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For the next three nights Diana returned to Water Row. A succession of magic tricks involving matches and a boiled egg earned her more gossip. Everyone agreed that James Hartvern had run off with a pregnant actress, though no one could agree where. A groomsman had heard something about Lyremouth, a pastoral hamlet several miles upriver best known for its insane asylum. A porter had heard gossip of Westershire, where the Hartvern family kept a stone house on a remote island in the lake. One of the bakers told Diana that he'd heard a frightful argument from Vencent Hartvern's library the day before the elopement.

"What were they arguing about?" Diana asked.

The baker shrugged. "Thick walls, that house has. But I think it was another woman. Never heard her name. So how do you make the egg jump out of the glass without touching either one?"

Every morning Diana presented her card at Hartvern House. Silence was her only response. Afterward, she would begin her daily rounds in a Foster & Sons coach. In the streets of Massasoit she saw more poverty and filth than she'd ever seen back in New Dalli. There was something energizing about this growing city, an indefinable energy that was as cruel as it was inspiring. Poor women scrounged in the streets with gaunt babies on their backs. Former slaves labored long hours in the sun to erect buildings for the rich. Diana didn't need to read the newspaper to know that people were dying of cholera, of syphilis, of any number of diseases, not the least of which was the tragedy of broken hearts and spirits.

Her mission for Harami vexed her. Diana met with aldermen and watch wardens, offering discreet incentives and encouragements to no avail. The closest she came to success was when the embassy's district counselor, an officious man named Kandekist, opened his leather wallet and showed her his badge.

"Impressive, isn't it?" he asked.

Diana had held jewels and diamond crowns; she wasn't impressed by an oval of copper and scrap inscribed with a seal and three-digit number. Things men held dear never ceased to amaze her.

Dutifully she said, "It's quite lovely."

"Miss Comet, let me be frank." Kandekist heaved himself out of his chair, rounded his oak desk, and loomed over her in a dominating way. "As much as we respect your Prince Harami, and I'm sure your folks back home like him a lot, the Fire Commissioner's not going to give any badge to a man of his color. There aren't any blackies in the department and there's never going to be. Is that clear?"

She resisted the urge to grab the badge, kick him in the groin, and make good an escape. "Perfectly, Mr. Kandekist."

His leg brushed against hers. "Doesn't mean you and I can't talk about it more, though. My wife's away visiting her sister. What do you think?"

"I think you should stay home alone and play with your shiny piece of metal," she said.

By the time she returned to her rooms at the embassy, she was hot and tired and in desperate need of a chamber pot. She was in the middle of unwrapping her dirty parts when young Liddy knocked and let herself in without waiting for acknowledgement.

"Oh!" Liddy exclaimed.

"Out!" Diana thundered.

The girl fled with a slam of the door. Exposed, humiliated, Diana quickly pulled on her dressing robe. How much had the wretched girl seen? It was impossible to say. She tiptoed to the door and listened. Heavy breathing on the other side of the wooden panel convinced her Liddy hadn't gone anywhere. Crossly Diana opened the door.

"Have you no manners?" Diana demanded.

"I'm sorry, ma'am!" Liddy's eyes were red. "They told me I had to bring this to you urgently!"

She offered a pale blue envelope. Diana took it but said, "I should send both you and your sister away."

"Please don't!" Liddy said, panicking. "We've nowhere else to go!"

That wasn't true. There were many places two poor, uneducated Corish girls could find refuge and companionship in the city. She said, "Whether I send you away depends entirely on you. Are you the type of girl to gossip and wag tongues over her employer's tragic scars and injuries? Have you no sympathy for childhood catastrophes and stolen innocence?"

Liddy curtseyed. Tears swelled. "Ma'am! I won't. I mean, I do. I won't tell!"

Diana looked down her nose at her for several long seconds.

"Go back to the kitchens and be useful," Diana said.

She closed the door in the girl's face, retreated to the divan with the envelope, and glanced at the return address: Hartvern House. It was a long time before her hands stopped trembling enough to slit the envelope open.

The footman who opened the library door was none other than handsome Eremiah, though he didn't recognize her. Diana gave him the barest glance.

"My dear lady," Vencent Hartvern said, rising from his desk. "Thank you so very much for coming."

Diana allowed him to kiss her gloved hand. "It's lovely to finally meet you."

They sat by the cold hearth with the windows open to the smell of a rose garden. Diana's gaze touched upon the framed prints and playbills that hung on the walls. Vencent Hartvern was a known supporter of the Broadvern theaters. Vencent said, "I must apologize again. My mother's not accepting visitors these days, and I've only recently arrived from our summer house. As for my brother . . . well, the situation is very unfortunate."

Vencent bore a strong resemblance to his brother. Diana found it disconcertingly to see the same chin cleft, slight jutting of the nose, and habit of leaning forward in a chair. She asked, "How unfortunate?"

He fidgeted with his pocket watch. "James is one of the smartest men I've ever known. Book smart, that is. In affairs of the heart—will you forgive me if I'm blunt?"

She graciously tilted her head.

"In affairs of the heart he often finds himself drowning and casting for lifelines. I believe that he very much enjoyed your company in New Dalli. And that he had every intention of honoring his promise to you. It was only after the journey home that he sobered to the reality of his responsibilities. He can no sooner marry you than I can follow my love of theater onto the backstage. We each have the burden of our family name."

"I heard it was love the theater that derailed him," Diana said. "An actress, to be precise. An actress in a delicate and embarrassing situation."

"Lord, no!" Vencent's cheeks bloomed red. "Who says that? How dare they! It was nothing of the sort. Business, that's all. Family business."

From somewhere in the house, a door closed with a heavy thud. A hay cart passed in the street with a distinctive rattle and the whinny of horses. Diana said, "I understand completely, Mr. Hartvern, the misery and grief that such rumors cause. And you understand, of course, that I count on James as a man of integrity to deliver news of our broken engagement himself. When shall I see him in person?"

Vencent rose and went to his desk. "I'm sorry to say he's no longer in the city. He won't be back for several months. He did, however, leave you this letter." He held up an envelope. "In it, he bids farewell."

My dearest, James had written at the beginning. At the end he concluded with, I'm sorry.

Diana read the letter a dozen times as the sky darkened and gas lamps flared in Gravesner Square. She imagined that he had been secreted against his will by his brother and was trying to convey his location between the lines, but found no evidence. She decided he had suffered some horrible stroke to the head and lost his memories, but the letter contained just enough personal recollection to indicate otherwise. Silver letter opener in hand, she considered stabbing it through the envelope's heart, just as she'd been stabbed.

The next day passed in a blur of despair. The following days were no better. As much as she considered putting on her best dress and hat and going out to explore the city, the heaviness of futility weighed her down. Harami sent her invitations to dinner, all of which she declined. The embassy secretary came by with a basket of fruit, but she turned him away at the door. She forgot entirely to ask him about the Corish girls and their tutor. She refused to read the newspapers delivered to her door other than the ship departure schedules, looking for the nearest liner back to New Dalli. Finally her misery was disturbed by a knock and the arrival of Mary, her face flushed.

"I did as you asked, ma'am," she said. "I made the acquaintance of the firemen in Company 17. Walked by three times a day with my best smile until they noticed me. One of them's named Tommy Doyle, from County Corey. He says he wants to marry me!"

Diana was too weary and heartsick to point out what a bad idea it was for the girl to marry someone she barely knew. Her expression must have betrayed her, though, because Mary said, "It's not a trick! He's a good boy, they all say so. Sweet and kind and he doesn't kiss too hard at all. He took me to meet his mother. Sweet as a rose! He even gave me a token to prove his love."

She pulled a shiny gold badge from her pocket and held it aloft.

Diana said nothing.

"I can't lose it." Mary turned the badge so that it caught the lantern light. "He'll get in awful trouble. But he said I could hold it until he gets me a ring tomorrow."

Young love. True love. Nothing was more fragile or hopeful. Diana raised her hand gingerly and touched the warm metal. There was no mistaking the city seal or the distinctive lettering.

The distinctive lettering . . .

She turned back to James's letter. Pulled out all the others he'd sent her. The handwriting was strong and powerful—but there! She should have seen it earlier. The slant was similar, as were the shape and size of the letters, but the forger had put just a little too much space between the words themselves.

Diana shrieked a little.

"Ma'am!" Mary said. "Are you all right?"

"I am more than all right." Her blood picked up speed in her veins. "I'm determined, Mary. And undaunted. Do you know what a formidable combination that is? Don't answer. I have arrangements to make. You have a love token to return come morning. Somewhere out there is a man who needs rescuing, and time is running short."

"Is that why you asked me to befriend the firemen?"

"Not at all," Diana said. "But I do believe your newfound friends can be put to good use."

Just past the hour of one a.m., after the taverns had let out and most honest citizens retired to sleep, a hay wagon burst into flame in the square in front of Hartvern House. The tightly packed material's flammability was heightened by cartons of lantern oil, some bits of lumber and a bale or two of cotton. The driver and horse were nowhere in sight when the footmen of Hartvern dashed out of the house armed with buckets of water. The conflagration was far enough from the surrounding stone buildings to be of little danger, but the flames and noise were enough to bring out Fire Company 17, the local warden, a drunken alderman and the District Counselor, Mr. Kandekist, whose tryst with a farrier's wife had been so rudely interrupted by the fire alarms. The local police kept all unauthorized personnel at bay—or all unauthorized save two.

The first of these was a small man, slim and shadowy, hired just a few hours earlier on the secret recommendation of the New Dalli embassy. This deft man, who gained access to the scene using a fire badge borrowed from a young Corish girl, was able to slip his hand into Counselor Kandekist's pocket and steal his wallet. Kandekist wouldn't realize the theft until the next neighborhood inferno, and then had to petition the Fire Department for new credentials.

The second unauthorized person, dressed like a man, was viewing the blaze with satisfaction from the rooftop of Hartvern House. She shimmied down a gutter, pried open the window to Vencent Hartvern's study, and climbed inside in order to rifle through the contents of his desk. Her search yielded nothing.

She sat back, annoyed. All this effort without result was making her cranky. Diana eyed the great bookcases full of leather volumes, any of which might be hollowed out. She studied the tacked-down rug, under which might be a floor safe. Books could be sorted through and wall safes could be cracked, but she didn't have much time. In the end she rose and glided to the wall, where the framed theater playbills had been artfully arranged. Centered in the group was a framed sketch of the famed tragedienne Lucy Avonner, and her autograph in big black letters.

Outside, the firemen were pondering the mystery of the abandoned cart and congratulating themselves on a job well done.

Diana pulled down the wooden frame and turned it over.

Taped to the back was a doctor's letter from the Lyremouth Asylum for Men.

James Hartvern struggled to wake against a haze of sedatives. He had been dreaming of New Dalli, that dusty old city of markets and temples, with its daily calls to prayer and the secret smiles of the woman he loved. Since his involuntary commitment he'd had many dreams, all of them crushed by the cold light of morning. He pulled now against the restraints holding him to the bed and squinted at the moonlit room. An attendant had come in while he was sleeping and was peering at him from the foot of the bed.

"Who are you?" James yanked at the straps holding down his arms. "What do you want?"

The stranger came closer. He was a slim man, young, wearing common clothes and a jaunty cap.

"Did my brother send you? Come to kill me at least?"

"Never," the stranger replied softly.

He came closer to the bed. James couldn't see the color of his eyes but he had the fleeting impression they might be blue. Blue speckled with gold. He shook his head at such errant fancy and lifted his head defiantly.

"Do I know you?" he demanded.

"Oh, yes," the stranger said, and fell upon James to deliver a bruising kiss to his lips.

James's first instinct was to bite the man's violating mouth. Memory stopped him. He knew the taste of those lips and tongue.

"Diana," he breathed.

She pulled back an inch or two. "I came for you."

"I knew you would!"

"But I had to come like this," she said with a downcast gaze. "Ugly and plain. There are no women here at all."

James arched upward to kiss her cheek. "Wrong. You're here. The most beautiful woman I've ever met no matter what you look like on the outside. And I would say that even if I didn't need you to untie me from this bed."

By midnight they were on the roof, embracing by moonlight. Come dawn they were in a private carriage racing back to Massasoit. Diana shimmied up to her rooms and refused to see James again until she'd re-donned her wig, breasts and best gown. James hired a lawyer and had Vencent roused from the family home and business on various charges, including kidnapping, forgery, and forced imprisonment. Three months later, James and Diana married. Though Diana delighted in her satin gown and lace trestle, she fretted that she wouldn't be able to give her husband the heirs he deserved.

"We will have a hundred heirs," James told her. "There is need and we have a fortune to spend."

Which is how they came to found the Hartvern Academy, which to this day still stands in Gravesner Square though all the other mansions and brownstones have long since been torn down and replaced. Here children of all races and ethnicities are welcomed, loved, and educated. Recursive math is taught to all, as is the importance of tolerance, world travel, and knowing how to perform tricks with matches and eggs. Girls dress like boys and boys dress like girls; that is the lasting legacy of that finest of women, Diana Comet.

Sandra McDonald's recent collection, Diana Comet and Other Stories, has been likened to the works of Ray Bradbury. She currently teaches college in northeast Florida and has far too many cats. Her previous appearances at Strange Horizons can be found in our archives, and her inspiration for the latest story was sparked by this video of sexy ice-skating cowboys. For more about the author, see her website.
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25 Sep 2023

People who live in glass houses are surrounded by dirt birds
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In this episode of  Critical Friends , the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, Aisha and Dan talk to critic and poet Catherine Rockwood about how reviewing and criticism feed into creative practice. Also, pirates.
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