The staging room is two flights up from where something like three hundred people are crammed wall to wall into the downstairs space of the Liberty Bounds pub on Trinity Square at the City’s edge, drinking strange liquids with names like Old Speckled Hen and Waggle Dance and Theakston’s Old Peculier out of pint glasses, while pausing occasionally to roar in annoyance or cheer in wild approval at something happening on the big-screen TVs. The third-floor upstairs room, however, contains nothing but a scatter of hardwood tables and chairs, and its mostly bare walls are ornamented with nothing more interesting than a selection of framed eighteenth-century cartoon prints and various posters advertising guest beers, upcoming karaoke nights, curry days and eighties revival-band dates, and other locations in the UK’s big Wetherspoon pub chain.
In the middle of the room, some of the the tables and chairs have been pushed out of the way to make an empty area about twenty feet wide. In that space stand three people unusually dressed for the early twenty-first century: two men in their very early forties, and a tall young man of sixteen or so. In the middle of the room with them, a rectangular slice of air about three feet wide and seven feet high has been talked into solidity and coaxed into the perfect reflectivity of a mirror.
The youngest of the group in the middle of the room is standing in front of the wizardly mirror and muttering under his breath, more or less constantly, as he fiddles with his clothes. At last he says loudly enough to be heard, “You think they had a higher than usual percentage of wizards in the late eighteen hundreds?”
A pause. “Haven’t seen any numbers on that recently,” says Carl under his breath as he buttons up his dark close-fitting vest over a full-sleeved white shirt with high collar and strangely-knotted dark tie. “Can’t think why the stats would be above the planetary half-millennial median, though. Why?”
“Because it has to have taken wizardry to deal with all… these… fastenings!”
Tom chuckles. “I’ll grant you, there are some things you do take for granted at our end of time. Zippers. Velcro…” A pause as he finishes buttoning the dark blue brocaded vest that just barely shows under his long high-collared dark frock coat. “And there are a few other challenges here and there in this look…” He wiggles his shoulders a little to settle the yoke of the frock coat more snugly down around his shoulders.
“Challenges?” Kit says, looking over his shoulder at his coattails. “You mean beyond the scratchy onesie underwear with buttons??”
“Mmf,” Tom says, and smiles a small understated smile. He is now, seemingly without effort, knotting up a long heavy white silk scarf into a neat set of nested pleats and tucking it into the neck of his coat over the vee of the waistcoat underneath.
“And this flap in the back…!”
“Don’t mock,” Carl says. “Unless you’re carrying scissors, you may be glad of that before the day’s out.”
Kit favors him with a florid and expressive eyeroll. Carl snorts.
“And this collar,” Kit says. “This thing’s gonna kill me. It’s sanding my Adam’s apple off.”
“Too much starch?” Tom says. “There was a variable in the costume generation template to control that. You didn’t spot that? Can’t do a thing for you if you won’t read the docs, Kit. What’s the point in wearing off-the-rack?”
Kit sighs. “My Advisories are supposed to be supportive…”
“Your Advisories,” Tom says, putting final touches to his scarf in the mirror, “are doing you a signal honor in taking you along on so high-profile and time-sensitive a maintenance run. You get to study prolonged-run management data on a very complex and delicate intervention, while getting the kind of look into your own world’s past that most wizards won’t get in the course of their practice except nonphysically.”
“Assuming my underwear doesn’t kill me first!”
“It’s fourteen minutes till the new window opens for our gate to go patent, so this is a real good time to stop whining about your underwear and deal with your coat,” Carl says. He takes his position in front of the mirror in turn as Tom steps away, brushing his long straight-fitting overcoat down before he starts to fasten it over the plain white shirt and dark trousers. “Some buttons to get dealt with there. And also on your boots.”
“Yeah. About that…”
“Whatever you do, don’t do them up crooked,” said Tom. “You have no idea how long it takes to get that straightened out.”
Kit winds up spending at least three minutes dealing with the buttons, first on his tight knee-length coat, then on his boots. And then on the coat again (as Kit finds it’s damn near impossible to deal with the boot buttons when his coat is fastened, so he has to unfasten it) and then on the boots, and then back to the coat one last time. He starts saying words under his breath in the Speech that have nothing whatsoever to do with buttons.
Somewhere down the stairs that lead to the pub’s ground floor and the restrooms on the middle level, a door creaks open, then slams shut. Moments later, from the stairway comes the sound of boots on the wooden treads. Feathers, iridescent blue feathers, are the first thing visible through the stair railings as the person climbing the stairs makes the last turn; then it’s possible to see the blue hat that the plumes partially cover. A few moments later a dark-haired woman in her early thirties or thereabouts comes up into the staging room, spectacularly arrayed in a long-sleeved, full-skirted two-piece dress of impossibly vivid peacock’s-feather blue. Hems and sleeves (puffy at the shoulder, tight at the forearm and wrist) and the detailing on the long-sleeved bodice are trimmed in black lace and tiny polished onyx beads. She has a spill of black lace at her throat, also onyx-beaded, and her hat is the same shade of blue as the lozenge-patterned shorn silk-velvet of the dress, banded and trimmed in short peacock’s tail-feather ends with the “eyes” showing. Her long dark hair is bound up at the base of her neck and contained in a metallic-blue lace snood.
“Do you work to outclass all the rest of us,” Tom says with an amused sidelong look, “or is it a natural gift? You clotheshorse you.”
Helen Walks Softly moves to join the group in the middle of the room and pauses in front of the full length mirror. She turns to look over her shoulder. “Mere jealousy,” she says. “I know the sound. So unbecoming. —Does my butt look big in this?”
It’s a joke, Kit knows, and he can’t let the straight line just lie there. “How would we know?” he says. “You’ve got that thing on top of it.”
“That ‘thing,’ wonder boy, is a bustle,” says Helen, regarding it critically over her shoulder, “and I’ll have you know it’s still the coolest thing on the block in the where and when we’re headed for. Its true purpose in that time apparently being to give men of a certain age, which I’m by no means convinced you’ve reached yet, somewhere to rest their eyes when it’s forbidden for them to actually look at my butt. The whole business is very problematic indeed, culturally speaking… but a wizard wears what she must to get the job done. So laugh along with the joke, and don’t answer your elders back.”
“Oh, absolutely not, because you’re so ancient,” Kit says under his breath.
Helen’s dark and slightly feline-tilted eyes glint with amusement as she touches her hair, setting the hat at a more perfectly rakish angle. “I’ll take that as a compliment. And here is okay. But not where we’re going.”
Kit knows this is true, though at the moment his clothes are irritating him enough that he refuses to simply fall into the behavior patterns that the work just ahead of them all will require. The five of them are going to be backtime for nearly two days, checking over the status of the gating structures and wizardries that Rhiow and the Grand Central and Tower Hill worldgating teams worked on a while back when they were sent on errantry to the Victorian era. Kit knows perfectly well that this checkup operation is vital to his own modern-day world—because if the past doesn’t stay the way it’s been reset, the future is screwed. As a result he’s been running on adrenaline for the last seventy-two hours or so while doing his homework for the backtime trip. And having hit his deadlines for every last bit of the work required of him before jumping to Grand Central to meet Nita for the transit to Tower Hill, he’s been feeling fairly smug and pleased with himself.
But that state of affairs went all to pieces seemingly within minutes—because when Kit got to GCT to meet up with Nita and discovered on his last-minute manual check that their transit destination had suddenly changed, he’d become first very confused, and then somewhat irrationally annoyed. Wait a minute. This is a big-deal piece of work. Everybody’s been drumming that into us for days! Nothing left to chance, details are everything, precision timing at all costs! And now all of a sudden out of nowhere we’re going to a pub first?
However, this particular pub (as Kit has now been instructed at some length) is not just any London boozer: it has a couple of extra things going for it. It’s just around the corner from the Tube station over at Tower Hill, where the London worldgates are situated. And its day manager, Niko, is a wizard. Niko routinely acts as informal go-between for wizards in transit and the London gate management team, and winds up serving a lot of pints to people on errantry who either missed their scheduled gatejump due to incoming congestion, or had it rescheduled out from under them at the last minute. Which, as it turns out, is exactly what’s happened to their party. The London gates are apparently famous for this kind of problem—or maybe “notorious” is a better word—due to their “direct sibling” connection to the legacy gate complex at Chur SBB in Switzerland, which periodically gets overwhelmed by incoming traffic from the Crossings. This causes both endless downstream delays in London and endless rude comparisons to British regional rail.
Normally all other routine transits through a public gate would have been scheduled many minutes to either side of a high-priority group transit with associated timeslide. But right on top of their original timing, there’d been some kind of “conflict incident” at Chur secondary to an incoming gating from the Crossings, and everything immediately turned into a complete mess.
However, Niko—a tall skinny jovial guy with a strong Bruges accent—isn’t even slightly thrown. He’s quite prepared to usher upstairs a number of people who now need the upstairs “banquet” room for their pre-transit staging, instead of the secure space that had been prepared for them over at Tower Hill and which is currently inaccessible due to the incursion of the group of transits diverted from Chur SBB. “Anybody asks me about the people I took upstairs,” he says, “I just tell them you’re heading over to do some historical thing over by the Tower.” And he laughs. “Well, it’s true….”
It takes very little time after that for everything to be reorganized—not least because two wizards of Tom’s and Carl’s rank are part of the process, and because the business they’re on is more than usually urgent. A hastily-installed four-meter-wide spell diagram now glows off to one side on the polished hardwood floorboards of the upstairs overflow room’s floor. It’s a jumplink “feeder” circle connected to the main Tower Hill gate. When they step into it and the feeder spell activates—as soon as their reschedule’s been locked down—it’ll immediately decant the group through Tower Hill Main and into the timeslide presently attached to that gate, now live and on standby (according to the remote-status indicators embedded in the spell diagram), awaiting their gating reschedule to go active. However, there’s some tension surrounding all of this, as best-practice / due-care worldgate management protocol means the main gate is now out of commission for all other transit until the timeslide’s inbound/outbound coordinate triplechecks are complete and the backtime transport has fully executed. Inward worldgating from both onplanet and offplanet sources to Tower Hill Main is therefore in suspension until the local staff confirm that the timeslide’s power-accounting stage is complete and the slide has completely executed and discharged. (After all, delays are always annoying, but dumping—for example—a crowd of harried wizardly Europe-to-US transfer commuters and a forty-strong package holiday of draconid/pythonesque Mizarthu tourists into the middle of lunchtime-rush-hour Oxford Street in 1895 is likely to give offense.) So being on time for their inlink access is now very much an issue. As if, Kit thinks, it wasn’t before.
There’s been more than enough tension about this jaunt anyway, even before the schedule went down the tubes (so to speak). Backtiming is after all one of the most sensitive kinds of intervention, and the group needs to blend in seamlessly without too much far-end wizardry being involved, so that they can keep their minds on their work. The five of them are therefore traveling as a family unit, posing as well-to-do tourists from New York—mother, father, two children and their manservant—so as to attract as little attention as possible. Recent days have been full of intensive coaching on how to manage one’s language, movement and behavior while backtiming. Accents are fortunately not too much of a problem: the vowel shift between the 1890’s and now is not a major one as far as East Coast-based Americans are concerned, and in any case all of them will be expected by the locals to sound a little strange. The wizardries they’re carrying with them will take up the slack where necessary, adjusting the way they sound to other ears if anyone from that end of time starts to become too suspicious.
As if how I sound is going to make any difference, Kit thinks, because if I don’t get myself sorted out in about two minutes, all they’ll have to do to know I’m not exactly normal is look at the buttons on my boots…!
But finally after another minute or so he’s sure these are sorted, and Kit straightens up for one last checkout run on the buttons of his own frock coat, glancing over and down when he finishes at one of the two Julian date timers embedded in the spell circle. One, synced to the timeslide wizardry proper, is dimmed down and flashing but not changing otherwise, showing that the slide is active but on hold. The second one is counting down the time to the Tower Hill gate’s patency in a little less than ten minutes. And with the realization, and his own clothes problems handled, he also realizes that they’re still one party short. “Where’s Neets?” Kit says,
“Still down in the ladies’ room,” Helen says, stroking back some of the feathers on her hat.
“She having as much trouble with this as I’ve been? Hope so.”
Helen snickers at his frustration, which Kit thinks is just unfair. “No, she was doing fine, last I saw. Just needed a couple minutes more, I think.”
“Did you give her a timecheck when you came up?” Tom says, finishing with his straightening-up and reaching over to one of the tables on the side for one of two final items: a silver-headed ebony walking stick. Kit is still trying to come to terms with the concept that this is an actual functional wand, Tom’s wand… and he remains torn between stubborn loyalty to his own wand, the unquestionably rare and unusual antenna from his dad’s Edsel, and a fierce desire to get his hands on something like that walking stick at the earliest opportunity, because it looks desperately cool.
“She had it running in her manual at the time,” Helen says. “No need.”
Downstairs, a door creaks and slams. “Last thing,” Tom says, reaching over to the table. “Don’t forget yours, Kit.”
“How could I,” he mutters, for of all the strange and constricting clothing, this is the item that bothers him the most. It feels stupid and heavy and gets in the way and forces him to stand strangely. Nonetheless he puts it on, and turns toward the stairs just as Nita reaches the lower landing. “Come on,” he says, “six minutes—”
“Plenty of time,” she says, “will you stop twitching?”— and comes up to the top of the stairs, and glances over at him… and just stops dead still, her eyes a bit wide.
It takes Kit a moment for this fact to register, because he finds that he seems to be stuck looking at her: and the issue of twitching is one that he desperately, desperately hopes cannot be observed by anyone in the room, because he feels sure it that with the right sensing equipment it could be detected from space.
Compared to what Helen is wearing, Nita’s outfit is actually fairly understated and demure. She has on a long-sleeved close-fitted jacket in some kind of heavy dove-grey satin shot all through with a soft, lustrous wavy pattern, cut with the same puffy upper sleeves as Helen’s dress; under it, there’s the same kind of ankle-length skirt, though not quite as full. The hat Nita’s wearing is smaller than Helen’s, a lot simpler, like a little flat top hat—except that the narrow, edge-rolled brim peaks sharply down over her forehead and the same in the back. It’s the same grey as the dress, but in brushed fur felt with a silvery ribbed-ribbon band, and a hackle of some kind of soft white feather is sticking up on one side, picking up the white lace at her throat.
Kit has gone hot and cold at the sight of her and has absolutely no idea why. The most striking thing about Nita’s outfit is that the dress is almost exactly the color of her eyes. And this is weird, because at first thought Kit would have expected all that mass of closely-matching color to wash her eye color out. Instead it’s made them even more grey than they were already; deeper, brighter somehow—
But the strictly cosmetic issues are quarreling with another set of observations. And this is unfair. Really unfair. Because Kit routinely sees Nita in shorts, in very short shorts, in skirts, in very short skirts. Once or twice they’ve had cause to work wearing nothing at all, which at the time could have been unnerving if either of them had had so much as a second to spare for thinking about it. But that was then, and this is now. And how is it that all of a sudden, someone having on a skirt that hides absolutely everything seems hotter than the same person wearing very little or nothing at all? How?
“No bustle?” is all Kit can think to say. And exactly two seconds later this utterance strikes him as number one on the Dumbest Questions He’s Asked Anyone Lately list.
“She doesn’t have one,” Helen says calmly, “because theoretically nobody’s supposed to be looking at her butt yet.” Her voice is surprisingly mockery-free, because if he was in Helen’s place he’d be laughing himself sick at his verbal clumsiness right now.
Kit swallows hard and looks away.
“Of course,” Helen says under her breath, almost but not inaudibly, “there’s theory, and then there’s practice.”
Kit swallows again and goes back to fidgeting with his clothes, which seems the only available save in this situation. “I really, really hate this collar,” he says under his breath, which is true enough, and is also something to say that mercifully has nothing to do with bustles, oh God how stupid did I sound just then!
What’s most peculiar, though, is that Nita is still just standing there and staring at him, and her face does not seem to be reflecting any opinions about his possible stupidity. Kit’s next thought is that she has seen, or perceived, or otherwise sensed, the one thing he really doesn’t want anyone, least of all her, to see-perceive-or-otherwise-sense, because he will simply die. However, she’s looking at his head. Nowhere lower: and not his face; his head. And she looks both stunned and very put out.
“What?” Kit finally manages to say.
“The top hat,” Nita says under her breath. “Why would it have to be a top hat?” She sounds extremely annoyed.
“Just shut up, Mr. Darcy,” Nita says, the words coming out almost as a hiss. She breaks out of her freeze and heads past Kit, over to the spell-circle, and stands there for a few moments at its edge, looking it over: the usual pre-transit check to make sure the version of her name written there in the Speech is in order. “Shut up, all right? Before I swoon. Because I refuse to swoon just now.”
Kit works far enough through his confusion to make an extremely skeptical face, because if there’s anything Nita is not, it’s the swooning type. Yet at the same time this isn’t a subject she’d normally even mention, and it’s beyond odd to hear it come up. “Seriously,” Nita is muttering, “it’s worse than it was in LA, what have I done to deserve this?”
Helen, though, is looking interested: the expression slides into amusement. “Did you say ‘Darcy?’” she says to Nita. “What’ve you been reading? Or watching.”
“Watching,” Nita says finally, scowling at herself in that mirror. “Well, reading at first. But watching, on PBS. Pride and Prejudice.”
Helen smiles slowly. “Oh, I get it,” she says. “The 1995 one?”
“I think so,” Nita says, fiddling with the lace at her throat. “With the guy who was in Mamma Mia and Shakespeare in Love? That one. It was on the reading list in English Lit. It seemed kind of stiff and stupid at first. Then, I don’t know… I started getting into the rhythm of the story. It started being funny. And then kind of sweet. And then when I saw it was on Masterpiece one night, I thought, sure, why not take a look…”
Even from this angle, Kit can see that Nita is blushing. He catches himself staring, then hurriedly looks away again, having no idea whatsoever what to make of this.
“Don’t tell me,” Helen says, lowering her head to beside Nita’s and suddenly sounding conspiratorial. “The pond scene.”
“Uh,” Nita said. “…Yeah.”
“You wouldn’t be alone. Nice chest on that guy,” Helen says. And she grins. “Best wet non-T-shirt scene of the entire Regency period.”
“But it wasn’t just that,” Nita says, sounding bemused. “It was… There was something about the clothes all the male characters were wearing. They looked really, I don’t know…”
“Good?” Helen says, reaching out to rearrange the lace ruffle at Nita’s throat a little.
“…Hot,” Nita said. “And I have no idea why. But what I really started noticing…” She laughs, and she sounds embarrassed, and Kit can’t understand it at all. “Was the hats.” And now she sounds offended again. “The hats!”
“Highly symbolic,” Carl says, straightening his own in the mirror. It’s not as tall as Tom’s, which is a tall shiny silk number; or Kit’s, a slightly shorter version of Tom’s. Carl’s hat is round-crowned, dark felt brushed down soft and matte—a high-end servant’s hat, apparently, suitable for a wealthy family’s chauffeur or valet.
“Not arguing the point,” Tom says, glancing down at the downward-counting JD timer, “but if we can finish up with the discussions of sartorial theory, people? It’s just gone a minute thirty. Last name checks, and ready for positions.”
Everyone moves around the circle, looks at the spots set out for them—Kit now understanding why Nita’s and Helen’s interior circles are significantly larger than his, Tom’s and Carl’s. He examines his name in the Speech the recommended three times and finds everything in order—no news there; after all, Tom constructed this spell diagram, and he knows what he’s doing—but to tell the truth, Kit is still kind of distracted. “Wait,” he says, looking up from his name. “Hats are symbolic?” His confusion is enough to leave him half crosseyed. “Of what?”
He doesn’t really notice the sidelong look that Tom and Carl give each other, or the expression on Helen’s face as she glances out through the staging room’s side window at the view toward the Tower, its four iron-weathervaned corner-towers visible just above a band of intervening trees and low buildings. “What do they teach them in these schools?” she says under her breath.
Any answer even slightly germane to this discussion would probably take hours, so Kit says nothing. He and Nita merely look pointedly away from each other. But it doesn’t last: a moment later they’re both looking at each other again, and then they both start laughing under their breath, because they’re both tugging at their clothes.
“Starch,” Kit mutters.
“Bloomers,” Nita says under her breath.
“Positions,” Tom says. “Step in.” And they all step carefully into their appointed interior circles. “Last confirm on positions? No arms, legs, or other necessities hanging out? Good. —Thirty seconds.” The second Julian-day time coordinate readout embedded into the spell diagram, the one synced to the execution of the timeslide, flashes into bright life from its on-hold status, and the digits on the right of the decimal point start spooling down with alarming speed.
Suddenly one more person adds herself to the equation. In the single remaining empty circle in the spell diagram—quite a small one—a black-and-white-patched cat is sitting and yawning. “Any time now,” says the youngest and most powerful of the previous London gating team, apparently on one of the this-side-of-the-water duty shifts that her secondment to the New York team implies. She glances around at them. “Let’s have this happen as scheduled this time, right? Since it’s you guys I don’t mind riding shotgun, but I’ve got a hot date for tea…”
“Sif, really?” says Helen. “Where?”
“Claridges,” Siff’hah says, licking a forepaw meditatively and rubbing one eye. “Got an in at the kitchen there—”
“Oh, Sif!” Helen says. “Begging for scraps? Really.”
Siff’hah pauses in mid-scrub and favors Helen with a wide-eyed look and snorts, a sound slightly like a feline sneeze. “Begging? Me? As if. Can’t help it if all those overly diet-conscious teatime ehhif won’t finish the clotted cream that comes with their scones. I’m just helping keep entropy from increasing locally.” She licks both sides of her mouth, a gesture of relish that Kit judges to have nothing to do with her washing. “You know Queen Iau weeps if someone wastes clotted cream…” She finishes with her wash, drops her jaw in a grin. “Timeslide’s running, so turn your phones off—”
“And put your tray tables in the upright position…” Kit mutters.
“Smartarse,” Siff’hah says, amused. “Ten seconds.”
“Circle’s firing,” Tom says. “It’s show time—!”
The initial effect of a working custom gating circle—that sense of the universe leaning in to listen to the words formerly trapped in the spell diagram and now being released—starts to set in around them, with the additional skin-scraping edginess of a timeslide coming up to speed. Partly swallowed in that growing silence as the circle links in to the Tower Hill gate and synchs up with it, Kit hears Helen say (leaning over to her) in Nita’s ear: “Anyway, just wait till you hit Sense and Sensibility and see the Darcy clone in that one.”
“The guy who did Severus Snape.”
Nita’s eyes go wide and her eyebrows go up.
Kit clears his throat and adjusts his hat to what he considers a jauntier angle.
Nita narrows her eyes at him, a thoughtful look… and grins. “I’ll get around to him sooner or later,” she says under her breath. “Present company’s got an advantage. It’s not scripted.”
And then the room is empty.
(Because some of you will want to see it: Colin Firth in the far-famed Wet Shirt Scene.)
And here is Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. Marvelous as always (and they give him some super hats to wear as well).