A GLITCH IN THE PATTERN

I’ve been at it again! Writing short stories for MASQUE’s 1st birthday, I mean. This one is slightly–coff–er, heaps longer than the first, so I apologise in advance. Also, don’t forget to enter the giveaway, guys! I’m really excited to see where I’ll be sending all the swag!

A GLITCH IN THE PATTERN

-a MASQUE short story-

            When you’re the only son of the best-known poet in Glause, people expect things. Things like picturesque dress and beautiful hair. Graceful manners and a way with words. They expect that you’ll sparkle at parties and whisper pretty nothings into the ears of all the most beautiful women.

Nobody really seems to know what to do when you turn out tall and awkward, with a big nose and bigger ears, and absolutely no talent at all for the written word. Father, after a few years of despondency, wrote a series of sonnets on the subject of his disappointment and moved on. I haven’t yet told him that I mean to join the Glausian Watch. I don’t think I could stand another series of sonnets.

My name is Tarquin, but everybody calls me Quin. It helps to keep expectations down.

***

Ball Scene from Anna Karenina

I don’t like parties. I’m too clumsy to be a welcome dance partner, too uninteresting to be a sought-after companion, and too tall to hide from everybody unless I fold myself behind the furniture. Father loves parties: he sparkles, ripostes, and charms. Tonight he was in his element, reciting his new villanelle in sweeping, lyrical phrases with his arms high and graceful. I’d made out better than usual, fortunate enough to find an out-of-the-way seat in a line of five or six that were lined up along an inconvenient wall at the top of the room and all but hidden by two enormous urns. I wedged myself into one of the chairs with my knees as awkwardly high as ever, dwarfing its spindly legs with my own long ones. From there I could watch the crowd without having to be one of them. There was the usual swell around Father, a constant coil of attention that waxed and waned, its edges always in flux; and around his compelling current was a vast ocean of push and pull. There was the usual knot of determined-to-shine young women around the piano, glaring in concert at the one fortunate enough to have seized it first, and around them in gently wafting layers were doting mamas, reluctant swains, and sisters young enough to be counted on to vigorously jostle for position without outshining their older siblings. This knot would be dispersing when the dancing began, but for now it merged with Father’s circle in an undulating give and take, his voice sometimes rising over the piano, and the piano at times swelling above him. His circle met with the rest of the room, in all its familiar currents, knots and eddies. I knew those patterns almost better than I knew the streets of Glause’s Imperial City: everything swirled in the same unending patterns, predictable and calculable.

I liked to sit in the corner and watch the patterns move, calculating when this would happen, what was the likelihood of that couple meeting on the dancefloor, and generally making a satisfying exercise of it. It seemed like good practise, you see. I would be enlisting in the Watch just as soon as I could bring myself to tell Father, and I was an eager student of the Watch Commander’s methods. He was a great believer in surveillance and patience.

I’m not sure when I began to notice the contrary ripples in the pattern. It could have been when one of my predictions first failed. They didn’t often fail nowadays, especially when I was so familiar with the crowd and the house as I was tonight. It was a simple, silly thing, too. The man in blue should have crossed the room and asked the woman in yellow to dance. All the signs had been there, and the crowd had thinned enough: it was even flowing in the right direction. He took one step into the flow, met with a sudden surge of blue-uniformed horselords, and went back to his place against the wall as the gap in the current closed again. He wasn’t the only one going against my predictions, either. There was another gentleman, this one in a brown coat, working his way gently against the flow and up the room.

My first thought was that I’d calculated wrongly. Blue Coat could have simply been staring across the room without a thought in his head. I didn’t think so, but he could have been.

Then I saw her: red hair, elegant, her dress expensively plain. She was a steady, wrongwise current pulling through the crowd and leaving changed patterns in her wake. A touch here, a word there, and suddenly my patterns were no longer predictable and reliable. Who was she? What was she doing?

I watched her, frowning, and it occurred to me that she was following the other moving disturbance in the pattern; the smooth-faced older gentleman I had noticed earlier. His brown coat was drawing closer as he approached the top of the room and my hiding place, and she kept pace with him from the other side of the room. What was going on in the ballroom tonight?

I turned my head to watch Brown Coat exit the room via the top door to my right, craning to see him around the other urn.

As I did so, a friendly voice said by my ear: “Would you be so kind as to loan me your pocketknife?”

It was the woman who had been following Brown Coat. Her red hair was caught up in big loop down her back, and she had a narrow, clever face that was a lot closer than I had expected it to be. I stood abruptly in a rictus of politeness, and sent my chair tottering back into the wall as I looked uncertainly down at her. She wasn’t pretty, but her eyes were laughing up at me, and I felt my heart do something stuttery and pleasantly uncomfortable.

I gazed at her in silence for far too long: she must have thought I was an imbecile.

“I’ll bring it back,” she added.

I found my tongue, but only to say inanely: “I– yes. H-how did you know I have a pocketknife?”

“Enlisters always have a pocketknife,” she said.

“I haven’t enlisted yet,” I said, surprised almost into soundlessness again. How did she know I was thinking of enlisting? I hastily dug my pocketknife out of my pocket, and she took it with a warm smile that made my heart stutter again.

“Let me ask you something. What would you say if I said Brown coat?”

“Blue coat,” I said, without thinking.

Her grey eyes lit at once. “Ah, I thought so! You must find me at the end of the night, child. I’d like to introduce you to someone.”

“Yes, of course,” I said, in something of a gasp; but she had already gone.

I watched as she swept back across the room, this time following the current and threading effortlessly through the newly forming dance. Where was she going? What did she want with my pocketknife? Who was she? And was Blue Coat watching her intently, or was that just my imagination?

“You should shut your mouth,” said a husky little voice. “Something might crawl in.”

I tore my eyes away from the red-haired woman and looked behind me. At first I didn’t see anyone, but as I turned the huge, spotted urn to my left seemed to move and split, and a girl in a spotted dress slowly segued from it. She was Bromian, her skin as dark as cocoa and her hair lopped off unfashionably in a short, curved bob that suited her face.

I said: “You– that– were you there the whole time?”

“Since you sat down behind the urn. You’re Armand Hillier’s son Tarquin, aren’t you? What were you doing?”

“Nothing exactly,” I said, feeling rather stupid. “Hiding, I suppose.”

“I know that. What were you really doing?”

I was surprised to find myself saying: “The patterns are off tonight. I was trying to find out why.”

The girl looked at me again, this time more closely. “I thought there was something different about tonight! I just couldn’t pinpoint it. What do you mean, the patterns?”

“The room is moving in different patterns tonight,” I told her. “There are random currents of people threading through the regular swirls. That woman, the one with the red hair: she’s one of the random currents.”

“That’s not surprising,” the girl said: “That’s Lady Pecus. People think she’s just a diplomat, but she’s not.”

“Oh,” I said. “She’s married. To the Commander?”

“That’s right. She broke the Pecus curse.”

I sadly meditated upon the unfairness of it all for a silent moment. Then it seemed to me that if I’d been hiding, so had this girl. What’s more, I hadn’t seen her until she’d allowed herself to be seen. She wasn’t a part of the patterns I was used to seeing, either.

I said: “I haven’t seen you at parties before. Who are you? And why were you hiding up here?”

“I’m Daily,” she said. “Daily Marchant. You might have classified me with the wallflowers.”

“No I wouldn’t,” I said. “You’re too dainty. There would have been men hovering, or– are you still in the schoolroom?”

She grinned, actually grinned. Ladies don’t, usually. “No, but only because they didn’t want me at the Academy any more. I’m still sixteen.”

“Why don’t they want you at the Academy?”

“I blew a few things up,” Daily said. “They weren’t big things, but Headmistress didn’t like it. So now Aunt Petunia is throwing me at parties and hoping someone will marry me.”

“Oh,” I said. She seemed far too young to be getting married. “Why were you hiding?”

Daily shrugged. “I don’t talk very well.”

“What do you mean, you don’t talk very well?”

“I don’t like people looking at me,” she said. “I get flustered and hot and then the words won’t come out in the right order. Sometimes I faint.”

“You’re not going to faint now, are you?” I asked, in some alarm.

“No,” said Daily decisively. “You were all stuttery and red, too. It helps when other people are as tongue-tied as I am.”

“Lucky you wore spots, then,” I said, refusing to comment on the subject of my  face, which was only too prone to redness.

“I knew the urn would be here,” said Daily. “So I dressed in my spotted skirt. The chairs are just the right shade of walnut, too: I’m experimenting with urban camouflage. Now that Aunt Petunia is trying to marry me off instead of keeping me at school it pays to be prepared.”

“Why don’t you want to get married?”

“I’m too young,” she said. “Besides, I have other plans. Oh, bother! Aunt Petunia has seen us! Why are you so tall?”

“I can’t help it,” I said, slightly indignantly. I found that I’d automatically hunched my shoulders, and straightened them again. Horrible little girl!

“Quick! Pretend you’re talking to me!”

“I am talking to you.”

“Not that sort of talking,” she said quickly. I was surprised to see that she actually looked frightened. “Point your feet toward me and duck your head a bit. Like you’re interested in what I’m saying.”

I did as I was told, but I saw the small, stiff woman who swept through the room toward us, and so did Daily.

“Bother!” she said again. “You’d better dance with me. You don’t mind, do you? I’m not a very good dancer.”

I said: “I don’t mind,” and it was almost true. For the first time in my life, I actually wanted to be in the pattern instead of observing it. I couldn’t see Lady Pecus anywhere, and Blue Coat had begun to move again.

As Daily and I joined the dance, the yellow-dressed woman he had been watching from across the room left her chair, her face paper-white. Whatever had made her face go so very white also made her forget her big, unfashionable reticule: it remained beneath walnut-coloured chair she’d been sitting on.

“Dance that way!” said Daily, determinedly trying to edge us toward Blue Coat. “I think he’s trying to – he is! The cheek of it! He pinched her reticule!”

“Stop pushing!” I commanded. I had avoided stepping on her feet only because she was stepping on mine, and we were in danger of knocking several couples out of the dancing circle. “I can see him. He’s going toward the main hall.”

Daily made the dance more complicated by fishing about in her pocket with the arm that should have been on my shoulder. It interfered with the arm I had about her waist and made us more lopsided than ever.

“Get us closer, then!” she insisted. There was a dark spot of magic pinched between her fingers, black against the softer brown of her skin.

“What are you going to do?”

“Citizen’s arrest,” said Daily, her eyes martial. “Well, citizen’s imprisonment, anyway. Quick, we can skip out while that woman’s ridiculous dress hides us from Aunt Petunia!”

I had already seen the woman and her ridiculous dress. Even if it hadn’t occurred to me as a useful screen it would have been impossible to miss: the skirt of it was bright gold and wide enough to conceal a small troop.

We made a sprawling exit while the golden skirt sailed past us, and collided with Blue Coat just beyond the open doors.

Daily yelped, one hand clutching at Blue Coat’s sleeve. He shook her off with a short, barely polite bow, and turned on his heel with a black spot of magic glistening on his sleeve.

“Rude!” Daily said.

Belatedly, I said: “S-stop! Give that lady back her reticule!”

Blue Coat didn’t turn: if anything, he seemed to walk faster. Only he wasn’t walking toward the front door. He was walking further into the hall, toward the family apartments and…the grandfather clock?

“Is he trying to open the door to the grandfather clock?”

“Yes!” said Daily, her eyes bright with laughter as Blue Coat opened the grandfather clock and stepped decisively in. “He thinks it’s the front door! Right, he’s in! Quick, put this one on the outside of the clock door!”

I sprang forward to secure the door with one shoulder just as Blue Coat realised his mistake and began to shove at the timber. With my free hand, I took the spot of magic Daily thrust at me and slapped it on the clock. Abruptly, the thumping ceased, and with it the bulging of the clock door.

“What was that?”

“I can’t tell you,” Daily said primly. “It’s patent-pending. Mostly it locks and silences, though.”

Why?

“I think it was Aunt Petunia’s influence. Well, we’ve got him. What should we do with him?”

“And why did he steal her reticule? What kind of a gentleman does that?”

“I don’t know,” said Daily. “But what I really want to know is, where is Lady Pecus? She was just in the ballroom before, and now she’s vanished. I bet it’s got something to do with her.”

“Should we– we should try to find her. She might need help.”

“Doubt it,” Daily scoffed. “But she’ll probably know what to do with him, and I want to know what’s going on, so we might as well. Did you see which way she went?”

“She came this way,” I said. I hadn’t exactly seen it, but from the angle Lady Pecus had travelled down the room, I was certain she had exited the same way Blue Coat had exited. From there, it was anyone’s guess, but it wasn’t likely she’d gone home. I looked gloomily at the grandfather clock that imprisoned Blue Coat, and saw the corner of something white and thin protruding from the base of the door.

I bent and twitched it out, and Daily huddled closely beside me, craning her neck to see.

“What is it?”

“Something…not very nice,” I said slowly. It was a note, short and terse. My eye fell on the first sentence straight away. It said: I have your son.

With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I read the rest of it.

I have your son. Unless you are very clever and very obedient, he will die. You will attend the Glennings’s dance tonight as planned. You will bring with you the small, carved wooden box that your husband brought back from Lacuna. You will leave it beneath the fourth chair to the left of the second window in the ballroom, attended by this note. You will not try to find me. You will not involve the Watch. You will leave the box beneath the chair and go home. Your son will be returned to you tomorrow if you do as you are told.

Daily twitched it from my fingers, ignoring my instinctive attempt to pull it away, and read it swiftly.

“What did I tell you?” she demanded. “Lady Pecus got wind of it somehow, and she’s trying to help.”

“We should call in the Watch,” I said decidedly.

“Don’t be silly!” hissed Daily, seizing my cuff as I turned to find a servant.

The slight tug stopped me in my tracks before I knew what I was doing. “Why?”

“It says not to involve the Watch! What if they kill the kiddie?”

I hesitated. “What do you think we should do, then?”

“Find Lady Pecus, of course. If he’s got the money, who’s got the kiddie?”

“That’s where Lady Pecus went,” I said, in cold realisation. “We’d better find her. I saw three disturbances in the patterns tonight– him, Lady Pecus, and a man in a brown coat. If he’s involved as well–”

“–Lady Pecus could have walked into trouble,” finished Daily, her brown eyes very wide. “Where do you think they’ve got the kiddie?”

“Why are you asking me?”

Daily shrugged. “I don’t know anything about kidnapping.”

“I don’t know anything about kidnapping, either!”

“Yes, but you know patterns. What do the patterns tell you?”

“That we’re in the wrong part of the house,” I said. “And if Lady Pecus is somewhere here, she’s in the wrong part of the house, too. Brown Coat left by the exit at the top of the room, and he’s been up and down the room all night.”

“Was he checking with someone, do you think? And where does the top door take us?”

“The upper rooms,” I told her. “Guest quarters, I think. It’d be easy to lock the kiddie in one of the rooms up there.”

“Funny,” said Daily. “I would have expected Lady Pecus to realise that.”

Slowly, I said: “Maybe she did. Someone’s bound to be guarding the door up there, aren’t they? Maybe there’s a way into whatever room they’re using, from down here.”

“All right,” Daily agreed. “Let’s go have a look, then.”

We found a door with a broken lock halfway down the hall. It was one of the older magic type locks, and someone had jimmied the whole thing out of the door, bypassing the locking mechanism completely.

“Oooh,” said Daily. “So that’s what she wanted your pocketknife for! I could have given her a lockpicking spell.”

“She didn’t want a spell, she wanted my pocketknife,” I told her coldly.

“Only because she didn’t know I had one,” she said. “Don’t be stuffy, Tarquin. Oh! What’s that noise?”

Whatever it was, it was heavy, muffled, and over as suddenly as it had begun.

“Maybe there was already someone in the room,” Daily said, her eyes very wide. “Maybe she had to kill them.”

“Lady Pecus doesn’t go around killing people,” I said impatiently. It was a ridiculous idea. Lady Pecus was clever and elegant and ladylike.

“How would you know? You hadn’t met her until tonight! I’ve seen her work before.”

“It sounded like something falling,” I said.

“It was probably a body.”

“It wasn’t a body!”

“I’m going in,” said Daily. She had pulled a pouch out of her pocket, a small leather thing with a belt-loop on it. When she saw me looking at it, she said: “It’s my multispell pouch. I have spells for everything in here.”

“I’ll go first,” I told her. I’d seen the efficacy of her spells, but a Watchman never lets a civilian go before him into danger.

Daily didn’t say anything, but she was right by my side as we cautiously entered the room. It was a small parlour that had obviously not been used in years, all heavy with dust and white with dust covers. To our right, in one of the walls, there was a darker rectangle of dust, broken wood, and rope.

I stared at it in perplexity, and it was Daily who said: “It’s a dumbwaiter! She pulled herself up in the dumbwaiter!”

“She won’t be getting back down that way,” I said, observing the decayed and broken ropes. “It’s a wonder she didn’t break her neck! She must have made it into the room, I suppose.”

“How will she get out, though?”

“We’d better go around the outside and see if we can help,” I said, my feet already suiting the motion to the words.

“Not that way,” Daily said. “Aunt Petunia will see. We can climb out the window.”

Fortunately, the window was easy to unlock and stood only a foot off the carpet. From there, it was less than a two foot drop on the other side to the grass. We shuffled through the dew-wet grass until we could see the second and third stories. The second floor was dark, but in the third story window directly above us was a slow-moving light.

“That’s her,” said Daily. “It’s got to be.”

“Yes,” I agreed, my eyes on the dizzying height. “But what can we do to help from down here?”

“We can’t help from down here,” she said. “But if we can get my multispell pouch up to Lady Pecus, we’ll be able to get her down safely. Up you go!”

I looked up at that horrible height again and swallowed. “I can’t,” I said at last, my voice barely audible.

“What do you mean, you can’t? It’s easy– look, there are handholds all the way up to–”

“I’m afraid of heights, all right?” I said angrily. “Once I get more than a few feet in the air I freeze.”

Daily’s face was upturned in surprise. “But you’re so tall!”

I looked at her and she looked at me, and we dissolved into silly giggles.

“Never mind,” said Daily cheerfully, when she could speak again. “I’ll do it. I’ve been climbing things since before I was walking. You’ll just have to give me a boost up to reach the first hand-hold.”

“But–” I opened and closed my mouth a few times before I could bring myself to say: “But your skirts– they’ll, well, you’ll show your drawers!”

That’s all right,” Daily said. “I’ve got breeches on under my skirt. I always do. I like to be prepared.”

“You’re always prepared to climb up balconies and into windows?”

“Sometimes I need to climb up balconies and into windows,” said Daily, with dignity.

When?

“Well, this is the first real time,” she admitted. “But I knew I’d eventually have to do it. I’ve been practising. Here, unbutton my skirt, will you? My maid keeps sewing my things with hundreds of tiny buttons.”

I said: “Why?” because I didn’t feel like telling her I’d rather not unbutton her skirt.

“She thinks it will stop me climbing out of my skirts and running around in breeches.”

“She doesn’t know you very well, I suppose?”

“Not really. I didn’t have a maid until Aunt Petunia took over. Just the first three, Tarquin; I can manage from there.”

“I can’t unbutton your skirt!”

Daily, who was already struggling with the buttons herself, made an explosive series of muted and quite possibly rude remarks, and performed a short, violent motion that sent three small things pinging into the darkness.

“There! Now I’ve lost three buttons!” she told me, in accusatory tones. She seized her skirt below the waist and hauled on it until the buttons were at the front, and proceeded to unbutton herself until she could step out. I found myself in the position of feeling that I really ought to turn my back, without being able to tear my horrified eyes away.

“You’ll have to get used to it,” said Daily, her chin mulish. “Women won’t be able to wear skirts in the Watch, after all!”

“Yes, but– oh, never mind. Ready?”

“Yes– oh, wait! I’d best take off my shoes, too.”

“Good idea,” I agreed, feelingly. I would rather not be punctured by a lady’s high heel while I was boosting her up.

Daily was exceedingly light to boost. Part of that was because she did a lot of the work herself, but part of it was how very small she was. She climbed very swiftly, too: I lost her in the shadows almost immediately, what with her dark colouring and dark breeches. Eventually I saw a jumble of shadows tumble over the balustrade of the third floor window, and saw the flash of moonlight on glass as she opened the window.

There was a good deal of silence for a good deal longer than I appreciated. I was beginning to think that I ought to attempt the climb myself—or at least start throwing pebbles at the window—when Lady Pecus appeared on the balcony, a small bauble of light in one hand and a small, sleepy child in the other. Daily followed close behind.

“Here!” she said. “We can get down here without him ever knowing!”

“Oh,” said Lady Pecus thoughtfully. Her eyes were glittering bright in the moonlight. “My dear child, I’m afraid you’ve entirely overestimated my abilities! At a pinch, I could make the climb, but with my hands full–!”

“I have a spell for that,” said Daily, a little feverishly. I saw her fiddling with something in the shadows: her multispell pouch, probably. “Would you hold out the kiddie, your ladyship? I promise I won’t hurt it.”

I grimaced slightly. Daily was right: she didn’t ‘talk well’. I could see the lady’s face from my lowly place. It looked apprehensive, worried, and just slightly amused as she held the child out for Daily’s inspection.

Daily made a hasty, fumbling foray into the multispell pouch and came out with a dark spot of magic. She stretched out a hand to stick it to the child’s knitted cap as the child watched her owlishly, then snatched it back.

“Whoops, not that one!” She scrabbled once again, and produced a smaller patch. “This is the one, I promise.”

Lady Pecus didn’t look less worried, but she did look more amused. I was a little surprised that she didn’t immediately pull the kiddie out of Daily’s reach.

When she’d fixed the patch to the kiddie’s cap, Daily said: “All right, you can chuck him over, now.”

Was that Lady Pecus choking, or laughing, or both?

“Oh, just throw him over?”

“Well, he’ll float, I mean. He’ll be fine. I only broke one of my cousin’s dolls while I was testing it.”

“Lower him as far as you can, Lady Pecus,” I said. I was even less sure than the lady that Daily’s spells would work. “I’ll catch him.”

“I’m obliged to you, Master Hillier,” said Lady Pecus. She leaned as far over the balcony as she could manage, dangling the child by his chubby wrists, and I stationed myself below, anxiously blinking in the darkness.

“I’m ready,” I said, a little breathlessly. “I won’t drop him.”

There was a moment of silence and stillness before I repeated: “I’m ready.”

“Oh, how interesting!” said Lady Pecus, leaning forward in fascination. It was then that I realised she had let the child go. It was just that he was wafting so softly and gently towards me that at first he didn’t seem to be moving.

“Told you,” said Daily, and slung her leg over the balustrade. She made short work of the climb: in fact, she was beside me just before I caught the happily floating boy. “Here, turn around! Lady Pecus can’t climb down with you gawking!”

She grinned at the fiery red that overspread my cheeks as I hastily turned around.

“I wasn’t looking!” I said quickly. “I was just catching the kiddie!”

“And I thank you most sincerely!” said Lady Pecus, unaccountably behind me. She was almost as quick a climber as Daily. “We’d best make haste, children: I would very much like to prevent a certain man in a blue coat from leaving the party.”

“Oh, him!” Daily said. “I locked him in the grandfather clock. He’s not going to get out of there in a hurry.”

“You…locked him in the grandfather clock?”

“Um,” said Daily. “It seemed like a good idea at the time. He’s the one who was collecting the ransom. We didn’t want him to get away before the Watch could get here.”

“You beautiful child! How did you– no, let me guess: you had a spell in your multispell pouch!”

Daily’s fingers picked at her spotted gloves, which were now quite soiled. “Two, actually. One to confuse his intent and another to keep the door locked and soundproofed.”

“I see,” said Lady Pecus. Her voice was quiet, but there was a wealth of excitement in it. Daily's multispell pouch“Do you think you could make a pouch for me? I can pay you quite reasonably well.”

“No,” Daily said; and then, to the raised, amused eyebrows of Lady Pecus: “I mean, I’ll give you one. I have a spare one at home.”

“I’m greatly obliged to you, but I’ll need something of a regular supply, I’m afraid. I’d be much happier paying you for them. If it comes to that, I see no reason why you couldn’t set up shop—discreetly and selectively, of course!—with this kind of merchandise.”

“I don’t want to make a business out of it,” said Daily, looking surprised and slightly embarrassed. “I haven’t got the time. I’m going to be the first woman in the Glausian Watch. I’m going to invent equipment small and functional enough to be carried on a watchman’s belt.”

Lady Isabella’s brows rose. “Indeed? You’ve thought about this at some length, I take it?”

“All my life,” Daily said simply. “Anyway, Blue Coat won’t get out for a while, so if you want to take the kiddie back to his mum, it’s safe.”

“I don’t suppose you have a communications spell in that wonderful little pouch of yours?”

“Cuff-link comm-link!” said Daily, shoving a small, shiny circle in Lady Pecus’s direction.

“Simply marvellous! May I return it to you later?”

“K-keep it!” she said. “I have another pair at home. And please keep the pouch.”

“I’m greatly obliged. You’re Daily Marchant, aren’t you? Petunia Marchant’s niece?”

Daily’s eyes grew so large that they threatened to take over her face. Her voice said, in a squeak: “You know my name?”

“I’ve heard something of you. I believe someone mentioned something about explosions, which naturally interested me. Won’t you both come and find me later? There’s someone I’d like you both to meet.”

We both said a fervent “Yes, Lady Pecus!” and I’m not sure my voice was any less squeaky than Daily’s was.

Lady Pecus left us in the shadowy grass, taking some of the sparkle and excitement of the night with her, and beside me, Daily sighed faintly.

“I suppose we’d better go back in.”

“Yes,” I agreed, just as reluctantly.

***

Just after midnight, Daily elbowed me and looked significantly toward the hall. We had seated ourselves where we could see into the grand hall, and through the gently mingling crowd we saw Lord Pecus arrive. A moment later, Lady Pecus’s sharp grey eyes had caught sight of us as well, and she gave a small jerk of the head.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” said Daily, clutching at her gloves again. In addition to the grime from scaling the wall outside, she had made a hole in one of them with her anxious picking.

“You’ll be fine,” I said, propelling her across the ballroom ahead of me. I could already feel my face getting hotter, and the tips of my ears were feeling distinctly scorched.

Lady Pecus smiled encouragingly at us, prompting the feeling of warmth to seep down my neck as well, and when we had joined them in the relative privacy of the hall, she presented me with my own pocketknife– which I had all but forgotten.

“Thank you, my lady,” I said, hoping desperately that my face wasn’t as red as it felt.

“No, thank you!” she said, with another sparkling smile. “Alexander, this is a young man you really should meet. He seems to be remarkably perceptive. He also loaned me his pocketknife, which was delightfully helpful of him.”

I found myself pinioned by two green eyes. “Perceptive, are you?”

“I– um– well, not really, sir. It’s the patterns, you see. Everything is in the patterns.”

Lord Pecus’s green eyes held mine for a moment or two longer. Then, to my disappointment—or maybe relief—he turned them on Daily. He had her multispell pouch in his hand, and he was hefting it up and down as if testing the weight of it.

“How old are you?”

“Sixteen,” blurted Daily. She was blushing so furiously that I could actually see the warmth glowing in her dusky cheeks.

“Will your—aunt, is it?—allow you to work for the Watch?”

“No. Won’t be legal age until two more years,” said Daily, almost feverishly.

“That’s a shame,” said Lord Pecus coolly. His green eyes dropped back to the multispell pouch, then at Daily again. “Do you want to work for me?”

“Yes!” Daily said. “I mean, yes, sir!”

“I don’t see the harm in having you stop by my lab a few times a week,” said Lord Pecus slowly. “I keep the more experimental things at Pecus Manor, and a visitor is always welcome for Isabella.”

“I– yes! Thank you!”

Lord Pecus looked then at me, and again I found myself just as red and flustered as Daily. “I’ll see you at the enlistment office soon, I hope? I’d like to know more about your patterns.”

“I will! I mean, yes, sir!”

Later, when we had raided the supper table and had managed to find a convenient pair of seats in which to hide, I said idly to Daily: “Just what have you got against men, anyway? Lady Pecus married.”

“Yes, but she married the Beast Lord. If Lord Pecus had asked me to marry him, I would have, too.”

I found myself nettled at her adoring tone. The faintly dreamy look in her eyes as she looked across the ballroom at Lord Pecus was irritating, too.

“Is that why you want to be the first woman in the Watch?”

Daily’s eyes sharpened at once. “Of course not! I want to catch criminals and blow things up.”

“I don’t think they blow things up in the Watch.”

“They will when they start using my patented grape-sized flash-bombs,” said Daily.

“What about your Aunt Petunia?”

“Well, I might marry, after all,” she said reasonably. “Only not right now, and he’ll have to be a Watchman. A gentleman wouldn’t like me being part of the Watch. As for Aunt Petunia, as soon as I’m of age, I’ll be at the recruitment office, signing up.”

“I’m enlisting tomorrow,” I said.

“That’s rotten!” said Daily, her cheeks flushing. “Why should you get to officially enlist before me?”

“You’ll be in Lord Pecus’s lab, though,” I reminded her. “Not officially, but you’ll be there.”

“That’s something, I suppose.”

“How will you work there without your Aunt Petunia saying anything?”

“Sneak out, probably,” Daily said. “No! I’ll pretend I’m stepping out with someone. She’ll be so overwhelmed by it that she won’t think to ask questions.”

“She’ll be a bit suspicious if no one ever calls,” I said sensibly.

Daily’s face fell, then brightened. “Oh! I know!”

“No,” I said.

“But Tarquin!”

“No! I don’t want to walk out with you!”

“You don’t have to really walk out with me!”

“No.”

Tarquin. Tarquin! I’ll make you a special multispell pouch all of your own, Tarquin…”

***

I hope you enjoyed this MASQUE short story. If you want to know more about Isabella and Lord Pecus, you can get MASQUE for 99c from Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, B&N, and Smashwords!

MASQUE - 2000

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