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Numismancer:

A PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS?

Ian Elliot was only planning on coming home to Edinburgh for a few days. Just long enough to get his father off his back. Lord Elliot is a member of the Scottish Parliament, the likely next minister of health, fanatically dedicated to the pursuit of an independent Scotland with an independent coinage, and deeply disappointed in his son’s life choices. Which might explain why Ian lives in Brussels, where he works for the European Union as a banker.

Or it might not. Ian was a gifted artist once, with an eye for seeing things no one else could: hobs, redcaps, green men, and every other flavor of faerie. At first he loved the visions, but time and age transformed inspiration into nightmares that haunted his nights and stalked his days. Add in his father’s ever-deepening obsession with Scottish coinage, and his insistence that Ian’s problems could be cured by applied numismatics, and it’s no wonder that Ian seeks psychiatric help.

When the best counseling the Elliot’s money could buy didn’t help, Ian fled Scotland and his father’s monomania. It was a desperate move, but one that paid off. In the two years since his last visit, Ian hasn’t seen so much as a single pixie, and no one has tucked a rare shilling into his socks in ages.

But now that he’s home, the visions are back with a vengeance, and Ian is terrified that he’s going to be sucked back into the family madness. Then one of his “visions” kills the Independence Scotland candidate for Prime Minister, and Ian is forced into a whirlwind confrontation with his past, his ex, his father’s numismatic obsessions, his understanding of reality, and, ultimately, faerie and his own future.

Excerpt Chapter One:

Ian’s empty whisky glass hit the tray table with a harsh clink. His hands were shaking. As he took a deep breath and tried to still them his glance fell on the cuff of his suit coat and then quickly flicked away. Underneath was the watch he absolutely refused to check because every time he looked, unreasonably large amounts of time had slipped past, bringing him closer to Glasgow and the end of his flight.

Too soon. Even with the usual airport rituals involving declaration of goods and collection of baggage, he had at best an hour or two of grace. Once he cleared security he would be home again after two years away. Home…and into the fire. Donal would be waiting outside the security exit, ready to take his suitcase and escort him straight to the car and his father who would whisk him off to Edinburgh.

Lord Robert Elliot, KT, MD, and most importantly, MSP, Member of Scottish Parliament, was a difficult man to call father. Being trapped in a car with him for an hour wasn’t quite the last place in the world Ian wanted to be, but it certainly held a place in the worst ten. Ian wouldn’t hit number one on that list until they reached their destination: a speech by Alexander MacGillivray, head of Independence Scotland and would-be prime minister of a Scotland divorced from all entanglements, whether they be British or more broadly European.

As shadow minister of health, Lord Elliot, with his rarely-seen son in tow, would be guaranteed some of the best seats in the house. They would certainly appear on the broadcast of the event. Ian sighed. Nothing like coming home to a televised appearance in the heart of enemy territory. If anyone among Ian’s own Euroscotia fellows remembered what he looked like, they’d wonder what the hell he was doing. Fortunately, the chances of that were slim. He believed in Euroscotia’s platform of tight integration with the European Union, and he’d been an active member while he still lived in Edinburgh. But he didn’t really have any close friends in the movement and his participation had faded to the mailing of checks at irregular intervals.

Ian rubbed his eyes. Then he finally gave in and checked his watch. Fifteen minutes to landing, and two hours to hell. He glared around the plane, wondering if any members of his father’s nutcase cabal were on board. He had his suspicions about the elderly woman three rows back. She had tucked some sort of heavy medallion into her collar before she started knitting. It might just be a St. Christopher’s medal, but…

Ian shook his head. Not even back in the country yet, and he was already seeing plots. What would Doctor MacAlpine say? Probably something about staying on his meds. Ian imagined having to listen to his father’s mutterings about some hidden them or one of his endless diatribes on keeping the coinage pure, and he shuddered.

The motion generated a slight pressure in his bladder, and he unclicked his seatbelt only to have the captain announce they were starting their descent and ask everyone to return to their places. With a sigh, he buckled himself in again. It wasn’t that urgent.

Later, as he collected his bags, Ian pondered dawdling on the airport side of customs long enough to miss the rally. But that was no good. He knew from past experience that if he skulked around there for too long after debarking, he’d end up having a long and unpleasant talk with the boys from the British Transport Police. As the customs lines flowed with an efficiency and speed he couldn’t bring himself to admire, Ian felt a growing disturbance in his stomach, like someone was gently rotating the contents.

Nerves, he told himself impatiently. A part of him refused to accept that explanation, but Ian ignored it. He was very good at blocking off the portion of his soul that whispered things strange and dark in the back of his head. He’d had lots of practice, especially since he left Scotland for Brussels and his European Central Bank job.

He found his thoughts drifting back to his two years in the art department at Edinburgh University, and to Katy MacLean. Katy with her long black hair and her dark eyes that seemed to sparkle like crystalline night. No. He was not going to think about that again. He started running conversion factors in his head to distract himself—the euro vs. the dollar, the euro vs. the Swiss franc and—of all the bloody idiocies—the euro against the pound.

When Donal met him on the other side of customs, he was wearing a 1590s bawbee on his tie clip, no doubt on Lord Elliot’s orders. The ancient Scottish sixpence had been placed in a jeweler’s setting like some gemstone, so as to keep it pristine. If Ian’s half-mad father was running true to form, Donal would have at least two more antique Scottish coins on his person somewhere. The very idea of all that superstitious nonsense intruding itself into his life again made Ian grind his teeth. He was a banker now, and damned good at it—one of the powerful gray men of finance. Money was a means of keeping score, nothing more.

“Master Elliot.” Donal bobbed a hello and took Ian’s bag. “Good to see you home.”

“I won’t be staying,” replied Ian.

Donal’s blue eyes widened in mock surprise as the corner of his mouth twisted itself into a half-smile.

Ian relented. “Sorry, Donal. It’s good to see you too.” Rather surprisingly, it was.

Donal Scobie had been Lord Elliot’s driver and valet for longer than Ian had been alive. As often as not, it had been Donal who took Ian out to the park or to the museum when he was a boy. A former drill sergeant for the Gordon Highlanders, he had also taught Ian his marksmanship and the rudiments of self-defense. It was all done at Lord Elliot’s behest, of course, but Ian had still loved his time with Donal.

As a boy, Ian had assumed his father was grooming him for an army career, and he’d tried to emulate Donal’s military bearing. In his late fifties now, Donal still walked with his spine rigidly straight and his chin held high in the disciplines of a lifetime. He was skinnier than ever, almost cadaverous, and his thinning hair had finished its transition to gray since the last time Ian had seen him.

As he stepped outside, Ian flipped the collar of his trenchcoat up against the sudden bite of damp and chill. It was June 5th, but it was also Glasgow. As usual, it was raining—not big heavy drops, but a sort of light mist that could soak a person through with deceptive speed. Ian almost smiled. He’d actually missed the weather, though most of his countrymen would call him crazy for it. The rain seemed a good omen.

He hadn’t wanted to come home at all. In Brussels he was treated like an adult with a responsible job, one that required delicate skills of negotiation and compromise. In Scotland, people saw him as little more than Lord Elliot’s son. Even Ian thought of himself that way, always referring to his father by his title instead of using his first name or calling him da’ like the other boys did with their fathers.

No, Ian hadn’t wanted to come home, but his father had sent the plane tickets and he had been unwilling to defy the old man so openly. Lord Elliot wouldn’t recognize a compromise if the terms were branded into his forehead, and refusing the trip would have been read as a declaration of war. Ian shook his head and went back to trying to convince himself the trip would work out all right.

As they neared the Elliots’ old Bentley, Ian noticed a dark shape bent over beside the left rear wheel. Something about the tableau made his stomach—which had started to calm—take a sudden turn for the worse.

“Hey there!” Donal thrust Ian’s bag back into his hands and hurried forward. “What are you after!?”

Ian tried to follow, but the whirling turbulence in his gut had worsened and he had to lean against a parked lorry to keep from going to his knees. As Donal approached the hunched figure, he twitched his left arm, and Ian knew the Special Boat Services commando dagger he always kept in a wrist sheath now lay in his hand.

What was going on? As far as Ian could tell, it was just an old drunk leaning over to throw up. At least, that’s what the rational part of his mind told him.

With a startled hiss, the bum—it had to be a bum, didn’t it? —rose to his feet and thrust a hand in Donal’s direction. Ian’s world changed, going a fuzzy blue around the edges, like an image seen through a poorly ground lens. Involuntarily, his finger went to the jagged scar at the corner of his left eye.

Then, though he desperately wanted the figure to be human, Ian could no longer make himself believe it. The creature was too tall and too slender, and far too beautiful. A mane more flame than hair billowed around its face, tossed by a witchwind Ian couldn’t feel. Eyes like sunlit rubies stared out of a face the color of frozen milk. A narrow jaw and high cheekbones gave it the silhouette of an angel or a tall ship. Rose-petal lips were drawn back from shining white teeth in a smile both lordly and terrifying. It was clothed in garments of smoke that blew wildly in the otherworldly wind. The hand that reached toward Donal held a dagger like the jet of fire at the tip of a blowtorch, and Ian felt certain his friend would fall beneath it.

Donal brought his right hand up in a gesture that Ian recognized as a parry. That can’t be right, he thought. Donal was left-handed—the hand that held his knife. But something in his off hand blazed like a tear shed by the sun and the creature fell back before it. As if from a great distance, Ian could hear Donal speaking in a language he recognized as Gaelic, though he did not understand the words. The creature threw down its dagger and leaped backward. The weapon struck a puddle with a hiss, raising a great cloud of steam. When the air cleared, the thing was gone. That, or it had never been. Ian felt himself blacking out.

When he came around, he was half-lying, half-sitting in the back of the Bentley. Lord Elliot himself sat across from him wearing a stern and all too familiar frown. Ian could feel the road rumbling underneath him and the sway as Donal changed lanes. His stomach felt worlds better, and the whole incident had started to fade into colorlessness in his memory—like sepia-toned photos of something that had happened to someone else long ago. Ian forced himself to sit up. Then, he mentally pushed the memory into the part of his soul that he had put in deep freeze the summer Katy left him.

He had gone a little mad at the time. The school psychiatrist had diagnosed it, first as hallucinations, then as paranoid schizophrenia, and she had heartily approved of his change of major from fine arts to economics. She’d told him that changing his focus might help put the episode behind him. She’d also given him a prescription for the antipsychotic, clozapine, which seemed to help.

Ian had still occasionally seen things that weren’t there, but he’d been better able to ignore them. Not painting had helped too. If he didn’t put color into his visions by laying them out on canvas, they faded faster, and he could tuck them away in the black and white gallery frozen in the back of his mind. Moving to Brussels was even better. The visions hadn’t followed him to the continent and he’d finally been able to go off his meds with no apparent ill effects. He’d even taken up a number of his old pastimes again, though he’d been too scared to try painting.

Now he wondered if any of the clozapine he’d kept hidden under the floorboards in his rooms at the Elliot townhouse remained. He thought he remembered parking a mostly full bottle there rather than try to sneak it past Lord Elliot on his way to the airport and Brussels. It had been hard keeping his illness from his father, but he couldn’t imagine telling Lord Elliot about his visions, not with the old man’s own coin-centric obsessions.

What if he had believed Ian’s visions were true? That scared Ian more than anything. Bad enough he had to fight his own quiet battle with mental illness without pulling others in to drown with him. Ian stared at the floor of the car now, firmly pushing the image of a white face surrounded by flaming hair out of his mind. He needed to focus on the here and now, the real, if he wanted to survive this visit home.

“Good evening, my lord.” The last time he’d called this man father was the year he turned seven, just before Ian’s mother died.

“Hello, son. Feeling better?” The old man’s voice was rough and a bit breathy, but he still spoke every word as a command.

“Sorry about that. I seem to be having some stomach problems, maybe food poisoning.”

“You will be well enough for the rally?”

Ian knew what response was expected of him. Though he would have liked nothing better than to say no, he nodded. “Yes. I’ll be fine. It was a passing thing, really.”

Ian found himself wishing he could read his father’s face. It should have been easy for someone who had once been such a promising young artist. Everyone always commented how much alike they looked, and Ian couldn’t deny it. In his father’s sea gray eyes, he saw the mirror of his own. Likewise, they shared the same slightly florid complexion and oval face, though Lord Elliot’s was now running a bit to fat and he’d developed jowls.

Both of them had curly unruly hair, and even now, at sixty-three, Lord Elliot’s remained the same dark brown as Ian’s. Broad shoulders and an athletic bent had led them both into rugby and other sports—the trophy case in his lordship’s study was brim full. Yet despite all the similarities they could never seem to communicate. Lord Elliot’s inner thoughts and dreams remained closed to his son, like one of those box-coins his father collected—matched pairs of coins hollowed out and screwed together to hide some small treasure.

“Good.” Lord Elliot nodded approval. “This is an important event. I want you at my side to show the family colors.”

“Of course.” Ian sighed.

This was exactly what he needed: to be seen at a rally for one of the European Union’s chief detractors in Scotland. His bosses at the European Central Bank would simply love it. The political party Ian belonged to agreed with Independence Scotland on the issue of freedom from English rule—pretty much all of Scotland did at this point—but wanted it to come within the context of European Union membership and a merged currency. That affiliation was a natural choice for a man with Ian’s job and the convictions that went with it, but the worst sort of anathema to the old guard of Lord Elliot’s fellows. Of course, Ian had known all that when he agreed to come home, and also that none of it would matter to his father.

A taut silence followed while the two Elliots simply stared at each other. Lord Elliot knew how Ian felt about Independence Scotland and the issue of Union, and that Ian knew it. They had certainly argued about it often enough before the older man had forbidden the topic. Now, more often than not when they met, it was like this—a staring match.

As usual, Ian broke first, shifting his gaze back to the floor of the car while he slipped his coat off. A moment later he heard a snort, though whether it signified satisfaction at winning the bout or disappointment at Ian’s easy surrender, he couldn’t say. Suddenly, a thick-fingered hand was shoved under his nose, palm up, the fingers closed around something. Ian sighed but didn’t look up. He knew what came next.

“You left this on your dresser.” Lord Elliot’s fingers opened to expose a worn gold coin: a 1539 forty-shilling piece, or ducat, issued by James V of Scotland, and the very first such coin to bear a date stamp.

It was sometimes called a “bonnet” because of the flat cap worn by the king in the portrait. They were officially worth two to three thousand pounds apiece because of their rarity. But Ian knew that there were quite a few more out there than officially existed, mostly held by various of his father’s mad cronies.

“Sorry.” Ian didn’t touch the coin.

“It’s weaker in Brussels, being foreign there, but you should still keep it with you at all times. While you are at home, in this kingdom, you will take it.”

Ian wanted to argue, but here lay the core of his father’s mania. All fighting about it would accomplish was to anger an old man who had already had one heart attack. Ian took the coin wordlessly, holding it tight in his right hand as he swallowed anew all the arguments he’d already made and lost.

The motion of the Bentley had shifted to the stop-and-go pattern of city traffic at some point during the earlier silence. The jouncing involved reminded Ian that he still hadn’t made it to the loo yet. For security reasons, there weren’t any before the baggage claim area, and after, Ian had forgotten about it amidst the annoyance when he’d spotted the bawbee on Donal’s tie. Now, he regretted the lapse.

He considered asking Donal to stop at a restaurant or something, but just then they made a hard right and began to climb. Ian blinked and looked out the window in surprise. The castle loomed above them on the right. South Bridge already? He must have been unconscious longer than he’d thought. A few minutes later, the Bentley rolled to a stop outside Buccleuch Hall on the University of Edinburgh campus. They had arrived.