May 29, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins IV

May 28, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins IV (notes)

May 27, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (4/41)

Since the founding of the Meiji era in 1868, a single era name (nengou) has been assigned to the reign of each emperor. This was not always the case. As Donald Keene explains in Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World,

Until the adoption of Meiji as the name for Mutsuhito's entire reign, the nengou was traditionally changed several times during the reign of a single emperor—at two fixed points in the cycle of sixty years, or when a series of natural disasters were attributed to an inauspicious nengou, or when some prodigy of nature required recognition in the calendar.

The kanji for the era name of Gyousou's new and improved dynasty are bright (明) and banner (幟).

I comment a bit more about the conclusion of the series as part of my latest discussion with Kate (click on the INTERVIEW WITH A TRANSLATOR label for more installments).

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May 24, 2023

Dunbar Woods (excerpt)

Chapter 1


Tam’s sister Eithne fell in love with a Human on a balmy evening in August. The air was soft and warm. The light of the setting sun filled the sky with a rosy glow. Tantalizing strains of music floated through Dunbar Woods and drifted into the crannog of Glimmeridge. Eithne ran across the courtyard and grabbed Tam by the shoulders.

“There’s an outdoor concert tonight!” she exclaimed. “Come with me, please?”

Tam cast a wary glance at the end of the Western Bridge, where their parents stood in a cluster of laughing Fairlies. Their brother Lonan hurried to join the group.

“We’re supposed to attend the Boat Festival at Seagirt,” Tam said.

“Bo–ring.” Eithne rolled her eyes. “Lonan will spend the whole time flirting with Gwyneth, and I’ll have to be their chaperone.”

Seagirt was the home of the large and wealthy Madrona clan. Tam had been hoping to watch the boat races with Lark, Gwyneth’s younger sister. But he loved music as much as Eithne did. His sharp ears caught the sound of a fiddle playing beyond the woods, and his resistance melted away.

“You’d better ask Mother’s permission.”

Their mother, Queen Morna, was already walking toward them. “Quit dawdling,” she called. “It’s time to leave.”

With exaggerated concern, Eithne said, “Mother, the Humans are holding a concert in the park. Tam needs to patrol the border, and I’d better go with him. You know what happened last year.”

Last summer, a couple of rowdy teenagers had started a brush fire with contraband fireworks, putting Dunbar Woods in danger. Queen Morna frowned.

“Very well. But you must stay in the protection of the trees.” With an indulgent smile, she added, “You may listen to the music while you watch the crowd.”

“Yes, my lady.”

Eithne made a formal curtsy, but as soon as the partygoers crossed the bridge, she clapped her hands. She and Tam ran in the opposite direction, rowed across the lake, and climbed the wooded hill to the edge of Firbrook Park. They slipped through the Veil and crouched beneath the sweeping branches of a cedar tree.

Humans gathered in the baseball field, perching on the bleachers or lounging on blankets in the grass. With the ease of experience, Tam scanned the crowd. He was one of the official Watchers for the Ettrick clan; almost every night, he patrolled the human settlements, looking for signs of trouble. Eithne often joined him, just for fun, and they collected abandoned tools, books, and other interesting things. Tam had become adept at trading these artifacts in the marketplace or using them to make bargains with family members.

He nudged Eithne and pointed to a sweater someone had dropped on the grass. But her eyes were fixed on the platform at the end of the field, where a group of musicians was warming up. A piper raced up and down a few scales, the fiddler played a jaunty tune, and a young man plucked an acoustic guitar. Wavy dark hair hung to the guitar player’s shoulders. His blue eyes sparkled with humor. As he stepped up to the microphone, a few girls shrieked in excitement. The young man flashed a bright smile and addressed the audience with a Gaelic greeting.

“Cead mile failte!” A thousand welcomes.

Not bad for a Human, Tam thought.

The guitarist continued. “I am Alan Breck, and this is my band, Riversong. We’ll start with some fiddle music. Here’s ‘Toss the Feathers.’ ”

The drummer tapped the beat on his cymbals and shouted, “One-two-three-four!” The fiddler began to play, her bow flying. She was joined by the pipe and the guitar. The audience clapped in time, and Tam and Eithne joined in.

Eithne leaned toward him and whispered, “They’re really good.”

Tam grinned and nodded in agreement.

The first number was followed by more Irish and Scottish tunes. For an encore, Alan sang the “Skye Boat Song.”

Eithne clasped her hands and sighed. “I love him.”

Tam shrugged. The man’s voice had a raspy quality, and he was weak on the high notes.

That weekend, Riversong gave two more performances. Eithne insisted they go to each one. She also insisted on arriving early, so she could talk to Alan. As Tam hovered near the stage, he overheard snatches of their conversations.

“What’s your favorite folk song?” Alan asked Eithne.

“The one about the boat.” In her high, silvery voice, Eithne sang, “Speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing. Onward! The sailors cry.”

“Wow,” Alan exclaimed. “You have a great set of pipes!”

“I wish I could learn more,” she said shyly.

“I can give you lessons. I have a studio in Tacoma—here’s the address.”

He handed her a card, and Eithne tucked it into the pocket of her skirt. Tam thought his sister was being overly polite, pretending that this scruffy Human was good enough to teach a Fairlie.

In September, Eithne started making regular trips to Seagirt, which stood on Point Defiance at the north end of Tacoma. Lonan had pledged to marry Gwyneth, but before their betrothal could be formalized, he had to spend several weekends with his future in-laws. Queen Morna assigned Eithne to be his chaperone. She dropped obvious hints that Eithne was old enough to get serious about finding a husband.

“Some fine young men are visiting Seagirt this season.”

While rowing Eithne around the lake one Sunday, Tam teased her about her “beaus.” She gave him a sly smile and told him the truth; on Saturday afternoons, she was sneaking into the human town to take voice lessons.

“Alan says I should follow my bliss and try for a singing career.”

Tam gave her a blank stare. “What are you talking about? You’re the Storyteller.”

Eithne’s singing voice was pretty enough, but she had a remarkable talent for telling stories. She recited all the old Celtic tales, and she could make pictures appear in the air, a magical gift few others could claim. Tam couldn’t imagine her doing anything else.

“Mother chose Rhoswen to be our Singer,” he pointed out.

“Humph.” Eithne tossed her head. “In the human world, people can do whatever they like. Why can’t we have more choices? It’s not fair.”

“But—” Tam sputtered. “You’re sneaking into a human town—in the daytime.”

She laughed and playfully slapped his shoulder. “Don’t worry so much, silly boy. I’m just having fun.”

At the end of October, during the Samhain festival, Eithne played her usual role as the Storyteller for the Ettrick clan. She recited the Welsh tale about the Selkie who married a human farmer. Tam didn’t pay much attention; he was too busy flirting with Lark Madrona, a vivacious young woman with golden hair and dark brown eyes. He was thrilled when she accepted his invitation to dance.

As they skipped through a lively gavotte, Tam noticed Alan Breck standing in the Hall. He hovered among the guests near the windows, trying to blend in. But Tam recognized his long, wavy locks, and his green tunic and feathered cap looked like a Halloween costume. Only a Human would wear something like that. Tam gave the man an abrupt nod and danced on.

Alan’s presence was not unexpected. On Samhain, the gates between the Otherworld and the human world always stood open. Although Glimmeridge was hidden deep in Dunbar Woods, people from the town of Greenfield sometimes wandered into the crannog and joined the Ettricks’ celebration. They likely assumed it was a county fair of some kind. Queen Morna would have preferred to keep her family isolated, but she could not break the ancient traditions of the Fair Folk.

In the middle of a slow pavane, Tam saw Eithne teaching Alan the steps. As the music ended, she took his hand and pulled him into the shadows beneath the stairwell. After a whispered conversation, Alan kissed her cheek and slipped out the back door.

Tam sidled up to Eithne. “Are you encouraging that man’s attentions?”

“Of course not. He’s my teacher.”

But her laughter seemed forced. For the next two nights, Tam did frequent patrols of Glimmeridge and used his Watchfire to check on his family. He wasn’t supposed to spy on them, but it was his job to ensure their safety. He wanted to make sure Alan Breck didn’t try to get back into the crannog.

The borders were secure, and Tam relaxed his vigilance. Eithne seemed content with life in the Otherworld, and she cheerfully performed her duties. In mid-November, during Tam’s sixteenth birthday feast, she recited the tale of the Kelpie. He had heard it many times before, but the adventures of Donal and the chieftains’ sons always sent thrills up his spine. To escape the clutches of the man-horse from the sea, Donal cut off his own fingers. Tam wished he could be that brave.

Lonan and Gwyneth were planning a summer wedding, and Eithne agreed to be their Storyteller. She never mentioned Alan. She knows that Human has nothing to teach her, Tam decided.

On Arthan, the night of the Winter Solstice, Eithne entertained a crowd of Ettricks and Madronas with a dramatic rendition of “The Princess of the Shining Star.” As she spoke, streams of smoke rose from the fire and swirled in the air, creating images of the handsome miller and the ugly gremlins. The beautiful princess appeared in a glittering carriage created by a cloud of sparks. Everyone applauded enthusiastically, but Tam felt uneasy. For the second time in two months, Eithne had chosen a tale about a Human who fell in love with a woman of the Fair Folk.

It doesn’t mean anything, he told himself. Maybe she has a crush on Alan and admires his music, but Storytelling is her true calling.

The twelve days of Yuletide began. In the human developments of Heatherwood and Cedar Court, the houses were decorated with sparkling lights and colorful images of Saint Nicholas. In Glimmeridge, the Great Hall was decked with boughs of holly, and the Ettricks followed the Victorian custom of putting up a Christmas tree. Tam, Mungo, and Rubin, the gardener, cut down the tallest evergreen in the wood lot. The women adorned the tree with garlands of silk flowers, velvet ribbons, silver apples, and golden pears.

Throughout the holiday season, the Ettricks exchanged visits with friends and relatives. They were able to travel quickly through the Fairlie Portals to Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. They made a courtesy call to Ellan Vannen—the Isle of Man—and presented their respects to Banba, the High Queen.

Each clan provided its highest level of hospitality and entertainment. There were feasts, balls, hunting parties, and sporting competitions. Tam engaged in several middleweight wrestling matches and won most of them. He also showed off his skill with the Watchfire. Now that he was sixteen, he was old enough to start courting, and he was expected to display his talents to the eligible young ladies.

After so many loud and elaborate parties, it was a relief to finish Yuletide with a simple family celebration. On January sixth, the Ettricks gathered in the Great Hall to sing and play games. For refreshments, Morna transformed the Christmas tree ornaments into real fruit. Once the garlands and ribbons were removed, the men sawed off the boughs, split the trunk, and used the wood to start a bonfire in the courtyard. Morna watched them from the tower of the Hall, poised to send a shower of rain if the flames spread out of control.

The other clan members strolled around the courtyard, exchanging gifts and greetings for the new year. Eithne embraced Tam and presented him with a small gift wrapped in flowered cloth.

“For my favorite brother,” she murmured. “It’s a secret—don’t open it until tomorrow.”

She slipped the package into the pocket of his leather jacket. He handed her a book of Christmas music he’d salvaged from a recycle bin. The cover was missing, but the pages were clean, and the songs were illustrated with pretty drawings.

Eithne leafed through the book. “What a nice collection! Whenever I use it, I’ll think of you.”

She kissed him on both cheeks, and tears glimmered in her clear blue eyes. It wasn’t like her to be so sentimental. But the end of Yuletide always felt a little sad.

Inside the Hall, their aunts were covering the tables with leftovers from the twelve nights of feasting. Tam stuffed himself with pumpkin cakes, apple tarts, and slices of ham and smoked turkey. At midnight, full of food and happy memories, he stumbled to his cottage and fell asleep.

An hour later, he woke to the sounds of a gathering storm. Thunder growled overhead, and wind gusted through the trees. A sharp knock rattled the door, and his mother burst into the room. Her long, dark hair flew about her face, crackling with angry static.

“Where is she?” Queen Morna shrieked.

Tam sat up and rubbed his bleary eyes. “Who?”

“Eithne! I don’t see her anywhere!”

“I don’t know where she is,” he mumbled.

“Use your Watchfire! Find her!”

Tam slipped on his jacket, pushed his bare feet into his boots, and stepped out the door. He held up his right hand and flicked his fingers together as if striking a match. A blue flame sprang up near the base of his thumb. Cupping the flame with his left hand, Tam shaped it into a Watchfire, a shimmering sphere the size of a child’s ball. He moved the ball in a slow circle, facing each direction as he whispered the names of his siblings.

“Brom. Niall. Rhoswen. Elestren. Lonan. Catríona. Eithne.” For good measure, he added his father’s name. “Mungo.”

One by one, their images appeared in the center of the sphere. Brom and Niall were traveling homeward with their wives’ clans. Rhoswen sang a lullaby to her fussy baby while her husband, Gavin, rocked the cradle. Elestren and her husband, Tristan, were fast asleep in their feather bed, their three children piled around them like a litter of puppies. Lonan wandered through the fir trees near his cottage, humming a love song and sighing over Gwyneth, who had returned to Seagirt with the other Madronas.

Tam held the Watchfire higher and focused on the Great Hall and the buildings beyond. Mungo sat in his library, reading a book. Catríona supervised the servants in cleaning the kitchen. Quickly, Tam checked the area around the women’s bathhouse, but he did not see Eithne anywhere.

Peering over his shoulder, Morna demanded, “Where is she?”

“I can’t tell.” Tentatively, he suggested, “We could see better from the battlements.”

“No!” Morna snapped. “No Watchfires in the tower!”

The wind grew stronger, shaking the boughs of the fir trees. Tam knew the weather was responding to his mother’s distress, and if he did not find Eithne, it would get worse. He threw a cloak over his shoulders and hurried to the Western Bridge. His fingers stiffened with cold, and it took several tries to create a new Watchfire.

“Hurry up!” Morna cried.

Tam held the sphere high and turned to face each compass direction. He scanned the woods on the west side of the crannog; next, he studied the meadow, the gardens, the cedar forest, the barnyard, and the waterfall.

“Eithne,” he murmured. Nothing. He repeated, more urgently, “Eithne!”

“Find her,” his mother pleaded, and he felt a stab of fear. Slowly, he turned to the south and scanned the baseball field. Eithne’s face appeared in the center of the Watchfire, but it was veiled by a soft mist.

“She’s in the park,” Tam said.

Morna clicked her tongue. “What is she doing there?”

“I don’t know. I have to get closer.”

They crossed the empty courtyard and climbed the path to the Great Hall. At the far end was a stone terrace bordered by an herb garden. Tam held up the Watchfire and moved it slowly across the tree line. Finally, he spotted two shadowy figures walking along Silver Creek on the east side of Dunbar Woods.

“There they are,” he muttered.

They?” Morna demanded.

“Eithne and Alan Breck. He’s—uh—a singer she’s fond of.”

“Fond?” she snapped. “How fond?”

Tam didn’t answer. He needed all his energy to keep the Watchfire steady as he followed his sister and her sweetheart. They stopped on the plank bridge that crossed the creek between the woods and the baseball field. Alan turned to face Eithne and clasped her hands. He spoke softly, and she replied. Her voice was faint, but Tam read her lips and repeated the words out loud. “I take ye as my wedded husband.

“They are hand-fasting!” Morna cried. “No!”

Her angry scream filled the air. Howling in response, the wind swept around her and lifted the edges of her cloak, making them flap like wings. Morna transformed into her owl shape and soared over the trees. But it was too late. Staring into the Watchfire, Tam saw the laughing couple race across the field to the parking lot. They jumped into a car, sped down the road, and disappeared into the human world. The only image left in the sphere was a blur of color and dazzling light. Even in her bird form, Morna could not catch up with them.

Her anguished cries echoed through the woods. All around the courtyard, lights flickered on, doors swung open, and voices called out in alarm. Mungo strode out of the Hall and joined Tam on the terrace.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Eithne eloped,” Tam said numbly. “With a Human. The man dressed up like Robin Hood on Samhain.”

“I wondered if there was something between those two.” Mungo shook his head and moaned in dismay. “Ooh, this is not good.”

“Can’t we stop them?” Tam cried.

Mungo set a hand on his shoulder. “Nothing can stop the course of true love. But your mother is going to be furious. As soon as she comes home, I’ll try to calm her down.”

He hurried back to his library and tuned his violin. Doors slammed shut as Morna flew screeching across the courtyard. Storm clouds billowed overhead, lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, and hail pelted down in a thick, white sheet.

Tam pulled his cloak over his head and ran back to his cottage. He tossed an armful of kindling into the fireplace and lit the wood with the last flame from the Watchfire. As he knelt there, rubbing his hands, his breath caught in a harsh sob.

How could Eithne do this to me? How could she leave without saying goodbye?

His stomach rolled, and for a moment, he felt like he might throw up. No use going back to bed. I’ll rest by the fire tonight.

He hung up his cloak and peeled off his damp jacket. As he draped it over a chair, his fingers felt the bundle in the left pocket. He pulled out the gift Eithne had given him after the feast. Inside, a piece of paper was folded around a small object. On the top flap, she had written in her slanting script, Don’t forget me.

He upended the packet, and a shimmering object fell into his hand. It was Eithne’s gold necklace, the one Queen Morna had given her on her sixteenth birthday. Tam lay down by the fire and clutched the necklace in his fist, rubbing the finely woven chain as if it were a talisman.

Chapter 2

The Gathering of the Clan

During the next three days, Morna paced around her parlor and shouted angrily at anyone who dared to approach. The rest of the week, she brooded in her bedchamber near the top of the tower. After a brief consultation with his wife, Mungo posted an announcement on the front door of the Hall. Tam read the scroll with a shiver of dread. The weekly Gathering on Sunday evening would be a council meeting. A formal Council did not bode well for Eithne, and Tam realized that he, too, was in trouble. He shuddered.

I hope Mother doesn’t throw me in the Pit.

“The Pit” was Queen Morna’s punishment for the most egregious infractions. The first time she sent Tam there, he had just discovered his ability to create the magic blue flame of the Watchfire. He was only six, and his new-found power made him giddy with excitement. He ran gleefully around the crannog, startling people by snapping his fingers in their faces.

Morna seized him by the ear, marched him to her parlor, and lectured him for ten minutes about courtesy, duty, and the responsible use of magic. “The Watchfire is not a toy! It is only to be used for the protection of the clan.”

With an innocent smile, Tam proclaimed, “I was practicing!”

“Don’t be rude,” she snapped. “You need to learn some manners.”

She pointed at him and recited the words of a spell. Swirling gray clouds trapped him inside a wall of thick, gray fog. He saw nothing, but his ears picked up a few faint sounds—the lapping of waves on a distant shore, the dripping of water on damp stone.

After a few minutes, Morna released Tam from his gray prison. He promised to act more responsibly, but his curiosity always overcame his better judgment. He could not resist the temptation to hide in Dunbar Woods and experiment with the Watchfire.

One sunny August day in his thirteenth year, he finally learned his lesson. Rubbing his hands to create greater friction, he transformed the cool, blue light into a blossom of yellow flames. To his alarm, the petals of fire grew hot. He panicked and clapped his hands together, spilling a few sparks on a pile of dry leaves. As he frantically stomped on the smoking embers, Queen Morna flew into the woods and screamed at him.

“You’re going to burn down the forest!”

She flung out her arm and shouted, and Tam plunged into darkness so deep he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. He felt frightened, hopeless, and utterly alone. Worst of all, the power of the spell pressed on his mind like an invisible weight. He could not produce a Watchfire or a single flicker of light.

“I’m sorry,” he whimpered. “I’m sorry.”

But his angry mother didn’t release him until the sun set behind the trees.

Tam never played another trick—at least, not in the woods. Sometimes, when he was walking by the lake, he absently tossed a small fire blossom in his hand. One day, Eithne saw him and nudged him until he stopped. With a sympathetic smile, she said, “Maybe you can visit the Mountain Clan and practice in the ice and snow.”

Eithne had been a good friend, and the pain of her absence felt like a knife in Tam’s side. He had failed in his duty to protect her, and he deserved to be punished. He wished his mother would send him to the mountains—that would be better than the alternative. Crouching by his fireplace, he rubbed his throbbing head and sent a silent plea to the heavens. Dagda, Great Creator, save me from the Pit!

On Sunday night, Tam joined the other clan members as they marched up to the Great Hall. Morna sat on the dais in her carved wooden throne, looking stern in a robe of black velvet. The Ettrick children and grandchildren sat in the center of the room. Aunts, uncles, and cousins of various ranks positioned themselves along the outer edge. Servants stood by the sideboard near the rear door, ready to serve refreshing cups of water, tea, or cider. Everyone wore their best clothes.

Mungo perched at a tall writing desk near the fireplace. In addition to being the brenhin or king of the clan, he was the scribe, historian, and legal adviser. He could have assigned a secretary for these tasks, but Mungo preferred to do the work himself. He entered each birth and wedding date and copied every royal decree into the Ettricks’ Book of Remembrance. The bonreens might rule the clans, but the brenhins kept their households running smoothly.

Tam knew if he married Lark Madrona, he would never become a brenhin; the oldest daughter in a clan always took her mother’s place. But Tam didn’t care about rank or royal duties. He wanted to be free to travel, visit different countries, and use his magic for a greater good. He longed to prove himself a hero, like the ones in the old tales. Perhaps he could go on a noble quest or save a village from a dragon or—or something like that. Dragons were now a protected species.

Tam’s sisters whispered together, filling the room with gossip and speculation. Mungo opened the Book of Remembrance to a clean page. Queen Morna rose from her throne, and everyone in the Hall fell silent.

In a clear and dignified voice, she declared, “The Council of the Ettricks begins. Listen well, for I must speak of an urgent matter.”

She nodded at Mungo, and he began writing with a goose quill pen. Morna continued slowly, pausing between phrases so he could catch up.

“On the sixth of January, after the New Year feast, Eithne of the Ettrick, Princess of Winter, broke Fairlie law by marrying without our royal consent. Furthermore, she dishonored the clan by running away with a Human. She forfeited the rights of the Fairlies, and she will lose the gift of eternal youth. Henceforth, her name shall not be spoken in Glimmeridge, nor will she be mentioned by any member of this family. She is forgotten!”

Morna swept her arms wide, as if slicing the air with a sword. The others bowed their heads and murmured, “She is forgotten.” Dutifully, Tam moved his lips. At the same time, he recalled Eithne’s message and the necklace hidden in his cottage.

I will not forget you, he promised recklessly. I will not forget.

Morna continued, “On this night, I invoke the Changeling Law. The Humans took one of ours, so we shall take one of theirs and force her to labor in the fields.”

Mungo held up a finger. “My lady, with your permission?”

Morna gave him an irritated look. “Does my Counselor have an objection?”

He stood and bowed politely. “Your Majesty, I believe the Changeling Law applies only to infants.”

“We have the right to take a Captive after the theft of our Lost One,” Morna insisted.

“Er, the Humans would consider that a kidnapping,” Mungo said. “They might send men with guns to take the child back.”

Gavin jumped up, his hand on the hilt of his dagger. “If they dare challenge us, blood will be shed. We will fight from the river to the sea!”

“No, no, no.” Mungo waved his hands. “Sit down, you hothead. There will be no fighting.”

Reluctantly, Gavin resumed his seat. Mungo climbed the steps to the dais and smiled gently at his wife.

“Marriage is an act of love, my dear, not an act of war. Our daughter left the Otherworld of her own free will. We cannot disregard her choice. The Council of Old Ones would object.”

“But what will we do for Lonan’s wedding?” Rhoswen asked. “He wanted Eithne—I mean, the Lost One—to tell a story.”

Lonan looked stricken. The Madronas wouldn’t call off the wedding because Glimmeridge lacked a Storyteller. But Eithne’s disappearance might bring unwelcome criticism, and each member of the clan would lose face. Morna gnashed her teeth.

“Tamlin of the Ettrick,” she hissed.

Startled, Tam looked up and met the force of his mother’s blazing eyes. She jabbed an accusing finger at him. “You patrol the borders of our domain. You control the Watchfire. You should have known what the Lost One was planning.”

“No, no, of course not,” he cried.

“You were supposed to be her chaperone,” Rhoswen pointed out. “You escorted her to the summer concerts.”

“She—she admired one of the singers,” he stammered. “But I never encouraged her!”

Catríona’s hazel eyes sparkled with curiosity. “A singer? Was that the Human she was flirting with at Samhain?”

Elestren chimed in, “You should have watched her more carefully.”

“It wasn’t my fault,” Tam protested. “I couldn’t watch Eithne while she was at Seagirt. She was meeting her friend in Tacoma.”

Everyone gasped, and he realized his mistake. Hastily, he added, “She was taking voice lessons.”

“What?” Morna shrieked.

Meekly, Tam lowered his head and whispered, “I’m sorry.”

But there was no forgiveness in his mother’s fiery eyes. “You knew Eithne was seeing that man, and you did not tell me?”

Tam should have kept his mouth shut. But he rushed on, struggling to defend himself. “She loved music. She—she wanted to learn more about Celtic folk songs.”

“She had no business studying with a Human!” Morna gave him a furious look and turned to face the company. She raised her arms, and her voice grew as deep and sonorous as the wind. “Tamlin of the Ettrick, Watcher of the Night, has failed in his duties. This shall be his punishment: he shall spend one day in the Pit—”

“Wait!” Tam cried. He darted to the edge of the dais and bowed to his parents. “To avoid the Pit, I propose a bargain. I will find a new Storyteller.”

Morna’s lips curled. “For your information, all the good Storytellers are taken.”

“Then I will find one in the human world!”

A ripple of laughter ran through the Hall, and even Morna cracked a smile. “A human Storyteller? Ridiculous!”

“If Humans can write books, they can tell stories,” Mungo said. “William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, the Brothers Grimm.”

“Words on a page.” Morna gave a haughty sniff.

Mungo went on, his eyes glowing as he recalled selections from his collection of human books. “The tales of the Greeks and Romans were recited before they were written down. So was ‘Beowulf.’ And, if I recall correctly, Taliesin was a human poet of great renown.”

The company murmured in appreciation, but Morna shook her head. “It is a lost art.”

“An art that may be returning,” Lonan said. He stood to address the company. “During my patrols in the daytime, I often fly around the school. When the windows are open, I can hear the children reading their papers out loud. They call it creative writing.”

Morna raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Really.” She pondered a moment and then nodded abruptly. “Very well. I will accept a human Apprentice who can be trained as a Storyteller. She must be courteous, intelligent, and beautiful, with a clear and pleasant voice.”

Rhoswen smirked. “Mother, you will never find a human girl to compare with Eithne—I mean, with the Lost One.”

Mungo smiled in agreement. “I think we need to lower our expectations.”

“All right,” Morna said crossly. “I’ll settle for someone who is modest, teachable, and reasonably attractive.” She turned back to Tam. “I accept your bargain, Tamlin. You will not suffer a punishment if you find a human Storyteller by Lunasa.”

Relief washed over him like a wave of cool water. He gave his mother a dignified bow. “To repair my fault, I promise to find a young woman as talented as—as Hans Christian Andersen!”

“The master of fairy tales.” Mungo nodded in approval.

“If that’s the best you can do,” Morna muttered. She raised her hands and cried, “This Council is adjourned. You are all dismissed.”

Mungo picked up his violin. “Let us have some music to calm our troubled souls.”

“And dancing,” Rhoswen exclaimed, and the others cheered.

The men pushed back the tables, and family members formed a circle in the center of the Hall. Rubin strummed his guitar, Tristan beat out the rhythm on a bodhran, and Mungo launched into a lively fiddle tune. Everyone sang the words of the song. Tam’s high, sweet tenor mingled with the other voices, but his heart was heavy. Rhoswen was right—no girl, Fairlie or Human, could ever take Eithne’s place.

In spite of the cheerful music, Morna’s eyes were as hard as stone. During the first dance, she stalked from the room. Later that night, as Tam walked back to his cottage, he saw her flying across the courtyard in her owl shape. The bird hooted mournfully through the trees, and storm clouds rolled over Dunbar Woods.

A sheet of lightning flashed across the sky, and Tam felt a surge of anger at the interfering Humans who had caused his mother’s pain. Shes right, he thought with grim resolve. They took one of ours—we’ll take one of theirs.

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May 20, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (4/40)

"Fields of Gold" by Sting popped into my head while I was translating this chapter (and got stuck there).

You'll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You'll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we walk in fields of gold

So she took her love
For to gaze a while
Upon the fields of barley
In his arms she fell as her hair came down
Among the fields of gold

Will you stay with me?
Will you be my love?
Upon the fields of barley
We'll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we lie in fields of gold

See the west wind move like a lover so
Upon the fields of barley
Feel her body rise when you kiss her mouth
Among the fields of gold

I never made promises lightly
And there have been some that I've broken
But I swear in the days still left
We'll walk in fields of gold
We'll walk in fields of gold

Many years have passed since those summer days
Among the fields of barley
See the children run as the sun goes down
Among the fields of gold

You'll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You can tell the sun in his jealous sky
When we walked in fields of gold
When we walked in fields of gold
When we walked in fields of gold

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May 17, 2023

Apron (excerpt)

Chapter 1


When her grandma died, SarahAnn wasn’t sad. Not weepy sad, the kind of sad where people clutched the hands of the bereaved and said, “It’s okay. Let it all out.”

SarahAnn wasn’t a big fan of catharsis. It was messy and self-indulgent and people acted like it changed everything. As if sobbing about Grandma Sally would bring her back to life, make her young again, and keep her from losing her memories before she died.

But then SarahAnn never got the point of sappy women’s movies, the ones where BFFs and mothers and daughters bonded over tragedy and tea and tears. When she watched those movies with Aunt Donna, she always tired of the characters about thirty minutes in. Why did they have to tell each other everything? Why couldn’t they stop bugging each other, their significant others, and find something interesting to do?

Yeah, SarahAnn was not a Twihard. Because there was an implausible series, even by suspension of belief standards. She preferred watching old Buffy episodes with David and Sammy. If a person was going to get stuck in a dead-end job, she could at least be sarcastic about it.

She watched sappy movies because she wanted to spend time with Aunt Donna. Aunt Donna believed in “a good cry.” Hence Steel Magnolias. Yet Aunt Donna was also sensible. She told SarahAnn that it was perfectly okay for her to deal with Grandma Sally’s death in whatever way worked best for her. If she didn’t want to cry, she didn’t have to. End of story.

Grandma Sally was Grandma Sally Williams, but everyone in her extended family called her Grandma Sally. When SarahAnn was younger, she used “Grannie” when she visited Grandma Sally at the retirement community. The rest of the time, she called her “Grandma Sally” like everyone else. Sammy called it code-switching, and said it was normal to use different language in different circumstances even when talking about the same stuff. Then David asked innocently if that explained why he called Sammy “idiot” and “genius” in the same conversation. Sammy rolled his eyes.

The day Grandma Sally died, Aunt Donna met SarahAnn after school and told her that Grandma Sally had passed peacefully during an afternoon nap. Aunt Donna drove SarahAnn home, sat with her at the family-room computer, and helped her select pictures to put on Facebook. SarahAnn could have simply uploaded all the pictures but making the best selection had been her way of grieving, which Aunt Donna understood.

The first best picture was of SarahAnn and Grandma Sally when SarahAnn was still a baby and her mother was alive, a three-generations portrait. The second was of her and Grandma Sally when SarahAnn was three; she was racing bare-naked through the sprinklers at their house near Lunts Corner while Grandma Sally applauded.

SarahAnn’s favorite picture was the two of them in Grandma Sally’s apartment at the Canco Road Retirement Home. Grandma Sally and SarahAnn were decorating an artificial tree while someone—probably David since Sammy took off people’s heads in pictures—snapped a photo. It was Grandma Sally’s fourth Christmas at Canco Road. She looked alert, ready to crack one of her “yule” puns. SarahAnn was eleven, not yet a gawky teenager. And the tree looked rad, as Uncle Chester would say.

SarahAnn had posted more pictures since the day Grandma Sally died, and she would post one later that day: My Family After the Funeral.

SarahAnn believed in letting people know her story. The family photo included her dad Sammy and her dad David with Aunt Donna and Uncle Paul, Uncle Chester and his family, and Uncle Todd, Aunt Lily (his wife), and their oldest, Brian, who had flown in from California for the funeral.

The photo showed everyone sitting around a long table in the dining room at the retirement home. The people at the furthest end leaned forward to eyeball the camera like the models in the famous Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting.

“What a wonderful, big family!” exclaimed the older man who took the photo using SarahAnn’s phone.

Aunt Lily then wanted to explain how everyone was related “since people should know that traditional families aren’t the only kind of family.”

Aunt Lily was like that. SarahAnn wanted people to know her story because she didn’t believe in hiding anything. That didn’t mean she wanted to turn her story into a Broadway musical (“a freakin’ Broadway musical,” as Sammy would say).

“Who said anything about traditional families?” David said, and Uncle Chester said, “Is it okay if some of us are traditional families?”

“What is traditional?” Aunt Lily said.

“You’re the one who used the term,” Uncle Paul said.

Aunt Donna said, “Lily, aren’t you planning to homeschool Jessica next year?” referring to Aunt Lily’s youngest, who would be a high school sophomore that coming fall.

Aunt Donna was good at distracting people when they were about to start pointless debates.

Aunt Lily sighed. “I’m considering it. I don’t like the girls she hangs around with.”

“Drugs?” Sammy said, looking bewildered, since Cousin Jessica had been entirely drug-free the last time they all saw her.

“Make-up. Flirting. Boys. Boys. Boys. It’s so self-demeaning.”

The family members at SarahAnn’s end of the table all sighed. Personally, SarahAnn thought obsessing over make-up and flirting and boys was a waste of time. Life was complicated enough. But Jessica would go on demeaning herself with make-up and flirting and boys whether or not she was homeschooled.

Uncle Paul said to Uncle Todd, Jessica’s dad and his brother, “So you suck on the teat of public education but give your kids the winepress of special privileges? I thought you were opposed to inequality.”

“What kind of tortured metaphor is that?” Sammy said.

Then Uncle Todd explained for the billionth time that not everyone could afford ritzy summer camps (he was referring to SarahAnn attending archaeology camp last year) even though he was going to sell a script to a Hollywood studio any day now. In the meantime, as a public high school teacher, he knew how bad public schools could get, what with the paperwork and the constant oversight and so many kids with personal, mental, and physical “issues.” (“Every student needs encouragement,” Aunt Lily said with a sideways glance at SarahAnn.)

Lily, Uncle Todd proclaimed, would do a great job with Jessica.

“It won’t happen,” Cousin Brian muttered to SarahAnn. “Mom only brought it up now because I graduated last year and Mark graduated this year. He already moved into the dorms at Sierra College. Jessica didn’t want to come to Maine because of some big end-of-the-year freshman party. I hope you don’t mind.”

“No,” SarahAnn said, who wouldn’t have wanted a bratty fifteen-year-old at Grandma Sally’s funeral.

“Yeah. My mom and her together every school day? It wouldn’t last a month. Besides, Jessica will throw a fit first.”

Cousin Jessica was the definition of self-entitled Millennial. SarahAnn hated being grouped with whiners like her. As Sammy told her, “When people make assumptions about you, quote Marie de Gournay to them: ‘Ignorance is the mother of consistency.’ ”

At the other end of the table, Uncle Paul had derailed the homeschooling discussion with commentary on Maine’s hands-free cell phone law. Aunt Lily turned her attention to SarahAnn.

“What are your summer plans?” she said brightly. “Archaeology camp again?”

“We’re going to clear out Grandma Sally’s house.”

“Oh, how sad,” Aunt Lily said.

“That house will pay for her entire college education,” Uncle Todd said. “Right, SarahAnn?”

“The house plus the rent on the house,” Uncle Paul said, and Uncle Todd sighed at another example of how much better off everyone in the family was except Uncle Todd.

“Brian’s doing great at Berkeley!” Aunt Lily said. “He’s majoring in Environmental Science, Policy and Management.”

Brian looked less than enthused. His uncles, David and Paul, grinned at him across the table. They were both lawyers.

“At least California residents get a break on tuition,” Uncle Todd said. “What about you, SarahAnn? NYU or Boston?”

SarahAnn admitted that she was still making up her mind. She didn’t add, I’m not a spoiled rich kid, Uncle Todd.

There was no point saying it out loud. Uncle Todd liked to grouch. When lunch ended, he was still grumbling about other people’s luck. SarahAnn stepped back to take more photos with her phone. David came up and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, which got in the way of the camera but SarahAnn didn’t mind.

“You know Todd’s gripes are more about me and Sammy than about you,” he said. “He thinks that everyone in our family got a break in life but him.”

SarahAnn knew that. And she thought—though she didn’t say it—that Uncle Todd had a tiny bit of a point. David was a lawyer at Gregerson & Gregerson, the family law firm, where he worked alongside his older brother, Paul. Uncle Paul took on civil lawsuits regarding hospital screw-ups and car accidents while David tackled intellectual property and technology law. David was the reason she, Sammy, and David lived in a small but pricy house overlooking Back Cove.

Sammy was a consulting archivist with a strong reputation in his field. He made good money. He also did a lot of pro bono work, which was his and David’s way of “giving back.” And he got asked to speak at seminars by VIP types who ran places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Uncle Todd—David and Paul’s brother—was a drama teacher at a top public high school in California. His students had won awards as had Uncle Todd. A few years ago, Sammy and David and SarahAnn traveled out to California for a ceremony where people, including a state congressman, said all kinds of nice things about Uncle Todd.

He still thought of himself as a screenwriter, his “true calling,” rather than a teacher. He’d written five screenplays, one of which had been optioned. (SarahAnn had sat through enough family conversations to know that “optioned” didn’t mean “will turn into a movie soon.”) Being a screenwriter was his “true calling.” Which was why he and Aunt Lily moved to California in the first place.

So Uncle Todd had a point about not being as well off as the rest of the family—but only a tiny bit of a point about life being unfair. Because it hadn’t been—not for him.

And not for SarahAnn.

SarahAnn’s mom died in a car accident when she was three. After that, SarahAnn lived with Grandma Sally. Grandma Sally’s memory had been failing for a while. When SarahAnn started elementary school, the lapses became obvious. She forgot appointments and whether it was a school day or the weekend. Sometimes, she forgot to make dinner.

Grandma Sally always laughed at herself when SarahAnn said, “Grannie! It’s Saturday!” They simply ordered pizza or went next door to Aunt Donna’s for meals. But the Howards (Aunt Donna’s family) and the Gregersons (Uncle Paul’s family) got together and decided Grandma Sally belonged at the Canco Road Assisted Living Retirement Center. SarahAnn would live with Sammy (Donna’s brother) and David (Paul’s brother), who had recently gotten married in Massachusetts. They were the ones with the house and the money and the great insurance.

The Howards and Gregersons weren’t related to Grandma Sally or SarahAnn by blood. Without their help, SarahAnn might have ended up in foster care or with distant relatives she’d never seen or heard of. She knew she was lucky that so many people wanted her safe and okay.

I am. I am lucky.

She said to David, “Uncle Todd’s grousing is preferable to Aunt Lily’s advocacy.”

Aunt Lily liked to remind people about SarahAnn’s “tough life.” How her mother died when she was three. How Grandma Sally had to enter a facility. How her dads were, well, dads, which not everyone accepted. SarahAnn found Aunt Lily’s concerns irksome. SarahAnn didn’t think of herself as Person with a Tough Life. She certainly didn’t define herself that way.

David choked on a laugh, wiggled his toes under her heels, and Frankenstein-marched her over to Sammy.

“Doing okay, Jiji?” Sammy said to SarahAnn, using the name of the cat from Kiki’s Delivery Service, their family’s favorite Miyazaki film.

David said, “We were discussing the perils of large family reunions.”

Sammy rolled his eyes. “Honestly, David—your brother acts like he grew up in a refugee camp. I had less money and support when I started college than Todd has had his entire life.”

“Ahh, I married Oliver Twist.”

“You bet your sweet, ah, bank account you did.”

SarahAnn rolled her eyes at parental self-censoring. Then Uncle Paul strode up holding hands with Aunt Donna—they were dating again—and said, “Hey, Donna’s got a new case. She’s agreed to track down a dead historical person for me.”

Grandma Sally was gone. But everything else was totally back to normal.

Chapter 2


Brian had a crush on his cousin, SarahAnn.

She wasn’t really his cousin—not biologically—though Brian knew his parents and her parents and, well, honestly everyone in their family thought of her that way. Daughter, cousin, niece. When Uncle David and his partner Sammy adopted SarahAnn, Brian’s parents held a family meeting where they explained to Brian and his brother Mark and his sister Jessica how SarahAnn being adopted did not make her any less a “real” daughter. Her adoptive parents being two men didn’t make them any less “real” parents. They expected Brian and Mark and Jessica to never say anything that could possibly make SarahAnn feel unaccepted or unwanted.

Their parents were like that.

“So where did you come from?” Mark said when they first met SarahAnn.

Five-year-old Jessica said, “Shhhhh.” Nine-year-old Brian and eight-year-old Mark ignored her.

So did seven-year-old SarahAnn, who said, “My grandma had to go into a home, so Sammy and David became my guardians.”

David was Brian’s dad’s youngest brother. There were three Gregerson sons: David, the youngest; Todd, the middle child; and Paul, the oldest. They weren’t related to SarahAnn by blood, even though Uncle Paul managed her finances and Grandma Sally’s before Grandma Sally died.

Sammy was Uncle David’s husband. He was the youngest in his family, too, which Brian’s mom said explained why he and David were so carefree and plucky together. Brian didn’t think they were carefree and plucky so much as disciplined-to-save-money-and-enjoy-the-fruits-of-their-labors.

Sammy’s siblings were Donna and Chester. Since Brian’s mom knew Donna from years back, she insisted that they all call Donna, Aunt Donna, and Chester, Uncle Chester, just as they called Sammy, Uncle Sammy.

Sammy’s family, the Howards, grew up in the same Portland, Maine neighborhood as SarahAnn’s grandma. They weren’t related to SarahAnn anymore than the Gregersons were but they called her grandma Grandma Sally anyway since Aunt Donna looked after SarahAnn and Grandma Sally’s affairs when Grandma Sally’s memory started to fade. Aunt Donna was the one who involved Uncle Paul in managing Grandma Sally’s finances.

The point was—SarahAnn wasn’t even sort of related to Brian.

It wasn’t as if she and Brian grew up around each other either. He saw her during summer vacations when his parents sent him and his siblings to Maine “to strengthen the extended family—it takes a village!” Often, their mom came too. Lily missed Maine but she’d agreed to move away so Brian’s dad could “find himself” out West. She said they should all be grateful for the “journey” since it meant their family had “adventures.”

What it meant to Brian was that he hadn’t grown up with SarahAnn so he didn’t have brotherly or cousinly feelings towards her at all.

Brian hugged her when he entered Aunt Donna’s house. His family had attended Grandma Sally’s funeral in June, six months earlier. SarahAnn and Aunt Donna spent the summer cleaning out Grandma Sally’s house. At the time, Brian’s mother seemed content to let the “Maine contingent” handle matters.

Then Brian dropped out of his second year of college. Theoretically, his mother was in favor of people taking time to figure out their passions. In reality, his mother wanted him to graduate. His lack of ambition was driving her crazy. She declared, “Someone from our little nuclear family needs to visit Maine to support SarahAnn in her time of sorrow.”

Brian wanted to see SarahAnn anyway, but he thought it fair to point out, “SarahAnn isn’t alone. She’s staying with Aunt Donna.”

“While Sammy and David are in Europe for some museum conference of Sammy’s. I don’t know why they didn’t take SarahAnn along—”

Brian did. SarahAnn had been to Europe twice with her dads, once to England when she was eleven, and later to France and Italy for her sixteenth birthday. She could have gone again but wanted to be a “homebody” and “hang out with my totally amazing aunt.”

Thank God for Facebook.

“Most teens don’t get multiple trips to Europe,” Brian’s dad said acidly.

Brian’s mom thought it was wonderful that David and Sammy worked so hard to help SarahAnn overcome her early years. Brian’s mom never referred to SarahAnn as “adopted,” but she never forgot it either.

At least she was happy for SarahAnn. Brian’s dad muttered that SarahAnn was being “corrupted by bourgeois values.” Brian didn’t think anything could corrupt SarahAnn. He stood in Aunt Donna’s house and watched SarahAnn set the table in her matter-of-fact way.

“You get the silverware,” SarahAnn told Brian without sounding bossy, and he did, glancing at her now and again.

She was of medium height, shorter than Brian—he’d shot up this past summer—but taller than Aunt Donna, who looked a lot like Helena Bonham Carter in the Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and was about the same age.

SarahAnn was slim and leggy, with fine brown hair around a lightly freckled face. Actually, she looked rather like Lily James (Cinderella in Cinderella) with straight brows, a straight nose, and a small determined chin. She had the kind of features that could survive what Brian’s buddy Phil called “the dunk test.”

Phil got “the dunk test” out of some dating book of his dad’s written by a man for women. The author claimed that when a man saw a woman, any woman, no matter how crazily made up, he imagined her as if she’d just fallen into a swimming pool—hair wet, makeup wiped away. Brian couldn’t speak for other guys, but he knew that he liked that SarahAnn could easily survive the dunk test.

He also liked that if someone threw SarahAnn into a swimming pool, she’d climb out, shake her head, and laugh.

“How are your parents?” Aunt Donna asked, coming in with a leafy green salad.

Brian shrugged. His mom was annoyed with him. His dad was irked by the world’s inequalities. In other words, they were the same as usual.

Aunt Donna didn’t press. She was a calm woman who said the sorts of things that Brian’s dad called “pointless middle-class small talk.” Aunt Donna said those things to show she was aware of people, that she was interested, that she cared.

Even Brian’s dad liked Aunt Donna.

SarahAnn stopped setting the table and looked pointedly at Brian. SarahAnn thought if Aunt Donna was nice enough to ask, people should answer. Brian grinned.

“My mom is fostering for the local Animal Refuge League. My dad is running a Writing Conference for Middle Schoolers.”

It was the type of thing his dad did well, despite his grumbles. Brian’s mom sung his praises, of course, but his students did too. He was a popular teacher.

“Your uncle Paul is coming for dinner,” Donna said almost primly and went back into the kitchen.

SarahAnn grinned at Brian over the table. Uncle Paul had been dating Aunt Donna since forever. They moved in together, split up, then moved in together again. SarahAnn called them the “suburban Taylor and Burton,” referring to the tempestuous relationship between classic Hollywood stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Uncle Paul and Aunt Donna weren’t tempestuous. Aunt Donna was too even-tempered and Uncle Paul was too sardonic. Aunt Donna’s brother Chester (married with children) said Paul and Donna had been single too long to live together successfully, and Uncle David said he totally understood the impulse to have sole control of the remote. Uncle Sammy threw a carrot at him.

Uncle Paul showed up with champagne, which was the kind of thing Uncle Paul did. Brian’s father was guaranteed to roll his eyes at “trendy kowtowing to middle-class rituals that feed our outdated patriarchal systems.” Brian agreed only because he couldn’t see his dad pulling it off. Brian couldn’t either. Uncle Paul was the kind of guy who could.

Uncle Paul was slightly taller than Brian, with darker hair and blunter features. Brian looked more like his mother, and his father didn’t look much like Uncle Paul anyway, but there were points of resemblance. Brian and Uncle Paul had the same heavy, tilted brows and almost black eyes. And he had Uncle Paul’s shoulders though not his bulk.

Not that Uncle Paul was heavy. Or rather he was in the old-fashioned sense of the word a heavy. He reminded Brian of a cross between James Cagney and Josh Brolin.

Brian knew he looked more like Justin Long, only younger, of course. Matthew Gray Gubler, maybe, or Andy Samberg. Which made Brian “ever so handsome,” according to his mom. But he wasn’t exactly Chris Hemsworth.

“So you’ve decided to become a drain on society,” Uncle Paul said to Brian, which was exactly the kind of thing Brian’s mother secretly thought but would never say.

“I got tired of social engineering,” Brian said.

He’d been on the path to a degree in something-something-environmentalism, which both his parents approved of. He woke up one morning and realized he was so bored, he almost didn’t care about the huge bill he was foisting on his parents. He could mosey about for the next three years, barely go to classes, barely not flunk, and he still wouldn’t care.

Why not get a degree in whatever-it-was? It wasn’t as if Brian had any particular interests or skill-sets. He had some social (or financial) conscience left though, so he dropped out.

Uncle Paul grinned at the “social engineering” remark. He said, “Come work for me. You can be my fetch and carry boy.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Uncle Paul then started teasing Aunt Donna. He only sometimes teased SarahAnn. It wasn’t that she couldn’t give as good as she got. It was what would happen if she complained to her dads.

As Uncle Paul said to SarahAnn, “You have two helicopter parents, you know that, right? And I’m talking Apache helicopters.”

Uncle David and Uncle Sammy could be as obnoxious and sarcastic as the guys on Big Bang Theory. But nobody had permission to be like that with their “Jiji.”

Uncle Paul lounged into the kitchen, kissed Aunt Donna with embarrassing thoroughness, and asked her mock-serious questions about their meal.

“I deserve extra helpings tonight,” he announced, carrying a plate of pork chops into the dining room. “I bring champagne plus a case for Donna from Scotia, New York.”

They stared at him. He grinned.

“The Glen Sanders Mansion. It’s an old house turned wedding venue. Hey, Donna, how about you and I get married?”

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May 13, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (4/39)

I've posted chapter 39 (book 4) of Hills of Silver Ruins, a Pitch Black Moon.

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May 10, 2023

The Bronze Devil (excerpt)

Chapter 1

The Grinding of Gears

The moon shone bright and clear on that winter night. A solitary police officer stood watch outside the police box adjacent the bridge abutment near Ginza Avenue. It was the dead of night, past one o’clock in the morning.

During the daylight hours, buses and cars and electric trams crowded this major thoroughfare. Now it was as deserted as a fallow field in the countryside. Aside from the glittering moonlight dancing off the two pairs of steel rails, there were no other signs of life. The entirety of Tokyo at that moment seemed as lonely as a graveyard.

The policeman stood beneath the red light that adorned the police box, attentively scanning his surroundings. With each breath, his mouth puffed out a cloud of white fog from beneath a dark moustache, his exhalations freezing in the cold.

What appeared to be a drunkard walked down the tracks between the shining steel rails, a big man wearing a blue suit and a blue felt hat. Despite the brisk weather, he wasn’t wearing an overcoat.

“Hoh,” the officer muttered. “This chap must have tied on one too many.”

There was something odd about the man’s gait. The officer’s assumption about the man being drunk was altogether reasonable. But on closer examination, inebriation could not explain his manner of locomotion. The man didn’t sway from left to right but walked like a man wearing artificial legs. And not the kind of artificial legs commonly associated with amputees.

More like machine-powered legs.

Shadowed by the brim of his hat, the man’s swarthy face showed no distinct features. He stared straight ahead, as if staggering along in a somnolent daze.

But, no, that wasn’t the strangest thing about him. What resembled glowing tufts of silver hung from his hands, swinging back and forth as he walked along, sparkling like jewelry in the moonlight. Not only his hands—the silver items dangled from the pockets of the man’s blue suit, such that his whole body glimmered with light.

Still standing some distance away, the police officer couldn’t make out what the objects were. Maybe strips of silver paper or strings of glass beads. In any case, he didn’t have any reason to arrest the chap and let him pass by. But as the man drew closer, the officer was in for a shocking realization.

The glowing objects were pocket watches, dozens of watches swinging on their chains from his hands and pockets.

Who was this man strolling past the police box in the middle of the night with nary a care in the world, bundles of watches hanging off his body? Was he a fool? Was he mad? Or possessed of a condition more frightening than mere madness?

The officer was later struck by a curious thought. “Those were indeed bundles of watches. And I’m pretty sure I could hear the whirring of gears. Yet even a whole bunch of watches couldn’t produce a loud sound like that.”

The only reasonable explanation was that the humming sound came from the watches. If so, the ticking of the second hands should have been overwhelming. Except the police officer was sure the unsettling sound he heard was closer to that of a big man grinding his teeth.

Chapter 2

The Iron Finger

Earlier that evening, an alarming incident took place at Hakuhodo, a famous watch store on Ginza Avenue.

The store closed its doors at ten o’clock. After the owner shuttered the show window, he and his employees called it a day. They all lived on the premises. Because the proprietor of Hakuhodo was only temporarily leasing the space, it didn’t have steel security shutters but ordinary wooden rain shutters.

Around midnight, a loud racket erupted from the show window. The teenage employee who slept in the store jumped to his feet and pointed a small flashlight—the only thing in reach—in the direction of the noise. Too startled to shout, he stood there like a stone, staring at a long blue appendage rummaging inside the show window.

At first, he thought it was a big blue caterpillar. It was in fact a person’s arm. The arm of a person wearing a blue suit swept every one of the prized pocket watches from the glass shelves.

The arm had first broken through the shutters and then punched a big hole in the thick glass of the show window. The noise he heard came from the shattering of wood and glass.

“Thief!” The cry spontaneously welled up in his throat.

“Thief!” An older employee, who’d awakened a short while before, joined in. Emboldened by the boy’s shouts, he bellowed in a loud enough voice to make sure the miscreant heard him too. “A thief is breaking in!”

A big commotion erupted. Starting with the owner, the rest of the employees jumped out of bed and raised a ruckus. One of them had enough sense to phone the police. Another darted out the back exit and alerted the neighbors. The bravest among them grabbed a baseball bat and rolled back the shutters covering the front door. He leapt out onto the sidewalk, several of his colleagues trailing close behind.

The moonlight was almost as bright as day. But the street was empty, not a sign of the thief in sight.

To be sure, in all the confusion, it took a few minutes to clear the front door. Still, no matter how fast he ran, the thief couldn’t have covered over a hundred yards in that time. Thinking he might be hiding in an alleyway, the employees searched the nearby nooks and crannies and found nothing.

“What did you say? C’mon, quit mumbling and spit it out.” Standing in front of the shattered show window, one of the store employees took the teenager to task.

The boy said, his eyes wide as saucers, “I’m telling you, its fingers were made out of metal, just like this robot I saw at a science exhibition!”

“Idiot. You must be sleepwalking. Robots don’t go around stealing watches. And if they did, no robot is nimble enough to do something like that!”

“That’s definitely what I saw. Its fingers had hinges for joints and it clenched its fists exactly like the robot at that exhibition.”

“Yeah. Now that you mention it, that’s what I saw too.” The second employee who’d raised the alarm spoke reassuringly to the youngster. “At first, I thought he was wearing a leather glove. But it’s like you said. The fingers had hinges.”

Next to them stood the owner of Hakuhodo and five others from the neighborhood. Overhearing the conversation, their faces paled and they exchanged concerned glances.

The owner collected his wits about and him and turned to his employees. “We’ve phoned the police but the local police box should be notified as well. Save the gossip for later. One of you hurry along and see that the authorities are notified.”

With that, two of his employees ran off to the police box, none being brave enough to venture off alone. As they hurried along, one of them said, “This is weird. Where could a thief hide so quickly? He vanished like a ghost.”

The other replied, “You know, I don’t think that was a human being. That’s the feeling I got. Maybe it was just an arm. That iron arm punched through the show window, with no body attached. Then it took off like a shot. We’re never going to find it.”

“Hey, hey. Stop it with the scary stories. You’re giving me the creeps. You read too many of those horror novels. Your imagination is getting the better of you. We’re right in the middle of the Ginza shopping district, for crying out loud!”

“Yeah, but the Ginza at midnight is a pretty desolate place. Almost like a desert. That blue caterpillar of an arm could be crawling around right under our feet.”

“Enough already.”

They changed the subject to a more humorous topic. Swapping jokes while they gasped for breath, they arrived at the police box next to the bridge. The officer stood there, his breath turning to fog in the night air, the same officer who had watched the strange man in the blue suit pass by a short time before.

As the store employees spilled out the particulars of the crime, one particular detail caught the officer’s attention. He asked, “You said he stole pocket watches? A large number of them?”

“That’s right. He cleaned out the whole show window and ran away.”

“Hmm. You also mentioned that he was wearing a blue suit.”

The police officer gazed down the moonlit avenue, as if staring into space. There, way off in the distance, he could just make out the strange man in the blue suit walking with his awkward gait. That’s when the officer recalled the sound of grinding gears.

“Yeah, he was an odd one. Better give him a closer look. Wait here.” He ducked into the police box and woke up his partner. After a few words of explanation, he hurried out and said to the store employees, “You two come along. You’ll need to identify him.”

Puffing white breath, they took off at a run, their shoes pattering along the slumbering avenue. Three black shadows danced across the asphalt as they chased after their quarry.

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May 06, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (4/38)

I couldn't resist the Hamlet reference. From Act 1, Scene 4: "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."

Kaei was the last person to see Risai before she departed for Kei in chapter 6 of The Shore in Twilight.

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May 03, 2023

Lord Simon (excerpt)

Chapter 1: Fall 1817

Twenty-Three Years Old

Simon skidded down a flight of stairs from the attic rooms and slid across the landing that overlooked a spacious square hall of wooden panels. Crashing into the newel post; he grabbed hold, steadied himself, and looked down at the mob of young men swarming into the center of the room.

Shouting would avail him nothing—they wouldn’t hear him over their cries of glee. They wouldn’t stop their “ritual” in any case. He turned away from the sight and veered into the long landing, heading for the front staircase.

The house was Truflian, built on a block structure—one great hall with a massive iron chandelier, one master staircase, one long landing edged on one side by an elaborately carved banister while three square rooms lined the other. His uncle lounged in the middle room, waiting to revel in the slander issuing from this latest bacchanal.

“Out of the way!” Simon shouted at the young men leaning over the banister railing, their eyes on the circling, stalking predators below.

Bets changed hands as Simon rushed past. He reached the grand staircase and half-fell down the first flight to sprawl on the landing; he pushed up immediately. The second flight hugged the house’s inside wall. Simon took the final steps two at a time and entered the fray.

He was tall, lean, and fit. He plowed through the outer circle of men, his eyes on the blond woman at their center.

A maid, a laundress, maybe a whore—though Simon’s uncle preferred to induce innocents to his parties’ entertainments. Simon caught sight of strong features: arched brows over blue-green eyes; a thin, straight nose; pronounced philtrum and long full lips.

A body lurched across Simon’s line of sight.

“Change her. Change her,” the men on the landing shouted, and the circling men chanted in response.

Simon pushed his nearest obstacle aside; the man—eyes wild, mouth open on a shout—looked about blankly. Simon was nearly invisible when he reached the woman and spat the potion in his mouth straight into her face.

She vanished completely.

The men on the landing roared—approval or disappointment, the sound was the same. Simon leaned forward, hands on knees, feeling the potion’s effects leave him, washed away along with the faint smell of Zingiber.

The hall quieted, shouts replaced by murmurs: “Where’d she go?” “Who did it?”

The circling men with their vials filled with potions rotated in small, abstracted circles, wolves denied prey. They would turn on each other soon but with less energy; some would begin to slink off to a tavern or a brothel for a bout of ordinary debauchery. Simon straightened and backed out of the horde. As the invisibility potion in his system faded, men began to see him, murmur his name.

“What potion did you use, Simon?” a fellow Academy student called from the landing.

Simon ignored him as well as other students’ glares and uncomplimentary mutters, their complaints because he had ruined the evening’s entertainment.

“When will she reappear?” another student called, curious, not petulant.

After you’re gone, Simon thought.

“Maybe never,” he said, and the observers on the landing broke into discussion groups, as if the whole event were merely another Academy lecture. Arms folded, Simon leaned against a wall, watched the group break up, and waited for his uncle’s summons.

“You ruined the evening’s program,” said Louis Ferrall, Simon’s uncle.

Louis Ferrall hunched in his four-poster on the second floor of the house, cracking nuts with his teeth. Simon watched the gray teeth chew, stained but firm. Their family descended from hearty stock; its members were distressingly long-lived.

Simon said, “Your last social gathering scandalized the king.”

Ferrall waved a hand. “Roger Moklin’s daughter. That may have been unwise.”

Roger Moklin’s daughter had accompanied an Academy student, that idiot Carl Foun, to one of Ferrall’s parties. Simon had been in the Academy lab that night, not in his own lab in the attic solarium. Reportedly, the girl had been transformed into a lizard, then threatened by stomping feet.

She wasn’t violated, the same reports claimed, as if preserving the girl’s virginal status excused terrorizing her. (The victim this evening would not have been so lucky.) Moklin’s daughter currently refused to leave her bedroom. Her father had complained strenuously to the king, who had instructed one of his ministers to inquire into the doings of the Academy and its students. If the inquiry deepened, Simon’s private experiments might come under scrutiny.

“Your guests could transform each other,” Simon said.

Ferrall grunted and licked his lips. “Not nearly as gratifying.”

Simon jerked his head—allowing for his uncle’s perspective without agreeing to it—and left the room. The man was Simon’s guardian. At age twenty-three, Simon no longer needed a guardian, but he did need his uncle’s money.

Simon’s parents died when he was thirteen, having fallen ill on a trip back from the family’s property in Lucorey when terrible storms stranded them in a noxious inn. After the funeral, Simon spent three years at his aunt’s, squiring her to dances and balls; he was tall for his age even then. When he was sixteen, she decided to spend her “waning years” in Ennance; his aunt had the strength of a Svetian ox, but she’d used up all Kingston’s social gossip, and off she went to fresher fields.

Simon stayed. He’d entered the Academy by then, and he petitioned to lodge with Louis Ferrall, the relative that even his lazy and luxury-loving aunt called “degenerate.” Ferrall lived in Kingston, and he had room, and he didn’t curb Simon’s excursions into Kingston’s slums.

Simon visited the slums to purchase hard-to-find herbs. If Ferrall was indifferent to Simon’s safety; he relished Simon’s course of study. When Simon cleared out the solarium and started collecting equipment and ingredients, Ferrall began inviting Academy students to his revelries.

“A bespelling brightens up any party,” he told Simon.

He started holding parties for Academy students exclusively—a chance for them to try out their latest experiments. Not all of the Academy heads approved, of course, at least not publically, but if Ferrall’s parties gave students a chance to refine their formulas, who was the Academy board to complain?

Simon didn’t kid himself: the board’s tolerance would last until fingers pointed in his uncle’s direction, then Simon’s. His uncle’s patronage was a mixed blessing, more a problem than a help. Like Simon’s aunt, Louis Ferrall fed on scandal, except that Louis demanded stories tinged with violence as well as salaciousness. He didn’t attend his sponsored revelries. He waited in his bedroom to collect the depraved details—like the shameful tale of an innocent girl turned into a lizard and nearly crushed by stomping, male feet.

A girl who merely vanished was not radical enough for his tastes.

Others disagreed.

The house didn’t currently have a butler—it wasn’t an easy place to staff—so Simon answered the door two days later. Duke Huvinney, a member of the Academy board, waited on the stoop with Professor Nerfause. Simon stepped back so they could move a few feet inside the door, no more.

“Simon,” the duke said heavily. “Everyone is talking, saying—you made a girl vanish?”

Simon shrugged. “A parlor trick.”

The men exchanged glances.

Professor Nerfause said, “The formula—”

The duke overrode him. “And where is she now?”

Simon quelled a surge of panic as he thrust his hands in his pockets. Tall and lean, he stood a head and more above the other men. He knew that his face bore the marks of Anglerey ancestry: high cheekbones, eyes shadowed by quizzical brows, a nearly hooked nose. Handsome. Sardonic. He let his features settle, knowing they conveyed nothing more than vague mockery.

He said, “She must have scurried off home.”

“Her brother—”

Again, the duke interrupted the professor: “She’s the sister of one of our tutors, a Mr. Tokington.”

Not a maid or a whore, yet not as troublesome a personage as Moklin’s daughter. A tutor could hardly bring pressure to bear on the king’s friends.

“A beauty,” the duke said seriously. “She was—maneuvered here.”

Forced, Simon grasped. Academy heads were given to euphemism, especially regarding student behavior.

“The Academy’s reputation needs mending,” the duke said as if Simon had spoken his thought aloud.

Simon said, “You can hardly expect me to monitor my uncle’s guests.”

“But you made her vanish,” Professor Nerfause broke in and pressed on; this time, he would not be overborne. “You may be permitted to maintain a lab away from the Academy, Mr. Ferrall, but you have an obligation to share your formulas.”

Simon allowed one eyebrow to rise. The Academy could not stop any citizen from acquiring beakers, mortars and pestles, even a cauldron. The ingredients for potions were harder to come by since many spells required special herbs. Still, slum magicians could cobble together and sell the simplest potions.

The Academy effected limited control: only Academy magicians could submit formulas for royal use; only Academy magicians could perform large-scale experiments. Simon could not be stopped from mixing potions—not legally, at least; the law did not recognize magic as an instrument of harmful behavior. But he could lose access to the Academy’s laboratory and, more importantly, its texts.

The professor said sternly, “Young man, you will hand over that formula.”

Simon shrugged. “I always intended to.”

Professor Nerfause grumbled into passivity.

Duke Huvinney said, “You are positive the girl left?”

That was not precisely what Simon had said; he nodded anyway. Neither man wanted to hear an equivocation nor did they did not ask to tour the house. They straightened their hats and coats and went down the path to a waiting coach. As the coach departed, Simon shut the outside door, took a deep breath, and strode to the center of the hall.

The woman had not reappeared. Most potions transformed their recipients for a few seconds, no more. Simon had perfected formulas where the effects lasted minutes at a time (a “true” transformation should last longer than the flicker of an eye). The vanishing spell was one of his strongest.

He had tried it on himself as an ointment and as a drink (the classic form of administration). He’d vanished for nearly ten minutes, during which time he’d slid into his uncle’s study and read his current will. When the man died, Simon would inherit his property. Of course, Ferrall might change his mind—if Simon ruined another of his parties, for instance.

Vanishing was the potion Simon spit into the woman’s face—to hide her, to keep her safe, long enough for the jackals to retreat. Except she should have reappeared by now. Perhaps she had when Simon was with his uncle: she’d reappeared and “scurried” away.

He neared the hall’s furthest wall and leaned against it, hands splayed along the paneling. Whispers. Shudders. The wood seemed to ripple. For an instant, Simon thought he felt an arm, smooth flesh, beneath his palms. He closed one hand over—nothing.

Groaning, he pressed his forehead against the wall’s wood panels. He must have imagined the arm. No formula was strong enough to—

Of course I imagined it. There was no other explanation.

Simon pulled on a long overcoat and went out in the crisp, fall day, coughing against a sudden intake of fresh air.

His uncle’s house sat amongst other two and three-storey mansions on the south side of Kingston’s Palisades district. Carriages rattled past, lords and ladies on their way to the Royal Palace at the top of Palisades’ hill. Simon circled the hill and crossed several roads before he reached a small park on its east side. Bushes lined a steep stone staircase which Simon took two steps at a time to a gate at the crest of the hill.

He was at the back of the Academy property, a series of stone buildings surrounding an oval drive. He headed beyond the furthest stone building to a series of ramshackle cottages. Tutors and mere instructors shared the cottages. Professors had apartments in the largest stone lodge that sat crossways to the Academy’s laboratory.

Simon slowed at the first cottage. The door was half-open; a tutor stood on the front stoop, straightening his wrinkled robe. “I need the mathematics chart,” the tutor called into the house. “You can pick it up from the classroom after.”

Not all tutors and instructors dealt with potions. The Academy claimed it wanted to diversify. Ever since Michaelis and Studdle failed to turn tin to gold, the Academy had felt the discomfort of placing all its nepotism eggs into one magical potions basket.

“Mr. Tokington?” Simon said.

The tutor glanced over his shoulder.

“Marcus Stevenson,” he said. “You are?”

Simon raised a brow. “Simon Ferrall.”

The tutor turned towards him fully. “You’re the Marquess of Anglerey.”

Simon raised both brows. “Marquess of Anglerey” was a dead title, linked to land in another kingdom. He had inherited the title at the death of his father, who had come into it after his two oldest brothers vanished into Lucorey’s wilds.

“Simon is enough,” he said. “Mr. Tokington?”

“Next door. He’s quite broken up about his sister.”

So she hasn’t returned. Simon didn’t let his consternation show. Watched by Stevenson, he crossed the weedy yard to the nearest cottage. The door opened rapidly at Simon’s knock, and he found himself face to face with a male version of the woman he had bespelled.

Almost. That woman had looked furious—ready to argue, to fight. This man looked sad, hangdog. He gazed pathetically at Simon. He motioned Simon morosely indoors. He slumped limply onto a worn ottoman. Simon stood over him and tried not to scowl.

He said, “Your sister hasn’t returned?”

“No,” the man said dejectedly. “Did you take her to Ferrall’s party?”


Simon waited for expostulation—angry demands, forceful accusations—but the man only shrank back against the couch, hangdog expression at the fore.

Simon said finally, “I am Louis Ferrall’s nephew.”

“Oh. Do you have Hannah?”

His tone wasn’t even accusing. Simon stared at him, brows cocked—What kind of brother is this?—blanking his face when Tokington looked up with watery eyes.

Simon said, “I do not. Did—does your sister live on Academy grounds?”

“She was a governess for a family in Residence district. I persuaded her to give notice. It wasn’t right—having a sister in service. It didn’t look right. So she started working in the laundry here.”

“That was better?”

“I suppose not.”

“No,” Simon said emphatically. What brother in his right mind would keep a beauty like that in a place like this?

“She cooks for me.”

“How nice for you.”

Tokington rallied. “She disappeared from your house.”

“You should never have let the students take her,” Simon barked.

The man sighed heavily. “I didn’t know until later.”

“Then you should have gone and fetched her.” Fought for her if necessary.

“They would have brought her back—”

Tokington’s voice broke as he raised his head. Simon was done not scowling. He glowered, brows drawn. Tokington quailed.

“The dean was told,” Tokington said on a thin whine.

Simon didn’t bother to ask when the dean had been told—or by whom. He was willing to gamble Tokington hadn’t been the informer. Marcus Stevenson, more likely.

“They want your formulas,” Tokington told him.

“I know.”

“Oh, good.”

Simon glared at the bent head and weakly floating hands. Tokington would do nothing about his sister. He had already adopted the role of bereaved, victimized family member, the expression of martyr tacked permanently onto his handsome face. He wouldn’t even quit the Academy. Simon should be pleased, relieved. No fuss. No scandal.

He slammed the door on his way out of the cottage. From the nearby stoop, Marcus Stevenson watched, thumbs in his trouser belt.

“Where’s Professor Plysant this hour?” Simon said.

Stevenson flapped a hand towards a long, low building across the quad on the far side of the main house.

“In the laboratory. Morning lessons are ending. Potions, huh?”

Simon ignored the rising inflection (the man was clearly the type who loved a “good” debate) and tramped across the shriveled grass. A few students stood at the entrance to the laboratory, a stone building with a sloping roof. In an effort to mimic Ennancian universities—those bastions of research—the Academy had attempted to enhance the simple building with arched windows for light and an enclosed portico with a gabled roof. We too take experimentation seriously.

Simon ducked under the low entablature and entered the vestibule. Students dallied there, leaning against the wall outside the main room, conversing over open books. They eyed Simon and whispered to each other. A dark-haired student with rumpled hair and an insolent mouth pushed forward: Trevor Soulton, he had been at the party the night before.

“You kept Tokington’s sister for yourself, then?” he said to Simon.

“She found safer lodgings.”

“She was asking about you, you know. Before the party. What kind of potions you mix. Where you get your herbs. She wanted to go.”

“Did you force her?”

Soulton scoffed. “Not me. She must have convinced someone else to take her.”

The attendees would all say the same thing. Not out of fear of reprisals—Tokington was spineless; Duke Huvinney would never punish the sons of “good” families; Professor Nerfause only cared about Simon’s formulas. Prevarication was simply in their natures.

Simon continued into the building’s main room. The Academy’s laboratory wasn’t anything like his. Simon experimented with several formulas at once, using beakers, jars, and multiple bowls. The Academy considered such hands-on work plebian. It employed attendants who mixed the formulas at two long tables near the rear of each lab, using thick glass bowls (iron cauldrons were considered low-class). The front tables—stacked with books and unbound manuscripts—were used to work out the formulas on paper: toil for intellectuals.

Professor Plysant half-sat on his stool behind a slanted desk, idly marking sheets filled with measurements and herb names.

“That combination would produce nothing but gas,” he muttered before glancing up. “Ah, Mr. Ferrall. You’ve been causing quite the stir. There’s a reason we fuddy-duddys like to monitor students’ concoctions, you know. Individual experimentation is dangerous.”

“Supposedly. Not even Academy heads know how, ah, concoctions function.”

“And we never will if they aren’t monitored closely. Don’t ever give up on rationality, Mr. Ferrall.”

“And if a potion affects one person differently than another?”

“There will be a reason.”

“Such as?”

“Metaphysics, my dear man. The recesses of the soul may currently be unintelligible but we are no longer primitives bound by old superstitions—we will uncover the ties that bind together the higher orders of thought. As the soul’s colored unwinding—its excretions—manifest themselves—but of course, we must first be trained to recognize the unwindings—we will grasp the bonds between all living things. No more pills and broths—we will manipulate matter itself—prolong life—comprehend the dead—the unknowable known—”

Simon stopped listening. All conversations with potion theorists took the same path into gibberish. Potions were not like medicines, which could be duplicated and begat similar, if minor, alleviations in more than one person. Like medicines, potions used selective combinations of herbs and earth-based elements to create transitory bespellings: transmogrify, invisibility, flotation. But successful duplication was as rare as long-term effectiveness.

Simon had carried the invisibility potion in his mouth, and he was still here.

“How do we reverse the effects?” he interrupted the professor, who looked surprised (had he forgotten Simon was present?).

“Potions reverse themselves.”

“Not always.”

“Always. I assure you, my good sir—there is no such thing as permanence—potions carry within them the essence of all time and thought, reflections of the mortality, the mutability, of every man and woman—uncovering such truths is the duty of all great minds—”

A student came in with a query and Simon escaped Professor Plysant’s ramblings. Trevor Soulton still lingered in the quad. Simon strode past, stopped, turned, and gave the man a level look.

“I can do more than transform women into lizards,” he said.

He waited for the man to understand, to pale at the implicit threat.

“No more innocents at my uncle’s parties,” Simon added and walked on.

Maybe he could do more than lizards. Maybe he couldn’t. But he might as well make use of what people believed he could do to set a standard for what he might do.

Back home, Simon lay on a cot in the corner of the solarium. It was a long, narrow room with a pitch roof full of glass windows, some of the earliest in Kingston. Despite their grainy cracks and thick bubbles, they let in more light than the gloomy rooms below. Early morning shafts slid through the clearest portions, illuminating the room’s sturdy table. Tools covered the table, alongside Simon’s latest potions written on stained pieces of paper. The light touched a rolltop desk, its cover unable to close due to books stacked on its surface, then a cupboard of neatly stacked jars filled with blue, green, and brown mixtures.

Something was in the house. Simon heard whispers in the hall and on the landing, more and more often here in the solarium. The creaking boards seemed to breathe. The night before, Simon had sprinkled a generic cleansing spell on the floor, then sponged it down the walls. He lay down and waited, hoped.

At some point, without wishing to, he slept. A soft voice woke him:

“Caught. Trapped.”

“I’m sorry.”

Silence. Simon sighed, pressing his hands to his eyes.

“I could have stopped them. You didn’t have to intercede.” The voice was stronger, the tone more easily discerned. She was—irritated.

“Unlikely,” Simon said slowly.

“I have some skill of my own—at potions.”

“Is that why you quit your job as a governess? To learn about potions at the Academy?”

Simon dampened the exasperation in his own voice. He lay still as light from the windows chased shadows off the table and desk and piles of equipment. A thought struck him and he sat upright.

“Did you want to come here? You did ask about me.”

No answer. He lay down, staring blindly through glass ripples as the sky brightened from white-gray to white-blue. She couldn’t be such a fool.

The voice didn’t return. He got up when the sky was all blue and strolled across to the heap of books by his desk. Bradelyne wrote about retrieval—of memories specifically but any kind of retrieval might prove helpful. Poren discussed using spells to find lost objects. Simon weighed the top book in his hand.

“I wouldn’t bother with Poren,” the voice said. “He is all about seeing things through another’s eyes. Voyeur.”

The voice definitely rose from the wall. Simon leaned across the desk to press a hand against the splintered wood.

“I have to try something,” he said.

“You think I haven’t? I want to be part of this house? I can’t break free.”

“Are you hungry? Tried?”

“No.” The voice wavered before recovering its commonsensical tone. “And Bradelyne was barely a magician—within the meaning of the term. Metaphysical twaddle.”

She—Hannah—was nothing like her mawkish brother.

Simon said, “You should never have gone to work at the Academy.”

“I didn’t realize it was a training ground for rapists and idiots.” She sighed. “I should have used a disguise like those clever princesses in Anglerey operas.”

Simon felt himself smile, felt Hannah chuckle, a wave of motion through the floorboards.

He said, “Can you see me?”

A pause. “Sense you. Feel you. I know where and what things are. I can—move.”

The wall before him stretched. He saw the face of the woman in the hall, a sculpture of wood except for eyes of blue-green. She studied him, her expression wry, possibly annoyed before withdrawing; the wood regained its solidity.

Simon called, “Are you still there?”

No reply. Simon patted the wall and floor. He climbed onto the table and tapped the glass windows above his head. She’d sunk back into the house’s architecture. Yet he’d seen her: she was still herself and alive.

He set to work. Hannah returned when he was half-way through Bradelyne’s chapter on past-lives.

“Ridiculous,” she scoffed.

“Not if I can recreate his potion for past-life retrieval.”

“And I suddenly remember that once upon a time, I lived in splendor as a queen?”

Or remember how to be free.

“Why did you do this to me?” Her voice was curious, not angry.

“You know you were to be the party’s sideshow? Or prize?”

“I suppose I was unduly confident—”

“In your ability to protect yourself, yes.”

But Simon’s frustration at Tokington brother and sister had ebbed. Hannah was here. She was herself and could communicate. Restoration was possible.

She half-laughed. “So I missed one day of work.”

Simon stilled.

“Three days,” he said. “Three days of work.”

“Oh.” Her voice broke. “I had no idea.”

For the first time, Simon heard fear in the light, lilting voice.

“I will get you out,” he promised. “I will return you to the world.”

Chapter 2: Fall 1818

Twenty-Four Years Old

You shouldn’t live here with your degenerate uncle.”

“You shouldn’t watch him at his private vices.”

“He corrupts this house.”

“Does he corrupt you?” Simon said, pausing in his perusal of Lohman’s Bodily Fluids.

“I’m too resilient.”

Simon allowed himself a smile.

“But you,” Hannah continued, “why do you reside alongside such disgusting behavior?”

“My uncle no longer holds parties.”

“Because I make his guests uneasy.”

Simon nodded. He’d heard the stories: “The floor shifts under your feet. The stairs and banisters actually move!” He’d encouraged them in quiet asides: “My uncle’s house has—things—in the walls.”

Students wanted jollification, not exposure to soiled, stinking corpses. Luckily, his uncle considered his guests’ desertion another good story. A temporary hiatus—they would return. He didn’t blame Simon. Yet.

“You remain,” Hannah pointed out.

“Because you do.” He’d said it before.

“You were entrenched in this cesspool before I arrived.”

She had a relentless moral center that overlooked her own safety. It wasn’t her choices she debated anyway.

She said, “Why didn’t you leave before—knowing what he was?”

“I’m good with potions.”

It was a sideways answer but one that she understood: the recklessness of the passionate mind that wanted more knowledge, more solutions, more control.

Except this time, she didn’t relent.

“He doesn’t care about potions.”

“He has money.”

And a house, which would someday be Simon’s.

“That’s a good enough reason to live with evil?”

“He isn’t—”

“He is,” she said sharply and was gone, whisking out of the desktop.

She moved through furniture as easily as walls, ceilings, and floors. The faintest ripples across surfaces denoted her arrivals and departures. He hated her absences more than her needling and watchful gaze.

He called, “Hannah,” even though he knew she wouldn’t answer until she was ready—able?—to return from her hideaway within the house. Give me time, he wanted to beg. Give me a chance to save you. But begging wouldn’t get him answers any faster.

“Does the house swallow you?” he asked her once.

“There are no rules,” she replied. “You created a false world for me to live in.”

“I saved you.”

Except he was no longer sure that he had. The Academy’s mixture of Simon’s vanishing formula—passed on to Professor Nerfause two months after Hannah’s disappearance—had not produce the same effects as Simon’s; students who drank the Academy’s brew rarely vanished for more than a minute, some for less.

“The formula’s effects could depend on the recipient,” Simon suggested when Professor Nerfause confronted him. “That person’s—soul.”

“Nonsense.” The man bridled. “Balderdash. Dated rubbish. I know what Plysant thinks: Magic is more art than science—blah, blah, blah. Spells can be replicated. Magic does not reside in the hands of the few and privileged.”

Nor in the hands of the many and querulous. Simon shrugged.

But he returned home and studied his original formula. There was one unmistakable difference between this and the one mixed at the Academy: on the night he’d made Hannah vanished, he’d carried the potion in his mouth.

Simon added his spit to his reappearance potion. The next time Hannah visited the solarium, he threw a cup of the stuff at the wall under which she moved. Nothing happened until—

Hannah rose from the wall, bas-relief emerging as a fully-formed statue. She arrived at an angle, so her head and shoulders appeared first, her hands breaking through a moment later. She glanced down at herself, laughed, and wiggled her fingers. Simon waited, breath held, sure it was working, that she was nearly free.

She snapped back into the wall, thighs, torso, head. Simon howled and hurled himself against the panel boards, covering them with the potion’s last dregs, which he pressed into cracks and crevices until his fingers bled.

He tried the same potion many times, adding more and more of his fluids, even his urine. More batches. More applications until the walls of the solarium were soaked inches through. He began to grab for Hannah, clutching her hands tight until she cried out in pain.

“Don’t let go,” she cried the last time.

And was gone.

“Why couldn’t you live at the Academy?”

Simon sighed and turned a page of Lohman’s chapter about the blood’s influence on mental states.

He said, “You’d be alone.”

“I think I could bear it.”

Simon couldn’t. Suppose he was the tether for her soul—suppose he left the house, and she sank so far into its foundations, she couldn’t speak or move? Invisible bones at the base of his uncle’s house.

“What day is it?”

She hadn’t asked in a long time. Simon felt himself cringe and focused on a list of purging herbs, face expressionless. The last time she’d asked, six months had past; she cried when Simon told her the date. Water streaked the glass panes even though they’d been no rain.

This time— “Fall,” he said.

She didn’t press him for the year.

The next morning, Simon went out before Hannah could ask one of her troubling questions. He wove around Palisades’ hill, passing the open fields that bordered the east side of the city. Veering to the west, one ended up in Docks district. Heading north, one ended up in Kingston’s slums.

“Trades district,” the ministers wanted to call that area.

“Slums” was a better term for a collection of winding cow-paths between stone hovels and wooden lodgings that leaned towards each other like vomiting men. The first—and only—slum resident to harass Simon had gotten acid in his face while Simon retreated with a cut hand and arm. Now the residents ignored Simon, and he ignored them as he stalked down the twisting lanes.

Reputable potion-makers operated mostly in Shops and sold mostly to the Academy. Although some had access to rare ingredients, they paid as high a price for the Royal Stamp of Approval as for the ingredients themselves. The royal family claimed the rarest herbs for their personal magicians.

The royal magicians were dabblers and poseurs, as decadent as Simon’s uncle with less imagination. Simon would rather go elsewhere than beg ingredients from the king and his cronies. He turned into a narrow alley between a gambling hell and a warehouse, kicking rats as he went. He rapped on the warehouse’s back door until it cracked open.

“You again.”

“Hello, Guy.”

“Anyone with you?”

“There never is.” Simon ducked through the door to stand in a gloomy passageway.

“I was thinking of her.

Simon had the man by the throat before he thought. “What do you mean?”

“Rumors—people say someone haunts your house.”

“Not a rumor you’re going to pass on.”

“Of course not.”

Simon released Guy and pushed him forward into a side room stacked with bundled herbs beside jars of dried powders. Guy, tweed-thin with a bushel of tow-colored hair, peered up at Simon from a permanent slouch.

“Just making conversation,” he said.

“What do you have this week?”

“The Svetian borders have tightened up. I won’t be getting Luteola for awhile.”

“Useless anyway.”

“Good for loosening up the mind.”

“And turning it to mush. What else?”

“More Pinaster—that’s good for, you know, making the ladies happy.”

“I’m sure the royal family has masses of the stuff.”

Guy grinned.

Simon said, “What about herbs from Suvaginney?”

Without moving, Guy seemed to edge sideways. His eyes swiveled between Simon’s cheek and Simon’s shoulder.

“You never took them before.”

“I’m asking about them now.”

“Of course.” Guy tunneled through boxes and returned with three small jars. “Ordinary Vulgorisis,” he said, shaking the one filled with green leaves, “but better quality than most. This here is dried Urdica. And this—” Guy held out a jar of white pellets, eying it with a blend of disgust and awe. “Let’s just say, Suvaginney priests have to do something with the bones.”

“I’ll take all three.”

“Are you sure? Even—?” Guy shook the third jar.

“Yes,” Simon snapped.

“Power. Vigor. It’ll make your potions more effective. That’s what Suvaginney traders claim. I don’t give it away on account, by the way.”

“Half now. Half later.”

Guy struggled with the terms, face scrunched until his mouth met his nose, but he agreed. Naturally. Suvaginney ingredients were hard to come by; harder to sell. Even the royals refused to use them: Roesia did not do business with slave traders and primitive priests.

“They say the sacrifices are all criminals,” Guy said, pacifically accepting Simon’s packet of coins.

“Shut up.”

Simon couldn’t stop Suvaginneans from slitting criminals’ throats in their temples. The diplomats could do nothing about it either. Suvaginney was a continent away, reached by going overland through the Questing Kingdoms or, depending on the mood of Svetland’s regent, along its passable mountain corridor. Otherwise, sailors had to go far south and east to reach Suvaginney. Kingdoms like Veillur and Belget occasionally pled for assistance against Suvaginney from their neighbors—who did nothing.

Nobody ever did anything. The royal family debauched. His uncle watched others debase themselves. The Academy twittered about its potential effectiveness. Simon had something he could do, and he had to do it.

His sweat, his spit, his blood weren’t enough. A sacrificed victim’s should be.

Hannah was seemingly absent when Simon returned home. He started immediately, using the pestle and mortar to grind Vulgoris as he sprinkled in the Suvaginney bone pellets. He added Sativvuum, Eupatoria and a smidgeon of Urdica. Once the dried ingredients were a pile of fine granules, he poured in a thin stream of water to create a paste. It smelled of dried grass and then, tentatively at first, the sharpness of burning wood. Simon closed his eyes against the unexpected sting of smoke and breathed deep.

“What have you done? What is that?” Hannah, voice alarmed.

“It will free you.”


“You know how close we have come.”

“I don’t recognize those white flecks—what did Guy convince you to buy?”

“We needed something more powerful.”

Simon added the final ingredient, the catalyst that every potion maker prepared during his first year of training: earth infused by incantations. Simon had his doubts about the incantations. A particular mixture of herbs, their combination of properties, seemed a more likely explanation for a potion’s results, but he was taking no chances this time. He sprinkled the earth atop the paste, worked it in with the pestle.

“Simon. I don’t think—”

She’d never sounded scared before. Righteously indignant, practical, commonsensical. Occasionally sad. She never spoke with this trembling uncertainty.

“You want to get free, don’t you?” he said, slamming down the pestle. “Go home? See your brother?” who refused to visit the house, to do anything overtly embarrassing or scandalous. “Aren’t you sick of my company?”

Usually, such a challenge would provoke a sarcastic reply: I would undoubtedly benefit from a more stimulating conversationalist.


“I want to escape—yes.” Her voice was as soft as sunlight, but Simon heard.

“Then trust me.” He picked up the mortar and a thick brush. “Where are you?”

“Here,” she said from the door.

Simon crossed the room. He sank the brush into the potion, lifted the clogged bristles, and began to sweep them up and down the panels.

“Oh!” She gave a cry of pain or surprise, maybe exaltation.

Simon didn’t stop. She was forming, rising towards him out of the wood, low to high relief, two- to three-dimensions. He knew the look of her: a slender figure with high, firm breasts, a head shorter than Simon. Her simple, flowered frock was too short for a lady, showing off shapely legs. There was the knee, the calf.

Emerging bare arms began to lose their wooden color and texture, growing creamy and supple. Her neck was entirely free; she rolled her head. Long, ash hair framed a face that had caught the attention of the Academy population a year earlier. Simon discerned the straight nose and wide mouth, tight in this moment though good-humored creases lurked at the corners. Blue-green eyes under faintly winged brows met Simon’s.

The full-lipped mouth parted as if to greet him. A thin, high wail issued from it instead. Hannah’s head arced, eyes closing. Arms and legs spasmed. Simon continued to apply the potion, directly now, splattering the dark, wet material across Hannah’s cheeks and neck and hands—throwing globs of it onto her surfacing feet.

She was nearly free of the door. Simon was pressing the brush into the mortar to pick up the layer of paste along its bottom when Hannah jerked back as if pulled by multiple strings. For a moment, she was flush against the door, then in the door, a recessed carving. It stood, her form etched across its surface, then collapsed in a flurry of chips and sawdust.

Simon shouted and dashed forward, tripping on the debris. He stood at the top of the stairs leading to the lower floors. He called. He turned in circles, nearly tumbling backward into the stairs’ shadowy descent.

Hannah was nowhere to be seen.

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