Book One of the Merlin’s Gambit Trilogy
Disgruntled In the Studio
“And how the devil was the Captain?” Tenpole asked as Vanda entered the studio. “Practicing his look yet, was he?”
“Oh, yes. Indeed he was. Beats me how he fails to notice how transparent he is, at least to those of us who know him well.”
“Apparently not by practicing transparency himself,” Tenpole added with a smirk and an indescribable noise from his throat.
“Funny you should phrase it like that. He did something most peculiar while I was with him. Well, two things actually …”
Something in her voice grabbed his attention and refused to let go. Tenpole stopped what he was doing on his computer and swivelled his chair around to look directly at her. There was a look of intense focus on his face. “Go on,” he urged.
“Well, as we were leaving the faculty building he parked me – that’s the only way I can describe it – just parked me in the lobby, on that leather sofa they have in there.”
“The fart-like-a-horse one that refuses to let go of your nether regions and takes days to get back out of again?”
“The very one!” Vanda tittered, then looked thoughtful for a few seconds, her eyes wandering around the studio without really seeing. “He almost pushed me into one of them. Must’ve known I wouldn’t be able to get free for quite some time. And I landed so heavily that it made the most frightful noise. He made some patently unreal excuse about forgetting the wherewithal, so theatrical. It’s true, he came back with one of those god-awful man-bags, but I knew – and I don’t mean thought, or supposed, or any other form of presumption based on guesswork – I knew because I saw with one of my new gifts, that he’d gone back to make a phone call. Now, why would he do that? I mean, why would he lie to me? He could’ve just said ‘need to make a quick phone call’, or something. Anything other than lie to me. He’s never done that to me before. Why would he do so now?”
“I don’t know the answer to that, Vanda. He’s a strange old duck at the best of times, but just recently he seems to have gone a bit more quackers than normal. You said there were two … things?” He dragged the last two words out leaving a space between them, hoping to bring her back into the room.
“What … umm … yes.” She hefted her very heavy handbag onto her own desk, sat down distractedly, and remembered why the bag was heavier than usual. “Bloody hell,” she exclaimed, “Lily-Anna. Of course! She put the brown paper parcel all wrapped up with string in my bag, didn’t she!”
“You’ll have to extrapolate for me, I’m afr–”
“Later! Just wait ’til you hear the rest of this ripping yarn, and imagine how great it’ll be when you’re as confused as I am. But right now I have to get to the Post Office before it shuts.” And with that she dashed off, leaving Tenpole staring after her with his mouth wide open.
Bewitched in the Post Office
Predictably, it being a Friday afternoon, there was a queue in the Post Office. Vanda picked up a jiffy bag, a postcard and a thick felt pen, and used the time to address the parcel to her Aunt Viola. When she reached inside her over-sized handbag to pull out the neatly wrapped brown paper parcel so securely tied up in the bookman’s string, she began to see images of the book inside.
There was an introduction in English, albeit the English of the late 17th century, with its archaic sentence constructions and failure to get to the point anything like quick enough for a contemporary reader. It talked of a lost book – a sacred book, Vanda was given to understand – that would change the face of the known world, should it ever be found and its practices understood and achieved. The prefatory author believed that the text that followed resembled the text of the undiscovered book as though reading it through a glass darkly. And indeed the text on the following pages was written in an unfamiliar script and language Vanda suspected would turn out to be long dead but perhaps not entirely forgotten. The astonishing thing about it was the way it moved across the page, reordering itself into something she could understand with no difficulty whatsoever, trailing the tails and wings of an ancient alphabet across the pages before settling them softly into a script she knew only too well in her mind’s eye.
As the sense became clear to her, the idea of another, undiscovered and probably far more explosive text, than the one she was now seeing, seemed to her to be a shocking and much-wished-for proposal. In a flash she understood why Lily-Anna’s life’s mission had been so completely thwarted by the substitution of this book for the one that took her so far from her true destination and the possibility of discovering a prize such as the original text. At the end of the book were the introductory author’s instructions to the adventurer they hoped would make the discovery, along with the injunction ‘whomsoever it should’st befall, theirs shall be the task and true’.
“Vanda? I thought it would be you, dear! Sorry, have I caught you at a crucial moment.”
Jolted out of her clairvoyance, Vanda wheeled on its cause. Pushing the images of the book and its undiscovered source from her mind, and adapting sharply to the real world of Post Office queues and chance meetings, she smiled down at Marjorie as she sailed neatly up beside her at the end of the queue. “No, no. Just catching up with a last minute gift.” She quickly inscribed the words “Gone to Cyprus, Wish You Were Here!” on the postcard, trying not to let Marjorie see and realising that the woman was so short she couldn’t fail to, slipped it in the jiffy bag with the book, pulled off the protector strip on the sticky tape and sealed it shut.
“I was hoping to see you before the next meeting, dear,” Marjorie continued. “I wanted to ask you about your friend.”
“Was he the one with long black hair and a cloak, sitting on your left?”
“No, he was the one with very blond hair, light blue jeans, a checked shirt and an old tweed jacket, sitting on my right. There wasn’t anyone sitting on my left.”
“Oh, I think we both know that’s not true, don’t we dear?” She asked so matter-of-factly, with no hint of anything other than niceness in her voice that Vanda actually found herself wondering if it were true. “He leaned over and whispered something to you at one point. And your powers may be very new to you, but you couldn’t have failed to feel that!” Could the woman really be that far-seeing?
“Well, it’s true, I did feel something that might have been someone whispering in my ear, but … Are you telling me that you actually saw someone sitting there?”
“Oh, yes, dear. A very distinctive young man. I do hope he’ll join us every week. I look forward to his input.” She smiled broadly and appeared very satisfied with the shape of that idea. “You look like you’ve had a bit of a shock today, dear, if you don’t mind me saying. Are your new powers breaking you in gently, or are they being very naughty and throwing you off the deep end?”
The queue got shorter by two, but the lady behind one counter pulled her blind down so there was one less to cope with the remaining queue. Vanda looked at Marjorie, then looked surreptitiously at the people around them – two more had just joined on to the back of the queue – then looked back at Marjorie in stupefied wonder.
“Oh, it’s all right, dear,” she laughed and patted Vanda’s arm conspiratorially. “I’ve put a muffling spell on us, works like soundproofing on walls, no one will hear us. And even if they did, they wouldn’t understand.”
“I can see I’ve got a lot to learn!” Vanda nearly choked. Spells? Had she actually heard fubsy little Marjorie admit that she’d cast a spell?
“Oh, don’t worry, dear, you’ll be fluent in no time.” She smiled again but then became very serious and looked up and directly into Vanda’s eyes. “Although I must tell you this, and ask you to take it very seriously …” A historian reading a text would see what is known as a lacuna, a gap where there would have been some text missing from the manuscript at that point. But Vanda was not reading a text now, so she neither saw nor heard anything until Marjorie asked, “Now, do you understand me?” Vanda nodded that she did. “That’s good, dear. Instincts, that’s the thing to remember, always a woman’s best weapon. And trusting what you see.”
“Next!” a voice shouted from behind a now vacant counter. Vanda was very surprised to see that the whole queue in front of them had now disappeared and that it was her turn to be served.
“Well, on you go, then, dear. See you at the meeting on Wednesday … if you’re back from Cyprus in time,” she added, with a mischievous laugh as Vanda approached the free counter. When she turned from the counter to leave there was absolutely no sign of Marjorie whatsoever.
She wondered how on earth the queue had gone down so quickly, and why she felt so calm and capable all of a sudden, then remembered she had to pay for the jiffy bag, the postcard and the thick felt tip pen as well as the postage.
And now for the normal bit of post-scene chat:
All comments in the form of constructive criticism or mistakes you’ve noticed that I might not have noticed yet, whether typos, spelling or grammar, will be very gratefully received and appreciated – although I think spelling and grammar ones are most unlikely, but you never know, I might have done it all juuuuust a little too quickly and boobed … I’ll post the next scene in a week, and thank you very much for reading.
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