Flash Fiction: Mist and Light

In honor of the fact that I put Cracked Pots through PitMad yesterday, a Cracked Pots short, set after the end of the book. I have attempted to minimize spoilery content, not that that matters a huge amount.  For the A Random Scattering Of Fresh Titles challenge.

Please excuse lack of refining, I ran out of time.  Toddler music class does not play well with ‘last minute fic idea’.

****

The mechanical clanks and whirrs of the dirigible engines were an inescapable presence in the ship’s gondola, but at least Margaret found them soothing.  She had tucked herself into a seat away from the windows with a book, her bag shoved in under her feet.  There was nothing, really, to see at this time of year, in any case, with night falling so soon and the Fog obscuring the land below.  Even when the thick, smoke-saturated Fog near Camlon was well behind them, the hills and villages below would be hidden from view.

Her book was titled “On the Colors of Heaven: the analysis of substances by their luminous properties” and she had read it before, but, she thought, not really understood it.  She reviewed the contents with brow furrowed in concentration, her free hand fidgeting with the strap of the goggles that were looped over her belt.  If she had the opportunity to peer into the ship’s engine room, she might venture putting them on, but the appearance of the things was a bit too ridiculous to face for lesser reason.

No opportunity presented itself before the dirigible slid into position in its tower, so she pulled her bag out, tucked the book back into it, and slung it over her shoulder without attempting to make a spectacle of herself.  Crossing the gangway was, as always, a bit of a trial, but she did not look down, and made it safely to the stairs.

“Ride into the village, miss?”  The man at the cab stand doffed his cap politely.

“I generally walk,” she said, “I’m going to the Beacon.”  She paused, considering.  “But if you need the fare, um.  I can wait to see if anyone else wants a cab?”

“Shan’t take your coin if you don’t need the ride, miss,” said the man.

“Then I’ll walk,” she said.  “Have a warm holiday.”

“Thankee, miss.”  He tipped his cap again, and she shifted the bag on her shoulder and started down the gentle slope of the road.  It was dark, and more than a little cold, but her cloak was warm, and walking was a good way to settle her thoughts.

The Fog was hardly thick enough, after her time in Camlon, to feel like Fog at all, more like a mist.  She found herself wondering, at about the point she passed the turnoff for the village, whether it had remotely the same properties as the Fog in the city, and paused to fumble the goggles off her belt.

The cab from the dirigible tower rattled by, the horses snorting in the cold, with what sounded like a young couple laughing cheerfully in the back.  Margaret wondered if she knew either of them, and which of the village houses was their destination.

She slid the goggles on, adjusting the strap carefully.  They shielded her face from the cold, if nothing else, and she told herself that was sufficient reason for them before reopening her eyes to peer out through the lightly opalescent sheen of the lenses.

The Fog might not be as thick here as in the city, but through the panes of the goggles it was a marvel, and she sucked in a breath in startlement.  The older trees were limned in light, sparkling like they were encrusted with gems, and the low stone wall along the side of the road was, if not consistently bright, enough of a steady glow to walk by without fear of losing the path, even in the winter evening.

She resumed walking, slowly, hearing the church bells ringing out from the village for the hour, and wondered, not for the first time, what the interior of a church might look like.  She had yet to be brave enough to try it, though she had at least come around to admitting that it was for fear that she might see nothing of note there.  She knew the decorations would shed some sort of ghostlight, but art always did, at least a little, and that the voices raised in song would raise a misty glow over the angelic prominences of each individual human.  She was terribly afraid of knowing for certain, and so she did nothing more than wear the lighter spectacles, which did not reveal the awesome and terrible fullness of the ghostlight, when she attended with Mrs. Blair.

Looking at the village church would, she thought, be even more terrifying than facing the possibility of absence in the city.

She kept walking.  Nothing separated itself from the luminous secret world to greet her, none of the familiar spirits from the city, and she wondered if they communicated in some fashion, though she was far from where she had made insubstantial friends, if they could be considered friends.  Eventually, she would reach the Beacon, and she steeled herself for what she might see there.  In the ordinary light, the sweep of the beam pulsed out, regular as clockwork, its brilliance markedly stronger than when she was a child.

Then she drew close enough to see the tower itself.  Here and there she could see crevices filled with light in the stonework of its construction, and connected each shape, each outline, to one of her father’s stories about its construction or rebuilding after some disaster or other.  In daylight, only one of those lines was visible, where the stones jutted out a bit too far for smoothness, and could be seen even under the layer of whitewashing.  She stopped at the gate and looked up, and saw that the peak of the tower was wreathed in a sort of numinous flame, from which the ordinary light jutted out like a spear.

She pushed the goggles up onto her forehead, looked at the Beacon with ordinary eyes that blinked against the dimness, and crossed the garden to open the door to the lower storeroom, which was filled with supplies laid in against the winter.  She found the stair, and climbed up, and called, “Hello?  It smells good.”

It smelled like home, the winter stew going on the hearth, but also a roasted ham for homecoming.  “We hear our Maggie’s coming around, have you seen her.”

“I might’ve,” she said, and let her father sweep her into a hug.

“What’s this then?”  He tapped one of the lenses of the goggles.

She shrugged.  “It’s… I’ve been helping some friends with some research.”

“Oh, yes, the women’s group that you wrote about.  How’s that going, then?”

“We’re getting some… interesting results.”  Margaret let them bring her over to the kitchen, and let her brother take her bag and drag it up to her room, and let them interrogate her about her time in Camlon and her friends there and whether her cousins had managed to introduce her to an appealing young man.

“They have dreadful taste, mother,” she said wearily.  “As you well know.”

“I did run away to live in a Beacon,” her mother agreed with a laugh.  “But what about among your friends?  You had mentioned some eligible men among them.”

She grimaced.  “That’s complicated,” she said firmly, “and I don’t want to talk about it.”

Her mother gave her a sympathetic look, and said, “I shan’t pry.  A woman needs her privacy after having her heart broken.”

Margaret bit back a retort, because telling her it was not that at all was more than she wanted to get into, and just nodded.  They took the conversation to Mrs. Blair and what she was doing without her assistant, and spent some time wondering about her son – who she was staying with for the interim – and why they had such a dreadful relationship, which was at least a way of passing the time.

Eventually, Margaret made her way to bed in her familiar old room, and put the goggles on and watched the play of light on the ceiling until she felt ready to fall asleep.

When she appeared again in the morning, her mother chided her with, “Don’t you get up in the morning anymore, girl?”

“It’s the longest night vigil tonight,” said Margaret.  “I thought I’d rest up.”

Her mother shook her head.  “That’s Beaconmaster superstition.”

Margaret lifted her chin, and stared at her, her expression cool and level.  Her mother looked up, and then looked away.

“You can’t be Beaconmaster, Maggie, it’s a man’s job.”

“But you know I will.”

“You need a man.”

“We’ll see.”  Margaret set her jaw, and went about the day with a stubbornness that even her mother was not willing to question.  Her father smiled at her tightly, and they made the preparations for the vigil side by side, bringing supplies up to the top of the tower and laying them out, and bringing up blankets against the cold, and making sure the boiler room was properly supplied with coal so there would be no need to haul any up from the storeroom.

At a pause in the preparations, she took a little honey and a little wine, when nobody was looking, and set them out in a bowl in the garden, murmuring, “There’s no cream, I’m sorry, I hope this will do for an introduction,” to the Fog.  Before anyone noticed she was gone, she scooped up another bucketful of coal and set to hauling it up the stairs, holding her skirts out of her way with the other hand.

Her father stole glances at her as they sat out on the balcony, backs against the windows, looking east over the edge of the cliffs.  “You don’t have to sit up with me.”

“Yes I do,” she said.  “I’m the Beaconmaster’s apprentice.”

He frowned slightly, and looked away from her, towards the invisible horizon.  “That’s not going to be easy, Maggie,” he said, after a long pause.

“I think I can do it.  I have friends.”

“Friends can only take you so far.”

Margaret pulled the goggles down to watch the ghostlight playing around them.  “I have confidence in my friends,” she said.

A shimmering figure separated itself from the invisible flame, roughly humanoid, and bowed to her.  She inclined her head, just slightly, and smiled.

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