Daria Makes A Deal, Chapter Eight

Now and then, I see someone mocking the idea of fanfiction—typically, “Tumblr fanfic” in particular. And it’s understandable. I mean, when the canonical material rises to such heights as, um, Batman V Superman, and Tumblr can only offer Martha Kent fighting off time-travelers who come back to kill young Clark, well, is there even really a choice to make? With the “Captain America is Hydra” story arc, Marvel provides readers with the innovative and unprecedented story of Bad Guys Use Space Thing To Make Big Good Guy Bad. Seriously, for sheer inventiveness and entertainment value, how could Tumblr or AO3 even compete?

*snerk*

Yes, fanfiction did give the world Christian Grey. But it also gave us Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter having Christian Grey for dinner, which has to count for something.

For previous installments of Daria Makes A Deal, see the chapter index. (For my research in quantum information theory, see my recap of recent publications.)

Fair warning: I got the Granada TV Sherlock Holmes series for Christmas and have been watching a lot of that lately.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Daria noticed herself climbing a rope up towards a treehouse.

“This is odd,” she said. “I shouldn’t have nearly the upper-body strength to be doing this so easily.” She took a good look at the knotted hemp rope.

Daria tried to work her memory backwards, to see if it offered any clues about her current situation. She recalled the fracas in the hotel lobby, and then Tom and Saavik were looking at her as though she were unwell, and she was telling them that she was just tired. She remembered thinking that she could pass off any odd behavior as due to her recent discovery of her own apparent bisexuality. Which sounded plausible enough. And so she had begged off, pleading the ineffectuality of caffeine, to hide in the room where she had awoken from her dream—

It had been only a dream, but that meant nothing at all.

She had found her notebook, and she had committed the sin of memoir. Then she had stared at the small, sharp silver pendant that had lain between her and her friend when they woke, shortly before becoming lovers.

She had stared long at the pendant, and now she was dreaming again.

She stretched out her arms and leaned away from the rope, her Post-Docs firmly planted against a knot.

The tree was a thousand-year oak, planted on a ravelin built of earth and brick in the wide moat of the Lord Shaper’s castle.

“That settles that, then.”

Daria lifted one foot off the knot. Then she lifted her other foot off the knot. Her body floated about the pivot point of her shoulders, until she was perpendicular to the rope.

“That worked according to plan,” she monotoned.

Now horizontal, she ascended the rest of the way hand-over-hand until she reached the treehouse.

Halloween greeted her at the entrance. “Good! You’re just in time to meet our client.” She hefted Daria inside and with a flourish indicated the man who was seated on one of the room’s three chairs. “The most honorable Earl of Sorrowshill, hereditary Constable of Aurelia Minor. Constable, my assistant.”

“Charmed,” he said. He was a portly, ruddy, fresh-faced man of middle years.

“Likewise,” Daria responded.

Halloween explained, “The Earl is here to deliver certain pieces of evidence concerning the burglary of the royal crypt, of which I informed you earlier.”

“The theft of a royal skull,” Daria recalled. “Why would anyone do such a thing?”

The Earl opened his valise and removed a folder, tied with twine and sealed with red wax. “Sympathetic magic’s my guess. I brought the argentographs which you requested.” With a nod, Halloween took the folder and broke the seal. He continued. “This has been a ghastly business. The general folk of my city are uneasy. If the remains of our spiritual and temporal leaders are no longer inviolate, it is as though our history itself has been stolen from us, turned against us. It is a very bad state of affairs. I have assumed responsibility for the investigation personally.”

Hallowen was spreading the documents across her table. “That is indeed fortunate.”

—Jeremy Brett himself couldn’t have snarked that better.

“Well, do you see anything?” The Earl rose and stood beside the holiday, peering over her shoulder. Halloween produced a loupe and examined the black-and-white images through it.

Daria walked to the detective’s other side and studied the pictures herself. They were snapshots of the mausoleum. Wreaths had been torn down, ossuaries broken open, bones dashed to the floor.

“This liquid,” said Halloween, “it is spilled sacremental wine?”

The Earl grunted an affirmation. “You’ll notice that it splashed on top of these bones, but beneath these others. Clearly, this skeleton was raided first. And it is the only one with a skull missing.”

“Meaning,” Daria hazarded, “that the thieves went for that body first, found what they came for and made the rest of the mess as a distraction?”

He said, “That was essentially my supposition. Unfortunately, with so many of the inscriptions damaged, we cannot say exactly whose remains were savaged.”

“Clumsy,” muttered Halloween.

“Beg pardon?” he inquired.

“The locks were popped so deftly,” she said, straightening, “and the wards bypassed with such ease. Why then the clumsy, rather obvious attempt at a diversion?”

Daria suggested, “Maybe that part was just an afterthought.”

“Even if it were,” said Halloween, “why not carry off an extra skull or two? This was at least a two-person job—that is, two at the crypt, with a probable getaway driver nearby.” Halloween picked up two of the snapshots and held them before her at arm’s length. “Tell me, my good Sorrowshill, what of the wards on the perimeter? Should not they have signaled when royal bones were most rudely
carried off?”

“You’ve got us there,” he said. “My opinion is that the mage who placed those wards needs a good corrective talking-to.”

“And now you have fairly leaped over the solution.” Halloween flipped the pictures she held so that he and Daria could see them. “Apart from the headlessness of it, does this skeleton strike you as remarkable in any way?”

“It’s dead,” said the Earl of Sorrowshill. “Been that way a long time.”

“You see nothing peculiar about it—and you deduce nothing from that?” Halloween’s eyes gleamed at his puzzlement. “The royal family of Aurelia Minor is quite inbred. Now, don’t pretend that their emphasis on blood purity is not common knowledge. Less well known, yet obvious enough from their daily activities and the accoutrements buried with even the young ones, is that one of the maladies concentrated by this practice is a fragility of the skeletal structure, a hereditary osteogenesis disorder. Look at this debris, here: a pelvic bone, shattered to near powder by a brief fall. And this poor princeling, with barely-healed fractures in femur, phalanges and clavicle. Meanwhile, the fellow whose skull was taken shows no such pathologies.” Halloween returned the pictures to the spread on the table. “The man whose mortal remains were violated was not of royal blood. That is why the wards did not detect the thieves slipping away.”

The Earl did not like this. “But then what did they need his remains for? And what was he doing interred in the royal tomb?”

“Find out who could have been occupying a prince’s resting place, and you will be closer to an answer,” Halloween told him. “Good afternoon, Constable, and happy hunting.”

* * *

Halloween was dropping sugar cubes into her tea. “What do you think?” she asked Daria.

A sip, and then Daria replied. “I think that if there’s always this much tea drinking involved, making a deal with the Dream King will totally be worth it.”

“History records,” said Halloween, “that tea was first brought to Russia by their envoy to Mongolia. The Khan gifted him a load of leaves, much to the envoy’s consternation. Try it,’ he was told, in essence, and then you’ll see.'”

“The beverage of Mongol diplomacy.”

The detective curled her feet under herself and sat, cup in one hand, chocolate in the other. “And what did you think of our guest, the good Earl Sorrowshill?”

Daria paused. “Bit stuffy,” she said at last.

“For an Aurelian lord, he’s positively laid back. An aristocrat, educated well enough according to the fashion of his class. And therefore blind to the most important aspects of the case. Yet he is, for our sins, the best we have in that city.”

“Maybe this is something I should have picked up before now, but where is Aurelia Minor? A cavern halfway to the center of the Earth?”

“Closer than that, by some ways of reckoning. An ancestor of mine maintained,” Halloween said, “that for a detective, it matters not one jot whether the Earth circles the Sun or vice versa. For him, with the benefit of authorial contrivance, perhaps so. But you and I, well. You recall the Platonic image of the universe?”

“The Earth in the middle, with the Sun, the Moon and a few planets going round it on crystal spheres.”

“Quite. And what was the meaning, in medieval Europe, of the Earth being central?”

“That we lived in the imperfect realm, the garbage disposal toward which all the flawed and noncelestial matter fell, while the perfect heavens circled above.”

“A useful little fable, wouldn’t you say? Useful—for the inhabitants of the outer regions. Nothing kept the terrestrials quite in their place like the idea their betters’ inhabited crystal spheres. Whereas you yourself have witnessed the limitations of the Jovian constabulary.”

“Jovian?!”

“A grand canvas for rather petty passions,” Halloween mused.

“I think… I’m having a spell of vertigo. Or something like that.”

Halloween rose, crossed the room and lightly touched Daria’s shoulder.

“I was talking on my phone just a few hours ago,” Daria said. “To my friend. Trent, Jane’s brother. My phone works just like before. Electromagnetism and chemistry and… They’re all just as good as ever. But somehow there’s this whole everything else, at right angles to all the things I know. And it’s not another way of knowing,’ in a religious sense, in the way that people mean when they want to be warm and fuzzy. It’s not a warm and fuzzy truth. It’s old and vast and indifferent. It’s all too much.”

Daria found herself trembling.

“It’s all too much,” she repeated. “Maybe the last writer who made a deal—maybe Will Shakespeare had it easier. An age where the world wasn’t so filled in, and this kind of weird still had a place to fit. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve made a horrible mistake choosing all this.”

“Your learning is as good as it ever was,” Halloween said, quietly, insistently. “Better even than you realize. These other realms have been interchanging with your Earth for a very long time. Much of their substance is drawn from the world you know. You have studied history and mythology since childhood. Those will stand you in good stead when we deal with Aurelia Minor, Arimaspia, the Court of Faerie and all the rest.”

Halloween offered Daria a chocolate truffle.

“Have others…” Daria tried to find the right words. “Have others survived this? What I’ve got myself into?”

“Yes. That is, multiple humans alive today have been drawn—stumbled or been drawn—into otherly affairs. They live on. Even live well.” She sighed. “I had expected this might become a concern, but I did not plan adequately in advance. Please forgive me. I can, if you wish, arrange for you to meet some of them, though it may take a little while to bring about.”

“All right. I like that idea. I think. Yes. Yes.”

“Very well. In the meantime, if you wish to speak with me, hold the sigil I gave you and call upon me. And—I see you are now concerned with what would happen if your friends were brought into this as well.”

“How could you tell?”

Is that something you want?”

“I don’t know,” Daria said. “I don’t know.”

“Would sharing the burden diminish it,” Halloween said, contemplatively, “or would you merely inflict upon them the knowledge you struggle with? So difficult to tell.”

“Yeah,” Daria mumbled.

“Perhaps what you should ask yourself is this: If it had been your friend who had changed their life in the Dreaming, would you want them to share that with you?”