Friday, September 5, 2014

Chapter 2 of my sci-fi regency romance

Lord James Wroxham, Duke of Tenby, was bored. He, his sister the honorable Alice Wroxham and his school friend the honorable Frederick Thomas Alverston were riding in his carriage along the road from Bath to one of his many country estates. Carling Hall was in Wiltshire. They planned to take a few weeks or maybe a month on a repairing lease in the country and then they would drive to Brighton to enjoy the summer social season.
He exclaimed, “Nothing exciting ever happens.” Had he not been riding with his impressionable younger sister, he would have explained how, for his sixth consecutive season in London, the only females who were ever attracted to him were far more interested in his wealth than his person. It made them so boringly predictable and mindbogglingly vapid and dull. At least the muslin company that supplied his baser needs were business-like about it. He found their fee-for-service basis eminently satisfactory.
Frederick or Freddy as his friends called him, replied, “What do you mean. Aren't I good company?”
“Freddy, I know what you're going to say and do, almost before you do it.”
“If you say so.” He peered out of the carriage window and spied a broken Barouche with a pretty young lady sitting in front of it. “I say, James old man, here's something you wouldn't expect.” He thumped on the carriage and asked the postilions to halt.
“I'm sorry Freddy, but the number of females who have tried anything to attract my attention is beyond counting.”
“This one is dashed pretty. If you don't want to talk to her, I'll give her a shot.”
Alice was shocked and said, “Mr. Alverston! Please consider my feelings.”
“Your feelings, Miss Wroxham?” She collapsed into a confusion of blushing, which Freddy didn't seem to notice.
Lord Wroxham looked over the female outside. She was sitting by the road on her bag and looking up at his carriage. She seemed to be dressed in the correct fashion for a young chit. There was certainly nothing about her dress that indicated anything other than a young lady of taste and refinement stuck in a distressing situation. After giving her what he hoped would be a disquieting examination, he said, “What seems to be the trouble?”
“My carriage lost a wheel and my groom has gone off to find a wheel-right.”
“I see. Where are you bound?”
“I have a letter of introduction to Lord Wroxham. I was hoping to visit him at his country estate.”
Wroxham gave Freddy a significant glance, as if to say 'I told you so'.” He then asked the young female, “Do you know Lord Wroxham?”
“I'm sorry but I don't. My guardian recommended me to him, but I'm sorry to say I wouldn't know him from you.” She smiled at him. He noticed that she had an unusually pretty smile.
“We happen to be going that way. Would you desire a ride?”
“If you could,” Cynthia thought “That would be fucking fantastic.” Instead, she said, “I would most appreciate it. Could we leave a note at the next posting house for my groom?”
“Of course, but that won't be necessary. We'll be there shortly.”
Cynthia thought, “Of course arsehole, why did you think I set it up here?' but said, “That would be most satisfactory.” She touched her right earring and quietly muttered, “Chris, I am most displeased with this conditioning.” Her left earring replied, “Fuckin' A Ma'am.” Then it chuckled and continued, “I suppose you have made contact?”
“Yes.” Cynthia couldn't add the rest of her comment.
One of Lord Wroxham's footmen dismounted from the back of the carriage and took Cynthia's baggage to add to the load in the boot. She resisted at first, and then threw it to him. He staggered under the weight. “I'm sorry, I thought I packed light.” Lord Wroxham noticed this and opened the door for her. He said, “Please miss. I'm sorry that I didn't catch your name.”
“I'm not surprised that you didn't as I didn't tell you it. I'm Miss Cynthia.” She paused to remember her cover name, then added, “Miss Cynthia Morris.”
“Miss Morris, I'd be overjoyed to escort you to Lord Wroxham's estate.”
“Thank you.” She paused and studied his face, “Are you Lord Wroxham? I have a letter of introduction from my guardian to you. Unfortunately it is in my bag.”
“Dear Miss Morris. I have the misfortune to be him.”
“The misfortune to be one of the richest men in England?”
“It is. So many females try all sorts of tricks to be introduced to me. It gets exceedingly tedious. I do hope you're not one of them.”
“Me?” Cynthia thought, “Hell no, shithead. Not if you were the last man in England. There is no god damn fucking way I'm getting entangled with a native on this godforsaken backward planet.” but said, “No my lord. Of course not. I was commended into your care by my guardian. I have plenty of wealth of my own.”
“If you say so.”
Freddy added, “I must say James, cracking up a perfectly good carriage to draw your attention would be a bit extreme.”
“Freddy, many of the attempts young ladies have used to draw my favor have been almost as brazen. But it is usually a turned ankle or something equally gentile and boring.”
Cynthia hoisted herself into the cab without waiting for the footman to assist her. Then she started to sit next to Lord Wroxham, but her conditioning set in and she switched to sit next to his sister. She blushed, something she hadn't done in years, and said, “Thank you very much Lord Wroxham. I don't know what I'd do without your help.”
“Probably walk.”
“How far?”
“Only five miles.”
Cynthia touched her right earring and after a moment replied, “If you'd rather I walk, I'll race you.”
“Please don't.”
“I think that would be best.” Lord Wroxham thumped on his carriage and told the postilions “Drive on!”
As they moved off, Cynthia smiled, then muttered, “We mustn't litter” and pushed something in her reticule. The broken carriage vanished, unnoticed, behind them. She reached out of the window and caught something. The inside of the carriage was plush with silk covered pillows and soft seats. The covers were embroidered with the Wroxham crest. Cynthia looked at it in amazement. Her AR training had led her to believe that all carriages had Spartan hard wooden seats that would inevitably lead to an uncomfortable ride. Noticing this, Alice said, “Miss Morris, have you ever been in such an elegant carriage as this?”
“Not in a carriage. Once I had a rescue mission, from a harem. The harem was almost as nice as your carriage. The trip paid well too. It was on.” She stopped, suddenly aware that she was going to tell them about the Xylub homeworld. She backtracked quickly, “I'm sorry, I'm rattling on about what I imagined the harem from a novel to be.”
Lord Wroxham stared at her and said, “Miss Morris, a rescue mission from a harem. You must have quite an imagination.” His smile belied his stern words. Despite her resolution to have nothing to do with a native, she automatically returned it.
“My governess said I read too many novels for my own good. I begin to think she was right.”
Alice said, “Miss Morris, can I call you Cynthia? I love novels. Have you read Mrs. Radcliffe's latest, 'the Italian'?”
“I haven't had the pleasure.”
“We shall have to share it. I have it in my baggage, because I can't read in a carriage. Too much motion makes my head swim.”
“I should love to read it with you. However, if we're to start on it tonight I'll need to rest.” Cynthia snuggled into the cushions and propped her head on a bolster. Then she said, “It's been a exhausting day,” and promptly fell asleep to the swaying of the carriage in the warm early summer air.
Freddy remarked to his host, “This chit, at least, doesn't seem interested in you, James. Dashed funny way to make an impression, if you ask me.”
Lord Wroxham replied, “Freddy, I just hope she isn't the standing budge1 for some gang of cracksmen. She's dashed smoky.”
Alice said, “She said she had a letter of introduction to you. Is that a problem?”
“It's easy to buy a counterfeit. I'll have to look at it carefully.”
“How exciting! A criminal in our house. What are you going to do James?”
“I'll set one of the maids to keep a close eye on her, or failing that one of the footmen. She'll soon enough trip up if she's playing a game. In the meanwhile I'll check her letter of introduction. She might just be an overly imaginative young female.”

The carriage turned off of the main road and down the country lane that led to the hall. The lane, while shaded and comforting, was not in as good condition as the main road. The postilions were forced to go slowly. The carriage creaked over the rough parts of the lane, and was once, briefly stuck in the mire. Freddy remarked to his host, “James, you need to get after that steward of yours. This lane is worse than last year.”
“It's just a shortcut. Mostly used by cows and farmers. I don't see why they need me to lay out my blunt.”
“If you say so, but what if you had a visit by a person of importance?”
“Then I'd direct them by the main road.”
Lord Wroxham's statement about cows was soon proved. The carriage stopped as one of his tenants moved his herd along the lane to be milked. While they sat there engulfed in a strong bovine aroma and endured the buffeting by the animals passing, Alice wondered if she should have brought her book inside after all. Cynthia woke with a start and jumped out of her seat when one of the animals mooed loudly. “What was that?”
Alice tilted her head in curiosity as she asked, “Don't you know?”
“Wait, yes, I do. It's a cow isn't it?”
“Yes, Miss Morris, it is a cow. They're common, even in London.”
“I didn't think they were so big.”
“Where did you say you were from?”
“I didn't say. I was just off in a lovely dream about flying around the moons of Beta Cygnus 8.”
“Beta Cygnus 8?”
“It's a planet, with beautiful moons, scenic mountains and verdant forests.”
“A planet like Herschel2?”
“Do you mean, Uranus? No it's much smaller and prettier. I was dreaming of my.” She stopped. “I've been letting my imagination run away with me again, haven't I? My guardian, Lord Petersborough, has repeatedly told me to stop. That's part of why he's sending me to visit you Lord Wroxham. He hopes that if I see more of the real world, maybe I'll be less fanciful.”
Lord Wroxham made a noncommittal noise in response, but stared at Cynthia as he thought, “I know Lord Petersborough and he doesn't have any wards. Certainly not any as young and pretty as this one, and if she has any money there is no way he would let her out of his sight.”
The cows eventually passed the carriage and they quickly made their way to the hall. Since the drive was well-kept the postilions pushed their horses and the carriage sped to the front of the building in a stylish swirl of noise and dust. Alice held the strap, excited at the rapid ten mile an hour rate. She said, “Cynthia, isn't this exciting?”
“You know, I've never felt I was moving so quickly.” She caught herself before she added, “Even that jury-rigged ship I used to flee from the Xylub felt sturdier than this crate.”
They disembarked from the carriage, and leaving the servants to unload their luggage went inside. Lord Wroxham suggested that they refresh themselves and then have dinner. Cynthia found that she was in need of a visit to the head. She asked Hannah, the maid assigned to watch over her needs about it and was surprised to find out about chamber pots. She realized, once it was patiently explained to her, that there was a sound reason for her lack of pants.
Dinner itself went surprisingly well. The AR conditioning taught Cynthia manners, and she handled the maze of glasses, forks and other cutlery as if she had been using them all of her life. The food itself could have been a problem, but for one who prided herself on eating Xylub food without anti-nausea pills, regency cuisine held few fears. Indeed, it was excellent. That is until she asked, “This dish, what is it?”
“It is a ragout, of veal I believe.”
“Baby cows.”
Cynthia swallowed and felt a little ill. She was eating real animals, real animals that were cooked in a sauce, and not synthetic textured protein that was also cooked in a sauce.
“Are you well, Miss Morris?”
She smiled. She'd eaten worse, only this was a shock because it was unexpected. “Yes, I'm fine. Could I have some more of the frites, please?”
“You should save some room for the trifle.”
“Sweet, pudding, dessert?”
After dinner, Alice took Cynthia to the withdrawing room for a comfortable cose. “We should leave Freddy and James to the port and snuff.”
“If you say so. What will we have?”
“Is tea suitable?”
“Yes tea.”
Cynthia looked away from her, as though she were listening to a distant voice, then replied, “Of course, tea. What was I thinking of?”
Sitting in the corner of the room was a harp. It looked neglected. Cynthia stopped and stared at it. “Can I play that. I used to have a harp.”
“It was my mothers, I can't play it. You're welcome to try, if you're careful with it.”
“Oh please. I had to sell mine for fuel on.”
“For fuel.”
“It is a long story. I'll tell you sometime.”
“Another of your imaginings?”
“Yes, definitely yes.”
She sat behind the harp and began to try to play it. Not surprisingly it was far out of tune. Alice said, “It hasn't been played in years. I can only play the piano. Would you like to hear me?”
“Yes, very much, but let me tune this first. We can play duets. Can you play a 'C'?”
Alice hammered out a 'C' on the piano. Cynthia grimaced. It wasn't exactly a 'C', but being in tune with the other instrument was more important than being on the right scale. A few minutes later, Cynthia pronounced her work done. “It's not perfect, but it is playable.” Then she started to play. Alice sat and listened. When Cynthia stopped she gasped, “You're good. Most of what I hear when young women play their harps is just plink plonk plink plonk. How did you learn?”
“Can you play 'the Miller'?”
“I don't know it. Can you show me?”
Alice started on the piano and after listening, Cynthia joined in. Freddy and Lord Wroxham entered, having had their statutory glass of port. Freddy said, “My what fair muses you two are. Euterpe and Erato themselves.”
Alice blushed. She liked Freddy and a compliment from him meant something to her. Lord Wroxham simply said, “I'm sorry that I have some business to attend to. I will return presently.” He bowed and left to go to his study.
While Cynthia and Alice were enthralling Freddy with their playing, Lord Wroxham was carefully examining Cynthia's letter of introduction. It was perfect, the seal matched one from an earlier letter, the handwriting, spelling and signature matched Lord Petersborough's. Indeed, had he the ability to analyze the ink and the paper he would have found those matched too. Chris had done his job well down to the laid paper and oak-gall ink, but then he had lots of practice generating fake credentials. Still, as Lord Wroxham read the letter, something kept bothering him. “I know Lord Petersborough. He's an odd old crotchety bugger and this letter is so out of character for him.” He put it aside and was considering sending an express to London asking for confirmation, when there was a quiet knock on the study door. It was the maid who had been assigned the task of unpacking and freshening up Cynthia's clothes.
“Sir,” she began, “This.” She held out a small lady's diary. Her hand trembled as she said, “It talked to me when I picked it up.”
“Did it?”
“Yes sir. I don't want to go into that room again. Who knows what devilry that Miss Morris is up to.”
“It's fine Hannah. You did the right thing to bring the book to me.”
“You're not worried about her, Sir?”
“A little Hannah. There's something dashed smoky about Miss Morris.”
“Just the things she said on the ride here. They make me wonder if she's not up to some game.”
“She's not normal, Sir. I'm scared.”
“Just leave it here and get about your work. Thank you Hannah.”
She left the diary on the table in front of him, curtsied and left. He walked over, hesitated, and then picked up the diary. It immediately asked him, “Has that silly woman left?”
“Yes. Reveal yourself, I'm not scared.”
“You're not? Then you're either brave or foolish. If not both. Are you Lord Wroxham?”
Lord Wroxham regretted that it being a warm afternoon, he hadn't had a fire kindled in his study. He fought down the urge to through the book out the window.
“Y-y-yes, I am.”
“Excellent. I was hoping to meet you. To do so this soon in our visit is a great stroke of luck. Lucky for both of us.”
“Who are you?”
“I'm called Chris. Would you very much mind opening the book's cover and looking at the pages.”
He opened the book, but instead of a blank page of paper, ready to be covered with the day's doing in a lady's neat handwriting, there was a dark sheet of glass.
“Does this help?” An image of a young man appeared on the glass. “It's not me, but maybe you'll feel better if you think you're talking to another person.”
“You're not a person?”
Chris paused for a moment. “Lord Wroxham, now that I've had a chance to look at you, I'd say you're exactly the person I imagined you to be. Perhaps even a bit more handsome than your reputation. You can ask me questions, but please understand that I can't answer all of them. It's not that I am trying to mislead you, but there are things that you simply won't understand even if I tell you the answer.”
“If you're not a person, what are you?”
“You see, there's one of those questions already. I'm an automaton, like that magical chess-playing Turk, only much closer to human.”
“There was a man inside of the magical turk.”
“There's nothing more I can tell you that you could understand.”
“How do you talk? Where are you?”
“Calm down. Those are questions I'll answer in time. First I have one or two for you.”
“If you're not answering all of my questions then maybe I won't answer those.”
“I'm sure you will. They are about Cynthia.”
“Miss Morris?”
“How are you finding my mistress?”
“Your mistress?”
“I'm her, wait, steward. That's the closest servant, I think. Either that or her guardian.”
“I'm not sure about this letter of introduction. It's not something that Lord Petersborough would write. Especially if she's really an heiress. I was about to send him an express.”
“I wouldn't bother. It's a fake letter.”
“It's fake?”
“One of my best quality fakes, but yes, it's absolutely fake. I made it.”
Lord Wroxham sat there, flabbergasted. “This cannot be happening. It must be something I ate. Maybe that veal was too old.”
“It is happening, my Lord. I'll be quick so you can rejoin the others before the tea gets cold.”
“Do so.”
“I've taken advantage of a little detour in our travels to arrange for Cynthia to take a repairing lease in the country. She likes to play historical games, especially one game that is set in the regency period.”
“Regency period?”
“Now, I suppose you'd call it modern England. She needs to take at least a few months, and even better a year or two off and spend some of her life with other humans.”
“Historical games? Other humans?”
“Normal people. You for instance.”
“What else is there besides humans?”
“Many things. If we're unlucky you'll get to meet some of them.”
“Oh. I'm a historical figure am I?”
“Yes and no. It's real to you now, but in the future it will have happened in our past.”
“Can you run that by me again?”
“No. Now I must warn you Cynthia has a little problem distinguishing between meum and teum. She's also rather handy with, what was that phrase? With her fives.”
“So she's a bloody sneak thief.”
“More of an adventuress, and a darned good one at that. In fact one of the best in the galaxy. It's been an honor to serve her. She thinks she's here to steal your stone. Don't let her take it. If someone's jewelry goes missing, the chances are that she has it.”
“Why should I let her stay here?”
“She's also great company. I have never been bored in the thirty years I've served her.”
“Thirty years? She looks sixteen.”
“Physically she is sixteen. She needs to grow up. I'm hoping that the meum and teum problem will resolve itself when she matures.”
“I don't understand.”
“Lord Wroxham, I don't expect you to understand me. Please trust me. You won't regret it.”
“Are you sure about that, because I'm not inclined to trust talking books. To be honest, I'm having trouble believing this is happening.”
“Yes, I'm certain you won't regret it. May I ask you a question?”
“Why not?”
“Is there a reason you haven't married? You do like women, don't you?”
“Yes, I enjoy females. I'd like to enjoy some female companionship that I didn't have to pay for. It's just all the ones I meet in society are so boring, so predictable. They're all after my money. I could be an ugly hunchbacked cripple with one leg and two teeth and they'd still be fawning over me.”
“That's unfortunate. Cynthia, you will find, is highly unpredictable. I hope you will enjoy her company.”
“Then I won't be bored with her?”
“Angry, upset, frustrated, and maybe even in love, but not bored. Now I need to give you a warning.”
“In about a week she will get terribly ill. That's just the effects of the medicine she takes to stay young wearing off. You can send for the apothecary if you want, but talk to me about what to do.”
“All-right. You're not going to scare the maids again, are you?”
“Now that I have measured your print. I will only turn on for you or Cynthia.”
“My print?”
“Look at those ridges on your fingers. They're unique to you. I'll know when you pick up this device. One other thing.”
“Please don't tell Cynthia we've talked, and put this book back in her room.”
“It would be best, trust me.” Chris shut off. The dark glass became a sheet of paper again.
Lord Wroxham thought for a few minutes. Then he rang and asked that the maid Hannah come to his study.
“Hannah. I don't know what you heard, but I've been through this book from the front to the back and it is just a book. See.”
He opened it and flipped through the pages in front of her.
“It did talk to me, Sir.”
“I'm sure you heard something. But not this book. Books do not talk. Miss Morris is an unusual young lady, but one you will grow to like.”
“If you say so, Sir.” Hannah was clearly dubious about it.
“Would you take this book back and replace it?”
“No sir.”
“Shall I carry it to the room for you”
“Sir, please.”
“I will, but only if you agree to try to be her maid.”
Hannah thought for a few moments, then replied, “Yes, Sir.”

1 A standing budge is a scout for a thief. Cracksmen were house robbers in general.
2The name for Uranus at the time.