Serignan, 25 June

Uncle Friedrich,

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?”

He nodded.

“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.”

“I see.”

“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.



Stockport, 16 February

Apologies! Finally it looks like I am able to arrange safe delivery of some correspondence to you. It’s been a while, and so I have a few letters piled up. The first is written from Les Rives; the rest from here on Garnsey. Enjoy.

22 January

Dear Uncle Friedrich,

Sorry to hear about your lab! I wish I could offer more than sympathy. I know what Maman would say, her severe eyes peering over her spectacles: “Somebody knows.” Especially since, as you note, the burglary happened in a limited window of time, and without violent ingress. Either someone provided a key, willingly or unwillingly, or someone lost one. At the very least somebody on the street saw something. So it’s just a matter of finding that person. And being able to tell if someone is lying, of course. Maman was teaching me that skill when all the other boys and girls were dutifully reciting “amo, amas, amat,” but I don’t know whether you ever picked it up yourself.

I find myself also wondering: who could be behind it? It certainly does not sound like an ordinary thief in search of valuables. You do not suspect anyone who might be reading our letters. But there are others who might know. It was not possible to entirely conceal the fact that I was delivering a package – least of all from the folks at the Observatory who provided the star charts in the first place, for example. Why on earth would they go to length to steal back what they freely gave away, though?

It may seem strange to suspect that you have been burgled because of some internecine struggle, but just now I find it totally believeable. As I prepare to leave for Garnsey, I have been approached in confidence by various members of La Commission’s leadership, each of whom wished to clue me in on my “real” mission. My job will be to take soundings of the bay at Stockport in anticipation of the arrival of the Gallian fleet. Or, contrarily, my job will be to uncover evidence of (as you would call it) allomorphic activity so that I might strongly advise against an invasion. Or I must seduce the governor’s daughter. It all depends on who you ask.

Whatever else I do, though, I will check on your beloved College for you. And I will do my best not to fret too much about what you said about “otherwordly powers.” Ordinarily I would dismiss the notion with a sharp “Fantasy, good sir! You speak pure fantasy, I say!” Except I am already apparently accepting all your talk of were-this and were-that and ancient languages and astronomical convergences. What’s one more theory to add to the pile?

29 January

With deep regret I must inform you that the isle of Garnsey, despite its many charming qualities, does not merit inclusion on any list of Best Places to Take a Holiday. Though it has experienced recent strife, that is not the problem – almost the opposite, actually. Things are quiet here … incredibly quiet. The streets of Stockport are often deserted. Almost everyone who was not from here left when it became possible, and even some who were.

Getting here was harder than I thought it would be. Safe transit is now possible with a bit of luck, though the vortex storms aren’t gone completely. I saw some of them from a distance and they are very ominous. An industry in miniature has sprouted up dedicated to making the crossing, but its emphasis is all on leaving the island, and specifically, delivering passengers to a place where they will not be caught by La Quarantaine. I fear the smugglers advertising their prices on the docks are selling the poor emigrants a lie, however. La Quarantaine is very thorough, and the shoreside villagers of Gallia and the Lowlands are, as a rule, eager to report the arrival of strangers to the proper authorities. The grizzled gentleman who I finally found to take me to Garnsey couldn’t quite believe that that was what I wanted.

I arrived under grey skies and a light rain, the cobbled streets slick and empty. Had to rouse the innkeeper to get a room; as I was his first customer that week he was happy to have me, especially when I offered to pay double for an extra measure of discretion. But discretion has been almost impossible here, I’m afraid – how can you melt into the crowd when there is no crowd to melt into? In the common room at the inn there is a full-length portrait of Robards on the wall. Apparently it was put up in earnest adoration of the island’s new leader a couple months ago, but now it has been defaced with garish red paint: a moustache and several other unmentionable embellishments.

The site of your ruined College sits atop a hill overlooking the town. There are a couple buildings still standing, though even their interiors have been scorched and gutted. The rest is rubble and ash. I couldn’t help feeling as if I was being watched while I poked around, and it took me a while to finally locate the scrawny lad peering at me from a third-story window-hole. I don’t think he noticed that I noticed, and in any case I didn’t have the time then to further investigate, owing to my appointment with …

… the governor! See “discretion is impossible,” above. Upon arrival at the port I identified myself a representative of some Gallian shipping interests. The island being a small place, apparently he caught wind of it. Commerce having all but come to a standstill, he was on the lookout for ways to revitalize it, and was thus all too happy to invite me to dinner.

After a few days in Stockport, all I wanted to ask about was New Albion, and the infamous Robards, and everything that happened then. It was a such a short period of time, and it happened so recently, but judging from the stories and rumors and competing interpretations circulating around the populace, you’d think it was a much-debated historical moment taught in school. At the governor’s table, however, it was not considered an appropriate topic of conversation. I started to broach the subject after the second course, but the governor’s wife was able to convey, with a single twitch of her eyebrow: “One does not speak of such things in polite company, does one?”

Also at the table: The governor’s very marriageable daughter, someone with the title of “Portmaster,” a couple friends of the family, and a portly gentleman who was introduced as “Professor Sanders.” The latter immediately attracted my interest, of course, since to my knowledge there wasn’t any place on Garnsey other than the College where one might actually employ that title. Owing to my cover, though, there wasn’t a natural way that I could steer the conversation around to his academic pedigree.

In fact I was hard pressed to keep my cover intact, since the Portmaster had a detailed knowledge of shipping practices, and peppered me with questions about specific Gallian shipping companies, annual export tonnage of this-or-that resource, and minutiae of treaty language. I had to fake it, and hope that those present came away with the impression that I was merely an incompetent trade representative, and not something else altogether. Along the way, though, I did manage to pull off something of a conversational master-stroke: tying in a conversational strand about the plight of Saxonian trade with another comment the governor made about the complexity of cross-national familial connections in the present age, I was able to casually mention that a branch of my family had some Saxonian connections, including my dear uncle Friedrich Nussbaum.

Sanders, to his credit, did not spit out his chowder, but merely cocked an eyebrow. My comment had the desired effect, though. During the dessert course he invited me to review his plans for rebuilding the College, perhaps during a tour of the former site? I politely accepted. That will be in two days; until then I fear things will remain incredibly dull. I hope you are having more fun than I am.

3 February

You’ll be delighted to learn that I have made contact with your Society man. I don’t think he trusts me. I’m certain he doesn’t like me. But I’ve made some progress, nonetheless.

Let me explain: three days ago I met Sanders at the inn, as arranged, and strolled up the hill to the College. Along the way we engaged in innocuous chitchat that, in retrospect, must have been laced with subtle messages or cues for countersigns that I was oblivious to. So it wasn’t too surprising that, when we finally stood in the shadow of one of the ruined buildings, he turned to me and said:

“You are not Society.” He spoke in surprisingly fluent Gallian, so I responded in kind.

“Guilty! I am still at your service, though.”

“What do you know of Nussbaum?”

“I am in correspondence with him, actually. Is he a friend of yours?”

“Hardly. I know him by reputation only. How am I to believe you?”

I showed him my credentials from La Commission, which did not impress him. Unfortunately I had not brought your previous letters with me. But, since I have actually been corresponding with you, I was able to mention some of the terms from your research, such as “ur-Samekh”, and I wondered aloud whether some of the fantastic stories about the events surrounding New Albion might be explained by the presence of suprapotential allomorphs. This was enough to convince him.

He sighed. “What does Nussbaum want?”

“Information. Documents, resources. There was a break-in at his lab; he lost everything.”

“I see. And why do you care?”

“I don’t. It’s just a favor.” I paused. “No, I do care. He believes what has happened to Albion might be reversed. I’d like that to see that happen.”

Sanders snorted. “Is that what he told you?”

“Can you help him?”

“Perhaps. A little. I can compile some materials he might find helpful. But I will not give them to you. I will find a way to get them to him through Society channels.”

“Excellent. Thank you.” I paused. “I … it’s just …”

“What? Out with it.”

I gestured around me. “Where exactly are you keeping these materials? I think that must have once been the library, over there, but …”

I should mentioned that during this conversation, I had gradually become aware of at least three other people watching us from hiding-places amid the ruins. I’m pretty sure one of them had a rifle trained on me the whole time. Judging from how suddenly they appeared, I strongly suspect that there is an underground portion of the College, perhaps with a hidden entrance, that was untouched by the fire.

“That is not your concern,” Sanders replied bluntly.

“Fair enough. If I can’t be nosy about that, may I at least be nosy about something else?”

Sanders rolled his eyes. Actually, he didn’t: he has that very Albionese ability to indicate he is rolling his eyes without actually moving a muscle. “What is it?” he said testily.

“I am genuinely curious about Robards. And Crane. What really happened here? What can they do? What is the truth behind the tales I hear in the tavern every night?”

“Crane left. Robards is rotting in a cell. Most people here would like to put it all behind the,.”

“Yes, about that cell. Is there to be a trial?”

“How should I know?”

“Word on the street is that it will happen any day but it sounds like it’s been that way for weeks. I hear that someone with the governor’s ear is seeing to it that the trial is constantly delayed, perhaps owing to this person’s … research interests.”

Sanders’ face turned a very satisfactory shade of red. “Where the hell did you hear such a thing?”

I smiled. “Claudia.” (The governor’s daughter – ever a dutiful agent of La Commission, I had at least managed to fulfill one of my missions by that point.)

There followed an uncomfortably long period of time where I grew increasingly concerned that he was going to signal to have me shot. Instead, he took a deep breath and uttered a single word:


“What is that? A place?”

“Something happened there. A stone in a chamber. I don’t know the details; I haven’t been there. But it is where changes started happening. To Robards, Crane. Others. If you want answers, for yourself or your ‘uncle,’ you should go there.”

“Excellent! I shall do so at once. How far is it?”

“Idiot. It is not on Garnsey. It is in Albion.”

The conversation petered out from there. As I said, the man doesn’t like me. But they were interesting enough tidbits that I thought I had better get them down quickly. More later.

16 February

How time flies! I have not been idle, but I’m afraid most of it won’t be very interesting to you. I have indeed taken soundings of the bay. I have surveyed the islands for signs of allomorphic activity, and heard some amazing stories about mer-men and sea monsters as a result. No proof, though. And I have been dutifully sending reports back to Les Rives. Unfortunately, since my conversation with Sanders, I have received neither dinner invitations from the governor nor invitations of another sort from Claudia. Without help, and with the very limited resources this island has in the way of information, I had no way to find out where Highmark might be other than “somewhere in Albion.”

Nevertheless, I knew I must – and maybe you will call me crazy, but here it is – I must try to get there. To this end, I recommended in my reports that Gallia send a scouting mission to Albion itself, and that, naturally, I be on it. The risks of the crossing are immense; maybe these long dreary days on Garnsey have addled my mind that I would even contemplate such a thing. But I finally received word that my proposal has been accepted, which is what is prompting me to write again and see these letters safely off.

That, and the fact that Sanders paid me a visit. Either he was very well-informed or he had been keeping close tabs on my activities; I suspect the latter.

“I am beginning to think,” he said, “That we can expect a large number of Gallian visitors before long.”

“It is possible,” I admitted. “I don’t make those decisions. But … yes. Listen: if you want to cross over to the Continent, I have connections, I can make sure you don’t receive the, ah, usual treatment if you’re picked up by La Quarantaine …”

“I am not leaving.”

“Very well. I take it you were able to send some things to Nussbaum?”

“Yes. Another package is going out tonight.”

“Might I trouble you to include some letters to him from me?”

“If you wish. And I have something for you.”

He handed me a sheaf of papers. They included a crudely drawn map, and accompanying scrawlings that took the rough form of a travel-log: such-and-such a date, so many miles traversed in this-or-that direction. But it was littered with question marks and rounded figures; I surmised that it was someone’s recollection of a journey, and not something written in the moment. Something about it clicked, and I looked up in alarm.

“Robards wrote this? You are in contact with him?”

“For now. He is … full of regret. What you have there is his best guess of their route from Highmark to the town of Yarmouth.”

“Thank you. I … I didn’t expect any more help from you.”

“I have no guarantee you will share any discoveries with Nussbaum, or me. But it is better than someone else getting there first.”

“Who? I admit there are some back home who would love to see Gallian legions marching over southern Albion, but even if that comes to pass, it won’t be for some time …”

“They are not what I fear.” He stood up, and nodded curtly. “Good luck.” And then he left.

All very ominous and exciting, n’est-ce pas? So, if all goes well, these letters will reach you via a different channel. Nonetheless you should reply using our usual one, as I am not certain where I will be when your next letter arrives. And do let me know whether Sanders did in fact send you some useful things? If that was a lie maybe the whole thing is an elaborate trap.

Oh dear. Did I say that I liked field work? What was I thinking?



Les Rives, 20 January

Dear Uncle Friedrich,

I admit, I’m still trying to get my head around all the revelations in your “dissection notes.” The accompanying illustrations have provided me some memorable dreamscapes! But as someone who has been insulated from the Weltstufe – oh, and bravo, by the way: as ever, the Saxonian language really comes through when you need a term for something ominous and doom-laden – I’m baffled by the sheer number of subjects you have come across. Five hundred seventeen! My question is: where did you find them, if not from Albion? Did you have other allomorphs nearer at hand, perhaps as a result of fallout from the Blood War? And if so, why on earth should there be a connection?

Even as I write that I picture you peering at me knowingly over your wire-rimmed glasses as you prepare to yank the scales from my eyes. Yank away, if you must – you have already corrected my take on the Blood War, so I am primed for still more education and edification – but be gentle. And if you do not in fact wear wire-rimmed glasses, please don’t correct me … the image is already too well-fixed in my head.

I have to admit an error, though hopefully this is one of those bad-in-the-short-term, good-in-the-long-term ones. By introducing LaGrande to La Commission, I let him slip en dehors de la poche, as Maman put it (I got an earful from her regarding this tactical mis-step). As long as I was his sole point of contact with the larger authorities, I had control over his flow of information; he was “mine”. But now that he is part of the larger organization he no longer reports to me, and he is being kept so busy that I have even found it difficult to meet with him at times. The hopeful long-term benefit is that La Commission is now organizing multiple expeditions to various historical sites in-country; LaGrande himself will probably return to Mont-Bré at some point. The short-term loss is that I have no new information to convey directly to you. Hopefully next time.

But I do have information that you will find interesting, and, coincidence of coincidences, it involves (tangentially, at least) a name that you mentioned in your letter! What are the odds?

I know I don’t have to ask you if you know about the tiny island of Garnsey, because your precious College is/was there. That aside, it has been a Point of Interest because it is an Albionese island that lies closer to the Gallian coast than its motherland, and rumors had a way of creeping out of there even though the vortex-storms kept anyone from sailing near there who wasn’t certifiably suicidal.

A few weeks ago, as you probably know, the storms stopped. A great many ships that had presumably been holed-up at port there for months all set sail, and those that landed at Gallian docks were promptly impounded by La Quarantaine, their passengers and crews isolated and questioned, all the better to understand the Weltstufe and protect the people of the Continent. Those who seemed the most interesting and/or reliable were sent to Les Rives, and consequently I have spent many hours in the past week listening to the stories of salty sea-dogs and irate merchant captains. It doesn’t surprise me that you had already received word through your own channels that Elizabeth College had been destroyed, but hopefully I can add a little bit as to the how and the why.

Tensions were running high there owing to the isolation caused by the storms and the myriad rumors about the cause of it. But things got even more complicated when a New Columbian ironclad crashed on shore, bearing not just its own crew, but a contigent of Albionese soldiers led by a captain named Robards. He must have been quite the charismatic leader, because in a surprisingly short time he had most of the population rallying behind him as the de facto leader of “New Albion” – the old one having been left for dead, apparently. He seemed to have a great deal of success leveraging the resentment of the locals against the diverse crusty sailor-types stranded in the port, which were, not surprisingly, exactly the people who got the hell out of there as soon as they were able and eventually found their way to an interview room (“interrogation chamber” sounds so harsh) in Les Rives. So, no love lost on Robards for most of these people, but a few of them, despite all that they had been through – despite the fact that they weren’t even Albionese! – still professed loyalty to him. Bizarre.

Anyway, as a part of consolidating his power, he went to Elizabeth College, imprisoned and/or scattered the faculty and staff, burned the buildings to the ground, and made off with some interesting loot including what is referred to in the official reports as “experimental artillery.” Which makes absolutely no sense unless you’re aware of the College’s affiliation to the Society, which, thanks to you, I am.

Anyway, New Albion proved short-lived. The New Columbians that had brought him and his men there turned against Robards, the outlying villages united to oppose him, and he was also betrayed by his chief adviser, a man by the name of … wait for it … Dr. Eliot Crane.

I heard Crane give a lecture once in New Columbia, where he was visiting. As a rule I didn’t attend many lectures while I was there, but this one sounded interesting … a former combat medic from the Blood War was now an archaeologist traveling to ancient sites in exotic locales with his friend and traveling companion, Benjamin Rackham, footing the bill. How adventurous! But the man muttered his entire lecture with his nose buried in his notes, and practically put the whole hall to sleep. Apparently the written version was considerably more engaging, but I never read it. I couldn’t even be bothered to introduce myself to him afterward, and yes, I’m kicking myself about that now.

As far as I have been able to piece it together, this expedition of theirs, the one with your operative in it, split off into two at some point, with the part led by Robards and including Crane heading south, connecting with the New Columbians on the coast (who know what they were doing there …) and eventually crash-landing on Garnsey. What their original plan was, and why they turned against their leader, I have no idea. No one I have interviewed had firsthand knowledge of the battle in the village of Carteret where Robards was defeated. Apparently Crane and the New Columbians are no longer there, in any case.

But it’s still a place of strategic importance, and while the vortex-storms have come back, apparently they’re not as strong as they once were, and La Commission has decided to send a covert information-gathering mission to Garnsey before deciding on next steps. And when they look around the table at the meeting, thinking about who to send, their eyes fall on me as they exclaim, “Who better to send on a covert mission that the youngest son of Annette Dupont! Bien sûr!”

Ah well. I suppose I shouldn’t complain – it is field work, after all. Maman could get me out of it but she thinks a touch of danger will be character-building. And so, I will be sure to pop by the ruins of your College and see what there is to see. But if there is anything or anyone you want to me to keep an eye out for in particular, let me know. What with the necessary approvals and requisition forms I don’t imagine I’ll be leaving for a week or two, yet.


Bertie Dupont

Les Rives, 6 January

Dear Uncle Friedrich,

I’m very happy you’ve decided to keep up our little correspondence. My official duties these days consist of attending an endless series of meetings where everything is discussed ad infinitum and nothing ever seems to get decided. Your requests for obscure information are therefore welcome: I much prefer field work. Well, I prefer a well-aged Château-Grillet shared with a beautiful woman next to a roaring fire, but if I must work, then yes, field work, please.

I understand now that you have replied in part because you really do need me. I’d like to think you were also impressed that I knew about the Society, since its existence is hardly common knowledge in Gallia. When Maman refers to me as her “crushing disappointment,” she does so with a loving smirk, but that does not make it any less true. The fact is, she taught me herself from a very early age, so I know all sorts of things that are not generally taught in school — it’s just that I usually find no higher purpose for all that knowledge than to impress people at parties. (And let me assure you, I am very impressive at parties.)

Anyway, I thought I knew all about your Society, but now I’m not so sure. I had no idea the full name was “The Ancient and Majestic Society of the Unchanged Ways” … that is absolutely terrific, and not at all what I imagined. I pictured something quite a bit more Albion-centered and modern. As Maman explains it, during the Blood War, the Gallians marched into Saxonia bursting with pride at the fact that the horses in their cavalry regiments were oh-so very well-groomed, only to see Albion show up with steam-powered-this and tesla-that … and of course the Skylads with their aeros! Naturally the question everyone had was, “Where did they get all these things?” And the answer, for those in the know, seemed to be (cue ominous music) “The Society.”

I see that I committed the all-too-common fallacy of assuming that your Society was a monolithic organization of unified mind and uniformity of purpose. And what organization is ever like that, really? All the more after what has happened to Albion. I stand corrected!

But I have to ask … if it is true that fellows in your Society helped to arm Albion during the Blood War, how does that make you feel, as one who was on the receiving end of the onslaught? Around here, people mutter about “what happened to Essen” as a sort of cautionary tale about the dangers of technological advances. It’s even said (in private) that whatever has happened to Albion may have been deserved after all the hell that it unleashed on the Continent. Not to say that the Kaiser didn’t have it coming, of course! But still. How do you square these things in your own mind?

On to business! I have been diligently pursuing information on your behalf, with some interesting results.

Asking after this Von Neumann fellow got me a lot of blank stares, but eventually someone suggested I try the library at the Sorbonne. They are very protective of their things over there, but as I mentioned in my last letter, being able to hold up a document, signed and embossed, that identifies me as an agent of La Commission, opens a lot of doors. A librarian escorted me through dusty corridors into a cavernous room, walls lined high with rickety shelves, full to bursting with books. Stout oaken tables in the middle of the room were piled high with the same, haphazardly. More books and loose documents filled the corners, including what looked like a random pile of scroll-cases as high as my chest.

“How will I find what I need in all this?” I asked the librarian. His reply began with “Je suis desolé,” a lovely Gallian phrase which, in this context, meant that he had already given all of the fucks he was planning to give about my situation. After a fruitless hour of poking around, I realized I would need to come back with a clearer sense of what I was looking for, or help, or both.

Next I made for the Observatory, cutting an impressive silhouette atop a hill on the edge of town. I knew that’s where I would find astronomical records.

It should have been a perfectly pleasant carriage-ride. As I said, though, I was taught by Maman, and one of those lessons she drilled into me was to perpetually check my surroundings, take note of the people I see, and file away important details, especially if anything seems out of place. A pointless exercise, done out of habit – it’s not as if someone would be following me!

Except, this time, someone was. Another carriage, keeping its distance but matching mine turn-for-turn. Like mine, it was an enclosed carriage, horse-drawn, so I could not say for sure who it was. I instructed my own driver to round the next corner, and in that moment when we were out of sight I slipped out and crouched down a nearby alley. (Getting horse-shit on my boots in the process … let it not be said that I will not go to great lengths on your behalf!)

When my pursuer slowed to come around the corner, I darted out, opened the carriage door, and slipped in to sit opposite its passenger, who at that moment had his head craned out the side window opposite me in order to see ahead. His flabbergasted expression when he realized he was not alone with well worth a bit of horse-shit, that’s for sure.

“Bertie Dupont,” I said, extending my hand. “You were following me. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Lest you think me too cocksure for my own good, let me assure you that that I did not choose that particular approach until I had seen the man, and seeing him put to rest any concern that I was dealing with some sort of assassin or agent provocateur. This fellow was a dowdy scholar scarce older than myself who fidgeted with his hands while he tried and failed to say anything witty – or, indeed, even cogent – in response to me.

Finally he introduced himself as Julian LaGrande, archaeologist at the Sorbonne. One of the librarians alerted him that someone was asking after Von Neumann texts, and he apparently wanted to find out about me before he decided whether to offer any assistance. I took great interest when he mentioned he had done some work early in his career at Mont-Bré; I recalled that you had mentioned that place in your first letter so I knew it must be relevant.

We repaired to a café, where I showed him some of the rubbings you sent along to see if he thought he might be able to translate them. What he lacked in certainty he certainly made up for in enthusiasm; he could barely resist getting started on the project right then and there. You can be the eventual judge as to whether his linguistic skills are up the task: I decided he seemed harmless enough, and so arranged for him to receive a position with La Commission, reporting directly to me.

The following day I did get to the Observatory, and I am happy to report that I was not je-suis-desoléd by anyone there. Indeed, they bent over backward to be helpful, which is why you will be receiving a crateful of star-charts and celestial maps, possibly more than you need, and hopefully including some that are of use to you. I am also including with this letter some of the early results of LaGrande’s work, but that is still very much in process, and the bulk of it will have to wait for my next letter.

A curiosity and a question, though, while I’m thinking about it. While waiting for the folks at the Observatory to gather up all those maps and charts, I killed some time poring over a magnificent wall-atlas showing the Continent and its environs. I was able to find all the places you had mentioned in your letters, save one.

“Where is Skald?” I asked a fellow who was in the room. He sneered, causing his mustache to wriggle in an unseemly fashion as he peered at me over his spectacles.

“The Isle of Skald is a myth,” he drawled, disdainfully.

Curious, no? I hadn’t ever heard of it before myself. Perhaps you could tell me where it is?

Finally, my question. I get that your theory is that the rise of transformations is tied to astronomical events. It’s strange, but “strange” is relative when we’re already talking about werewolves and fairy-tale islands. But you said that you arrived at it that theory after “hundreds of dissections” …

What were you dissecting?


Bertie Dupont

Les Rives, 20 December

Dear Uncle Friedrich,

May I call you uncle? Maybe you were not even aware we had a connection. I certainly wasn’t aware of it until recently. If I’m not mistaken, your sister Hildegard married a Gallian, Thierry Arnaud, who is a cousin to my mother, Annette Dupont – I don’t know if you’ve met her, but I’m sure you at least know her by reputation. Anyway, Maman pointed all this out to me. What a strange coincidence!

You’ll have to be patient with me as I “get up to speed,” a delightful New Columbian expression. I have spent most of the past six years there, so my Albionese is excellent. Yours seems perfectly adequate so I think it will suit our purposes. Which are … what, exactly? The way it was explained to me is that I am to serve as a liaison between the Gallian government, or, more specifically, those parts administering La Quarantaine, and the Society, represented by you. Open channels of communication, fostering trust and cooperation in a difficult time, et cetera, et cetera. I will confess, my first question upon receipt of this assignment was, “The Society? Weren’t they based in Albion? Do they even still exist?” Evidently you do, at least enough so that my Gallian superiors think it’s prudent to make nice.

Let me give you a sense of just what our liaison looks like on this end. Ever since Albion was … destroyed? Transformed? Irrevocably shat upon? I don’t know what the right term is here. Anyway, La Quarantaine has been a haphazard process, but very recently an official commission has been established, with a name and stationary and everything, definitely making it more official and if we’re lucky also making it a little more effective. It is La Commission d’Enquête de l’Albion. Among its many official acts was summoning me home from my vacations (technically “studies” but let’s be frank here) in order to serve my country in an administrative capacity.

As I’m sure you can imagine there are a thousand opinions around here over what do about the Albion situation. With your own country still recovering from the ravages of Blood War (and speaking of that, let me just state that I was not of military age then, so had nothing to do with it, no hard feelings I hope), Albion completely off the map (hopefully not literally but it’s not as if anyone has been able to check for sure), Hispania busy with its own internal strife, and New Columbia content to keep this mess at ocean’s length, Gallia finds itself in an odd position of power and influence. Smaller nations now look to us for leadership and guidance! Frankly I’m not sure we’re up to the task. But so it goes.

As you so aptly put it, a wall has two sides, and at La Commission, there’s Faction A, which consists of people who want to keep that wall very high and very firm in order to keep the Continent safe. (You used the word “lycanthropy,” which either means that you believe all the crazy stories floating around, or that you know something I don’t.) Then we have Faction B, which consists of people who want to keep the wall porous enough to get people to and from Albion. Faction B is a strange alliance of scholars and humanitarians with the hyper-aggressive types. I heard one general at a meeting yesterday use the phrase “annex them for their own good.” You get the idea. (Of course, for the moment the storms in the Channel preclude anyone getting through, but believe me when I say there are a lot of people here working on that problem.)

And moi? You’re not going to like this part, especially because, given all the materials that you have sent me, it’s evident that you have received some assurances as to my education and expertise that were probably … exaggerated, to say the least. I’m afraid the truth of the matter is that, for reasons of family prestige, and in order to keep herself well-informed as to the internal workings of La Commission, Maman arranged to get me this assignment. Her main instruction was “Do not embarrass yourself, or me,” but she used much more colorful language that does not translate well.

You’re probably thinking now that corresponding with me will be a colossal waste of time. And maybe you’re right; I certainly wouldn’t blame you if this was our last contact. The only reason I do not say that I am “out of my depth” is that I look around and see plenty of other people just as ill-equipped to deal with the Albion problem as I am.

But if you do decide to write back, it will be because of this: I want to help you. I didn’t think I would, but you wrote, “ … there are those of us who believe that Albion’s condition is only temporary. We believe that the reversal can even be accelerated.” And I want that … I need that … to be true. For my own reasons. It is the one thing no one at La Commission seems to be saying.

So, as to all of these rubbings from historical sites you have given me. I hung them on the wall at a salon I hosted last weekend, and they were very popular. Perhaps we have started a fashionable new trend! But in all seriousness, my position as an official of La Commission gives me a lot of freedom, so I am hopeful that I can find out what you need. I will see if I can find someone who can translate the strange symbols, but any direction you can give would be most welcome. I will also read up on our own reports of contacts and near-contacts with Albionese since the Event and hope to be much better-informed on all these matters in short order.

As for prying eyes reading our letters … I will say that thanks to my family connections I am reasonably sure that mine will reach the diplomatic pouch unexamined, but how things go on your end is another matter. It is best to assume these are being read by someone, as you said. But I have never been one to hold my tongue, and have no plans to start now.


Bertie Dupont