Back in a moment.
Thank you Santa.
Monday, August 20
I climbed down from the stool and took a step back to survey the fruits of my labours.
The dummy was still a couple of inches taller than me, and that after shortening her legs twice. Other than that, she looked more like me than I presently did. She sported my usual fair skin and blonde curls, where I was now as brown as any South Isles pirate, and my hair was the raven pixie-cut of an Old High Kingdom lady.
Funny how things turn out.
The dummy had a melon for a head, but in the opinions of my mentor, my mother, and the captain of the city guard, so did I, so the resemblance was unmarred. From that head ran a slender cord of black-dyed hemp, through a pulley fastened to the rafter above, though a second pulley fastened to the supporting beam, through a third pulley bolted to the corner post of the building - I had been busy - and then down to my little cot tucked away under the eaves, neatly out of sight of the windows, skylight, and stairs.
By tugging precisely on that cord, I could animate the dummy to perform certain simple actions, courtesy of a couple of magical trinkets I had expropriated for the task. For example, two short gentle pulls would cause the dummy to close her book, sigh, and rub her brow, while a single lengthy draw on the rope -
The bolt shattered the window which I had replaced only yesterday, caught my dummy right between her painted eyes, splitting her poor head and showering the loft with melon seeds, lifted her bodily from her post, whipping the cord from my hand, carried her the length of the loft trailing my best wig and my second-best dress behind, and finally buried itself inches deep into the crossbeam above the far window.
Then it caught fire.
My name is Lyra, rune-carver, wire-drawer, weir-worker, princess-without-portfolio, and I’m almost certain that someone is trying to kill me.
I was born the day of the Battle of Blackfriars Bridge, to the most tumultuous events in the Eastern Marches since the day the Bishop of Ironguard married his horse. Though my tale has somewhat fewer deaths and a happier ending.
It would all have turned out very differently had I turned out differently. My improbably early arrival had raised tensions in the ducal household, but in that uncertain part of the world a grandson is a grandson and an heir is an heir. But when I showed up pink and squalling and indubitably female, the old duke declared my step-father a fool, my mother a whore, and myself tragically still-born.
But before he could actualise this potential, my mother, protecting her honour and my existence, stabbed the old monster to death with a soup ladle.
Yes. Yes, I know. But my aunt, and hence half of all surviving witnesses, swears that that is what happened. My mother never spoke to me about it - I didn’t know that my birth had involved anything untoward until I was twelve and my cousin started asking awkward questions and I discovered that she knew more of my origins than I did myself.
And it’s hardly the oddest thing my mother ever did.
So, the scene: My mother, my step-father, and my aunt - oh, and me, safe in my cradle I would guess - and on the floor the rapidly cooling body of the reigning duke. And then upon this scene enter two of the castle guard, hastening to report the rapid approach of a small body of armed horsemen - on a day when the army was two days’ march distant, facing off the largest northern incursion in living memory.
And the loyal - perhaps overly so, given the man’s past, but let’s not fault them for that - the loyal guards, seeing my mother standing over their duke with a bloody - well, again, a bloody ladle, but let’s not dwell - spring belatedly to his defense.
And so my step-father, in an ill-timed attempt to defend his wife, quickly found himself cooling on the rushes beside his own father, and the guards found themselves in the position of having killed their duke’s younger son.
My aunt, always a woman of action rather than reflection, seized my mother and my infant self and hustled us out of the room before the unfortunate guards could compound their error, down to the castle courtyard where a young army captain was dismounting, bearing the ducal signet ring and news both joyous and tragic.
First, the invading northerners had been soundly defeated and were suing for peace, on favourable terms.
Second, the duke’s elder son, leading the battle, had been mortally wounded, poisoned, and was not expected to live out the day.
And he found himself without anyone to take his report, because the day’s events had left him the second most senior military commander in the entire country.
And then he saw Lady Whitewater - his sister, in other words; his new-born niece; and Lady Charlotte, Baroness Blackfriar - my aunt - bearing down upon him with even worse tidings.
Because, if you are still following, this dashing army captain was my mother’s younger brother. My uncle has hinted that his elevation had been because having a mere lieutenant in the family was beneath even the younger son of a duke, though my aunt avers that it was more to do with the sudden abundance of vacancies in the command structure, what with the northerners having wiped out half of the eastern army.
In any case, my aunt, faced with a late duke and no male heir, but the signet ring and a dashing army captain (a dashing army captain five years her junior, which fact she insists did not enter her calculations for a moment) close to hand, and impending doom for the entire nation if matters were not put to rights and promptly at that, found that a priest and a chapel were readily arranged and that the old duke’s senior counselors, once apprised of the situation - leaving out certain details, I would assume - could be trusted to provide an interpretation of the rules of succession in close alignment with her own.
I’ve been spending too much time with Joshua and Galen. Let me explain that.
In the Old High Kingdom, succession was governed pretty much by whoever could seize power and hang on to it. In the lazy south, it’s put to the vote among those eligible for election, with the rather inspired twist that no-one is allowed to eat, drink, or leave the assembly hall until the matter is settled.
It rarely takes long.
In the Eastern Marches, the rule is simple: The title passes to the senior surviving male blood relative, delete whichever is not applicable.
Thus, if there is no male blood relative, the title may pass to a relative by marriage, and if there is no male blood relative, it may pass to a female - all depending on how those present decided to interpret the wording of the law that day.
Such matters are, however, frequently later disputed by those not present that day.
My aunt, who can size up a complex situation faster than anyone I have since met, saw that, by marrying herself - oldest daughter of the late duke - to a war hero and brother of the late duke’s late younger son’s wife and mother of the late duke’s acknowledged grandchild - that is to say, my uncle - she could twine those two strands inextricably together to ensure a lasting peace.
Now bear with me a moment, because here it gets complicated.
My step-father, who I never knew (rather obviously, given that he died within an hour of my birth) had, witnessed by the senior surviving member of the family (my aunt again), formally acknowledged me as his own, making me his heir - after my mother, when it comes to property, but first by law when it comes to title.
My step-father, however, was the old duke’s younger son, and not heir. On the old duke’s death at the hands of my mother, title and estate would have passed to his eldest son, who was occupied that day securing the nation’s borders - and, as it turned out, being slain in battle.
And what that means is this: If my late uncle, the eldest son, died first, then his titles would pass back to his father, then both sets of titles to the younger son, my step-father, upon the old duke’s death.
If the old duke died first, and then my late uncle, then title would have passed to him, and then, upon his passing, to his wife as regent pending the birth of their son, another of my many cousins, and his reaching the age of majority.
You ask how it was known the unborn child was a boy, and not that I was a girl? Well, you see, my mother was - is still - a weather witch, and you can’t read a witch (or a magician) in that way. Hence the surprise and all that followed.
And finally, if the old duke died first, and then my step-father, and my uncle last of all, then my step-father’s and my mother’s titles would have flown to my uncle and his wife, along with the duchy itself.
Unfortunately for history, what with persuading certain parties that the war was truly over, and the treaty negotiations, and the need to make camp, no-one recorded the time of my uncle’s passing until several hours after the fact.
And given that my mother, in the brief season of weddings and funerals that followed, disavowed all lands and honours in favour of her infant daughter - that’s me - and that my aunt had been handed more loose ends than even she could neatly braid, I was somehow left holding the title of the female presumptive heir to a vacant throne, even while the throne was not vacant, and I was not in actual fact the heir to anything.
Which means that technically - technically, mind you - the line of succession of the Stormcoast runs through my cousin Isabel, Lady Greyhaven, which title would normally belong to the duke’s wife, my aunt, except that she is in her own right (as third most senior child of the previous duke) Baroness Blackfriar, and the two titles are held independently by tradition older than the nation itself, followed by my cousin Lord Ramon, my late uncle the eldest son’s own son, and then to the Princess of Whitewater - which is to say, again, technically - me.
Though if anyone should decide to put their own interpretation upon matters, that order could conceivably be rearranged in any way you might imagine, depending on how forcefully they pressed their point.
"Oh, and Galen, your desk is on fire.”
Which indeed it was. The bolt, which, after I had beaten out the flames, I had extracted with considerable effort from the heavy oak beam in which it had implanted itself, had proceeded to eat through the heavy canvas wrappings I had transported it in, and had now set fire to the wood beneath.
With some muffled swearing and judicious use of heavy leather gloves, the bolt was soon relocated to a brass urn that had seen better days, and the desk itself set more or less to rights. Galen shook out the charred remains of some report, sighed, and placed it neatly atop a stack of similar, if less weathered, papers.
Joshua raised his head from the urn where he and Sergeant Berenson had laid the bolt to rest.
"Tsarotic acid. Nasty stuff. Old High Kingdom assassins liked to use it, to make sure their victims stayed dead. Once it gets into your system, it quite literally sets your blood on fire. Nothing left for even a necromancer to work with.”
Wonderful. Because four feet of inch-thick steel wasn’t a sufficient health risk.
Galen returned his focus to the task at hand.
"All that is of great significance to the Stormcoast I’m sure, Miss Genevris, but why exactly should it be causing trouble in my city now?”
Good question. Unfortunately, I believed I knew the answer.
"Because, Lieutenant, it’s all just hypothetical until two things happen. First, the present duke has to die, and second, the heirs must reach the age of majority. Otherwise my aunt would automatically become regent and she’d sort everything out inside of ten minutes.”
"And you are the oldest heir?”
"Yep.” If anyone could have followed that tangled tale in one hearing, it was Galen.
"And the age of majority in your nation is?”
"And your twenty-first birthday?”
Sunday, August 19
Ah! So that's how the second story begins!
It was a beautiful clear winter’s day. The sky was the aching pale blue of a flawless topaz, with a ring of pearlescent clouds at the horizon framing the dome of the heavens like those plaster molding things that hide the gap between the walls and the ceiling.
Sorry. If I couldn’t steal it, I never paid much attention. A character flaw I’m paying for to this day.
My name’s Lyra, thief turned thieftaker, disgraced child of a distant soil, student of magic, scribe and amanuensis to Joshua the Magnificent. This morning I was engaged with drawing pictures with my finger in the frost on the window panes.
A thump from behind me indicated that another book had failed to yield up answers. I stared out at the snow-covered rooves, the snow-covered trees, the snow-covered everything else.
"I thought you told me that weather magic was impossible.” I tilted my head to admire my handiwork.
"And what else did I tell you?”
"You told me that a single example outweighs a thousand dusty treatises.”
"Did I?” I turned around. Joshua was beaming at me. "That’s rather fine, don’t you think? Have you -”
I patted the thick journal on the bench beside me. "All safe.”
"Good, good.” He paused for a moment, uncertain again. "You must admit that we do have rather a striking example here.”
We did indeed.
I said I studied magic, and so I do, but the truth is that magic is drawn to me in rather the same way that large rocks are drawn to the moons. In other words, in no perceptible way whatsoever. What I could do, what I could do apparently rather well even by magician standards, was see magic.
This is something of a trick, a skill young magicians need to learn and master over the course of years. They say that if you stare out to the horizon, and then extend your gaze again, out to the horizon beyond the merely physical borders of the world, there, faint and flickering, are the living threads of magic.
For me, though, it’s just there. It’s not so much that I don’t have to make an effort, as that I can’t unsee it even if I try. It’s been that way as long as I can remember.
And three days ago, someone had doodled a lace doily on the sky.
I turned back to the window, tracing the lines and whirls again.
"My mother also told me that weather magic was impossible.”
"How is your mother, by the way?”
I’d recently received a letter, wrapped in oilcloth, stamped with the Ducal seal. It seems that being the disgraced sister of the Duke carries benefits that don’t extend further down the family tree.
"She’s well. She thinks she’s an elf.”
"Really? What kind?” I didn’t bother to answer, continued tracing the pattern in the sky onto the glass. Joshua coughed. "In any case - your mother may be something of an expert on the subject, but still…”
It was, as I said, a beautiful winter’s day. With its coating of snow, the city looked like a particularly fanciful wedding cake, and I knew that from the far end of the loft I could look out and see the ice shining in the harbour like a million tons of uncut diamonds.
It was the middle of summer.
Weather is something I thought I’d left behind with my old life. Here in the south they think they have weather, when what they really have is climate. This time of the year it rains, this time of the year it is sunny and warm, this time of the year it is sunny and a little less warm. (I’ve been to the far north. Southerners have no conception of cold.) The winds blow steadily from the north-east, then they shift about and blow from the south-east instead. (Handy to know, when your empire is built on trade.)
Where I came from, what I’d left behind, was a region with weather so obstreperous that they’d named the entire country after it.
My mother, disgraced sister to the Duke of the Stormcoast, was a weather witch. Which is not to say that she could shape the weather, rather that she could predict it, and with uncommon accuracy. That had lead to a certain amount of fame, and that had lead to her catching the eye of the old duke’s son, and that had lead to marriage and a certain amount of household tension revolving around my sudden appearance, for though I was too young to know it at the time, my conception must have preceded my mother and her husband’s first encounter by some months.
And that, somehow, had lead to my mother killing the old duke with a soup ladle. Neither my mother nor my uncle, who had survived the debacle, nor my step-father, who had not, had ever bothered to fill me in with the precise details.
That’s not how my mother disgraced herself, in case you were wondering. Indeed, the populace and surviving family alike rather thought the old monster had had it coming. That - but no, that story can wait for another time.
Thursday, August 16
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