The First Letter

from The Adventures of Stark Ravenmadd and Luna Teaque, originally published in AHF Magazine, December 2017

May 12, 1908
The Estate of the Raven

My dearest niece,

        It seems quite difficult to believe that it has already been a month since last we saw one another.  And given that it was under such grievous circumstances, it is with great regret that there is not a happy day we might share together soon.  I am sorry that your first visit to London was to attend a funeral. Though in a way, I suppose it is strangely fortunate. Your father will surely bring you to London for your coming out in two years – to think you are already so close to it! – but in this way you had a chance to view London and perhaps better understand what awaits you.  It will keep you from being intimidated by the city, and no doubt grant you an advantage over your peers. Young women in this day and age need every advantage they can muster.

        Your aunt Amalthea, my poor sister, is showing her strength in the face of her husband’s sudden death.  I know you barely knew your uncle Darien, having only met him at their wedding but two short years ago. Lord Darien Ravenmadde was a good man, if prone to strange fancies and exotic fascinations.  The estate feels more like a museum than a home, if I must be honest – the halls are lined with all manner of antiquities, from suits of strange armor to tapestries from India to pedestals bearing books in languages I am too ignorant to place.  Amalthea wears a noble, stoic face amongst her household and when receiving guests. However, I have heard her leaving her room at night to pace the hallways, and she sits almost despondently through every meal, not touching her food until I berate her to do so.  She has quite persistently asked that I call her Stark, a teasing pet-name that Darien had given her. I am unable to deny her this simple request, though I do not imagine it will much help.

        I recall you mentioning to me that you wished to know how the late Lord Ravenmadde met his end.  There were, after all, some peculiarities to the funeral. You no doubt heard people whisper that no one outside the household had been permitted to assist in the preparations.  Perhaps more striking was the fact that there was no viewing. It must have seemed quite odd that Darien’s coffin was sealed well before anyone arrived.

        I also recall your mother quickly cutting off the conversation.  I understand her impulse to protect you, but while you are still a young lady you are no longer a child.  I am loathe to go against her wishes, but I do feel quite strongly that lying to you on this matter will only promote fear and leave you susceptible to scurrilous and outlandish rumors which will no doubt reach the country by the end of the current season.  This is a matter of the family, and you should be made aware of the strangeness that currently besets us. Take a moment to set the letter down and have someone bring you tea if you find it fortifying. I have much to tell you.

        The truth is, my dearest Winnifred, that we are sorely puzzled as to just what happened to Darien, may his soul find rest.  A week before you came to London, Amalthea – or rather Stark, I suppose – went about her usual morning routine and then went to inquire as to her husband’s whereabouts.  I understand that it is very common for him to stay up all night in the library or in his study, and so she was not concerned that he had never come to bed (I am quite sure that had I a husband, I would find such behaviors bothersome, but that is neither here nor there).  The butler, Owen, confirmed that he had heard commotions off and on in the study during the early morning hours – some shuffling, what might have been a book dropping, the creak of the western windows opening (I understand they need oiled), but had not been summoned. Confident that he was simply earnestly working, Stark put the inquiry aside and proceeded to break her fast and begin her day.  It was not until noon came, and his lordship had still not roused from the study, that Stark began to grow concerned. She went to the door and knocked, inquiring if all was well and if Darien would be joining her for lunch in the garden.

        Stark waited for a response, but none was forthcoming.  Growing more distressed, she went back in search of Owen to seek his assistance in opening the door.  Apparently, the door to Lord Ravenmadde’s study had been especially commissioned and bore not one, but two locks.  Darien was a man known for his eccentricities, and secrecy was one of them. As Darien’s wife, Stark had been entrusted with the stewardship of one of the keys.  Owen, as his lord’s butler and head of staff, had the other. It was so designed to ensure that his lordship was not bothered unless the matter was vitally important.

        Upon opening the door, both Stark and Owen took note of the faint scent of char hanging in the air.  Stark said it reminded her of the scent of paper burning, like when one is building a new fire and needs a scrap of charpaper to set the flame.  The second item they noticed was that Lord Darien was not immediately visible. Fearing he had collapsed, both Stark and Owen rushed forward, ready to offer whatever assistance they could.  Neither of them were prepared for what they found behind his lordship’s desk.

        You will hardly believe it, Winnifred, and I apologize for the gruesome nature of that which I am about to tell you.  Be assured that I would never lie to you regarding such a serious matter, and what I tell you is the truth as it was told to me by your aunt and Owen, both of whom I trust implicitly.  Where they had expected to find a collapsed lord, instead there was a pile of ash, and Lord Darien’s right hand. More than just the hand, the better part of the forearm, still wrapped in the scorched remains of his dressing gown.  The heavy signet of the House of Ravenmadde was still on his third finger, and ink stained the fingertips. However, that was all that was left.

        It was too much for your aunt.  I understand that Stark’s horrified scream reverberated throughout the whole of the manor.  Owen said he had been quite certain she would faint, but she simply fell to her knees beside the pile of ash and ordered Owen to have the grounds searched and contact Scotland Yard.  The investigators spent several days combing the manor and grounds for clues as to what happened. They, in fact, would have still been there during the funeral had Stark not used her position as Lady Ravenmadde to persuade them to cease their investigation long enough for her to honor her husband’s few remains.  They have returned in force since the internment, and continue to find nothing.

        If I have not lost you to disbelief or vapors, dear niece, I will now further explain the oddness of Lord Darien’s passing.  Though it hardly seemed necessary, Stark wanted to see what remained of Darien was properly cared for and called for a mortician.  As you know, your aunt is very progressive in these matters, and I most certainly support her in this. Due to her extreme duress upon the state in which she found her husband, and given that while Stark is a very learned woman she has never studied medicine, it is unsurprising that the mortician found odd details in the remains which Stark had overlooked.  Mainly, that while the robes were charred, the remains of the hand did not look as if they had been burnt much at all. Some singeing of the hair and skin, yes, but it seemed more that the arm had, in fact, been cut. Not only that, it was a very clean cut. So clean, that the mortician is at a loss for what implement could have managed it. Yet there was not more than the barest vestiges of blood on the rug or the floor.

        Also, the ash pile on the floor was so very fine that the mortician could not believe it had once been a person.  He insisted, having seen bodies immolated before, that the remains would not be so much like soft powder. There would be bones, and lumps of metal from his clothing or his wedding band (which Stark assures he wore day and night).  There would also be a great deal more ash. The mortician further insisted that the size and duration of a fire needed for such a feat would have surely burned down the rest of the study and in fact the entire estate!

        Furthermore, it seems the mystery does not end there.  Two days after the funeral, the maid was allowed back into the study to clean it.  I understand that this was permitted once a week, under Owen’s supervision, while Darien was alive.  It was at this time it was discovered that several articles which his lordship kept in a velvet lined case beneath the windows were missing.  Yet they had been removed neatly – the case was locked, and the key to it was still in the top drawer of Lord Darien’s desk. Having never been permitted to open the cases, neither the maid nor Owen could clearly remember what was in them.  Stark, however, had been shown these items during their courtship, and recalled that what was missing consisted of a small, leather bound book, a compass, a sextant, and a ceremonial dagger (which she assures was far too small and ornate to be any sort of serviceable weapon).  These details were presented to the constables, who searched the house yet again but to no avail. There were notes left on the desk, but they seem to have no connection to whatever may have happened, just ramblings on archeological finds as well as personal journal entries that were written with some sort of code.  Stark explained that all of Darien’s diaries were written thusly, and spends her days attempting to unlock their meaning using ciphers that she and Darien studied together.

        This mystery plagues your poor Aunt Stark, and admittedly has come to haunt me somewhat as well.  There must surely be an explanation, but as of right now all the more traditional avenues of investigation and solace have failed us.  As such, I will be staying in London for at least another month while I continue to support my sister and perhaps see if there is some detail we have overlooked in our grief and preparation for mourning.  I know I had promised to return sooner, and this means I will miss your recital at the Cavenaughs’, but I know you will understand why I must stay.

        I hope you are doing well in your studies, and that you do not find yourself too lonely without me.  Though really, my darling, you should see about making friends with the young maids. I am quite sure that your mother will be displeased that I make these suggestions, and would likely be displeased if you followed through with them, but it is not as if she can deny you their company.  A good maid is hard to find, and practicality will persevere in the face of propriety – if she fires every girl you befriend, she’ll have no one left to serve tea. Undoubtedly your mother means well, but she also refused to host a winter fete, and you could have had a lovely time with the neighboring families, as well as garnered invitations to their own celebrations had she not tarried.  I understand she disapproves of what she sees as excess, but she also cannot completely ignore the rules of society and think she won’t suffer for it. But now we are criticizing your mother, and regardless of how deserving she may be, it is not a proper thing for a young lady to be embroiled in.

        I will write you again soon.  Until then, I shall always remain-

Your loving aunt,

Luna Teaque

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