KDR 5: Hark The Herald

on May 3, 2012 in Kin & Distant Relations, Other Tales


Deciding on a concrete course of action always made Dan Harris feel better about things for a little while.

Specifically, it made him feel better until the time came to implement that course of action.

More specifically, it made him feel better until he realized that he had no idea how to actually implement that course of action.

His problem, he reflected, was that he let his mouth do all the thinking. Mouths aren’t very big on long-term planning, or even near-time planning. They’re all about movement: food in, words out, and his mouth had never been particularly bothered about the food.

He had certainly employed more than a dash of empty bravado in his attempts to reassure his wife. That wasn’t to say that he’d been wrong about it… it was more to say that he didn’t know if he’d been right. He’d picked up on a few things about how the lower ranks of the upper classes did things during his time with Dell’s family, but he’d grown up as a commoner.

Not just that, but he’d grown up on a series of airships. This upbringing had imparted in him a certain savviness, a quickness of thinking and a customary care for how and where he stepped. It had done little to prepare him to move in the circles that Sir Aidan Harris the First might be expected to negotiate.

He didn’t know if dropping a few titles and a bag of gold onto a desk would be enough to get Aidan in the door, much less prompt the kind of pomp he wanted to provoke before… and if he handled it wrong the first time, there might not be a chance to get it right.

Growing up on an airship had taught him quite a bit on the subject of things you only had one shot at.

Luckily, Dell’s concerns had been sufficiently assuaged for the matter to stand tabled through the rest of the weekend. The second thing he did when he got to work on Monday was commandeer an empty office so he could have a little private face-time with someone else’s reflection. The first thing he did was turn Martindale out of his office, so he could have an empty office to commandeer.

“Well, it’s like this, Bob,” he said to the image of his father-in-law. “We need to make your grandson feel sort of, well, special…”

“Oh? And here I thought the idea was to help the lad feel normal,” Lord Robert Corvir replied.

There were reasons that Robert got on well with his son-in-law. Most of them didn’t actually have anything to do with the way that Dan’s landing in his family’s life had improved their fortunes and standing.

“In the great generality of things, yes,” Dan said. “But in this specificity, we want him to know that he’s wanted. Really, truly wanted. You can understand why that might be, surely?”

“Ah, yes, of course I do,” Robert replied, nodding sagely. He was wrong, of course, but he couldn’t know that, and Dan was content to let him think that this was about Aidan’s status as an adopted child.

“We would like to give him an education outside of the village, you see,” Dan said. “Dell doesn’t think they’ll treat our boy right here, and I don’t half blame her for feeling that way. We want to give him a chance to get outside this small-town mindset and stretch his wings… metaphorically.”

“Yes, but at his age, it could be a delicate proposition. He could well be nervous if he thinks he’s being sent away,” Robert said. “But if he can see that schools are fighting over him, trying to outdo each other and prove their worth to him…”

“That is more or less exactly the plan,” Dan said. “But the schools we want to get into… well, they wouldn’t look twice at the son of an accountant and a mana-monkey, unless the second time was to make sure their eyes weren’t playing a cruel trick on them.”

“Dan, I know you know there’s more to both of you than that, so I won’t waste time giving you unneeded assurances,” Robert said. “But I fear you’re right about the impression you’re likely to make, and the reception you’d get. Still, you do have some social capital you could engage. You don’t have to apply as Mr. and Mrs. Mana-Monkey.”

“Now we’re leafing our way towards the same page,” Dan said. “The problem is, I don’t know how to use this social capital. Dell’s barely got me trained on the use of capital letters. If I know anything about the upper crust, it’s that they can spot an upstart with a recently acquired title a mile away, and they have no use for parvenus and danny-come-latelies from amongst the hoi polloi.”

“Well, you can’t be worse at playing the part of a distinguished gentleman than you are at playing the unlettered tradesman,” Robert said, his eyes twinkling. “But you know, even the landed aristocracy don’t try to navigate the currents of high society alone. Like everything, they have people for that.”

“And can people like me get people like that?”

“Dan, in the modern age, people with money can get anything… that’s why the upper crust is so crusty these days,” he said. “There are plenty of people skilled in the courtly arts who have realized they can make more money for less work by selling their services to the teeming masses than the hoarding few. The masses have less money, but there are so many more of them.”

“That’s one of the better qualities of masses, in my opinion,” Dan said. “So, what do I need? A butler? A valet? A batman? An aide-de-camp? A gentleman’s gentlem…?”

“Dan, I know you don’t like feeling out of your depths, but you don’t need to prove your vocabulary to me,” Robert said. “I know you’ve as fine a mind as any, and better than most. And as it happens, no. If you were intending to join polite society full-time, then yes, you would need such a person. For this, you just need someone who can help you make the right impression. For this, you need a herald.”

“There are… freelance heralds?”

“Dan, I told you: in this day and age, there are freelance everything. In the bigger isles, even the tax collectors can hire out for their duties, if they’re rich enough.”

“I know about freelance tax collectors,” Dan said. “They’re called brigands.”

“Listen, I know an old fellow who quit the aristocratic service and settled in your neck of the empire,” Robert said. “Well, no further away than the clavicle. You would have to pay his travel expenses and put him up, but if you’re looking to get Aidan into a good school then this will probably be one of the smaller expenses you incur along the way.”

“Money is a very small and distant object, your Bobship,” Dan said.

“His name is Willoughby.”

“That his first name or last name?”

“It’s the last name he’ll ever give anyone,” Robert said. “He’s fairly choosy about his clientele, but you won’t go wrong by remembering me to him at the outset. Let me give you his address… he responds to written correspondence only.”

“Tell me again all about this modern age of ours?”

“If he didn’t have one foot in the past, he wouldn’t be useful to you,” Robert said.

“Point taken.”


Dan sent his inquiry via portal post, following Lord Robert’s recommendations as to such particulars as the weight of the parchment and the thickness of the envelope and the existence of a wax seal, which after some thought he had ended up pressing using a key fob that bore the insignia of the Lefton Imperial Airworks. Even with instantaneous confirmed delivery, it was three days before he received a reply.

The letter was brief and to the point. It was a list of the finer details of what would constitute acceptable accommodations and the time and date for them to be ready by.

There was a boarding house on the edge of Lefton with a suite of rooms that met Willoughby’s standards, and Dan secured them for him. There had been no mention of sending a reply and the letter had seemed so definite that Dan figured it would be redundant. He had been accepted by Willoughby and that was it… to acknowledge that he accepted the old herald’s terms would probably insult him, by suggesting that there was ever any possibility they could be negotiable.

At the appointed hour, he met Willoughby at the air coach stop. The herald was old and silver-haired and faintly elven. He called Dan “sire” in a way that made it clear this was a general form of address he used for clients, not a personal statement of any kind.

“Would you like me to leave you alone to settle in?” Dan asked Willoughby once he’d nodded once in satisfaction at the rooms.

“No, sire, if you have no more pressing business, I’d like to get on with it,” Willoughby said. “My services are very much in demand. I’m only here as a favor to Lord Robert. Now, you’ve explained what you need, but there are some details that you left out of your inquiry. Important details.”

“I’m not prepared to discuss my reasons,” Dan said. “This is work for hire, you don’t need to know them.”

“Well, of course I don’t, sire,” Willoughby said. He had a trick of verbally rolling his eyes while his expression remained fixedly reverential. Dan would have held him upside down over an active volcano if he thought he could shake the secret of it out of him that way. “You told me your title and honors, but you did not say if you have a coat of arms. Your son, of course, can use the Corvir family one, but employing it would require the awkward circumlocution of penning the letter in his name.”

“My wife is Bob Corvir’s daughter,” Dan said. “Why couldn’t she use it?”

“Sire, you answered the question before you asked it,” Willoughby said. “And you’ve answered mine as well. Not to fret, however.”

“No?”

“Indeed not, sire. A good letterhead can be as important as a coat of arms, these days,” the elderly gentleman informed him, in a tone that suggested that while it could be, it usually wasn’t. “A gentleman and hero of the empire is entitled to a coat of arms, of course, and there would be much to draw from, even without Lord Robert’s shield. You have quite a colorful history…”

“We, er, would rather keep things simple,” Dan said. “The best deceptions usually are.”

“It wouldn’t be a deception, though,” the herald said. “You’re fully entitled.”

“Yes, but I don’t intend to go through life using my full entitle, don’t you see?” Dan said.

“Of course,” the herald said, in a tone that suggested the opposite. “Well, if you want simple, perhaps it’s for the best. The new thing… the current thing… is to be very understated. These things follow a cycle, you see. People begin adding more titles and devices to their stationery, and then it reaches a point where a third of the page is taken up with scrollwork and minutiae, and then someone… someone whose position is lofty enough that he can afford to not remind others of exactly who he is… will roll it all back, as it were, to a simple heading written in a bold, clean script with only a little flourish. If you’d tried to enroll your son in a school five years ago or five years hence, it would be a bad time to employ stark simplicity, but plainness in stationery is very respectable right now.”

“Well, if nothing else, that means the lad has a keen sense of timing,” Dan said. “We’ll be sure to mention that on his applications.”

“Now, the thing that’s going to be tricky is that it would be gauche to mention your own specific accomplishments in a letter of inquiry,” the herald said. “That’s not to say that no one would do such a thing, but… it isn’t done. And your achievements will count for more if you don’t put them forward yourself. ‘Hero of the Empire’ falls into an unfortunate limbo of being a title without a style. Signing your letters ‘Sir Aidan Harris, Hero of the Empire’ would seem a tad… ostentatious.”

“Well, I hired you on because I need to get it across somehow,” Dan said. “I’ve been in the news before but I’m not exactly a household name, you know.”

“I do know, indeed. You are quite far from being one, in certain households,” he said. “If your goal were to receive an introduction to higher society, it would be difficult to achieve, except perhaps as a curiosity piece at a certain kind of garden party. The sorts of people one will find operating even the finer schools in this region, though, will be quite a different matter… and they will be excited at the thought of improving their stock. Remember, it is always easier to impress the upwardly mobile than the, ah…”

” Upwardly stable?” Dan supplied.

“Indeed, sire,” Willoughby said. “And may I say you have quite the wit?”

“You may, but I have a feeling that you shan’t.”

“Now, while it would be appalling of us to remind people of your great deeds too directly, we can do little things to gently jog the memory and subtly stir the curiosity. You were a member of the Merchant Air Marines at the time of the disaster, I think? We can use their device. And the Imperial Air Service’s.”

“I was a lad when I was on those boats,” Dan said. “I was never properly enlisted.”

“Yes, sire, but you see, the rules for the use of naval insignia date back to a time when it more likely would have been impressment than enlistment, and they don’t account for age,” Willoughby said. “You served on an Imperial Airship. Whether or not you were properly a member of the navy is beyond the scope of the question.”

“I was on a Magisterian ship as a babe, can we put their logo on, too?”

“Certainly not, sire,” Willoughby said. “And then, of course, we’ll close with the death’s head and laurel wreath.”

“…the what?”

“It is what you might call a bit of… unofficial heraldry,” Willoughby said. “It is on the books, as it were, though it’s never been officially validated. It is a sign of imperial favor. Anyone who has ever been in the presence may choose to signify it with the death’s head. Anyone who has been offered a boon may add a laurel wreath.”

“…and the master of a school is going to know this?”

“I doubt it, though they will certainly be moved to look it up. Did you know that no living person has been granted more boons by the Unnameable Emperor than you have?”

“Well, three’s the significant number, isn’t it? I’m not the only three-fer.”

“Indeed, no,” Willoughby said. “But it is very rare for a person to be offered multiple boons. It’s impressive.”

“Look, he stared into my eyes for half an hour before he said ‘boo’ to me, to say nothing of sticking an ‘n-s’ on the end of it,” Dan said. “I think the fact that he offered three instead of one is because he had a good sense of what I would do with them. It’s not that I merited them more than the bloke who walked away with one. It’s that he understood that I understood not to ask for anything that would make him regret offering, so he got to appear all magnanimous to the hero of the minute.”

“Your understanding of the imperial mind is awe-inspiring,” Willoughby said. “But none of this will occur to anyone who is delving into your history. They are far more likely to think… ahem… ‘wow, three boons from the emperor!'”

“You have a fair point there, but I thought the idea to keep things clean and simple?”

“It is. Three small devices are quite sufficient, sire,” Willoughby said. “We could, of course, put more, but my thought is that having two fairly common and mundane associations and then the sign of imperial honor will pique the curiosity. If the wreathed skull were merely one of a dozen or so, it might be assumed to be for something frivolous. A simpler arrangement that starkly contrasts it implies a story: you were an airshipman, you had a career on both imperial and civilian ships… so far, so common. But then something quite dramatic happens, you are honored by the emperor, and then you clearly retire to this region and work as a humble inspector.”

“You’ve clearly never heard me inspecting,” Dan said.

“How perfectly drôle,” Willoughby said, employing a word that Dan knew the Merovians used to mean humorous and Metropolitans used for the opposite effect. “The point is that the unspecified event that merited the honor is a question hanging in the air. Your deeds are known, even if they are not well-known. It would be the work of minutes for anyone to learn who you are.”

“Sensible enough,” Dan said, though something bothered him about it… possibly the sensibleness of it. “But we’re going to need to have references, too… given that one is naturally going to be from my father-in-law, wouldn’t that be a more sure-cast way of making sure the story reaches its audience?”

“The things one reads in a letter of reference are both less interesting and less credible than the things one discovers for oneself,” Willoughby said.

“You do have a point about that,” Dan said, nodding thoughtfully.

He was starting to feel like he had a better handle on things. He’d described the whole plan to Dell as though they could treat it as an elaborate con and bluff their way through it. Now he was starting to realize that he’d essentially been right.

“The initial inquiries should be very general, sire,” Willoughby said. “You have a son who is of a certain age, and you hold their institution in some regard and would not look unfavorably if they would be so kind as to forward some information, if they think there may be an opening.”

“Right,” Dan said. “Should I write them and then show them to you, or would you rather I write them here where you can see?”

“I shall write them for your signature, sire,” Willoughby said. “Did Lord Robert not mention that I am a scribe, as well? The fact that your letters are written by a scribe… and not merely ‘scribed’ in the modern parlance… will count for much. Things may move at a speed we cannot control once the wheels begin to roll, though, so we should see to the other preparations first.”

“Other preparations?”

“We shall need to get clothes,” Willoughby said. “There is a teahouse in town. We shall go to it. You will drink tea while I take notes, and then you will take notes while I instruct you.”

“I’ve drunk tea before,” Dan said. “The hot, liquid part goes in the mouth. The hard crunchy part goes back onto the saucer. It’s not difficult, honestly. A Metro could manage it.”

“I’m speaking of matters of poise and comportment while doing so,” Willoughby said. “Once the letters have served their purpose, you can be sure that any time you visit the premises, you will be escorted to a quiet room and offered refreshment. It might be in an office where you will be engaged with chit-chat. It might be in a comfortable salon where you wait, ostensibly alone. Either way, you can be certain you will be observed. After all, anyone can engage the services of a scribe, in this day and age.”

“Scandalous, isn’t it?” Dan said. “Just to be clear: we’re getting my son into school, not passing me off as a duchess, yes?”

“Sire… you said to me that you see no need to go into your reasons, nor would I much care to hear them,” Willoughby said. “But reading between the lines of your query letter, I think there is more at play here than a desire to see your son enrolled. You could buy your way into any school on this island. You, for whatever reason, want to be courted. You want it to mean something if someone behind a somewhat respectable desk thinks they’ve seen the back of you. You want them to chase after you, as it were, in the fashion that is seemly for them to do so. Yes?”

“You’re a good man, Willoughby,” Dan said.

“Then let’s get to it.”


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31 Responses to “KDR 5: Hark The Herald”

  1. peter says:

    Oh, I love this. My favourite chapter of this series.

    Current score: 0
  2. Anne says:

    Very well done!

    Current score: 0
  3. N. says:

    A delicious read.

    Current score: 1
  4. Computer Mad Scientist says:

    I like Willoughby. It’s often fun to read about people being good at their job. And the deliberate ambiguity about how he feels about Dan’s jokes is great too.

    Current score: 0
    • anon says:

      Puts me in the mind of wooster and jeeves. hugh laurie and stephen fry.

      Current score: 0
  5. bangle says:

    Willoughby seems like an awesome character. I love the way he responds to Dan.

    Current score: 0
  6. pedestrian says:

    Once again Alexandra, you have added a wonderful addendum to the TOMU saga.

    Current score: 0
  7. Readaholic says:

    Ooh, I love Willoughby! He makes a nice foil for Dan.

    Heh heh. I had to go look up drole again. Seems the difference between Droll and drole is the difference between funny ha-ha and funny peculiar.

    Current score: 0
    • N'ville says:

      To be droll, we only need to look at the title to this story, Hark The Herald. I personally have not even met a herald, never mind one called Hark.

      For what it is worth, I gain more entertainment from observing the person receiving such wit, than possibly what the person gains by receiving it.

      Hum, just a thought, is that perhaps why Willoughby became a herald?
      His mother christened him Hark!!
      No wonder he will only answer to his surname.

      Current score: 0
      • JS says:

        Hmm…I’m not sure I’m with you on this one. The title, as it is written, seems to me to be a command to listen to the herald. If it were naming someone a comma would be placed after Hark, to indicate so.

        Current score: 0
  8. Zathras IX says:

    Mouths aren’t very big
    On long-term planning, much less
    On near-time planning

    Current score: 1
  9. Kimmi says:

    Willoughby is being deliberately ambiguous, isn’t he?

    Current score: 0
  10. Helge says:

    Willoughby is definitely coming across as someone who knows what they’re doing: not because he knows what seals to use, but because of his apt responses to Dan’s quips and wise cracks. Dan’s jokes have him coming across as someone who sees a need to prove himself, but Willoughby looks right through the act. Very nicely done!

    Current score: 0
  11. TheMonkey says:

    I know his famous role is one of a different type of service, but I can’t help hearing Stephen Fry’s voice when reading Willoughby’s dialogue.

    Current score: 0
  12. Lunaroki says:

    Typo Report

    “You have a fair point there, but I thought the idea * to keep things clean and simple?”

    Missing a “was” after “idea”.

    I have to agree. This Willoughby is a marvelous character. I simply love the way he subtly distances himself from Dan’s less-than-savvy moments without being outright insulting, yet at the same time does a splendid job of teaching Dan to see the why’s and wherefore’s of the sort of performance they are aiming to put on and bringing him on-board with the plan.

    Current score: 0
  13. Christy says:

    Reading Dan, he seems a lot like his sister sometimes. I wish they’d meet.

    And dang it, I was hoping for more Laurel!

    Current score: 0
  14. 'Nym-o-maniac says:

    ‘“I’ve drunk tea before,” Dan said. “The hot, liquid part goes in the mouth. The hard crunchy part goes back onto the saucer. It’s not difficult, honestly. A Metro could manage it.”’

    This passage amused me far more than it should. I really, really love Dan, and Willoughby is looking to be fun, too. I do hope that Dan meets Mack eventually.

    Current score: 0
  15. Krista says:

    So, what do I need? A butler? A valet? A batman?

    A BATMAN???!?! Love it!!! <3

    Current score: 1
  16. Pete Granzeau says:

    “The hoi polloi”–since “hoi” means “the” in Greek, I suppose that the phrase should omit the word “the–“If I know anything about the upper crust, it’s that they can spot an upstart with a recently acquired title a mile away, and they have no use for parvenus and danny-come-latelies from amongst hoi polloi.”

    Current score: 0
    • pedestrian says:

      Yeah, your right Pete but this the way people talk.

      By definition Americans are monolinguistically challenged.

      We’ve mashed up a thousand languages, a number of them dead and unspoken for centuries or longer. And we are constantly redefining the words we have plus creating a flood of new terminology for our evolving culture.

      Current score: 0
    • Leif says:

      Pete wrote: “The hoi polloi”–since “hoi” means “the” in Greek, I suppose that the phrase should omit the word “the–

      But in this case, ‘hoi polloi’ should be read as if said with air quotes, this giving an air of capitalization: The “The Majority” to be quite literal but also to include those who think that they aren’t [common] but quite obviously are and should be.

      It’s like deliberately choosing ‘an’ instead of ‘a’ – driving emphasis through the incorrect grammar of the commons.

      At least, that’s how my unwashed brain takes it.

      Current score: 0
    • You’d be right if I had been using a Greek phrase, but for all practical purposes “hoi polloi” used in this sense is an English word derived from the Greek.

      Current score: 0
  17. William Carr says:

    “Willoughby”.

    Now I can’t get the Twilight Zone episode out of my head.

    One of the few ‘Zones that was actively creepy/negative.

    Current score: 0
  18. Anthony says:

    “A batman” is actually a perfectly legitimate (if somewhat outmoded) term to use in this context. It comes from the British military, and refers to an officer’s personal manservant. It’s basically the role that Alfred plays for… well, you know.

    Current score: 1
    • Erm says:

      A gentleman’s gentleman – a Batman’s batman.

      Current score: 2
  19. Ermarian says:

    “I know about freelance tax collectors,” Dan said. “They’re called brigands.”

    But “brigand” is such an ugly term! Wealth transfer facilitator is so much nicer, don’t you think?

    Current score: 0
  20. Erm says:

    Sir Aidan Harris, Hero of the Empire

    Signing like that requires capital letters and three exclamation marks at the very least.

    signed, AIDAN HARRIS, HERO OF THE EMPIRE!!!

    Current score: 0
    • ASeriesOfWords says:

      Reminds me of Girl Genius…

      Current score: 0
      • Dave says:

        I know what you mean, but Aidan isn’t a bit like Othar Tryggvassen. He’s a lot smarter for one thing!

        Current score: 0
        • anon says:

          His hat would be worthy of note but he would hate to wear it.

          Current score: 0
  21. Elaborate says:

    This chapter pretty much exemplifies my favourite thing about MU: it’s RICH when it comes to information – and in a good way. There are proper details everywhere; the contents of class isn’t skipped over as being unimportant to the story, but you learn about the world along with the characters. At the same time, these details aren’t unimportant – they’re not empty facts, but chains of reasoning, ideas and perspective, complete with their fastening points.

    …I guess what I’m trying to say is that MU actually gives me things to think about – kind of a mental nutrition – which I sincerely appreciate. So, um, thanks for that.

    Current score: 0