a hemisphere of light

(Many thanks to Cherry Ice for beta!)

World and characters borrowed from Freedom and Necessity, a book by Steven Brust and Emma Bull.

December the 21st, 1851

A day of death, of darkness and memory. All over England, the superstitious are hidden away with shutters drawn, Yule logs alight. The darkness there is bad enough; here in the wilds of Wisconsin, it is thick as molasses, and silent as well. We're in town here, but at night, in the winter, it feels as though we are hundreds of miles from any sensible thing. One begins to understand why the people native to this area have stories about such creatures as the windeego.

Well. I think I won't be eating anyone in the near future, but I'm certainly maudlin enough when left to my own devices. It is four o'clock in the morning, after all. If one can't be maudlin now, when can one? Diccon certainly sympathizes, anyway. He is awash with misery, poor lad, and as unwillingly awake as I am. Teething, you see. Alice says it is still quite normal in children his age and has forbidden us to call for a doctor. Instead, we are to give him a cold washcloth to chew on and wait until he falls back to sleep. He is standing in my lap as I write this, his hot cheek pressed into my neck, making a variety of small, wordless complaints as he decorates my collar with spittle. (All my shirts have been thus decorated by now, I'm afraid--fatherhood calls for such terrible sacrifices. Wye would weep.) I don't grudge him the time, actually, despite the ungodly hour. I still can't bring myself to believe that he is here, that I am permitted to lay some small claim to something so tremendous. My own childhood being what it was, I can't say that fatherhood is a role I would have chosen deliberately; it was certainly never part of my plans. But having had it thrust upon me, I find myself greedy of it, hoarding every moment as though they were rationed. I suppose it is not so strange to feel this way. I am living on borrowed time, after all--two years ago on this day, I died. All this, every incredible thing that has happened to me since--Susan and my son, our fine little house, and my appointment at the new University--these things feel borrowed, too, part of another man's life. A luckier man than I.

And Richard would say I am a fatalist, and I suppose he would be right. I can read the modern thinkers as much as I like, but in my heart of hearts, I am terribly old-fashioned. My mind knows that destiny is nonsense; my gut tells me to be careful, to keep my head low, to avoid the gazes of all the jealous gods.

December 23, 1851

My dearest Kit,

I ought to be wishing you a blessed holiday or some such, I suppose (and of course I do, dear), but several things have happened in the past two days and until I have shared them with you, I find myself disinclined to take the time required by social niceties. Yes, I know, forthrightness is unbecoming in a lady. I can feel your shock even across the wide expanse of the Atlantic.

It began on Tuesday afternoon. I arrived home at nearly four o'clock, wet about the ankles and down the back of my neck, exhausted and cold, my head all caught up in far-away things. I came in through the kitchen door--Alice will still take fits if one tracks snow into the front hall, even here--and set about unwrapping myself: scarves, shawls, jacket, gloves. There was a bit of prepositional nastiness I was trying to sort out in my head, even though the paper was probably being typeset already, and it was far too late for corrections. I was being stubborn about it, in the way one becomes after several hours spent rephrasing other people's sentences, when the entire language has become strange in one's mind, and the right answer is obvious, but just out of reach.

The kitchen was deserted, but smelt of crescent buns. I found a plate of them on the top of the hearth, draped with a tea-towel; I stole one on my way through, and was still picking at it when I found James in the sitting room, together with Greger Sigridsson (of whom I believe I have written before--he and his companion, Mary Elkhorn, are friends of our Boston Doctor, and now friends of ours, as well) and a man I didn't recognize. All three of them looked quite grim; James had a map of the state spread open across his lap and the other two stood near him, looking on.

They lifted their heads when I came in. I stopped just inside the doorway and swallowed my mouthful with difficulty. "Hello," I said, somewhat stickily, my eyes moving to James's face.

He met my gaze, solemn, but not frightened. "Hello, my heart," he said. "How fares the voice of godlessness and treason this week?"

The stranger was also a friend, then. I glanced at him, but his face was impassive, unreadable. For the first time, I noticed his unshaven chin, the mud stains on his clothing. Things began to become clearer.

"Energetic," I told James. "But entirely ungrammatical. My head is crammed with dangling participles. Please tell me you've got coffee."

James widened his eyes. "Would I dare deprive you?"

I made a face at him. "Are you going to introduce me to our visitor?"

The stranger cleared his throat. "John Parnell, ma'am," he said, nodding at me. He still wasn't smiling, but there were creases around his eyes, now, and a twitch in his handlebar moustache. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."

I did smile. "Likewise," I said. "Mr. Parnell, am I correct in assuming you have brought us another guest?"

He looked startled, glancing toward James, who only lifted his eyebrows and gazed back, impassive. (Men are no less likely to imagine strange delicacies of us in the New World, my dear; it seems a universal failing.)

I sighed. "James could hardly keep it from me, you know, even if he'd wanted to. I'm quite sharp, really--I tend to notice when people are holed up in my spare room." Parnell's mouth tightened, so I relented a little. "And I'm the better shot, anyhow."

James grinned, then. "She is, you know," he said. "Dead centre from thirty yards. She'd give most of us a run for our money, I suspect."

Parnell took a breath, considering this--chewing, I'm afraid, on the ends of his moustache. After a moment, he barked a laugh and clapped me soundly on the shoulder. "Well, then," he said. "I suppose it's you I ought to stick close to tonight, eh? I'll be sure and remember it." He winked at me, looking pleased with himself.

I let out a breath of my own, and made my way to the sideboard, where a carafe was producing a quantity of promising-looking steam. I don't care what you say about the effect on one's nerves, dear-heart--coffee is nature's answer to all of life's trials.

I settled in across from James with a good-sized mug of it between my cold hands. They were plotting routes to the lake; Parnell must have some connection among the fishermen or the longshoremen there. I sipped at my coffee and watched them bicker over which road was likeliest to be deserted this time of year. Our guest was not inconspicuous, it seemed. He was responsible for instigating a small rebellion among the slaves at his plantation. Consequently, there was a larger than average bounty for his capture, and marshals had been drawn from neighbouring states to compete for it. It would be a trick to get him past the border without encountering one or another of them. I felt the muscles in my neck begin to tighten.

James was quieter than the other two, distracted from the conversation for long moments, his gaze inward and intent. I managed to catch his eye after a time and lifted both my brows. His mouth quirked. He shook his head, slightly: nothing to worry over. I didn't believe it for a moment.

"If we are careful, we might take a longer way through the woods near Alsbury," Greger said, finally. "We could come out just here, and if luck favours, they will have searched that part of the road already."

"Hm," I said. "And perhaps we could draw their attention even further away--perhaps there will be a suspicious-looking party traveling on the road for Port Hardy, as well."

Greger beamed up at me through his blond beard. Parnell tugged at his moustaches, not looking at me, but nodding slowly. James cleared his throat.

"And I think we may have our plan," he said; when no one protested, he folded up the map.

Everyone straightened. Parnell glanced at the window. "It's nearly dark," he said. "But maybe we ought to wait a while after, too. Give those bastards time to settle in a little, get started on their dinners." He grinned, then seemed to remember himself. "Begging your pardon, ma'am."

I smiled. "Not at all, Mr. Parnell," I said. "I can't think of a more suitable term."

We settled the two men with some sherry near the fire. James attempted to disappear, then, but I've much practice with the maddening ways of your step-brother by now, my dear, and I caught up with him in the hall.

"Something's worrying you," I said, my voice low.

He shook his head. "I, ah. I thought I heard Diccon awake."

We stood together before the stairs, listening. Of course there wasn't any noise at all.

"Try again," I said.

He sighed, his shoulders slumping somewhat, and pushed his hands through his hair. "It's nothing, really. I find myself...haunted, today. If you can believe it. It isn't logical, but there you are."

And Kitty, it took me a long moment, there in the dim quiet of the hall before the stair, to remember why this day might be more significant than any other. "Oh," I said finally. "Oh, my dear."

He lowered his head again, then lifted it, casting about as if looking for a handy means of escape. He is still given to suffering in private, if he thinks he can get away with it. Even now, after everything. I closed my hand on his arm, to keep him in place, and used the other one to touch his face. "You might have reminded me," I said softly. "I'm thick, but I catch up quickly."

He smiled without humour. "To what purpose? So you could be miserable with me?"

I huffed at him, impatient now. "Yes," I said. "Precisely."

He met my eyes then, a frown between his brows, clearly not understanding. Luckily for him, Mary emerged from the direction of the kitchen just then, a bundle of clothing in her arms. "Hello," she said, blinking snow from her lashes. "Our friend, his clothing was all ruined, so I brought him some of Greger's things." She held them up, beaming at us both. (Mary is one of those women you would like to be able to hate; she is stunningly beautiful in all manner of situations, the kind of person for whom conversations come to a stammering halt. Sadly, she is also intelligent and incredibly charming, so I am forced to like her instead.)

James smiled back and took the bundle from her. "Why don't I deliver those for you," he said. And he was gone before either of us could say a word, the wretch.

Mary quirked an eyebrow at me. I sighed and shook my head. "Was Mrs. Hamm in the kitchen when you went through? I think we're going to have time for dinner after all; we should probably let her know how many of us there are."

Mrs. Hamm always cooks for a small army anyway, so she hadn't much adjusting to do to accommodate us all. The dining room was another matter. Our house is fine for James and Diccon and me, but it isn't Cauldhurst, my dear. We were forced to crowd in with extra chairs around the table: James with Diccon on his knee, Greger and Mary, Mr. Parnell and Mr. Banks, our new guest, looking somewhat aswim in Greger's shirt and trousers. Nevertheless, we were a boisterous party. It was nearly Christmas, after all, and the prospect of a shared and dangerous endeavour had united us in a celebratory spirit. We didn't hear the knocking at the front door at all; it wasn't until it actually banged open that the lot of us fell silent. And by then it was too late, of course--the marshal was in the doorway, blocking the exit, and our guest was plain for anyone to see.

There was a moment of utter silence. In it, we could hear the sounds of a disturbance all up and down the street: voices calling out to one another, fists pounding at our neighbour's doors. The bastards had not settled in for dinner, after all, it seemed. Beside me, I felt James go very still.

I looked up, struck with a sudden awful premonition, and saw him lower his head to press his lips into Diccon's hair for a long, silent moment. When he looked up, his face was full of some dreadful acceptance, as though he had been waiting for this, as though it were inevitable. He passed Diccon to me and pushed his chair back, getting ready to rise, the bad hand curled lightly on my shoulder.

"No," I said, low and definite. I'm not sure what I was planning--only that I felt I could will this situation into submission, if I could remember how. I caught James's gaze and held it, my mouth tight, Diccon a warm weight in my arms. "No," I said again. James blinked, then closed his eyes--only for the barest moment, my dear, but it was enough.

Mary Elkhorn cleared her throat. Not loudly, I think, and she hadn't even risen to her feet. Nevertheless, all attention in the room was suddenly hers. "Not this one," she said. "Not today."

I hesitate to even write the words, darling, imagining your gloating face as you read them, but--it was uncanny. Mary's face had never shifted from her usual expression of calm and good humour. Her voice was as courteous as it always was. Her hands were folded in her lap beneath the table's edge; there was nothing threatening about her. But the marshal blinked several times, rapidly, as though he had stepped out from a dimly lit room into bright afternoon sunlight. His face sagged, suddenly as empty as a sleepwalker's. "I--" He shook his head. "Well, that's--" He frowned, and stopped, as though he had forgotten what he was going to say.

Mary smiled at him, almost kindly. "You have come to my valley uninvited," she explained. "You should go."

And the marshal blinked at her again, once, then turned on his heel and obeyed.

We all sat in silence for a moment after we heard the door close behind him. Parnell and Banks seemed curiously unconcerned; after a moment or two, Parnell asked Banks to pass him the salt and they continued eating as though they had not been interrupted. Greger had his head down, his eyes on his plate, smiling to himself beneath his beard. James looked as pale as I felt.

I drew a breath, then let it out again. Diccon squirmed about so he could peer up at my face, which he patted, inquiringly. I caught his hand and pressed it to my mouth, my eyes on Mary's. She looked back at me, steadily, but apologetically, it seemed.

"If I ask you to explain what just happened, will I like the answer?" James voice was not entirely steady. I took his hand in my free one and he wrapped his fingers around mine, squeezing hard.

Mary smiled. "What do you think?" she said.

Greger lifted his head, grimacing wryly at James. "The New World isn't like the Old," he said. "Their gods still live among them." He tilted his head toward Mary. "Truth be told, it can get to be a nuisance."

She clucked her tongue at him, shoving him with an elbow. And that, my dear, was that.

Well, that was that as far as (putative) gods and fugitives went; after James and I came back from Port Hardy late that night, there was another discussion to be had. It wasn't long--neither of us had the energy for lengthy discussion. Instead, I waited until he had hung his sodden greatcoat near the fire and stepped out of his boots, and then I took him firmly by the lapels so I could force him to meet my eyes. "The average person," I said, trying to put all the urgency at my disposal into my hands and voice, "when confronted with a life-threatening situation, will attempt to move away from the danger."

He swallowed, his cold hands moving up to cover mine. "I'm sorry," he said. "I--well. I think it's habit, mostly. I'm not accustomed to being favoured by the gods, you know."

I snorted inelegantly and leaned my forehead into his collarbone. He wrapped his arms around me and pressed his face into my hair. "Do you suppose they were joking?" I asked, muffledly, then turned my head, settling my cheek against his chest. "Greger and Mary, I mean."

He breathed a laugh into my hair. "I certainly plan to suppose as much," he said. "I'm a rationalist, you know. I've a reputation to uphold."

"Mmm," I said, patting him approvingly. "Good point."

There: that really is that, I think. It is past eleven o'clock and I am going to bed. Happy Christmas, my dearest Kit, and to Richard, as well.


All my love,

Susan


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