*For the previous chapters, please go here. These are posted first draft, as the brain dictates to the fingers which are remarkably stupid. Eventually it will be cleaned up and fixed just before page is made secret/taken down and the book is published. At that time I will take lists of typos or volunteers to proof read. For now, it’s written in a hurry, usually an hour before it goes up. And, let me remind you, it’s free – SAH*
Albinia was not stupid, or at least no more stupid than anyone else. At least from reading novels and listening to Mama’s stories of Mama’s own youth, Al thought she might be rather cleverer than the common run of people.
But right now all her belief in her excellent intellect amounted to nothing. What a ridiculous situation to be in.
She recognized what the monster was, of course — any half trained witch would do so, and she was a little more than half trained — he was a Gather. Gathers were creatures created entirely by a spell, and formed of the nearest, most abundant material. She should possibly be happy that the creature had been made of the pervasive coal smoke that permeated the city and not, say, from the equally pervasive stone used to make the buildings. Or perhaps from people, she thought, as that too was abundant in London. She shivered. She was not absolutely sure if Gathers would collect people, should they be directed, say, to the middle of a crowd. She was sure, however, no people would survive such an experience.
Her arms aching, getting increasingly cold this high, where the wind blew with an extraordinary chill, she returned to her impossible predicament. The problem with this is that, while she knew very well how to form a Gather, and therefore was absolutely capable of un-forming it, to dissolve this one meant to fall head first into London. And die. There was no way in that short space she would have time to say a spell to break her fall. But her arms hurt, where she held on to Lord Michael, and she was cold, and she was sure wherever the Gather was taking them it could be no good place.
Just as she thought that, she heard Lord Michael shouting, “Miss Blackley!” As he spoke, he reached out his arms, and held her in turn. “You should not have held on to me. My family would have given you hospitality. There is–”
It occurred to Albinia, and what a time to think of it, that not only had she been very forward and rude in holding on to a man she barely knew but that he might very well think she was trying to trick him into marriage. She had some idea that mama and her friends had tried such tricks when young, and even though she didn’t know much of society, she knew they were wrong.
“I couldn’t let you be taken alone. The creature is probably evil. And you’d saved me before,” she shouted back. Her voice was not very loud, and he looked back at her, and she could see he was trying to make an attempt to understand. Just as she thought this, she saw his lip twitch in amusement and didn’t know why.
“I thank you,” he said, his voice very formal. But she could tell he was upset.
Michael had never understood why people fell in love. It seemed an extraordinary thing to happen, that suddenly upended all your thinking and all your plans for the future. A very uncomfortable thing, too, since he couldn’t imagine marriage would be very comfortable, forever having to consider another person in your plans. Bad enough that one had siblings whom one had to consider and plan for.
And of course he was not falling in love with Al– Miss Blackley. For one, he barely knew her. And for another, he wasn’t quite sure what falling in love was like. When Caroline had come back from her adventures in fairyland, it had all been about how Akakios gave her flutters in her stomach and made her mouth dry. Michael had thought that it might be successfully treated with a purgative and some bleeding, but when he’d told Caroline that, she’d punched him.
However, now, being carried by a smoke Gather over the city of London — and what a spectacle it must be. He could almost hear the shouts from the people below — he realized that while he still did not have any intention to fall in love, he could almost understand why people did.
Not only was Al quite beautiful — well, maybe not conventionally beautiful, but he found her very pleasing to the eye — but also she was the bravest girl he’d met since his sister Caroline. Ridiculous, of course. What did she think she could do to save him from someone who had sent this large a Gather was quite beyond him. And she must know, from the spelled boat, that he was quite a competent magician himself.
But of course she had not thought of that. She had simply charged in to protect him. Which was beyond stupid very endearing. He held on tighter to her, her warmth welcome, and did a minor spell so he could speak without having to shout, and be heard too. “I have no idea where it is taking us.”
“Nor I,” Al said. “Though I can’t believe something that broke into your brother’s house can have good intentions towards us.”
“No,” Michael agreed. “And it is quite stupid too. Because he must know that the moment he stepped away, my brother would be called there would be quite–”
At that moment he stopped. Not because he wanted to, but because everything must stop in the In Betweener.
He did not even know you could take any Gather through the In Between, and he held his breath — not that it made any difference, since you couldn’t breathe in the sheer nothing of the place, and hoped that the creature, such as it as, had enough purpose to be able to drag them through and to wherever it had come from.
This of course resolved the problem of how the smoke Gather had dared to break into the house of the prince consort, let alone how he intended to get away with it.
You could track people through the In Between. Unless where they landed was time dislocated or indeed a parallel universe, he would be found. Sooner, rather than later.
But the finding would take time. And Michael had learned, long ago, that there was only one reason for someone to take him and delay pursuit, but know they could not evade it. That reason was undoubtedly murder.
Oh, sure, there were times when kidnappers wanted money, but the son of a duke and brother of the future prince consort, from a family with extraordinarily high magic would be too high a prey for that. If all they wanted was money there must be far less dangerous people they could kidnap. And with more to give.
And also kidnappers would need to be reasonably sure they could extract money before the victim was found. No such thing here.
So the only reason they could have for kidnapping Michael in this fashion was because they wished to kill him, and perhaps disappear into the multi-verse before they could be traced.
The idea was obscene, and he felt his stomach clench in a ball of ice as he realized he’d brought Albinia, an innocent, into this perilous situation.
Just as he thought that they came out of the In Betweener, and the Gather was now taking very large strides in fog over the tops of a seemingly endless green forest. In the far distance, he could see a stone tower, but in the fog he couldn’t even tell if it was a functional tower or just ruins.
Why would anyone want to kill him? People might have vendettas against his brothers, both very important people, or even against his father, though his father was vanished and officially dead. But why kill him?
The Gather was moving lower.
“Do you think we could survive the fall?” Al asked, showing she was in the same point in her thought.
He shook his head. And then why they might want to kill him came to mind with a startling clarity.
He had never paid much attention to Seraphim’s job as the Royal Witchfinder. The position entiled going to other worlds and rescuing people from where magic might be forbiden. But Seraphim said onne had to be careful. Loathing magic per se was not a bad thing, if most people in the world were without magic. Because magic practicioners, given their immense advantage, could do very bad things indeed. One of which was gather power through virgin sacrifice. And those sacrifices seemed to work better with a person of high birth.
The Gather was now at a point they could jump and perhaps even survive the experience. Feeling cold all through, with a cold that had nothing to do with what appeared to be a pleasant, cool morning in this universe, he frantically assembled the spell that would drop the Gather. As he clamped it on the creature, he had a feeling it would fail, which meant the magic making it was immense.
“Hold,” Al said, before he could pull the final twist that would cause the Gather to– well probably not to do much, given his insufficient power. “I will help.”
On top of his she threw her magic, which he was surprised to find was quite powerful.
And then she pulled the piece holding the creature together.
It sounded exactly like a balloon out of which air had been let: a long prolongued whine of air excaping. And then it came apart, suddenly, in a noxious smell of coal smoke.
And they were falling.
Michael fell to the branches of a tree, managing to shift position just enough to land solidly on his behind. It rattled his brains, nonetheless, which must explain why the first thing he did, as soon as his head cleared was to look around and yell “Al, where are you?”