The turnoff for Ufham on the Silchester road is hard to spot. (And the turnoff is the only road to Ufham.) That stretch is tree-lined, and there is no signage and no effort to make the turnoff visible. Quite the reverse: the turnoff is a single-lane dirt road kept assiduously weedy. On top of that, people—ordinary, unSundered people living in the monde-minor—just never get around to noticing it.
So they would certainly never notice the figure crouched in the shrubbery to the side, which was certainly just as well. Gus watched the car roll by as if he were starving and it were a movable feast. He had sat by the road, watching, for an hour or so, and that was only the fourth car.
When it was well away and the engine sound completely lost even to Gus’s sharp ears, a bit of traffic came down the Ufham road. It looked like a big burly man on a big brown horse. “Time for your fitting,” Charliehorse told him.
“Yep.” Gus rose, got on the weedy bit of road, and sauntered down the road beside Charliehorse.
When the Silchester road had been out of sight for at least two minutes, Charlie removed the bandana he had been wearing. His image rippled like a reflection on water and he coalesced into his true appearance. “Did you enjoy seeing cars again?”
“Them horseless carriages?” Gus said, putting on a hick accent. “Passin’ fad. Never catch on.” Then normally, “Yeah, I did. Made it seem realer, truer, that I’m back on Earth, my Earth, the home zone, like you say.”
“We need to get you your own phone,” he told Gus, waving his before tucking it away. “Not that I mind coming to fetch you.”
“Probably best to wait until we get back to America,” Gus replied. “Then I’ll call ya. I wonder what happened to my old phone. I don’t suppose I used it once, after we got whisked away to Beraïd Torgon. There were a few times it would have been handy, on the road, if the other guys had had theirs.” He took a deep lungful of air and sighed, but contentedly, not wistfully. They were now strolling past little farm houses and pastures, with the town proper straight ahead. “This sure is a pretty little place.”
“Thank you,” said Charliehorse, for whom it was now home. “For all of me, you are welcome here as often and as long as you want. And I think our officialdom will go along with that.”
“Thanks. Maybe some day Doug and I can come on an expedition with you as civilian consultants, real ones, once we get ourselves straightened out.” He gave another contented sigh and gazed ahead. “Lovely.”
Charlie gave Gus a sideways glance. “Lovely” was not a word he would have expected from Gus or one he would have applied to Ufham.
Ahead, the dirt road broadened and became the high street while remaining a dirt road. It was flanked by Victorian buildings, many wooden, and looked, Charlie thought, like a Wild West set in the wrong countryside. It terminated in the base athletic field, at the track where Charlie had first managed a gallop. Beyond that were the boxier, less picturesque buildings of the base, and behind all was Ufham Wood, concealing the passage to Brequelle.
Two days ago, Gus and Doug had emerged from those woods, in company with Fletcher and his lads, plus Rahul and Dan. Then the lungmao had done ... nothing. They had put in a packed schedule of strolling, poking around, lazing, and flaking out, and maybe that had been lovely. But, at length, Miss de Voil was ready for them. She was ready for Gus now. He and Charlie took a right turn off the high street and entered the shop.
It was a big shop, with a tall ceiling, for big, tall customers. The colors were muted, and there were many mirrors.
And there was Doug. “Ta-da!” he proclaimed, facing Gus with spread arms. It was a wholly human Doug, something Gus had not seen for five years.
“Holy crow! Mr. Douglas Shengming Cheung, late of Chicago! Long time, no see!”
“But wait! There’s more!” Doug said, gesturing back into the shop. On cue, Rahul and Dan came forward. Behind them trailed Miss de Voil and in the background sat Captain Fletcher. At a nod from him, Charlie tried and failed to enter unobtrusively, and sat down beside him.
Like Doug, Dan and Rahul were still clad in cavalry T-shirts and jeans, and like him looked fully human. They did not, however, look exactly as they had before. All were still about seven feet tall and heavily built.
“Your turn now!” Doug told Gus, and stepped aside to make way for Miss de Voil. She was a slender woman of late middle age, on the tall side, though she hardly looked it in present company. She wore a long dress of a markedly neutral gray and an opal ring on each thumb. In one hand, she held a kind of bouquet of hand mirrors, monocles, and pince nez glasses. In the other, she held a scratched and yellowed plastic card: Gus’s driver’s license, the only image of a human Gus closer than Chicago.
“August Virgil,” she said, but not exactly to him, more at him, and there was a breath of magic in the use of his full given name. Then she looked at him critically, followed by a glance at the license, then in a hand mirror.
“Yes, ma’am,” Gus answered, just in case, but she ignored this, seized him by the shoulders, and moved him in front of a mirror.
“August Virgil,” she muttered again, clearly to herself, then pulled a small flashlight out of pocket and ran the beam over his face at close range.
“Feel it?” Doug asked. Gus nodded. By now, they could feel qualities of magic as well as its mere presence. Something light and heady was building around Gus now. Also, he could see something odd about the reflection of his face, though the flashlight beam kept getting in the way.
For the first time, Miss de Voil really addressed him: “Do you like this?” she said. The tone was purely one of factual curiosity, with no desire to please in it. She pointed at the mirror. “We are not at all done, but with a restorative glamour like this, it’s important that you like looking this way. It helps anchor the image.”
Gus stared at the mirror and Doug stared at Gus. “Truth to tell,” Doug said, “I felt really strange when I saw myself looking ... restored.” And Gus knew he felt odd looking at Gus now, too.
De Voil might not be finished, but she had taken a great first step. The muzzle was gone, along with the Neanderthal-like ridge of the brow. The nose and lips were recognizable. The eyes were human, not feline. But the ears were still long and pointed, and the tips of whiskers hovered over his shoulders. Gus looked down at his hands. They were still scaly on the back, with spurs on the knuckles, and the nails of the left were still filed into claws. He took another look at his face in the mirror: there was a slight blandness, partly as if he wore pancake makeup, partly a hint of the generic to the features. But on the whole– “Holy crow!” he whispered.
“Do you like it?” Miss de Voil asked again.
“Oh, yes! Yes, ma’am, I do! Yeah,” he said to Doug, “I see what you mean about feeling strange. It was strange to see you just now, too. No offense, you guys,” he said to Dan and Rahul, “but I never got to know your old faces very well.”
Miss de Voil, meanwhile, seized his right hand and played the flashlight over it. Gus watched with interest as the scales and knuckle spurs faded out. She worked her way up his arm, erasing scales. Timidly, Gus felt along after her with his left hand, expecting her to swat him away. But she was well-used to this sort of reaction from her customers. The scales were still there to the touch.
Doug watched his friend make exactly the same exploration of his arm as he had himself, then asked de Voil, “Will the glamour make it easier to get back to our old shapes? Give us a target to aim for?”
“Perhaps,” she said, switching to Gus’s left arm. “And it may make it harder to make the shift perfect, since this appearance is not exactly like your old one. But, for the most part, your new form will be a matter of reaching for your old form through body image and sheer history. So my fay acquaintances tell me.”
She hiked Gus’s T-shirt up to the top of his shoulder and finished off his arm. “How far do you want to go?” she asked.
“Beg pardon?” Gus asked back, confused.
“You can take off your shirt and I can do your chest and back,” she explained, then, continuing down a list, said, “or you can strip to your underwear if you want me to do your legs. Or strip entirely if you want an illusion that covers everything.” She then noticed that Gus’s neck, which was still scaly, could still display a blush. She waved her hand before his face and let the blush show through in his face.
Gus surveyed the smirks on Doug, Rahul, and Dan’s humanized faces and asked, “How far did you guys take it?”
“Skivvies,” said Doug, after waiting a moment to savor the situation. “She asked Dan first, so we talked about it while you were off car-spotting, and we figured that it was good to be thorough but if we got down to the buff, we were probably in a situation where no glamour would be enough anyway.”
“Tails,” said Gus, switching his meditatively.
“Yeah,” Doug agreed, and the end of his tail flicked in and out of visibility behind him as he switched too. “Here, ‘skivvies’ means loin cloths,” he added to Fletcher and Charliehorse. “We’ve never run across boxer shorts for guys with tails. It was hard enough keeping ourselves in pants.”
“For all my reputation for curiosity,” Charlie answered, “that was still something I never thought to wonder about.” Fletcher laughed.
“What brings you here, Cap’n Phil?” Gus asked, oblivious to Charlie’s brief cringe at the address.
“This and that,” Fletcher answered. “I am very curious to see your original faces, for a start. For a finish, I’m to write the check to Miss de Voil when she’s done. In between, your friends asked me to come along so we could continue a discussion. They are trying to decide how much to tell their families, and what and when. I suppose you must wonder about it, too.”
Wordlessly, Miss de Voil shoved a stool behind Gus and pushed him down on it so she could work on his ears.
Gus said, “I remember we talked about telling ’em we’d been experimented on by an evil overlord, or something, to explain being so big, then claim it was wearing off when we were able to really change back. But that won’t really work. I mean, we’d have to size down real slow to make it convincing. My folks aren’t scientists, but they’ll still wonder where the hundred pounds of meat went. And Doug’s folks are scientists!”
“Optometrists,” Doug corrected. “But they’ll still wonder. And they’ll wonder why the evil overlord cured my astigmatism.”
“And I don’t want to tell my mother she can’t hug me,” put in Rahul. “That will take more explaining than losing a hundred pounds over night.”
“I suppose we could use the experiment-victim story to start with,” said Doug. “Then tell them something else the first time they feel us through the glamour. But I don’t know what.”
“Shirt,” Miss de Voil told Gus. As he pulled off his T-shirt, she turned to Doug and said, “Either tell them the truth immediately or never tell them any of it—never appear to them without the glamour or at a different size. If you show yourself in stages, your families will always be wondering if there’s another stage coming. ‘I lied to you about being A. I’m really B. No, I’m really C. No, D.’ They’ll wonder how far down the alphabet it goes. They won’t trust you.”
“Ah, yes,” said Fletcher. “That makes sense. I never thought of that angle before.” He saw the young folk staring at him. “What? Did you think I’ve thought of everything? I’ve lived my life deep in the Sundered side of the world, only rarely using glamour to pass in the monde-minor. Lads, I want you to keep in touch so I know how you fare, but I’m also curious to get reports from the border between the Sundered and the unSundered. Anyway, what Miss de Voil says rings true.”
She went over to the windows and twitched the curtains shut. She turned back to Gus and commanded, “Pants.” As he worked on removing his boots, she said, “I’ve seen it when people get too cute with glamour, putting one layer on another. Then no one believes them when they say, ‘This is the real me.’ Things get ... harsh, and people insist on total disenchantments and stringent oaths, even exorcisms.”
Doug pondered for a bit, then asked, “Won’t that Sunder our families? If magic’s part of your life, you’re Sundered, right?”
Fletcher nodded. Charlie said, “That’s not a catastrophe, though. This whole town is Sundered, and Gus said it was ‘lovely’ on the walk back here.”
“But it’ll be dangerous for them, won’t it?” Doug asked. “You’ve got a whole town here, and it’s a military base, and backed up by your whole magical nation. You’re as safe as Sundered gets, but our families will have none of that. They'll just suddenly have their luck changed so that, any day, they could meet a monster. And it wouldn’t be us.”
“Maybe– maybe we should join their Infantry,” Dan suggested hesitantly, “like the other guys, and only send letters home until we can learn to change.”
Miss de Voil was just approaching Gus as he stood at uneasy attention in his loin cloth, head and hands human, otherwise scaled and tailed. “Do I continue or not?” she demanded of Fletcher.
He sighed. “We already owe you for three and a half glamour jobs. It’s silly not to owe you for four, whatever they decide to do with them later. Please continue.” He looked at Doug. “Yes, staying with us in some capacity until you can change is undoubtedly the safest option. And we’d certainly be glad to have as many of you as want to stay. It is certainly true that, if you reveal yourselves, your families will be Sundered, so that magical and openly supernatural events will no longer pass them by. But no one can be sure how long it will take you to learn to resume your original forms. I suspect that it will take longer if you stay with us. You’ll be busy learning how to live in Grand Normandy—not hugely different from Chicago, but still different—and you won’t have as much incentive. It’s relaxing to walk around town and have no one give you more than a look of mild curiosity, isn’t it?”
He turned to Charliehorse. “Mr. Darneley, yours is the one Sundered family in an unSundered town. Do you feel they are greatly endangered?”
Charlie thought for a few seconds, then answered, “They do face some particular risks, but they’re risks they bring on themselves, in their work. Several of them deal in enchanted goods. And of course they know the precautions to take. Just being Sundered and living in Dimble Abbots isn’t particularly dangerous, I don’t think. You just have to know to be polite to the fairies in the woods back of the house.” He eyed the four lungmao, who were eying him back. “You guys will be the local fairies.”
Fletcher pondered. “Your folk,” he said to Charlie, “can still call on your baron if anything mundane-major gets out of hand.”
“We’ve never had to, though, sir.”
“A good point. But the advantage is still there. Grand Normandy is thin on the ground in the US, but we’ve a fair number of outposts and enclaves in Canada. Chicago’s fairly close to Canada, isn’t it? And Rahul, where do you live?”
Rahul blinked and Doug could see he was readjusting to the idea that he lived somewhere in the ordinary world, what Fletcher called the “monde-minor.”
“Lahore, sir. At least, that’s the nearest big city.”
“Mm. The main Grand Norman outposts are in Mumbai and Karachi. Dan?”
“Out in the country, sir, between Kansas City and St. Louis.”
“South and west of Chicago, sir,” supplied Doug, who noted Fletcher’s brief blank gaze and suspected the old centaur barely knew these were American cities.
“Maybe they could make an alliance with the Grandmother Spider Society, sir,” Charliehorse suggested. “Or the Dare Lodge?”
Fletcher nodded, but then said, “Well, we will help you find allies. And as Mr. Darneley pointed out, you’re not likely to need them.”
“Put your clothes back on,” Miss de Voil told Gus, who now looked completely human, if very large. He started to obey, but kept his eyes on the image in the mirror, fascinated. His tail-tip appeared and vanished on either side as he whisked it back and forth, probing the limits on the illusion.
“But if we don’t get our folks Sundered,” he said, “that’s still safer, right?”
Fletcher said nothing for some seconds. Gus turned from the mirror to ask, “Did I say something wrong, sir?”
Fletcher was silent another couple of seconds, then said, “Just thinking. I suppose there is some slight danger. But here is how slight it is: Sundered folk have no hesitation about raising their children in the monde-major. There’s no custom or drive or push to farm them out to unSundered relatives. That’s as true in the US and India as it is in Britain and France.
“Against that slight danger, you must balance this: To leave them unSundered, you must permanently deceive them. And they would want to see you back soon, or you must think so. Otherwise, you would have tarried, the way your fellows did.
“And–” He smiled. “–against any danger, consider that they will have big, fierce elf-warriors on their side.”
“Come up here, all four of you,” Miss de Voil commanded. When the lungmao had formed a line, she produced four long white strips of silk and draped one over each man. Each cloth ran from his heels in back, over his head, down to his toes in front. “Stand still,” she ordered next, then stood still herself, gazing at each in turn.
By now, everyone in the room had some degree of training in magical detection and could pick up stirrings of some sort. After a minute, she removed the cloths one by one. Under each, the dragon-cats now appeared without illusion.
She handed the cloths back. “Put them on,” she instructed. “As a scarf or belt or sash. Doesn’t matter.” They obeyed, there was a bit of a wobble in the air, and they appeared human again.
“Good,” she said. “Sleep with it under your pillow or around your neck or something. That’ll keep it charged up. It runs off your own vis. Now, realize the image is fragile. If you notice bits showing through, take the cloth off and put it on again. Don’t let it get damaged. It’s charmed to be resistant and not get lost, but I have my limits.” To Fletcher: “You can write that check now.”
A few minutes later, they were out on the street. “So you think we should tell our families and Sunder them?” Doug asked.
“Your call,” said Fletcher. “But that is what I would want, if you were my sons. I think. Each of you is going back to something different. But if it were me, that’s what I’d want of you.”
Doug wondered how to compare a man who had turned into a centaur, the better to go exploring the edge of creation, with a pair of optometrists from Chicago’s Chinatown. But those weren’t the points to compare, were they?
“Next stop,” Fletcher went on, “the tailor shop. We need to get you some clothes that aren’t cavalry issue.”
“Can we keep the hats?” Rahul asked. “The hats are cool.”
Fletcher laughed. “Hats, boots, and all, with my compliments.”
The van looked normal, with normal British plates. The four men loitering next to it looked normal, if very big, clad in jeans and T-shirts but free of cavalry logos. Rahul wore his cowboy hat. Fletcher, Sanders, and their students looked normal for them.
Fletcher finished up a round of hugs and concluded with double handshakes with Gus and Doug. “Lads, it’s been a privilege,” he said. “See you next year.”
“What?” asked Doug, startled.
“I said, ‘Hope to see you soon.’”
Doug glanced at Sanders, who smiled benignly and gave him a thumb’s-up.
They climbed into the van. Next stop, Heathrow.
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