The Affair of the Mysterious Letter – Alexis Hall

That I must begin these reminiscences with a description of myself and my origins is a necessity that runs contrary to both my character and my upbringing. My editor, however, tells me that my readers will wish to know how a man of my unremarkable public reputation came to be associated with so extraordinary a person as the sorceress Shaharazad Haas. I shall endeavour, therefore, to assuage your curiosity by outlining a little of my early life, particularly the circumstances that led to my arrival in KhelathraVen and to my falling into company with the woman who would become my most trusted confidant and truest friend. I was born in the Kingdom of Ey during the four hundred and sixty-seventh year of the reign of the Witch King Iustinian. My earliest memory of childhood is being summoned to sing “Alas! Must I in Torments Dwell” for one of my parents’ friends. Such gatherings were frequent at that time and I never thought to question their purpose, though they occurred always after nightfall and were conducted with an air of peculiar secrecy. In any case, I performed poorly, and my father was disappointed, as he so often was. As for my father himself, I will simply say that he was a man of strong principles and unswerving faith. He fought valiantly for his beliefs and, unlike so many of his contemporaries, practised in private what he espoused in public. Although his role in the revolution and subsequent part in the formation of the Commonwealth afforded him great power and influence, we continued to live simply and spend our days in contemplation of the Creator’s mercy and thankfulness for His blessings. While I cannot say his stewardship brought much joy to his children, I am nonetheless grateful for many of the lessons he taught me. While some would argue that this world has little use for humility, loyalty, and diligence, I have found them to be constant sources of strength. But, to my shame, I have not the serenity to be thankful to him for his efforts to instil in me the virtues he felt becoming of his daughter. To this day, I am not sure how I would have endured my childhood were it not for my mother. She shared many traits with my father, including his revolutionary fervour and his unyielding resolve, but she leavened them with kindness.

It was of her devising that I was sent to the Honoured University of Khel at the age of sixteen. And it was there that I received my bachelor’s degree in transubstantial sciences and was able to be, for the first time, myself: John Wyndham. Following my graduation, I made one attempt to return home. Although I had been away only four years, the Commonwealth and I had both changed significantly; I had left a kingdom unsettled from revolution and still bearing the wounds of five centuries of tyranny. I returned to a nation in the midst of renewal. Thomas Latimer, the man for whom I had sung so badly so long ago, had been appointed Lord Protector and established an advisory council known as the Chamber of Regicides. My father’s disappointment in me, however, was unchanged. It quickly became apparent to me that my future did not lie in Ey. Centuries of fear followed by a decade of transformation had left the people of the Commonwealth unwelcoming of anything that seemed to them foreign or mysterious. And I, with my varsity ways and my Khelish habits, was both.

Ironically, in Khelathra-Ven I had always been too provincial, my friends mocking me for my prudishness and my adherence to my father’s faith, despite my having long since learned the Creator was likely little more than a mindless ball of protoplasmic fire that dwelt in a dead star at the heart of the cosmos. Thus it was I came again to Khelathra-Ven and, like so many outcasts before me, sought refuge with the Company of Strangers, that queer but valiant battalion of soldiers founded some two centuries past under the joint auspices of the Kaiserin of the Hundred Kingdoms and the Uthmani Sultan. It was rare indeed for those two great powers to agree overmuch on anything, but the existential peril presented by the forces of the Empress of Nothing demanded a united response and the company was structured in such a way that it could owe no loyalties and, thus, would never be distracted from the conflict that rages from the Unending Gate. I believe most people, or at least most people who are familiar with such matters, know at least a little about that ceaseless war. They know, for example, that it takes place primarily across a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting, otherworldly battlefields and that our enemy is by her very nature unknowable and unconquerable. They may even be aware that the conflict has its origins in the events surrounding the fall of ancient Ven. None of those facts, to my mind, are pertinent. My experiences during my time with the Company of Strangers are difficult for me to describe and I do not think they would make for edifying reading. I will not, therefore, attempt to describe them. Suffice to say that I am, even now, uncertain what it was that I hoped to find in pledging myself to such a cause.

Perhaps little more than purpose and what passed for an honourable death. But there, in those strange and sunless lands, I soon learned that no death is honourable. Unlike many of my fellows I survived and rose, more thanks to circumstance than merit, to the rank of captain. Just as I was beginning to contemplate the opportunities my unexpected successes had placed before me, I was struck down by an extratemporal jezail, a fiendish weapon whose bullets displace themselves in time and space, meaning the injuries they cause recur unpredictably. Although I am quite well most of the time I shall, on occasion, be afflicted with a stabbing pain in my shoulder or my leg or, most peculiarly, by the recollection of such a pain in the distant past, long before I had even thought of going to war. Such a condition made me unfit for military service. And so it was that I found myself returning to Khelathra-Ven with little more than my clothes and the meagre savings I had accrued during my tour of duty. CHAPTER TWO The City of Khelathra-Ven My arrival in the city, following my demobilisation, was an unfortunately shambolic affair. Not having anticipated my injury, I had been unable to make any arrangements for accommodation ahead of my arrival. The only lodgings I had been able to secure at such short notice, a tiny unfurnished room above a dyer’s shop, proved both exorbitantly expensive and to reek of various unsavoury substances that I shall not name for fear of causing distress.

From there I was able to move temporarily into the sitting room of an old university friend who, since graduation, had made a successful career for herself as an interdimensional metallurgist. Although she was most welcoming and her home infinitely more comfortable than the room above the dyer’s, I was ill at ease imposing too long on her charity. My first order of business was to secure for myself some semblance of an income, and with the assistance of one my former tutors, I was able to take up a position as dispensing alchemist at the Little Sisters of Thotek the Devourer Hospital in Athra. My remuneration for this role was not entirely generous and I soon realised that I would be forced to choose between living in one of the least reputable parts of the city—and potentially taking my life in my hands on my daily walk to work—or else making an earnest effort to find a housemate. Even this strategy proved less fruitful than I had hoped. Many desirable properties remained unaffordable and many affordable properties remained undesirable. Furthermore, my Eyan origins rendered my company unpalatable to a number of the city’s residents. Having been raised with a rigid sense of propriety, I fear I may have given some of my prospective co-tenants the impression that I begrudged them the freedoms that I, in truth, envied. One morning, when I was coming quite to despair at my situation, I was perusing a local broadsheet when I came across the following advertisement: Co-tenant required. Rent reasonable to the point of arousing suspicion.

Tolerance for blasphemies against nature an advantage. No laundry service. Enquire S. Haas, 221b Martyrs Walk. I confess that I was not without my reservations, but Martyrs Walk was enticingly close to the hospital, and with my injury sometimes rendering perambulation discomforting, that was not an insignificant consideration. Therefore I resolved to present myself the very next morning. Before I narrate the details of that fateful meeting, however, my editor suggests I should present for the benefit of my less cosmopolitan readers a brief introduction to the nexus city of Khelathra-Ven. I pointed out to him that there were many texts available on the subject and that interested parties would be better served seeking out one of Ms. Zheng’s excellent travel guides. He was not moved by this argument, maintaining that the public in general mislikes being referred to secondary materials in the middle of a serialised narrative and that part of my duty as a chronicler is to describe not only events as they transpired but also the background against which those events occurred.

Those already familiar with the great city may wish to turn immediately to the next chapter. Khelathra-Ven is a tripartite municipality composed of the city of Khel to the south, separated from the city of Athra in the north by some six miles of open sea, which can be traversed by the great Rose Gold Bridge. The ruins of Ven lie beneath the waves and are inhabited by strange but not unfriendly creatures native to that environment, and by those unfortunates forced by circumstance to seek lodging in the few air pockets that persist, through the intervention of engineering or sorcery, in the remains of that onceproud metropolis. During my student days, I lived for two months in a coral-strewn garret in one of Ven’s more accessible districts. And although the lifestyle was not without its sense of romance, the inconvenience of coming and going by submersible soon came to outstrip the savings that I made on the rent. It may seem strange to an outsider that a city that is little more than a scattering of ancient and waterlogged ruins could be so integral a part of a thriving, modern nation. The outsider, however, reckons without the influence of the Eternal Lords of Ven, who are the last immortal survivors of an empire that once spanned galaxies. With their blessing, the dimensional gateways through which they had once walked the length and breadth of the cosmos became again stable thoroughfares allowing the passage of trade from not only distant lands but distant worlds and, indeed, distant times. Today Khelathra-Ven is famed throughout several realities as a haven for innovators, libertines, and, above all, merchants. Many caravans come by land from the Uthmani Sultanate to the south, and a wide expanse to the northeast of the city is given over to the winged beasts and flying machines that make up an increasingly significant part of trade in the modern age.

But the bulk of the city’s wealth comes from the sea and from the strange portals that lie within it. Hundreds of ships pass through the strait every day, and thousands of travellers from across the infinite potentialities of all that is pass daily through the docks to visit or to trade or to seek their fortunes. Standing on the quayside of an evening one may converse with people from origins as diverse as the Hagiocracy of Pesh, the People’s Republic of Carcosa, the red deserts of Marvos, or the dawn of time itself. Whether one would survive these conversations, however, is another matter entirely. CHAPTER THREE Ms. Shaharazad Haas Number 221b Martyrs Walk turned out to be part of a handsome terrace in a clean, geometrical style that had been fashionable a little less than a century earlier. It sported large, square windows and a neat iron balcony that matched the gate and the rail that ran up the steps to the front door. This last was open, but I knocked regardless and received no answer. I thus found myself in something of a quandary. I would never under normal circumstances have entered another person’s home uninvited.

However, the curious attitude of the door and the silence within caused me genuine concern. I glanced up and down the street in the hopes of seeing a neighbour or attracting the attention of a Myrmidon—for those readers unfamiliar with the city, the Myrmidons are the peacekeepers of Khelathra-Ven, once tasked with enforcing the will of the ruling council and now primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime—but saw that I was quite alone and unsupported. Tightening my grip on the walking stick (for which on that day I had blessedly little need), I pushed the door wide and entered. A narrow hallway led me to a well-appointed but chaotically maintained sitting room where a woman with light brown skin and a cascade of black hair sprawled on a chaise longue. No sooner had I entered than she levelled a pistol directly at my heart. “If you have come to rob me,” she said, without so much as glancing in my direction, “you will find that I have nothing worth taking. If you have come to murder me, you will find that I am dead already.” I thought it best to move little and speak calmly. “I have come to do neither. I have come in response to an advertisement.

” She swung herself into a sitting position, which better enabled me to observe her, although the bulk of my attention was still occupied by the firearm, which remained trained unerringly upon my person. Ms. S. Haas, assuming it was she (and hindsight vindicates this assumption), was a tall, striking woman of indeterminate age and background. She was dressed in a heavily flounced skirt of emerald-green satin; a gentleman’s shirt, somewhat stained with tobacco; and a charcoal-grey tailcoat. There was something of the chimera about her, being leonine of jaw, aquiline of nose, and lupine about the eyes—though, presently, they were dulled by an undiagnosable cocktail of narcotics and intoxicants. “Perhaps,” I suggested, “I have come at a bad time?” “Young man, I have danced with the gods at the dawn of creation and watched seas swallow worlds at the end of all things. My perspective on time, good or bad, is I suspect very different from your own.” “Am I to understand, then, that you are not looking for a cohabitant?” “I already have a housemate, as infuriating as I—” She stopped and was silent for the better part of a minute. “Or did he leave? Or die? Or both.

And, if both, in which order?” “Shall I fetch you a glass of water?” “Water, in its pure form, is far too valuable a reagent to waste on thirst. You may pour me a brandy and you may be quick about it.” I did not think it advisable for her to add alcohol to whatever she had already taken. On the other hand, she did have me at gunpoint. “Would you mind lowering your weapon? It disquiets me rather.” Ms. Haas stared at the pistol with a look of genuine surprise. “Sorry. Forgot I had that.” She cast it casually to the ground, where it discharged into the wall, sending up a spray of plaster dust and shaking loose an incongruously cheerful watercolour of a country cottage.

Stepping carefully around piles of books, papers, and discarded syringes, I crossed the room to an ornate sideboard, where rested a selection of fine decanters and glasses. I poured the lady the beverage she had requested and passed it to her with as much composure as I could muster. She regarded it warily for a moment and then tossed it back with the proficiency of a sailor on shore leave. Then she stood, shaking out her skirts, and while I consider myself neither especially courageous nor especially cowardly, I thought it best to take a step back. She turned the glass in her hand, watching the light catch upon the crystal, and, when she had satisfied whatever curiosity drove her, returned it calmly to its fellows. “The rent is due monthly,” she said, as if continuing a conversation I was fairly certain we had not been having. “It comes to seventeen Athran florins, twelve Khelish rials, an equivalent value in seed pearls, sourced from wherever you wish, seventy-eight Eyan shillings, a Marvosi trade dagger, or three and a half lines from a Seravic chant of commerce. You may pay it to me or to the landlady directly. Her name is Mrs. Hive, and she infests the attic.

Do not enter it without permission on pain of agonising death. There is no laundry service.” “Yes. The advertisement mentioned that fact.” That is, it had mentioned the lack of laundry service. The possibility of agonising death, although present for one reason or another in a number of rented properties in Khelathra-Ven, was habitually elided from public notices. She moved to where the picture had fallen, picked it up, appeared to consider rehanging it, and finally put it down again. “It is a matter of tremendous inconvenience to me.” “I am quite capable of washing my own shirts.”

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