Machlou, 17 September

12 September

My Dear Rackham,

I do not know when I will be able to send word back your way, but I will take the opportunity to write a brief update. What I lack in news from Mont-Bré I make up for in time, being cooped up in an attic with little else to do. Read on and discover why.

My life these past few days has felt something like a play where the playwright has gone out of his way to create Colorful Characters, hoping perhaps that these will compensate for a singular Lack of Compelling Dialogue. Indulge me:

Dramatis Personae

Bertram, the Smuggler: In a manner that seems to me wholly inappropriate for someone whose occupation is deeply concerned with secrecy, the man never stops talking. He has accrued a large number of stories in his long and varied life and seems worried that he will not get a chance to relate all of them to us, so he fills any silence he can with more words. He can keep up this monologue, with both hands on the tiller, and yet the omnipresent cigar clamped to one side of his mouth is never seen to even so much as wobble. Verily, I think this man has an Ability all his own, albeit one of limited scope.

Crane, the Professor: So named by Bertram (even though I have explained to him more than once that I do not currently hold any university position). Dour and quiet. If this be one of those New Columbian “vaudeville” productions, Crane is undoubtedly the Straight Man.

Jacobs, the Muscle: He is the sort of soldier who joins the military not out of a sense of family tradition or patriotic duty, but because he enjoys commiting violence and it seems as good an avenue for that as any. One shudders to think what line of work he would have sought out otherwise. Jacobs finds every story that Bertram tells endlessly fascinating and/or hilarious — often flying in the face of Reason. But one has no indication that Reason is this man’s strong suit.

Sharma, the Scout: I lack the instrumentation to verify my theory, but I am reasonably certain that two Sharmas would weigh the same as one Jacobs. A Pandjaran born and bred, he survived the devastation of his homeland and, perhaps for that reason, seems the least fazed by everything that has befallen Albion in recent months. Reputedly a crack shot.

Van Dyke, the Spy: If one is obligated to travel with an agent of a mysterious Society, facing the possibility that he will report your every action and may even undermine your ultimate objective if it contravenes his own secretive agenda, one could hardly ask for a nicer chap than this one. Handsome, genial, well-read, gregarious but not too talkative. Even though he is apparently a Lowlander by birth, his chief asset to us is that he is also fluent in Gallian.

It is with this merry band that I set out from Garnsey on the eighth of September in Bertram’s unassuming single-sail dory, the Gromit. Sanders had introduced us to Van Dyke, who in turn had had dealings with Bertram, though my impression is that the smuggler is an independent operator and not a Society man himself. I will attempt to summarize for you his disquisition on the vortex storms and how to get through them. “Air’s a treck to’t, see?” as he might say.

From Garnsey’s shores the storms are often visible, but not always. One might be led to assume that their lulls create windows whereby one might sail easily away, but one would be most mistaken. The storms have a nasty habit of rolling in quickly as soon as there is a boat in the water. (When I asked Bertram if he was suggesting there was a malicious Intent behind the storm, he grunted as if this was self-evident.) Within them, there is no prevailing wind and no real hope of pushing straight through. Certainly no hope of weathering them until they go away — they will not ebb until you succumb or somehow make it out. (My experience on the Sigsbee would seem to be an exception, but I said nothing.) The trick — the ingenious, improbable, and altogether suicidal trick — is to use the centripetal force of a vortex to slingshot around it, steering at just the right moment to disengage, centrifugally, and latch on to the next vortex, ideally one rotating in the opposite direction, and repeat the process. This results in nothing resembling a straight course, but as long as one is patient, and makes no mistakes whatsoever, one can eventually get where one is going. The additional trick is that, times being what they are, there are many watchful eyes on the Gallian coast, and to arrive undetected it is best to arrive at night. But of course navigating the vorteces without daylight is impossible. Therefore it is necessary to leave mid-day and to time one’s break from the storm on the other side for dusk.

Suffice it to say that our experience in the storm perfectly matched Bertram’s description. There was a certain elegance to it, I must admit. The most nerve-wracking moment was undoubtedly when, within sight of land, Bertram took us back into the storm because the sky was not yet dark enough and we might be spotted. All the while, he did not stop talking, Jacobs rarely stopped chuckling, and Van Dyke kept sending knowing smirks and grim nods my way as if we were in on the same joke. Sharma napped. When we emerged the second and final time the sky was growing dark. We could see the lights of the town of Machlou — by no means the closest landing point to Mont-Bré, but it was the place Bertram used for his smuggling runs and we thought it best to play it safe. The last of the vorteces was receding behind us.

The next moment there was a terrific crash and the sound of splintering wood as we lurched to starboard. Van Dyke, who had been sitting on the gunwale at that moment, was thrown overboard. I thought perhaps we had hit a reef, but then a gigantic form passed beneath us in the water: we had just been rammed! It was difficult to make out details in the dimming light, but whatever it was was at least thirty feet long. It was skimming just below the surface, and through the distortions it made in the water it was clear it was coming around for another pass.

Van Dyke had surfaced and was making competent strokes back toward us, but the water was rough and his progress slow. The ominous outline of our underwater aggressor drew ever nearer, and it became clear that it was heading, not directly for us, but rather for our floundering comrade. Another splash: this time Jacobs, shirtless, diving into the water, a curved knife blade clenched between his teeth.

The creature surfaced. It all happened so quickly, in the twilight chaos, that I fear I cannot give the scene the detail it deserves. What was it? No shark, no whale, though its body was most like one of those, but the head resembled nothing so much as a crocodile of the Nile: the snout elongated, the teeth numberless as it opened its maw. The sound that it made as Jacobs thrust his blade into the roof of its mouth was guttural, ancient, unearthly. It flailed, and in doing so drenched us and very nearly capsized the Gromit.

But somehow we stayed upright and afloat, and in the next moment we were scrambling to pull Van Dyke and Jacobs back aboard. We spent the next minutes limping toward shore, anxiously looking every direction, waiting for the next attack, but it never came. Perhaps the wound was sufficient to drive it off. Perhaps we had passed into shallower waters. Or perhaps the Intent behind the storm had made one last angry gesture before we passed out of its influence.

The Gromit weathered the hit it took reasonably well. Jacobs was not so lucky. Some of those teeth had torn him a nasty gash from waist to armpit, and his left arm was broken in two places. Our plan had been to slip quietly past Machlou, up the river that empties there into the bay, and disembark far from prying eyes. Now, instead, I needed to land as soon as possible to try to save Jacobs’ life. Bertram had contacts in Machlou, unsavory gentlemen engaged in all manner of illegal dealings, but this meant they had out-of-the-way places to stash goods (and people) and were accustomed to getting things (and people) into town surreptitiously.

That is how we find ourselves in the attic from which I write. We are above a rather bustling and boisterous inn, La Gardelle, near the river. While that might not seem very low-profile, the noise of the place helps mask our own activity, and we have ready access to food and water. Bertram is constantly coming and going, bringing news, negotiating with our thuggish benefactors. Their price for keeping us hidden here will not be cheap. Van Dyke has proved his worth by procuring for me the medical implements I needed to sew Jacobs back up and set his arm. I was amazed that he had managed it so quickly in a foreign land; I understand from Bertram that the man’s accent and demeanor were both so natural that he had passed successfully in town as a Gallian. Spy indeed.

We have been here four nights. Jacobs is now stable, but still in need of several more days’ rest. There was some discussion of leaving him here and pressing on, but Bertram does not trust his Machlou contacts any farther than he can see them, and thought it likely that if we left him behind they would sell him out to the authorities. And so we wait, and so I write. More anon.

17 September

I fear for your safety, my friend; I am in receipt of your last letter, but the circumstances of its retrieval are unusual, and I find myself wondering (even more than usual) whether what I write will find its way to you.

We remain in our attic hideaway. I sent Bertram back to Garnsey to report in and gather news. He returned with your letter and an accompanying note from Alia, which I will reproduce below:

Dr. Crane: Some weeks ago … [here she began to write “Benjamin” but then crossed it out] … Rackham asked that if I should ever meet his expedition and find him absent or indisposed, before assuming that he had no letter to send, I should check his portable writing desk, which has a secret compartment in the bottom that he showed to me, and bring whatever I found there to you. I landed near Greysham on the 13th of September and found the expedition in good order, certainly compared to the last time I had seen them. Thorpe seemed well, despite his alarming appearance. He told me Rackham was out investigating local happenings and would not be back that day. At an opportune moment I located his belongings and found a letter in the compartment, included here. I did not read it, but glanced at it briefly enough to see that it was indeed intended for you, and that it was incomplete.

My feeling is that Thorpe was not telling me everything he knew. I detected a hint of concern in his tone. I hope that I am making too much of this, but I will return to Greysham as soon as is feasible to verify that Rackham is well. In any case, upon arriving at Garnsey I found you absent, but Robards had in his company a smuggler who was to be returning to you soon. I was not certain whether the greater good would be to ensure the privacy of your correspondence or to get the letter to you as soon as possible; I hope I have chosen correctly. Bertram knows what I will do to him if he betrays your confidence. -Alia

I believe she has indeed chosen correctly, though it concerns me now more than ever how easily the sensitive and personal information we are including in these missives could be read by others. For myself, I say, damn their eyes and write on; in these trying times I sometimes feel it is only our correspondence that keeps me sane, and I am loath to cease or censor it.

Judging from the smudges of ink at the end of your letter, I gather that you had to break from it in haste. My best guess is that something caused you to hurriedly stash it in your writing desk — and as to that, my friend, very clever indeed! I have made no similar arrangements with our messengers but will adopt your stratagem or something similar at the first opportunity. Were it not for the rather explosive revelation you were in the process of writing at that moment, I might not be fearful for your safety; as it is, I certainly am. But I will press on in faith that you will receive this in due course.

Throckmorton, or should I say Thompson, a New Columbian spy … I can hardly fathom it. I am not so naive as to be surprised that nations with cordial relations may still spy on one another, of course. But this would mean that he has been operating under an assumed identity since at least the time he and Robards began serving together, five or more years ago. Incredible.

I am not familiar with Rexley; either it is a code name or my geographical memory is lacking. I believe I can help you with the location coordinates, however. In the N.C. military system, the first and second numbers will indicate latitude and longitude, respectively, in hundredths of a degree. The third number is the “key” in that it references a fixed point, usually a central location or base of operations, though it may be an arbitrary point for particularly sensitive communications. Assuming the location referenced is roughly local, by my calculations it is approximately 46 miles north and 61 miles east of “110”. Get thee to an atlas, and if there is indeed a town called Rexley in your vicinity try that as your 110. Otherwise try other landmarks of note. I’m afraid that’s the best I can do.

That communique, combined with the stone pendant, imply that the New Columbians know much more about the Incident — and perhaps even its cause — than they are letting on. I agree with you that until we know more this is best kept strictly between us.

Jacobs’ recovery continues; he is a remarkably fast healer, and my hope is that we will be able to depart in a few more days. He and I have been staying out of sight. Sharma too, as a Pandjaran would be especially conspicuous in these parts, though he does slip out at night to get some air. Van Dyke has the locals believing he is a minor playwright from southern Gallia on holiday; he has booked a legitimate room in the inn and enjoys the run of the town. As envious as this makes the rest of us, at least it allows him to keep us supplied and informed. Apparently there is a close watch on the coast and constant military patrols here and at other coastal towns; the Quarantine is very real and our caution is not unwarranted.

I will send Bertram back to Garnsey with this letter, and with instructions to check in on Campbell and the New Columbians, as well as reporting to Robards. Apparently the captain is operating out of the governor’s house now. Good to hear that relations between them have improved.

When next I write I hope to have news from Mont-Bré; my daily prayer is that you will be safe, secure, and able to receive it!

Warm Regards,