A group of historical reenactors travel back to 1806 and send four confused contemporaries into the future in their place.
LADY JOSEPHINE BRANSCOMBE, widow of Geoffrey Branscombe (killed in action against Napoleon in Prussia), who would rather have her husband here than honour in his stead. Tired of the war and its blind patriotism in 1806, she has no desire to be blindly pulled into another.
CAPTAIN HENRY FITZWILLIAM of His Majesty's Royal Navy, currently on furlough after a traumatic incident in battle and avoiding the conversation with himself about what to do if he can't take command again. Already facing an existential crisis,he finds himself at a loss as to how he can make himself useful in a society where he has no purpose.
LIEUTENANT ARTHUR BENJAMIN HARDING, upwardly-mobile cavalry officer and ladies' man, recently distinguished in battle after a mad charge led his outfit to victory. Well used to the company and adulation of European women, he discovers that in the future he's as aesthetically appealing to them as Neanderthals to him.
LORD GEORGE BYRON, age 19, just published his first anonymous set of poems, and only beginning to set foot down the road to fame. Recently cowed into destroying almost all copies of his original poetry collection by a disapproving critic, he faces the knowledge of a lifetime of art and infamy he'll never get to experience.
Thrust into the future with no way back, forced to assimilate new languages, cultures, technology, and biology, in a society embroiled in a war with echoes of the one they just escaped, the four must rediscover who they are, and on what side of the battle line they choose to stand.
Between two worlds life hovers like a star,
'Twixt night and morn, upon the horizon's verge.
How little do we know that which we are!
How less what we may be!
-- from Byron, Don Juan (1824) canto 15, st. 99
At times, Josephine felt that she could almost accept Bonaparte's taking over Britain, if it meant an end to odious dinners. She should, of course, reprimand herself for such an unpatriotic thought, but could not find enough sincerity in herself to make such a matter ring true, not even in privacy. Nothing wrong with patriotism, of course; all good people were patriotic, nowadays, including her dear Geoffrey, but patriotism, like a young mistress who had a list a tailor's yard in length of other suitors, took much and returned very little. Her Geoffrey had been patriotic to a fault, and given his country his heart, his soul, his life. Patriotism rewarded him for his passion with a posthumous Barony.
Some days, Josephine thought she could bear all else -- constant reports and countless rumours of battles lost and allies ground underfoot; of Prussia and Turkey and Spain; of her best maidservant collapsed in the drawing room at the news of her brother's new permanent residence at the bottom of the sea, his final wardrobe a blanket with a pound of shot at his feet -- save the dinners.
Josephine would rather go into battle, face the blood and sweat and smoke, than sit through another meal with a beatific smile, showing all that yes, she grieved for her husband, but moreso did she glow with pride at his glorious sacrifice -- nay, tribute to duty -- and that Bonaparte could not dampen her spirit; that through her strength shone the true power of England, unbowed and unbroken. Better to take a sabre in the breast and die, as Geoffrey had, than to sit at a table filled with people she despised or, at best, could muster nothing more than indifference.
Ridiculous talk, she knew, for someone of her position; the sort of idle fantasy that a well-bred woman who'd never seen an honest day's work in all her forty-three years, at least not by the standards of those who judged employment by dirt under the fingernails or blood on a blade. Josephine had no right to make those sorts of statements, not even to herself. Even Geoffrey, who tolerated her disapproval of the war with the casual disregard of a man loyal to both wife and country, would have frowned at that.
Josephine curled her fingers around the stem of her glass and lifted it to her mouth, only just allowing the wine to touch her lips. Around her, the conversation flowed as easily as a well-choreographed dance; even as she despised formal dinners, Josephine could not allow herself to plan a bad one. She had coordinated the guest list and seating arrangements for maximum efficiency at a gathering such as this -- a small, intimate party on New Year's Eve. None of Josephine's close friends sat around her table tonight, but then, all of them had parties of their own to host.
"It's a right and proper shame, that's what it is." Lord Marchmain had not set foot on a battlefield in his life, but one would not guess the fact to hear him speak. "For the Prussians to turn tail and run like that -- well, it's downright disgraceful. I only wish we'd had more of our people in there to help. We'd've given the Corsican a right drubbing, isn't that right, Fitzwilliam!"
Josephine's gaze flicked across the table. Captain Henry Fitzwilliam of His Majesty's Royal Navy, the only concession to her carefully-crafted list of attendees, stiffened. Only the slightest upward movement of his shoulders, quickly reconciled, but Josephine recognised reflexive displeasure when she saw it. On furlough after a traumatic experience in battle a year prior, Fitzwilliam's presence at the party represented a small risk, as Josephine could not accurately predict whether he could carry on the necessary conversation with full aplomb, but he had suffered a great loss. Josephine could not allow him to usher in the new year on his own simply because his pain made him an unpredictable dinner guest.
Fitzwilliam allowed himself a moment to compose a reply, ostensibly admiring the way the candlelight struck the wine in his glass. "It is difficult to say," he said, his voice measured. Josephine admired his restraint. As a civilian and a woman, she had the courtesy to remain silent on matters of tactics; Lord Marchmain had never been so circumspect. "Whatever his faults, Bonaparte is an extremely skilled opponent on land. He has not our Navy, of course, and he is no true sailor, but that has not stopped him. On the ground, of course, he remains a formidable force. I do not blame the Prussians for their defeat, however unfortunate it may be."
Marchmain wrinkled his nose as though he did not much like that reply. He was spared the trouble of crafting a reply, however, as the young man down the table did so for him.
"Well, I like that!" Arthur Benjamin Harding -- young, brash, and up-and-coming, from a family that evidently thought well enough of their prodigy to grant him with a second name -- snorted, but in a friendly manner. "The Prussians were weak, and that's all there is to it. We showed the little Corporal just last week what happens when he goes up against the lions of England, hey? Turned tail and ran, they did, and they'll do so again, I dare say!"
Fitzwilliam acknowledged the point with a nod and a small smile, an expression Josephine well recognised. No, Fitzwilliam, with his shadowed eyes, his pallor and his nearly-untouched food, did not make the safest addition to the party, but she welcomed his presence. Even if he said nothing, she felt he understood, at least a little.
Harding, heaven bless him, did not, being as he was the golden boy of England, recently promoted to Lieutenant after leading his outfit in the cavalry in a surprise charge that routed Bonaparte's army and forced them to cede the Plains of Lyons. Young and invincible, at least until he inevitably got himself killed in the next year. Josephine thought him utterly ridiculous, but charming in a self-destructive way. Speaking with Harding felt very much akin to staring into an open flame.
"It's all terribly exciting." Miss Emily Dormand, seated next to Fitzwilliam, gave an ostentatious shiver. "All those battles. Were you really nearly drowned on a sinking ship, Mr. Fitzwilliam?"
This time the tension in Fitzwilliam's shoulders did not ease immediately. Josephine raised a hand and signalled a server to refill Fitzwilliam's glass, give him a moment to collect himself. "Yes," he said, at last.
"It must be perfectly thrilling, nearly to drown like that." Miss Dormand pressed on, and Josephine bit back a sharp retort. If the young lady were her daughter she could at least be reprimanded, but as it stood, Josephine could not interrupt without seeming rude, not just yet. "I wish it could happen to me -- that is, as long as I knew I would be rescued." She lowered her head and glanced up at Fitzwilliam, her gaze carefully innocent and entirely coquettish in its apparent lack of artifice.
Fitzilliam's smile stretched, cloth pulled too tight over a weaver's loom before the fabric gave way. "Let's hope it never does," he said, his tone solicitous, but only just. "I cannot recommend the experience, Miss Dormand."
She did not simper or sulk -- well-bred ladies did not sink so low; such methods were reserved for social climbers, and Miss Dormand, daughter of an 8th Duke, had nowhere left to climb -- but her demeanour changed, just slightly. She shifted her weight away from Fitzwilliam and toward Lord Marchmain, who had money to match his rather formidable personal collection of years. Harding, the son of a merchant, or so Josephine gathered, likely did not factor in Miss Dormand's calculations.
"Can't say I'd fancy it either," Harding spoke up, either missing or ignoring the tone of the room. "Can't abide water, myself. Give me good, solid ground under my feet any day. I'd rather risk a sabre to the gut than trust the wind and the waves. Don't know how you manage, Fitzwilliam."
He doesn't, you young fool; not anymore, Josephine thought, rather uncharitably. Just as she opened her mouth to ask Harding to recount his exploits on the field -- a topic sure to occupy him and the others for some time hence -- Worthington appeared at Josephine's side.
"A young man to see you, madam," he said. "Your nephew, Percy Derwin of Lancaster. He apologises for the hour, and asks if he might intrude upon you for dinner. Shall I send him away?"
Josephine permitted a small frown to crease her brow. Her nephew, Percy, as far as she knew, attended school somewhere in the north, and had not come to Cornwall since boyhood. The last time they met, he'd worn short trousers. "No, show him in, and have Lucy set another place for dinner." Percy, as far as Josephine recalled, was an inoffensive, if somewhat silly, young man, fond of horses and architecture. His addition should not disrupt the party, and he must have a reason for travelling so far at this time of night.
"Please excuse the interruption." Josephine folded her napkin and placed it next to her plate. "It seems my nephew Percy will be joining us this evening. He's a student, at Trinity College, I believe."
Miss Dormand brightened; Harding, briefly interested at the mention of an addition to the party, lost interest at the word 'student', having gone directly into the military at the age of twelve. Fitzwilliam did not react, instead staring at nothing. Lord Marchmain made a brief, perfunctory grunt of politeness.
"Mr. Derwin, madam." Worthington reappeared, then withdrew after announcing Percy to the room.
"I'm dreadfully sorry for the intrusion," Percy said, still standing in the doorway. "Only, I was on my way to visit some of my friends when my horse threw his shoe, and I happened to be near your estate. I'm so sorry, Aunt, but I couldn't think of what else to do."
"Not at all." Josephine smiled. His befuddlement and genuine embarrassment was a relief after listening to calculated responses at every other time of day. She stood to receive him, rounding the table and holding out a hand in greeting.
Josephine did not give much stock to her training as a lady of quality, but she thanked it now. True, she had not seen Percy in over a decade, but she remembered him well enough. The youth that stood in front of her, snow melting on his dark hair and in his long, almost girlish, lashes, was not Percy.
"It's a pleasure to have you," Josephine continued, holding out her arm. Back at the table, a new place setting had already been laid out, next to Harding. She led the young man to the table and nodded, indicating he should take his seat. "Everyone, allow me to present my nephew, Percy Derwin."
The boy made his leg in the most gentrified fashion, and Josephine hid a smile. Whatever his reasons for assuming her nephew's identity, this young man had at least provided Josephine's evening with enough intrigue to last her until her other guests departed.
Fitzwilliam regarded the newcomer, a handsome young gentleman with nervous hands and dark curls swept back from his forehead in a dramatic widow's peak, and mustered a smile. In the back of his mind, Fitzwilliam heard his mother's voice, hard vowels and staccato consonants as she chided him for such a discourteous greeting, but young Derwin hardly noticed. He couldn't have been out in society, not for very long, for he could not keep his gaze still as it flicked about the room. Not the expression of a country boy awed by estate riches -- Fitzwilliam knew that look well enough -- but one not at ease with his company. Not unreasonable, given his unceremonious entrance.
Or perhaps the hesitation was mere self-consciousness; Fitzwilliam, at sea since early childhood, noticed in Derwin's gait the low rolling of a man aboard a ship. Since Derwin had not come recently by sea and could not still be adjusting to a recent shift to unmoving Earth, Fitzwilliam realised the boy must be attempting to hide a deformity -- a clubfoot, most likely. As soon as the thought crossed his mind, Fitzwilliam's ears burned with shame for noticing what Derwin obviously took great pains to hide.
"A cousin to Lady Branscombe; how fascinating." Miss Dormand rested her chin upon two bent fingers, fixing Derwin with a bright smile. "What brings you to Cornwall, Mr. Derwin?"
"We're on holiday at Trinity College," Derwin explained, some of the tension easing from his body now that he had seated. He plucked his fork from the table with long, pale fingers. "Some of my school fellows went home to visit their families, and I thought I should come see them."
"And he's a Cambridge man, as well!" Miss Dormand did not quite clap her hands together in girlish glee, but Fitzwilliam felt it a near thing. At the head of the table, Lady Branscombe regarded the girl with the sort of enforced patience Fitzwilliam recognised in women long married and past the need for such games. "Tell me, how do you find it?"
A small smile passed over Derwin's face. "Sufficiently diverting," he said. "A friend of mine keeps a bear, which manages to be a constant source of entertainment."
"Good God, a bear?" Lord Marchmain huffed. "Surely the college cannot allow such a thing."
"It does indeed forbid pets, such as dogs," Derwin agreed, "but the rules do not specifically forbid bears, and as such my friend has been permitted to maintain its residence, albeit grudgingly."
Harding released an appreciative chuckle at that, slapping Derwin on the shoulder with enough force to knock him forward, his nose scant inches from his pudding. Fitzwilliam, who could not look at Harding, his young face tanned and beaming, fresh with the blood of youth and the taste of victory without the taint of loss, glanced aside.
A servant, nearly invisible at Fitzwilliam's elbow, reached across and refilled Fitzwilliam's water glass, which had seen much more use than his wine. Transfixed, Fitzwilliam watched the roil of liquid and bubbles as the water poured into the container, nary a drop spilled.
He remembered water, gallons and gallons of it, more than the world could drink in a lifetime, but choked with salt. He remembered the noise, muffled by the sea yet still as loud as a thousand drums as the ship creaked and cracked and split beneath him and fire burned above. The weight of his clothing, his boots, his sabre, doing their best to drag him down. The white face of his first lieutenant, scrabbling beneath him as Fitzwilliam fought to untangle a cannon rope from around the man's leg before the heaving waves tore them apart. The burning in his lungs, the roar in his head, the pressure in his chest -- he couldn't breathe, not then, not now --
"-- battle, you see, Trafalgar last year --"
" -- all right in a minute, you'll see --"
" -- must be terrible, poor man --"
Fitzwilliam sucked in air with a gasp, recalling himself to his senses and to the utter shame of such a display in the same moment. "I do apologise," he gasped, as soon as he was able. "Lady Branscombe, do forgive me."
A servant pressed a cool cloth into Fitzwilliam's hand, but he shook his head. It would not do to accept such palliatives, even after being so thoroughly emasculated by an incident such as this. Over a year had passed since Trafalgar, since Fitzwilliam lost his ship, his command, his friends. Not an insignificant loss, by any means, and the Admiralty had awarded him full pay for the first six months instead of a furloughed officer's customary half, but the time for such indulgences had passed.
"Pray do not trouble yourself, Captain Fitzwilliam." Lady Branscombe favoured Fitzwilliam with a smile, and in the expression Fitzwilliam saw the sorrow of one who had seen death, but passed the accepted time to grieve. A general's wife carried as much of the burden as any soldier, in a way.
Fitzwilliam managed to return the expression, though he felt the skin of his face heat with humiliation. "My apologies, everyone. I hope I did not put you off your meals."
"Not at all. Perfectly natural." Lord Marchmain waved a hand, the magnanimous benefactor in someone else's home. "I'm sure it happens to the best of us, hey?"
"Not to me!" Harding attacked his next course with the relish of a man used to short commons. "Then again, I suppose that sort of thing comes with defeat, so I wouldn't know."
"Let's give thanks for that and not tempt fate, shall we, Lieutenant?" Josephine reproached him mildly.
Fitzwilliam swallowed hard, all pretence at appetite lost. He could not spend the remainder of the evening staring at his plate, however, so he forced himself to raise his gaze. It met the sharp, dark stare of Percy Derwin, studying Fitzwilliam with undisguised curiosity and something deeper, raw, almost resembling hunger. Fitzwilliam recognised the look; young, idealistic individuals who romanticised the war while never setting foot outside their schools. He doubted -- unless God saw fit to bless them with such luck as He'd bestowed upon Harding -- that such seduction could hold sway after a few days pressed knee-to-knee with comrades in the ditch, or picking weevils from a ship's biscuit.
Something in Fitzwilliam's stare must have unnerved Derwin, for he broke his gaze and turned to the company instead. "Have any of you friends or relations at Trinity?" he asked. "There was something of a scandal recently, if you have not heard."
"Ooh, we do love a good scandal; pray tell us." Miss Dormand sat up straight in her chair, her eyes fixed on Derwin. "It's been dreadfully quiet in Cornwall, you know."
Derwin smiled. "I didn't see a copy myself -- they'd all been destroyed before then -- but I heard that someone at the college released an anthology of poems, but that they were so inappropriate that the local reverend ordered them burnt."
"Too amorous for any good Christian to lay eyes upon," Derwin said, eyes wide and cheeks flushed with the thrill of gossip. Fitzwilliam, the vices of such idle chatter beaten out of him before he was of an age to appreciate them, allowed himself to drift.
"Oh, well, poetry, you know." Marchmain flicked an imaginary piece of dirt from his shoulder, a dismissive gesture. "It's all codswallop, really. This tree is my lady's eyes, you know, this deer is her shapely loins. Stuff and nonsense."
Derwin sat up straight in his seat, clearly incensed. Fitzwilliam no more cared to withstand a debate about poetry than he did to hear Lord Marchmain wax eloquent on naval matters, and prepared himself for a long night of nodding at the right point in the conversation. At least navy men were not expected to be the bright spot in any conversation.
Before Derwin's no doubt elegantly crafted riposte had the chance to leave his lips, another servant entered the room, stopping next to Lady Branscombe's side and inclining in a small bow. Fitzwilliam caught the small flash of irritation that wrinkled Lady Bramscombe's brow for the briefest of moments before she returned her expression to one of polite neutrality.
"It appears we have some revelers at the doorstep," Lady Branscombe announced. She touched her lips with her linen napkin before placing it on the table and rising to her feet. The gentlemen automatically stood to match her, and Miss Dormand soon followed. "Shall we move to the parlour and greet them?"
"I must say, I'm a little surprised to find revelers out here," Marchmain remarked to Miss Dormand. "I can't remember the last time someone came a-wassailing to my door. I suppose that's all the rage at Cambridge, hey?"
Derwin nodded. "Amongst some fellows, yes, though I have not partaken myself."
Lady Branscombe drew level with Fitzwilliam, and he held out his arm to escort her. "I hope you don't mind me inviting you this evening," she said, her voice pitched low, but not suspiciously so. "I felt the dinner's company could use some tempering, and I do enjoy our talks."
"As do I, my Lady."
Lady Brandscome squeezed Fitzwilliam's elbow, then withdrew to lead the party once more.
Fitzwilliam had only met Lady Branscome a few times before Trafalgar -- women were notorious bad luck on ships, and while Fitzwilliam did not consider himself a particularly superstitious man, he felt it best not to upset the rest of the men. Only after he'd been removed from active duty and attempted to integrate himself back into mainland society had he come across the then-Mrs. Branscombe and her quiet, unfettered charm. In a world that shifted beneath him as sure as the sea had done, Fitzwilliam found Mrs. Branscombe's solemnity an odd comfort. She never confided in him after the death of her husband, not as such, but Fitzwilliam nevertheless felt a kinship between them.
They could not meet as often as he would like, of course -- she, respectable and recently widowed; himself, a bachelor of two and thirty -- but nevertheless, Fitzwilliam hoped he did not overstep his bounds by considering the two of them as friends.
They reached the drawing room, and Lady Branscombe bade them sit with a wave of her hand. With a nod to the manservant at the door, she invited the revelers to enter. Six figures, their cloaks and hoods mottled with dark patches that bespoke the snow that had dusted their shoulders, swept into the room. Their leader stopped in front of Lady Branscombe and favoured her with a deep, almost theatrical bow.
"Good e'en, my lady," he announced, his voice full of pomp, and familiar in a way that Fitzwilliam could not quite identify. "I hope we find you well."
"Indeed, good sir." Lady Branscombe dipped her head. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"
"We hope, with your Ladyship's permission, to join your party for the evening." The man's voice twisted, then, took a turn for the dark that Fitzwilliam did not much savour. "And for a while longer, if the fates be willing."
Fitzwilliam frowned. Lady Branscombe's expression did not change in any outward sense, but her entire demeanour shifted, dropping the temperature of the room by a few degrees. Out of habit, Fitzwilliam dropped a hand to his side, where his sabre no longer rested against his hip. He hissed under his breath.
"I say, what is the meaning of this?" Lord Marchmain demanded, full of bluster. "You ought to introduce yourself like proper gentlemen, not go around spouting nonsense like a passel of fools."
"Of course. How foolish of me." The man stepped forward and, with a flick of the wrists, threw his hood back to his shoulders. Fitzwilliam swallowed a shout of surprise, for he now realised why the man's voice tickled the back of his mind like an unbidden memory. His own face stared back at him, but wearing a haughty, self-confident expression alien to Fitzwilliam's features. "I am Captain Henry Fitzwilliam. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"I beg your pardon?" Fitzwilliam -- the sitting Fitzwilliam, the disappointing one who'd been boring everyone all through dinner, not the dashing chap in the cloak who looked like he knew where to find the good taverns -- licked his lips. His hand strayed to his side, but as he'd gone soft -- or maybe they'd taken all sharp objects away, like for a mother who lost her baby -- he no longer carried his sword. "I'm sorry, I must have been mistaken."
Trust a navy man to stand there stammering when the impossible happened. Harding rolled his eyes and got to his feet. He did not have his pistol, as apparently this made for a poor formal dinner atmosphere, but they allowed his sabre, thank God. How the etiquette masters expected Britain to defend herself when Napoleon rode up to the table and demanded a share of the dessert -- ask him round for tea and hope he didn't care for scones?
Harding rested his palm on the grip of his sabre and rocked back on his heels. Fitzwilliam would burst into tears and begin reliving his near-drowning experience as soon as things got hairy, no doubt; Lord Marchmain, Harding fully expected to hide under the armoir. Lady Branscombe, from the looks of her, could probably take a man out if she got her hands on a heavy candlestick; even now she glanced around the room as though looking for a weapon. Harding moved her up a notch in his mental estimation. He didn't expect much from Miss Dormand, the sort of lady who'd turn up her nose at a soldier on half-pay but gladly lift her skirts for a rich fossil without the working parts to get the job done.
"You're not mistaken," said other-Fitzwilliam, and something about his accent -- just a little bit too perfect, too studied -- sent off warning bells in Harding's head. "I am Henry Fitzwilliam, or at least, I am as far as it's relevant to all of you. My companions may interest you, also."
The others stepped into the room and dropped their hoods one by one, an unnecessary bit of dramatics in Harding's opinion, and one that probably meant they'd be easier to take in a fight than they wanted people to think. Nobody bothered faffing about with cloaks and speeches when they could slide a knife into someone's ribs. Even more ridiculous, since other-Fitzwilliam had made such a production of it, Harding knew exactly what to expect from the man's friends -- and so did the others. No one fainted from shock or clutched at their throats when the number of identical pairs in the room doubled.
Harding grinned when his own duplicate revealed himself. Surely the universe must have some law against so much handsomeness in such a confined space, even though the other him was most likely a demon or some such -- unless he had drunk more wine than he realised. His double shifted into a ready stance, hand on a matching sabre, but it didn't take a military genius -- of which Harding definitely was -- to recognize that the motion was rehearsed, not natural. This other him could hold a sword, but he'd got the knowledge from reading books, not actual combat.
Fitzwilliam apparently noticed this, for the look of stupid confusion vanished from his face, replaced by something that looked as though it might actually be found on a man of action, decorated in dozens of battles, not the weeping sponge Harding had seen at dinner. Well, good to know the country hadn't been entirely duped by Fitzwilliam's dubious charm.
"Wait a minute!" Miss Dormand's voice trilled in the silence. "That's not Mr. Derwin. Why is he different?"
"Because the gentleman at our table is not my nephew," Lady Branscombe replied coolly. "Someone is mistaken."
Harding blinked and searched the group in front of him, and sure enough, each of them matched one of the dinner guests save one. Not a total lack of resemblance -- the hair colour matched, as did the aristocratic nose that likely spoke of a family that preferred to keep things in the family, if Harding could be permitted to turn a phrase. Derwin turned pale -- paler, anyway, already having the pasty skin of an academic that would probably spook at the idea of riding a horse or drawing a carbine.
People were going to start thinking soon. Harding imagined his companions' minds turning, beginning to question everything, ask how and why and what and god knew what else, when none of that mattered. When dealing with something that seemed impossible, Harding knew of only one solution: charge at it, preferably with something sharp, and either it moved out of the way or found itself impaled.
Harding muttered something rude under his breath. He shot a look at Fitzwilliam, who answered with a slight nod, his expression now fully intent and almost feral, in a controlled kind of way. Good. Marchmain just kept blustering, demanding to know who was responsible and what is the meaning and did they know who he was, and finally Harding charged just so someone would shut the damn man up.
Harding ran at the figure closest to him, the other-Marchmain. He had little time for wealthy blowhards likely to blow off their own foot as actually hit a target, and even if this stranger had only assumed the man's identity, Harding still enjoyed a rush of satisfaction as his fist connected with the man's fleshy face. He felt the delicate nose bones give beneath his hand, and his opponent dropped, bleeding and howling.
A little spat in a dowager's parlour could hardly compare to the dirt and sweat and blood of the battlefield, but Harding's blood rose all the same. He loved parties, but he loved fighting more; he only wished more occasions would combine the two. Across the room, Fitzwilliam grappled with himself; he wrested the sabre from his double, only to pause and stare at it in confusion. Harding realised the other weapon was imitation, flimsy steel or suchlike, incapable of doing real damage. What sort of idiot brought a non-functional weapon to a confrontation, anyway? Fortunately Fitzwilliam didn't burst into tears, but instead used the hilt -- heavy enough, thank god -- to deliver a blow to his opponent's head.
After that Harding could spare no time to watch, as his other self ran at him. As he had not even broken a sweat, Harding hoped that at least the other man's studied combat attempts would provide even the slightest challenge, but alas. He dispatched the man in what felt like seconds. Harding grunted in disgust and wiped his hands on his trousers. If things didn't improve, he would have to hit a tavern on the way home and pick a fight with a drunkard.
A squeal cut through the room, and Harding looked up from the crumpled forms on the floor. One Miss Dormand held the other with an arm around the throat, pressing a small metal cylinder into the soft flesh of the throat. The prisoner fainted, causing the other to stagger for a moment at the sudden deadweight, but not enough to dislodge her.
"You're all to step back, or I will kill her," the other Miss Dormand ordered, her voice flat as steel. Harding found himself wishing this version were the one he'd met earlier this evening; he could imagine a very entertaining night with a woman who could handle a weapon. "We didn't plan to kill anyone, but all we need for the transfer is your bodies. It'll work just as well if you're not breathing."
All nonsense, of course. Harding had extensive knowledge of weaponry from all over Europe, and while the French were developing a smaller pistol that they hoped would replace the sabre in close combat some time in the next decade, no one could cram the necessary powder into something that small. He wondered who'd told this woman that everyone in this room was an idiot, if she thought she could fool them with a piece of piping.
"So kill her." Harding shrugged. Marchmain gave a shout, and Fitzwilliam's eyes bugged out of his face as though Harding had stepped on a baby. Harding ignored them. Lady Branscombe, at least, seemed to have reached a similar conclusion as Harding, for she did not argue, merely fixing the other Dormand with a long stare. Harding made a mental note. Perhaps there was a little May-December in his future, at least for a time being. Widows must get lonely.
"You think I'm joking," the other Dormand said. She pressed the metal farther into Dormand's neck.
"I don't think you're joking, but I do think you're stupid." Harding shrugged. "There are a thousand Miss Dormands in the country. We shan't miss her." If the woman actually had carried a real weapon, his strategy would not have changed much. Women did not have the stuff to shoot someone in the head; any woman frightened enough to fire usually aimed somewhere less personal, the chest or the limbs. A woman would not want to shoot another woman in any case, not without a love affair gone wrong somewhere, and Harding figured she would much rather fire upon a man who antagonised her. Had she carried a real pistol, he would have enticed her to shift her aim to him, which would allow Fitzwilliam to disarm her in an inevitably gentlemanly and apologetic fashion.
"Clearly." This time, the woman's tone shifted, from exasperation to determination, and Harding felt a flicker of warning. Perhaps she carried a knife as well? Perhaps her senses had fled completely, leaving with the cold rationale of any man capable of murder. Harding hissed a breath and moved forward, intending to draw her attention while Fitzwilliam, behind her, slowly inched closer.
The other Dormand made an irritated noise in her throat and moved her hand; a sound like twanging wire muffled by a blanket emerged from the device in her hand, and Miss Dormand slumped to the ground, ashen. Marchmain, finally startled out of his stupor, gave a shout of rage and rushed forward; the remaining Dormand calmly lifted her hand and fired the impossible weapon again. Marchmain collapsed.
"Check their bodies if you like," she said, voice even with a hint of annoyance. She sounded, Harding thought somewhat hysterically, like a teacher disappointed that her students could not figure out a simple problem. "You'll find they're quite dead. I do need one of you to be alive, at least, so the sensors can lock on properly, but other than that, I can kill you all if you try anything again." She turned to one of her companions -- the not-quite-Derwin. "Temporal lock, now."
Harding found himself struggling to breathe. Ridiculous, really, when he'd killed dozens of Frenchmen at close combat, seen a man's head cleaved from his shoulders right in front of him, but he'd never seen a woman killed, not like that. A small voice reminded him it was his fault she died, for taunting the woman, but Harding brushed it away. He had no time for guilt and recriminations now; they did not suit him at the best of times, and even less with bodies on the floor.
The two women kept their weapons trained, other-Dormand shifting between Harding and Fitzwilliam while other-Branscombe watched the other two. Their not-Derwin shuffled around the room, placing strange devices, the like of which Harding had never seen, at various spots in some sort of pattern. He fiddle with one of the little metal spheres, and not-Dormand snapped at him. This time she used a language Harding did not understand, and which he had not heard in any of his travels.
Witchcraft, it had to be. Harding could handle one or two impossibilities without collapsing -- he just filed them away for later, to deal with when he had a bracing spot of brandy as reinforcement. He'd accepted the presence of doppelgangers for now, as the whys of their existence mattered less than what they were planning to do. A propulsion weapon that needed no powder, no reloading, and could be concealed in the palm, Harding could have met with curiosity and interest, in another situation. Both together, combined with this new devilry, beat at the edges of his reasoning until he felt as battered and confused as Fitzwilliam when confronted with a carafe of water.
Lady Branscombe, at least, did not look frightened, only angry, the kind of cold fury that Harding admired in military men. She did not look afraid to die; perhaps she thought she would at last meet her husband, if nothing else. Poor Derwin, hiding behind Fitzwilliam, breathed in ragged gasps. No doubt he was composing a glorious epitaph for himself at that very moment.
Not-Dormand said something else in her language to other-Branscombe, and marched forward. Still holding her weapon steady at Harding's head, she pulled a thick metal circlet, encrusted with various blinking accoutrements, from the folds of her dress and clapped it over Harding's wrist. It closed around his sleeve and clicked shut; she stepped back before Harding could register what happened and make an attempt to strike. Satisfied, she moved and did the same to Fitzwilliam and Lady Branscombe.
Other-Derwin finished his job and hastened back to the middle of the room. He fished another weapon from his pockets and joined other-Branscombe in keeping watch.
Harding's mind spun. He could not conceive of what their plan might be, nor the purpose of these various devices, completely alien to him. None of his normal approaches to conflict could avail him now.
The final circlet snapped into place around Derwin's wrist, and suddenly a mechanical screeching filled the room. Harding clapped his hands over his ears out of reflex; Fitzwilliam, used to the roar of cannons aboard decks, did not, but he jumped all the same. Derwin released an unmanly shriek and held his arm away from him, as though he could remove association from his own limbs.
The strangers paled, clearly understanding the import of the hullaballoo better than Harding or his companions; other-Dormand began shouting at the others, not in anger but in warning, and other-Derwin abandoned his weapons, pulling out two more circlets and rushing for the corpses of Miss Dormand and Lord Marchmain. Harding used this chance to run; he found Lady Branscombe's hand and pulled her after him, and near him he saw Fitzwilliam find Derwin and do the same.
Behind them, not-Dormand continued to give orders, at least until the world exploded -- first in light, then sound, then pain, then, finally, darkness.