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They christened her Miranda Alexandra Perspicacia de Gauge.
Even the prelate who performed the ceremony commented that it was a very long name for such a little girl. But the Baron dismissed his reservations with a wave of his swan’s head cane. “A long name prepares one for deeds that will be long remembered,” he said, signing the certificate with a flourish.
The prelate might have saved himself the breath, Dear Reader. For if only one principle had guided the actions and the fortunes of Baron Alexander Prentice de Gauge, it was the principle of preparation.
“Never attempt what is not predetermined in your favor,” he pontificated weekly to the foremen of his factories. “Success is not a matter of luck, my boys, nor of good breeding. Success is management, pure and simple.”
And he truly believed it.
Priding himself not only on his sagacity, but also on the congruity of his behavior, the Baron lost no time scheduling little Miranda’s reading with the Confraternity of Things To Be. One might suppose a man as lately indisposed as the Baron might require a period of recuperation before such an undertaking. But nothing cures one anxiety like the rise of another. Accordingly, the Baron fixed the date of Miranda’s reading one week after her christening.
“Do not worry your pretty head, My Love,” he had said, when Celine questioned his haste. “The sooner we know whether Miranda will be Marvelous or a Curiosity, the more time we will have to prepare for her glorious future.”
“And if she turns out to be Ordinary?”
“With proper planning, that outcome is simply impossible. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to recommend your lilac gown. The Confraternity do so like purple, you know. And put Miranda in green perhaps. It calms that ghastly rash on her face.”
“But Alexander, Darling, the Confraternity are all past ninety years. If Miranda and I wore dining linens for dresses, and napkins on our heads, I doubt a one of them could tell the difference.”
The Baron truly wished he could share his wife’s innocent faith in this most celebrated Body Astrologic. But he had been a member of the League of Marvelosities too long to doubt the truly political nature of the ritual at hand. And so for days leading to the event, he felt quite justified in harrying everyone around him, not the least of which was himself. He wrote a speech to deliver to the Confraternity upon their arrival. He planned and re-planned the route they would drive through town, a dozen times over. He bought off the streets for the day. He ordered a new hat from his own factory, bade Zelda polish his Marvelosities medal (by any method other than spitting and rubbing), and advised Cutter to deflect any questions from the journalists who still skulked about the pantry.
“Better we keep the date and time of the reading to ourselves,” the Baron said. “The press and the rabble are so terribly unpredictable.”
On the fateful day, the Baron rose early, bathed and donned his finest coat of velvet with gold buttons and a matching cloth o’gold waistcoat. From a large velvet box he took the new hat: one of the tall “stovepipe” variety so fashionable just now, covered with slick, shining beaver fur and trimmed with a white hat band. A china swan exploded into flight from the center, its wings stretched over the brim, neck craned toward the sky. Centering the swan, Baron settled the hat on his head. Then he grabbed his swan’s head cane and turned himself before a long mirror, admiring his profile.
A respectable figure he cut, indeed—as long as he held in his stomach, of course.
Precisely at the appointed hour, the Baron met his lilac-clad lady and their daughter, swaddled in frothy green. They bid their servants goodbye and piled into a shiny, sputtering auto carriage with a low upholstered ceiling and diamond-paned windows. In this smart fashion, they chugged through the wrought iron gates of Cygnet Hall and onto the high road that led straight into Clutch.
“I feel quite good about today,” the Baron said, balancing his hat carefully on his knees. “Of course, we could have wished our darling had healthier skin and a bit more, shall we say, liveliness. But all things considered, I do feel we have made every preparation toward a favorable reading.”
“As it is, Alexander, this is just a prediction about the future. Not the future itself,” Celine added.
The Baron sniffed. “Only a prediction?”
“Well, take your sister’s case, for example.”
“Alpha’s choices have nothing to do with the Confraternity’s predictions for her!” The Baron snapped. “Besides, statistically speaking, even the greatest astrologer cannot have an entirely perfect record.”
“Precisely my point, Dearest.”
The Baron felt sweat beading on his mostly-bald head. Clamping his lips together, he squinted out his diamond windows at the countryside rattling by. He did not want to upset his wife, not on such an auspicious day. But her carefree attitude toward the outcome of the reading bothered him greatly. Had he not made ever preparation for a good result?
The Confraternity of Things To Be were not a band of carnival fortune-tellers, spouting whatever they liked to fools they would never see again. Rather, they were a sprig of ivy on Clutch’s well-shaded brick walls. One day, you hardly noticed them. The next, they had swallowed up every inch. This order of thirteen astronomical observers, robed in purple and silver, had dedicated themselves for centuries to consulting the stars on behalf of any child of Clutch. (So long as their parents could afford the fee, of course.)
Indeed, the Baron’s coat pockets sagged with gold coins, and his back pocket held a blank bank note, ready to be filled should the gold not prove enough. Generations of Barons and Baronesses de Gauge had received remarkably favorable readings. Those readings had come true down to the last detail. All, that is, except for his older sister Alpha’s.
But that was beside the point, of course.
It had to be.
All these thoughts and more swirled through the Baron’s mind like the autumn wind that bandied his auto carriage toward the ivy-covered walls of Old Clutch. He mopped his brow with his handkerchief, but though he wiped away the sweat, he could not erase the creeping sense of dread. This feeling only deepened as they passed under the great stone arch that marked the western gate of Clutch.
Only a mile or two now lay between Baron Alexander Prentice de Gauge and certain knowledge of his dynastic future. If he were really so well prepared, then why did he feel so terribly uncertain?
A haze hung over the jumble of iron and brick that constituted Clutch’s horizon. From every chimney billowed grey, miasmic smoke, choking out what of the sun might have sparkled on the dull street below. Everywhere the Baron looked, peasants skulked about, their clothes dotted with patches and holes. Children darted between the carts of grimy street-merchants and factory-workers covered head to toe with grease. Merchants, meanwhile, paced the stoops of ramshackle shops, hawking wares that no one seemed to want.
“Mercy,” Celine murmured, nestling closer to the Baron. “Such suffering in this part of the city! No wonder it’s always choked with protests.”
“Not today, My love. Lucky for us, the price of peace of mind and smooth traveling is little more than a few gold coins. And besides, Cutter made sure that no one—not even the gossip-grubbers at The Clutchian Herald—knew we had picked today.” The Baron slipped his arm around his wife and tried to convince himself once again of his superior preparation.
But no sooner had the Baron rekindled the glow of his good management, than it sputtered and died again, leaving him more chilled than ever. For the very next street the carriage turned down was clogged with people. Gaunt, angry protesters stood shoulder-to-shoulder in silent defiance, bodies pressed tightly to create a human blockade. Though the carriage hissed and sputtered toward them at a terrifying speed of two miles per hour, they did not move. Nor did they lower the homemade signs that bobbed above their heads, sporting letters painted with lamp black.
The Baron squinted to read through the smudge:
Down with all Marvlostys
We R clevr too
A common child for Swan Prk
We predyct doom
“Thundering monkeys!” the Baron cried. “Do you see there, Celine? They mention Cygnet Hall. They knew we were coming!” He slammed his swan cane against the roof of the auto carriage. “Cutter must have said something. How dare she disobey me so!”
“I am sure it was not her,” his wife objected. “Every family of the League brings their children to the Confraternity at some time or another; perhaps it was just a lucky guess.”
“There is no such thing as luck.” The Baron settled back in his seat, chagrined. He was not sure what bothered him more: the ungrateful sentiments of the populace, or their preposterous spelling.
From his seat at the front, the driver glanced back. “My Lord, there’s an awful lot of folk here, and hell-bent on holdin’ off the road. What’s your pleasure now, My Lord?”
“Pleasure?” the Baron growled. “Does it look like . . .”
His wife cut in swiftly. “Alexander, perhaps we had best turn the car around and reschedule Miranda’s appointment for another day.”
But the swan’s head slammed against the carriage roof again. “Drive straight through,” the Baron thundered. “Force them to move, however you must. Miranda’s future and her fortune are at stake. We have made our plan, and we will not be late!”
The Baron did not realize how loud his voice had risen until Miranda’s squall punctuated this final command. His cane, too, split the upholstery and hit the metal beyond it with a bang. At the same moment, the carriage lurched toward the frenzied mob. What might have transpired next, or how much damage was sustained to life and limb, is for the historians to speculate. For the very next instant, the smoky haze over the avenue darkened abruptly into midnight.
Crowd and carriage submerged into darkness. Woman and children screamed. Shutters rattled and snapped.
For a moment, all was chaos. Then a voice spread like many waters over the crowd, from some distant location. “People of Clutch, remove yourselves immediately from the way of this Marvelous family, or worse harm will befall you than that which now has.”
Fearful murmurs rippled through the crowd, punctuated by screams, until several defiant voices spiked above them. In response, a gust of wind exploded down the street. Misspelled signs snapped into fragments that eddied away, smashing into brick and glass and stone.
Inside the carriage, the Baron threw his arms around his wife and child. But the debris merely bounced off the diamond windows around them.
Thank heaven I ordered those windows, the Baron thought. Thank heaven for my good preparation!
Outside, the gale only increased. The auto carriage began to rock from wheel to wheel.
“Begone, ungrateful vermin of Clutch!” the distant voice continued. “Remove yourselves from this cursed place, before the Confraternity see fit to fling at you the fiery essence of the stars!”
The Baron shuddered in his boots. Miranda wailed in her her mother’s arms. Outside the car, murmurs broke into fresh screams.
“Go, we tell you. Save yourselves! And remember, citizens of Clutch, that this is what happens to any who dare defy the Marvelosities and their Confraternity.”
A great thunder of feet rose. Bodies flung past the car, the rush of their passing nearly lifting all four wheels off the ground at once. In the dim light, the Baron could barely make out the terror-stricken faces that had, not five minutes before, carried a gathering storm.
For some moments the great exodus continued. Then all was silent (except for Miranda’s squalls, of course). The blackness dissolved once more into smog-choked light, and the auto carriage sputtered forward, this time down a street littered with trash, lost hats and broken planks smudged with lampblack. Miranda’s inconsolable wail echoed up and down the street, mingled with her mother’s patient lullaby. The Baron pulled out his pocket handkerchief and grudgingly dabbed the tears from his daughter’s cheeks. If only they had a few more minutes to compose themselves!
All too soon, the auto carriage pulled up before the towering edifice that housed the Confraternity of Things to Be. Austere granite softened under a haze of half-dead ivy, and a carven circle hovered over the wide doorway, surrounded by thirteen smaller circles. No sooner had the carriage stopped at the stairway below the door, than the door itself opened and a silver cloak flashed in the light.
The Baron’s heart sank. “It was not supposed to be this way, Celine. None of it!” He moaned to his wife. “We were to compose ourselves and knock on the door, and to be let in by a servant to further prepare ourselves for the first sighting of the Confraternity! What luck we have had today.”
“I thought you said there was no such thing as luck,” Celine observed.
“Perhaps I was mistaken.”
“Well,” said his ever-practical wife, “there’s still time to turn back. Perhaps this Brother here will let us reschedule.”
But if the Baron heard her, he pretended he did not. Swing out his own door, he settled his hat upon his head and ran around to see his wife and little Miranda safely out. To the Baron’s relief, Miranda’s cries subsided. He swept her from his wife’s arms and turned to meet the dry leaf of a man who was just descending the final stair, his silver cloak spread out into a train that held one large red circle and thirteen purple around it.
The very look of him sent a shudder through the Baron. The man’s flesh was bluer than Celine’s, his eyes long sunken into the their sockets and milky-white with cataracts. Beneath them, he wore a smile so fake it might have been painted on, as his brows most assuredly were. Though the Baron had assumed a brother of the Confraternity would wear some kind of hat, this man’s head was bald on top, and what remained of his scraggly white hair dragged over his shoulders.
The Baron cleared his throat and bowed awkwardly with the bundle in his arms. “Greetings, O Ancient One. May I humbly introduce to you . . .”
“The Confraternity of Things To Be greets His Marvelosity, the fifth Baron de Gauge, and his worthy wife.” The old man cut him off, bowing amid a chorus of popping bones. “I am Brother Number Ten, and on behalf of Brothers Number One through Nine and Eleven through Thirteen, I apologize for the despicable behavior of my fellow citizens. Such are times, indeed, when the people of our good city fail to appreciate all the League has done for them.” His smiled strained itself. “I do trust your found our solution effective, however.”
The Baron blinked. “That voice . . . And the darkness. That was you?”
“Well, it was us,” Brother Ten said more modestly. “I’m afraid we all share a taste for the . . . shall we say . . .the theatrical.”
He stretched out one hand toward the Baron.
The Baron had no idea what theatricality had to do with anything, but he was eager to get on with the formalities. Balancing Miranda in one arm, he reached the other into his jacket pocket and pulled out the bag of gold. He settled it into Brother Ten’s open palm. “A token of my thanks for scrying my daughter’s future, Ancient One.”
“Oh, don’t thank me, Your Marvelosity. You must thank the Confraternity and the stars above,” Brother Ten responded, his smile quickly turning to a frown. “I’m afraid, however, that this will not be enough.”
“But this was the agreed amount,” the Baron said faintly.
“Ah, yes. But today we have rendered you not only a scrying, but an escape from the grimy fingers of the plebs. Do you know how much that darkness costs? Not to mention the wind . . .”
“Yes, yes, yes,” the Baron grumbled. “See, I’ve got a check here.”
Brother Ten flashed a miserly smile. “I’m afraid I cannot see anything at all, Your Marvelosity. But by my predictive powers, I sense that you are wearing something greater than more gold. Much greater, indeed.”
To the Baron’s shock, Brother Ten reached out one shaky hand and groped upward, grabbing first the waxed handle of the Baron’s moustache, then his nose, and resting finally on the brim of his brand-new hat.
A moment later, Brother Ten led the way up the stairs toward the house, his shrunken form a full foot taller, at least, with the addition of a fine stovepipe hat trimmed with a porcelain swan. With every step toward the door, the Baron felt a further sinking feeling. He clutched his daughter close. Nothing of this day had gone as expected. Surely it could only get better from here, and with it, better Miranda’s predictions for the future.
The Baron had supposed the front hall of the Chancel would be richly appointed with ancient treasures from lands far and near. But like the street outside not ten minutes before, it was so dark he could not make out anything. He breathed deeply and coughed. The air reeked of incense: the kind that clung to one’s lungs. Celine, too, coughed softly somewhere at the Baron’s side. Her small hand groped for his elbow and slid into it as they hurried down the hall after Brother Ten, who made no noise at all save the rustle of his silver gown.
Presently, they turned off the first passage into another that was lit at the end with a soft bluish light. But the further they walked toward it, the more clearly the Baron could see that it was not a fixed light at all, but one that moved up and down—as if something extra-worldly were flitting about just on the other side of that wall. Suddenly, a shot of pink streaked past the blue. And then a shot of purple.
The Baron felt his wife’s grip tighten on his arm. “Alexander,” she gasped. “What sort of place is this?”
Her husband wished that he could answer this question. In truth, with the cold draft of air on his naked head, he had begun to regret the whole idea of a scrying in the first place. The repairs to his auto carriage would cost a small fortune on their own. Now, he had lost a fabulous hat and was obliged to follow its miserly new owner into some occultic cave from which they might not return. Still, he kissed his wife’s cheek lightly. “Everything will be all right, My Dear. There’s not a Marvelosity in Clutch has not survived this ritual.”
“Except you, of course,” his wife murmured.
He did his best to ignore her.
By now, they had entered a hall bathed in soft green light that shimmered over them in translucent waves. A sylvan chant sifted from somewhere further down, so low at first that the Baron was not quite sure it were real. But every now and then, the chant was punctuated by a tiny cry, shouting what seemed for all the world like a single word:
Perspiration beaded on the Baron’s bare forehead. He cleared his throat again. “Brother Ten,” he called to the wizened astrologer, “Ah, brother, if I may ask, what mean all these lights and . . . voices?”
“Help!” came the voice again.
The Brother paused and glanced back, his milky eyes lost in shadow under the brim of his new hat. “He who wishes a good reading for his beloved child will not be too curious about the origin of the reading. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Brother,” the Baron whispered. Sweat was rolling now into his collar.
They walked a bit further, until the hall ended abruptly into an ornately carved door. Brother Ten paused before it, then swept one of his arms to the side, where the hall opened into a luxuriously appointed antechamber, furnished with a plush settee, a low table loaded with sweet cakes, and a silver tea service spouting lazy steam. “Your Marvelosities, the Baron and Baroness de Gauge, will wait here in luxury while your daughter’s scrying takes place beyond this door,” he explained. “Now, give me the child, and I shall carry her to Brothers Number One through Nine and Eleven through Thirteen.”
His smile spread wide again, and this time, the Baron could see his gleaming, perfect teeth.
They were the teeth of a man half his age.
Yet again, the Baron felt as if fate were laughing at his best attempts to plan. No one had told him that the Confraternity would take his child behind a locked door, with all manner of strange sounds and lights and darkness and—quite possibly—some kind of torture.
“Come, Your Marvelosity. Put the child in my arms now, and do you go relax yourselves while the scrying takes place.”
“I think not!” Celine’s frantic voice snapped her husband to life. “Alexander, please tell this man we shall do no such thing!”
The Baron clutched his daughter closer, chuckling nervously. “Wherever Miranda goes, we her parents will go, too. And as members of the League of Marvelosities, you are bound to follow our bidding in this matter, as in all others.”
Brother Ten let out a horse, croaking laugh. “One who would aid the League by supernatural predictions must stand outside of the League itself.”
“This was not in the plan!” the Baron cried, stepping away from the old astrologer. “Nothing about this day went according to my careful management.”
“The ways of the stars are not our ways, Your Marvelosity.”
The Baron took another step back again. But this time, he stepped right onto the slippery hem of another silver robe, and nearly went flying. He glanced back in surprise. A company of other wizened men, also in silver robes, stood behind him, as if they had been there the whole time.
The Baron counted them silently. There were twelve. With Brother Ten, they made thirteen exactly. All smiled with that same painted smile. All fastened their milky eyes on the child he held in his arms. And all flashed a spread of those same perfect teeth: the teeth of men half their age.
“Well?” Brother Ten was saying. “Will you hand her over and let the stars reveal her fate?”
In the Baron’s arms, little Miranda began to cry again. The Baron stared down at his daughter. Her rash was flaming, despite his best efforts. She had bawled her eyes out in front of the most important astrologers in the city, and now she must go with them behind a locked door for who knew how long.
Yet this was for her best. It was for all of their best, even if it had not gone according to plan. Miranda must have a prediction, and he, her father, must know what it would be.
Somehow, the Baron found himself ignoring his wife’s protestations. He slipped little Miranda Alexandra Perspicacia de Gauge into the arms of the Confraternity and stepped back. The child burst into tears instantly, but there was not comforting her now. The Baron wrapped his arms around his wife and held her close, as the Confraternity of Things To Be bore their heir away behind that carven door. It shut softly with a click.
At that moment, the Baron knew what their verdict would be. He could feel it deep in his the pit of his stomach.
And all the good planning in the world could not change it now.
* * *
©2015 by Lisa Walker England – All Rights Reserved
The League of Marvelosities is a serialized steampunk novel that releases one new chapter every other week.
About the Illustration: Baby Miranda and the Star Glows of Destiny are made of needle-turned applique finished in blanket stitch. Materials include vintage baby clothes, scraps from my husband’s grandmother’s quilt, thrift-store treasures, and cast-off dresses formerly worn by me. The metal star medallion was sourced at a flea market. The background is made of cotton I hand-dyed with Bengala Eco Dye #21.