Where on earth to begin? I’m going to take the advice of a noted monarch and just begin at the beginning, go on until I come to the end, then stop.
When last your intrepid nephew left you, you were probably picturing me waving farewell to Alia and wondering what the hell I was going to do next and whether I would even survive it. There was a very small brave person inside me who thought, in order to learn the most, I really ought to press on to London and discover what was going on there, despite Alia’s warnings. But the much bigger person inside me who is not so brave just wanted to get home. So I began to pack my things.
And, before long, Ros returned. I hadn’t expected that. It was clear he had not wanted to be seen by Alia, which is why he slipped away. But while I never mentioned him to her she must have suspected that I had not been alone at Highmark. If she’s been privy to any of your learned discussions there in Mauerburg maybe she knows about him now. But on that day, she left without inquiring, and after a few hours he came back. I assume he had been watching us from a distance the whole time.
“I thought you were away for good,” I said. He set about packing his own things without saying a word. “Well, glad to see you’re here. Any road from this place is bound to be dangerous, so, safety in numbers, right? Where are you headed?” No response. “Me, I’m going to head south, see if I can run into some Gallian forces before I get attacked by savage marauders or something slimy with more limbs than me.”
Ros shouldered his pack and looked to the horizon. His walking stick – did you ever go on a hike in the woods with friends when you were young? Where everybody tries to find a walking stick in the underbrush but somebody inevitably lucks into a branch that is unusually large and straight, more of a walking staff than a stick, and wins the day by virtue of the imposing nature of his find? Ros had been on a hike, in one form or another, for the better part of a decade, and had been trading up his walking implement periodically during that time. Consequently, he had the walking stick to end all walking sticks, as tall as himself, sturdy, hand-carved, with a leather grip for his hand and a gnarled knot of wood at the top.
He looked at me and said one word: “South.” That was when I knew I was going to make it home.
And yes, I probably wouldn’t have made it without him. But I might have. We moved cautiously across the countryside, but it was largely deserted. We steered clear of ominous-looking crevices, mist-shrouded bodies of water, and any sort of civilization – even if it seemed welcoming from a distance. One day something had our trail, and we crossed a stream and hid in a tree to try to shake it. That night we heard a snuffling and growling from a hundred yards away, but whatever it was didn’t manage to pick up our scent again. At dawn it let out a mournful howl, so plaintive and sad that it made me think whatever-it-was had not been hunting us at all, but had been simply desperate for contact with another being. And that may well have been true! But we remained hidden.
Late morning on the twelfth day there was a salt tang in the air, and we caught sight of a Gallian foot patrol at the other end of a desiccated field. Ros immediately withdrew from sight, and I followed.
“Listen,” I said, “I’m going to be all right with them. They probably have orders to keep an eye out for me. I’m sure they’re going to whisk me back home so I can give a full report on everything I saw. Are you also trying to get across … to the Continent?”
“Then I can probably come up with a cover story. Just play it cool and we’ll be OK. OK?”
He shook his head.
“So then this is good-bye?”
He shook his head again, and allowed for what might have been a hint of a smile. Then he slipped away before I could say anything else.
I made sure to yell very loudly in Gallian as I approached the patrol. And while they were merely surprised and confused at my arrival, their sergeant at an encampment nearby dropped his jaw when I told him my name. And the lieutenant at the fishing village to which I was promptly escorted began making immediate arrangements to get me on a ship crossing back over the Channel.
That village, as it turned out, was Howgate, where Robards and his band had escaped Albion a year ago. According the his notes that I received from Sanders, the village at that time was a peaceful place, isolated from and (strange though it may seem) oblivious to what had happened to most of their country. The same could hardly be said now. The village was on a decent-sized bay and therefore served as a major landing-point for Gallian forces. They were transforming the area into a staging-point for inland exploration and incursion, though that hadn’t really started yet. Therefore everybody was nervous, rumors about what could be expected were spreading around like crazy, but nothing terrible had happened yet.
The force commander was under strict instructions to send me back to Gallia immediately, without even questioning me, though clearly he wanted to. On the eve of my departure, he went as far as he dared with a simple question, asked conversationally: “Is it dangerous?”
I had a good long laugh at that, but stopped myself, for fear of sliding back into the very dark place my soul was in before Ros found me. “Commander,” I said, “Take the level of preparation you would adopt under the most hostile circumstances. Assume your forces are outnumbered by enemies with unknown capabilities. Go forward with that level of caution, times three.”
I’m sure that in a few weeks’ time the generals safe on their heels back in Les Rives will bemoan the slow pace of troop movements in Albion and send word back down the chain to accelerate things. But if I can save a few poor soldiers’ lives in the meantime from walking into a deathtrap, it will have been worth it.
The next morning I boarded a Gallian ironclad bound for Garnsey. There were much shorter crossings of the Channel from there, but the vortex storms were still a big problem, and the routes to and from Garnsey were still the most reliable. I say “routes” but there wasn’t really a safe path, more a matter of techniques that had been proven to minimize loss, and no one was yet willing to risk trying them in other parts of the Channel. Honestly it was pretty impressive. By any rational measure those waters should be deemed impassable. But every Gallian ship now employs multiple spotters calling out the size and movement of visible vorteces, and on the bridge there’s a map of the Channel and an instrument that looks like a cross between a sextant and a gyroscope that’s used to take the information from the spotters and plot a course. All this to say, the trip to Garnsey was uneventful, if a little vertiginous.
Being a valuable intelligence asset who had been left for dead has its upsides and its downsides. Upsides: well-appointed quarters with a hot bath. Deferential treatment, even from military brass who are used to bossing people around all the time. A shave! Good wine! (Though any wine would have served at that point.) Downside: utter lack of freedom. I was under constant guard – “for your own protection” – and my every movement had to be approved. Remember that back home dear Maman had “gone dark,” as they say in the business, and while I didn’t know then whether she was being actively hunted by La Commission, it certainly meant that I was going to be treated with caution.
So I could not seek out Professor Sanders, which would have been my first move. The evening of my second day on the island, I was informed that I would be a guest at – wait for it! – a dinner with the governor. So, that was awkward. The governor was cooperating with the invaders, not that he had a choice, and while there were a couple local notables at the table they were outnumbered by Gallians. And of course the last time I was there had been under another name, to say nothing of my encounters with the feisty Claudia. Conversation at the table was as buttoned-up as ever, though; no one called attention to any of these facts. This left precious little to talk about, so I had to break the silence.
“I am disappointed not to see the esteemed Professor Sanders here tonight – was he indisposed?”
“Ah, yes,” replied the governor. “His work has kept him very busy.”
“I see.” Awkward pause.
“Your Excellency,” I continued, “I know the last time I was here you were weary of having to use some of your own cellars as makeshift prison cellars for dissidents. I trust you have been able to move them to more suitable accommodations – perhaps with the help of my brave countrymen?”
Another awkward pause, but when he finally spoke his gaze toward me was unusually strong. “As a matter of fact, we no longer have any prisoners here at the house. Matters were resolved amicably, before the arrival of your … brave countrymen.”
“I see. Delightful.” I glanced around at the other Gallians, but none of them showed any sign of understanding our exchange (which had been in Albionese), or of appreciating its significance if they had. I switched to Gallian to put them at ease and the dinner proceeded drearily. Afterwards we retired to the parlor to hear Claudia play the harp. A butler brought me brandy, and as he leaned over to pour he let an envelope slide out of his other hand and fall in between the cushions of the divan where I sat, and hovered there for a moment while I snatched it up and slipped into into my pocket without anyone noticing.
That was how I received your letter, via Sanders, who must still have people in the governor’s mansion, God bless him. He also left a note for me that explained that, with Gallian sails on the horizon, he had been able to convince the governor that letting Robards fall into their hands would be extraordinarily bad, and so he was now hidden at the College. From what I understand of the events in Garnsey this is an ironic turn of events, to say the least.
But I never did get a chance to meet with him personally. The next morning I was whisked aboard another ship bound for the mainland. Walking through the port, my head was swimming, owing of course to all the revelations in your letter. All the things you have discovered about what’s happening to the world, what could be happening – if I understand you correctly – to US, and most of all just who, or what, Ros is. I had thought of him as my guardian angel, but your analysis suggests that he may be one in a sense that is fairly close to literal!
I am glad you have landed safely and found a home for your work. I am less glad about the state of the world if you are right. In your first letter you spoke of reversing what had happened to Albion. Is that hope lost? Will we be able to recognize what the world is becoming … what we are becoming? Will we want to even if we can?
Those were the thoughts swirling in my mind as I approached the dock, as I boarded, as I stood on the deck watching grey dismal Garnsey fade into the distance. So you can imagine my shock when I glanced up and saw Ros standing beside me.
It was really him, not a hallucination, as I soon learned, though at the time I didn’t quite believe it. He was wearing the uniform of a Gallian sailor, and remained only long enough for me to recognize him. Then he nodded curtly, just one man on a boat to another, and strolled away.
And here is where I made a mistake. Obviously he had done what he did deliberately, so that I would know he was there, but would not attract attention. I should have taken heed and bided my time until we could connect with discretion. But my head with aswirl with the notion that 1) the world was ending and 2) Ros was something other than, or more than, human. I desperately wanted him to confirm or deny all the theories you and your friends in Mauerburg have concocted. I should have waited. But I did not.
The crossing from Garnsey is now easily accomplished in a few hours, so I didn’t have much time. I was not under constant watch while on board – where could I go? – but there was one young sailor tasked with monitoring me. A meandering stroll followed by a quick dart belowdecks was sufficient to shake him. I found an unused cabin, lit a lantern, and from there furtively ventured out to see if I could find Ros again without being spotted by anyone else. Eventually, perhaps because there was some commotion abovedecks upon my disappearance, Ros came down looking for me, and I grabbed him by the elbow, dragged him into the cabin, and closed the door behind us.
I stuffed the pages of your letter into his hands, ignoring his startled expression. “Is it true? Is any of it true? Is all of it true?” I demanded.
He glanced at the door, concerned, but then, perhaps realizing that there was nothing for it now, he sat down at the edge of a bunk and read your letter. I paced, but held my tongue until I he had finished.
“Well?” I asked.
“Most,” he replied.
“Damn it, man! For once in your life could you go into a tiny bit of detail?! Are you even human?”
He paused, and delivered his answer in a way that suggested that the truth was a bit more complicated. But he did say: “Yes.”
“And that shitshow back on Albion, everything we saw, the devastation – that’s going to spread?”
“And everybody’s going to die except you’ve got your stupid magic faerie sites and you can use them to … to augment, whatever the hell that means, and maybe save … how did he put it … a subset of humanity. A fucking subset?”
He paused. I had never seen him become emotional before, and I’m not saying he was now, but he was close. “We thought we could do more. If we came at the right time we could save everyone. Or most. But we were awakened early. And one of us died. And we were separated. Nothing happened as we planned.”
“So that’s it, then? We’re screwed. Irrevocably, cosmically screwed.”
“There is a small hope. Highmark did not fail utterly. And if Rexley’s –”
He fell silent and listened. I was in shock that he was uttering full sentences, so it took me a moment to realize that our ironclad’s steam engines had gone silent.
“We can’t be in port already …” I said.
We heard many footsteps approaching, first above us and then coming down the stairs at the end of tiny corridor on which our cabin was situated.
We both realized we had to get out of there before we were found, but we were too late. We emerged from the cabin to find both ends of the corridor blocked – to our left by sailors, including the one who was supposed to be watching me, looking rather irate, and to the right but some unusually burly men not wearing uniforms. They looked New Columbian to me. Standing among them was a wiry bespectacled man in a suit and overcoat.
“Pleased ta meetcha!” he said to me cheerfully in Albionese. “I’m Doctor Amory Brown.”
“Who?” I replied. Of course I recognized the name. And given my emotional state right then it’s a minor miracle that my training worked at all. But, believe me or not, I delivered that “who” as convincingly as ever.
“Gee, sorry, I promise I’ll formerly present my credentials in a bit.” Here he switched to passable Gallian. “I am from New Columbia but I am assisting your government. I am a member of La Commission. Just like you.”
“As you can imagine there are a lot of folks who are very eager to hear about your travels in Albion.”
“Yes, but why are you here?”
“Oh, that. The port. It’s full! Would you believe it? So we grabbed a local lighter and came out here to pick you up. Got a carriage waiting to whisk us back to Les Rives. Do you need to grab your things? If you’ve finished with your little dalliance, that is …”
I felt hopeful when I heard that – Ros and I, slipping out of an empty cabin together – it would be a plausble story if we ran with it, and if no one looked too closely at Ros, who appeared too old to be a lowly boatswain. I did my best sheepish shrug.
“Oh, don’t worry,” said Brown. “Men of your value are afforded some lenience in their proclivities, in my experience. Your friend on the other hand … well, that’s up to his superiors.”
He looked at Ros, who had been keeping his head down so that his sailor’s cap covered his eyes. “You. Sailor. Raise your head. Let’s see those eyes.”
Ros hesitated, but then met his gaze. And the color drained from Brown’s face. His serene, infuriating calm was replaced by something close to panic. “SHOOT HIM!” he screamed. “Shoot! Take him down! What the hell are you waiting for?!”
Everyone was as flabbergasted as we were at his sudden change in demeanor. The sailors weren’t about to do anything that rash, and Brown’s own thugs were slow to respond. By the time one of them had unslung his rifle from his shoulder and was tentatively raising it, Ros spoke three words.
I wish I could tell you what those words were, but I don’t remember, because the next moment, along with every other person within earshot, I had collapsed to the ground in incredible, mind-searing, unendurable pain. It was as if every pore of my skin was on fire and my heart was boiling inside my chest. It was the worst thing I ever experienced, and I’ve been through a lot of shit lately. For me the pain was short-lived, because the next thing Ros did was crouch down next to me and whispered a word in my ear that made the pain disappear. The others were not so lucky.
We stood. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I could not affect them without affecting you also.”
“It’s … OK,” I stammered, my head clearing. “Let’s get the hell out of here.” He nodded and stepped over the writhing bodies of Brown and his goons, heading for the stairs to the deck. But I hesitated when I was stepping over Brown myself.
“Hold on a second,” I said. “I’m supposed to put a knife in this guy’s eye.”
Ros glanced back at him with deep contempt. “Don’t bother,” he said. “It is not really him.”
I made a mental note to ask him to explain that comment later, but I never got the chance. I’m not the murdering sort, so in a way I felt relief. Abovedecks, Ros took my arm and murmured some words under his breath as we walked. We were indeed within sight of the port, with a lighter pulled up alongside the ship, its pilot nonchalantly smoking a cigarette while he waited. There were plenty of empty docks visible, though – that part had been a lie.
So we climbed aboard the lighter and instructed him to take us back to port, and he did, simple as that. I’m still going over that in my mind to see if it makes sense. On the one hand, a good bit of the crew were still writhing in pain belowdecks, so there weren’t that many people left to stop us. (Ros assured me that the effect would wear off in time.) Those that did see us boarding the lighter were low-ranking sailors who may not have known that anything about it was off. And the pilot was just an old seahand from Saint Germain, probably not too picky about which official-looking person he was taking orders from. But part of me also thinks that maybe those words that Ros spoke had some effect, obscuring our movements or making us unobtrusive or something.
It was a rainy day, so Ros and I huddled with tarps held over our heads to stay dry as we rumbled toward shore. To my surprise, he spoke without me having to prompt him.
“I know you have many questions. But they will be looking for us together. We – ”
“We have to separate. Easier to escape detection alone than together. Yeah. I get it. Where will you go? Mauerberg?”
“Better if you do not know. Do you know where you will go?”
“Yes. I’ll be fine. Look, I … if we don’t see each other again. Thank you. You saved my life. More than once.”
He nodded. “You are welcome. But we will meet again.”
And that was the last I heard from Ros. Where the dock met the shore he went left and I went right and we both faded into the rain and mist.
It’s not fun being a fugitive, but if you’re going to do it it’s a hell of a lot easier in your own country, and it’s definitely easier if you’ve had a mother like mine. The details are actually a bit boring, some petty theft and skulking about and disguise, but mostly just a lot of waiting. I made it out of Saint Germain and over the next three weeks made my careful way south. Things were especially slow at first, with checkpoints everywhere, having to cut overland time and again to avoid them. They were part of a new security detachment empowered by La Commission, because when it gets to be a certain size, every bureaucracy wants its very own thugs. These ones had blue caps. It wasn’t all for me, or even mostly for me, although I did spot wanted posters with my face on it. They were labeled “Dangerous Fugitive,” without my name.
Southern Gallia, though, felt mostly the same. I kept up the safe pattern: move, wait for a day or so to make sure no one is onto you, move again. But now the waiting part could happen somewhere considerably more comfortable, as when a vintner let me stay for a weekend in exchange for some help around the place. He even had a horse he needed to deliver to someone in Serignan, and I convinced him I could make the delivery, which made the last few days of my journey fly by faster than the whole previous week.
Serignan is quiet town on the southern coast of Gallia. In reaching it I had gotten as far as my knowledge could take me in getting to where I wanted to go; now I had to trust on luck. After dropping off the horse I found the town’s solitary café and settled into a corner with my coffee. I watched the people come and go, trying to decide who would be the safest one to talk to.
I’m not sure where I went wrong. Did the vintner report me? Was I spotted at some point and didn’t realize it? Or was it just bad luck? At any rate, two local constables strolled into the café, followed by a man in a blue cap.
Mr. Blue Cap had my wanted poster. To his credit, the café owner, when asked about it, shrugged his shoulders and went back to stacking some dishes, not even looking my way. I thought for a moment they were only going to put the poster up and be on their way, but Mr. Blue Cap scanned the room, saw me, and sauntered over to have a chat. He stole a glance at the poster after looking at me more carefuly, and could barely conceal the glee in his voice when he said: “Your name, please?”
If there was a way out of this, it didn’t involve making a break for it right then. “Bertram Dupont,” I replied.
“As I thought,” he said triumphantly. “Come with us, please.” He didn’t notice the raised eyebrows of the constables the second they had heard my name.
As I stood up, one of them spoke. “Excuse me, monsieur. I want to be sure I heard you correctly. Your name is Bertie Dupont?”
“Yes, it is.”
He turned to Mr. Blue Cap. “And this man here, Monsiuer Dupont, he is the one you wish to detain?”
“Yes, of course!” he snapped impatiently.
“Thank you for the clarification.” Then, without warning, the constable swung his rifle butt into Mr. Blue Cap’s temple, knocking him unconscious.
“Come with us, please,” said the other constable. “Madame Dupont has been very worried about you.”
If one is to maintain a safe house in a remote location, and if one plans to be there for any length of time, you either pick a place where you know the local authorities, or buy them off, or (ideally) both. Maman had done just that, which is how I find myself writing this to you with a glass of wine at my side and a lovely view of an ocean untouched by vortex-storms. She is very angry with me, though, because the incident at the café means were are going to have to relocate to one of her other safe houses. I am going to send this letter out before we leave, and trust in her network to get it safely to you, eventually. I am also including all my notes from Highmark, which will be a hell of a lot more useful to you than they will to me.
When I was younger, and Maman was making me learn the finer points of shaking a tail, or reminding me to review all exits of a building before I entered it, I would moan, “Je ne veux pas être un espion, maman!” But she kept right at it, perhaps trusting that someday it would all prove useful. And of course it did. Now it looks like I’m going to have to embrace that occupation after all. I don’t want to give up on the shred of hope Ros spoke of. But to find out more, and to set Gallia on a better course, we have to get back into the good graces of those in power. And that will never happen while La Commission holds sway. So, it has to go. That will take a lot of planning. And scheming. And skullduggery. I can’t wait.
But sadly, all this means that our correspondence must come to an end. It took all my charm to convince Maman to even let me send this last one. You will hear from me again if we are in some measure successful, or not at all. Good luck, uncle! I hope you weather the storm. I hope we all do.