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. 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
Third installment. For second chapter look here
For first, look here
There had to be worse things that could happen to a girl than dropping head first into a Regency novel. Nell Felix had no idea what they could be though. A Regency novel with magic, at that. A world where she must mind her manners, curb her tongue, behave like a proper lady and, oh, yeah, perform magic, too.
If you’d told her, back when she was a very junior programer at Prince Management Systems – she could never make her bosses understand what was wrong with that acronym, either – that her way of fixing computers by wishing them fixed would attract the attention of an interplanetary spy and that, for his sake, she would end up living in another world where everyone still behaved as if the regency had never passed, and where America was just the colonies of dear old mother England, she would never have believed it.
But it was true nonetheless. As it was true that she’d fallen in love with Antoine, somewhere between his telling her about other worlds and teaching her magic. And that now she couldn’t leave this particular world until Antoine was released. Which meant she had to satisfy Siddel’s demands first. It had already been a year. How much longer would she have to work to ransom her lover?
The real Earth, or what she thought of the real Earth was so long ago and far away, and sometimes she didn’t know if it felt like a weird dream, or if her current circumstances did.
“Miss, Miss,” the cracked voice of the landlady called from outside the door to Nell’s lodging.
It was not so much cracked as wavering, breaking on the high pitches and making an awful descant to the pounding of the landlady’s impatient fist on the door.
Like cats mating inside drums, Nell thought, and her little, dark face, which was rather like a cat’s itself, twisted in an expression of distaste, as she put her long-fingered hands over her ears. Or like a car engine seriously out of tune.
She repressed a longing for cars – and for flush toilets – and leaned forward toward the complex chalk drawings on her floor and the bowl of water placed in the middle of them. Lord Siddel had told her to find what Seraphim Ainsling was up to. But he must be using some magical protection, because it was easier said than done. So far the bowl had shown her no more than a murky fog with occasional glimpses of blood and cut flesh. And while this didn’t reassure her that his Grace of Darkwater was on the right side of the law, it was hardly an indictment.
“Miss Felix. Miss!” The pounding and the voice, each competing – and somehow managing – to be louder than the other penetrated the ineffective barrier of her hands and shattered her concentration. The wavering image she’d been able to conjure in the water – of a green jacket seemingly bobbing about mid-air – vanished all together, leaving nothing but water and cheap china. Cracked cheap china, Nell thought, noticing the chip out of the side and the wandering crack that descended like a yellow scribble towards the center of the bowl. “Yes, Mrs. Sharyl,” she said. “I am coming.”
The screaming did stop, but the pounding continued, if more subdued now, a tap, tap, tap, as though to remind Nell the landlady was waiting. Not that I’m likely to forget, Nell thought, as she got up and strode across the room to the door, being careful not to step on any of the chalk lines. On her Earth, she might get a peeved letter, but no landlady would actually be pounding on her door. Here, everything was so much more personal.
She was careful too to make sure her body obscured Mrs. Stope’s view of the floor. Not that witchcraft was illegal or even uncommon – though more uncommon in the lower classes, of course – in Avalloni, but the landlady was the type of person to worry about the chalk on the floorboards.
Mrs. Stope stood squarely in the middle of the landing outside Nell’s room. It would have been difficult to stand any other way, since the landing was hardly large enough to contain her. Not that she was fat. No, she was square. A short, blockish woman, with the sort of build that led one to believe that in a past life she had been a clock. The way she clicked her tongue also sounded much like a clock ticking.
She turned her watery-blue eyes up to Nell, then gave her a careful once over, from head to toe, doubtless taking in the well-tailored skirt and the irreproachable black jacket. “Dressed to go out, are you miss?” she said. “And I hope you’re not intending to go for weeks, and the rent already overdue?”
“No,” Nell said. “I meant to go out for a moment only.” She regretted not for the first time that she couldn’t tell the truth: places to go, people to kill. If she said that in this world, it wouldn’t even be a reference joke. It was still true. And it kept Antoine safe. Antoine… She swallowed and kept her mind from going down that path. The problem with loving someone is that it made it easy for people to hold him hostage and make you do what they wanted. “On some… errands. But I will have your rent for you when I return.” I’d better have it, at least Sidell is not so dumb as to forget it is unadvisable to delay paying your secret operatives. even your unwilling secret operatives.
Mrs. Stope bent her head, momentarily, under the weight of this promise, but rattled back into it, game as a pebble, “Only last time you said that, you left for three weeks and then I–“
“I always pay,” Nell said, pressing her lips together and allowing her face to show the mingled impatience and annoyance she felt.
“Yes, miss, but as I own the rooms, I need to have the pay regular, else how can I meet my own bills?”
“I will do my best,” Nell said, putting on the airs she had learned tended to bring these tirades to an abrupt conclusion. And then, to reinforce the idea, “I was about to go see my father.”
“Oh,” The landlady said, and her face showed a cunning sort of curiosity. “His lordship is in town, then?”
Nell only nodded, preserving the sort of distance and secret that the landlady would doubtless expect if Nell were in fact the byblow of a nobleman. Which she very much doubted she was, since Earth had very few noblemen and few of them were unlikely to give even an ilegitimate child up for adoption. But she was adopted, and so she couldn’t say her parents weren’t noble. Heck, it was weird enough she had magical power. She suspected most people back on what she thought of as Earth had had magic bred out of them. Since it didn’t work on Earth, it wouldn’t confer any advantage. So maybe her parents were noblemen from some other world. She couldn’t swear they weren’t.
Besides, Mrs. Stope had once seen Nell with Mr. Sidell and assumed he was Nell’s father and their relationship a great secret. It always shocked Nell how little it was necessary to tell people lies. They much preferred to tell lies to themselves. Particularly in this world, where so much of society depended on convention and secrets.
She didn’t exactly despise Mrs. Stope for assuming that Nell was of noble blood – she despised her for the reasons she gave for assuming so: That she’d seen Nell with Mr. Sidell, who was obviously a gentleman, and also that Nell’s features were delicately formed, her hands and feet small and her ankles elegant. In many worlds, Nell had seen just those features in dirt-poor peasants. And if I had a sovereign for every fat, blobby princess I’ve known, she thought. I’d be wealthier than the king. But there would never be a way of convincing the Mrs. Stopes of that fact.
“Well, if you’re seeing your father, Miss…” the landlady said, with the sort of sigh more rooted on her despairing of knowing more than in her fear of not getting paid.
“Indeed I am,” Nell said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me and give me some time, I must write a letter to take with me.” For some reason, in this world, writing a letter was accorded the same sort of privacy that the real Earth gave calls of nature. Perhaps because writing with a quill pen was one of the most undignified businesses in any world.
She added ballpoint pens to the list of things she missed.
Before the woman could say A letter, Miss? And try to figure out what the letter would say and to whom it would be addressed, a query that Nell saw all too plainly in her eyes, Nell shut the door in her face, and returned to her work.
Perhaps I drew the right-reverse spiral too wobbly, she thought, doubtfully, as she stared at the drawing on the floor. She twirled her fingers in her hair, rendering it what Mrs. Stope would doubtlessly consider a completely inappropriate coiffure for a gently reared female.
Kneeling down, she erased part of the spiral, then drew it again, slightly diffferently. Then she picked the bowl and stared, again, at the vague picture of a green jacket floating middair.
She had to see clearly. She made passes middair and tried to concentrate. Seraphim Ainsling. What was the foolish man doing? He worried Siddel far too much for it to be innocent. Siddel had a second sense about these things.
Seraphim Ainsling. She remembered his haughty expression, his aquiline profile from a party at which he had resolutely looked through her.
Her fingers ran through her hair again. Right. The Duke of Darkwater. I am beneath his notice. If town rumor was right, he was getting engaged to Lady Honoria Blythe of Blythe Blessings. An Earl’s daughter.
His profile was now firmly in her mind, the green eyes looking at her intently, and she stared at the water bowl again and saw him clearly, wearing the green jacket, and a pocket watch, and saying the final words of a magical formula.
Too late, she realized what the formula was. A transport spell. Far too late, she realized she’d let her mind get enmeshed in it and in his magic.
There was a flash; a magical blast that hit her like a punch midbody. And then she felt the transport spell pull her through the betweener and into a destination not of her choosing.
Her bowl of water fell and cracked apart, erasing all her careful chalk markings.