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Sarah A. Hoyt
If anyone had been looking closely at the duke of Darkwater as His Grace approached the double doors of the ballroom, he would have noticed the Duke held himself somewhat stiffly. Not as though he were injured or embarrassed, but more as though he were excessively careful of all his movements.
The two uniformed footmen exchanged a look before opening the doors. His Grace, the look said, had clearly been out drinking. Which explained his being so late to the ball.
Neither of them would have dared say it was just like His Grace, and – if it came to that – a lot like His Grace’s deceased father, but it was plain that they both thought it.
As His Grace, Seraphim Ainsling, Duke of Darkwater, paused in the doorway, in the full glare of the brilliant mage lights positioned all around the walls, all eyes turned his way.
The attention was not due to the exquisite tailoring of his green evening coat, which showed off his muscular body to great advantage, or his commanding height and stately bearing. That he was possibly the handsomest man in the room, with his thick, raven-black hair, regular features marred only by an aquiline nose, and dazzling emerald eyes, was a part of it, as well as the fact that he was His Grace, Seraphim Ainsling, Duke of Darkwater, one of the oldest and most prestigious magical houses in the kingdom, not to say in the world.
No. The real reason his entrance gained the attention of all in the room was that this party was being held in his honor, and he was unfashionably late. His mother had almost given up all hope of his appearance, as had his betrothed, Lady Honoria Blythe.
The betrothal had as yet to be formalized, but everyone present expected the announcement to be made sometime approaching midnight.
After a pause that was so silent it was almost as if the orchestra had stopped playing – which it certainly hadn’t — the conversation and dancing resumed.
Darkwater walked into the room, still moving with exaggerated care, reached for a glass from a tray held high by a passing footman, and tossed the champagne back in one swift move.
From across the room, his mother saw it and flinched. The Dowager Duchess of Darkwater was a petite woman. Her mother had been French, and Lady Barbara showed it in her small oval face, her dark eyes, her clearly marked, arched eyebrows, and in a certain air that denoted a quick temper, quickly tamped down.
She approached her errant son, maintaining every appearance of outward calm, even if her gaze couldn’t help but reproach his lateness and his state.
“Really, Seraphim!” she said as soon as she could be sure of not being heard by other people. “After I have gone to such trouble putting on this ball for you, the least you could do is arrive in a timely manner. Dearest Honoria has withstood it all without a crack in her perfect demeanor, but I have been ready to faint from anxiety.”
Darkwater glanced across the room to where Lady Honoria stood, pale, blonde, and beautiful, the picture of poise and elegance. She smiled at him, a calm smile that showed no emotion at all, neither anger nor relief, neither disdain nor caring. He sent her a stilted bow and a smile that gave as little away as her own. “She is to be commended for her good sense,” he replied. “And you, Mama, are to be commended for not fainting. That would have set the tabbies’ tongues wagging.”
His mother clutched his arm and he winced and reeled a little, as though the force of her small hand clasping his sleeve were enough to unsettle his carefully guarded poise. “Seraphim – tell me you are happy with this match. If you are not, you should not go through with it. There is time to back out now, without injuring Honoria or the Darkwater pride.”
“Back out?” he asked as he stepped away from her. “Why should I want to do that?”
“Because you are not in love with her. I have always wanted a love match for you, not to see you give yourself up to increase the family fortune. Our magic is still strong, and with your brother’s new inventions, our fortunes will rally.”
“Father expected otherwise,” said Darkwater curtly. “An alliance between Ainsling’s Arcana and Blythe Blessings was mentioned over and over in his diary as something that needed to happen before we could control our decline.” He reached for a sparkling crystal glass from another passing tray. “Love is a fairy story, at any rate.”
“So instead you drink yourself blind?” asked his mother. “You are making a good job of hiding it, but I can see you are unsteady on your feet.”
“Hardly, Mother. Please do not fret.” Almost reeling, he managed to visibly exert utmost control upon his rebellious body, bowed politely to his mother, and turned to cross the room. “If you will excuse me, I believe Honoria is entitled to at least one dance with me.”
But before he reached Honoria, a figure intercepted him. Lady Barbara started forward, ready to stop the person she identified as Jonathan Blythe, the brother of the lady Honoria, a well-known rakehell, but Seraphim shook his head at Jonathan, and smiled, and proceeded to his affianced bride.
Seeing him bow to Honoria and offer his hand to be enveloped in her gloved one, his mother could but clench her two hands together. What she had endured from her husband – his careless disregard for her and her position – only she knew. She had exerted her discretion, her pride, the very last shreds of the love that had once drawn her into an unadvisable marriage, to keep her husband’s missteps secret.
His debts at the gaming tables, she’d covered without a word; his frequent inebriation, she’d hid by talking of his “complaint”; his mistresses she’d paid off; his by-blows, she’d taken care to set in the way of good positions, his children she’d borne without complaint.
And all that time, her one consolation had been that neither Seraphim, nor his ten-year younger brother, Michael, nor even her single surviving daughter, Caroline, Michael’s twin, showed the slightest tendency to imitate their father. Michael was perhaps the steadiest of them all – his mind given very early over to the perfecting of magic and the creation of magical engines to improve daily life.
But Seraphim, though a rather spirited boy, forever climbing trees and riding out on horses that were too impetuous for any other rider, had shown early enough a tendency to assume responsibility for the family, and to respect the worth and importance of his title and position.
Only, in the last year, it had all fallen apart. Rumors of his wild gaming and wenching, his haphazard living, his pride in his riding and shooting prowess – a prowess no one else could see a shred of – had reached even the ears of his mother.
No one had asked her to settle his debts. Yet. No one had laughed openly about his mistaken pride in his physical abilities. Yet. No light skirt or hedgeborn baby had sought her protection. Yet.
But in that ballroom, watching her son hold himself too stiffly and carefully, Lady Barbara Ainsling, Dowager Duchess of Darkwater, felt much like Sisyphus, who, having pushed the rock up the slope, sees it rolling back again.
Seraphim, his early character notwithstanding, was turning into a copy of his father.
Darkwater lay sprawled across a low chaise in his dressing room. By the wavering light of two mage globes fixed on either side of the mirror above his dressing table, he looked like the picture of debauch. With his coat, tailored to a nicety to fit his broad shoulders and narrow waist like a second skin, unbuttoned, and his curls, in wild disarray, framing his pale, sweaty face, he looked like he’d spent the night in wild orgies.
He thought that no one who saw him now would doubt the rumors that he’d been drinking heavily before the ball at which his engagement to Lady Honoria Blythe was to have been announced. And no one would doubt that this was the reason the announcement had not been made.
By morning the tongues of the gossipers would spread everywhere the story that one or the other of them meant to cry off.
Right then, the Duke was trying to think the rumors, and how he looked to avoid thinking of pain. His mind was dark with pain, his breath coming in fast gasps, his brow creased with suffering he had not allowed anyone in the ballroom to suspect.
When he spoke to his attendant, who was rummaging through the drawers of the dressing table, his voice was little more than a croak, animated by no more energy than could be provided by extreme pain. “Penny, curse you. Can you not set about it?”
The valet spared him a look over his shoulder, gracing Darkwater with a frown that was much like the Duke’s own. In fact, Seraphim knew Gabriel Penn – whom only His Grace dared call Penny – looked almost like Seraphim’s twin and was well known to be a by-blow of His Grace the former duke, acknowledged as such, born a full year to the day before Seraphim’s birth.
Seraphim knew that people said the fact that the two had been brought up together almost as brothers, and that Gabriel was now the trusted confidant and closest assistant to His Grace, showed Lady Barbara’s forbearance and her unusual turn of mind. Or perhaps, some said, it just showed that she knew a high magical power, like Penn’s, when she saw it, and thought it best not to have him run wild and untrained amid tenants and farmers.
“I’m shifting as fast as I can, Duke,” he threw impatiently in Seraphim’s direction. Though in public he called him His Grace and showed him every respect, in private he took liberties no one who knew Seraphim’s stiff-necked propriety would believe. He called Darkwater Duke or Seraphim, or occasionally, you damned fool. Right then he said the first as if he meant the last, and added, “Because if you think that coat is coming off without being slit, you’re a fool. And more of a fool for having squeezed yourself into it and gone to the ball, instead of calling me to you first.”
Seraphim gave a gurgle that might have been an attempt at laughing. “I couldn’t disappoint Honoria or humiliate her that way.”
“What I think of your Honoria…,” Gabriel said, turning with a sharp razor in his hand, and setting about cutting the sleeve of Seraphim’s coat with a skill that showed he’d often done it. “And that is more than I think of her brother Jonathan, who took a… ah…. stroll early on from the salon and behind the rose bushes in the garden with Mrs. Varley. I’m sure people going out for a breath of air must have heard them moaning and whimpering.” Gabriel turned very red. “What I mean is, no one could doubt what they were about. He’s very bad ton, Seraphim. If you ask me, the entire family—”
“No one has asked you,” Seraphim said, in the blighting tone that never worked on Gabriel.
This time, though, Gabriel did not answer him, as his cutting away of the coat, revealed not only a blood soaked sleeve, but a mass of ill-wrapped bandages – all of them equally tinted blood-red.
The stain, as he pulled away the remnants of the coat and tossed them aside, showed itself to continue all across the Duke’s shoulder and to over-spread his chest.
“Seraphim!” Gabriel said, as he cut away the shirt and the bandages, to reveal two jagged, irregular cuts, one extending all the way up the arm, almost to the shoulder, deep enough to show the glimmering whiteness of bones in its depths, and the other starting at the shoulder and stopping just short of the heart.
“My ribs deflected it,” Seraphim said. “It was my heart the villain was aiming for. Spelled dagger.”
Gabriel set his lips tight, in something that might be anger or concern. His countenance, always rather pale, had gone two shades paler, so that even his lips appeared to be glaring white under the mage lights. He swallowed and nodded, as if he were swallowing the reproaches he would normally have made. His concern showed in his creased forehead and in the depths of the green eyes both of them had inherited from their common father.
Turning, he rummaged in the drawers again, with a quick question of “I suppose you couldn’t close it magically?”
“No,” Seraphim said. His voice had devolved into a whisper. His good hand clenched the arm of the chair so hard that its knuckles shone white. “I told you it was a magical dagger.”
Gabriel nodded and set on the dressing table certain articles that even the duke’s mother would be very surprised to know were always kept in its drawers: needle; catgut thread; bandages and lint.
From a smaller table nearby, where it sat next to the annotated volume of Plato’s Republic that Darkwater had been reading before the alarm had called him away, he grabbed the bottle of brandy and, as if as an afterthought, a large glass.
He splashed the brandy liberally into the glass and handed it to the Duke, saying with unwonted force, and complete lack of deference, “Drink.”
“After all the champagne I had in there, my dear Gabriel?” Darkwater rasped. “I shall be sodden drunk.”
“Good,” Gabriel said.
Darkwater raised his eyebrows, but tossed back the brandy without further comment. Gabriel had kept the bottle of brandy uncapped, and now set the top down on the table. Possessing himself of Darkwater’s hand, he stretched the duke’s arm out, leaving his wound exposed and upturned.
“If it’s a magical wound,” Gabriel said. “Magic won’t close it or disinfect it. We don’t need you being carried off in a fever. You take care not to alarm the house.”
“Have no fear,” Darkwater said, turning his head away.
Indeed, as Gabriel poured the caustic liquid along the open wound, then splashed a like amount into the chest wound, only a very faint complaint escaped His Grace’s mouth. This was probably because he had taken the care of muffling any possible screams with his good arm. And, as Gabriel returned the now half-empty bottle to its stand, only the red marks of Darkwater’s own teeth on his wrist showed what effort it had taken.
Gabriel said nothing as he set about threading the needle.
Only as he started to sew the ragged edges of the wounds together, did he speak. “I can,” he said. “Put a pain-reducing spell on it. As soon as I’m done. Not before, or it will retard the healing.”
Seraphim nodded, then spoke, in a bewildered tone. “It was a trap. There were, according to my….” He swallowed. “My foreseeing showed a boy and a girl, about six years of age, first coming into magical powers, and being condemned to death for them. I tried to… intercept… but there was a trap. And no children.”
“What world?” Gabriel asked.
“Oh, the pyramids,” Seraphim said and tried to shrug, before letting out a faint moan. “But I ended up in Betweener.”
The pyramids was, if Gabriel remembered, the world where they sacrificed children with magical powers to their barbarous blood-gods. He didn’t remember what the cartographers of their own world called it. Possibly something inspired like 435-65-A.
Most the Earths, spread out along the magical continuum of several universes, blocked from each other only by the thinnest of energy veils, called themselves Earth. And most of them thought they were unique – the only Earth in the only universe, inhabited by the only humans. Avalon, their own Earth, knowing there were many, had given itself that name. Legend maintained that it was the oldest of the Earths, the one from which all the others had fractured away, when Merlin had been captured and imprisoned in an everlasting magical trap. The occluding of his world-encompassing power had caused magic itself to fracture and the Earth to copy itself over and over – most of the copies retaining no magic, and those that did retain it often undertaking to forbid it.
Britannia remained the most powerful magical nexus in Avalon, and its citizens the most skilled at magic. Britannia citizens were not allowed to travel to other worlds. King Richard XVI had confirmed the prohibition first instituted centuries ago, but disregarded for most of those centuries.
Even the kidnapping of the Princess Royal — the only child of the king — out of her cradle, when Seraphim himself was a nursling, though it was presumed to have been a plot from another world, hadn’t lifted the prohibition.
And because the cartographers’ designations didn’t suit his mind, Seraphim gave those worlds to which he travelled routinely in an attempt to save from death as many magicians and witches as possible, names of his own coining. There was Pyramids and Swamp – which was not one, but a fetid world mired in superstition and covered in vermin – Slum and Desert and – for a particularly noxious world – Madhouse.
Gabriel frowned. “”An ambush! They know of you then!”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. I suspect they don’t know who I am, or where I came from. I suspect they were simply trying to stop the rescues….”
“Enough to set a trap? And interfere with your foreseeing? Take care, Duke.”
Seraphim made a noncommittal sound in the back of his throat and, seeing that Gabriel had finished sewing his wounds, he sat up straighter. “Give me a shirt and a coat… the… green one,” he said.
Gabriel cast a doubtful eye at him. “You can’t mean to go back to the ball.”
“Of course I can. I must. An announcement must be made by midnight.”
Gabriel cast a curious look over the Duke. He looked pale but composed, but– almost without thinking, he raised his hand and cast a pain-dimming spell over Darkwater. He could see Seraphim’s features relax almost immediately, and he looked easier as he stood.
“At least let me help you wash,” Gabriel said. “You reek of brandy.”
Darkwater chuckled. “So long as they think I’m such a desperate drunk as to come to my apartments for brandy before resuming the ball, they won’t suspect what I’m really doing.”
Gabriel clicked his tongue as he wrapped Seraphim’s arm and shoulder in a thin layer of bandages. “Take care, Seraphim. One day you’ll go a bridge too far.”
But he helped Seraphim into his shirt and coat, and removed his watch and accoutrements from the pocket of his ruined coat.
As he passed them to the duke, Darkwater’s pocket watch, his father’s old watch, emitted a loud whine, which almost caused Gabriel to drop it.
Darkwater reached for it, swiftly, with his good hand, and flicked it open. He swore under his breath. “Swamp. Give me my crystal ball, Gabriel.”
“Your Grace,” Gabriel said, using both the title and the tone of deference he rarely used except in public, and continuing, in tight-lipped, scolding tones. “You cannot mean to go rescuing anyone right now. You could barely rescue yourself!”
“My crystal ball, Penn, and do me the favor of being quiet.”
There had to be worse things that could happen to a girl than dropping head first into a Regency novel. Nell Felix had no idea what they could be, though. A Regency novel with magic, at that. A world where she must mind her manners, curb her tongue, behave like a proper lady, and, oh, yeah, perform magic, too.
If you’d told her, back when she was a very junior programmer at Prince Management Systems – she could never make her bosses understand what was wrong with that acronym, either – that her use of the magic Grandma had taught her would attract the attention of an interplanetary spy and that, for his sake, she would end up living in another world where everyone still behaved as if the regency had never passed, and where America was just the colonies of dear old Mother England, she would never have believed it.
But it was true nonetheless. And in it she’d fallen in love with Antoine, somewhere between his telling her about other worlds and teaching her magic way beyond anything that grandma had known, magic beyond anything Earth would even dream about. And now she couldn’t leave this particular world until Antoine was released. Which meant she had to satisfy Siddell’s demands first. It had already been a year. How much longer would she have to work to ransom her lover?
The real Earth, or what she thought of as the real Earth, was so long ago and far away, and sometimes she didn’t know if it felt like a weird dream, or if her current circumstances did.
“Miss, Miss,” the cracked voice of the landlady called from outside the door to Nell’s lodging.
It wavered, breaking on the high pitches and making an awful descant to the pounding of the landlady’s impatient fist on the door.
Like cats mating inside drums, Nell thought, and her little, dark face, which was rather like a cat’s itself, twisted in an expression of distaste, as she put her long-fingered hands over her ears. Or like a car engine seriously out of tune.
She repressed a longing for cars – and for flush toilets – and leaned forward toward the complex chalk drawings on her floor and the bowl of water placed in the middle of them. Lord Siddell had told her to find what Seraphim Ainsling was up to. But the duke must be using some magical protection, because it was easier said than done. So far the bowl had shown her no more than a murky fog with occasional glimpses of blood and cut flesh. And while this didn’t reassure her that His Grace of Darkwater was on the right side of the law, it was hardly an indictment.
“Miss Felix. Miss!” The pounding and the voice, each competing – and somehow managing – to be louder than the other penetrated the ineffective barrier of her hands and shattered her concentration. The wavering image she’d been able to conjure in the water – of a green jacket seemingly bobbing about mid-air – vanished altogether, leaving nothing but water and cheap china. Cracked cheap china, Nell thought, noticing the chip out of the side and the wandering crack that descended like a yellow scribble towards the center of the bowl. “Yes, Mrs. Stope,” she said. “I am coming.”
The screaming did stop, but the pounding continued, if more subdued now, a tap, tap, tap, as though to remind Nell the landlady was waiting. Not that I’m likely to forget, Nell thought, as she got up and strode across the room to the door, being careful not to step on any of the chalk lines. On her Earth, she might get a peeved letter, but no landlady would actually be pounding on her door. Here, everything was so much more personal.
She was careful to make sure her body obscured Mrs. Stope’s view of the floor. Not that witchcraft was illegal or even uncommon – though more uncommon in the lower classes, of course – in Britannia, but the landlady was the type of person to worry about the chalk on the floorboards.
Mrs. Stope stood squarely in the middle of the landing outside Nell’s room. It would have been difficult to stand any other way, since the landing was hardly large enough to contain her. Not that she was fat. No, she was square. A short, blockish woman, with the sort of build that led one to believe that in a past life she had been a clock. The way she clicked her tongue also sounded much like a clock ticking.
She turned her watery-blue eyes up to Nell, then gave her a careful once over, from head to toe, clearly taking in the well-tailored skirt and the irreproachable black jacket. “Dressed to go out, are you miss?” she said. “And I hope you’re not intending to go for weeks, and the rent already overdue?”
“No,” Nell said. “I meant to go out for a moment only.” She regretted not for the first time that she couldn’t tell the truth: places to go, people to spy on. If she said that in this world, it wouldn’t even be a reference joke. It was still true. And it kept Antoine safe. Antoine… She swallowed and kept her mind from going down that path. The problem with loving someone is that it made it easy for people to hold him hostage and make you do what they wanted. “On some… errands. But I will have your rent for you when I return.” I’d better have it; at least Sydell is not so dumb as to forget it is unadvisable to delay paying your secret operatives, even your unwilling secret operatives.
Mrs. Stope bent her head, momentarily, under the weight of this promise, but rattled back into it, game as a pebble, “Only last time you said that, you left for three weeks and then I–“
“I always pay,” Nell said, pressing her lips together and allowing her face to show the mingled impatience and annoyance she felt.
“Yes, miss, but as I own the rooms, I need to have the pay regular, else how can I meet my own bills?”
“I will do my best,” Nell said, putting on the airs she had learned tended to bring these tirades to an abrupt conclusion. And then, to reinforce the idea, “I was about to go see my father.”
“Oh,” The landlady said, and her face showed a cunning sort of curiosity. “His Lordship is in town, then?”
Nell only nodded, preserving the sort of distance and secret that the landlady would doubtless expect if Nell were in fact the by-blow of a nobleman. Which she very much doubted she was, since Earth had very few noblemen and few of them were likely to give even an illegitimate child up for adoption. But she was adopted, and so she couldn’t say her parents weren’t noble. Heck, it was weird enough she had magical power. She suspected most people back on what she thought of as Earth had had magic bred out of them. Since it didn’t work very well or very reliably on Earth, it wouldn’t confer any advantage. So maybe her parents were nobility from some other world. She couldn’t swear they weren’t.
Besides, Mrs. Stope had once seen Nell with Mr. Sydell and assumed that he was Nell’s father and that their relationship a great secret. It always shocked Nell how little it was necessary to tell people lies. They much preferred to tell lies to themselves. Particularly in this world, where so much of society depended on convention and secrets.
She didn’t exactly despise Mrs. Stope for assuming that Nell was of noble blood – she despised her for the reasons she gave for assuming so: That she’d seen Nell with Mr. Sydell, who was obviously a gentleman, and also that Nell’s features were delicately formed, her hands and feet small and her ankles elegant. In many worlds, Nell had seen just those features in dirt-poor peasants. And if I had a sovereign for every fat, blobby princess I’ve known, she thought. I’d be wealthier than the king. But there would never be a way of convincing the Mrs. Stopes of any world of that fact.
“Well, if you’re seeing your father, Miss…,” the landlady said, with the sort of sigh more rooted in her despairing of knowing more than in her fear of not getting paid.
“Indeed I am,” Nell said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me and give me some time, I must write a letter to take with me.” For some reason, in this world, writing a letter was accorded the same sort of privacy that the real Earth gave calls of nature. Perhaps because writing with a quill pen was one of the most undignified businesses in any world.
She added ballpoint pens to the list of things she missed.
Before the woman could say, A letter, Miss? and try to figure out what the letter would say and to whom it would be addressed, a query that Nell saw all too plainly in her eyes, Nell shut the door in her face, and returned to her work.
Perhaps I drew the right-reverse spiral too wobbly, she thought, doubtfully, as she stared at the drawing on the floor. She twirled her fingers in her hair, rendering it what Mrs. Stope would doubtlessly consider a completely inappropriate coiffure for a gently reared female.
Kneeling down, she erased part of the spiral, then drew it again, slightly differently. Then she picked up the bowl and stared, again, at the vague picture of a green jacket floating midair.
She had to see clearly. She made passes midair and tried to concentrate. Seraphim Ainsling. What was the foolish man doing? He worried Siddell far too much for it to be innocent. Siddell had a second sense about these things.
Seraphim Ainsling. She remembered his haughty expression, his aquiline profile from a party at which he had resolutely looked through her.
Her fingers ran through her hair again. Right. The Duke of Darkwater. I am beneath his notice. If town rumor was right, he was getting engaged to Lady Honoria Blythe of Blythe Blessings. The eldest daughter of the Earl of Savage.
His profile was now firmly in her mind, the green eyes looking at her intently in her imagining, and she stared at the water bowl again and saw him clearly, wearing the green jacket, and a pocket watch, and saying the final words of a magical formula.
Too late, she realized what the formula was. A transport spell. Far too late, she realized she’d let her mind get enmeshed in it and in his magic.
There was a flash, a magical blast that hit her like a punch mid-body. And then she felt the transport spell pull her through the Betweener and into a destination not of her choosing.
Her bowl of water fell and cracked apart, erasing all her careful chalk markings.
The Lion, The Witch and The Pyramids
Seraphim looked at his watch, and then at his crystal ball. Neither was strictly necessary. It was possibly to use one or the other. But the one thing his father’s diaries had taught him was that it was never a good idea to rely only on one method. And Seraphim, rushing to the last alarm, had found that relying only on the watch might be the last thing he did.
The Others were perhaps no more cunning than he, but they were infinitely better armed, and there were more of them and they would have more magicians who could fake better alarms. And that was without counting the legitimate agents of his majesty, whose job it was to enforce laws forbidding citizens of Britannia from traveling abroad and who had once or twice come close to catching Papa. They too must be looking for Seraphim.
Seraphim got the coordinates of the talent at risk from the watch he’d inherited from his father, then tried to raise an image in his crystal ball to corroborate it; but all he could see was the shadow of his valet, standing determinedly between the light and the crystal ball. He obscured the light magic must use to form images.
“Penny, for the love of God–” Seraphim said, half in exasperation.
“No. You are in no fit state. You should not be standing up, much less going on a rescue mission where you might get stabbed again.” Gabriel squeezed his lips into a thin line. “Or worse.”
Seraphim clenched his lips tight. He wanted very much to answer, but he tried to avoid being rude to Gabriel. Gabriel could not answer in kind, and that made it churlish of Seraphim to abuse him. “We were not put in this world… in any world,” he said, “to take our ease while innocents die.” Realizing he’d just repeated something his father had written in his diary, and that shortly before committing suicide, Seraphim suppressed a shudder.
“There is a dire difference, Seraphim, between taking your ease and risking yourself foolishly. I beg you to consider what will become of your mother, your sister and your brothers should you–”
Before he could finish, a scratching at the door was followed by Lady Barbara’s voice. “Seraphim? I would have a word with you if I might.”
Seraphim looked at the basin filled with bloody water, the discarded, blood soaked garments, the evidence of his injury strewn around the room, and then his eyes met Gabriel’s, and he realized that Gabriel’s thoughts had followed the same trend. “No,” Gabriel’s lips formed, though he didn’t say it aloud. “I will make your excuses.”
The valet went to the door and opened it. Seraphim heard him speak in a low voice, and could imagine what he was saying. His Grace is indisposed and other such rot designed to make Mama think that Seraphim was passed out, drunk, within. He heard Mama say once, impatiently, “Penn, he can’t be that–,” followed by a renewed flood of Gabriel’s words in a sensible, persuasive tone.
What Seraphim should be doing was clearing the room of evidence of his injury and then attending to his Mama. But there was someone in need. He looked at his watch. It was very definite about someone in need of his help on Pyramids, someone with a very high magical talent and too ignorant to shield it. He didn’t think it could be a trap this time. He didn’t know how the watch worked. It had been created by his papa, possibly before Seraphim’s birth. But he did know that it was rarely wrong. And that The Pyramids was a horrible world to have magical talent in. They put to death anyone who revealed talent or shape-shifting ability as soon as it was detected, and their thaumaturgic police were ruthlessly efficient.
But sometimes the alarms had a safety margin built in. Even in Pyramids, a few hours, a few days might pass before the new talent was spotted, and a couple of hours would give him enough time to go to the ball, announce his engagement, plead fatigue, and return to his room. Then he could go to Pyramids at his leisure.
He looked at the crystal ball, taking advantage of Gabriel not being there to obscure it, and he concentrated all his attention on it and on seeing the person at risk.
A breath, two, his eyes crossed and the lights and shadows arranged themselves into coherent images: a young boy running, pursued by … Royal Thaumaturgic guards in their dark green uniforms. They carried magic sticks, the discharge from which would severely wound or maim anyone with magical talent.
Seraphim cursed under his breath. Then, with Gabriel’s murmurs growing more urgent by the door, he started to say the transport spell that would take him to Pyramids, hurriedly as he must perforce do if he was going to be out of here before his mother forced her way in the door, or before Gabriel realized what was happening.
Just as he said the capstone word that closed the spell and activated it, he felt some other magic touch his.
With the awful feeling that this was yet another trap, he tried to unsay the last word, but its echoes in the air could not be called back.
He heard Gabriel scream, “Seraphim, you bloody fool!” and his mother gasp, “Seraphim,” and then he was hurtling through the cold and burning hot of Betweener and landing on his face in hot sand.
Breath was knocked out of his body. He blinked, hard, at the bright light of sun on sand, and thought that at least this looked and felt like Pyramids.
And then someone fell on him.
She must have knocked him unconscious. At least, later he would think that, because all he remembered was the horrible pain to his chest and arm, and then – some indefinable time later – being aware of soft feminine hands pulling at his arms. It renewed the infernal pain in his injured shoulder and arm, but he concentrated on her face, which was small, dark and panicked.
“Oh, please, don’t tell me I killed you,” she was saying.
Pain and dizziness warred in him. He felt as though he would throw up, but controlled it with all his might, and managed to say in something that passed for a creditably steady voice, “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not that easy to kill.” And then, somewhat more sharply, “Please stop shaking me.”
“You must move,” she said. She glanced over her shoulder. “Or the lion will get us.”
“Lion?” he said. The surprise carried him into sitting up and looking in the same direction she’d glanced. And there was a lion. A young lion, whose huge paws and skinny sides betrayed it as nowhere near full grown. But the tawny eyes looking out at Seraphim betrayed intelligence and fear no lion had ever known. And the light around the animal’s head was the magical glow of a magical creature. The boy, Seraphim realized. He was not a witch, but a shape shifter. Of course, those were even more feared.
“It’s not a lion,” he said. “Merely a boy in lion shape.” And standing up, he extended a hand, hoping the child was enough in control of his feelings not to act like the wild animal whose shape he’d taken. He spoke, clearly, loudly. “I am here to rescue you. I mean you no harm.”
In the tawny eyes confusion and fear pl yed out against a strange sort of hope. The lion lowered its head and looked poised to walk toward Seraphim, when a voice called out, “Stop in the name of the king. You are harboring a dangerous fugitive and our instruments indicate you are practitioners of illegal magics yourselves. Surrender now and we will be merciful.”
Seraphim barely had the time to jump out of the way as the boy dove to hide behind him. As for the woman, she tried to take a step in front of Seraphim, even though her eyes showed panic and fear. “Who are they,” she said, as Seraphim gently pushed her out of the way. “What do they want?”
“What passes for law in this miserable land,” he said, pulling from the pocket his own magical, charmed stick. “And they want to kill us.”
“No time to explain,” he said. He looked around. They were on a parched red plain, strewn with boulders and intercut by pyramids. The pyramids, built in steps, were temples to the gods that forbid magic, the same gods to whom magic users were sacrificed.
The soldiers’ promise of clemency was a hollow one. Whether they were shot multiple times with the painful magic-blighting weapons of the soldiers, or the soldiers captured them and bound them hand and foot to take them to a pyramid and sacrifice, there was no way to avoid pain. Except, perhaps… “Can you say the transport spell?” he asked. “Have you enough power on your own, without attaching to mine?” He glanced quickly over his shoulder at her. “Yes, I can see that you have. Start saying the spell for Avalon, and center on the point I departed from. Include me and the child-shifter.”
As he heard her say the first words of the spell, he looked around, and found – by the magical brilliance – a soldier hidden behind a nearby boulder. He shot towards the soldier, then towards another one near him. The magical power found its mark, once, causing a man to scream. As long as he had a charge, he could keep them at bay.
He wished the stranger would hurry up with the spell. And that she wouldn’t betray him and take him to captivity.
At the last moment he wondered for whom she was working. Hitching on his spell had been no accident, that much was sure. But was she an agent of the Others? Or of His Majesty the King?
The Trouble With Heroes
Seraphim Darkwater could feel the spell assemble behind him, tendril by tendril. The woman’s magic was odd. From Avalon in origin. He’d swear to that. He’d known enough power from other worlds to identify the markers of Avalon. But the magic had odd overlays, as though she’d learned it in some barbarous, ignorant place and had reinvented the whole discipline from the ground up. Then he realized that might be the only reason her spell was working. Something around them blocked normal magic. This time he’d come to Pyramids, right enough, but whatever spell had trapped him before had followed him here and had a blighting effect on his magic.
A part of him, the part that had been a studious young man, rivaling the knowledge of many of his tutors at Cambridge when it came to the history and theory of magic, wanted to turn around and watch the strands of magic being woven in the air. But he could not. Seraphim had been trained – born – to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. And right now, he was the only one in possession of a mage-charged stick.
He shot at a soldier running towards him from behind a rock. Then he shot again. And again until he hit the man, who screamed and fell, twitching a little as the magic charge hit him.
The soldier wouldn’t die. Seraphim never charged his mage sticks a lethal amount, mostly because he never knew when the people he might defend himself against would not be the agents of His Majesty the king, enforcing the just laws of Britannia in his native world. A lot could be forgiven a high-born and high-spirited young man, even minor assault on an officer of the Empire. But, should he let those high spirits carry him so far as to commit murder, that would be a trespass too far.
As the man fell, twitching, Seraphim stepped back. And all at once he realized two things. The man had been a decoy, likely a volunteer sent to run at Seraphim’s mage stick and keep him fully occupied as a party of guardsmen sneaked behind and around the rocks to his left. Now he caught a glimpse of golden braid on the gaudy uniforms, and realized they were too near, and there were too many of them. And one of them was pointing a magical gun at Seraphim, a weapon of the type that could disable witches and warlocks, but could kill shifters.
The boy-shifter. Seraphim must protect him.
He turned around. There were too many of them for his stick to be an effective defense, so he must take himself and his charges out of here, and take them out fast.
The woman behind him had set up almost the entire spell. Only the capstone lacked, and the coordinates. Perhaps she couldn’t have set the coordinates from his arrival. Perhaps her odd learning hadn’t taught her that. Or perhaps it was all part of a plan to trap him. Seraphim didn’t know, and, right then, he couldn’t care. Instead, he poured his own magic into the working, and set the capstone on it, with the coordinates of his bedroom, coordinates as familiar to him as the back of his own hand, or the sound of his own voice.
The portal opened, gaping, and Seraphim, realizing the impossibility of throwing a lion through it, poured more of his magic at the young shifter to make him shift back into human, out of the lion form. The child shifted and twisted, writhing and moaning in the pain of changing bones and flesh, all at a speed that would never happen naturally.
Barely had his form stabilized when Seraphim was grabbing his skinny arms and throwing him, bodily, through the portal. Seraphim knew, in doing so he was hurting his own shoulder and arm, but he couldn’t feel pain. He could not feel anything but the urgency of getting them all through the portal and onto safe territory. Through the portal he could glimpse Gabriel and hear faint echoes of his talking to the boy.
Seraphim reached for the woman. She stepped back from him. “No,” she said. “You go first.”
“They have magic guns,” Seraphim said, keeping his voice restrained, but letting urgency leak through. “They are near-lethal. You go, then I after you.”
But she shied away from him, tried to step in between him and the moving ambush. Stupid on her part. She wasn’t armed. He took a deep breath and mentally apologized to his mother and to his nanny who had taught him that a woman’s body was sacred and not to be touched without permission. Then he grabbed her by the waist and, deftly avoiding her kicking feet and ignoring her voice saying, “Let me go,” he tossed her into the portal and – as far as he could see through his sweat-stung eyes– more or less on top of Gabriel.
The portal wouldn’t stay open much longer. But it didn’t need to. Seraphim took a step towards it.
The ray of the magic gun hit him in the shoulder. Pain shot through his body, seized his mind. His body shuddered, one long shudder, as his heart seemed to lose the rhythm of its accustomed beats. He heard a hoarse scream, and was sure it was his.
The fall across the threshold of the portal, one half on either side, jarred his shoulder further. He gritted his teeth against the chattering that threatened to bite his tongue in half. He forced his shivering, shuddering body to obey him. He ignored the pain that coursed through his veins like fire and bit at his nerves like the edge of a well-sharpened sword.
The portal was going to close. He must get into one world or the other, or his body would be sliced in half and end up one half in each reality. He must crawl across the portal and to the safety of his room.
For long moments, his body did not obey him. His hands made frantic motions, but failed to push against the ground, his knees wouldn’t stay under him. It took a superhuman effort to get them under control, to get them to pull him along the floor. He pulled himself forward one step. Two.
He felt hands at his ankles, and heard a triumphant scream from behind. He didn’t turn to look. He could feel the portal starting to close. He keened with frustration and told himself he would not cry. He would die like a man.
From the fog clouding his senses, somewhere ahead of him, he heard a woman’s voice say, “Oh, please, you must help him.”
And he heard Gabriel’s familiar voice say, “Damn you Duke,” then, “Here, take this mage stick. Lay into them at will.”
Seraphim tried to reach for the mage stick, but he couldn’t even see it, and his hand would not obey him, and he could feel the mage-field of the portal pressing against his middle.
Then strong, warm hands grabbed his hands and pulled. Seraphim screamed as the pain to his shoulder increased a hundred fold.
Then darkness engulfed him.