*And I’m going to try to be done with it this weekend. Then I finish Darkship Revenge. (I’m sort of trying to do weeks for Baen, weekends for indie, only the last few weeks have been House Things TM)*
Sarah A. Hoyt
It has often been said that dead men don’t talk. In Avalon, this wasn’t necessarily true. Dead men could talk if a reasonably talented necromancer were willing to risk the death penalty for reanimating a corpse.
But Michael had never heard of a dead man who wrote letters.
The letter lay on the breakfast table, next to the only setting on it, on a silver salve between the spoon and the porcelain creamer.
Michael Ainsling, youngest son of the late Duke of Darkwater and brother of the current titular, eyed it suspiciously, while he took his seat. His eyes widened slightly at the name of the sender, then he frowned at his own name in the space reserved for the recipient.
He hadn’t slept well, and dark rings marked the pale skin beneath the dark green eyes he shared with all his male relatives.
A well set up boy at the age when one resented being called such, he had that look boys have when they’ve achieved adult height but not yet had time to fill in. He’d been the quiet half of fraternal twins, his sister Caroline being the garrulous and outgoing half until six months ago. Then Caroline had been sent to an academy for young ladies, where she was presumably still garrulous but far away from Michael, so that Michael had to do his own talking and endure social interaction.
It had been thought – then – that Michael’s recent experiences had left him too frail to attend Cambridge. Michael frowned with distaste at the thought, as he folded and refolded his napkin. He did not understand why it had been thought better to leave him here on the deserted estate. With Caroline gone, Seraphim, now the tenth Duke of Darkwater and the prince consort of the Princess Royal, spending most of his time in London and Mama having left no one knew very well where, Michael’s was the only place setting at the table designed to accommodate seventeen.
Most of the days he swallowed tea and toast and rushed off to work in his workshop. Today… He glared at the letter by his cup.
And realized that the footman who’d discreetly followed him into the dining room hovered near his chair. “You may go, Burket,” he said, without taking his eyes off the letter.
“Will you need anything else, Lord Michael?” the man asked and made a broad gesture as though sweeping the breakfast spread clustered around Michael’s place setting: fried kidneys and some sort of pie, and toast and butter and something else that looked suspiciously like fish cakes.
Michael didn’t sigh. “No, thank you, Burket. I have everything I need.”
Truly he wanted the man gone so he could look at the letter at leisure. The sender’s name was Tristram Blackley, and surely there couldn’t be more than one of those. The writing and the paper both looked fresh, as though someone had dashed off the note just this morning.
But Tristram Blackley had been dead for sixteen years. Michael had studied him among the great inventors of his time, the man who had created the carpetship liners that crossed the air between Britain and the Americas and took the upper classes of Avalon on pleasure cruises the world over. He remembered mama telling him, once, that she’d known Tristram in youth, that he was a lot like Michael himself, always dreaming up new magical machines, but how he’d died young and how sad it was.
“Beg your pardon, Milord,” Burket said, which was when Michael realized the man had leaned over to pour him tea, and had almost poured it on Michael’s lap as Michael lifted his head.
“No,” Michael said. “Thank you. But you don’t have to pour my tea.”
Only now the man was buttering Michael’s toast and setting it on a plate, and smiling enticingly at Michael while nodding at the toast as though, for all the world, Michael were a toddler in need to be tempted to his food. “I know, milord, but you haven’t been eating, and what are we to tell his grace, should he ask? And he does ask, you know?”
Michael picked up the toast, with what he knew was ill-grace, and took a bite, while still frowning at the letter. He could well believe that Seraphim worried about his eating and his health and everything else. And that was nothing to what Gabriel, his older half-brother, once Seraphim’s valet and now the king of fairyland would do. Those two had always mistook themselves for parents of Michael and Caroline. And he was sure someone in the household was in Gabriel’s pay, too, and sent him regular reports.
When you have two older brothers who are far more powerful than you, and determined to protect, cosset and annoy you within an inch of your life, sometimes all you can do is play along. But Michael wished they’d let him read his letter in peace.
He took another bite, gulped down the tea, which was still hot, and then took another bite of toast, doing his best to simulate appetite he didn’t feel.
He had spent a restless and turmoil filled night, dreaming of fairyland and his recent captivity in it, and it was all he could do not to allow a long shudder to go through him at the confused and patchy memory of that dream. That was the problem, too. In dream and memory fairyland was never anything clear and solid, anything you could rebel against and resent. It was a foggy, threatening recollection, in which places and people changed shape and essence, and in which pain and worse happened to you without warning.
“That is better,” Milord, Burket said, in the sort of kind, patronizing tone that made Michael wish they hadn’t forbidden duels and that it weren’t frowned upon to duel one’s social inferiors.
“Would you fancy a kidney? Perhaps a fish cake?” At Michael’s headshake, Burket stepped back, but didn’t leave, as Michael expected. Instead, he cleared his throat and looked towards the entrance door to the room, set next to the window that looked out over the gardens.
There was movement, and then two women and a man came in, all of them smiling wide, but all of them looking just the slightest bit embarrassed, as though they were doing something they shouldn’t be doing. The women were Mrs. Hooper, the housekeeper, starched and stiff in her black dress with its immaculate white collar, Mrs. Aiken, the cook, and the man was Dyer, the Butler.
What on Earth could be the matter?
Before Michael could even think to ask, Mrs. Hooper advanced, curtseyed, advanced again, curtseyed again, then beamed at him, again, as if he were an infant in the nursery, and spoke, “Lord Michael, since today is your seventeenth birthday, we thought it only fair…” She stopped and sniffled, as though she were fighting strong emotion, though Michael had no idea what that could possibly be. “That is, last summer, milord, we thought you lost, and we wish you to believe we all hold you in the greatest affection, and therefore…” She blushed, which gave Michael all he could not to let his jaw drop in astonishment. Mrs. Hooper had never seemed fully human, much less capable of embarrassment. “Therefore we got you this gift, from everyone on the estate, to commemorate your seventeenth birthday milord.”
She dropped a parcel wrapped in silver paper, and neatly tied with a silk ribbon upon the table, just north of the letter from the dead man, then beat a hasty retreat.
Michael’s turn to blush, and to fumble with the paper. And then he had the devil’s own time concealing the expression of astonishment on his face, and overlaying it with gratification. “Oh, thank you,” he said, staring at the tiny gold box with the miniature scene of Zeus in judgment worked painted upon the porcelain lid. A snuff box? Why in heaven’s name did they think he’d take snuff? Even Seraphim didn’t.
But he also understood, immediately, how expensive such a thing was, and how much of a sacrifice it had been to the servants to contribute to it. That colored his voice and his expression, as he stood and said, “I am not good at flowery speeches, but—” He lifted the box and looked it over, “I am most gratified at your kind thought. Thank you. I thank you most heartily.”
The four of them curtseyed of bowed according to their different sexes, looking gratified, and left.
Which is when Michael opened the letter from the dead man.
Escaping The Tower
The problem with a wicked stepmother, Miss Albinia Blackley thought, as she stood in front of the mirror, wearing Geoffrey’s clothes, and tucking her abundance of blond hair into a hat rakishly set on her blond curls was when the wicked stepmother was in fact your real mama.
It was all very well, after all, for Miss Albinia’s brothers – who always called her Al – because Mama was just the woman who had married papa when Geoffrey, the youngest, was seven, and was in fact no blood relation to them. So they had nothing to be either sorry or worried for. It wasn’t their mama who mistreated them so.
Oh, it had been terrible for them, from what they’d said, to find that their kind and absent minded father had married a forbidding and interfering woman who was a powerful witch to boot.
But at least all of them, even Geoffrey, remembered papa. Albinia didn’t. She didn’t remember anyone but Mama, the sole authority and arbiter in her sixteen years of life. Albinia locked the door to her room as she thought this, and sighed, because now she was on limited time.
Mama didn’t like her to lock her door, ever, and there was no point at all imagining that mama didn’t spell that lock, so that she knew the moment Al locked it. Mama spelled everything and kept track of everything Al did, which is what made this so devilishly difficult.
But spell or not, Albinia must lock the door, to at least delay mama and give her a chance to escape.
Because the thing was, Mama or no Mama, Al must leave and go find the boys.
She didn’t know if the boys had felt this way when papa left shortly after marrying mama. She didn’t know because they never spoke to her of that time, before Al was born.
What she knew was that papa had disappeared shortly after marrying Mama, and had never returned and was presumed dead.
And now the boys had disappeared. Al didn’t know where, but she knew two things. One, that mama had made them leave against their will. And two that wherever they were they needed Al. And at any rate, Al needed them. Even if Mama was her real mama, Al was not going to stick around and have the full benefit of mama’s attention for the duration. Whatever the duration was.
She scrunched under the bed to find the old sheets she had torn and tied together. They had to be old and discarded, because that was the only way to make sure they were no longer bespelled. It had taken her six months to find some and to braid them into a passable rope, in the few minutes a day mama left her alone.
Tying the sheet to the foot of the bed and throwing it out the window was the work of a moment. Al’s mind ticked where mama would be now.
Even if she were close by, say in her room, as she would be at this time, she had to come up the North staircase, down the hallway and up to the door. Right now, she would be on the top step.
Al got the magical kit, likewise assembled painstakingly over a year, of discarded bits and ends, so that she could be sure no one had bespelled or could track any part of it. The hard part of it had been buying the herbs, because she’d had to spend her allowance on them, in a shop at the other end of Wulffen Downs, so that mama wouldn’t hear about her purchases. And she’d had to wrap them so they looked like candy.
It had earned her a sermon from mama about spending her money on tooth-rotting sweets. But she had got the herbs necessary for enchantments. She tied the pouch to a cord under her jacket, and then slipped the few silver coins left of her allowance into her sleeve.
She could now hear Mama’s step in the hallway outside. Mama was clearing her throat, preparing to call her name.
Albinia pushed the window fully open, knelt on the parapet, and held on to the rope with both hands. She had remembered to put knots on the rope, and she set her feet on the first one, carefully, otherwise it would be like when she tried coming down from the cliff when she’d been bird watching with Edmund, and had got her hands burned, with the speed of sliding down the rope.
She clambered down the rope as, from above, came the sound of knocks and mama calling “Open up. Open up immediately young lady.”
She felt the little puff of magic as mama opened the door with a spell, and she moved faster down the rope, because she had to be on the ground, and running by the time mama got to the window. She had to go to her brothers. Geoffrey needed someone to help him make himself understood when he started stuttering and Edmund was likely to lose everything, including his paints, and Aaron, Jeremy and Joshua would argue about everything, and William was likely to disappear into his music, and Samuel would just go all extremely disappointed…
Albinia looked down to see how far the ground was. She had measured the tower where her room was situated. She’d calculated the height to the window five different ways.
But as her stomach sank to her feet, she realized none of that mattered now. Because she was not suspended from her own home’s window, but from a window open on a façade of glass. In fact, it looked like she was hanging from a giant glass cube. Except that as she looked forward, she could see these were windows and that oddly dressed people were pointing at her and a woman was covering her mouth, but looked like she was screaming something.
Gone was the tower of the manor house on the cliff, overlooking the ocean and the familiar marshes. Mama. Mama and mama’s magic!
She could feel as though an abrasion upon her magic, as if something, in this strange place were trying to get through her shields.
Beneath her, there were flashes of moving things that she couldn’t understand and the sound of klaxons superimposed on a low roar as of a million voices.
She had no idea where she was, dangling here, between Earth and sky, on her fragile ladder of sheets.
All she knew was that the ladder ended far short of the ground. More than the height of Al’s tower.
Far above, Mama leaned out the open window, and Mama’s voice called, “Albinia Blackley, you little idiot. Hang on. I shall pull you in.”
And Al let go of the ladder.
She let go before she could think. She let go, knowing only she couldn’t stand to go back in and explain herself to Mama. She let go knowing that she must get to her brothers, somehow, but not knowing how, except that she must get away from Mama and Mama’s magic, first.
She tumbled downwards, head over heels, wondering how it felt to hit the ground so far behind.
Would it hurt? Would she even feel it? She hoped she didn’t land on some innocent and kill them, even as air escaped her lungs.
Rescuing the Dead
Michael frowned at the letter. It was undoubtedly addressed to him, by a man who couldn’t possibly have known of his existence, unless he had read the announcement of Michael’s birth in some society newspaper.
Swallowing tea and toast as fast as he could, Michael put the snuff box in his pocket and retreated to his workshop.
Properly speaking, he had two workshops: one in the house proper, a room that had taken his father a substantial portion of the family fortune to build and the other far deep in the garden, where Michael assembled and tested those experiments that might explode or other otherwise cause damage to the family.
The workshop in the depths of the garden, he’d all but abandoned. Even if a changeling had been left in the inside workshop, it was from the outside workshop he’d been abducted with a cunning spell from the now fortunately dead king of fairyland. And though Michael was quite sure the present king of fairyland, his brother Gabriel, had no intention of kidnapping him, yet he felt alone and vulnerable in that building. It had been violated once, and could be violated again.
The inner workshop would be harder to breach. For one, when it had been claimed from its previous use as a ballroom, it had been lined in leather between two layers of copper, the whole bespelled, forming an impassable barrier to both organic-affecting and inorganic-affecting spells.
In the ballroom, a sort of platform had been built, and up on it, Michael had his sky-observing apparatus, which observations came in handy when calculating what form of spell to use.
The rest of the workshop was machines of Michael’s own invention, many of which now seemed impractical and childish to him. Take for instance his careful replica of the planet Earth, in brass, rotating in proportional time around a miniature sun. It had been fun to build, but what practical use was it?
Since Seraphim had visited the strange planet without magic where the Princess Royal had been raised, and brought back ideas for useful machines, like shavers and mixers and clothes and dish washers, Michael had been working hard on magical replicas for such wonders.
The clothes washer was a success, except that the housekeeper had banned its use saying it was an abomination and would run laundresses off their jobs by the score. However, Seraphim had arranged to have it tested in the royal palace and it was well on the way to becoming accepted in other, less hidebound households than the Darkwaters’. Seraphim said it would make Michael a fortune.
The automated barber, though… Michael frowned at his creation standing by the workbench near the far wall of the room. It was not a little portable thing, as Seraphim had described, because Michael had believed by making it large and capable of giving haircuts as well as shaves, it would be more popular. Particularly if it could also dress the hair of young ladies.
But all the thing had done, in actual fact, was chase Michael through the house, trying to cut… not his hair. The bits of his jacket it had got had been enough. Michael was not sure what had gone wrong with the animating spell, because when a cylindrical, man-high thing is wheeling after you brandishing knives, razors and scissors in its many arms, the only possible thing to do was to run as fast as possible.
Which he’d done, until Dyer had shot the mechanical barber through the head with a fowling piece. Michael stared at the creature with multiple holes through the space where its directing magic had been. Well, never mind that. This was not a good time to attempt to reproduce that… experiment.
Michael perched on a high stool and tore into the letter, breaking the seal which showed – he’d swear to it – a lamb eating a wolf.
The letter started formally enough, “Dear Lord Michael Ainsling, You’ll forgive my addressing this letter to you, though we’ve never been formally introduced, or, indeed, introduced at all.”
And it proceeded strangely, “You might have heard of me, and have some idea that I am dead, but do not let that concern you, as rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
Michael chewed the corner of his lip, perceiving that the person who’d written this letter, in strong angular letters, was what Mama would have called an original. And by original she normally meant that they needed help finding their way across a street, and were none too certain where they might have placed their head that day. She had been known to describe Michael himself in such a way.
“I suppose it will be a matter of some concern to you how you come to be receiving a letter from me, whether you think me dead or alive, and also possibly some curiosity as to what you can do to help me, or hinder me, or indeed do anything in my case.
“I’ll tell you the truth. I do not know. I have cast and recast these runes, and all I can tell is that there is only one person in the world capable of understanding my work – and you must understand what keeps me prisoner here is my own work – and disabling it, so I might perhaps be set free.
“I have never had the pleasure of meeting you and the last thing I’d expect would be the Ainslings to throw any kind of magical genius in the normal way. I mean, you’ll pardon me for saying so, but your father was one of the accredited adventurers of my time, in more ways than one, meaning he was rather more adept at using other men’s magic all too often in order to use their wives likewise. And while your Mama was one of the beauties of her day, and indeed a diamond of the first water, I never found that she had an inquisitive and mathematical turn of mind. But then, of course, sometimes every breed throws a sport, and my runes assure me that you are that. A magical genius, I mean, not a sport, though I suppose that also.”
By this time Michael’s head was whirling and he felt he should have had rather more than one cup of tea to fortify himself to deal with this very strange missive. Brandy for a choice, except that none of the servants would let him have it, or at least not without telling Seraphim.
“However, before I can request that you rescue me, though I do, of course, request that, I must ask you to find my sons. You see, the woman I married, in what I’m sure now seems to me like a fit of madness, has applied some sort of spell to them, so I can no longer track them nor communicate with them.
“I’m afraid she means to do away with them and use the lands of my ancestors to form a dowry for her whelp. And while I have nothing against the mite, who was not born by the time I got confined to this place, and whom my sons inform me is a pretty good sort, in the way young females sometimes are, and not at all like her mother, I do not with for my legacy to pass wholly into her hands and those of whichever rogue Albinia chooses to marry her to.
“I presume you have a row boat of some sort on your property, as I vaguely remember there was a lake there, in which much boating was done in the summer. I remember the lady your mother looking very fine in a lace dress upon a boat, in fact. At any rate, if you apply the formula I enclose onto a rowboat, it should bring you where you need be to start unravelling this knot.
“Since the full extent of the knot laid by the one I must call my lady wife is not known or understood by me, I must trust in the formula and in the kindness of a total stranger to do what must be done. And my scrying assures me you’re the only stranger who can do so.
“In full hope, if not trust, of your doing what is needful, I subscribe myself your most grateful and devoted servant, Tristram Blackley.”
Having laid the letter down on his workbench, Michael stared at it, fully wondering whether the person who’d written was the – presumed dead – author of magical carpet travel on a grand scale, or simply a madman possessed of illusions of being such a parsonage.
It was not till he turned the page and looked through the formula, written in a hand that gave the impression of impatience with writing, that Michael blinked, whistled under his breath, and realized that this was indeed the work of Tristram Blackley.
No one else, barring an equal genius, could have come up with such a strange mix of magical formulae, turning a simple rowboat into a vehicle of both magical transport AND divination.
And Michael knew, as he knew his own name, that he would have to try it out. It was like climbing the tallest tree or exploring the dangerous path of the woods. He’d like to believe he was doing it for the sake of the unknown Mr. Blackley who seemed to be in a terrible position, but in his heart of hearts, he knew he was doing it for the thrill of it and to prove that he could.
Enough of nights hemmed in with nightmares of fairyland, and of moping the otherwise deserted estate. Michael wanted to be doing.