Authors: Victoria Goddard
Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2014
To everyone who has ever listened to me ramble on about my story—often and at great length—thank you.
A thousand thanks and more are due to those of my friends who have given me the great gifts of a patient audience and good advice: Carolyn Aikens, Heather Ainsworth, José Rodriguez,
Alexandra Garigue, Jennifer Konieczny, Nichola Goddard,
Alice Degan, and, last but not least, Kate Goddard.
And many thanks to my parents for their patience over the years.
Views from Underhill
It was three days before the end of the world. The Lord of Ysthar was playing Hamlet.
The stage was empty but for him; the auditorium was full.
Raphael—his real name was Raphael—hurtled through that Sunday evening performance, the last week of the Great Game Aurieleteer, the last week of the old order of the world, with only half his mind on the action of the play.
The rest of it was rather more occupied with his magic.
Not that anyone noticed this.
Raphael had spent a great deal of time and effort ensuring he was regarded by the magic folk as a mage of small corners and hedgerows, unconcerned except as they were all concerned with the end result of the Game.
As for the ordinary people of the world—well, they saw James Inelu on stage, and thought no more of magic than the glamour that came with a movie star come from Hollywood to London’s West End; which, to be sure, even in the early twenty-first century was something.
He was alert to the weight of the audience’s expectation. He crested the hump of the “To be or not to be” speech—slalomed down through the tennis-game conversations—and grounded on the next-to-last line of another soliloquy. Just as he drew breath to speak, a great wind from beyond the world’s end blew over London, and for a moment fractured his attention.
“O,” he said, so fittingly for inward thought and outward character that he paused, disconcerted as if he spoke into a sudden collocation of silences in a crowded room.
He paused, as the wandering stars pause in their stations, as the ball pauses at its zenith, as the heart pauses between beats, listening to the slow silence in the great hall. He paused: not Hamlet, not the Lord of Ysthar, not any of his hundred pseudonymous half-lives: just himself, listening to nothing.
The wind surged across the city, making for the Salisbury Plain and the end of the Great Game Aurieleteer in a wild careening fury of snapped umbrellas and gunshot flags.
Inside the theatre it was silent, still, a black and pregnant air, awaiting him. Outside his magic was caught up in the tumult like a kite cupping the air, canting across the height and breadth of England.
His first instinct was to drop all he was doing. He had been slowly twisting together the borders between Ysthar and the other worlds, one of his last tasks before the end of the Game. He knew only too well what such a wind could do.
He paused, attention fractured, instinct goading him: but he was not a man much given to obeying instinct. Honour also pricked him, to maintain his roles, to keep them separate, never to falter in the interplay of subtle magic and outward ordinariness. He had learned how to be stubborn in the long course of the Game. He would not falter now, three days before its end, whatever wind-borne temptations called him.
He did not like his ruthlessness, but ruthless he was.
He wrenched his mind down into the abyssal silence of the lower hall, that silence of quiet movements, that black-and-white void between the floodlights and the wall. He found his hands fisted against the foreign air whose passing went otherwise unnoticed. He let them become Hamlet’s fists, and folding himself back into character took one further step forward.
“‘O, from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth.’”
After, in the process of simultaneously divesting himself of Hamlet and crossing the wood- and metal-strutted space behind the stage, which was a large room that felt like a corridor, he was halted by Robin hailing him with great gestures that fit words from another play entirely: “‘Hand me my crown, give me my robes, I have immortal longings in me.’”
Raphael raised his eyebrow amiably; Robin grinned as at some private thought.
In appearance the faddish director and general impresario of the theatre, Robin was less well known to be one of its main shareholders. It was known to even fewer that he was also a prince of Fairyland; Raphael did not try to fathom his private thoughts very often. Robin for his part seemed to enjoy trying to winkle out his secrets, and sometimes he succeeded, which made him Raphael’s closest friend.
Having nothing else to hand, Raphael gave him Hamlet’s sword. Robin accepted it gravely, bowing his head in mock sobriety so his avant-garde fringe of red curls fell over his eyes. “I thought you might have missed your cue there for a moment. I imagine you were thinking more of shaking things up this last week.”
It was also the last week of the play, which flouted ancient custom and ended on the last Thursday of Lent. Raphael nodded. “The sword has a notch. It may break before the week’s out.”
Robin gave it a careless appraisal. “Do you reckon? Never you mind about that. I’m sure the props mistress can sort out a spare if it comes to it—or you could always improvise. Oh—Rod—can you check your contact information? The accountant has been complaining about his records.”
Roderick played Claudius. He halted uncomfortably close to Raphael to scribble his telephone number on the form, the king’s robes draped over his arm in a sumptuous fall of red velvet. “I see our film star has managed to keep anonymous, with a postal box address and no phone number.”
This was ostensibly addressed to Robin, who glanced at Raphael (who did not much like talking about his recent stint in the movies) and said, “I have his number elsewhere. Not though you ever answer your mobile, James.”
“I answer it on Saturdays,” Raphael replied. James Inelu was his current
. It was suitably pretentious for being a semi-foreign Hollywood actor, although he’d chosen it before that particular challenge in the Game had been made.
“You didn’t answer it yesterday when I called,” said Robin.
Raphael was distracted by the outdoor magics as someone opened the stage door and a cool air swirled around them, and answered vaguely. “The battery may have run down.”
Roderick gave him a pointed sneer Raphael had long admired on artistic grounds. “I find it hard to believe you don’t have backups in case someone wants to tell you how much they appreciate you.” He made a gesture like the dumb-show actor’s pouring poison.
Raphael returned him an austere stare. “I’m not expecting anyone to need to reach me this week.”
“Somehow I’d forgotten you and Circe d’Armienne broke up on the weekend.”
“You should be careful what you believe from the tabloids.”
Without noticeable effort Roderick made his lip curl yet further. “Why, were they wrong in saying you and she weren’t a good match except to look at?”
Raphael wondered what Roderick would say if he told him that Circe was the powerful enchantress she pretended was her namesake, and had spent five thousand years—give or take three days and a season—trying to take magical control of the world while he resisted, and that, no, not in any way, shape, or form were they a good match. Probably Roderick, once he got over the shock (and requisite proof) of real magic, would assume this meant Raphael had magicked his way to success, although Raphael was equally proud and ashamed of the fact he hadn’t needed to.
Robin, who did know that about Circe, spoke cheerfully before he could do more than smile. “Thanks for your number, Rod. James, I know you’re busy this Wednesday with your errands, but I was thinking we could do brunch on Friday—noonish?”
Robin didn’t know it was the last week of the Game. In fact, he didn’t know Raphael was the Lord of Ysthar; Raphael had kept it even from him, needing friendships unconstrained by power. Although as a great magus himself Robin surely knew it was near the end of the Game from the shape of the world’s magic, neither Raphael nor Circe had ever given it to be understood when precisely it would end. Raphael didn’t know Circe’s motives for this reticence. He himself cherished hopes no one would notice if only he were sufficiently careful.
Though that did depend on his winning on Wednesday. He said, “I can’t commit at the moment, I’m afraid.”
“Fair enough. Circe might spill over into your life. She’s not always very good about boundaries, eh? And you’re not exactly, as you say, friends.”
Raphael believed Robin thought him a minor flunky of the Lord of Ysthar who had gone to Hollywood precisely to keep an eye on Circe in the run-up to the end of the Game, but this was the closest Robin had ever come to saying so. Raphael smiled blandly again and turned to greet Will, another person with secrets Roderick could not guess. The poet was already changed out of Horatio’s garb, sauntering up in his street clothes with an amused smile for Roderick’s pettish departure.
“Are you not changed yet, James?” He was emphatically punctilious as usual with the name, which after six months of their reacquaintance he still seemed unused to.
Robin blew his hair out of his eyes with a heavy sigh, this time of mock annoyance contrasting a dimpled grin. “I forestalled him. Will wants to tell you ideas, Dickon. Please take him for a walk, he’ll keep trying to make me debate the relative nobility of Agamemnon and Orpheus and their fitness for heroic verse all night if you don’t. Give me no crowns of laurel or gold but a warm fire and some wine. Give him, oh, pease porridge hot and hard tack cold and salt cod boring and your Bartlebeian imperturbability of countenance, and perhaps he’ll tame his poetry to a moderate modern taste.”
Will folded his scarf about his neck with a show of dignity. “I have no objections to salt cod.”
“That’s because you’re from inland counties where it’s a treat in Lent. Fie on your salt cod
your poetic frenzies.”
By this exchange one would perhaps not have surmised that in rescuing Will from the enchantments of a troupe of lesser fairies Robin had acted out of anything beyond mischief. Raphael thought it perhaps belied his occasional claim to lack a heart (or a soul; he wasn’t always consistent), as Robin had missed Will even more than he had in the years when they had thought the poet dead.
All three of them had been rather surprised when the fairies of Avon-under-the-Hill had asked Robin for help: Will to discover two of his friends were of the magic folk, Robin that one of his greatest friends was alive, and Raphael … several things, including how much better he was at acting now.
Mindful of the unclosed border between Ysthar and Eahh awaiting him below London, Raphael would have demurred, but before he spoke Will added, “I offer you choice of crowns to champion, gold or laurel. Which do you choose? Or then there is—”
Robin flung up his hands, scattering papers across the floor. “No! No! By God no God! I don’t want a theological play. No one wants a theological play. It’s a secular age. God is dead! quoth Nietzsche.”
“And on the third day he rose again, quoth the Scriptures,” Will retorted, a touch doubtfully, as one might who had spent some centuries carousing with the Good People underhill.
“Stick to Agamemnon or Apollo,” Robin said, and as Will began to protest the incurrence of Apollo Raphael made his escape to his dressing room.
The theatre-goers had already dispersed by the time they exited. Will set off towards the river, following the same road Raphael usually took to go home. Robin’s theatre was not far from Victoria Station, along streets that were quiet at night; they walked in companionable silence towards the Embankment. Raphael fretted against the tautening coils of magic, having to stop himself from plucking at the patterns he had established years ago. The wind had not torn them loose as he’d feared, instead boomed along almost joyfully.