My Dear Rackham,
It is with great relief that I can write to you frankly once again. I can tell from the tone of your reply that you accurately surmised my purpose: I had reason to believe that our communications were being intercepted, and I thought it better under the circumstances to reassure Robards with some feigned loyalty than it would be to use any sort of code.
Nonetheless, the bare facts of what has been happening on Garnsey, as related in my last letter, are all too accurate. Permit me to take a few steps back and narrate two key incidents from that time that I did not mention in my previous letter, for obvious reasons.
I immediately knew there was trouble when I received your long letter – and the accompanying cookie tin – not from either of our beloved flyers, but from one of Robards’ functionaries, wearing the armband of the Brotherhood. I quickly read that letter and realized that time was of the essence. If it had already been read by this functionary, or some other toadie, or – Deus forbid – by Robards himself, then he would know that you had sent me one of the wards!
I rushed to my wine-cellar laboratory and unearthed from the boxes in the corner some of the fragments we had taken from Mont-Bré. Fortunately the business of archaeology involves no shortage of tools for working with stone. Carving and etching feverishly, I made, as best I could in an hour or two, an exact replica of the ward you sent me, as well as the leather cord used to wear it around one’s neck. Looking at the two of them side by side on the table, it was obvious to me which was the counterfeit. But I daresay the differences were slight enough that not everyone would notice them, especially if they had no reason to be suspicious.
And then I stopped short, paralyzed in thought. My intention, of course, had been to give Robards the counterfeit in order to prevent the real ward from falling into his hands. We know so little about them, except that they are powerful, and that he was willing to risk countless lives on a doubtful mission to reclaim the one he had lost at the bottom of the Channel. But we do know one other thing: that proximity to a ward distinctly inhibited your Ability. If the same held true for Robards – if wearing it again might put a damper on the strange charisma with which he holds this island ensorcelled – would that not be for the best?
And yet again – if I was wrong about that, and wearing the ward did not slow him, I should have little chance of ever getting my hands on it again. And there is a great deal I could learn from studying it. What to do? What to do?
I do not know what decision I would have finally arrived at, given time to reflect and to properly weight the benefits and consequences, ideally utilizing some sort of chart. Because in that very moment when I was staring the ward and its copy there on the table, I heard footsteps approaching the wine cellar. Acting on impulse, or instinct, or just blind fate, I grabbed one of the objects in front of me – the genuine article, not the fake – and stuffed it into my waistcoat pocket a bare second before Robards himself sauntered into the room.
He was all congeniality and warmth, posturing with a feigned sort of curiosity, asking what I was about and oh-by-the-way that thing on the table looks awfully familiar, is-that-what-I-think-it-is, &c. It was plain on his face that either he had read your letter or had had some of its contents reported to him, and that he was here for the express purpose of finding the object you had delivered in the cookie tin. I affirmed that it was, and that it was only fitting that, having lost his previous ward, he ought to wear this one … perhaps it might serve as a sort of sigil befitting the stature of his new office? He agreed, though, ever-mindful these days of the importance of ceremony, insisted that I present it to him officially in his audience chamber (he does not yet refer to it as a “throne room”) in front of his subjects.
Let me pause here to mourn what Robards has become. I never would have described him as crafty, exactly, but he was certainly bright. But now he resembled that sort of politician – you have had far more contact with these kinds of people than me, so you will recognize the type – who, being constantly surrounded only by supporters who affirm and compliment his every decision and whim, loses all perspective on the world. He lacks empathy with people outside his circle, and his sound judgment in the face of evidence contrary to his assumptions slowly withers. Nothing – not my nervous behavior in that moment, not the ample of evidence of recent stone-work on the table between us, not (later) the rather cloying tone of praise in the last letter I sent, knowing it would be intercepted – nothing tipped him off in the slightest. Even as his Ability was steadily elevating him to the status of a god-king it was, unbeknownst to him, eroding his own incredulity and morality and plain good sense. Call it not an Ability, but rather a Curse.
At any rate, he proudly accepted – and still wears – the counterfeit. I kept the genuine article on my person, which brings me to my chance discovery of how the ward affects my own Ability, as well as the tale of how Jacobs and Sharma came to be imprisoned.
It all started with a song. A patriotic hymn about New Albion, penned recently by some local songsmith, much in vogue amongst the loyal in town. At the particular tavern where the two of them were prone to habituate of an evening, and where on this particular night I was joining them, concern was expressed by some members of the Brotherhood that Jacobs was not singing along with everyone else in the room. He then acquiesced, and began to sing along, but in a voice so loud, grating, and ever-so-slightly off-key that the effect was to thoroughly spoil the communal experience.
Now, I happened to know from my travels with this man that he had a sonorous, smooth baritone and an excellent sense of pitch, and so any mistakes he was making in the sing-along were quite intentional. All the while I was trying to catch his eye and gesture to indicate that he should not antagonize the Brotherhood goons quite so much. But there is a certain kind of gentleman who, being of a mind to begin a tavern brawl, will not stop until he has induced someone else to swing the first punch. When he hit a particularly dissonant flat note at the close of the hymn, one of the arm-banded thugs obliged, and the melee was joined.
Sharma has a knack for remaining unobtrusive – no one had pestered him about not singing along. He could have steered clear of the entire affair, and indeed, I lost sight of him as the fighting commenced. But shortly afterward, empty bottles came flying out from behind the bar with great speed and surprising precision, stunning one, two, then three of the Brotherhood and allowing Jacobs to incapacitate two more by smashing their crania together as they charged at him headlong. But there were a great many more than that in the room, and I am sad to say that it was not just the Brotherhood, but some of Jacobs’ fellow soliders and even ordinary folk of the town who were all too happy to help bring him down.
I should like to report that at that point that I used my Ability to cleverly turn the tide of the battle. I did, in fact, attempt to join in the fisticuffs, rather impetuously and perhaps not in the best judgment, given the importance of maintaining the trust of Robards. But I am embarrassed to say that before I could make any sort of impact on overall tactical situation, the backswing of a chair-wielding goon caught me on the head and I crashed to the floor, dazed. As I lay there, I realized that, unlike during similar moments of imminent danger, my Ability had not kicked in to protect me. I also had a splitting headache, but given the welt developing near my left temple, that was no surprise.
The fight continued without me. After no small amount of spilt blood and even more spilt ale, the end result was Jacobs and Sharma in shackles. Around this time Robards’ forces took the College as well, and suddenly the granary-turned-makeshift-prison contained prisoners who were either my friends or, in the case of Van Dyke and Sanders, persons of strategic interest. Alia remained free, not having done anything to anger Robards, though I was at that time only able to contact her indirectly – she remained near the beacon at the College, which was under very close guard. Then, when the gallows went up in the town square, I realized that many lives were in danger. Something had to be done.
Late at night, I risked some simple experiments with my Ability. After my success in reaching Van Dyke through the wall, I had some new confidence. Perhaps the knowledge that my time was limited helped as well. Though it sometimes took a frustratingly long while, I found that, with intense concentration, I could pass through the wall into the (now abandoned) adjoining room at will. With slightly less time spent in preparation, I could perform feats of a more limited nature, such as passing my hand and arm through the surface of a table. I could do none of this while in possession of the ward, I should note, but keeping it at a distance of approximately twenty yards, or even enclosing it in a thick metal box, seemed sufficient to allow my Ability free reign.
So far so good. By day, I was largely left in peace, though in my comings and goings to and from town I often suspected the ever-present Brotherhood had been instructed to keep an eye on me. By night I practiced my Ability. I knew Robards planned to give his prisoners a trial, in all likelihood just one for show, followed by an immediate sentence of execution. I waited until the posters went up in town announcing a public trial in two days’ time. That night, I acted.
In some ways the very first part was the hardest. I still slept in a rented room in town, but it was on the third storey of an inn which was perpetually busy – there was little chance of slipping out unnoticed on the ground floor. The single window was tiny and would have been difficult to wriggle through even if it had not been boarded up, ostensibly to protect the residents from the unruly denizens of the docks. And so I drank down one final swig of wine, took a deep breath, backed up, and made a running start straight at the wall. I jumped, passed through it, and plummeted downward into the alley behind the inn.
This was not something I had been able to test, and the trick, I imagined, was to maintain some degree of incorporeality even after passing through the wall, so that when my legs hit the ground they would not break. I was successful – the landing was quite gentle, in fact, and the fall itself likely slower than it would have been otherwise. I felt myself solidify, and was able to slip out of the alley and down the street unseen.
The granary where the prisoners were kept had a simple door and one side and a shipment entrance with oversized double-doors on another; both were of course guarded. But no thought was given to the rear of the building, nestled up against the hillside, a bare face of wood and brick with nary a window. I counted thirty paces from the corner of the building, passed through the wall, and took the ring full of keys from where it sat on the warden’s desk. Then I passed back out the way I had come, counted forty more paces down the outer wall, and entered once again, straight into the room where Van Dyke was imprisoned.
Now, before you begin suspect that I must possess some second Ability involving an inordinate amount of Luck, let me explain. When Robards decreed that the granary should be turned into a prison, plans were drawn up sketching out the dimensions of the place and the areas most suitable for holding prisoners. These plans were kept at the residence, and as I still had Robards’ trust, I had been able to get a look at them without too much trouble. These plans clearly indicated the proposed locations of guard stations, and an office for the warden, as well as the relative securability of various rooms. I rightly guessed that Van Dyke would be kept isolated from other prisoners, in one of the most secure rooms, and there was really only one room in the granary that fit the bill. I suppose my one bit of luck was that said room was on the ground floor along the rear wall of the building.
“That is an impressive trick,” Van Dyke said.
“You don’t seem entirely surprised,” I replied.
“Please do not mistake my demeanor for unflappability. I have seen so much that is bizarre and unexplainable of late that one more discovery simply adds to the pile. I am, perhaps, over-flapped.”
“Very well. Perhaps we can compare notes on our fantastical experiences at a later date. For now, I need you to orchestrate a prison break.” I handed him the keyring. (The door, not being a proper prison door, had access to the keyhole from both sides.) “I trust you will see to your own people. You must also release Jacobs and Sharma and anyone else being kept here.”
Van Dyke frowned. “Does Jacobs still have a fondness for beating my face into a pulp?”
I handed him a note. “Give this to him. It is from me, explaining the situation, and your destination.”
“Carteret. A village on the far side of the island. Currently resisting Robards’ rule. I will either meet you there or send word.”
“And why aren’t you coming with us?”
“He still has my trust. And … I still hope to reverse this somehow. He is not himself.”
Van Dyke nodded curtly. “How many guards?”
“Six. Two out front, two patrolling indoors, two asleep. Will that be a problem?”
“I should hope not.”
I still do not trust Van Dyke, but I will confess, in a situation such as that, when brevity of word and directness of action were what was needed, his presence was most welcome. I departed, hastened back to the alley behind the inn, and, for my final trick of the night, used my Ability to climb with ease, ghost-like, up the side of the building before passing through the wall into my room.
Judging from the furor at the residence the following morning, and the red-faced rage with which Robards berated his cowering aides, Van Dyke had been successful. Since my departure from my room that night had not been noted, I was above suspicion. The captain even called me into the audience chamber and commanded me to assist in tracking down the escapees. I suggested that the College might be a good place to look for clues as to their likely whereabouts, and perhaps Alia might be convinced to do some aerial reconnaisance over the island as well? He commended me for my ingenuity and bade me see to it personally.
That is when I knew I would have the freedom to put a letter directly into Alia’s hands, and began writing what you are reading now. It will have to serve as an update very much in the middle of things. For I have yet to fully investigate the ward, explore the College, make contact again with Campbell, or somehow reach the escapees in Carteret, to say nothing of finding a way to stop Robards and (hopefully) restore him to his former self.
You should feel free to write openly in your next missive. Either I will have maintained my current level of freedom and will be able to intercept the letter directly, or the situation will have transformed so much that there is no predicting where I will be and how your news will find me. If I had time for a spare thought, it would most certainly be one of concern at the thought of you trapped in a metal tube beneath the waves, hurtling to some new danger. I am not sure which of us is in the less enviable position! Stay safe as ever, my friend.