Excerpt of Chapter 4 — Travels and Travails
In this excerpt, I’ve carefully cut the spoilery bits so you can safely read it even without having read the rest of the series. The only things spoiled are that they are on their way to Antigua and that they aren’t dead. Yet.
If you would like to hear me discuss this excerpt, I do so as part of a “Project In Depth” at Writing Excuses.
By the afternoon, Jane’s stomach was improved enough that she felt she might venture forth. She stepped into the dining hall that divided the main cabin. A long narrow table ran down the middle of it, under a skylight that showed an abundance of sail overhead, and beyond that a brilliant blue sky. Jane walked to the front of the cabin and climbed the short ladder, which led up and out. Stepping over the raised threshold and onto the deck brought her almost immediate relief. The fresh salt air brushed away the lingering nausea. A stiff breeze whipped past her, clutching at her gown and playing with the ribbons of her bonnet. If Jane had not tied it snugly down, she would have lost it to the sea in moments.
That great body of water surrounded them, grey- green and rolling. The passage to the West Indies would be close to a month, and Jane could only hope that she would not be ill that entire time. The ship was filled with men in smart blue uniforms working on the various tasks. Though most were of European descent in appearance, a few Black Africans and a slender Asiatic man worked amongst the others. She could not pretend to understand what any of them were doing with the ropes, beyond adjusting something in the rigging, but the boys scrubbing the deck were obvious enough.
The ship pitched, and Jane grasped the rail as the deck tilted beneath her. A moment later it levelled, and then tilted the opposite way as the ship climbed the next swell.
“Look at the horizon, madam.” A Black African sailor stood on a platform a few feet away, steering the boat. He spoke with a curious accent, almost as though his words had been flavoured with sweet jam. He had a broad forehead beneath close-cropped curls and had a long, narrow, nose. He wrinkled that nose and smiled at her. “If the motion of the ship troubles you, the horizon is steady.”
“Oh. Thank you.” Too ill to be much disturbed at being addressed without an introduction, Jane swallowed and looked out at the far horizon. “Were you much troubled your first time at sea?”
“Oh no, madam. I was sailing with my father before I have memory. But I have seen other Europeans turn your particular shade of green.”
“Ah.” Staring at the horizon did seem to help. “I thought that Africa was a desert sort of place. I had not thought of sailors there.”
He laughed. “It is a large continent with a significant coastline. Somalia, where I am from, has a navy to make the British take notice.”
“I confess surprise.” She inhaled and let her breath out slowly. “Thank you for the advice about the horizon. I am not usually troubled by seasickness, so have no methods for assuaging it.”
“Tell the cook that you have a delicate stomach. He will make a broth for you that will help you steady. If you need anything else, ask for Ibrahim.”
“Thank you.” Jane kept her gaze out at the horizon, grateful for Ibrahim’s advice. Perhaps the trouble had simply been that she could not see anything at all from their cabin. She resolved to spend more time on deck until she became used to the motion, though there was little to see but waves. Europe had vanished with more speed than she had expected.
“Is there anything else I help you with, madam?” asked Ibrahim.
“I was looking for my husband.”
The sailor laughed. “Just look to the midship. I think you will spot him readily enough.”
Cautiously, Jane turned her gaze towards the front— no, towards the bow of the ship. Beyond the box of the skylight, a great, billowing opalescence of unformed glamour rose above the ship. A cheer went up from a crowd of sailors bunched around the rail. “What in heaven’s name?”
“Lightworks. It’s a game we play with glamour sometimes, since the use of fireworks is prohibited on ships.”
“I thought it was not possible to work glamour at sea.” Indeed, she and Vincent had made an effort last summer and had barely been able to catch hold of it. Why had no glamourists written about this habit of sailors?
“Oh, there is no managing it. All it does when you try to catch it is make fragments of rainbows, and you lose those pretty fast. It does serve some utility, if you need to communicate with another ship from a distance and have lost your signal flags.” He shook his head. “The game is to see how long a rainbow they can conjure before losing their grip.”
A ribbon of undulating light flowed back in the wake of the ship. The sailors counted, beating the deck with their heels. “One, two, three, four, five, six, sev— oh!”
The rainbow evaporated into a sparkling mist. Laughter rose from the group as the sailors shifted around to let someone else have a go. Vincent stood in the middle of the sailors, with his head cocked to one side in an attitude of concentration. He had lost his hat, although Jane hoped he had simply neglected to put it on, so he stood with his brown curls ruffled by the breeze. He nodded in response to something that a grizzled man said and reached into the ether.
A jumble of colours streamed from Vincent’s hand as he let the glamour fracture into a long banner made up of the spectrum. As one, the sailors started to count again. When they reached ten, the nature of the chanting changed a little.
It took on a tone of disbelief and swelled as the men’s enthusiasm grew with each number.
At fifteen, Ibrahim grunted in surprise. “I have never seen anyone go past twelve.”
“My husband is given to rivalrous competition.”
The glamour fractured amid shouts of, “Nineteen!”
Panting, Vincent leaned forward to brace himself with his hands upon his knees. Jane lost sight of him as the sailors clustered about him with congratulations. Well . . . at least she need not worry that he would go mad without being able to work glamour.
“If you will excuse me?”
“Of course. Don’t forget to talk to Cook.”
Jane thanked him and made her way forward to the cluster of sailors. Vincent straightened slowly, nodding his thanks at the cries of approbation. The moment he spotted her, his brow turned up in concern. Jane raised a hand to wave and reassure him that she was well. He relaxed, but he still made his way through the sailors to her.
“Feeling better?” Vincent put a hand to her cheek as if to check her temperature.
“Much, thank you. I think it just took me some time to acclimate to the ship’s motion.” She nodded to the group of sailors, who had resumed their game. “I feel that I should ask if you are well. That was quite the display.”
“Eh? Oh— Lieutenant Price had an interesting trick to how he let the glamour spool out. Instead of holding it directly, he is, in essence, holding an opening in the ether and letting the motion of the ship draw the glamour out.” Vincent gestured with his right hand. “Shall I show you?”
“Yes, but may I suggest that you not succeed quite so well this time?” Jane tugged her gloves off , intent on having a go herself, once he had shown her the technique.
“Hm? Why not?”
“Because the helmsman seemed astonished by your display. He said that he had not seen anyone go past twelve.”
“Oh. Lieutenant Price said that he knew a fellow who could go to thirty. Mind you, I do not know how. It feels as if it is drawing your breath out with the glamour. I have never been winded so quickly. And the heat! Were it not for the breeze, the heat would have undone me. Here, I will show you.” Vincent extended his hand into the ether.
Jane let her vision shift to the second sight to watch what he did there. He spun his hand so the palm was up. With his thumb and forefinger, he reached forward, as though to pinch a speck of salt, then spread them wide almost like a set of scissors opening. It was not an uncommon motion, but rather than the catching a strand of glamour and drawing it forth, he held the gap in the ether open and used his remaining three fingers to guide the glamour that streamed out of the opening. Without that little bit of direction, it would not have retained enough distinctness to be visible.
Even so, bits and pieces shattered around his hand in a phosphorescent mist. The stream of rainbow that emerged from his hand spread and diff used almost immediately as it streamed back down the length of the boat.
“I think I have it.” Jane tilted her head and considered whether there were any changes she might make to alter the position of the hands. Attempting a contrariwise Bellinger’s grip might improve it, but only if she could catch hold of the glamour in the first place.
Letting the glamour dissolve, Vincent wiped his brow. “Thank heavens. I had to watch three or four times before I could spot what they were doing.”
“You always say the kindest things.” Though she teased, Jane was secretly pleased that her ability to trace and understand patterns was superior to his. Dipping her hand into the ether, she parted the curtain and let glamour flow out.
The effect was as if she were managing a massive fold and spinning it out at enormous speed. Her breath quickened till she was quite panting, but she held on, perversely intent on reaching at least a count of twelve. At a count of six, Jane felt her stomach churn. Perhaps this was not so clever a plan after all. She released the glamour.
“What did you think?”
Jane swallowed back her uneasiness, though it was significantly milder than it had been that morning. “It seemed to require as much exertion as working a large fold at speed. Do you suppose . . . do you suppose that the glamour itself contains an energy? Might that be what causes the corporeal effects rather than exertion?”
“I had the same thought. Certainly light does, though glamour is composed of only waves, while light consists of both waves and particles.” Vincent leaned against the rail, looking back at the white wake the ship left behind them.
“Perhaps it is the friction of the waves? That might account for the unhealthy effects of some of the glamours outside the visible spectrum. Too rough for safety, or some such.”
Jane considered the art involved in managing glamour. It seemed likely that if one were able to do more than produce an oily rainbow, then Napoleon would have found a way to control that power for use during the blockade.
The fact that he had not certainly added weight to the old belief that glamour was not possible while at sea. It was simply too difficult to control the relationship of the glamour both to the ether and to one’s own self given the constant motion of a ship. However . . . if one did not have to maintain the relationship with one’s own body . . . “I should like to see what happens when we use one of the Verres Obscurcis.”
At the mention of their experiment in glass, Vincent pushed himself away from the rail. “By Jove— yes.”
“Should we make the attempt, so exposed like this?”
Vincent returned to the rail, looking around them. “If it works, then we shall be invisible, and if it does not, then we simply have a ball of glass.”
“And if it works imperfectly?” Jane gestured to the men working around them. There was not a place on board the vessel where they could go and be unobserved, save their own cabin. That was not an option, since the Verre Obscurci required full sunlight to work. “The dining room is unoccupied and, with the skylight, should have enough direct sun to make the experiment.”
“I acknowledge the superiority of your plan.”
“As you should.”
Laughing, he offered her his arm and led her across the deck to their cabin.
As they reached the back— aft—of the ship, Ibrahim smiled and nodded towards the horizon. Jane nodded back, to let him know that the remedy seemed to be helping.
She hoped that going below deck would not cause her nausea to return, but Vincent was moving with more life to his step than she had seen since they received the news of his father’s death. A little seasickness was worth that.
The dining room was still thankfully unoccupied. The sun was overhead and a little behind the ship, casting brilliant rays across the table and into the front of the chamber.
Vincent ducked into their cabin as Jane sat on one of the long benches affixed to the table. The lamps that hung over it swayed with the motion of the ship and did her nausea no good. She looked up at the sails visible through the skylight as she waited for Vincent.
He took only a few moments to reappear from their cabin. Under one arm, he carried the small chest that held two of the glass spheres they had made in Murano the previous summer. They had decided to pack the rest and ship them back to Long Parkmead, Jane’s family home in England, rather than bring them all to the West Indies.
Vincent set the chest on the table by Jane. “I am glad you thought to bring these, Muse. It would not have occurred to me until we were on the ship, and then I would have cursed their absence.”
“You were distracted, with good cause.”
He grimaced. “Yes, well.” Fishing the key out of his pocket, Vincent undid the lock on the little chest and opened it. Inside, wrapped in a length of black velvet, lay two of the smaller spheres they had made. So long as they were in shadow, the effect would not take hold.
Jane said, “If you stand back some feet from me, you will be out of the influence of the Verre. If it works, you will be able to ascertain that quickly.”
“Hm. And why do you get to be the one using the Verre?”
“Because I am already sitting.” Besides which, her stomach was still uneasy. “And I like to watch your face when the sphere works.”
“You have the most charming smile.”
Chuckling, he ducked his head and gave a little bow. “As you wish.”
When he stood some feet back, Jane loosened the wrapping around the glass sphere. She threw the cloth back. Sunlight caught in the faint inclusions that twisted around the other wise unblemished crystal. From within, she could tell no difference at all. A properly woven Sphère Obscurcie would bend the light around the glamourist at its centre, while leaving their view of the world clear. A Verre was their own invention for capturing glamour in glass, and it worked the same way. The thing in question was if removing the human element would allow glamour to work upon a moving ship.
A quick look into the ether showed that the sunlight at least seemed to be acting upon the glass in the same manner as it had upon the land.
Jane lifted her gaze from the Verre to where Vincent stood with his hands upon his hips. He really did have the most charming smile. Throwing his head back, he laughed.
“May I take it that we have success?”
Vincent fairly skipped forward in response, slipping into the Verre’s influence. “Oh, Muse, it is as steady as if we were on land.”
“Therefore, the only thing that prevents glamour from working at sea is human error.” She studied the sphere, paying particular attention to where the glamour departed the glass. It did billow a little, although clearly not enough to spoil the image. She shifted her vision back from the ether to address Vincent. “Do you think— what?”
He took a step closer, careful, so that his shadow did not cross the Sphere. His smile was still present, but had become smaller and more intimate. “I think . . . I think that I am a very fortunate man.”
“And why is that?” Jane’s heart sped in a way that had nothing to do with glamour.
“Because no one can see us now.”
Her breath was taken quite away.