[For those who are concerned with continuity, this story takes place after the Shade Hunt and before the forthcoming Tale of Two Suns, a voyage to lightless depths and the wide open sky.]
Gideon is building something. If he can keep his hands busy, perhaps he won’t have to engage his brain. Introspection is something to be avoided when dark thoughts lie in the recesses of his mind.
Dripping candles flicker on his workbench, pushing back the gloom of the cellar. The facilities are hardly ideal, but after the destruction of the grand underground complex that he liked to refer to as his Shed, there is nowhere else for him to build his inventions. The cellar is cluttered with junk: gear-wheels, cans of oil, disassembled steam-engines with their glinting innards on display, even a reinforced box of Correspondence plaques. Much of it is covered in dust-sheets, creating alarming shadows on the walls.
Gideon squints through the array of lenses fitted to his left eye. His clockwork monocle may have a tendency to overheat, but it is invaluable for delicate work. A device resembling a brass pocket-watch is taking shape before him; innumerable tiny mechanisms litter the workbench around the half-filled casing. With painstaking care he inscribes a Correspondence sigil on a cog under the magnification of his monocle. This is the lynchpin of the entire device. The pattern for the sigil is outlined in ink on a piece of paper in front of him as a guide.
The sigil is best translated as “The process of uncovering a past that is best left buried”.
The inventor works feverishly until the candles are burned down to stubs. The device takes shape before his eyes like a living organism: a thousand parts working in tandem to a greater purpose. Sigils gleam in cosmogone on six driving gears. The interior of the mirrored watch-casing hints of viric, while the brass exterior is highlighted in apocyan. A vial of liquid gant seeps through peligin pipes winding around the gears. The glass face of the casing has bearings picked out in irrigo, to aid in forgetting them until it is necessary. A slender violant-infused needle is affixed to an axle at the centre of the device, to make necessary but troublesome connections.
It is a compass like no other. With it, perhaps he can finally track down the man who has haunted his nightmares.
The door opens with a soft creak, spilling gaslight into the cellar. Gideon looks up, startled, and drops his screwdriver. To his credit, he manages not to yelp.
“Only me,” says Vela, standing in the doorway. Her dark hair is pulled back in a neat bun, and she is wearing her work clothes – a neatly ironed skirt and blouse in sombre grey.
Gideon removes his monocle. “Ah, hello, darling. Aren’t you home a bit early?”
Vela raises an eyebrow. “It’s eleven at night, Gideon. Baseborn’s had us working our fingers to the bone on the Farrier case. I may never write again,” she says, massaging her wrist. “Have you been cooped up in here all day, dear?”
“I’m prepared to concede the possibility.”
“Are you done now? Come on upstairs; you’ll catch your death down here with all the cold and damp!”
Gideon smiles. “I suppose a mug of hot cocoa and a good book by the fire wouldn’t go amiss.”
He puts away his equipment and blows out the candles, shutting the little compass in a desk drawer, and gives Vela a peck on the cheek as he meets her at the doorway. The door clicks shut as they leave arm in arm, and nothing is left in the darkness but the ceaseless whirring of the compass as it seeks its quarry.
“This is good cocoa. Delicious, in fact. I’d call it the best cocoa I’ve ever tasted, but I’d have to have a conference with my past self just to make sure.”
“I rather thought you’d like it, dear. I picked it up from Dante’s this morning. They say it was grown in the Elder Continent under the nurturing light of the Mountain, and it’s infused with the essence of life itself.”
“And what do you think?”
“The label says ‘Made in Brazil’. Still, I know which story I prefer.”
“Mmm. I think I know too. I can practically taste the life essence.”
The living room of the townhouse is more of a library, stocked with books ranging from legal tomes to scientific journals to all manner of fiction. Where there is no space in the shelves, books are stacked on every available surface and – for the most disfavoured texts – even on the floor. It is not especially tidy, but it is cosy. The fire dances merrily in the hearth, banishing the chill of the Neath.
They while away the wee hours of the morning there, cuddled up on the sofa reading some of Vela’s favourites. She takes great pleasure in pointing out grammatical errors – once a clerk, always a clerk. He puts on silly voices for the characters – the pompous major-general, the haughty cat, the obsequious toad – and floods of laughter fill the room.
It is one of those rare moments when all seems right with the world; where the terrors of the unknown no longer hold sway and the future doesn’t look so bad after all. Gideon wishes he could hold onto the moment forever, but life rarely contrives to work that way. After this particular moment has passed, hanging between the ticks of the clock for an age, life contrives to send a caller to the happy couple’s door at this ungodly hour. They knock three times.
“Who could be calling at this ungodly hour?” says Gideon.
“Best not answer it,” says Vela. “Could be burglars, or worse, your cousin.”
The knocks at the door sound again, more insistently.
“I’d better go and get it,” says Gideon.
“Fine. It’s your funeral. I’ll stay here, to scream very loudly when the burglars have dealt with you and they come in here looking to snatch all our lovely books.”
“Noted. I’ll try not to get too much blood on the carpet.”
The knocking abates when the silhouette at the front door notices Gideon entering the hall through the frosted glass. He slides back the chain and opens the door, revealing the pale, bedraggled figure of his cousin Locke carrying a soggy cardboard box marked “THIS WAY UP” with an arrow pointing down.
“Who is it?” shouts Vela from the living room.
“It’s Locke, dear!” shouts Gideon over his shoulder.
“Tell him we don’t have any brandy!”
Locke frowns, but steps in anyway while Gideon is distracted and puts the cardboard box on the floor.
“I brought this box for you,” says Locke.
“Is there anything in it, or did you just think I could do with a spare box at three in the morning?”
“’Course there’s something in it, silly. This… is a memento. Great-Uncle Edgar found it in the skips down at the Uni. Says it’s from your old department.”
Flames, licking at the walls. Trapped students, screaming in terror. Gideon hadn’t been there when the Ministry of Public Decency put his department to the torch, but his imagination was almost as bad as the real thing.
“This old box survived the fire? It looks like it’s liable to fall apart in a stiff breeze!”
“I don’t know the particulars, but maybe you worked some of that Correspondence mumbo-jumbo on it. You don’t remember much from back then, do you? There’s a journal in there, a log of your old experiments. Maybe it can jog your memory.”
Gideon pats Locke on the shoulder. “Good man. Let’s get you a drink, shall we? We don’t have brandy, of course, but Vela’s bought this lovely cocoa…”
To be continued…
edited by JimmyTMalice on 10/1/2017