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.
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?
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.
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.
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?