for that enormous body. “No. Until now there was not enough magic in this land to support it. Caroline, if magic is pouring in here, the way it is… Night Arrow—”
I primed my lips, though he couldn’t see me, and put on my haughtiest of voices. “I refuse,” I said. “To admit my brother might be dead.”
Akakios didn’t say anything to that, only “Well, we’re in Green Park. I don’t know how to get from here to your brother’s offices, and I’m afraid to sense him, because with the magic out of kilter, who knows what—”
I nodded, again for my own reassurance, though I was aware that he couldn’t see me. “We came here for the season ever since I was little,” I said. “Mama didn’t like to leave the little ones in the country, so I know London. If we’re at Green Park, we must be near the meadow where they pasture cows during the day, of course. If you would but walk that path, and when you come to the road, take a left.”
I led him, step by step towards the royal palace and Seraphim’s Witchfinder offices.
I’d thought it would be much harder, I own, to ride a centaur through London without attracting any attention. Only it wasn’t. Not at this time of night. As we walked along darkened streets, I took care to stay away from theaters and offices, and other places where people might cluster in great numbers. We met only two people who even looked twice at us – the other people hurrying past in the demi-dark, I assume didn’t look closely enough to realize it was a woman riding a centaur and not two people on a horse – one of them a woman who wore rather gaudy clothes and who I’d guess was what mama would have called “not quite the thing.” She knit herself with the wall and stared, open mouthed, as we rode past. The other was a man who was walking in the weaving step of a drunkard and who stared at us with his mouth open then said, “Strap me. Centaurs now. As though hookah smoking caterpillars weren’t bad enough. I swear by all living I’ll never touch blue ruin again.”
It was inevitable we’d run into more people near the royal palace, where Seraphim’s offices were, but even there, no one seemed to pay attention to us. The reason was obvious after a startled blink. The statue that had stood in the plaza royale since … ever, I presume, the statue of Richard the Lionheart in both his forms, had been shattered to fragments no larger than pebbles, and a mort of judicial magicians was wandering around it, taking readings and sensings and doing who knew what.
Seraphim himself, stood at the door to his office, and must have come out in some haste, because I’d never before seen my dignified brother in his shirt sleeves in a public situation. Even in our house he normally didn’t show without his jacket at breakfast.
Akakios picked his way slowly through the rubble, so it wasn’t until we were almost upon Seraphim, that the person next to him turned and saw me, at the same time I recognized my tiresome twin brother, Michael. Since he was tiresome mostly by spending his days wrapt in machinery of a magical kind, and by not being forced to attend a school for young gentleman, which in fairness he should have been sent to if I was sent to one for young ladies, I was not amused that he said, “Caroline! What are you doing here?”
And then Seraphim turned. He looked at me and started to open his lips, doubtless to ask me why I’d left school. Then he saw Akakios and seemed to realize what form Akakios had taken. He opened his mouth, closed it, and he turned the approximate color of milk. I’d never seen someone so pale and shocked. “What—” he said. He never finished it.
A grand coach drove into the square, seemingly heedless of the fragments of statue all over, or of the judicial magicians for that matter. Three of them had to jump out of the way of the magnificent team of matched bays.
The door to the carriage opened before it was fully stopped. It opened so fast that no one could see the emblem on the door. But the man who more or less spilled out was none other than the earl of Sydell, who is – and it’s no use at all Seraphim tellin me otherwise. I’m young and I’m female, but I’m not stupid – somewhat more than Gabriel’s close friend. His cher amie in the sense men use it around town for women with whom they cannot contract marriage but with whom they contract everything else would be closer. And no, it’s no use telling me I’m wrong. You see, I’ve seen the way they look at each other.
He’s a short man, with a shocking mane of blond-red hair, and while he was wearing a jacket, he looked like he’d dressed himself by touch in the dark, with his cravat all in a big lump, his jacket not matching his pants and looking, besides, as if he’d slept in it.
Which I gathered was exactly what he’d done, when he said to no one in particular, “I beg your pardon. I would have driven and gotten here earlier, only I’d been up working on a spell and I needed to sleep, so the coach…”
“Why would you need to get here earlier?” Seraphim said, his voice suddenly found, his expression fulminating. It took knowing Seraphim very well to know that tone of voice meant that he wasn’t angry so much as terrified. Though he gave away the reason for his fear in the next second, making me wonder what had happened here before our arrival. “Is it Gabriel?”
The earl of Sydell nodded. “Night Arrow,” he said, in elven, which made sense because he was himself part dragon and part dryad and who knew what else. “Gabriel.”
“He’s dead!” Akakios said, and brought Sydell’s startled gaze to him.
“Dead?” Seraphim said. He staggered back to lean against the door lintel as though his legs would give out. Gabriel was probably of all the siblings the one closest to him. Even though Gabriel was illegitimate and had only been brought to live with us at the age of seven, he and Seraphim had quickly become as close as twins. Well, closer than Michael and I. If I lost a brother, I’d lose part of the other as well.
“No,” Sydell said. “Oh no, no. It’s much worse than that. He’s split.”
A Strange Spell
Miss Ginevra Mythborn
Jonathan Blythe, Earl of Savage, raised his eyebrow at me. “What I think, my charmer,” he said, as I half-sat on that brothel’s bed, trying to look as prim and proper as my kind ever could. “Is that you’ve been telling me a great deal of fairytales.” And before I could open my mouth to protest, his own lips curled upward, in a wry expression, and he said, “Or whatever you wish to call them. What I mean, my dear, is… what a great deal of lies you tell me. Much worse, I’m sure, than the ones I told papa’s chaplain when he caught me with the faun in the rectory.”
I didn’t know what to make of that, and I was almost sure the faun was a red herring. Or – I looked up at the man’s eyes, alight with mischief – perhaps not. Maybe he had some satyr in him.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” I said, in my primmest voice.
“Oh, I think you do,” he said.
He advanced towards me and for a moment I thought he was about to take me in his arms. That would be good, since mortal hasn’t been born who can resist the sort of spell I can cast in those circumstances. Doubt me, would he?
But instead he grabbed at the bell pull.
As though called by it, there were very odd sounds from the room next door. It sounded like a giant chicken flapping wings and braying like a donkey. Yes, I’m aware how idiotic that sounds, but I swear this is an accurate description. It was all made worse by the sound of a male voice murmuring what I was sure would be found to be endearments.
Jonathan’s eyebrow went up at it, and he smiled at what must be my very shocked face. “I told you this place caters to the exotic,” he said.
I sat up straighter and made very sure my skirt was covering my ankles.
Someone came to the door and moments later Jonathan came back into the room carrying a tray with a bottle and a couple of glasses. I wondered if he had an arranged signal, then stopped wondering. He set the tray down and poured himself a glass of something amber that smelled alcoholic even at this distance and tossed it back.
“Why do you think I have been telling you tales?” I asked.
He grinned at me, and I realized what he was doing. His intake of alcohol blurred my ability to spin anything on his magic, to attach any spell to him.
“I see,” I said. “Are you sure Hermes—”
“If you mean am I sure I’m not one of the old gods? Quite sure m’dear. But I can feel you trying to attach spells to my magic, which you wouldn’t do if you weren’t telling me lies.”
I sighed. “It’s just…” I said. “It’s very complex.”
“Let’s start with Gabriel. Even if he thought that this world must be destroyed to save fairyland, I don’t think he’d consider destroying this world while his whole family is in it.”
“Elves have a different view of family.”
“Elves, perhaps,” he said. “But Gabriel isn’t an elf. Not a proper elf.”
I took a deep breath. When all else fails, one has to tell the truth. It’s something the All Father never fully understood, and something he might not forgive me, but it must be done, anyway. I doubted I could continue to fool Jonathan, with or without liquor and besides…
And besides there was that oddness about his magical pattern, that feeling that he shared more with me than with those other mortals who were, supposedly, his kin. I took another deep breath and then I said, “Can’t you see that’s the problem, you stupid man,” the words came out before I could hold them in. One thing is to tell the unvarnished truth, which is bad enough, and another and totally different to tell the truth and let my annoyance show. The mortals, as the Pater reminds us, are but mice to our cat. If we let the mouse know he’s got the cat annoyed, we’ve conceded part of our superiority and ability if we let the mice know they can frustrate us.
“What that Gabriel is an unconventional elf-king?” Jonathan said. “Would do fairyland good if you ask me. It would—”
“It might. If he’d set about changing it, instead of…” I’d said to much. Or not enough.
“Instead of splitting.”
“What do you mean splitting?”
“I mean neither of his halves can abide the other. He tried to subsume his human self in the elf self, but it wouldn’t work, because one hates the other and hates fairyland.”
“What do you mean splitting?”
“Exactly what it sounds like. He’s become two people. One is the sovereign of elf land, whom you met. The other—“
“Is missing. No one can find him.”
Jonathan looked at me a long time, his eyes hard. “That’s not all is it? Or perhaps it is. I’m aware of how much myths dwell on twins. Did you make him split? And what have you done with the all-human Gabriel? Surely he can’t survive like that.”
Gods, Kings and Tricksters
Wolfe Merritt, Manufactories and Properties Manager for the Right Honorable Earl of Savage.
The Lady Helen gathered her borrowed clothes about her and looked sullen. She spoke in a much younger voice, “But I don’t want to be in the myth world.”
I took a step towards her, wishing to help, somehow. Something in her face was unguarded and lost. The fierce daring girl was gone, and even the girl I’d sensed in her room, the confined and well behaved girl who longed for escape and adventure. All that was left was this young girl, seemingly stripped of all defense and pretense, protesting in a disconsolate voice, like a child facing something she can’t quite face.
“You must see it’s better than the interior of that horrible beast,” I said.
“I see no such thing,” she said. “At least there you knew what we faced.”
Hannuman gave her a curious look. He seemed to be considering something, as though internally making imaginary moves on a chess board the rest of us could see. I didn’t like the look in his eyes, the laughing devil aspect of him. I tried to imagine the game he was playing, but how is a mere human to follow the mind of a creature that had lived… perhaps forever.
I’d never really understood what the pagan gods were, but Mr. Mayhew, the pastor in the church near my mother’s house, used to say that they were forces or impulses, of both nature and the human heart. As such they couldn’t be said to have been born or ever to die. They were just things, impossible to understand, and powerful, though not like the only god was powerful.
But that talk was so similar to the talk that Mr. Mayhew had had with Wolfe when he brought his wife home, that there was no guessing if the pastor himself understood the difference between elves and gods, and all the other supernatural forces.
He didn’t know what to tell the Lady Helen because to be quite blunt he also didn’t want to be in the myth world. But if she were going to go to pieces now, it would make it more difficult to escape. And if she did not go to pieces, yet she wrung her heart when she looked at him in a piteous way that demanded he take her out of here.
Meanwhile, Hanuman, ancient and unknowable was making his own rules and playing his own game, and there was nothing that Wolfe could do to anticipate. He guessed that they’d been brought here on purpose, and while there might be a certain relief in knowing he hadn’t unleashed the trickster’s monkeys on the world, yet there was also fear, because what would happen to them in this world. And why had he brought them here?
“Why did you bring us here?” Helen said, looking at Hannuman, and now a peevish note added to her voice.
In that snap he seemed to make his decision. He bowed low to her, and said, in a voice that was oil and honey, “Why, milady,” he said. “to give you the place you should have. To make you my wife.”
Helen jumped back as though burned and made a sound that was wordless refusal. But Hannuman grinned and bowed lower. “You must admit, milady, that in this place and at this time it is highly unlikely that a better offer will be made to you, and highly unlikely that anyone else will want to marry you. And here, I am a king, god of all of monkey, prince of tricksters. If you marry me you’ll belong here, and all your needs will be attended to.”
“Beware, lady,” Wolfe said, and stepped in front of her; in between her and the monkey god. The words had been wrenched for him before he could think, and now he thought that she might think he was intruding, and given her temperament, might run the other way. He said, his voice strangling in his throat, “Marriage with them who are not quite human is always a mistake.”
But the lady had recovered her footing. She stomped on the grass and said, in a tone of great disdain. “I have not the slightest interest in marrying him. Why,” Her hands went to her waist, “Does every supernatural creature wish to marry me? He’s better than the fish-man but not by much.”
Merrit could see the monkeys gather around, though, some in human form and some as monkeys. They’d looked amusing before, but now they looked somewhat scary and… odd. Like they had a light turned on inside them that lent them an eery glow.
“You’ll marry me, my dear,” Hanuman said, sounding amused. “And you’ll like it. Or at least be grateful of it.”
The monkeys were gathering.
Wolfe Merrit hadn’t dared pray, not since that day long ago when his wife had left. He’d never thought of it, again. He’d set himself outside human laws. He’d violated the separation between man and magic. And he’d brought a poor innocent into the world. The homely comfort of the village church had become as alien to him as the face of the moon. But now he closed his eyes, and he thought, intently, in the direction of that God he hadn’t approached in far too long, “If I’ve ever done anything right, Lord. Just once.”
And then, knowing it probably would come to nothing, he prepared to die defending Lady Helen. He knew what the Monkey had meant, and what could be done to make a woman happy of an unwanted marriage. He might not be able to prevent it but he would ensure he wasn’t alive to see it. There were things the eye could not endure, nor the heart – not without breaking.
“Deluded mortal,” the Monkey king said, in a tone of amused derision. “Get him, my monkeys.”
There was movement and Wolfe, wishing he had a weapon to hand, found himself taking a fighting pose. He felt a hand – paw? – touch his arm. He gritted his teeth.
“That will be enough of that,” a female voice said, vibrant and clear like a clarion call. “Enough of that and a bit more besides. You have overstepped your power, Hanuman.”
Shocked, Wolfe turned in the direction of the voice and blinked. It was Betsy. Or at least, there was in the face the remnant features of what had been Lady Helen’s maid. But they had… grown up? Become glorified? The clothes had altered too. Where there had been the fantastical clothes that the monkey had lent them, there was now a gown to the ankle, flowing in a way no normal fabric ever flowed. The feet were in sandals. And across the woman’s shoulder was slung a bow and a quiver of arrows.
Wolfe felt like he was dreaming, but knew it was all as real as anything here.
Seraphim Ainsling, Duke of Darkwater and Lord Witchfinder:
There is a point a man attains when he’s been hit on the head once too many times. While I had yet to suffer a physical blow, it felt very much like I’d been under a rain of concussive hits.
First, Jonathan’s arrival. The Earl of Savage, certainly, always had the effect of making me feel like the more drunk he acted, the more I must have been drinking. No, that’s not exactly it. It was more like there was a field of drunkenness that extended all around him in a wide dispersal pattern and made everyone around him dazed and unable to think clearly.
I’d come to believe it was part of his magic, some sort of power that made everyone around him susceptible to what was undoubtedly a cunning mind and a great power of deception. In fact, if you mentioned Jonathan Blythe in most circles, you’d get a shrug and a sigh and sometimes a smirk. That would have been Seraphim’s own reaction just months ago. It was a very useful way to present himself, Seraphim judged. After all, who else could get away with having his father commit suicide while alone in the house with him, and ascending to the honors and dignity without the slightest suspicion of foul play attaching to him.
That Jonathan had come in just as Seraphim thought he was about to crack Miss Ginevra Mythborn, whatever she might TRULY turn out to be was only part of the annoyance. The fact that he’d brought with him some sort of magical bomb that had reduced Richard the Lion Heart, in his dual form, to pebble size rubble that covered Palace square and caused a traffic hazard was only an additional annoyance. In fact, I’d fully come to expect that where Jonathan went real or metaphorical explosions followed.
But in the name of all that was holy, what had I done to deserve having Marlon, earl of Sydell and my brother Gabriel’s… cher ami descending on me talking apocalyptic nonsense, and claiming that Gabriel had split asunder, all in a voice that sounded like he’d either been reading the gloomier prophets or had drunk rather deep of blue ruin, or probably both.
Then there was Caroline, my scapegrace younger sister, and Akakios, the centaur prince she’d got betrothed to. And he was really a centaur in centaur form, something that shouldn’t be possible in this earth, with our amount of magic. In fact, it was because of that, that we’d taken steps to have him taught how to act like a human among humans, though from the reports from his masters about his sullen and solitary rumbles, that hadn’t been going all that well. Still, you didn’t expect him to escape with Caroline, yet, and descend on me in this fashion, also talking about Gabriel and something dreadful happening to Gabriel and by extension all of fairyland.
Of course, if I’d had Jonathan handy, I’d have resurrected the iron maiden, which I’m sure is somewhere in the depths of the palace of my father in law the king, and got him to tell me the truth for once. I did not doubt for a moment that he knew it. Deep files, like Jonathan, always know these things, they just play it close to the vest for their own purposes, which are usually so deep that even they, themselves might not understand them. But Jonathan had vanished with the redheaded siren, and if I knew Jonathan – and I did – was even now performing the act he tended to refer to as “tuping” with her.
So I was left with the option of either pulling all my hair out – and it would look very odd at the next royal affair to have the prince consort exhibit bald patches and raw flesh on his scalp. It would lead to rumors that I was diseased and would doubtlessly cause my wife and future son to die. The other option was to run to my apartments in the royal palace, kidnap my wife, and take her back to the world in which she’d been concealed from our magicians while growing up. Earth, she called it, which was nonsense, since there are dozens of earths. Perhaps hundreds. Of course, she didn’t know that growing up, because her earth is quite devoid of magic, and therefore they can’t walk between the universes. But that same characteristic seemed very reposeful now. I’d take Nell back to her adopted grandmother, and we’d settle in to look after their farm there, and we would never again cross between the worlds, nor have anything to do with magical worlds attacking each other nor, for that matter, with magic, nor…
The dream lasted about three seconds, and burst like a soap bubble. The problem is that Nell is not just the heir to the crown of Avalon. She is that, and descended, in unbroken line, from Richard the Lion Hearted and beyond that probably from Arthur, though a great disruption occurred with Merlin was encased in his prison, and we can’t be sure of any history before that.
But Avalon being a highly magical world, kingship is more than that – possibly part of the reason we’d never gone in for more democratic and people-driven forms of government as Nell’s Earth had. It is a mystical bond between king and land.
When Nell had been missing, even though her father was yet the monarch regnant, we’d been fractured and at great risk, and the magic hadn’t worked quite right.
Of course, at this point I was willing to take that over staying here and enduring the madness, but Nell wouldn’t. She’d tell me about her duty and how she belonged here. She’d tell me that all the more convincingly because she felt a great temptation to go back to being Nell Felix, on earth, and forget her real origins.
Worse, she was carrying our child, the next royal heir. She would not leave and take the child with her, but worse, she would not deprive her parents of their grandson. Too long, they’d missed and mourned their missing daughter, and now they were to be rewarded by seeing their grandson grow before their eyes.
No. That was a bust. I could not remove Nell from Avalon.
Which left me only one option.
“In,” I screamed. “In to my office this very instant.”
They had been arguing with each other, Akakios, Marlon and Caroline. Akakios maintained that Gabriel was dead, Marlon screamed back at him that no, he wasn’t, and Caroline… Heaven only knows what she found to add to the discussion, except that I could hear her shrill voice over both of them. It’s possible she was telling Marlon her fiancé was a prince, though surely that was too strange even for Caroline?
At my scream – you must understand I was properly trained and I very rarely even raise my voice – they looked surprised. For a moment I thought they’d argue with me.
They thought so too, but they didn’t. Instead, they scrambled over the pebble-strewn ground into the building.
When I followed them, I found Marlon pacing in front of my desk, Caroline primly seated in a chair, and Akakios standing behind her, with his hands on her shoulders. I will point out that despite the straits we were in and the fact that it was taking me all my will power not to tear my hair out, they presented a very odd picture. I didn’t know whether to be grateful or worried that Akakios had taken the time to dress in a coat and shirt which made his human half look entirely incongruous atop the horse body.
As I went around behind my desk, they all talked at the same time. I held up my hand. “No, let Marlon speak. I must hear this.” I thought feelings or no feelings, a juvenile centaur could not know as much as the most learned taumathurgic mathematician of the century.
“Gabriel,” he said, looking at me, “Has splintered. It is possible, you know, for a creature like him—” he paused. “I suppose like me too, half human and half elf. He’s torn in two, a human half and an elf half. I think it happened a month ago, because he’s been…” He frowned. “He’s been all like them. I thought it was just that he was adapting. He does that, become all elf, then al human for a time, then… But I don’t think so. I think this is more serious. I think… I think something has happened. He’s been encouraged to split.”
“But why?” I asked.
Marlon sighed and flung himself on a chair. “Because like this, he is not a strong enough elf to hold the throne of fairyland. Strangely, his human half lends the other half power. But this… this will lead to civil war in fairyland. It might be a local conspiracy, but I think… I think it is an attack by the mythworld. You see, they’d need to go through fairyland to absorb us.”
The Lady Helen Blythe, sister of the Earl of Savage:
Betsy! I couldn’t believe my hears when I understood her command to Hanuman and stepped in to prevent the monkey king attempting to marry me.
My first reaction to it was the purest shock, turning around. And then I saw that Betsy was not Betsy, but was still Betsy.
I am putting it very badly. Let me attempt to explain. I’d known Betsy many years, as my personal maid. I’ll grant I’d never asked much about where she came from, though sometimes she talked of many siblings, and gave hints that related well enough with the type of childhood father’s tenants or servants would have had.
What it didn’t correlate with was Betsy also being Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt.
My nursemaid, when I was little, used to object to my brother Jonathan for all kinds of reasons, but no reason was more strenuously carried than Jonathan’s reading me about the classical goddesses.
She’d eventually gone to mother and father, to complain that it was heathen nonsense and that Jonathan was corrupting my mind and – possibly – making me unmarriageable.
Only she’d come up against my father’s quirks, one of which was to like his children well-read. He said it was all nonsense, and that he was glad that Jonathan read the classics and was willing to share his erudition.
After that, nurse would turn Friday faced, but let Jonathan read to me, as she had no other choice. And Jonathan read.
So in addition to my – later, under my governess – reading of properly tidy and cleaned up stories of the gods and goddesses of old, I’d heard the more robust legends from Jonathan, from a very early age. I remembered and well enough hat Diana, the virgin goddess of the hunt was a moon goddess; that she had sworn eternal virginity; and that horrible fates befell those who spied her naked.
Right now, her idea of what should happen to uppity men who tried to marry you by force seemed good enough.
What I couldn’t understand is what she was doing in Betsy’s body. I assumed she’d taken over, since we were in the land of myth, and that somewhere there, Betsy, my little maid, was terrified, bewildered and lost, and that I couldn’t allow. I did my best imitation of Mama-depressing-pretensions and said, “Madam, I request you that you leave the body of my servant, Betsy, who is not asked to take part in this madness. She is a simple girl and obedient, and I would not with to hurt her in anyway. I’m sure in this land of myth you can communicate with me in your proper form.”
The face that turned towards me had amusement and a hint of malice in the blue eyes that were still Betsy’s. She smiled. There was satisfaction and amusement in that smile, and something else I could not quite guess at. “Ah,” she said. “Betsy.” That was also pronounced in the tone Mama might have pronounced it, a superior referring to an inferior. But then the blue eyes danced and sparkled and, yes, there was definitely malice there. “Ah, indeed,” she said. “Was she not a good enough creation? Was she not a very good disguise?” This creature of myth and power changed suddenly to Betsy’s muddled accents, “And you never suspecting, Miss, as I was not what I was supposed to be, and right enough, taking all my suggestions for how you should run away and be a pirate queen, while you thought you were suggestioning the whole to me. Indeed, Miss, very foolish of you. A real Betsy, a real creature with her background, would have run to your Mama with the full tale, the moment you suggested she should leave with you, by magical means to go to the sea and be a pirate queen. And how you thought you’d manage that, when most women at sea are either chattel or victims, I don’t know, only I took care your head was stuffed only with the more fanciful tales of the sea, and not with the cruel hard truth of what would have happened had I intended to let you go to sea like you wanted.”
The combination of the splendid persona and Betsy’s sniveling accents made me say, “Betsy!” in my reproving tone, at the same time that Mr. Merritt said, “You mean you were pretending to be Lady Helen’s maid? How did you get yourself hired?”
She laughed, a scornful laugh. “Oh, easy enough. It is not hard to give mortals ideas. It is just a matter of suggestion and the muddling of human minds that’s easy enough.”
“But… why?” I said.
She looked at me and widened her eyes and for a moment I had the impression of the kind of guileless confidence and scrutiny I’d got from Betsy. “Why, bless your heart, Miss, to protect you, of course, because I knew all sorts of men from the myth world, from the dank servants of Neptune to this…” She gestured towards Hanuman who was staring at her with a concerted frown and – I could feel it – trying to work some sort of magic on her. “This desperate Monkey creature. It is part of my creed that no woman should marry who is not predisposed to it, and doesn’t wish to marry that particular man, and sensing they would try to force into marriage, I established my place in your household, in advance, so I could guard you.”
She smiled at me, and her smile was full of welcome and reassurance. “Now, if only you’ll join my band, I can keep you free of entanglements forever.”
“Except that your band—” Hanuman said. He stopped, as a wave of magic left her hand and hit him in his mobile face.
“Be still Monkey,” she said. “I have had enough of your impudence. Next you will feel my dogs.”
“But why?” Wolfe Merrit said, slowly. “Why would everyone want to marry the lady Helen? If you’re trying to take power over our world, wouldn’t the princess Royale be better? Or even the Duke of Darkwater’s sister?”
The goddess that had never been Betsy – or had she – lifted a hand again, and I sensed she was about to hit Mr. Merrit with the same king of magic force she’d attacked Hanuman with. I wasn’t sure he’d survive. So I interposed my meager magic, although not sure I would survive, either, and I said, “But I wish to know, and I do not wish Mr. Merrit to be silent. If you want me to join your band, you must tell me the truth. Why would everyone want to marry me.”
I felt her magic attempt to scramble my mind. Only Jonathan had taught me something early on, and I knew how to make the surface blank, reflecting only the thoughts of the person trying to touch my thoughts.
Diana made a sound of annoyance. “Your brother!” she said. And suddenly I had a strong feeling this was both the answer to my question and a familiar complaint about Jonathan.
I also had another thought. If I joined her band, it would also be a form of marriage. Oh, perhaps not sexual, but like nuns entering nunneries in the middle ages were said to marry God himself, this would be the same sort of bond. And I wasn’t sure about the not sexual. I had a feeling Jonathan had read around some things that even he didn’t think suitable for my mind and age.
And I had absolutely no interesting in becoming a devotee of Diana.
I had been thinking through it. Diana and Hanuman, and I was lost in their world, of course, and now there was something with Jonathan, and it became clear as day to me, that I must get Jonathan to me, or I to him. But first, I had to try to survive this unmarried and, force, I must have some power – power enough – or they wouldn’t be trying to trap me into marriage.
I reached out suddenly and grabbed Wolfe Merrit’s hand, even as I started running for the shelter of the trees. I had a kind of idea that as far as this world was concerned it would be a finely tailored series of territories, and if I could just use one god against the other.
Mr. Merrit was intelligent enough. He responded to my pull and ran too. Halfway to the line of trees, he hooked his arm around my waist and half lifted me, as he ran faster. I felt an arrow fly by me. There was a sound of chattering monkeys.
Wolfe Merrit, manager of the manufacturies for the Earl of Savage:
I pulled the lady all the way into the undergrowth and hid there, scarce daring to breathe. I threw my magical veiling ability over both of us.
The thing is that such as it was, my magic was smaller than hers, but I’d been in this situation before, and I knew exactly the kind of veiling that was required to keep creatures made mostly of magic to see us. Of course, gods weren’t elves, and I hadn’t been even in fairyland, let alone in this place.
I wondered how a place could combine all the disparate myths of mankind and not implode, and I wished – I heartily wished – that I could be reading about someone else having this adventure, far away. It would seem grand and interesting then, instead of stomach-churning terror.
I wondered how one got out of the mythworld, let alone get out with our skins intact. There was the descriptions of escaping hades, which perforce must be in the mythworld. If those were right, there must be a path out, a way to recross the river, or perhaps some large rock we could roll.
I pulled the Lady Helen close to me without even realizing what I was doing. That she let me, and crouched unresisting next to me, so that I could feel the heat of her body and her form against my chest and thigh seemed a little odd, but not strange. Force, she must be scared out of her mind.
At least she was not complaining or trying to push me away, which I’d been afraid she would do.
Around us there were sounds of monkeys in the overhead trees, and other sounds that I couldn’t quite identify all around. There is one thing to say for the mythworld. Normally, in my own world, I can at least guess “there is a hare” and “that is a carriage passing by” but the sounds of the myth world were all their own.
Oh, there were guesses I could make, like about the sound of the horn and the barking of dogs. Diana was not about to be beat that easily. I wondered if she had really been on Earth, pretending to be Betsy the maid, or if Betsy the Maid had been possessed by Diana. If the later, the Lady Helen and I were bound to rescue the poor thing. If the first… Wouldn’t the world of men break such a thing of gossamer thought and imagination as Diana the Huntress? And how could she manage to keep her magical aura invisible, in a household of magic users?
But above all those thoughts and worries there was the memory of what Diana’s hounds had done to Acteon the Hunter. All right, supposedly his own hounds, but I wasn’t buying that for a moment.
“Her dogs,” the lady Helen whispered, then, limp and warm in my arms. I tried not to think of her as a woman or as being in my arms. She was my charge. Even were she not, there could be nothing between the two of us.
So I said, “Shhh” and thickened the veil of protection over us. I could feel her questing that, delicately, with her own magic senses, but she said nothing and neither tried to supersede it nor to remove it.
I was afraid my shield would be inadequate, but little by little I heard the pursuit move off. Not that I trusted it. Not for a moment. I clutched the lady to me, and remained very quiet, while her heart beat next to mine.
We might have fallen asleep. I don’t know. I kept my eyes closed because anything we were likely to see was an illusion designed to scare us from cover, and she must have too, because she was sensible enough when she wanted to be, but we stayed like that a long long time.
I woke, or at least became aware of myself with a feeling of being cramped in my half-crouch in the undergrowth. The lady stirred at my stirring, and I opened my eyes half expecting to see Diana’s hounds crouched in a circle surrounding us.
The Lady Helen was opening her eyes at the same time, and all was calm around us, in the deep green undergrowth. We were under a plant I could not recognize, and there were others of like size all around us. They looked like onto a palm tree, with the leaves growing right out of the ground. I frowned at it. We could probably make our way through the undergrowth, crawling, under these leaves. The problem, of course, is that we would have no idea where we were going, nor could we see our way until we hit upon something.
The lady moved her lips, asking soundlessly “Are we safe?”
I gave her a little non-commital shrug. “Perhaps,” I mouthed back. “or they could be waiting.”
She looked scared then, and darted a look upward at the canopy of trees.
“What do we do?”
“I think,” I said. “We must crawl” I dared put a little sound into the words, but not much. “We must crawl under these fronds and hope we come somewhere we understand, and from where we can decide how to leave this perilous land. I think it must be like the legends of escaping Hades?”
Her eyebrows went up and she opened her lips, then closed them, then opened them again. “I see,” she said. “I’ve for some time now been suspecting we were dead.”
“What?” I so forgot myself I spoke in an almost normal voice.
“Think on it,” she said. “When do mortals enter the realm of myth? Only when they’re raised to Olympus or sent to Hades, both the realm of the dead, in different ways.”
The idea so stunned me, I didn’t say anything, sitting there like a gabby with my mouth half open, until she said, “Of course, if that were to be my eternal faith, to transact with the old myths, I wish I could at least have been a constellation.”
The idea was so absurd I heard the chuckle in my throat before I felt it. “You’d have made an interesting constellation. The pirate queen?” I said.
She looked surprised then smiled. “I was hoping for the maiden.”
And then someone cleared his throat near us. We both almost jumped out of our skins and turned, expecting – or at least I was expecting – to see Hanuman.
But instead the man who stood near us looked little past adolescence. A very young man indeed, and from the portions of skin exposed between toga and winged sandals, a Levantine or someone of similar complexion.
Of course, I thought. Winged sandals. Mercury.
Sweeping my gaze upward, I met with the expected golden mask. But the eyes that peered from the eye-holes were oddly familiar. And when he carelessly reached up and pulled his mask upwards, his face was eerily familiar too. Not, mind you known, just echoing with familiarity.
I felt both horrified and defeated. We’d hid so long, and now… I couldn’t find something to say, but the Lady Helen spoke, “And what do you want?” she said. “Are you going to offer to marry me?”
He laughed. The laughter too was familiar. “That would be rather odd,” he said. “At least for you. Our rules are rather more… But no. I am here to ask you what you want? If you wish to leave this place, I am the person to guide you. I am Hermes who walks between the worlds.”
I realized that he reminded me of Jonathan Blythe, but then my mind rejected this. Yes, somewhat. There was a faint resemblance. But the real similarity…
I imagined the preternaturally beautiful face aged, the hair turned white, and I almost jumped out of my skin. There was no doubt about it. The golden Hermes looked like none other than the Old Lord, Jonathan Blythe’s grandfather, about whom the most polite thing said was that he was the devil himself.
Jonathan Blythe, the Earl of Savage
Look, I have nothing against my old school fellows. Well, except that one time in that drinking house in Surrey where it was such a squeeze one had everything against one’s old school fellows, but that’s not what I mean. What I mean is, what was Gabriel Penn to me, or Night Arrow, King of Fairyland, either?
Oh, sure, we’d gone to school – and college – together, but we’d hardly run in the same circles. I’d been closer to his brother, Seraphim, though not exactly close, as such. Seraphim was always much too prim and proper and likely to frown and act disapproving if you went out to a put in Surrey.
And don’t tell me he was doing that to compensate for his father’s ways. That’s all very well. That’s what they said of Papa, whose ways were actually worse than my grandfather’s, as far as overweening desire for power is a worse sin than lust, but never mind that. Grandfather would take a lot of generations to atone for, and I for one wasn’t a prig, because of whatever my grandfather had done.
Seraphim wasn’t a prig, either, but had this way of making one feel like one had let the side down. Or something. So I didn’t spend much time with him. But I knew he could be counted on in a pinch, and wouldn’t tattle.
Gabriel wouldn’t tattle either. But he was as prim and proper as Seraphim – I still think that was why everyone got so angry when his affair with the necromancer came out, and why he was sent down. Bigger sins have been forgiven other people. I should know – and something else beside.
I know it can be awkward to be someone’s natural child. I mean, met my share of them here and there, mostly there, and mostly of the female variety. But if you are an all-but-aknowledged natural child and your father choses to pay for your education and treat you exactly like his heir, or close enough to what he would treat a second son, you should not go about holding yourself aloof, pretending to be a menial, and informing everyone you’re your illegitimate brother’s valet. Stands to reason you shouldn’t. Odd sort of upside down pride, throwing his condition in his father’s teeth, as though the man hadn’t done anything for him.
So I’d never been close to Gabriel. I was willing to concede he had a lot to bear and a hard path to make, and I felt somewhat sorry for him when he became king of fairyland, because, stands to reason, no one wants that kind of responsibility.
But the thing was, if it came to liking, I liked his lover, the necromancer, better. At least he was aware that it was perfectly fine not being perfect, and even if he atoned a bit far – marrying my sister when she was half out of her mind was a little far – he was trying to do the best for those dependent on him. Something that I knew must be done. And I didn’t like over half either.
Now, if Gabriel had split in two rather than lift the burden on his shoulders, or at least attempt to, I wanted to wash my hands of him. Yes, Fairyland was difficult, but it wasn’t like any of us liked what we had to do. Being an Earl, for instance, and responsible for all my siblings.
But damme. You did what you had to do. It’s not like your choices ever were between going through hell barefoot, or having a nice dish of pudding. You did what you had to do, what constituted the smallest disaster for the smallest number of people. And you stuck with it.
Only, I thought, casting a look at Ginevra Mythborn, who, in turn, looked at me with an intentness that I only hope betrayed she was, for once, telling the truth, in leaving his post in that peculiar way and fracturing himself, Gabriel had made it impossible for me not to rescue him. Because king and country are on in Fairyland, and when the king split… And fairyland was the magical engine of the world. Unless I wanted all magic to leak out of my world forever, and all the other worlds too, till none was left and the worlds became… I didn’t know. I didn’t know how much of the worlds ability to sustain life was magic. Even the magic-less worlds had enough for that, or at least to sustain intelligent life. Intelligence and magic are, of course, linked.
I sighed. “So, the king of Fairyland has become two and his human part is missing, and your world stands by ready to leech ours and all the others, because it needs more magic than normal worlds, and it will survive as long as it can… We clearly must crossover to… the mythworld?”
She shook her, head, her red ringlets flying. “No. To fairyland.”
“Oh?” I said, raising my eyebrows. “Why? And how?”
“Well, we can’t find the king’s human part on Earth – he’s still trapped in fairyland. That’s one. And second, we must either persuade him to become one again or—”
“Or kill him, and let a new king ascend. If you wish to save fairyland that is.”
“If I wish to save my own world, you mean? I do.”
She nodded. “And mine too. So, we cross over.”
She raised her eyebrows in turn “Can I?”
“Cross over to fairyland. I thought your worlds were inimical.”
“They are,” She said. But that is not the point. I can cross over, of course. But there I’ll be in danger. If I’m recognized, I’ll be attacked.”
“Why? Would you attack a man eating lion in your midst?”
“You eat elves?” I asked, genuinely shocked.
She laughed. “No more than reason and in limited social occasions,” which managed to shock me, because it was closer than anyone had come to saying the sort of things I felt all the time. What I mean is, perfectly fine inside my head, but not right OUTSIDE.
She sobered as though realizing she shocked me, and brought her knees together, and smoothed her skirt. “No. But my kind feed on their magic, which to them is close enough.”
“Then I could go alone,” I said, and as I said it I realized this might be a way to send me off into fairyland so she could be free to do whatever she’d come to do in this land.
I was most relieved when she said. “No, milord. I’m afraid this is going to take both of us.”
Miss Caroline Ainsling, sister of the Duke of Darkwater:
It didn’t take long. You see, Michael – my brother Michael – is a mathematical and mechanical genius, which in turn makes him a magical genius. The fact that his share of power is higher than Seraphim’s and almost as high as Gabriel’s , which should be impossible without elven blood, but never mind. When I asked, he started showing me the equations for sympathetic magic and contagion of power, and I thought about exactly how I’d set up the gardens of my home when I married Akakios. We’d have an orangery and an apple grove, because he was fond of the trees, and for the scent too.
But that had been months ago. I rarely asked Michael to explain anything, and when I did, it was never very long before my eyes glazed and I went inward to my happy land.
I’m fairly sure I’m not more stupid than I need to be. Well, except perhaps about social occasions, when my fellow students were always telling me, “Caroline, don’t be more stupid than you need to be.” But that was the result of being raised so isolated and so oddly, so that I was almost mama’s confidant, and a play fellow to Michael, as well as following Seraphim and Gabriel around. It was not any deficiency of my understanding.
And yet, when I tried to grasp the higher mathematical truths of magic, my mind slid away from them, like they were made of ice, and I couldn’t follow what Michael assured me was the simplest of reasonings.
Which was why I didn’t even try, that evening, in Seraphim’s office, after Sydell had arrived, and after the fountain had exploded.
It was funny in a way. Look, I remember being about three and there was a fire in a wing of our home, and everyone ran out of their beds and downstairs in their underclothes. I’d discovered things I’d never seen before, and could not have guessed about people. For instance, our dignified buttler wore a wig in his day work. In the middle of the night, he was bald, except for a fringe of white hair around his head. And the parlor maid slept in something embroidered and lavish that would have suited mama, except mama said it was highly improper, and after that mama had said something about no one wearing that to bed when they sleep alone, and a few months later, the first parlor maid was married to our head gardener. Which I thought was a lot to come off frilly nightgowns in gosshammer muslin and edged with lace, but mama seemed very sure.
Of course, that night in Seraphim’s office, no one was in their underwear, but in a way I got the same feeling that I was seeing everyone undressed. Seraphim kept raking his hand back through his hair, his eyes were red rimmed, and he looked distraught. And Sydell kept pacing back and forth and muttering the occasional word that made no sense to anyone else.
Michael in turn, looked almost spell-bound, his eyes fixed as though on some distant landscape, and looking so much like when he’d been a captive of the late king of fairyland that my heart wrenched.
I looked away from him, and that’s when he asked Seraphim, “The statue, outside? What happened to it?”
Seraphim stopped raking his hand through his hair and barked out. “Jonathan. Jonathan Blythe.”
And Michael nodded, as though no more explanation was needed; as though the earl of Savage were a known exploder of statues.
Then Sydell stopped and more or less growled, “I have to go in and see if I can save him. I have to. And it’s no use at all you telling me what risks I’ll run. I know them well enough. But if anyone can bring him back I can.”
Seraphim started to open his mouth, snapped it shut so hard I swear I could hear his teeth clashing together, opened it again and barked out, “Right. Then why are you telling me this. You could have gone from your own estate surely? It is no part of my job to help a man commit suicide.”
Sydell laughed. It wasn’t an ironical laugh. It really was a laugh, as though Seraphim had told a joke. “No, thank you, I don’t need help. What I need is a legal document.”
Seraphim’s eyebrows shot up. “What?”
“My son… well, at any rate my heir. If I go, he is left unprotected, and frankly if anyone probes too closely his paternity will be doubted too. And if he’s an award of the crown… well, you know…”
Seraphim didn’t say anything to that. I didn’t either. Awards of the crown got “sold” in marriage at the most outrageous prices and with total disregard for their happiness. It was something I’d heard Seraphim and Nell discuss. Nell didn’t like it, but this was tied up in such a net of rights, duties and ancient traditions it would take centuries to fix.
And even I knew that Sydell’s supposed son was actually his half brother and the son of his father. If anyone probed into that, the legitimacy of the child would be questioned, and I was sure Sydell had legitimate relatives enough – if distant – eager to get their hands on the property.
Seraphim opened his hands wide. “What do you want me to do about that?”
“I want to leave you in charge of him. I want you to make him your personal award.” There was a pause. “Please? I owe the child a duty. I don’t want him in a home for magical orphans, which is where he’d end if he becomes a court award. I grew up in one.”
Seraphim had then called a legal clerk – it must be nice to have legal clerks you can call at any hour of the night, though the man did look like he’d been asleep and I later found out he’d slept in a truckle bed at the back, as did many others on other beds, of course, on duty as long as Seraphim remained in the office.
The clerk started drafting a document, and then Michael stepped forward and touched Sydell’s shoulder, making him jump about a foot off the ground, and then said, “If you’re going in, have you considered a Arrar maneuver?”
“What? That would be foolhardy.”
And that’s when I stopped understanding anything. Numbers flew, and Michael got a paper off Seraphim’s desk and started drawing figures on it, and Sydell corrected the figures, and Seraphim must have been as exasperated by it all as I was because he finally must have caught something – he said, “Here, what is this? Michael can’t go with you!”
And Michael looked up and said, “I can. Indeed I must.”
“But having been—”
“A changeling means I’m immune from most of it. It’s like … it’s like having caught the small pox once. Seraphim, let go of the paper, and do you not have a pen that’s not in dire need of trimming?”
And then the numbers and figures returned, and Seraphim must have understood some of it, because he leaned over the paper to tell them they were out of their minds if they thought he’d let them do that.
Akakios leaned over me, and touched me on the shoulder.
Looking up, I saw he looked concerned and grave, as he made a head motion towards the outer corridor.
It’s amazing how silent his hoof-fall can be when he wants it to. We crept out of the office unnoticed.
Out in the hallway, he leaned close and said, “I can go back to fairyland. I was listening to what they were saying, and I can go. I can use one of those entry points. I think I have to, Caroline. I’m sworn liege to Night Arrow, and he must be brought to reason… be brought alive again.”
I nodded. “If you go, I go with you.”
“No. Look. Our betrothal is, I’m told, as binding as marriage, and if it is, wherever you go, I go.”
“But… it will be very dangerous.”
“So will be staying here if you fail.” I got hold of his hand in both of mine. “Akakios, if you die, I’d rather be by your side than here, and not knowing what happened.”
His eyes misted. He’d deny it, mind, but I saw them glitter. “Very well,” he said.
It is very awkward to have a centaur help you mount his horse-half, but we managed. We tiptoed out of the office. Fortunately, the guards outside were still too busy with the fountain to pay much heed. Outside the plaza, Akakios did something that opened the magical path to fairyland, and we charged along it.
Lady Helen Blythe, Sister of the Earl of Savage
I’m not as innocent as I look. No, wait. In many ways I’m far more innocent than I look, since I have it on good authority that I look like my brother Jon. But I’m not so innocent that I didn’t know our oh, so helpful friend was the god Hermes, and that I didn’t know the reputation of that particular divinity.
Trickster, god of thieves, and other things that mostly were expressed by Jon wagging his eyebrows up and down when they were anywhere near his thoughts, but I was close enough to hear it.
It was a little surprising that he seemed to look like my brother, but I assumed that was because he was trying to lull me into complacency. I still had no intention of marrying him, or, for that matter of revealing that long strand of pearls wound under my clothes. I needed that strand of pearls to secure a comfortable living, so I wouldn’t have to marry whoever offered for me. Because even if I couldn’t be a pirate queen, I was tired of living my life by someone else’s rules.
“You have to tell me where you want to go,” Hermes said. “Else I can’t help you.”
I thought that if what I remembered from the stories was true, then whatever we told him would come true upside down and sideways, but then again, how would that be different from that very strange journey I’d embarked on when Betsy and I had transported to what we thought was Plymouth?
But before I could talk, Mr. Merrit spoke. “We want to get out of here and back to the Earth of men, and I want the Lady Helen safe.”
I spoke over the end of it, and my voice came out in a sullen tone, “I want to be a pirate queen.”
Hermes had been nodding at Mr. Merrit but now turned to me, a sort of cackle escaping from his throat and, seemingly unwillingly, between his lips. “You do, do you?” he said, and to my chock did exactly what Jonathan does when he thinks I’m being silly. He patted my head, as though I were a cute child aged about six. “Well, my dear, maybe someday you will be, but now is not a good time.” Then he turned to Mr. Merrit, which did annoy me, because, after all, surely, I mattered too. “I see that,” he said. “Whether it is possible is something completely different. I can surely get you to the world of men, and even to the vicinity of your place of residence, but whether that means you can be safe is something wholly different. Three worlds are involved in this collision. There will be none safe and possibly none alive, unless we find a way to stabilize and insulate each world from the others.”
“But I thought,” I said, “That the mythworld wanted the collision.”
“Zeus,” Hermes said, and it might have been a swearword. “Wants many things, but when you’re that old, that powerful, and so many conflicting expectations have been laid on you, it is all a matter of conjecture whether what you want would be good for anyone, least of all you. Never mind. Some of us – myself and Loki and others have been wondering what to do if this disaster is going to let some of us escape alive. Already, the old myths are bursting out. The kingdom of Neptune is threatened by an ancient, nameless one, which is why the king wanted to marry you, hoping some of my magic—” He stopped abruptly. “Never mind that.”
“But I do mind,” I said, primly. “After all, you’re asking us to trust ourselves to you, and Loki, and I assume other rogues. Why should we, when the powers of good are aligned against you.”
He grinned, and his grin was exactly like Jonathans before one of those words he wasn’t supposed to say in front of me escaped his lips – words like “round heels” and “tup.”
“Why should you indeed. But lady, one thing you learn fast in this world is that ‘good’ is entirely relative. For instance, Neptune is a good … creature, supposedly, but you refused to marry him. And well done that, since he’s already married. And The All Father… Zeus, Odin, whatever you wish to call him, has his own ideas about what is good, that don’t involve the convenience or even the life of anyone else. In this case, he wants more power, and he wants our world to merge with yours again, at least to an extent, so we can again milk it of belief and energy. The only way to do that – which will kill magic among humans – is to use Fairyland as fuel for the merge, which I understand will wholly consume Fairyland and in turn destroy all of the worlds. We tried to explain this to him. Hephestus himself… Never mind. He would not listen, and he is sole ruler of mythworld.
“Sometimes, when the good people are disastrously wrong a confederacy of rogues is needed, and just such we’ve created. And now, discounting that the lady can’t be a pirate just now – maybe later – I’ll conduct you to a portal that will take you to your home world. This will greatly disappoint Neptune and Diana and most of all The All Father, but it must be done. Follow me. And don’t be afraid to walk normally. I’ve cast a veil upon us.”
I was a little surprised Jonathan agreed with me that we needed to go to fairyland. It was about this time that I expected him to get a glimpse of the plan, or at least of the people targeted, and to probe behind my motives.
I had of course forgotten that he was a human male, and how easy it was to cloud a human male with hints and promises and allusions to mating.
He might not be all human – from that magic glow around him, I wasn’t sure, yet, that he wasn’t Hermes himself, save for the fact that someone that close to the Father in blood, couldn’t have remained on Earth long enough to become Jonathan. A few days at most. You needed to be as dilute a bastard as I was to be able to withstand the lack of magic on Earth for long enough to accomplish anything.
Which left us with… mostly human. And if mostly human, he was susceptible to the tricks of my kind. Very susceptible, as it turned.
He let me do the translation magic between universes. Not that I meant to play him false. Not in this at least. But I’d expect someone as full of guile and imagination as Jonathan Blythe to wish to say the incantations himself.
Instead, he let me say them. His eyes widened a little, then narrowed, at the old language, then he shook his head and opened his mouth, and looked like he was going to say something, but didn’t.
I was using the wayfaring incantations, in the variant popularized by Espinosa, so what happened was that instead of a fey portal opening in the middle of this very mundane room, a … a discontinuity appeared in the room, right there between the tall dresser and the red-draped chair, and through that discontinuity you could see sort of, if you squinted, a dark way that seemed to wind amid a darker meadow.
I started towards it, and Jonathan held my wrist. “Wait,” he said. “Wait. Where … where does this lead?”
I turned to him and considered giving him that kind of pose that human females use to suggest attraction without saying anything verbal. I thought to jut my hip out, to move just slightly closer to him, to go willing and meek in his grasp. But the time wasn’t ready for it. Whatever thoughts the old magic language and Espinosa’s embroidering upon it had sparked weren’t amorous. I won’t say he was all business. There was a good bit of the trickster in him. But his eyes were narrowed, and I could almost hear him trying to think through things.
“To Fairyland,” I answered truthfully, willing to let him see my truthfulness and my quiet certainty.
He growled at me – or at least he made a sound of impatience in his throat that was very close to a growl. “Don’t try that on me. There are many points in fairyland. Where are you taking me.”
“Fairyland doesn’t have a defined geography,” I said. “Too much magic for that. It has in fact, a mutable and always changing geography, a—”
“I’m not a child, Miss Mythborn. I was not born yesterday. I recognized the words you said, though damme if I know how. I know all that about fairyland, but I also know there are places, like the centaurs meadow and… and worse, where you can end up imprisoned forever and worse. There are many people, as you know, who think that Dante wandered into those dark meadows and that it was there he saw the place of eternal torment for the impious dead.”
I sighed. He knew too much, but I knew he knew too much. It was the point of all these we’d targeted that they stuck out, they were unsatisfied with their fate – they were mice captured in a trap not of their making, but refusing to resign themselves to their fate. The high magic one of those were—usually interesting.
However, in this one thing I wasn’t playing him false. Again, I willed him to see my total honesty. “It is not,” I said. “To one of those dark places that I’ve opened this road. Rather, I willed it to take us near the King. If I’m right, he’s still in the palace, in the center of fairyland, having spun for himself a reality that accommodates each of his halves. I do not know what that reality would be, but I count on you, who have known him from early life, to do so.”
He demurred, looking at me, his eyes narrowed, then said, “Buggered if I can. Gabriel was always a strange one. Well, now I think about it, I was a strange one, too, but no more dissimilar men may be found.”
I didn’t say anything, nor yet move. He sighed. “I wish—” he said. He shook his head and let go of my wrist. “Go on, fair temptress. Damme, I’m going to regret this– But possibly only for a very short time. And anyway, the things I’ve regretted the most in life have often turned out to be the ones that…” He looked surprised as though he’d suddenly seen clearly something that had evaded him all too long. “The ones that bore me least. You know, I don’t think I am ever amused except when I’m doing something regrettable.” He grinned. “Lead on. This is about to get interesting.”
That part, at least, was true, even if I was not leading him into a trap. Well, at least not into any trap he could imagine. Even I, low-blood that I was, could only see the outlines of what lay ahead.
But I knew we needed to get the misfits into fairyland. By any means necessary. The result… Well, if I was right it would be as catastrophic as if that bomb had gone on in the office of the Witchfinder. And yet, I could see where it would be something else, also. Something… interesting. Even for people other than the Earl of Savage.
I reached for his hand. Strangely, it was I who needed support and reassurance. I knew the game was being played, but I couldn’t tell for sure that I had more – or less – say in it than the mortals we were gathering.
When we first set our feet on the path, all sound ceased – those sounds I hadn’t even been aware of: our breath, the minute sound of our steps in the brothel’s cushioned rugs.
We walked as one walks in a dream, without feeling of air on our bodies and faces, without the sounds of living. When were ten steps in, or so Jonathan looked back over his shoulder. “Interesting,” he said. “The door is closed behind us. The room isn’t back there.”
I didn’t say anything, and he chuckled. “The … At least it doesn’t do what happened to Eurydice. I’m not back in the room.”
“That only happens the other direction,” I said, and then wished I could bite my tongue in two.
“Does it?” he said, the amusement in his voice betraying he knew very well I’d let escape what I didn’t mean to. “Useful to know, isn’t it? Now lead on to whatever adventure waits us.”
Like that, as though conjured out of nowhere, a tall while place loomed. It looked as though it might have been sculpted out of ice.
And from somewhere came the shouts and laugh of children at play.
Jonathan Blythe, Earl of Savage
My charmer – and she was a charmer – was so sure she was putting one over on me that I decided not to fight her. I didn’t even hold it against her. After all, everyone needs a little hobby. And women are likely to take the most unnecessary pet if you actually tell them they’re not very good at their favorite art. Take m’ sister Honoria, God rest her soul, she was very fond of water color painting, but all her watercolors were like everything else about her: colorless, indistinct and giving you a feeling that something was badly off. However, the one time I was stupid enough to tell him that, didn’t she half create a ruckus, and run to mama and tell her that I was being cruel. Cruel. I ask you. If I wanted to be cruel, I’d have told her she was a scheming little piece and should think shame on herself.
Now I think about it, maybe I should have told her just that. After all, might have stopped her falling in love with a dragon and dying.
But Ginevra Mythborne was not Honoria for which thank the Lord. — Besides the obvious social faux pas of incest, well, what I mean is, if I were sleeping with one of my sisters, which I would not, because Mama wouldn’t half go off in a distempered freak, and besides, I’m not such a cursed rum touch with that. What I mean is, that sort of thing, likely to get you cutoff from society. Unless your society includes some of the less restrained Roman emperors. – I meant to marry Ginevra if I could.
I blinked at the thought, since I’d never come upon it. Not that way. I’d thought of bedding Ginevra, as who wouldn’t, given what she looked like, but it had never occurred to me I might want to marry her. I was surprised for a moment and wondered if I’d run mad, but the truth is that Ginevra achieved the near-impossible. She was the only female who’d never bored me. Indeed, I doubted she could. So, of course wanted to marry her. Stood to reason. Secure myself, permanently, the escape from boredom. Besides, of course, her being a charmer.
Problem was of course, would need to survive long enough to marry her. I could just imagine mama’s reaction, and it made me smile. She probably expected me to marry some prim and proper debutant. As though I’d wish myself on one such.
I encouraged Ginevra in her opening the portal to fairyland, fully expecting it to be a trap as cunning as that bomb that someone – Gabriel? His double? – had planted in my pocket.
I was almost disappointed to see that the coordinates were indeed taking us to Fairyland. When some woman is as cunning and enterprising as my fair one, one expects her to come up with something more… creative.
But then I’d noticed she’d put specific coordinates on her fairyland arrival. Which seemed unlikely if all we were going to do was get Gabriel out of a mess, what?
And then there was the arrival. She might think I didn’t know it, but I registered her little jump of surprise, like she expected someone to be here, who wasn’t. Interesting then. What had she meant to happen?
But she was a good enough actress she didn’t betray herself, and instead we wandered down the magical path that always greets one in fairyland. I kept an eye on her without seeming to. Something I remembered, from stories about Fairyland, it seemed to be that sooner or later there you walk your own path, and it might not coincide with anyone else’s. Fairyland is a devilish place, somewhere between real and existing only in people’s minds.
She didn’t betray herself until we heard children laughing, and sounds as though of children at play. And then she grabbed hard at my arm and jumped a little. Whatever her trap had been, this wasn’t it. In fact, this had surprised her.
It surprised me too, because though I didn’t know much about the Darkwater’s estate, I knew enough to recognize the piece of it that suddenly appeared in front of us. What I mean is, it was difficult not to. I’d attended that cursed engagement party between Honoria and Seraphim, and had contrived to take two… eminently approachable ladies behind that glassed in forcing house. Twice.
There was the forcing house, and, in front of it, a little paved area, which someone must have designed as a child’s play area, because there was a little table and chairs. The children playing… I blinked. For a moment I thought it was Seraphim, but then I realized it must be his youngest brother and his twin sister, Caroline. I’d never paid them much attention, but the children had a look of them, only aged about six.
And behind them, dressed in severe black, and looking like he would like very much to pass as a servant was…
He looked up and blinked at me. “I beg your pardon,” he said. “I don’t– Or at least, perhaps I do. Jonathan? Blythe? You must be looking for Seraph– For Mr. Ainsling. He’s away right now.”
I blinked back. I’d heard that the king of Fairyland had split and that his human half had gone into hiding, but damme, what kind of gudgeon seeks refuge in watching over infants?
Wolfe Merritt, Supervisor of Manufactories for the Earl of Savage
The Promises of Rogues
I never knew when we went through the portal. What I did know for sure was that we were not sent to the Earth, which is what we were promised.
There might be reasons. After all the magic had gone bad, and was twisting everything. The Lady Helen had not planned to end in the myth world, and none of us had planned to end up in the belly of leviathan.
Perhaps Hermes didn’t mean what happened. Or perhaps he did. The gods can be right bastards.
But I knew that something was wrong the moment I broke through the portal. First, it was the oddest portal I’d ever seen and there was not the momentary freeze of the inbetweener. Only we were in Mythworld, then suddenly we were not, and there was mist all around and in the distance a glimpse of a fairy-like castle, and I groaned, and then I cursed under my breath, and then I regretted cursing, because in fairyland words can make things happen.
The Lady Helen, still firmly grasped within my arm, a promise of warmth, a bit of life in this world that had none, turned to look at me.
“We’re in fairyland,” I said. “In fairyland.”
My voice must have echoed my dismay. Indeed, I felt as though a hole had opened at my feet and I would presently tumble into it head first. And from there to the madness I’d known once before was but a breath.
The Lady Helen looked at me, her eyes wide and scared. I tightened my arm around her, involuntarily and she said, all gasping, “How do you know? How can you know? What—”
“I’ve been here before,” I said, between gritted teeth.
And to her look of great shock, because I suppose it is not normal for people of my station – or indeed for anyone – to go traipsing out to fairyland on a whim, I laughed. I would not normally laugh at the lady nor at her surprise, but indeed it was the strangest thing, for how could one explain one’s life when even one’s own mother found it strange and inexplicable how her son had turned out. “Pardon me,” I said. Myrth still colored my words. “Pardon me, but it is a long story, and a complicated one. You see, I had to go to fairyland, open a portal on my own, and pay the forfeit too, because it was the only choice I had to get my son back.”
“Your son,” she said in a wondering tone. Around us, the tendrils of magic fog grew, a sort of pink dazzle in which I could almost see forms. “You told me you had one,” she said. “And that you were married.” She pulled a little away from me, though not much, and to own the truth it was all foolishness. The barriers between us were much stronger than the mere objection of my being married. As though her family would ever let her marry a man with no title, no position and one, moreover, who worked for them in a menial position. She must know that as I did, as I had been conscious of ever since fate had pitchforked us together into this strange adventure.
Before this moment, I’d known that I admired the Lady mightily. I knew nothing of her, then, of course, save her looks and that expression she had, as of a mouse caught in a trap, but a mouse who means to fight back tooth and nail. But I didn’t love her, anymore than one would fall in love with a statue or a picture. That is, one hears of men doing so, but they’re invariably the sort of noblemen who also would fall in love with a tree, if the fancy took them.
But after the time we’d spent together, I knew her. Her quick wit, her indomitable courae. I knew that she was perhaps the one woman I could love.
And yet, it went for nothing. I was married, though both the legality of my marriage – since there were varying opinions on the legal status of marriage to the fair folk – and the status of it – since my wife had disappeared into fairyland seven years ago – were not very clear. But more important than that, she was so far above me as the moon is above the Earth. And what was more, Jonathan Blythe, Earl of Savage was my employer. And Jonathan Blythe was the image, and in many ways the echo of his grandfather. If he even learned I was in love with his sister, even with my never having done anything to make my love into a more practical concern or a more physical affection, I knew him well enough to know he’d have me horsewhipped. And that was if he were in one of his more lawful moods. If he were in one of his other moods, if the stories of his grandfather which I’d heard were true, I might find myself stabbed in an alley, in a darkling midnight. And that was if he didn’t bind me, hand and foot, and sell me to some amphibian magical people in some parallel world, where I’d spend the rest of my life fanning water larvae or whatever else nasty job he could think of.
I sighed and told her, in as cold a voice as I could manage – though let go of her I could not. Not in this eery, irrational place – “I married a maiden of the fairfolk I found in the woods near my mother’s house.”
She gasped, and this time, though she too didn’t fully wish to leave I think – because there is much comfort in sheer human company in the fairy woods – managed to be within the circle of my arm, without touching. “But you must know—”
“That it’s not advisable? Yes, I knew. But you see, she looked so lost, so forlorn. She didn’t know how she’d come to be in our woods. She was mother-naked and lost, and she looked….” I paused. “Like one of the naked little birds who have fallen from a nest, and who will die if you don’t care for them.”
It seemed to me she giggled, quickly suppressed. But when I looked at her, she was red and just nodded. She cleared her throat. “So you did it… to protect her?”
“I think so,” I said. “though there was the glamour, of course. You know how … no, you probably don’t. But there is glamour to the fey. After a while I thought I was in love with her.” I shrugged. “I was in love with something, though it might be a counterfeit of what I thought I loved. Like…. Like when they give you gold coins that are nothing but rubbish.”
She nodded. The mist around us was thicker, and I wished to heaven that I didn’t have to tell her this story in fairyland, where words were like living things. It tried to hurry the narration, “I married her. After a year she left. She left behind – we thought – my son, Jimmy. Until we realized it was but a counterfeit, too. And then I came to fairyland, in search of him. And I took him back.”
Oddly, it seemed to me she relaxed. “Oh,” she said. And then with a sort of nascent hope. “Then you’ve been here. And left before. And… and won.”
I bit my lower lip. I really didn’t want to tell her what I had to tell her next. But she had to know, “Not unscathed,” I said. “there is always a price. And mind yourself, and try to stand beside me. What I heard is that in fairyland you always walk alone. I don’t know if that is true, but I know you can find yourself alone, away from all your companions. And that no one can protect you.”
I don’t know if she heard me, because on that moment, she was gone. I was alone in fairyland and the magical fog made me cold to the bone.
Around me echoed the sound of laughter – sharp, little laughter like bells out of tune. Laughter with sharp teeth in it.
The Maiden Alone
Helen Blythe, sister of the Earl of Savage
I didn’t know when Mister Merrit disappeared. Between a word and another, he was gone, as though swallowed by the air. Around me, it all remained crisp and clear, as I walked a path among what seemed to be flowering apple orchards, their scent heavenly in the soft, warm air.
I remembered the fairytales nanny used to tell me, and had a moment of surprise that anyone – frankly – would tell such stories to children. But I remembered liking them, yes, even the ogres that ate children who disobeyed quite arbitrary rules.
But the thing was when you were a child, even a child in a world such as Avalon, where you knew that fairyland was a place, you never really expected to go there.
But now, I was there. And while terrible things happening to people you don’t know far away are interesting and fun, terrible things happening to you right now and right here are not.
I remembered all the injunctions about not leaving the path and about helping strangers, and also unlikely tales of maidens made to cook up an entire menagerie of animals, or a lake full of fish. I certainly wasn’t about to spin any straw into gold. I’s seen a spinning wheel once, and it seemed quite likely to me that Sleeping Beauty hadn’t so much been cursed as faked sleep for a hundred years to avoid the painfully drudgery of spinning and the cuts people must get from winding the thread through their fingers. I’d have done it.
Or I’d have run away to become a pirate. I felt a fleeting sense of guilt. Fleeting because, while my original notion might be misguided, certainly I hadn’t asked for any of the further adventures, including having to resist the importune advances of the fish king.
But I did feel some guilt, still, over involving Mister Merrit in these affairs. If I hadn’t taken such a hasty step as to try to escape to sea and become a pirate, he would not have needed to come after me.
For the first time it occurred to me how odd it was that of all the people in my brother’s house, the superintendent of manufacturies had come to rescue me. Not my brother, not my mother, not even one of my horribly prim little sisters, but one of my brother’s servants. Or at least one of his deputies. I wasn’t sure one would call someone with as much power as Mister Wolfe Merrit a servant. Not exactly.
On that two thoughts entered my mind, the first being that he was certainly not much to look at, and the second not quite a thought with words, but the memory of all we’d been through together and that he’d tried to protect me. Which brought with it a strong wave of gratitude, but I gave myself a little shake. Yes, being romantically interested in my brother’s … adjutant would be highly improper. I was very sure that Mr. Merrit was not a person of quality. Yes, it would make mama faint. But besides that it had nothing to recommend itself to me. After all, I wasn’t a fool, or at least not a complete one. I shouldn’t think I had more in common with Mr. Merrit, whom I vaguely remembered was a cottagers son than I’d had with the fish king. And there was the fact that, unless he – and I – was much mistaken, he was already married. And that he had a son. And that he’d been in fairyland before.
It occurred to me that perhaps my family didn’t have the best possible hiring practices.
None of which made me feel better about either having led him into danger or where he might now be, in some thicket of magic, in this very strange and very dangerous land.
Just as I thought this, I heard his voice call from somewhere to my right “Oh, help me, the horror.”
I started to pivot that direction, then stopped. They said when you walked in fairyland, you should never leave the path. You were safe on the path, but not away from it.
How this tallied with helping three people on your journey, I didn’t know, but unless the three people were kind enough to stay on the path and to let me stay on the path, it was all very well, I wasn’t going to leave it.
I knew the magic logic of fairyland, which was the same lotic you used with nefarious creatures such as vampires. Not that I’d ever met a vampire, though mama said in her day there had been a duke who was a Vampire and who was a great rake and very dashing and all the young women were languishing for him.
It seemed to me a great deal of nonsense, particularly as mama seemed to think the most wonderful thing about him was how he sparkled in the sun.
But what I mean is that vampires cannot do things to you unless you enable them by breaking the rules, by which I mean inviting them in through your door.
I suspected it was the same in fairyland. If I stepped out of this path, I’d give them permission to do what they wanted with me. And that, I’m sorry, after my adventures, I wasn’t about to do. As well have stayed and let the fish king marry me. Or the monkey king.
And while at that, why were all these creatures interested in marrying me? Never had a belle in her glittering first season been so sought. Mama would have been quite happy had I been offered for by a viscount. She’d swoon at a god. Or maybe not. At any rate I wasn’t having any, and if Hermes offered I wouldn’t have him either. It would be like marrying Jonathan.
I confess part of the reason for my disordered thoughts was to avoid the screams which continued, in a piteous voice which couldn’t possibly be Mr. Merrit’s. For one, he’d never beg abjectly to all and sundry for rescue. And besides, there was something false in the tone of the voice, as though … as though it were his voice being imitated by an inexperience mimic.
I’d not leave the path.
At that moment, as though out of nowhere, I realized there was a young child walking beside me. A pretty young child, with curly dark hair and bright green eyes, dressed like a ragamuffin. But when he spoke, his words were hesitant but cultured. “Please, Miss,” he said. “If you please, will you show me the way home?”
When It All Crashes Down
Wolfe Merritt, supervisor of Manufactories for Jonathan Blythe, Earl of Savage.
I didn’t like the looks of it. Look, to be bluntly honest, if I had not been in fairyland before, I’d think I’d been plunged headfirst into hell. Sometimes I wonder if the theological difference between the two is so much that it would admit of inserting a definition as thin as a paragraph between the two.
I read in an old book of my grandmothers that in the old days, before magic was properly systematized and rationalized, people thought that the people of the hills were same as the souls of the dead. This to my purpose sounded about right. Except that I hated to think of any mortal souls captured eternally in this land. And also, considering how often humans – and I myself – mated with inhabitants of fairyland, it bore the unpleasant feel of necrophilia.
So I contented myself with thinking that while fairyland wouldn’t be hell, or at least not hell as we’d learnt about it in church, it shared some uncommonly uncomfortable properties with the mansions of the damned. Among them that space could change around you while you stood perfectly still, and that the sane rules of reality you’d known your whole life were likely to change with no warning. If you dropped an object, it was as likely to float up, or to hit you in the face as to fall down. Unfortunately, it was equally likely to turn into a bird of prey and attack your nose.
I’d often thought that the reason the inhabitants of fairyland were stark raving mad – or appeared to be to humans is that this place was madness incarnate. It was in fact impossible to imagine living in this place for more than a few days and not going insane. Which might be why it was said if you stayed in fairyland you’d end up belonging to it. I’d always wondered if the eating or drinking the food of fairyland was any part of it, or if that was just a justification. After all, if you stayed there long enough, you’d have to eat or perish.
None of which mattered, since on my last visit I’d been very careful to eat and drink nothing, and on this one and I had no intention of eating or drinking anything at all.
But as I stood there, and the landscape moved around me, as though I were running down a road from light to dark, I confess I felt chilled to the bone. And not just because what had seemed a sunny day changed to dreary overcast, then to snow, and then to a frozen landscape, the trees on either side of the road frozen like penitents, their bare branches stretched out to an indifferent ice-pale sky.
No, what put ice in my gut and fear in my heart was the realization that the last time I’d been here I’d stayed sane for one reason only. I’d been here to get Jimmy.
I was fully clad in my paternal love and my paternal rights, sure it was not only my duty but my right to get my son back from this infernal place, I might not have made it out.
I’d had a clear purpose and kept it mind, and that had seen me through and out the other side.
But now… I was here against my will and looking for nothing except to get out of here, and to get the lady Helen out of here and safely too. What her brother would say…
I could imagine that in vivid detail, having been privileged to hear his grandfather rake a tenant over the coals, once.
And on cue, at my thoughts, I heard the lady Helen cry from the roiling darkness beneath the frozen trees, “Save me… Oh, save me!”
I grit my teeth. You’d think a man my age would not be such a gudgeon, would you not? First, it was unlikely to be the real Lady Helen, because it had come too pat on the wake of my thoughts about her. And second, if it were the Lady Helen, how could I save her if I left this path. More likely to be taken myself.
The path in the fairyland realms is a thing of magic, and it’s not so much a road as a protection. You can be transported other places, or at least you can be made to believe you’re in other places. But if you don’t step out of the path willingly, fairyland can’t touch you.
I remembered that and grit my teeth, even as a wind with grit in it blew all around me, ripping my clothes to tatters and abrading my skin.
“You dare intrude again, son of Adam?” a voice asked out of nowhere, a voice that was all breath.
The problem was this: even all breath, even without sound behind it, I could tell whose voice it was. My wife’s.
“Feidlimid!” I said, which was a bad idea. I can only say that after being pulled about by magic for so long I was not in my right mind and could not tell what I was doing.
The wind that had been rushing about me, rushed faster, and now the grit carried by its movement was ice crystals, chilling me to the marrow.
My eyes felt abraded and frozen. I could not keep them open, so I closed them.
And suddenly the wind stopped and I was touched by a warm breeze.
I opened my eyes. Feidlimid sat in the middle of an airy terrace, with columns all around. Through the columns, I could glimpse a wide and silvery ocean.
Feidlimid wore a semi-transparent shimmering tunic, and had her wheat gold hair down her back, streaming lightly in the wind, while she combed it with a golden comb.
It was an image out of legends, but if she’d looked like that when I’d first met her, I’d never have brought her home. It was her pitiful soaked state, under the rain as if she knew not how to shield herself, and the lost look in her wide green eyes that had been my undoing.
If she’d smiled at me, as she did now, then I too would never have been at danger. Yes, her smile was sweet and beautiful, but she opened her mouth a little and I could see the sharp teeth, like a mouse’s.
“Hello Feidlimid,” I said.
She looked at me. “Have you come to plead, mortal?”
“Plead? What for?”
“For your fancy lady’s life.” She smiled. “Give my son to me, and I might let her live.”
Lady Caroline Ainsling, sister of the Duke of Darkwater
The path to fairyland was longer than I expected. When I’d gone into it, before, with my mother, it had been a short step through a doorway that I’d opened in a back alley of London. The path Akakios took us through was long and winding and dark. No, wait, not exactly dark, but more like a path through a dense fog, where you can see the way immediately in front of you, but everything else all around is this milky whiteness that might as well be dark, for all you can see.
The path wound, too, which seemed odd.
I leaned over. Akakios was in centaur form, and I was riding his horse-half, side saddle, with my arms around his chest, just under his arms. It wasn’t the most comfortable of rides, particularly when he found the need to gallop full tilt, but it made do.
I drew closer to him, tightening my arms, and said so he could hear me over his own galloping hooves, “Are we being kept out? Of Fairyland? Are we being wound around and are we going to be on this go-around path forever?”
I felt a little shudder go through him, perhaps at the thought of winding around forever, but when he answered his voice was confident if slightly out of breath, “No. I am winding the path to confuse them. They’ll expect me to go to my father, but I’m going to my mother’s village.” And then, after a slight pause, “You’ll like her.”
I wondered. I mean, I had heard about the mothers of centaurs, who were women who lived in a village nearby. They were, most of them, daughters of centaurs. For some reason the change ability, the capacity for turning half-horse only manifested in male children. Even if Akakios had told me that there were legends once of a centaur queen. He didn’t seem to believe the legends, and I was not inclined to give them credit, either.
But they married centaurs, too – I should say there were several villages of them, and centaurs, like my people, tried to keep the relationship between husband and wife as distant as possible, particularly as Akakios told me, his people could be born with the most extraordinary set of birth defects.
The marriages were odd, even by the standards of my society and my class. Husband and wife lived apart, since neither the accommodations nor the relationship could accommodate the husband in his mixed form. So they came to the village only to visit and in human form, while the women lived there all the time. Since the men felt more comfortable in centaur form, they lived in the herd and visited only once or twice a week or so. Notwithstanding which, Akakios seemed to think his mother and father had a warm and close relationship. He’d seen both sides of each at different times, since whenever boys started shifting into centaurs – which could be any time from age six until their late teens – they got sent to live with the herd. He certainly hadn’t considered that dislocation an exile, and seemed to love both his parents equally, but I wondered what his mother would think of his returning home in centaur form, and carrying an out-of-world bride.
I wasn’t given much time to wonder, because – like that – we were out of the fog, and Akakios was galloping on sand and kicking up clouds of it in the glory of a red and gold sunset.
We were by the sea, a blue-green sea with huge waves crashing just feet from us, so that the spray hit me. But even as I was about to protest, Akakios was turning away from it and up a path amid rocks.
The path had clearly been designed for horses, being wide enough and level enough, and yet climbing steadily amid the craggy rocks on either side. Someone had cut this path, or perhaps shaped it with magic since both the side of the rock turned to the path and the path underneath had a melted look. It occurred to me to wonder whether Akakios’ mother, and the other village women had as much magic as their men, or whether this path had been made by the centaurs themselves, to facilitate the visits to their family.
Akakio galloped up the path, even though I could feel his human lungs straining, since he must already be very tired. But when we reached the outskirts of the village – near the first few isolated cottages, where I could glimpse a larger cluster of cottages ahead, he slowed to walk. I understood why seconds later.
First there were chickens. Chickens that seemed to be totally afraid of horses – or centaurs – and went on pecking and looking almost underneath Akakios’ hooves. Akakios seemed used to him. he made an exasperated sound, and then there were slow, slow steps, careful to avoid the balls of feather and dumbness at his feet.
“Would it be easier if I dismount?” I asked, and he shook his head, and his hand clasped over mine, which were in turn clasped together at his chest. But he didn’t answer, perhaps because he had no time. From the village there was a scream of Akakios, and then a young man, who must be only a couple of years younger than Akakios came running down the path, sliding in the too smooth areas, his bare feet seeming to grip to stop his slide. He was wearing a sort of chitton, pinned at the shoulder, and belted, but probably no more than a very large sheet of linen, when all was said and done. His features looked a lot like Akakios’ and his hair was as curly, but the color was, unlike Akakios’ glossy black, a dark wheat.
He screamed “Akakios!” as he ran, and behind him came a cloud of children. That is the only way I can describe it. A cloud of children, in various sizes, ranging from adolescent to young toddler.
The young man reached us first, and his hand reached up to grab Akakios’ wrist, “Akakios. We thought we’d never—We thought you couldn’t ever come back!”
And then the cloud of children was all around us, babbling and calling and demanding attention. Akakios couldn’t move for them – a fat little toddler, completely naked – was holding on to his front leg. I thought I really should dismount but Akakios was still holding my hands, and before I could move, a woman’s voice said “Son.”
I suppose his mother was queen of centaurs. And she was as beautiful as one imagines queens will be – but never are – looking much younger than my own mama, like a woman just at the edge of maturity, maybe 30 or so. She was probably older. Akakios had had a much older brother, now lost. But people in fairyland age slowly.
She had dark brown hair, in long curls, pulled back with a ribbon. And she was wearing a very pretty tunic in pale blue. It covered her to her ankles and looked like a dress a debutant might wear, back in London. But over it she wore an apron, which was a very odd thing for a queen to wear. Even odder was the fact that she was wiping at her tears with the corner of her apron and leaving streaks of flour all over her face.
“Son,” she said again. And then in a sob. “Your father has gone to fight—Your father has gone to try to stop the revolt against Night Arrow. You should go back to Earth. I can’t bear to lose you too.”
Seraphim Ainsling, Duke of Darkwater, Prince Consort of Britannia, the King’s Witchfinder:
It would be all too easy in my position, I suppose, for me to become convinced that I have a great deal of power. No. Correction on that. It would be all too possible for someone looking at me from the outside to become convinced that I have a great deal of power.
After all, they would say, the king has only one daughter, and I’m married to her. And I’m accounted one of the richest men in Britannia in large part because my half brother, the king of fairyland has gifted me with long buried and forgotten treasure.
And besides, I’m the king’s Witchfinder, whose command over a force of volunteers who travel to other worlds to rescue those in need gives him a small private army at his command.
Ah, if only I could live in the reality of these people’s fantasies about me.
On the other hand, maybe not. After all, they view me as married to a sort of well dressed puppet, the Princess Royale who, to judge from our newspapers and ladies journals, is mostly concerned with beatifically waiting the arrival of her first child, picking out suitable lace for the nursery and dreaming of sunshine and butterflies.
I’m not going to say my wife, the Princess Helena, who would much rather be called Nell, isn’t concerned with laces, patterns and nursery furniture. Sometimes I think I’ll suffocate in lace, and it wouldn’t be the first time, after dinner, in the royal palace, in the family suite, that my father in law the king and I trade a long-suffering look over two women who are comparing lace patterns different only to their eyes, and asking our opinion when we have no idea what we’re supposed to say.
No, what I’m saying is that my wife, Nell, is as different from that puppet in royal robes as it is possible to be, a difficult, stubborn, complex, wholly fascinating creature, raised in a world full of egalitarian notions and strange ideas about the condition of men, a world in many ways richer than our own even when you’re a princess. She disapproves of servants, for instance, and has had a small cottage built on the grounds of the royal palace – and still within its magical shields, since it’s not advisable for her to go outside them while bearing the next heir of Britannia – where she cooks and cleans and gets to be alone with me.
I’ve read a little about the history of the world in which she grew up, and know of a queen Antoinette who played at being a farmer in a similar mannter.
Nell is so happy with her pretend life, being a housewife as she would be in her world, that no one has the courage to tell her that she can only manage it because servants turn out the house, black the range, and clean the rugs while she’s out at her official duties. Or even that they split the wood for cooking and warming fires because I lack the time.
If she thinks about it, she will know, but then her beautiful illusion will be shattered. Sooner or later, she will come to realize it, and to realize that dispensing with servants in Avalon is only possible if you either live in someone else’s house, as a servant yourself, or if you live in a hovel, where there is nothing to clean and nothing to cook. Some day she’ll realize the reason for the beautiful privacy and near-equality-of-circumstances on Earth, where servants are rare at least where she was brought up are the ubiquitous machines that do the boring, tiresome work that is done by servants and serfs on Avalon.
Which is why my brother Michael, who is a genius, and who does understand this, works day and night to replicate the same machines on Avalon, in our land moving on magic, so we don’t have to recreate the infrastructure of Earth, which might or might not work here, and besides would interfere with magic in many ways.
He has a workshop in the back of Ainsling house in town, and of our estates in the country, and though there have been notable failures, such as when the magical barber chased him out of the workshop, pursued him through the garden, and was only stopped by our butler with a magical gun, there have been notable successes too, like his solo flying ship, ever so much more practical than flying carpet ships and twice as fast – even if his first experiment with them almost got him married to a spirit of the air, and might eventually get him married to an evil magician’s daughter.
The point is that I was born to the peculiar position of being the least important of my brothers, even if the heir. And I’d married into a position that looked full of peculiar power but was indeed a prison, hemmed in on all sides.
I’m not complaining. I love my wife, real and complex as she is. And I love my in laws, gentle people with a sense of humor. I don’t love being prince consort and the endless interviews about what kind of blacking I prefer for my boots or what I think should be done about the welsh dragons. (Apparently the answer isn’t kill them all, even though welsh dragons are not human shifters and are quite devoid of self-awareness. It took the king’s spokesman weeks to undo that damage, after which I was politely requested not to pronounce on matters I know nothing about, such as magical balance.)
And I love my brother. Both of them. Even though Gabriel, in his persona as king of fairyland is more force of nature than human being. But even at his grandest, coldest, most magical there is still in there, somewhere, the friend hwo helped me raid the forcing houses when we were both boys.
None of which explained why he’d planted a magical bomb on Jonathan Blythe which would have killed me and those close to me when it went off, including Jonathan himself.
And I loved Michael, too, but there were times when I’d gladly have traded him for a litter of puppies and a gallon of milk. This was one of those times.
He was deep in mathematical conversation, discussing magical vectors with the– Oh, there is no delicate way to say this, so if any ladies from Avalon read this account I apologize for offended sensibilities, with the Earl of Sydell, the lover of my half-brother, Gabriel, King of Fairyland.
The Earl of Sydell, who much preferred to be called Marlon, and who had at one time gone by the name Elfborne, was probably the only person in the world who could understand the magical theory that was meat and drink to Michael. That was well enough.
What wasn’t well enough was my realization they were planning to go into fairyland to rescue Gabriel from some terrible doom that might mean his death.
“Here,” I said. “What are you about? Sydell is three quarters elf, and might not be allowed out again. And Michael was a changeling and will be in like danger.”
Which is when Sydell told me all he wanted was for me to assume custody of his presumptive son should he disappear. I thought there was demmed “should” about it, but I also saw I wouldn’t persuade him. So I sent for the clerks to draw up the papers, and make the arrangements he wished.
I intended of course not to let Michael go with him, and I believe I’d have succeeded, too.
Only as the papers were signed, I looked up and realized Caroline and Akakios were gone. Since the damnfools were quite likely to go to fairyland too, I walked to the door, hoping to see them.
But not only were they nowhere in sight, but no one in the plaza remembered seeing them, which considering Akakios was in centaur form was peculiar enough.
I wanted to scream, but instead politely thanked the men who were cleaning up what remained of the Lionheart Fountain, the loss of which would be mourned by tourists forever.
Then I turned back to my office. Which was … quite empty, and had that peculiar smell of a place where transport magic has recently been done.
The clerk was looking, bewildered and big eyed. “His Grace, they—”
I groaned. For a moment, for a wild moment, I had the idea of doing the transport spell myself and going into fairyland and shaking them all, including however many pieces Gabriel had split into, until all their teeth fell out.
But part of being the Witchfinder, part of my promise, was to coordinate but not travel to those lands. Nell had made me promise, because she couldn’t bear for me to disappear and for her to never know what had become of me, she said.
Other people would say she had no right to lay such an injunction on me, but considering she’d given up everything, including every hope of seeing the world she’d grown up in in order to fulfill her duty, she knew something of sacrifice.
I stared in despair at the empty office, and thought of those I loved heading into mortal danger. And nothing I could do to save them. Nothing I could do to influence the fight.
Little by little an idea formed. It could cost me the world – quite literally – if it failed. But if it succeeded, it might be the answer to the whole thing.
Nell would kill me for running the risk. On the other hand, if I failed there was a good chance my world and my wife were lost already.
And sometimes a man has to fight for what he loves.
Lady Caroline Ainsling, sister of the Duke of Darkwater:
In the Kitchen of the Centaur Queen
I dismounted and Akakios’ mother led us through the narrow street, to a house that looked like one of the nicer cottages in our domains. Not exactly poor or untidy looking – it was two floors, with quite a nice-looking façade, and an ivy trellises climbing over the front door. The way in, too, looked like a nice cottage, or perhaps one of the humbler houses, such as where a parson might live: we went into a tidy garden via a wooden gate set in a low stone wall covered in climbing roses.
We meant Akakios’ mother and myself. Akakios stepped carefully over the wall, and then maneuvered his way to the same path we were taking – a tidy cobblestone path – to the front door.
I understood the reason for the carefully, as his mother said, “Akakios!” in that tone of mothers everywhere.
And Akakios said, in the tone of every boy discovered at fault, “I was careful. I looked where I stepped.”
“Yes, dear,” she said. But you know that rabbits can burrow over night.”
“Oh, mother,” he said, in a tone of great impatience, which nonetheless still sounded like he’d been discovered at fault and knew it. “I haven’t done that since—”
“Since you were twelve and first come into your powers, yes, I know,” she said, and smiled. “But this would be a very unfortunate time to have you laid up with a broken leg. Do be careful.”
He didn’t answer that. I could hear him walking behind us to the front door. He’d once explained to me something about magical horse shoes, which vanished when he shifted. They weren’t made of iron, of course – it would be terrible to do that to a magical being – but they made the same sound when he was in centaur form.
At the door, which was an ordinary door, and I was just wondering how Akakios was going to get through it, his mother turned around and said, “Akakios!” exactly like our cook used to talk to Seraphim or Gabriel when they came to the kitchen and stole cookies.
He sighed, and I was aware of his stepping behind me, and into a little branching path. I looked, and he was trotting towards an outbuilding at the end of the garden. Funny how he could move, in his horse form, in the exact same way that conveyed annoyance of his human form.
I turned to find his mother smiling at me. “He knows better than to come in without changing,” she said.
I looked at the normal size door. “Can he?”
“Oh, assuredly. It’s magical, see. But the centaur form looms in the whole kitchen, and it’s very hard to move around it. Their father does it all the time, but I have very little control over him. Husbands! However, my sons were properly brought up.”
I didn’t ask her if her husband hadn’t been properly brought up. The whole idea of coming in in centaur form being rather like coming in the kitchen with muddy boots had never occurred to me. I began to suspect there were fine points to being married to a centaur that I should learn about. Particularly if Akakios was going to retain his ability to shift in my world.
You see, I’d never thought much about it, because, well, it was supposed that he’d never be able to enter fairyland again and never be able to shift. It seemed like the burden of learning to bridge our ways and to live as it was expected would all be on his side. But now…
I followed my future mother in law into a tidy kitchen. There was a fireplace, but it wasn’t lighted, and there was a rather large, elaborate stove, made of brick, I thought. It had ovens and was clearly set up for finer cooking than the fireplace would have been.
There was also a large, well-scrubbed table, the pine pale and looking like it had been polished by generations of use. And there were four chairs, two rockers by the fireplace, and – curiously – a child’s rocker, upon which a fat marmalade cat slept.
The windows at either end of the kitchen – crosswise from the door and fireplace – were wide open, and through them came soft breezes perfumed with lavender.
The cat looked up as I entered and fixed me with a baleful eye, then sighed, as though its rest had been rudely interrupted, and curled back up to sleep.
The queen of centaurs went up to the table, where she had a spread of dough laid out, and various instruments. She started cutting it, swiftly. “You know,” she said. “I meant no more than to make some treats for the village children, but it chances it’s Akakios’ favorite, and I’ll have them ready in a moment.” She was putting the squares of dough on trays that looked ceramic, and topping them with dollops of jam. “It won’t take a moment,” she said. She had yet more flour on her nose, and a bit on her hair from careless sweeping of her hand up.
“They smell wonderful,” I said. “But I won’t be able to eat them, will I?”
She blinked at me, as she lifted the full tray. “Whyever not?” And then with a smile that reminded me of Akakios making jokes, “We rarely poison our guests.”
“Well, the food of fairyland,” I said. “I was here once before, you see, and your husband…” I hesitated before telling her the full trouble he’d gone through to avoid having me eat the food of fairyland.
“Oh, that,” she said. “It doesn’t apply to the village. You’ll have to take my word for it, but there would be nothing to lying to you – no good coming to me. And I wouldn’t do that, at any rate, your being Akakios’ affianced wife.” She slid the tray into the oven, and closed the door “It doesn’t apply to the village because our food is made of what we grow, and not magicked into being.”
I wondered if that was true. In my visit to fairyland before, I’d learned not to believe anyone. On the other hand, she was Akakios’ mother and my future mother in law. On yet the other hand, would she not want to tie me to fairyland, if she thought it would also tie down her son, whom she’d expected never to see again. And why had she been baking cookies while we were gone.
I thought it might offend her mortally if I didn’t eat her baking. But then again, what was offense to being trapped in this strange place.
Just then I heard Akakios come in. I could tell before turning that the person who’d walked in was Akakios and also that he was in human form. Turning around, I saw him as I’d first seen him in human form. He’d removed the shirt and jacket, and was wearing a sort of Greek Chiton, which left one arm free, and covered him in soft white wool folds to his knees. He had sandals on. And the facilities for changing must include a hair brush, because he’d brushed his hair back and re-tied it, so he looked neat and clean and far more at home in this kitchen than I did.
He came up behind me, silently, and put his hand on my shoulder, while looking at his mother.
“I am making nymph’s sighs,” she said. “They’ll be out of the oven in a moment. I should send for milk to accompany. Or would you prefer coffee?”
He said, with a half laugh. “So you’re worried. Because you can’t have known we were coming, so you were baking to—”
“Calm myself down, yes,” she said, with a sound of great tiredness, dropping on a chair. She looked suddenly very tired and very worried, like she was tired of being worried. “Oh, Akakios, the king– Night Arrow. That poor boy.”