Just a note to say The Mesmerist won this month just gone’s /r/fantasywriters competition.
There will be more to come :). Thank you very much to everyone who voted for me or left a complimentary comment.
Just a note to say The Mesmerist won this month just gone’s /r/fantasywriters competition.
There will be more to come :). Thank you very much to everyone who voted for me or left a complimentary comment.
My entry into the /r/fantasywriters monthly writing competition for February. This is behind a cut, because there are some rather explicit aspects to this story.
‘In honor of Valentine’s Day, this month’s challenge is about romance. Competitors are invited to write a fantasy story of 1,500 words or less that centers around a romance. Depending on your views on the holiday (lame cliche or adorable love-fest), your interpretation here may be different. Happy couples, doomed/star-crossed lovers, love spells, and unrequited love are all welcome. All that matters is that your fantasy story centers on a romance of some type.
A short composition based on the current week’s /r/worldbuilding subreddit weekly challenge: Waste Management.
From the sub’s blurb: This one won’t be as glamorous and fun as some, but it’s something worth thinking about: what do the people in your world do with their trash? Pile it up in landfills, burn it for heat and energy, eject it into space, toss it all into a Bag of Devouring (just look at the hungry little guy)? Tell us about creative or unique methods of “Waste Management” in your worlds.
The writing is from the point of view of a character who appears in the fourth book of my series, provisionally titled Achava.
From the notes of Franciszek Lipka, ethnographer and folklorist, 1,969th year, Insulan Calendar.
‘All human beings are inclined to adapt their lifestyle to the terrain, and the peasants of the Kila delta are no exception. Boreal marshland creates an instability in the soil which presents a known difficulty to securing the foundations in the city of Syevirmetyevo, but also has been found to cause problems with the burial of the dead. Corpses surface readily after a month or two in the mud, and so traditional burials are virtually unknown.
‘I travelled to the region myself to observe the funeral of a particular shaman, Vassilisa Smaragdova, a great ascetic who wandered the delta region proclaiming the coming of the apocalypse. What set her apart from the simply mad hedge prophets was that she did this in many degrees of frost in only the simple monastic garb. Her funeral in Mogilyovka – which means Gravestown – was attended by hundreds.
‘Even if Smaragdova had been the daughter of a landowner or peasant mayor, she would still have been buried in a simple shift. Unlike others elsewhere who will not violate a corpse lest they wound the soul in the next life, the peasants here do not believe that, after death, the human body possesses any special relevance. It is waste which might pollute drinking water if left to fester in the ground. Smaragdova was transported on a simple litter to the site by the elders of the village where she grew up, naked apart from a shift to protect her dignity; it would be wrong to waste good cloth on the marsh. As the foothills of the Middle Mountains rise beyond Mogilyovka, the ground is firmer and can take the bodies of modern townspeople without regurgitating them. For centuries, the peasants of the downstream region have brought their dead to large boulders littering the sides of the road – hence the town’s morbid name.
‘Accordingly, we tramped a verst from the road towards the river itself, and found a suitable rock on which to lay the shaman to rest. A priest said a few dry words, and then we left. A simple ceremony, conducted by simple people, for a simple person. Scavenging birds wheeling overhead indicated what would happen next.
‘Public health officials now forbid this practice in most ordinary cases, insisting on earth burials and so there were no other corpses surrounding the slab on which Smaragdova was laid to await her fate. I returned the following morning to see what might have happened in the night, and what a person eaten by buzzards might look like. I saw the ground churned up by the many booted feet, so I knew it was the right one, but it was empty. By the rock, I saw a single print from a naked foot. It is said some holy people do not decompose in death, but Smaragdova had ascended to Minerva.
‘Her body was too good for this world to simply be treated as rubbish.’
A flash fiction prompt from /r/worldbuilding, this time, courtesy of their Weekly Challenge.
“You have been found guilty of committing grievous atrocities against your country, your fellow man, and your sovereign ruler. For your crimes, you have been sentenced to a fate many consider to be worse than death: exile. You will be escorted to the borders of the realm and then sent out into the wilderness to live or die at the gods’ whims.”
Let’s talk about “Exiles“. What terrible crimes can earn someone such a fate in your world? Where are exiles sent, and what are their chances of survival? What notorious figures have been exiled and what became of them?
My response comes from slightly further forward in the Nine Lives of Michal Piech series, from a book provisionally titled Points of the Compass. Squire Jerzy Zakowski receives a mysterious letter. It’s based on the historical concept of ‘blackbirding’, which involved the kidnap and shipment of indigenous peoples from Asia and Australasia overseas for forced labour.
Dear Madame Zakowska, the letter read.
“I received your letter of 15 Krasnia and apologise for the delay in response. This was due to a large number of enquiries since the beginning of the summer. Our programme has been unexpectedly popular, particularly in the wake of such extraordinary civil violence that we saw at the beginning of this year.
Jerzy Zakowski’s mother had evidently requested this information before the shoot had cemented Michal’s poor reputation in the village. The young squire shook his head and skimmed through the initial formalities swiftly.
We know how important it is to many institutions and estates that troublemakers are removed from circulation without the tedium or uncertainty of legal process. We take all comers; there is therefore no need to inquire whether the physical strength of the person in question will be suitable for our purposes, or whether we take the fairer sex. We have as much use for women as we have for men. Although their virtue may be put at risk due to communal living quarters and the presence of our troops, those who come to us have often already surrendered it, as you note Miss Osiatynska has. Some of them even rediscover their dignity.
She had obviously asked after a place for Kasia as well.
Many have found that after a certain period of settlement they have improved in health and vigour, and have discovered a fortitude and taste for honest work which modern life has failed to inculcate. There is every chance of rehabilitation and even prosperity for someone who comes to us. Even women have numbered amongst our hardest physical labourers. There is no fixed sentence; rather, a board will assess whether a person has earned their liberty, though passage back to Insula is not on offer under usual circumstances.
There are certain privations and necessary hardships in life in the colonies, and much infrastructure needing to be built in the short time we have before formal incorporation of Lenkija and Vesgale into the Empire. A uniform and closed barracks are the initial situation for the deportee, as might be expected from any penal institution on Imperial soil. Escape attempts are rare but punished severely. Runaways find no succour among the locals, because of the theft and violence that occurs when these people achieve the freedom they squandered over here.
Since this is often used to rehabilitate petty offenders, you need not make it a choice. As a landowner, you have the right to order Piasecki and Osiatynska to come with us, but I suggest you leave it to us to enforce your orders. We do not want anyone else getting hurt in the process.
I hope this satisfies your request for information.
I am, as always, your obedient servant,
Dr Arvid Chislenko, Mjr, Medical Corps, Krovt division, 18 Lipnia 1,986 IC.
Zakowski threw the letter on the floor and stalked out. “I will not be a part of this barbarity. Ever.”
This month’s /r/fantasywriters competition entry: the brief was to write a comic story about magic getting out of control from fellow WordPress blogger and fantasy author WordsWithSharpEdges:
I love me some serious, thoughtful fantasy… but sometimes it’s fun to let your characters go on a romp and do something ridiculous like undermine the fabric of reality to impress a date or accidentally unleash eldritch horrors on the world while researching where missing socks go. In 2,000 words or less, write a funny short story where magic goes horribly wrong (or horribly right).
It’s also another adventure featuring Zbigniew ‘Zbych’ Piech, the captain depicted in my short story, The Orderly, available free from Smashwords via the link above.
“Can’t let them get away with it, the murderous bastards.”
“What by Pierun the fleet was doing sailing away from Velikoryb at the time I don’t know.”
“Why you here then?”
“Well…s’appened now, ain’t it?”
“They’re evacuating Achava. Why aren’t they shipping us off? We’re closer than they are…”
“They’d ’ave to cross the Middle Mountains to get to us. They’d go for the Salvats first – the road’s wide open and Podhalensko’s just a coal-heap. Pile of slag’s not going to stop ’em if they’ve already got two cities of ours.”
Zbych passed through the outer office on his way into the receiving room. The first posters had gone up yesterday, the ink still wet from the printers; the first advertisements had been placed in the newspapers that day. The first refugees were arriving in Krovt, soaked to the bone with autumn rain.
And the first people were grousing about the Empire’s stupidity in moving that damn fleet back to Glasberg, even as they had come to volunteer to defend it.
As the clock struck nine hours, he was greeted by the press of bodies, and a queue that snaked all the way round the side of the Military Hospital in Krovt, several deep. Nothing like the thought that they were only a hundred and fifty versts away from the front to mobilise a city’s population.
“Here, guv’nor – you taking everyone?” a young man chirped as he gave the captain a playful shove.
“Most people, yes. If you can walk and hold a gun, you can fight. Stand aside.”
There was a little more to it than that, and this should have been done three months ago when the Lenks were first rattling their sabres. It could have been more orderly, and mobilisation might have discouraged them from landing on the dockside and attacking tenements full of ordinary people.
Zbych squeezed into the office where the recruiting sergeant was pushing back men from the table. “Any trouble, Vasya?”
At that point, one enthusiastic volunteer almost took the sergeant’s spectacles off with his copy of the illustrated journal Okno k Miru, Window on the World, a special edition with the army’s begging letter on its front cover.
Zbych shook his head and sat down, opening up another line. “Calm down,” he barked. “You’ll all get served.”
The room hushed.
The sergeant turned his eyes back to his own group of men. “You must be a wonder on the parade ground, captain,” he said as he handed the beetle-browed young man in front of him a card and told him to take himself to the medical officer. “You’re going to need it with this lot.” His lips had formed the word rabble, but he had thought better of it.
“It helps, Vasya.”
“You don’t sound too convinced,” the sergeant replied.
“I’m afraid you’re too old, sir,” Zbych said, looking up into the eyes of a besuited man with sagging cheeks, fiddling with his watch-chain. “We only take those under forty.”
“I’m thirty-nine,” the man asserted. “I’ve not yet turned forty and I was…” He tapped the pamphlet he carried. “Look here: ‘18-40 year olds’. You’ve got to let me join up. I was born in Syevirmetyevo. Those are my relatives, sir…It’ll be short! Over by Yule, they’re saying! The Empire can’t possibly allow the beasts to take two cities without repercussions.”
Zbych took the pamphlet. Normal recruitment was up to the age of 35, but with the enemy pouring onto Krovot and Salvat soil like ants, forty was permissible. There were some men who looked to be in their late thirties in the corridor pushing their snouts into the room in quiet anxiety that by the time they got their uniforms it would be over. Zbych fixed the man with a stare.
It hit him right before the eyes. The man had only just turned forty-one. In fact, Zbych could read his exact date and time of birth. It came to him in a flash of light and a whirling of calendar dates, like the spinning numbers on his desk back at the barracks. 13 Sierpien, 1,930th year of the Insulan Calendar; in other words, 13 Sickle, the eighth month of the year. This was the end of Vieriesien, Heather, the ninth month.
“You’ve been forty-one for six weeks, haven’t you?” Zbych said.
The man, who had been nervously fingering his watch-fob and had his eyes cast down, nodded.
“You do realise you’d have had to show your papers at some point,” the captain said. “No getting away with it.”
“But you said…”
“We’re also at the mercy of the doctors,” Zbych said, cursing his simplistic statement earlier on. “If they don’t pass you fit, you won’t be going. If you want to help, the war office will need people. A good reference from your employer and you can help fill a younger man’s place at the stavka. But I suggest you remain in your current position. If the Middle Mountains are crossed or Podhalensko falls, we’ll be reassessing the situation. For now, Krovt is safer than you think. The trains out are packed enough as it is.”
Zbych had known of his talent for ordering people about, and been wary about misusing it; no-one liked a bully. But this new ability seemed to have little consequence for his reputation. He checked everyone. He had to do it consciously, but for most people the dates fell in the right place and he waved people through. After a while, the vision of a spinning calendar disappeared, and he only saw the numerals.
Some he turned down pleaded that they were terrifically fit for forty, having followed this-or-that physical culture correspondence course. Some were old soldiers themselves, decorated the last time the Lenks had been restless and had to be put in their place, but Zbych noted that one man was even carrying a cane and trying to pass himself off as fit. He got a few pugnacious women try to pretend to be boys, but recommended that they seek employment in munitions factories further south if they could leave the city.
By the end of the day there were still people waiting, but he was permitted to clock off and hand over to another shift of officers. He walked down the line towards the entrance to the officers’ mess, looking at them through these new lenses and sending a few of the too-old and too-young packing. The sergeants were normally accommodated elsewhere, but he invited Vasya to the commissioned men’s refectory as a reward for his hard work. They sat down at a table, and Zbych produced a case of cigarillos. “Better than those papirosy.”
“Yup,” Vasya said.
Zbych lit a smoke, leaned back and relaxed. As his mind unravelled from the day’s stress, he suddenly blinked in surprise. Each person around him now wore their date of birth on their sleeve. The mess stewards. The orderly cleaning the floor and emptying the bins. A woman draped over the arm of her aristocratic lover, who was flouting the rules and had brought her in from outside, though no-one cared. Vasya himself.
He rubbed his eyes.
Then it seemed as if everything had a birth-date. The chairs and tablecloths, the food arriving on the table. The curtains delicately screening the continuing clamour of the new recruits from view.
The mess was plastered and painted in fresh colours, but he could see the date on which that paint was applied, not that long ago according the long string of numbers unfolding across the wall. The glass on the window beyond the curtains was etched with another date, and the ceilings bore their own stamp. He gripped the table as if the room was spinning.
Vasya had his hand on Zbych’s arm. “We need a glass of water,” the sergeant begged of the steward who had already brought them their meal.
“17 Travien,” Zbych said, nodding. He frowned.
“What? What has my birthday to do with anything?” Vasya asked.
“29 Sychen.” Cutting-month.
“Is that your birthday?”
Zbych shook his head and put his hand up to his mouth, as if he had just breathed fire.
Vasya chortled. “Come on, sir, enough of this. You’ve been doing this all day, telling people when they were born. Let it go.”
“Flower-month? What’s got into you?”
“25 Zhovtien!” Yellow-month.
“Knock it off, captain. You’ve had your joke.”
Zbych put his head in his hands and tried to articulate what he thought was happening, but each time he opened his mouth, a random date came out.
The sergeant stood up and called over a steward. “Get Doctor Chislenko. He knows magic when he sees it. Maybe he’ll know what’s going on.”
Zbych took a drink of water, hoping that this might solve the problem, but it didn’t. He stood up and ran out of the room.
Doctor Arvid Chislenko stood over Zbych in the private consulting room. “Bit of an embarrassing problem, eh, Piech?”
Zbych nodded, dumbly. He could still see all the dates on which everything was made; the room’s equipment was brand new, the bedlinen, the stethoscope, even Chislenko’s chair. The Osipovo hospital had recently been upgraded at vast expense. A couple of friends had complained that the money had gone to the army rather than the shabby public infirmary in Krasnaya Polyana. In amongst his fear at the runaway talent, he was curious as to what he’d see there if he dared look.
“Well, don’t worry about this being permanent,” the doctor said in his pinched voice. “You’re not mad. Just under the influence, so to speak, of what happens when we forget magic is a tool rather than a crutch.”
Zbych smirked and coughed.
“It’ll wear off overnight. I could put you out with valeriate if you want.”
The captain opened his mouth, and then realised what might happen if he spoke. So he reached for a scrap of paper on the doctor’s desk, manufactured on the 9 Sierpien the previous year. 4 Krasien 12 Bieriesien 6 Liutiy he wrote.
“Nice handwriting,” Chislenko observed.
Zbych flung the pencil across the room.
“Temper, temper. You’re a grown man, not a little boy. Nod for yes, shake your head for no. Now, would you like to go to sleep now? To save yourself from further humiliation?”
Doctor Chislenko gave a cold smile and mixed up a glass of sedative. “Go and get ready for bed, and for goodness sake don’t try and communicate with anyone. I’ll let the brass know what’s happened.”
“Will I be able to do that again?” Zbych asked the doctor a few days later, the next time they ran into each other in the mess. The recruitment surge continued, and men were awaiting dispatch to the front. The regular army was holding Podhalensko, but the Lenks had reached the Kila at Paszynsko in Salvatka, eighty versts from Krovt, where an artillery battalion had held the Krovot bank making use of an old fort and prevented the enemy from crossing the river.
“You mean determine someone’s age just from looking at them?”
Zbych nodded. As Chislenko had prophesied, the night’s sleep had done him good and he had been hoarse but speaking properly in the morning.
“You still have that ability, but a magician must keep control of his talents,” Chislenko said with a curt nod. “There’s a reason you don’t like to bark orders at people, isn’t there?”
“I want people to love and respect me. I read about how Bulovkin cultivated his regiment and gained their loyalty through kindness rather than fear.”
“But they won’t if you make a fool or a bully of yourself. Am I right?”
Zbych took a drink of his tea. “You’re right.”
“Good man,” Chislenko said, with a smile, warmer this time.
A short story examining the relationship between Halina and Wladek Piech and providing an alternative angle on the events of Ludlin. It’s my entry into the November writing challenge from the /r/fantasywriters subreddit (approx 2,990 words, including the title). The title comes from a Polish idiom meaning ‘the middle of nowhere’ – thanks to Coyote’s Own on the RPG.net forum for this information. The brief for the challenge is ‘Tragedy without Death’.
Where the Devil Says Goodnight
Wherever he was, Michal was not in the light.
Wladek had gone south to try to find him. There were definite impressions she had during one of her séances of a workhouse where he had been imprisoned after falling ill in the streets. He had been robbed – “skinned” as people put it, and probably abandoned there rather than killed. But she could get no indication of what might happen to him, or whether she was allowed to hope for his rescue or escape; not from spirit or the gods, at least. The words where the devil says goodnight lingered on her lips. It was a Salvat idiom referring to desolate places beyond human ken; one might say it of a remote village in the heart of the mountains where there were more wolves than people. The southern province of Brest, Halina thought, was also such a place; the people there with their different habits, their foreign language and this rough, chaotic city that Michal had chosen to live in rather than the stately and solid Imperial capital, Galistow, part of their own province, no less. But the spirits remained neutral, and guided shamans and priests of all nationalities.
The emphasis on the Devil, meanwhile, made even an experienced and well-read shaman like Halina tremble.
Usually serene and with a deeper understanding of human behaviour than many, she knew she was too emotionally attached to this problem to be able to dispense the wisdom with which she dealt with others’ problems. She had spoken with her sister-in-law, Grazina, whose son had been crippled by childhood meningitis; after years of resentment that Halina’s son had survived the same epidemic of the deadly disease unscathed, since Michal’s disappearance they had come closer together.
But that did not bring Michal home.
She was on her way to something forbidden. A shaman should not dabble in fortune-telling, but she could not detach herself enough not to read her own tea leaves under the pretence of draining her cup, or make head or tail of a hand of cards in secret. Her carriage was taking her down from the village of Kruczewo, where the Piech family seat was, into Panczewo, the nearest town. It clattered down a side-street, and stopped outside a shabby stone tenement, its grimy windows etched with the name ANTONIA KOLINSKA.
Beside the door, Halina could just about make out the word for witch. Still in mourning for Michal’s apparent death, she had come dressed plainly, with a black mantilla draped across her bonnet and shoulders for privacy. The lady of the manor did not normally consort with witches. Shamans and priests distanced themselves from active sorcery in the way that some village wisewomen and town practitioners did not. The gods directed magic and dispensed insight, not mortals. Yet some mortals defied this divine order and meddled in the occult.
She had good reason to be angry with the old woman. Kolinska had once frightened her son with a direct fortune about the Devil and Death at the Panczewo fair some years past, while he was still at the Galistow lyceum and had not gone south. Halina had expressed her disappointment in him – in fact, she had given him the slipper for disobeying her edict not to go to fortune tellers – and had tried to get Kolinska banned from the fair. Wladek had intervened to prevent her wrecking someone else’s livelihood because of a spooked pair of young men; Michal had gone with a friend and their fortunes had apparently got mixed up together, the prophecy useless.
And now she was at her mercy.
The house was small and rather dirty. Kolinska evidently made little money from her talents. Halina looked around until her eyes became accustomed to the gloom, and rang the bell on the counter, holding the handle lightly as if it was red hot. The old woman entered the front room, and her face turned sour. “You’ve come to me, Madame Piech? To what do I owe the honour?”
Halina shook her head, gravely. “I was wrong, Antonia. Forgive me. He’s not in the light. Spirit tells me he is still alive, but I cannot find him.”
“We both agree your son has a destiny.”
Halina tried to hold back the thought that Kolinska had actually cursed her son; she knew better than many people that fortune-tellers merely told people their future, rather than forced them to undergo a fate of their choosing. “Destiny is a mountain. There are many paths up it. If Michal has gone for a reason, then I need to know it in order to put my mind at rest.”
“And what gives you the right to peace of mind?” Kolinska snapped. “What makes you so special?” She sat down at her old desk and unlocked a drawer in it, withdrawing some battered cards. “Draw one.”
Halina fumbled with her purse. “How much?”
“Your word of honour that you will cease slandering me to others and afford me some of the dignity you keep to yourself. Stop calling me a blasphemer because I do not subscribe to your narrow view of the Goddess’ will.”
“Minerva will determine our fates. She wove them Herself long before we were born, and she is the only one who knows exactly what will happen to Michal.”
“So why do you not take comfort from that?”
Halina swallowed and took a card, her hand trembling, and turned the card over. It was the Devil, an image of the ancient thunder-god Piorun dispensing justice. The interloper god. Everyone had different names for him, but he was the same entity to everyone, just like the four deities – mother, father, brother, sister – making up the holy family.
“Come on! I haven’t got all day! Another three cards.”
Halina turned over the Sorcerer, the Sundering, and the Angel.
“There we go. Fate has spoken. We see a tiny part of the Goddess’ tapestry. As I told your son and his friend when they saw me together, one will die and be reborn, one will die in battle, and one will be king of his own country – or Governor, as you will.” Contempt continued to drip from her voice, and Halina lowered her gaze to the cards. “But the Angel more clearly tells me what will happen to Michal within the space of a year or two. It’s not your place to interfere, but you need to seek out his saviour to truly put your mind at rest.”
“So this is where he becomes…” Halina’s voice cracked in trepidation. This was no clearer than her own séances. “The spirits told me he was ‘where the devil says goodnight’.”
Kolinska looked up at Halina but said nothing. She took her cards back, shuffled them, and replaced them in the drawer. “Your time is up. I can’t answer for spirits; you know I can’t. I hear them only fleetingly, which is why I use the cards to focus. I still can’t tell you whether Michal is the one that rules, or whether he is the one who dies.”
Halina whisked her mantilla over her face, which was already flushed, her throat tight and choking. She turned from Kolinska, taking her smelling salts out of her purse and taking a few deep breaths of hartshorn underneath the veil. She could feel the witch’s stare on the back of her neck. “Don’t come the innocent with me. I think you know the spirits better than that.”
She could feel a dull headache come on, the atmosphere in the room souring like milk on a summer’s day.
Eventually, Kolinska sighed. “I’m sorry for your loss,” the old woman said. Halina turned back round at the sound of a friendlier voice. The fortune-teller held out her hands, and the squire’s wife realised after a few seconds’ pause she was meant to take them. “They’ve put him out of reach of you and Pan Wladyslaw,” she said, seeming to concentrate all her energies. “It’s up to the Angel to make the next move. You can find your son in spirit but he hasn’t left this world. I promise you will see your son again. But for now you must wait for him. Whatever magic your son’s captor wields, it is too strong. He will simply turn it on others. That former wife of his…Madame Caroline, am I right? She is at his mercy.”
The séance seemed to drain the witch, and she sank back into her chair, rubbing her hands and arms, and blinking as if her eyes were sore. Halina knew that sorcerers found the use of magic stressful and often tiring, which she usually took as a sign they were doing things forbidden to mortals. But this afternoon, the old woman had put body and soul into giving her that information. She needed to rest. Halina made sure the old woman was comfortable before she left, and put a twenty-guilder note on the desk, which she believed must amount to a day’s takings.
It was worth every penny to know he would remain alive long enough for them to meet again. But her heart was still heavy.
The heavens opened as they left the Saunders’ mansion, after the party thrown in aid of the workhouse. Indeed, as Kolinska had told Halina, Seymour seemed to have charmed Caroline into obedience, arranging all sorts of things for her to deal with her grief. It seemed a fitting end to an excruciating evening. Pan Wladyslaw Piech – Wladek to his friends and relations – felt humiliated, and part of it was his own wife’s behaviour.
They sat in the carriage that was returning them to the hotel, Halina turned towards one window, Wladek towards the other. The roc feather on the crown of her enormous hat brushed his face, adding a comically unsavoury note to the miserable ride. Anger mixed with distress at being taken for a fool. He was not so poor at languages as they thought; to talk of a “Peak” within his earshot and expect him not to pick that one word out of their doggerel language as a name rather than a normal word was arrogance in the extreme. He believed they knew exactly who they had captive, and no doubt they were gloating over it. Halina had compounded it by asserting that it would be foolhardy to take the carriage to Lowe Road and invade the premises looking for his son. He could have got there and back before Seymour even realised where he was. His mind wandered. He had never seen Lowe Road and he saw himself running through the courtyard, through a dormitory full of bedraggled paupers, all skin and bone, to find someone who did not belong there. Could he really not have found his son amongst them? Was it really too dangerous?
With what Seymour could do with his magic, Halina had claimed, it was easy to imagine what contingency he had made for that scenario, including cold-blooded murder in front of people too intimidated to go to the militia.
But that his wife would not even let them try, nor confront the other two men and enlist their help in retrieving Michal. If they were blameless, then they would surely…
“Don’t fret, Wladek,” she said. “Your mind is polluting the air in here. Remember what Madame Kolinska said about the Angel. I think I know who he is. And Seymour has the devil’s powers in him.”
There was a time when she would not have graced that old witch with such a respectful honorific. She really had ensorcelled her, sapped her of her will to rescue her son.
“We’re almost there,” he grunted, noticing the lights from the hotel lanterns beginning to shine through the rainy night. They had stayed out here in Mereton, the least built-up of the southern districts of Ludlin, because Halina was afraid of going north of the river to the hotel in which Wladek had stayed in the summer. She had almost fainted at Pendlebury station when they arrived; it could have been put down to her having become accustomed to the wide open fields and forested hills and rivers of the Panczewo valley, but she had no problem with Galistow, where they had stayed the night between trains on the way south. “We’ll be out in the fresh air soon – or what passes for it.”
Their valet and lady’s maid had been discharged for the night. Neither of the Piechowie wished to keep their servants standing up late to receive them when they came home late. For a grand couple with servants enough to populate a whole village, it came naturally to neither to mistreat them. In fact, Ela Spiller did meet her mistress at the door and accompanied them to their room, but Wladek had to make do without his valet. It demonstrated how frustrated he was when he made a cold remark to Spiller on the way upstairs that her loyalty was greater than his. It was Halina’s turn to chide her husband for his poor temper when it had been he who had given Jendrek Marekowicz the night off. Spiller admitted that she had found herself still up when her master and mistress were announced by the hotel butler, and felt guilty for simply leaving them to their own devices. Marekowicz was fast asleep in their quarters, and no-one had troubled him.
As soon as they reached their suite, Wladek ripped off his clothes down to his shirtsleeves and then removed his trousers, revealing his long-johns. Halina was offended – he knew full well that he should not be so indecorous in front of a maidservant – but even so, she swallowed his effrontery with a glare and a sharp remark.
Spiller blushed and suggested her mistress go through to the other room in the suite, to give him some time alone. But Halina insisted that she wanted Wladek to calm down and forgive her. “The spirits are taking Michal away from us,” she said. “Even you must understand there are some things that are bigger than we are.”
“If I had my brother’s regiment I would destroy that place,” Wladek snarled, refusing his wife’s imploring hand. “If I were twenty years younger…”
“But you’re not. And you almost got killed when you tried to look for him. They caught you at gunpoint in Michal’s empty house. If you died, or Michal died, we’d put the estate at risk.”
“Like it’s not at risk now!”
Spiller finally managed to take off the ridiculous lilac hat. Having been divested of it, Halina fell to her knees, asking his forgiveness.
“Don’t be so melodramatic,” Wladek said, sighing. “Get up.”
It was a while before they got to bed. Halina disappeared into the bathroom, and washed. Wladek, used to his wife’s vanity, patiently opened a book in the light from an electric lamp and listened to the rain drenching the city. She joined him, and extinguished the light immediately; he had to be quick to stash his book onto the bedside table, but he was used to this at home, and tonight was no different just because they were six hundred miles south of Dwor Kruczewski. Wladek huddled together with his wife.
“Do you know where he is?” he whispered. “I mean, can you see Lowe Road?”
“Yes,” she said, with a sigh.
Wladek stopped and thought for a moment. In the coach she had not shed a single tear; the melodramatic behaviour was certainly unusual. He had been surprised at her desperation in the spring upon losing Michal, and was almost glad she had buttoned herself up again since then. Despite his frustration at her apparent lack of feeling, her anguish had unnerved him even more.
“I have wandered in my dreams to him,” she went on. “I’ve reassured him on several occasions that I will look after him; he seems to be aware of me but I can’t be sure. I don’t understand why I’m not permitted to rescue him either.”
“Where is he?”
“When you last saw him.”
“In the servants’ quarters,” she said. “I projected in there last night. Seymour is using him as a personal attendant and a manservant for his niece. Once she leaves them he will go back to the general wards.”
“So we couldn’t get into the lodge to get him out without a struggle? Even if we went now?”
Halina squeezed his hand. “We’d come up across an insurmountable obstacle to any rescue,” she said. “There’s a… a guard–dog there, a large, grey presence haunting the site. I’m not too sure what it is, but as far as I can tell it is loyal to Seymour.”
It sounded like a poor excuse. He really would get his younger brother down here with artillery and the elite Krovt palace guard that he commanded. But he didn’t rouse himself, nor did he get dressed again, or fly to the station to return home to make plans. Zbigniew might have done so, but he was a muscular hussar, not a flabby, middle-aged squire. It was worth a thought, however.
He lay on his side, watching his wife fall asleep. Despite her distress, she was evidently tired enough. He himself found it difficult to simply slip into unconsciousness like that; he’d had many sleepless nights since the spring, and doubtless there would be many more to come.
If Michal came home to them, it would be by the gods’ will. They both had to trust that the young man would find his way in the world and come back to them when the time was right, and that the other parts of Kolinska’s prophecy referred to Frank Palmerston, the young Breston man who had accompanied him to the fortune-teller that day. The devil might have said goodnight, but would there really be an angel there to say good morning to them?