Conrad Keely, 2010
In which Ms. Hanowan inherits a family heirloom and departs on a long journey.
The large house on 27 Rue dâ€™Aubergine had the look of an old, faded postcard. From the street one could stare between the rusted, ornate iron gates down the gravelly driveway dividing a great expanse of lawn until it reached the entrance stairway leading up to the old, two-winged mansion. A sloped roof of grey slate boasted a multitude of chimneys, most of which these days rarely gave indication of fires below.
Outside the walled enclave, the sprawling city of Hildepessa, which had once been confined to a ring of low, shoddy tenements huddled around the shipping yards, had since expanded outwards, coming right up to the walls of the old property and moving on past it for as far as the eye could see. From the top of the tallest tree in the orchard (Lucy still loved to climb despite her motherâ€™s protest that she must stop playing the tomboy) one could see the veins and arteries of city streets covering the seven surrounding hills; where the unremarkable town center had once been rose the beginnings of a complex network of high-rises evidenced by tall cranes toiling daily upon new construction. Even the old town Hall had been torn down and replaced by a palatial, glass-covered capitol for the new Prince-elect.
All this within one generation, all within the memory span of a discerning, confident nineteen year old woman-to-be.
Lucy Hanowan loved the old family home. To her the sounds of engines and horns from the streets beyond the wall, which appeared to increase daily with little indication of slowing, signified nothing more than an inconvenient, illusory world. The city was a mere thought she could easily shove aside as she wandered the elegant, finely plastered halls of Benningbrook, imagining the time when the entire family had all lived here â€“ aunts, uncles, nephews, and a few distant relations â€“ filling both wings and the central hall with their combined laughter and conflict.
Now, since the war, most had moved away or fled the dynastic purge. The ones who hadnâ€™tâ€¦ well, for some of them, those whose remains had been returned home, a tiny ossuary had been built behind the garden in the far corner of the estate. It was a picturesque little gravesite, but Lucy avoided going there. On certain days from the window of her bedroom she would catch Mama delivering a bouquet of flowers upon the slab of grey marble outside the mausoleum and fussing with the hedgerows that surrounded the statue of the dying angel. The sight never failed to fill Lucy with a mix of emotions, often prompting her to draw her curtains.
Innumerable portraits of that once-large family hung scattered throughout the empty halls, staring down at her as she crossed through the now-desolate wings past dusty rooms filled with linen-covered furniture. The creaking of the floorboards as she stepped sometimes had the effect of startling a rodent or other creature that she would catch scurrying out the corner of one eye. She imagined these shapes, like the city outside, had also increased in size as the years progressed and feared that one day she would be wandering alone through an empty corridor and espy a large wolf or ocelot whoâ€™d made their residence in an empty roomâ€¦ or perhaps some derelict person, staring wide-eyed back at her.
The wings were now unoccupied, portions of the roof long fallen into decay and leaking. Lucyâ€™s remaining immediate family had since retreated into the apartments above the main hall, in much the same way they had retreated from the circles they had once occupied among the upper tiers of their society. For to not denounce their peerage at that time would certainly have meant death. Though Lucy could see that it had crushed the spirit out of her father, he had willingly renounced his title to ensure that she would not suffer the same fate as the rest of their less-fortunate, prouder kin.
Having tired of her daily tour of inspection, she found herself on the same floor as her parentsâ€™ chambers. Whether this had been unintentional, or an act of some inner compulsion â€“ for she had been at that moment thinking about her parents, and how she hadnâ€™t seen them together in the same room in quite some time â€“ she was soon standing in front of the door to her motherâ€™s private dressing room. Down the stairs on the left she could hear Lady Hanowanâ€™s voice intermingled with a number of other lady guests, rising up from the parlor where they held their weekly card game, which always preceded the sÃ©ance meeting for their local branch of the Society for Enthusiasts of Paramystical Arts (SEPA).
Allowing the compulsion to dictate her movements, she found her hand rising up to rest upon the door handle, slowly seize upon the knob and turn it downwards. The hinges gave out a tiny squeak. Lucy paused and listened to the rhythm of voices from the parlor below before proceeding to lean into the door and enter the chamber. Once inside she pulled the door closed, and moments later found herself staring at her own reflection in the mirror above Mamaâ€™s favorite dresser, the one which had been passed down from her great-grandmother Isheen Hanowan, who had been scandalously addicted to solo sky-sailing and had met her end somewhere over the uncharted reaches of the Outer Storm before Lucy had been born.
The dresser was placed strategically under a portrait of Lady Isheen Hanowan dressed in her finest taffeta, which Lucy happened to know was not at all how she would normally have appeared. Her great-grandmother had cultivated a notoriety for eschewing fashionable womenâ€™s attire, preferring instead a fur-collared flight jacket, a leather aviatorâ€™s cap and goggles, and baggy slacks she wore tucked into laced-up rubber flat boots that reached to her knees, accompanied by a riding crop serving some unexplained purpose in one hand and an elongated cigarette holder in the other. Lucy retained this image from several photographs and newspaper clippings hidden away in dusty scrapbooks her father kept in his study. Mama would never allow for any of them to be displayed publicly, preferring to have grandma Ishy remembered the way she appeared here as an elegant and conventional socialite of impeccable breeding.
Still allowing herself to be guided by her compulsion, Lucy slid her slender hands down the elegantly carved surface of the dresser, past the first two drawers on the right, until coming to rest on the lowest of the three. Her fingers toyed momentarily with the little bronze ring of the drawer handle, making it tinkle mischievously. With a quick assertive motion she jerked the drawer open, reaching behind a velvet display of neatly laid out, priceless jewelry, all the way to the back of the drawer, and withdrew a tiny object wrapped in nondescript grey cloth.
With delicate, reverent gestures she placed the pouch on the dresser in front of her. She lifted the flap at the top and removed with an even deeper reverence the article hidden within, gazing into the hypnotic lights cast off by the two Fairlight Stones.
The pendant did not appear particularly valuable by any conservative estimate, certainly not when compared with the impressive clusters of emeralds, rubies, onyx and diamonds that highlighted the strings of pearls, princess tiaras, silver rings, gold tesserae brooches and the block of fossilized skywhale ambergris with which it shared the drawer. And yet the pendant had an indisputably pleasing quality, generated by a symmetry between the two prominent stones which seemed to pull at one another like the irresistible gravities of two great stellar bodies.
A large, uncut stone of pinkish color – it could have easily passed for common quartz crystal, of the variety one finds lying on the debris-strewn floor of any local stone quarry â€“ lodged itself within a chaotic knot work of subfusc grey steel â€“ not gold or silver or platinum, mind you, but steel â€“ the color of dueling pistols. This segment attached itself by way of intertwined rings to a primary medallion comprised of a verdigris copper spiral surrounding a dark blue gem with a frosted, opaque surface, as though the jeweler had had too many other things on his mind to bother giving it a finished polish. In fact, the most conspicuously valuable part of the collection would appear to have been the chain from which the pendant hung, made of pure silver and ingeniously designed. By ingenious, that is to say one would be forced to conclude it came from a neighboring star, so clearly Off-world were the links in their sophistication.
Nonetheless, it was not the silver chain that occupied Luscilla Hanowanâ€™s fixed attention, but the rough, uncut stone of pink quartz and its opaque blue companion. She gazed at it with the delighted smile of a young girl â€“ which indeed she had been, when she first encountered the pendant.
Papa had brought the piece home from auction one day long ago, when Lucy was only nine. Upon presentation her mother found immediate objection with it, raising her voice to a pitch when her father had explained how much it had cost. Gerring Hanowan had answered his wife in a low, chastising tone he reserved for the most serious of matters, that the Fairlight belonged rightfully to their family â€“ it had been sold off out of ignorance by a wife of one of his second uncles, not even a relation by blood. Lucyâ€™s grandfather, Lord Gerhardt, had been furious when heâ€™d learned of the sale. It had taken Papa several years to track it down, but he wanted his wife to have it, should it please her.
This it did not do, but the Lady kept it anyway in the back of her dresser drawer where it might never attract any notice. And Lucy, aged nine, had assumed it was the last sheâ€™d ever hear about the affair. Until one strange day, two years later…
It had been a weekend, her father away attending to meetings in the old capital, and most of the familyâ€™s reduced staff having been given the day off. Outside, news of another war came and went with typical urgency, though any serious fighting had yet to reach them. Still, wounded soldiers had begun to trickle in, and a cloud of foreboding hung over their once-peaceable city. Lucy, home alone with her mother and two servants, occupied herself playing near the minnow pond behind the greenhouse, when she heard her motherâ€™s voice calling out to her. Lucy looked up â€“ no mother. She continued to play when she heard another cry. â€œLucy! Come this instant!â€
She glanced around the empty garden. Surely the Lady was playing a trick on her. She thought for an instant it could be her brother tricking her, but knew that Tomlin was at the Academy that summer. She gathered up her skirts and walked inside.
In the spacious entrance hall Lucy stood beneath the pool of sickly yellow light shed by the crystal chandelier in much need of a dusting, and listened. Her name was being called from the adjacent room. She ran through the front room into the parlor, but it was empty. In the kitchen she could hear their cook pounding away with a stone pestle, but it had not been Alecienneâ€™s voice sheâ€™d heard, nor that of her young assistant. Now Lucy knew for sure mother had to be up to something!
Another cry, this time from upstairs.
She raced up the landing two steps at a time until sheâ€™d reached the door to her motherâ€™s dressing room, the very same room she sat in now. A five-inch gap where the door stood ajar allowed her to look into the room without entering. From there she could see the mirror at the far end of the room casting a reflection of her mother sitting at her dresser, staring at herself in the mirror.
No reply. Sabina Hanowan sat perfectly still, her face rigid, her eyes wide. â€œWhat are you playing at, mother?â€ Lucyâ€™s tone carried a hint of nervous laughter.
No answer. Cautiously, Lucy approached.
Lady Hanowanâ€™s face had the highly valued aquiline features of her lineage, which statuesquely beautiful at youth, had become rather plump and languid with age. Whether her temperament was a result of her appearance or vice versa one could only speculate. At present those very same features were fixed in contemplation upon their own reflection, showing no evidence of being aware of any other presence. The Ladyâ€™s right hand hung about her throat where it hovered over the Fairlight, dangling from her neck on its silver chain.
Lucy waved a hand in front of the Ladyâ€™s eyes. Nothing. She gave her shoulders a gentle nudge, eliciting a gentle lean. The dusky blue jewel appeared to emit a dull glow. Lucy touched the pendant with her forefinger.
A wrinkled hand flew out and grabbed her wrist, seizing it painfully.
Mama came out of her trance with a jolt.
â€œLucy! You gave me a start!When did you arrive? Why, I must have dozed off.â€
She let go of Lucyâ€™s hand, her quick fingers darted around her neck, and removed the necklace, forcing it back into the lower drawer.
â€œI heard you calling me from the garden, Mama.â€
â€œCalling you? Donâ€™t talk nonsense, child,â€ said Mama impatiently, â€œWhy, Iâ€™ve been in here this entire time. Your father will be home later, so have Dinah put out your striped pinafore with the apron. Now run along, child.â€
Another week passed. This time, her parents had gone out for the evening theatre, chasing the buzz surrounding one of a new breed of plays, of the type that calculated in order to be popular it need only address the subject of the current war, without having to be qualified by any artistic merit. Downstairs in the parlor Lucyâ€™s governess dozed with a novel in her lap beside the hearth, the family mastiff snoring at her feet. Outside, a typical steady Windspry downpour removed any possibility of playing in the topiary maze.
Lucy had tiptoed upstairs to her motherâ€™s dressing room, but finding it locked went instead around through her parentâ€™s bedchamber, discovering with concealed glee the private door between them had been left unlocked. It took her very little time to discover where Mama kept the strange pendant hidden, not that a better hiding place would have served to protect any object of her single-minded desire from the burning curiosity of a young girl.
The chain was cold, icy cold upon her neck, like a collar of pure snow. The medallion felt heavy, heavier than anything sheâ€™d ever touched. Like a slab of Cysan lead, she thought to herself (though she could only speculate upon the truth of such a comparison â€“ Cysan lead, she knew, was the rarest substance in the universe).
And then the room began melting away as if the walls had turned into sheets of rain, or streaks of tears rolling down soft cheeks, leaving only transparent outlines where theyâ€™d once been. The walls took on the appearance of untextured polygons within a virtual model, such as those sheâ€™d once seen at the Childrenâ€™s Museum of Off-World Technology. She tried to touch the shimmering walls and noted that even her hands were now transparent. She watched in wonder as the distance between the shapes expanded, and her arms stretched out like a pair of stockings until they disappeared into the gossamer fringes of her enhanced vision.
A moment later the room began to fill with a host of familiar people, and it occurred to her that their faces resembled the portraits hanging about the house, some of them even resembling family members who she hadnâ€™t seen since the war began but whom she assumed were still away on holiday. They smiled at her and called her by name, running long translucent fingers through her hair. The touch sent a chilling effect rippling through her body.
As the rose-tinted visions continued to greet her, she began to realize the irrefutable power of the two stones, and in ways she had never since been able to articulate, understood their meaning.
It had been years since she had dared return to her motherâ€™s chambers for the purpose of wearing the Fairlight. The rare hypnotic interludes she occasionally allowed herself possessed the baffling quality of being dreamlike in retrospect, and very difficult to explain by any rational, deterministic view of the world, so she never felt an urgency to repeat them. And anyway, many other things had since occupied her life. Why, there were suitors! She was to be married off, her father had explained, his brow twisted with consternation. She needed to learn the nature of the duties that would be required of her, once the eventuality of her attaining social rank finally played out like moves in a chess game. For she was, after all, not a normal girl, who might marry for love or for security, or for mere wealth. Far from it â€“ she was a member of that tragic lineage, despite being forced to hide it behind a mask of dethroned humility. She must never forget that she was a Hanowan, and that they were part of the once-ruling Holcifern dynasty.
But now she found herself once more with the pendant locked around her smooth neck, the rose-tinted visions returning in strands of gossamer splendor, hanging like cobwebs about the abstract corners of the vermillion periphery. She stared at her own reflection, her third eye wandering freely about the room, greeting relatives long-dead, some forgotten by all but herself, conversing freely with inanimate objects, and looking into the past lives of people she did not know, with whom she shared no apparent relation other than her very humanity. It was this euphoric sensation that typically left few memories, and which she strained ever afterwards to re-conjure with little success, but in the present moment they possessed a profundity that rendered everything else inconsequential.
One unique and very tangible property of the pendant was that it allowed Lucy to know how many people were in the house, and where they happened to be at any given time. It was this ability that alerted her to the fact that Mama had left the company of her friends in the parlor, and was now heading up the landing towards the door by which Lucy had entered.
With an immediacy founded upon some inner instinct she snapped out of her trance, her eyelids popping wide open. She unclasped the length of chain, returned the pendant to the hidden spot at the back of the drawer. By way of completing the deception she chose a random necklace from the display, a string of light-pink pearls, and placed them around her bare neck. A moment later her mother appeared at the door.
â€œLucy, what are you doing?â€
â€œMama! You startled me. Forgive me, I was only trying on theseâ€¦ lovely pearls. I should have asked, but you appeared occupied.â€
The Lady scowled, but Lucy knew it was nothing more than a look. Since the death of Lucyâ€™s brother, Lady Hanowan had rarely managed to exhibit any great signs of excess passion, either positive or negative (save for her enthusiasm for the Society sÃ©ances), and her daughterâ€™s minor transgression was no particular exception. Feigning impatience she gently began unclasping the necklace from Lucyâ€™s neck.
â€œYou know better than to disturb your motherâ€™s things. I could, if you wish,â€ she said, pressing the cluster of pearls to her own breast, â€œput these aside for your engagement, when that comes about. But it would hardly be proper, an unmarried girl such as yourself, displaying such ostentation. The Ladies are taking their tea in the drawing room, and Mr. Sinclair is expected at any minute. Now run along, child.â€
â€œYes, Mama,â€ said Lucy. She abhorred the Ladies almost as much as she despised Mr. Sinclair.
A ring of the doorbell announced the arrival of Alestair Sinclair, certified paramystic medium and arbiter of the weekly sÃ©ances for the local branch of SEPA, of which Lady Hanowan had been a devoted member for five years now, managing to convince several friends from her bridge club to also join. As a rule Lucy was never allowed to take any active part in these rituals as it would have been grossly inappropriate to expose a girl of her age to the dangers of the Spirit World. But, she had been allowed on occasion to watch quietly from a chair in the corner, this evening being one such occasion.
It was hardly a spectacle worthy of any degree of attention, consisting of Sinclair intoning various incantations meant to placate the inhabitants of the ethereal nexus (a phrase Mr. Sinclair threw about energetically, but which Lucy was convinced heâ€™d neologized without the consent of any linguistic or paranormal authority), followed by group chanting and perhaps the channeling of a deceased entity from the afterlife, or two.
Lucy considered Sinclair to be a capital charlatan, and told her mother as much, citing several occasions when sheâ€™d caught him performing acts of legerdemain through which he convinced the group of his supernatural prowess â€“ a certain glass moving, the shaking of a table leg at a particularly climactic moment of inter-worldly exchange, or the inexplicable locomotion (save by the compulsion of a hidden magnet) of a metallic object on the table. Still, it amused her to observe the reaction of the Ladies of the Society to such spectacles, and one might never tell; perhaps a phenomenon of paranormal authenticity might actually occur, and she would hate to miss such an occasion.
The nightâ€™s sÃ©ance began uneventfully enough, with the usual attempt to summon lost relatives and Mr. Sinclair slipping into his trance from which any cooperative spirit might use him as a conduit, as it were, to speak out in a low, nasally voice enhanced by a number of theatrical accents. Lucy wondered why Mama never asked the spirits a question in Istolvilian, for surely such a purveyor of quackery as Alestair Sinclair could not possibly know how to speak the language of Court.
But alas, Mama was quite content to believe anything that might evince that spirits of their departed relatives were still present here in Benningbrook Manor, and that they were determined to maintain a tenuous line of communication with the not-yet-dead. Such was the strength of the Ladyâ€™s faith that even when Marlow, the familyâ€™s long-haired, pug-nosed cat brushed past Sinclairâ€™s leg, startling him mid-sentence and forcing him to momentarily fall out of character, the Lady acted as if nothing unusual had happened. Lucy, taking her tea and reading in the corner, was about to quit the room as Sinclair emerged from his deep reverie, when her mother made a startling suggestion.
â€œMr. Sinclair, I have a certain family heirloom, a curious pendant that I have been dying to learn more about. My husband says that his great-aunt believed it to contain â€˜channeling stonesâ€™. Might we prevail upon you to do us the honor of demonstrating your powers of psychometry upon it, so that the Society might ascertain the extent of its paramystical properties?â€
Sinclair sat up at once, then checked himself with feigned disinterest by looking at his watch.
â€œI have another appointment with the McVicars later this evening. They believe their eldest to be in need of having his aura cleansed of energies of a wicked nature. Still, I suppose itâ€™s nothing so pressing that I might delay it another few minutes, to assist in authenticating thisâ€¦ charm of yours. But I must warn you beforehand, pyschometry requires a great expense of mental energies on the part of the medium, and it will leave me quite spent of my mana!â€
â€œOh, do not worry, sir,â€ the Mama, looking nervously at her fellow members, â€œWeâ€¦ that is, I would be willing to compensate you for the trouble. Would double your fee for our regular session suffice?â€
Sinclair closed his eyes and nodded gravely.
Lucy exchanged looks with Marlow, rolling her eyes. The implications of what might be about to transpire began to dawn slowly upon her. Mama disappeared upstairs for an instant, the sound from above of floorboards squeaking as she scuttled through the corridor. She returned presently with a certain recognizable grey pouch. Lucy bit her lip.
â€œI can attest to the medallionâ€™s powers, Mr. Sinclair,â€ Lady Hanowan explained, â€œI have at times worn it when I felt the onset of a migraine, and it has a singularly relaxing effect. Sometimes Iâ€™ll notice an hour has slipped unaccountably by while Iâ€™ve been in meditation with it. In your experience with devices such as this one, would that be considered normal for objects of paramystical nature?â€
â€œLet me see it,â€ Sinclair snapped impatiently, snatching the rare pendant. He held it up to his beak-like nose, hands trembling visibly.
The Lady assisted him with the clasp, fastening it around his cadaverous neck. Lucy imagined that same neck hanging from a noose, tongue dangling silently to one side. She felt obliged to chastise herself at the startling inappropriateness of her thoughts, concluding that she needed to stop reading so many sordid penny-novels.
Sinclair presently relaxed his shoulders and closed his eyes, his brow furrowing with profound concentration, his right hand hovering above the pendant in a pose not unlike that which Lucy had seen her mother assume in her own trance-like state. After a few seconds, however, Sinclairâ€™s dyspeptic expression relaxed into a blissful smile. Lucy had to admit she had never seen Mr. Sinclair so filled with anything resembling inner peace, and for a brief second she nearly felt her heart soften towards him. She hastened to replace such absurd compassion with the image of a heavy weight falling out of nowhere, crushing him beneath it.
â€œYesâ€¦ yes!â€ he muttered to himself, as if in response to visions only he could see against the backs of his eyelids.
â€œWhat do you see, Mr. Sinclair?â€ asked Ms. Agnew, an unmarried matron of seventy and a senior Society member, leaning forward with uncontained curiosity.
â€œTheyâ€™re all hereâ€¦ all of themâ€¦â€
â€œAll of whom?â€ the Baroness Brigida Filestral, who had recently lost her husband to long struggle with cachexy, asked in a quavering, anxious voice, â€œIs the Baron there with you? Can you speak to him for me?â€
â€œIs Tomlinâ€¦?â€ Lucyâ€™s mother began.
Sinclairâ€™s eyes shot open. His jaw dropped open and his hands went limp at his sides. From his open mouth emerged a cavernous groan, like the grinding of portcullis gears in the midst of lowering the town gate or, Lucy imagined, the interminable moan of an inter-dimensional parasite. A breeze swept through the room, blowing a few leaves of paper from the table that the Society kept at hand to jot down notes. (One blew onto Lucyâ€™s lap; contained in her motherâ€™s handwriting, which the renowned graphologist Edwin Handgrist had once described as fearless and determined, were a list of names that included great-grandma Ishy, and the questions â€œIs it too late for our Empire?â€ and â€œLucyâ€™s engagement??â€ written across the top.)
Accompanying the breeze, or perhaps following in its wake, came wave after wave of atmospheric anomaly that might have been clouds of dust, or wisps of smoke, for in the light of the flickering gas lanterns it was difficult to tell. Whatever their composition, the spectral shapes appeared to rush towards Sinclair and be drawn into his gaping mouth, giving the impression of a chimney belching smoke in reverse.
Some of the ladies of the Society leaned back in horror even as others among them craned their necks forward to catch a better view, the transparency of the apparitions was such that it was difficult to tell whether they were really seeing anything, or whether their eyes were merely having difficulty focusing, much as they might be excused for confusing the undulating patterns caused by rising waves of heat for ripples of water. Lucyâ€™s eyes also seemed unwilling to commit to any clear interpretation of what they beheld, so ephemeral were the shapes in nature and so swiftly were they moving. But had she, at the time, been asked to articulate what she glimpsed at that moment, she might have described a scene not dissimilar to the following:
There appeared a host of elongated, disembodied souls, stretched out like reflections in a circus mirror. These were immediately familiar to Lucy, for they resembled beings from her own rose-tinted hallucinations, benign entities accompanied by a sensation of comfort and well-being. They rushed in from all corners of the room, through cracks in the window and the heating vents just above the floor, to form a dense column as they converged before the rigid face of Alestair Sinclair before disappearing down his open mouth. She could not help wondering what they intended to do from within the throat of the astonished paramystic.
There then followed a series of apparitions of a less-benign appearance, some with horny protuberances, bristly abdomens, thorny, insect-like wings, antennae and other appendages protruding from segmented exoskeletons. They came in such a flurry that it took all of Lucyâ€™s powers of concentration to make out individual shapes, but amidst the procession she managed to catch fleeting glimpses of creatures of a diverse nature â€“ toads, lizards, coleoptera, dromedaries, glowing hercinia, oviparous platypi, kenku, giraffes, phorusrhacoses, sauropods, serpentine ophidians with bat-like wings, lemurs, aurochs, echidnae, and various creatures for which she knew not names. They funneled into a tight queue towards the woeful wearer of the pendant, who by now had begun to perspire and shake, drool trickling from one corner of his opened mouth.
â€œOught we to do somethingâ€¦â€ Mama began, but was hushed by one of her fellow Society members.
â€œWe mustnâ€™t break his trance! It could spell death for a medium.â€
And so the small audience watched with disbelieving expressions as the grand parade of spectral shapes continued to barrage their helpless, hapless mystic. For her part Lucy was unable to remove her eyes even as she took a sip on her now-tepid bergamot tea.
Mr. Sinclairâ€™s hands came down fast upon the arms of his chair. His knuckles flashed white as they gripped onto the two wooden armrests, shaking violently. Then, with a pitiable cry Alestair Sinclair flew backwards several feet across the room as if blown by a mighty gust of air, his chair slamming against the back wall with such violent force that it dislodged a painting hanging on the wall above, a corner of the heavy gold-painted frame landing with a painful-sounding thud upon the poor manâ€™s cranium.
â€œMr. Sinclair!â€ Mama cried out, rushing towards the unconscious gentleman. â€œRosaline, your smelling salts, quickly!â€
The salts managed to coax a sudden jerk from the inert man, who gave a sad whimper upon his revival. Lady Hanowan assisted him in removing the pendant, for he was unable to keep his hands from trembling. As soon as heâ€™d been freed from the clutches of the charm he raised himself up on shaking legs, a train of malformed sentences sputtering from his lips as he attempted to fix his handkerchief upon his head, apparently mistaking it for his top hat.
â€œMr. Sinclair, I beg you!â€ Ms. Agnew cried with dismay, pointing to a darkened, wet patch on the front of his trousers, adding in a hoarse whisper: â€œCompose yourself appropriately, there is a young lady present!â€ But it had already come to Lucyâ€™s attention, and the devastated figure of Alestair Sinclair made a mad dash for the front door. Lady Hanowan shot Ms. Agnew a withering look and followed Sinclair to the entrance hall.
â€œMr. Sinclair, should I have our coach come round and escort you toâ€¦?â€
â€œThat will be quite all right, madam. I shall call a car fromâ€¦â€ a shuffling sound came from the porch, followed by the sound of someone tripping down stairs.
â€œOh dear. Well, goodnight Mr. Sinclair! I trust same time next week?â€
â€œI do not profess to be any expert in the field,â€ proclaimed one of the ladies of the Society when Mama had returned to the parlor, â€œBut I donâ€™t believe that went very well at all.â€
â€œNonsense,â€ argued Ms. Agnew, â€œThat was the first irrefutably paramystic manifestation weâ€™ve yet encountered at our weekly meeting. Bravo, Sabina, that was a capital suggestion!â€
â€œHe didnâ€™t bother to collect his fee,â€ murmured Lady Hanowan, bewildered.
Later that night, after the ladies of the Society of Enthusiast for Paramystic Arts had departed in a flurry of chatter and Mama had retired to her chambers, Lucy wandered through the same parlor where only a brief hour earlier she had witnessed a spectral procession being consumed by Mr. Sinclair (or perhaps they had consumed him?) Even now her memory of the event seemed to flicker like an exhausted candle flame, and she found her mind contenting itself with the possibility that she had hallucinated the eerie episode. She admitted, however, that the room felt strangely peaceful now, and certainly exuded no hint of spiritual unrest, as one might expect rooms tarnished by unclean energies of otherworldly origin to feel. In fact, the house felt strangely cleansed, more so than it had in all of Lucyâ€™s memory. She smiled with gratitude.
As she made ready to retreat to her chambers for the night she passed the music room, across from which stood the door to her fatherâ€™s study. The door was slightly ajar, and a beam of amber light spilled through to the room outside, illuminating the wound frets of her viol in the corner. She imagined she heard soft noises emerging from within.
Were it not already obvious to my readers, Lucyâ€™s curiosity had, one might say, a way of getting the better of her, and she barely hesitated before advancing towards the light, treading softy across the carpet, to peek in at her father.
An instant later she regretted doing so, for Lord Hanowan was doing the one thing Lucy hated to see him do more than anything else, as it shattered her childhood conviction that her father was the pillar of strength and stability upon which the declining fortunes of their family rested. He was crying.
She could not see his face, but could see his hands cradling the weight of his head, the rising and falling of his chest accompanied by a soft whimper. She retreated backwards across the music room, re-entering with noisy deliberation to give her father every warning that she was approaching.
â€œPapa? Is that you in your study? I wish to bid you goodnight before turning in.â€ She gave the viol de gamba strings a loud strum with her forefinger as she passed, the cherub face carved upon the headstock eying her disapprovingly, then rapped loudly upon the study without entering.
The sound of her father clearing his throat: â€œC-come in, dear.â€
She obeyed, catching a brief glimpse of him restoring a letter to the top drawer in his desk. â€œLucy, this is an inexcusable hour for you to be wandering about. It wonâ€™t be countenanced, having our daughter develop into a night owl like her father!â€
â€œOh, Papa,â€ she scolded, â€œWhat have I to get up early for? Anyway, I find my creative energies always heightened at this hour.â€
He smiled. â€œYes, you take after me. I must say you look radiant as usual this evening. Did you enjoy your motherâ€™s little party?â€
Lucy waved her hand. â€œYou know Mama wastes her money on that deplorable Sinclair character. He has her convinced of his possessing such powers, but I see he only tells her what she wants to hear. Hardly a haruspex worthy of patronage.â€
â€œYou must humor her, Lucy. You know how difficult the war has been for your Mama, loosing so many relations and yourâ€¦ Well, if indulging in such fribbles lends her any comfort in these inclement times, then it can hardly be a waste of money. Sheâ€™s not as strong as you, you know.â€
â€œYes, Papa. Still, I must say it was amusing seeing him flounder in such a fashion, when mother begged him to psychometrize the Fairlights. That alone must have been worth hisâ€¦â€
â€œWhat did your mother do?â€ Lucyâ€™s father rose from his chair.
Lucy gave a startled look. â€œWhy, did she not ask your permission first? I thought surely she would not have done so without your consent on the matter.â€
Lord Hanowan scowled dangerously. â€œLucy, what exactly happened?â€
â€œWell, nothing of any lasting consequence, Papa. Honestly. Mr. Sinclair had a slight nervous fit, then excused himself with some haste. I assure you there was nothing more worth relating. Is there something the matter?â€ She wrung her hands together.
Lucyâ€™s father paced the room, coming to rest before the window that looked out onto the driveway, his back towards his daughter. â€œNo, I suppose not. I will have a word with your mother about it in the morning.â€ He turned to Lucy, â€œBut promise me something. Promise me youâ€™ll never handle that object.â€
â€œWhy yes of course, Papa, but whyâ€¦?â€
â€œNever. Do you understand me?â€ He stood before her, his eyes flashing and his shoulders squaring up from their usual slouch. He towered before her, the image of monumental proportions Lucy had known as a girl.
Lucy lowered her eyes. â€œYes Papa. Whatever you sayâ€¦â€
Lord Hanowan sighed. Turning towards his large, dusty sky globe he gave it a gentle push. â€œI shall have to tell Sabina toâ€¦â€ he muttered to himself.
Lucy clasped her hands together.
â€œWell, it is very late and I am suddenly quite tired. We should set some time aside on the morrow to call upon the Pevensies?â€ She curtsied, delivered a light kiss upon his stubbly cheek, then turned for the door.
â€œLucy,â€ he said.
â€œYes?â€ she hesitated.
â€œI received a letter today.â€
â€œFrom Count Sebastopol. Of Sewel. You remember him?â€
â€œYes, of course,â€ she intoned.
Of course she remembered the overstuffed, medal-encrusted Post Captain of the Tyrene Navy, the one who had gloated over the rag-tag remnants of their fallen aristocracy with barely concealed glee as he eyed her hungrily from across the table at the previous seasonâ€™s Post-War Gala and Debutant Fete, stoving a cigar with his contemptible jowls. How could she forget?
â€œThe letter was in regards to his son and heir, erâ€¦ Felix. Yes, thatâ€™s the boyâ€™s name â€“ Felix Sebastepol.â€
â€œYes. I seeâ€¦â€ she said dreamily.
â€œThe Count says his son would like to meet you. Immediately, you understand. Iâ€™ve arranged for you to leave for Gaslight the day after tomorrow. Iâ€™m sure Annalisa can have your things made ready. I understand this is sudden…â€
â€œOf course, Papa,â€ Lucy cut him short. She felt disembodied from herself, like the phantoms of the Fairlight floating between worlds, while the physical manifestation of a girl named Luscilla Hanowen seemed nothing more than a golem of dead flesh and lifeless bones.
â€œIâ€™m glad you understand, my dear. For the good of this family. You know how much it means to your mother and I, to see you properly providedâ€¦â€ he choked on his words, â€œAt any rate, we shall have time to discuss it further in the morning. My dear….â€ He gripped her hand tightly then went limp, his chin sinking against his chest, and the monumental image of her childhood memory dissipated as hastily as it had appeared.
â€œDonâ€™t worry, Papa. Everything will be fine.â€
He looked up, tired and old-fashioned.
â€œI should like to think so.â€