Sunday, December 18, 2011

Happy Holidays

The Saturnalia is our cue for a little holiday break: we'll be back after the first of the year with new adventures as we return to Paris and the alchemist Maggiormente and his Venetian lion Eduardo, as well as some new and potentially explosive adventures with propellants. We're happy to announce that the previous serial The Mangrove Legacy is now available at Amazon. Join Lizzie and Alice for their adventures with kidnappers, cheese, improving books, pirates, disguises and at least one improving book. Enjoy your holidays whether they include Hogmanay or the Epiphany or something else entirely.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


"I bet the damn bird wants some brandy," Helen's father said with something approaching friendliness in his voice.

Helen rubbed the raven's chest feathers to reassure it, but Tuppence remained agitated. Her clicks and croaks demonstrated her displeasure as she ruffled her feathers repeatedly.

"What the devil is the matter with the bird?" Her father's words sounded more harsh than his voice. The brandy had certainly mellowed his mood.

"Papa, that's medicinal. I think you should save some of the brandy for an emergency."

He gaped at her. "If being consumed by a cloud of starlings isn't an emergency, I'd like to know what does qualify."

"Certainly fire or an explosion," Helen retorted.

"As long as we're clear on the issue." Her father harrumphed. "Here, give some brandy to that damned bird and calm her down."

"She doesn't need or want spirits, Papa. She's distressed about the starlings."

"As am I." He took another swig and stared down Helen's disapproval. "Wait, she's distressed in what way? She's not pitying those little blighters, is she?"

"No, Papa. She was in even more danger than we were."

"How so?"

Helen smoothed the shiny black feathers on Tuppence's head. "Have you never seen a flock of starlings go after a crow? They might well have turned on her, had they not been flummoxed by the unexpected meeting with the ship."

"So she pulled up sticks and legged it—or should I say, took wing—for her own safety. Pity she couldn't have warned us sooner."

"She tried, Papa." The raven croaked more quietly now.

"Well, what disaster shall we face next?" Helen's father at last put the brand away, but he seemed to have retained its cheery effects well enough.

"It depends upon the weather along the coast," Helen admitted. "However, I suspect that the rest of our journey may prove free of disasters and even drama.

"I see nothing but blue skies ahead," Romano added from his seat at the controls.

"I don't know that I would trust such an assessment," Helen's father said, but he lounged idly in his chair, seemingly unconcerned for the moment.

As predicted however, the remainder of the flight proved to be without incident. The day continued fine, clouding over once or twice but there was never so much as a drop of rain discernable. Even the winds were gentle and mostly helping to ease the ship's passage rather than fighting against it.

"I think I'd rather have a disaster," Rochester grumbled after awaking from an unexpected nap.

"Papa, don’t say that." Helen scribbled in her log book, trying to recall the important details of the murmuration, searching vainly for clues to its formation in hopes that they could avoid such an experience next time.

This is what it meant to be a pioneer, Helen reflected, paving the way and recording history as it unfolded. A sense of awe filled her. It was an awesome responsibility.

Her father interrupted her thoughts. "I am finding air travel to be rather tedious."

"Papa, can't you enjoy the landscape?"

He folded his arms. "When I look over the side of the gondola I start to feel dizzy."

"Well, don't look directly down, as that will happen. Look out across the way."

"There ought to be some kind of entertainment to while away the hours."

"We could try fitting a quartet into the gondola next time," Helen said, closing her log with a sigh.  "But I suspect we would find things a trifle crowded if we did so."

"I have a better plan."

His smile had a devious turn to it, so Helen assumed the worst. "Dare I ask?"

"I think sheep's or pig's bladders, filled with something noxious—"

"Aren't the original items already noxious enough?"

"You've never had haggis. Then we wait until we're passing over a small village and go low enough that we can bung them at the people passing below."

"Papa, I am doing my best to make air travel respectable."

"You’re no fun anymore," he said, laughing heartily.

Sunday, December 04, 2011


 Helen looked quickly around the gondola but could see no sign of her raven. A pain stabbed her heart. She had had the bird since childhood, ever since she had found the fledgling had tumbled beneath the towers of the old house.

With Thompson, the head groom, they had been able to return the small heap of feathers to the nest high in the blackened ruins, but the bird had remembered the girl's kindness and often flew down near her as she gamboled among the fallen stones and timbers.

Over time, the friendship grew apace and Tuppence began to follow her around and finally all the way home. While she would often fly away for days at a time in her younger years, the raven always returned. Eventually, she would not part from Helen for more than an few hours. The two had an unusual bond.

Helen's father had named the creature whose croaking often seemed aimed at his grumbles. He didn't see why the bird should offer its two pennies to every conversation, but after the outburst, the name stuck and Helen became more curious about the bird's language.

The mood of her speech she found simple enough to parse. The raven's animated body language also contributed to her understanding. Helen learned to appreciate the different croaks and click, whistles and whatnot. Amusingly the bird had learned to make a noise uncannily like her father clearing his throat, which irked him more than anything.

Gradually she had discovered that Tuppence understood her better than she imagined, responding to questions and performing small tasks like finding her horse in the meadow and a good shelter for them both when they were caught out on the moors in a sudden gale.

"A hundred years ago," Helen's father found it amusing to claim, "They would have hanged you for a witch."

There were some in the town who regarded the pair of them with something approaching suspicion. It irked Helen who knew the close friendship between the two of them relied on careful observation and repetition of patterns.

All very scientific!

But this ought to have been an indication of the further path she followed. There were those who continued to think flying machines were unnatural, who considered the very idea of human flight to be some horrifying kind of hubris.

Encountering these reactions, Helen had often been inclined—uncharacteristically—to agree with her father that the world had more than its required share of ignorant and small-minded people.
Unlike her father, however, she generally thought that they could be won over. Helen's hope was that pioneers of flight like herself (and, grudgingly she thought, also the Lintons) would make the idea not only acceptable but popular and one day flying in a dirigible would be no more unusual than riding a horse.

In fact, it would be far superior as ships could carry a much greater number of passengers than any horse-drawn vehicle. The whole of the future could open up before them with new opportunities for travel around the world!

Of course they would have to sort out little things like flocks of birds sharing the airways, too. Surely that was the nature of exploration.

But where was Tuppence?

Signor Romano occupied himself with brushing the little bodies and feathers away from the console. "Everything seems to be in perfect working order, signorina."

"Excellent, excellent," Helen said teetering across the gondola as a gust of colder air jostled the ship. "Have you seen Tuppence?"

"No, signorina."

"Papa, I don't suppose—"

"One of the damn things is in my pocket!" Her father threw the offending creature out of his hand. They were all surprised to see the little black shape unfurl its wings and swoop out from under the curves of the ship and disappear in the wake of its colleagues.

"I hope to never see another starling." Her father harrumphed as if to put an end to the issue. He looked a bit shaken however, and Helen thought something bracing might help.

"There's some brandy in the medicine kit," she said and her father flung the cover back immediately and grabbed the bottle by the neck. "Papa!"

He ignored her protest and drank a swig from the bottle's neck. "Best thing."

"Papa, that's enough."

"You want some?"

"No, Papa. Signore?" Romano shook his head and continued to clean feathers from the dials. "Well, I can't imagine what has happened—"

A familiar croak reached the gondola and Helen turned with a smile. "Tuppence!" The raven sailed in and perched on Helen's chair, shaking itself and clicking loudly.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


The cloud of starlings engulfed the airship. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands in the murmuration, darting through space, swooping and diving through the air, but they had not expected to meet such a large object in their path.

The three humans instinctively ducked and wrapped their arms around their heads. A cacophony filled their ears.

The wings were disturbing somehow as they brushed their hair and limbs. The eerie feeling of feathers whispered against them, sometimes augmented by the thump of small bodies as the birds misjudged the path.

The worst had to be the beaks. The tiny little beaks were pointy and hard. One seldom gave thought to the fate of the caterpillars and moths who met their grisly end between the starling's mandibles, but it must indeed be gruesome, Helen couldn't help thinking.

She attempted to make her way toward where she thought her father had been sitting. Her progress remained slow. It proved difficult to know for certain what direction she was heading.

"Papa!" she cried.

No sound came but the cacophony of the starlings. Helen continued with determination, one arm over her eyes to protect them, the other outstretched, feeling for something solid.

The horrible racket! Helen recalled watching the black pools of starlings pulsing overhead as she stared up from the moors as a child. They were rare inland, usually only seen in the warmest months. Helen had never imagined being in the centre of that maelstrom.

She took another step and thought she had just heard a promising sound through the unceasing din. Moving carefully she thrust her hand into the storm.

From everywhere, tiny beaks and feet scratched her skin and feathers ruffled against her clothes. There was something unsettling about it. Unintentionally Helen began to dredge up from her memory some lines about a starling.

Who had written the lines? A German composer, she seemed to recall. Was it Mozart perhaps?

Hier ruht ein lieber Narr,
Ein Vogel Staar…

As she staggered through the cloudy cacophony, Helen tried to remember how the rest of the poem went. Snatches of words bubbled up as she fought her way across the gondola, rhyming pairs but not their context. Todes bitter Schmerz, which she was quite certain rhymed with Herz but there was not much more welling up from the memory banks now.

Her distracting ruminations gave way when she caught a shouted and incoherent phrase that had to be her father's voice. "Papa!" she cried once more, struggling forward further.

All at once a hand gripped hers and pulled her toward him. Father and daughter embraced with relief.

"These devil birds will put us all in our graves!" He shouted even though their heads were very close together.

"They don't mean to do it, Papa. We're the interlopers here in the sky."

"Damnation! You didn't warn me there'd be such perilous effects."

Helen winced from a particularly sharp beak blow to her head. "Honestly, Papa, I had not anticipated this sort of quandary."

"You should have planned better," his voice rasped in her ear as he flailed one arm helpless against the horde.

"Papa, the odds of this kind of happening were miniscule—"

"So you did calculate the risks?"

Helen sighed and tried to ascertain whether it was just hope or if the sound of the murmuration were beginning to lessen. "At least now we have a new problem to solve based on actual experience."

"The problem could be solved by staying out of the sky!" her father barked.

She ignored him. "Listen! I think the worst of the flock has begun to pass."

The racket assaulting their ears continued, but it did seem to be growing somewhat less. Helen lifted her head from her father's chest and made a quick reconnoiter of the gondola. The swift black shapes continued to flit through, but it had become possible to see individual birds rather than just the black mass of bodies. A few unfortunates lay on the floor of the gondola. She hoped some of them were merely stunned from having run into the sides and the equipment.

Helen cocked her head anxiously, but the engine continued to hum on with blissful regularity. She sighed. That was a relief. But another though occurred that had her glancing quickly around the ship.


Sunday, November 20, 2011


The clear fresh air in the ascent invigorated Helen. She found a special thrill in lifting into the clouds. As the world fell away beneath them and the clouds drew closer, her heart swelled with an immense feeling of freedom.

"When do we eat?"

Her father's words jarred her from the pleasant reverie. "Papa, we've barely begun to ascend."

"My hunger is not dependent upon height."

Helen raised her eyebrow at him. "I merely meant that we have barely begun our journey, so if we eat now we will be eating food meant for later."

Her father huffed. "You have a conveniently ordered anatomy. I did not breakfast yet, so I want some food."

Tuppence croaked and flapped her wings. "Look, even your bird agrees with me."

Helen looked back and forth between the two of them. "I begin to suspect a conspiracy."

"A little nibble of something would not go amiss, signora," Romano called back from the controls.

Helen sighed. "Well, we have a variety of edibles in the hamper." She crossed over and flipped open the top of the wicker basket. "Cheese and bread all right with everyone?"

They enjoyed a simple meal as they passed over the moors toward the coast and the weather continued fair.

"We're lucky we don't have to sail over Whitby again," her father remarked as he threw a little bit of crust toward Tuppence who caught it in her beak and settled over on top of a crate to devour it.

"I'm sure it would be fine, Papa," Helen said.

"Are we stopping in Grimsby?" Her father pointed at her with a finger that had a little butter anointing its tip. "I have never gone to Grimsby but once and I found it full of Liverpudlians for some reason. I am not certain that is always the case."

"Papa, we need to get down to Dover tonight if at all possible."

"What about Hull?"

"Signorina," the pilot called from the front of the gondola. "What is that?"

Romano pointed toward the morning's skyline. Helen narrowed her eyes to look into the rising sun. A large cloud drifted in a rather strange manner ahead of them. Its movements puzzled her.

"I thought your bird said the day was clear," her father said with a clear note of triumph in his voice before he popped another bit of cheese into his mouth.

"It is clear," Helen muttered, her eyes fixed on the growing dark shape. There was something familiar about it.

Her father had finally turned his attention to the mystery before them. "Are we near one of the industrial centers? Are there mills here?"

"No, Papa."

The cloud grew darker and began to twist and revolve in the air. The shapes of it became almost mesmerizing, Helen thought, as they mutated against the pale blue of the early morning sky.

"Signorna, shall we descend?" The pilot's voice carried a note of alarm.

Helen considered for a moment. "No, let’s stay on course. Perhaps the cloud will go around us or we will simply pass through without harm. Surely it's—"

She cocked her head. An audible sound began to make its way toward them, melding with the hum of the airship's motor.

"I don't much like the look of this," her father said. He glared off into the distance as if he could will the cloud away.

The cloud suddenly spiraled into a funnel shape then swirled again to form an oblong. The feeling of familiarity grew in the back of Helen's mind but she couldn't quite put her finger on it. It was the growing sound that pricked her memory. The racket had begun to drown out the motor's murmur.

That was it! "It's a mumuration," Helen exalted.

"A what?" Her father and Signor Romano spoke in unison.

Helen laughed and opened her mouth to explain, but suddenly the cloud was upon them. The black shape exploded before them and they were engulfed by the dark masses of loudly chattering little beings.

"What the devil!" her father shouted as they were immersed in the murmuration.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


"Buon giorno, signorina," Romano said cheerfully as Helen and her father climbed aboard.

"How's your arm?" Helen asked, frowning at the sling on her pilot's arm.

"This? This is nothing." Romano waved away her concern. "The physician, he wanted me to take precautions. It is well wrapped. I have little pain."

"And your head?"

The Italian raised his cap to show her the bandage wrapped around his head. "Nearly healed completely, signorina. No real damage." He grinned as he dropped the cap down once more. "My head is quite hard, like most of my country men."

Helen laughed. "I am relieved to hear it."

"Shall I tie myself in?" Helen's father interrupted their exchange as he lounged in the chair Helen had indicated.

Helen raised an eyebrow at him. "It's not strictly necessary. If we hit some turbulent weather, you may be more inclined to make use of it."

"Shall we ascend?" the pilot asked, seating himself at the controls.

Helen Looked around the gondola and nodded. "Yes, we're ready."

With a little bit of a shudder, the engine powered up and the flaps lifted, until the ship began to rise. Helen waved to the young groom, whose face bore a look of fear yet as Belial snorted in his face. Nonetheless the young man dutifully raised his hand in a farewell gesture.

A flurry of black feathers ruffled into the gondola. Helen's father cried out and waved his arms at the interloper.

"It's only Tuppence," Helen soothed.

"I wasn't scared," Rochester said gruffly.

"Of course not, papa."

Helen inclined her head toward the raven. "Any news?"

The black bird croaked and ruffled her wings, then stepped a few paces along the length of the trunk on which she had perched.

"Well, I suppose it's just as well that we're getting an early start," Helen said, nodding.

Her father exhaled noisily. "You can't claim that damn bird has anything intelligent to say." The two adversaries glared at one another.

"Papa, I rely completely on Tuppence's weather reports." Helen looked off to the west. "If she says there are storms coming in from the west, I know well enough to trust her advice."

Her father craned his head around as they rose higher into the grey sky. "I don't see anything."

The raven croaked again, but it sounded suspiciously like laughter. Helen smiled. "Of course not, it's a good way off yet."

Her father stared at the bird, who took his look as a challenge and hopped toward him, flexing her wings. "I don't like the way that bird looks at me."

"Look, Papa! There's mother waving, do see." Helen leaned over the side of the gondola, waving vigorously at her mother and Mrs. Hitchock who both stood in the garden looking up.

Her father gave over glaring at Tuppence to glance down at his home. "They look so very small." His voice sounded somewhat less sure than normal.

Helen looked over at his ravaged face and saw a hint of sadness there. He had not left Thornfield for some time. Despite his constant grousing, she couldn't help wondering if it were a bit difficult for him. "Look, Mother's smiling up at you. She's going to miss you so much."

Her words had the desired effect. His face transformed into its usual grumpiness. "Women, always trying to keep you tied to the hearth. About time I had some adventure." His eyes however betrayed a gentleness that belied his harsh words.

"We shall have wonderful adventures, Papa. And quite possibly make history."

"History?" Her father cocked an eyebrow at her. "History! You didn't say anything about making history. I'm not sure I want to be written down in some dusty old books."

Helen laughed. "Whether you wish it or no, Papa, you may find yourself in its midst, if our alchemist comes through with his discoveries."

"That mountebank?" Her father shook his head. "Damned unlikely I think."

"We shall see, Papa." Helen waved one final farewell and then turned to her pilot. "Let's get on to that horizon, signor!"

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A Wee Holiday

Your humble narrator has become lost in the mists of Scotland but will return shortly...

Sunday, October 30, 2011


They rode up the slope toward the spot where the dirigible was tethered. It offered a peculiar image in the early light, floating like a low-hanging cloud above the heather and the rocks.

"My god," Helen's father said with feeling. "I can't believe I am trusting my soul to that infernal machine."

Helen dismounted and handed her reins to young groom who had been drafted to help with the send off. He looked rather nervous which may have had as much to do with her father's reputation as with his horse's.

"Mind you keep a close eye on this beast," her father said as he turned the reins over to the timid young man. "Don't let him rip your arm off."

If the lad had looked frightened before, now he grew quite white. "Yes, sir," he managed to squeak as he stared at the snorting black beast, who—sensing an advantage—pawed the ground with a theatrical sense of menace.

"Don't worry," Helen said with a chuckle. "He seldom eats meat."

The young groom did his best to smile and looked a little relieved. Helen turned to regard the ship. "All ship-shape, signore?"

"All is well, captain," the Italian said, waving his bandaged arm at her. "Everything ship-shape. We are ready to sail into the winds."

Helen checked the assortment of luggage stowed around the gondola. "What's that?" she asked pointing to a rather large case that had not passed her inspection.

Her father leaned over the side of the ship to follow her pointing finger. "That? That's my town wear. I had Dennison pack my best."

"Oh, Papa!" Helen snorted. "There's no need for that. Signor Romano, chuck that over the side, would you?"

"You wouldn't dare!"

"Papa, you are not going to have to dress to impress anyone in Paris. We are not hobnobbing with the ton."

"I will have some business to engage with while I am there," her father said stiffly as he frowned at Romano as he struggled with the case. The young groom tried to lend him a hand after hastily tying the horses' reins to the nearby paddock's fence.

"Papa, do you wear these clothes when you conduct business here?"


"Papa!" Helen scowled.

"Oh, all right. But don't blame me if I get snubbed in Paris and we lose a fortune. I hear they can be pernickety when it comes to sartorial effects."

"If it comes to that, Papa," Helen said with a sharp look, softened somewhat by a smile, "We can buy you some new clothes in the City of Lights."

"Needless expense," he muttered.

"They would be somewhat more fashionable than your current wardrobe."

Her father stood up straight and stared at her. "I thought I brought you up to flatter your papa."

Helen laughed. "I'm afraid we've failed then. Papa, you know it's unnecessary."

"Very well." He crossed his arms. "I know I'll feel the absence of that silk cravat."

His daughter ceased to pay any attention to him. "Signore, have we got the rest of the cargo distributed sufficiently well?"

The pilot stood upright once more examining the gondola. "We should be all right, signorina. If not, we should be able to shift things during flight." He looked over at Rochester with a dubious expression. "As long as we are cautious."

Helen ignored her father's snort of derision. "How do the seats seem?"

The pilot patted the nearest one with pride. "I think we will find them quite comfortable for the longer journey."

Helen's father leaned over the gondola. "Am I sitting on that?"

"Yes, Papa. We all are. At least when we're not busy with other duties."

"Duties! I thought this was a leisure trip."

"Maybe for you. I have work to do." Helen climbed over into the gondola. "Are you ready to come aboard, Papa?"

"Aye, aye, captain."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sunday, October 09, 2011


The laughter that filled the room came unexpectedly from Helen's mother. "Holiday? Well, there you are. Problem sorted."

Her father frowned. "What the devil do you mean?"

"It's a holiday. So that means you will enjoy yourself, you will not have to do any work, and you will leave Helen to manage her own work."

Fairfax looked disappointed. "Can we at least finalise the details on the Leeds project before you go off gallivanting across the channel?"

"Yes, yes, all right. But while I'm gone your mother will have to be consulted. And yes," he added with a smile that was perhaps a little too pleased, "You will probably have to explain some of the finer points to her."

"As I know nothing about the project," the mother in question added dryly.

"But she's got a great head for figures and far more sense than I have." As usual when he was complimenting his wife, Rochester's voice got gruffer as he went on.

Someone unfamiliar with him could easily assume that his tone indicated anger. His fire-ravaged visage recoiled with something that appeared to mimic pain, yet signaled something far different.

A fact his wife had long been aware of, naturally. She crossed over to his side and sat on the arm of his chair. "You need to get away. It's been far too long since you've wandered further than York."

"I don't need to wander," he said, putting a rough hand on top of her smaller one.

"Perhaps not, but I think you will find that you do need to get out into the world a little and stretch those long legs of yours somewhere other than this library."

"It will be a terrific adventure, Papa." Helen added. "You will find many things to amuse you and cause all manner of trouble."

He made a rumbling sound that was not easy to interpret. "But I can't bring the dog."


"Oh, all right." Though he frowned theatrically, both his wife and daughter knew he was pleased.

In the morning, preparations began. Helen hopped out of bed at an early hour, waving away her maid Edith's well-intentioned attempts to help her dress. "I will have to dress myself on this trip, Edith. Only simple clothes, things I can easily slip in and out of."

The maid tutted. "You make it sound positively indecent."

Helen laughed. "There will be no possibility of anything indelicate with Papa along."

"Oh, Miss Helen, he's going to be no end of trouble to you, I expect."

"Nonsense," Helen said as she rubbed a smudge off her favourite goggles. "Papa will lend a sense of gravity to the adventure."

"And to the gondola," Edith added.

Helen threw back her head and laughed. "The ship has plenty of lift. It won't be a problem."

She was still chuckling when she headed out to the stables. Her father's voice rose in the distance, remonstrating with Thompson about some doubtless meaningful detail of Belial's maintenance in his absence.

"Not the common oats," he warned with severity. "The pressed oats with honey. Don't forget!"

"Of course not, sir," Thompson said. After many years he had become inured to the imperious demands of his employer and remained as phlegmatic as the elderly bay gelding he generally rode on errands. "The oats with honey."

"Mind you, don't over feed him. He can be a greedy beggar." Rochester thumped the huge stallion's neck affectionately and the horse nosed him just as roughly, forcing him to take a step back.

"Right, sir, not over fed," Thompson repeated.

"Papa, we really must get going." Helen pulled at his sleeve. "Signor Romano has the ship ready to fly."

"Yes, I suppose." He swung up on the horse as Helen climbed aboard her fat grey mare. "Did you say farewell to your mother?"

"Yes, of course. Did you?" Helen enjoyed seeing her father blush.

"Don't be impertinent. Let's go." Belial wheeled around and the two of them clattered off through the courtyard in the early morning light.

Sunday, October 02, 2011


  "Now, Helen," her mother soothed.

"Hideous machine," Helen repeated. "He called my beautiful ship a 'hideous machine'!"

"I apologise," Fairfax said, "But you also accused me of speculating. I cannot allow my own sister to accuse me of speculation."

"All right, I'm sorry as well." Helen paused at the door, her hand on the knob. "You're just so infuriating all of the time with your highhanded ways."

"I don't know what you mean." Fairfax looked at her wide-eyed.

"That's why it's so irritating!"

"What the devil does any of this matter?" Their father glowered at the two of them from the depths of his chair. "I don't need to hear this kind of wrangling from my children. I'd like a little peace in my own home!"

"Things will be quieter in France, Papa."

"France!" Fairfax said. "You're going, too?"

"Against my will," his father muttered. "We can't have your sister running around the land of frogs with strange Italian men on her own."

"You're secretly pleased I think, Papa." Helen laughed.

"I think perhaps Fairfax ought to go with you instead," her father said.

"What!" The two siblings spoke in unison with equal levels of horror. Their expressions gave no doubt about the unsuitability of this idea to both of them. It was only when they noticed their father's barely suppressed mirth that they breathed a sigh of relief.

"You're a very devil, Papa," Helen said, shaking her head in disbelief.

"I wouldn't be at liberty to go anyway," Fairfax added, his voice sounding somewhat nervous yet. He rifled through the papers in his portfolio. "This land matter alone will require a great deal of attention in the next few weeks."

"Not from me, I hope," his father said, apparently somewhat daunted by the thought. While he liked to think of himself as a cagey manager of his estates, he actually much preferred to leave things in the capable hands of his son. Most of his conversations consisted of nodding in agreement.

It was a suitable charade as far as he was concerned.

"Well, if I must go, I suppose I shall have to reconcile myself to my fate," he grumbled.

Helen was delighted that they had moved past the impossibility of the trip to planning its details. "We shall have to find a suitable place to stay in Dover and in Calais, where we can keep the ship nearby."

"I'm sure we can arrange something suitable," her mother said, "though perhaps not as quickly as you might like."

"Can I bring Cerberus along as well?"

"No, Papa, there won't be room." Helen gathered up her drawings and plans, ready to head to her room for some thoughtful planning.

"We really need to discuss this Leeds plan—" Fairfax began, holding out a very daunting piece of paper toward his father.

His father ignored the paper. "Are you bringing Tuppence?"

"Of course!"

"Well, then I want to bring my dog." Her father folded his arms decidedly. The animal in question raised his head, as if aware of the debate. "It's only fair."

"Papa," Helen said, swallowing her irritation, "Tuppence is a bird and can fly beside the ship. Cerberus is an enormous dog and will take up too much room as well as being an unruly beast with no discipline."

"Unruly! He's a well-trained and magnificent beast."

"Papa, he doesn't even sit on command."

"He's sitting now."

As if he understood—and Helen reflected, it might be entirely possible that he did—Cerberus immediately stood up, wagging his tail gently as he looked at his master.

"Good dog." He patted his pet affectionately. "Well, what the devil am I going to do while you're pottering around with mountebanks and machinery?"

"You could look at some possible investments," Fairfax broke in.

"Hang me if I'll be working on my holiday!"

Sunday, September 25, 2011



Helen's mother looked up from her husband's face, still smiling. "What is it, Mrs. Hitchcock?"

"Mr. Fairfax has arrived."

"Oh dear," Helen said.

"Now, Helen," her mother scolded gently. "I'm sure if you start out irritated you will only get more so very quickly. Think soothing thoughts."

Helen laughed. "I will not ruffle his almighty equilibrium."

Her father snorted. "Why the one child of mine who has become a success should be the cause of such consternation, I don't understand. Fairfax is a fine young man."

"He's an insufferable prig."

"Nonsense: he's a respected capitalist," his father huffed proudly.

"Exactly." Helen began to gather up the sketches and notes she had spread across the library table.

"Mother, father," Fairfax said as he entered the room, a portfolio under his arm. "Helen."

It would not be entirely accurate to say that the siblings were cool too one another. They were simply too much alike to get on well. Both had their mother's open, intelligent face and no-nonsense movements. They differed only in their zeal for opposing goals.

Fairfax had taken command of the family fortune with a zeal that approached the missionary. He had taken his degree from Cambridge and immediately embarked upon an aggressive plan for expanding their funds with the empire.

Helen, denied a similar opportunity, focused on educating herself with the extensive library her father had gathered and her mother had expanded. Suspicious of the same hierarchies that barred her from formal learning, Helen's character had developed with a scorn for all the conventional attitudes that fueled her brother's work and connections.

Consequently, they did not much understand one another.

At times like this, the clash between the siblings caused a good deal of friction. When one concentrated on holding onto existing benefits and the other on exploring the unknown, breaking new barriers and plunging into new horizons, there were going to be sparks.

And so they began.

"I've just been looking at our latest figures on the Leeds investments…" Fairfax began, talking directly to his father and bypassing the two women in the room. "They're not as strong as I would like them to be but I assume we can make some alterations to the schema that will keep the margins within reason."

"And hello to you, too," Helen snapped at her brother.

Fairfax looked at her mildly. "I'm sure we will have time to chat after Father and I have finished dealing with these matters."

"Oh yes, the matters far too complex for female heads to deal with!"

"I never said that." Fairfax frowned. "But you have never showed much interest—"

"And you have never bothered to include Mother or I in your calculations that manipulate the family finances without regard to proprietary or ethics."

"That's not at all true," Fairfax countered. "You will recall that my training in ethics at Cambridge—"

Unfortunately, any mention of that august institution inevitably resulted in further animosity from his sister. One might think the young man would have learned by now to avoid that controversial topic, but the truth was that he seemed to bring it up with tedious regularity.

"Yes, we're all well aware of the stellar education you received in the ways of the Empire, the ruthlessness of the capitalist, the slippery 'ethics' of the speculator…" His sister grew pink with irritation.

"I am not a speculator!" Fairfax seemed startled by the suggestion.

"Your schemes are legion." Helen's fixed expression seemed to suggest that his crimes were public knowledge.

"The only 'scheme' I could be said to be engaged in of a dubious nature," Fairfax said, eyes, glaring with intense light, "would be funding your hideous machine."

"A marvel of engineering!" Helen said, her voice constricted.

"Now, children, please let's not argue." Their mother shook her head at them.

"I shan't say another word!" Helen said and prepared to depart.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


"I told you it was goblins," Helen's father said with smug satisfaction as he threw himself into his favourite chair.

Her mother raised her eyebrows. "Goblins? Really?"

Helen rolled her eyes. "Of course not. But the folks in Whitby have complained about the proliferation of airships over their fair town and claim it is impeding the tourist trade."

"A fair assessment?"

Helen warmed her hands in the fire. "Unfortunately, I'd have to agree, especially after the Lintons' extraordinary conflagration."

"What the devil did they expect?" Her father growled from the depths of his chair, waking Cerberus who had been sprawled at his feet. The great black beast whined and tried to nose his master's hand onto his skull for a patting. Rochester looked down and gave the dog a rough tousle. "Do they think people are going to come just for the ruins of the abbey or to walk up all those infernal stairs?"

"Papa," Helen scolded gently. "People have long been drawn the beauties of that fishing town. It's romantic."

Her mother laughed. "You know your father has no sense of romance."

"The devil you say!" Her father said with an aggrieved air. "I'm far more romantic than your mother. She bewitched me. I was helplessly besotted."

The witch in question only smiled at her husband. "Am I to be accused of witchcraft anytime I do something you don’t anticipate?"

"Yes." Cerberus whimpered and he returned to scratching the dog.

Helen felt a spasm of irritated impatience even as she smiled at her parents' wrangling. "So I think I will fly down to Dover and then over to Paris."

This had the desired effect of startling her listeners.

"Is that wise?" her mother said.

"The devil you will!" her father said.

"It's quite safe. If anything, today's flight demonstrated just how much so. Despite the problems Signor Romano and I were well-prepared for the encounters and we succeeded in the face of all opposition," and possible interference, she thought to herself.
"I won't hear of it!" her father protested.

"Papa, you can't forbid me. It's my ship."

"You brother might have something to say about that."

Helen frowned. "I owe him the funds, not the ship. He will never realise his investment until I prove the worth of the vessel."

"Why do you have to go to that infernal land of frogs?"

"Weren't you once partial to that glittering city?" Helen's mother asked her husband who merely muttered something unintelligible.

Helen sighed. "Papa, I've explained. I need to work with Signor Maggiormente. The alchemical steam engine could revolutionise the entire history of flying machines. But we have to work together. We need each other's expertise."

"Well, why can't he come here? We could find room for yet another Italiano."

"He's in Paris for the Exhibition. I can't ask him to leave. Papa, I mean to go. This is the goal all my work has been leading toward. I can't wait any longer."

"We understand, darling," her mother soothed. "We're just concerned for your safety."

"And to have you gallivanting around with Italians! Can't be trusted, that much I know. Worse than Frenchmen." Her father scowled from the depths of his chair.

"Isn't that why we agreed you would accompany me?" Helen could not keep a smug smile from her lips as she delivered that piece de resistance. "I will be properly looked after and you will get out of Yorkshire for a while."

"I must have been drunk. Surely I never agreed to such an infernal plan. You're a witch like your mother."

A light in his eye suggested that he was not quite as averse to the idea as he made it seem. Helen decided to press the issue. "Papa, you know I won't feel entirely safe in a new country without you there to protect me."

Her mother laughed. "Now, you're overdoing it. Pretend to be put out a little while longer and he'll come around." She sat on the arm of her husband's chair and put her own arm around his shoulder. "Isn't that true, dear?"

"Witches," he muttered. "A fine pair of witches. Doubtless there will be all manner of goblinry, too. It's bound to be a fiasco of a journey."

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I think they are anyway; they are rather small, wear green and offer the most peculiar drinks and insist on a lot of dancing. Once I can make my polite farewells, I can get back to writing this story...

Sunday, August 28, 2011


I'm leaving the country in a week and everything suddenly seems to be falling apart. I'm sure it will seem better in the morning, but you'll have to forgive me for not having an episode this week. Much to look forward to as we're back to Helen and her father, goblins and airships. Okay, the goblins might not be real -- then again, her father could be right...

Sunday, August 21, 2011


"She's gone out." Eduardo sat with his paws neatly together, drawn up to his tallest seated position. He even had his fez on.

Maggiormente looked around the room. It seemed entirely empty of occupants apart from his familiar. "I see."

The Venetian lion sighed. "No, she's gone out of the house."

"Ah." Even better that. Maggiormente sat down and contemplated his table of beakers, cylinders and unguents. It would be a lot to have to pack up and move, he realised. They had gotten rid of the crates in which they had brought everything from Rome. Then there would be a cart to arrange as well.

Suddenly he felt very very tired.

"We don't have to move," the lion said, looking a little too pleased with himself. He stretched his wings out to their full size and then folded them back down again.

The alchemist looked at him with an eyebrow raised. "What?"

"I said, we don't have to move anymore."

"We did before?"

"You were thinking it."

"True enough. So why don't we have to do so now?"

Eduardo grinned, showing his big teeth. While the alchemist was very accustomed to this display, many were understandably intimidated by the gleaming choppers, a fact Eduardo chose to be aware of only some of the time. "I solved our problems with the concierge."

The alchemist had a momentary image of the lion eating the poor woman, but doubtless he would be lying down to digest a meal of that size and he was looking far too alert and pleased with himself for that—which was a relief to say the least.

He was not pleased with Mme. Gabor, but he would not wish her to become Eduardo's supper.

"How did you solve our problems?"

"I reasoned with her." The lion looked even more smug now, shaking his mane to emphasize his pronouncement.

"How exactly did you do that? You worry me, Eduardo."

His familiar barked with laughter, which seemed an entirely unsuitable sound for a lion to make. "What can I say? I made her an offer that she could not reasonably refuse."

Maggiormente did not like the sound of that. "What sort of offer? Did this involve pigeons?"

"Only as an example," Eduardo said with a small growl.


"What? She was trouble—and it was only likely to get worse. You need to work. I need to eat. It's a fairly simple equation." The lion coughed and a couple of pigeon feathers wafted out of his mouth onto the floor.

Maggiormente considered the situation. "Well, I suppose anything is worth not having to move again."

"And the pigeons are really fat here." Eduardo licked his paw as if a taste of his feathery meal remained there. "We need to get back to work before the Exposition, piccolo mago. It's just around the corner after all."

"And I have nothing to show for it!" The alchemist threw up his hands. "The linseed oil has gone nowhere. I need sand. What if I should be working with magnetism after all?!"

"I think steam more likely to be effective for air travel. The locomotive is the model to follow after all. More certain."

Maggiormente shook his head. "No, the answer lies in alchemy. A chemical reaction that will take the place of inefficient coal. If not linseed, some other fuel from which I can release its explosive powers."

Eduardo huffed. "More smelly fluids."

The alchemist waved his hand, a faraway look evident in his eyes now. "The secrets to efficient air travel lie hidden in the smallest elements. I must delve deeper and explore the unseen world." He stroked his beard, lost in thought now.

The lion burped. Another feather floated down to the wooden floor, but the alchemist failed to notice its fall.

"I must review my Hitchcock, and perhaps Madame Atwood, too," Maggiormente muttered.

Eduardo laid down and rested his head on his paws and almost immediately slept.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


"Perhaps you should talk about something other than the colour," Maggiormente suggested as his friend stared forlornly at the page on which he had scribbled moments before.

"Its texture?" The poet squinted at his friend while he sipped some more wine.

"Did you actually feel its texture?"


Maggiormente stifled an eruption of irritation. "How about shape? That offers a chance to employ some, ah—sensual detail."

The poet's face brightened. "Oui! Curves, curls, tumbling down…" He bent over the page again, scribbling furiously.

The alchemist downed the last of the wine in his glass and poured more of the bottle into Gustave's glass. The poet seemed to be operating under his own steam now. "I shall leave you to your task," Maggiormente said as he rose to his feet.

"Hmm? Yes, yes," the poet muttered as he continued to scratch away in the notebook. "Bountiful, yes, that's good, yes."

The alchemist smiled and turned away. It seemed his friend would not notice his absence now. While Maggiormente pitied his friend's struggle, he knew that the poet would be up to the task for certain. Now that his muse burned brightly, there would be no stopping him.

The alchemist started to walk away from the restaurant, raising a hand to wave farewell to Philippe and then wondered what direction he ought to head. He had been wandering in the general direction of the river in hopes of retrieving some sand, but now he wondered.

What was he doing?

It was an important question that had a lot more to it than geography. What was he going to do? What if they had to move?! Oh, that was a thought too horrible to countenance. The problem of the concierge was a complicated one. However, he had every confidence that ignoring the problem was likely to make it go away.

Surely problems always went that way?

The alchemist walked toward the river. Even if he didn't really care about the sand anymore, it would offer him a good excuse. He pondered the options before him. Either he gave in to the concierge's interest or he struck off in a new direction.

Sadly, a new direction might mean a new location—just when he had arranged his workshop so neatly. The alchemist sighed. Surely it wasn't possible; his concierge wouldn't make him move just for—

Just for what?

Maggiormente pondered. Did she really have the kind of madness that the poet exhibited? No, he was sure not. But then again, what did he really know—about her, about the situation, about any of it?

Not much!

The alchemist frowned. It wasn't so much that he dismissed the attentions of an interesting older woman. In fact, he couldn't think of much that would be more gratifying. However, his concierge's interest didn't seem to be so much in him as in the uses he could provide.

Which rather made him feel like a prize chicken and not a human at all. I should go back to the house and rescue Eduardo.

After a moment, the alchemist retraced his steps and bent them toward the familiar steps of the little hotel. He had been pleased to find it initially as accommodating as he had imagined from Italy.

Who knew the concierge would offer an interesting twist of her own?

When they had come from Italy it seemed to be everything he had wanted: spacious, slightly remote, with a non-residential feel to it that promised plenty of elbow room for experimentation. They had had a few breakthroughs that gave him hope.

And Eduardo liked the number of pigeons. He was sadly consistent in that.

"It needn't be like this, "Maggiormente told himself. But then he pondered the concierge again. She might disagree with that.

"I do need sand," he told himself, but then bent his trails back to a more classical approach. "Perhaps I ought to be checking on Eduardo. We can explore the sands together.

The alchemist reversed his path. Concierge or no concierge, he was going to be brave about this.

Sunday, August 07, 2011


Maggiormente laughed. "Now, now—you mustn't give in to despair. You've only just begun."

Gustave grinned weakly.

"Have you written down the eyes yet?"

Dutifully the poet scribbled away. "I added limpid, too. That's a good word."

The alchemist found his grasp of French struggling against its limits. "What does that mean?"

"Pellucid," the poet said, a far away look in his eyes.

Maggiormente raised one eyebrow. "I am no closer to understanding. It must be something different in Italian."

"Clear, undimmed, without obstruction. Her eyes were green and limpid."

The alchemist coughed. "Well, I suppose ocular health is important."

The poet winced. "It's not about her health, it's about the clarity of her eye colour. Its perfection."

"Ah." Maggiormente considered this for a moment. "At least you consider something of hers to be without imperfections."

"I am doing my best to remain on a flattering path. But what more about her eyes?"

"Perhaps you should move on from eyes. What's next?"

"Off the top of my head, I'd guess perhaps lips."

Maggiormente frowned. "Haven't you written love poems before?"

"Well—" Gustave looked sheepish. "I have…for other people."

"But not for yourself."


Maggiormente grinned at his friend, who looked suddenly pink. "That makes this so much more important, amico mio. You must go with the truth. From here," he added, thumping his chest with a fist.
The poet rubbed his chin. "Hmmmm."

"So what did you notice first?"

Gustave closed his eyes. Maggiormente supposed he was remembering every detail of the encounter. At least the poet's face showed a flickering montage of expressions as his eyes moved under their lids. At last they flicked open and he stared at his friend.

"Her hair!"

"Perfect. Her hair was red, yes?"

"Fiery." He wrote the word down in his notebook, then frowned at it. "Perhaps that's too strong." Gustave looked up at the alchemist. "She could take that the wrong way."

Maggiormente considered the issue. "Is there another word that conveys the excitement of the flame yet sounds less…combative?"

The poet mused, tapping the pencil against his teeth. "Incendiary?"

The alchemist nodded encouragement. "A word for the colour? Red? It seems too mundane. Is there something more, ah, poetic?"

"Crimson? No, inaccurate." The poet looked skyward as if he might pluck a word from above. "Not red, not brown, in between. There's a word for that…"

"Burnt sienna?" Maggiormente suggested, remembering his encounter with the painters.

"No, auburn, that's it!" He wrote the word down hastily as if it might escape before he did so. "What's this 'burnt sienna'?"

"I just learned it recently, in fact I was thinking of making my own range of burnt colours but it took so long to find someone who knew what the sienna was that could be burnt, so I got distracted because there was this linseed business that I was hoping would prove a useful fuel source but so far it has not provided more than explosions which I'm afraid have not been easy to control."

Gustave blinked at him. "Perhaps I should go with auburn."

The alchemist frowned. "But she is an artist. Perhaps she would appreciate the knowledgeable reference to her expertise. That would be a good thought, surely."

The poet grimaced and ran a hand through his hair again. The wild tumble suggested confusion. "This love is a perishingly difficult business, my friend."


Sunday, July 31, 2011


Gustave reached into his satchel and pulled out a much-stained notebook. He took another swallow of wine, then opened the notebook to a blank page. The poet began to rummage through his pockets while the alchemist looked on.

"I have a pencil here somewhere," he said as he continued to pat his clothing. At last he located the object in his breast pocket and looked at it with something akin to surprise.

Maggiormente pushed away his nearly empty glass. "I should leave you to your labours and get back to my own."

Gustave looked stricken. "No, mon ami! I need you here!"

The alchemist frowned. "Whatever for? I don't have a poetic bone in my body." He threw his arms wide as if to demonstrate the fact, nearly striking the passing waiter in so doing.

The poet threw up his hands. "Look how far you have taken me already. I would still be in the depths of despondency if it were not for you."

"But love," Maggiormente shrugged. "I know nothing of that art."

A desperate look lit his face. "But that is what I need! Your clear-eyed wisdom. Love as alchemy, a volatile compound."

The alchemist laughed. "I don't know any thing about love, my friend. If I can help somehow, I suppose I shall." He sat down once more and reached for the wine. If he had to assist the poet, surely more wine was a necessity. For a moment, Maggiormente thought with guilt of the Venetian lion back at the work room. Eduardo would be displeased to be longer neglected.

On the other hand, Eduardo tended to do as he pleased, so there was little to be done.
He would doubtless amuse himself.

"I suspect you will be very helpful as I try to compose. It helps to have someone to bounce the ideas off, as it were." The poet ran his fingers through his hair as if to stir up some thoughts.

"Well, how do you usually start?"

"I have a theme—"

"Well, you do."

"Yes, but," the poet paused. "It's not a visual theme."

"You need to see groveling?"

"I'm not groveling."

"You need to grovel." Maggiormente nodded sagely. "You need to grovel a lot."

"I need to show her why she is so important to me, why I had to ask her to seek perfection in her work."

"I think you ought to steer away from any attempt at corrective observations until you have actually convinced her to listen to you."

"Good plan." Gustave put the pencil to the page, then paused again. "So…what should I write about?"

"How about her…eyes?" The alchemist frowned in thought. "They burn like the sun."

"No, no," the poet also frowned. "Her eyes are nothing like the sun…"

"Well, what colour are they?"

Gustave sighed. "Green like the moss deep in the forest, like a wet glen at the bottom of a wild waterfall."

Maggiormente nodded. "Yes, yes. That's good."

"Do you think so?" Gustave but the pencil, screwing his mouth up into a bow.

"Yes, of course, of course. Write it down!"

The poet stared. "But—"

"You can always change it afterward, but it's important to get the first impressions down."

"Do you think so?" The poet repeated.

Maggiomente made an explosive sound of annoyance. "If you don't get down these raw thoughts at the start, you lose the magic. It's important to capture the rich pearls of inspiration—even if you rub most of them away."

Gustave stared at him open-mouthed. "Is this alchemy?"

The alchemist shrugged. "Doesn't poetry work the same way?"

The poet sighed. "When it does."

Sunday, July 24, 2011


"What? Why do you look at me like that?"

The alchemist shook his head, chuckling. "You introduced yourself to the woman you love, this goddess, this angel—"

"I didn't say angel, did I?" Gustave frowned. "I don't want her to be too angelic."

"This woman you fell in love with, eh?" Maggiormente frowned, although he found it hard to hide a smile. "Your first words to her are finding fault with her sketch?"

"The perspective was a bit off." The poet shrugged. "What? Criticism helps improve your art."

The alchemist laughed. "Is that why you were so happy with the critic in Le Figaro?"

"The fool! He knew nothing of rhyme!"

"And what do you know of sketching?"

Gustave stared at him. "What are you saying?"

Maggiormente shrugged. "I'm guessing your goddess did not respond well to your words of criticism."

The poet covered his face again. "She was livid! She called me names a beautiful woman should not know."

The alchemist pondered for a moment what sort of words those might be, but then turned his attention back to his friend. "As a first impression, criticism may not have been the best avenue to pursue. You should establish a friendly interaction before provoking a hostile one."

"Do you think so?" The poet pulled at his moustache and stared morosely off into space, then reached for his glass and downed the rest of his wine.

"Of course, of course."

Gustave buried his head in his hands. "I'm ruined! She hates me! I will die of a broken heart!"

His muffled words made plain his distress, but Maggiormente had to bite his lip not to laugh at his friend. "There, there." He patted the man gingerly on the shoulder. "Perhaps you can ameliorate the situation."

The poet sniffed and raised his head. "How?"

The alchemist spread his hands. "What are your strengths?"

"What?" Gustave blinked at him.

"What are your strengths?" He repeated. "What do you do well?"

"I can recite the alphabet backwards while standing on one leg…"

Maggiormente guffawed. "Poetry, you fool!"

The young man gaped at him, than laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. "Why of course, of course! I shall write an epic poem detailing how my love has gone awry, I will make people weep and beat their chests—"

"Ah, mio amico! That's not what I meant at all." Maggiormente shook his head in disbelief. "You need to change her mind and show her that you are more than just a critic."

"But I was right about the perspective—"

"Would you rather be right or in the arms of your goddess of the red-gold hair?" The alchemist raised his eyebrow at the poet.

Gustave beat his own chest. "My goddess! I must have her!"

"Then write to her! Beg her forgiveness, praise her beauty and her skill."


"Do you want to be in her favours again?"

"Yes, of course, a thousand times, yes!"

"Then pour your heart out in a letter, a poem and get it to her."

The poet's face looked sunny again. "Do you think it will work?"

Maggiormente shrugged and sipped his wine. "Love comforteth like sunshine after rain."

It was the poet's turn to raise an eyebrow. "You have surprises, Maggiormente, that I do not expect."

"That is the nature of surprise." The alchemist grinned.