The Greyshott Correspondence by Rick Hollon

The Last Coin by Jan Steen
Mid 17th Century

The sign read MASTERE MAGICIANE. LICENSED & INSURED. Just the sort of shop she needed at this desperate hour.

Abigail ducked in out of the rain, the dull clattery rain that tumbled like pebbles down the street. She huffed on her hands and shook off the wet but the cold was in her marrow. Every other shop in the alley was loud with commerce, women arguing over crooked turnips, men arguing just because, children shrieking like the nasty little devils they were. She bared her teeth at the nearest tot and the little thing squealed and slipped and mashed her pretty little zouave jacket into the mud. The tot scampered away and Abigail nodded at the correctness of it.

The shop. She had almost forgotten the shop. She turned and touched the black old wood of the door, carvings of dragons and gallant foxes and stupidly noble partridges, carvings centuries old, blunted by weather and fingertips. An ancient establishment, quiet and dignified, a sanctuary of wisdom. No wonder the pandemonium that infested the rest of the alley kept well clear of its front. Abigail snapped her heels together and stood up straight before she took the heavy iron clapper in hand and rapped it one two three against the door.

The door remained closed. A hansom cab clop-clopped through the mud behind her and splashed up a ghastly veil of water that swept impudently into her skirts. “Really now!” she said, but the cabman did not spare her a glance.

Abigail puffed and stamped and steamed and rapped louder at the door. Children gawked at her from the door of a butcher’s across the alley. A gang of layabouts or workmen (she could never distinguish between the two) pointed at her and shared a rude laugh. She turned to reprove them when the door croaked open and two tiny hands grasped at hers.

“Right sorry mum,” a girl chirped behind her. Abigail snatched her hands away and spun to tell the imp off, but instead found herself confronting a young lady, small of stature but quick and well-made. The young lady had frazzled hair and eyes that goggled large behind thick spectacles, but her accoutrement was modestly fashionable, neither shabby nor showy, marred only by what looked to be an ink stain spilling up her sleeve.

Correct young women did not serve squire to ordinary shopkeepers, but the ways of magicians were irregular and required some latitude. Abigail decided to indulge this damsel. “Is your master in, dear?”

The young thing laughed, throwing her head back in a most uncouth fashion. “Terribly sorry mum, won’t you come in? I’ve let you catch a chill. Come on then.”

It was dark inside. The only light seemed to come from a stained glass window Abigail could not find. Faint colored light fell unevenly across a taxidermied bear and an accordion on a stool. As her eyes adjusted she noted other things. A series of globes depicting continents unfamiliar to sailors and schoolteachers. A stack of swords rusting in a corner. Strange drums darkened with evil markings. Skulls of men and beasts. Bats and yet more hideous creatures stretched and dried from the ceiling. Furtive things that gibbered and scampered just beyond the corner of her eye, vanishing when she turned to look. A very ordinary wizarding room indeed, respectably English. Abigail breathed easier, but grew impatient.

“Young miss, I must speak with your master. When will he return?”

“Your skirts is right skippered, then,” the girl said, peering through her spectacles. “Got right what you need, mum. Come upstairs.”

Abigail protested as the impudent girl led her between the grotesqueries to a narrow stair tucked behind the shop. “I did not come here over damp skirts. I will ask you one last time—”

A suit of armor from some lost Oriental kingdom shuddered to life and latched its empty gauntlet on Abigail’s shoulder. “I say,” she fulminated, but the fingers tightened painfully and she found it wisest to fall silent and still.

 “Chuò!” The girl swept up and smacked the suit of armor with the palm of her hand. The armor creaked and crunched and stumbled back. The girl shooed and squawked like a hen chasing off a mastiff. The armor fell back into a corner, its shoulders slumped as it went still.

The young lady gave it a final smack and turned back to Abigail, her face red, spectacles askew, and warned her with a finger. “Keep it respectful like.” She righted her glasses and beckoned Abigail up the stairs.

They entered a cozy sitting room, warm and dry with a cheery fire under the mantle. It appeared that the young woman had just finished serving tea. Two delicate cups waited, still steaming, on a lovely silver tray between two plump fauteuil chairs. A muted imitation of a Charles Gough canvas was centered over the mantle, a dog ever faithful to his dying master at the bottom of a dramatic ravine.

Abigail hesitated to sit in her damp skirts, but found that they were quite dry and unhurt. She had difficulty putting her new realization into words. It was all so unthinkable, so forward. “You are the master. The magician.”

 The young lady inclined her head amiably and seated herself before her guest. Abigail frowned at her.

“Sit. Drink your tea. You need it.”

Her legs felt weak all of a sudden. Her body as if of its own accord eased onto the proffered chair. She found the teacup in her hand.

“Young miss—”

“You’ve a touch of tuberculosis, mum, gestating like. Drink your tea or you’ll be buried at Greyshott within the year. Or what’s worse—on doctor’s holiday in Rome.”

Abigail drank automatically. Her chest burned with unwanted intimacy, the wizard’s familiarity. She hiccupped.

“You aren’t here for the tea, or the tuberculosis.” The young magician sipped from her own cup. “Squeal.”

Abigail attempted to recover some of her lost huff and glower, but it was a feeble effort. Whether it was the tea or the magician’s words, she felt older, enervated. Her bones still felt chilled from the wet, despite the fire. She looked meekly at her cup. “I need to undo the work of another magician.”

The girl squinted through her spectacles at her but said nothing.

Abigail frowned. Such terrible manners. She went on anyway. “Some time ago, I—I had cause to correspond with a certain foreign lord.” What would such an ill-bred common girl know of such weighty matters? She set the teacup down and stared into the painting. Had the dying man and his dog shifted somewhat in wild remote ravine? “He was a widower, quite childless, possessed of a substantial inheritance—unlike many of our English lords, who are all fop and title but need potters’ daughters to supply them with income.”

 The magician swigged the dregs of her tea, set the cup down and smiled at her.

 Abigail’s cheeks felt hot. She resented that smile. Magician or no, that young woman needed to respect her betters. “The lord and I had entered into our correspondence, but I felt matters were not proceeding propitiously. He wrote excitedly of certain young men in his acquaintance, adventurous sorts, and of their plans to take the lord sight-seeing in Greece.”

“A horrid fate,” said the girl.

“I—yes.” Her eyes ventured back to the painting. This time the clouds seemed to have shifted, drifting over the distant moor. Perhaps that was natural for a canvas under a magician’s roof. “I enlisted the services of a local magician, a fraud I name him. I paid him to put a spell on my pen, so that my letters would have the effect of—the effect I desired.”

“This pen, then. Where is it?”

Abigail mastered her temper with an effort. “I did not bring it, miss.”

“The letters, then. Fork ʼem up.”

Abigail glared at the magician, but she had resigned herself to this eventuality. She withdrew the envelopes carefully from a leather wallet. Before she entrusted them to the magician, she hastened to explain. “When I wrote them, I felt my words were earnest, I dare say even passionate.” Her voice trembled. “Yet when he received them, they had become the vilest, most reprehensible—”

The magician snatched the letters from her. She read quickly, leafing through Abigail’s intimate correspondence with the foreign lord, a churlish smile growing on her face. At last the girl burst out in laughter.

“This lord chap mustn’t want you near his kennels now, eh?”

 “My dear, this is exceedingly painful—”

 “And this—your ‘dearest Adonis of the Sumatran apes’—he gettin’ on well?”

Abigail pushed to her feet, her head swimming now with the heat of the room. “I say! Such scandalous words were never meant—”

The magician waved her back with the offending letters. “No fuss, mum. No fuss now.” She indicated the painting, where man and dog now glared openly at Abigail. “I don’t see as there’s much I can do,” the girl went on. “You say your lord chap’s already got the lot. You’re scalped.”

“But surely, miss, there must be some charm, a certain spell—”

The magician set the letters down on the tea tray, rose to clasp Abigail’s hands. “What’s it you really want, then? The lord, or the cash?”

Abigail looked down at her. Looking through the girl’s thick glasses made her dizzy, as if the room was spinning up beneath her. She blinked and shook her head to clear it. “You should be ashamed of yourself, such a forward inquiry, a woman of my position—”

“The money then, right. Well, that’s an easy fix.” The room darkened and became blessedly cooler. Abigail felt relief until she noticed the imitation Gough growing larger, or perhaps it was the room that grew smaller around them.

She snatched her hands away in alarm, yet the ravine stole into the sitting room regardless, its fine fog extinguishing the fire’s light.

 “I know you magicians!” she yelped, shocked out of her proper manners. “None of your fairy kings or fool’s gold, missy!”

The girl smiled, glowing golden in the fading light. She pulled Abigail toward her and kissed her lightly on the cheek. “You don’t know this one.” Their boots scuffed on the grit and lichen at the bottom of the ravine. The air freshened into a breeze that touched the chill in her bones. Yet it was not entirely disagreeable. The dog bounded forward and knocked the girl over. She laughed and patted and wrestled it as the man—no longer dying, it seemed—strode up to meet them.

~

 Rick Hollon is a writer and the editor of Scareship, an electronic magazine of speculative fiction and poetry. He is a stay at home dad and occasional archaeologist living on Long Island, NY.

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