March 29, 2023

The Phantom Doctor (excerpt)

Chapter 1

A Strange Old Man

White clouds covered the low-hanging sky on that hot and humid Sunday evening in spring. Whistling to himself, an elementary school student of twelve or thirteen walked alone through a secluded neighborhood near Roppongi in Azabu.

The boy’s name was Taiji Aikawa. He was in the sixth grade. He had visited a friend’s house in nearby Kogai earlier that day and was on his way home. Large estates hidden behind tall walls lined both sides of the street, interrupted by the occasional Shinto shrine in a secluded grove of trees. The area never saw much pedestrian traffic, though today it seemed even more deserted than usual.

The white-striped strip of asphalt continued on to the far end of town. There wasn’t another soul in sight.

The overcast sky and falling dusk aroused in Taiji a strange pang of solitude and he kept whistling to keep those feelings at bay. He quickened his pace and turned the corner.

He stopped in his tracks with a start, the tune dying on his lips.

Two dozen yards ahead of him, a strange old man sat in the middle of the road engaged in an equally strange activity.

The old man resembled the tramp made famous in Hollywood movies. His tangled white hair suggested he hadn’t been to a barber in some time. White whiskers and a scruffy beard covered his cheeks and chin. He was wearing a tattered western-style suit that looked like it’d been retrieved from a trash bin and well-worn shoes without any socks.

The tramp sat in the middle of the road drawing on the asphalt with a piece of chalk.

How odd, Taiji thought to himself. He retreated behind the corner and peeked out. The tramp finished scrawling on the ground and stood up. He cast a wary look over his shoulder before ambling off.

Taiji waited for him to disappear out of sight before running over to see for himself. Not words or characters but a circle three inches or so in diameter. Inside the circle was a cross or plus sign. One of the lines of the plus sign was pointed like an arrow.

What was the batty old coot doing drawing such funny squiggles on the ground? Taiji carefully stepped around the scribblings and caught up to the tramp again, wondering what he was up to. The man came to another intersection. As he had before, he crouched down and wrote on the ground.

Taiji waited until he left and rushed over to see what he’d written. It was another circle with a cross and an arrow like a compass point.

“Strange,” Taiji spoke aloud this time. “That old man is up to no good. He must be walking around writing these symbols on the ground as a signal to his accomplices.” His suspicions fully aroused, Taiji said to himself, “I’m going to follow him and figure out what’s going on.”

Taking pains not to be seen, Taiji again picked up the trail.

The Gentle Reader might wonder at this point what an elementary school student was doing carrying on like a private detective. However, his actions were not without their reasons.

As those of you who have read The Fiend with Twenty Faces or The Boy Detectives Club already know, Yoshio Kobayashi, the able assistant of renown detective Kogoro Akechi, was the leader of the Boy Detectives Club. The club consisted of around a dozen members, one of whom was Taiji Aikawa.

Thus, when encountering a person who might be engaged in activities on the shady side of the law, it was not at all unreasonable for Taiji Aikawa to want to suss out his secrets.

Taiji kept a low profile and stuck to the shadows as he followed the tramp, who trudged along showing no awareness that he was being tailed. He soon arrived at an even more deserted neighborhood. At each intersection, he crouched down and drew a circle with a cross and an arrow.

“Yeah, he’s up to something,” Taiji said under his breath. “He’s drawing one of those symbols in the middle of every intersection he comes to. He’s got to be giving directions to the bad guys about what route to take.”

With increased resolve, Taiji continued to tail the old man.

They passed through five more intersections. Five more circles and crosses and arrows. Then came the sixth. The sixth symbol was not drawn at an intersection but in front of the gate to a western-style house.

Taiji had never been to this part of town and had never seen this house before. But its old and familiar atmosphere made it feel part and parcel of the old Tokyo from the previous century. A red brick fence ringed the property, interrupted by the moss-covered stones of the gate posts. The wrought iron gate, decorated with arabesque designs, was shut.

Inside the fence, a gable roof topped the two-story building, faced with the same red brick as the fence. Two old-fashioned square chimneys rose from the roof. The windows were few and small, suggesting a dark and gloomy interior, enhancing the already ominous aura emanating from the architecture.

Taiji hid around the corner of the red brick fence and closely observed the scene. The old man crouched down in front of the stone gate and drew the same symbols as before. Except this time when he got to his feet, after examining his surroundings with wary eyes, he cracked open the intricate wrought iron gate and slipped inside like a thief, out of Taiji’s line of sight.

“Stranger and stranger still. I can’t imagine that unkempt tramp living in a mansion like this. I wonder if he snuck in to steal something. Or maybe he’s got even more outrageous schemes tucked up his sleeve.”

Unable to stand the suspense, Taiji scampered over to the gate and peered through the decorative railings.

As expected, the old man was behaving very much like a ne’er-do-well. He crept over to the side of the house and clambered into a window, likely to prevent anyone inside the house from detecting his entry.

“This is not good!” Taiji exclaimed. “What should I do?”

The interloper had already vanished through the window. Trying to imagine what he might be doing inside, Taiji could hardly contain himself. Contacting the police was his best course of action. But by the time he could run to the nearest police box, the old man would have done his evil deeds and escaped.

“I know!” Taiji thought aloud. “I’ll ring the doorbell. That will alert the people inside.”

He quietly opened the gate. Muffling his footsteps, he stepped onto the front porch. He searched for the button and finally found it on one of the columns adjacent the doorway. He reached up and pushed it several times. But after repeated efforts, he heard no one coming to the door. Thinking that maybe the button didn’t work, he tried the door. Pushing and pulling revealed the door was locked. It didn’t budge.

The occupants of the house must not be home.

He glanced at the gate, hoping someone passing by could help. The street was empty. Taiji now found himself at a loss as to what to do next. He simply couldn’t ignore a burglary going on right under his nose. Doing so would disgrace the name of the Boy Detectives Club.

With no other options at hand, that foreboding atmosphere still very much on his mind, Taiji circled around the house to the window the old man climbed through earlier. He’d be in a world of trouble if the man’s accomplices spotted him. Exercising all due caution, he hunched over and inched up to the window sill.

But he needed to summon a bit more courage to peek inside. If the man was standing there and saw Taiji, he’d run over and grab him. No, grabbing him might be the best possible outcome. Such a criminal would hardly be above carrying a gun or a knife and using it, which could lead to a much worse outcome.

Taiji could be taking his life in his hands just by looking through the window.

His heart pounding in his chest, moving as slowly as a slug, Taiji inched closer to the window. After what seemed like hours, exercising every precaution, he raised his head and stole a glance into the room.

No sooner had he done so but the color rushed from his face. His eyes opened so wide, they nearly popped out of his head. He must have seen something truly dreadful.

What in the world was going on inside that room? Just as Taiji feared, was the strange old man waiting for him there with an intimidating expression on his face that all but said, “Ah! I’ve been waiting for you!”

Chapter 2

A Beautiful Girl

The room resembled a kind of parlor. Oddly-shaped chairs were arranged around the table in the center of the room. Like the house, the dimly-lit room had a melancholy air about it, though not so dark that it filled every corner with shadows.

Taiji scanned the interior. Contrary to his fears and expectations, the old man from before was nowhere to be seen. Instead, he saw something far more surprising beside the legs of the table.

The splash of color interrupted the gloom of the room like the pop of a flashbulb illuminating a garland of blooming roses. A young woman of sixteen or seventeen lay there, eyes open. She was wearing a florid western-style dress and was pretty as a painting.

Except the girl’s comeliness wasn’t what so startled Taiji. It was her cruel repose that took him aback. Thick rope wound around her dress, circling her wrists and ankles. A white handkerchief gagged her mouth.

“Only that evil old man could have manhandled her in such a beastly manner,” Taiji murmured to himself. He couldn’t stand how pitiful she appeared. Even if it meant crossing swords with that dotard, he wasn’t about to leave without rescuing her. A rush of righteous indignation welled up in his chest.

The door to the parlor was open, giving Taiji a view of the long hallway beyond. He didn’t see the old man. The young woman must have been alone in the house when he tied her up, after which he continued deeper into the house searching for something to steal.

“All right. I should have enough time to rescue her. If she has the keys, we can lock the old man inside the house while we fetch the police.”

Resolving himself to this course of action, Taiji grasped the window sill with both hands. Making the most of the skills he’d honed in gym class on the vaulting horse, he leapt off the ground and jumped through the window into the room. He ran over to the young woman, pulled a jack knife from his pocket, and cut the ropes.

“Hold on. I’m here to help,” he assured her in a fierce whisper as he untied her hands and feet.

But the strange thing was, even after removing the cords, she lay there like a stone. Thinking she might have lost consciousness, he nudged her shoulder.

“Are you okay? Hang in there.”

The young woman didn’t move. Her stillness aside, something about her didn’t feel right. Her shoulder wasn’t soft to the touch. It was unnaturally cold and hard. As these unexpected sensations registered in Taiji’s mind, a shiver ran down his spine. Maybe the girl was dead. Maybe she was in the state of rigor mortis that he’d read about in a book.

Taiji didn’t know what to do next. But having removed the ropes, he should probably undo the gag as well. Raising his hands, he went to remove the white handkerchief. Seeing her face up close, Taiji got hit with another shock. This girl that made his heart race, that he’d gone to such lengths to save, was not even human! A stunningly real waxwork doll had been tied and gagged and left on the floor.

Who would do such a bizarre thing and why? The strange old man from before couldn’t have done it. The doll must have been tied up before he ever snuck into the house.

The waxwork doll stared up at him with those entrancing glass eyes. The beautiful face truly did appear to be alive. Taiji felt himself enveloped by a spooky sense of dread, as if he’d been cursed with a magical spell or was living through a waking nightmare.

Where was the interloper hiding? A good ten minutes had passed but he showed no signs of returning. An uneasy and desolate mood filled the gloomy old house, as if it had long been deserted with not a soul left behind.

For a long moment, Taiji’s mental faculties deserted him as well. He stood there staring off into space. Suddenly he came to his senses and noticed that the room had grown much darker.

“Whoa!” he said to himself and spun around.

The one window in the room had been wide open only a few minutes before. Now it was sealed with slatted steel shutters. The shutters blocked the outside light, casting the room into darkness. Taiji jumped in surprise and ran to the window. Using both hands, he tried with all his might to raise the shutters. They didn’t move an inch in any direction.

Ah, what a curious abode this was. From the outside, Taiji had been struck by the foreboding air that surrounded the place. A beautiful doll lay tied and bound inside the room, so lifelike as to appear almost real. The building was empty and yet the steel shutters over the window secured themselves seemingly of their own accord.

This was a thoroughly haunted house.

Taiji had ended up imprisoned in the pitch-dark room. He searched for another exit. The only way out was through the door and down the hallway. That strange old man was undoubtedly lying in wait for him there, a mocking grin on his face.

Taiji was at a loss at what to do next. All he knew was he couldn’t stay in the room with the doll forever. To start with, keeping her company was utterly unnerving. The doll girl was so realistic, he couldn’t stop imagining her springing to her feet in the darkness. That thought alone scared him silly. He had to get out of there, no matter what.

Having resolved to go head-to-head with the old man, he bolted from the room and took off down the hallway. His heart in his throat, he cast his eyes about the hall but didn’t spot the man lurking in any corners. The interior of the house was dead quiet. It felt like an empty building.

The hall turned at right angles. Doors were set into the walls here and there. Every door was locked from the inside and didn’t open when Taiji turned the knob. Fortunately, perhaps, as every room radiated the aura of forbidden territory. By this point, Taiji realized he was on the verge of tears. He managed to keep his emotions under control and came to the last room at the end of the corridor.

The door to this room alone was cracked open. “There must be somebody inside,” Taiji said to himself, a thought he found strangely disconcerting. Had the door been shut like the others, it would have been no more worrisome than the rest. Being open in such a manner brought all his fears to the surface.

But now was no time to hesitate. Taiji clenched his fists and mustered his courage. Leaning forward, he stole a glance through the open door.

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March 25, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (4/32)

The Enchou (燕朝) encompasses the personal residences of the Inner Palace and the Imperial Court of the Outer Palace. It is above the Sea of Clouds and has direct access to the Forbidden Gate.

Although the furigana in this instance read simply as "clock," the kanji (漏刻) refer specifically to a water clock or clepsydra. Sophisticated water clocks were invented in China as early as 600 BC.

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March 22, 2023

Richard (excerpt)

Chapter 1


No one knew Richard St. Clair’s assistant was a woman—or so he’d assumed until someone fed him a love potion.

She—he—Phillip(a) Thewin—was a slim, tallish woman who topped Richard’s chin (though he suspected her black boots held lifts). She kept her dark red hair closely cropped, the ends tucked under a soft clerk’s cap. In the office, she occasionally stripped off her frock coat to lean over the tables in her vest and white shirt. Richard guessed that she wrapped her breasts. She couldn’t hide the slender curve of her shoulders or the subtle flare of her hips, though the frock coat covered her shape most of the time.

She made no other efforts to hide her sex. Her face was an oval with a straight nose and slight cleft in the chin. No pasted-on mustache. No false whiskers.

No one seemed to notice. Richard held a minor position in the Ministry of Planning and Urban Development, which oversaw the inspection and taxation of private land. He and Phillip(a) occupied a small office of many wooden cabinets, a few low-slung couches, and two large tables for maps and blueprints. The discreet sign on the door read: “Department for Historical Verifications.” Richard was responsible for determining whether certain houses (and land) should be labeled landmarks or torn down and plowed over.

Their department currently focused on properties in Roesia’s capital, Kingston (“Newville,” some ministers wanted to call it to honor the bloodless retirement of the royal family, but the name wouldn’t stick). Phillip(a) helped Richard with inspections and occasionally drafted parts of (exceptionally lengthy) documents for ministerial approval. She spent afternoons in New Government House’s library researching property documents or sat behind Richard in committee meetings, taking notes and handing him potential explanations to ministers’ queries.

No one looked at her twice; no one sniggered or whispered; no one winked or smirked at Richard. Did they truly see trousers, short hair, and a frock coat and reflexively think male?

Richard couldn’t remember when he’d realized Phillip(a) was a woman. He couldn’t remember ever not knowing. But surely in their initial meeting—?

He’d been in the middle of the Taggart Approval. At issue was the disposition of a collection of dumpy, ancient homesteads on bramble-infested land; the property’s entire historical value lay more in the homesteads’ foundations than their walls and interiors.

Richard had managed to convince the ministers to turn the land, buildings included over to the new archaeology department at Kingston Technical College (the Academy, that supposed bastion of all research and education in Roesia, poured scorn on the workmanlike aspects of new sciences such as archaeology).

In the middle of endless meetings and multiple inspections, sometimes aided, sometimes hampered by the overeager college heads, Phillip(a) appeared to locate blueprints, deliver messages, and proofread appeals.

I must have known.

Richard simply hadn’t cared.


Richard’s new appointment meant he could install his family—Mother, his younger siblings Aubrey and Andrew—in a house in Kingston’s Residence district. Mother was currently visiting friends in Roesia’s neighbor, Ennance, a city-state graced by luxuriant gardens, elegant edifices, and sophisticated gambling establishments; Aubrey was now married, but Andrew was home temporarily from Bailey College.

Richard’s new position also meant he could find a wife, and he had gotten engaged within a month of his appointment—too quickly.

Regrets are pointless. They accomplish nothing. Marriage was what a man in Richard’s situation did next, part of the package: post, property, proposal.

As he did most evenings of late, Richard sat in his house’s small yet tasteful dining room and listened to his fiancée, Gloria, lecture Andrew in her mild, remorseless way on the importance of maintaining a superior reputation “even at school.”

In a few minutes, Richard would divert her. He would mention that Lord Rustilion had complimented his latest report or that his inspections had brought him into contact with the Duke of Thairse. Like Richard, Gloria was a proponent of the new (non-royal) government. Like Richard, she tactfully honored aristocrats for their past service to the state. Unlike Richard, she reveled in her swelling acquaintances’ bloodlines.

“You never know when a miscalculated action will undermine your standing with others,” Gloria told Andrew, who was trying to pretend to be absorbed by his supper without being obviously rude. “You don’t want to become the object of wagging tongues.”

Gloria was a Cartwright, the beneficiary of a grandfather with an urge (and knack) for trade. The second and third Cartwright generations used their inheritance as a stepping stone to respectability: Gloria preened whenever another peer called on her. The moment Richard obtained his government post, she snatched him up.

Richard was, after all, a gentleman’s son. Father had been a liaison of sorts, holding a variety of minor posts on diplomatic missions. When he died abroad, the St. Clairs fell to lurking on the edges of high society, where they befriended the right kinds of people and appeared at the right kinds of events: mind-numbing attendance at garden parties, soirees, balls (costume and other), operas, chorals, promenades in the park.

“Your background and new position mean great things for us both,” Gloria assured Richard.

Richard supposed so. If some members of society muttered that not even the Cartwright fortune could explain that family’s recent and abrupt social advancement, who were the St. Clairs to cavil? All of them pandered to their betters: flattered, cajoled, sold themselves—even Mother, who relished the drama.

Gloria seemed to relish it too, though she lacked Mother’s verve and magnanimity. Mother got as much enjoyment from a footman who married his mistress as from a lady who made an unexpectedly good match. Gloria considered the first story distasteful and the second a testament to vulgar exhibitionism.

“We will be courted by good society,” Gloria told Richard the day he fulfilled her pointed expectation that he propose.

“The Widows & Orphans Association?” Richard said.

“Oh, you, always a joke,” Gloria said without laughing. “The best people are those who are best for us. Advantageous alliances got you to your current position.”

Richard let that piece of puffery pass while he shrugged inside his head. Social guilt got me my position. After his sister suffered a magical ordeal (in which high society patrons played a part), ministers scrambled to offer Richard the first available government post. Richard was sorry for his sister, but he was relieved to settle into a job where he could prove himself through work rather than small-talk.

His engagement was meant to stabilize his good fortune. Gloria seemed a suitable addition to the family: pragmatic, down-to-earth. And she wasn’t unattractive: a plump, tidy woman with a permanently good-natured expression. In truth, she was a tad humorless, a trifle single-minded, somewhat lacking in affection . . .

She’s nothing like Phillip(a). Richard brusquely shook his head. Years of praising incompetents, claiming friendship on the slightest of acquaintances, currying favor with vaguely corrupt officials, ignoring more kindly but less politically influential contacts—Richard could hardly claim he deserved someone as honest and good-natured as Phillip(a).

“The alliances you form now,” Gloria told Andrew, “will shape your life’s aspirations.”

Richard sighed softly, took a breath and spoke up: “Lord Rustilion complimented my latest report,” he said and gathered Gloria’s strident, confident attention to himself.

Chapter 2


The next morning at the office, Richard tried not to notice Phillip(a)’s soft, husky voice; her elegant long-fingered hands; her generous smile.

She said, “The Pellon and Lord Simon inspections are next on the docket.”

“Lord Simon’s mansion is as ruined as the man.”

“Truflian Architecture. His fantastical era.”

“Not Truflet’s best work. Why does the belief in fairies automatically entail a penchant for curlicues?”

“Visual improbabilities,” Phillip(a) said and grinned outright.

Richard tried to also ignore that grin.

“I have my weekly meeting with Lord Rustilion,” he said. “What are your plans?”

“I need to track down the deeds for Lord Simon’s house.”

“You won’t go there? We have the Pellon inspection this afternoon.”

Lord Simon was an aged rake and magician, still capable of producing scandal, definitely not safe. He would see through Phillip(a)’s disguise.

“No—Government Library.” Phillip(a) raised her eyebrows at Richard’s stony expression.

“Good. We’ll visit Lord Simon’s together,” he added, turning away.

It was a natural directive, not rooted in over-protectiveness. Not at all.

“Have a pleasant chin-wag with Lord Rustilion,” Phillip(a) said in a singing voice.

Richard had to laugh. His director, Lord Rustilion, held his office by virtue of his social position: an aristocrat, yet he supported New Government. He even defended Richard’s department. He simply didn’t see the necessity; Richard’s activities appeared to puzzle him.

“Is the Pellon property so important?” Lord Rustilion said, eyes roving about his office from desk to wall to door, anywhere but on Richard’s face.

“Perhaps. The Pellon family can’t afford to maintain it.”

Lord Rustilion pondered that statement.

He said doubtfully, “I guess the house is old.”

Richard said carefully, “Old doesn’t inevitably bestow historical worth.”


Lord Rustilion pushed over cream and sugar, and Richard prepared his obligatory cup of tea. Every meeting with Lord Rustilion involved tea. The ritual gave the man something to focus on when his questions faltered.

“So why evaluate it?”

“It does have ties to King Erick’s reign.”


“The land could possibly be transferred, in future, to the Commons Project.”

“Yes, yes. You, ah, have an interest there?”

“Sure,” Richard said.

The Commons Project—a proposal to set aside land for public agricultural use—was the latest burning issue in committee meetings. Whenever Richard got cornered by some overeager clerk or ambitious fellow functionary, the first question was always, “Are you involved in Com-P?” followed by confidential prattle: “George got asked to do a paper for Minister Fallon.” And: “Robert heard the latest update direct from Minister Belemont,” the head of the Commons Project and the Ministers’ Council.

Richard did a lot of “uh-huhhing” in these encounters.

He glanced now at his notes. “As for Lord Simon’s property—”

“That man is unstable,” Lord Rustilion said abruptly.

“Yes, yes, he is. But he has supporters among the ministers.”

“Hmmm.” This time, Lord Rustilion’s hmmm sounded disgruntled.

Lord Rustilion was a true New Government man. He retained his title almost absently, being otherwise utterly modern and forward thinking. Despite his blank moments, he was a preferable director to others in the ministry. Most of the time. Richard wished Lord Rustilion was quicker at comprehending potential complications, better at stimulating support for future projects.

“Lord Rustilion wants things to be simple,” Phillip(a) explained as she and Richard stood in a folly on the Pellon grounds, dressed in thick overcoats and tall hats.

The property had been landscaped by Peder Vaughn, a factor of slightly more import than the house’s age. Not much import—Vaughn had been a minor landscaper at best.

“He could make things simple,” Richard said. “It’s the paperwork that complicates our job.”

“The bureaucrats have been around longer than New Government.”

“Heaven help us.”

Phillip(a) laughed and turned to study the property’s flower gardens. Richard turned with her. The winter gardens, empty of flowers at this time of the year, were overgrown with shrubs. A solitary gardener wandered amongst distant compost heaps. The inability to maintain the gardens was one reason the Pellons hoped for a historical designation.

“Live in comfort for the rest of their lives,” Richard said, finishing the thought.

“The grounds would be open to the public.”

“The public would prefer the gardens be razed.”

“The Manderley Brothers would prefer the land be put up for sale.”

Richard shrugged.

“The ministers would go into ecstasies if the land ended up in Com-P,” Phillip(a) said coyly and winked.

How can anyone see her as anything but female?

“The Pellon property would make a lovely addition to the Antiquities Registry,” Gloria said at Mrs. Fertaff’s soiree that evening.

“It’s still under review,” Richard said.

“A formality.” Gloria flicked a dismissive hand.

Richard let the subject drop. Gloria despised even cheerful disagreement. Early in their engagement, he had tried to provoke her into arguments: Give me your reasons. I’ll give you mine.

Gloria had pursed her lips and spoken slightingly of “male manners.” (When Richard’s sister argued with her, Gloria sniffed about “a lack of proper decorum.” Andrew never tried to argue. Mother chattered over her.) Gloria’s pronouncements were exactly and precisely pronouncements.

“Pity the Pellons aren’t here. You could reassure them.”

Richard would never do such a thing—it would be inappropriate to inform a petitioner of a decision before Richard had even completed the initial inspection. The Pellons being absent, the issue was moot, so he ignored Gloria and intercepted Bertram Mells, a functionary in the Ministry of Public Works.

Bertram agreed with Richard that Kingston’s easement laws needed standardization. “You’ll be holding soirees of your own soon,” he added, glancing about the Fertaff’s salon.

Richard tried not to blanch. Attending tedious weeknight parties was the price for serving in the ministry. And it was an easy way to keep Gloria in an affable mood. She and her frozen-faced maid had fetched Richard in the Cartwright carriage that evening. He couldn’t yet afford one, and Gloria hated to arrive in a hired coach. She would be bringing a carriage with her to their marriage. Convenient, Richard reminded himself; it helped if he regularly reminded himself what he was gaining from marrying Gloria.

On the debit side were Gloria’s societal aspirations. Attending other people’s gatherings was unavoidable. Holding them oneself seemed excessive.

Bertram raised a brow at Richard’s lack of response. “The Mrs. will insist,” he said.

Gloria would. And she would be within her rights to expect Richard’s cooperation. How could he complain? This was the life he’d chosen when he pursued a government post, when he allowed Gloria to absorb him.

Bertram said, “The Cartwright Pater and Mater are riding their daughter’s, ah, train to gentility.”

“Gloria is the third generation,” Richard pointed out; more doors were naturally open to her.

“So many new acquaintances—” Bertram continued.

“She’s friendly,” Richard said, hoping he didn’t sound too defensive.

“Insatiable,” Bertram agreed.

Richard frowned. He might find Gloria’s social obsessions off-putting. But wasn’t that the point of marriage: divide the load, share the burden? He shouldn’t allow others to criticize his fiancée.

“Lord Rustilion,” Gloria cried before Richard could reprimand Bertram with a lame rebuke.

She had waylaid Richard’s boss. Bertram grinned broadly as Richard went to stand at Gloria’s shoulder.

“How you must appreciate Richard’s hard work,” Gloria pronounced, placing a deceptively light hand on her quarry’s arm.

Looking more somnolent than usual, Lord Rustilion grunted.

Gloria continued, “How fortunate I am to have a beau with so much potential.”

Lord Rustilion blinked and gave Richard an unexpectedly sharp glance. Richard gazed back, trying to not too obviously detach himself from Gloria’s effusiveness. Wasn’t this how St. Clairs got ahead? He could hardly claim that he was too virtuous to fawn over his superiors.

“We are lucky to have him,” Lord Rustilion said finally.

Gloria’s good-natured expression seemed to thicken and solidify as Lord Rustilion strolled away.

“It’s about time he recognized your abilities,” she said softly, her hand settling on Richard’s sleeve and agitating his glass of punch.

“I’ve only been in his department for five months.”

“Five months is long enough for a person’s value to reveal itself.”

“He admires my reports,” Richard said dryly.

Irony and other forms of wit bypassed Gloria.

“At least he doesn’t hold your sister against you.”

Richard frowned. His sister Aubrey had married a policeman, Mr. Charles Stowe—the Head of Police, in fact. Charles had helped Aubrey when she’d been bespelled over a year earlier. Richard liked the man. His calm temper made him impervious to even Gloria’s snubs.

Gloria had been outraged by the marriage. For a few days Richard had wondered if she would call off their engagement.

She didn’t. “You’re too good a catch,” Aubrey told Richard though Richard credited Gloria’s staying to her sense of worth: she could overcome any setback.

Aubrey herself was the complication. She’d married “down,” but her bespellment had made her someone to whom even Academy magicians showed deference. Gloria ought to remember that.

Richard said now, “Stevenson admires my sister.” Brian Stevenson was the Academy’s Acting Head.

Gloria stiffened, eyes at half-mast. Displeasure at Richard’s implied rebuke enveloped her in a cloud of pique.

“I don’t believe Lord Rustilion is a proponent of magical potions,” she said tightly.

Richard wasn’t either. His sister hadn’t asked to be bespelled.

Gloria’s bosom heaved. Still, Richard had social endorsement on his side as well as the current social backdrop of chattering nabobs; Gloria relaxed fractionally.

“What a kind brother you are.”

Richard nodded vaguely and forced himself to exchange innocuous greetings with fellow bureaucrats and deliver general compliments to posturing ministers. He set aside thoughts of Phillip(a)’s unselfconscious chuckle, her genuine pleasure in the work, and her willingness to let Richard be himself.

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March 18, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (4/31)

I've posted chapter 31 (book 4) of Hills of Silver Ruins, a Pitch Black Moon.

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March 15, 2023

Aubrey (excerpt)

Chapter 1


Aubrey woke in a dim room. She lay curled in a small space, blinking up at a dusty ceiling. Sunlight from narrow, papered windows touched the crate tops surrounding her. She watched the light glitter and tremble, watched the dust dance in the sun’s rays.

Pain crept over her, growing with her consciousness. She hurt everywhere: her belly, legs, shoulders, arms. She sobbed. The pain reached her hands, fingers, jaw; everything about her ached and burned. She thrashed, moaned for the pain to end; it had to end; it wasn’t possible to continue like this.

The pain subsided sluggishly. She lay on her back, panting, seeing the same sunlight and crates through tears. She could move but preferred to soak up a few moments of stability. The world unblurred. She could see wooden slats and lids marked Provisions, This Side Up, and, level with her eyes, thin black lines: wires.

Aubrey sat up. In one dizzying moment, she realized that she was naked in a cage. She folded her arms across her chest as she heard herself whimper, sob.

I wasn’t. I was—

—at a ball, being served punch from Lady Bradford’s huge silver punch bowl and then—

Running, trying to escape, a long, gray creature close to the ground.

She huddled, rocking against the memory of distorted senses and incredulous cries. The cage trembled.

From the other side of the boxes, a voice called, “Awake, puss?”

A face loomed over the box tops; a man of fifty-odd with scraggly gray hair stared down at Aubrey, jaw slackening.

“Who? How did you—?” And then, almost reverently, “You are her? Aubrey St. Clair? Yes? Yes?”

“Yes,” Aubrey said faintly. “What’s happened?”

She couldn’t cover herself and the old man would not stop staring. She hunched forward, legs against her chest, trying not to imagine what he could see.

“Human,” the man said. “A reversion. I knew it.”

“Where am I?”

“I guess Academy magicians don’t know everything.” He sidled around the boxes, knelt before the cage door and untwisted a wire. “Come on. Get out. You must be hungry.”

She whispered, “I haven’t any clothes.”

He laughed and she cringed.

“Nice thing about animals: no putting on airs. Come on, come out—”

His hands reached for her. She hated those hands, feared them, but let them haul her upright and drag her out of the room.

They crossed a hall and entered a small parlor. A young man sat at a table, reading, the book in his hands bent to the light from an oil lamp. A handsome young man with dark hair—and she was naked and couldn’t stop him from seeing her.

The old man said, “She’s human.”

The young man rose abruptly, the book tumbling to the floor.

“She actually reverted—”

“I was right. I knew I was right.”

Aubrey gazed about uncomprehendingly. She didn’t know these men. She’d never been in this place before. The faded rug, the worn antimacassars and peeling cheap wallpaper, was nothing like her friends’ elegant parlors or even her family’s furnished apartments.

She said, “May I have a blanket, please?”

The young man fetched one from a divan and draped it over Aubrey’s shoulders, his eyes creased by a smile. The older man pushed aside chipped tea cups on the round table. Watching him, Aubrey thought, I know him, his mannerisms: the queer way he jerks his hand back before he touches an object, the soft whistling between his teeth.

“Sit there,” the older said and motioned.

Aubrey sat beside the table in a straight-backed chair.

The young man pulled up another chair, saying, “How about an introduction? I’m Dmitri and this is my uncle, Mr. Kev Marlowe.”

“Are we in Sommerville?”

“Great and glorious Kingston.”

“But I was in Sommerville when—at Lady Bradford’s ball—”

Kev said, “There was a potion in the punch—a philter. You’ve been bespelled for longer than any human to date.”

“That we know of,” Dmitri added.

“I became—a cat?”

“You transformed,” Dmitri said with heavy patience; from a great distance, Aubrey felt faint irritation. She pushed it aside. He’s trying to help.

“Let her explain,” Kev said, but all Aubrey could remember was her brother Richard kneeling down to crawl under Lady Bradford’s front steps; she’d tried to say, “Richard, help me,” and could only mew pitifully. She wasn’t human. She was cat. Face expressionless, Richard had scooped her up and carried her to a waiting carriage.

She said, “My family—”

Dmitri and Kev glanced at each other over the table.

Kev said, “They’re probably in Rostand for the Spring.”

“Spring? How long has it been?”

Dmitri said, “You were a cat for eight months.”

Aubrey said, stunned, “I’ve had a birthday.”

“And that makes you?” Kev said.


“Really,” Dmitri said softly. “Quite the little lady.”

Kev frowned at him, and Aubrey felt a rush of gratitude. Kev was older. He would stop Dmitri from—

She said, “I need clothes. Please.”

“Of course, of course. Dmitri will go.”

This time Dmitri frowned, but he left through the parlor’s second door, his feet thumping. An outside door banged.

Kev said, “How did you feel when you reverted—changed back into a human?”

“I hurt,” Aubrey said. “All over. My family—”

“It passed?”

“Yes. Do they know where I am? You’ll tell them that I’m—better?”

“Of course. We’ll send a message.”

“Can’t we go to them now?” Aubrey said.

If she could only get home, back to Mother and her brothers, Richard and Andrew, get away from these strangers, the pain of her wakening—

Kev leaned towards her over the table, hands clasped. His teeth worried his lips. His legs bounced. His hands fidgeted.

He said, “It would be best to wait. In case something happens—”

Aubrey’s mind blanked.

She said in a remote, tight voice, “I might change back?”

She didn’t like the sudden flare of eagerness in Kev’s face. She felt her body gathering itself as if to shrink, disappear, run.

“No, no. I’m sure you won’t,” he said.

Aubrey sensed he was responding more to her white, strained face than to what he believed—or wanted to believe.

“I’m tired,” she said desperately though truthfully. “Is there somewhere‍—?‍”

A room where she could lock the door, shut out this man’s avid gaze, and untangle the stretched feeling in her gut.

“I’m sorry” she said, not sure why she apologized; she wasn’t the type to apologize for vaguely felt wrongs.

“Of course. Let me show you your new room.”

Her new room was a curtained alcove off the parlor. Kev scooped boxes and books off a cot, kicked newsprint and vials under it.

“There you go. Much nicer than that storage room.”

Which made her wonder, after Kev had gone, why they’d put her in the storage room in the first place.

At least I’m not in the cage.

The cage might be safer—only she was human now and humans didn’t belong in cages. She was . . . restored.

I was a cat. Eight months. Over half a year.

Philters never lasted so long. Magicians were always trying to perfect them. Aubrey had seen men drink philters and transform into rats, seen giggling girls do the same and levitate. She’d once watched Lady Promfret’s poodle vanish after lapping a potion from a bowl. It reappeared unperturbed a mere minute later.

The effects of potions usually lasted mere seconds. I guess this one worked better. She shivered. I’ll be home soon. My brothers will josh me about my adventure. My friends will visit.

She laughed softly while the stretching tension went on and on, unamenable to reason or argument. She folded herself into a corner of the musty cot and pressed her hands to her chest, hoping to still her pounding heart.

Feet shuffled outside the alcove; Aubrey’s muscles clenched. The shuffling ceased—had the person left or was he lurking, motionless? Holding her breath, she heard nothing until someone spoke far off. An outside door banged. She gave up trying to sleep and hunched on the cot, the fusty blanket a tent around her body, her arms circling her knees.

“Here you go,” Dmitri said, his voice too close and too loud.

She choked; Dmitri laughed and clucked, “Now, now, kitty. I’m just bringing you a new pelt.”

He handed her a paper-wrapped packet through the curtains. She undid the string to discover a thick, brown frock of cool, dank material. She lay it on the cot; glancing towards the drawn curtains, she let the blanket slide to the floor.

Her body had matured. Her hips had widened; her breasts were heavier under her hands. She stared down at herself. Thin red lines covered her skin: scarlet crosses on her chest; long, slender marks on her legs and arms.

All over. Shaking, she pulled on the dress. It barely reached her knees. The thin scars continued past the dress’s hemline to her ankles and spread web-like over her feet.

She sat on the bed and forced herself to think calmly. These are effects from the philter; that’s all. I changed back. Once my family learns I’m better, someone—Richard—will fetch me. I’ll leave this place behind.

She edged into the parlor. Dmitri sat at the table with his book while his free hand caressed a glass of dark liquid. She stood silently by the alcove curtains, studying him: the slanting mischievous brows, the dark tousled hair. Light from the oil lamp stroked his cheekbones and the book’s page.

“Hello,” Dmitri said, bringing her eyes to his.

She neared the light.

“The scars,” she said and held out her arms.

He shrugged. “A reaction to the transformation. They’ll fade. How does the dress fit?”

Not like her blue-green frock the night of Lady Bradford’s ball. The ball had been the last party of the summer. In a few weeks, Aubrey would have joined other debutantes at a coming-out ball in Kingston. But Mother let her attend dances in Sommerville.

She said to Dmitri, trying not to sound angry or distrustful, “Has Kev sent my family a message?”

“Of course. They’ll be here soon.”

“How soon?”

“This week. Next. Rains have muddied the roads from Rostand.”

Rains would slow a carriage’s progress. But her brother Richard could make the trip by horseback in a day.

Dmitri said, “We didn’t know you would revert, you know. Didn’t even know you could. Nobody did. Your family thought you’d be a cat forever. Kev agreed to look after you.”

Answering the questions she hadn’t dared ask. He was smart and nice and handsome.

“Much more grown-up,” Dmitri said softly.

Which compliment left her strangely tight and scared; she’d never been missish. But Dmitri’s eyes saw her naked; his voice stripped her reserve. She flinched, her body aching.

Fear followed her into her dreams, dreams of her skin pinned back—“Notice the dilation of the pupils”—the cold touch of instruments against her heart and lungs, blood on her fur, on the table—“Look at the organs: far larger than usual, wouldn’t you say”—while she thrashed feebly—“Don’t touch the head. You never know.

The scars had not faded in the morning.

Chapter 2


Aubrey waited in her alcove to be collected.

She felt herself adjusting—what choice did she have?—to the scars, the oddly scented alcove, the gloomy parlor and the evasive men. Kev asked her questions over breakfasts of thin toast and slightly rancid kippers. They sat at the parlor’s small round table, the only sturdy piece of furniture in the room. Kev leaned his elbows on the faded covering, notebook and fountain pen ready.

“You remember being a cat?”

“I remember jumping. That was marvelous. It felt right, so—”

“—coordinated,” Dmitri said from the divan.

“Yes. And I was much warmer, all the time warm, not like now.”

Dmitri kindly dropped a blanket about her shoulders. Aubrey tried not to flinch.

“Could you hear better, see or smell better?”

“Yes. No. It depended.”

“How long did you remember things—as a cat?”

She didn’t know. Her last memories placed her at Lady Bradford’s ball, then under the stoop, then—nothing. Only brief, lucid moments: hiding under the chaise longue in the family drawing room, spitting and scratching in a worn burlap sack.

“Does my family know where I am?”

“Yes. We sent a messenger. Yes.”

No, said a small clear part of Aubrey’s mind. Why would Kev lie?

At least she remained human. She disliked how relieved that made her feel, as if simply not being cat was enough, as if she should be grateful to Dmitri and Kev because she’d changed back in their care and hadn’t changed again. Who was she to say that they shouldn’t get credit for her restoration?

I’ll make a speech of thanks when my family comes to collect me. I’ll be suitably grateful.

Once Kev finished his questions for that day, Aubrey retreated to her alcove. She’d stacked the boxes and books in a corner, and borrowed a blanket from the parlor to reinforce the curtains. It wasn’t home. It would never be home. I’ll be leaving soon. It was bearable. She curled on the cot and skimmed through the books—history tomes about long-dead potion masters—or read the tattered broadsheets. Dmitri had told the truth about how long she’d been away; the broadsheets covered politics and court cases from the previous fall and winter, 1862.

Kev spent afternoons in a chamber on the other side of the storage room. My workshop, he called the chamber. His lair, according to Dmitri.

Dmitri was everywhere. Unlike Kev, he slept on the side of the parlor where a narrow, shadowy hallway led to the outside door. Aubrey went into the hallway once; Dmitri met her, smiling and long-suffering as he motioned her back into the parlor.

“I wasn’t going to leave,” she told him, the truth.

However much she loathed Kev’s so-called home, where else could she wait? Who else could monitor her situation? She was sure that Kev was a magician—not Academy-trained maybe, but being any kind of magician would explain why her family had given her over to Kev’s care. His questions were just questions. She was human now; the scars would fade; Kev would make sure she got home.

Except—surely her family would have picked someone more respectable to look after her. If Kev was not Academy-trained, he must be what Academy students called a slum magician, a dabbler in potions who worked outside the Academy system.

Magic, practiced by any magician, was not illegal—not even magic that harmed someone. In the 1810s and 1820s, Academy magicians used royal patronage to wangle immunity from legal action—after all, if the government wanted Academy potions, ministers should be prepared to defend Academy experiments. And besides, what magistrate would fault a magician for achieving the entirely unique and unexpected?

The ministers had agreed and more, providing immunity for all magicians. “It made no difference to them,” reasoned Aubrey’s brother Richard. “They didn’t believe potions could actually work.” And so the laws still stood. No one was going to answer for transforming Aubrey.

“We require the freedom to unchallenged inquiry,” an Academy student told Aubrey at a party. (Lady Bradford’s party? All the parties blurred together now.) “It’s slum magicians that need a police force.”

“Slum magicians and Lord Simon,” another student muttered, but the first snapped, “That would open the door too far. The police should get rid of the riff-raff instead of pressuring the government to persecute qualified professionals like us.”

Now, Aubrey thought, would be a good time to get rid of the riff-raff.

She stood in the empty parlor, listening for Dmitri and Kev. Today was different from the past week. Despite the roiling fear in her gut, the part of her mind that stepped back and observed things, that studied people and situations, was claiming ascendancy.

She padded to the parlor’s papered window and lifted one corner of the oilskin. The bubbled glass was grimy. With a bit of rubbing, she could make out a dirt road, passing figures, and above them, sloping roofs against a sliver of sky.

“He doesn’t care,” Dmitri said in the hall to the storage room. Aubrey froze, cheek pressed against a pane. “He thinks transformation is a dead end. He’s obsessed with removal.

Dmitri was facing the storage room, his voice aimed away from Aubrey.

He continued, “You’re obsessed with the so-called great man. We’d be better off selling the girl.”

Further away, Kev began talking quickly, fervently. Aubrey could hear the jerkiness of his voice, if not his words. She edged away from the window and was back in her alcove before Dmitri stomped across the parlor to the outside hall.

Sell the girl. Dmitri could not have meant her. Unless—ransom?

She felt almost relieved. Ransom explained why no one had come for her yet. Once it was paid—

If her family could pay. They had some investments but not enough to manage a large, single amount. Money was why Mother hauled Aubrey and her brothers from Sommerville to Kingston to Rostand every season, pursuing opportunities and connections.

Mother’s connections might help. Or the police.

Except the newly organized police operated exclusively in Kingston. Aubrey had been taken from Sommerville, changed in Sommerville.

I’m in Kingston now. And I’m no longer a cat. The police would help a human girl get home.

So long as someone knew where she was; so long as Kev contacted her family; Aubrey couldn’t rely on that possibility. Dmitri might want to ransom her. Kev—

Aubrey didn’t want to contemplate what Kev wanted.

She was tucked in her alcove, her back against the wall, when the parlor door to the outside hall swung open.

“I’ll get him,” Dmitri said to someone, his tone borderline insolent.

“I’m sure you’ll retrieve him excellently,” answered a thin, rasping voice.

An aristocratic voice. A tunnel of brightness flowed from the objective part of Aubrey’s mind. One of Mother’s connections. She plunged from the bed through the alcove’s curtains.

A thin, elderly man idled by the open parlor door. He resembled a caricature of an aristocrat—patrician nose, dark eyes—only no aristocrat manifested such deep, cruel lines about his mouth or such harsh shadows beneath his eyes. Aubrey hesitated. The man glanced at her. His gaze sharpened.

“Scullion?” he said. “You can’t be a guest. Kev imagines all house guests to be thieves, lying in wait to filch his best ideas.”

Mother trusted aristocrats—“Our kinds of people,” she called them. Knights were obsolete, a relic of the last century, but aristocratic noblesse oblige still existed, even if the government had exchanged its royal family for a cabal of ministers.

Truth was, Aubrey’s family was closer in rank to ministers than aristocrats.

She said, “I’m Aubrey St. Clair,” pushing the words past the spasm in her throat.

“Are you? Or one of Kev’s little phonies?”

Kev practically exploded into the room. “Lord Simon,” he cried pleasurably.

Aubrey fell back, sucking in her breath. Everyone in society whispered about Lord Simon’s experiments with potions. They said he was—obsessed.

“A complete reversion,” Kev babbled, arms flailing. “And the spell lasted.”

“I suppose you’re going to claim that this is the girl from the ball.”

“She was found under a stoop. I got to her before the Academy.”

“A cat was found. A cat was obtained by you from the family. A cat—”

“Reverted. In my storage room. She was a cat.”

Lord Simon snorted. “You’ve been trying for years, Kev, to convince me that you can find answers in bespelled bodies.”

“This one—”

“I tolerate you because you try things Academy officials balk at. But I don’t like to be diddled.”

“People at the ball saw her change—”

“That potion wasn’t even yours.”

Kev gave Lord Simon a sly glance. “I heard it was yours in the first place.”

“Academy laboratories never throw anything away. If I left it there, I’d obviously lost interest.”

Kev crept closer. “I know, I know. You want to know why she retained the spell so long. There were signs—internally—”

Lord Simon’s face altered, heavy eyes lidding. He searched out Aubrey’s shape between the alcove’s curtains, dark eyes sweeping up and down her body.

Will you help me get home? she’d planned to say. Now, the tightness in her chest urged silence, and her mind—which had been so sluggish of late—whispered that he was no more trustworthy than Kev or Dmitri. Aubrey was smarter than the typical debutante. She knew better than to presume she could trust any noble, noblesse oblige or not.

He said in that soft voice with curled edges, “So, girl, were you a cat?”

“No,” she said.

Kev gasped in furious indignation. “You—!” he cried. “You said you—”

Aubrey made herself shrug and the brightness in her mind expanded. This was the Aubrey she used to be. Their family maneuvered amongst people higher up the social scale than themselves; Aubrey knew—had known—how to stay on the right side of complex social contretemps.

No one is your friend here.

Lord Simon snorted. He pivoted towards the door; Kev scrambled after him, a hand on his arm. Lord Simon looked down at that hand, eyes glinting, but Kev was too distressed to notice.

“A little more time,” he pleaded. “I’ll get results.”

Lord Simon’s eyes flicked towards Aubrey. He inhaled deeply.

“Only answers interest me,” he said in the same soft voice. “A lasting spell is only as useful as its remedy, which must also last.”

“I’ll find it. I’ll pinpoint the necessary components.”

“I’m sure you’ll try. I dislike leaving my house, Kev. Don’t send your lackey for me again.”

Lord Simon left. Kev glowered. Aubrey wavered by the curtain.

She said, “You operated on me.”

He flushed. “We opened a transformed cat.”

“I remember,” she said fiercely. “I dream.”

Except that confession pleased him.

“Then you were sentient,” Kev said. “Partially sentient. There are a few components left—I’ll figure them out—”

She braced herself against his rising excitement. “Have you? Figured out anything?”

His voice rose belligerently: “How can I with the equipment I’ve got and no funds?”

“You kidnapped me.”

“Your family gave you to us.”

“They wouldn’t.”

Kev reddened with indignation. “Why shouldn’t they? Lord Simon wants my research. I know more about potions than intolerant Academy shysters.”

“I’d be better off with Academy magicians,” Aubrey said and stepped towards the opposite door, the one through which Lord Simon had departed.

She didn’t believe her own threat. She wanted to. She wanted to believe she would stride from Kev’s home into the arms of a rescuer, an Academy student, a policeman. But Kingston was large and the police were few. She might not be anywhere near the Academy or places Academy students visited. Without a rescuer, she wouldn’t know where to go. She’d never traveled about Kingston alone. Single, well-born ladies didn’t.

“Don’t you dare give yourself to them,” Kev shrieked, truly angry now. “I’ll chain you up.”

She whispered compliance and retreated, hating herself.

A long pinch, a pull like a breath, only the breath came sort and hard, a stuttering hiss.

“Careful. Keep the stitches smooth.”

“Does it matter? We’re going to open her up again.”

“We don’t want inflammation. It will make later surgeries harder. Do it right.”

Chilled, shaved skin held together by hot fingers, a bitter pinch and pull, sharp and wicked, and she could not wake until it was over.

Aubrey stayed in her alcove the next day. No one fetched her. Dmitri and Kev spoke intermittently outside the parlor, their voices muffled and toneless.

She crept out in late evening. Dmitri sat slumped at the table, glass in hand.

He twisted his head and grinned. “Thought of joining you in there but Kev said, No, no, no.” He wagged a finger.

She began at that moment to hate Dmitri. She’d never hated anyone before. She often thought people silly or self-important or easily influenced. She didn’t hate.

Dmitri pulled a doleful face. “Lord Simon didn’t help you, did he? I’m afraid Kev has misled him before. So now you know the terrible situation you are in.”

She winced. She had thought once how nice it would be for a man, an attractive ardent man, to like her but not like this—not this pity mixed with contempt. She moved forward slowly. His hand shot out. She skipped back.

He said, slurring his sneer, “I guess I’m not good enough. Rich enough.”

“My family isn’t rich.”

“Big house in Sommerville—”


“—and wardrobes full of posh clothes: ooh, la, la. We should have asked for money.”

“That’s not what Kev wants.”

“Oh, no, not Mr. Research-for-its-own-sake. You haven’t figured out your scars?”

Prick and draw. Blood spilling, matted fur.

Her body numbed. The fear stretched.

“Experimentation, little girl. Ex-per-i-men-ta-tion. Uncle Kev pulled—”

—and draw.

“—you all apart. Legs and ribs and arms—”

“Shut up, shut up.”

“—all the pretty parts.”

She couldn’t move. She opened her mouth and hissed—hissed like a cat—mouth open, lips drawn back from straight sharp fangs.

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March 11, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (4/30)

The Hall of Supreme Harmony (奉天殿) is the largest building within the Forbidden City. Built in 1421 during the Ming dynasty, it was destroyed by fire several times during the Qing dynasty, and rebuilt in his current form between 1695 and 1697.

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March 04, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (4/29)

A real world example of the machinations described by Ansaku is the quote attributed to Henry II of England, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Though not an order, the outburst prompted four knights in the king's retinue to ride to Canterbury and kill Archbishop Thomas Becket.

Later in the chapter we see preference falsification in action.

A taika (胎果) is a person born in China or Japan because of a shoku event that transplanted a ranka (卵果) into the body of a pregnant woman. A child like Youko will genetically resemble her parents until she returns to the Twelve Kingdoms, at which point she "sheds" her outer skin.

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March 01, 2023

Mr. B Speaks! (excerpt)


The category romance does not enjoy a revered history in intellectual circles. As with much of popular culture, the academic world seems embarrassed even by its own pleasures.

And yet from time immemorial, the value of the romance novel has been revealed through the affection and admiration of its readers. Published in 1740, Pamela by Samuel Richardson proved so popular that the author had to battle the equivalent of fan fiction in order to retain the rights to his own work.

Although Jane Austen retained greater control over the books that made her a household name (and subsequently created an entire Hollywood industry), Pride & Prejudice has been “owned,” used, interpreted, and absorbed by generations of readers, writers, and critics.

Despite the common but lazy dismissal of the genre as “derivative,” Pamela and Pride & Prejudice are distinct and unique works. Published decades apart, they reflect shifts in class dynamics, cultural attitudes, and the evolving styles of narrative fiction (still an experimental form when Richardson set pen to paper) between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

More concretely, the two romances utilize different approaches to their protagonists. Pamela concentrates on the hero and heroine’s mutual seduction: the literal seduction of Pamela; the mental seduction of Mr. B. Pride & Prejudice focuses on the hero and heroine’s discovery of each other within, despite, and through their shared social milieu.

Both novels center on the romantic relationship, asking ageless questions: What motivates attraction? Can social and familial differences be overcome? What personalities are most compatible? What makes a good marriage? What role does respect have in a relationship? Can hurts and offenses be understood and forgiven? Who is not an appropriate mate?

These questions lie at the heart of our everyday experiences, grand and mundane, communal and domestic. They signify individuality, female and male. The romance is the ultimate introspective literature, an exploration of human motives, doubts, needs, wants, and, always, choices.

Intellectually approved or not, any romance reader will tell you the truth: romances matter, because they plumb the most important questions that trouble the human heart.

Chapter 1: Day One

Committee for Literary Fairness v. Mr. B

Where’s Pamela?”

Mr. B scanned the oak-paneled courtroom, ignoring the other occupants as he searched for a slender young woman with fine, straight hair and a direct gaze. Mellow spring sunlight streamed through the high windows, brightening the varnished oak walls, floor, and tables. Despite the informal arrangement—two curved tables facing a slightly raised desk—Mr. B didn’t feel out of place, even though he was standing in a non-fictional courtroom three hundred years later than his own fictional time.

Except that he was here without his wife.

“Are they seizing Pamela from the novel as well?” he asked Mr. Shorter.

Mr. Shorter, his attorney, sat at the left-hand table. Mr. B had asked for Mr. Shorter, even though he was an attorney, not a barrister, and unaccustomed to arguing before judges. Mr. Shorter was the right choice, being absolutely loyal to Mr. B’s interests.

Mr. Shorter shrugged.

Mr. B also shrugged and slumped into the chair beside Mr. Shorter, shifting his lanky body into a comfortable position. He’d heard—all fictional characters had heard—about these hearings. Characters were yanked from their novels into real-world courthouses, where they were questioned regarding various literary crimes. Upon judgment, they were returned to their novels or banished to new ones: Mr. B wondered if Malory’s whiny Launcelot was shivering on Crusoe’s island; if Bunyan’s bad giants were being needled by the Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels.

“I hope they’ve left Odysseus alone,” he muttered.

“What?” Mr. Shorter said.

Mr. B shook his head. He’d never imagined he would be snatched from his novel. He was a loving husband, reasonable father, responsible landowner, plausible diplomat, and a damned good money manager. He’d committed no crimes. Perhaps he was here as a character witness for Tom Jones.

Seated at the right-hand table, members from the Committee for Literary Fairness glowered at Mr. B and Mr. Shorter.

The Committee for Literary Fairness boasted of its worthy goals to cleanse literature of bad role models, social apathy, defective marriages, and wrongful deaths— to cleanse literature of all social injustice, in fact. Mr. Rochester, the bigamist, would be transported to Nero Wolfe’s world and jailed; Fanny from Mansfield Park would get a much-needed infusion of self-esteem in a Toni Morrison novel; Scrooge would give up his money-grubbing ways and take a trip in a Jack Kerouac travelogue.

Today, the CLF planned to save the heroine of Pamela from her chauvinistic and overbearing husband. The CLF legal team included a psychologist, a CLF director, and a college professor.

The psychologist, Jerome Hatch, said, “He looks like a banker!”

Mr. B, despite his unruly dark hair, could pass for an atypically mellow fund manager from the New York Stock Exchange.

“When did they extract him from the novel?” Mr. Hatch said.

“The fourth year of the marriage,” explained Dr. Naomi Matchel, the CLF director. “Pamela recently gave birth to their third child; the family was planning a trip abroad.”

“Three children in four years!” exclaimed the college professor, Gary Trame. “Couldn’t they have got to her sooner?”

“I’m afraid literature judges frown on that, Mr. Trame.”

“Call me Gary. All my students do.”

“Gary. Even though we know what’s going to happen, they say we have to let the characters commit the wrongful acts before being judged.”

Dr. Matchel and Gary shook their heads at the absurdity of applying due process and the rule of law to situations best decided by professionally-trained literary analysts. Dr. Matchel said sententiously, “Oh, well, it’s the only system we have.”

Mr. Hatch said, “People need a venue to air their grievances.”

“Yes,” Dr. Matchel said and gave the psychologist a wry glance. “I’ve noticed how much you enjoy testifying, Mr. Hatch. You aren’t Dr. Phil, you know.”

Mr. Hatch shrank into his chair and peered at his notes.

“We live in a culture of mass-production; people have been brainwashed by big business,” Gary proclaimed.

“Absolutely,” Dr. Matchel agreed. “Literature has gotten so commercial. Pride & Prejudice hearings have to be held in the largest courtrooms.”

Both Gary and Dr. Matchel sniffed and glanced around the modest-sized courtroom. Only two people sat on the audience benches.

Gary jerked his head at them. “Isn’t this hearing closed?”

“They have press passes.”

The two audience members with press passes weren’t members of the press. They were an eighteenth-century aficionado and a representative from Readers for Authorial Intent. The aficionado, Leslie Quinn, was a writer of popular non-fiction (bestseller: What Frances Burney Wore and Daniel Defoe Traded). She had a doctorate in British literature but preferred writing to teaching. The RAI representative, Rupert Lonquist, was a volunteer at his local library.

Lonquist was surprised at being called in. “I always considered this novel rather innocuous,” he told Leslie Quinn.

The judicial committee had assigned Leslie Quinn and Lonquist to the hearing at the request of the presiding judge, the Honorable Judge Arthur Hardcastle. Judge Hardcastle usually handled twentieth-century murder mysteries; Agatha Christie was one of his favorites. However, the CLF had lately gotten obsessed with eighteenth and nineteenth-century characters and judges were being reassigned to hearings.

“Fine, fine,” Judge Hardcastle had said when asked. “But I want some non-academics there—you know, people who actually read.

He got them.

Judge Hardcastle arrived in the courtroom in a sweep of wrinkled robes, followed by his clerk. He motioned the clerk to a seat at the end of the right-hand table and sat at the raised desk that functioned as his bench.

He noticed the characters from Pamela had stood immediately as he entered, the others slowly following suit, and reminded himself not to form opinions too early.

“Let’s hear from the Petitioners,” he said when everyone had sat down.

Dr. Matchel did the honors: “Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson is an eighteenth-century novel told in letters from the eponymous heroine’s point of view. She begins the story as a maid in the house of the Respondent. During the course of the story, he sexually harasses, kidnaps, and assaults her. He then forces her to marry him. Based on Mr. B’s actions both before and after the marriage, the CLF petitions to have Pamela settled permanently in Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.”

At the Respondent’s table, Mr. B slowly unslouched.

The judge said, “Mr. Shorter?”

Mr. Shorter stood. An eighteenth-century attorney to an English gentleman, he mostly managed land deeds. But he was more than game to argue before the bar as a barrister. “The court should reject this petition. Mr. and Mrs. B have a comfortable, happy marriage.”

The judge said, “Is Mrs. B in the courtroom?”

“No,” said Dr. Matchel. “We received an Order for Protection on Pamela’s behalf from Judge Kline.”

Judge Hardcastle nodded absently, but Mr. B leaned forward, shoulders taut. His eyes darted from the judge to Dr. Matchel. He called out, “Protection from what?”

“As stated in our petition, Pamela needs protection from the emotional and physical damage caused by her relationship with Mr. B.”

“Damage?” Mr. B said. “My wife is not damaged. She’s happy. Satisfied. She just gave birth to our third child.”

Dr. Matchel didn’t respond. At the CLF table, Gary rolled his eyes and Mr. Hatch shook his head.

The judge leaned back in his leather chair and studied Mr. B. Literature hearings were generally informal for the very good reason that fictional characters—ranging from King Lear (accusations of parental abuse) to the Cheshire Cat (accusations of enigmatic obnoxiousness)—were generally unfamiliar with contemporary standards of jurisprudence.

The judge said, “Did you kidnap her?”

A faint flush crept across Mr. B’s cheekbones, but he looked more amused than embarrassed.

“My courtship of Pamela was rather—active. But I did not force her to marry me. She accepted my proposal.”

“After you brainwashed her,” cried Gary.

The judge leveled a scowl at the zealous college professor and other CLF members. Character defendants might not understand court etiquette, but the real people there certainly did.

“I think,” the judge said when the CLF team had sniffed itself into put-upon quiescence, “we had better start from the beginning. How did your courtship begin, Mr. B?”

Mr. B’s shoulders relaxed. He sat back, propping one foot against the table crossbar. “I would like to clarify: I may have tried to seduce Pamela, but I never lied to her. Never very much, anyway.”

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Mr. B Speaks! and A Man of Few Words can be read together in The Gentleman and the Rake.

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