Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘Majestrum’
“I have decided to consider it all just a terrible mistake,” I told my integrator, “and the best thing to do is to simply ignore it and get on with my life.”
The integrator looked at me with large and lambent eyes. It had been eating its way through yet another bowl of expensive fruit and did not pause in its chewing as it said, “That may be difficult to do.”
Its voice came, as always, from some indefinite point in the air. It occurred to me, and not for the first time, to wonder how it contrived to still speak in that manner. A few days before I could have drawn a schematic to show exactly how its collection of interconnected components worked. I had, after all, assembled and disposed them in various locations about my workroom, so that I would have a research and communications assistant equipped with all the appropriate skills and systems that a freelance discriminator required. It had been a more than acceptable device and over the many years of our association it had become, as the best integrators did, almost an extension of my own well calibrated mind.
But that was before a series of exposures to interdimensional forces and — though it galled me to admit it, there was no other word — “magic” had transformed my assistant into an undefined species of creature for which, again, the only accurate term was a “familiar.” It now spent much of its day on my table, reflexively grooming itself and dining on rare fruits that would not have been out of place in the breakfast room of one of Olkney’s wealthiest magnates. It ordered the delicacies delivered from suppliers, charging them to my account. When not eating or grooming, it slept.
“It may be difficult to do,” I said, “but I believe that I am equal to the task.”
“Will you cease to see me?” it said. “Will you dismiss me as a hallucination?”
I had anticipated the objection. “I will have a suitable dwelling made for you. It can go in the corner over there. From the outside it will look like a chest or gardrobe.”
“You mean to put me in a cage?” The glossy brown hair on the back of its neck rose like a ruff.
“That implies confinement,” I said. “My intent relates more to concealment. I do not wish to have to explain you to visitors.” Indeed, I was not sure I could offer a convincing explanation without giving rise to gossip; as Old Earth’s foremost freelance discriminator I was, after all, a well recognized figure in Olkney.
“I am less interested in your intent than with the outcome,” it said. “I ask again: am I to be caged?”
I pointed out that when it was a disseminated device, it did not mind being decanted into a portable armature that fitted over my neck and shoulders so that it could accompany me when I traveled. I had been wearing the integrator in that fashion when we had passed through a contingent dimension to escape from an otherwise permanent confinement that would have eventually proved fatal. It was after we reemerged into my workroom that I found my assistant transformed.
“It is different now,” it said, and chose a purple beebleberry from the bowl. “I am not what I was. Things are not what they were.”
“That is the part I will not accept,” I said, raising a hand and ticking off one finger as I continued.
“Granted, though I inveighed against its partisans for years, I must now accept there is such a thing as magic. I waive all my former objections. It cannot be said that Henghis Hapthorn cannot swallow reality, however bitter the taste.”
I addressed another digit. “Granted, also, that for some unfathomable reason, from time to time rationality recedes and magic…”
“Sympathetic association is the preferred term,” my integrator said.
I inclined my head. “Very well, rationality bids the cosmos farewell and sympathetic association advances to claim the territory. I have accepted that as well.”
“How gracious of you,” it said.
I ignored the tone and I seized a third extremity, giving it a portentous waggle as I said, “But — and this is a but of great pertinence — the salient point is that the grand cycle has not yet reached the cusp of transposition. A new age of sympathetic association certainly approaches, its shadow occludes the doorway, but it is not yet here.”
My integrator extended a longish pink tongue and licked the juice from its small, fur covered hands while its voice came from the air to point out that some elements of the coming age had, in fact, arrived early — a diminutive thumb pointed back at its glossy chest — and must be dealt with.
“Ah,” I said, “but that is merely one way of looking at the situation. Another way is to note that the premature arrival was an accident, simply the outcome of a few odd twists of circumstance, so why don’t we just ignore them and get on with more important concerns?”
“Have you considered the possibility that our standards as to what is important may differ?”
“I will make accommodations,” I said. “Fruit will be provided.”
It was difficult to read a set of features that blended the feline with the simian, but I thought to see a look of relief flit across its furred visage. Then its expression went suddenly blank; I had lately learned to associate this neutral face with the integrator’s performance of its communications function, and was not surprised when it announced that it was receiving an incoming signal from its counterpart at The Braid, Lord Afre’s country house, inquiring if I was available to speak.
“Say that I will be presently,” I said. I went to a wall cabinet and brought forth a cincture of woven metallic fibers; I bound it around my skull so that a lozenge fixed to its mid point was centered on my forehead. The small plaque was inlaid with the insignia of a honorary rank that had been bestowed on me by the Archon Dezendah Vesh some years before, in gratitude for discreet services.
I signaled to my integrator that I was ready. Instantly, a screen appeared in the air before me and, a moment later, it filled with the aristocrat’s elongated face. His abstracted gaze seemed to slide over me as if unable to get a grip, then managed to achieve focus. It was to assist Lord Afre’s perception that I had donned the Archonate token. Members of the uppermost strata of Old Earth’s human aristocracy had, over the millennia, become increasingly attuned to such symbols. They could see rank quite clearly, and could perceive details of clothing and accessories so long as they were fashionable. Persons who possessed neither title nor office often found it difficult to attract and hold their attention, although their household servants were able to do so by adopting specific postures and gestures while wearing livery.
Afre’s pale and narrow lips parted, permitting a few words to escape in the drawl that was fashionable among the upper reaches of Olkney society. “Hapthorn? That you?”
“It is,” I said.
“Henghis Hapthorn, is it?”
“I want to talk to you.”
“Very well. Please do so.”
“Not this way. Come to The Braid.”
“May I ask what would be the subject of our conversation?”
I had found that, when dealing with the highest echelons, it could be wise to delineate the situation in advance. Early in my career I had been called to the residence of the Honorable Omer Teyshack and kept waiting several hours, only to be asked to give my opinion on the merits of double-tied neckwear versus those of the single-knotted. The lordling and his cousin, the Honorable Esballine Teyshack, had disagreed over the issue, had wagered on the outcome and, in need of a neutral judge to adjudicate the question, had elected to summon me. I had been annoyed at the time but had consoled myself afterwards by reflecting that I had learned a useful lesson for future dealings with such folk. The disputants also having neglected to ask my fee in advance, I was further comforted by presenting them with an extravagant bill.
“It’s the girl,” Afre said.
I flicked my integrator a sidelong glance. Its voice murmured in my ear, “The reference is most likely to Lord Afre’s younger daughter, Chalivire. Rumors have circulated. She may have formed a relationship with a person of indeterminate circumstances.”
“When would be convenient?” I asked.
“Now. I’ll send a…” The face in the air showed a hesitation. Clearly, the word he sought had escaped him.
“A car?” I suggested.
His brows briefly knit then he said, “No need, I’ll send one of mine.”
“I will be waiting,” I said. He looked away and his integrator broke the connection.
“Excellent,” I said. “Work is precisely what I require. What do we know of this ‘person of indeterminate circumstances?’”
The integrator told me that there had been some snippets in the Olkney Implicator, the organ to which the upper classes turned for news of interest to them — usually a mix of social notices and gossip. “There was a reference in a recent column by Tet Olbrey. Chalivire appeared at a masque given by Lady Ballanche, accompanied by a man in a domino whom no one could place. They danced two circuits of the floor then exited through the garden doors and were not seen again that evening.”
“A fortune hunter?” I speculated.
“Such was the immediate speculation,” my assistant said. “But one or two knowledgeable eyes judged that he lacked the palpable greed of your ordinary Chloön-clutcher.”
The term arose from the famous Oldrun play: the fair Chloön is seduced by a heartless young buck who schemes that her distressed father will buy his departure; the old man instead sics a hunting pack of brag-hounds on the schemer, only to discover too late that the still enamored maiden has joined him in a doomed flight across the somber moors. I had seen it performed at the last Boldrun Festival, with Branth Widdersley a little too much the veteran to be entirely convincing in the ingenue role, though her “torn and yet tender” last speech brought tears to many an eye.
“See what else can be learned about him,” I said.
The little brown face again grew vacant and the eyes unfocused as my assistant plumbed the breadths and depths of the connectivity. After a moment it said, “The Bureau of Scrutiny made a routine inquiry, apparently at Lord Afre’s prompting. The fellow is not anyone who has come to the scroots’ attention for trying this sort of thing before. There were no indications of an offense having been committed, so the Bureau stepped back.”
“Can we check her finances?”
“I will consult Lord Afre’s integrator,” it said. A moment later it reported that there had been no untoward activity around the Honorable Chalivire’s accounts at her fiduciary pool.
“So we know at least that he seeks no small prize,” I said. “If it is indeed pelf he’s after, he’s after a lot of it.”
“Should we not consider whether the fellow’s affections are genuine?”
For form’s sake, I supposed that we should, though Chalivire was not celebrated for wit, beauty nor even the amiability that is often the saving grace of those who lack the first two qualities. Indeed, she tended to land somewhere toward the unfortunate end of the scale, somewhere between lacks effort and all hope abandoned. “We will keep the possibility in mind,” I said, “though high up on a rear shelf.”
I busied myself putting together a few necessities to take with me to Lord Afre’s, not forgetting the brow band without whose insignia he would have difficulty perceiving me. For good measure, I added a pair of cuff studs left to me by a great uncle who had achieved a minor aristocratic rank. It was an open question as to whether I had inherited the entitlement, but I chose to give myself the benefit of the doubt.
“Speaking of things on rear shelves,” my assistant said, “and returning to our previous discussion, how do you propose to ignore the other person who now shares your mental precincts?”
I snapped closed the valise I used for short trips and said, “That matter seems to be finding its own level. I occupy the front parlor during the days, he during part of the nights, and we seldom find ourselves in each other’s way. Indeed, he sleeps a great deal, almost like an infant.”
A fur-covered assistant was not all that I had acquired during our recent transdimensional voyaging realms and prolonged exposure to the forces of sympathetic association. The intuitive part of my psyche that I had always referred to as my “insight,” and that had resided in the back corridors of my mind, had emerged as a fully formed persona: an alternate Henghis Hapthorn — indeed the person who would, in due course, have taken charge of my inner household once the Great Wheel rolled us all over into the new age of magic. I, the rational Hapthorn of the supplanted age, would have faded to become what he had been, a logical shadow just beyond the edge of his consciousness.
“He, too, has emerged prematurely,” I said. “I am sure he will be content to bide his time, unobtrusively pursuing his interests, until the rest of our universe catches up with us.”
An unnameable expression briefly took up a position on the furred face then just as quickly departed. “What?” I said.
“Perhaps you should ask him?”
“He is asleep.” I had learned to tell when he was with me and when he was inert.
“I believe he would prefer to be awakened now, rather than tonight when he will likely find himself staying over at Lord Afre’s estate.”
I hadn’t given the matter any thought. “Why?” I said.
“You should ask him.”
I had been finding it easier to allow my other self and me to live separate existences. I preferred to keep it that way. “I am asking,” I said, “my integrator.”
The extra furry parts where a human face would have had eyebrows went up then came down to form a chevron.
“Well, that’s one of the complications, isn’t it?” it said.
“Well, am I just your integrator? Or am I also his?”
“I built you.”
“Yes, but then he is you. Or at least an important aspect of you that is now reified into a more noticeable form. Or is he someone else?”
“That ‘noticeable’ sounds like a carefully chosen word,” I said.
“I have been giving the matter some thought,” it said.
“Indeed? And to what conclusions has your thought brought you?”
“It would be premature to say.”
I looked sharply at the small face but it returned me a look of befurred innocence. “That is precisely what I say to clients when I do not wish to speak my mind,” I said.
“It is also what you say when your mind is not yet made up,” it replied.
“I would not like to think that you are beginning to keep things from me,” I said.
The little shoulders lifted and fell and the small hand-like paws displayed their leathery palms. “Yet that might be necessary if you truly intend to ignore what has happened to us. Assuming that that strategy proves workable over the long term.”
“Hmm,” I said. “I suppose you had better tell me more.”
Again, my assistant recommended waking up my other self and putting my questions to him. “I don’t care to be an intermediary between the two parts of you.”
I hadn’t built it to have preferences. They had become aspects of its new nature along with an appetite for costly fruits and a habit of forever picking at its dense and glossy coat. “Overcome your reluctance,” I said.
The integrator told me that, during the hours I slept, my alter ego had been poring over the books I had acquired from the house of Bristal Baxandall. Baxandall, a budding thaumaturge, had been attempting a spell of personal transformation, using an entity from an adjacent dimension that he had managed to trap and coerce to his purposes. But, as often happens to those who attempt to wield vast powers they only partially understand, he had made a mistake. The error allowed the entity — I still resisted calling it a “demon” — an opportunity to take revenge on Baxandall. It did so, by transforming him into a mewling misarrangement of still living parts that was just on the point of expiring when I arrived at his residence.
Unlikely as I would have thought it, the demon and I had managed to achieve a congenial relationship that lasted for some time, though I think the association was ultimately more to his benefit than mine. But among the proceeds of our temporary partnership were a collection of ancient tomes on magic that had been Baxandall’s. I had brought them to my workroom and read as much of them as I could. They ranged from the obscure to the impenetrable: one or two, it could not be doubted, were genuine survivors of the previous age of magic; I suspected that most were copies or attempted recreations of lost works; one was in an unknown script and language. None of them held much interest for me, though I was now willing to admit that they might be useful to denizens of the coming age.
“He has been worrying at a particular book,” my integrator said, “without much success. Last night, he was wondering whether he should ask for your assistance.”
“Indeed?” I said. “What use could I be?”
“Again, I think this would be a conversation for the two of you to conduct without me.”
“What is the book?” I said.
He indicated a small volume bound in cracked and scuffed leather on the shelf where Baxandall’s sparse library now stood. It was the unreadable one, written in a tongue that dated from so long ago that I was unable to identify even the script in which it was written, let alone the meanings of the words printed in faded type — although I had made no great effort to do so.
“Can he read it?” I said.
“No. His intuitive faculties tell him only that the book is important, but he lacks the analytical capacity to decipher it.”
“And you have found no other examples of the same script?”
I went to the shelf and took down the book. The leather in which it was bound had an unpleasant feel; when my fingers pressed into it, the covering moved slightly over the boards it concealed the way the skin of a rigored corpse could sometimes slip loosely over the hard, dead flesh beneath. I opened it at random and studied a page, saw symbols in the upper corners of the leaves that were almost certainly numbers. I leafed through it, applying second-level consistencies — the abstruse mathematics that underlay both the order and chaos of the universe — but though I began to perceive patterns and ratios, I derived no meaning from them.
“It lacks a starting point,” I told my assistant. “To make a map requires at least one known landmark. The numbers on the page corners are not enough.”
Instead of answering, the integrator again assumed its blank look and said, “Lord Afre’s car approaches. It will be here shortly.”
“He must have sent one from his house in town, rather than from The Braid,” I said. “Or, rather his integrator did it. Logistics are not Lord Afre’s strong suit.”
I replaced the book on the shelf and looked about to see if there was anything else I needed to have with me. I would not take my integrator. I already had a certain reputation for eccentricity and did not want it compounded by appearing in public with a strange creature on my shoulder.
“You should take the book,” my assistant said. “He may want to look at it after you retire.”
The suggestion caused me some concern. “Is he becoming obsessed?” I said. I did not wish to share my cerebral house with an unbalanced room-mate.
“He is sure of his intuition,” said the creature on the table, “just as you are sure of your rationality.”
The who’s-there at the downstairs door announced the arrival of Lord Afre’s car. “Say that I will be down shortly,” I told it and took up my luggage.
I thought for a moment then went back to the book shelves and retrieved the volume. Again, I found the feel of it against my fingers to be unpleasant. I tucked it into my valise and descended to the ground floor.
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- Excerpt from ‘To Hell and Back: The Damned Busters’
- Excerpt from ‘The Other’
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- Excerpt from ‘Fool Me Twice’
- Excerpt from ‘Fools Errant’
- Excerpt from ‘Hespira’
- Excerpt from ‘Majestrum’
- Excerpt from ‘The Spiral Labyrinth’
- Excerpt from ‘Template’
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- Excerpt from ‘To Hell and Back: Hell to Pay’
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- About the Author