Penelope ("Nell") Strathearn
From New Babbage Department of Records and Archives
Lady Penelope Grace Elizabeth Winterbourne-Strathearn ("Nell") was born on an alternate reality Earth in the Kingdom of Gwynedd in 18-mumble-something. She is the first-born daughter and second child of His Grace Charles Morgan Strathearn, Seventeenth Duke of Strathearn, and Her Grace Emmeline Elise MacArdry Strathearn, née Winterbourne. (Duchess Emmeline is also Countess of Transha in her own right.) Nell had an older brother, Alaisdair, who would've been heir to the House of Strathearn, but his untimely death at the age of 19 left Penelope the heiress to her father's House, a fate she is mostly resigned to, although she still somewhat inwardly rebels against. Her sister Sophronia ("Sophie") is actually her twin, born only a few minutes after Nell. Sophie's fortuitous birth order has allowed her to escape some of the pressures that have been placed on Nell as the Strathearn heiress, although as in most "heir and spare" situations, she has also been groomed for leadership. Due to personality differences, Sophie often comes across as the older, more serious, and more settled of the two sisters, and Nell as the more spirited, independent, and sometimes flighty one (which can lead Nell to be underestimated by those who don't know her). However, despite their quite different natures, the two girls grew up sharing a close bond and dependence on each other's support and counsel. Nell also had a reasonably good relationship with her older brother, although his responsibilities as the Strathearn Heir kept him traveling between their father's estates, so there wasn't quite as much closeness between him and his younger siblings as between the twin sisters.
The world on which Gwynedd is located is one in which a form of magic exists. Those who carry the gene for this Talent are known as Deryni. (If you are familiar with the Deryni series of alternate historical fantasies by Katherine Kurtz, that was the inspiration for Nell's backstory, only Nell is from a NeoVictorian Steampunk period in Gwynedd's history rather than from medieval Gwynedd, which is currently somewhat marred with some of the same sort of internecine rivalry that can be seen between the Noble Houses in Frank Herbert's DUNE. Some of the characters in the canonical Gwynedd are direct ancestors of hers.) Deryni are, by all appearances, human aside from the special abilities and weaknesses inherent in their genetic gift. The ability to access Deryni powers is not automatic; those known to have Deryni potential are usually trained from childhood in their responsible use. More information about the Deryni and Gwynedd (albeit from an earlier historical period) can be found here.
Nell has a close familial bond, and her early childhood memories are primarily happy ones. She was born during a relatively peaceful time in Gwynedd's history, during the latter years of the reign of King Alaric the Second. The Strathearns enjoyed a prominent place in Alaric's Court, and Nell grew up well acquainted with Alaric's heir, Prince Kelson. There was originally some discussion of Nell being a good choice of bride for Kelson, but nothing ever came of the idea, to the profound relief of both parties. (Each had a fond regard for the other, but few interests in common and very incompatible personalities.) However, when Nell was 15, King Alaric died under suspicious circumstances, and Kelson inherited the throne of Gwynedd at the young age of 15. Although he had been trained for leadership from the cradle, he was still unprepared to take on the reins of power. Several of the less scrupulous heads of the Noble Houses, sensing the young King's weakness, began jockeying for power in his Court, trying to sway the impressionable Kelson IV into making decisions that would be to their own advantage. Some saw the new reign as the perfect opportunity to stage a coup. Soon, there was open warfare between factions of the Noble Houses. It was in this conflict that young Alaisdair Strathearn died in defense of his King.
Eventually Kelson gained enough backing and hard-won experience to put down the fledgling rebellion and rein in his more unruly Lords and Ladies. The battle-scarred young King gained a reputation for being an iron fist in a velvet glove, unfailingly courteous and just, yet brooking no more threats to his reign. The House of Strathearn (and their allied liegemen, the House of Somerset) remained loyal to the King during those tumultuous years, but in doing so they earned the enmity of other Houses which were more self-serving. One of these other houses was the powerful House of Forsythe. Much like the House of Strathearn had done, the House of Forsythe had increased its power in Gwynedd by bringing the Kingdom into the modern age by means of investing many of its resources in technological development and industry. The Dukes of Strathearn and Forsythe, in addition to being rivals on the King's Council, were also rivals in Gwynedd's fledgling aethernautical industry, and therefore also held a key role in the development of Gwynedd's Aetheric Navy. Kelson, greatly desirous in bringing these two Houses together so that they would work more closely rather than competing with each other (and also in hopes of keeping a closer Royal eye on the unpredictable House Forsythe), proposed a marriage alliance between the two Houses in such a way that left little option for refusal. And so it was that Lady Penelope Strathearn, now Heiress of her House, found herself betrothed to Lord Beej Forsythe, heir to the Forsythe Duke.
Nell was less than thrilled with the prospect of marriage to a man she barely even knew, much less loved, but being a loyal daughter and Crown subject she attempted to make the most of her fate. Young Mr. Forsythe also went through the motions of doing the same; however, not long after the betrothal became official, Nell found herself involved in a series of "accidents." Over time, it became apparent that her life was in danger, but without any way to prove who was attempting to harm her, there was no graceful way for her to back out of the betrothal agreement without risking Royal opprobrium or open conflict between the two Noble Houses. Adding to her internal conflict, Nell had developed strong feelings for a young armsman in her Father's employ over the preceding years, and even though the Duke began to suspect the bond between his Heiress and Zachary Somerset and had sent Somerset off to one of his more distant estates in order to separate them, the mutual attraction had failed to go away completely. Instead, both parties simply did their best to ignore their feelings, each believing that the attraction was one-sided anyway, and devoted themselves to carrying out their duties to their House as wholeheartedly as they could under the circumstances.
Nell was able to gain a brief reprieve from the impending marriage due to the House Strathearn tradition of requiring Strathearn Heirs to spend a certain number of years traveling not only between the Strathearn estates, but also to other lands and now, with the advent of aetheric travel, even worlds. This tradition was intended to have a broadening effect on the Strathearn Heir, exposing him or her to a variety of experiences and cultures, and fostering personal growth and leadership skills. In Nell's case, the "Grand Tour" was beneficial in ways beyond what her father had hoped for, in that in addition to these traits, Nell also acquired a taste for independent thought and action that at times ran contrary to His Grace's will. While still a loyal daughter and Crown subject, Nell had learned to think and act for herself, and sometimes her ideas and actions didn't quite fall in line with what the Duke of Strathearn felt they should be. Emboldened by her newly acquired self-confidence, Nell dared to approach her father with her suspicions about her fiance, and tried to coax him into approaching Kelson IV to request a dissolution of the betrothal. His Grace, worried about the potential consequences of displeasing the King and accusing House Forsythe, refused to accept the meager evidence Nell had managed to gather to support her theory, and denied his support to her backing out of the covenant. Certain that her life was in danger, and desperate to escape an unwanted marriage, Nell managed to convince her father that it was in House Strathearn's best interests to allow her one more year of freedom in order to finish her Grand Tour. Using that time, Nell secretly worked on bolstering her self-defense skills, and did her best to sort out which of the family retainers could be most counted on to be fully loyal to herself and to what she felt were House Strathearn's greater long-term interests, and not simply blindly loyal to her father. While she did not plan any overt rebellion against the head of her House, she did her best to surround herself with supporters who would side with her in pleading her case or defending her should the worst happen.
And then a pivotal event occurred. House Strathearn's aethernautical research engineers discovered a technology that could stabilize a nearby wormhole so that it could be used as a portal between their dimension and Earth ((or, that is, the alternate reality of Earth that is the SL Grid)). This naturally occuring wormhole had been deemed too unsafe to use because the other end of it was prone to shifting locations without warning, thereby making the prospect of return travel to Gwynedd's aetherspace uncertain at best. However, with this new technology installed in House Strathearn ships, their House would have a monopoly on use of the wormhole, and could explore other aetherspace regions at their leisure without fears of being stranded and unable to return home.
News leaked out of the new discovery, despite the Duke of Strathearn's attempts to keep it tightly under wraps. House Forsythe was desperate to get this new technology under its control, and stepped up the pressure to move up the marriage date to ally the two houses. Their plan, Nell and her secret supporters believed, was to wait until after the marriage was consummated, and then stage a coup that would rid them of the Duke of Strathearn and his Heiress in one swoop, leaving Beej Forsythe as the Heir of Strathearn as well as the Heir of Forsythe. (Due to one of the legal codicils in the betrothal contract between the two Houses, Sophie became ineligible to inherit from Nell because that was one of the demands House Forsythe made when they agreed to betroth their own Heir to Nell. Instead, she became Heiress to her mother's Winterbourne holdings, but not the Strathearn ones.)
The Duke of Strathearn caught wind of this plan, and at long last agreed that his daughter might have been right about the Forsythes all along. He began working to annul the betrothal, and sent Zachary Somerset (now out of his exile and serving on the Duke's personal armsman staff) to Nell's aid to be her new chief armsman. Desperate not to lose their hopes of acquiring the new Portal technology, House Forsythe secretly sent a mercenary force to capture Nell, who was at that time still on her Grand Tour on one of the few House Strathearn aetherships equipped with the new Portal technology. In an effort to hide Nell from the Forsythes, Somerset took the novel and somewhat risky approach of blocking her Deryni Talents rather than seeking to enhance them, because he believed that as strong as her Talent was, she was still untrained enough in them to be unready for a full-on onslaught by multiple Forsythes, and that her best hope lay in concealment and escape. Unfortunately, the Forsythes made their move earlier than anticipated, and during the chaos of their flight, the heiress and her chief armsman were separated. The aethership pirates spotted their quarry and gave chase, and in her effort to escape them, Nell took her ship through the Portal from their aetherspace realm into ours. Unfortunately her ship took heavy damage just before she flew into the wormhole, and upon arrival in the atmosphere above the Grid Lands, it began to break apart, giving her mere moments to abandon ship safely. When she awoke from her concussion, she found herself a castaway in New Babbage. Without her Portal tech to keep the wormhole stable, the merc forces were unable to risk pursuit. Strathearn House had the technology to attempt to figure out the coordinates where the other end of the wormhole had come out at the time Nell disappeared into it, but in order to determine that without risking their technology (and their Heiress) being captured by House Forsythe, they had to work in secret. But eventually a handful of Strathearn House physicists managed to figure out where Nell had gone, and Zachary Somerset used this information to enter our dimension in search of Nell. His ship, the HSS Gwynedd, has the Portal technology required for them to return home; however, at this point he does not feel it is safe for his Heiress to return to their own aetherspace until the conflict between Strathearn and Forsythe is resolved once and for all, so he has unilaterally made the decision to keep Nell in New Babbage and in relative safety.
Although unbeknownst to Nell and Zac, Beej Forsythe has also managed to acquire the coordinates to Grid Space, and now there is a paid assassin in New Babbage, awaiting his opportunity to kill both Zac and Nell and return to House Forsythe with the HSS Gwynedd and its precious cargo....
Establishing a new home in New Babbage
The encounter with the aethership mercs (which Nell explains to her Babbagé friends as "an attack by airship pirates") left her stranded and Linden-less on an unfamiliar coastline. Upon awakening from her unconscious state and exploring her new environment, encountering some of its friendly citizens along the way, she decided it might be a nice place to settle...particularly as she had no means of transportation to return home, or even any certainty where her home might be or, indeed, who she was! The trauma of the accident combined with a concussion gave her temporary amnesia, leaving her memories very sketchy during her first weeks in New Babbage.
Nell wandered the streets and alleys of Babbage for her first week there, until a new acquaintance, Mrs. Kembri Tomsen, graciously allowed Nell to live above her shop The Curious Seamstress in the Babbage Canals section of town. Over a period of time, Nell's memories began to return a little bit at a time, often in the form of flashbacks and nightmarish dreams which left her troubled and mystified about her origins. She also began to sense that she was in some sort of danger, though from whom and for what reason remained unclear. Eventually Zachary Somerset managed to make his way through the Portal and track down Nell's whereabouts, and once he located her one evening outside the CocoaJava Cafe, he was able to use his Talent to heal some of her concussion-related injuries and speed up the return of her memories. However, after much discussion and disagreement, the two agreed it would be best to leave Nell's Talent blocked until either the threat of discovery by the Forsythes had passed, or some compelling reason arose which would make it advisable for Nell to regain her full powers.
Soon after Somerset's arrival, Nell moved into his ship, the HSS Gwynedd, which was (and still is) docked at the Aetherport Tower in Babbage Palisade Green. This made looking after his charge easier on Somerset, but at the same time, new difficulties arose. Somerset, being only one Armsman, couldn't protect Nell at all times, no matter how hard he tried. Also, the close proximity of shipboard life began to stir up the long-suppressed romantic attraction between the two, so when Nell began working for Mr. W-- and the two were offered the opportunity to move into apartments in the refurbished W-- Factory in Wheatstone Waterways, both Nell and Somerset seized the opportunity to relocate with an almost desperate sense of relief. The move also made life easier on Nell's armsman in another way. Working with Mr. W-- kept Nell quite busy, and once Somerset had taken the man's measure and judged him fit to guard Nell in a pinch, he felt easier about letting Nell out of his sight on occasion. Somerset also delegated (at least in his own mind) some of the task of keeping Nell safe to the House of Mureaux, within which the two had found kindred spirits who could understand their feelings about life in exile far from a cherished homeland.
News from the Home Dimension
During the recent Occupation of New Babbage by Doctor Obolensky and his hired mercenaries, Nell and Somerset found themselves cut off from the HSS Gwynedd when the Aetherport Tower was taken over by Occupation forces. Somerset undertook a stealth mission to retrieve part of the Maldon device (the technology used by House Strathearn to stabilize the wormhole portal between dimensions) in order to keep the technology out of the occupiers' hands, and in doing so he discovered that an incoming message had been received in his and Nell's absence. He downloaded this message and brought it back to Nell. Upon playing the recorded message, the two discovered it was an emergency communication from Nell's sister, Lady Sophronia.
- "Nell! if you receive this...situation is dire....Father implores you...keep safe in that dimension at all costs....not let the Maldon device fall into Forsythe hands! Hostilities between Houses Strathearn and Forsythe....degenerated into open warfare...not return now, even if the worst should happen...if House Strathearn falls, dear sister, you may need to return to lead the survivors...Duke of Forsy...intends...the Maldon Device to conquer other worlds...most of the Portal stabilizers have been destroyed now except for yours and one oth...held it in reserve in case our surviv...need to evacuate through the Portal. Need to be prepared...we'll hold them as long as we can....reinforcements delayed due to Palace coup....Father says...you were right about the Forsythes...Zachary Somerset's defection is forgiven, given the circumst...serve you well...Rhemuth is under siege...renewal of the Ducal Wars...God help us all!"
Despite the dangers surrounding House Strathearn and Nell's and Somerset's desperate desire to return to their homeworld and to help their House in its time of need, the two exiles made the painful decision to remain in New Babbage for now, realizing that if Nell and/or the Maldon Device were to fall under House Forsythe's control, not only would this signify the doom of House Strathearn, but of New Babbage as well.