*This is the new free novel I’m posting here a chapter at a time. For previous chapters, page back to previous weeks. 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. 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. Until I give this a tab, you can find older chapters by paging back to Friday (or the first, I think Sat/Sun or simply searching Rogue Magic.*
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.”