Magic by Starlight is a fun fantasy inspired by Jane Austen and James Bond. If you’d like to contact me about this story, email me at tia at tianevitt dot com.
an Austenpunk urban fantasy
As a starcaster, Tory can wield starlight to manipulate darkness. She joins the Intelligence Ministry hoping to specialize as a burglar. When she is assigned to work as a femme fatale instead, she thinks someone in authority is in need of spectacles. However, Cecil, the Ministry’s most disreputable spy, thinks one of the Ministry directors has it in for the lovely Miss Lawrence. And after eavesdropping on speaking tubes and listening at air vents, he knows he is right.
Tory does not realize that an old family indiscretion has made her vulnerable to mischief. When enemy spies ambush her and try to steal a Ministry dispatch, she is grateful when Cecil materializes out of the darkness to help. They manage to retain the dispatch, but after tracing the spies back to the Ministry itself, they learn that a Ministry official has framed Tory for its theft. And the family secret only makes her look guiltier.
Now spies both foreign and domestic want the dispatch and Tory is dodging villains as ladies evade louts at a ball. Equipped with a black powder pistol, and lockpicks, Tory must decide whom she can trust–and the wrong decision could end with her and Cecil dangling from matching gibbets.
Friday Night, 10:15 PM
Starcaster Corps Headquarters
It’s unsettling to realize that you’re good at something of which you disapprove.
I do approve of spying. The Tarquillan dictatorship’s ambition for Alden’s part of the Aldainian Peninsula cannot be denied, and war is a murky business. I also approve of theft if it keeps national enemies from achieving their objectives. I even approve of subterfuge, since in the spying game, the other person is usually trying to deceive you as well.
However, breaking men’s hearts in order to beguile them out their secrets—it didn’t sit well with me. And it wasn’t mere missishness, even if that’s what certain people thought. My own mother, God rest her soul, warned me against such work.
“If you ever do become a spy, Tory,” she said once when I was fifteen, before we knew of the illness that would take her, “do try to avoid femme work if you can get out of it. And if you must accept such missions, take care that it not destroy your respect for members of the male sex, for that will certainly make it impossible for you to find true love.”
It was then that I first realized that my mother did not love my father.
Suffice to say that femme work was exactly what the directors of the Ministry had in mind for me from the moment they received my letter of application. Therefore, even though I am the very epitome of homespun and ordinary, with brown hair, brown eyes, and worst of all, freckles—I work as a femme. And I am chagrined to admit that I even have a short string of femme successes under my bonnet. Some people say that I succeed because my appearance forbids suspicion.
However, tonight I did not succeed.
In the hackney coach on the way back to Headquarters, my mentor, Miss Young, was silent. I tried not to squirm in the seat beside her. It was my first major mission failure. Every variable would be scrutinized, and cleared of blame or not, the failure would always remain in my mission profile.
“Well, Lawrence?” Young finally said. “How do you think she knew you’re a spy?”
My name was actually Victoria Lawrence—or at least, that was my alias—but the Ministry eschewed social titles.
“I’m at a loss to explain it.”
“You may have alerted her, somehow.”
I repressed a sigh. Failures were always your fault until proven otherwise. I understood the rationale for it—operatives went to great lengths to avoid them—but it didn’t make it any fairer.
However, the Ministry was not interested in fairness. Only success.
“Maybe she’s a spy, herself,” Young continued. “When we’re finished with our debriefings, you need to go through the drawings we have of all known enemy spies.”
“Bolshere or Tarquillan?” I asked.
She eyed me. “Both.”
The hack took us out of the dark warrens of West End and into the lamplit sector where the Ministry Headquarters were located. We pulled into the ministry driveway and disembarked in silence. HQ was a low, unimpressive building, with nondescript lawns and architecture. The only thing that was remarkable about it was how well-lit it was every evening. Lights shone from many of the windows.
I followed Young through the double doors into the drab front lobby, which was equipped with a desk and two straight chairs. A duty officer took note of our entrance with a scratch of his pen. Beyond him, we passed through another doorway and entered the workroom.
The workroom was a large room that took up the entire middle of the first floor. It had windows on either side, but at this time of night, was brightly lit by oil lamps. The room was crammed with rows of desks and chairs, slateboards of various sizes, filing cabinets, encryption machines, calculating engines, drafting tables, and even a small printing press. Several operatives looked up as we entered. Another duty officer sat at a desk at one end of the room, under a huge slateboard that was covered with markings.
Young walked over to a tall, blond man at the head of the room. “Bolton—we need debriefings.”
“Very well,” he said. He turned to survey the rest of the room. “Crowley, you busy?”
“Yeah.” Crowley was hunched over a decoding disk and didn’t look up.
“No, you’re not,” Bolton said. “Send that to Crypto and debrief Lawrence.” He and Young vanished down a hall.
Crowley pressed his lips, reached for a courier envelope and made out the direction in handwriting that was neat but careful, as if he had not learned to write as a child. I stood with a sense of awkwardness as I waited. I didn’t know him well, but I knew he was the natural son of some lord, and had not the sort of gentlemanly upbringing that the rest of us had. He placed the disk inside the envelope, tied it shut, and sealed the bow of the knot in wax. As I followed him past the duty officer desk, he dropped it in a bin.
He selected a windowless briefing room, closed the door, hung a lantern on a hook, and sat behind a table while waving his hand at the other chairs. I sat opposite him, by now accustomed to the casual impoliteness that existed among Ministry members. In a way, Crowley’s manners at least showed me he accepted me as a peer. I knew others did not.
I shifted. I was still a little unused to being left alone with men.
He took up a pen, peered at the tip, and grimaced. He grabbed a telescoping tube that was depending from the wall at his elbow and yanked it to him. After removing the whistle that capped the end, he blew into the tube. I heard a shriek in the workroom.
A clunk issued from the tube. “Granger,” a tinny voice said.
“Bring me a decent pen, will you?”
There was a grunt and a clunk and some faint clatter as Granger replaced the whistle on his end. A few moments later, the duty officer appeared with a tray containing pens and ink. He plunked it on the table and left without a word, closing the door behind him.
“So,” Crowley said as he picked out a pen, “tell me about your evening.”
“Well, we went to the ball—”
“I don’t know anything about your mission,” he said.
“Oh. Well, Mr. Robert Porter is a manservant who works for Lord Houghton, a Member of Parliament who oversees a secret committee on Bolshere intelligence. There’s been some evidence that Houghton’s secret might have been compromised, so the Silver Corps had Mr. Porter—along with all the servants—under surveillance. Surveillance turned up nothing, so the Ministry decided that … ahem … closer contact was necessary.”
Crowley glanced up and smirked. “And that meant you.”
“Er … yes.”
He started sharpening his pen with quick, careful flecks of his penknife. “Porter under any particular suspicion?”
“No, we’re just ruling people out at this stage.”
“This your first contact with Porter?”
“No. I met him at a neighborhood ball two weeks earlier.”
“Neighborhood ball, eh? West End?”
“Yes.” The West End was a mix of respectable and disreputable neighborhoods, all uniformly of the lower classes.
“Hmm. At those kinds of parties, everyone knows everyone else. How’d you infiltrate it?” Crowley had yet to write anything down. He was still sharpening his pen.
“Well, this older woman—”
“Names, please.” He finally dipped his pen and prepared to write.
“Miss Downey—Miss Emily Downy—took Young’s bribe to let us pose as her nieces.”
Crowley wrote, “Emily Downy – old maid in West End who takes bribes.” And then he looked at me.
“Direction to the ballroom?”
I told him the address of the ball and he noted it down. Again, he looked at me.
I stumbled for a moment, and continued. “When we found him—Mr. Porter—he was introducing his brother to a woman who had flirted with him during the previous ball.”
“His brother is Samuel Porter and the woman is Isabel Quinton. She is very beautiful—more so than any other woman there. But—” I frowned. “She didn’t really fit in. Her voice—it was too refined for that neighborhood.”
He wrote, “Isabel Quinton—eloquent West End beauty. Aristocrat down on her luck?”
I continued. “Mr. Porter noticed me and invited us to join him. We made some small talk. Then, the music started and Mr. Samuel asked me to dance.”
“Know much about Sammy?”
“He has shares in some factory. Fairly prosperous.”
He wrote, “Samuel Porter—West End beau.”
I frowned. “How do you know he’s a beau?”
“He’s a handsome chap, right? Charming?”
“I suppose. How did you know?”
“Only a man with a lot of confidence asks a woman he just met to dance. It was that, or he was a complete fool, but you didn’t seem repulsed. Did you dance?”
“Yes.” He smirked at me again, so I hastened to explain. “Mr. Porter looked frustrated—like perhaps he had intended to ask me to dance. So I thought I’d try to make him jealous. And as soon as the dance ended, Mr. Porter was right there to engage me for the next dance. While we were dancing, Young started talking to someone about the Bolshere demonstration last week, so I used it ask my cue to ask him about the Bolsheres.” I pressed my lips. “He was quite dismissive of them. Disdainful, even. He told me that Lord Houghton forbad his employees to associate with the Bolsheres, and it even sounded like Porter approved. He seems very devoted to his employer, and doesn’t seem to think much of the entire Bolshere movement.”
He wrote, “Robert Porter—loyal patsy to Lord H—or damned good Bolshere mole.”
I could bear it no longer. “Are these your official notes?”
He glanced up at me. “Of course not. I like to keep track of names in case they are useful to me one day. I’ll write up my notes later.”