UPDATE: A SLIGHTLY EDITED AND PRETTIED UP COMPILATION OF ALL CHAPTERS UP TO A WEEK OLD IS HERE
*I’m posting a novel here, a chapter a week on Fridays. This is being posted as I write it, so it’s in pre-earc (for those from Baen) or in close-to (but not quite) -first draft state. Once it’s finished it will undergo editing and then it will be published in some form. I’m going to put this up with its own category so you can find it. And yes, I’m going to put up a donate button eventually — as soon as I figure out how to do it. Yeah, I know, what can I say? I AM pathetic — and those who donate $6 or more WILL get this, revised, when it comes out. Yes, those of you who are in Baen Diner have seen two chapters of this before. The difference is, this time I finish it “in public” which is a bit of a window to you on how things work out. Oh, yeah, this is a fantasy set in the same universe as the Magical British Empire, but not in the same world (at least to begin with.)
Witchfinder — by Sarah A. Hoyt
Second installment. For first chapter look here
For chapter 3 look here
Darkwater lay sprawled across a low chaise in his dressing room. By the wavering light of two mage globes fixed on either side of the mirror above his dressing table, he looked like the picture of debauch. With his coat – tailored to a nicety to fit his broad shoulders and narrow waist like a second skin – unbuttoned; his curls – in wild disarray – framing his pale, sweaty face, he looked like he’d spent the night in wild orgies.
No one who saw him now would doubt the rumours that he’d been drinking heavily before the ball at which his engagement to Lady Honoria Blythe was to be announced. And no one would doubt that this was the reason the announcement had not, in fact been made. And by morning the tongues would spread everywhere the story that one or the other of them meant to cry off.
Right then, the Duke was thinking nothing about the rumors, or how he looked. His mind was dark, his breath coming in fast gasps, his brow creased with a pain he had not allowed anyone in the ballroom to suspect.
When he spoke to his attendant, who was rummaging through the drawers of the dressing table, his voice was little more than a croak, animated by no more energy than could be provided by extreme pain. “Penny, curse you. Can you not set about it?”
The valet spared him a look over his shoulder, gracing Darkwater with a frown that was much like the Duke’s own. In fact, Gabriel Penn – whom only His Grace dared call Penny – was well known to be a byblow of his Grace the former duke, born a full year to the day before Seraphim’s birth.
That the two had been brought up together almost as brothers, and that Gabriel was now the trusted confidant and closest servant to his grace showed Lady Barbara’s forbearance and her unusual turn of mind. Or perhaps, some said, it just showed that she knew a high magical power, like Gabriel’s, when she saw it, and thought it best not to have him run wild and untrained amid tenants and farmers.
“I’m shifting as fast as I can Duke,” he threw impatiently in Seraphim’s direction. Though in public he called him His Grace and showed him every respect, in private he took liberties no one who knew Seraphim’s stiff-necked propriety would believe. He called Darkwater Duke or Seraphim, or occasionally, you damned fool. Right then he said the first as if he meant the last, and added, “Because if you think that coat is coming off without being slit, you’re a fool. And more of a fool for having squeezed yourself into it and gone out there to the ball, instead of calling me to you first.”
Seraphim gave a gurgle that might have been an attempt at laughing. “I couldn’t disappoint Honoria or humiliate her that way.”
“What I think of your Honoria…” Gabriel said, turning with a sharp razor in his hand, and setting about cutting the sleeve of Seraphim’s coat with a skill that showed he’d often done it.
“No one has asked you,” Seraphim said, in the blighting tone that never worked on Gabriel.
This time, though, Gabriel did not answer him, as his cutting away of the coat, revealed not only a blood soaked sleeve, but a mass of ill-wrapped bandages – all of them equally tinted blood-red.
The stain, as he pulled away the remnants of the coat and tossed them, showed itself to continue all across the Duke’s shoulder and to over-spread his chest.
“Seraphim!” Gabriel said, as he cut away the shirt and the bandages, to reveal two jagged, irregular cuts, one extending all the way up the arm, almost to the shoulder, deep enough to show the glimmering whiteness of bones in its depths, and the other starting at the shoulder and stopping just short of the heart.
“My ribs deflected it,” Seraphim said. “It was my heart the villain was aiming for. Spelled dagger.”
Gabriel set his lips tight, in something that might be anger or concern. His countenance, always white like Seraphim’s, had gone two shades paler, so that even his lips appeared to be glaring white under the mage lights. He swallowed and nodded, as if he were swallowing the reproaches he would normally have made. His concern showed in his creased forehead and in the depths of the green eyes both of them had inherited from their common father.
Turning, he rummaged in the drawers again. A quick question of “I suppose you couldn’t close it magically?”
“No,” Seraphim said. His voice had devolved into a whisper. His good hand clenched the arm of the chair so hard that its knuckles shone white. “I told you it was a magical dagger.”
Gabriel nodded and set on the dressing table certain articles that even the duke’s mother would be very surprised to know were always kept in its drawers: needle; catgut thread; ligatures and lint.
From a smaller table nearby, where it sat next to the annotated volume of Plato’s republic which Darkwater had been reading before the alarm had called him away, he grabbed the bottle of brandy and, as if as an afterthought, a large glass.
He splashed the brandy liberally into the glass and handed it to the Duke, saying with unwonted force, “Drink.”
“After all the champagne I had in there, my dear Penny?” Darkwater rasped. “I shall be sodden drunk.”
“Good,” Gabriel said.
Darkwater raised his eyebrows, but tossed back the brandy without further comment. Gabriel had kept the bottle of brandy uncapped, and now set the top down on the table. Possessing himself of Darkwater’s hand, he stretched the duke’s arm, leaving his wound exposed and up turned.
“If it’s a magical wound,” Gabriel said. “Magic won’t close it or disinfect it. We don’t need you being carried off in a fever. You take care not to alarm the house.”
“Have no fear,” Darkwater said, turning his head away.
Indeed, as Gabriel poured the caustic liquid along the open wound, then splashed a like amount into the chest wound, only a very faint complaint escaped his Grace’s mouth. This was probably because he had taken the care of muffling any possible screams with his good arm. And, as Gabriel returned the now half-emtpy bottle to its stand, only the red marks of Darkwater’s own teeth on his wrist showed what effort it had taken.
Gabriel said nothing, as he set about threading the needle.
Only as he started to sew the ragged edges of the wounds together, did he speak. “I can,” he said. “Put a pain reducing spell on it. As soon as I’m done. Not before, or it will retard the healing.”
Seraphim nodded, then spoke, in a bewildered tone. “It was a trap. There were, according to my…” He swallowed. “My foreseeing showed a boy and a girl, about six years of age, first coming into magical powers, and being condemned to death for them. I tried to… intercept… but there was a trap. And no children.”
“What world?” Gabriel asked.
“Oh, the pyramids,” Seraphim said and tried to shrug, before letting out a faint moan. “But I ended up in Betweener.”
The pyramids was, if Gabriel remembered, the world where they sacrificed children with magical powers to their barbarous blood-gods. He didn’t remember what the cartographers of their own world called it. Possibly something inspired like 435-65-A.
Most the Earths, spread out along the magical continuum of several universes, blocked from each other only by the thinnest of energy veils, called themselves Earth. And most of them thought they were quite unique – the only Earth in the only universe, inhabited by the only humans. Avalloni, their own Earth, knowing there were many had given itself that name. Legend maintained that it was the oldest of the Earths, the one from which all the earths had fractured away, when Merlin had been captured and imprisoned. The occluding of his world-encompassing power had caused magic itself to fracture and the Earth to copy itself over and over – most of the copies retaining no magic, and those that did retain it often undertaking to forbid it.
Avalloni citizens were not allowed to travel to other worlds. King Arthur XXVII had confirmed the prohibition first instituted centuries ago. Even the kidnapping of the princess Royal — the only child of the king — out of her cradle, when Seraphim himself was a nurseling, though it was presumed to have been a plot from another world, hadn’t lifted the prohibition.
And because the cartographers’ designations didn’t suit his mind, Seraphim gave these worlds to which he travelled routinely in an attempt to save from death as many magicians and witches as possible, names of his own coining. There was Pyramids and Swamp – which was not one, but a foetid world mired in superstition and covered in vermin – Slum and Desert and – for a particularly noxious world – Madhouse.
Gabriel frowned. “”An ambush! They know of you then!”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. I suspect they don’t know who I am, nor where I came from. I suspect they were simply trying to stop the rescues…”
“Enough to set a trap? And interfere with your foreseeing? Take care Duke.”
Seraphim made a noncommital sound, in the back of his throat and, seeing that Gabriel had finished sewing his wounds, he sat up straighter. “Give me a shirt and a coat… the… green one,” he said.
Gabriel cast a doubtful eye at him. “You can’t mean to go back to the ball.”
“Of course I can. I must. An announcement must be made by midnight.”
Gabriel cast a curious look over the Duke. He looked pale but composed, but– Almost without thinking, he raised his hand, and cast a pain-dimming spell over Darkwater. He could see Seraphim’s features relax almost immediately and the duke looked easier, as he stood.
“At least let me help you wash,” Gabriel said. “You reek of brandy.”
Darwater chuckled. “So long as they think I’m such a desperate drunk as to come to my apartments for brandy before resuming the ball, they won’t suspect what I’m really doing.”
Gabriel clicked his tongue, as he wrapped Seraphim’s arm and shoulder in a thin layer of bandages. “Take care Seraphim. One day you’ll go a bridge too far.”
But he helped Seraphim into his shirt and coat, and removed his watch and accoutrements from the pocket of his ruined coat.
As he passed them to the duke, Darkwater’s pocket watch emitted a loud whine, which almost caused Gabriel to drop it.
Darkwater reached for it, swiftly, with his good hand, and flicked it open. He swore under his breath. “Swamp. Give me my crystal ball, Penny.”
“Your Grace,” Gabriel said, using both the title and the tone of deference he rarely used except in public, and continuing, in tight-lipped, scolding tones. “You cannot mean to go rescuing anyone right now. You could barely rescue yourself!”
“My crystal ball, Penn, and do me the favor of being quiet.”