Minerva shut the door behind her, pulled off her hat to shake out her hair, and then did a double-take at the other person in the room.
She had paid a premium for the use of one of the inn's private rooms, giving the innkeeper a vague explanation about needing a quiet space to prepare for her performances. Further incentive for a lack of questions had been paid, possibly overpaid. This had thus far failed to make a dent in Minerva's travel funds; sleepy little villages in the English countryside hardly saw the sort of money that regularly exchanged hands with nary a glance in the metropolises.
The woman casually leafing through the large leatherbound tome Minerva had left on the desk was surely no servant. A surreptitious glance at the strongbox indicated no sign of the lock being forced; whatever the woman was here for, money was not on the list. And the woman herself seemed entirely unsurprised to see Minerva, carefully closing the book and replacing it on the desk. "Miss Minerva Margatroid?"
"I'm afraid you have the advantage of me, madam," Minerva said, leaving out the obvious followup of "and who the hell are you?" The woman was attired almost garishly, in a long pink and purple dress with strange designs on the front. Her long blonde hair was coiled up inside her light pink mob cap, decorated with a thin red ribbon. A pink lace parasol hung from one arm, while the other held a folded-up paper fan. If Minerva had to guess, she would have assumed a strong Oriental influence, mixed liberally with Continental styles.
The woman smiled; it seemed like an expression she had learned by rote. "My apologies for intruding. Violet Hearn, if it pleases you. We have not met before, but your reputation precedes you."
"Does it now." Something about Violet's mannerisms seemed off, even though Minerva could not quite place her finger on it. Her accent was unidentifiably foreign, as were her choices of words, with the hint of the exotic often attributed to the lady adventurers in those shilling dreadfuls the stationers hawked. Her clothes were certainly outlandish, but there was something about her general appearance which put Minerva on edge...
"Of course. It took me a great deal of trouble to discover your present whereabouts, but I spared no expense. And surely you agree that a small country fair like this one is hardly the best stage for one of the greatest magicians of the world?"
Minerva's attention snapped back to the present. "I don't know what you're talking about, I'm sure," she said coldly. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave my room. And may I add, madam, that it is unworthy for any lady of breeding to rifle through another's belongings and literature like some common thief."
Violet's smile remained insolently in place, as did her person. "Pray do not be too hasty in dismissing my offer," she said, as though reading off a mental script. "I am no charlatan or trickster, and I assure you that my interest in your particular skills is wholly sincere. I have no small claim as a practitioner of the art myself, but the problem set before me is insurmountable, save by-"
Minerva silently opened the door, and stood by it, waiting.
Violet lowered her eyelids. "Very well, then. As a show of my goodwill, I shall depart for now." She reached into... Minerva tried not to let her confusion show, maintaining her haughtily indignant facade for the sake of getting this intruder out of her room, but it had to be some hidden pocket in her dress somewhere, and Minerva was simply too tired to have caught the sleight of hand... and laid a piece of paper onto the desk, beside the book. "I shall be in the village for the next few days. It's a lovely place, isn't it? Quiet and idyllic. Much better than the hustle and bustle of London, where the air is simply intolerable..." Still reciting off that internal script, Violet descended the stairs down to the first floor of the inn, and out of sight.
Minerva shut the door once more, and quickly strode over to the desk. She flipped through the book, scanning the handwritten pages, searching for any evidence of tampering. The book was her life's work, and she had been careful not to let anyone else handle it, save those she trusted implicitly, and that Violet Hearn person was certainly not in that class of acquaintance. Luckily, Minerva had left out certain key elements to the descriptions in the book, more out of magical prudence than anything else, but it did have the added benefit of preventing any casual plagiarist from making use of the techniques within...
Everything looked fine. No obvious signs of additions or subtractions to the contents of the book, at least.
Almost as an afterthought, Minerva picked up the piece of paper Violet had left behind. Expecting nothing more than an address to contact, or perhaps some overwrought drivel intended to convince her of whatever Violet had been selling, Minerva glanced briefly at it as she began to crumple the paper.
She stopped, eyes wide. Smoothing the paper back out, she leafed through the book, stopping at a certain design. She compared it to the sketch on the piece of paper, her finger tracing over the lines, lips moving silently in incantation...
The sound of knocking at her door startled Minerva out of her studies. It turned out to be the innkeeper, who had the uncertain expression of someone not quite believing their latest stroke of good fortune, and expecting the other shoe to drop at any moment.
"Begging your pardon, Mistress Margatroid, but I'd just like to thank you for your kindness, and, uh, we'll do our best to make ourselves worthy of your generosity. The missus is cooking up a feast right now, but she'd like to know if you'd be joining everyone for supper?"
Head still full of thaumaturgical theory, Minerva could only gape at him. "I'm sorry?"
The innkeeper writhed. "Only you've been having your meals in your room, which is your right, I'd never be saying otherwise, but your friend, uh, Mistress Hearn, said that you wanted to treat all the guests at our humble village fair to the best supper they've ever had, and she's already given us the payment, so we were wondering if we could show our appreciation. Our Shawn's been watching your puppet-show every day, and skipping his chores, but I'll not begrudge him that now, begging your pardon, mistress."
Minerva resisted the urge to slam the door in the poor innkeeper's face and get back to her work. She put on her most dazzling stage smile instead, and nodded. "I would certainly be happy to join everyone else tonight," she said, while wondering whether she actually meant it. "Please do inform me when supper is ready. Until then, Goodman, I need to prepare for... tomorrow's performance, and I'd appreciate it if I were not to be disturbed."
After the innkeeper fled in relief, Minerva forced herself to pace the small room for a few circuits, stopping midway to toss the heavier parts of her performance regalia onto the bed. Once she felt she had sufficiently calmed down, she went to the pile of luggage in the corner, and rooted around until she found a thick packet of papers. Emptying it out onto the desk, she spread out her preliminary notes, with the sketch Violet had left behind on top, and went to work.
The next day, after the show in the morning, Minerva found Violet admiring, with all apparent enthusiasm, the best specimens of produce the local farms had set out proudly on display. The farmhand with the evilly gap-toothed grin manning the stall seemed oblivious to Violet's strange fashion; perhaps he believed all city folk dressed like that.
"It seems you've done me something of a favour, Miss Hearn," Minerva said conversationally.
Violet turned, the lower half of her face hidden behind her paper fan, but the smile of delight was obvious in her eyes. "Just a token of my sincerity," she said. "I enjoyed your little magic show, by the way."
Minerva had not seen Violet in the crowd, and she had been looking. "Thank you. I believe you have something you wish to discuss?"
The two women strolled in what seemed like a randomly-picked direction that nevertheless brought them away from the bustle of the rest of the festival. "Power is the problem," Violet mused, apropos of nothing. "Power enough to maintain the flow."
"So I've discovered," Minerva said. "The note you left me helped me realize what I was missing from that design. And what I was missing is not something that can be solved by a few extra drawings."
"You've been quite efficient in your designs," Violet said equably. "In fact, I don't think anyone else's style can make use of as little power as yours can, to put out a much greater effect."
"Miss Hearn, I would suggest that we not waste any more time on small talk. What do you want?"
Violet snapped her paper fan shut. "As I've mentioned yesterday, I wish to make use of your talents, Miss Margatroid. Your abilities are wonderfully suited for the great task set before us, particularly since power is very much wanting."
They had stopped in the middle of a copse of trees; Minerva's long blue stage dress snagged on the low branches and thorns, but Violet's far more complex outfit appeared to flow easily through the tangles.
"If you're looking for efficiency," Minerva said, nettled, "Reed is in London."
"Reed has already left for the Orient," Violet countered. "Hong Kong, if I'm not mistaken. He is not available. You, on the other hand..."
"... have yet to hear anything which concerns me. I am waiting, Miss Hearn."
Violet lowered her gaze, conceding the point. "Very well. To summarize, I require assistance in saving humans from monsters."
Silence descended, broken only by the distant sounds of revelry in the village.
"If you hadn't already proven yourself with your grasp of the theory of magic," Minerva said distantly, "I'd be walking back to the village right now. I recommend that you do not over-extend your credit, Miss Hearn."
"My apologies. I thought that might have gotten your attention. I would rather say... I know of a way to save a certain beleaguered group of humans from the monsters hunting them. Perhaps 'monsters' is not quite the right word... they bear more in common with your fae, from the old tales." Violet shifted her parasol to her other hand. "I haven't seen many of them around in my time here, I should add."
Minerva waved a hand vaguely. "The... power is receding. The magic is not as strong as it used to be. I still understand the theory, but unless I am provided with an alternate source..."
"Oh, I don't mean here in England, Miss Margatroid. The work here has already been done. Begun in Wiltshire in times long past, and there may be a little tremor somewhere around Essex soon... the basic principle is the same. Your churches may be many things, but when they are of a mind, they can be... efficient." Violet sighed. "The issue is, and has always been, power and control. I need your magic, Miss Margatroid. Not your puppet-shows in little country villages, that would think nothing of holding their own witch trials if they knew what you are truly capable of."
"They are not so superstitious," Minerva protested, even as uncertainty coloured her words.
"Oh, no doubt. This is, after all, the age of enlightenment, and no longer do housewives have to put milk out for the piskies, or children walk home with salt in one pocket and bread in the other. We dare go a-hunting, for there is no more fear of little men. Wouldn't you want the same for those still threatened by their... superstitions?"
Minerva looked away, towards the village.
"You needn't make your decision immediately, of course." Violet extracted a large package from... somewhere... and handed it to Minerva. Inside were travel documents, banknotes in various denominations and currencies, and a few books. "Provided you do intend to aid me, you will find the necessary travel arrangements in that package, and more than enough petty cash for the majority of any foreseeable needs. The ship leaves Southampton at the end of next month, so you have until then to decide."
"Ship?" Minerva gently replaced the items back into the package. "Where is this... monster infestation?"
"Oh? I must have forgotten to mention it; my apologies. The community of humans you will have to save is in a rural area of Japan."
"Just so," Violet said calmly. "I would advise you to make your arrangements quickly, Miss Margatroid. If, of course, you agree to my proposal; otherwise, you may keep the money and items in that package as a souvenir." The fan hid Violet's mouth. "Of what may have been."
"You expect me to venture halfway across the globe to a land I have never seen, in a language I do not speak, and solve your little problem?"
"You will not be alone," Violet said, turning away. "Someone will be waiting for you at Edo... I beg your pardon, I meant Tokyo. From there... we shall see. The decision, Miss Margatroid, is yours and yours alone." Stepping easily and lightly, Violet started making her way back to the village.
The year was 1884, under the reign of Queen Victoria. The smell of spring filled the country air. Minerva closed her eyes, listening to the distant sounds of the village fair and festival, listening to the voices raised in celebration and haggling, listening to the streams and brooks flowing towards the river, listening to the calls of the creatures of the forest welcoming the end of winter.
"I need to get out of here," she muttered.