Grantabridge, Brythion 1870
It wasn’t hard to determine why so many of the members of the Shadowed Sword seemed to be stuck in the past. The grey stone walls of the chamber were decorated with more swords than one could possibly imagine, from dueling rapiers to broadswords and everything in-between. It was like standing in the middle of an armory from the medieval ages in so many ways. It’s no wonder that the society’s motto was lost to its current members.
“I just cannot believe you don’t see that the Shadowed Sword has strayed from its purpose. I mean, just look at the motto.” I pointed to the wall with the words Seek Knowledge carved into it, ignoring all the swords surrounding the words we were supposed to live by. “It doesn’t say Seek Those with Societal Status, or Only Lords Allowed, or Enter All Those with Power. It says Seek Knowledge. The implication is knowledge is everywhere and we should try to find it wherever we can.”
“Edmund, you may be a future Duke, but you have a sad misunderstanding of the world. Why would we want to let anyone but the highest echelons of society into the Shadowed Sword? It is secret for a reason.”
“Because that’s how this society was meant to be.” I turned away from my companion; I might as well be speaking to the chamber walls for all the good it would do. I couldn’t stop myself, though. Turning back so I could read his expressions, I continued on, knowing this conversation was a repeat of past discussions and would be had again in the future. “Adding intelligent individuals from every social class isn’t going to make it less secret. In fact, go read the original member lists. There were professors, tutors, writers, and businessmen. It was so much more than just another men’s club of elite society. I doubt you’ve noticed, but high society is not always the most intelligent or forward thinking. The discussions they must have had before, the philosophical pursuit—the impressions they left on society because actual topics that affected the country were discussed here. Now we have the likes of Lord Bradbury, who can’t even string two words together unless it’s about horseflesh or gambling.” I needed to calm down. Arguments were never as effective when one was hot under the collar. And I, Edmund Fremont, the next Duke of Nordaoine, was nothing if not effective.
My companion looked at me, and I knew he was contemplating my brown skin and black hair. My status as a future duke was the only thing preventing him from actually uttering the contempt he felt for me. He had never done anything about it. But I could see it in his eyes, in the way he clenched his fists as I spoke, as if he was contemplating hitting me at all times. He hated that I had enough clout in society to effect change.
“Edmund, isn’t it enough that your crusade to have women allowed at University worked? Do you have to go about trying to change everything? Especially the things in this world that don’t need changing?”
“You think my crusade worked? The University is allowing four women to attend. Four. They aren’t even allowed to sit for exams or get the degrees they will have earned by the time they have completed their studies. So these four women can come to University, use its resources, hopefully find a professor who will work with them in their chosen field, do all the work required by the University, and leave with absolutely no recognition of the work that they did. I’m sure these women risk being outcast by society, or worse, disowned by their family, to come here.” The accomplishment of getting women into Grantabridge University was bittersweet. Just knowing what some would give up to come here, and how little they would potentially get from the experience, left me disheartened.
“The University buckled and allowed four women where women have no right to be in the first place.”
“No right? You don’t think women have a right to learn, grow, and invent? Just think of the interesting dinner conversations you could have with any of these four women.” Just the thought of marrying an intellectual equal made me smile. And it was more than just her being intelligent. I knew women didn’t need a formal education to be intelligent. Mother was a great example of that, always reading—whether it was fashion magazines, philosophy, or novels, it all led to Mother having a great mind and understanding of the world. But these women coming to University, I believed they wanted more. They wanted to change the world. They wanted to leave an imprint, just like me. And society needed more people like that. Especially individuals that flout convention like these four women, the first to attend university.
“Why would I ever want to have an intellectual conversation with my wife? Intellectual conversations happen at my club with other men, not at home, and definitely not with women.”
On that note I threw up my hands, not in surrender, more like despair. “Change will happen, my friend. And if you aren’t ready for it, you will be the one that becomes obsolete.”
* * *
After months of arguing with fellow members of Shadowed Sword, I was thankful to be going home for the summer. Not that it felt like summer: Brythion was almost always overcast and cold, except for very late summer, and right now was no exception. I was looking forward to playing chess with Mother and harassing Kaiden. Being around my family was exactly what I needed. All my endeavors to push the Shadowed Sword towards progress were with resistance. The current leader of the society continued to let in the Lord Bradburys of the world and ignored anyone with potential but missing the title he considered a requisition for membership.
I decided I would run against the stubborn fool at the election during the next term. The society needed to change. Well, it needed to change if it was going to stay relevant. Apparently, staying relevant wasn’t on many of the members’ minds, but I was having some success campaigning quietly behind closed doors. Some members even agreed with the three new members I proposed. Hopefully, the new term would bring change.
The carriage came to an abrupt stop. I tried to stop myself from sliding off the red velvet seats with little success.
“Why are we stopping, John?” I said while knocking on the roof of the carriage.
“There’s a tree fallen across the road, my lord. We might have to find another route. I don’t think I can clear it,” John Coachman said.
“What if we hooked the horses to it? Would they be able to move it out of the way?” I said, offering what I hoped was the most practical and efficient solution to the current predicament.
“That could work, sir. I’ll get started on it.”
I jumped out of the carriage, leaving my frock coat and hat behind. I could not leave all the work to John, but it would not do to arrive home overly disheveled. Mother would never approve.
We had stopped in a lovely little clearing with a bit of sunlight that was finally peeking through the grey clouds and filtering through the trees. It was clear to me that someone had moved the log there specifically to stop travelers, as it was in the middle of the road with space on either side of it, just not quite enough room to go around. A naturally fallen tree would have been much closer to the forest line.
“Halt!” a stranger yelled. He was quite well dressed, and his horse was prime, quality horseflesh.
It did not shock me to see him there. Clearly, we had fallen, much like the tree, into a trap.
“As you can see, we have already halted, since the tree is blocking the road,” I said.
“Then hands up. Don’t move.”
“You can have whatever coins I have on me, just please let us be on our way.” I slowly walked forward, hoping to de-escalate the situation.
“Stop moving or I’ll shoot.” The man waved his pistol in my direction.
I stopped moving, noticing others going through my carriage and luggage. I stood there, believing my best chance to get home was to let them take what they wanted. That was, until I really looked at the highwayman. His extremely nice waistcoat had a familiar pattern, that same fabric lined his greatcoat, and his leather boots were way too nice for someone making a living divesting others of their belongings on a rarely used road.
I made eye contact with the highwayman and saw his eyes flash with contempt. Contempt I recognized. Contempt I saw almost daily. That’s when I knew I was not getting out of this situation.
“Sorry Edmund, it simply has to be done.” The highwayman was not sorry. He fired his pistol. Pain tore through my chest. I tried to look down to see what had just happened. Instead, I crumpled into nothingness.
Rosheen Terra, Brythion 1870
“Have you taken leave of all your senses!” exclaimed my mother, Olivia Stanhope, stopping me in the great hall of our manor, my hand already reaching for the doorknob to the front parlor where my mother and aunt were taking tea. “Under no circumstances will Philippa attend University. She already flouts convention with all her tinkering. There is no way her reputation could withstand attending university. People will think of her as a bluestocking and never consider her an eligible match.”
Instead of entering the parlor as planned, I stopped and bent down to peek through the keyhole, my leather-clad derrière sticking out into the great hall with a complete lack of decorum. My indecorous position would not be a surprise to anyone that knew me. I had just come back from riding my steamer bike and hadn’t changed into what Mother, and the rest of society, would deem ladylike clothing yet.
“Oh, posh,” Honoria sputtered. “Is that all you want for Pippa? Marriage to some dull Brythionite. She would be gutted at such a life.”
I couldn’t actually see my mother or Aunt Honoria through the keyhole, just the elegantly decorated room I had grown up in, with its light blue papered walls, mahogany and brocade side chairs, and a blue silk Latikan rug. I gave up trying to see into the room for now and just pressed my ear to the door so I could hear better.
“It would be a good life for her. Her life would be settled, have a purpose and stability. Not everyone can live the way you do, Honoria,” Olivia said, the inescapable derision she felt for her older sister, Honoria, seeping in at the end.
“Not everyone can live happily? That’s a bloody shame.”
I cracked the door open, quietly peeking in. Aunt Honoria was on her feet, pacing around my mother. It surprised me that my mother hadn’t already lectured her about wearing a hole in the carpet. She was always telling me to stop pacing because she feared I would destroy her silk carpet.
Honoria was one of those women that just had a presence. Despite being short and petite like me, when she entered a room, she filled it. Which is what she was doing in her forest green silk dress, with her matching green hat sitting jauntily atop her flaming red hair. I not only shared her petite stature but also her bright red hair.
My mother, on the other hand, had a tendency to be a wallflower. And a wilted one at that, or at least that’s how she looked now, semirecumbent on the cream-colored settee, her lackluster brown curls drooping, her pink frills looking smushed from the weight of the day.
“You want to destroy that poor girl. What you call purpose would leave her feeling adrift and purposeless. I don’t know why you refuse to accept that not only is she not like you, she’s talented. Have you even looked at the things she’s built? What you call tinkering. Her steam motorbike is a work of pure genius. I would have loved to ride on it across Eletharis, the wind in my hair and sun on my face.”
My breath caught at her words; I wiped away tears as they formed. Honoria understands. She seemed to be the only one. But those sensations she described were the reasons I built the steamer bike. And my tinkering, it’s so much more than what my mother can deem to acknowledge. I want to change the world with one of my inventions.
“Honoria, it would behoove you to remember that Philippa is not your daughter. And, therefore, none of your concern. You have already dragged the family name through the mud with your antics. I will not allow it to continue with my daughter. Philippa will learn her place. She will not attend University. And you will stop encouraging her.”
I couldn’t take it anymore. My mother’s words were like little cuts to my soul. All I wanted was to be the best at steam engineering I could be. If mother had her way, there would be no steam engineering in my life.
“But Mama,” I exclaimed as I burst through the door, the lemony scent of the room filling my nose, mixed with the familiar floral scent I knew my mother put on every day. “I could do so much if I had an education. You plan on Percy going to university at some point. Why is it so wrong for me to do so?”
“Ladies do not have any need for university, Philippa, and that means you.” My mother turned and got a good look at me. “What on earth are you wearing? Upstairs, now, change into something a young lady can be seen in.” Her teacup chattered against the saucer, sloshing tea onto it, signaling my mother was more than a little distressed.
“I won’t let you ruin that girl,” I heard Honoria mutter while my mother shooed me out of the parlor.
* * *
My feet were heavy as I made my way up the stairs to my room. The soothing wall colors did nothing to soothe my mood. Especially since my boots thudded with every step on the hardwood floors. It sounded like I was walking the plank to my own doom.
At least one person understood what I wanted and, more importantly, why I wanted it. Too bad one person wasn’t enough to actually get me to University.
I entered my bedroom, closing the doors behind me. I tried to let the aqua colors of my room calm me down. The colors reminded me of the ocean, which always calmed my mind. I flopped down on my canopy bed, the white-and-aqua covers almost consuming me. I lay there twisting my braid of flaming red hair, deep in thought over what had just transpired. There’s no way Aunt Honoria would convince Mother to let me go to university. Despite finding happiness with Father, my mother still blamed Honoria for, well, for being scandalous. I mean, Aunt Honoria was caught kissing a duke in an alcove at a ball and then flat out refused to marry him. Can you imagine having the strength of conviction to turn down a duke? Since then Aunt Honoria had been everywhere—Sindthia, the Arbaro Akva, Eletharis, Aikupita—oh, and the things she’d done! Climbing mountains, riding camels, it all sounded so amazing. I mean, she just returned from Hellias after exploring some of the excavation sites there. And all of it was so out of my reach. I didn’t necessarily want to be just like Aunt Honoria, but I wanted her strength to tell my family I was going to University, and if they didn’t like it, they could sod off. Which was unlikely because I was practical enough to realize I needed money to live off of, and without my family, I had none.
There was nothing for it. I might as well change and have a cup of tea. I sat up on the edge of my bed, looking at all the pieces of frill in my wardrobe, each one somehow more frilly and more pastel than the next. I didn’t want to be seen in any of these. The ruffles would overwhelm my petite frame, and my hair was so bright, the pastels would fade away to oblivion. Clothing was just another area where my mother and I did not see eye to eye. I always thought I looked like an over-decorated cake with a top layer that clashed with the bottom layers when I put on the clothing my mother insisted I wear. I loved my practical leather leggings and blouses, and even my jodhpurs. The styles of the day were so restrictive, overly frilly, and truly ridiculous. Why did I need to pad my bum? I would throw away every one of those dresses my mother bought me if I thought I could get away with it.
“Knock, knock,” Aunt Honoria said as she tapped on the door.
“Come in,” I answered, gesturing to my maid, Sarah, to open the door for her. Honoria always seemed so full of energy, like someone that had one too many cups of coffee each and every morning. I patted the bed next to me, inviting her to sit there. Instead, Aunt Honoria paced the length of my room. It was no surprise. I’m not sure I had ever seen her sit for a conversation.
“Pippa, your mother, well . . . That’s neither here nor there at this point,” Honoria began, her green eyes sparkling mischievously. “Since your family has their head so far up their own arse they can’t see that the world is changing, I’m going to give you the ability to make your own decisions. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to see my solicitor. I’ll have him set up a stipend for you to live off of and pay for your tuition, so if you choose, you can attend University. They only accepted four women this year on a trial basis. And I cannot see you missing out because your mother is afraid of change.”
“Aunt Honoria, you can’t. That’s too generous.” I couldn’t take her money. I didn’t want to be the reason she couldn’t live her life the way she wanted.
“Hogwash, you’re my favorite niece. And I will not see you waste away in some manor house in the country because that was your only option. You should be able to set the path you want for yourself. And I know you can’t do that without money. Don’t worry, I’m not giving you so much that I won’t continue in my grand way. I just might have a little less champagne to drink every week. I would have given anything to go to university when I was your age. This will let me live vicariously through you. My dream was to be an archaeologist, but I could convince no one to let me join an expedition. At least you will have the opportunity to choose to follow your dreams of steam engineering.”
“Auntie, thank you so much!” I squealed, hugging her in excitement. After a moment, she pulled back and looked at me.
“Just know the consequences of each decision you make, because there will be consequences. I fear your parents will disown you if you go to university; and if you don’t, well, I don’t know if you’ll be happy living with Lord WhoeverTheyChoose.” Aunt Honoria stopped in front of my open wardrobe. “Are these your clothes?” She picked through my closet with distaste, everything in pinks and yellows with an obscene amount of ruffles. “This is what your mother considers presentable? She never did understand what it was like to have red hair. Come to my room; we’re the same size. Let’s see if we can find something in my wardrobe that will flatter you. And bring Sarah with you.”
I followed along quietly, my head spinning, thinking of what the future could hold now that I had options. It seriously felt like I could accomplish anything.