- SampleSunday: Letters of the Dead (Beginning, Part 1)
- SampleSunday: Letters of the Dead (Beginning, Part 2)
Snippet from Letters of the Dead, a work-in-progress fantasy novel, by Jodi Ralston:
The carriage slowed, then stopped. Traffic must have been light in the City today. I put away the letter, and while the cab waited, I took in my destination.
Outside the window were the manicured lawns and hedges, the coiffed flowerbeds and military-stanced "domiciles"--a fit scene for the clatter of perfect hooves on perfect horses and the rumble of perfect carriages. No string of houses here like a segmented millipede. These were the grand houses of gentry wishing to live with the convenience of the city but the illusion of the country. These were the grand houses of those who thought the aristocrats lived in perfection and tried to mirror it, painfully so. My destination's "domicile" had four stories, not counting a basement and cellar and attic; those stories hurt the veneer of rigid prettiness by hinting at actual work.
A heavy gate presided over a short walk to the front door, but it was neither open nor attended by more than a single bell. The baron would have approved of the structure. He had loved barricades, rows of them between home and world. But that was nothing new; even back in his earlier, clearer days, back when he was Queen Corva IV's personal physician, he had recommended extra gates for her.
Even so, this was wrong. While the baron remained unburied, the gate should be open to allow in mourners both hired and true and to welcome in the psychopomp with the deceased's soul. There should also be some grey bunting--or rather, fresh grey paint for the well-to-do.
The cabby called down from behind, asking me if he should wait--a reminder that I should do something other than sit and delay. It was a gamble, knowing without feeling the small coins in my pocket. But on the other hand, the gentry did like proper attention from mourners. I couldn't risk failure by imperfection. I asked him to stay. He opened the door from his perch, and I got out.
Bringing an umbrella would have been prudent, although unsightly as a hat on the head of a hired mourner. It looked like spring showers, perfect precipitation for any funeral. We'd had none for a month now. More precisely, none since the Day of Lady's Hope, the only day she gave up her Tearful Sorrows, the anniversary of her one day of joy.
It was the day devout women gave their promise to their intended, as the Lady gave hers to her Gentleman of Grey.
It was the day the . . . court doctor asked Hon. Beatris Poole to give hers and elope.
It was also the day Princess Hartlyn II had died. Ever since, the queen, her mother, had banned marriage on this day and penalized with annulment those who dared.
Lightning pulsed in the distance, bringing me back to the present where I stood by the cab fretting my scar. A welcome distraction, I thought, except for the fact the thunderstorm looked like it might sweep west toward Heyer. I hoped not, for Mrs. E's sake. She needed her rest. But hoping did little; being at her side did. So, I forced my hand to relax, forced myself to ignore the rumbling of clouds, and walked to the unadorned gate. I rang the bell, waited, waited some more, and found no answer.
I tried the gate itself.
Perhaps its closure had been in error. Even so, I left it ajar slightly. Not that the psychopomp truly needed such assistance, but the dead would appreciate the thought. However, the nearer I drew to the house, the more my misgivings grew. While the nearer clouds looked somber and full of funeral grey, the house was far from it. Not even a wreath on the door. Not a single pinning in a window.
"I am sorry," the baron had written, "for the pain I caused." The pain had lingered, a wound festered into hate.
I could be wrong, I thought, as I flexed the tension from my hand. I could be too late. Flex and unflex. Or at the wrong place. Flex and unflex.
Let me be wrong.
Once upon the stair, I didn't get the chance to knock: the door was opening. Being thrown out was a mourner boasting pasted grey hair and a ridiculously large tear mark and musky fragrance I could smell from here. A firm "It does not matter who your brother is, sir. My mistress does not wish to employ mourners" came from the butler who was dressed in black without a speck of mourning color. "Please, do not disturb her further." Probably meant for me as well.
So much for hoping.
As the door closed on us, the mourner aimed a kick at it and muttered several verbal kicks unrepeatable before settling on something less indecent: "And see who will speak your goods if you deny another man's." He swung around and stopped when he saw me. His eyes narrowed as he saw my mark, and just as quickly the squint turned into a smirk. "Yeah, good luck, my brother."
I gave him a smile of commiseration and stepped aside. "Heard. But I think I'll try anyway."
The squint returned, and he sidled close. So close, my stomach soured and my eyes burned at the taint of magic on him.
"You think, you say?"
I backed up, nearly tripping down the porch. My scar throbbed. My hand clenched around it. My lungs tried to clench, as well, to keep out the taint, the magic.
"What is it you think?"
I focused on the man to keep my eyes open--not a good idea to close them at the moment, given the company, the way he stared me up and down, as if ready for a mill.
"You are thinking they wait for better quality; is that what you think, my brother? That you can do better than brother to Queen's own doctor? That you can do better than Princess's own mourner? Is that what you think, my brother?"
If he meant me, they would have to wait longer than the Lady waits for her promised. I had a feeling if I said that, no matter how honestly I meant it, he'd take it as a jibe. He'd want to, the way he tightened his knuckles. The way he brandished that large, red, pyramidal ring on his right hand. He was built like a snake, too: all sleek muscle. Easy to see despite his suit. Just as easy to see that if he moved much closer, I'd lose my breakfast.
Ailing and bloody mourners weren't exactly invited on premises.
So, I stood my ground. Not so easy, knowing his identity and the unexpected, unwanted past he brought with him. But I held my teeth, tried not to breathe, and gave a more palatable truth, "No, sir." I suppressed a cough, barely. "Because I hate wasting a fare." I nodded to the cab that waited and the cabby atop on his seat. A cabby who now pretended to be interested in the view between his horse's pricked ears.
The mourner looked.
Then he uncoiled and wiped bangs from his forehead. Squint gone, he laughed and slapped my arm with his left hand.
A cough exploded out of me, sending me staggering against the building. My commotion cut over the spoken reason behind his laugh, but he didn't take any further offense. Once he had walked past my cab, a safe distance, I focused on breathing. Just my breathing. Deep, slow breaths. And my coughing passed. More deep, slow breaths, and my throat didn't burn. Deep, slow breaths. Until my eyes weren't blurry--or suspiciously wet--anymore. Until my scar no longer throbbed like a tachycardic beat. Deep, slow, that's it. There.
Who in Corvish history was that man, this brother of Sir Wrossen?
I straightened and wondered at him, at his words, his lack of transport, and more importantly, what exactly was magicked on him? What had provoked my allergy? He seemed saturated with it, as if bathed in cologne. Heavily-magicked cologne. I hadn't felt that bad since the fast-boat trip over here, when every inch of that week was suffused with magic.
The past threatened to saturate the present as well, something I didn't need to carry with me. So, I put it and Sir Wrossen's brother from mind. Once I felt my composure firmly in hand, I tried my luck at the door.
After the second knock, the same butler with the same expression opened the door. "My mistress--" he began, then stopped. Squinted at me--not good--with eyes tired from decades of use. "Mr. Oldig?"
I stepped back. "You--" The words caught on relapsed throat tickle. "You know me?"
"I was at the Madam Cornan's when you came."
Madam Cornan. The dowager who had given up title and fortune attached to the name baroness of Rockwell. The missionary who lived among the "Barbarians" before the Empire freed them and then remained with them after. A great lady who deserved a second chance more than most and most certainly didn't deserve to die from magicum poisoning from living too long on that island. Also, my . . . first. Not as a mourner, either; that idea had come next. But . . . "How could you remember me . . . from then?"
"You seemed inspired. All her family thought so. No one spoke truer words of my mist--old Madam Cornan." A younger smile creased his old lips as his eyes looked into the past. "'Her heart was full of more good intent than she could ever have days to see completed. She desired to neglect none, for none were too small to help or to cherish as children, and those who walked away were greater for knowing her and being known by her. She touched many and still touches many more, now more than ever in the memory and the minds of the living. That is her legacy.' Better than what the queen's men said, better than anyone said about her life's work, and no one was as such deserving of such words, no one, but--" He seemed to catch what he was saying and looked back to the house.
I . . . I had said . . . something like that. To her grieving brother. Madam Cornan had written, all she had written, was "Make him understand why I did what I did, so that the fewest suffer and most can gain from my own suffering." Beyond that I didn't remember well. I wasn't really . . . myself then; the ship trip being only part of it. The rest being I didn't want to remember myself back then.
My silence lasted too long, but it didn't seem to slow the butler.
"Now," he said, "I see there are others deserving of your good words and comfort, and they shouldn't be denied their share." The butler--I wished I remembered his name--stepped back. "Come in, Mr. Oldig."
So it turned out, sometimes the dead helped you more than you thought.
F/SF/H/Hist #SampleSundays of Interest (no particular order):
- Khantara by Michelle Franklin
- Kingmaker by Eric Zwardzki and Matthew Schick
- Scriber by Ben S. Dobson