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Yuletide story #3: Correspondence

Written for the_antichris for the Yuletide 2007 challenge. This one really was the story of my heart: I only wrote The Curse Of The Chalet School because I was afraid this one didn't quite fulfil the prompt I was given.

Set in the universe of Ellen Kushner's The Privilege Of The Sword, but some generations later. Contains OCs. Contains underage female OCs. Contains underage female OCs discussing incest, ghosts, incest with ghosts, sex with polar bears, and the stock market. Contains what can probably be described as pre-femslash in two separate time periods. Contains David Alexander Tielman Campion more or less reincarnated as a 1930s schoolgirl. Contains epistolary tellings-off about sleeves, cousin-marriage, and heterosexist assumptions. Probably not suitable for anyone. No copyright infringement is intended and no profit is being made from this work.

Correspondence


It was of no importance to anybody whether or not Charis Vandall visited Fabienne, Duchess Tremontaine, that afternoon.

It was most certainly of no importance to the Duchess, as she had completely forgotten that she had met Charis's mother in the champagne-coloured ballroom of the Ferris Hotel earlier that week, let alone that she had invited her to come to tea and discuss the Relief of the Rural Poor. It was of no importance to Lady Samantha Campion, the Duchess's heir, since she had no idea in the world that such a person as Charis existed. It was of no importance to the chauffeur, whose only concern was whether Lady Vandall's Tielman-Seville Silver Gorgon could be persuaded to start, it being known to be cantankerous in cold weather. It was not even of any importance to Charis's mother, who had only decided to bring Charis along on the outing so that the governess might be freed up to write out the menus for that evening's dinner in her expensively cultivated handwriting. Charis's own handwriting was still in the stages of cultivation, and tended to shoot out awkwardly in all directions; and Lady Vandall had been born in Arkenvelt, and wrote in a peculiar runic scrawl.

If Lady Vandall had been blessed with an attractive child who looked well in a miniature copy of whatever her mother, or, in more delicate compliment, the hostess, was wearing, she might have taken such a child visiting with her more often. But Charis was fourteen, bony and short, with brown hair cut in a floppy bob; and since the Duchess Tremontaine also had a floppy bob (though hers was of such perfection that even the silk flower which she often wore tucked, limply confiding, behind one ear, looked abashed by the comparison) and was prone to dress in shapeless short dresses like a fourteen-year-old girl herself, Lady Vandall didn't feel that the game was worth the candle.

"I don't like the line of that coat of yours," Lady Vandall said dispassionately to her daughter as they waited for the chauffeur to finish his preliminary fussing around the Tielman-Seville, which was all lean curved aristocratic lines and generally gave the impression of floating on a bed of swansdown and elevated feelings, at least when the engine wasn't running. "Is it the one I bought from that charity-case tailor that Lady Horn was promoting to everybody?"

"I think so, Mama," said Charis meekly.

Lady Vandall gave the collar of her daughter's coat a contemptuous twitch. "She must be sleeping with him," she pronounced finally.

Rather to Charis's relief, the chauffeur coughed to attract Lady Vandall's attention. He touched his cap and indicated that the omens were, broadly, right for the journey to begin. Lady Vandall gathered her magnificent furs about her and allowed the chauffeur to help her into the back of the Tielman-Seville. The chauffeur returned to do the same by Charis, a process which embarrassed them both equally, and shut the door solicitously behind her.

Charis stole a look at her mother. Lady Vandall was, it was generally agreed, a beauty, and she worked hard at it, even though the standards of the city were not those of Arkenvelt. Her hair, which she dyed, was too stiff and too fair. Her nose was too short for its hawklike curve, and her mouth always looked as if it had been stretched accidentally in the making. Nevertheless, wrapped in her furs against the winter chill, she radiated predatory glamour. Charis hadn't inherited any of it but the nose, and there wasn't a lot of glamour in that. She looked out of the window instead. The city was soothed and blanketed under the snow.

It would have been nice to say that the Tielman-Seville purred through the snowbound streets. It was, indeed, capable of purring (and also of sudden leaps, arrhythmic spitting, feigned immobility and other cat-like antics) but not whilst following an old-fashioned horse-drawn omnibus through the tortuous small old streets down towards Waterbourne. The horses plodded; the Tielman-Seville juddered balefully; and the chauffeur hoped that the engine wouldn't give out altogether. If it did, he would have to get out and hand-crank it to a start again, in his garish Vandall livery, and the likelihood was that people would throw snowballs at him. At least snowballs weren't dead dogs, and dead dogs weren't rocks.

"Is Tremontaine House very big?" Charis asked her mother.

"I don't know," said her mother, sounding annoyed to have been asked a question she wasn't expecting. "They say the Council of Lords will buy the old place up. They're looking for somewhere to build their new civil law-courts. It's about time they pulled down that wormy old place on the Grand Plaza of Jurisdiction. Or maybe it'll be a club-house, or a hotel. I don't suppose Fabienne Campion cares, as long as she doesn't have to bear the cost of heating the place any longer."

"Oh. But aren't we going there, then?"

"In Arkenvelt," said her mother dispassionately, "children with no sense of direction are looked upon as a terribly sad thing for the family, and are abandoned in the snow. Of course we are not going there. The Duchess Tremontaine has started a fashion. She is living in a service flat in the Illyria in Riverside. You know, the place that looks like an ocean-liner. Why else did you imagine we were crossing the river?"

In point of fact, they were not crossing the river. The Old Bridge was narrow, and encrusted on both sides with small stalls and booths selling everything from antique books to salt-water toffee. There was only barely enough room for the Tielman-Seville to cross, and then only if the road was cleared in advance. The chauffeur got out and did so, looking irritated and rumpled. When he got back into the car, the area of coat below his left epaulette was clotted with snow. It looked as the snowball's core had been a very old, very soft apple, though it was hard to tell. It could have been a tomato.

Charis looked out of the window. Riverside looked like three cities at once, all of them packed into the small space of an island in the slow and ice-choked river, and two at least of them pullulating with feverish activity. At one end of the island, the Illyria faced the tall white gracefulness of the Fitz-Levi Building across a road that seemed built for Tielman-Sevilles and six-seater Swordsman Tourers and nothing else, no people and no horses and nothing to mar the cold salt-in-the-throat wonder of the future. The other end was full of big cranes, like the ones on the docks. Men in caps and frieze coats hurried about with hods of bricks or buckets of mortar. Every other building seemed to have a wooden scaffold about it, or to be nothing but a scaffold, or a great hole in the midst of lumpy snow. Charis wondered how far they would have to dig down before the river came in.

In the middle, the remains of the old Riverside clustered together, classical stone and ruralesque half-timber putting their differences aside in the face of the common enemy. Charis had expected the people going about their business in the old part to look cast-down and bundled-up and humble, like the beggars who came to the kitchen door asking for charity. Instead, they looked the very opposite. Some looked dangerous, some mad, and most as if they hadn't had a good bath since the River was last warm enough for bathing; but still, they were all all dressed with a certain flair. The men wore coats like something from a play. The women wore dresses that Charis's grandmother might have worn to the opera, if she hadn't happened to be too busy running a business that started with the unexpected inheritance of a dog-track. They all wore gimcrack jewellery at their throats and in their hair.

Charis could see why the Duchess Tremontaine wanted to live here. It was like the city's wrist, she thought, a tight-drawn place where the pulse fluttered so hard that it was almost visible.

Charis's mother pulled her fur collar up around her cheeks. "In Arkenvelt," she said, "those people would be out mining or homesteading or making a decent living for themselves in the rest of the city as stenographers or newsboys, not penned up here like hens in a hutch spreading diseases."

"Wouldn't they be more likely to spread the diseases if they were going around the rest of the city selling newspapers?" said Charis.

"You can't catch diseases from a newspaper," said her mother, missing her point. The Tielman-Seville drew up outside the Illyria. Charis looked up at the cliff-face of the building, and its frescoes of some allegorical people who she thought might be Progress and the Electric Light respectively, gliding about in a slightly bluer marble than the rest of the Illyria, which was a half-tone creamier than the snow.

There was a button beside the Illyria's door for the chauffeur to press to ask for admission, which Charis thought the most astonishing thing ever, though her mother said that they were quite common in Arkenvelt. Charis pressed her hands together in her muff and wished her legs weren't so cold. You had to be a grown lady to wear long skirts, which Charis thought quite the wrong way round, because grown ladies were more likely to own full-length furs, so it wouldn't matter if they had nothing but lisle stockings between their legs and the winter chill.

The button's summons was answered. Charis and her mother were solicitously handed off from the care of the chauffeur to that of a concierge in even more magnificent livery, particularly as no one seemed to have been throwing snowballs at him that morning. Charis wasn't sure where the chauffeur would go. The Illyria didn't seem to possess the usual back-door trappings of stables and kitchen door and coal-hole. She hoped he could find somewhere to give him a cup of tea, at least.

The front hall of the Illyria was dark and wood-panelled, which Charis hadn't been expecting. By the light of a gas-fixture, a doom-laden functionary sat behind a massive desk, doing some kind of paperwork with pen and inkpot. Evidently Progress and the Electric Light hadn't got as far as all that. There was, however, an elevator, which was very exciting. It, too, was wood-panelled, and had an elaborate metal grille which was closed behind them with respectful attention by the concierge. Charis was almost sorry that the Duchess only lived on the second floor.

The concierge rapped on the door, and they were admitted by the Duchess's maid into a set of very high-ceilinged rooms with deliciously stencilled walls. The only thing that troubled Charis was that there seemed to be about six times as much furniture as needed. Paintings were piled four deep against the skirting-boards, and surely no one needed eight hatstands of varying sizes and vintages? The Duchess did seem to have a lot of visitors, but they couldn't have that many hats.

Lady Vandall smiled expansively, recognising the smell of the very best coffee, and the high agitated buzz of conversation that meant committee and not desultory tea-time chat. The Duchess Tremontaine came out to meet them. She was wearing a deliciously geometric frock in pale slaty green, and a long string of pearls, and a barbarously ancient and angular ruby ring on her finger. Charis, noticing the narrowing of her mother's eyes, reckoned the pearls and the ruby both real.

"Oh, how clever of you, darling," said the Duchess in soft caressing tones, "to bring a friend for Samantha. They can have tea and cakes together. Hester will bring them." She turned her smile to the maid, who was helping Lady Vandall off with her furs. "Hester," the Duchess confided, "is an angel."

Lady Vandall visibly considered the possibilities of her daughter making friends with the heir to Tremontaine, and, equally visibly, came to the conclusion that it was worth trying, even if she couldn't imagine what the unseen Samantha might see in Charis. "She'd be delighted, wouldn't you, Charis? Run along. Now, Fabienne, about Karleigh's model settlement out by that soapworks..."

They glided gracefully away. The maid Hester finished paying attention to the furs and took Charis's coat. She, too, appeared to hold a low opinion of Lady Horn's pet tailor, though she was too polite to express it in anything beyond a pitying expression. Much to Charis's relief, the short brown velvet frock beneath seemed to pass muster; Hester straightened the limp lace collar, unbidden, and gave a little nod to the quality of the lace, like one professional saluting another across a crowded room.

"Miss Samantha's in the box-room at the end of the corridor. Will you need showing?" Hester asked.

"No, I'll find her," said Charis, thinking that if her courage failed and she found a library or similar refuge before she found the unknown Samantha, she'd prefer not to have to explain it to a stranger; though, in fact, she only opened one wrong door before she found the box-room, and that turned out to be a water-closet of pristine tiled magnificence.

The door at the end of the corridor opened into a room that only the Duchess Tremontaine, brought up in the large airy spaces of her family's old residence on the Hill, could conceivably call a box-room. The clutter of ancient furniture and boxes and bundles reached almost to the ceiling. The room smelt of sandalwood, and, more emphatically, of dust.

The box-room's only occupant was sitting at the top of a pile of crates. A short ladder showed at least half of the path she'd taken to get up there. A candle in a saucer illuminated a quantity of curly red-brown hair, the fashionable cream-coloured collar of a frock much like Charis's own, and a pair of long, well-shaped hands, holding open a roll of parchment.

"Hello?" said Charis cautiously.

"If you're one of Mama's committee ladies," said a voice filled with exquisite insult and exquisite courtesy, "I think I should tell you at once that I have no manners at all, and furthermore that, if you examine your own inner heart, you will see that you do not actually care a scrap how I find the St. Rhiannon Academy, nor how many years there are left until I must make my debut. And if I've misjudged you and you're looking for the facilities, they're the next door down. Please don't urinate in the corners in here, even if Lady Arlen has been in there for half an hour powdering whatever parts of her she considers to need powdering. There are chamberpots in the servants' quarters."

"I'm not a committee lady," said Charis, slightly stunned by this flow of eloquence. "I'm Charis Vandall."

The candle was waved in her direction. "My goodness," said the voice, "so you are. Or, at least, so I suppose you must be, unless you're a housebreaker, and even if you are I hold no particular prejudices against housebreakers as a species. I'm sure we could find some interesting topics of conversation. I'm glad you're here. I've been looking through my namesake Katherine Duchess Tremontaine's papers, and they're full of old letters. It's quite boring to read them alone. Why don't you come up here? I can't keep peering at you in the gloom."

Charis clambered up, slightly alarmed by the occasional groans from the boxes as she ascended. Samantha put a long arm out to help her up the final scrambling assent. Samantha's dress, Charis recognised, was the very best silk, thick as cream; it was very simple, almost a smock, but at the same time having something about it of the swashbuckling disorder of a swordsman's laced shirt.

Or maybe the swashbuckling disorder was a property of Samantha Campion herself. Her hair was red-brown, very thick, extravagantly curly, and mostly loose; there was a ribbon somewhere amongst it, but it looked more like a prize of capture than any kind of confining device. Her nose was long and pointed. Her skin was very pale. She somehow looked very much like her mother without looking modern at all. "You have very good bones," she said dispassionately, putting down the candle. "Who did you say you were?"

"I'm Charis Vandall," said Charis again.

"How is it that I don't know you? You don't go to St. Rhiannon's."

"No, I have a governess," said Charis humbly.

"Does she make you do drill?"

"Only on the piano."

"Then you're very lucky," said Samantha darkly. "I have a fixed aversion to drill. On the other hand, I am very good at buttonholes. We all have to make a buttonhole before being admitted to the Academy, you know, and mine are excellent."

Charis, whose buttonholes were of an extremely average nature, had nothing to say to that. She looked down, instead, at the roll of parchment that Samantha had been reading. Candlelight was its proper environment; she couldn't imagine looking at it by gaslight, let alone the electric light. It was filled with dense rows of dark unfamiliar handwriting, looking more like music on a stave than letters. There were ancient, cracked seals and ribbons at the bottom, and a large swirling capital at the top, picked out in scarlet and gold paint. Charis thought it was a W, though she wasn't sure. She tried to pick out the first line. "Whereas this Council's booed and well-gloved Katherine Samantha..."

"Good and well-beloved," said Samantha briskly. "They all write like that on the official documents, don't ask me why. The personal letters are much easier to read. At least as far as handwriting goes," she added darkly.

"Are you Katherine Samantha, too?"

"No. Though I told them at St. Rhiannon's I was, the first day, to see whether any of them had heard of her. They hadn't," Samantha yawned and stretched, the pillowy masses of her hair falling against the silk-wrapped bones of her back. "Samantha Diane Talbert Campion, at your service, which always sounds to me more like a tea-set than a tradition of service, but take it in whichever way you choose. I think it's a disgrace they haven't heard of her. She was a swordsman."

"And a duchess?" said Charis doubtfully.

"Yes, and a duchess. The really interesting thing is that she had a very dear female friend, and she wrote all these letters to her, and then after the friend died her great-nephew - "

"The friend's great-nephew?" asked Charis, who was only just following any of this.

"Yes. His name was Henry Fitz-Levi, and he was a dreadful prudish old hypocrite, from all I've heard of him. After she died, the letters came into his possession, and he sent them all back to Tremontaine House with the most pompous letter, on black-bordered paper, mind you, saying that he wouldn't contaminate the fireplaces in his house with them. Which, considering that he owned a large number of brick-mills where honest clay and straw were adulterated with everything under the sun, is a quite remarkable statement. And so we have both sides of the correspondence. The problem is, I can't make head nor tail of it." Samantha reached into a tin box at her elbow. "Here, yours is the first one."

"Mine?"

"Well, I have to read my namesake's letters," Samantha explained patiently. "That's the right way round. So you have to read the letters that no decent fireplace would hold, from her best friend. I thought her name was Stella at first, but it turned out to be Artemisia. There aren't any portraits of her, because the horrible Henry destroyed all those, but apparently she was dark-haired and very beautiful, though she had the Fitz-Levi nose. I suppose you will have to try to convey beauty through character."

"Am I supposed to convey the nose through character, too?"

Samantha ignored this. "I think there must have been some earlier ones, but I haven't got them. You'll see what I mean when you read it." With an imperative gesture, she passed Charis a neatly folded little rectangle of very thin paper. It was so old that the creases were pressed into it more certainly than the writing, which had faded to an indistinct brownish scribble.




Gentle Friend, Charis read cautiously,

Do not believe anything they say of me. Not even if you hear the wedding is going forward. If it does, it is without my consent. They say I am to blame. I do not understand how that could be. Men are supposed to protect women. And when they do insult them, their fathers and brothers are supposed to rush to their defense, not call them horrible names and laugh at their distress.

How I envy you. Your uncle may be mad, but at least he lets you fight back.

The anguished

Stella.





"I don't know whether it's real or play-acting," said Charis uncertainly. "I mean, was that really how people talked back then?"

"It was how they wrote," said Samantha, which wasn't an answer.

Charis tried again. "Yes, but what was going on? Who were they trying to make her marry? Was it the swordswoman's uncle?"

Samantha rocked backwards and laughed. She laughed, Charis thought shockedly, the way that she sometimes heard beery drunk men laughing in the street at night; with absolute excess and no apology. "No. That was the Mad Duke Tremontaine, and whilst everyone says he was excessively wicked, I don't think he would have tried to force a young woman to marry him. I think he would have got bored half-way through and wandered off to seduce her father, or something equally troublesome."

"I've heard of the Mad Duke."

"Everyone's heard of him. They say I'm very like him," said Samantha, pushing her dusty hands through her hair and slitting her eyes with catlike satisfaction. The dust cast a pale glitter across her hair, like icing-sugar on a cake, though the knot of compressed cobweb dangling above one ear rather spoiled the effect.

"I don't believe you would seduce people's fathers," said Charis firmly.

"I could if I liked," said Samantha captiously. "I thought about it, last year, when I couldn't find anyone to talk to me about stock prices. I take an interest in stock prices. I've spent months trying to form an opinion on whether the way the Crescent Chancellor regulates them is right and just, or whether it's all a big racket. But all the fathers I could get hold of were already in love with my mother, or else their wives were." She sighed mournfully. "Did you see the portrait of the Mad Duke in the front hall? I don't suppose you did, it's behind all the hatstands."

"I don't think I did," said Charis more firmly than ever, "and I still don't believe you go about seducing people."

"I expect that's because you're very, very good," said Samantha kindly. "You should make Hester move the hatstands so that you can look at the picture. He looks a great deal like me, except taller and more sneering and I don't have his chin. I got my chin from the Galings." The way she said it, it made it sound as if her chin had arrived from them in a sugared paper gift-box, like a cake. "He asked my namesake to live with him when she was fifteen. There was some kind of legal wrangle between her side of the family and his - I don't really understand it, though I have all the papers - and he offered to drop the case if she came to him to be trained as a swordsman. And then she became friendly with this Artemisia Fitz-Levi person, and they started writing to each other pretending to be characters from The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death. Have you read it?"

"No. I've seen the play."

"Was it any good? The last time I went to the theatre was to see Miss Mildred Rippington in Princess Twinkletoes, and that was when we were still living at Tremontaine House."

Charis hugged her knees. "Do you mind about it?" she said timidly. "About Tremontaine House being sold, I mean."

"Not at all. The last I heard they were going to make a Museum of Costume out of it, and I very much hope they do. It will give me great pleasure to see all the people paying their copper and silver to be let through the black and gold gates, and traipsing up to look at Mother's dressing-room filled with hoops and farthingales. Besides, the Mad Duke lived here in Riverside, you know. I often think, if I walk round the right corner, I might meet him."

"And then what?" said Charis dubiously.

"And then I imagine he would be very rude to me. But it would be worth it. Doesn't it just take your breath away with admiration when people are really, properly rude to you?"

"No," said Charis, deciding that the only way to deal with Samantha's bold frankness was to be bold and frank in return. "Mostly they're rude about my mother's taste in interior decorating, and I'm sick and tired of it. It's not my fault my father bought Ariston for her and she decided to throw out all the modern furniture and fill the place with bearskin rugs and suits of armour and have all the panelling replaced with mystical-looking carvings of antlers and oak-leaves. We've even got crossed halberds in the downstairs lavatory that are supposed to have belonged to Black Mark of Ariston, and I don't see what a one-armed man was supposed to do with even one halberd, let alone two."

"Oh!" said Samantha, in enlightened tones. "She's that Lady Vandall."

"What do you mean, she's that Lady Vandall?"

"Oh, I admire her terribly," said Samantha with a large gesture, which nearly knocked over a shipwrecked candelabra. "Anyone who can get things that wrong all the time and still be tolerated by Society is an absolute genius. Shall we read some more of these letters? The next one's mine."

"If you like," said Charis, who was still not quite sure she liked what Samantha had said about her mother. Samantha gave her a curious, slit-eyed look, and then returned to the letter, smoothing it out with her hand, and moving the candle closer. Her voice grew lower and more flexible.




Lady Stella,

I am not so gentle a friend that I am not filled with righteous wrath on your account. By no means hearken to the voices of those who say it was your fault, because it wasn't -





Charis listened to the rest of the letter. It didn't seem to make any more sense than the beginning. "I still don't understand what's going on," she objected. "Is Artemisia calling herself Stella because she's pregnant, like the heroine in the book?"

"Well, I thought that," said Samantha confidingly, hugging her silk-stockinged legs up under the short hem of the expensive cream frock, "but from what I can tell from the letters, she never liked men at all. I thought perhaps her parents were forcing her to marry, when what she really wanted was to go and live with my namesake."

Charis frowned. "But ladies do go and live together as if they were married. Look at Lady Helena Davenant and Miss de Maris. The Council of Lords might as well set up a statue of them in the new law-courts and put a plaque saying Respectability at the bottom."

Samantha rocked herself backwards out of the circle of candlelight until there was nothing visible of her but the buttoned white kid shoes on her feet. "That's different," she said, her voice coming out of the darkness. "Lady Helena was forty when she moved out of her father's house. Miss de Maris was twenty-seven, and she'd spent two years building a business for herself as a surgeon. It's not about love. It's about having something to live on."

"How unromantic," said Charis disapprovingly.

"I thought you didn't like romantic stuff," Samantha teased. "You don't seem to like these letters."

"Well, it's all re-heated bits of The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death, isn't it? You can only see them - Artemisia and Katherine, I mean - in fits and starts, like they're going by outside a dusty window."

"The Mad Duke," said Samantha consideringly, in the darkness, "had a swordsman lover."

"And then he trained his niece as a swordsman?" asked Charis, feeling shocked, and not sure why.

"Oh, yes. They say his lover had eyes like drowned hyacinths. Wouldn't you like to have a lover with eyes like drowned hyacinths?"

"It depends on how long they'd been drowning."

"Well, what sort of lover would you like?" asked Samantha in an irritatingly reasonable tone of voice. "You're going to have to think about it sooner or later, you know, we all will, unless you've given your eternal love to music instead, or to calculus, or beetles. My aunt Honoria collects beetles, and I don't think I've ever met a more fulfilled person, and also, of course, one doesn't have to have the beetles to dinner-parties. I haven't even asked you if you like boys or girls."

"I like some boys and some girls," said Charis cautiously. "Some girls I don't like at all."

Samantha burst out laughing in that disconcerting way again. After a while, she said, "My head is quite hanging off the back of this box. It gives me a most peculiar feeling. I suppose it must be the rush of blood to the head. Do you think this is what opium is like? I've never had opium, except when I fell off my pony when I was seven and broke my collarbone, and then I was too feverish to enjoy it."

Before Charis could collect her thoughts on the subject of opium, someone rapped at the door, and then opened it. A slice of light from the corridor fell against the dusty floor and painted itself against a tangle of chair-legs and old rolled-up magazines.

Samantha rocked herself back upright again, rather to Charis's relief, and sat demurely at the edge of the crate. "Hello, Hester. Have you brought us lots of lovely tea and cakes?"

"Get along with you, my lady," said Hester indulgently, "you never want me to bring them all the way up there! You come along down, and I'll bring you some chairs from the kitchen, and your mother's little bridge-table. You may want to moither your digestion by eating whilst you're sitting all scrunched up, but I'm sure Miss Vandall doesn't."

"She likes to moither her digestion more than anything," said Samantha, swinging her legs so that her pearl shoe-buttons caught the light. "It's her very favourite pastime. Besides, the last I saw of the bridge-table it was in the scullery and Ramona was using it whilst she plucked pheasants."

"Drat that Ramona," said Hester, distracted. "You'll have to come down here and fetch the tray, then, my lady. I'm not breaking my legs with all that clambering. And dear, dear, don't tell me you're reading by the light of that candle! You'll spoil your eyesight, not to mention very likely burning the place down around our ears."

"What do I care if the place burns down if I've ruined my eyesight and can't see it?"

"Don't be troublesome, my lady. You'll be sorry if those old bits of yours in the box catch fire."

"You know, Hester, sometimes you sound like a dear, old-fashioned Riverside thug coming sideways into a shop to ask people if they'd care to subscribe to her protection racket," said Samantha winningly. She boosted herself down off the pile of crates, collected the tray, and then somehow managed to clamber back up again, tea, cakes and all.

Charis watched her with a sort of fearful admiration, having come to the conclusion that if Samantha fell down then the boxes would all collapse too, and Charis herself would probably be crushed under a looming wardrobe or an ugly statue of some old goddess or other having congress with what looked like it was meant for a cockatrice, and there was nothing she could do about it.

Hester fussed in and out as they ate. She confiscated the candle, and brought them instead a large brass safety-lamp with frosted glass windows decorated with moons and stars. Then she came back with the sugar-tongs, and then, at Samantha's urging, with another plate of little sugary cakes and more tea. By common consent, whilst Hester was there, they talked about safe things; the hockey that was played at St. Rhiannon's, which Samantha found quite lacking in interest, and the way Charis's governess would often skip quite large passages of the classics and not mention it, and the dull business of learning how to curtsey for one's debut.

"Now," said Samantha, the corners of her mouth curling upwards, when Hester had removed the tray, "let's look at the rest of the letters."

Charis read the next one. It was mostly about weeping and crushed flowers, but she got the vague idea from it that Artemisia Fitz-Levi had asked Katherine Talbert to do something or other for her, and was, in the sweetest possible way, telling her to get on with it. The reply seemed to confirm that impression, as Katherine said know that your grievance is not forgotten.

"I wish I knew what her grievance was," said Charis, drawn in, despite herself.

"I'll tell you what happens in the next one," said Samantha, trimming the wick of the safety-lamp. "My namesake challenges him. The Mangrove-person who's been giving her friend grievances. He must have been a noble and not another swordsman, because she says I will meet his champion."

"No!"

"It's all here." Samantha unfolded the paper with relish.




Sweetest Lady Stella

A challenge has been issued, and awaits but the turning of the tide to bear a bitter fruit - bitter for some, but sweet, I hope, to your tongue, and a balm to your sad eyes. I told you he'd regret it, and I wasn't joking. Be of good courage - hold fast, and keep faith, for I will meet his champion on the field of battle, and blot out your stain with his blood.

Not Fabian, but true and faithful

Tyrian.





Charis picked up the next letter with shaking fingers.




Dearest Fabian

All is lost. My ruin is complete. My kind parents and brother have explained it all to me. There is no hope. Consider me as one dead and lost to the world. I will always remember you fondly, and will never forget what you were willing to do to save your -

Artemisia





"What happens next?" Charis breathed.

"I don't know." Samantha frowned. "The next one's from my uncle. Shall I be him?"

"You'd better. If I do, you'll only tell me I'm doing it wrong."

Samantha looked deeply and blissfully pleased with herself. She smoothed out the letter, which looked as if it had been crumpled up and thrown with some force, and had never really recovered from it.




Flavia, You Fool, she read, her voice smoothly changing from surprisingly deep for a girl to a man's light tenor.

I won't apologise. You know me too well to expect it. Nor will I dignify with a reply anything you said concerning the books. I told you once that I didn't give gifts away to keep them, and I meant it.

But do come back. Everyone else with whom I have attempted to discuss the theorem is an idiot. Last night Ridley brought a so-called philosopher of the luminiferous ether to my table. The man could barely add up, and apparently makes his living mesmerising rats. You see what I am reduced to.

Come back. I will give you strawberries.

If you don't come back I will give the library away piecemeal to the next thousand urchins I meet in the street, and I will fill the space left behind with rats and teach them all to pipe up with Our City Of Light through the power of mesmerism.

Come back. Come home.

- Alec





"I don't understand," said Charis. "What has any of this got to do with the duel? Was that one of them he was calling Flavia? His niece, I mean, or Artemisia Fitz-Levi?"

"I expect it was just some debauched young nobleman, really," said Samantha pensively. "But I like to think it was Doctor Flavia Gaudman. She was the very first holder of the Women's Fellowship in Mathematics at the University that my ancestor the Mad Duke endowed. We have a portrait of her. They send us a portrait of everyone who is given the Fellowship, as if we care. I like her best of any of them. She looks like a very academic pig."

"Did the Mad Duke like women who looked like pigs?"

"I like to think he would have done, if they were good at mathematics."

There was a contemplative silence. Samantha leaned down to trim the wick of the safety-lamp. It flared up willingly, casting segmented panels of light out into the previously uncharted outer world of piled-up chairs, rolled carpets, ancient travelling-chests dangling with long-dead luggage-labels, and something that looked improbably like an upended sedan chair, poised forever in the act of falling into a gloomy engulfing river of strange wooden corners and curlicues and hatboxes. Charis shivered, not liking the thought. Trying to imagine where such a river might be, and what the buildings along it would look like, was like one of the exercises that her governess set her to improve her imagination, and it gave her the same squeamish chills.

She hastily unfolded the next letter and handed it to Samantha. She hoped that it would explain the outcome of the duel, though it would also be interesting to know whether the Mad Duke's friend ever went back to him or not.

But, as far as she could tell, it was neither.




Amiable Lady Stella

Be of good comfort regarding your dear relative; the streets of the city are dangerous, and even the purest of heart may fall prey, when hunting cats roam at Mangrove's will. Except that it isn't as bad as hunting cats, really. It was some men with cudgels, and Twohey and I and one of the footmen - mostly Twohey and the footmen, really - dealt with them. Your cousin is being cared for in a safe place, and we expect his complete recovery. He speaks of you constantly.

Pray do not consider me the victim of jealousy, but instead a true and gentle friend who wishes only to spread oil upon the stormy waters of past events
- "I bet that's not the only thing she wanted to spread oil on," said Samantha, wiggling her eyebrows, - if I venture to say a word concerning the marriage which I understand has been suggested, between your afflicted relative and your sweet self. I am very glad that your family have ceased to press you in the former direction, but really, I'm not sure this is any better. Where there is no love there can be no lasting joy, and whilst I believe he loves you - as who could not, dearest, bravest Stella? - it is only as a cousin and friend.

My own heart will be forever content to fold its pinions at your snowy breast. If another heart should come to rest there, and your own bruised heart should take courage again and depart for balmier shores - for I know you have more store than most of courage, even if I can see you laughing and shaking your head at me as I write it - then I wish most sincerely that you should find safe harbour in matrimony. But, truly, if you don't, there's nothing wrong with not marrying at all. I know you don't want to stay with your family, as they are brutes, and I'm not sure you would be suited to acting or making a living by painting on china, but perhaps you could invest your portion and live off the interest with a female relative?

Only, really, not with
this relative. Please believe

Your devoted servant always and forever

KT





"Who's the relative she's telling Artemisia not to marry?"

"I don't know precisely who her relative was," said Samantha with a small, flickering smile, "one of the Fitz-Levis, I suppose, but it sounds to me like he was sleeping with the Mad Duke whilst he was recovering from the evil machinations of the Mangrove-person at Tremontaine House, and my namesake knew it."

"You think everyone's as much in love with the Mad Duke as you are," said Charis pettishly.

"Don't be silly. He was my several-greats grandfather. Though, all the same," said Samantha, picking a grey ribbon that might once have been violet out of the box and wrapping it around her finger, "if his ghost showed up and asked me, I'd have him."

"Oh, Samantha, don't be disgusting!"

"It's not disgusting. It'd probably be very educational. He used to have orgies, you know. Besides, your people come from Arkenvelt, and I've heard they sleep with polar bears there."

"They do not sleep with polar bears in Arkenvelt," said Charis hotly, "any more than your old kings used to sleep with oak-trees. It's all symbolic."

"And now I've offended you." Samantha looked up under her eyelashes. "You had better forgive me at once, you know. I'm a very interesting person to know."

"You're a horrid person to know," said Charis, near tears, and not knowing why. She wanted there to be a clear resolution and the villain, whoever the villain was, dead and properly repentant at the swordswoman's feet. Instead, they were all being muddled and messed-up and infuriatingly like people, and answering to the wrong names, and Samantha wasn't interested in explaining, being too busy pretending to be grown-up.

"Well, so are you a horrid person," said Samantha reasonably. "You're buttoned-up and smug. You're very lucky that I like you anyway."

"You like the Mad Duke and people who look like pigs. It's not much of a recommendation."

"Yes, it is, if you'd only see it. People can be interesting even if they are mad or piggish. Or smug." Samantha ferreted about in the tin box, her candlelit fleece of hair falling alongside her face so that only the tip of her nose was visible. She emerged again with an antique collar-necklace crumpled beguilingly in her hand. Some of the gold chains were broken, but the pendant stones were clearly sapphires. It was so completely out of fashion that Charis hardly recognised it as jewellery at all. "Here. Neither of them ever wanted or wore it, from what they say in the letters."

"I can't possibly take this!" exclaimed Charis.

Samantha turned her face artfully to the candlelight, so that the shadows pointed up the aristocratically fine skin and the sharp flat bones of her face. "I am not," she drawled, "asking for your virtue with it."

Charis felt a faint unfamiliar shudder and wondered whether this was how people had felt when confronted with the Mad Duke. "I mean it's worth too much," she tried to explain.

"To who? My mother won't miss it. She gave me this box for my own."

"I mean," said Charis, hoping that she had all her words in the right order and that she didn't stumble and embarrass herself, "that I'm not to be bought. I'll look at letters with you, if you like. I'm interested. If you carry on saying boring things about your crush on your grandfather, I shall stop being interested and go away. But you can't pay me to sit here and be teased and poked and insulted just to amuse you."

"I can tell you don't go to St. Rhiannon's now," said Samantha in tones of utter enchantment. "No one there would dream of speaking to me like that. I was going to like you anyway, because it would annoy my mother - she hates yours, you know - but I most certainly intend to like you now."

She took Charis's hand, and folded the fingers insinuatingly downwards over the small pooled coldness of the metal in her palm. The unsettlement did not diminish. "Read. It's you next."

The next letter was dated almost a year later.




Dearest Katherine

What are you still doing at Highcombe at this time of the year? In another week the Council season will begin, and poor Arthur Ghent is undoubtedly being deluged with invitations for you. Don't go to the Duchess of Hartsholt's musicale. Do you recall how she called that orphan she adopted off the street Juliana, at her husband's suggestion? Well, now the Duke has decided that they will take the foreign opera-singer, Giuliana Trevisi, under their wing, and the Duchess is fit to spit nails, as my brother Robert says, though I am not quite sure what he means. Perhaps he means to
split nails? I can't believe hers are in a particularly good state at present, though if I were the opera singer, I think I would not present her with my rose-leaf cheek to kiss.

Besides, she wants to sell you that slab-sided hunter of hers. You never should have bought her daughter's mare. It only encourages her.

You will not want to miss the opening of
The Swordswoman's Triumph. Think how discourteous to Miss Grey it would be. Unless you are hoping to give her a scandalous success by pretending to be affronted?

Both I and the city miss you. Pray return to your -

Artemisia




Dear Artemisia

You say that you miss me, and the city misses me also, when what you mean is that you are afraid I am running about the countryside upsetting the farmers with my wild ways and wearing the biscuit-coloured velvet riding habit you disapproved of. (You needn't worry about the biscuit-coloured velvet. My mother didn't like it either, and when you and she combine against me I must concede defeat. Whatever I may have said to you about my mother, it has to be admitted that she knows about clothes. So, it has gone off to be cut down for my cousin Jenever, who is woefully like my uncle in looks and will therefore suit it more than admirably - and at least it might keep her from finding out how good she looks in black for another season.)

My uncle has written. This is a relief, as Marcus was worried he might have drowned. It is hard to tell where he is writing from, because his handwriting is so bad. He has sent a pressed seed-pod and some stains that I think are honey, which doesn't particularly narrow it down. At least he says that he is well, and that the heat is good for the pain in Master St. Vier's joints. So I suppose it must be somewhere hot.

Have you been seeing a great deal of Arthur Ghent?

Your loving

KT





("The next one's mine as well," said Samantha in hushed parentheses)




Dearest Artemisia

I'm sorry. Of course you have had more than enough of people telling you what you mean, and not believing you when you try to explain. Please forgive me. Also, I didn't mean to imply anything about you and Arthur Ghent. I really wouldn't mind, though, you know, if you and he were to come to an understanding. He is a very admirable person.

I am sending you some of the last of this summer's fruit, from Highcombe. I hope you enjoy it. If not, you can keep it to throw at me on my return.

Your contrite

KT




My Own Most Dear And Gentle Fabian Tyrian Katherine

They say that women are the more observant sex. It seems a rather feeble sop to throw us, when men claim mastery in the arts and sciences, in physical strength, in political cunning, in creative artistry, and even in communion with the gods. And yet I think it must be so.

This
being so, it puzzles me a little when I find another woman - and a dear, dear friend besides, - to be about as observant as my mother's blue-ware teapot. Perhaps it is the effect of wearing breeches? And yet it is not the eyes, nor yet the ears, that breeches cover.

All of this being so, how could you possibly have thought that I cared for
Arthur Ghent?

Your faithful -

Artemisia.

P.S Pray tell whoever is in charge of cutting down the biscuit-coloured velvet for your cousin that they should have a care to those sleeves. They must be taken out and shortened at the
shoulder, not at the wrist, or she will look positively deformed. I have already been informed this week, by a pompous fool from the provinces, that the Duke Tremontaine was most certainly a hunchback. It will only encourage such rumour, if it appears that any such thing runs in the family.




Dear Artemisia

I find myself instructed in more than sleeves. I hope we may find time to discuss this on my return.

Your contrite -

KT





"But what happened next?" breathed Charis.

"I think," said Samantha consideringly, "it was something like this." She leaned in towards Charis. Her hair fell forward over her shoulders. She lifted one hand and cupped it against Charis's cheek, serious, considering, and looked into Charis's eyes and then at her mouth. Her eyes didn't look anything like drowned hyacinths. They looked like small darknesses behind her lashes and her brows. Charis caught her breath, half entranced, and not at all sure what should happen next.

The door opened. "There you are, Miss Vandall!" said Hester cosily, standing there with Charis's coat over her arm and the fur muff dangling by its ribbons from her hand. "Come along now, your mother's leaving."

Samantha ignored her. She pressed her hand even more confidingly against Charis's cheek, and then kissed her on the other cheek, quickly and lightly and cleanly, like a child going to bed. "You will come again soon, won't you?" she said. "We can make ourselves useful unpacking books in the library, and see if we can find a copy of The Swordswoman's Triumph."

Charis was too overcome by the strangeness of everything to do anything but nod. She climbed down the boxes. She tore her stocking on the corner of a packing-case, which occupied her mother's scolding attention as they left, and the first few minutes of the journey home in the Tielman-Seville.
"And did her ladyship have anything to say to you?" Lady Vandall finally enquired.

"I like her," Charis said, not sure if like was the word, or even if there was a word at all.

"Of course you do, she's going to be a duchess. What did she think of you, that's the question?"

Charis looked out, uncertainly, at the streets of the city, the high smooth facades of the buildings, and the snow trodden into slush. "She wants me to visit again, and help sort out her mother's library."

"What a pity we won't have time for that before Year's End," said her mother decisively. "But you can write to her from Ariston, if you like. The governess says you're to practice your handwriting."

Charis nodded, and closed her hand around the necklace in her pocket.




The schoolroom at Ariston was depressingly devoid of character. Neither the romantic past evoked by Lady Vandall's redecorations - for she had been born in Arkenvelt and knew what an old castle should look like inside, even if none of the castle's previous owners did - nor the rather heavy taste of the aforementioned previous owner, who had had a fondness for red velvet curtains and monopodium tables, had touched it. It remained a place of white-painted panels, plain bookshelves, and exactly two improving pictures, one showing the apprehension of the last of the kings, and the other the founding of the Citizens' Council.

It was not a very inspiring place from which to write a letter. But it was the only room in Ariston that was Charis's own. She felt an unfamiliar daring flow up into her, like ink into the pen. She took a deep breath, ruled the paper, trimmed her nib, and began.




Dear Lady Samantha

Dear Mad Duke

Dear Katherine Samantha, Duchess and Swordswoman,


I am well and at Ariston for Year's End. Mama gave all the silver in the bottom of her handbag to some mummers yesterday and they said it was too much. They didn't seem to like what they saw of the decorations, either, and now Mrs Applethorpe has given notice because she doesn't like the new range and so have half the kitchenmaids because they won't stay without her. I don't think we will ever be beloved in the countryside. Father hasn't been able to get away from his work in the City but we hope he will be with us soon.

Is your mother going to give another one of her famous costume parties? Will you be there or will you be back at St. Rhiannon's by then?


She hesitated, and then added in thicker writing, because something had gone wrong with the nib,

Will they let me write to you there?

Yours faithfully

Artemisia Fitz-Levi (Charis Vandall)





And then, with a sudden improbable joy, she scratched through the last two words she had written, and ran down the front stairs on feet that felt as if they were flying, to put the letter in the tray by the door for the butler to post.

Comments

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
coughingbear
Jan. 1st, 2008 09:44 pm (UTC)
I think this is wonderful. I love it. Samantha is brilliant ('if you examine your own inner heart, you will see that you do not actually care a scrap how I find the St. Rhiannon Academy') and I love the way you do Artemisia/Katherine's relationship and the echoes in Charis and Samantha, and the glory of Charis's 'But you can't pay me to sit here and be teased and poked and insulted just to amuse you.' And the lovely sense of possibilities at the end. Fab.
ankaret
Jan. 2nd, 2008 12:35 pm (UTC)
Yay, glad you liked. Samantha showed up all on her own and proceeded to take over the place, but Charis had to be coaxed into talking to me.
tiferet
Jan. 29th, 2008 05:36 pm (UTC)
I know another Charis that's like that. I still say I should have known that you'd written this.
ankaret
Jan. 29th, 2008 10:21 pm (UTC)
I like your Charis lots. I actually think she might get on with mine, once they both worked out that the other one was not willing to take delivery of any crap whatever.
tiferet
Jan. 30th, 2008 08:07 pm (UTC)
Yes. Absolutely.

Charis is in such a difficult position. She was really shortchanged by her birthmother who wouldn't let her be raised by Dracaena, because she is so very much Dracaena's daughter. But it has given her an interesting perspective. Yvon and Charis and Lucius are all very alike even though they are also quite different.
ankaret
Jan. 30th, 2008 12:10 pm (UTC)
That's so interesting! It looks to me like pretty much obviously my style with an overlay of borrowed Kushner (it hits a lot of these: '10 Ways Of Telling I Wrote This Fic' meme from 2006 - and the ones it doesn't are mostly universe-specific anyway) but then I wrote it.

I did very poorly at trying to work out who wrote which Yuletide. I was thrown off the scent by a lot of people writing in fandoms that they don't usually.
tiferet
Jan. 30th, 2008 08:06 pm (UTC)
The thing is, I could have written some of those 10 ways. Though obviously not the part about the sex. I...write sex. In everything.

Of course one of the hallmarks of my fics is that even Profit and Sylar fall in love. (But not with each other, at least.)
ankaret
Jan. 31st, 2008 06:50 pm (UTC)
Most of my characters slam the bedroom door on me very firmly. Every now and again I get one who's completely the opposite and will chattily say things like 'So, the story behind all the myths about me having a vagina dentata...' in the middle of Somerfield when I'm doing my shopping, but the man she's involved with WILL NOT TALK TO ME AT ALL so it gets me no further.
tiferet
Jan. 31st, 2008 07:36 pm (UTC)
In that case, I'd write the porn solely from her POV. Unless she's a telepath, how would she know what he's thinking?

I sometimes get characters who try to slam the door on me but I usually wear them down, or get them from their partner's POV. The one who's most successful at slamming the door is Priscilla Chattox but after writing a few of her sex scenes I've decided I'd rather not know.

Fairlight and Jim, of course, border on the exhibitionistic. They're both whores, and I mean that in the nicest possible way, but they just are, they use sex to get things and they haven't an ounce of shame about it. So they've never given me the slightest difficulty.
dormouse_in_tea
Feb. 8th, 2008 05:37 am (UTC)
This is the most depressing thing to come out of Yuletide this year. Because I do not get the sense that you're going to write more of it, and I weep.

Fabulous turns of phrase and endearing characters and I've never read the book and it was fabulous. Thank you!
ankaret
Feb. 8th, 2008 11:04 am (UTC)
Thank you! I don't rule out the idea of Charis and Samantha reporting back on whether they find the copy of The Swordswoman's Triumph, but I have to say they haven't done so yet.

I can't recommend the books highly enough - Swordspoint is the first one, in which Alec and St. Vier, who pop up briefly in the letters, are a poor scholar and a duellist-for-hire, and then The Privilege Of The Sword is the one with Katherine and Artemisia in. I love them both madly.
(Deleted comment)
ankaret
Mar. 31st, 2008 06:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Later
Aren't Ellen Kushner's books great? I really love her gift for evoking a world in a few sentences. Glad to have been of help!
msilverstar
Dec. 6th, 2008 07:55 pm (UTC)
This works so well for me, a fresh perspective on the Riverside-verse, with new characters (I do not care for Yet More Campion Angst), who do a great job of tying in and yet telling their own story. Charis's inner and outer voices are both familiar in a smart bookish-girl way and interestingly herself. I think that despite her mom's social-butterflyness, Charis has more parenting that Samantha does.

Have you read Fall of Kings?
ankaret
Dec. 6th, 2008 09:36 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I think Lady Vandall at least talks to Charis, whereas the Duchess has just been making vague but charming gestures in the direction of something that she assumes must be Samantha since Samantha was about six and would not notice for quite some time if Samantha was taken away and replaced with one of the hatstands.

I've read about a third of The Fall Of The Kings, and I'll probably give it another go at some point, but I have to say it didn't grab me by the throat the way the other two books did. I'd got used to the universe not having magic, and also I didn't find the central relationship all that compelling.
professorkatze
Mar. 21st, 2010 06:04 am (UTC)
Hi. I think I love you. I definitely love Samantha. And possibly Charis. Also, you're a genius.
<3<3<3this story
ankaret
Mar. 21st, 2010 10:08 am (UTC)
Unexpected feedback on old stories makes my day. Thank you!
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )