I hope London’s trust in me is not misplaced, thought Hewell as he sought his valise under roadside ferns. He spotted the leather case, still buckled, its sheaf of papers safe, and drawing it from among the fronds, climbed out of the ditch to stand beside the carriage. Always fond of a good puzzle, Hewell was none too keen on mysteries; and unfortunately, events of the morning suggested more of the latter were in store for his afternoon.
He offered the harried driver a hand strapping their trunks back in place. The man had finally managed to calm the more nervous of the two horses, understandably shaken after the affright, or attack, or whatever it had been. When the incident occurred, even though it was still shy of noon, Hewell had been dozing uneasily inside the compartment. His seat suddenly slewed, twisting him out of a restless dream, flinging him first against the door and then through it, onto a blessedly mossy embankment. The coach had very nearly toppled over onto him. Thank God for a skilled driver and at least one imperturbable horse.
Just as their luggage was settled back in place, the other passenger returned from scouting the woods, and approached the driver with more questions. “You say the figure rushed from where to where?”
“Well, he come up from here,” the driver said, pointing, “and then run off that way, towards Pellapon Hall. From what I hears, they be having a deal of trouble in these parts, but I never thought to fear any of it meself.”
The other passenger, who had said hardly a syllable to Hewell on the journey from the local train station, as buried in notebooks as Hewell was in postal documents, appeared to be traveling in some sort of official capacity. His tone was consistent with his superiority. “I need more details, if you please. Dressed in what fashion? Speak up!”
Hewell felt it was no one’s place to pester the poor, rattled driver. And yet he was interested in the reply.
“As I said, it was all very fast but—I seemed to see a figure all in black, head to toe, in a peculiar kind of cape. Had on a hood to hide his face and a pair of horns atop it all. Like goat horns, I’d say.”
“Or Devil horns perhaps?”
“I don’t know about that. I’ve never seen the Devil meself, couldn’t speculate on the nature of his horns. But I have seen goats aplenty and I’d say these were more that sort.”
The officious gentleman nodded and turned away, making notes in a tiny journal.
Once they had settled again in the carriage, to be shaken in the more ordinary way by the resumption of their journey, Hewell cleared his throat and said, “I’m an inspector myself.”
The other passenger gave him a direct look. Bushy eyebrows, grey-salted whiskers, a beard barely attended to. Hewell felt a pang of pity for the man: self-groomed, a bit threadbare, yet with an intensity of gaze which suggested that the lack of coin or comforts did not trouble him in the least.
“That is, if I am not far amiss, you too appear to be an inspector of some sort.”
The man closed his notebook and slipped it into an inner pocket. “Forgive me a professional reticence, but my employer would rather I not speak openly until I have conferred with him.”
“Might I hazard a guess as to your employer’s identity?”
“I can hardly prevent you from speculating.”
“We traverse at this moment the ancestral homestead of the Pellapons. Is this name known to you?”
“That great house is indeed my first stop. But I can say no more.”
“Naturally. I myself am free to come forward in my public capacity as an inspector of the Royal Mail. I am travelling only slightly farther along, to the village proper. Binderwood. You are aware perhaps of certain irregularities—one might even characterize them as abuses—in the local mail? London has grown alarmed. I am here to investigate.”
“As you say. And without compromising my discretion, you are undoubtedly apprised that these irregularities have affected Lord Pellapon’s affairs in matters of business, person, and privacy.”
“Say no more,” said Hewell. “It is not entirely unlikely that even though the London office ordered me here, a request from Lord Pellapon was behind that command. Therefore, if I may in any way be of service, please do not hesitate to ask. It might be to both our advantage were we to occasionally pool our findings.”
“Indeed.” The eyes of the other gent began to twinkle. “I like this thought. I like it very much. As two outsiders in Binderwood, we are likely to encounter nothing but resistance, doors shut up in our paths. But doors are ineffective if one can come at them from both sides at once! We shall beat them at their own game, sir, whatever it may be!”
“Hewell,” said Hewell, extending his hand.
“Deakins,” said the other, almost certainly a detective of the private variety. His nearly skeletal fingers managed a firm grip as they shook.
“I did not see you on the train from London,” the detective said, “despite several strolls from one end to the other to work my legs.”
“I ride in the mail car,” Hewell said. “I wish I could recommend it as a mode of travel, but its comforts are few. There is little in the way of seating, and one is constantly in the way of the sorting clerks and made to feel unwelcome. My presence made them uncomfortable. Even though I repeatedly reassured them I was there purely as a passenger, they never believed me. In truth, I couldn’t help but notice some deficiencies in their methods, but could say nothing after my promises. On my return, I will certainly avoid that particular car. The hardest thing is to know a truth one cannot speak.”
The coach stopped and the driver hopped down to put his head in. “I hope it’s no bother, Mr. Hewell, but I been instructed to deliver Lord Pellapon’s guest right quick. It’s a short deviation and we’ll proceed into Binderwood straightaway after, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” Hewell answered, pleased that he would get a look at Pellapon Hall. Since it figured into his investigation, it would be good to have a sense of its relation to various landmarks he had in his head. Studying the district map had given him only the faintest impression of the region.
They headed up a long drive, among mature yet sickly hornbeams dappled with anemic sunlight, and the woods thinned to give glimpses of the grounds. There was not much to admire: a ragged sweep of bare, salted lawn cresting hills that ran toward the sea; and, at the end of the drive, a tall house with its wings open toward them like the halves of a traveling apothecary’s dispensary trunk. The stone of the place was rimed and spotted; sea spray and lichens had brought the house into sympathy with the local limestone. It was as if an architect had taken a stern hand to an outcrop.
A smattering of domestic staff awaited the coach, at their fore a hale, ruddy-complected figure with a raw nose and wispy hair that had gone to grey yet still retained a memory of orange. This attribute gave unspoken testimony that the twin girls waiting beside him were his daughters.
Hewell attempted to remain within the coach, but Deakins said a few words to Lord Pellapon and he found himself compelled into the house for tea. The driver, having no other passengers, was content to wait.
“Run along, girls!” Lord Pellapon barked as he led the way down a dim corridor toward the sitting room, for the two ginger lasses seemed inclined to lurk and listen to every word. They drifted away with whispers and titters, but Hewell sensed they were never quite out of earshot—his or theirs.
“Twins?” he asked.
“What’s that? The girls? Yes, and a trial to me as never to their mother, God rest her. I have no aptitude for the raising of such angels. Under my care they have become perfect devils!”
His face reddening, he seemed on the verge of a fit until Deakins put a hand on his shoulder and said, “But your troubles hatch elsewhere, Lord Pellapon. With those resolved, I have no doubt your family will be restored to a more natural harmony.”
“Naturally,” Lord Pellapon agreed, subsiding into a state of quietude, as well as a chair of oxblood leather, near a window overlooking the cliffs. Through lozenges of poor consistency, Hewell saw the grey and restless bosom of the ocean. The horizon was at the mercy of mist and cloud, and he supposed he might stand at this window for a year and never see it clearly. He felt grateful that his own chambers in London held no such views, or any at all, to distract him.
“My Lord,” said Deakins, “I thought with Mr. Hewell here, you might be able to acquaint both of us, as one, with the details of your present difficulties. As I understand it, they revolve around the mail.”
“Yes, and I have had no satisfaction from the local authorities. Merricott is quite unhelpful. Incompetent, I daresay.”
“The local postmaster?” Hewell said. “Well, that is why I’m here. An obstinate fellow will be dealt with to the extent of my powers, keeping in mind that he may have a certain vestigial authority that proves recalcitrant. It is often the case with these local offices. They resist any attempt to bring them in line with the latest procedures, and any mention of increased efficiency is often met with outright hostility. If you knew the outcry we faced at the proposal of installing post boxes in regions even less removed than this…”
“Shameful, I’m sure,” said Pellapon. “But Merricott is not obstinate. He’s an idiot!”
“That does not necessarily make matters easier,” the detective said. “A measure of intelligence often makes for quicker arrival at an agreed destination—once trouble has been turned from its deviant course. What the perpetrators will not expect is a ferocious imagination—mine!—turned upon their plots. There is no trouble they can concoct that is inconceivable to me…and in this wise I shall expediently outwit them.”
Idiots and deviants, Hewell thought. They are certainly eager to work from assumptions.
“On behalf of the Royal Mail,” said Hewell, “I can promise a thorough, sober, and clear-eyed investigation. Now, as I understand it, Binderwood has experienced a tremendous rise in the volume of local correspondence—”
“To such an extent my business is suffering! Letters lost. Valuable communiqués gone missing in this deluge of packets…this, this torrent. I am constantly receiving letters full of nonsense, while my own transactions go astray. A letter of patent I expected a month ago turned up last week in an illiterate cotter’s hut. It would be there still had not Doctor Ogilvy paid the poor wretch a visit to treat a milkrash, and spotted it in service as a blotter.”
“Many villages such as Binderwood are in a state of flux,” Hewell said without trying to sound as if he were justifying the inexcusable. “Modern improvements are planned for all, to meet with the rise in demand, but some areas are still far behind the times. You have the telegraph, of course—”
“But it is the mail I rely upon, and the mail that has gone to Hell! I cannot append my signature or set my stamp to a telegram! I assure you this matter concerns the whole locale. Just because it has not troubled London—”
“Pray do not mistake me, sir! It is a deeply troubling matter to London, and to me personally. The mail in all its parts is our concern, and I thank you for bringing this to my attention. I do feel, given the urgency I sense, that my time were better spent attending directly to the situation. Meaning no discourtesy, I beg your leave to forego my tea and get on to my meeting with the post master, post haste.”
“Well,” Lord Pellapon muttered, “it would be greatly appreciated. Tilly, where are the detective’s biscuits?”
Deakins gave the postal inspector a nod and settled down to business: slurping his Lapsang Souchong while the maid scurried off for the missing digestives. Hewell found his own way back down the passage to the foyer. Seeing no servants, he was about to open the front door himself when it flew inward, nearly crushing his nose.
He found himself facing a tall young man in the act of delivering the afternoon mail. Before he had quite registered that Hewell was a stranger, the lad had relinquished two handfuls of letters. It was rather a lot of mail for one house, Hewell thought, weighing them in either hand.
“That will be all, boy,” Hewell said to the youth’s bewilderment. The dazed lad nodded, bowed, and returned to his waiting nag, looking back at Hewell several times. Hewell shut the door and inspected the letters in what illumination passed through the high foyer fanlight.
Lord Pellapon’s mail was ordinary enough: the usual admixture of cancellations and the standard Penny Black stamp, self-adhesive pride of the Royal Mail. He could never see one without admiring it: Queen Victoria’s blessed profile, beautifully engraved against a background of engine turnings. The common red cancellation mark was a bit difficult to see, which had led to talk of printing in new colors, a notion Hewell despised as undignified. The black ink framing Her white visage was elegant, unequalled. He had seen them being printed, had touched the etched plates, had welcomed what they meant for the efficient handling of mail in a reformed and modern postal system. Everything about them pleased him.
The Penny Blacks decorated a number of thin rustling envelopes, as well as a rather larger bundle bearing the inscription of a solicitor in London. But in his left hand were four or five packets of a more irregular sort: Cheap, thick paper, each bearing a stamp he did not at first recognize. Foreign? Or some local variant?
A troubling variety of unauthorized regional postage stamps had sprung up in the shadow of the Penny Black. It was not entirely accurate to call them counterfeit; they were more along the lines of homages, although of course highly unlawful. These were an affliction of remote counties, but a manageable one, rarely worth the time it took to suppress them unless they travelled beyond their home districts.
The letters in Hewell’s left hand all bore the same peculiar stamp: It was engraved with care and craft, but printed in violet ink on a press whose plates were minutely out of register, such that the profile was ever so slightly blurred. This figure of royalty wore a fanciful three-tipped crown, and was most certainly not Victoria Regina. The profile’s most remarkable feature was a sharp dot of carmine red marking out the iris of the eye. As a work of art and amateur production, it was intriguing. However it also bore the legend “One Penny,” which marked it out as a competitor to the Royal Mail, a blatant forgery, and therefore intolerable.
“It is our job to deliver the mail,” said a piping, musical voice.
“We’ll carry those to Papa!”
The packets were snatched from his hands.
“Thank you, Mr. Hewell!”
Even as he turned to look after them, the twins were gone, ascamper down the corridor. They veered to the right and headed up a flight of stairs. Perhaps knowing that their father would not want to be interrupted in the sitting room, they left most of the letters stacked precariously on the newel post. But the left-hand delivery seemed not to be among them. Hewell considered this a moment, then decided to continue with his own business.
The coachman was waiting, but the young courier had already passed into the distant spray of hornbeams that lined the drive. Hewell was quite certain he would be seeing him again soon enough.
The last leg of the journey into Binderwood was uneventful. After the sullen demeanor of Pellapon Hall, he found the mien of the village cheerful. This was partly the result of his innate disposition. An infrequent visitor to such rural districts, Hewell took little pleasure from the merely scenic. He preferred the presence of people, and those in quantity, with all the attendant reassuring noises and behaviors of his kind. He had dark suspicions of the sorts of associations and activities that might arise among naturally social and gregarious creatures such as man when they found themselves spread too thin.
The village gave the impression of coherence. A tinsmith, a chandler, grocer and butcher cheek by jowl, an inn. At this last, the coachman helped him out and tendered his slightly scuffed luggage. From the door of the inn, Hewell looked along the central lane and marked out the post office, just across the way. Everything was close and convenient. With a satisfied nod, he went inside.
A small, tidy upper room overlooked the street, and the innkeeper’s wife was solicitous. He was far from Mrs. Floss’s first London visitor and Mrs. Floss was far from impressed. He immediately took a meal in the overheated common room, sitting as close to the door and as far from the unnecessarily roaring hearth as he could manage, while the landlady complained about a cold that wouldn’t leave her bones, and gave every indication that she would be happy to complain about those who complained about the heat. As he swirled the last of his stout and washed down the last bit of bread, a lanky silhouette came in from the street and nearly stumbled over Hewell’s outstretched legs. He recognized the lad from Lord Pellapon’s. The boy removed his hat and shifted it from hand to hand before realizing that he should offer one in greeting.
“You are the postal inspector, sir, is that correct?”
“I am, lad. And we’ve met. Sit down if you wish.”
“I’m Toby, sir.”
“Of course you are.”
“My master, the postmaster, Mr. Merricott, sir, sent me to extend every courtesy and let you know he awaits you at your conveniently…earliness…”
“Very well, Toby. Tell him I will be along—well, no. I’m finished here. I shall accompany you back at this very moment.”
“Sir, it would be my pleasure, sir.”
“Mister Hewell is sufficient.”
Hewell pushed aside the empty tankard. They brewed a fine stout here in Binderwood—a very fine stout indeed. But for the sake of his duties he must keep a clear head.
Young Toby led him the short distance down the street and then across. Hewell saw the courier’s nag slouched in a muddy paddock, all spattered herself. By contrast, the office was orderly, neat, and well maintained, with no obvious signs of systemic disruption that might explain a mail system gone awry. Postmaster Merricott was of demeanor consistent with his office. A thin, prim, fastidious man of slightly more years than Hewell, he rubbed his palms together continually, as if trying to congeal and remove a stubborn patch of gum arabic. He dispatched Toby to the back room to fetch a district map. Hewell already possessed a regulation map, but he was keen to inspect the village copy for any discrepancies. Local terrain was often at odds with London’s representation.
Merricott managed to make himself present for any question Hewell might pose, while at the same time blending discreetly into the background of the small office. Toby’s presence was harder to ignore. The lad rustled ledgers, sorted letters loudly, and was constantly banging in and out through the rear of the office to attend to the horse and various other responsibilities of a rural postal clerk.
After an hour spent in a survey of the most superficial aspects of the office’s functions, Hewell set aside his magnifying glass and let it be known that Merricott was welcome to be more forthcoming.
“I wonder whether you might educate me regarding any local, shall we say, irregularities. When it comes to postal standards, that is.”
“Certainly, Inspector,” said Merricott, and followed this by waiting silently.
“I await explication.”
“Of what, sir?”
“I would not tolerate them, Inspector. I’m sure London would take a dim view of that.”
“Do you not sell, in addition to the standard Penny Black, some other form of postage?”
Merricott’s expression turned from bland to befuddled.
“Other form? Only the Penny Black, sir. We are not as remote as all that. I have heard tell of counterfeits in circulation elsewhere, but we’ve seen no sign of them here.”
“Well, you wouldn’t recognize a good forgery, now would you? But come, come, that’s not what I’m getting at. Today I have spotted another stamp, of a violet hue—”
They were becoming aware of an increasing hubbub from the back room, and at last Merricott jumped to his feet and called, “Toby! What the blazes are you crashing about in there for?”
Merricott settled back down and resumed his guided finger-tour of the contents of his desk. Toby emerged a minute later with a peeling and blistered red and black japanned tray, upon which rested three cracked cups and a fissured, fuming teapot. His cheeks pink with embarrassment, he poured for the two men and then flushed further when he realized he had included his cup among theirs. He begged their pardon for his presumption and started backing out of the room, taking his empty cup along.
“I wonder, Mr. Merricott,” said Hewell, arresting the boy’s retreat, “if you might be so kind as to allow me to accompany young Toby on his rounds tomorrow.”
“Are the maps not sufficient?” Merricott asked.
“They tell only part of the story, at least from my perspective. A guide well versed in the environs gives a deeper understanding of the ordinary obstacles. I am far from seeing how any sort of irregularity is possible in such a well ordered office as yours, Mr. Merricott, so the trouble must lie outside it.”
“Thank you, sir. And thanks to London for its trust. I see they have sent their finest. Toby! Tomorrow you are at Mr. Hewell’s disposal, understood?”
“What…will, will you then join me on my route?”
“Indeed,” said Hewell. “I shall return at first light.” For it had grown dark as they worked, and it had been the longest sort of day, comprising a journey followed not by rest and recuperation, but by work and still more work. Hewell had but a handful of days for his investigation and dared waste none of them; he also dared not return to London without an explanation, and ideally a solution put in place. He doubted he could solve the issue of mysterious figures running across wooded roads and upsetting horses by their sinister costumes, but issues involving the mail could surely be sorted.
Toby raised the cup to his lips and sipped air, his teeth clattering on the rim. “First light,” he said, and bounded backward out of the room. More clatterings ensued, and then the boy went back to work. Hewell heard the scratching of a pen.
“A diligent lad,” he said.
“Toby? A very industrious lad, yes. Deliveries twice, sometimes three times a day. Our residents are avid correspondents. He lives in the back there; no family worth mentioning, so I’ve taken him in. At times I’ve had to prevail upon him to slow down, if only for the sake of poor old Eglentine.”
“You’ve a literate population, then.”
“You will find many good souls, especially amongst our youth, who are charitable with their time and use it to help the unlettered. They compose missives where once they might have gone visiting. In some ways, it worries me, the decline in social intercourse. And yet the post office has benefitted thereby…and it does keep the young ones out of trouble.”
“Would you say this might be the cause of a recent increase, even an overabundance of mail?”
“It might seem so, but the increase in postage has been slight. No letter travels unless it has been stamped. No stamps are sold but in this office. And there has been no noticeable increase in postal sales. Therefore…” With a plain-dealer’s shrug, and open hands, he demonstrated the simplicity of the problem: there was none.
Toby put his head through from the rearmost room. “Night mail is accumulating, sir. I’d best attend to it.”
“Don’t you dare risk Madame Eglentine in the dark, Toby! I won’t have it!”
“No, sir. It’s a fine night, I’ll have no trouble on my own two pins.”
Merricott gave him a nod, but Hewell merely blinked. After a few moments, he pleaded fatigue and excused himself, leaving Merricott to begin whatever shop-shutting he normally conducted.
Out in the dark lane, Hewell stood quietly watching and listening until he saw a tall figure pass through a far-off haze of light. The long-legged character strode away from Floss’s inn. The inspector headed after him.
Beyond the faint light cast in the lane by the homes and shops of Binderwood, where the buildings grew sparser and the distance between them greater, Hewell’s eyes had to catch what glimpses they could by starlight. There was just enough of this astronomic glow to keep the striding shape in sight without putting himself at risk of having his footsteps overheard.
Spectralia’s Courier was in a state of panic. He had never felt such dread, not through all the conflicts and quarrels that had beset the Commonwealth during his tenure. The Dispute of the Seventeen Borders; the Deputation of Ghosts; the Battle of the Sea Stars—none of these events had involved him directly. Even the War of the Woods, in which he was conscripted, had been fought and finished quickly, resolved with several duels, one sword fight, and a formal armistice followed by cake. Although the Kingdom had certainly been in danger, and had dealt with its share of spies and subterfuges, the threat had never before come from beyond. Internal pressures were one thing. Civil wars flared up continually, but Her Ladyship, the Queen of Ghosts, had a strong and fair hand when it came to managing her subjects. This was a different matter. What bulwarks could she erect against the actions of external principalities? What chance had Spectralia against the far-off yet famously meddlesome influence of London? The people there obeyed no monarch but their own!
In darkness, moving stealthily down astral paths known only to Initiates, the Courier Tobianus reminded himself that his duty was not to solve these problems but simply to report them. The Queen, once roused and enlightened, would certainly know what to do.
But arriving at the meeting place, Tobianus discovered that word had spread already, and his errand in this instance proved superfluous. Several dozen subjects of the Ghost Queen, apprised by the Terrors themselves, had gathered in the dark glade near the Grimstock Menhirs—those standing stones older than London but by no means as ancient as Spectralia. In the lee of the stones, they guarded a lantern and shared what they knew, while waiting for the pale Queen to pass judgment. When Tobianus finally caught sight of her, she appeared to be listening patiently with closed eyes to their worries. Hearing of his arrival, her carmine eyes flashed open. She beckoned him forward and asked him to contribute whatever unique information he might possess. Under her warm regard, he felt his fear melt away. The Queen knew already of the convocation at the Oblivious King’s estate, where the breach of security had been observed at first hand. The Royal Terrors were her eyes and ears in that place, so of course she knew whatever they knew—and in fact they knew far more than the Courier regarding the disposal of the mail he had delivered.
“We know he studied a Ghost Penny,” said the Queen, and the twin red Terrors nodded. “From this he may infer, eventually, the existence of our post.”
A murmur swept the gathering.
“I am to take him on my rounds tomorrow,” said Tobianus. “He will accompany me throughout day, which means the Spectral Mail will stall completely.”
The Queen dismissed his fears with a small flick of her hand. “For the duration of this emergency, We are suspending the Courier’s exclusive contract and putting all delivery in the hands of the citizens. Ferry your own correspondence. If you wish to pool your efforts, We will leave that to your discretion. Use the astral paths. Eschew the main routes. And especially avoid engaging with the Courier while he is compelled by the Inspector.”
“But who will tabulate the motivations?” Tobianus asked. “My quarters are under scrutiny. I dare make no calculations.”
“Again, for the duration of the emergency, all citizens are to be responsible for their own tabulations. We hereby suspend the Haruspices of the Shuttle and refer you to rely on the actions of dice, as in days of old. We trust you have all retained the original Codex of Action and Circumstance. If your copy has been misplaced, you will need to confer with a neighbor.”
Apparently many copies had been misplaced, which pleased Her Eminence not at all. Without the basic concordance, they were all at odds and evens; her ongoing addenda were useless on their own. Various complaints were made regarding the clumsy process for emergency concatenation. Few remembered how it was done, many of the original dice had been misplaced or swallowed by pets and small children, there was endless room for erroneous interpretations, &c., &c. At last the Queen was forced to make a ruling.
“Very well,” she said, without hiding her exasperation. “We will perform one final compilation tonight, before the Inspector puts the Courier under compulsion. The matter will be submitted, all possible actions concatenated, and a course of action revealed. We will rule for the collective, but each of you must then make your own tabulations until the threat passes. Therefore watch carefully. We are disappointed, however. It was never our intention that the knowledge would settle in one place, the procedures forgotten by all of you. That is a dangerous way to proceed, as centralized knowledge is vulnerable and easily lost. You must, in future, do better.”
A light rain began to fall as the Queen and her chastened cabinet adjourned. She was wrapped in water-resistant robes of state and her sedan chair readied; and then off they went on the public road, fortunately little travelled at such an hour.
The Kingdom was a perfect square, and their destination lay in the northwesternmost corner. No need was there to consult a map, for in its superficial aspect, Spectralia exactly corresponded with the familiar demesnes of Binderwood. The true measure of the Ghost Kingdom was one that extended into spiritual depths. It was a land of mysteries, carefully papered over, only to be peeled away through an unending series of initiations. Tobianus had been granted six of these. Certain citizens had three times that number. The Royal Terrors claimed their Queen had bestowed them with three and thirty initiations, all in the course of empowering them to look after her affairs.
Any (purely hypothetical) outsider, following on their heels in the dark damp night, would see nothing but the common byways marked on any map. But for the citizens of Spectralia, the path was illuminated by numberless Evocations. They passed the Dire Domicile, from whence an evil light leaked out, known as the source of the Luminous Scourge, which had stricken children and kine alike and was avoided by all, despite the good natured widow who appeared to inhabit the place. Then followed the Cavernous Extant, a pitted pasture riddled with tunnels and subterrene architecture built by a race of serpent men widely hoped (but not proven) to be extinct. Beyond was a copse that must never be crossed—The Copse Uncrossed, they called it, simply because the Queen found the name amusing and none dared question her wisdom, any more than they dared cross the copse. They skirted it discreetly.
At last they arrived at the Cot of Concatenation, and here the Courier was privately pleased to see that word of mouth and gossip had yet to supplant the Ghost Penny Post. Not a single member of the household was expecting the arrival of the Spectral Queen and all her retinue. All the cot’s inhabitants were forcibly roused, that the Weaver could be put to work. There was some consternation due to the hour and the Weaver’s advanced age; but outnumbered by the presence of so many loyal subjects, the complainers gained no foothold with their sleepily mutinous mutterings.
The Weaver’s frailty was a threat to the Ghostly Crown’s continued existence, but it appeared both she and Spectralia would survive another night. Her stalwart grandson, the Cotter himself, volunteered to feed the flame and boil up vapors enough to power the steam-stoked Loom, but the Queen insisted that tonight they would rely on older methods. As the Weaver sorted strands of wool, all those assembled stated their names and status in service to Spectralia. For each citizen, a thread of yarn was drawn. A tally was made also of the unrepresented citizenry, for not every subject was free to leave their home and join the Court in darkness, much as the Queen might have wished it. As the Weaver sorted, the Queen busied herself with her combing-cards, punching holes into the rectangles of thick cardpaper in the patterns she had devised to represent both the open-eyed will of the kingdom and the actions of blind fate. She handed the cards to the Weaver. The old woman fit the boards into her Loom, then set to weaving. It was slow and quiet work as the shuttle wove, and Tobianus dozed and woke several times while the Cotter made tea and offered it about with oatcakes. The Queen never nodded. Her bright red eyes watched enrapt as the blind fingers danced; she studied the weave that gradually emerged, and her expression grew solemn and skeptical. At last, they reached the end of what the cards had written, and the strands of wool were severed. The Queen took the length of cloth and laid it across her knees, studying the pattern writ in textiles.
“Weaver, your job is done.”
“Oh, aye, Your Grace!”
“Hm… We chose no strand for the Inspector, and yet his presence is everywhere in this. As affects the Commonwealth, only a few of us are specifically addressed in these Motivations, our Courier chief among them.”
“Yes, My Lady,” said Tobianus.
“Tomorrow, along with your regular mail, you are to carry one letter of the Ghost Penny Post. You will receive it first but deliver it last, and deliver it only to us. Understood?”
“Yes, My Lady.”
“The Royal Terrors shall see you have it before your departure. You will make no effort to hide it from the Inspector, but you will not permit him to handle it until your regular route is done. London’s hand in this is clear: as an agent of the competing post, this letter is for him alone to deliver. Tobianus, we will leave you to determine your own course; your facility with the dice is almost the rival of our own.”
“Thank you, My Lady.”
“The remainder of you shall spend the day in ordinary pursuits. At midnight, we will all reconvene at the Specter’s Seat. Tomorrow night will be as taxing as this one, we suspect; therefore return to your homes and sleep. We release you now—all but the Terrors, of course.”
The party dispersed into the spongy, silent night, plashing through puddles, the risen moon a grinning visitor playfully dodging clouds.
As Tobianus picked his way back to the post office, he tried to slip free of his conviction that for Spectralia, all was about to be forever altered. But his Queen would surely say that change was the eternal nature of things. Change, chance, and choice. This was the very essence of the matter addressed by Concatenation.
He had a shiversome moment when he felt sure he spied a shadow skulking in the lane beyond the post office, then a flare of light from the front door of the inn picked out the silhouette of a man just entering. Recognizing the figure of Floss the innkeeper, his worries eased somewhat.
Madame Eglentine pleaded with him fruitlessly for favors as he passed her paddock and went in through the rear of the post office. He lit a lamp and stoked a very small fire in the very small stove, just enough to take off the chill. Then, settling down with a cup of cold, watery tea, he sat on the end of his rather lumpy bed, reached between his feet, and fished about until his fingers found a small box on the floor. From this he took a tattered notebook, its pages filled with columns of numbers and corresponding text. Beneath the book of tables lay a rattling half dozen multifaceted dice. From the end of the bed, he could lean forward onto a wobbly secretary, bracing it with his elbows. He pulled the lantern closer and rolled two dice clattering across the deal surface, warped and ringed with the pale ghosts of wet saucer bottoms.
Totaled up, the pips amounted to 21.
Tobianus opened the book of correspondences, leafed to the section that seemed most fitting to his situation (“Friend or Foe: When Faced With a Stranger, Some Affinities”), and ran a finger down to 21:
“Bold and yet invisible, the ghosts that guard Spectralia urge substantiation. Be thou therefore like a ghost, aflit by day, and yet substantial in full dark.”
Toby planted his elbows more firmly on the desk that he might hold his head in place. From the Courier, for much of the remaining night, there issued a series of low, perplexed moans.
Hewell was roused by roosters, having slept only fitfully, his dreams full of snatches of the weird scenes he had witnessed. His boots were still wet, and he was grateful he had brought a spare coat, easy to find in the dim grey light because it was one of his few remaining garments that was dry. Downstairs, he found Floss and his wife already about. She scowled at his muddy footwear, then muttered something about parties that thought so little of their responsibility that they felt at liberty to “run about at all hours,” speaking as if for her husband’s benefit but clearly concerned with the habits of their lodger. Hewell paid a perhaps unconvincing amount of attention to his breakfast of stout and cheese, then, with jacket still damp, fled into the puddled street, escaping just as the inevitable quarrel broke out behind him.
Toby looked wan with exhaustion, but Hewell refrained from inquiring as to how he had slept. The lad spent some time sorting the mail, brewing tea, readying the morning’s deliveries, and sleepily answering Hewell’s questions, although queries and responses sounded similarly stilted. As it happened, they both awaited the arrival of a dispatch whose eventual discovery proved something of an anticlimax. Mr. Merricott arrived to mark the official start of business, discovering, as he opened the door, that an envelope had been shoved under it. “Unstamped and unaddressed. What are we to make of this?”
Toby plucked the letter from Merricott’s fingers and secured it in his courier’s pouch. “I’ll bring it along, sir, and see if anyone recognizes it. Mr. Hewell, if you’re ready, we can look to borrow an extra mount, but often I go on foot if there’s no great urgency.”
“The day being fairer than the night, I have no objection to a leisurely tour.”
They embarked on a route that somewhat recalled Hewell’s dank trek of the night before, except that they stopped at almost every door. The citizens of Binderwood seemed to be great correspondents, in keeping with current trends that Hewell was used to hearing pronounced “worrisome.” People no longer went visiting; so went the complaints. They sat in their homes, both consuming and composing endless floods of correspondence. The art of conversation was a thing of the past! It was letters people wanted now, and nothing else would do. They poured their meager monies into paper, ink, and postage. The post office, as Merricott had noted, benefitted thereby; stationers were in heaven; but still somehow it was a curse on society. Nor was it only youth who were afflicted. Grown women—even men!—devoted themselves to the frivolous pastime. The fact that Victoria’s royal visage bedizened the humble Penny Black confirmed all conspiratorial fears that the monarchy was behind this epistolary threat to civilization.
“What can be done about it?”the worried critics of postal trends demanded of Hewell.
“Probably nothing,”was his usual response, and he was content with that. Still, in pursuit of his employment, nothingwas not an official option. And he was quite busy after all, keeping up with a certain long-legged fly named Toby.
Near noon, they walked the drive to Pellapon Hall, and Hewell noted Toby darting nervous, expectant glances at a certain curtained window of the upper floor. Above the second storey windows were several widely space portals, each matched to a roof peak.
“Perfect for concealing madwomen,” Hewell quipped.
“Why ever would you say that, sir?” asked a suddenly pale Toby.
“Never mind, lad. Novels are the staid pastime of an older generation, and I fear will find no grip among your excitable peers.”
As they mounted the lichen-colored steps, the front door opened. The Pellapon twins stood there, hands outstretched for Toby’s delivery, but a tall and almost skeletal form rushed from the dimness, took Hewell by the shoulder, and compelled him deep into the house. Other than the two inspectors the parlor was empty, and the detective firmly shut the door behind them.
“Hewell, we have much to discuss,” said Deakins with grim authority, barely above a whisper. “I have made several discoveries, and am on the verge of greater. I looked for you at the inn last night, but you were—”
“Out, yes, I often cannot sleep in unfamiliar quarters, and so I walk about to exhaust myself. If I had known you sought me, I would have come to visit you here.”
“I was hardly here myself, you see. Strange goings on. Furtive meetings. And much of it centered on this very house.”
“I fear so.” He clenched Hewell’s elbow and drew him in closer. “Tell me, sir. What have you discovered? If we put our clues together, the truth cannot elude us both.”
“Nothing has come my way, I’m afraid,” said Hewell. “With careful study of the postal procedures, a few discrepancies, easily corrected. Of course, my investigation is not complete, but…”
“I have found what I believe to be a forger’s den,” said Deakins urgently, and stabbed a bony finger at the threadbare carpet beneath their feet. “In the cellar, sir. A small press, suitable for printing currency. The plates are hidden away, but they cannot hide the stains of colored ink.”
“Perhaps there is a more innocent explanation. A small press may also be used to print festive broadsides for childish amusement.”
“This is no game, Hewell. In the woods, I have seen figures consorting. Figures of a decidedly weird aspect.”
“Surely, you do not believe there is some…supernatural explanation?”
“The diabolic specter that attacked our carriage—”
“Goats’ horns may be used in play acting. Sir, I took you for a man of methodical detection. I would be disappointed to learn that you look to intangible—”
Deakins stopped him with a hand to his chest. “I am a man of tremendous imagination—that is my chief instrument, sir! However, my evidence is most substantial. Look here.”
From his inner pocket, he produced a crumpled sheet of paper, a letter writ in fine script, in violet ink. It trembled in his fingers, but he would not let it loose, despite the difficulty this afforded Hewell as he tried his best to read its fevered passages but succeeded only in snatches.
“…a party of four shall advance north from the serpent’s lair…at the dungeon’s threshold, await instructions, for the winding stair is certainly entrapped…regarding encounters at the green monkey’s tomb, take three cups of jade tea and consult the augury of night…”
“Poetry?” Hewell ventured.
“Poetry! It is conspiracy! A cabal within this very house. Unbeknownst to Lord Pellapon, but dependent on his oblivious nature.”
At that moment, the door swung open and Lord Pellapon himself looked in. “Gentlemen! There you are. Mr. Hewell, I trust your investigations proceed apace. The postal courier dawdles in the hall. It is most unseemly. I will lose Tilly over such irregularities. Mr. Deakins, you mentioned there were…developments?”
“Not as such yet, no,” Deakins said to Pellapon. “We have some increasingly tangible suppositions at the moment. But soon, very soon, I believe we shall have concrete results to lay before you, Hewell and I.”
“Glad to hear it, very glad.”
“We shall meet later, to confer,” the detective said quietly to Hewell. “I expect to have more proof by tonight, and perhaps the culprits themselves in hand. I may need your assistance. For now, betray nothing, and trust no one. We will play the hand we’re dealt, and play it as two fellows well versed in bluffing.”
“You have my full confidence and you will have whatever cooperation you need,” Hewell assured him, although he had seen no evidence whatsoever that Deakins understood even the basic principles of bluffing.
Toby waited at the bottom of the steps, anxious not to fall behind in their deliveries. Hewell’s agitation suddenly seemed a match for the boy’s, a nervous nausea rising from the pit of his belly, as if his heart were one of the dozen leeches in Dr. Merryweather’s celebrated Tempest Prognosticator, desperately throwing itself toward the minuscule hammer that sounded a warning bell. He dispelled much of the slimy dread by walking vigorously, so that by the end of the hornbeam drive he was feeling less oppressed; but the sense of an oncoming storm was still with him.
“Are you unwell, sir?” Toby inquired.
“Well enough, lad. Let’s get this over with.”
The Ghost Queen rose later than she had intended, given the importance of the day. The Terrors had left word of their successful delivery, so the first piece was in place. But Spectralia remained in grave danger and she must not lower her guard until the emergency had passed. She was stillnot entirely sure of its nature.
Although she had read the Concatenated Motivations to her subjects in a voice of supreme confidence and authority, in truth the compiled results of the Weaver’s carding were exceedingly vague, and she had taken numerous liberties in her interpretation, erring always on the side of offering reassurance. The tabulations could only be precise in addressing dilemmas that admitted to bifurcation. “Shall I respond to my suitor? Yesor No? Which fork of this road should I take? Rightor Left? Should I climbto the attic or descendto the cellar?” With dice, and especially her Ptolemaic dice of twenty facets, she could select from a much wider set of possible paths. But she had not yet discovered a foolproof way to reduce all life’s questions to such a rubric. The card technique she had devised, based on the work of Jacques “Digesting Duck” Vaucanson, coupled with her own method of mechanical compilation, allowed another approach to analysis—but it was still more suited to her entirely fabricated situations than to the tangled weft and warp presented by reality.
Fortunately, she had founded Spectralia with a poet’s sensibility, which she leaned on in times of uncertainty. Even when a course could be determined by a roll of the dice, the path beyond the first few steps must be elaborated if not improvised—spelled out and developed in detail. In this, her muse had served her well.
Each day began with an hour of historiography, the fabric of Spectralia spun in careful script in the pages of her minuscule books. When the work of word-spinning and world-weaving was done, the Terrors took the volume to be thread-bound and placed alongside the hundred others that made up an ongoing illuminated history of the kingdom. Ordinarily she would then spend the rest of the morning deciding the fates of her subjects—all those who acknowledged her dominion within the square borders of Spectralia—but today contained more urgent business. It had rained in the night and the woods would be ideal for her harvest. She called the Terrors to equip an expedition.
The day was brisk; the wind from the sea made her shrink into her wraps. The wheels of her conveyance juddered unpleasantly over every twist of root or rocky stub. Deep in the shade of the Pellapon Woods, they pushed her to and fro until she spied the purple caps and yellow veil of the ghost mushroom, growing in a fairy circle at the base of a blasted oak. The cap stained her gloves. She gathered three of the dozen or so that grew in the mould, and then the Terrors wheeled her back to her alchemical lab. Belladonna berries and other elements waited in tincture, but it was the ghost caps that exerted the key influence. She prized them for their freshness. In a mortar she made a grainy purple paste thinned with spirits and various liquors, then blended this with the other tinctures.
She set aside most of the violet solution as ink for the next special printing of Ghost Pennies, but a small flask she extended to the Terrors. Four hands reached for the purple vial, but she held it back a moment.
“You are Protector Princesses,” she said emphatically, to impress them with the gravity of their errand. “Behave like such for once. Cook will admit you and identify the portion to receive Our sacrament.”
Thus the affairs of the Kingdom kept her busy until well past nightfall.
No sooner had Toby returned from one circuit of the district than they arrived back at the office to discover the next mound of missives waiting. Merricott cheerily handed them over, and Toby accepted his new assignment with a buoyant optimism that Hewell found exhausting, as it seemed to indicate the lad thought he would soon come to the end of the work—an impossibility, for the mail would never cease to flow. As a senior of the postal system, it behooved him to show no sign of impatience or fatigue, but Toby’s unstinting enthusiasm proved difficult to match. After a time, Hewell fell into a daze, following along without much attention to the particulars. He had long since memorized their route on the postal map he carried, and felt he could have taken over Toby’s duties with very little trouble.
It was not until sometime after nightfall that they returned for the final time to the post office, the day’s last delivery made. Merricott had removed himself homeward, to dinner and to bed. Toby shared a light repast of bread and cheese they had collected on the final approach. These sat poorly with the earlier meal of crabapples they had picked along the road and eaten as they walked.
Hewell made no mention of the night mail, and prayed that Toby would not mention it either. He wished to be done with this day, if only it might be done with him.
As they finished their meal, Toby said quietly, “I feel that I can trust you, sir. More, shehas hinted that I can.”
“In time, sir. In time. We have one last letter to deliver. Would you care to accompany me, sir?”
“Something tells me that I might,” said Hewell, and he looked on in fascination as Toby opened his courier pouch and drew out the blank envelope he had secreted there that morning. It had travelled with them all day, neither of them remarking on it, but a haunting presence nonetheless. The letter was unsealed, and Toby bowed the sides that he might reach in and retrieve a piece of folded paper. Opening this, he revealed a blank sheet and one loose postage stamp. It was the same Hewell had seen on the letters delivered to Pellapon Hall the prior day: violet and blotched, both regal and malignant.
“I have for you, sir, the penny stamp of our kingdom. We call it the Ghost Penny.”
“I assume it will cost me a penny then?”
“As you say, Mr. Hewell, and well worth it.”
Hewell handed over his solitary copper, glad that he always kept one on hand in the event of just such an emergency—one never knew when a letter might need mailing, and not even an officer of the Royal Mail could post correspondence without a stamp.
Toby accepted the coin and cupped it in his hands. He pursed his lips and puffed away the crumbs of bread and cheese from the tabletop where they had dined, then opened his hands and released not only the penny but a pair of dice. And not typical dice. One was cubic, but its pips were replaced with what appeared to be alchemical signs. The other had more faces than Hewell could count without losing track, and was marked in Greek letters. Toby examined them both closely, then took a small hand-bound concordance from his breast pocket and opened it to a page on which grids were filled with marks corresponding to those on the dice.
“Very well,” Toby said to himself. He then handed the blank paper and envelope to Hewell with odd, stiff formality. “Seal this up as if you’ve written a letter to be mailed, then stamp the envelope.”
Puzzled but amused, Hewell folded the sheet several times and slipped it into the fibrous envelope. He then took up the Ghost Penny, and regarded the pale visage upon it, with its single blurred red eye. The backside was sticky with a wash of gum arabic, and the purple stain had bled into it.
“I require something with which to dab the stamp,” Hewell said.
“It is traditional to place the Ghost Penny on your tongue and rest it there a few moments,” Toby said. “That will be moisture enough. Like the Penny Black, it is self-adhesive.”
Hewell licked the violet stamp, surprised to discover that it tasted of those very flowers, with a sugary sweetness that masked bitterness. His fingers, as they smoothed the stamp in place, were all atremble.
“And now, by the ruling of the concordance, I am to show you this.”
Toby spread out a district map. At first it appeared identical to the one Hewell carried, all its features familiar from the day’s wandering. However, the place names and designations were markedly different. The main street was labeled as The Row of Silent Ones. There were a Ghastly Bypass and Staring Knolls; also Tiny Gnashers—a bridge above the Ghoulfast Cataract—which he had seen himself that day and crossed repeatedly on that selfsame bridge, although he could easily have waded the so-called cataract (in truth a very small weir) without wetting his knees. Toby ran a finger along a dotted, circuitous path marked as the Ghost Road, which touched each location on the map. “This is the route I take when performing my secret post, sir. The one we will follow tonight, to reach the Seat of Spectral Power.”
At the bottom of the map, Hewell finally spied a legend, neatly calligraphed: Spectralia.
Deakins was right, he realized. This was a game. And although he had never been fond of time-trivializing amusements, he found himself caring very much about the outcome—thrilled to be engaged in it.
Seeing the district annotated with unfamiliar designations, he wondered what world he had been led about in all that day. This one had slumbered unseen within it—unseen by him, that is, for Toby saw them both.
And the others—Binderwood’s bewildering populace—how many of them took part in this game? Last night, stalking Toby through the fields and finally to the cotter’s hut, he had seen men, women, children—the aged and the spry—all attending to the strange cowled figure in the wheeled chair. A soft yet rough voice—feminine and ageless—few of her words had reached him. But to her audience they seemed to hold great power.
Tonight he supposed he would hear them for himself.
“You must address your letter, sir.”
“Oh yes. To whom?”
Hewell blinked, dipped a pen, and did as he was told, while Toby watched closely. He tried to pass the letter to the boy but was refused. “This one is yours to deliver.”
They set off without further delay. The Ghost Road ran parallel to the public road in many places, criss-crossing it from time to time. They went in silence. Hewell soon found that they did not walk it alone. From certain houses as they passed, costumed figures emerged and fell in behind them. Horns and scales, masks of textiles, claws purloined from taxidermied creatures. None spoke. The cortege added to a growing sense of immanence; the night was gravid with revelation. Obscure emotions grew louder. Inner silences, thoughts forever unvoiced, threatened to make a thunderous clap that would deafen them all. It occurred to him he ought to have felt terror. Instead he felt wild joy.
As the woods closed in, scenes of greater weirdness greeted them. Half-lit tableaux, scattered scenes of figures caught in ritual or combat or some confluence of the twain. Two haphazardly armored knights faced each other, swords and shields held high, one shouting, “I cast Bolt of Oblivion upon thee!” To which the other countered, “My Looking Glass Greatshield repels the attack, which returns to thee in triple force!” Then a supervisory figure in a starry cloak intoned, “Thou’rt both struck down in the same instant!” But as the third figure spoke, and the first two staggered, they noticed the passing procession. They arrested their falls, gathered their weapons, and joined the silent marchers. The wizardly one gave Hewell a nod and a wink. He recognized the innkeeper Floss beneath the overshadowing hood, although Mrs. Floss was evidently not a participant in these matters.
Pellapon Hall loomed ahead of them, and within the great house loomed a greater one, spectral and mysterious, like the grinning face that hides within the moon. Turning aside, they crossed the dewy fields and descended into a crevice in the cliffs above the sea. The waves cast luminous foam, futile yet persistent, onto rocks far below. The populace of Spectralia filed in behind Hewell and Toby. A bonfire burned in the lee of the cleft, barely troubled by wind. On the far side of the fire, back in a natural hollow upon a shelf of stone, he saw the cowled figure of the previous night. Her wheeled chair was off to one side, empty, for she had been set upon the ancient seat. Within the hood, her visage was dim; yet it took no effort for Hewell’s mind to fill that void with the likeness engraved on the Ghost Penny stamp.
He studied the letter he carried, comparing the face on the stamp with the one before him. The etched engraving, with its fine cross-hatches and delicate dark borders, seemed to reach beyond the boundary of the stamp, creeping over his fingers, his sleeves, flickering out through the night. He looked up and saw the entire world becoming an engraving, redrawn continually by some fluid invisible hand that gave it animation, kept it in constant, shimmering flux. The colors of objects barely stayed within the lines that contained them, as if the inks with which the world was painted were trembling, blurring, running free. Hewell’s flesh swarmed with tiny etched lozenges and diamond shaped pores, his skin but a net of finest mesh that barely held his soul. He was surrounded by figures out of a Goya aquatint, the night a subtle intaglio printed by some mysterious process. If the fire were but artifice, then how did it emit both heat and light? An inner flame drove everything, even the dark-edged rocks, even the painted night. The sky itself was out of register, with stars no more than offset dots of purple, pink and blazing red, just like her eyes. Her eyes…
His gaze returned to the Ghost Queen of Spectralia, to her regard.
“Come forward, supplicant, and state your business,” said the husky, hidden voice he had heard the night before. He gladdened at the sound of it. Toby and some others produced a heavy mantle which they laid upon his shoulders. Tufted with fur and feathers, it suited the wildness he felt in his heart, the wildness of the creatured wood. Further, they rested on his crown a headpiece set with horns, and a griffin’s beak of papier-mâché that covered up his nose.
“I bear a letter,” he said from within the mask.
His voice seemed to echo from somewhere far out in the night. The rocky chamber had become a stage, but he could not tell if it were an opera house or a puppet theater. Hewell had lost all sense of scale.
“To whom is it addressed?” said the Queen.
He looked down to reaffirm what he had written. But what it said was not what he remembered having writ:
“To…to the Ghostmaster,” he said.
“Open it, then,” she said. “Open it and read what your heart has written there.”
His finely etched hands tore open the envelope. He started to hold out the letter, to show her that it was blank—but instead he discovered words crawling over it, characters engraved in violet ink. It was his own script, but somehow more beautiful than he had ever before accomplished. He stroked the words with his fingers and tasted violet; even his eyes filled with the flavor. The night reeked of wormwood and forest mould and the blood tang of the sea. He was gazing too deeply into the letters. Retreating slightly, he began to read aloud to the assemblage, clinging to the words as if they would bring him back to some familiar footing.
“At the behest and pleasure of Her Majesty, the Queen of Spectralia, I am honored to accept the post of Ghostmaster General. I swear to execute my duties with all honesty and to the utmost of my ability as Her Majesty’s agent in the realms beyond these borders. This post is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. In defense of Spectralia, I rest my soul in hands of the Silent Ones. May they end my life horribly should ever I betray the spectral lands. Your obedient servant, Lord Hewellian, Ghostmaster General.”
“Your heart’s wish has been revealed and granted, all in the same instant,” said the Queen. “Now come forward and prove your fealty.”
Two waifs in black garb, with white porcelain faces, appeared from out of the dark. Between them, hunched over so he appeared no taller than they, was a prisoner. Their captive was blindfolded, muffled with a kerchief, his hands bound behind him. They forced him to his knees before the stone seat.
As if from a great distance, across a gulf of years, Hewellian recognized the private detective, Deakins.
“Let the prisoner account for himself,” said the Queen. The guardian twins undid first his gag, at which he gasped and began to plead incoherently, and then his blindfold. His eyes rolled but he did not seem to see them. When at last his gaze settled on the bonfire, he gave a little jerk and suddenly stilled. A moment later he looked straight up at the moon and said accusingly, “You!”
And a moment after that:
“It is…but we…I saw a hill of faces!”
“So have we all,” said the Queen. “But where does your path lead you?”
The detective’s confusion was so extreme that Hewellian stepped forward with a surge of pity, and put himself between the captive and the Queen. “It takes him far from Spectralia, my Lady. I will lead him there safely. You may release him into my care. Come, my poor dear man.”
But as Hewellian stepped forward to untie the ropes, the prisoner started screaming.
“There can be no initiation for him!” said the Queen in disappointment. “Fall back, Ghostmaster. He cannot see the truth of our land and therefore cannot serve it. ‘Tis unfortunate, for we are in need of an official Spymaster, or even a plain Detective. Instead we find ourselves with a mere Prisoner. It is the one category of subject for which we have no use. There are no prisons here.”
“There are serpent dungeons!” said one of the doll-faced girls.
Deakins swayed and subsided into a heap on the stones. His sprightly guardians tittered. “He has fallen into a swoon!”
“Not the mark of a Spymaster, surely.”
“We should dress him as a beast and turn him loose in the woods!”
“He would startle the ponies,” said the Queen. “That will never do.”
Hewellian bent to the fallen prisoner and loosened his bonds. It was impossible to care for the man while holding the heavy griffin mask in place, so he set it on the ground and was shocked by the fierce face it presented. It was no wonder Deakins had collapsed when Hewellian approached. “My Ladyship, your Grace, with my deepest respect, I request permission to restore Mr. Deakins to his bed, and ensure his safe return to London.”
The Queen of Spectralia inclined her hooded head. Some trace of violet magic still worked its way across her pale features. “You have your charge. We will communicate from time to time, but the Concordance must serve you in outlying regions. In the main, you must determine your own way. Tobianus will instruct you further.”
She offered her hand, and he kissed it, finding it cold and thin and ivory white. The fingers were stained with violet ink; the crimson eyes flared at him. The distinctive etched aspect of the night was fading, releasing its grip, the world falling back into tones of darkness again, more mezzotint than engraving. He was losing hold of something ineffable, even as he secured his grip on Deakins. Prevailing upon Tobianus to take the detective’s legs, they lifted the man between them and headed out of the crevasse.
It was not far to Pellapon Hall across the ragged sward. They reached the house to find several stewards having hurried ahead to admit them. Slightly revived, yet profoundly incoherent, Deakins was taken off to bed. Hewellian made hushed arrangements to retrieve him in the morning. Somewhere in the house, Lord Pellapon snored on, oblivious.
“And now, Master Tobianus, I believe I will require some instruction in my duties?”
“To the post office then, if it please you, sir.”
“Conduct me there, post haste!”
Hewell and Toby were still at work poring over tables, notebooks and gazeteers when the strutting cocks of Binderwood began to crow in the courtyards and from atop the homely stone walls. There were several such false alarms before the sky truly began to brighten. It seemed unwise to let Merricott find them buried in work at such an hour, so they arranged to part and join up again soon. Hewell would return to the inn for his belongings, and Toby would borrow a cart from the livery yard. Only Mrs. Floss was awake to see him enter, and it was clear from her demeanor that she was none too pleased with having all the morning’s travails left in her hands. More comments were made about the shirking of responsibilities, but he felt quite sure this time that they were not intended for him. As he sipped scalding tea, with his luggage at his feet, he pondered the logistics of the day ahead. He would have to ride with Deakins in the mail car, no matter that it irked the sorting clerks.
Opening his valise, he gazed inside at the sheets of violet Ghost Pennies. These, Toby had assured him, were safe for common distribution, lacking the curious properties of those prepared by the Queen expressly for state ceremonies. Along with the stamps were several volumes full of tables to explicate various courses of action. Once Hewell left the region, there would be innumerable decisions that must be made in less time than it would take to send and receive Concatenated Motivations via mail from Binderwood. The telegraph might one day be a more efficient means of determining outcomes and charting choices for the citizens of Spectralia. But in the meantime, there was a ghost-route to be inaugurated and administered. In return for service to his Spectral Queen, he would keep a penny for every two Ghosts he sold. And Hewell expected to sell quite a few, once he had expanded her reach to London—or, as it would henceforth be known, to Greater Spectralia. The Ghostmaster General had a great deal of work ahead of him.
Hearing the clatter of hooves and the squelching of wheels, he rose, bade his hostess good day, and helped Toby lift his case into the back of the cart to which he had hitched Madame Eglentine. Binderwood was soon out of sight behind them. Not long after that, they turned up the hornbeam drive.
It was a strange sullen morning at Pellapon Hall, the staff moving in an exhausted daze and the twins nowhere in evidence. Lord Pellapon strode up and down the corridor, from the parlor to the foyer, irked as much by his private detective’s deterioration as by his defection. Nor did he appear overly grateful for Hewell’s offer to see Deakins safely back to London, and even into Bethlem Royal Hospital if need be.
“Nervous collapse is always a danger in one so entirely dependent on his imagination,” Hewell said discreetly, out of Deakins’s hearing.
“Then what about you? Do you not also rely on your wits?”
“Wits are not the same thing, Lord Pellapon. I am but a civil servant, dependent on my superiors. Thus I avoid the burdens of overmuch independence, and leave the difficult decisions to others more visionary.”
Hewell led the docile, wide-eyed detective down to the cart and left him comfortably seated, humming to himself and counting his fingers until he had proved he had hundreds of them. Hewell remounted the broad steps to take Lord Pellapon’s hand in farewell.
“I apologize for the twins,” said the elder man. “They both complain of exhaustion or they would be here to see you off. Deakins was a great favorite of theirs until…well, they cannot understand how such afflictions may affect a grown man. A shame about his investigation. You know, he claimed to be on the verge of some revelation. And now the matter of my wayward mail’s no closer to resolution. It’s all a muddle.”
“I don’t think the mail will trouble you any longer, Lord Pellapon. Upon thorough review of Merricott’s methods, I have suggested several procedural improvements—all minor, true, but cumulative in effect. Toby will see they are implemented immediately; you may rely on him to address your concerns. I believe you will note a distinct improvement from this moment forward.”
“Well that’s fine news, then! Dull procedure triumphs where fancy makes no headway!”
“A sentiment worthy of enshrinement,” Hewell said, and stopped short, caught by a movement at an upper storey window. A face floated behind the glass. She was watching him, he realized with pride. His Queen!
As if sensing how his heart leapt out to her, she slowly opened the window so that he might see her without the distortion of glass or darkness. Her skin was paler than any ivory, her hair so white as to be almost blue, and her eyes glinted faintly like twin red stars. From either side of the window frame, two pairs of smaller hands reached in to settle a bright three-pointed crown upon her head.
“If I may,” said Hewell, “please tender my respects to the Lady Pellapon.”
Hewell gave a slight wave to the Queen, but she responded not. He saw that her gaze, and her smile, were directed past him, to the cart, where Toby sat holding the reins. The lad grinned back, saw Hewell’s eyes upon him, then flushed and turned away, covering his sudden change of color by clucking importantly at Madame Eglentine. When Hewell’s gaze returned to the upper window, he saw it had been shuttered. The crowned white face was gone.
“Ah, so you have seen her,” said Lord Pellapon. “She shows herself to very few. She survived the contagion that took her mother from us, though it seemed a miracle, for she was always a fragile child. I am fortunate to have my three girls as reminders of Lady Pellapon, God rest her.”
“My eldest sits in her room all day and far into the night, scribbling. The doctor says her albinism does not preclude fresh air and sunlight, but she had always rather stay indoors, composing these tales of hers, these…imaginings. The servants and her sisters appear to find them engaging. I suppose she has a talent for it.”
Hewell received the impression that Lord Pellapon did not entirely disapprove.
“And I must say, she is a help to me, especially when it comes to ordering about her diabolical siblings and keeping the staff in order. Frail she may be, but not so frail she cannot rule the house.”
And more than that, thought Hewell, putting his hand to his heart, of which he silently acknowledged she was now the very queen.
“The Ghost Penny Post” is copyright 2016 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2016.