Your wit, my dear, cuts me as sharp as ever, but also as ever I have brought it upon my own head. Allow me one protest in my defense, though - if I were ever to adopt the terrifying demeanor of your average society matron with my crew, they’d probably waste little time in mutinying.
Forgive me, but I fear this time there is little I can do to come to your aid insofar as fathoming the plans of your father and aunt. Q, do you really expect that all the intricacies of husband-hunting are regularly explained to unmarried young men of good family and some fortune? It would be like warning the fox ahead of the hunt. And then giving him a shotgun.
Having failed to provide you with a war strategy against your estimable elders, it would have pleased me a great deal to be at least of some entertainment to you, so you can imagine how vexing it is that I can’t. Believe me, Helene, you only find London dreary because you do not know Paris.
Claude-Laurent, evidently having enough faith in our father to expect that one or other of his brothers would eventually be dispatched, left behind several items that have been of great use to me, the chief of which is a most ingenious talisman that casts a convincing glamour of disguise over the wearer. With this I was able to wander the streets freely without molestation, and you can imagine how much this tickled my fancy.
As Théo predicted though, my delight wore away soon enough. All of Paris seems as if it is sunk into a trance, as complacent in its new Emperor as it is forgetful of a Republic not two years dead yet. The common people’s lot is little better than it was before the Revolution and the imperial court is dominated by the noblesse and only the richest of the bourgeois.
This farce is very bitterly denounced in Faubourg Saint-Germain, the fashionable district of Paris that the Bourbonists have made their stronghold. If the name should seem familiar to you it is because Claude-Laurent himself keeps an hôtel there as his regular residence. The charming townhouse hidden in the slums is merely a safe-house and so not entirely suited to receiving post, and so it has come to be part of my daily routine to visit the more genteel part of Paris to retrieve my letters. I soon decided to take Théo with me, if only to get him out of the house, and he retaliated by deciding that perhaps my day should also include social calls to his father’s friends and allies.
The sudden broadening of my circle of acquaintance soon followed. If I have learnt anything from it, it is that Claude-Laurent’s sympathies (and the sympathies of most any other mage of an old and gifted bloodline.) are decidedly royalist – Napoleon distrusts any power he cannot control and so naturally has no love for the Houses. The Emperor has not had quite the success in bringing them under his sway as he had with the Church, but as the Houses, along with the rest of the haut noblesse, lost many members to the Revolution, and as Napoleon seems to have no trouble recruiting those mages who are born randomly outside the known bloodlines, I suspect it is not something he gives a d____ about as long as he long as he has enough mages to support his armies and lend consequence to his courts.
However, Napoleon seems to think of magic as a slightly quixotic sort of science, rather than an art, which would account for much of his attitude. It would also count for the appalling low skill levels of his mages. In this one thing the old families have had satisfaction; denied their traditional feudal rights they are bent on ignoring their traditional feudal obligations as well, and almost all have refused to teach any of the new blood.
This would be where the Chevalier de Brissac enters my narrative. I met this worthy gentleman in the salon of Madam R_____, where he was introduced to me as “a nursemaid to the Imperial dogs, who used to be a gentleman”. This, by the way, was said to his face, so I was astonished when he seemed to take no note of it. A Mademoiselle C_____ told me later that de Brissac receives so many insults daily that he had given up dueling on the reasoning that if he accepted every challenge to his honor he wouldn’t have time to sleep.
Théo, however, had no qualms about introducing de Brissac to me as one of his father’s dearest friends. After a scant few minutes of conversation, I began to understand why. De Brissac is one of the most intelligent and humane men I have ever met (if also one of the most acidic), and even if he serves Napoleon his motives are entirely noble. Simply put, he prizes the lives of his countrymen above his own personal honor and is one of the few high-born mages who seems to realize how much they tempt fate by allowing so many of the gifted go without proper training.
It was at his invitation that I went to visit the Louvre, now so-called the ‘Musée Napoléon’. “We have been too eager by far to plunder the riches of our conquests” he told me, “Our greed is such that we are straining to display a tenth of what we have stolen”. With that, he firmly led me away from the public halls and upstairs to what had been the servants’ rooms in the attic, now used for storage.
As we went up I began to feel a slight headache coming on, which should have been enough prior warning before my host opened the small door that to the storage area. When I next came to my senses de Brissac was kneeling over me, looking very pale, and asking me if I was alright. It took me several attempts just to answer him. With the door open the atmosphere was awash with so much raw magic I couldn’t think past the pounding in my head.
“Forgive me. I’ve become so accustomed to the little migraine coming up the stairs that I raise my shields without even thinking. It did not even occur to me to warn you.” He told me wretchedly. I felt like an idiot – the headache should have warned me and besides that, the b_____ door itself was discretely warded – which is what I told him when I felt well enough to reply. He merely shook his head slightly and ordered me to lie still.
It took me some ten or fifteen minutes before I was able to pick myself up and follow de Brissac into the attic. As soon as we were inside he seemed to have found a fresh source of vexation. He paced about the room, giving dark looks to the assorted treasures. (mountains of it, Helene! And all in chaos. Paintings were stacked twelve deep against the wall and jeweled swords carelessly stored inside Roman vases! Someone had clothed the Greek sculptures in impromptu robes of Flemish tapestries and one stone Egyptian idol was cradling a pile of illuminated Bibles in her lap!) He gave me a moment to collect myself, then told me,
“Napoleon is obsessed with proving the majesty of his Empire and so he empties every palace that falls into his hands, thinking it possible to buy dignity.”
He waved his hand at a necklace strung around a gilt clock, a rather ugly string of amber and emeralds, but near glowing with crude magic. “They take everything of value and there are not enough magicians in his army to identify all the enchanted items. Look at that, even a child would notice it!” He snarled, mostly at the necklace. “And that isn’t even the worst of it.”
He stalked deeper into the room, leaving me to follow him. At the back was another door, even more elaborately warded than the first. “This is where we store what we can not smuggle out immediately.” He moved to open the door but then hesitated and looked back at me. There was an embarrassed silence until I realized he wished me to raise my shields to a stronger level. I believe my reaction at the time was ‘B___ it, they don’t go much higher!’
Even though I was prepared the second time, the backwash staggered me. Inside the room was even more surprising – each individual item it contained obviously held great power, but they were all masterfully made and gave out only the most discrete of auras. But there were hundreds of objects, more than I had ever assumed existed, and it was the fact that they were all crammed together in that one small room that was to blame for the resulting magical chaos. De Brissac gave me a humorless smile, “Impressive, no? These are all so cunningly crafted that the imperial mages seldom even notice they’re magical. There are a number of us, Claude-Laurent included, who are attempting to relieve Napoleon of the burden of these treasures and pass them on to those more capable of taking care of them, but failing that I do my best to assure that they will at least stay where they can do the least harm.”
As you can see by the rather pretty earrings enclosed with this letter, I offered him my aid in his endeavors. The Chevalier de Brissac hopes you enjoy them and says he believes they originally belonged to a Spanish Duchess.
I am indebted to de Brissac on another matters, as it was he from whom I learned the particulars of Theo’s gift. He sees the past, Helene, much in the way I see the future. It would explain his decidedly historic sense of fashion. Bravo the House of Sutcourt, perhaps one day it will be able to produce a mage who can live in the present.
My Mother has written to chide me for assuming she was unaware of my eldest brother’s existence. They met it seems, at Grand-Tante Jacqueline’s salon when he was but a boy and she was the new Marchioness. One wonders whether to commend my Father’s honesty or condemn him for not telling his new bride before he married her that he already had an heir. My Mother stays silent on this subject.
She does, however, describe Claude-Laurent as a gentleman of great intellect and independent disposition with a full share of his family’s charms and vices but a great deal more that its usual common sense. She also sends her love to Theo, who sends it back. (I begin to wonder if I was the only one who did not know about the Parisian branch of the family. One would hope someone has remembered to tell Ralph.)
On a related subject of some considerable interest to you would be some intelligence on the Viscount whom you were so taken with. I did enquire with my Father about Durville, as you are no longer able to, and received a few drabs of knowledge in exchange. As Miss Rothmore seems to have suspected, he is something of a mage, but of little talent and of no particular House. He is also a shocking rake, a spendthrift, an inveterate gamester and a total loose screw, but other than that a very honorable man.
Apparently he is also another friend of Claude-Laurent’s. He came to my father’s house, you see, to collect an enchanted item my brother promised to bring him from France, as apparently his friends have been expecting both him and his son in England for some weeks now. What this means, with Claude-Laurent still missing and Théo still in Paris, I cannot know, but whatever his plans were they are obviously now in some disarray. This new knowledge cannot help but worry me. If Claude-Laurent does not put in an appearance by mid-month I am resolved to return to England with Théo in my tow.
I enclose several books, all sent to you under the protection of another one of Claude-Laurent’s very convenient little charms. Le Journal des Modes is real enough, and you cannot imagine the trouble I shall be in when my sisters discover you got a copy all to yourself. The rest, as you requested, are somewhat less modish then they may first seem, but perhaps of more interest to you in the end. De Brissac does not mean it lightly when he says that this new Empire has not the foggiest notion of the true worth of its plunder. Here’s hoping your Italian will be up to scratch.
Your loving cousin,
P.S. – I am at most an indifferent judge of female beauty, but I do reckon you to be quite tolerably pretty, Q. As for the beauty of Sutcourt women, Lord knows how often I have heard Rachel complain how cruel Fate has been to deny her the Sutcourt gift but bequeath her the Sutcourt nose.
(A scrawl underneath the postscript in an unfamiliar handwriting)
‘Quite tolerably pretty’
He is beyond all hope. – Théo
P.S. Write back more about your uncle’s stone monsters.