Rainy Monday

As you may have guessed from the title of my blog post, today is Monday. Also, it’s rainy.

You’re always gonna get the truth from me, you blokes.

On this particular rainy Monday, I’m feeling very cosy and relaxed. Part of that is because of the rain: there’s nothing better than curling up beneath my mum-made patchwork blanket and watching the rain make a watercolour painting through my window-frame. Well, it’s always better if there’s a book, and tea, and you know what? I’ve got both.

Another facet to my contentment is the fact that Blackfoot is–more or less–done, and I now have a week off.

Last week, when I was writing the last few bits and patches to join other bits and patches together, I was feeling insanely fed up with the whole book. Being the second book in the series, it was flamin’ hard to write, and by the end, I felt as though it was complete and utter rubbish. I was disheartened, and depressed, and could only think about all those preorders going out to a general reception of “Oh my word, what is this rubbish? I’ve been waiting for this for 6 months now and it’s garbage!”

I honestly couldn’t believe the amount of work it was going to take to bring Blackfoot into publishable condition–in only two weeks! It didn’t feel possible, and mostly I just wanted to sit in the shower and cry.

I didn’t do that because a.) there’s a mushroom growing in there and I seriously don’t want to get near it, cos I read a horror story about that years ago, and b.) we would run out of hot water before I ran out of depression, and if you think being depressed in a hot shower is bad, try being depressed in a cold shower.

It’s adorable and hilarious and cringe-worthy, all at the same time…

Instead, I took a day off between writing those last words and doing my quick, pre-printed-MS run-over to catch glaring inconsistencies. I watched the latest episodes of 힘쎈 여자 도봉순 (Strong Woman Do Bong Soon)–hilarious, by the way–started to read The Eyre Affair–also excellent, though in a completely different way–and watched an insane amount of Gag Concert and Would I Lie to You?

After the last two weeks of writing 2k-5k words per day, I felt as light as a butterfly.

And I’m SO GLAD I did it, because when I went to do the pre-print run-over today, I found that Blackfoot wasn’t actually the huge train-wreck I was convinced it was. In fact, it wasn’t too bad. Maybe even good. The pacing was consistent, there were no glaring plot holes, and everything seemed to flow well, unlike the patchwork thing I’d imagined it to be.

Thus, my contentment is complete.

Also, I have tea and sticky buns and biscuits…

We’ll see how contented I am when I start final edits for Blackfoot next week, and how contented I am when I start the edits for Lady of Dreams a week or two after that…

Last chance to win the MASQUE Book Swag Giveaway!

The end of the month is fast approaching, and with it, MASQUE’s birthday.

That means you’ve only got 3 more days to enter my MASQUE Birthday Bash Giveaway! I’d also like to reiterate that this book swag giveaway is INTERNATIONAL–I will send this book swag anywhere in the world!

What are you waiting for? Have at it!

Click here to view this promotion.

As a birthday present, I’ve started the process to have a new cover designed by Jenny at the Seedlings Design Studio. She does some absolutely gorgeous work, and has designed amazing covers for at least two indie authors I know. I’m really excited to see what she’ll do for MASQUE.

Politics and MASQUE…

I have a confession to make.

I don’t like politics. Don’t much like politicians, either.

In Real Life, that is.

In books, now, it’s a totally different matter. And when it comes to Yes Minister, I positively love politics. The reasonYes Minister for loving Yes Minister politics should be obvious (and if it’s not, go watch all the seasons NOW), but the reason for loving book politics is quite different. I love book politics (in reading) because I like to see other peoples’ ideas and how their worlds fit together.

I love book politics (in writing) because I’m a megalomaniac who needs to be in control of my own little paradigm. If I don’t like policies, I can simply change ’em. So easy! So refreshing!

All of this is by the way, really, to introduce my topic, which is Politics & MASQUE: or, Who’s Who In The Triumvirate, or Why Does Lacuna Hate Everybody?

There’s a lot of history, political and otherwise, before Isabella sweeps onto the stage in MASQUE. This is because although it was written first, the events in MASQUE actually happen after the events of SPINDLE, BLACKFOOT, and THE STAFF AND THE CROWN (of which only SPINDLE has yet been published). In that time, a lot has happened. Civet and Parras, once uneasy neighbours, have become the amalgamated nation of New Civet. This has transformed the Three Monarchy alliance of Broma, Glause, and Civet into the Two Monarchy alliance of Glause and Broma. New Civet’s system of governance has changed into a two-party majority government system of competing Wizard Councils, and the minority parties of Old Parrassians and Royalists.

masque-2000Governments rise and fall, as do monarchies.

In the years between the end of SPINDLE and the beginning of MASQUE, New Civet once more becomes a monarchy and allies itself again with Glause. Broma, on the other hand, sees the loss of its entire royal line in a violent attack by Lacuna, and the reins of government are taken up by Broma’s prime minister. By the time Isabella Farrah and her father are becoming known figures in Civet’s political circles, New Civet and Glause are making an effort to strengthen themselves against the threatening Lacunans on one side and the two sister nations of the Lacunan Triumvirate on the other.spindle-2000

As far as it goes, Glause is the country that has distinguished itself most by its solidarity. No coups, no open warfare, and no bloody history of death and destruction.

This could be said to be so because of the size of Glause: it is roughly twice the size of New Civet, three times the size of Broma, and much the same size as the Triumvirate combined. Those in the know, however, are perfectly convinced that Glause’s solid position is solely on account of Glause’s king. The king is much older than he looks, and he comes from a long line of clever, ruthless rulers who have not been afraid to serve their country in the swiftest, most merciless manner necessary.

Thus, when Isabella arrives in Glause as a part of New Civet’s entourage, her interests are many.

Most importantly, she has a military merger to negotiate; a merger whereby Glausian and Civetan soldiers will train side by side alternately in Glause and Civet due to significant differences in conditions. In addition to that is her usual interest in forming connections, her interest in the King of Glause–not to mention her interest in why he is interested in her–and her interest in Glause’s tenuous ties with the Triumvirate.

Then, of course, there is the small matter of a murder to solve…

And all of this is reckoning without Black Velvet. However, since most of my characters aren’t exactly sure who, what, or where Black Velvet is either, we can be excused from delving too deeply into the matter.

Well, that’s it from me today. As always this month, don’t forget to enter the MASQUE 1st Birthday Bash!

Click here to view this promotion.

Also, feel free to message, comment, email or tweet me any questions you may have about MASQUE and Isabella: there’s still half a month left of MASQUE stories, posts, and giveaways…

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

Win The MASQUE 1st Birthday Bash Giveaway!

Hooray! It’s finally here!

MASQUE’s 1st birthday is just around the corner, and my giveaway has begun! You can Tweet, Like, Follow, or Subscribe to earn entries.

Up for grabs is a signed paperback of MASQUE, a Tea-Time Necklace by Purple Bird Creations, 24k rose gold-plated MASQUE earrings, and an “I am ALWAYS up to something” MASQUE t-shirt.

Enter the draw! Tell all your friends! Just follow this link to enter….

 

Resolved…Not To Make New Year Resolutions

List pic

Makin’ a list! Checkin’ it tw- Wait, no, that’s Santa…

Okay. So I broke that resolution already. But it’s not all bad! I’m gonna keep the others on the list!

Er.

Well. I’m going to try.

So what’s going on for me in the new year? So, so much. In terms of resolutions, I’ve made a new daily wordcount goal: 2000 wpd instead of 1000 wpd. If NaNoWriMo showed me anything, it’s that I can write 2000 wpd when I’m not procrastinating.

I’ve also decided that I’m not going to be buying any clothes this year. I have too many already, and if I get the urge for new clothes, I have stacks upon stacks of fabric and patterns, and a perfectly good sewing machine that I actually like using. So if I want new clothes, I’ll make ’em.

In terms of writing, I have a few things that I’m planning to do in the new year.

Firstly, I’m excited to celebrate MASQUE’s 1st birthday for the month of January (it’s actually Feb 1st, which is when the sale/giveaway/celebration will last until). In pursuance of that, MASQUE is on Wattpad, and I’m currently in the exhausting throes of making a Podiobook of it. I’ll attempt to upload a chapter per week, but I’m still scrambling audio equipment together for the attempt and making dreadful, error-laden practise recordings. Still, the first chapter of MASQUE’s Podiobook should go live this month.

Secondly, I have a busy publication schedule for this year. I’m hoping to Keep calm and make a listfinish and publish the third novella in my SHARDS OF A BROKEN SWORD novella. There will also be the second book in my Two Monarchies Sequence, BLACKFOOT; and if I’m very good and very quick, there might even be the third book, THE STAFF AND THE CROWN. In between those two books I’m planning on a shorter companion novella for the SHARDS series, and the second book in my TIME-TRAVELLER’S BEST FRIEND series.

Well, that’s my plan for the new year. What’s yours?

Bring it on, 2016!

(Images from Practical Glamour and Etsy)

A Beautiful Hat At A Reasonable Price -A MASQUE Short Story

In celebration of MASQUE’s fast-approaching 1st birthday, I present to you A BEAUTIFUL HAT AT A REASONABLE PRICE, a MASQUE short story! Full of froth, feathers, and even a bit of intrigue…

A Beautiful Hat At A Reasonable Price

A beautiful hat at a reasonable price is always an essential item. It is, of course, doubly so if one has set out with the purpose of buying a hat, but lack of necessity should never be allowed to impinge upon one’s millinery purchases.

That morning, I did set out to buy a hat. I had a very specific hat in mind: a delightful, frothy confection of blue silk and netting that I’d seen on the previous day’s outing. I had been driving with Alexander at the time, or I would have stopped and bought it then and there. Alexander is a dear, but he’s no fonder of kicking his heels in a milliner’s front parlour than any other man and I only believe in annoying him when it’s absolutely necessary. If it had been a frock in that particular Lacunan silk, now–

However, I digress. It was a pleasant morning for a walk: rain had fallen the previous night, clearing away the heavy heat that too often clings to Glausian streets, and there was a promising clarity to the morning sky. Vadim scurried along behind me, vainly trying to keep up, and more than once did I consciously slow my step before I threw a smiling look at her over my shoulder.

“Do you need to catch your breath, child?”

“No!” said Vadim, with something of a gasp. “Only now you’re not pregnant you’re awfully hard to keep up with again!”

“It did slow me down a trifle, didn’t it?”

“No so much as all that, lady. Do you really think it’s a good idea to leave the baby with Keenan?”

“Alexander put a warding on them both,” I said. Truth be told, I was a little worried. I had learned very quickly that I worried whether or not there was cause, however, and it didn’t seem practical to let such a pernicious feeling overrule my life. Besides, Keenan was far more qualified to deal with baby Raoul’s spurts of magic than I was.

“I’m sure they won’t be able to set fire to the drapes this time.”

“Ye-ees,” said Vadim doubtfully. “Are we going straight back after we buy your hat, lady?”

“Good heavens, yes. If it’s not the drapes it’ll be something else. Vadim, am I mistaken, or is that nasty little shop still selling the same appalling hats it was selling when I was first confined?”

Vadim threw a look at the offending shop front. “Looks like it,” she said. “Prob’ly couldn’t give ‘em away.”

The hats were exceedingly ugly. It wasn’t simply their ugliness that had caught my eye, however. There were too many of them in the window. A well set-out millinery shop will present some four or five hats of their best workmanship: this one had at least ten, in a hodgepodge of mismatching satin, fur, and…velvet. Black velvet.

Oh, how interesting!

Vadim said: “Did you forget something, lady? Mistress Conningway’s is further up the strand.”

“No,” I said thoughtfully. “I believe I’ll shop here today, Vadim.”

“But they’re all ugly, lady!” protested Vadim, who was gazing at the shop window with fascinated eyes.

“Dreadful!” I agreed, setting my foot upon the first step. “And that is exactly what interests me.”

We were in Circe Strand, you see. One well-cobbled, gently curving arc of high fashion and expensively delightful tea shops. I was quite well aware of what the license for one of the diminutive tea shops was worth—well, what should the very pregnant wife of the Watch House Commander do but arrange his paperwork?—and beside the cost of even the smallest of the holdings was the cost of the starting materials for merchandise. A badly fronted store should not have survived the length of my pregnancy. And yet, here it was still.

It could be that it was simply a rich woman’s plaything, a present from an indulgent and doting husband.

I didn’t believe it for a moment.

Our entrance prompted a dull clattering of dust-laden bell-clapper in the stale air. This should have precipitated the prompt arrival of a smart little shopgirl: instead, it produced a thin, angular woman with wary eyes and a frown of surprise between her brows.

Beautiful hat 3

Photo via RiverJunction

“Yes?” she said shortly. She had clever hands, but they were somewhat lined and workworn. Not a rich lady, then, and almost certainly a real milliner. Which left the question of why her hats were so dreadful, and how she managed to stay in business with such items.

“You have such unusual hats!” I said, with perfect truth. “I would like to order one made.”

She hesitated, clearly torn, and then said reluctantly: “Of course, my lady. Summer or autumn?”

“Summer, I rather think,” I said. I caught a flicker of movement in the glass doors of the bead cabinet behind her. They were slightly ajar and showed a sliver of the shop’s back room, where a giant of a man was sitting uneasily on a chair that was by far too small for him. The movement I had seen was his sleeve sweeping a box of ribbons to the floor. He didn’t try to pick it up, which I thought sensible of him: there were three or four other things he would have knocked to the ground in his attempt to pick up the ribbons. He was no milliner. Soldier, perhaps. Craftsman, certainly not.

“Something light and bright, with less brim than usual. Perhaps a side-tilt. Can you manage a side-tilt, miss–?”

“Judith,” she said. “Just Judith, lady. And I can do a rare passable side-tilt. Would you be liking blue or green?”

“Blue, I rather think,” I said, repressing a sigh at the thought of the lovely hat that I would once again fail to purchase. I sat myself down on the dusty leather couch and said brightly: “Show me your trimmings!”

That night after dinner I said to Alexander: “If I were to ask—if, mind!—what Black Velvet is interesting itself in at the moment, what would you tell me?”

Alexander, who had been lounging back in a distressingly informal way with baby Raoul loosely clasped in one arm, seemed to sit up just a little straighter. “Asking for yourself or the king, Isabella?”

“A purely personal matter,” I told him, my eyes laughing at him. Alexander doesn’t like my working for the king as something approaching a spy. He doesn’t stop me, but he worries.

“I’ve the feeling that I’ve been rather oblivious, and I don’t like the feeling.”

“You’ve been busy,” he said, sitting back again. He didn’t say it reprovingly, or even look down at Raoul, which sent the smile on my lips to my eyes as well.

“Oh, I’m not repining,” I said. “If it’s a choice between Raoul and the king, the king can shift very well for himself. But I can’t help feeling that I should have noticed something that I didn’t notice. Black Velvet, Alexander?”

Alexander paused for long enough to make me very sure that there was indeed news and that he was unsure of how much to tell me. At last he said: “Officially, it’s business as usual. Unofficially, Civet seems to be trying to help Lacuna with its succession issues. Last time I spoke with Melchior I got the impression that the crown and Black Velvet were allied in the matter.”

“Then the king has been withholding information from me,” I said, frowning. “I wonder why? If Annabel and Melchior are involved then doubtless we in Glause are also involved.”

“I think he was being…kind,” said Alexander, and this time he did look down at Raoul.

My eyes opened a little wider. “Do you really think so? How very avuncular of him! I must remember to thank him!”

Alexander laughed outright. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t bring royal disapproval down on the house of Pecus, Isabella. There’s nothing he’d hate more!”

“It’s really very tempting,” I said, leaving my empty dishes and crossing to Alexander’s side of the table. I took Raoul from him, using the moment to say: “Now, Alexander, you didn’t forget that we’re to have Lieutenant Trophimus and the officers of his unit to dine tomorrow?”

Alexander’s arm snaked around my waist and pulled me onto his lap, baby Raoul and all.

“Forget?” he said deliberately. “No, I don’t think I forgot.”

However,” I added firmly, kissing his nose, and then—under compulsion—his lips; “I find that I’ve forgotten to mention the dinner to Trophy and the others. Would you be so kind as to bring them home with you tomorrow?”

“Oh, is that all?”

“The tiniest favour!” I said coaxingly. “Oh, and one more thing, Alexander, if you please. I shall be out for a fitting tomorrow: 203 Circe Strand. Perhaps you could call for me there on your way home?”

 

***

 

The window had changed by the time I got back to the hat shop the next day. I eyed it thoughtfully, taking in the new hat that had pride of place in the shop window. Where the window had before been teeming with hats, now it had only one: a distressingly heavy summer hat in black velvet, with a buckle-brooch pinning the intricate folds of the hatband in place. It was made from Lacunan royal beech, which made my eyebrows rise. So Black Velvet had the Lacunan heir already, did they?

I swept into the store with Vadim in my wake, and said brightly: “Such a

Beautiful hat 2

Photo via RiverJunction

lovely change for your window-front! Do you vary it often?”

“Changes after every week’s end that there’s new merchandise,” Judith said shortly. I fancied she looked slightly annoyed: she hadn’t counted on clientele, that much was obvious. I wondered where her hulking partner was. It would be rather inconvenient if he decided Vadim and I were more trouble than we were worth and decided to dispatch us rather than serve us. How fortunate that I had arranged for Alexander to meet us here!

“What a shame, though!” I said. “I was rather hoping to get another look at those hats.”

Judith stared at me narrowly for a suspicious moment, but eventually said: “They’re all gone now, lady. Maybe next time. Would you like to try on your hat? It’s ready for you.”

“Certainly. Vadim, do go to the door, won’t you? My husband is to call for me shortly,” I added, with a friendly smile. “He doesn’t like to wait in shops.”

“Men,” muttered Judith. “Such children when it comes to waiting.”

“I couldn’t agree more. My goodness, you’ve done lovely work! Did you weave the band yourself?”

The clattering of the disused bell fell loudly into her silence, and I looked up from the hatband to find that Vadim was holding the door for Alexander. Behind him came Lieutenant Trophimus and his four fellow officers, crowding the shop with their broad shoulders and bright buckles.

Judith’s face had gone paper-white.

She squeaked: “The Beast-Lord!” and plunged desperately for the front door, darting between the officers with her skirts flying. They watched her go with matching baffled expressions, and as one, turned their eyes upon me.

Alexander opened his mouth to speak, but as he did so there was the sound of a table overturning in the back room, a thump of wood against wood and the shower of beads hitting the floorboards. Then the giant of a man I had seen yesterday took to his heels through the back way as if he fled from death itself.

Alexander, his expression put-upon, gave me a Look.

“Well now!” I said, in a pleased voice. “I thought that might prompt a reaction! You’d probably better chase them, Alexander. If I’m not mistaken, they’re passing information on the position of that item we were discussing last night.”

“Get the woman,” Alexander said shortly to Lord Trophimus, and made for the back door at a run.

“How exciting!” I sighed to Vadim, when they were gone. “If I weren’t such a lady, I’d be very much tempted to join the chase.”

“Not in those shoes, you wouldn’t,” she said, grinning.

“Well, perhaps not. No, don’t touch the hat, if you please. I think Alexander might like to see it.”

Vadim looked doubtful but did as she was told, turning her attention instead to the dusty window.

“Looks like they’ve caught the old woman,” she said. “Tough old tarter, she is: she’s given one of them a bloody nose!”

I chuckled beneath my breath. Unfortunate man! His brother officers would never let him forget it.

“Lady, they’re putting her in your coach!”

“It’s the best place for her, I should think,” I said. “Alexander has spells on it, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck in it without being able to get out! Sometimes it was even accidental.”

Vadim giggled. “Will you ride home with them, then?”

“Certainly not!” I said. “If you’ll remember, Vadim, we set out to buy a hat. It would be most remiss in us to return home without one for a second day!”

“Yes, lady,” said Vadim, grinning, and moved to open the shop door for the officers.

They crowded in the small receiving room, looking suitably abashed.

“Sorry we let her get out, lady,” said Lieutenant Trophimus. “We didn’t know she was a spy.”

“That’s quite all right,” I said. “I wasn’t quite sure for a moment or two, either. She looks so prim and proper.”

“Tell you something,” said the officer with the bloody nose, in a thick voice: “She ain’t!”

I looked at him with laughing eyes. “I can see that!”

Trophimus, looking around the millinery shop in wonder, said: “What made you sniff this one out, lady?”

“A simple case of fashion,” interrupted Alexander from behind us. He was shoving his captured quarry ahead of him through the back door of the shop. He was considerably rumpled, as was his quarry, but there was a cheerful look to his eyes that suggested he had acquitted himself well. He grinned at me as he said: “Wooden brooches aren’t being worn with velvet this year.”

“Oh,” said Trophimus, taking custody of the small giant with the help of two of the other officers. “That makes it much clearer, sir.”

“It’s nothing like so complicated,” I said reprovingly. “My dear Alexander, Glause is preparing for its hottest summer in ten years. Velvet for a summer hat!”

“Black Velvet,” he nodded, a laugh glowing in his eyes. Certainly he’d also seen the wooden brooch: and as certainly, he knew what it meant. “I don’t like to ask redundant questions, Isabella, but are you sure that this particular display hasn’t been seen yet?”

“Almost completely,” I said. “The displays change at week’s end, according to Judith: when there’s new information, of course. This one is new since yesterday.”

“Very good. I’ll need to take a likeness of it. Then–”

“–you can play with it,” I nodded. “The king will be delighted! He does love spreading confusion. Besides, you might be able to find their contact if you’re clever enough about how you set out the window.”

“What information was already passed?”

“I’m almost certain their contact knows that Black Velvet—and by inference, Civet—is helping Lacuna, but the brooch was missing from the original window. If I read the hats aright, these two were trying to pass several possible locations for the ah, brooch. They didn’t seem to know which one. I counted six or so hats that could have signified various locations around the Triumvirate—skerry-fleece buttons on a kennel-wall brim with poppies around them, a purple dyed gnau leather chip hat—that sort of thing. As far as I know, those buttons are only made in Civet, and correct me if I’m wrong, Alexander, but I seem to recall that in the town of Kennel there is a rather well known chemist who produces most of Civet’s Syrup of Poppies. As for the purple dyed gnau leather, well–!”

Alexander’s brows rose but he didn’t remark.

“Yes, I thought that might mean something to you,” I said in satisfaction. “I’ll report to the king, of course. I rather think he’ll ask me to find our leak. I suppose you’ll go after the contact?”

Alexander grinned suddenly. “Oh, with your permission, of course!”

“There’s no need to be facetious, Alexander,” I said loftily; but I smiled up at him as I tiptoed to kiss him. “Do you need me for anything else? No? Then I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you to your investigations. There is a hat I simply must purchase!”

Like this short story? Get MASQUE here!MASQUE - 2000