Experimental Magics: the Transfer of Souls
After four centuries of absence, magic has returned. But people have forgotten about it. They have moved on, a new religion has destroyed old grimoires, and humankind now lives by coal, steel and science. In this age of machines, there is no place for old legends.
But now magic is back, why not use it for profit? Scientists open laboratories to study this mysterious energy. Soon, everybody is talking about it, the loudest being those who understand little about its principles: politicians, entrepreneurs, religious leaders or fashion icons.
Professor Imlay is one of the new researchers. Born an outcast in the crumbling old city of Gandarah, she spent her childhood evading the terrible Guardians and hiding the secret of her shamanic gift. She has cheated death more times than she cares to remember while scouring the mysterious Ruins for any relic to sell. Now a brilliant scientist, she wants only one thing: to work in peace, away from politics.
But with elections looming, magic suddenly becomes the chief topic of the debate. In her lab, strange things start to happen: she has to rescue the soul of one of her colleagues, trapped in a railway timetable. Another scientist wants to build a banned machine whose blueprints are buried in Adrienne’s childhood memories. This project attracts unhealthy interest. Soon, she is pursued by a charismatic politician, a magic enforcer, a sinister pack of werewolves and even an ancient god.
But just like physics, magics have laws of their own. The first one is: everything has a price.
This immersive novel depicts a unique world where magic is not static but cyclical, providing a stunning backdrop for adventure in the opening book of this epic series. If you have enjoyed the Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan, the unusual magic of the Powder Mage, and the treasure hunts of Tomb Raider, this epic tale is for you.
Release date: July 8, 2021
Print pages: 429
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Experimental Magics: the Transfer of Souls
The Dawn Tower Street was filling with people when I stepped into the steam omnibus, blissfully ignorant of the flood of trouble about to pour on my head. Actually, I was rather pleased with myself. First, I had finished writing a new paper. I had passed it to my colleague, Nicephorus Vatel, to read it over before submitting it to the Thaumaturgical Review.
Second… I pulled out the note delivered by a street boy the day before. I tilted it towards the light of the gaslamps outside and read it again.
Dear Professor Imlay,
I wish to speak to you at your earliest convenience about a most important research project. Please reply a.s.a.p.
Your, Tahar Ruslan.
Sending a letter on a Sunday and to my home rather than to my lab was a bit unusual, but Ruslan was an unusual man, one of those modern entrepreneurs and inventors. He occasionnaly worked with our institution and money was not a problem for him. Research project meant funding. I might finally get enough money to pay for a new harmonizer. Things were looking rather good on this Monday morning, as I left the omnibus at the Stone Lady square.
I was early, as usual. The lights of an airship were piercing the still dark sky and making golden reflections on the waves of the Dhor Hondo river. The Baby moon was right above the skyline, while the Mother had already disappeared. The air was smelling of burnt coal, horse manure and freshly baked bread. Snow had thawed the previous week and the streets were still full of sleet. Steam cars sent mud in all directions each time they passed through a puddle. Election placards covered the walls: the compass pointing the Way of the Heritage Party, the wolf head of the Founders Party, the hoe and hammer of the People’s Party and the rising sun of the Progress Party. The latter had been in power for the last twenty years, but lately, had been marred by various scandals, so all bets were off for these elections. At that time, I didn’t yet have strong political views. I was still a naïve researcher whose only interest was Science.
Only my field of study was not chemistry, biology or physics, but Power… magic. A form of energy which crossed through thousands of worlds over a millennial cycle. Forty years ago, it had reappeared in ours after having been away for four centuries. Like countless wizards, mages and sorcerers before me, I had devoted my life to its study. But now, my laboratory was not in the heart of a cave, in the bowels of a dungeon or on the top of a tower, but in a building of the University of Sciences. Nor did I wear a long robe embroidered with stars, but a lab coat with badly worn sleeves. We were in the times of logic, mechanics and progress. No more superstitions and hazardous spells. We were going to study magic with scientific accuracy and turn it to some industrial use!
At least, that was our ambition. Over four centuries, most of the knowledge was lost. There was nothing left but legends. We had to start from scratch. But every cloud had a silver lining: there were opportunities in this new domain, even for a woman, the daughter of immigrants without any contacts. At thirty-three I was already a professor.
I turned into the Street of the Seven Virtues and passed in front of the fancy new Triskelian café, thinking about my current project: sequential measurements of the Power waves emitted by moonflowers. A male voice cut through my mental diagrams: “Professor Imlay?”
I blinked. “Yes?”
The man lifted his bowler hat and smiled nervously. In the gaslight, he looked like a middle-aged office worker, with his typically Deshwan features: brown skin, jet-black hair, and slightly elongated eyes in a long face. “I’m sorry if I startled you. I am Daron Jol, I work for the Rexal company. I was wondering if you could direct me to where I might find Doctor Vatel?”
“Well, in his lab, I suppose, although you’ll have to wait: the University building opens in only half an hour and he’s often late.”
“I called at his house twice over the last two days, but to no avail. You don’t have access to his records, by any chance?”
I frowned. Nick was a bit of a rogue with a longstanding relationship with all the narcotic substances he could get his hands on. As a result, he had some unsavory acquaintances. But this man looked like a gentleman. “His logbooks are usually in his lab. I suppose you can ask the Dean.”
He looked embarrassed, then handed me a card. “If you have some information, would you be so good as to contact us? We will be very happy to contribute to your research. Um… have a good day, Professor.”
He lifted his hat again and hurried away before I could ask any question. Frowning, I stepped through the university gates. Nick was rarely at work before ten, so I couldn’t yet ask him what it was all about. Instead, I went to pick up my mail, and started checking it while walking towards my own lab. The large echoing corridor smelled of black soap and chemicals. Faint auras from magic samples were playing on the edge of my perception and the caretaker’s cat greeted me on its way to the gatehouse.
Among the various newspapers and prospectuses, there was a large envelope studded with the colourful stamps of the free city of Isria. At first, I thought it was some mistake. But no. It was addressed to me: Professor Adrienne Imlay, University of Sciences, Laboratory of Fundamental Magics, Street of the Seven Virtues 5, Branes in Deshwan. Inside was written in vernacular:
Dear Professor Imlay,
Your studies on Power’s temporal variations have caught our interest. You are invited to present them at the 7th International Congress of Experimental Magics. Your one-hour talk is scheduled for the 21st of the Seashell Great Moon at 2 p.m.
The most prestigious congress of our burgeoning magic community! It only took place every four years. And the 21st of the Seashell Moon… I converted to the Calendar of the Way… was just the day after the elections and a month away! It was short notice. One of their speakers must have withdrawn. But it was the first time my research had attracted their attention. I would not miss such an opportunity. I would have to work extra hard to get ready, but I would gain notoriety and maybe even sponsorships after that. Of course, my ideas were considered too bold by many of my colleagues. They would certainly try to ridicule me, but I had a great deal of practice with criticism, denigration and questioning of all kinds: I had spent most of my life justifying my very existence.
Full of enthusiasm, I set about planning the next weeks: I was engaged in a series of delicate experiments for which I had to obtain an ounce of black lotus juice, a very rare substance, imported with great difficulty and great cost from Yartegia. It would lose its supernatural properties after a month. I could not put off these manipulations. Now, I also had to prepare my presentation for the congress—in vernacular, a language I could read, but hardly speak. It all meant working late at night and through the Martyrs’ feast days. I might even have to forfeit my visits to my friend Roxane.
I unlocked the door to my lab, a large room with a high ceiling, lit by two windows with a few cracked panes. A chipped bench divided it in two. The paint was peeling off, drafts crept in through many gaps, and the equipment was dated, but this was my place, much more so than the furnished room I rented in Mrs Marras’ boarding house. I opened the cupboards, took the pot of moonflowers, and set it on the bench, still thinking.
The first thing to do at such short notice was to secure travel tickets.
That’s when my euphoria wore off and the realisation of what I was about to do hit me hard. Isria lay three thousand kilometers south of Branes. Between them lay the Plain, a vast stretch of wastelands, roamed by small bands of outlaws and not much else. Reaching Isria involved getting through or around this unwelcoming place. In addition, the city had itself quite a reputation: a place of trafficking, vices and fantasies, populated, according to the newspapers, by thugs and crooks ready to prey on innocent travelers.
A wave of panic rose in my throat, and I almost decided to decline the invitation. Since I had settled in Branes, I had never left the city. The only exception had been a conference in neighbouring Dagher, which was already a whole enterprise. Since that country refused entry to unaccompanied women, I’d had to use the services of one of those paid companions whom you hired by the hour, the week or the month. She’d cost me a fortune and had not stopped complaining about any sight which had come our way. Even the colour of the steamcabs—a very ugly green, I admit—had deeply traumatized her. I hated travelling. My childhood journey to escape Gandarah was more than enough.
My thoughts were interrupted by the creaking of the door. Ferdal, Rupert and Isidore came in, smelling of tobacco and cheap cologne. Ferdal, our technician, was slender and bald with sparse whiskers, almost ascetic. In spite of his humble station, he was usually delving in serious topics. On the contrary, Rupert, my assistant, was squat and chubby with a thick black walrus moustache, and dark laughing eyes. He had the reputation of being the laziest researcher of the whole University. Isidore, our intern, was thin, sickly looking and as quiet as a mouse. I suspected he didn’t have enough to eat and always made sure there were plenty of biscuits in our tin box.
“Good morning, Professor,” said Ferdal. “Have you seen the news?”
“Good morning, gentlemen. No, what’s going on?”
Rupert put his umbrella next to the door and went to hook his coat and hat.
“Tahar Ruslan has died. Apparently, there was an explosion and a fire at his mansion yesterday.”
For a few heartbeats, I was speechless. I must admit I liked the man. He was charismatic and handsome, the darling of the press and high society. After the loss of their last colonies, the Deshwans needed someone like him to remind them of their past grandeur. When he was not exploring some distant land, Ruslan was climbing some impossibly tall mountain to measure atmospheric pressure or tinkering in his lab to produce a telescope to study the craters of the Mother moon. His chief ambition was to be the first to get an industrial use out of magic. Unfortunately, the modern rules of supply and demand had trouble cohabiting with its First Law—the one which said that each spell had a price, and only one. No rebates, no wholesale rates, and certainly no futures speculation. No one, claimed the Ancients, not even Ori, the Cheating God Himself, could get around it.
But we were in modern times. We would find a way.
“What happened?” I finally asked.
“One of his experiments has gone wrong, apparently.”
“I suppose this is the risk of the business,” commented Ferdal while switching on the tea infuser.
“Did anyone else die? What was he experimenting on?”
“They don’t say in the papers. What a glorious death for an inventor! Don’t you think, Professor?”
I personally thought the glory for an inventor was to have properly working inventions, but I had always lacked Deshwan exalted sensibilities. So, I sighed.
“Indeed. But it’s a big loss for all of us. For science and progress. He had so many ideas still to develop.”
Rupert nodded. “Especially for us. I don’t see who will manage to design a scaphoid prism now.”
“He just sent me a note yesterday about a research project with us.”
“What sort of project?”
“He did not mention. By the Heptagon, it must have been shortly before this accident!”
“No more funding, then,” added Ferdal prosaically while taking out mismatched mugs.
I started to set up my equipment, still shocked.
“Well, we have a special grant from the Occult Science Foundation, for the joint project with that Meralese institute. It should be unlocked with the arrival of Doctor Dian in a week or two and would last for a few months. Then, I’ll have to find some other funding in Isria. They have wealthy patrons and a few industrialists in attendance. Magic is a big thing there. I’ll have to find a way to entice them.”
“What do you mean?” asked Rupert.
“I received an invitation to the International Congress of Experimental Magic.”
My assistant stared at me with wide eyes, not trying to hide his amazement. It was always nice to see one’s merits fully appreciated. I didn’t have time to make a spiritual comment because at that moment, an impatient wave of Power crossed my perception. If it had been a sound, it would have had the imperious tone of a cat crying out for food. The moonflowers were calling for water. Since I had started studying them, I had discovered they were perfectly capable of communicating through Power when they felt the need. They had already explained me very clearly that their favorite spot was the third shelf across the window, next to the resonator.
Yes, I could perceive magic as clearly as if it was a sound. Indeed, I was worse than a witch. A shaman.
This was a rare and poisoned gift. Some spoke of heredity, others of horoscopes, others of plain bad luck. Had I lived five hundred years before, I could have become an adviser to a king, or the high priestess of some god. But I was born in this century of steam, coal and worship of the Way. In my native Gandarah, I could no longer be secretly assassinated by the Guardians. I could only be publicly stoned after a formal trial with twelve jurors and a lawyer. That was democracy for you. In Branes, my adopted city, the rules were more humane: I just had to register with both the Quorum and the police and expect a visit from them after every bizarre incident. With the elections looming, the candidates of the Heritage Party were making suggestions to lobotomize or exterminate us in order to improve the country’s moral wellbeing.
Opening labs to study magic while pursuing those who perceived it was contradictory to say the least, but the human mind has never been short of paradoxes. This partly explained why our Northern countries were so much further behind in this field compared to our Southern neighbours. This situation regularly raised heated discussions during lunch breaks at the canteen, but it did not lead us any further. As for me, I had not told of my gift to anyone. I had more than enough problems.
I was holding the pot under the tap when the door creaked, letting in Miss Jandreth, the Dean’s secretary. She was an old maid, unhappy with her situation, and she politely hated me. I was a woman, a Gandaran with the typical look: auburn hair, green eyes and pale freckled skin. To have to defer before me while herself, a Deshwan from a good family, was confined to menial tasks was almost beyond her ability.
“Good morning Professor Imlay,” she said in her clipped tone.
“Good morning, Miss Jandreth.”
“Professor Uriel would like to speak to you immediately, if you please.”
I hid a frown of annoyance. I was not going to start working as soon as I had planned. But I had to inform him of my trip to the congress. The Dean was a specialist in physics, and was hardly considering magic as a science, but he would dislike the idea that I was invited instead of one of his friends. One way or another, I was in for an unpleasant discussion.
“Of course,” I said, putting the pot of moonflowers on the bench. “Do you know what it is about?”
She gave me a quick glance before settling her eyes on the flowers.
“No, but there is a lictor with him.”
Isidore dropped his jaw. Ferdal put down the mug he was filling with tea. Rupert froze, his match halfway to his pipe. Nobody liked a visit from the Quorum enforcers. I slowly wiped my hands to give me time to compose myself. Like anyone who grew up in Gandarah, I had an instinctive aversion to law enforcement officials. Worse, magic law enforcement officials. But I quickly got a grip on my fear. The lictors never paid me any attention. I was a bland bespectacled researcher in Fundamental Magics. Maybe the visit had something to do with Nick or the Ruslan accident.
I followed Miss Jandreth to the Dean’s office. She opened the door and stepped back to let me in. Professor Uriel rose behind his desk with a gloomy look. Sitting on a chair in front of him was a tall redhead in her early thirties. She was wearing a man’s suit, complete with trousers, over a shirt with the first two buttons undone. In her hand she was holding a cigar and round her neck hung the Quorum’s crystal heptagon. As for the Dean, he looked embarrassed as he spoke:
“Good morning, Adrienne. May I introduce you to Lictress Artemisia Watts?”
It took me all my good education not to stare openmouthed. A woman lictor was a first. Of course, in the old days, they had lictresses, warrioresses, priestesses… The country was run by women. But all that was forgotten after the conquest by the worshippers of the Way. On the Northern Continent, women have lived in soft servitude for the last four centuries. For the Quorum to accept one, something terrible must have happened.
She held my gaze, as if she could read my thoughts. Finally, I managed a smile. “How do you do, Lictress Watts?”
She flashed me a carnivorous grin. “How do you do, Professor Imlay?”
“Lictress Watts has some questions for you,” said the Dean. “Concerning Nicephorus.”
I frowned. “Somebody was asking about him right outside the University building as I was coming in this morning. What’s going on?”
“Who was it?” cut in the lictress.
“I don’t know. Some Mister Jol, from a Rexal company…”
She lifted a brow. “The Rexal company?”
“What are you talking about…”
I cut myself off abruptly as my eyes fell on the small stove in the corner. The name was written on its rim inside an intricate logo. Rexal was an industrial empire: coal, steel, cannons…
“I suppose. Is there another one?”
At that moment, Miss Jandreth entered holding a tea tray and set it on the desk. I just had a mug, but for the sake of politeness and to give myself some time to calm down, I sat in the other chair, picked up a cup, and took a few sips. The lictress waved her cigar with impatience.
“Your colleague has presumably died with Tahar Ruslan in yesterday’s explosion. We have reasons to think they were doing unsanctioned and undeclared research. With the elections looming, I don’t need to tell you, Professor, that this is a highly sensitive topic. What do you know about Doctor Vatel’s activities?”
I managed to set down the cup without dropping it onto the floor, then just sat there, numb. After all, Nick was one of the two persons I called friends—the other one being Roxane. Like me, he did not belong to that bourgeois elite where academics came from. Our classmates laughed at his starved looks and patched-up clothes, and if my sharp tongue could nail down any fool, in his case Nick merely endured the insults. Even though we were of very different temperaments, it brought us together. However, his recklessness and his addictions weighted on our relationships. Experimenting under the effect of a drug is a dangerous business. I had always expected him to die a premature death. But it was still too soon for me.
I don’t know for how long I had been sitting there, with tears streaming down my cheeks. Finally, I fished a handkerchief from a pocket, dabbed my eyes and blew my nose. I had never been able to cry elegantly, like a heroine in a novel.
The voice of the lictress came to me from afar, pouring on my mind, as cold as melting snow: “What was his current topic of research, Professor?”
Now you know why the lictors were not particularly popular. I blew my nose again.
“Well, the same as everybody here, I suppose! He was studying the diffraction of Power waves through tanalite crystals.”
“What trispectral range was he using?”
“I don't know, but we don’t have anything over six hundred ethers here.”
She waved her cigar again. “Has he ever spoken about undeclared research?”
“Of course not! He wasn’t stupid!”
I was starting to feel angry. The discussion was reminding me of others, with the Guardians. Just like with the Guardians, it was a bad idea to upset a lictor, especially in my position. But Artemisia Watts didn’t bother to get upset.
“When did you see him last?”
“On Friday. I left him my paper to review…”
“Hmm, I see. Don’t cry, Professor. He was a rogue. Sooner or later, he could have put all of you in a dangerous position.”
I looked at the Dean, but he was scrutinizing a blank sheet of paper on his desk. Silence stretched between us for a few heartbeats. The lictress dropped the ash from her cigar in her saucer.
“Have a good day, Professor Imlay. Professor Uriel…”
She stood abruptly and walked towards the door. The sound of her steps echoed in the corridor. There was another silence. Finally, the Dean nervously reached for his cigar box.
“Friendly as usual,” I grumbled. Anger had washed out part of the pain.
“Of course. But she’s partly right, you know. We don’t need a scandal in the University just before the elections. I already have second thoughts about having invited that Meralese wizard.”
I sighed. My brain was starting to work again.
“We have already talked about that. People have moved on since the Mechanical Wars. Whatever the next government, they will still need the Southerner’s expertise.”
At the time when Power existed, the countries of the Southern Continent, Meral included, had dominated the Northern Continent thanks to their mastery of its properties. Its disappearance had led to their decadence, while the Northern Continent discovered coal and steam to become the master. But with the return of magic, things could reverse back to the old ways. Deep in their libraries, their archives, their crypts and their tombs, slept a priceless collection of books of occult science. On the contrary, what little documents we had ever possessed had been methodically burnt by the followers of the Way. When it came to magic, the Southerners were getting a head start. We needed their knowledge. They needed our money… for now. The Dean had negotiated this exchange program more than a year before. This was how Hamilcar Dian, a Meralese specialist in transformative spells, came to spend a few months in my lab.
This was the result of careful calculations, both for the Dean and me. If that collaboration went wrong for any reason, I, the uncouth foreign woman, would be to blame and not him. If, on the contrary, things went well, he and I would both take the credit for the success. I had already been corresponding with Doctor Dian for some time. He sounded like an articulate researcher and a sensible man, able to separate fact from belief. Therefore, I was quite optimistic.
The Dean gave me a wry look.
“Let’s hope our future rulers see it that way. But magic will still be a sensitive topic. Especially if the Heritage Party wins, as our funding will be drastically reduced.”
“Then it’s really lucky I have been invited to the International Congress of Experimental Magic. Maybe I’ll get some money out of it.”
He stared at me just like Rupert had done earlier. If it was not for Nick’s death, I would have probably found it comical.
“By the Heptagon! Nobody else has received an invitation. Not Jardel, nor Sardon! Er…”
I let out a deep mental sigh as I expected what was coming. He assumed his most professorial tone.
“I’m annoyed to see you travel to that conference without a chaperone. I know you hate travel and Isria is a… dangerous place. Even more so for a woman.”
I pushed my glasses up my nose.
“I am very touched by your concerns. Especially after I had to slap Professor Homer, who was trying to grab my skirts in front of you. But as you have pointed out many times behind my back, I am old and as ugly as a cabbage stew. Not a male will notice my existence. According to the newspapers, this town is teeming with women who are prettier and younger than me.”
He held on.
“With these Southerners, you never know. The reputation of the University is at stake… You could give your notes to Jardel, who will do the presentation for you and—”
Here we were.
“To gain notoriety with my works? Do you think I’m stupid, by any chance? If this is such an ethical problem for you, I will attend the conference privately. There won’t be a researcher representing the University. Anyway, your Jardel barely understands the vernacular. He will make a fool of himself at the first question.”
The Dean gave a soul-breaking sigh. He couldn’t afford to have no representative. It would be a terrible humiliation and weigh heavily when he would ask for the renewal of his tenure the following year. He didn’t even know who the new Science Minister would be. So I only had a modest smile of satisfaction when he growled, “Please be careful.” I stood up and was about to walk towards the door, when he added, “By the way, could you fill in for me at the opening night of an exhibition, on the Second Day of the Martyrs?”
“To what do I owe such an honor?”
He did not bother with excuses.
“I am invited to a dinner at the Minister’s with Jardel and neither Gauthar nor Saurdon are available. But several exhibitors have given us well-paid orders and they may give us more… if they have not killed each other before then.”
“What do you mean?”
He wiped his forehead. “They are a bunch of archaeologists excavating the Ruins of Gandarah. They get along like cats and dogs. Each one accuses the others of spying on him or stealing his most important discoveries… Vrangel and Medlock nearly had a fight in front of my office!”
I was not aware of such rude behavior in the hushed world of archaeology. I congratulated myself once again for choosing fundamental research, a quiet occupation which did not bring money or conflicts. Only glory.
“… Florizel will be there, but someone more senior would be better,” concluded my beloved boss.
“It would be my pleasure.”
The Dean only delegated the honor of representing the University to my humble person when he had no choice. A woman was giving a poor image of the institution. That meant he didn’t want to deal with those archaeologists. Well, I wasn’t going to pass up such a windfall. He picked up a card from his desk and handed it to me. I took it with a slight smile and glanced at it: under a phoenix rising from its ashes, the emblem of the Occult Sciences Institute, was written:
Invitation for two people to the opening night of the exhibition of artefacts excavated in the sector XVII, XVIII and XIX of Gandarah by Messrs de Garvel, Vrangel and Medlock on the Second Day of the Martyrs at eight o’clock. Evening dress required.
My sense of triumph vanished, and I winced inwardly: Gandaran artefacts. The place was already full of them, and they always brought me memories of my childhood. I would have gladly skipped such an exhibition. But I couldn’t let this opportunity slip away. Sometimes I hate this job.
Quite shaken, I went to the small garden at the back of the university, between the biology and the chemistry buildings. At that hour, it was empty, cold and damp. I sat at the foot of the monument to Nature removing her veils before Science and retrieved the hip flask of brandy I would hide in a pocket of my skirt. I took a long swig to recover my nerves. As usual, I picked up the waves of Power raising from the other side of the wall, where the Four Winds bookshop was standing. Perhaps a wizard with a talisman was buried under the foundations. I weaved the waves to lift a dead leaf. Sometimes I made a little spell to relieve my nerves. It was almost a physical need. I had never dared anything more complex. I didn’t know how to anyway. Wielding large amounts of Power without training exposed you to insanity and death. At least, that was the belief.
I hated to admit it, but the lictress was quite right. Nick’s death was not unexpected. There was nothing I could do about it, I concluded after emptying the flask. I knew only two ways to deal with sorrow. Alcohol and work. I choose the latter. After the discussion I had with the Dean, I needed to make a really outstanding presentation.
I came back to the Miscellaneous Sciences and headed to the thaumaturgical paleography lab, to borrow a dictionary of vernacular. As I walked down the hall, over the background noise, I thought that I perceived a familiar aura of Power. I knocked and opened the door.
“Hello everyone, could I borrow your…”
My voice became a croak in my throat as the memory hit me with the power of a locomotive. The aura. The ring. I stepped mechanically into the room, suddenly plunged into the mists of the past. Florizel looked up from the microscope with which he was examining it. Yes. It was the ring. A shimmering opal in the shape of a left hand, palm forward, mounted on a thick band of solid gold. Yartegian, Seventh Dynasty. My father had found it in the Ruins and brought it home when I was four. This was how my troubles began. I had heard the jewel sing its inaudible tune of Power. I walked over, mesmerized. My parents realised I had the gift. Children like me weren’t meant to exist for the Guardians of the Way, nor were magical artefacts. My parents hastened to hide the ring. They pretended I was sick and locked me at home for months, waiting for me to forget. But I never forgot. I just learned to shut up. Later, at Branes, my father sold it to pay for my education. I never thought I would see it again…
“Professor? Is something wrong?” asked Florizel.
He put his glasses back on and stared at me. I started. He must not have heard about Nick’s death, and I didn’t feel like talking about it.
“Oh, nothing… Yesterday’s dinner didn’t agree with me. But you have a very pretty ring.”
“Ah, women and jewelry! Agathon Vrangel commissioned us to analyze it.”
Researchers in thaumaturgical paleography were more historians than sorcerers, and they knew more about antiquities than about trispectral index. Their networks were very different from mines.
“A wealthy aristocrat doing archaeology as a dilettante. He is part of this bunch of enthusiasts who are digging up Gandarah. The rest of the artefacts here belong to his direct competitor, Zoscales Medlock.”
He pointed to two chess figurines, an incomplete, twisted, rusty antikythera, and small pieces of orichalcum on the bench. Gable circles. Sections of pipes. Some looked vaguely familiar. I had seen things like this in the Ruins. But I didn’t want to remember it. The names, on the other hand…
“The Dean just told me they nearly had a fight in front of his office!”
He shrugged. “I’m not surprised. But their exhibition at the Occult Sciences Foundation is promising. Have you seen the posters?”
“Well, the Dean has just appointed me to replace him at the opening night. Is this ring special?”
“I haven’t found anything yet. Yartegian, Seventh Dynasty… It was probably brought to Gandarah by a pilgrim.”
I asked the usual question, although I knew the answer: “Is it charged?”
“Yes, but we don’t know for what use. Not to become invisible, for sure!”
Strange. This Vrangel did not found it during his digs. Whatever. This jewel was a thing of the past. I had nothing to do with it anymore. We were each going to continue our journey in life.
“Actually, I came to borrow your vernacular dictionary.”
“Third shelf from the top, as usual.”
The afternoon was very quiet in the lab. Mindful of my mood, my colleagues did not talk much, apart from the usual words of sadness and regret. Nick had no close relatives to mourn him. His mother had died before he went to university, a poor servant who had him out of wedlock and was shunned by her family. He’d never known who his father was and had the chastity of a Guide of the Way. Drugs were his lovers, or so we thought. It was quickly decided to make a kitty to pay for a decent burial as soon as the police released the body. Halfway through the afternoon, I remembered another problem. My paper. I had given the final draft to Nick.
With our poor funding, our lab had not yet acquired those fancy new typing machines with carbon paper and my draft had been written by hand. If I could not retrieve it, I would have to rewrite twenty pages again, while I had lots of other things to do. I would probably be late to submit it for the summer edition. With some luck, Nick had left the document at his home. I could still retrieve it. I hurried to finish my measurements and left early to catch an omnibus to Silvergate.
Nick was renting two rooms on the third floor of an old house off Freedom Avenue. The whole quarter was brand new, and some claimed it was showy and vulgar, with those tall square houses built in the new Dagheri style. Fancy young men were showing off their new bicycles. Smart gentlemen and elegant ladies were still displaying their fine furs. I was not in the mood for admiring the view. That was not improved by the drizzle. I turned into Smithy Street, walked a hundred paces and entered the front yard of Nick’s house. Mrs Sharel, the stout landlady, rose to greet me. I paused, embarrassed, my throat clenching. Finally, I uttered the words:
“Good afternoon, Mrs Sharel. I have heard Doctor Vatel has died yesterday?”
She started talking at once. “That was awful! I haven’t seen him since Friday! I got the news from the three lictors who came first thing this morning with a police officer. They were asking all sorts of questions!”
“They came to see us at the University too. Everybody is so sad…”
I cut off to fight back tears. The practicalities. In difficult times, make sure the practicalities are covered, Adrienne.
“Um… I suppose we’ll have to do something with his belongings. He had no close family. I had also left a paper with him to review. I need to get it back. Would you mind showing me if it is in his room?”
“Oh, my poor lady! These lictors took everything! They emptied the drawers, the boxes, up to the last handkerchief! They must have taken your documents too!”
I was not expecting that. Once again, I wondered what kind of research Nick was doing. I preferred not to imagine the amount of effort and paperwork it would take to retrieve my document from the Quorum’s vaults. I would have to rewrite it. Dejected, I took my leave.
In the omnibus, I thought about Nick again. How we met at the bursary office. How we lived at that shabby pension above a tavern in the Stew and worked there to pay for our lodgings… That was when I remembered he still rented a room there to indulge in his favorite vice. If Mrs Sharel hasn’t seen him since Friday, that meant wherever he’d gone, he had taken my paper with him. With a little luck, he spent some time in his den and then went to Ruslan’s mansion. If the lictors didn’t know about the place, they would learn soon, but with a little more luck my paper could still be there. I didn’t like the Stew, especially in the evening. My trip needed a little preparation.
Half an hour later, I was at my own boarding house, poetically named Lilac House. It was getting dark. I opened the rusty iron gate, crossed the soggy garden, climbed the steps and opened the front door. The hall was dark, lit by a tiny whale oil lamp. It smelled of boiled cabbage. An anemic chlorophytum struggled to survive on the lacquered table holding the mail. There was nothing for me, as usual. In the hallway, Mrs Marras was arranging a new display of dried flowers and stuffed birds.
“Good evening, Miss Imlay.”
She’d never gotten round to calling me Professor.
“Good evening, Mrs Marras.”
“You are a bit later than usual. I hope you didn’t have any problems.”
“No, not really. The traffic was terrible.”
“Well, an early night and you’ll feel much better.”
“Unfortunately, I have to get out again. I might return quite late.”
“Why? You know it’s unsafe for an unaccompanied lady! Branes has become so dangerous lately.”
My landlady was among the few people in the city who were not a pimp but accepted to rent a room to single women, with a curfew set at midnight. For that, she was charging an exorbitant rent. She was also extraordinarily nosy and ready to pounce on any piece of information about her female tenants, no matter how mundane. In Gandarah, she would have made a good informant, but she would never had won a contest of lies against me.
“I’ll take a steamcab, of course. I have to attend a sick colleague. Just make sure he doesn’t need anything. You know those old bachelors: they often forget to feed themselves.”
“Quite right, Miss Imlay, and—”
“Excuse me, the sooner I leave, the sooner I’ll be back. I have to work early tomorrow.”
I pushed past her with a steely grin and went into my room. The place had no decorative pretenses: bed, wardrobe, table, chairs, shelf, stove, hip bath and chamber pot. Had I lived five centuries ago, I would have been totally comfortable as a priestess in the Lonely Giantess Temple on the steepest mountain of Jackal’s Teeth. I would have devoted my days to study, provided my supervisor was not trying to stuff my head with some religious theory.
I retrieved my old clothes from my suitcase under the bed: a worn shirt, a thick patched-up skirt, an apron full of stains, and a large shawl. I hid my hair under an old cap. I kept only my boots. Now, I looked like a cleaner or a launderess. Then, I ducked into my closet and pulled out an old shoebox. I removed the cover and took out a small lady’s pistol with a butt decorated with mother-of-pearl. The one my grandmother left me to defend my virtue. The one with… I pushed the memory aside. It was not the time. I listened until Mrs Marras went to the kitchen to pester the maid and then I slipped outside.
One hour later, I stepped out on Hollow Street, as far as the steamcab accepted to take me. Above the roofs, the lights of the airship port were searching the sky. The Stew was the most upscale of the two poor districts of Branes. The other one was the Anthill, on the riverside. I had not set foot in the area for ten years, but it hadn’t changed. At that early hour of the night, it was still relatively quiet. Sellers of food, hemp, and opium lined the street, calling out to the few clients nearby. Beggars were counting their day’s earnings. A few prostitutes were getting out, shivering in their revealing dresses. I lifted the hem of my skirt, catching it under my belt to avoid getting it covered in mud or worse and headed to the aptly named Piss Street. At the other end, I found the Green Fairy. It had hardly changed too: at some point the façade had received a coat of gaudy green paint, but now it was peeling off. I couldn’t help but feel some nostalgia when I crossed the doorstep.
Inside, it was still quiet. The air smelled of an ineffable mix of stale tobacco, old beer and hemp. A Meralese helmet, a trophy from the Mechanical Wars, hung on the wall. Four men were playing cards at the table on my right. A solitary prostitute was sipping her absinthe waiting for customers. I didn’t recognise her. I briefly wondered what had happened to Janere and Bathilde, but I let go of the thought.
Brunol was checking his till. I headed straight for him.
He lifted his bald head. His face was deeply lined, and it looked like his nose has been broken again. He smiled, revealing an uneven row of yellow teeth. The upper front ones were missing.
“Adrienne! Blood and piss! I haven’t seen you in ages!”
He never forgot a face, which made him such a good police informant.
“You haven’t changed a bit,” I lied.
“Nick told me you’d become a professor! Why are you dressed in rags?”
“I don’t want to be mugged.”
His laugh sounded like a door creaking on rusty hinges.
“Mugged? You? You’re a witch! You’ll turn your muggers into flies!”
People had all sorts of strange ideas about magic back then.
He left the till and filled two shots of glog. His steel fingers clanked on the glass. In the old days, he would never have bothered to be so lavish with me.
“He says you’re a snob now. You were even going to have one of those fucking Meralese in your lab.”
Brunol was a veteran of the Mechanical Wars. He’d lost his right hand and his relatives had lost all their savings. He hated the Meralese, even if he hadn’t seen one in thirty years.
“I didn’t choose to have him,” I said carefully. “That was the University’s choice. Politics and all that…”
He downed his glog. “Well, if you’re into politics, now… So why are you coming to Piss Street, then? You must be looking for something.”
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