Friday, September 04, 2009


Free Fiction: End of the Century sample chapters

Excerpt from End of the Century

Chapter One


498 Anno Domini

IT WAS LATE MORNING when Galaad first caught sight of the city, looming in the east. The trip from Glevum should have taken six days, but with the winter’s cold, it had taken him nearer ten. Ten days of icy bridges over sluggish streams, the ground hard and cold beneath his thin woolen blanket at night even when he went to the trouble of clearing away the snow, freezing rain sometimes falling from the unforgiving gray skies, and harsh winds blowing when it didn’t. Had he ridden, he’d have made the journey in a fraction of the time, but he’d not been on a horse since the accident, and couldn’t conscience doing so now. Many of the hobnails from the soles of his caligae marching boots were missing, knocked loose and left along the roadside as signs of his passing, and those areas of his feet’s skin not already thickened with calluses were now blistered, bloody, and tender. His left knee was swollen and sore from a fall two days before on an icy patch of road, but while the joint did not have a complete range of motion, it could support his full weight, though lances of pain shot up and down his leg when he did, so that he was able to continue, albeit with a pronounced limp. The bundle on his back was lighter, if nothing else, now that he’d eaten nearly all the supplies of food he’d brought with him from his home in Powys, though of course that meant that had he not reached his destination soon he’d have begun slowly to starve. But it was a point not worth dwelling upon, so Galaad pushed it from his thoughts.

Galaad had never before been this far from home. He’d been born in the municipality of Glevum in the kingdom of Powys, twenty-one years before, and had seldom strayed far from the banks of the river Sabrina. The western kingdoms had been largely spared the ravages of the Saeson invasion of Britannia, so that throughout most of his childhood, Galaad had known peace. By the time he was a full adult with a child of his own, the rest of the island knew peace as well, and had one man to thank for it. But the more Galaad’s steps had brought him east, the more he saw upon the land the scars of the Saeson occupation.

In much of the west, the old order of the Romans had remained. The towns still survived, though their populations had diminished, tenants paid landlords, community farmlands were tended. But as Galaad had walked through regions where the war with the Saeson had been close at hand, it was clear that the public authority had collapsed. Towns stood abandoned, farms gone to seed and houses left to the elements. The remaining Roman nobility had fled across the channel to Gaul, ahead of the advancing Saeson hordes, while the peasantry had retreated to the rural areas of the west, watched over by former town magistrates who now styled themselves as landholders and kings.

But one man was bringing order back to the island, restoring authority and the rule of law. This was the same man who had driven the Saeson back to their huddled enclaves in the south and east, and established his court in the former Roman capital that lay between to hold the two groups of Saeson apart and to act as a bulwark against them for the rest of the island.

If any would know the meaning of Galaad’s strange visions, the young man was convinced, it would be he. Perhaps then the phantom that haunted him could be laid to rest.

Limping, his feet blistered and bloody, his legs and back aching, Galaad approached the high city walls with a prayer in his heart. At the end of a long journey, he had finally reached Caer Llundain, home of the Count of Britannia and victor of Badon, the High King Artor.

Galaad, for his sins, did not know that his journey was only beginning.


Galaad’s paternal grandfather had been to Caer Llundain, then still called Londinium, before the Saeson revolt and the migrations of the nobility to Gaul, when the city was still crowded with Roman citizens from all over the empire. Ships had sailed up and down the river Tamesa, bringing trade and traders from Gaul, Hibernia, and the Middle Sea, importing wine and textiles, exporting tin and silver. The capital’s streets bustled not simply with Romans and Britons, but were painted in the many hues of the Roman empire—Germanics, Arabians, Syrians, Parthians, Africans, and more. Even with the formal secession of Britannia from the empire more than a generation before, when the emperor Honorius had instructed the nation to look after its own defense, some relations with Rome had been maintained, church envoys sent to the island on rare occasion to root out the Pelagian and Arian heresies, reports of the Vandals’ sack of Rome carried back by traders. Londinium’s brightest hours might have been behind it, its future uncertain, but in those days the city still thrived.

But that had been in the time of the grandfathers. Galaad had grown up hearing stories about the capital in the east, and had dreamt of seeing it at the height of its powers, but that day was long past, the sun that had risen over Londinium long since set. The city was now known as Caer Llundain, no longer a Roman city, but a Britonnic one. And the empire to which it had once been the furthest outpost was also no more, the last emperor Romulus Augustus deposed by the Goths the year before Galaad was born. By the time he had taken his first breath, the empire was only a memory.

Galaad was not sure what lay beyond the city walls that loomed before him, but he knew it would not be the cosmopolitan metropolis of his grandfather’s stories. For a young man from a relatively small municipality like Glevum, though, the sheer scale of Caer Llundain was still intimidating. The wall before him stood some eighteen feet high and ran right around the city, constructed of gray ragstone hauled miles inland from Cantium. The bridge he had to cross just to reach the western gatehouse spanned a ditch some six feet deep and nine feet wide. And if the wall itself was not imposing enough, then the foreboding bastions placed at intervals along the wall were sure to do the job. The bastions themselves, finally, looked like a child’s playthings next to the gatehouse. Almost one hundred feet wide, side to side, the western gate was flanked on either side by square towers of gray stone, their red-tiled roofs towering far overhead, two or three times the height of the wall itself.

Londinium had never fallen to the Saeson, in all the long decades of the war, and looking at the city wall now, Galaad was sure that he understood why.

Two arches opened through the thick city walls, one for traffic leading into the city, one for traffic leading out, and a gatekeeper stood in each, leaning on long-bladed javelins, ridged helmets upon their heads. As the sun climbed to its zenith and the hour neared midday, Galaad stepped off the footbridge and onto the threshold of the gatehouse.

“Who approaches?” The gatekeeper’s tone was bored, almost sleepy, his words slurred and near inaudible. It took Galaad a moment to parse the strangely accented Britonnic speech, and then he hastened to answer.

“Galaad.” He paused, not sure what other information was needed. “From Glevum,” he went on in Britonnic. “That’s in Powys, in the west.”

The two gatekeepers exchanged a look, and one rolled his eyes while the other returned his attention to Galaad. “And what’s your business here, Galaad of Powys?”

“I come to see the High King Artor, Count of Britannia,” Galaad said, in a rush. “You see, I am plagued with visions, and I’m sure that if I were able to relate them to the high king, then he might be able to . . .”

The gatekeeper who had spoken raised his hand, motioning Galaad to silence. “Do you bring craftwork to trade?” He spoke as if by rote, without emotion or passion.

Galaad considered this for a moment, and shook his head.

“Do you bear arms?”

Galaad began to shake his head, then thought better of it. He raised a finger, begging patience, and slung his bundle from his back. Slipping loose the knotted thong that held the bundle together, he pulled out a blade sheathed in cracked and greasy hide. “I have a sword,” he said, proffering it.

The other gatekeepeer stepped forward, and holding his javelin in one hand took Galaad’s sword in his other. Then, his javelin resting against the crook of his elbow, he tried to pull the blade from the scabbard, but only with repeated attempts and considerable effort would the blade come free. It was an ancient leaf-blade sword, the dulled blade black with rust, the leather wrapping of the hilt pulled and cracked with age.

“It belonged to my grandfather’s grandfather,” Galaad explained, helpfully.

“You must be so proud,” the gatekeeper said, his tone affectless, and ramming the blade back into the scabbard, he returned it to Galaad, then nodded over his shoulder at his companion.

“Um, yes,” Galaad agreed, somewhat confused. He tucked the sword back into his bundle and began retying the thongs.

“You are free to enter the city,” the first gatekeeper said, returning to his script. “Know that the law of the High King is supreme here, as it is everywhere his rule extends, and that any infractions against his authority will be severely handled.”

Galaad stood, slinging the bundle back on his back. “I understand,” he said quickly.

The gatekeeper stepped aside, with a quick glance to his fellow, and then fixed Galaad with an amused stare. “In that case, welcome to Caer Llundain, man of Powys. And good fortune to you.”

Galaad smiled and nodded.

“You’re going to need it,” the other gatekeeper added with a rough laugh, his voice low.

Galaad’s smile froze on his face, but instead of answering he scurried ahead, entering the momentary darkness of the tunnel through the nine-footthick wall. A handful of limping steps later, he walked back out into the cold winter light, and found himself in the city of Caer Llundain, home of King Artor.

Chapter Two


1897 AD

THE LIGHT OF THE LATE MORNING SUN streamed through the open shutters of the sitting room, dust motes dancing in the beam, while the bones of the breakfast meal idled on the table. The lilting tones of a flute echoed from the paneled walls, an improvised air on the tune of one of Child’s border ballads of Scotland, played by the man who leaned against the mantle, his eyes closed and his expression serene. The woman at the table, intent on the morning’s penny papers, tapped her foot in time, unconscious of the action. It was early June, and outside the temperature already climbed, the Marylebone streets bustling with the morning’s trade and traffic, but within the walls of Number 31, York Place, it was still relatively calm and cool. For the moment, at any rate. There were some, even in this enlightened modern age, who might have considered it untoward that a man and a woman should pass the time together unchaperoned, which unmarried couples could not do without inviting comment, and which married couples seldom did at all. But this particular man and this singular woman rarely bothered themselves with what others might say about them, individually or collectively, and hardly gave the matter a moment’s consideration. “Blank?” the woman said, looking up from her papers and interrupting the impromptu recital. “Yes, Miss Bonaventure?” The man called Sandford Blank lowered the flute from his lips, opening his eyes, and regarded his companion with a slight smile.

“Something catch your interest in this morning’s scandal sheets?” “Not scandal,” Roxanne Bonaventure answered, crossing her legs and turning in her chair to face Blank, folding a section of newspaper and laying

it across her knee. “Or not precisely, rather. A bit of business that, were it to happen closer to home, I suspect you’d find of some interest.” Blank motioned with his flute. “Read on, Miss Bonaventure, read on.” Miss Bonaventure nodded and, smoothing the pulp paper against her knee, began to read aloud.


CALCUTTA. It is reported from Hyderabad that the historical “Imperial” sold by Mr. Alexander Jacob, the dealer in jewels, to the Nizam has been stolen from the government Treasury of his Highness and replaced by a paste imitation. This has caused a great sensation. It is further reported that the Nizam intended to present the diamond to the Queen on the occasion of the Jubilee. The diamond in question formed the subject of a prolonged suit in India. Mr. Jacob, the original of the Mr. Isaacs of Mr. Marlon Crawford’s novel, was charged in the High Court at Calcutta by the Nizam of Hyderabad with having criminally misappropriated the due of 25 lakhs, which had been deposited at a bank at Calcutta as earnest-money for the purchase of the diamond. The Nizam had in the first instance agreed to buy the stone, a gem of remarkable size and brilliance, for the sum of 46 lakhs of rupees, or nearly, and the sum of 25 lakhs was paid as security, pending the completion of the purchase, to Mr. Jacob, who was acting merely as a broker in the transaction. Eventually, owing to the intervention of the British resident, who objected to such lavish expenditures for an article of pure luxury, the Nizam declined to carry out the bargain, and, on Mr. Jacob making difficulties as to the return of the earnest, commenced a criminal suit, which terminated in the acquittal of the defendant.

“Stop there a moment, Miss Bonaventure, if you wouldn’t mind.” Blank crossed to the shelves lining the far wall, and climbing up on the rolling ladder, pulled down the most recent Whitakers Almanac. He consulted it for a brief moment, and then slapped the book shut with a satisfied air.

“Just as I suspected.” Blank returned the book to its place on the shelf. “Miss Bonaventure, would you be so good as to wire the authorities in Hyderabad, at your earliest convenience, and ask them to take Mr. Jacob into custody? When they have done, they should check him for distinguishing marks, and when they discover the tattoo of a crown of thorns surrounding the initials ‘J.A.,’ they should send word to New Scotland Yard, whom I suspect will be very interested to hear the news.”

Miss Bonaventure moved the paper to the table and crossed her arms over her chest, regarding Blank with a sly smile. “You’ve solved the case, I take it?”

Blank nodded, absently, busying himself with polishing his flute with a cloth.

“Just from listening to me reading a brief summary of the details in the morning’s news?”

Blank gave her a look, quirking a smile, but didn’t speak.

“And this man with the tattoo?” Miss Bonaventure went on. “He’s the one who has stolen the diamond, then?”

“No,” Blank said with a shake of his head, “but he’s the guilty party, all the same.” Returning his flute to its case, he crossed the floor and sat at the table across from Miss Bonaventure. He contemplating finishing his morning tea, but it had gone cold while he’d been playing, and he hadn’t the will to continue with it. Glancing up, he took in Miss Bonaventure’s perplexed expression, and explained. “It’s quite simple, really. As you may not be aware, I have visited the government treasury of Hyderabad and was actually brought in to consult on the implementation of its security by the Nizam himself. And I can assure you that, under normal circumstances, the edifice is virtually impregnable. Knowing that there was the matter of twenty-five lakhs of rupees in the balance, and the Nizam’s rupees at that, it is scarcely credible that the Nizam would not have ordered security heightened. The result being that a stronghold merely virtually impregnable would thereafter be completely impregnable, for all intents and purposes. There are, then, only two alternatives. One, that party or parties unknown succeeded in snatching a near-priceless gem from beneath the nose of the Nizam himself, substituting in its place a worthless paste imitation, or . . .”

Blank paused, looking to Miss Bonaventure to finish.

She smiled, nodding. “Or they didn’t.”

“Precisely,” Blank answered casually, folding his hands in his lap. “There never was a Hyderabad Diamond. It was paste all along. And this Alexander Jacob, no doubt, had hoped to complete the transaction before the dubious quality of the gem was discovered.”

Miss Bonaventure looked unconvinced. “Surely the Nizam had it appraised before making the offer?”

“Remember,” Blank answered, pointing at finger at the newspaper article, “Jacob here claims to be acting merely as broker. Doubtless he would also have been in a position to secure the services of a suitable appraiser, or to influence the Nizam’s choice of such, at the very least.”

Miss Bonaventure arched an eyebrow. “Why did you consult the Whitaker's?”

“Oh,” Blank answered, with an absent wave. “To confirm a suspicion. The name ‘Alexander Jacob’ is a commonly employed alias of a rouge and scoundrel named Jack Alasdair, with whom I have had some previous dealings. The man committed murder, but last year fled before he was apprehended, and remains at large. There was an Alexander Jacob, a dealer in gems, but as the obituary pages of Whitaker's confirm, he passed away in Portsmouth the year before. Jack Alasdair was no doubt surprised to see the obituary notice for one of his well-worn noms de guerre, and found it to his advantage to assume the dead man’s identity abroad.”

“Well,” Miss Bonaventure said, with a sly smile, “perhaps you’ll have another accolade and honor to add to your collection.”

“Ppth,” Blank sputtered, waving his hand dismissively. His feelings about such things were well known. Such piffle was more trouble than it was worth, by half, trinkets to clutter his already full lodgings. Blank’s actions in Cyprus the previous year had earned him the recognition of the Sublime Porte and Number 10 Downing Street alike, but while the Turkish Sultan had presented him with the Atiq Nishan-i-Iftikhar, or Order of Glory, from Salisbury he’d received only a hearty handshake. The medal had already tarnished, and the green-trimmed red ribbon was grayed with dust, sitting on a high shelf. With Salisbury, Blank had merely to wash his hands, figuratively and literally, to be done with the whole affair.

There came a knock at the door. Blank lingered at the table for a long moment, before remembering that, with his valet Quong Ti temporarily called back to China on pressing family business, Blank was himself left without a manservant.

“Would you like me to answer that?” Miss Bonaventure asked with a faint smile.

Blank sighed. “No, I suppose I better had.” Wearily he rose from the table, and crossed to the door.

From the sitting room, Blank walked into a narrow corridor and from there into the entry. Overhead hung a gilt Venetian lantern, in which burned three blue-flamed gas jets. His hat rested on an occasional table next to a vase of orchids, his silver-topped cane propped up against the wall beside it. To his right, through the high doorway, was the library, and beyond that Blank’s own bedroom. How he longed to return to that octagonal chamber and to sleep; but he’d slept fitfully, if at all, these last nights.

Blank mused that it could be a sign, presaging some dirty business in the offing, this insipient insomnia. It had been some little while since he’d been called upon to do Omega’s bidding, and it was only a matter of time before he would be again. He had never slept well in the days leading up to a summoning, and seldom did for a long period after.

Unlocking the door, Blank found a uniformed officer of the Metropolitan Police waiting on the threshold. After ascertaining Blank’s identity, the constable related that he had instructions to escort Blank to Tower Bridge, but was either unable or unwilling to share any further particulars about the matter.

Blank pulled a silver hunter from his vest pocket, consulted the time, and shrugged. “I have no pressing business until midafternoon,” he said to the constable, casually, and then glanced back over his shoulder, to see Miss Bonaventure lingering in the corridor. “Well, Miss Bonaventure, best get your coat and hat. It seems we are needed.”

“Pooh,” Miss Bonaventure said, with a moue of disappointment. “And I’d hoped to finish reading the papers.”

Chapter Three


2000 CE

THE GUY BEHIND THE COUNTER wouldn’t stop giving Alice the stink-eye.


“Alice Fell.” Like it wasn’t on her passport, right there in his grubby mitts.

“And how old are you, miss?”

“Eighteen.” Again, like it wasn’t there in black and white.

The guy pursed his lips and nodded, looking thoughtful. Alice got the impression he thought she was lying, but really, who would lie about being eighteen? Only a sixteen-year-old. If you were eighteen, and looked it, you’d lie about being twenty-one. At least you would in the States. But then again, the drinking age in England was eighteen, wasn’t it? So maybe he had a point.

“And is this your luggage, miss? All of it?”

As if he found it difficult to accept that she’d just gotten off a transatlantic flight with no luggage but a ratty little nylon backpack with an anarchy symbol drawn on it in ballpoint pen. She nodded, trying not to giggle. She’s just realized who his accent made him sound like, and found it funny to imagine Sporty Spice with a bristly mustache working the immigration and customs counter at Heathrow Airport.

“You’ve just arrived on Temple Air flight 214 from New York?”

Alice nodded.

“Anything to declare?”

Alice had to actively resist the temptation to say “Nothing but my genius,” like Orson Welles or whoever it was had done. Oscar Wilde, maybe? But then, she wasn’t really much of a genius, so maybe she’d have been better off saying “Nothing but my angst” or something equally self-aware and mopey. As it was, she managed to resist the impulse altogether, and just muttered “No” while she shook her head.

“May I look in your bag?” He said it like it was a question, but Alice knew that if she answered anything but “Yes,” she’d be turned right back around and put on a plane back to the States. So she played along, and nodded.

Here was what the guy pulled out of her backpack, which presently represented everything Alice owned in the world:

That, along with the clothes she had on—leather jacket, blue jeans, eight-hole Doc Martens, and black Ramones T-shirt—was all that Alice owned in the world. And her nose ring, she supposed, if someone wanted to get technical. And the ink in her three tattoos. And the platinum filling in her left rear molar.

“Reason for your visit to the United Kingdom, miss?”

Alice shifted her gaze away from the mustached Sporty Spice, trying to think of a convincing lie.


The truth was, she was on a mission from God. Or she was completely batshit crazy. There wasn’t much middle ground. But she was pretty sure that neither answer was likely what Sporty Spice wanted to hear, and that either answer would greatly diminish her chance of walking through the door and getting on with it.

Alice looked up from the counter, and with a smile, said, “Pleasure?”

Sporty Spice narrowed his eyes, pursing his lips again, making his bristly mustache stand out at all angles.

Alice was sure that the guy thought she was a drug mule or something like that. As if any drug mule worth their salt would show up to the airport with a nose ring and dyed-black hair, less luggage than most kids carried to a regular day at high school, stuffed into a backpack with the word “FUCK” scribbled in purple ink next to the carefully wrought anarchy symbol. Wouldn’t she be better off wearing a sign around her neck that said, “Please give me the full body cavity search, I’m carrying drugs,” and cut out the middle man?

An eternity later, the guy pulled out a little stamp, carefully laid Alice’s passport on the counter, and after stamping it a couple of times handed it back to her.

“Enjoy your visit, miss.”

Alice stuffed all of her junk into the backpack, slung it on her shoulder, and moved on before Sporty Spice had a chance to reconsider.

She breezed by all of the tourists and businessmen wrestling with their heavy luggage, or waiting around the carousels at baggage claim. She fished her sunglasses out, put them on, and stepped outside. It had been one hundred degrees outside and sunny when she left Austin the day before. Here, it was sixty degrees at most, about as cold as it got at night back home, this time of year, but just as sunny.

Alice pulled a cigarette from the half-empty pack and lit it with a match from the silver vesta case her grandmother had given her just months before. Months before, she’d been Alice Fell, the girl from that accident no one liked to talk about, finishing up her junior year at Westwood High School, watching her grandmother die by inches.

Now, she was all by herself in London, and she was on a mission.

That, or she was completely batshit crazy. The jury was still out . . .

Chapter Four


GALAAD WAS LOST ALMOST IMMEDIATELY. Within moments of passing through the gate in the city wall, he had no earthly notion where he was or where he was going. Embarrassment and frustration rose red in his cheeks, and he struggled to seem anything but completely out of place. It wasn’t as if Galaad was a rustic, after all. Both of his grandfathers had been born Roman citizens of Britannia. He’d studied civics, geography, and history, and his first language had been Latin. He was a devout follower of Christ, duly baptized, and while the Church in Rome might reject Galaad’s sect of Pelagianism as heresy, it made his belief no less sincere. And he’d spent his entire life within the city walls of Glevum, a former garrison town and home of the Twentieth Legion. So why was it that he felt a complete bumpkin on the streets of Caer Llundain? The streets thronged with men, women, and children from all over Britannia and beyond. Though Galaad knew that they must seem deserted compared with the time of his grandfather’s visit, much less the capital’s height of importance in the days of empire, to him it seemed a mad crush of people. Groups of ten, fifteen, twenty people clustered at intersections, haggling in makeshift markets over craft goods, livestock, textiles, wine, and grain, each word accompanied by a brief cloud of exhalation in the frigid air. Galaad was thankful for the cold, though, which served to dampen the stench of dung and urine from the cattle, sheep, horses, and dogs everywhere, some tethered or bound up in pens of wooden stakes and twine, others allowed to wander at will. Better that the animals’ leaving should crunch icily underfoot than assault the senses on the wind.

Galaad, who had rarely seen more than a handful of strangers at once, and precious few altogether, was unsure how to address himself to them. His ears were met with a riot of languages and accents, everything from the refined Latin of the noble class to the gutter Latin of the streets, from the Britonnic of Galaad’s countrymen to the clipped Gaelic tones of Hibernia. And though the weather was unwelcoming, there seemed a certain festive tang in the air, as though the city dwellers were anticipating some enjoyment to come. And one could hardly blame them. Midwinter was just days away, though whether any given citizen of Caer Llundain intended to celebrate the pagan solstice, the Roman festival of the unconquered sun, or the Christian observance of the birth of the Messias, it was impossible to say.

As he turned corners, one after another, quickly losing his way, Galaad slowly came to realize that for all its crowded intersections and rough market stalls, the city was far from full. Some of the buildings he passed were of Roman design, walls of fired brick roofed with interlocking red terra-cotta tegulae and imbrices, but where the tiles had slipped loose or broken, they had been left in disrepair, the gaps like missing teeth in a broken smile. And all of the Roman buildings were older structures, ancient when his grandfather had been a boy. All of the newer construction Galaad saw was of less ambitious design and of meaner materials, little more than wattle-and-daub structures with thatched roofs. Worse, many of both varieties, Roman and wattle, stood untenanted, empty and abandoned, the doors and windows like the eyes and mouth of bleached skulls through which the cold winds whistled.

Finally Galaad had no choice but to intrude on one of the conversations he passed, and beg for directions. He was desperate to find the home of the High King, to plead his case.

The pair of men he approached—a Gael with bright red hair and drooping mustache in plaid breeches and rough woolen tunic, a long sword hanging at his belt, and a Briton wearing a dull yellow cloak of thick wool bound at his shoulder with a bronze clasp—regarded him coolly when he inexpertly interrupted their exchange.

“Your pardon, friends,” Galaad began in Latin, “but I am a stranger in your city, seeking the home of the High King.”

The two men looked at each other, in evident confusion, and then back to him.

“I don’t . . .” the Briton began in Britonnic, ending with a halfhearted shrug, while the Gael just regarded him with barely disguised contempt.

Galaad nodded, and then repeated in Britonnic. “I am a stranger here, and seek the High King’s home.”

“Can’t help you there,” the Briton said, with another shrug. “I’m not from here, myself.”

“He’s holed up in the old procurator’s palace,” the Gael said impatiently, waving a hand off towards the south and east, then turned his attention back to the Briton. “Now look, I won’t be telling you again . . .”

“Um, your pardon again, friend,” Galaad interrupted, reluctantly. “But where might I find the procurator’s palace, in that case?”

The Gael sighed, dramatically. “On the east bank of the stream Gallus, near where it cuts under the wall and enters the Tamesa.” He paused and took in Galaad’s blank expression. “It’s a palace. It’s three stories high. You can’t miss it.”

The Gael turned back to the Briton, eager to conclude their business, but Galaad remained rooted to the spot, looking helplessly in the direction the Gael had indicated, his confusion evident.

“Um . . .” Galaad began, raising his hand.

The Gael sighed again, even louder, and shook his head. Without looking at Galaad, he said, “Let me guess. You’ve no earthly notion where to find the stream Gallus, have you?”

“Well, no,” Galaad answered, “but what I meant to ask was . . .”

“Can you find your arse with both hands?” the Gael said, glancing sidelong at Galaad. “Assuming that someone drew a map for you and started you off right?”

Galaad blinked, unsure how to respond, cheeks burning with embarrassment.

“So I can assume you’re not a complete imbecile, in that case?” the Gael continued.

“Come now, Lugh,” the Briton said, looking with pity at Galaad.

“No, you come now, you great wrinkled teat,” the Gael said to the Briton. “I’ll not be chastised by a thief for failing to coddle and cocker some hapless rustic.”

“Thief?!” the Briton sputtered, indignant.

“And why not?” The Gael sneered. “That price you quote is thievery, plain and simple.”

“Now look, I have a reputation to protect . . .”

“Ach!” The Gael waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “You can shove

your reputation in your bung-hole. I’m through with you.”

The Gael wheeled around and pointed a long finger at Galaad.

“You,” he ordered. “Come with me.”

With that, the Gael spun on his heel and stomped away, imperiously.

Galaad looked from the retreating Gael to the Briton, who stood eyes

wide and red faced, mouth open but unspeaking. “Well . . . Here now . . . Wait!” the Briton said, shouting at the Gael’s back.

When the Gael failed to turn, but continued up the road, Galaad shrugged and, hiking the thong of his bundle higher on his shoulder, hurried after him. The Briton, for his part, stood his ground, wearing an expression of helpless resignation.

The Gael’s long strides carried him down the road at speed, and Galaad was out of breath by the time he caught up, limping on his swollen knee as quickly as he was able.

“He’s still watching, isn’t he?” the Gael said out of the corner of his mouth, just as Galaad came abreast of him.

Galaad glanced back over his shoulder and nodded. “Yes. Yes, he is.”

The Gael chuckled and smoothed down his long mustache with thumb and forefinger. “Beauty.”

Galaad felt completely out of his depth. “Um, friend? Where are we. . .?”

“Relax, tadpole. I was on my way to Artor’s place anyway, when I finished my business with that cheating bastard, so you’ve only provided the opportunity to stage a strategic retreat. He’ll strike a fairer bargain when next I seem him, the fat bag of suet.”

“Who?” Galaad knit his brow in confusion. “Artor?”

“What?” The Gael looked at him, lip curled. “No, that bastard.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, then added with a chuckle, “Artor’s parentage is none of my lookout.”

They reached an intersection, and the Gael steered Galaad to the right, heading south towards the river Tamesa.

“If you’ll forgive me, friend,” Galaad said, timorously, “might I inquire after your name?”

“Lugh,” the Gael said simply.

“Well met, Lugh. My name is Galaad. I come from Glevum, in Powys to the west.”

“Sure,” Lugh said, with evident disinterest.

“Do you wonder why I come to the court of the High King?”

Lugh shook his head. “Not really.”

“You see,” Galaad went on, undeterred, “I am plagued by visions, since this summer past, and I’m sure that if any were able to divine their meaning, it would be . . .”

“Honestly,” Lugh interrupted with an impatient wave. “I’m not interested.”

Galaad was crestfallen. “Oh,” he said, hanging his head.

They continued on, winding their way through narrow cobblestone streets in silence. They passed a large timber building of recent vintage, in better repair than most Galaad had seen, and he’d have known it for a stable from the sound of wicker and bray from within, even if he hadn’t caught the pungent aroma of horse dung on the wind. He got a better glimpse inside as they walked by, and Galaad could see that the animals within seemed to live better and more comfortably than many of the human denizens of the city.

Galaad could not suppress an involuntary shudder at the proximity of the stable. Ever since the accident he could not look at a horse without being reminded of that spring day, of that bright morning, of the sight of blood on stones before the darkness rose up to swallow him. It always came in quick flashes, brief glimpses, but the remembered pain was writ across his face, like the passage of dark clouds across a full moon.

He glanced at his companion, to see if his disquiet had been noted, and was surprised to see that Lugh’s face was screwed up, as well.

“Stinking beasts,” Lugh said with a sneer. “If it were my lookout, we’d have served their roasted flesh at table months ago, and I’d not be haggling with traders for scraps to feed the city.”

“Whose horses are those?” Galaad asked.

“Whose do you think? The lot of them are Artor’s in name, though in practice the possessions of his captains and cavalry.”

Galaad’s eyes widened slightly, and he glanced back at the stable with swelling admiration. Artor’s cavalry that had been instrumental in the war, employed against an enemy with no horses, and no knowledge of their use had they possessed them. It had been five years since the final victory at Badon, when Artor, then just a war duke, had defeated the Saeson under the leadership of Octha Big Knife and Bödvar Bee Hunter. In honor of the victory, Artor had been raised to the position of High King and given dominion over all of the kingdoms of Britannia. Artor had gone on to reassert authority in the north and west, even beyond the wall of Hadrian, and again his cavalry had proved essential.

They continued on, until at last they came to a tall building on the east bank of a broad shallow stream, near where it entered the Tamesa. It was built of the same Cantium ragstone as the city walls, the roof red with imported Italian tile. It was an imposing structure, the high arch of the entrance, the serried ranks of the windows high overhead. And though its age was evident from the red tiles missing from the roof, the crumbling mortar of the walls, and the stained and dirtied stones, it was clear that the structure was sound. And with the guard that stood ready at the entrance, hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword, his eyes wary and watchful, it was likewise clear that it was a structure which could be well defended, if the need arose.

“This is it,” Lugh said simply, pointing with his chin. They crossed a low bridge over the stream, and made for the entrance. “Used to be palace of the procurator, then fell to the keeping of a number of lesser municipal officers before Artor and his lot took it over.”

“It’s magnificent.” Galaad was breathless. The palace was easily grander than the most lavish villas of Glevum.

Lugh shrugged. “It’s drafty and damp, if you ask me. But then, no one does.”

They reached the entrance, and the guard treated them to a wry smile. Galaad steeled himself to endure another barrage of mocking, but was surprised to find that he was not the object of the guard’s derision this time.

“How goes it with you, Long Hand?” the guard japed. “Not troubled by your injuries, I hope?”

“They plagued me a little last night as I pleasured your mother,” Lugh returned, “but I managed to do the job, still and all.”

The guard’s grin fell, and he tightened his fist around his sword’s hilt.

“Draw your iron if you feel up to it,” Lugh said, a slight smile curling the corners of his mouth as he laid his hand on the handle of his own blade. “But remind yourself that there is a reason you stand sentry outside Artor’s door and I sit at his table.”

The guard set his jaw, eyes narrowed, but relented, relaxing his grip on the hilt and letting his hand fall to his side.

“This one is with me.” Lugh motioned to Galaad with a nod. “Keep watch out here, why don’t you, and raise the alarum if the Saeson horde should swim up the Gallus.” He then glanced over his shoulder at Galaad. “Come along, tadpole.”

With that, Lugh disappeared through the entrance. Galaad glanced at the guard, who seemed to quiver with frustrated anger, and hastened after his guide.

As they made their way through the corridors of the palace, Galaad burned to ask Lugh why the sentry had called him “Long Hand,” but the Gael’s dark expression and the quickness of his pace suggested the question would not be welcome. Instead, he followed along, taking in the faded grandeur of the building and its fixtures. Sculptures stood atop pedestals in recessed alcoves, likenesses of long-dead emperors and forgotten gods. They passed outside into an enclosed garden, the hedges bare and leafless, the dead grasses underfoot rimed with hoarfrost. Then they reentered the building on the far side and came at last to a large reception hall, semicircular in shape, thronged with people, two dozen or more.

“Wait here,” Lugh said, pointing along the wall, where a low bench sat. “Artor will be along presently, and then you can bore him with your strange tale yourself.”

With that, Lugh turned and moved off into the room’s center to join a knot of men talking closely, leaving Galaad on his own.

Galaad, eyes wide, sat on the stone bench and tried unsuccessfully not to look like a complete rustic. It wasn’t as though he could help himself, though. These men gathered here, he knew, represented a larger sampling of humanity than he’d ever witnessed before. From their modes of dress and the varied accents and dialects Galaad could hear, he knew that they were representatives of the various client kingdoms of the island, from as far as beyond Hadrian’s Wall in the north and the shores of Demetia in the west, and among them perhaps envoys from the Hibernian dynasts or the nations of Gaul beyond the channel.

The center of the audience chamber was dominated by stibadium dining couches surrounding a pair of semicircular sigma marble tables, placed with their straight sides facing one another so that the whole formed a large marble circle. At the head of the table was a heavy oaken chair, delicately gilt with hammered gold, which like the couches now stood empty.

The floor under Galaad’s feet felt warm, no doubt with a Roman heating system hidden beneath, and was elaborately mosaiced. The mosaic was a disquieting mix of Christian and pagan imagery—representations of the Messias balanced by depictions of Bellerophon upon winged Pegasus slaying a monster, the Virgin Mother opposite Apollo and the seasons, cherubim vying with chimera, and at their center the Chi-Rho—suggesting that one of the previous tenants had practiced Gnostic heresies.

It was only midday, but with the warmth seeping from the floor into Galaad’s tired feet and the long miles he’d already walked since dawn, he felt himself already growing torpid and weary. He was lulled by the susurration of voices of those gathered in the room, the crowd steadily growing as the moments passed. His lids were heavy over bleary eyes, and he found himself almost lulled to sleep sitting upright on the hard stone bench when the voices around him ceased, of a sudden.

Galaad’s eyes opened wide, and he sat bolt upright, half convinced that he’d dozed and the room had emptied while he slumbered. But no, the room was even more crowded than before, though now silent. The reason for the sudden cessation of conversation was the figure which now stood at the entrance in the chamber’s far fall. Having just entered, he paused, surveying the room.

This newcomer was tall, and though perhaps near the end of his fourth decade of life, carried himself with the ease and alertness of a much younger man. Draped over his back was a red cloak, so dark it was almost purple, clasped at the shoulder with a large bronze brooch. Beneath this he wore a linen tunic dyed a deep blue, bound at the waist with a broad leather belt, and a pair of white breeches, their bottoms stuffed into the tops of heavy cavalry boots. Around his neck was the torc of the High King, a thick woven braid of gold with the head of a dragon sculpted at either end. His beard and mustache were neatly trimmed, and his brown hair hung straight to the nape of his neck. Finally, at his belt hung a long sword, the spatha of a Roman cavalryman, but the simple soldier’s hilt replaced with one of finely wrought gold and silver.

This was the man Galaad had come to see. This was Artor, High King, Count of Britannia.

At an unspoken signal from Artor, the knots of conversation dispersed, and everyone moved to find their accustomed place. A dozen men sat themselves on the couches, Lugh among them, leaning against the carved cusps of the table’s edge. With a start, Galaad realized that these were the captains of Artor’s cavalry, the elite of his fighting force that had driven the Saeson from Britannic lands. He looked with newfound admiration at his Gaelic guide.

As Artor took his place in the gilt chair at the head of the marble circle, his sword laid across his knees, the remainder of those gathered in the hall arranged themselves behind the couches, respectfully.

Galaad realized that he’d risen to his feet at some point, unknowingly, and sheepishly sat back down on the bench.

“God give you a good day, gentles,” Artor said to the room, somewhat wearily. “What business have we today?”

In the hours that followed, it was not only Galaad that struggled to stay awake. Several others, Artor himself chief among them, seemed forced to shift themselves upon their seats constantly, blinking hard and forcing their eyes open, as the apparently endless parade of petty business was marched before them.

Galaad wasn’t sure what he might have expected the day of a High King to be like, nor what type of industry he would have assumed a Count of Britannia would have turned his hand to, but he was certain that it would not have included the sort of trivial disputes and mean concerns which he heard aired that afternoon. This kingdom disputed the demarcation of borders with its neighbor, that tribe complained that those upstream polluted their shared waters in defiance of long-held custom, these farmers protested that the landlord to whom they were tenant refused the services for which their taxes made him liable. But the pleas were not limited to those under Artor’s dominion. Merchants from the Middle Sea carried grievances that their trade agreements with the High King’s government were not being honored, their monopoly on the export of tin infringed by business arrangements that Britannic sellers had made with their competitors. The envoy from a Gaulish king protested that Artor had not supplied the copper and grain which the treaty between their two nations demanded. And a Britannic missionary who worked to convert the subjects of the High King of Hibernia to the Roman religion carried word that the landholder of Alt Cult’s soldiers once more raided the island and had again begun to take Christian converts as slaves, as they had in the days of the late Patricius.

One of the captains seated at the marble circle snored gently, head lolling, and Galaad began to suspect that for men who had been bound together on the field of battle, there were far more engaging pursuits than the dreary business of statecraft. Even Artor, who seemed better at hiding his thoughts than many of the others in the room, seemed far less than enthused.

Galaad busied himself identifying those he could from the stories he had heard. Artor was easiest, of course, but only slightly less easy to name was Artor’s counselor, the man who called out the supplicants to address the High King and who silenced them when he felt they had spoken long enough.

Caradog, so the stories went, had once translated the Sais tongue to Britannic for the High King Vitalinus, long before Galaad was born. Later, he had fought against the Saeson at the side of Artor’s father, Utor. It was said that Caradog had gained his strangely bent arm in battle, but that for all of its withered appearance it was stronger than the limbs of any other three men combined.

The afternoon wore on, and the hall gradually emptied, as supplicants stated their case before the High King, heard his judgement, and departed. Soon, the only ones in the room were Artor and his twelve captains seated about the marble circle, and Galaad sitting on the stone bench at the back of the hall.

“Is there any more business?” Artor asked, stifling a yawn.

“None that I know, majesty,” Caradog answered, consulting the tablet laid on the table before him.

“In that case . . .”

Galaad began to panic. He felt sure he’d been forgotten, or else overlooked, and that his long journey to Caer Llundain would have been for nothing. With all the courage he could muster, he half rose from the bench into a standing position. He opened his mouth, intending to speak, but succeeded only in emitting a faint squeaking sound. He intended to try again, but never knew if his attempt would have succeeded, as in rising he jostled the bundled slung over his shoulder, causing it to slip far enough to one side that his grandfather’s grandfather’s sword slid loose from the bindings.

As the sword tumbled to the floor, Galaad grabbed for it, desperately, but even as he watched every inch of the fall, he felt as though he were moving through frigid water, so slowly did his limbs seem to move. So it was that he seemed to have moved but fractionally by the time the sword clattered to the mosaic floor. The deafening sound of metal on stone resounded on the hollow floor, coming back even louder.

Galaad looked up, horrified, and found that all thirteen pairs of eyes in the hall were directed at him.

“Ach, I forgot!” Lugh said, snapping his fingers. “This little tadpole has a story for you, Artor.”

The High King glanced from the Gael captain to Galaad and raised an eyebrow. “Do you, now?”

Galaad opened his mouth once more, and discovered he’d forgotten entirely how to speak.

“My name is Galaad, and I come from Glevum, in Powys, in the west.”

Galaad stood facing the gilt chair of the High King, his hands twisted into white-knuckled fists at his sides, trembling with nervous anxiety.

“I know where Glevum is,” Artor said, his tone surprisingly gentle.

“Oh.” Galaad blinked, and swallowed hard. “Of course. Well, as I say, my name is Glevum . . .”

“I thought your name was Galaad,” Caradog said, glancing up from his tablet.

“Um, right, of course, my name is Galaad. And . . .” He broke off, his breath catching in his throat. He’d already forgotten his own name, so nervous was he, and now found that he’d forgotten what he meant to say. That is, he knew what he had in his head to say but could not for his life recall the words he needed to say it.

“Relax, friend,” Artor soothed, folding his hands on the sheathed sword that lay across his lap. “There’s no reason to be afraid.”

“But I’m afraid there may be, majesty,” Galaad said, eagerly. “That’s just the problem. I don’t know what the woman is showing me, but I think it could be something fearful indeed.”

The High King narrowed his eyes and leaned forward in his chair. “What woman?”

Galaad took a ragged breath and tried to will himself to calm. “I’ll try to start at the beginning. You see, two springs ago there was an accident, and I . . .” Galaad broke off, involuntarily reaching up and touching the scar that ran above his hairline, just above his right eye. “No,” he said, resolute. “That’s not the beginning. I’ll start again. It was last summer that I first saw her.”

“Saw who?” Lugh asked, his tone impatient.

“The White Lady,” Galaad answered. “At least, that’s what I call her. At first I thought she was the Holy Mother, but then I began to suspect that perhaps she was instead one of the goddesses of our grandfathers. Perhaps she was Ceridwen, who made the potion greal in her magic cauldron, on her island in the middle of a lake.” He shook his head, lips pursed as though he’d just eaten something distasteful. As a follower of the precepts of Pelagianism, he knew there were many paths to the divine, but still the thought of pagan goddesses contacting him made Galaad uneasy. “But perhaps it doesn’t matter who she is, only what she is showing me.”

“So you see visions of a woman,” Artor said, his tone slow and deliberate, like one speaking to a child or an imbecile. “And she shows you things.” Galaad nodded, eagerly. “What things?”

Galaad closed his eyes for a moment, and he could see the vision before him, as clear and bright as if he saw it beneath the midday sun. The visions came at first only in his sleep, but in time had visited him in the waking hours of daylight, as well.

“It is a tower of glass,” he said, opening his eyes. “It sits atop a smooth-sided mound, round on one end and pointed the other, which is itself upon an island in the middle of a lake or sea, connected to the mainland by a spit of land.”

Artor nodded, his lips drawn into a line. “Go on.”

“The White Lady is within the tower,” Galaad continued. “I’m not sure how I know, but I do. And I feel that I must go there and help her, but I don’t know why.”

“Help her?” Caradog looked at him askance. “Why does she require help, this imaginary woman of yours?”

“I don’t know,” Galaad said. “I simply know that she requires help, and that I must give it to her.” He paused and took in the hostile glances from around the table. “She doesn’t speak to me in words, you see. Only images. Only feelings.”

“I have a feeling,” Lugh said with a smile, lacing his fingers behind his head and leaning back. “I feel like you’re a lunatic.”

Galaad’s face burned with shame commingled with anger. He remembered others saying much the same thing, not long before. The townspeople of Glevum had whispered behind their hands as he passed, saying that his injury had done more than give him a scar, but cost him the use of his senses, as well. And his own wife, to whom he looked for support when everyone else had turned their backs, had looked away, saying she wanted nothing more to do with him.

As laughter rippled around the table, Artor steepled his fingers and regarded Galaad thoughtfully.

“This island you speak of,” the High King said at last. “You say the hill is shaped like the bob on a mason’s plumb line, yes? Round on one side and coming to a point on the other?”

Galaad nodded, dispirited, expecting some fresh mockery.

“I know of such a place.”

All eyes turned to the High King, and Galaad’s mouth hung open, his jaw slack.

“Have you ever been in Dumnonia?” Artor asked.

“No, majesty.” Galaad shook his head.

“There is an island there just as you describe,” the High King went on.

“I saw it years ago, when I was in the area with the forces of Ambrosius.”

“And was it then topped by a glass tower?” one of the captains asked.

“No,” Artor said, either not noticing the captain’s ironic tone or choosing not to acknowledge it. “But in every other particular it coincides with this man’s tale. The island is linked to the Dumnonian coast by a thin sliver of land, just as he says.”

“You’re not suggesting that this man is telling the truth, are you?” Caradog asked, aghast.

Artor offered his counselor a smile. “Apparitions appearing to men of Powys? Towers of glass?” He shrugged. “It seems difficult to credit, to say the least.” He paused, and then turned his attentions back to Galaad. “But I’d like to hear more about this, still and all. Galaad, was it?”

Galaad nodded, eagerly, when he realized the High King was awaiting a response.

“You will stay here in the palace tonight as my guest. Does that suit you?”

Galaad gaped, and then quickly nodded his assent. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, majesty.”

“Good.” Artor rose to his feet and hung his sword once more at his belt. “Well, that’s an end to it, gentles. I, for one, am starving.”

With that, the High King turned on his heel and retreated from the audience chamber.

Galaad stood stock still, unsure what to do, his hands gripped tightly on his bundle. Fortunate for him, as the rest of the captains filed out of the room, one of them, a tall, fair-haired man with clean-shaven cheek and chin, came to his rescue.

“Come along, then,” the man said in well-formed Latin. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

Chapter Five


ONLY TWO WEEKS REMAINED until the observance of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and London already swelled with well-wishers and dignitaries from all across the empire. Sandford Blank and Roxanne Bonaventure gazed idly out the windows as the four-wheeled “growler” cab rumbled through the thronged streets, while the police constable sat opposite them, stone-faced and unspeaking. The participants in the Jubilee procession, the jewel in the celebration’s crown, had been gathering for weeks. The Colonial contingent were mostly encamped at Chelsea, while the premiers of the eleven self-governing colonies had been put up at the Cecil, the largest hotel in Europe. There were no rooms to let anywhere in the greater London area, nor would there be for weeks, even months, following the Jubilee. The city, never provincial, had taken on an even more cosmopolitan feel in recent weeks, with the parks and cafés, music halls and theaters crowded with a Babel of a hundred tongues, the more sedate tones of London attire enlivened by the introduction of the colorful silks and linens. Sikh businessmen rubbed elbows with Chinese diplomats, while Malay ladies exotic and serene fluttered their long lashes at Australian cattle ranchers, and West African policemen far from their usual rounds walked the streets ill at ease in the first boots they had ever worn. Union Flags fluttered from streetlamps and posts, draped from window sills and awnings, and when the wind blew gave a sound like a flock of birds taking flight, the snapping flags closely approximating the flapping of wings. It had been ten years since the queen’s Golden Jubilee, but if the preparations were any indication, this new celebration threatened to be even more ostentatious.

Blank remembered all too well the events of 1887, which seemed to him no more than a heartbeat before. He only hoped that the anniversary of the queen’s sixtieth year on the throne cost him not as much, personally and professionally, as her fiftieth anniversary had done.

Finally, the Tower of London hove into view, its ever-present ravens starkly black against the morning sky, and the police constable called for the drive to stop.

As Blank helped Miss Bonaventure down from the cab, he noted that while the bascules of Tower Bridge were raised, the stairs leading to the elevated walkways overhead were closed to the public, blocked by one of their escort’s brothers in arms. Blank could hardly imagine that it mattered, since in the short years since the bridge’s opening virtually all of the foot traffic had remained on the ground while the bridge was raised, preferring to watch the bascules rise up and down to climbing the steps and crossing more quickly. But for whatever reason, the authorities did not want anyone to ascend, just now. He could only surmise that it had something to do with their summons from his house in York Place.

With that in mind, Blank did not wait for their escort to finish clambering down from the growler, but set off across the pavement towards the guarded steps with a will. Miss Bonaventure followed close behind, her heels dogged by the police constable as quickly as he was able. As it happened, their escort did not catch up with Blank until he’d reached the bridge, made his way through the crowd, and stopped just short of the steps leading to the elevated walkway.

“Sorry, sir,” said the constable barring their way, “but there’s no admittance to the stairs, just now.”

“I shouldn’t worry,” Blank said, smiling. “I expect you’ll find your masters are expecting me.”

Just at that moment their escort huffed up, coming abreast of Blank and Miss Bonaventure, panting. “S’alright, Cogsgrove. This’n is Sandford Blank.”

The constable’s eyes widened, and he took in Blank’s appearance—gray coat, waistcoat, and trousers, bowler hat, and silver-topped cane, an orchid in his buttonhole—before finally stepping to one side. “Go on up, guv. They’re waiting for you.”

Blank couldn’t imagine what the constable had heard about him to elicit that sort of reaction, but he hoped it was down to the cases in which he’d been called to assist Her Majesty’s Government, and not for the less savory aspects of his past which he hoped would remain hidden and forgot.

Miss Bonaventure in the lead, Blank following close behind, and their escort bringing up the rear, they mounted the stair.

The warm June wind whistled in their ears as they stepped out onto the western walkway, blowing through the white-painted girders of steel that formed the walls, a crisscrossed thatch of sturdy steel beams with large open spaces in between the intersections. To their left, a short distance off, was the eastern walkway. To their right snaked the River Thames, the Tower of London on one side, Southwark on the other. Ahead of them, under a tarp stained dark by the blood seeping through, was clearly the reason that they had been summoned.

Blank remembered another bridge, and other bodies. Watermen had loved “shooting the bridge,” riding under the old London Bridge at high tide, when the water level on one side could be as much as six feet higher than the downstream side. But it had been a dangerous pastime, to say the least. “The bridge is for wise men to cross over, and for fools to go under,” or so the popular saying of the day went. But old London Bridge had been pulled down long years ago, and Blank doubted that one in a hundred Londoners had ever heard that saying, or knew the stories behind it if they had.

Whatever had befallen the body under the bloodied tarp, Blank suspected it wasn’t something likely to engender quaint and good-humored popular sayings, however quickly forgotten and lost to history.

There were two men standing just the other side of the body, one a stout, ruddy-faced Irishman with a full mustache, his hands folded behind his back, the other of a more delicate nature, holding a handkerchief over his nose and glancing with distaste at the bloodied tarp. Even if Blank hadn’t recognized them at first glance, he would have known them in an instant as a policeman and a bureaucrat, respectively.

“Ah, Blank,” said William Melville, superintendent of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch. While he apparently was striving for lighthearted, he could not entirely hide the tone of disapproval in his voice, and his expression of distaste on seeing Blank was a close cousin to the bureaucrat’s sour look. “About time you made an appearance.”

“Sorry to keep you gentlemen waiting,” Blank said, having to raise his voice slightly to be heard over the whistling wind. He fingered the orchid at his coat’s lapel. “I had the deuce of a time finding the right flower for the day. I’d thought to go with a lily, but they so often seem to give an unnecessarily funereal look, don’t they?” He paused and glanced at the body that lay on the floor of the walkway between them. “There again, perhaps funereal would have been more appropriate to the day, at that.” He paused, and then tipped his bowler back on his head with the silver-chased top of his cane. “But where are my manners. You remember my associate, Miss Roxanne Bonaventure?”

Melville nodded in Miss Bonaventure’s direction, dismissively. It was only after seeing Blank’s gaze flicking meaningfully between himself and the bureaucrat at his side that Melville finally said, “Oh, yes, of course. Blank, this is Chalmers.” He nodded to the thin man behind the handkerchief, as though that was sufficient.

“Lionel Chalmers,” the thin man said, holding out a hand like a dead fish he was desperate to discard. Blank took the proffered hand. “I’m here representing the prime minister himself.”

“Oh, Salisbury, is it?” Blank smiled. “And how is old Bobby, at that?”

Chalmers bristled, brow furrowed at hearing his lord and master being referenced so casually, but refrained from making any comment. Which, Blank quickly surmised, said a great deal about the circumstances in which he now found himself.

“What’s this about, Melville?” Blank was suddenly all business, his mannered pose of indifference, for the moment, abandoned.

He and Melville had had run-ins before, having met the first time during their separate investigations of the Torso Murders. The case had dragged out from 1887 through to 1889, without clear resolution. Blank did not doubt that Melville felt the sting of leaving the case unsolved, especially considering that the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, New Scotland Yard, was built on the site of the unsolved Whitehall Mystery itself. But if Melville felt a sting, then what Blank felt was more like a gaping wound. It haunted him that he was never able to solve the Torso Murders, in all the years since. He was sure that, had he not been distracted momentarily from his responsibilities, allowed for a brief moment to feel that he could live as a normal man and give in to his hidden passions, then the case would have been solved, and sooner, and the nameless victims of the Torso Killer would have remained unharmed. As it was, they were anonymous, unknown, bodies found with head, arms, or legs severed and missing, discarded in the street like yesterday’s rubbish. Five vicious murders, and then they’d stopped as suddenly as they’d begun.

He’d assuaged himself a bit with the knowledge that he’d soon afterwards solved the Whitechapel Ripper case—though in circumstances that the public could never know—but it came as cold comfort, if any. He had pledged never again to allow his personal appetites to distract himself from his responsibilities, and to date never had.

“Look, Blank,” Melville said, eyes narrowed, “it’s not my decision that you be called in. If it were down to me, my boys’d take care of this business all on our own. But the P.M.”—Melville rolled his eyes towards Chalmers— “doesn’t quite agree, and here we find ourselves.”

“As I’m sure we’re all aware,” Chalmers said, sounding breathless despite his Eton accent, “the Queen’s Jubilee Procession is scant days away, and the remit of Special Branch in this instance is to ensure the safety of the Queen herself, not be mired in the trivial investigation of . . .” His expression of distaste deepened, and he finished, “. . . sordid murders.”

Blank could see his point. About the queen and her procession, at any rate, if not perhaps the trivial nature of murder investigation. It had been nearly ten years to the day since Melville had covered himself in glory by foiling a plan by Irish nationalists to blow up Westminster Abbey while Queen Victoria attended a service of thanksgiving there during her Golden Jubilee. If he’d not been Irish, there was every chance he’d have ended up winning his spurs, but instead of a knighthood, he saw his Special Irish Branch rechristened simply Special Branch, and his charter expanded from protecting crown and country against Fenians, republican dynamiters, and anarchists, to facing down all and sundry dangers to the empire. It had been four years since Melville was promoted to superintendent of Special Branch, raised up from the rank and file, and in that time he’d carried out his assigned office with vigor. It was a lofty height for the son of a baker and publican to reach, and Blank could see that Melville was ever mindful of his station and responsibilities.

“So it is murder, then?” Miss Bonaventure said, stifling a yawn. “I was beginning to wonder.”

Blank flashed her a quick smile, then turned back to lock eyes with Melville. “Miss Bonaventure is quite right. Shall we see what we were brought here to see, or will you let us get about our business?”

Melville’s expression darkened, but he motioned for the constable who’d escorted them to flip back the tarp.

It took a moment for the shapes and curves to resolve themselves into a unified image. It seemed to Blank as if his mind were refusing to process the visual information his eyes were providing, but while his thoughts recoiled, his exterior betrayed no turmoil.

It was a woman, or rather was the partial remains of what had once been a woman. Both hands had been severed, and the head cut off, and all three were missing, nowhere in evidence.

Blank remembered another Jubilee, other bodies, and suddenly even a practiced indifference was out of the question.

Blank examined the body more closely. The cuts were clean and precise, skin, muscle, and bone sheared off in an even plane.

“Given the amount of bleeding,” he said, kneeling down, his cane laying across his knees, “I deduce that the hands were severed some time before the victim was decapitated.”

Melville grunted in assent. “That’s what we came up with, as well,” he said, begrudgingly.

“I’ve never seen cuts like these,” Blank said.

“And here I thought you had seen everything, Blank,” Miss Bonaventure said, in a ill-advised attempt to mask her own squeamishness with levity. Blank shot her a hard look, and her weak smile grew even weaker. Subdued, and looking away from the bloody remains, she went on. “But no, I’ve never seen the like, either.”

“I take it the head and hands have not been retrieved?”

“No.” Melville shook his head. “No sign of them, same as . . .” He bit the words off, but Blank knew what he’d been about to say.

Same as last time.

“No sign of them,” Melville repeated, his jaw set, his lips drawn tight. “It was a doxy reported it in this morning. Nobody else much comes up to the walkways, so the girls make pretty free use of them.”

“Or are freely used, themselves,” Blank said absently. “And not freely, at that.” He scowled. “But at too dear a cost, oftentimes.” He used the end of his cane to lift the hem of the dead woman’s skirts. He examined her shoes, and then peered up her legs, at which Chalmers blushed, turning his eyes away from such indecorous probing.

Blank straightened up, tugging down the front of his waistcoat.

“Though you haven’t said as much, Melville, I agree with your surmise that the victim was a streetwalker, given the state of her footwear, the condition of her clothing, and her evident poor health at the time of death. I find it unusual, given that she was dispatched in a place frequented by those of her profession, that she evidently was not engaged in the act of congress at the time of the murder, nor is there any indication that her body was misused in that fashion following her death. The nature of the wounds is indeed singular, and worthy of some study, but despite the superficial resemblance to a case with which we’re both intimately familiar, I fail to see the case’s significance. As a single murder, it is a matter for pity, but hardly worth the attention of Special Branch.”

Melville narrowed his gaze, but didn’t speak.

“Unless,” Blank said, tapping the butt of his cane on the floor, “this is not a single murder.”

Chalmers looked nervously at the superintendent, who quieted him with a rough wave of his hand.

“This is the third such body to be found,” Melville answered in even tones. “The third in as many weeks.”

Blank nodded. “But you’ve managed thus far to keep news of it out of the papers. That couldn’t have been easy.”

Melville blew air through his lips with an explosive noise and shook his head ruefully. “Pack of vultures, the lot of them.”

“And both of the other bodies were in similar states?” Miss Bonaventure asked.

Melville locked eyes with Blank, and paused for a long moment. “Yes,” he said at length, nodding. “All three cut up like that, all three with the same clean shears.”

Blank found himself feeling an unexpected and unexplainable welling of sympathy for the superintendent. He knew how the Torso Murders must have eaten at Melville these last ten years, and it couldn’t have been easy to be ordered to hand over the present investigation to another, knowing that there might be a connection between the two.

“Given the nature of the injuries,” Chalmers put in, “there was some discussion at the highest levels that this might be a matter for the Strangers . . .”

“What?” Blank interrupted, flabbergasted. “Absalom Quince and his lot? Them?”

Melville shook his head, a scornful expression curling his lip. “That lot is worse than you, Blank.”

Blank flashed him a tight smile. “Thanks for saying so, friend.”

Melville sneered, while Chalmers struggled to gain control of the conversation.

“As I was saying, the question arose as to whether this should be a matter for the Strangers, who while not officially sanctioned by Her Majesty’s Government, have nevertheless prove invaluable in a number of recent instances . . .”

“Lunatic ghost chasers,” Blank muttered under his breath.

However,” Chalmers said, soldiering on, “given your own history, Mr. Blank, and your role in the speedy resolution of that unfortunate matter in Whitechapel, it was decided instead that you should be approached in this matter.”

“Well,” Blank said, doffing his hat in obvious mockery, “I thank you for this consideration.”

Chalmers either failed to detect Blank’s sarcasm or chose not to respond, instead turning his attentions to Melville.

“The prime minister has issued specific instructions that this matter will not be made available for public consumption. The newspapers are not to be informed of any aspect of the investigation or of the murders themselves until such time as the prime minister deems appropriate. With the Jubilee in the offing and the city already crowded with dignitaries, the last thing we need is another sensation such as the Whitechapel murders engendered. It might be good for the sales figures of the penny papers, gentlemen, but it will do Her Majesty’s Government no good at all, and even less good for you all, should you allow it.”

Chalmers glanced from Melville to Blank and Miss Bonaventure and to the constable who stood a few yards off, indicating that the prime minister’s wrath would know no bounds of rank or privilege were news of these murders to be made public.

“I believe you mean ‘worse’ instead of ‘less good,’” Blank said. “But I think we all take your meaning.” He turned to Melville. “I’ll solve this one, Melville. You have my word on it.”

Melville drew his mouth into a tight line, but nodded. He evidently could not tell whether Blank had meant the words as a taunt or a reassurance; Blank did not really know himself.

“Now,” he said, resting on his cane, his hands folded on its silver head, “if this is the third murder, I want to know everything that you have on the previous two.”

Copyright © MonkeyBrain, Inc.



Free Fiction: Her Majesty

Chapter 13: Her Majesty
by Chris Roberson

Excerpt from Here, There & Everywhere (For more detail visit Pyr)

London, 1573
Subjective Age: 60 years old

From a distance, through the squalor and the milling crowd, Roxanne Bonaventure knew him at a glance. He was as out of place in these surroundings as she was; more so, given the time she’d spent establishing a name and reputation in the era. Neither belonged, but she at least was welcome. She was a traveller, but he was a castaway, or worse, an invader. She wasn’t sure yet which.

Roxanne had spent the better part of her sixty years traveling the many worlds of the Myriad, and knew how to avoid disturbances if she wished. Talbot, however, was like a stone dropped into still water, the ripples of his passing spreading out in all directions. Roxanne watched for a moment as he blundered through the crowded streets, narrowly missing a bucket of slops emptied out an upper-storey window, elbowing passersby as he gaped at the scenes and structures surrounding him, almost tripping over his own feet every other step. The pack at his back was heavy, its style incongruous with the native clothes he affected. He’d only just arrived.

“Talbot,” Roxanne said in a low voice as he passed by. “Edward Talbot.”

He stopped short, startled, and spun on his heel to face her.

Roxanne leaned against a post, arms crossed casually over her chest. She wore a simple black dress and jacket in period style, her gray hair bound up in a bun at the back of her neck. Nothing out of the ordinary for the city at that time, but something in her look seemed to frighten Talbot. He backed away, clutching the shoulder strap of his pack nervously.

“W-who are you?” he stammered, edging further away.

“I’m the Ghost of Christmas Future, Talbot,” Roxanne answered. She stepped towards him, reaching out a hand

“You…?” Talbot began, eyes darting from side to side. “You come from… back there… don’t you? You’ve come to take me back.”

Roxanne shook her head, her hand still stretched out to him.

“Only if you want to go,” she answered.

“The ship,” Talbot said, relaxing marginally. “The crash. It wasn’t my fault.” He paused. In a calm voice, dry and raw like a scab on a recent wound, he added, “The others are all dead.”

“I know,” Roxanne said softly, stepping forward and taking Talbot gently by the arm. “Let’s go somewhere and talk.”

A short while later, facing each other across a pitted tavern table, Talbot told her his story, and Roxanne told him hers.

“So with this device,” Talbot said, “you can travel through time and space at will?” He reached toward the bracelet on Roxanne’s wrist gingerly, as though afraid to touch it, as though it might burn.

“More or less,” Roxanne answered, raising the jar of ale to her lips.

“Remarkable,” Talbot enthused. “What I couldn’t do with something like that.” He drew up short, suddenly suspicious. “But I’ve never heard of the T.I.A. having anything like that.”

“I’ve told you before,” Roxanne said, setting the jar down with perhaps more force than was necessary. “I’m not with your Temporal Investigation Agency. From the sounds of it, I doubt I’ve ever even been near your home Commonwealth.”

“So why seek me out?” Talbot asked. “Why now?”

“Because I was asked by a friend to look you up,” Roxanne answered. “But that needn’t concern you. What I need to know is this: Do you want me to take you home?”

Talbot laced his fingers together, and leaned forward.

“Do you mean to say I have a choice?” he asked. “That you won’t try to force me to go with you?”

Roxanne shook her head, smiling. When she’d first seen him, she’d noticed how much younger than his years Talbot looked, no doubt the benefit of medical advances in his future era, but in that moment, wide-eyed, he looked even younger than before. Like a child being told he could spend the rest of his life at a theme park, envisioning endless summers of fun. She couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.

“I won’t force you to do anything,” Roxanne answered. “Stay or go, it will be your choice, and yours alone. But you must understand the risks.”

“Oh, I know all about them,” Talbot answered, nodding eagerly. “I had to spend months in training before they’d let me come along on the timeflight, and I’ve been inculcated with all the necessary immunities, so with my knowledge of the period, I wouldn’t have any problems at all.”

“You’re an historian,” Roxanne admitted, “so you know all about the past, but the events you studied haven’t happened yet. Before it happens, history is still the future. Who knows what might happen?”

Talbot chewed at his lip, listening but unconvinced.

“Your ship is destroyed, and you’re all alone,” Roxanne went on. “You couldn’t even make it to the moon, much less halfway to Proxima Centauri. Without that rotating cylinder, I’m your only way home.”

Talbot drummed his fingertips on the rough wooden surface of the table, thinking furiously.

“But to come all this way,” he finally said, his tone desperate, “and leave before my studies have even begun. So many great days ahead, significant events, and I’d be turning my back on them all.”

“Possibly,” Roxanne said, guarded.

“What if…” Talbot began, and then broke off. He grew excited, an idea forming. “You say you can go anywhere, and anywhen, with that device of yours, yes?”

Roxanne nodded.

“So it would be no trouble for you then…” he said, more to himself than to her. He snapped his fingers. “Yes, that might work. What if you were to leave me here, and just go immediately to some point in the near future? Some years hence, perhaps? That would give me more than enough opportunity to complete my research, while virtually no time would have passed for you, and then you and I could return to the future together.”

Roxanne said nothing, but narrowed her eyes fractionally.

“Oh, please,” Talbot pleaded. “I know it must be a terrible imposition, but it would mean so very much to me. To get to see the first flowerings of the greatest era in human history with my own eyes, and not from a video monitor in low orbit over the planet. To see it as it happens!”

“How will you live?” Roxanne asked in a quiet voice. “How will you feed and house yourself?”

“Oh,” Talbot answered. “I’ve got serviceable skills, a knowledge of languages and local customs. I could always get a job. And if worst came to worst, I could always fabricate some period currency using the equipment I salvaged from the wreckage.” He motioned to the anachronistic pack which lay at his feet.

“They don’t treat counterfeiting lightly in these centuries, you know,” Roxanne observed, but Talbot dismissed the concern with an imperious wave. “So that’s your decision, then?” she asked.

Talbot nodded, but didn’t seem to be listening. He was already busy making plans, mapping out strategies and listing highpoints to visit.

Roxanne picked up her jar of ale, and drained it to the dregs.

“Very well,” she said, pushing away from the table and rising to her feet. “I’ll wish you luck, and see you in a few years. Shall we say… how many? Two? Three?”

Talbot jumped to his feet, shouldering his heavy pack, eager to begin.

“Five,” Talbot said, then rushed to add, “no, six. Eight.” He paused, doing quick calculations. “Ten,” he finally announced, nodding fiercely. “Yes, ten years.”

Roxanne whistled low, shaking her head.

“All right,” she said reluctantly. “A decade it is. But I should warn you to tread cautiously. You should be careful what rules you break, and whom you offend.”

“Oh, I will,” Talbot called back over his shoulder, already on his way towards the door. “Just think,” he said in his eagerness, as much to himself as to her, “Christopher Marlowe is only eleven years old right now.”

“So is Shakespeare,” Roxanne answered, lifting her wrist and opening a temporal bridge directly before her.

“Who?” Talbot asked, half turning, but by then Roxanne was already gone.


Mortlake, 1583

Two men were in the upper chamber of the house, the candle on the mantle guttering. The younger of the two, corpulent and wearing a black cap close-fitting and pulled down low, was seated on a green chair, the convex black mirror on the short table before him. The older, long beard and flashing eyes, sat at the desk along the far wall, a great folio book open beneath his hand. As they spoke, first one and then the other, the older man recorded every particular, quill flying with incessant scratches over the foolscap.

“Look unto the kind of people about the Duke in the manner of their diligence,” the younger man said, his voice strange and fluttering.

“What do you mean?” the older man asked, glancing up sharply from his labors. “His own people? Or who?”

“The espies.”


“All. There is not one true.”

“You mean the Englishmen.”

“You are very gross if you do not understand my speech.”

“Lord!” the older man implored. “What is thy counsel?”

“I hate to interrupt,” came a new voice from the corner, “but I need a moment of your time.”

Roxanne strode into the center of the room.

“Oh, dear spirit,” the older man said, leaping from his desk and falling to his knees. “Am I to be vouchsafed a visitation of our celestial sponsor Madini? Oh, what great felicity!”

The younger man, at his table, did not move.

“I’m afraid not,” Roxanne answered, apologetically. “I’m quite mundane, I must confess.” She motioned to the younger man. “I’m here on the Queen’s business, and need to speak to your assistant.”

“See here,” the older man answered, bristling and rising up. “I have left standing instructions with the staff and my wife, the lady of the house, that we are not to be disturbed when performing our actions, so I’ll ask you to…” He paused, looking at the locked and bolted door, and then glanced to the windows, still closed with the heavy drapes tied fast over them.

“Kelly?” the older man said, turning to his companion with mounting confusion. “Can you account for this apparition?”

“I beg your pardon, Doctor Dee,” the young man answered, climbing reluctantly to his feet, “but if I might have a moment alone with this… lady… I believe I can get to the bottom of it.”

Roxanne smiled, but kept silent.

The older man looked from one to the other, his eyes narrowed, and slowly made for the door.

“I will be just without, in the hall,” he told the young man, his eyes fixed on Roxanne. “But I will allow only a brief span, and then I will have an explanation from you.”

Turning on his heel, his long robes swirling around him, the older man unlocked and threw open the door, closing it with a resounding thud as he passed.

“So,” Roxanne began, dropping into the chair at the desk, crossing her legs casually, “it’s Kelly now, is it? I’d forgotten.”

“Has it been ten years?” Talbot said, beginning to pace. He slipped a finger under the edge of his close-fitting cap, scratching the side of his head. He stared off into the middle distance, and bitterly added, “It seems so very much longer.”

“I keep pretty close tabs on the time,” Roxanne answered.

“So you’ve come back to me at last,” Talbot went on, pacing faster. “And where were you before, when I stood in the Lancashire pillory? Where were you when I was mutilated?”

Roxanne responded with a sympathetic look, leavened with a slight shrug.

“You knew the risks, Talbot,” she answered. “I warned you about counterfeiting, didn’t I?” She paused, and then added, “I was sorry to hear about the ears, though.”

Talbot made a dismissive noise, his hand drifting absently to the cap on his head.

“So you’ve come to take me back, have you?” he said, crossing his arms and fixing Roxanne with a stare.

“Only if you ask me to,” Roxanne answered. “But I have other business, I’m afraid. Bad news you won’t want to hear.”

Talbot regarded her coolly.

“What do you mean, ‘bad news’?” he asked.

Roxanne shook her head.

“Not yet,” she answered. “I don’t want to spoil the mood. Let’s talk of other matters first, you and I.” She uncrossed her legs, and leaned forward. “Let me first ask you two questions. In your former life, before your shipwreck here in this era, you were a historian, and a general man of letters. Tell me, Talbot, did your studies extend to the arena of quantum physics?”

Talbot looked at her blankly.

“No,” he finally said, flatly, when it became clear Roxanne was waiting for some sort of response.

“In that case, I take it that you are unfamiliar with the axiom which physicists call the Uncertainty Principle?”

Talbot, after a significant pause, shook his head.

“No,” he said. “That is, yes, I am unfamiliar with whatever the devil it is you’re talking about. But what is this to me?”

“I won’t bore you with the details as expressed on a quantum level,” Roxanne went on, ignoring his question, “but when stated in a larger scale it translates, roughly, to this: ‘The act of observing something affects the state of the thing observed.’ Are you with me so far?”

Growing increasingly frustrated and confused, Talbot nodded fiercely.

“Now we reach my second question, Talbot,” Roxanne said, stepping nearer his seat, towering over him. “You’ve insinuated yourself into the life and home of John Dee these past months, after so many years of wandering and observing quietly from the shadows. Why?”

Talbot sat glowering, his hands in white-knuckled fists on the arms of the chair.

“You…” he began, then stopped. He blinked, and swallowed hard. “You have no idea how frustrating it is, for someone like me, to be near greatness and not see it. To know that somewhere, behind closed doors, the pivotal events of history are playing out, while I’m stuck filling ampoules with useless powders and potions for hypochondriacs who’ll be dead of the plague in a year no matter what.”

Talbot pounded his fists on the chair’s arms.

“To come so far,” he continued, louder. “To suffer so much…” He broke off, and ripped the cap off his head. “To suffer!” he repeated. “And to still know nothing!”

Roxanne sighed. She looked at the lumps of scar tissue on either side of his head, the cost of passing base coins.

“So instead?” she prompted.

Talbot, in response, leapt to his feet and wheeled on the black mirror and table.

“So instead,” he parroted back, mocking, “I made my own opportunities. My computer, salvaged from the wreckage, easily passed as a supernatural object, dispensing secret wisdom from my historical databases on the period. The curved screen of the liquid crystal display becomes a magic mirror in Dee’s eyes, the machine code of the system’s processes some angelic script.” He paused, and then added, not a little proudly, “It’s all in the presentation.”

“So you found in Dee something of a willing dupe,” Roxanne answered, “someone with a weakness for the arcane that you could use to gain access to the corridors of power.”

“I wouldn’t say ‘dupe’, perhaps,” Talbot replied, shrugging, “but yes, something like that.”

Roxanne smiled.

“But it hasn’t exactly worked, has it?” she asked.

Talbot’s shoulders slumped, and he looked away.

“No,” he answered, bitterly. “Dee keeps me cooped up here all hours, his personal seer, while he ferries back and forth to court, spreading the good word. I’ve only seen the Queen once, and then only from a far window.” He paused, sighing. “Oh, imagine the things I’ve already missed, the grand decisions she’s made.”

Roxanne reached out a hand, laying it on Talbot’s shoulder.

“It won’t happen, Talbot,” she said, as gently as she could manage.

Talbot looked up at her, confused.

“I wasn’t lying when I said I was on the Queen’s business,” Roxanne said. “I told you to be careful whom you offended, but I’m afraid that you didn’t listen.”

“The Queen?” Talbot asked, incredulous. “How could I have offended her?”

“Like I told you before,” Roxanne answered, “I was asked by a friend to look you up. Elizabeth doesn’t much care for your influence on her advisors.”

Talbot narrowed his eyes.

“Now we come to my bad news,” Roxanne went on. “As she’s been unable to convince Dee to part company with you, she’s called him to court less and less over the past months. Now, she’s gone so far as to instruct her staff that they are to respond to none of Dee’s requests until you are out of the picture. And if Dee can’t be at her side when events of great importance occur, you can be sure that you have no chance whatsoever.”

When she’d finished, Talbot looked on her silently, scowling. Slowly, his scowl grew into a smirk, and he began to chuckle.

“You think I didn’t know?” he asked, his tone sharp. “You think that Dee doesn’t rush home and tell me everything he’s seen and heard since last we were together? I knew that he wasn’t welcome at court any longer, though before now I hadn’t known precisely the reason why. But it hardly matters. I’ve made other plans.”

Talbot sank back into his chair, leaving Roxanne to look down at him questioningly.

“There are other princes and prelates of note in this era, after all,” Talbot went on. “Elizabeth will not rule forever, and when she dies, someone else must naturally take the throne. I have, you must admit,” he indicated the black curve of his computer’s liquid crystal display with a flick of his hand, “some useful information in this regard. The ‘angels’ have been advising Dee, through my useful mediation of course, that it might be to his benefit to seek service in some foreign court for a time. There are surely other courts more receptive to Dee’s talents… to say nothing of mine. The angels and I have been focusing our attentions on a certain Duke, currently visiting London and soon to return home, who has already developed a keen interest in our celestial conversations.” He paused, and then added, “I understand Bohemia is quite nice this time of year.”

Roxanne stood over him in silence for a long moment, her look softening.

“I take it you won’t be leaving with me,” she said simply.

Talbot answered with a curt shake of his head.

“Another decade then?” Roxanne asked. “I’ll check on you in another ten years?”

“Certainly,” Talbot replied grandly. “Why not? Who knows the grand heights to which I’ll have climbed by then?”

Roxanne raised her arm, glancing at the bracelet on her wrist.

“I’ll remind you of my two questions, and their answers,” Roxanne said, as the reflective sphere of the bridge opened in the room’s center. “And I hope you’re more careful in the next decade than you’ve been in the last.”

Roxanne reached out her hand to brush against the surface of the bridge, and Talbot was left alone.


Prague, 1593

The man stood on the high parapet, rough stones slicked by the cold rain drizzling down from an unforgiving sky. The intermittent bursts of lightning which divided the darkness flashed on the ribbon of white dangling from the overhanging cornice, dingy sheets tied into a chain and knotted every foot. The chain vanished in darkness as it trailed down the wall. It was uncertain whether it fully reached the ground, or halted somewhere in between.

The man looked up to the window ledge from which he’d climbed, to the makeshift ladder of bedsheets, to the dim recesses of the ground far below.

“I hope you’re not thinking of jumping,” came a voice at his back, “when I’ve traveled so far just to see you.”

“I had not decided yet, my lady,” the man answered without turning. “I’m still not convinced which of my options will bring me the least pain.”

Roxanne approached on sure feet, until she was within arm’s reach.

“I take it the past decade has not gone well for you, Talbot,” she said.

“Among your many gifts,” he answered archly, “you can count understatement as one.”

Roxanne reached out, and gently touched his elbow.

“So many things have gone wrong,” Talbot continued, clenching his hands in tight, ineffective fists at his sides, his gaze fixed on the abyss before him. “I thought to see such wonderful things. Marlowe and his fellow agents, traveling the countryside incognito as a troupe of players, forging alliances for their queen with the Protestant princes of Europe. Raleigh, extending the crown’s reach into the western hemisphere, driving out the Papist Spaniards and French and creating a new nation alongside the Indigenes. Elizabeth, crowned Holy Roman Empress and made ruler of three continents. And what have I seen?” Talbot spat on the cold stones at his feet. “Base politics, spite, and the insides of prisons.”

“I warned you,” Roxanne answered tenderly. “By observing we change the thing observed. You must tread carefully in these eras, and that which is yet to be is still undecided.”

Talbot turned slowly, and Roxanne was unable to say whether the streaks down his cheeks were from teardrops or the falling rain.

“This is no longer the world you knew,” Roxanne continued. “You stepped off the path of your worldline long ago. The heroes of your history, here, are little more than footnotes. Christopher Marlowe died only weeks ago, murdered over the matter of a bar tab. Raleigh’s colony was a failure, and he is discredited and disgraced, to be executed for treason against the crown as soon as Elizabeth’s successor takes the throne. There will be no grand union of natives and colonists under the banner of Gloriana in the Western Hemisphere. The long era of peace and cooperation that you called home, the line of philosopher-kings, the enlightened nation-state of Pan Europa, the progressive Commonwealth of New Atlantis across the sea… all of them here no more than a dream, if even that.”

Talbot seemed to falter, losing his feet, and Roxanne reached out a quick hand to steady him.

“All…” he began. “All of it gone?” His mouth gaped, and he deflated, limp. “My world… my history… my future? Because of me?”

Roxanne smiled, a little sadly, and shook her head.

“No,” she answered. “Not gone. Not really. Just somewhere else, another worldline orthogonal to this.”

Roxanne’s hand still on his elbow, Talbot slipped down to his knees, folding his hands together in an attitude of prayer.

“Please,” he said simply, his voice barely audible over the sound of rainfall on cold stones.

“This is the lesson most people never learn,” Roxanne said, bending down to bring her face a handbreadth from his. “The world is what we make it, better or worse. Observing a thing changes it, whether past, present or future. What one man can do, for good or ill, can scarcely even be measured, and yet it happens every day.”

“Please,” Talbot repeated, taking Roxanne’s shoulders in his hands. “Please, I want to go back. To go home. Can I? Can it be done?”

Roxanne straightened up, and nodded.

“We’ll have to go the long way, back again and then forward, but we can manage.” She stretched out her arm toward him, and a flash of lightning glinted on the silver of the bracelet at her wrist. “All you have to do is take my hand.”

“Yes,” Talbot said softly, reaching out and taking her hand in both of his. He stood painfully on worn joints, and repeated louder, “Yes. Take me with you.”

Roxanne nodded, and the temporal bridge irised open in the air between them.

“I’m sorry I didn’t listen,” Talbot said, gripping Roxanne’s hand tighter still. “I should have listened.”

“Yes, you should have,” Roxanne said, sadly. “Come on, Talbot. Let’s take you home.”

Roxanne lifted up their hands, hers and Talbot’s together, touched the reflective surface of the bridge, and they were gone.

Copyright © 2005 by MonkeyBrain, Inc.



Free Fiction: Day Tripper

Prelude: Day Tripper

by Chris Roberson

Excerpt from Here, There & Everywhere (For more detail visit Pyr)

London, 1995

The woman was there again, haunting him, when the phone rang.

“Avram here.”

“David?” came the voice at the other end of the line, peppered with transatlantic static. “It’s Ron.”

An executive producer of the project so far as the end crawl was concerned, Ron Stein was really just a watchdog ABC had tapped to watch over expenditures, in particular those racked up by David Avram over in England. David had come to dread the twice weekly conversation, wherein he was called upon to account for every cent and pence.

“Yes, Ron, what is it?” David answered wearily. His gaze drifted across the room, as it always did, pulled by the gravitational force of the blown-up black and white photo tacked on the far wall. In the half-moon of white at the photo’s center were positioned four young men in white shirts, black vests and ties, two guitars, a bass, and a drum kit, framed by the dark crescent of the ceiling above and the range of heads below. In the foreground, with bobbed blonde hair, leather jacket and knapsack, stood the woman, caught in profile, blurred in the instant of turning back towards the camera, or else turning back from the camera towards the stage. She wore a strange Mona Lisa half-smile, and seemed to mock David with her mystery.

“Don’t worry, David, I’m not calling to bust your balls. Not today, anyway. I just got some news off the wire that I thought you’d be interested to hear.”

“Okay,” David replied, his tone noncommittal. He didn’t consider Stein the best judge of what he might or might not find interesting, but as Stein held the purse strings, there wasn’t much he could do about it. “Shoot.”

“Get this,” Ron continued through static. “Your boys are putting on a little show.”

“Boys? What boys?”

“The Fab Four,” Ron answered. “Or what’s left of them, anyway. The surviving three have scheduled a press conference at the London Hilton, for tomorrow.”

David found he had trouble swallowing, as though he’d forgotten the trick sometime in the last few seconds.

“Press conference?” he repeated. “But… they’ve said they wouldn’t promote the project. Only the private interviews, and no public appearances.”

“Hey, pally, I can read the contracts as well as you can, but I’m telling you that they’re going to be at the London Hilton tomorrow. We’ve confirmed with their people, and it’s a go.”

“What…” David began, finally remembering the trick to swallowing. “What, what are they talking about?” He paused, and then added, “At the press conference, what are they talking about?”

“That’s just the thing,” Ron answered. “Nobody’s got any idea. How’s that for a kick in the drawers. Now, I think you see where I’m going with this, right? Have you still got that film crew on the leash, the one that you used for those pickup shots over on Apple Road?”

“Abbey Road,” David corrected automatically, then nodded. It took a moment to remember that his nod wasn’t likely to translate down the transatlantic line, and he added, “Yeah, yes, they’re here in town. I should be able to get them together.”

“Great,” Ron said. “So here’s the plan. We’ve wrangled a press pass for you and the crew, should be waiting for you at the gig. You get your ass over there tomorrow at noon, get the whole shindig on film, and maybe we’ve got a new ending to this story, right? You with me?”

David nodded again.

“Yes,” he said finally out loud. “I’m with you.”

“Great,” Ron said. “Okay, go get ‘em, man. Let me know as soon as you’ve got something golden, you got it?”

“Got it.”

David set the handset back down on the cradle, and rubbed the heels of his palms into his squeezed-shut eyes. When he opened them again, he looked up to see the woman, standing there beneath the half-moon of light, laughing at him in grainy black and white.


David Avram had been working on the Anthology project for ABC for about a month when he’d first noticed the woman. Brought in on the project first as a second unit director, on the basis of a little documentary he’d done about the last days of Elvis while still in film school, David quickly began to feel that he was out of his depth. His senior thesis project, “The Face of Elvis,” had been shot on video, on a shoestring budget, and really only worked as a result of some of the extraordinary interviews that David had lucked into in the course of shooting in Memphis. He’d had no idea when he sat down to interview the barber that the man had briefly been a member of the “Memphis Mafia,” or that the man would be so forthcoming with theretofore undisclosed scandals.

Now, traveling all over the United States, England, and the rest of Europe, David was sure they’d picked the wrong man for the job. The woman, and her mystery, were really only symptoms of a larger disease.

The Anthology project was originally intended to be a bit of fluff, co-produced by ABC in the States and ITV in the UK, timed to coincide with the release of a new series of compilation CDs. Months, and hundred of hours of footage, later, it was decided that the Anthology would be released as a six hour miniseries in the fall of ’95, the week of the CDs’ release. To make matters worse, they’d so far overshot the mark of six hours that the Anthology was scheduled to be released in an expanded format on video the following year, ten hours in all.

Ten hours. Threading his way through the mountains of stacked beta cassettes and film canisters in his temporary London offices, David was sure he could cut together ten hours from the detritus he’d dropped on the floor in the last week alone. Ten hours. They could do a hundred and not blink.

The problem was, so far as David was concerned, that the piece lacked a center, a focus around which the rest of the project could orbit. Due to contracts and agreements signed with the surviving band members and various estates and family members, the Anthology was hardly the insightful and hard-hitting exposé David had imagined when he’d first interviewed for the position. Instead, the rough cut of the footage so far soft-pedaled its way through the decade or so of the band’s career, showcasing the albums and concerts while glossing over anything meaty.

Just one nugget would do, David was convinced, just one gristly morsel. The woman, he was now convinced, could well be it.

He’d first caught sight of her in a photo of the band’s early days in Hamburg in 1961. The four Liverpudlians, just steps away from their teddy boy roots, in leather jackets and pants, their hair only now shading down from greased-up pompadours to the bangs-forward style they’d make famous. She’d been partially visible at the edge of the stage, blonde bobbed hairdo, leather jacket and backpack. In her knee-high boots and black miniskirt, she’d looked like something out of a dark mirror Star Trek episode, which put her, David had to admit, somewhat ahead of the curve so far as fashion was concerned. He’d not thought much of her, assuming she was just another of their hundreds of adoring German fans, who’d come to know and love them in the Reeperbahn.

A few weeks later, while editing together some still shots and film clips of the Cavern Club from 1962, he’d noticed her again. At first he thought it a coincidence, just another similar looking woman in the same sort of outfit, but after blowing up the two images and comparing them side by side, he was sure the two were of the same woman. Was she a German who’d followed the boys back to England, or an English woman who’d followed them to Germany in the first place? He had photos of all the boys’ girlfriends at that time, and none of them looked a bit like her. It was a mystery, but a minor one at best.

A month went by, and David was sent to England to film some framing sequences at the site of the old Apple offices on Savile Row. To familiarize himself with the location, in an attempt to show the passage of years from then to now, he’d watched the footage of the rooftop concert over and over again before heading out for the shoot. It was on the fourth viewing that he caught sight of a woman with short blonde hair in a leather jacket, knee-high boots and miniskirt standing on the roof of the building adjacent Number 3 Savile Row, watching the performance with an amused half-smile on her face. The same woman, looking as though she hadn’t aged a day, in precisely the same clothes and hair.

David felt himself becoming obsessed, but there was nothing else for it. Returning to the offices after wrapping up the location shoot, he dug out every bit of archives film, video, kinescope and still photography he’d amassed over the previous year, hunting down the mystery woman. He found her again sitting a few feet from the drum kit in the color footage of the “Our World” satellite broadcast of June 25, 1967, incongruous amongst the baroque flower power of beads and spangles in her black leather and mini-skirt. There she was again in black and white in photos of the tour performance in Hong Kong, where the band’s manager had hired a session musician to sit in for their ailing drummer, left home with tonsillitis back in England. And again in the stands at Candlestick Park in 1966, at the last performance of the last tour the band would take.

Time and again he found the woman at the sidelines of key points of the band’s history, always looking precisely the same, as though it was the world around her that changed while she remained immutable and static. Same half-smile, same bobbed hair, same clothes, boots, and backpack. David took to carrying a photo of her, a blown-up screen capture from the “Our World” broadcast, the best likeness he’d found, whenever he went out to pick up an interview. He fidgeted his way through each interview, every old girlfriend, classmate and cousin, waiting until that moment when the camera would be shut off and he could produce the photo, but none of them would admit ever having seen her before, or to knowing why she haunted the periphery of the band’s career for so long.

Now, months later, work on the project drawing to a close, David had begun to feel that the mystery woman in the photo was the lynchpin to the project, the one question around which the Anthology would crystallize. But no answer had surfaced, and he began to suspect that one never would.


The next day, film crew in tow and press passes in hand, David arrived early at the large hall of the London Hilton, a strange mix of giddy anticipation and dread gripping his chest. He found a seat near the back, after instructing the crew where to position the two cameras, and waited for the hall to fill.

A few minutes before noon, nearly every seat taken and the back and sides of the hall crowded with cameras and sound equipment, a gentleman in a finely tailored business suit entered through a door at the front of the hall and stepped up to the podium. To one side of the podium was a table and four chairs, behind a banister set up as a barricade separating the table from the audience. Four chairs? David could hardly guess.

The business suit began with some preparatory remarks, introducing himself as a press agent whose name David recognized, and indicating that he’d been hired by the former bandmates to arrange the press conference. After fielding a few questions from the assembled reporters, none of which he was at liberty to answer, the suit indicated the door behind him with a wave of his hand.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the press,” he announced, his tone becoming that of a circus ringleader. “May I present, in no particular order,” ripples of laughter ran through the crowd, “Paul McCartney…”

The man himself came through the door, looking just as he had in the interview footage the Anthology’s first unit director had shot the fall before, appearing young-for his age, smiling, still handsome, still a presence.

Flashes snapped, questions were shouted out, all but drowned out by the applause from the audience. Applause, from reporters no less. This was something David hadn’t seen before. He glanced around him at the sparsely populated seats at the rear of the hall, the bulk of the reporters having squeezed as far forward as possible. All of them eager for a closer look, some seeming as though they’d go into hysterics if they could only touch the hem of his garment. The boys, after all of these years, still held some sway over people.

“George Harrison…” the press agent finally continued, having to shout over the applause and shouted questions, the room refusing to calm.

The second of the survivors entered the hall, dressed casually in denim jacket and jeans, gray-streaked hair brushed back and his face clean shaven under wide sunglasses, grinning like a Buddha at the tumult of the room. David glanced to his side, a movement catching his eye. He was about to turn back to the stage, and await along with the rest of the throng the appearance of the third, the last survivor of the original three, when he was frozen in place, his gaze riveted.

One row up from him, a few seats down, sat the woman. Blonde bob, leather jacket, knee-high boots and all. The mystery woman, not having aged a day, looking as though she stepped out from the photo in his pocket, crossing the distance between the lacy swirls of 1967 and the present day without missing a beat.

The press agent was introducing the third survivor, but David couldn’t bring himself to notice. He was entranced, transfixed. Pushing off his chair onto shaky legs, he worked his way down the row towards the woman without collapsing, and took the seat at her side.

The woman, half-smile on her face, glanced over at him, nodded, and turned back to watch the show.

David, struck dumb, could only pull the folded and water-stained photo from his pocket, unfold and smooth it as best he could, and then present it to the woman as his silent question.

She looked down at the photo for a long moment, her smile widening to three-quarters for an instant, and then looked up at David.

“Do my eyes really look that puffy?” she said, casually, reaching up to brush her eyelid with an outstretched finger.

David meant to say “No,” or to shake his head, or to ask her any one of a hundred questions, but he only managed to swallow. At least he hadn’t forgotten how again.

“This is really going to be something,” the woman went on, turning her attention back to the stage. “You’re going to want to see this.”

David gaped, trying to work out any kind of rational explanation for the woman’s appearance. It had been more than thirty years since that first photo of her was taken, and she hadn’t aged a day.

“Are you…” he began, fishing desperately for something coherent to say. “Are you from around here?” he finished, not even sure why he’d asked.

“No,” the woman answered, shaking her head just enough for her short blonde hair to shift, still smiling. “I’m just visiting a few days.”

There was a trace of America in her accent, overlaid with refined British and something else besides.

“Look at them, will you?” she continued, pointing to the three men on the stage with her chin. “You wouldn’t think it’d been so long since they’d been together. They belong together, don’t you think? The whole greater than the sum of its parts?”

David nodded.

“Can you imagine what things would have been like if they’d never gotten together?” the woman went on before David could compose an intelligent response. “If Paul had refused John’s invitation to join the Quarrymen? John on his own would never have made it, just like Paul by himself couldn’t have. It was the alchemical fusion of the two that made them great. Or imagine if Williams hadn’t booked them for Hamburg? It was Hamburg that did it, you know. The crucible that turned their raw talents into skill, and then skill into genius. If they’d stayed in Liverpool the whole time, they’d just have been another skiffle band turned rocker, another lesser light in the brief constellation of the Mersey Beat. And don’t get me started on what would have happened if George Martin hadn’t produced them.”

“Um, yes,” David managed, “okay.”

“I’ve seen it, you know,” the woman said, eyes fixed on the stage, and the three men smiling for the cameras. “Ten years of genius, changing the musical landscape forever, and then they walked back into the pages of history, their job through. Oh, there’s some variance in the Myriad, here and there, the breakups coming later or earlier, but in most cases the band doesn’t make it much into the Seventies before they call it quits. Some lines didn’t even get to hear ‘Abbey Road,’ while in others ‘Mandala’ was never even recorded.”

“Mandala?” David parroted back. He was confused. The woman he’d seen as the answer to the question his film was asking looked to be only another question herself.

“I’m sorry,” the woman answered, glancing over at David and shrugging apologetically. “I’m rambling, I know. I’ve just been such a big Beatles fan my whole life, and this is such a big day for me.”

David’s face screwed up in confusion.

“A big day? Today? Why?”

The woman held a slender finger up to her lips, and David caught sight of light glinting off a wide silver bracelet on her left wrist, the suggestion of a faceted jewel around its curve.

“Shh,” she breathed, nodding her head towards the stage. “Watch and you’ll see.”

The fervor from the audience had mostly died down, and the press agent was handing things over to the three men. McCartney, sitting to the far left of the table, began things, still the consummate showman.

Promising to field questions after their prepared speeches, McCartney spoke briefly about the long history and friendship the three men shared, and of the hard times following the tragic death of their fourth, missing friend in 1980. He spoke about the continued impact of their music on generation after generation of fans, and about the ongoing musical projects the three men pursued individually. He spoke, finally, about the persistent questions about and calls for some kind of reunion of the three, and of their long and stalwart reluctance to pursue the idea.

“It always seemed to us, you know,” McCartney concluded, “that with just the three of us, it wouldn’t be the Beatles, it would just be the three of us making music. There was no way we could ask someone to fill in those shoes, because frankly, who would want to? They were just too big.”

“So we’ve found someone with big feet,” interrupted the next man down.

“Okay, okay, you’ll get your turn,” McCartney answered, miming offense. “Here you go, you bastard, take it.” He pushed his mic away in a mock show of disgust, and leaned back, arms across his chest. “Take it away, John, it’s all yours,” he finished with a smile.

“Thank you kindly, Paul,” Lennon answered. “Now, like I was so rudely interrupting, when Pete was killed back in 1980, I figured, well, that’s the end of the Beatles for sure, isn’t it? You can dissolve business partnerships, break up contracts, and piss on each other’s shoes, but so long as everyone’s still around and breathing there’s still a chance, right? But with Pete gone, well, that’s it. Who’s going to want to step into Pete Best’s shoes, right, even if we asked them to? Nobody. And then, last year, we found somebody that was more than willing to, cause he already had.”

“Back in the Beatles days,” George Harrison interrupted, leaning into his mic, “Pete came down with tonsillitis or some such right before we had to go on a tour of Holland and Hong Kong. Sick as a dog, really. We wanted to cancel the tour, but Brian Epstein, our manager, wouldn’t have it. He wanted to hire up a session musician and finish out the tour without Pete.”

“We didn’t care much for the idea,” McCartney chimed in, “but in the end we figured we’d pick somebody we knew to sit in, and then maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. So we found this guy, still playing in Liverpool, who we’d known back in Hamburg, when he played with a band called Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. A hell of a nice guy, and probably a better drummer than Pete at that point, if we were honest.”

“Pete didn’t really get grooving as a drummer, I don’t think,” Lennon cut in, “until around the second American tour.”

“Anyway,” Harrison went on, raising an eyebrow at his two former bandmates, tapping his watch and indicating they should move on, “last year I was up in Liverpool visiting relatives when I ran into this guy again. He’s still playing, in a church band or something, but works days as a foreman at the docks. We got to talking, and he invited me around to hear him rehearse, and I just couldn’t believe it. Here was this guy, a dock worker who hadn’t played professionally in what, twenty years, thirty, who can play like no one I’ve heard in years. Later I was talking to Paul about him, and then to John, and one thing led to another…”

“And to another…” Lennon added.

“And here we are,” McCartney said. “And here he is. Ladies and gentleman, may I introduce to you, once again after all of these years, Ritchie Starkey.”

David recognized the man who appeared at the door from archival footage from the 1964 Holland performance. A little more haggard, balding with a beard, he grinned beneath his prominent nose and joined the three Beatles at the table, taking the fourth seat at the end. The four Beatles, David corrected himself. He turned back to the woman at his side to find her climbing to her feet.

She was smiling broader than before, three-quarters shading to full, and heading towards the door.

“Wait!” David shouted, jumping up and rushing after her. “Where are you going?”

“They’re performing together in a month, the four of them, in New York at the Ed Sullivan Theater, and I don’t want to miss it.” Turning away, she hiked up the left sleeve of her jacket, and laid her right hand on the silver bracelet on her arm.

“But…” David answered weakly, and followed after, towards the rear of the hall and the door. “Who are you? What’s your name?”

The woman, moving faster than him, was already at the door. She turned around, and gave him a little wink.

“Roxanne,” she answered, shouldering open the door, letting a bright white light spill into the hall from beyond. “Roxanne Bonaventure.”

She slipped through, the door closing shut behind her. David made it to the door, out of breath, and shoved it open. The brilliant white light beyond was gone, replaced by the pale incandescence of the chandeliers overhead. The woman was also gone.

Later, after a fruitless search of the lobby and grounds for the woman, he returned to the hall, partially to rejoin the film crew, but primarily to retrieve the photo he’d left fluttered to the ground beneath the woman’s seat. He picked it up, smoothing out the wrinkles and dusting it off. The woman, half-smile in place and head cocked to one side, listening intently as John, Paul, George and Pete informed the world that all it really needed was love.

Copyright © 2005 by MonkeyBrain, Inc.


Friday, October 19, 2007


Free Fiction Friday: A Fencing Lesson

Today's free fiction is an interstitial chapter from the expanded Set the Seas on Fire.

In this stand-alone chapter, the young Hieronymus Bonaventure, who later features in Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, receives a fencing lesson from Giles Dulac, who may or may not be related to the Jules Dulac in the story "Secret Histories: Peter R. Bonaventure, 1885" (but which will be made clear in the forthcoming End of the Century. And along with fencing, Hieronymus received a bit of a lesson in history, as well.

excerpt from
Set the Seas on Fire
by Chris Roberson

February 1795

It was late afternoon when Hieronymus Bonaventure arrived for his lesson at the disused carriage house, not far from his parents’ home. He was running late, as usual, and Giles Dulac was there waiting for him, as always, already standing on the makeshift piste at the centre of the packed dirt floor, sword in hand.

‘Considering that the only fee asked of you is your devoted attention, young master, I wonder that your habitual tardiness does not bespeak some lack of commitment to your studies.’

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ Hieronymus said, changing from his woollen coat into a jacket of heavy canvas. ‘My father was taking me to task for a… disagreement I had with Cornelius this morning.’

Dulac answered with a weary sigh. ‘You and your brother will share a roof for some years to come, and so must come to some accord. The only alternative is that one of you should manage at last to kill the other, which solution I don’t recommend.’

‘It is an attractive notion.’ Hieronymus gave a sly smile, as he slipped the padded plastron over his head and shoulders, and drew the heavy leather gloves over his hands. ‘At least then I could be reasonably sure that my books and papers would remain where I put them, and not be later found strewn across the floor with a nine-year-old boy’s fingerprints outlined in jam upon them.’

‘Ah,’ Dulac said, nodding with mock solemnity, ‘but what of your sister Claudia?’

‘Not to worry.’ Hieronymus picked up his own sword, tucked his wire-mesh mask beneath his arm and took his place on the piste opposite his instructor. ‘She doesn’t like jelly.’

In response, Dulac raised his sword in a quick salute, and without another word came en garde.

Hieronymus returned the salute, pulled the mask over his head and fell into position, legs bent with his feet shoulder-width apart, front foot pointed straight ahead, back foot sideways. His sword arm was held loosely before him, point towards his opponent, his back hand held up behind his head.

The sword still felt strange in his hand. He’d been studying with Dulac for more than two years, but had only within the last month begun to fence with an actual sword, and not an iron bar twice a sword’s weight. Two years of swinging a few feet of iron, his muscles protesting daily, all the while desperate to move on to more advanced studies. Since he’d shifted from the iron to a proper sword, though, Hieronymus had to admit that Dulac had been right, and that training with the excess weight greatly eased his facility in handling the real thing.

Today, he was using a French foil with no crossbar, constructed of fine Toledo steel, with a ball blunting its point, and even weighted down with a padded plastron, leather gloves and wire-mesh mask, after the dead weight of the iron bar for so many long months it felt as though he were holding nothing at all.

‘Begin,’ Dulac said, patiently waiting for Hieronymus to make the initial attack.

Hieronymus went into a lunge, which Dulac easily parried, and while Hieronymus tried to retreat, Dulac quickly riposted, scoring a touch to the middle of Hieronymus’s bicep. Even through the thick sleeve of his canvas jacket Hieronymus could feel the sting of the hit. He’d been hit there so often in recent days that he had developed a seemingly permanent bruise, gone past purple to a greenish-yellow, a viridian circle surrounded by a rim of sallow flesh, like a miniature ringed target.

Dulac recovered his position, and regarded Hieronymus through narrowed eyes. ‘Again.’

Resisting the urge to rub his stinging bicep, Hieronymus returned to the en garde position, and began his next attack.

For the next quarter-hour, the carriage house echoed with the ring of crossed swords, the clash of steel. Attack. Parry. Riposte. Attack. Parry. Riposte. And with hit after hit, the bruises on Hieronymus’s pale flesh multiplied beneath the padded plastron.

When Dulac had first taken Hieronymus on as a pupil, he’d ordered him to forget everything he thought he knew of swordplay. Hieronymus had spent some years assembling a small personal library of fencing manuals, and had studied them with single-minded intensity, gaining a whole new vocabulary of terminology but, Dulac insisted, little insight. It hardly mattered that Hieronymus could use terms like imbrocatta, stocatta, or punta riversa; if his muscles didn’t know what those movements felt like, then the words were useless.

So it was that Dulac’s training had focused on movement, not on vocabulary. Hieronymus scarcely knew what any of the techniques he’d so far learned would be called in Mr Angelo’s famous fencing academy in Soho Square, and while it was perfectly clear that Dulac did know, it was just as clear that Dulac put little stock in the knowledge. Just how Hieronymus’s instructor, to all outward appearance a humble tutor of Latin, had come by such a mastery of swordplay remained a mystery; however, it was obvious to Hieronymus that however Dulac had come by his skill with the blade, it had been through practical application and not through the trivial pursuit of a sport. At some point, in the past about which he wouldn’t speak, Dulac had lived by the sword.

‘Don’t watch the blade,’ Dulac barked, drawing Hieronymus’s attentions back to the moment. ‘Watch my eyes. They’ll tell you everything you need to know of my movements.’

The lessons continued. Attack. Parry. Riposte. And bruises piled upon bruises.

Finally, Dulac called an end to the bout. ‘Enough!’

Dulac motioned for Hieronymus to remove his mask. The instructor seemed about to hurl his foil to the ground in frustration, but instead just fixed his pupil with a hard stare.

‘In the salles d’armes of Paris, before the Revolution, the maîtres would have ousted you from the building after so poor a showing. And I’ll admit I’m tempted to follow suit. Your mind is clearly not at the task. So what occupies your thoughts?’

Hieronymus stifled the urge to lower his gaze and shuffle his feet, and instead, as Dulac had taught him, looked his instructor in the eye and spoke in as clear a voice as possible. ‘I’m not certain, sir.’

‘Hmph. But you’ll agree with me that your thoughts on not on your efforts, I take it?’

Hieronymus drummed his fingers on the wire-mesh of his mask for a moment before answering, nervously. Finally, he said, ‘No, sir. That is, yes, I agree that I’m not concentrating.’

‘Very well,’ Dulac said with an indulgent sigh. ‘Perhaps a brief interval will allow you to collect yourself, and then we’ll try again.’

Glad for the respite, Hieronymus set his foil and mask on the floor, and took long draughts from the jug of water sitting near the wall. He tried not to meet Dulac’s eyes, as shame and guilt warmed the back of his neck.

The truth was that Hieronymus knew precisely what was occupying his thoughts, and distracting him from his fencing. But Dulac had long months before insisted that he forget such matters as soon as he entered their makeshift salle, and the punishment for infringing upon this restriction was an additional series of strenuous and time-consuming muscle-toning exercises.

Even in the face of such punishment, though, Hieronymus found himself almost entirely unable to control himself and, after nearly emptying the jug of water, turned back to Dulac. In as casual a manner as he was able, he said, ‘Have you heard the latest news?’

Dulac, who was intent on cleaning the blade of his foil, glanced up, his left eyebrow cocked. ‘Oh,’ he asked, though it was clear he knew perfectly well the answer. ‘What news would that be?’

‘Of the capture of the Dutch fleet by the French army,’ Hieronymus said, excitedly. ‘Under the command of Jean Pichegru, it appears, the French crossed the frozen Zuyder Zee river and seized the ships trapped in the winter ice.’ So animated did he get, as he recounted the anecdote, that he seemed nearly ready to dance a jig. ‘It marks the first time in history that a navy has ever been captured by an army.’

Dulac treated him to a half-smile. ‘I wouldn’t be so sure of that, young master. History is a considerable deal longer than you might expect, and the catalogue of past events, now all but forgotten, is nearly endless. You would be surprised at what strange things have happened before, and will happen again.’ He paused, significantly, and added, ‘But am I mistaken, or was there not some stricture against discussing wars and news of wars during our sessions?’ Though Dulac’s tone was on the whole playful, there was clearly steel beneath his words.

‘Oh, I beg your pardon, sir!’ Hieronymus answered in a rush. ‘But… but it’s all too… Well, sir, just this week we’ve heard the news of the fall of the Netherlands to the forces of the French. And one of my classmates says that his uncle saw Statholder William’s arrival in Dover with his own two eyes.’

Dulac sighed. ‘Little more than a decade since William V of Orange lost the latest Anglo-Dutch War to the English, and now he flees behind their coattails for protection.’

‘My mother says that the Netherlands has been virtually a vassal of King George ever since the war, scarcely less a puppet state than this Batavian Republic set up by the French, and that William was only able to control the Patriots amongst his own population through the intercession of Prussian troops.’ Hieronymus paused, and with his eyes lowered went on in a subdued voice. ‘That’s what my mother says, at any rate, based on what news she has from her own father.’

Dulac pursed his lips in an expression of sympathy. ‘So your grandfather is well, and weathers the recent troubles?’

Hieronymus nodded.

‘His name is Cornelius, too, isn’t it?’ Dulac asked.

‘Yes,’ Hieronymus answered. ‘Or near enough. Cornelis van der Waals. My brother was named for him, after a fashion. Just as I was named for my father Jerome, I suppose.’

‘A cartographer, wasn’t he?’

‘He made maps for the Dutch East India Company.’ Hieronymus raised his chin, his tone suggesting pride commingled with awe. ‘Of the coastlines of Japan, and charts of the sea-lanes to and from there.’ He paused, and a cloud passed for a moment across his features. ‘Better that I’d been named for him, and Cornelius for our father. My brother is the studious one, suited to follow in our father’s footsteps, not me. But father wants me to pursue the career of the scholar.’

‘So what career would you prefer, then?’ Dulac narrowed his eyes, looking close at his pupil.

‘I don’t know,’ Hieronymus said, with a shrug he couldn’t suppress. ‘But I know I don’t want to spend my life confined to a dusty library. I want to see the world!’ He began to pace the floor, hands curled into ineffectual fists. ‘Mother says that I have her father’s temperament, passed down through her. Father says that I have the fidgets, and need only discipline to make of me a scholar.’

‘And what do you say?’

‘I don’t know,’ Hieronymus repeated, wearily. ‘Sometimes I don’t know if I’ll ever get to leave home.’

Dulac tactfully failed to point out, as he’d done many times before, that Hieronymus was not yet fourteen years old, and had scarcely reached the stage where leaving home was an imminent proposition. Instead, a momentarily silence stretched between them, in which the tutor regarded his pupil with an amused expression.

Finally, Dulac chuckled. ‘So, young master, you are not much of a diseuse de bonne aventure, after all.’

Hieronymus didn’t understand, as his look made evident.

‘Do I take it you don’t know the meaning and history of your own surname?’

‘Oh,’ Hieronymus said. ‘I had always understood it to be a cognate to the Italian buonaventura, or “good luck”.’

‘Perhaps.’ Dulac nodded. ‘But in French, dire la bonne aventure, or “to speak the good adventure”, means fortunetelling.’

Hieronymus’s mouth reformed in a moue of distaste. ‘So my name is French?’

Dulac laughed at his pupil’s consternation. ‘I’m not sure of its ultimate origin, but so far as I know, the name Bonaventure originates in the Varadeaux region which, you may be happy to know, while it was formerly a possession of France, is now under the control of the Prussian king. But whatever its roots, it is a name of which to be proud.’

Hieronymus blew air through his lips, making an undignified noise. ‘I see no reason to take pride in my name.’

‘Oh, no?’ Dulac mimed surprise. ‘Then perhaps you should count yourself lucky that you are not able to share those sentiments with Etienne Bonaventure, who served king and country in seventeenth-century France, in the days of Louis XIII and Richelieu. I doubt a musketeer of his calibre would take so kindly to the casual dismissal of a name he bore proudly? Or perhaps Amandine Bonaventure, opera singer and swordswoman at the turn of the eighteenth century, who affected male dress and counted men and women alike amongst her conquests, both martial and amorous?’

Hieronymus’s eyes opened wider as he parsed that last statement. ‘Men and women?’

‘She was as willing to face either sex with her blade, and just as willing to welcome either to her bed.’

If possible, Hieronymus’s eyes opened even wider.

‘And what of Achille Bonaventure, who in the sixteenth century explored the new world with Jacques Cartier, journeyed to the kingdom of Saguenay, and helped found La Society de Lucien? Did he fight and bleed only to have his good name dismissed so casually by his namesake?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘And perhaps you’d like to…’ Dulac paused, his words choked off, and a brief expression of pain flitted across his features, before vanishing again. Regaining his composure, he continued. ‘And perhaps you’d like to explain yourself to Michel-Thierry Bonaventure.’

Dulac fell silent again, for a brief moment, and his gaze drifted to the middle distance.

‘Who was he, then?’ Hieronymus asked, somewhat overwhelmed.

‘Michel-Thierry was a mercenary with whom I served in the DeMeuron Regiment. And he was my friend.’

Hieronymus’s breath caught in his throat. There was a quality to Dulac’s voice that he’d not heard before, and this marked the first occasion on which Dulac had revealed anything of his life before their initial meeting.

‘What is that? The DeMeuron Regiment?’

Dulac turned and looked at Hieronymus, wearing a strange expression, almost like he was seeing the boy for the first time.

‘The regiment is a Swiss company of mercenaries, its name taken from that of its founder and first commander, the Comte Charles de Meuron, veteran of the regiment D’Erlach and the Swiss Guard. During the majority of my tenure with the DeMeuron, the regiment was in the employ of the VOC, better known in English, I suppose, as the Dutch East India Company.’

Hieronymus felt like he was a beat or two behind, slow to catch up to the pace of the revelations. ‘So you… You were a soldier?’ If so, it confirmed many of his suspicions about his instructor.

‘For a span,’ Dulac admitted, his tone subdued, ‘and not for the first time. But I’m in no hurry to be one again, and never will, if I can help it.’

Hieronymus puzzled through what Dulac had said. ‘But you are British. How did you come to serve a company of Swiss mercenaries?’

‘I was recruited in the region of Varadeaux in 1782, as was my friend Michel-Thierry. We served together four years, seeing action on three continents, countless islands and seemingly half of the world’s oceans.’ Dulac fell silent once more, and again his gaze drifted to the middle distance, lines forming around his eyes, perhaps the sign of some dimly remembered pain.

So Dulac had begun his soldier’s career when Hieronymus had been scarcely a year old. Hieronymus found it difficult to imagine what the younger Dulac must have been like. Whatever the details, it was clear that Dulac’s experiences as a mercenary had marked him in some way, and though there were no scars evident in his skin, perhaps there were other forms of scarring, more subtle and yet more indelible still.

‘What happened to your friend?’ Hieronymus asked at length. ‘What became of this Michel-Thierry.’

Dulac turned, and for a long moment looked at Hieronymus in silence, studying him closely. ‘He died needlessly,’ Dulac finally said, breaking the silence with an air of finality that suggested that was an end to the topic.

Something seemed to pass between them, in the silence that followed, and Hieronymus wondered whether there was something he was expected to say, or to do. But before he could act, whatever the case, Dulac leapt to his feet, snatching up his foil.

‘But enough of such sombre topics,’ he said, striding back to the piste, forcing a bright tone into his voice. ‘While we do our warming-up exercises, to limber our limbs, I’ll tell you a bit about my days in the DeMeuron. You mentioned Japan earlier. Once, Michel-Thierry and I were seconded to a VOC delegation from the Chamber of Enkhuizen, and sent to act as little more than bodyguards to a bureaucrat on the artificial island of Desjima.’

Dulac sliced his foil through the air with a whistling sound, while Hieronymus tugged on his gloves and fitted his mask over his head.

‘Tell me, young master,’ Dulac went on, ‘in your mother’s stories of her father, have you ever heard mention of the word Rangaku?’

With a shake of his head, Hieronymus allowed that he hadn’t. Then, while he went through a series of lunges, thrusting his sword hand forward and throwing his other back for balance, his instructor examined his technique and explained.

‘It is the Japanese word for “Dutch learning”, and is used to mean any knowledge derived from the west. As you are doubtless aware, for hundreds of years the island of Japan has been closed off from all contact with the outside world, with one notable exception, namely, the Dutch, who are allowed to maintain a “factory”, or trading post, on Desjima, an “island” of wood constructed in the bay of Nagasaki. Mind that foot, young master, you continue to turn it inwards and you’ll regret it in the long run. Desjima is intended to act as a buffer between the Japanese and the base barbarians of the west, and as such the Dutch are prohibited from passing over the narrow bridge from the wooden island onto the Nagasaki shore, and the Japanese are banned from entering Desjima—except of course for the ladies known as yūjo, though perhaps your ears are still too young to hear about them. Keep that back leg straight in the lunge, or you lose your support. There are occasional exceptions to these restrictions, scholars periodically allowed onto the island of Japan for one reason or another, and of course the perennial visit of the Dutch legation to the court of the shogun.’

A familiar half-smile tugged up one corner of Dulac’s mouth, and he paused for a moment, chuckling to himself.

‘That is where Michel-Thierry and I come into the story, and where the problems begin. Now, let’s try a few bouts, and see if your attentions are with your efforts.’

The pair took their positions facing each other on the piste, saluted and then closed, crossing swords. As they fenced, Dulac continued to speak, perhaps testing Hieronymus’s concentration, perhaps just not willing to leave off, interspersing his anecdote with instruction.

‘The head of the Dutch factory is called opperhoofd, and carries the equivalent position in the Japanese hierarchy to that of a daimyo, a rank something like an English duke or count but with considerably more power. Like the daimyo, once a year the opperhoofd was called upon to journey to Edo, to pay obeisance to the Japanese ruler, the shogun, and to present him with gifts—which gifts the Shogun had invariably selected in advance, so that the legation served as little more than freight-carriers with bespoke goods. Try to expend as little effort as possible to redirect the point of my blade. Here, begin a simple attack and I’ll demonstrate.

Hieronymus thrust his sword’s point forward, and Dulac simply swivelled his wrist, describing with his own foil a small circle around Hieronymus’s blade, turning it aside.

‘Always an economy of motion. Never engage in flourishes or wasted effort, but apply only the resources necessary to the task. Again. Now, as I said, Michel-Thierry and I had been seconded as a security detachment to Desjima, and when it came time for the opperhoofd’s annual pilgrimage to the shogun’s palace, we were selected to escort him. You see, the opperhoofd had made some enemies among the Japanese gentry, those who quietly opposed the shogun’s policies, and while these malcontents were hardly eager to rise up against their own ruler, they could with greater ease take out their frustrations on foreign dignitaries. As a result, shortly before the legation was set to depart from Desjima, word was received that assassins had been hired to take the opperhoofd’s life. However, by Japanese law only civilian members of the opperhoofd’s staff could go on the pilgrimage, and so Michel-Thierry and I were forced to pose as the opperhoofd’s scribe and the factory doctor. That Michel-Thierry’s penmanship was horrible would have been apparent even to Japanese unable to read the letters, and so he was selected instead to play the part of the doctor. You should anticipate, and attempt to turn a defensive manoeuvre into an offensive one. Try to feint the first parry to draw out the attack, and then use the second parry as your real parry for the riposte. That’s it, now again. So it was that on a bright spring morning the opperhoofd, Michel-Thierry and I set out from Desjima on the long journey to Edo, under the watchful eyes of our escorts, the shogun’s own warriors. The journey took days, in which Michel-Thierry and I were constantly vigilant, never sure from what corner danger might present itself, or in what guise death might come for the opperhoofd. Finally we reached the Nagasakiya, the residence prepared for the legation, where we were to wait until summoned.’

Dulac took a step back, barely winded from his exertions, while Hieronymus felt his heart pounding in his chest, the blood rushing in his ears, trying desperately not to pant.

‘Keep that elbow tucked in. Your arms and legs seem always to want to rush away from your body, but your thrust loses its impetus if your arm is out of line. As it happened, our stay in the capital lasted for more than two weeks, during which time we waited on the shogun’s pleasure, and busied ourselves as befitted the Dutch legation. Michel-Thierry, as the supposed doctor of the legation, was expected to meet with the local practitioners, to exchange techniques and the like, while the opperhoofd met with merchants in an attempt to negotiate better terms for the VOC, with me at his side keeping careful record of the interaction. That’s it. Now, we’ll see what happens when the attack fall just short, but your attacker does not withdraw. I regret that I was unable to see Michel-Thierry’s star turn as a doctor myself, but then I was busy keeping careful watch over the opperhoofd, looking out for any sign of danger, and so had to forgo the pleasure. Finally, we were called to court where, after presenting our gifts, we were expected to perform Dutch dances and songs for the shogun.’ Dulac chuckled. ‘I don’t know that “O Dag, O Langgewenste Dag” has ever had a sorrier interpretation than that we gave it, but nevertheless I maintain that I remained in tune, whereas Michel-Thierry would likely not have been able to pronounce a convincing Dutch vowel if his life depended on it. In any event, the opperhoofd paid proper homage to the shogun, and received a token gift of plum wine in exchange, and then we were sent on our merry way back to Desjima.’

Dulac, without missing a beat, returned en garde, parried and then immediately riposted, at which Hieronymus dropped into a squat and thrust with his sword, all in one motion. As he’d hoped, Hieronymus managed to drop completely beneath the point of Dulac’s foil, and scored a slight but undeniable hit on Dulac’s chest with the point of his own foil.

‘Good, good,’ Dulac said, nodding in admiration. ‘A risky move, but a useful one. But remember to keep your bell guard high, which should provide the maximum protection against your opponent’s point hitting your top shoulder.’

Hieronymus, now thoroughly winded, took off his mask and put his hands on his knees, struggling to catch his breath.

‘What…’ he began, raggedly. ‘What happened with the opperhoofd? And the assassins?’

‘Hmm?’ Dulac blinked for a moment, confused. He’d clearly lost the thread of the story amongst the details, fondly remembering his lost friend. ‘Well, as it happens, the assassins were simply smarter, and had infiltrated the staff of the shogun. When we returned to Desjima, the opperhoofd toasted his safe return with the plum wine given him by the shogun, and promptly dropped dead on the spot.’


‘Poisoned. Which, I suppose, should serve you well as an illustrative example. When dealing with the unknown—whether fencing an unknown opponent, entering a strange land, or dealing with a person or people unfamiliar to you—remember one thing: that the unknown is exactly that. Not known. The moment one assumes that he understands that which he doesn’t, he is inviting disaster.’

Copyright © MonkeyBrain, Inc.


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