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Valour and Vanity

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Valour and Vanity

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Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor, 2014
Series: Jane Ellsworth: Book 4
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Historical Fantasy
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(13 reads / 11 ratings)


Acclaimed fantasist Mary Robinette Kowal has enchanted many fans with her beloved novels featuring a Regency setting in which magic--known here as glamour--is real. In Valour and Vanity, master glamourists Jane and Vincent find themselves in the sort of a magical adventure that might result if Jane Austen wrote Ocean's Eleven.After Melody's wedding, the Ellsworths and Vincents accompany the young couple on their tour of the continent. Jane and Vincent plan to separate from the party and travel to Murano to study with glassblowers there, but their ship is set upon by Barbary corsairs while en route. It is their good fortune that they are not enslaved, but they lose everything to the pirates and arrive in Murano destitute.Jane and Vincent are helped by a kind local they meet en route, but Vincent is determined to become self-reliant and get their money back, and hatches a plan to do so. But when so many things are not what they seem, even the best laid plans conceal a few pitfalls. The ensuing adventure is a combination of the best parts of magical fantasy and heist novels, set against a glorious Regency backdrop.


In Like a Lion

It may be stated with some certainty that travel can be trying even to the steadiest of characters. Thus it was with some trepidation that Jane, Lady Vincent, found herself on a tour of the continent as part of her sister's wedding party. Her last visit to the continent had ended abruptly when Napoleon had escaped his exile and reigned terror on Europe.

The troubles she faced with this tour had been of the prosaic sort: which carriage to take, how to arrange their party's quarters, and, most of all, how to manage her mother's nerves. Those nervous complaints had been a constant companion on their meandering course across Europe. Jane was relieved that they were now in the Free Imperial City of Trieste, where she and her husband would separate from the rest of the family. She would miss Melody and Mr. O'Brien, and had become quite fond of his parents, Lord and Lady Stratton. Of course she would be sorry to say farewell to her father, but no amount of tender regard for her mother could quite subdue her relief at their impending departure.

Fair weather had favoured them, and their last morning in the city had been filled with balmy breezes off the Gulf of Venice, which gave glad tidings for the voyage that they would shortly take to Venice and from there to Murano.

Jane climbed down the worn steps of the old Roman amphitheatre in the heart of the city, following her husband to where the stage had once lain. The sides of her bonnet shielded her from glimpsing the modern buildings that surrounded the open-air theatre and allowed her to maintain the conceit that she stood in part of the Roman Empire.

As she walked, she kept her gaze trained upon Vincent's back.

Though it was at least three years out of fashion, the blue coat of superfine showed off the breadth of Vincent's shoulders to great advantage. His brown hair curled over the top of his tall collar. Even with his high crowned hat, the wind dishevelled his hair further than his usual wont. When he made an effort, he could cut as fine a figure as any gentleman of Jane's acquaintance, but she much preferred the ease of his natural carriage.

Vincent paused at the base of the stairs and consulted the letter he was holding. "Byron says that the glamural is under an arch to the right of the stage."

Jane lifted her head and peered around, looking for the old stage illusion. Trieste had so many ruins from when it was part of the Roman Empire that no one in the town paid them much heed, but Lord Byron's letter to Vincent said that this faded revenant of glamour was worth viewing. As the ruin was but three streets from the docks, it seemed a natural excursion to make before departing.

The sides of the amphitheatre rose around them in a gentle slope that took advantage of the natural hillside. Remnants of old brick pilings showed where the back of the stage had once stood as a colonnade. Now there was nothing there to prevent them from seeing the street, which ran just on the other side of a row of remaining column bases. A few slabs of marble still graced the ruins, a vestige of their former glory. "Do you think he meant a whole arch or a fragment?"

Vincent scowled at the page, holding it in both hands to steady it against the warm breeze. "I am uncertain."

Jane took a few steps toward one of the marble remnants, which stretched higher than the others. As she did, part of a brick arch came into view. Movement flickered within it for a moment. "Here, Vincent."

He hurried across the cracked paving stones, folding the letter as he went. "Well spotted, Muse."

Jane and Vincent slowed as they reached the arch, as though their movement might disturb the illusion that had been spun there. In the shadow the remaining brick cast across the ground, the ghost of a lion stood, tossing its head. The glamourist who had created the illusion had rendered the lion with the precision of one who had actually seen such a beast. As faded as the illusion was, the folds of glamour that sketched it remained robustly alive. The mane was "torn and fray'd," with almost no fine details remaining, but still moved as though it belonged to a real lion. The beast bent its head and opened its mouth in a silent roar. The skeins that would have provided the sound had long since decayed back into the ether.

Jane sought Vincent's hand in wonder. He took it, as silent as she in appreciation for the artistry of the long dead glamourist. The lion swished its tail and stalked back and forth beneath the narrow confines of the arch. Its feet passed through rubble, but the illusion did not break. Sometimes he roared before stalking, sometimes after, and once he sat down and bathed a foreleg.

"What an amazing creature. So vital after all these years."

"How... how do you think it is done?" Jane furrowed her brow, trying to understand the techniques involved. By her understanding of glamour, creating this illusion should have required weeks of effort, but stories written of the Roman theatre indicated that the glamours were refreshed with each production.

"I am confounded, truly." Vincent let his hand slip free of hers and crouched to study the glamural more closely. "The folds of glamour that remain are too fragile for me to feel comfortable subjecting it to a closer inspection. I am astonished that it has survived this long. Perhaps it uses amarrage en étrive? Though that would not result in this variation..."

Jane squinted at the glamour, but without teasing the threads apart, it was impossible to tell how it had been created. Her husband was quite correct that the ancient folds were likely to tear if handled. She hazarded a guess based on what she could see. "If it were doubled or nested?"

"Possible." He rested his hand on his chin as he studied the lion. "Look at the power in its movements."

"I could almost believe that it was a recording, if it were not fully rendered." The techniques to record sound in glamour were well understood, but comparable efforts with images were less satisfactory. Vincent had experimented with a weave that he called a lointaine vision, but it resulted in a view of the subject from only one perspective. The lion was fully fleshed out no matter where one stood.

"It has not repeated a cycle of movement once, has it?"

Jane shook her head and then, recognising that he was not watching her, pronounced her agreement. "Individual gestures, but not complete patterns. And I must own that I am relieved that you cannot sort out the effect any better than I can."

"No surprise there. You have always been better than I at understanding threads."

Though Jane would not admit it aloud, his praise of her skills still warmed her, even after nearly three years of marriage. It should no longer be a concern, but she sometimes still felt the shadow of his education with the celebrated German glamourist, Herr Scholes. "I will accept your compliment, only because I know that you have always refrained from looking at others' work."

"Not always. Recall that I first learned glamour by unstitching my sister's lessons." Vincent stood and stepped back to study the arch. Lost in abstracted thought, he walked through the arch to the other side. The lion roared as he passed by it, almost as though it had felt his movement. He put a hand on his hip and placed the other over his mouth as he stared at the lion. Finally, shaking his head, he dropped his hand. "It is a wonder."

"Perhaps Herr Scholes will know." Jane walked around the arch, not wanting to pass through the illusion, even though it could do no harm. She supposed it was a testament to the artist that the lion could still cause her a sense of disquiet.

"Or perhaps this is a technique that only one glamourist has ever known, and it is lost to history."

"Such as our Verre Obscurci?" She took his hand. This was the tragedy of glamour: It could not be removed from the place where it was created. An accomplished glamourist could tie the folds of light off to keep them from vanishing back into the ether, but even that would fade and unravel over time. To move a glamour required exerting precise control over every thread that created it and maintaining each thread's exact relation to every other thread. Two years prior, Jane and Vincent had discovered a way to record glamour in glass, the Verre Obscurci. It would not help save the lion, because the technique required glamourists to cast their folds through molten glass, but it did suggest a future in which great works were not confined to a single space.

He grimaced and squeezed her fingers. "I sometimes wonder if we are right to pursue it. Perhaps glamour is meant to be ephemeral." He gestured to the lion. "Then I see something like this and wish for a way to carry it with me."

"I cannot think that--"

"Jane! Vincent!" The voice of Jane's younger sister pulled their attention to the street. Melody walked towards them, arm in arm with Alastar O'Brien. Even a glamural of cupids could not proclaim the newly-weds' love more thoroughly than the glow of delight that seemed to surround them. It would not surprise Jane if they soon announced to her parents the impending arrival of a grandchild. "I thought we would never find you. Then Alastar remembered Vincent speaking of a glamural and Roman theatres, and la! Here you are."

Vincent released Jane's hand, stepping back to a proper distance. His natural reserve had diminished with Melody and Alastar, thank heavens, but he was still less easy when in a group.

Jane moved forward, smiling, to give him a moment. "I thought you were at the Roman baths with Mama."

"We were, but then Mama was telling another lady that you were off to visit Lord Byron, and then that lady mentioned his poem "The Corsair," and then Mama could think of nothing but pirates, and now she is certain that you will be killed at sea." She tossed her head, and sunlight caught on her spectacles and made them flash. The lenses did nothing to diminish the power of Melody's beauty. In the Roman ruins, her blond curls might well have been part of a glamour of some goddess. "We came to warn you that she is at the dock waiting."

Jane closed her eyes in aggravation. Her mother had been the one to suggest taking ship to Venice after one of Mrs. Ellsworth's many correspondents spoke highly of the beauty of the trip, even going so far as to recommend the Ophelia, for which they had obtained passage. Sadly, it did not surprise Jane to discover her mother's mind had changed, and yet, of all things, what she had most wished to avoid was a scene with her mother upon their departure. That is why she had arranged to say their farewells at the hotel that morning. "Thank you for that."

Mr. O'Brien straightened his spectacles. Beside Vincent he seemed slight and scholarly, though he was a well-proportioned man. "The truth is, we shall miss you terribly when you go. You have made everything... so much smoother. I do not know if I shall--that is, Melody tells me I need not be concerned about her mother's nerves, but-- Well."

Used to her mother's histrionics, Jane was not often perturbed by them, but it was all too apparent that Mr. O'Brien wished he and Melody were coming with them rather than continuing to tour with their parents.

Vincent rubbed the back of his neck and offered the tight compression of his lips that was his public smile. "She is enjoying herself. Truly. You do get used to it."

"I suppose we should get on with it, then." Jane took Melody's arm for the walk to the docks and let the gentlemen lag behind so that her husband could explain to Mr. O'Brien how to cope with the hysterics that had so often accompanied them on their journeys. Though Jane esteemed her mother, she had to own that Mrs. Ellsworth sometimes had more sensibility than sense, a fact that Vincent had struggled with a great deal in the early days of their marriage. It was a silent relief to see that her husband had found his place, and a comfort to see him sharing that with the newest addition to their family.

She had methods of her own for managing her mother's expansive feelings, though today that had not worked so well as she might have liked. They arrived amid the bustle of the docks far too soon. Even at a distance, she could discern a familiar voice. With a sigh, Jane steadied her bonnet against the stiff breeze across the harbour.

"Lady Vincent! Sir David!" Mrs. Ellsworth's voice cut through even the clamour of the docks. She insisted on using their titles, no matter how much Jane or Vincent protested. She was so proud of being able to say, "My daughter's husband, Sir David Vincent, the Prince Regent's glamourist" at every possible opportunity that it seemed cruel to deny her the fun.

Melody giggled. "You see."

"You do not need to tease me. You will have her full attention soon enough." Jane released her sister's arm and went to meet their mother. "Mama, you should not have left the baths on our account."

Her father, Mr. Ellsworth, had his hand at her mother's back as though he were supporting her, but she walked with all the swiftness of a governess in pursuit of a small child. Jane was very much the focal point of her march across the docks. She was only thankful that Mr. O'Brien's parents did not feel the need to indulge her mother's humours. This threatened to be exactly the overwrought farewell that Jane had wished to avoid.

"You must not go!" Mrs. Ellsworth came to a stop in front of them with a hand pressed to her bosom. "Charles, tell them they must not."

Jane's father cleared his throat. His thinning white hair fluttered under his hat and, in the morning light, seemed almost like mist. "My dear. Your mother wishes me to tell you that you must not go."

"You could make more of a protest than that. Lady Vincent, Sir David. I implore you to not take ship."

"Mama! They must take ship. It is an island. One does not simply walk into Murano."

"Just so, and Lord Byron is expecting us in Venice." Vincent offered a bow to her mother.

This was the reason they had given for separating from the honeymoon party, though the truth had more to do with the glassmakers on the neighbouring island of Murano. That they were going there to work would have required explanation, and Mrs. Ellsworth was not given to discretion. If they told her that they had created a way of recording glamour in glass, the entire continent would know. Thank heavens that Lord Byron's extended stay in Venice provided them an excuse to visit. The invocation of a lord was usually more than sufficient to distract Mrs. Ellsworth. Alas, that seemed not to be the case on the morning in question.

"But last night, one of the serving men at our hotel told one of the maids, who told our Nancy, that there were pirates on the Gulf of Venice. And then today! In the baths! A woman spoke of barber sailors!"

Mr. O'Brien was taken with a sudden fit of coughing. He turned that pink of embarrassment so peculiar to those with red hair. Clearing his throat, he said, "I believe you mean Barbary corsairs, madam."

"There, you see! Mr. O'Brien knows that there are pirates."

"I am afraid that I do not." He removed his spectacles and polished them with a handkerchief.

Melody's spectacles flashed in the light as she tossed her golden curls. "La! We have said as much before. The last of the corsairs were defeated by the American fleet. These waters are quite as safe as any."

"Oh--oh, it is too much. Sir David, I implore you. After all that Jane has suffered already..."

Jane stiffened at the implication that Vincent had been the cause of any of the events of the last year. The words were simply careless, but she could not let them stand. She took a step closer to her mother, as though her proximity could protect her husband from Mrs. Ellsworth's words. "What I have 'suffered' has been by my choice alone. I will thank you not to suggest that Vincent had any fault in it."

Mrs. Ellsworth's mouth formed a small O of astonishment.

Jane pressed on. "While I am grateful for your concern, we are in no danger. The passage via the Ophelia will be quicker than the overland journey, and we have told Lord Byron that we are coming. You would not wish us to be disrespectful to his lordship, would you?" It would be of no use to remind her mother that taking ship had been her suggestion.

Mr. Ellsworth patted her arm. "You see, my dear?"

Mr. O'Brien stepped forward and joined Jane's father in soothing Mrs. Ellsworth. "If I might... The Barbary corsairs, even when they were sailing, were on the Mediterranean. This is the Gulf of Venice."

"Oh, but--" Mrs. Ellsworth's newest protestation was cut short by a cabin boy, who ran up to Vincent and bowed. In rapid Italian, he asked pardon for interrupting and let them know that Captain Rosolare wished them to board.

Vincent thanked the youth in Italian. Turning back to the party gathered on the dock, he offered a bow. "We must take our leave."

The next few moments passed in a jumble of heartfelt farewells. Mrs. Ellsworth abandoned her attempts to prevent them from leaving, though she did make extravagant use of her handkerchief. After so long travelling together, Jane had to admit to some melancholy at separating from the rest of the party.

But it was with great relief that she followed Vincent up the gangplank and aboard the ship.

The departure from Trieste had the familiar rhythms of any sea voyage, as sailors called to each other in voices that seemed brined from their time at sea. Ropes, thick as Jane's wrist, got tossed from dock to ship as they cast off. For a moment, the Ophelia seemed to lumber as a tug pulled it away from the dock; then the sails rose, catching the air with their flutter till they filled.

The time aboard passed with more speed than Jane anticipated, as she stared over the water and relished these idle moments with Vincent away from the constant requirements of her family. The salt air carried her tension across the waves.

It seemed they had but just left Trieste when the captain announced that they were already half-way to Venice. She sat with Vincent in the bow of the ship, using a coil of rope as their bench. The ship skipped over the brilliant cerulean waves, tossing the salt spray back into their faces. The remnants of the nuncheon they had packed in Trieste sat between them, the crumbs of a pastry sharing space on oilcloth with dried figs.

Vincent lifted a silver travel cup of wine and peered at it. "One wonders what wine Homer was drinking when he spoke of the wine-dark sea."

"Certainly a vintage no longer known, if it matched the sea." Jane inhaled the sea air, pressing her ribs against her short stays. "That colour. I cannot imagine a glamour that could re-create something so vibrant."

Forgetting for a moment the effect of travel on glamour, she reached into the ether and pulled forth a fold. The ship's motion pulled the glamour out of her fingers before she could make even a single twist. It rippled like a film of oil before vanishing back into the ether. Jane blushed at her foolishness. It took enormous energy to work glamour while walking even a few steps, and here she had tried it on a moving ship. The inability to work glamour at sea was what had given Lord Nelson the advantage against Napoleon's fleet during the blockade.

"Do that again." Vincent set his cup down on the deck. His gaze took on the vacant stare of someone looking deep into the ether.

"Have you an idea?"

"Merely a curiosity, which might become an idea later."

"You intrigue me." Jane reached for the glamour again. It slid through her hands so that she almost could not catch it in the first place. She lost control of the fold. It tickled under her fingers and sprang free. Jane laughed in surprised delight at the rainbow, which spread and shimmered in the air.

"I have not had the opportunity to see glamour dissolve like this. Only read the theory." Vincent reached into the ether himself. His fingers hooked on a fold, tightening. Then it sprang free. The coruscating colours flowed back in the ship's wake. He turned to watch it, and a slow smile spread across his face.

He reached for the glamour again, snatching wildly like a kitten reaching for a feather. Again, it tugged free of his fingers. Vincent threw back his head and laughed. Giggling, Jane joined him.

She could only imagine what the Prince Regent would say if he could see his favourite glamourists essentially blowing soap bubbles with glamour. There was something delightful about the sheer wildness.

Jane pulled out another fold and spread her fingers as she released it, fracturing the rainbow into a half dozen pieces. "Look, the way you release it affects the shape of the... of the oil film."

Vincent grinned. "Apt name. Perhaps an oil of light?"

"Oiled glamour?"


"Perhaps not."

He laughed and curved his hand so that the glamour slid over his palm in a patchwork cord of undulating light. "I recall Young experimenting with using multiple glamourists to try to stabilise the glamour."

"Did it work?"

"Not even a little." He pulled another thread, which evaporated as readily as its predecessors. "I wonder what would happen if we brought our Verre Obscurci aboard a ship. It worked when carried."

Jane considered. The sphere they had created bent light in the same twists as a glamourist's hands but did not require a glamourist to hold it steady. "That shall be something to try, if we can fashion a new one."

The lookout shouted from the crow's-nest, his words snatched away so that only his tone reached them. The ship's crew suddenly sprang into action, raising sails as the boat became an explosion of canvas. Jane looked toward the horizon in front of them. "Not Venice, so soon?"

"No." Vincent stood slowly, looking behind them. "It is absurd that my first thought is a desire to keep this from your mother."

The look of dread on his face made Jane turn in her seat. A ship sailed toward them. Even to her untutored eye, the cannons upon its decks were obvious. "Is that..."

"A Barbary corsair. Yes."

Copyright © 2014 by Mary Robinette Kowal


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