Yarmouth, 25 December

My Dear Rackham,

Please forgive me for breaking our solemn (if unofficial) tradition by writing again before receiving a letter from you. I very much like our tradition, in no small part because each of your replies tells me that you are still alive; without that reassurance, I do not know that I would even bother to write. But I have news that can brook no delay.

I have received a letter from none other than Lieutenant Thompson, dated on the twenty-fifth of November. Rather than summarize its details I have taken the pains to make a copy to send along to you – read it carefully, and read it secretly, for reasons that will become clear.

How did I come to receive it? As I indicated in my last letter, Alona went to Greysham. This was not at the behest of anyone on the Tortoise Council; the plan was entirely a concoction of hers and Alia’s. They had both made enough flights into the region that they felt confident she could land away from town without being noticed. Her purpose was to ascertain the state of affairs there after Bledsoe’s betrayal of your expedition. As far as that goes, he is still mayor and not much has changed. The townsfolk wonder about the fate of the Jagdschloss but there has of course been no word, which is not yet unusual. She believes he wishes nothing more than to keep the whole affair a secret, and as long as he does not feel threatened on that front, Greysham might still be safely used as a waypoint. Whether Alia would be able to visit the town without stringing Bledsoe up with garrote-wire is a fair question, but that is why she was not the one to go.

Alona had remarkable success in skulking around Bledsoe’s house and other buildings in town undetected. In the room where Thompson had been imprisoned before his escape – though, as we now know, it is more likely that Bledsoe let him out – she found the letter addressed to me tucked in the back of a dresser drawer. Had it been found in Bledsoe’s study, I might have had occasion to doubt its provenance, but under the circumstances it seems most likely that it is genuine. And given the fact that he did indeed die attempting to end your expedition, I have no reason to doubt its sincerity, either.

So then, what to make of it? Even granting full credence to his ardor, his murderous response still strikes me as the action of a madman. Would not a rational appeal – to you, if not to Thorpe – have been a much more sensible course? To my mind, the extremity of his actions casts doubt on his cause. But what, then, of the others he names as confederates – would Admiral Segismund have agreed that access to Rexley must be stopped at all costs, even to the point of commiting murder?

Now I find myself casting my mind back to all his actions that we know of, and wondering whether they reflect the wishes of the New Columbian/Society conspiracy, or the anti-Rexley cabal he ultimately threw in with. The wards, for example – he kept one, and presented another to Robards … but under whose orders, and following which agenda?

More pressingly, you will have to decide what to make of this vis-a-vis Bennington. And I will have yet another reason to doubt whether Van Dyke has really, truly come clean with me, or if this is yet another secret he was aware of. Also, Campbell seems intent on locating his superior, the Admiral – should I now fear such a meeting? Setting sail from Garnsey, leaving all its thorny complications behind, I had been in possession of a modicum of clarity of mind. It lasted for all of a day! Then this Thompson letter arrived and everything is a-jumble once again.

Very well then; my errand concluded, I may as well update you on other matters. Firstly, our destination. This was a matter for much discussion and debate, during which Campbell made clear that, as the commanding officer of the Sigsbee, he was happy to hear our suggestions, but would be the one to make the ultimate decision. “If you’ve got a problem with that then you’re damn welcome to swim,” I believe were his words.

Several men voiced a wish to make for the Continent, to alight on soil untouched by cataclysm and never look back. Others of his crew advocated for sailing west across the wide ocean, homeward-bound. I fear that my wish – that the Sigsbee take advantage of the lull in storms and make all haste for Skald – would earn only my solitary vote, and of course there will be no vote in any case. Campbell’s main wish is to report in to the Admiral, if he is still in the area, and only then consider an ultimate destination.

He did not trust the storm-lull to last, and in this he was proved correct. We sailed north for Albion, and by the time we were in sight of the southern coast, vortex-storms were already visible in the distance behind us. We are currently at anchor off the coast near Yarmouth. The blight around that city is still visible and no one has any desire other than to remain aboard, but from here Alona will do some scouting before we move on again. Van Dyke tells us that there is a Society research station on the coast of Cambria that may be worth investigating. Insofar as the New Columbians and the Society have been known to work together, Segismund is as likely to be found there as anywhere else.

I myself have been devoting my time to attempting to communicate with the enigmatic Rachel. She remains as wordless as ever, but her force of will is strong and she rarely has any difficulty making her intentions known. Sanders objected back on Garnsey when it became clear that she wished to voyage on the Sigsbee, but for whatever reason he was unwilling to refuse her, and eventually relented.

I believe she made this choice because of me; for a while I labored under the false impression that it was because she admired me. She had, after all, served well as my assistant in the infirmary, and ever since the curious activation of the ward had remained a constant presence at my side. But it has become increasingly clear that what is really going on is that she is worried about me. I am not her exemplar; I am her patient. I do not know what it is that she fears, for in most respects I feel fine, with one notable exception. For days after the battle I had no desire to use my Ability, but when I eventually did try, out of simple curiosity, nothing happened. Now a casual attempt to push my hand through the surface of a table has become part of my morning ritual, but as of today I still have had no success. I do not yet fear a permanent loss, but I must admit, it is a growing concern.

I have attempted to communicate with her in ur-Samekh, but her response was unexpected. I had time before we left Garnsey to retrieve my belongings from Stockport, and with all my notes at hand I thought I might present her with a wide variety of ur-Samekh runes, learn from her their exact pronunciation, and from there we would be off to the races, conversationally speaking. But Rachel has proved entirely unwilling to speak in ur-Samekh. On one occasion when I pressed her on it overmuch, she lost her patience and blurted something out to me, but it was in yet another language. I could not identify it, though it bore some resemblance to Akkadian or Sumerian.

She is extremely bright, and if she has indeed been with us since the wards were found under Essen, that seems like ample time for her to learn enough of one of our languages to communicate effectively. If she wanted to use either of her languages with me I am nothing if not a ready and eager learner, but she shows no such inclination. I cannot help but wonder if this linguistic barrier is one she is content to leave erect.

Until she decides otherwise, her past remains a mystery. I have chosen not to share with anyone what Sanders told me about her during the battle. Van Dyke admitted to me that he knew of her, and was aware that she was somehow special – he was the one who smuggled her from Albion to Garnsey (for “safekeeping” at the College), four days before the Incident. But he professes not to know where she came from, and his curiosity about her certainly seems unfeigned.

On a brighter note … Happy Yule, my friend! Here, Campbell allowed for a celebratory meal, and afterwards there was even some singing, though the carols sung by these N.C. sailors are far more bawdy than some would consider appropriate for the holiday.

I will give this letter to Alona and try to convey to her my sense of urgency. Even if she does not attempt the crossing to Skald herself, perhaps she can use her new landing-point outside Greysham as a secret relay-point, and Alia can pick it up from there. I leave it in their hands.

Warm Regards,