Captain albion clemens and the future that never was: a steampunk novel! (lands beyond book 1)

 

Captain Albion Clemens and

the Future That Never Was

 

Kin S. Law

 

Stories of the Lands Beyond, Volume 1

 

Herein Contained:

1: Albion: The Rogue, the Maid, and the Writer

2: London

3: Paris

4.1: Hargreaves: For Queen and Country

4.2: Blair: To Not Getting Hanged

4.3: Rosa: Figure Four Holds

5: The Straight Hook, Kitty Desperado,Blair Gets Lucky

6: Rome

7: Nessie Drake, Gothic Pirate Princess

8: Berlin

9: The Urchins of Deadcast

10: Secret of Leviathan

11: Moscow

12: Kowloon Walled City

13: Survive

14: Repentance

15: The Worm

16: Future that Never Was

17: Leviathan

18: Teatime

For Family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

 

Moral Support: Claudia D. Dodd

Cover Art: Hannah E. Gregory

 

ISBN: 978-1499332971

Copyright © 2014 Kin S. Law

@VoxVorago

1: Albion: The Rogue, the Maid, and the Writer

 

              My first thought upon setting boot in the tavern was a guilty pleasure. Sure, I had seen my share of beautiful bodies and vivacious visage, but those had been limited to lantern-lit shadow play, jasmine-scented nights lingering like incense on the skin.             

Almost as a reminder, my reflection stared out at me from a pane of Dublin crystal glass- brown eyes, black hair, a special shade of skin like soy sauce on bean curd.

Whether or not Kowloon still meant home, the girls there were short, slender and demure. They spoke very little, giggled over men who looked like children, and covered their lily-pad feet with silk. I always thought of them as carefully tended orchids, easily plucked or crushed. Girls in this pub looked like a field of sunflowers: gold where Kowloon girls were dark, round where they were flat, some even tall enough to look me in the eye. I felt my back straighten a couple vertebrae just asking for a table. Everywhere they moved they were laughing and joking with the patrons, and what patrons they were: a dirty, drunk, decadent, downtrodden, delinquent, dated, dour, diverse,differentbunch.

A few gentlemanly types were trawling through in various levels of stupor. Clinging to the girls anddrinking like fish, the group inspired me in a most Sherwood Forest kind of way. I was not the only one. A quartet of sailors in waterproof slickers were eyeing the dandies evilly.

Their coin occasionally drew attention, but was unable to compete with the gold fobs, the expensive cigars lit with shining flintlocks, nor the frilly lace likely to disintegrate at the taste of salt.

I sensed an upcoming confrontation. If the dandies left with the whole covey, some would likely see the end of a dagger. Say what you like about the dirigible age, but it does bring people together.

             I slumped onto a bench, choosing a booth with my back to the wall. A polite gesture caught the sight of the nearest barmaid, who was balancing a platter and an inebriate. She was fending off a dandy in an elaborate velvet suit, drunk out of his mind and grabbing for her hip-length pleats. Blondie was a very good actress, having at her disposal an endless array of winks, smiles and flips of her hair. Not only did said skirt never catch on his meat hooks, she came away with a bit of shiny currency as well. Her linen barely creased.

             Unable to contain my appreciation, I whistled softly as she came to take my order. At first, she must have thought it more wolf-calls and heckling, but the smile in my eyes soon propagated to the barmaid’s.

             “He’s a merchant out of Camden,” she informed me, in the way most working girls have when chancing upon an empathic soul. I remembered dimly a time those two words were scandalous in Britain- a farthing for the man who guesses which two I mean.

“Bit of a run-in with air pirates, lost his entire shipment of fine Caledonia perfume,” she was continuing sympathetically.

I noted the slender figure, the modest curves, but also the wide Nordic shoulders and the regal set to her hips.

Strange place to meet such a distinct woman, but I supposed anything is possible when one could hop on a dirigible one day and be on the other side of the world in a matter of weeks.

“A shame,” I replied, trying not to stare at the deep bosom peeking out of her frills.

“Isn’t it though? Portsmouth had a reputation for ladies of the evening, even before the airship towers went up. A girl needs to wash between jobs. Lad would have made a killing, pardon my French. Wouldn’t be interested in such things, fine upstanding gent like yourself?”

“You might be surprised.” A glittering bottle of lavender essence appeared from a deep pocket in my duster.

“That’s Caledonian, isn’t it?” she whispered on the sly. “Best not to let too many eyes on it.”

“For you,” I said. “If I can avail myself of one of your hot ciders?”

“Cheeky Monkey. Coming up,” she answered with a wink. I watched her leave, making a subtle show of touching the bottle on her wrists, before vanishing it in the pockets of her apron. I suppose it might have been another of her acts, but the delicate dabs didn’t seem to fit with her character; she looked like she knew what she was doing. I took my pint of cider, and watched her hips sway as she left, putting the disquiet out of mind.

The Jilted Mermanwas half-full that evening. Night mist snuck in with the soon-to-be inebriates sifting through the plank door, bright with moonlight. Ornaments yet hung on one drooping evergreen in the corner, cheap baubles to wring every last bit of cheer from the salty patrons.

Evidentlythe barkeep preferred the scent of pine needles to his clientele’s breath.

It does the Portsmouth people credit to note their natives were placidly drinking next to unidentifiable scoundrels, air pirates, and jacks of all trades lurking in the dark corners of the tavern. The smattering of locals were well muscled, weather-roughened, and clearly a group not to be fucked with. Toughs in tweed, all of them.

One particularly ginger fellow, having the slight, rat-like bearing of a no-good cutpurse, attempted to size me up. I simply removed my well-worn duster, revealing aeronaut’s muscles as tight as cord on the wide set of my shoulders, and all was well.

Suddenly, the voice of our friend the dandy merchant rang out in an aria of woe.

“Damn and blast!” He cursed with London airs through a week’s worth of beard. “If it weren’t for the Turkish blockade, my dearSwarthy Wainwould yet be riding the gales!”

“You sayin’ them bloody Turks shot down your freighter?” prompted a sympathetic friend, or a curious sadist.

“I’m saying those bloody borscht-swilling swine closed the route over the Ottomans. Great big cannon emptying bandits out of their skies and into ours! I took myWainover land, avoiding the worst of them in the Channel, when who should I see?” the merchant announced.

“Who?” chirped a chorus of ill-weatherfriends. Misery indeed loves company.

“The Blasted Manchu Marauder! Albion Clemens! Him and that accursed ship, what washer name, theGooseberry?The Cloudberry?”

“TheHuckleberry!” I called, certain my voice would be directionless in this crowd.

“The Deviltake theHuckleberryand her crew! Damn ship just drops out of the sun, she does, and quick as a wink we’re boarded by masked pirates, rounded up by a fence of cutlasses!”

At this point, several patrons were willing to ply the piracy victim with drink, in exchange for details, and his voice fell to a hush.Surely that had been his ploy?

Quietly chuckling in the corner, I turned to receive a steaming flagon of cider from the beauteous barmaid.

“Here you are, Marauder,” she quipped quietly, returning my sass cheek for cheek. Obligingly, I flipped her a coin for her trouble- I was beginning to like her. As she caught the coin, I caught her wrist gently.

“Say, all jibes aside, I wonder if you could help me.”

“Back door is next to the loo. Turn left to get to the docks, right goes by the constabulary,” she supplied, clearly used to her clientele. “If you’re in a carousing mood, I’m afraid the night flowers have all been plucked, and I just serve drinks.”

“How could you think I had such lewd intentions? Betrayal made fouler by beauty!” I feigned a gasp. “No, my dear, I’m looking for a man.”

“Oh my… are you sure?” she pouted, popping out a well-formed Nordic hip.

“He’s…like a father to me,” I obliged, and for amoment it seemed as if the actress had been replaced by a human being.

Wry smiles soon masked her again, but at least she seemed sincerely willing to help.

“Sorry, I haven’t seen a cloth button or silk slipper in here for months, not since the Imperial ambassador’s visit. You are a rare sight, Chinaman,” she answered helpfully. Vixen once more, she scented for a tip. “Especially a young, handsome Chinaman…”

“Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,” I said, surprising myself. It had been something Captain Sam said quite often.

“You sound like an old man!” Blondie chortled.

“Might be because I’m looking for one, an American.White hair and beard, bit of a penchant for cigars. Might be wearing a dirty drover’s hat. Likes blondes. Would be carrying a ‘chester rifle.”

As I was talking to my barmaid, the rat-like ginger man resumed eyeballing me from across the pub over rounded spectacles. I didn’t like it very much, especially when I caught the glimpse he gave to two rather unsavory characters in a booth. No rat like a rat with two snakes for backup.

“No, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the like,” My barmaid was saying, one lock of hair freed from her bun and chewed on.

“I know him, he would have been through this tavern,” I said placidly. “Thank you anyway.”

“I’ll ask around. If you need anything just call.” She favored me a wink. I turned my attention to the second flagon, always the better of two for its lack of immediacy. Savor is best when thirst comes second.

Master Ginger slipped through the pub and into my booth, even as the maid laid down two more flagons of wondrous cider.  He seemed surprised, and impressed, his spectacles highlighting large, dark eyes. At close range, the man did not seem so rat-like; a sparse frame hung on strong shoulders, made deceptively smaller by an overlarge tweed coat. His ginger wasfake. Black roots sprouted at eyebrow and hairline over a pasty complexion. Under dirty tweed and threadbare elbows, the man’s clothing was simple linen and canvas, but surprisingly clean. He spread his hands, to show he meant no harm.

Five lead slugs weighed down my hip. I debated muffling the hammer click against my duster, but I doubted murder was on his mind.

“Wotcher drinkin?” he asked in a passable cockney. The voice was surprisingly warm. “Looks good.”

“Help yourself,” I offered generously. Just kill them with kindness. “You have business with me?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” he smiled, and took a long draught, breathing a contented cloud of spirit into the chill pub air. “This is the only thing I get in the Isles.”

“Best cider in the Commonwealth,” I agreed. Lamplight flickered over our faces, giving us merry expressions. It was good warm gaslight too, none of the humming or buzzing from thoseharsh arclights. A good deal warmer than the conversation we were having, certainly.

“The lager is better in Deutschland,” the ginger began. “France has the best wine, and I get nothing but stout on the Emerald Isles. Nothing holds a candle to English cider. My name is Elric Blair, and I need your help.”

“Shaw,” I answered, choosing the name of a friend. Blair’s eyebrow popped up over one lens.

“Never met an Oriental with a name like that. I’m sorry, you’ll have to do better.”

“It’s all you’re getting. You want my help or no?”

“Right,” he sighed, all sign of cockney gone. “I couldn’t help but put two and two together. I’ve a good nose for perfumes, you see. You’re the famous air pirate, the Manchu Marauder.”

“The Scourge of Shanghai, the Hanoi Highwayman, the Bandit of Budapest. In the flesh, nice to meet you.” I clicked the hammer, perfectly audible in our little booth. “Now call off your cronies.”

“They would be why I need your help. If I may?”

Elric Blair slowly opened his large coat, reaching into the inside pocket. He produced a small derringer, the cheap two-shot variety, and placed it on the table.

As a show of good will, I put my own revolver on the table. My Victoria gouged a fresh gash in the worn oak, her sleek black barrel and heavy elm grip remaining firmly in hand. Blair’s gun, on the other hand, was well out of his grasp- inexperience with firearms, or a show of honesty?

Fortunately, the pub’s high booth walls and dusky atmosphere gave us enough privacy.

It also prevented the two toughs behind Blair from seeing the weapons. Blair whistled gently at Victoria.

“Big gun. A Colt, is it, from the Americas?”

“It was a gift. Now, come clean, Mr. Blair, or you will find my big gun making some big holes.”

“It’s a Marlowe Scheme, Mr. Shaw,” Blair sighed. Ah- a good, old-fashioned mugging, so named because it involved three men and a dagger. A harmless-looking foil selected a green, preferably foreign target, presenting him with some attractive, illicit local consumable, likely a woman or substance. An invitation would be given. A throat would be cut. Simple.

“Only, you picked me instead of an easy mark,” I filled in.

“Right on the money,” he agreed. “Apologies, I believe I’ve forced you into this situation. As I’ve given you no alternative, an air pirate like yourself ought to be able to handle two common thugs.”

“You seem used to this kind of coercion, but unused to violence. I am curious to know, what are you doing with street toughs like Clive and Staples? And in motley, as well.”


Page 2

“Not my color? Heh. You know them.”

“I know of them. The Lewis brothers made their rounds up and down the coast, and with those ugly mugs it’s hard to mistake them for anyone else,” I remarked. Squatting in their own booth, the two looked like a Bulldog and a Doberman leering at an unfriendly pack, or a fresh bone.

“It was how I found them as well. I’m sorry, Shaw, your speech is so…”

“American?”

“… correct. It is odd, hearing an Oriental with such perfect mastery of the Queen’s English. Your accent is undoubtedly Yankee, but the pronunciation, the grammar, and the diction…” the man seemed bemused, almost academic. His fingers scrabbled at an invisible pen.

“You’ll find many today with the capacity for language, amongst other things, Master Blair. It is the steam age, after all, and a journalist should know the most valuable cargo aboard a dirigible is information.”

Blair sat back at this, seemingly jolted out of his reverie. Credit must be given, for my revelation did not faze him much, only causing him to drop the last shred of pretense.

“You’re right, of course. I’ve written volumes of London’s dirtiest ditches, but I must admit I am out of my element. I fully intended to apply an earlier method, of getting… up close and personal with the unwashed masses, and thus learning something of their plight. I am afraid I’ve gotten mixed up with, quite literally, cutthroats. However hard pressed for one’s living we are, murder is never just. ”

“I think I’ve read your work, actually. Changed my whole attitude towards cigarettes.”

“Don’t believe that was the point of the piece…”

“Hah! I like you, Mr. Blair.”

“I am beginning to be fond of you as well, Mister… Shaw.”

We sat there, two grinning baboons, until our pretty barmaid came to perch at the end of the booth, at the pretext of clearing away flagons.

“When you lovebirds are done, your friends might be wanting a word with you,” she mentioned casually.              One look over her shoulder confirmed the situation: Misters Clive and Staples were becoming uneasy. Clearly, something would have to be done.

“Oy!” I cried, quite loudly. My aim was sure- several locals perked their ears. “You lot, are you going to stand for it? Those city toffs just called you backward, hillbilly wankers!”

Instant flashpoint. Within moments a magnificent bar fight had broken out, stools and flagons and pint glasses flying by overhead. It was dockhands versus dandies, pirates versus bandits, and the Celts against everybody else, laughing like bloody hyenas as their teeth left their faces. The tarts fled for high ground, the pushers for low, and everyone else started dodging. Wisely, Blair, Blondie and I slunk down below the table, our flagons held perfectly level, apple-flavored breath pooling in the tight, safe space.

“Wasn’t that an American insult?” our maid asked, between liberal sips from my flagon.

“Not for anyone living south of Virginia?” I supplied.

“Please, Master Pirate, we should be making for the door!” Blair cried.

“In a moment. Wait for it… now!”

Coarse wood swung shut behind us, casting us suddenly into a dense, brackish fog. Wet cobbles threatened to overturn our raggedy trio onto the road, but it was still better than the crossfire going on inside theJilted Merman.

A dim moon lit just enough of the road, and a gentle sloshing came fromthe water nearby.

Though Blairhastened us out of the bar, I now took the lead with long strides, trying my best to look like I knew where I was going.

Our barmaid stayed behind, intelligently leaning between window and door should either emit a defeated inebriate. She waved a cheerful goodbye as she disappeared behind us; now it was only the two of us old dogs, as my Imperial Cantonese brethren would put it.

“Well now, I suggest you get on with the nature of the help you would like, Mister Blair,” I said casually as we passed the sturdy brick and plaster of Portsmouth’s dockside dwellings.

“I would have thought it obvious,” he answered, “You are an air pirate. Ergo, you possess a ship. I should like passage on said ship, anywhere out of Portsmouth. All the dock’s men were told not to let me through.”

“Why would Clive and Staples pay them off to keep a writer from leaving town? I thought you were working for them.”

“Ah, I should have been clearer. The local constabulary has me pegged for this very reason. The Lewis brothers have tainted me with their brand of devilry, I’m afraid.”

We turned now, into a darker alley.

“And have you committed any crime?” I asked, not really expecting a reliable answer.

“I witnessed a murder, and was seen in the brothers’ company. For the locals, it is enough,” Blair said without malice.

Fog was now blanketing the street, but I knew where the mooring towers would have been, looming over the town like abyssal giants risen from the sea.

Dim stars glowed through the fog, the only trace of gaslight marking a low line of quiet seaside buildings.

Of course, the Lewis brothers were waiting for us just around the corner, perfectly at home perched atop some coal pallets.

The shorter, bulldog one, Clives, was shuffling his feet, while the taller Doberman Staples was rolling a crucifix-emblazoned cane between his fingers. As soon as we emerged out of the fog, the brothers closed the trap on either side of us, effectively pinning us in with a matching pair of knives.

“Thought you could get away from us, huh, old chum? No stomach for butcher’s work?” Staples leered.

“Maybe he knew all along, steered us a fat mark,” Clives chimed in.

“I’ll take the tall one,” I whispered to Blair, even as the cutthroats circled us. “If you can get Clives.”              “With what? I left my derringer in the pub,” Blair whispered back, clearly panicked. He would have made a terrible cutthroat. We had no time for planning, anyway. The Lewis brothers rushed at us.

Mist flew by, cold and sharp. Sensations of an elm grip firmly weighted my palm, the hammer cocking with practiced speed. A solid kick announced the trigger going, but the snap was lost in an instant, muffled against the mist. Gunsmoke washed out the sweet flavor of apple still clinging to my lips, a scent further diluted by a memory of clear skies, drawling accents, and fragrant wafts of cigar leaf. When was the last time I had fired Victoria and thought of Captain Samuel?

With a sound like a rotted, downed log, Staples crumpled at my feet, but I was no longer looking.

My feet whirled around, knowing the other brother was assaulting Elric.

I shouldn’t have bothered. A metallic thud sounded in the misty street, and suddenly Clives had joined his brother, a massive welt rising atop his grizzled head.

“My, you boys are up to no good,” our blonde barmaid remarked, a heavytea kettle in her right hand. Blair lay crumpled a most undignified pile, attempting to untangle himself from Clives.

“How did you…” Not sure if Blair or I were responsible for the gaping.

“The same way they did- through the back door,” the maid answered. After the initial rush, she turned to look at the prone figures sprawled on the cobbles. Was that shock, or disgust? “Shite, I do believe we’ve committed murder.”

“They’ll live. Staples might lose a couple feet of intestine,” I answered. “But it’s probably safer to leave right away.”

“Agreed,” my newfound companion said. Crikey, what had I done to deserve them? A violently assertive barmaid and a useless writer, both of who knew my identity, now looked to me for guidance. It would probably be best for them to hide out in my ship, never mind what the morrow would bring.

Swiftly, the three of us dashed along the streets of Portsmouth, grand old manors and redbrick dwellings giving way to thetrace italienof Southsea Castle.

The glow of the castle’s lighthouse beam came through as a giant column of dimly lit mist over our heads. From above, the false moon would be one of three bounding the edge of the city from the wild ocean. Their light served to guide our way now, glinting off the rails set into the stone street. At the docks further north, these rails came together in a spider’s web of tracks, delivering the bounty of the British Empire throughout the homeland from the holds of hundreds of dirigibles.

“I say, aren’t we headed away from the mooring towers?” Blair called.

“You said it yourself, the dock’s men are all alerted to your presence. Besides, there’s a damnedNaval base that way.”

We headed down South Parade, making for the pier. In the darkness, the restaurant and shops looked quiet and sad. We made our way along the promenade, suddenly amongst the nickelodeons, deserted fairy floss stands and midget-dirigible rides of the funfair.

“Having a go at us, Marauder? These tiny boats won’t even hold one of me,” our barmaid said, tapping at one of the children’s seats bolted to a guide rail.

“They certainly won’t,” I commented, failing to resist the urge to leer at her ample assets.

“Cad!” she answered with the uncanny observation of her gender. It is a language I have never mastered.

“Never mind those. Come, come,” I gestured.

Past the charming carousel full of gilt horses and carriages, and the calliope with its silent, sentinel pipes, I led my little band toward the small Ferris’ Wheel, perched at the very edge of the pier.

Part of me regretted giving up such a good hiding place, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

At the very bottom of the Wheel, there was an iron ring set in the floor. Lifting this up resulted in two very satisfying gasps of surprise, for underneath was a platform leading to a dirigible’s gondola.

“Who would have thought the big, bad Scourge of Shanghai would own such a tiny pirate ship?” Elric Blair remarked. “I suppose you’ll have to cling to the mast after yielding the cabin to the lady.”

“Pirates don’t have to follow etiquette,” I answered, sedately stoking up the modest boiler. With a pop and a sparkle, the embers came to life.

“And the balloon? Ah, there we are,”Blair continued. “Disguised as a child’s flying elephant, how quaint.”

“How absolutely adorable. To think, the Bandit of Budapest dropping out of the sky under a giant pink elephant,” our maid remarked.

              As a matter of fact, I had a standing deal with the funfair owner, a rather pleasant Mrs. Bakersfield. The appearance of Jumbo the Pink Elephant had become something of a local mystery, attracting more than its share of curious fair goers. I am sure more than a few disobedient children staying up that night in the South of England would have a new chapter to add to Jumbo’s legend- the sight of him floating up in the clouds, towing what appeared to be a sailing boat under him, ought to bring a neat conclusion to his story.

I am sorry to say, Jumbo would probably not be making an appearance much longer, owing to her new guests.              In but a few moments, we were on our merry way, all of Portsmouth spread under us. Southsea Castle and Portsea Island reclined beneath us; we could see as far as Portsdown Hill over the fog.

             “This is a load off my mind, Captain Shaw,” Blair said gratefully. “I will be most glad when this ginger hair grows out and I am free of this guise completely.”

             “You are most welcome, Mister Blair. Now then,” I said casually. “If all is in order, I believe I should like for you to tell me what you are doing on my ship, my dear Inspector.”

             Turning, I was not surprised to find myself face-to-face with the level, steady barrel of a .22 Tranter pistol, held in the hands of the beautiful blonde barmaid.

2: London

 

             Inspector Vanessa Hargreaves looked out over the gaping hole in the sky where Big Ben used to tick away over the streets of Westminster. Grey and coal silhouettes filled in the spaces where his calm white face and widow’s peak used to be. It was very nearly enough to distract her from the gaping crater directly beneath. Nearly, except for the cries of people being freed from the rubble and the whistle of steam engines under loads of heavy debris.

             “By Queen and Country, what in the blazes happened?” Hargreaves voiced aloud, not daring to actually ask the busy rescue workers all about. It was tempting to leap in and help, but the Inspector was quintessentially British; she had a role to play, and diving in the rubble was not it.

             “Quite outdoes anything Guy Fawkes might have plotted, no?” an annoyingly familiar, disturbingly high-pitched male voice tore across the crater. Vanessa turned, sighing massively into her ample bosom. She suddenly needed a strong cup of tea, preferably the Irish stuff, thick enough to hold a couple fingers of whiskey in.

             “Yes Arturo, you insistent hack. What do you have for me?” Hargreaves said to the shocking vermillion horror approaching. Her hooded cloak and ashen dress clashed with this young man’s perfectly coiffed hair, bouncing over the broken foundations and dribbling pipes.

             “That is no way to speak to a fellow detective,” accused Arturo C. Adler, amateur investigator. One could always count on his rainbow-speckled do popping up whenever there was an incident in London ton.

One could also count on his knowing every detail of the case in an alarmingly short time.

              “I am a detective. You are a nosy busybody with far too much time on your hands,” Hargreaves assaulted the dapper fellow. If it were not for the ridiculous magnifying glass, he could have been mistaken for a cheese-headed toff.

             “Our pillow talk never ceases to amuse,” Adler jeered amiably. “Let us to the matter at hand. This case is certainly more interesting than some truncheon-bearing troll.”

             “Will you stop putting my face in that plate of treacle? I thanked you properly for your help in the Blackfriar Bludgeoner case.”

             “But not with what I was promised. I did so want to meet the Queen,” finished Adler with a theatrical longing. Hargreaves wanted to strike him.

             Not only was Hargreaves an Inspector of Scotland Yard, she was also the secret confidant of Queen Victoria III, Matriarch of the British Commonwealth, Empress of India, Bastion of the Lands Beyond, titles, etc. If Adler ever got to the Queen through Hargreaves, he might very well end up ruling the country. Thankfully, the fellow seemed satisfied with the odd tease of a tea date.

             “What have we here?” Hargreaves diverted instead, pointedly ignoring offenses taken. She knew Adler could never resist a mystery, or a chance to be inappropriately witty. Proper genius never could.

             “At least they didn’t take the Tower,” Adler began, swallowing hook, line and sinker, “Think how the ravens would have fared. Instead, the entirety of Westminster seems to have up and vanished, inconveniencing a much inferior species of congress.”

             “A couple blocks square does not an entirety make,” Hargreaves griped on the technicality. Although, she must admit, most of it was gone, including the Houses of Parliament and the Abbey.

Interrupted skyline loomed like an open wound overhead, bleeding odd dribbles of wet mist. Who could have done this? More importantly, with what instrument? Buildings did not simply disappear overnight in a flash of thunder, certainly not some of the most well guarded buildings in all of Britain. Someone would pay for injuring her beloved England in so ghastly a manner.

             Whatever else Arturo could be faulted with, his craft of detection was indeed top notch. Also, he always smelled a little like honey. At the moment, he was bent into a spectacular spray of velvet and lace, at the rim of the crater. Even the way he recovered evidence was flamboyant, scattering dirt and soot with a magician’s flourish- downwind of his clothes, of course.

             “What do you see?” Arturo asked, bemused and businesslike.

             “I see fired brick and soot dust; a hot shovel, perhaps?” Hargreaves was no dullard; she knew very well no engine in existence could produce such an effect. She had learned very long ago to play to Arturo’s intellectual vanity.

             “It is not only soot, but blackened glass- a very precise line of it.”

             “No shovel could have done this,” said Hargreaves. She saw how the line of glass was very particular, occurring only in a perimeter round the outermost edges of the crater.

             “It takes a very high heat indeed to melt the wet clay and sand of the Thames into pottery and glass. Steam is not capable; an arc of plasma, perhaps? Or of ether?” Arturo remarked as he paced the rim.

             “No explosive, certainly. There is no shrapnel, nor enough debris to constitute the whole.”

Odd- if one wished to destroy a symbol of Britain such as Westminster, a well-placed bomb might have done the job more spectacularly, eliminating it from psyche as well as address.

              Hargreaves could see a pair of other Inspectors round the other side of the crater, scattered amongst the Army and Navy men. It would not do for them to see her putting her fork in their pudding, so to speak. Her status as one of few female Inspectors in the Service was insult enough to some, but the worst to happen would be the discovery of Hargreaves as the catspaw of Victoria III. She would become useless to the Queen.

             Hargreaves began to stride, casually, in the opposite direction. Here, a steady cascade of the Thames was still falling into the vast crater, and the footing was difficult even for her sturdy, familiar boots. Her dress had been cut in a very cunning manner, simultaneously at the height of English modesty while affording her a remarkable range of motion. Besides the convenient hood covering the red gold of her hair, there were several hidden pockets, and a gun holster for her .22 Tranter. It’s weight, and the tiny derringer in her boot, were old friends.

             “Note how the edges are cut precisely round key portions of the foundation,” said Arturo.

“It appears our villain desired to keep these landmarks whole, and even aesthetically complete,”

“I remember Richard Lionheart being right there,” Hargreaves observed as she picked her way round, looking forall the world like a passerby trailing a violently exploding box of lace.

             “Such a thing would have been impossible for conventional tools,” Adler remarked.

“If we are to presume such a ludicrous thing as the theft of architecture, the deed could only have been done from above. We live in an age of wonders, certainly, but to do such a thing is the realm of the gods, titans,giants. A burning finger, perhaps.”

             “Maybe not so high as that,” mused Hargreaves. Her leonine profile angled upward, towards the bloated, floating shapes circling a perimeter of the area. “An airship might have done it.”

             “I grant you the bird’s eye view, but one so powerful must also be quite vast. It would not have escaped notice.”

             Hargreaves sighted along the perimeter. The airships stood out as black specks against the chalk sky. Some of them were curious gentry, others hired by periodicals and gonzo to take photograms from on high. The few legitimate authority were proper Royal Navy ships, dark with armor plate. Amongst the darting minnows trawled two vast, angled whales- the pride of the Commonwealth, each one a drifting cathedral easily several times the breadth of the Abbey. Resplendent with lion and unicorn decorations, the Knights of the Round were always impressive, eclipsing other Balaenopteron-class easily with their liveried majesty.

             Hargreaves could not imagine even such a ship carrying off a piece of London for its own.  Besides, only seven Knights existed, most of them tasked with defending the far reaches of the Empire. All seven together could have done it, perhaps, but as Hargreaves had only the previous evening dined with Captain Leeds of theGwain, she doubted such acoup d’etatpossible. The Leeds’ chef produced a wonderfully timed beef Wellington, unfit for the lips of anarchists.

             “I have a few good leads,” Adler mentioned finally, offhandedly, as if Hargreaves would not have pounced upon his neck and torn the information from his throat otherwise. The infuriating man! Hargreaves did not fall for the ploy, choosing to wait him out; in a moment, she was rewarded with clues freely given. “Witnesses saw a ship flying Moroccan colors; impossible, of course, with the embargo still in effect. Likely a pirate vessel. Others along the Thames report men with, quote, ‘picture house’ accents in the area. Several of them mentioned the terrible cold this year.”

             “Puts them in Oxford. Thank you Arturo, I’ll likely not get any better.”

             “I exist to serve,” sang Adler. His facetious expression soon faded into a gathering crowd. There were plenty of characters coming round, and Arturo C. Adler was a master of disguise.

 

A fogged-over Oxford sunset found Inspector Hargreaves before the grounds of one of innumerable, stately buildings of the historic city.

This one in particular was fairly nondescript, one of the many dreaming spires in a late Gothic style, and as proudly inhospitable to steam carriages as any of its brothers. It would havecamouflaged itself into the beauty of Oxford, had it not been missing the entirety of its southern face. Blue tarpaulin covered up this blasphemy against architecture, and the damp danced with char and rotted mulch.

“It might be overzealous of me, but it appears Arturo’s clue is paying dividends,” Hargreaves murmured in the sleepy, narrow street. She recognized the coppery smell of melted glass- it was the same as Westminster. Beneath the tarpaulin, a cursory examination revealed similar burn marks. Hargreaves ruminated. Time to avail herself of the local fauna; what would the birdies be whispering?

The closest pub she could find was a classy professors’ haunt packed with leather-bound volumes in brandy-scented walls. No catcalls here, but the concealed leering of twenty tweed-suited pairs of eyes followed her into the embrace of a Chesterfield chair. She had not come in full undercover; her combination of full-figured corset beneath a navy travel dress revealed only a suggestion of ankle. Nevertheless, the golden bun dribbling tresses over her statuesque neck was sufficient to bedazzle the inhabitants; her curving bottom had scarcely begun to warm the excellent leather before her first drink arrived.

Four patrons drunk under the table and some hours later, Hargreaves had the inklings of a lead.

Of the strange characters reported seen in London, there could be no sign. Hargreaves hadn’t much of a description to work from in the first place. Reports of a brilliant light, accompanied by a thunderous clamor a fortnight ago appeared more promising. The din had resulted from the loss of the façade Hargreaves visited earlier in the day. The building itself was one of many respected laboratory facilities in a city as respectful of the sciences as Oxford.

Such a phenomenon matched the reports of Westminster’s destruction (or acquisition?) like teeth to a gear. Had some device or contraption been tested here, discharged to disastrous effect,then rushed down to London before it could be investigated? What could possibly have produced such an astounding destructive force? Hargreaves found her detecting mind boiling with conjecture, a dangerous habit.

Under a gothic arch in the gates of the laboratory the next morning, Hargreaves was beginning to regret her particular brand of investigation.

EvenGerhardt tablets could not suppress feelings of nausea or the almighty hammering in her noggin. Sensible women should not be gallivanting about gentlemen’s clubs at all hours of the evening, progressive England be damned. Then again, Hargreaves doubted any of the Queen’s agents could be sensible people. Even Oxford’s legendarypax academiacould not dissuade the sense of foreboding. Quite apart from her general queasiness, she felt the familiar copper tang of danger approaching.

Entry into the laboratory proved fairly simple, at the least. She dared not flash her Metropolitan Police Service identity this far from her jurisdiction, but Hargreaves had not escaped the drear pits of uniformed service without the magic bullet of resourcefulness. She merely pranced through the front door and pretended to faint dead away, clutching at her corsetry in a fit of prudish martyrdom.

“Quickly, get her out of the entry chamber!” someone commanded , directing others to pull her from the closet-sized nook just inside the door. Hargreaves heard a gush of air as she passed through. Negative pressure, gentlemen? This was fancy security, not counting the four guards attending to her needs. The fools rushed about like headless chickens, going for smelling salts, water, sensibilities best reserved for inebriated Duchesses or hopeless invalids, in her opinion. In the hubbub, she merely rolled herself off the rough bench and slipped through a nearby door.


Page 3

“The laboratory should be about…” Hargraeaves mused, navigating the labyrinthine galleries of the building.

Even the interior proved tastefully appointed, built in a grand old style and not simply cut like biscuits into institutionalized blocks.

The building appeared to be a multiple-use laboratory, with several partitions and independent researchrooms behind thick steel doors.  Eventually, she found the cordoned-off rubble behind two more sets of pressure seals.

             “No respect for architecture. Not locals,” Hargreaves reasoned intuitively.

“But intelligent enough to make use of some very sophisticated equipment.”

              Behind sheets of thin canvas, the gutted laboratory spoke volumes. A high, vaulted ceiling suggested something quite large, and the skeletons of platforms rose to the height of a dirigible’s floor at boarding. The warped, splintered corpses of workbenches lay scattered in a rough spray toward the ruined wall, which cast everything the blue of tarpaulin. Glass crunched underfoot, still marked by increment measures. One forlorn blackboard lay tumbled off its rolling frame like an ignored, senior professor in the corner of the room. From the center of the room to the ruined window, a clean swathe of flooring showed a pattern of something seemingly blown away by a strong wind.

             “Hello, what’s this?” Hargreaves said aloud. Though much of what had not been annihilated in the explosion had been carefully smudged out or burned, the Inspector was able to pick her way delicately through the rubble toward signs of hasty, perhaps careless activity. Not a soul stirred in the entire laboratory, but in one corner a bureau had been tipped over and set aflame. She bent to sift through the blackened papers, by the hulking sentry of scaffolding in the high-ceilinged chamber.

             “Not an explosion,” Hargreaves muttered as she searched, “One direction of destruction. The clean floor, bolt holes in the frame, looks like whatever it was had been airlifted by dirigible by the time any authorities arrived.”

             Hargreaves was beginning to work out something of what had happened. Someone had been building some kind of weapon, and it had likely discharged prematurely.

The room looked well worn, as if whomever had been here made themselves quite at home. She counted seven workstations, each with a sprinkling of photogram frames, souvenir figurines and various personal charms as made a worker feel more comfortable in their place of business. It had been a carefully planned stratagem suddenly pushed into application. Such a spectacular display likely necessitated a hasty departure, and a shifting of timetables in the nefarious theft of a national landmark. Hargreaves allowed herself an amused smirk. It was like some child’s educational picture-house piece, where the mistress thief went from place to place stealing national symbols for the benefit of waifs ignorant in world geography.

              “There we are,” Hargreaves whispered victoriously. She clutched in her hand a half-burned vellum folder. Surely what had protected this sheaf of documents had been the file’s very thickness. Before she could examine the contents, voices in the hall beyond signaled the Inspector’s time was up.

             Hurriedly, she stuffed the leaves into one of many hidden pockets. Oxford was sadly deprived in feminine progress, in spite of, or because of academia, and she doubted the menfolk would pat her down for pockets. In a moment, the men reached the hallway just outside the canvas partitions and proved her very much correct. She thanked the antiquated forces of chauvinism for one small boon.

             Hargreaves put on a mummery fit for the Globe, staggering down the hall apparently shaken and lost but none the worse for wear.

As she left the guards looking to one another in their silent pact of ineptitude, she assumed a brisk trot beneath Oxford’s famous dreaming spires, heading towards her nearby hotel room to examine her prize. It took her all of four paces before she noticed the presence of another practitioner of the feminine arts dogging her steps with a flurry of French lace. As she rounded a cramped Romanesque palazzo, she caught the reflection of a scarlet figure trimmed in black, about a street behind.

              “I believe I am shadowed,” Hargreaves remarked to a stray calico, who seemed as comfortable on its patch of Baroque sculpting as Hargreaves was alienated by Oxford’s convoluted streets. Four or five blocks ago, the Inspector had already become quite lost in her attempts to lose her tail. The malicious stalker seemed content, and quite unfazed, in drifting between the colleges and universities after the Inspector. The calico yawned, almightily.

             “Let us see if a change of scene will put a bee in her bonnet,” concluded Hargreaves.

             When the cat had had enough of Hargreaves’ attentions, it bounded up a trellis of ivy and the Inspector continued on her way. It was still early in the afternoon, but the spires’ shadows tended to put the streets in gloom. In the fading light, a fatigued lady gesturing for a cab did not seem out of place, and so Hargreaves did so, along a busy interchange. As she got into the rumbling, bubbling carriage, the warm comfort of the cabin nearly disarmed her. Where were the cramped London rigs with their scalding pipework and hard, buckwheat seats? There were some advantages to travel, Hargreaves concluded.

             She commanded the driver to proceed in a convoluted fashion through the busiest parts of the city. Barely had their gears clunked into place did she observe her tail hailing a cab of her own. Then she was lost around a corner. Hargreaves waited a good four turnings before alighting from the cab in a darkened alley full of Venetian archways. In a manner of speaking, she did not so much alight as hoist herself out of the cab’s skylight onto a passing archway.

             She observed the bumbling passage of another cab, a coach, in fact, able to seat six. She dared not peer into the windows from her vantage point atop the arch, but Hargreaves possessed the single most useful tool in the Metropolitan Police Service arsenal: her notebook. Within its leaves were written a set of directions. As she did not know the way, these were taken down at the preference of her own cab driver. The middle-aged, dun-colored fellow had been quite keen at participating in some tuppenny spy fiction nonsense. Hargreaves had, of course, couched it in terms of a game between members of the idyllic gentry.

             Climbing across verandas and through gardens, the Inspector soon reached the agreed spot. Her conservative travelling dress was well made for the activity, sliding in and out of place with cunningly cut panels and slits.

Between two lazy townhouses, she crouched behind a nook of masonry perched atop a loosely trafficked bit of road. In a moment, she recognized the scuffed black of her cab rumble by, followed inconspicuously by the heavy coach.

This happened twice more, before the coach overtook the little cab and swung out in front, stopping not four paces from Hargreaves’ hiding spot.

             With the precision of a well-trained team, four men swung out of the coach and accosted the cab. None of them matched; they looked assembled out of various berets, suits, and jackets, from all walks of life. Her original pursuer, the black-and-scarlet woman, followed close behind. Hargreaves was treated to their shock as they opened the cab and found only her duster and some plush cushions tumbling out. She had paid the driver to continue driving about with her duster propped up in the back, in a rough facsimile of Hargreaves herself, perhaps slouched to read her recently acquired sheaf of papers. Evidently infuriated, the pursuers yanked open the driver’s side door and began to yell. 

             There was a moment of gut-wrenching panic. Hargreaves had formulated her plan with all the training the Service had bequeathed an Inspector of her caliber, but it had still been a plan concocted on the fly, with what resources she possessed. All manner of things could go wrong. A secondary stalker might place his hands round her neck the very next moment. There might be well-trained marksmen in the group, able to guess, then spot every place Hargreaves could be hiding. She was an Inspector, not a seasoned operative of British Intelligence. Murphy’s Law haunted Hargreaves’ brow, a spectre of uncertainty. Worst of all, she had no idea whom these people might be working for. For all she knew, they had been given leave to kill or torture someone like her innocent driver simply for crossing their path.

             “Good man,” Hargreaves murmured as she watched the exchange, and breathed a sigh of relief. Her driver turned out to be a darn good thespian, feigning surprise good enough for the picture house.

             Finding the driver knew nothing, the whole party piled into the coach once again and took off at steam. Hargreaves’ driver chuckled visibly to himself, waved at Hargreaves’ hiding spot and moved on. The whole affair occupied no more than two minutes.

             While the incident was well within the Inspector’s control, Vanessa Hargreaves felt a little disappointed. She had hoped to learn something of her pursuers, but had only confirmed her suspicions: these were well-trained men (and woman!) deployed by a very cautious puppet master. Hargreaves counted herself fortunate, and in the manner of all those who dealt with danger regularly, she resolved to use what little luck she had while she had it. Right there on the street, she found a spot of liquid lamplight and undid the vellum file from the laboratory.

What lay within was a labyrinth of numbers: invoices, logistics accounts, expenditure records. Hargreaves feared for a moment she had defended a useless pile of beans, but the resourceful young Inspector had not risen to her rank on the merits of her golden locks alone.It took mere minutes to find her lead amidst a pile of contractor’s invoices: Steamboat Man, a moving firm whose services seemed far too overpriced for a simple delivery service. Hargreaves was quite sure, if she cared to visit the local town registry, no such company would be logged in the Oxford mooring offices, nor any such office in Britain.

Instead, she pointed her sturdy walking boots in the direction of the nearest airmen’s pub, and another hangover. Though it cost her in Gerhardt tablets and a long soak in the hotel tub scrubbing the scent of inebriation from her body, in the morning Hargreaves had the answer.

She called for pen and paper, and wrote out a missive to Arturo C. Adler.

 

“Arturo. Oxford yielding dividends. Will attend Steamboat Man down to Portland; Reports of Moroccan troupe treading the boards. Our mutual friends don’t seem to like theatre. You would hate it. Will contact you when I arrive. Be assured your company, though welcome, is unnecessary.”

 

Which roughly translated to:

 

“You two-pence hack, Oxford was a good lead for once. I have a suspect under the alias of Steamboat Man, reportedly flying a ship with Morroccan colors in Portland. Pirate dirigible, most likely, and a boat our enemies don’t want me to find. Wouldn’t you just love to meet a pirate? Tough titty. I’ll write when I get there. Stay out of this! I mean it!”

 

As she sealed and mailed the letter via overnight Royal Mail, Hargreaves felt satisfied Arturo’s insatiable thirst for meddling now provided her a watchful guardian over her impending journey south. She was also not in the least bit surprised to learn a multiple-use laboratory building had been destroyed in a gas explosion late in the night. Innumerable Gothic arches had been reduced to rubble in a spectacular fireball.

It was the second such disaster to happen to such a grand old building, and as she remarked to a talkative gentleman later on the dirigible south to Portland, only made the case for the shift to Teslaic arc lighting over the antiquated, dangerous kerosene much more essential.

3: Paris

Cezette Louissaint looked out through her window above the Rue Fremicourt. None of the buildings were higher than her sloped room under the roof, planned to exacting aesthetics by the city’s architects. The sprawling wheel of Paris was called the city of lights, and wherever those lights shone there was beauty: countless mansard roofs dotted with mountainous cathedrals, broad boulevards lined with Napoleon’s arboreal legacy, and along those brick valleys the traffic of chariots, jitneys, and carriages moving between veils of scented mist. Crooked chimneys and errant steamworks only served to frame the majestic Tour D’Eiffel in the medium distance.

Cezette loved to watch the evenings. She would sit on her narrow iron bed, her chin tucked behind her boyish knees, and watch as the city streamed through the little rippled rectangle of glass. Glittering soft gaslights danced like grand belles with the brusque shadows of Teslaic lights over her whitewashed wall.

Le Tour seemed the brightest of all, lighting up Maman’s picture on the bed stand. Its gardens had always been Maman’s favorite place in the city, in spite of the tourists crawling everywhere with their clacking photogram machines. She would go there to draw everything: the Tour, the people eating crepes on the benches, the crows pecking at their leavings. Cezette still remembered her Maman’s charcoals, as black as her hair, and Cezette’s too, lying in a sheet almost blue against the white bedspread.

A distant crash below brought her shuddering and burrowing deeper inside her comforter. Was it Papa, home from the burlesque? Had he been thrown out again?

It would explain the violence: slamming the door, enraged at being spurned by another imagined paramour. She could see him hanging up his stovetop and his cane, loosening his cravat to show the curly hairs on his chest. She nearly retched.

No, it couldn’t be, it was far too early. The moon hadn’t yet appeared in the Seine, glimmering despite her rivals below. Cezette peeked once more outside the window, at the city she knew so well, yet had seldom visited. It was a constant comfort against the dread now enveloping her frail form.

Spread out before her, the beaux-arts rooftops of Paris seemed particularly jittery tonight, like hunched crows anxious of an oncoming storm. Stars shone clearly, not in the sky but in a child’s diversion of dots across the city. They were further outdone by points sprinkled overhead, from the feminine curves of airships doing circuits of the city.

The clearness of the evening only served to highlight the strangeness hanging in the sky above. For a fortnight, a mass of cumulushad gathered, not dissipating as clouds were wont to do. Its very solidity seemed to exude a certainje ne sais quoi, a quality she could only describe aseldritch. The English word had a strange cadence on her tongue, pulled as it were from Maman’s vast, multilingual library, but it felt right.Eldritchbefit a mass of mist seeming never to change shape, size, nor move from its position. Odd she would feel the strangeness this night, when the cloud had been there for so long already.

Another crash- this time, accompanied by the Romanian maid, Volga, cursing in bad French. So, it was only a small blunder.

Cezette relaxed a little, and she found her bedclothes damp with sweat.

Her fingers were clamped like vises round handfuls of comforter. Her favorite bear, Stefano, lay strangled in the crook of her arm. Was there no end to the night? Cezette’s eyes trailed back out over the city, as if one of the floating ships there could lift her to safety atop some haven in the sky.

Suddenly Cezette put her finger on it- the ships had moved. Though the cloud itself had not budged, all the airships in her familiar sky had given it a wide berth, forming a sort of ring. No, the sentiment wasn’t quite right- it was not a ring, but a perimeter. There was movement on the ground below. Faintly she made out the splashes of blue and red crawling across masonry and flower-clad balconies all over the city. They were the blisters of light reflected from the steam chariots of police. Cezette was intimately familiar with their silhouettes; she had seen them night after night as they combed the city for evildoers. From above, the pattern was clear- something was happening over the city.

Almost unconsciously, Cezette found herself getting out of bed, her bare feet treading three steps until she was perched at the window. She was not yet tall enough to reach the top of the slanting glass, but she could put her chin on the sill, and two hands on either side until a bird might have mistaken her for a curious cat.

She stood on her tiptoes. Up close, she had a better view of the sky, sacrificing her wonderful rooftops.

Her bedclothes hung about her ankles, their lace mottling the square of light from the window.

What could be going on outside? Cezette had never seen her Paris become so agitated. Her streets pulsed like veins and her sky seemed to fill with more of man’s stars.

Cezette’s large hazel eyes opened wide, her pupils expanding to twice their size. In particular, she scanned the web-like tracery of metal marking where the Tour D’Eiffel stood, lit from base to tip in lights. Strange it would be so bright, Cezette thought.

Her suspicions were justified; slowly, she began to notice a dimming in all the other lights of the city. They did not go out all at once, but slowly, as if a giant were drawing a curtain over them. Gas lamps flickered as their fuel was drawn away, until they petered out like dying sprites. The Teslaic lights were slow to go, dwindling to star-points before winking out entirely.

So absorbed was Cezette on the scene before her, she did not notice the soft tread of steps on the stair outside her room. As the rectangle of light grew dimmer on her floor, a faint flicker of flame drifted in from the crack of the door, then ceased as its owner snuffed the lantern.

Even as the steps halted outside her meager inch of wood, Cezette stood absolutely still at her perch, peering intensely at the world beyond. Her eyes darted left, they darted right. Yes- the ships were beginning to close in round the cloud, as a hangman’s noose might a guilty soul.

Her small, agile fingers picked out one, two, three, counting the ships in a quarter of the sky.

What had Maman taught her about counting quickly? Yes, multiply by four…. Surely there could be no less than forty small vessels hanging above Paris, and two larger ones as well. They were oddly the same, as if popped out of the same madeleine pan. She could make out the blue, red, and white of the livery, though she was far too young to understand what they meant.

Slowly, quietly, the door to Cezette’s room swung open on oiled hinges.

In the narrow room, it would have made some noise against the edge of Cezette’s bed, but the opener stopped it just clear of the iron posts.

Cezette did not turn round. Something was happening! The cloud had not moved, but the ships were now well organized into triangles of five or six. A phalanx, Cezette remembered, from a book on the Romans. It was how they had conquered the world, even the land of Gaul she was perched atop right this moment. Such a formation hanging in the sky seemed godlike to a small girl. She could not begin to guess what held those mountains of metal aloft, but she could gasp and exclaim silently as four of them flew over her room in a gale of wind. She could hear the faint howl of their engines and feel a slight tang in the air at their passing. It held her rapt.

Her nose was just touching the glass when the first reports shook the air- the ships were firing into the cloud. Cezette gave a backwards hop of shock at the first thunderous fusillade, but the other occupant of the room did not move a muscle.

In the center of the room, the sight of airships lighting up the sky did not reach, and neither was the shock of vibration great enough to cause alarm.

It certainly did not dissuade a person so rapt on the sight of Cezette’s tiny ankles peeking out of her bedclothes, her shoulders ivory in their thin sheath of fabric.

Cezette recovered from her shock, pressing as far she dared against the shivering glass. Every cannon shook the frame a little, and the combined report of many rocked the thin pane like a concerto.

She could see them- yes, every single one of them! Each time the points of light rocketed from the ships into the cloud, she felt the corresponding shake against the glass.

She had read, of course, of sound traveling at a far inferior velocity to light, but only now could she place book learning in the real world- in the skies of her Paris, no less! The epiphany shook her, but it was an epiphany without context. Why were the ships firing into the eldritch cloud? Was there some hidden enemy inside?

It was just as she was thinking the experience felt like cowering before a storm, when everything changed. Real thunder held no candle to this fusillade, Cezette was thinking, but as if Thor wished it otherwise, there came a sudden snap of light. Cezette blinked- there was no choice about it, as her wide-open eyes would have burned at the sight. When she looked back through the echo of brilliance, she saw at once a new light in the sky. In horror, Cezette looked on as a burning phalanx of airships fell from the heavens, directly into the Seine in a plume of smoke and steam.

“What…” Cezette murmured in high-pitched French, but she could do no more.

It was at this moment a hairy palm placed itself over her small mouth, muffling any ejaculation she might have made. Another wound itself around her slim waist, and suddenly she was airborne. Dimly, she thought one of the dirigibles had lifted her away from her little room over the Rue Fremicourt; then the smell of cheap champagne and bad cheese filled her nostrils, replacing fresh horror with old dread. She had smelled thismost nights since Maman had gone, and inside the little world between her ears she was already chastising herself for becoming so lax in her vigil.

With a whump of fabric, Cezette foundherself thrown breathless back into bed. She tried to get up, but her arms were held fast by iron vices. Something prickly and warm was pushing up her bedclothes.

As with every nightit happened, Cezette fought. On nights when she was on her guard, she would have been hiding in any number of spots- the wardrobe, under the bed, one fortunate time even on the edge of the roof outside. A lock on the sill had put a stop to it, but she would make every effort not to be found, usually with some small degree of success. When she ran out of hiding places, she tried to run away, only to find all her clothes gone from her wardrobe. There was only one option, which Cezette exercised anew: she bit, she scratched, tore the iron from her bed as an improvised weapon. There is nothing so humiliating, and nothing so noble, as when something precious is defended in futility.

Outside, the sky was immolating.

Acrid trails of smoke streaked over Paris, settling as the gaseous steam coalesced to become a nauseous rain. Statues cried black as if in mourning. France’s sons were dying above her, burning inside hulks of metal and wood and canvas. Her denizens had long been evacuated from the streets, but they looked on from shelters far away, able to witness the holocaust over the well-planned boulevards of the city. They cried as the corpses of dirigibles fell onto their homes, covered their eyes at each new serpent of lightning coming from the deadly cloud. They screamed as the paintings burned in the museums. No formation remained; ships dipped and swerved in the sky, anxious to dodge the death all around them.

Then, a new horror; the cloud wasmoving. It was slow, but it moved purposefully, tracking across the sky with no observable cause. Still, the flashes of light streaked from the depths of its hidden core, striking jaggedly towards the dirigibles still hounding its fringes. It was penetrating the phalanxes like they weren’t even there. They were feeble blows at the flanks of a giant.

Meanwhile, in the little room above the Rue Fremicourt, Cezette Louissaint was screaming. Her bedclothes were now torn lace on the floor of the room, and her slim ankles were being pressed slowly, inevitably apart. Her knees kept snapping together, but she was tiring. Her wrists were already bruised. It would only be a matter of time, Cezette was sure. Tonight would be like all the other nights; when the strength fled her limbs, the end would be hellish but brief.

It wasn’t the pain, of course. It was the feeling of sweat on her, a sheen of slime and dirt she could not wash away. Cezette would give anything to be able to scrub out the film of filth, the sense of worthlessness, of being an object to be handled by another. Instead there was despair. She felt one of these nights the strength of her mind might fail as her limbs failed, and she would not even have the grit to kick out as she was doing now. Even as the thought overtook her mind, she suddenly felt her knees go limp, and the weight held so desperately aloft began to descend.

“No!” Cezette screamed, once, in desperation. Volga would not intervene. She had never intervened. Nobody else would be able to hear Cezette. Each time she held out some desperate hope of rescue, of escape. Above all, she hoped beyond hope her Maman would appear over the bed, kicking and scratching.

It was then she saw the Tour, gleaming still outside her window. If she hadn’t struggled in a particular direction, kicked in a particular way, she would never have seen it. Cezette saw. She saw the way every other light had been snuffed, yet the Tour remained.


Page 4

It stood brightly, and for onemoment Cezette felt if she could reach the garden at its feet she would be safe. She would be safe in Maman’s warm, charcoal-streaked arms once more, in a bubble nobody could breach.

It was the one thought able to make her draw back her legs and let the disgusting weight drop.Then she kicked out, both feet at once, in the space of a split second.

Her right heel smashed into something soft, and she felt it crush against bone. Something screamed, a deep, feral scream.

Suddenly, miraculously, she was free.

Cezette did not question it- she just felt the weight lift, and the glorious cool air stream over her. She rolled off the bed by instinct, tumbling onto her hurt arms and legs in a scrabbling pile. It wasn’t possible to think- she only had one thing in her mind, and the thought repeated itself all through her body. Run, Cezette! Run for your life!

The stairs were the hardest, in part because the thunder in the sky was shaking everything badly. Cezette held on to the railing and partially slid along it, desperate to traverse the three floors between her and freedom. When was the last time she had seen the rest of the house? She did not know.

When she tumbled onto a landing and felt the rough carpet against her bottom, she remembered she was naked, and began to look round for something to cover herself. She dared not go into the other rooms; Papa would be after her in a moment, and she would have squandered her only chance of escape.

Cezette could only dash along down the stair, and when she saw Papa’s stinking pea coat draped by the entryway, she could have sung.

By now, the fighting had intensified above Cezette Loussaint’s little townhouse.

Ships were darting all over Paris, crashing into homes and shopping districts. The Champs-Elysees was being used as an impromptu dirigible landing strip, but few ships were surviving long enough to set down on the wide boulevard.

L’Arc De Triomphe was completely gone, buckled under the weight of one of the larger ships. The damnable cloud was now hovering directly over the Tour D’Eiffel, setting everything around it ablaze.

Cezette could not know any of this. What she encountered as she stepped barefoot onto the streets of Paris was simply an inferno. Smoke moved in opaque walls through the narrow avenues, cutting her off in poisonous barricades. Her appropriated pea coat went down to her shins, flapping as she sprinted through the deserted paths. At least it was warm for a barely clothed girl, in the flaming streets.

Left and right no longer mattered; she went where she saw an opening, dodging falling debris and crumbling masonry. She had little idea of the direction she was going, only knowing she must put as much distance between herself and what lay behind her. Finally, finally she had escaped! Now she could wash this filth off of her once and for all.

Dodging through gardens, climbing over the toppled chairs of cafes and streaking through deserted promenades, Cezette realized she was not entirely lost. Slowly, she was beginning to have a sense of where everything was, even able to guess how the smoke was moving.

Mais oui!It was so obvious! All those nights watching the city had given her a map of everything outside her window. Even with all the chaos raging about her, dirigibles falling on her head and steam chariots overturned in the fountains, there had only ever been one destination. La Tour!

Overhead, the eldritch cloud had moved across the river Seine. Its mass was nearly centered over La Tour D’Eiffel.

Cezette was headed directly into the maelstrom, yet she did not know- nor did she have any alternative. The lanky girl had never been in any other part of the city, not during the years when she might have memorized the streets. Fortuitously, the larger part of the dirigibles had stopped firing, since they had largely been eliminated. The cloud simply halted above the monolith, and ceased its attack.

In the momentary calm, Cezette Louissaint raced through the quieted streets. Her pea coat flashed behind her a desperate pennant held on by her arms as much as the buttons. She could see no other person, but for this she was glad- she had no idea what she might have said, or how she might have found help. There had been precious few to talk to in the Louissaint home, and those who did were invariably too frightened to help her.

Cezette did have one thing going for her- her stamina and health. Endless nights of fighting off a grown man had given her great reservoirs of strength. Had the attack succeeded, she would have been sore, hurting for days. Now, with hope looming over her the only bright thing in a black hell, she found energy returning to her limbs. In the face of so much desolation, it hardly seemed to matter if her feet were cut.

Finallyher abused heels touched something different than hard paving- grass! Cezette slowed, her hurts catching up to her, her lungs burning with the smoke and exertion. She had reached the gardens, her Maman’s gardens!

The elation of it filled her with gladness. For a moment, she could hardly believe she was here. Even her arms and legs were covered with soot, charred black just like Maman’s hands.

She flopped onto the soft greenery, lit orange by the Tour’s lamps. The cool vegetation felt cleaner than anything she had ever touched, and even the heat of fire all around her seemed only a purging blaze. She felt scrubbed, new and reborn. Everything was going to be all right. Slowly, she got up and stumbled forward, deeper into the garden. Here and there were topiary and hedges- Maman would have loved to draw the elephants. It was so pleasant, too! Not a single tourist could be seen, not a clack of photograms could be heard.

Cezette found a cool spot between two hedges, culled by gardening into a perfect nook. There was a bench, and a spectacular view of La Tour overhead. The metal soared over Cezette; she imagined it might have reminded adults of their own parents towering. It felt like an impervious guardian, standing there against the backdrop of dusky cloud. Nobody would be able to find her here. She lay herself down and snuggled into the borrowed coat. Even the smell had changed. Now the coat only smelled of fire and vegetation. Slowly, Cezette’s tired limbs relaxed, and she fell into a deep sleep.

And so it was when the light came down from deep within the eldritch cloud, not a soul, not even Cezette Louissaint, could see the glint of metal protruding from the heart of the darkened mass. To everyone in Paris that night, there could only be seen an intense column of brightness, as straight as lightning was jagged, reaching down like the finger of God.

With nothing to challenge it, the finger traced a line all round La Tour D’Eiffel, including within it the gardens, and the promenade along the Seineriver.

TheChevaliersand theMarine Nationaletroops rushing all along the Champs-Elysees could only watch from the rooftops as the column traveled a complete circuit round the symbol of their nation.

Quietly, majestically, the tower began to rise, carrying one sleeping girl with it.

4.1: For Queen And Country (Hargreaves)

 

I must admit, playing the flirtatious wench was something of a dilemma. Throwing modesty to the wind, I put on a mummery act with the patrons, not to mention the lecherous bar owner and his mysteriously friendly wife. Every time they grasped for my gentler portions, one sentence circled round and round behind my eyes. Each spilled pint or unpaid tab drew on a charm I held close to my heart.

I told myself the same thing, over and over again: for Queen and Country.

              I know, I know, it is cliché to the point of nausea, the stuff of penny dreadfuls and cheap espionage narrative. Were there better ways to find a lead on this Samuel Clemens, also known as the Steamboat Man? Probably, but for an operative outside the regular hierarchy of the realm, other choices did not present themselves. It seemed worse when I considered my role as Her Majesty’s intelligence personnel may someday contradict my day job: an Inspector, of all things, in Scotland Yard.

Two pips.Two, little, damnable pips.

             I suppose it goes back to the beginning. I recall I had just caught the Blackfriar Bludgeoner, the latest upset in a respectable yet unassuming career. The culprit was an ornery stable master, fed up with the steam cabbies taking over all his business and scaring his mares with their incessant conflagrations. He had taken a pair of heavy shoe tongs to a particularly insulting driver, and everything had snowballed from there.

The solution to the case hadn’t even been completely to my merit.

I had hadhelp, only Arturo C. Adler specialized in consultations, not public attention.

Chalk one up to Vanessa Hargreaves, Scotland Yard’s fifth female Inspector, symbol of a changing Britain, only give credit where credit is due, as she didn’t actually solve anything. The case of the Blackfriar Bludgeoner, while not particularly emblematic of my deductive powers, nevertheless propelled me to the attention of a certain TheloniousThatcher, an alias I suspect has more to do with Her Majesty’s inner circle than British Intelligence.

Oh posh, I hear the tossers say, everyone knows Her Majesty’s secret government operates out of the Diogenes Club! If it were a secret, why should John Bull know of it at all? Long story short, when the neighborhood of Westminster disappeared overnight, I was the prime understudy to play Her Majesty’s catspaw.

              As to how this pirate, this Marauder of Manchu, saw through my disguise, I am at a loss. Even Thatcher, shadow of shadows, could not discover me at a place of his choosing, though I was hidden in plain sight; it was one of the criteria of my involvement in the Queen’s affairs.

             “What did you dress up as?” the Marauder interrupted, rather rudely, I might add. I halted in my telling of how I had arrived at my situation in Portsmouth to stare him down. I was unsuccessful. “To evade even Thatcher’s detection.”

“A nun,” I admitted reluctantly.

“Continue,” he said, stifling a giggle. The cad!

It was all the worse his tea was so good, and his brig so warm and cheerful.

A modest carpet covered up the worst of the planks. Thick blankets softened the hard cot, and a vanity screen had even been installed round the loo. Even the bars were clean and free of rust. I bit into a fingerprint cookie, paired with a delightful Assam, to stall for time.

             “You understand, I am only telling you any of this on condition of our deal. You will honor the deal, Master Pirate?” I demanded of him, though I was hardly in any position of leverage. My old friends, a small derringer and my .22 Tranter, lay heavy with unused ammunition atop a table at the air pirate’s elbow. Any documentation of my real identity sat under the loose floorboards in my narrow room over the Jilted Merman.

             “If it will engender your trust, my name is Albion Clemens. I know, sounds faker than my alias, right?”

             “I didn’t realize pirates had proper names. You may put on any alias you like,” I managed. The name struck a chord, obviously- did my captor have something to do with the air pirate Samuel Clemens? Looking about, the ship did seem far too old and large for such a young man to master.

             “Chosen names. They are the only ones that matter.”

             “Fine,” I huffed, though the impropriety intrigued me to no end. What value had a name if it did not exist in Her Majesty’s record? By law, such a man could not own property in Britain, nor could he marry.  A proper name ought be Christian.

             “The nature of your mission?” Clemens, or Shaw, or whomever, pressed.

             “Is a secret,” I replied, somewhat spitefully.

             “Now now, Inspector, I know everything else. That was the deal, you tell me everything about yourself and I would make sure no retribution falls on you.”

             “The details about the case are the business of the Queen and the Pax Brittania. It is not something about myself,” I said smugly. “I have completed my side of the bargain, to the letter of the agreement.”

             “Why you smug little minx,” he said, amused. He tended to stroke his short black beard when he found good sport. No matter how roguish and charming the motion, it was still remarkably rude.

             “I shan’t have you taking that tone with me, sir! I am a Christian woman!”

             Even as we bantered, I could scarcely believe I had been subdued. I had had my derringer on the pirate, in his knackered little longboat floating away from the pier. He had raised his hands, slowly, as did the odd little ginger man who had been attacked by the Lewis brothers. Then, with almighty calmness, the pirate pointed up.

Before I knew it, a vast pink mass was settling on my shoulders, blinding me to the world.

Of course- the elephant balloon! I felt arms close around me, then something very like rope. I recall how I panicked, how I felt we were sure to die plummeting into the icy water below. I wondered if the little air trapped with me in the gassy canvas would lift me to the waves or abandon me bubbling to a wet grave. I also recall it stank to high heaven, like sticky fairy floss and old popcorn grease.

If I had bothered to recall my dirigible engineering courses at the Academy, I might have remembered these balloons came in several compartments- the pirate must have released one section to bind me, perhaps with a loose foot as he distracted me with his hands.

By the time I saw light again, I was in this cell- a rather nice, not very smelly cell, but obviously a brig nonetheless. The swell of travel, and the way the floors moved, told me as much- the Marauder had taken me to a much larger ship.

             “If you go back on the deal, I can always treat you like an enemy captive. In the old days, seafaring pirates would do as they liked with a female captive,” Clemens was saying.

Despite the notion, he did not seem to take much note of my assets, still on display in a barmaid’s thin linen blouse. This one enjoyed the game, not the spoils, I realized suddenly.

              “Who is the smug one now?” I quipped, getting naught in the way of impatience. Very annoying, this Albion Clemens. Instead of giving in to frustration, he leaned forward, sipping at his own cup of tea. It was an odd habit for an Oriental to have. He did it pinky out.

             “Look here,” he said very carefully. “I know you followed us for a reason, not escaping a silly brawl or for our personal safety. Now, I gave you three pieces of information at the pub- who I was, what I had done, and who I was after. You didn’t call the Navy police or the constables, so I feel certain you’re not after me for the stolen lavender. On the money so far?”

             I nodded; his induction was immaculate. The best thing I could do was give him nothing. Perhaps he would slip up.

             “There are plenty of people after me, but as you came to stop my murder, and as there were other air pirates, hell, proper aeronauts in the pub, I don’t think you are running, or after a bounty, or want to turn me in.”

             “Correct,” I begrudged, tiring of admitting defeat.

             “So, I am to conclude the following,” he said, sitting up in a rather handsome pose. I hadn’t noticed before, but with his buccaneer coat off and his gun belt at a rakish angle, hung low by a long cutlass, the man was positively dashing.

Muscles bulged underneath well-starched linen, and those piercing black-brown eyes…

No! no, Hargreaves! The man is a scoundrel, a highwayman! I thought of the stinking pink elephant, bringing his voice into focus.

             “Your target is this man!” Albion Clemens concluded, fishing out the photogram of the man so unlike himself as to draw unseemly suspicions. Clearly, the Oriental before me could have nothing to do with the white-haired American depicted there. Or most would have thought.

             I sighed. There was no avoiding it, I supposed. I would have to tell the Bangkok Bandit something of the truth.

             “All right,” I said. “The mission has little to do with me, but it has everything to do with you, and this Samuel Clemens.”

             “I knew it. Take me to him!” Clemens demanded. The urgency in his voice betrayed his stoic Asiatic features for just a second- Albion cared for Samuel, as a friend, a comrade, perhaps…

             “You were adopted,” I concluded aloud. The statement seemed to stun Albion, but only for a moment. “It was not a lie told at the Jilted Merman. This man is your adopted father.”

             “In a manner of speaking. Someone who saves a Chinese man’s life might as well be a father to him,” he admitted freely.

             “Chinese is it? It was Chinese or Japanese, I hadn’t decided.”

             “The hair? I know, works to my advantage.”

             “Oooh, I love the hair, very dashing.”

             “Hey!” Albion protested now. “No stalling.”

             “Nothing gets past you,” Drat!

             “Where is Captain Sam?”

             “I don’t know,” I answered, peering into his dark eyes with my blue ones. He seemed to be satisfied.

             “What do you want with him?”

             “That is the business of Her Majesty Victoria the Third, Queen of the United Kingdom, Empress of…”

             “Yada yada yada,” Clemens interrupted again, frustratingly.

             “Beg pardon?”

             “It’s a Yankee expression. From the Yiddish, I believe. It means I don’t want to hear the rest.”

             “How rude!” It was British, actually, from ‘yatter-yatter.’ I was not about to tell him.

             “How much an enormous waste of time! Either tell me what your business is, or I toss you in the longboat and leave you adrift in the Atlantic.”

             “Is this where we are? Why, I thought we were on some civil pirate airship, not some centuries-old seafarer!” My jibe was as ineffective, as his threat. Something about the way he threatened threw me. I felt like he would not harm me, not if he did not need to. Gentle imprisonment spoke volumes. Maybe a gentle hand was called for?

             “All right Master Pirate. I will concede to your persistence. What follows is all I shall tell you, and that shall be the end of it.”

             “And what I will do with the information is my business,” he finished for me.

             “Touche,” I agreed. Just what I expected.

             “Out with it.”

             “Your Captain Clemens consorts with a very dangerous crowd, Albion Clemens,” I breathed. I felt a great weight come off my shoulders. “I was extraordinarily surprised. You understand there is a million-quid bounty on his head? What were you doing telling me who you were? Did you not expect a slew of bounty hunters coming down upon you like a swarm of vultures?”

             “I’ve heard of the bounty. What I don’t know is who wants my Captain Sam, nor why. If I have to crack a few skulls to get the down-low, I will.”

             There- the idioms again! What strange things to say, for a man of the east.

             “Right,” I continued, aware of our sudden closeness to each other. We had both unconsciously leaned in to hear, separated only by the bars of the cell. I could feel his breath on my face, warm and scented with tea.


Page 5

             “All I can tell you is, your Captain Sam is connected to a laboratory explosion in Oxford. The building was destroyed by a contraption producing great heat and thunderous clamor. This weapon, we believe, was also used to steal the Houses of Parliament not too long ago.”

             Clemens whistled.

“Captain Clemens is also connected to an item of import, though I am unsure how or if it relates,” I finished. This last I had garnered through sources at the Jilted Merman, many unreliable. The sky was practically abuzz with the news.

              “Something of great value,” said the Thief of Tibet. My, the man had a lot of aliases.

             “Indubitably. You can rest assured, the bounty was not offered by any of Her Majesty’s agencies, at least with her knowledge. I am the primary venue of investigation, and as such, I doubt the Queen is deploying any stratagem against my interests.”

             “Save me the power play. What is the name of the item?” Clemens demanded.

             “I believe you may have heard of it-”

             “If I have, I wouldn’t need you-”

             “-on a bit in the Jilted Merman-”

             “-stalling, take me for a fool-”

             “-have the nerve!”

             “-that dress!”

“The Laputian Leviathan.”

             “Ah,” Albion Clemens murmured, leaning back in his chair. “You’re barmy. The Leviathan is a myth.”

             “Do I look like I’m mad? Would the Queen send-”

             “An Inspector fresh from her first collar, into the breach with naught but two peashooters and a bit of British pluck? Someone who would is expected to be outlandish, by her chauvinistic colleagues? I believe so,” Clemens pointed out. “Nobody would miss her.”

             “Why you scruffy, no-good highwayman! Let me out this instant!”

             “Maybe when you learn to swear a little better,” he concluded, getting up to leave. “I think I’ll tap into my contacts a little, see if there’s any truth to your case. I’ll let you know what I find. Maybe someone is hiding something clever behind the Leviathan name. Could just be the item you’re looking for, but you’ve thought of that.”

             “Harumph,” I said, spinning to leave first- only, of course, my cell was a bit impregnable at the moment.

             “By the way,” Captain Albion called from the door, “Only the Yard teaches your gun forms. It works in the tightness of London’s streets, good for clearing corners, especially if you have a partner crouching under you. Most loners or pirates, they’ll stand with their side forward for a smaller target. It’s how I knew you were a copper.”

             With a slam of the door, I was left to stew in my own self-pity, wondering how in the hell I managed to cock this mission up.

 

 

4.2: To Not Getting Hanged {Blair}

 

The air pirate emerged on deck approximately an hour after we docked the longboat with his airship.

My fingers itched to photogram the beautiful grand dam, voluptuous and streamlined, her bow hovering gently over the quiet Atlantic. No balloon flew above, but I wasn’t informed as to how this could be- perhaps a gas envelope inside the vessel?

I was, however, given her name: theHuckleberry, a name prairie-blown with the flavor of the West, entirely unbefitting this very Eastern fellow.

Captain Albion Clemens, for this was how he introduced himself as he collared the wriggling barmaid with her inefficient firearm, seemed none too worried about keeping an Inspector for Scotland Yard imprisoned within his ship. I had seen one other member of the crew, a large, middle-aged fellow with considerably more belly than verbosity. He hoisted the bundle of Inspector as easily as one might a sack of potatoes. Afterward, I had been left on deck while the Captain dealt with the Inspector. I did my best to look harmless.

“All right there, Master Blair?” Clemens said now, striding on deck in a cloud of buccaneer coat. Dark goggles now protected his eyes from the crisp Atlantic wind. With those on, he seemed much more the role of Captain. Clemens came to stand near me, peering at the starlight, though dawn lined the horizon silver. The light particularly picked out his waist, where hung a large, dinted cutlass.

“You were welcome to come inside,” Clemens extended in friendship.

“Ah,” I said. My voice was steady, but my hands longed to document everything. I did not know quite how to ask a notorious pirate if I would be keelhauled for it.

What were the pirate conventions? Did they even have any? How would one be keelhauled through thin air?

For the matter, I did not know if I would be perfectly safe otherwise, nor how long such conditions would last. I would hate to attempt the swim back to England, invisible below a veil of mist. Would I even survive the fall?

“Do you need anything? Refreshment? Surely a Briton wouldn’t deny a spot of tea,” Clemens offered instead, extending a hand to a stair leading into the bowels of the dirigible. I nodded, having had enough of the chill deck.

“Am I to understand you are extending me the hospitality of your ship?” I asked. I did not know much, but I knew a Captain’s word was worth something even in the swashbuckling skies.

“Have you been talking to Inspector Hargreaves? She does have a low opinion of us. Rest assured I extend you the safety and hospitality of theHuckleberry.”

“Is that her name then?” I said nervously.

“I’m sorry, I should have invited you with me,” he said, looking like he had intended nothing of the sort. “You will see Vanessa Hargreaves is very well treated, if you care to look.”

“In your brig? I’m afraid I’ll have to pass.” We both laughed at this, and I was glad some of our earlier camaraderie remained. Shaw or Clemens, Captain’s vestments or no, this was very much the straight shooter from the pub I had met earlier.

While we spoke, Clemens led me through a rather narrow passage.

Though I had seen only very few dirigibles, theHuckleberryseemed tighter, more packed together, with shut wooden portals every few feet along the paneled walls.

The oddest things were the ceilings and floors; theywere strung with piping, all along behind thin wire grilles, and some lines had been hung with the oddest objects. I attempted to follow one such copper tube, remarking a sackcloth doll, a paper windmill, and what seemed like a string of teeth, before Clemens led me to a larger door.

“Come, this is Auntie’s galley,” he said, showing me through to a wider room with curving, spacious bulkheads. At a glance, I knew where I must be- at the bow of the ship, in a long mess where benches had been nailed to the floor before some dining tables.

Tchotchkes and knickknacks covered every other surface, lit with generous gas lamps. On the whole, everything seemed slapdash and crowded, yet possessing of the odd quality of organization only known to the well-loved village sandwich shop.

             “Did you get many photograms?” Clemens asked from a low counter. He disappeared behind it while I peered at a stack of yellowed recipes pinned to the wall with a snake-like dagger. Beside it, a feather boa curled round a bust of Shakespeare. Behind the counter, the pirate was doing something strange to a pair of large chrome pots. He seemed to be pouring a liquid quite a lot like tea through the air from one to another, with a lot of steaming and sloshing. The aroma was heavenly.

“Ah, not really,” I answered.

My photogrammer still sat in my pocket. I hadn’t taken off my coat, though the chamber seemed pleasantly humid and well heated, like a maiden aunt’s comfortable parlor. “I wasn’t sure it was proper.”

“Afraid I’d keelhaul you?Can’t be done. Best you’d do is hang, sort of… no ocean to drown in, or barnacles to break stuff like arms on.” There, one question grimly answered.

“The sentiment isn’t particularly comforting,” I managed without looking too pale.Certainly this man had nothing to fear from robbing me blind and casting my corpse overboard, to fall head-over-heels into an Atlantic filled with hungry sharks.

My one hope was the pirate yet wished to profit from completing my request. Just as I was figuring how many crew he had aboard, the likelihood of stealing a longboat and if I could learn to type and replace ink ribbons with my toes should I fail, Albion Clemens reappeared with two large mugs of absolutely divine, milky amber fluid.

“You have my solemn word, I will not harm you so long as you reside aboard my airship,” Clemens reminded me pleasantly. Of course, the compact of hospitality- like parley, there were rules cutthroats held more sacred than others.

“Thank you,” I said cautiously. Just as carefully, I took a sip of the drink set before me. Mischievous Hermes, god of pens! The stuff was marvelous! I took a deeper gulp, unsure of the smoothness flowing down my throat, warming my core. Tea? This stuff brought me back to the first time I had tea, at my mum’s knee in our rundown flat in Brixton.

“Good, isn’t it?”

“Seven hells it’s good! What is it?”

“Hong Kong milk tea. The smoothness comes from pouring it back and forth, I’m sure you saw. It mellows the tanins,” Clemens said, doing smackings of the tongue to indicate thze back of the palate.

“I’m afraid I rather had a mistaken idea of you, Captain,” I said, my breath steaming up everything in front of me. “Evil would immolate at the very first scent of this holy beverage.”

“You’ve a way with words, that’s good,” Clemens said amiably. “I may have a use for your talents soon.”      

“Mmm?” I answered, busy draining my mug.

“You are, of course, free to leave the Huckleberry whenever you want,” he said.

“My hospitality extends to any port of your choice. My advice would be to find the nearest, which would be either Brighton or Le Havre, depending on your preference. Or, you can stay, help, and likely find a story or two aboard.”

“Hold on,” I said, getting my bearings in the aftermath of the wanton beverage. “You mean to say we’re over theChannel? Still within English jurisdiction?”

“Yes,” Clemens said calmly.

“But you’re a wanted criminal! No offense,” I protested, peering about quite foolishly. Of course, the bulkheads showed no sign of the Navy or the Royal Air Service ships in pursuit.

The large galley windows offered a splendid view of the sunrise, doubtless a service granted by her mysterious helmsman. From the way Clemens laid his mug atop the sill, I suspected the handsome pose of the ship’s captain was not cut for my benefit, but something he enjoyed freely.

His mahogany eyes peered calmly into mine under leather goggle lenses, with no fear of any dirigible appearing behind him.

“All right,” I submitted. “You’re obviously a dab hand at this business, as you’ve no rope on your shoulders. What could I possibly offer you?”

Captain Clemens wasted no time.

“It relates to my conversation with Inspector Hargreaves. She’s offered me some insight into my business in Portsmouth. I suppose we should start with this.” He briskly produced a photogram from his pocket. I perused it thoughtfully- a white-haired, American gentleman, from the frontier West, no less, in a rather sharp suit.

“His face is unknown to me,” I said finally. “But my paper contacts may offer some insight.”

“Bollocks,” Clemens cursed. “I was betting you might have seen this face before.”

“I take it this man might be responsible for something particularly infamous? Captain Clemens, sketches of many men cross our presses, and I am simply one journalist.”

“No Captain, please. Albion will do,” Clemens protested enigmatically. He explained. “This man is the real Manchu Marauder, in a way,” he continued, “and the real owner of this ship. I am currently on a quest to recover him. His name is Captain Samuel J. Clemens, and this is his pressed-helium steam dirigible, the pirate shipHuckleberry.”

I may have imagined it, but the ship seemed to dip in acknowledgment, giving a slight shudder all about us.

“The names are unfamiliar. I know of you, and your ship, naturally by the mouths of airmen, but as your description fit the general pirate accounts, this is the first I’ve known of the actual names of her Captain,” I said. All the while, I was thinking: Now he has got no use for me, I shall be run off the plank for sure. Somehow, the notion bore no fear, rather, craftiness I hadn’t felt since...

“But I have contacts on the ground who might be of use!” I continued hastily.

Clemens perused me thoughtfully.

“Are you quite sure? You would be aiding and abetting pirate activities. They might hang you.”


Page 6

“I believe I am well hanged, at least in the eyes of the press,” I supplied. Indeed, I may as well have been hanged; my articles hadn’t been getting much traction, and even the job I embarked on with Clive and Staples had been a long shot. I had about as well a chance of surviving up here, in the care of a literal cutthroat, than down on the ground with the editorial breed. “My work is considered… subversive.”

“Progressive would have been my choice,” Clemens said. He rubbed his temple thoughtfully. “Don’t you have an article to be writing?”

“I told my editor I would deliver a piece on the cutpurses of England. What greater cutpurse is there than the Bandit of Budapest, the Crook Cathay, the Kleptomaniac of Kyoto?”

“All right, I get your point!” Clemens abruptly protested. “Blue blazes, how many names have they for me?”

“I threw in a few of my own,” I admitted. “Pyongyang Purloiner came to mind.”

“Let’s not go there today,” the Oriental said, standing up. “What say you? Stay on with us, until your article is written? I daresay there’s a mystery in it. My Captain Sam appears to have taken something of extreme value, at least according to the cheeky rozzer down in my brig. He also seems to be involved in the theft of a major British monument, if you believe such a thing can be done.”

I winced as his hand emerged from his pocket, but no heavy black pistol was attached. Sheepishly, I reached out to take his hand.

“To a plentiful partnership,” I said.

“To not getting hanged,” he said, grinning.

And it was so. Little could I know, but from that moment on, I became a member of theHuckleberry’screw.

 

4.3: Figure-Four Holds {Rosa} 

             The small, unremarkable bottle ginger exiting the galley didn’t surprise me so much as Albion’s expression beside him. There were few in the skies I could not read. My Captain could evade my piercing gaze, and often did. Today, there was obvious hope glinting out of his eyes.

We had spent the better part of the last two years hunting Albion’s adoptive father. I’d joined him long before, and since the news of Samuel’s return, we had done far less pirating than I preferred. I was starting to think I should never have joined this silly crew, handsome Captain or no. Had we finally stumbled across a clue? It would lift the dark cloud hanging over his brow, at the least.

              “Hello there gorgeous. I see you’ve caught yourself a tabby, Alby,” I said, drawing their attention with a flick of my skirts.

I was wearing several layers of them, an embroidered scene on a green field, over Egyptian cotton and French lace, bound under a brazenly immodest bodice. My wrists were dabbed with jasmine, wafting where I wished. My lashes twinkled with dewdrop rhinestones, and a headscarf matching the skirts held back my lush toffee locks. All the fabric hid my numerous barbs and blades neatly.

All right, I was trying. I hadn’t seen Albion in a week, and I knew the English tended towards a pasty paleness surely irresistible to his Asiatic persuasion. It was my latest theory. No matter how much of my mocha skin I showed him, nothing seemed to shake his ascetic attitude towards me. It was the dancer in me to include the other man in my audience, I admit, but my vanity wasn’t for naught. The resulting slack-jawed stare from the ginger was worth it. As usual, Albion’s own stone stare gave no hint of even the slightest appreciation. Prick.

             “Rosa Marija, this is Elric Blair. She is my helmswoman and first mate. Rosa, there was a bit of altercation, but the newspaper man might be able to help us find Captain Sam.”

             “I suppose the Inspector might be of more assistance,” Blair said, “but I have a notion.”

             “A cat and a hound. You have been busy,” I interjected. “When did we start giving the pigs room and board?”

             “I know you’re not keen on it,” Albion said, “But she is no ordinary Inspector. She has ties to the Queen of England, and if what we’re hearing is true, we might need them.”

             For the life of me, it was difficult to fathom how somebody higher up in the British government could do anything but hang us more thoroughly.

             Momentarily, I imagined this female Inspector: chiseled jaw, gray streaked through her hair, a riding crop in her knickers.

             “No. I say we throw her overboard, we’re low enough and close enough to land.”

             “Rosa, you know better than to ask that of me,” he chastised lightly. He pointed Blair to one of the narrow quarters nearby, and swept down the hall. Blair, the ginger, shrugged.

             “It was very nice to meet you,” he said, entering the room.

             “Eh. Albion!” I called, following my Captain.

             I kept badgering the man, but as usual, his broad back seemed to deflect commentary as he stalked down the passages of his ship. We swept through, heading towards the bridge. TheBerryhummed pleasantly, and it was hard not to think of her as my ship. I had spent the week with old man Cid Tanner, tuning her within an inch of her life. She was ready for anything.

             “You have to give me something. What is this Inspector like? Old and dried up, I presume, with an axe to grind about some dirigible raiders who burned her house as a girl?” I hazarded a guess.

             “Rosa, you have a habit of spinning tall tales. Was it all the frontier living?” He asked. “It wasn’t a command to stop, by the way. It’s very entertaining.”

             “And you have a bad habit of not involving us in your plans,” I grumbled. It stopped him in his tracks.

             “Yes,” he agreed. “I do. I’m working on that, all right? It’s hard for me to… share, with you all.”

             Again, the dark cloud hovered over his brow. He had a million things behind the emotionless mask.

The people who even came close to understanding Albion were all on this ship. We didn’t ask what he was planning, because we always slipped by the noose, but this was different.

             “Let’s start small,” I said gently. “What will you do with the Inspector?”

             “I agreed not to harm her,” he began, grateful for a place to start. “Vanessa Hargreaves will likely be more flexible with her information after a few days in the brig. For now, let’s go investigate her claims. I never trusted a pretty blonde with a sound head on her shoulders.”

             We had scoured the skies for information already, but if Albion had a lead from this Inspector, I was willing to comb every way station and seedy dive this side of the Atlantic, all over again. It took a moment for me to register the descriptor, and Albion’s implications.

“Wait, what?” I yelled. “A pretty Inspector? A blonde, pretty female Inspector?”

I fair flew down the hall, and while my Captain expected it, he could not dodge my expertly applied figure-four hold, launched like a vice from a cannon. As he gasped in pain, I applied the metaphorical thumbscrews.

“Ack! Give! Give!”

              “Now you tell me the who and the why of it. You had better have been honorable with this Hargreaves, or so help me, I will break your arm. You know I can put it back together!”

             “I was, I was!”

             “Bull!” Still, it was hard not to give in to the temptation. Albion had never calledme‘pretty,’ before.

“Save your rancor for the rabble,” Albion gasped. I loosened my hold, slightly. “We’re sailing for theHook.I just hope they won’t remember they banned me.”

5:The Straight Hook, Kitty Desperado, Blair gets Lucky

 

Floating somewhere near the Isle of Man is a motely collection of junked junks, busted barges, and other rubbish loosely roped together. If an airship mistakes this floating spider’s web as a plethora of garbage, its crew would curse themselves and nine generations of their kin. This particular flying structure is the world-famousStraight Hook, the tavern of taverns, and favorite watering hole of air pirates across Europe.

After I wrangled the exact circumstances of the Inspector’s arrival from Alby and sniffed himfor remnants of perfume, he shared the details of his conversation with me. Claims of national monuments disappearing were outlandish, but the chatter over the ether spike had been building up to something big for days. From far Kyoto to San Francisco, ballooning brigands everywhere were all a titter.

We decided the best place to start were the rumor-infested catwalks of theHook. If anyone had news of the Leviathan in recent days, the airmen of theHookwould. Ostensibly, we came to look into the truth of Inspector Hargreaves’ tall tales of an airship legend come to life. Really, we tended to find ourselves at theHookwhenever we had a couple coins to rub together.

On a scale of sad birthday clown to mid-air orgy, the place could only be described as epic. Her tiers of bustling bars, private rooms and cloistered cat-petting lounges were not only havens of inebriation, but also clusters of the best rumor and hearsay this side of Istanbul.

Patrons still recall fondly the legendary Millbeard, he of the windmill in his beard, may your arguments ever be invalid, and the night he fell off the edge of a whisky lounge, landing four decks down into a gin palace full of naked wenches.

I know for a fact this particular story is true. He tore my favorite fishnets on the way down.

So where had theHookcome from? Who had lashed the first balloon to the first keg of ale? Not one of us knew. Occasionally one could see a glimpse of the real masterminds, with helium in their blood. They left marks scrawled on impromptu signage and pinned to cork boards: the Incognito- the true power of the place. Their signs slunk under and around everything, simultaneously a comfort and a caution to those in the know; they were legion, inescapable. The skulls, question marks, and masks were a reminder of the power in this place, and the unspoken credo passed from pirate to pirate in hushed whispers and grudging alliances. Yet, even they were only residents, denizens of a place that seemed to exist in utter defiance of all outside authority.The Straight Hookwas a place truly neutral, since not a single person knew whom to blame for it.

With theBerrydocked, we found the splintery platforms full to bursting with other vessels- not only pirates, but freighters and other rabble. We recognized the pirates’ ships, some we knew from saucy knocking about, others for their barely disguised weapons.

As for watering holes, therewere the usual suspects, of course. The old commonwealth lines were well dug, with Tony Finnigan holding down the west side whisky joints and Maude ‘Momma’ Wilkes fielding gin palaces dawn side.

Gypsy caravans bobbed far overhead, roped conveniently to an upper quadrant where hunters of romance could find game. Everywhere sprouted the usual oddment of characters: purveyors of all kinds, conspiracy nutters,feline fanatics. The unsavory lot generally stuck to the deep parts of theHook,where the slaver ships, the politicos and the abattoirs clung by thin strands of hemp netting and tolerance.

At our favorite pub somewhere in the periphery of the Hook, we soon discovered the reason for such an impromptu gathering. It was a bubbling cauldron of rumor, but not over what had happened at Westminster. The fact those few blocks of John Bull were gone was undeniable truth.We also learned the Eiffel Tower had gone, this time straight past the torched remains of the French dirigible defense, but it was through idle chatter, of no importance. Whodunit and for what dastardly purpose, everyone seemed to have a theory, but those voices were completely eclipsed by the news of the recent plundering of the Chandler Polaris, a diamond the size of an apricot.

Those few still interestedclaimed it was the new American birds, ironclad despite the weight, flying in the night to settle with the English a centuries-old grudge. One man linked it to the Ottoman push west, claiming the theft was an effort to distract the English aerial armada so “those stinking Turks can again fill our wine valleys with borscht.Mon Dieu!” As usual, it was impossible to separate truth from fiction at theHook.

Somewhere in the sea of bumping beer bellies and voluptuous whores, Albion picked out a friend- Alice Hanson of the Havana Hansons, a pirate family usually based in the Caribbean.

Clutching a tot of scotch in one hand and a pint of Irish black in the other, I leaned over a couple of dandy darlings passed out on the floor and gave her a peck on her espresso cheeks.

“Lez find somewhere quiet!” Alice shouted, taking our drinks with us. We fit right in, just another merry band linked at the elbows so we didn’t topple drunkenly over the edges of the narrow catwalks. TheHookis a twenty-four hour, nonstop bar crawl, blessed by high-altitude winds across a sapphire sea, and such things as falling inebriates were commonplace.

There were four of us: Hanson,myself, Albion, and Blair, who had disembarked enthusiastically preparing his photogrammer. Strolling along under starlight peeping like sprites between the boards, we found an absinthe abbey with a very quiet clientele. Etched glass and chrome marked deep the enchanted garden, decorated sporadically in cherubs and unicorns, pleasant nonsense with as little to do with wormwood-addled nightmares as possible. Nobody likes harsh noises or sudden movements when visiting the green fairy. The gentle ambiance was tinted with the piano on a gramophone, perfect for a discrete conversation.

“Last I heard,” Alby said to Alice as he set up slotted spoons with a deft hand, “you were taking down sugar shipments down by Trinidad. Felt like something a bit more starchy?”

              “I ‘ave no beef with ze Celts,” Alice Hanson said, her island accent thick with a unique blend of French and something more exotic.

Her robust African physique retained the high cheekbones and Nordic nose of her surname, but her skin was midnight-dark, rich with swirling tattoos like spirit in a dizzying hard coffee.

Not to mention, she was a joy to speak with.

I envied the way her long dreads held the odd barb or spare ammunition. Ample cleavage can only hold so much.

              “How’s tricks?” I asked, more to stop the journalist Blair from jumping the woman. He seemed about to burst out in song looking at Alice’s chin. Jealous much, Rosa? I asked myself. I was glad Hanson had known Albion for years; the way they horsed around, the casual arm thrown over a shoulder. They were things he did to brothers.

“Non, non, no pirating today, only moving fine island rum, made from sugar grown in hands free of oppression,” Alice protested proudly. “ZeHook, they have bought nearly half my stock.A la mode, to buy from small, ‘free’ trade dealers like me, but I saved a chest of your favorite coconut. At the right price, of course.”

             “Congratulations are in order,” Albion said, proffering her a milky bulb of liquor. “To the downfall of the oppressors.”

             “A votre santé!” Alice cried.

             “Hear hear!” The rest of us agreed, and downed our drinks. There was a moment while everyone savored the licorice punch in the gonads.

             After the first drink, the early parts of the evening became a blur. I clearly recall Albion’s well-sculpted buttocks as they hurtled past, on his way to the eleven pubs of theHook’swell-tread crawl.

It wasn’t the first time someone had done it in the altogether, but it was the first time someone had done it with such pizazz, hurtling from pint to pint like a man possessed.

While he was carrying on, Blair managed to enjoy a lovely evening with Alice Hanson. I caught a glimpse of them disappearing into Hanson’s ship, his arm thrown possessively under her brigandine, her chocolate hand reached down to cover his slim back.

When we rendezvoused in the morning, Elric was still floating on a cocoa-butter cloud of rapturous bliss. He almost ran into me distractedly, though it was partially my fault. I was busy counting a fat stack of winnings, having spent the evening in one of the many card parlors beating freighter captains at poker.

              As they say, “Only the willing fall on aStraight Hook.”

             “Had fun last night, did we?” I asked Blair flat-out, in front of the many hangover relief cafes camped near the various docking platforms. I was also enjoying the headache special, not because I had one, but because it was a scrumptious confection of English bacon and Tennessee barbecue sauce. The Channel swung out beneath us at dizzying heights through a clear sky, and there were quite a few inebriates doubled up over it, baptizing it with their stomach contents.

             “My Lord, the woman is a horror,” Blair said dreamily. “She has the most commanding presence I have ever encountered. This mark, here on my cheek? Strapless heel, I kid you not.”

             “Really? So far up? I mean… Ack, no, no more!” I begged for mercy. “Your business is your own.” But, if Alice enjoyed herself, it did make me fond of him.

             At this point, Albion also arrived, fully clothed except for his usual stoic expression. Even with his goggles down, I could see it had been a sleepless night, and one he wasn’t keen to talk about.

             Elric chose the moment to snap out of his reverie, perhaps reminded of our mission by Albion’s presence.

             “Speaking of business, Alice actually had some vital information for us.” Blair said. He seemed eager to change the subject.

“It seems she met with Captain Samuel not too long ago, in of all places, the port of Lancaster. He seemed to be planning some kind of heist.”

             I whirled around, shocked. To think- actual information, and we hadn’t lifted a finger! Well, Blair had, much more than a finger… There was value in Albion’s new acquisition after all. The vote was still out for his pretty little Inspector. 

             “Let’s not get too stuck in right now,” Albion offered hoarsely. It sounded like there was a lot to come up, but had been scraped out not two minutes ago. “I need some of Auntie’s tea… back to theBerry, everyone.”

             We trooped out onto the docks, textbook examples of what the Hook had on offer: sickeningly smashed, amorous exhaustion, and avarice. So absorbed were we in our immediate diversions, we almost didn’t notice the obvious.

             Where the Huckleberry ought have been, there was now docked a tiny longboat, held aloft by the ridiculous Jumbo the Elephant.

There was a note taped to it, which Albion snapped up instantly.Something tumbled out of it, a glittering point vanishing into his pocket.

             “My amorous Captain,” Albion read from under his raised goggles.

             “That would be you, gorgeous,” I remarked astutely, drawing a satisfyingly venomous glare from Alby.

             “Despite my efforts, you refuse to acknowledge my feelings of intense admiration and overflowing love for your person. Normally, a girl in my position would draw back out of some foolish modesty, to better appeal to your attentions. I have chosen differently. To show you how serious I am in my love, I have stolen your precious vessel, theHuckleberry, with the conviction you will go to all lengths to recover it.

I will see you soon, my delicious Captain.Love, Kitty Desperado. PS: I did adore your… cute… dimpled… buttocks.”

             The letter fluttered to the ground, followed not long after by the bottom half of Albion’s jaw.

             “What in blazes did you do?” Elric asked brazenly, perhaps emboldened by his evening’s triumph. I picked up the letter, shaking off the aura of shame still on it.

             “It’s no big deal, Prissy Jack and the others are aboard. We’ll have this Kitty whats-her-face locked in the brig and the Berry back here in no… time…” I started, only to finish staring at the happy procession coming towards us.

It was Auntie, Cockney Alex, Cid and even Prissy Jack, towing a wagonload of lumpy parcels.


Page 7

              “What are you doing here?” Albion hollered.

             “We? We went out to resupply, while you lot were cavorting!” Cid replied angrily. His gray beard bristled, all two weeks worth clinging to his face like a hedgehog.

             “Investigating!” Albion replied as indignantly.

             “Right, red-eyes,” Alex remarked. Albion’s goggles slammed back down over his face. We were left staring in turns at each other’s stunned faces, and at the little longboat innocently floating in the dock space.

             “Well then,” I interjected. “Who’s left on the ship?”

 

              Some miles away, in the brig of theHuckleberry, Inspector Vanessa Hargreaves finished filing down the hinge on her prison, and with a well-placed kick, loosened it from its frame. She did this very quietly, in case whomever stole the ship heard.

It hadn’t been difficult to deduce the theft of theBerry.

Firstly, her usual loud, obnoxiouscrew was gone. The ship now was silent as the grave.

Second, whatever God-forsaken port they’d been docked at, she had seen its distinct brand of drunken villainy out of her tiny porthole. They were certainly capable of a ship jacking. Just like Albion Clemens to dock at such a place, she had thought.

In the passageway, she took the time to tuck the file back securely away in her utilitarian braid. It was a very large ship, but Hargreaves was well aware there were vacuum tubes and other machinery designed to transmit sounds.

She stepped out into the hall, pausing as her boot heel clicked once on thescrubbed deck.

Rosa’s borrowed clothes fit well enough, but it was in a very flamboyant style, not at all in Hargreaves’ comfort zone. Theembroidered skirt and linen blouse were conservative enough, but the Inspector flat-out refused to wear Rosa’s shoes- much too high, and showed too much ankle. Hargreaves in disguise was not Hargreaves the Inspector.

             No matter how she was dressed, the opportunity was too good to miss for the Queen’s agent- with a real pirate vessel at her disposal, how far could she go towards tracking a presumably airborne Westminster? Prospects were good she could simply overpower the current thief and take over theBerryherself. She took off her boots, setting her socks gingerly on the cold wood. Good, no sound. She tied the laces together and secured the footwear to her belt, then made her way wielding only her powers of detection.

             Though Hargreaves’ intent was to simply arrive at the bridge, in practice the journey proved counter-intuitive and bemusing. She had assumed the brig was in the lower parts of the ship, like the familiarGwain.

The logical thing was to proceed upward, but there wasn’t a single ladder orceiling hatch.

When Hargreaves opened a trap in the deck floor, she discovered a cavernous space several decks deep. There was no catwalk or other passage; thetrap simply dropped off into empty air, over hard shipping crates below. Mysterious apparatus also seemed to occupy this spacious hold, or what Hargreaves assumed was a hold, but befuddled and frustrated, she simply shut the portal and moved on.

             Some wandering later, Hargreaves arrived at a conclusion: the brig was in themiddleof the ship.

It made some odd sort of sense, now she thought about it. TheGwainand other ships in Her Majesty’s navy had holdover design cues from seafaring ships, but on a dirigible, the best place to hold a prisoner was dead center, away from anyplace one might jump overboard and onto a rescuing ship.

Her circuit of the deck also showed theBerrywas built along the lines of a giant egg, with the cavernous hold like a yolk within.

Hargreaves had taken raiding training, and she recognized the narrow corridors and recessed panels of a pressed helium vessel: a ship with her lift contained within her very bones. What Hargreaves could not figure was the endless dead-ends, the locked doors, and the random nooks like empty bookshelves at all levels of the walls. Then there were the strings of objects, like fetishes or toys, running along every corridor. The empty doll smiles and brightly colored marbles shook her more than the fact she wasn’t getting anywhere. Finally, the Inspector had had enough.

“Damn it, ship, how the blazes do I get to your bridge?” Hargreaves gave in to the labyrinth, and abandoned stealth for release.

There was a rollicking click, as if the ship had actually heard her, and a panel Hargreaves hadn’t seen before swung open on invisible hinges.

“Doesn’t that just take the piss?” Hargreaves grumbled, but she shrugged and climbed through.

 

              “TheBerrywas triple-locked, in the engine room, the bridge, and in one of the capacitors randomly scattered through the ship!” Cid was protesting adamantly. “No simple hijacker could have stolen her!”

             “Cid, when I say stay on the ship, I mean stay on the ship,” Albion sighed for the twentieth time. Matters were not helped by the close quarters- the longboat was not designed to hold seven people at once. We were packed like sardines. The thin plank hull shuddered and dipped despite Cid’s best efforts at the tiny steam engine in the rear. Her impromptu crew sniped and bickered despite my lowered neckline and liberally distributed headache specials.

             “Why don’t we go over what happened, Captain Clemens? Maybe something might come in useful when we confront this Kitty Desperado person,” Elric attempted to smooth the situation over. Albion looked up from the engine sniffer Cid had cobbled together, from the parcels meant for theBerry. The wad of arc bulbs and coils of copper zapped Albion now and again, when it caught the taste of theBerry’ssteam in the air. The closer we got, the more the little static sparks bit Albion, which didn’t help the mood any.

             “Agreed,” Albion replied reluctantly. “You were there, Rosa, when it happened.”

For a moment, I was not quite sure how to shuffle through the deck of addled memories, but then I had it.

The whole affairstarted when Albion chanced on the attentions of a persistent Scottish firecracker. The little redhead was all right, just immature for Albion, not to mention lacking in the bow and stern.

She was barely out of puberty, while the youngest person on theBerrywas Prissy Jack, freshly eighteen last week. Both Albion and I were in our twenties, and Cid was a hale old man of sixty.

             “All I saw,” I began, “Was how you practically fell on the little fireball, and apologized by buying her a pint. How ridiculous a line was that, Albion?”

             “The girl is at least eight years my junior, Rosa, it was an honest mistake! We were all pretty wasted.”

             Everyone was looking at the Captain with glares of suspicious disgust, although I would have been ready to bet it was more for comedic value. None of us actually believed Albion was a cradle burglar, though he had burgled plenty of other things.

             “After that, I mentioned how no self-respecting pirate could keep their eyes off long enough to trip over her. As an apology.”

             “You see how easily that can be misconstrued?”J’accuse!

             “Yes,” Albion said morosely. “Yes, thank you for pointing out my drunken faux pas, I had no idea I did such things on my fifth whiskey sour.”

             “Go on then,” Cid grumped from back near the hot engine. Everyone was crowding him in, trying to stay warm.

             “After I complimented her, she started following me around. I told her off, I tried to lose her in the whiskey catwalks, I even ran into a men’s only bathhouse.”

             “The one near the cocktail bar, healing baths, strategic location,” Cockney Alex recalled fondly. I could just see him, a huge blonde bear, majestically reclining in water gone white with minerals and mingled sweat.

             “AND,” Albion barreled on, “she managed to sneak in and steal my clothes. Left me a note saying she’d distributed them in the eleven Hook crawl pubs. She’d paid the barkeeps to give them back to me a piece at a time once I’d drunk a whole pint each. Took me four pubs to get my trousers back.”

             “So that was why you were doing the crawl. Why were you running from one to another like a bat out of hell?”

             “For two reasons. One, I knew the longer I waited, the sooner the barkeeps would start selling off my things piece by piece. Two, Kitty was obviously playing for time. I just didn’t know what for. By the time I got the last piece back, I sort of collapsed. Luckily I knew the owner, so they didn’t let anyone take my things.”

             The longboat shook once more, but this time, it was from the combined rocking of everyone aboard laughing.

 

              Hargreaves, having reached the bridge with little difficulty, was fiercely conflicted. She had expected a gang of toughs for her to take out, with a combination of hand-to-hand combat and a long wrench she had found. At the very least, she expected one determined, skilled individual, perhaps a deserted veteran of some defunct paramilitary institution, hardened and cynical with the deaths of hundreds on his hands. What she never expected to find was a child.

             At least, the girl seemed a child. Her hair was a brilliant burning red, the sort of brightness inversely proportionate to one’s age.

She was short, wrapped in clothes several sizes too large and from the shape of her neck, had all the figure of a plank. When the girl moved, she seemed too gangly and doe-like for anything but a teenager.

             Hargreaves sighed, and set down her wrench. Then she walked into the middle of the bridge, where the girl literally jumped when she saw her. The girl swiped a ceramic figurine, a dog having a wee, off the console and pitched it at Hargreaves.

             “Blimey!” Hargreaves yelled, dodging the missile.

             “Blimey yourself! I thought the ship was deserted,” the girl yelped. She continued to throw items with startling accuracy: an ancient sugar skull, a stuffed owl, a cup of pens raining arrows tipped with sharp, inky nibs. For a pirate bridge, the place was littered with dangerous knickknacks, Hargreaves bemoaned. There were things hung all over the pipework, some with sharp corners.

             Fortunately, the Inspector was well trained for action under fire. She dove behind a console, whacking aside tchotchkes with her recovered wrench.

             “Hold it! What’s happened to Captain Clemens?” Hargreaves demanded. One of the projectiles, a round cork ball, ricocheted between some some touchy looking toggles. It settled on and tripped one, causing the whole ship to shudder.

“Hmmmm….” Hargreaves muttered. She reached up and flicked it with one neatly trimmed nail.

“Whoaaaa…!”

Instantly, the whole ship shook and tipped over like a platter from a tripped waiter. Hargreaves, having prepared herself for it, was instantly on her feet, marching towards the girl on the floor.

It was an ideal Yard submission situation: the mark, on her face, arms ready for a cuffing. All Hargreaves had to do was sit on the whelp and maybe tie her arms together with Miss Rosa’s belt.

Worsecame to worst, Hargreaves would simply have to hold on until the girl gained enough composure to work out an arrangement.

TheInspector’s surprise was legendary when the girl twisted easily out of a hold that would break full-grown men’s arms, and socked her one in the face.

 

“It’s quiet…” I whispered. We were standing on theHuckleberry’sdecks once more, all of us stretching or writhing numbly on the floor from sleeping limbs. For some odd reason, the ship had been floating dead still, some miles south of theHook. Something must have happened fairly recently, because Cid’s wacky gizmo had zapped Albion all the way here. He had thrown it overboard the second we saw theBerry,still arcing an enthusiastically blue streak all the way down.The sudden absence of its popping noises contributed to a feeling of stillness not suitable for our merry ship.

“It’s quiet because you’re talking like a mouse,” replied, of all people, Elric. “Sorry. I have a problem with clichés.”

“Let’s just find this girl already,” Albion said in a regular voice. “Nobody steals from the Burglar of Beijing.”


Page 8

Everyone groaned, but we marched our tingly feet over the deck and towards the forecastle. Even before we reached the bridge beneath it, the mists of the Channel parted to show a rather grumpy face staring out at us from the spacious windows.

              “Uh-oh,” Albion said plainly.

“Impressive…” Cid’s hoary voice rasped.

              “Your little Inspector got out,” I remarked. I fanned out a quartet of knives in one hand, good pretty little stilettos, but balked at Albion’s venomous glare.

Oh, all right, so I didn’t know the bodies of the Inspector or this Kitty Desperado well enough for pressure point needles. I put them away begrudgingly.

              We marched as a group, through the heavy bolted hatch and into the dry bridge, where we saw the darnedest thing.

             “Scotland Yard will take just about anybody, eh?” Cockney Alex sniped heartily. “Even one with kinks like yours.”

             The Inspector was sitting on what looked like a pile of rags, with all the sleeves and pants legs tied together. It was still struggling, but every so often the blonde law enforcer would reach into it and twist something, extracting a piercing scream from within.

             “Ear,” The Inspector explained absentmindedly. “The Yard never taught us how to subdue a suspect who was double-jointed almost everywhere. I had to improvise. Oh bollocks, how am I supposed to run off with the ship now?” She added half-heartedly.

The Inspector hadn’t come out of it unscathed.

Her borrowed clothes were scuffed and torn, and she was sporting a rather beautiful black eye, clashing magnificently with her tussled gold hair.

“Oy! That was my second-favorite bodice!” I chastised.

              “Too bad it didn’t work. Good plan, very pirate of you,” Albion ignored me and praised Hargreaves, earning him a look full of vitriol . “Don’t knock it, you’ve already got the eye patch.”

Through a fit of giggles, I managed to step in with Auntie, and together, the three of us ladies undid the bonds. There were altogether too many people on the bridge now, and the girl we freed didn’t even try to escape.

She just tumbled out of the bundle, all dense jumpers, violently orange hair and a multitude of scarves. She sat there on the deck like a broken doll, with her enormous boots peeking out of a beribboned hem.

             “Hello,” Albion said, kneeling in front of her. His smile was kind, though it was having trouble penetrating Kitty Desperado’s pout. “I’m not drunk now. How did you steal my ship?”

             

              While Albion was talking with Kitty, Blair and I turned towards the Inspector, who seemed out of sorts. She was dusting herself off, constantly stopping and picking at a rip here and there, as if she didn’t see the point. I sighed.

             “There’s a pile of clothes in the hold nobody knows what to do with, and a cleaning steamer in the boiler room. You can take your pick from those,” I supplied. “Mind, it’s mostly men’s wear.”

             “Those would be easier to move in,” She said appreciatively. She leaned on my steering wheel to pick at a rip near her knee. “I see you are expecting me to stay. I suppose it is inevitable, if we are to solve the mystery of Westminster and recover your Captain Samuel.”

             “You certainly came in useful,” I agreed reluctantly. This Hargreaves was making herself far more at home than I was comfortable with. She also had the legs off a giraffe, something I was seriously uncomfortable with.

             “We will discuss the matter at length with the Captain. I expect some sort of alliance can be reached?” she said.

The Inspector gaveme a once-over disturbingly like a frisking. A nerve in my forehead began to twitch unbecomingly.

             At that point, Albion straightened up, with the orange girl clinging to his elbow.

His goggles were back up, and the girl was staring up at him with wide eyes.

              “Ladies? This is Kitty Desperado.”

 

              The story of Kitty Desperado was merely an exceptional one- meaning, it was one we had heard hundreds of times scouring the bars of theHook. She was one of a faceless multitude orphaned during the last Great War. Then only a babe in arms, a Welsh relief corporal had nearly tripped over her, nestled in the debris of a bombed Glasgow hotel, clothed in a pile of evening gowns and hangers.

Dropped from one of the still new Eastern Conglomerate dirigibles, steamcraft bombs left flesh melted off bone, pillars warped and broken in its wake.

The closet and room had taken the brunt of the attack, but a mother’s careful wrapping had saved the child, wound in a dress meant to keep a lady protected near searing hot engines. These costly thermal materials were just then coming into fashion, driven by a fiercely progressive and practical new London femininity.

Near as the corporal could figure, the girl had been abandoned there not long before the bombing, along with several ready milk bottles and a bell looped round her wrist to attract attention.

It was a common enough tale. Like as not, the girl was the secret fruit of some society debutante and a handsome, transitory soldier, hidden away in the interests of the aristocracy hiding out in Scotland’s country manors.

The tenant of the room had used a false name, borrowed from a popular series of propaganda pictures playing at the time, about a Spanish thief turned spy for the Western Partnership.

              The name of the thief had been Kitty Desperado.

             The Great War had left plenty of boys and girls in Kitty’s unenviable circumstance. The modestly retained corporal had been thoroughly moved, but in the end was forced to give up Kitty to the state’s care. Britain’s deficits during the war were well documented, and it had been a miracle the military even managed to build their flagship dirigible fleet, theKnights of the Round, which won the Partnership the war.

Orphans who could contribute nothing were summarily shipped to the filing cabinets of military orphanages.

As early as the age of six, were sent into the reserves as yeomen and engineering apprentices, where their deft fingers were made to mend the engines of war.

             Kitty Desperado nearly never met with her gallant rescuer, not until she was well into her service as a knocker-up aboard the pressed-helium medical carrierLionheart.

The job was simple: at the appropriate times, according to the shipboard clock, she had to run down to the appropriate officers or midshipmen and wake them at any cost. These hardened officers worked twenty-hour shifts, and were hard drinkers. Often she had to pick the locks, or wriggle in through the heating vents, to slap the man or woman awake with hands stinging from another officer’s stubble. She was so good at it, pretty soon the officers learned to wake at the sound of the bell on her wrist, lest Kitty give them a good licking.

              It was the sound of the bell that alerted Kitty’s corporal, then a major by the name of Topher Kien, to Kitty’s existence.

Fate was not kind. By the time Kitty received the major’s message, Kien had succumbed to bullet wounds in a quiet corner of theLionheart’s patient quarters.

He had been shot in the head, and the bandages were so thick beneath the breathing apparatus, Kitty never saw what the man looked like. The only image she retained was the large, round lenses atop the breathing apparatus, sat there like a toad on his face.

              Kitty could not have known, but as she knelt at the feet of the rescuer she imagined day and night, the military was preparing to jettison its orphans out into the world.

The new Baleanopteron-class airships, spearheaded by the Knights, were large, well armored, and could punch holes the size of lakes in an aerial blockade.By the time Major Kien passed, the peace was well under way, with the remnants of the Eastern forces driven back behind the riveted partitions of the Neo Ottoman Empire.

             Standing in the busy dirigible port with her few belongings in a satchel on her back and the military’s meager pittance in an envelope in her pocket, Kitty found herself abandoned. She didn’t know the name of the port, even, or the city it was situated near. The shops sold unfamiliar goods, and the water tasted foul, slimy, compared with the clean precipitate of dirigible runoff.

Even at such a young age, she had some idea how a young girl could make a living in the world. She could see them flitting about in the shadows of the alleys and taverns, the hint of garters like frilled creatures peering out from the lager-scented undergrowth. The idea made her want to run to the bog and wretch.

              Her deliverance came in a most unprecedented form- in the conversation between two airmen, recently detached from a Salvation Army aid ship.

Kitty had sat herself at a table across them to figure herself out, in a cafe not far from theLionheart. Funny- it had seemed something like a home yesterday. Today it was merely a ship, one of a thousand moored far overhead. The airmen took no notice of them, instead discussing something that seemed of all-encompassing import.

             “I’m telling you, Eriksson, they’re all right. They never target our ships, only the stoolies.”

             “Maybe not the ones you’ve heard about Bernard, but they’re pirates all the same. No two are alike. Make ‘em desperate and they’ll do anything.”

             “You’re saying now the war’s over, they’ll start poaching civilian vessels,” deduced the one called Bernard.

             “It’s easy, even if you haven’t got a ship,” replied the one called Eriksson. “You simply sneak aboard, hide in a smuggler’s nook or cold steam vent, and wait until everyone is asleep. Then you slit their throats, or take what you want and bugger off on a longboat. Not a soul to stop you in the open sky.” He seemed engrossed in the logistics, never mind who was listening. He was right- the coffee was good and the café was busy. Not many would have bothered to hear a hypothetical from a faceless airman. Not many, but a little girl with red, red hair.

             “Pirates are a noble bunch, I say,” the one called Bernard insisted stubbornly. “Descended from ancient rebels, fallen kings. It’s like there’s something bigger behind them, telling them where to go, what ships are safe to plunder. I’ll just bet there’s a band waiting to take down the Turkish trader two towers over.”

             If the table across from them were not then vacant save an empty coffee cup, the little girl might have devoted herself to the study of criminal psychology, from men who watched safe beside the front lines. But she had heard enough.

             Kitty Desperado, having spent her time in the service of the state opening doors and delivering painful messages, was preparing to apply herself the only way she could conceive: as her namesake, a master thief.

 

              “You have no idea how attractive Captain Albion looked with his goggles, and his dashing coat, and those dimples…” Kitty was saying to me, later on the top deck of theBerry. I harrumphed, as if the idea of Albion’s dimples didn’t make me go a soft one inside.

             Kitty was standing in the longboat, packages of supplies and basic tools at her feet. I suppose Albion felt somewhat responsible for the hiccup at theHook, and some sympathy for her plight. He would not throw her to the winds, as she had been all her life. It might have explained what he did next, as well.

             Albion grabbed both sides of Kitty’s face, and looking deep into her eyes, bent down to kiss her, eyes closed, drinking deep like he was going through a vintage Bordeaux. I looked away for a good twenty seconds, after which he let go with a slight pop.

             “Kitty Desperado, you are a beautiful femme fatale, and a damn good thief. I am hopelessly infatuated with you, but I am afraid this would never work. You’re just too good for a dirty, deceptive pirate player like me. You should find someone better, someone with a lot more to give. Farewell, Kitty! Think fondly of me!”

             He put a boot on the longboat and kicked, sending it drifting gently away, elephant bobbing overhead.

             “I’ll always remember you!” Kitty called across the widening gulf.

“Oh, and another thing! That Captain Samuel you were looking for? I heard he was laying low in the Mediterranean! Look for him there!”

We stayed there a long time, until a drift of cloud covered Kitty’s pink, open features and muffled her voice.

             “Well that’s that,” Alby remarked, turning to go back into the bridge.

             “Just like that?” I protested. Sure, I had been a little jealous, and the sort of relationship the girl wanted was illegal in most of the civilized world, but Kitty had real feelings for Albion. It was just a little romantic, if I took myself out of the equation: a master thief with the heart of a nubile, falling in love with a hardened pirate, Albion wasn’t immune to such fanciful things, or we would be a very different crew.


Page 9

             “What else could I have done? She’s no longer a threat to us, and I left her with as much grub as we could spare. It would never have worked, Rosa,” Albion said jokingly. He looked at me with a fleeting expression, as if I of all people should have known what he really meant. I did.

             “I don’t know. Maybe you ought to show it more often, that you actually care,” I answered him the only way I could. “Maybe you could have offered her a place with us. You were certainly quick to offer it to Vanessa Hargreaves.”

             “It’s time for us to go, Rosa,” he ordered. Albion fumbled in his pocket, as if he wanted to hammer home the point but the prop was missing.

             “It looks like Kitty Desperado got the better of the Pyongyang Purloiner after all,” I said, and gave him my best smirk. I took my own pocket watch, a delicate jeweled number purchased with myHookwinnings, out of my bodice and twirled it in his face.

             “Next time I see the little…” he muttered, and made a motion with his hands like he was drowning a cat. “I shouldn’t have given her back the Chandler Polaris.”

             “Wait… you WHAT!?”

6: Rome

 

             Hikawa Shoutaro was about to collapse in the courtyard of a monastery.

After days of kneeling in the sun, he was parched, dusty, but no less determined. Figures in brown robes kept passing by, pointedly ignoring his suffering or laughing uncomfortably at his odd, layered clothing. Others left food or water before him, items Hikawa did not touch. To touch a drop of charity would be to throw away an ocean of honor. Besides, much of it was unfamiliar foodstuffs: hard, brown buns, wedges of something yellow smelling of stables, and the occasional glass bottle, bound heavily with cord, smelling heavily of heady, rotten fruit.

Hikawa assumed it was some decadent Europeansake.

             On the first day, the kneeling had been relief. After months of vomiting into the waves off a seafaring trader, then weeks of vomiting into thin air on a connecting dirigible, Hikawa finally reached the outskirts of Rome. From there, he had boarded one of the Europeans’ metal dragons, a smoky, rattling, crowded affair seemingly made to test Hikawa’s Zen calm. The denizens were raucous, hairy, and they had an alien smell.

Rome herself was narrow and crumbling beneath the pressure of time. Hikawa saw much ancient beauty, too often marred by unappreciative residents.

Carvings lay in broken piles on the ground. Historic streets ran obscured by haphazardly built dwellings.

A beautiful wall made of some white jade-like material had been drilled into by an enterprising owner, creating a ladder into an otherwise inaccessible loft.

Despite nearly run over bybuzzing, steaming two-wheeled horrors streaking through those narrow channels, Hikawa’s sandals eventually treaded the pleasant gardens of the Abbey, nestled in a claustrophobic corner of the city.

Cool grass embraced his knees. Though the figures in brown robes, with their odd hair cropped to look like so manykappa, or water imps, chattered incessantly at him, Hikawa did not speak Italian, and it was too late to learn.

Instead, he conducted the ritual: possessions, laid before him, just so. His hands, placed at rest on his knees. He spoke the name of the one he wanted, and settled down to wait.

              On the second day, the stiffness and numbing took on the familiar background unimportance of toil. Hikawa had gone through worse simply obtaining the leave of the emperor on his journey. There were the days on horseback, weeks of polite waiting in richly lacquered parlors, and the thousands of steps the country warden had been allowed to climb to actually gain an audience with the emperor. He had counted a hundred and eighttori, or spirit gates, on the long stair, with a hundred and eight steps between. Finally, he had had to renounce his ancestral lands, passing them onto a distant relative desperate for the title. The only things he had been allowed to take were the clothes on his back, some little provisions and the way ofsamurai. It mattered not; Hikawa had long discarded such frivolous things.

             There was the sword, of course. He had been allowed to keep hiskatana. Without his sword, a perfect cut would be impossible.

             That afternoon, some youths dared challenge the strange man with the black topknot and tanned complexion, like a Sicilian, who sat as if he awaited the end of the world.

They approached him from behind, as if he would not be aware of their presence. There were four of them. Hikawa was not yet so far gone as to be deaf to their footsteps.

The red lacquer of his sword sheath before him reflected their figures clearly- one larger than Hikawa himself, the others likely cronies. They threw small stones at him. Hikawa knew the missiles for what they were: a test of his mettle, no more than the barking of small dogs at some interesting new animal in their yard.

The instant one touchedhim, the youth found himself flat upon the floor, Hikawa’s fingers a pincer round his wrist. Hikawa hadn’t even stood up.

             Some small fuss resulted from this altercation, of course. There was some rustling of brown robes. Several of thekappaemerged to chatter some more at him, but they seemed unwilling to acquiesce to his clearly stated demand. Neither did they look prepared to throw him out.

For the first time, Hikawa considered the possibility they were toying with him. No, it could not be, Hikawa reassured himself. Such a thing would blot out the honor of so great a swordsman as the one he had come to challenge. Hikawa repeated the name to thekappa, rather more insistently, changing his honorifics to reflect his growing impatience.

It was a masterfully phrased demand- as polite as a request could be for asamuraiof his already substantial accomplishments, yet clearly communicating the existence of discomfort. He had faith it could not be misconstrued. Very proper- his father would have been proud.

             Now it was the third day, and morning dew had ceased to sustain Hikawa’s lean, muscular form.

His knees were locked comfortably in their customary pose beneath him, but everything else felt parched, dried out, like a bit ofbonito, ready to be shaved. A wisp of longing drifted through his mind, of hot fluffy rice, and simple days in his Ryukyu island home. Even with the dirigible traffic from Lands Beyond explorers, news reached the cluster of islands at a languid pace- even the passing of the era

toShowahad come a month late, by official messenger. For a Nippon lauded for advancement in steamworking, the Ryukyu clusters often felt likeMeiji,evenEdoera with its open ocean breezes, tropical climate, and country simplicity.

             Shoutaro shook the remembrance from mind. It would only make the ordeal more difficult. Besides, here was a contingent ofkappa, come to receive him once more. Perhaps they would be civilized this time, at least with a missive from their master. Hikawa had not been treated this way since he had been an apprentice.

             The brown robes parted way, to reveal a man black of hair and eye, with no other resemblance to Hikawa. Where Hikawa was tall, and dressed in the finest Okinawa fabrics, this man was short, slender, and patchwork in various severe styles. Hikawa had seen such anabe, or hotpot, of clothing before: an airman.

             Casually, this new arrival took a most offensive squat directly before Hikawa. To the samurai’s eye, the airman’s chin was now resting on top of his genitals. This rude person cocked his head slightly, proceeding to bark a series of harsh syllables. He seemed to be repeating something, then switching to another staccato of sounds, equally expectantly. Finally the airman emitted something Hikawa could understand.

             “Hello? Hello? Nitwit, you best say something useful soon, else the good whores will all be bought up.”

             “Pardon?” Hikawa answered, in the same tongue. This was Cantonese, the language of the Imperial Canton not far to the southwest of Ryukyu. Hikawa knew the dialect roughly, from the traders in Okinawa who brought in dried shitake and hairy grass. Ryukyu islanders still retained much of the Middle Kingdom heritage, down to the lion statues guarding their homes.

             “He speaks!” The airman ejaculated a string of harsh profanities. Such was not uncommon to the dialect, and Hikawa let it pass unmolested. “It was tough going for a moment there. I had a hard time guessing where yourhometownwas.” He placed a certain emphasis on the word, to mean ‘origins.’

             “This is your mother tongue,” Hikawa guessed, to an emphatic nod.

              “At first I thought Japanese, from your sword, but the peasant rags reminded me of the Balinese, for a bit,” the airman rolled on.

“I don’t speak Japanese. Good, good. Those baldies over there, they’re only giving me a chit for the job, so you better hurry up and tell me what you want. They can’t tell the difference between two Orientals, anyway.”

              “These aremonks?” Hikawa ejaculated, for ‘baldy’ was slang for the Buddhist monkhood in Cantonese. Hikawa had assumed all the proper spiritual personages were ensconced in the monastery, meditating, and the scurryingkappawere merely civilian servants forced to endure some cleansing ritual. To think such undignified…

             “Sure. They do things differently in Italy, but the noodles aren’t bad,” the airman continued. “The name is Wang, by the way. Wang Shi-Fong, or Peter Wang. On purpose, not unfortunate.”

             Hikawa did not know how this was meant, but he introduced himself politely anyway.

             “A propersamurai! I’ve never been to Ryukyu myself, but I hear it’s very… assorted.” Wang trailed off a bit. “Anyway, what’s your business at the Abbey?”

             “Is it not obvious? I come to challenge the Templar Esteban Dio-samato honorable battle. It is to be a real-sword challenge.”

             Hikawa reeled, for as the words left his mouth Wang threw back his head in a huge guffaw.

             “Boss, you crack me up!” Wang said, shocking thekappabehind him by nearly losing his squat and falling over.

             “Wang-dono, you risk your neck,” Hikawa warned him, hand hovering quite close to his sword.

             “Best not,” Wang warned amiably.

His eyes moved pointedly in their sockets, and Hikawa followed their indication to the fire-spear at Wang’s hip, pointedly but stealthily aimed into Hikawa’s chin. Hikawa was good, but no blade ever beat a bullet.

“Do not take life so seriously!” Wang said, sheathing his weapon so it was hidden once more. Thekappashad taken no notice of the sudden tension, and were actually milling about impatiently. “The western devils do not understand your customs, friend! Hell, I doubt many Chinese would either. You have knelt for nothing, and your accent is horrendous. I will translate- a moment, please.”

             Peter Wang went off to chatter busily at the monks, who seemed taken aback at the proposal. Still, Wang had performed his function, and after a moment’s fumble with a purse, Wang was taking leave of thekappa, heading out of the Abbey’s little court. He stopped to wave back at Hikawa.

             “Boss, take care now! Don’t let the old man cut you with his chair!” Wang called back enigmatically.

             Hikawa was about to respond, but thekappaheld out hands to help him up. Assuming they were to lead him to Dio, thesamuraistood by himself, stretching out the kinks in his legs as he did. One of thekappaoffered him a skin of water, which he accepted, and then they were on their way into the red walls of the Abbey. Hikawa supposed it would be improper to ask for green tea, or his childhood favorite, pineapple juice.

             “This is a beautiful place,” Hikawa remarked, though of course the monks did not understand. Nor could Hikawa’s meager skill at poetry do justice to the stands of violently green stone pine, olive, and fig stalwartly surviving the soot of a modern Rome, or the severe, majestic architecture surrounding him.

He did not expect to be led to the Coliseum he had seen arriving to the city, but perhaps one of the many beautifully sculpted courts or an inner sanctum. They would be appropriate places to die, should it be his fate. Duly, Hikawa was surprised when they arrived at a nondescript square mass of brick, its duty as a building only indicated by the presence of a door and some slits for windows.

There was no time for puzzlement, for the monks bid Hikawa enter.

Inside, the walls were plainly whitewashed and barely furnished, befitting a monastic existence. A single ornament of some gilded wood crowned a lobby about fourtatamilarge, something like thekanjifor ten. The ornament was everywhere in the Abbey, if he thought on it. Hikawa looked about, bemused; he had heard the Templar preferred a simple, ascetic life, but such extremes hardly befit a man of Esteban Dio’s reputation.

Where were the holy land relics, the spoils from the routs at home? At the least, some tarnished mail or chipped sword should stand monument.

As they entered deeper into the enigmatic building, further mysteries seemed to arise. The few rooms they passed were shut, but one some ways ahead revealed a motionless lump nestled in an iron frame bed. At last, thekappahalted before a door no different from any other, and bid Hikawa enter.


Page 10

“Dio…” Hikawa was unsure of the honorific he should use.Surely this was an honored individual, but the man was Spanish, in an Italian monastery, about to be addressed by a man as barely Nipponese as could be found. Besides, depending on the outcome, the two about to meet might be the death of one another. He decided to skip the honorifics, and simply entered.

He was unsurprised by the furnishings- they were like the rest of the building. There was no trace of Dio’s illustrious career, merely the iron frame bed, an undecorated tea service, and a thick western-style book lying on an unvarnished bed stand. A window looked out onto a patch of green garden hung with grapes, disappointingly cut off by a solid brick wall. In the distance, the sound of some ratcheting machinery could be heard, and Hikawa half expected a buzzing horror to come steaming through, looking for a shortcut on its improbable wheels.

              The wheelchair threw him, of course. So did Esteban Dio’s missing legs.

             It was a week later before another airman could be diverted. Partly, the trouble arose because of the monks’ abject refusal to leave the Abbey, and thus abandon their monastic life. Messengers had to be found. From what Hikawa gathered, there seemed a general distaste for the airmen lifestyle, as well. The monks tended to stay away from the ports and towers as much as possible.

This time, it was a Japanese freighter captain, who had some sympathies for a fellow countryman. Hikawa was glad to discover Tanaka Umihiko to be not only well traveled, but familiar with Esteban Dio as well.

“I am saddened to hear the news. The Abbot Francesco informs me the accident occurred a year ago, as Dio-donowas working at the bottling plant,” Tanaka informed Hikawa in the Abbey garden.

After contributing the remains of his traveling funds with some hurried gestures, Hikawa had been allowed to stay in the Abbey, a few doors down from Dio’s room. The monks might be removed from society, but Hikawa’s lordly manner and bold, blatant squatting was universally understood. He tried not to think what might happen once the pull of his purse and thekappas’patience ran out.

“Dio is a member of an illustrious order of knights Templar! What was he doingworking?” The concept was as alien to the countrydaimyoas… well, as the rest of Italy.

“The Knights Templarhave fallen. After the failed resurgence of the Inquisition, the primarily atheist elite have retaliated against centuries of persecution in Spain. Did you not think it strange Esteban Dio-samawas to be found outside his home country not on some assignment or assassination?”

“So this is the European Steam Age,” Hikawa could only say. The normally spacious Abbey suddenly felt close and confined around them.

“I know not where the other Templar have gone, but Dio-sama was forced to seek sanctuary here. Even in Italy, with the Vatican so close, a Templar would not be spared lest a new Inquisition be mustered. Our dirigibles and telegraphs carry information quickly.” Tanaka tensed, but he did not draw attention to himself.

“I doubt the bottling plant explosion was an accident- Dio-sama is fortunate to have escaped with his life. The Templar still had connections to this Abbey, which maintains the finest hospice in all of Rome. I suggest you leave him to his old age.”

“Thank you, Tanaka-dono.” Having little else to give, Hikawa gave the last of his finery to Tanaka, who would at least know their value. The monks readily parted with their ubiquitous brown robes, at least.

“Thank you. I would offer you passage out of Italy, but I know you will not take it. There is a look to you only someone who lives by the sword can understand, I think. But I warn you, the airmen are in an uproar- it seems the cataclysm of London and Paris is coming south. Best fly back to Nippon when you can.”

Hikawa ushered his countryman out of the Abbey, knowing the second he disappeared under the arch, Hikawa would be faced with a choice. He could not go back- his cousin, at the least, would never accept his return from exile. The prospect of eking out a living in the factories and plants did not appeal- what skill did Hikawa have in manual labor? Such things were peasant tasks, unfit for one such as he. Beside his sword, Hikawa had little else.

As to the mysterious cataclysm, Hikawa had heard of no such thing. He could only assume it were some kind of natural disaster, preventing airship travel, like a storm. It was a fine thing- Hikawa had no fondness for vomiting.

The lonely samurai sat before the church of the Virgin, in the Northeast of the Abbey under the shadow of a canvas factory.

He was learning a little Italian from one of thekappa, enough to mark the places he wished to go.

The smell of dirigible chemicals blocked out the incense of the church, but there was a fine basil garden outside of it, with a bush of hops directly beside. Thekappawere quite adept at cooking and brewing, once Hikawa got hungry enough to taste the fruits of their labors.

His sword- yes, Hikawa still had his sword. He took it out of its sheath, admiring the heft, and the weight. Thehamon, or wave in the blade, reminded him of the high cliffs of Okinawa. Thewazikashiwas inset with jade and pearl, and its guard was ashisa, guardian lion of Ryukyu, which made a male-female pair with the shorttantoat his side. It was priceless- a Takatora original, a century old, and a family heirloom. Here, he doubted it would fetch him more than a week’s keep inlinguini.

“I am samurai,” Hikawa reminded himself. “I believe in the perfect cut. I came to honor the old ways, and to challenge a worthy opponent.”

Esteban Dio had been a legend, even in the backwaters of Ryukyu. Dirigible traffic had been bringing news of the legendary swordsman’s routs since Hikawa was a boy. For a young lordling in the tropical islands, the conflicts of the faithful were gibberish; what he saw in the scraps of periodicals and propaganda leaflets was a quest. It was the gods versus the devils, of Momotaro ousting the oni, of Izanagi escaping the wights of the underworld, of good versus evil. Above all the Nippon in him answered the flash of the sword, the fleeting romance of thesakuratree and the eventuality of his becoming samurai.

As he became older, such fanciful visions of the warrior class faded to obscurity. The steam age samurai was a civil servant more than a warrior- what battles there were to be fought were matters of delegation.

He had pikemen and cavalry and lesser samurai to keep the peace, and in Ryukyu, there were fewer chances to use them than anywhere else in the country. Occasionally he would turn away countrymen who urged the nation to westernize, but the radicals had been dismissed as unpatriotic fools decades earlier, and were easy to shame in the face of a wealthy, advanced Nippon. More often there were the veiled enemies turning Hikawa’s sword in the tearooms and geisha parlors, shadowed alliances made, matters of importance conducted in secret. Who was Momotaro, or Izanagi? Who were theoni? It was very difficult to tell.

Hikawa was tired of it, so very tired of it. If he could choose, he wouldn’t choose to go back.

Slowly, the early spring sun sank like a gigantic slab ofpizzabeneath the high, cabled cliffs of factories, and the plaster of Roman frescoes in the west of the Abbey. With the darkness, Hikawa had his decision, as well.

He had never gotten used to keeping hisgetaon indoors, and his feet clicked unpleasantly on the tile. In the yet warm interior of the rectory, darkness was a welcome messenger of the cool night to come. Hikawa clicked down the hallway, arriving at Esteban Dio’s chamber just as the last rays faded and candlelight was required.

He knocked, gently, and when there was no answer he entered the chamber, where Dio’s soft snoring was the only sound to be heard.

Dio had fallen asleep in his chair, blanket thrown over his lower body. From the door, by Hikawa’s weak candle, Dio simply looked like an old man, grizzled and white. Not even the scar through his eye lightened the air of world-weariness settled round his shoulders.

Hikawa sat down on the only other seat, and when Dio awoke, spoke in halting Italian, the words seized from akappaduring Tanaka’s brief stay.

“Tell…me… of your… battle,” Hikawa said haltingly. It was enough to convey the message. 

There was yet a twinkle in the old man’s eye, and perhaps in the entire Abbey, those two in the room were the only people capable of understanding it. It was a look legible only to those who lived by the sword.

 

When the cataclysm arrived, Hikawa and Dio were right in the thick of it. As was their custom, the pair were visiting the Vatican, playing chess in Saint Peter’s Square. The steamworking of Rome soared, seeming to belittle the Basilica and squash the palazzos beneath, but it was still a lovely place to spend a brisk afternoon. Dio was winning.

“I should like to think I was well enough known to require airborne pursuit,” Dio remarked as he slipped his knight in for check. Above them, the dark, unnatural cloud was rolling in over the famous clearing. All about them, people were hurtling past in a correct instinct, to get away from the gleaming white target of the Vatican’s columns and rounded roofs. Souvenirs lay abandoned. Coffee cups were tossed to the ground. Photogram machines stood abandoned on their tripods, weeping memories.

Once, when Hikawa had first brought Esteban Dio to Vatican City, they had had a conversation about the irreverence of it all. Hikawa’s Italian had progressed, but didn’t stack up to even Dio’s mediocre mastery; they settled on a mixture of Italian, French, and the great lingua franca, English.

Within the great, high walls all around the city within a city, the visitors who trooped daily through the ageless streets never seemed to understand the sacred majesty of those silent chapels and severe graveyards.

Even Hikawa, a man from the far Orient, understood the tranquil beauty of a place barred to steam engines or dirigible traffic by stoic Swiss Guard. It had boasted the same basilicas and palazzos for generations, impervious to Roman progress. There were many serious pilgrims, but for most part the place represented a sort of abstract authority rather than any true spiritualism. The odd duo had more than once observed knots of foreign visitors throttle the streets with the artifice of contrived awe.

“Does it bother you?” Hikawa asked.

“Should it? Their faith is not my faith. Besides, my God resides in the Kingdom of Heaven, not petty idolatry. Does it bother you?”

“My faith is in my sword. Should I wish to cut a thing perfectly, I believe it can be done.”

“As it once was mine. No cut is perfect. You may cut a head of lettuce a million times and only make a wonderful salad.”

“But it would not be a wasted million.”

It was a subject the two conversed about endlessly, and this day was no different. Dio and Hikawa sat at their chess, the board propped on a crate Hikawa had appropriated from a nearby café. Though a young, whole Esteban Dio might have leaped to his feet, gathering the assembled pilgrims in an orderly retreat, old Dio’s cumbersome chair and scattered effects made for an undignified exodus. Hikawa had little enough command of Italian. However, the two were still seasoned warriors, and they did not panic easily.

“Dio-sama, I do not think those dirigibles are after your illustrious person,” Hikawa said. “They bear the mark of theantipasto.”

“The flag, Hikawa, the Italian flag,”Dio corrected calmly. “Let us make a tactical retreat.”

By this time the square was mostly empty, leaving a rather sad obelisk in the center of therosa dei venti. Not fourtatamifrom the stone, a sudden dark patch was advancing steadily across the square- a shadow from some massive object hanging far over their heads. Slowly but surely, a gargantuan cloud was drifting across the sky, hounded by circling dirigibles.

“Cowards,” Dio mentioned casually.

In exchange for being allowed to stay on at the Abbey, Hikawa had taken on the duty of personal caregiver for the esteemed Esteban Dio. It seemed an odd arrangement, until Hikawa realized Esteban Dio esteemed nobody but Esteban Dio. Hikawa was accustomed to such extremes of self-confidence, having grown up with a father and uncles who weresamurai.

As a fringe benefit, he had developed a dab hand at packing up Dio’s various belongings and leaving enraged serving staff, skills he now employed to hustle Dio away from the shadow.

Unfortunately, the Vatican had been designed for personages of divine inspiration, not old men in wheelchairs. Oiled and well kept the chair might be, and hale the old man within, they were still easily defeated by a flight of stairs. To exacerbate matters, a steam age Rome had taken many liberties with its civic arrangement; her streets and buildings had grown up and around the Vatican’s eternal majesty, until the steaming pipework and rusted iron buttresses stood heads above the misty stone of the Holy See. The closest way for Hikawa and Dio to get to safety was straight between the sweeping colonnades of Charlemagne and Constantine, and then towards the edge of the Vatican where sloped ramps led away from the round target of the Wind Rose.


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“Hikawa,” Dio said, as they neared the exit of the square. Hikawa turned, saw, and ran back to retrieve the borrowed crate.

The pair rolled along the route, now emptied and made easily accessible. They made an odd duo, Hikawa inkappaclothes, wearing a strange oriental sword, and Dio clutching a satchel of chess pieces and bric-a-brac, rattling along on wooden wheels.

“Hikawa!” Dio exclaimed, just as the first gleam of light appeared overhead. Hikawa did not see it, he was navigating the slats of a walkway beneath, but he felt Dio trip the brakes on his chair, India rubber smoking as they clamped tight on the rolling wheels.

The finger of god wrote the ground before them- or so it seemed. The column was as brilliant and infernal as a biblical digit, searing its way through the rusted green walkway as if it were a block oftofu. It spanned the width of the ramp and then some. Dio peered over the edge of his chair and beheld a chasm burned a bright red, coughing clouds of black smoke over its lip.

“Hah, so we were right. Hell does exist!” Dio exclaimed in Spanish.

Hikawa turned Dio around to find another way across. He was not as familiar with the Vatican, or indeed any part of Rome as well as he liked, but the tourists’ maps were easy enough to read. There was another way out due north, the opposite direction from where smoke and fire still emanated from the bright beam of destruction.

“The atheists go to such lengths to destroy me,” Dio joked to Hikawa, who was far toobusy pushing and far too polite to answer.

Overhead, the Italian dirigibles had finally taken to launching some incendiary devices towards the ominous cloud, having decided a physical assault on their spiritual home warranted retaliation.

There seemed to be no Swiss Guard craft about, though Hikawa doubted those showboats were actually capable of combat. The cloud seemed not to be affected by the smoking points of ammunition as they rocketed into the misty depths, but it lashed out anyway with bright arcs of lightning, all the while cutting away at the ground with its divine finger.

As they neared another walkway, Dio again exclaimed, and again Hikawa responded by skidding to a halt. This time, a dirigible fell before them, wedging itself tightly across the Gate of Saint Anna. There was nearly no warning, and Hikawa had to hand it to the old man- Esteban Dio’s sense of danger was as sharp as it had ever been.

“We must go round,” Hikawa said now. Dio looked about to protest, but it was plain to both of them where the burning finger was headed- in a wide circle, enclosing Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Square, and a large portion of the Holy See from the Fountain of the Sacrement to the Museums. Going round meant stairs, and narrow corridors; more importantly, it meant sacrificing some of Esteban Dio’s remaining dignity.

Hikawa bent, and sword well stowed, simply picked up Dio and slung him across a shoulder. The younger man was not built for such activity, and imagining the sight of his slight frame lifting the wide bulk of the old Templar seemed almost comical. Yet, Hikawa was in good shape, and the loss of Dio’s legs made him a lighter burden than he appeared. Hikawa took off at a brisk stride toward the Fountain of the Galera, where he knew there was another walkway.

“Damn thesekapparobes….” Hikawa griped, the only one he allowed himself to make. The rough brown material kept bunching as his knees bent to take steps.

“What in the name of the Holy Motherarekappa?”

Hikawa briefly explained, about how the Abbey’s monks seemed like water imps with their perfectly round crowns. He had little enough breath to spare, but he had learned from experience not to deny Esteban Dio’s enthusiasm. The Templar had little to be enthusiastic about, save dice and beer.

To his relief, there came a strangled sort of laughter from his shoulder- Esteban Dio found the idea hilarious.

“In my country, there are similar stories,” Dio replied. “Though my order was given the charge of stamping them out, more often than not the cleaning men are the ones who get dirty. I remember-” But before Dio could recall a raunchy tale of the pagan oppressed, Hikawa’s voice wheezed into the gap.

“Do you think of yourself in this manner? Swordsmen in my country honor ourselves by serving our lords. Cleaning is for peasants.”

“The executioner’s sword holds no honor, merely blood.”

Hikawa had no reply for that. Besides, the way was long, though not so long as the Emperor’s backbreaking stair.

In the medium distance, the bright pillar from the cloud above was busy cutting a smoking line between the Gardens and the buildings of the Vatican. It cut quietly, leaving behind a smooth, smoldering line between the imposing wall of steam-age Rome and the picturesque, historic roofs at the Southern border, before heading to cut them off from the exit. Hikawa estimated he had a few minutes.

“I believe inbushido,” said Hikawa. “I believe in the god of the sword. What righteous Christian would denounce his own God, Dio-sama?”

Hikawa could not perceive the look of intense pain in Dio’s eyes, peering forlornly over the young man’s shoulder, but he could feel the elderly Templar’s tendons tensed as if gripping an invisiblebroadsword, toes dug into the dry sands of some heathen country. The sudden painful vision swept over the young man, so much he almost did not react to Esteban Dio’s voice sounding an alarm, or the shadow of figures on the ground ahead.

“Your faith is about to be tested,” Dio was saying.

There was a dry yellow stoop just near, where Hikawa was able to set Dio comfortably. The pair did not speak more; it was hard enough going through an intermediary language neither man had mastered, and they were both ascending toward the frame of mind common to men of battle. Hikawa was tempted to leave Dio his shorttanto,but that proved unnecessary. The enemy seemed uninterested in the defenseless old man. Odd, Hikawa thought, so they are not after the old Templar… he was secretly glad he did not have to divest the blades from each other. Thewazikashiandtantowere two halves of the same weapon, after all.

If the assailants were surprised at some Benedictine monk wielding abatto, or sword drawing, stance with Japanese swords, they could not show it. Now Hikawa could assess his situation, he was able to see both figures were hooded and cloaked, their faces in shadow. Neither appeared armed, and since they did not move, it was hard to judge from the weight of pace what devices were about their person.

Two had appeared from ahead as Hikawa and Dio approached; now a third appeared from the building behind.

Hikawa drew hiswazikashi, the longer of the two, and fell into a stance where the figure behind was clearly reflected in the shining length of deathly mirror.

“I warn you,” Hikawa said, in English, “My blade is faster than your bullets. If you do not believe me, you will taste it yourself.”

They came unhurriedly, closing the distance in a languid formation that seemed to indicate they weren’t about to use firearms. To the left and right, there were high old walls. High above, the steady thrum of the cutting beam kept up a background of catastrophic destruction. It seemed fitting; Hikawa had read about such thematic climaxes in oldsamuraitales, like the beach duel between Miyamoto Musashi and rival Sasaki Kojiro. Only, there seemed insufficient drama between himself and his assailants; anonymous beneath their hoods, what ancient malice or undying vendetta would forever be moot.

Hikawa wouldn’t have asked, anyway, even if the trio didn’t leap towards him at that moment. The lunge was a strategy to fell any lone gunman, even the quickest of the American west. Only, Hikawa was a man of the east. As their sleeves flashed past harmlessly, Hikawa had a moment’s reflection: weren’t westerns popular at the Italian picture houses? He hoped, laconically, there would be a chance to see some more of them later, maybe try the famedpizzaof Naples also.

To Hikawa’s surprise, his first blow struck sparks off his enemy, and an angry hiss of escaping steam.

“Nan no mane da?!” Hikawa exclaimed. He spun, and cut a blow to fell trees.

Again, sparks and fabric were his only reward. Impossible!

Hikawa’s strokes could decapitate men easily through lacquered armor. Either these hooded men were shorn in truly impenetrable stuff, or…

Esteban Dio could see the whole fight from his vantage point on the stoop. Silly boy, he might have said, those are Clankers. They are impervious to the bite of swords- aim for the joints! Only, Dio was so very tired. He had barely enough breath to speak, and the battle was moving quite a ways from him. Good, Dio thought, Hikawa is trying to draw them from me. There is a proficient warrior.

Meanwhile, Hikawa’s sword was slipping through the wall with barely a yellow spurt of brick dust, yet dulling against whatever armor the hooded men wore. Hikawa was no idiot; he would not waste a good edge. The back of the sword was dull, but dense and heavy. Sidestepping a takedown, he struck with it against one of the hoods and felt something crumple triumphantly beneath. Theshisaguard shook beneath his hands, but his victim fell writhing to the ground.

As the man fell, the ground began to shake. Later, Hikawa would reflect on how the towering grime of Rome seemed to fall away unnoticeably, gradually. The gentle movement paled in importance when compared to imminent death. Still, there would have been no denying the historic piece of ground they stood on was slowly rising into the air.

The other two were not so easy. Not only were they well armored, they learned. They also seemed to work better as a pair. Hikawa could no longer dodge their coordinated kicks and punches. Metal crunched splinters of bone; the swordsman felt one eye go dark, the socket crumpling under some titanic, mechanical pressure.

He lashed out blindly, in trained sweeps, to gain some ground, only to find his left quarter blocked- they had pinned him against the wall.

With a grunt, Hikawa pushed off against it, knocking one of his attackers to the ground in a clatter.

Run, fool, run! Dio would have shouted, if it could have helped. Honor was not worth life!

Young samurai are not symbolized by falling cherry for naught. A bloom flowers but once on the tree, briefly, its petals falling in a glorious snowfall before exhausting itself in its own glory. Hikawa believed this fleetingly, as a child might believe in the tooth fairy when his first canine begins to wiggle. What he believed, and relied on, was the sword passed down by his father, and his father’s fathers, not just the ornate weapon at hand but theideaof the sword. The perfect cut- yes, there was the way: straight up and down, with no snags, the blade that would slice through anything. It would have little trouble cleaving through the unworldly stuff of the hooded man’s face.

If there was a time when the perfect cut was needed, it was now. The second hooded man would be up soon. The first was only awaiting his advantage. Hikawa’s sword seemed to quiver and beckon, itshamonwaving expectantly, bloodthirsty, in his already failing good eye.

Slowly, Hikawa edged his right foot forward, placing his hands on his sword. His right hand would form the fulcrum, his left, driving force. He almost couldn’t do it- he was dizzy from repeated blows, and something felt broken along his side. Four ribs, maybe. Yet, his legs were steady. His legs were all-important, yes, providing both the forward drive and the balance to recover. He would step- yes, now, right there, perfectly spaced!

Fatigued muscles grated like airship plating, yet Hikawa felt a rush of power. This, this was the perfect cut- the metal slipping through, unnoticed, a serpent through tall grass, bisecting his enemy.

With a resounding snap, the sword burst into a thousand shards against his opponent’s helmet, even as the first monumental gleam of modern metal emerged from above to rival the Vatican’s beauty.

7: Nessie Drake, Gothic Pirate Princess

 

“Le Maere, she’s called. Means ‘nightmare,’ in the French. A bit grim, yes, but the Countess Nessie Drake is honorable, by all accounts.”

             Albion Clemens pondered over this last bit of information as if sipping a fine vintage from a dusty cellar uncovered in some ancient, rediscovered castle: suspiciously, skeptically, but overall quite pleasurably. The Mediterranean breeze felt far too good for this type of activity, but Clemens believed firmly in the little things. They deserved enjoyment and attention independent of unpleasantness close at hand.

As if a reflection of his thoughts, a fine bone china teacup sat in Clemens’ digits, filled with a very fragrant Orange Pekoe from a British tanker out of Sri Lanka. From a second teacup, the air pirate captain provided his charge with a fair draught of the amber liquid. It was a shame the informant could not enjoy it properly. Albion was careful not to spill the tea over the rim and into the man’s eyes.

             “I say,” the fellow remarked through a moustache surely magnificent in its native habitat: namely, flapping through the wind at the helm of his own ship. For a chap bound by the ankles and hung from theHuckleberry’ssecond lateral mast, he sure drank in a dignified way. “Isn’t this quite enough dangling for one day?”

             “My friend, I’m not the one who has to go back tothatcrew,” Clemens replied, kicking at a plank near the man’s face.

The effect was to make it seem as if Clemens had knocked in the man’s Adam’s apple, shaking him dangerously above a sheer drop over the frothing cliffs passing placidly by below. Even across a span of twenty yards in open air, the gasp of the man’s crew was perfectly audible.

              “Well all right, lay it on thickly then.”

             “Gentlemen are such a pleasure to work with. Say hello to your sainted mother for me,” Clemens answered, punching the man’s solar plexus.

             

              As Clemens watched the tiny smuggler’s junk drift slowly away over some stunted relation of the Alps, he wondered why all his encounters with fellow pirates either ended in black eyes or lipstick stains. Often, it was both. Surely the sky was free for everyone; why couldn’t they ever find a cause sufficient to motivate pirates into standing each other’s company? Perhaps freedom was just such a beast, as violently reactive to society as gas to fire.

             “Couldn’t you have simply asked the Captain?” Vanessa Hargreaves’ stern judgment drifted over the raw-scrubbed decks of theBerry. Her voice was particularly grating. Kitty Desperado’s tip had gone cold, they had lost the trail of Captain Sam, and now Albion was being forced to resort to these alternative methods.

Clemens spared a look, as he always did when the intriguing Inspector came to call.

She had commandeered a tight-fitting, matte ebony duster with two rows of buttons down the front. It went down to her knees, where burnished boot clasps matched her copper-framed visor against the wind.

Her hair had been braided into a long rope down her back; the overall effect was refreshing, as if this was how she ought to look, magnifying glass in hand, kicking down the doors of criminality. Clemens noted the convenient slits in the coat for easy gun access, and the formfitting pockets undoubtedly filled with ammunition. Hargreaves pirated up well.

              “Captain is forgiving. Roberto is more of a bookkeeper,” sidetracked Albion.

“If I hadn’t left a few marks, the more enterprising members of the crew might have thought him easy pickings. I’d rather have the Sirocco’s fleet keep their small fry in check, less chaos in the skies.”

              “Right,” Hargreaves said in the wonderfully cleansing way she had, tossing Clemens’ words overboard. “Did you get anything useful?”

             “Actually, yes,” Clemens answered, glad to be on the unshakeable foundations of common interest. Like oases in the shark-filled waters of verbal intercourse, he thought. “Word is, our dear Captain Sam is hiding out with an old friend. Nessie Drake’s Chiropteran-class is somewhere over Romania, and it looks like the old pervert is aboard. You know, I’ve heard her whole crew is beautiful young women?”

             “Your Samuel Clemens makes fast friends,” Hargreaves remarked.

             “We must. When the skies are filled with predators, its best to be among others of kind,’ Clemens replied philosophically.

“He also can’t ever resist a damsel in distress. Nessie Drake used to run with theLovelorn’sCaptain, over the Dead Sea. Nowthere’ssome bad blood in the clouds. If he’s gone to her, it might be to negotiate with her old mates. He was the only one the two of them ever listened to.”

             “And when they don’t listen? I want the Steamboat Man alive to tell me about the laboratory in Oxford. Elric Blair’s received a wire from his sources: Someone’s stolen the Vatican, Saint Peter’s Basillica, carved it right out of the ground like a potato. Whoever’s done this seems to be taking the piss out of the whole of Europe.”

             “I hear Nessie’s got some big honkin’ cannons,” quipped Clemens.

Seeing Hargreaves’ derisive snort, he got serious. “Look, Inspector, I’d like to find my Captain Sam as much as you do, but I’ve been looking for him for over a year. He’s as slippery as a jellied eel. We have to take this very carefully.”

              Hargreaves peeked through the corner of her visor, seeing the stoic eyes on Albion’s face suddenly darken. Her ability to read him was generally blocked by his alien, Asiatic features, combined with a disciplined constitution. Yard training was useless against those flat brown eyes and dead-steady lips, particularly when the goggles came down and obscured half his face. Nevertheless, in the split second of honesty, Albion Clemens had shown a guarded tenderness, a loosening of the chiseled jaw. The Manchu Marauder’s sudden vulnerability surprised her.

             “All right. I will take your experience on this matter into consideration,” Hargreaves yielded.

“Let us hope Nessie Drake is indeed harboring our quarry.”

“What do you think it is?” Albion asked. He suddenly seemed to be in a conversational mood, waxing philosophic. “That’s doing it, I mean. Stealing bloody huge buildings. The airmen have their gossip. Some people say it’s nothing manmade at all, but some creature of the ether come to cut us down to size. Us as in human beings, as if it were some old god. “

“It would be just like a god to strike us down, tear us from our tower of Babel and teach us humility. But no, I don’t believe my God would do such things.”

“The God of England?”

“A compassionate God,” Hargreaves snorted.

“There are old pirate legends, you know? Like the Krakens of old, or the maelstroms, the mermaids, we have our demon storms, our ghost ships cleaving soulless through the air. There are things out there we have very little knowledge of. Even the lift compound running through this ship seems otherworldly, anachronistic in spite of our steamworked times. The superstitious rabble could easily be right.”

             “I know not what it is,” Hargreaves admitted, “and I do not care very much. The Queen set me to stop it, and retrieve our Houses of Parliament if we can. That is all I wish to know.”

             “You have to have some curiosity about the thing you mean to intercept?”

             Hargreaves snorted. Within her was much of the detective, but also something of the soldier as well. Arturo C. Adler would have answered an unabashed, flamboyant yes to the question.

The Inspector had to grudgingly allow Clemens his point. What stupendous power could rip up entire pieces of Europe and carry them about? It was certainly monstrous.

              Albion looked on, but the Inspector seemed to be finished. He shrugged, and bid her enjoy the view as they flew on across the Mediterranean, before heading below decks. Let the Inspector snort; she would not be a problem. The one he had to worry about, when they got to Romania, was his helmswoman, Rosa Marija.

 

              “What do you mean, gone?” squawked Rosa Marija into the Romanian dockhand’s face. The thick-browed Turk just started, alarmed but uncomprehending the beautiful mocha horror screaming at the point of his goatee.

This close to the Ottoman border, the man’s ethnicity was the only sign of their intrusion on this, an independent mooring platform somewhere in the Romanian mountains.

He, Rosa Marija, Inspector Hargreaves and crewman Prissy Jack stood round on the platform, fishing for clues. It was a way station in the middle of nowhere, with only the bare essentials: namely, a bar. The place was packed with dirigibles roped to poles thrust out over the mountains, many of them having been waylaid, turned back from the closed Ottoman border.

             “Just that, gone,” Prissy Jack, who happened to know some Turkish, attempted to squeak against Rosa’s tirade. The thin, hatchet-nosed kid was full of surprises, and he looked mixed enough to pass for anybody’s countryman.

Jackspoke rapidly with the dockhand, who seemed to be reconsidering the coin clutched in his fingers. Was gold adequate payment for a good whipping? Clemens himself had often considered the question of Rosa Marija. Prissy Jack spoke again.

             “He says a Russian freighter came round two days ago, reporting a black ship likeLe Maereover the northwest. She was flying low, otherwise they would never have seen her. It looked like she had taken a lot of damage.”

             While Rosa Marija whirled away in a cloud of gypsy veils and huff, Albion and the Inspector exchanged a look. It seemedLe Maerehad run into theLovelornafter all.

             “Ask him if there was another ship,” Clemens said quietly while Rosa Marija was getting a drink. “About the size of the French Revenant-class, sort of shaped like a wedge.”

             Another burst of chatter, in which Clemens glanced worriedly between Rosa and the suddenly animated Turk.

             “He says, of course!” Jack returned with an answer. “TheLovelornput in at this very station not three days ago. They paid very good money, though in German marks. ”

             “Bloody shit, that’s her,” Clemens said to Hargreaves, in the colorful portmanteau of cultures he had when stimulated. “Ada hires out her ship to German border patrol occasionally, after their GSG units became too expensive to maintain. There are only four left by all accounts, the rest of the border defended by mercenaries, often pirates looking to cannibalize their own.”

             “The GSG would be the German terrorist response team,” breathed Inspector Hargreaves, visibly impressed. “Who is Ada anyway?”

             “Captain of theLovelorn. Doesn’t matter. Under no conditions are we to break this to Rosa Marija,” Clemens cautioned. In the background, Rosa was arm-wrestling some assembled airmen for drinks, beating them into submission without mussing a single corset tie. As they watched, one man went down with a crash, right through a table, while Rosa waved an elegant glove and grunted supremacy.

             “Bollocks. Why not? What does she have to do with either of them?” Hargreaves asked. It wasn’t quite proper of her, but she needed to know if Rosa would be dangerous. Clemens understood all of it flashing across her face.

             “Nessie Drake is… well, she’s…. sometimes, right, people hunt for booty together, and they… that is, female sexuality is a lot more fluid, right?” Clemens stammered.

             “Oh God, they were lovers,” whispered Hargreaves, flushing pink right down to where skin showed at her neck. The embarrassment was handy, and Clemens let his reply of ‘sort of…’ go away and hang itself.

The two of them couldn’t help but glance at Rosa, now dancing a jig on three-inch heels.A pair of hairy men played the accordion and fiddle, respectively. Surely she had drained the way station’s store of vodka by now?

             Meanwhile, Prissy Jack had been conversing with their friend the Turk, seemingly discussing something of mutual amusement. Now he turned and tapped Clemens on the shoulder.

             “Captain, Ignat here saysLe Maereisn’t likely to have gone far. If they’re running from someone, there are only a few places she could set down to make repairs.”

             “Thanks Jack,” answered Clemens, “Have him mark them on this map.”

             “If she’s downed, she could be anywhere,” Hargreaves interjected. “Not to mention she’ll likely shoot down anything flying close enough to see her. Didn’t you say Nessie Drake’s got, and I quote with disgust, ‘big honkin’ cannons?’”


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“Frankly, now Rosa Marija’s all fired up for it, I would rather pit the‘Berryagainst Nessie’s cannons than deny Rosa the piloting. Let’s chase a nightmare, shall we?”

Their conversation was interrupted as a man came flying between them; Rosa Marija, bored with friendly contests, had started a bar fight, yelling happily whilst she laid into everyone with drunken fists.

 

It wasn’t as if Albion intended to fly over the whole of Romania, waiting for Nessie Drake to shoot them out of the sky. Prissy Jack had done well; there were indeed only five little valleys and mountainous nooks available for a Chiropteran-class dirigible to hide in.

Such a ship was as long as a German zeppelin, and far heavier if she was as damaged as he was led to believe. Clemens’ plan was pretty simple: fly in low, stay invisible, and track on foot once they sighted any sign of aeon particles or debris.

Now if only Rosa Marija would cooperate.

“Hey! DRAKE! Get out here you flat-chested bitch!” Rosa’s voice erupted over the first spot Clemens stopped over. He had even taken the precaution of relieving her of the helm, but overlooked the trumpets mounted at the forecastle directly over the bridge. Rosa’s richly peppered vernacular was now blasting from mountaintop to mountaintop, likely waking up every vampire in the country with its melodious echo.

Bitch…bitch…bitch….

“What in blazes is that racket?” Elric Blair’s voice came over the speaking horns near Clemens’ elbow. Of course- the library. A split second later, similar sentiments were coming in from all over the ship, as Clemens’ crew discovered their helmswoman was intent on continuing her verbal assault until they found Nessie Drake.

“It’s all right,” Clemens announced. “They’re old friends. If anybody should be screaming her name, it’s Rosa.”

Clemens was resigned to it. Rosa Marija was convinced Nessie wouldn’t hurt a mocha hair on her pretty head, and if Albion tried to stop her, he might have two pepper pots to deal with instead of one. What he hadn’t counted on was somebody else trying.

“Miss Marija! Really! You disgrace yourself!” came thundering over the forecastle trumpets.

It was Inspector Hargreaves, her prim, precise intonation jarring horrifically with the intrusive nature of the instrument. “Let go of the trumpet immediately! Is this the speaking toggle? Switch it off at once!”

“Go to hell,pig! DRAKE!” Rosa retaliated. There were sounds of a struggle, and no slaphappy tussle either. These were the hard, packed thuds and clipped grunts of two skilled fighters doing what they did best.

Clemens couldn’t help but visualize Rosa’s familiar moves: smooth parries and pirouettes, sprinkled with liberal helpings of wild roundhouses and axe-kicks if she could elevate off the forecastle railings. Hargreaves would probably be a tucked-infighter, all boxer’s jabs and stomps, with some judo or grappling thrown in. Clemens suddenly remembered Rosa had been wearing a lime-green camisole today, with quite a low neckline. Hargreaves was probably in the linen blouse and tight pencil skirt from breakfast.

Clemens flipped the toggle to release his anchors. The squeal of wires accompanied the thud of a metal star walloping into a mountaintop. Then he was vaulting up the ladder towards the forecastle, into the bite of the cold Romanian winds. Clemens barely managed to dodge as a high heel came swinging out over the edge of the deck, nearly clipping his scalp through his bandana.

“Maybe I should have worn goggles…” Clemens muttered, peeking over the edge.

The fight had progressed, and Hargreaves was on the offense, pressing her advantage with smooth, textbook kicks of her pointed boot, her pencil skirt bunched up on her long hips. Rosa was nimbly leaning to the left and right, reading the telegraphed moves.

Hargreaves was much taller, however, and Rosa couldn’t get in close enough to do much but slap at her ankles, hoping she would overbalance. With a crash, Hargreaves smashed a lantern on deck, showering Rosa’s gypsy skirt with glass.

             “Ooh, that might have smarted,” Blair’s voice came from Clemens’ right. The Captain turned to see the journalist’s carrot top and blue eyes over the lip of the deck, diagonally opposite. He was starting to grow out of the dye, leaving a sort of rotty vegetable look to his head.

             “Do! You! Have! Any! Jammy! Dodgers!” The voice was Cid Tanner, way out on the bow with a pair of binoculars. Out of the square hole beside him, Auntie and Alex were emerging with a pot of tea and a basket of goodies, though whether or not they were jammy remained to be said. Auntie’s checkerboard housedress billowed in the wind.

             “They’ve got the right idea. This might be a long haul,” Clemens remarked, giving a moment to consider if he ought to go down and join his crew. The sky was impeccably blue, spotted with big, fat cumulus clouds save for a dark blot on the east. The afternoon sun was just descending from zenith, headed for a brief break in the green Romanian mountains before retiring for the night. As he was looking, a long, shapely, gartered leg blotted out the sun briefly, giving the impression of a swan in flight.

             “What are you doing?” Blair called from his perch. “Shouldn’t we stop them?”

             “It’s been a long time coming. Might as well let them have it out,” Clemens responded in kind.

A blind man would have seen the tension stretching tighter and tighter. Rosa was a free spirit, and Hargreaves lived by the book. Their coexistence depended entirely on Rosa’s loyalty to Albion, and Hargreaves’ tenuous conviction of this pirate crew’s usefulness in her mission.

Any further than that, Albion was loathe to conjecture. He had to admit, watching the gold braid dance behind Hargreaves’ long limbs made a pretty picture next to Rosa’s muscled, voluptuous, coffee-colored arms.

             Slowly, very carefully, Albion put his toes in the woodwork of the ship and his fingers on the deck, working over to where Blair clung to his ladder.

             “Budge up, friend,” Clemens grunted, and then the two were shoulder-to-shoulder. “What do you make of it?”

“Never been the scrapping sort myself,” Blair answered, somewhat reluctantly, “But Miss Marija sure does screech most piercingly.”

“It’s when she stops, that you have to be careful,” Clemens said as Rosa managed to get a grip on Hargreaves’ calf. There was a brief moment of groping, and then both men winced as the deck shook with Hargreaves’ fall. Just as Rosa turned to gloat, a pair of long legs shot up from the floor and squished Rosa’s cheeks until her face looked like the balloon on an airship. Then, both women were on the floor, scrabbling for a hold.

“Might be over in a bit,” Blair remarked, but Clemens merely shook his head.

Just as suddenly as they were down, both women struck simultaneously, rolling away from each other, and then they were up, circling. Red welts marked where bruises would soon bloom blue and mottled black, but other than at Rosa’s lip and Hargreaves’ knee, no blood had been drawn.

“I’m not going to let you endanger my mission just for some stupid pirate whore,” Hargreaves spat. Pillow talk, it was, before the two bodies met again- the Inspector was flushed, her limbs loose. She was enjoying the release. She was taunting Rosa, asking for more.

Rosa’s shoulders tensed, just a bit, then relaxed.

“Shit,” Clemens cursed.

“What? Why shit? They’re not too hurt, right?” Blair said, but his voice was lost in the flurry of Clemens clambering to his feet on the deck.

The two women on the forecastle stopped circling. A moment of silence clung, before they pounced towards each other, big cats going for the jugular. 

 

“ROSA MARIJA YOU PUT THE KNIFE AWAY,” Albion Clemens bellowed, his voice thundering louder than any speaking trumpet.

Both women skidded to a halt, Hargreaves stumbling for a moment as the heel of her boot went out from under her. Rosa stopped smoothly, her skirts flashing forward with the momentum.

Her slender fingers opened, and a barb the size of an arrowhead stuck point-first in the deck. Hargreaves’ eyes were huge in her head.

Albion hadn’t screamed, exactly. He had spoken loudly, and the air rang with the depth of his voice more than the volume. His shoulders were visibly shaking under his thin linen shirt and brown silk vest, but his feet were planted like centenarian trees. Anything else would be futile in the face of Rosa’s rage.

Rosa Marija turned on her heel and began the climb back into the ship.

“Anticlimatic!” Cid’s voice drifted in from across the ship. The three of them threw up their hands, but made no move to break up their impromptu tea party. Maybe ten minutes had passed, and they had even set out things for Prissy Jack, who had just arrived and missed all the action.

“Would you mind telling me what just happened?” Hargreaves slurred through her slightly labored breathing.

Clemens looked around, shaken out of his stance. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Rosa Marija until she disappeared into the bridge. In a moment, the ship’s anchors made their whirring trip from the ground below, and the ‘Berrybegan to move once again.

“I’d like an explanation, Captain Clemens,” the Inspector was still hounding the Captain, a bit more clearly now. Albion looked her up and down, watching the way she stood, and concluded she wasn’t too badly hurt. He took out a handkerchief, knelt, and started to dab at the cut at Hargreaves’ knee. To her credit, she didn’t even flinch.

“What happened,” Clemens said, as he wet the cloth from a flask at his hip. Hargreaves hissed as the liquor touched a cut. He pressed at the wound to open it and see if there was glass inside. “Was not your fault. You brought up something Rosa’s been pushing down for years. I expect when you see her again, she might be willing to discuss it with you. At the very least, she’s going to let you borrow her good clothes.”

“Nessie Drake wasn’t a lover,” Hargreaves concluded.

“No,” Clemens agreed. “It was much worse.”

“What’s this about lesbians?” chimed in Blair, who never seemed to have a good hold of the grapevines. His nose was buried deep in his notebook, his hand fluttering away.

“Nessie Drake,” Clemens continued later, in the galley of the ship. Auntie had set out tea, proper tea, sandwiches and cold chicken and Earl Grey.

Albion hadn’t intended it, but the gang had gathered around him as Auntie took over patching up the Inspector, and now he found himself telling the story to his whole crew- sans Rosa.

“She is very hard to explain. I don’t want to tell it, as I’ve known Rosa Marija longer than any of you, and she would not want me to.”

“But, you are also acting Captain of theHuckleberry, and the responsibility of our safety falls to you,” Blair noted observantly. He was getting into the hang of piracy, albeit a bit uncomfortably.

“I won’t have us going into this blind, any of us. Particularly, you,” Albion looked at the Inspector, boots stripped, toes tickling the wind.

“Stop bellyaching and spill it, the lady’s a blasted mystery as it is,” Cockney Alex complained, banging his mug like a Saxon. “We finally get to know what makes the invincible Rosa Marija tick.”

“All right, you damned barbarian, don’t rush it!” complained Albion.

“I’ll be taking responsibility for my own life, you simpering infant,” Cid griped amiably. Clemens nodded to this. “But tell it like it is,” finished Cid.

“What I want to know is why she felt it was worth killing the Inspector over,” redirected Auntie. “Lady’s got the authority of Queen Victoria III herself. None of us would be safe from her wrath.”

“I wasn’t in my usual frame of mind.”

Everyone turned to see Rosa Marija at the door, changed into tight sable trousers and a brown bodice tightened over a cream blouse. It was much more utilitarian than her usual flamboyant affairs. Blades studded every inch of leather on her, and four straps hung off her hips with additional hardware, including a three-foot long machete and a pair of knuckle dusters. Her hair was tucked into a tight arrangement, pinned with sturdy spikes.

In all likelihood, Rosa now weighed twice her stone in metal. Her boots were flat, with spurs on the end- not cowboy rounds, but deadly studs.

“Would you like to hear it?” Rosa Marija began, not bothering to sit down or wait for a reply. None was coming. “If you have to hear it, you’ll hear it from me.”

 

“On the streets of cities like Monaco, or Belfast, or Detroit, a young waif grows up perpetually in sight of airships.

Always there are airships, and the flotsam they drag along- coal freight, train rails, old men peddling trinkets from all over the globe, at best only a couple months journey away. Faberge eggs, real beaverskin moccasins, silk robes intricately interwoven with cherry blossoms or lined with fragrant jasmine. Anything gorgeous could be found in a port city.

People were no exception. Gruff aeronauts were aplenty, with their weeks’ worth of stubble and bulging arms covered with shiny steam burns. They dropped into the local pubs and bars, facilitating a booming trade in young, attractive whores and the endless flow of strong liquor.


Page 13

I was never a whore. I respect them for what they do,those who chose to be, like I choose to be what I am. Nessie, she never chose be what she was. When you’re young, you do what you have to to survive.

Nessie and I were con artists. We never stayed in one city too long, though we kept to the frontiers as best we could- safer that way. It was the beauty of the dirigible, you see, the world was no longer closed to us as it was to people of ages past.

We could pull a string of heists in the space it took to refuel a corsair, and sneak aboard before the cables pulled taut for lift-off.

We were never caught. As far as our marks were concerned, we were acceptable dangers that come with the whistling of steam, and the irresistible force buoying them up through the wind.

I found the travelers fascinating, bedecked in their expensive traveling clothes. Fascinating, yes, but intelligent? No. I had my knives, and my armor of curves. Nessie Drake had her wiles. To us, the travellers quickly lost their identities, becoming frocks, feathered hats and decorative fans, symbols of what we might reap from the bounty of the sky. In particular, the men with their pinstriped suits or greatcoats often took along more luggage than all the possessions a young girl could own. They never noticed one or two baubles missing, and they always carried gold monocles or pocket-watches chained to their buttonholes. It was as if, loaded down with all their belongings, they still felt a need to fetter themselves to time.

Nessie, against my advice, was always drawn to the pirates. Riveting, gorgeous, no two alike, they buzzed round docks like bees at honey. You could never pin them down from the clothes, or the beards- it was a different time, then. Still, when you spoke to one, their stories were better, they drank harder, and it was not uncommon to wake up one day and find yourself having slept next to one. Your valuables would be gone, more often than not, along with your pirate and your heart, all onboard a ship some five hundred yards in the sky and miles away.

 

That was how I found Nessie Drake one morning, in the bad parts of Fort Chattanooga. She was in a rented dive no bigger than a shack, stinking from the abattoirs next door, but it wasn’t far from the mooring towers. The fact they were so close ought to have tipped off Nessie, more than anything.

We were smarter than those starry-eyed girls you sometimes saw hanging round the base of the towers, hoping to catch a glimpse of their latest pulp fiction heroes.

“Girl, you do what you want with your winnings, but any way you cut this, letting a man run off with a hundred silver dollars ain’t my idea of a good time,” I said as I shook out her empty purse.

I was snippy, and it irked me. I had spent the better part of the morning looking for her, and here she was, sleeping naked like a fairy-tale princess. There wasn’t even the familiar jaunty smell of sex, though the air was a little funky with sweat and livestock. I picked up the monochrome pleated gown draped neatly over a chair and shook it, trying to tell the value from the weight. “I hope you kept a couple of galleons from the Burton heist stitched in your knickers.”

We were both gorgeous girls, plying the skies for fame and fortune, but Nessie Drake was as different from me as apples and oranges. Pale, thin and waif-like, she nearly always played the straight man. Who would ever suspect a Lewis Carol wet dream of coming after your valuables? Never mind she could strangle you half to death with a silk ribbon. With those raven locks down to her waist, and a thousand-yard stare lurking beneath her porcelain skin, the girl was beautifully diverting. It was her eyes, like a doll’s, flat and expressionless, and they fascinated people with their deep color, like heart’s blood.

As soon as she rolled over and fixed those round garnets on me, I knew we were in deep shit.

“Oh screw me two ways to Tuesday, you’re in love,” I cursed.

I kicked at the much-abused door, which was splintered from having been knocked down just a minute before.

“I was left those on purpose,” Nessie murmured incoherently,gesturing to the dress. “Tried to make it look like an accident.”

“You idiot! He obviously couldn’t be bothered to root through the seams. Rattlesnakes, he thought you were a local, even with those clipped consonants,” I was busy feeling for and tearing out what loose coins had been left in the gown- a dollar, at least, and a collection of odd foreign currency, none of which was useable tender so far in the frontier. California was only a few states away, and the Lands Beyond, untamed territory as far as anyone cared. Paper money would be gone with the first blue storm.

Done with the garment, I chucked it across the room so Nessie could cover herself. “Get dressed. We’re leaving on theSaratogain an hour. Her Captain lost to me arm-wrestling me in the pub.”

Was I? Of course, you nitwits, I was jealous, now shut the hell up and listen.

“I’m not going,” Nessie had the gall to protest. Nevertheless, she began to pull the gown on, lacing ribbons across her flat back. “We’re meeting in the Stablehand’s Breeches at noon. I’m going on their ship, theLovelorn…”

Christ on a cracker, the way she said the word, like it wiped away seven years of pilfering and running and hard knocks.

“Here,” I said, fishing a small pocket-watch out of my own skirts. I think I still have the outfit, candy-striped, great with those suede boots…

Right! Sorry! Okay. No stalling.

I tossed her the locket, which was a decent timepiece in ball crystal.

“Blast! It’s this late! She’ll have left without me! I have to get to theLovelorn!” Nessie screeched.

God, I tore up the place when she broke the damnwatch, smashing it on the floor like plates at a Greek wedding. Little gears and aeon pebble everywhere.

She made a dive for her stockings, trying to get them on her arms. Her gloves were neatly folded on the bed stand, right over her dainty patent leathers.

“My watch! Bitch, I’m taking this silver.”

Nessie had no care for her partner. There was a wild look in her eyes I had never seen before. Nessie Drake was often pissed, smashed or cynical, I’ve even seen her laugh, but I was not equipped to handle this.

“My choker! Right, parasol…. Ribbons… have to look good when I get there, rouge…” Nessie’s mumbling scared me even more than her eyes. Her anal retentiveness was her best trait, had gotten us out of sticky situations a thousand times before. The fact she was losing it right now gave me gooseflesh all over my gorgeous arms.

“Listen, Nessie, it’s already two fifteen, I’m sure theLovelornis loosed from her tower already and miles away.”

What I didn’t say was theSaratogawould be leaving in forty-five minutes, and if we weren’t on it, there was a high chance the church we had robbed in the guise of a chapter of the Salvation Army would discover, via telegraph, that Sister Goebbels and Sister Banks were safe in their sickbeds in Maine.

“Rosa, you get out of the way right now. I’m going after theLovelorn!”

What could I do but follow themonochrome confection as she stalked out of the hovel and down towards the mooring towers? Fully dressed, she cut a fancy figure striding across a dirt road, scaring cowboys and shopkeeps.

At the base of the towers, there was a makeshift bazaar of the type to be found in air docks the world over.

I recognized familiar franchises advertising wares with carved, painted signage, illustrated, not printed, like old medieval shop fronts. With so many tongues spoken, everything was clearly labeled with a universal medium: the sky blue and bird of Albatross Shipping, the placid green nut of Ursine Gears for ship parts, and the streaky, abstract branding of Ubique Sundries. There was a lot of Valima Mordemere gadgetry, though he had just begun to build his alchemic empire.

Nessie stalked past all of these, even as the clerks swiveled their heads at the petite sugarplum fairy striding determinedly through their displays. She plowed through the colorful livery and into a mess of smaller counters, where the swiveling turned to catcalling. Here were deals made, underground transactions conducted, illicit transport planned. Neither of us had planned on coming here in our nightwear, but I was well known, at least, from the evening’s merrymaking. I simply followed in Nessie’s wake, and her admirers backed the hell off.

“Do you even know where the ship is?” I asked, once I drew level with Nessie. Even on my long legs it was difficult to keep up.

“No, but I know what it looks like,” Nessie answered, never looking away from the varied shapes bobbing overhead. “Triangular hull, black with pink trim. Two sails, no balloon. Satyr figurehead.”

“Wait, a satyr? I saw it, Nessie, I saw it.”

Nessie’s shoes scraped to a stop on the hard dust.

“Where?”

We were in sight of the Breeches, a dilapidated shanty bar strung between two towers.

The square, wood beams of the tower were completely obscured by planks, theatre bills, and structurally essential piles of beer crates. Even at a distance, it was clear there were only species of hopeless inebriate and the odd barback at the counter.

I sighed.

“Grid six, four by four. In the Potter’s.”

Nessie Drake took off like taffeta buckshot. I followed at a more languished pace, now I knew where she was headed.

At frontier ports, wealthy ship owners could book the few steel towers, while merchants leased from available lines strung from rusting piles of lumber and pig iron. Everyone else tied up to scrub brush or tall hills in the Potter’s.

Potter’s Fields were not so grisly as their name suggested, owing their nomenclature only to their common availability. Most of the frontier docks have them, spaced out over flat, low land in a perimeter round the towers proper. Scattered across the fields were hopelessly unsalvageable hulks in the ground, picked over long ago by entrepreneurial opportunists, bleached by sun.

They were about the scariest things there, like stoned trolls, and as threatening. Nessie obviously thought herLovelorncould hardly be amongst the rabble, and had made straight for the soaring edifices instead.

I found Nessie on her knees at one of the downed dirigibles, her face cast in marble. I had walked slowly, because I knew what the high cheekbones and pointed, elfin nose meant to say. Over those striking features, her burgundy eyes were fixed on a rotted wood wreck.

“You’ll get a tan,” I managed, trying for Nessie Drake’s vanity.

It provoked no reaction, though two days ago Drake had thrown a fit when we were forced to traverse a mile of fields with naught but pilfered parasols for protection. Now she was kneeling exposed in the naked sunshine, threatening to incinerate her pasty complexion.

 

After the betrayal, Nessie Drake wasn’t the same deadly efficient partner I had known. She messed up. Sometimes she let marks go on a whim, and other times she wouldn’t even show for a heist. Every free moment she hadwas spent hanging about airmen’s elbows, her eyes darting over the milling crowd even as her lips formed the most insipid interrogations.

Ofcourse she hadn’t given up- she was merely changing tactics. It was obvious she was convinced the Catastrophic Betrayal had been some kind of mistake. I could see it in her eyes, in the glaringly bright skirts and bustles and ribbons she now wore to attract attention.

One of these days, she figured, we would hit on the right pub, in the right city, and there he would be, the airman of theLovelorn, and he would sweep her off her feet.

Meanwhile, I was the same old Rosa Marija. Truth be told, I hadn’t realized how deep Nessie had been stung, and besides I was too taken up with my gallivanting. I was enjoying my freedom far too much to realize my partner was deeply sick. Hell, I didn’t even realize she was so important until she started moving the airmen from the bars to her bed. By then, I think, she was far too gone.

The black dresses were the first clue. Nessie Drake was given to a distinctly Gothic aesthetic, but now the black verged on funereal, her accessories sickened rather than charmed, and her already pale skin took on an unhealthy pallor.

She walked around toting a dead bat, scraping one long, black fingernail across the skin of any man who seemed to exhibit an undue interest in such fetishes.

It couldn’t last. When a girl is possessed by an idea of a perfect lover, the idea warps, it changes, grows new heads.  Love, if there ever was any, turns sour and intoxicating. Even the strongest of us can’t fight it. Nessie Drake had turned the sweet nectar of a chance romance into some fanatical vinegar, burning away at her breast. Even I never guessed the lengths she would go to fulfill it.”

 

“But how did she get to be such a notorious dirigible pirate? And why ‘Countess?’” Elric Blair said after a long pause.

Rosa Marija’s tale had rendered theBerry’s galley a tableau of wide eyes and gaping mouths, and now she stopped, there was a minor flurry of activity as each person made a show of sipping their cold tea, or examining a nearby tchotchke.


Page 14

“Simple, really. Birds of a feather flock together. Most of her conquests were never the sameafter- even I was afraid what she might do behind the curtains of the boudoir. A lot of them came out in the mornings like they would evaporate at the touch of sunlight. There was madness in their eyes, a frantic devotion. ‘Countess’ was just one of the names they whispered amongst themselves, but it was one that stuck.”

“Pirates will call ourselves what we like. Most of Queen Victoria’s nobles these days are little different, all title and few lands to seat,” Albion noted.

Rosa nodded and continued.

“It seemed Nessie Drake had perfected what her original onerous romancer once did to her, a seduction like a strain of disease spread from her touch, her lips, her smell.

It was only a short time before she commandeered her own ship, crewed by her devoted followers, and not long after she found out Ada Lovelace really did have a ship called theLovelorn-commandeered and crewed two years after they had first met.”

“Ahhh….” Someone, probably Alex, had a belated epiphany.

“La Maere,” Albion said casually.

“Blast it Alby, yes, Nessie’s ship wasLa Maere. Alex I understand, but you’re usually sharp as a tack.”

“No,La Maere. She’s right there, right outside the porthole.”

In a flash, everybody was pressed to thebulkhead, Rosa Marija stuck to the glass tightest of all. 

“The thing’s a fortress!”

Clemens had expected little different. He himself flew one of the rarer types of airship, the pressed-heliumHuckleberry, and had been chased by a selection of Cantonese junks, Spanish corsairs, and even seen a Balaenopteron up close off the coast of Africa. Besides, he had seenLa Maerebefore.

Chiropteran-class were so named not because of any particular size differences, but because they were laid out like their bat namesakes- vast networks of thin ribbing, supported by flat gas envelopes between.

The upshot of the arrangement was lift compound could be pumped through the skeletal ribbing to raise or lower the ship quickly. The entire construction was capable of gliding through the sky even under no boiler power.

It made for stealthy, fast ships usually favored by the ilk of the skies- namely, pirates.

Chiropteran-class airships could only be called ‘strange,’ a moniker certainly scoffed at by the builders ofLa Maereas ‘mundane.’ Not so much one ship as a cluster of several, the thing sprawled across Romania like it had dwelt there for centuries, feeding on blood from the necks of supple milkmaids. Gothic points marked bridges and quarters, while a phalanx of black, towering decks bristled with weaponry. Most pirates could only afford to field a ship of patchwork and gaffer’s tape- Nessie Drake required a vessela la mode.

“Basically,” Rosa Marija said. “I’m going down there. Is anyone with me?”

“Do we have a choice?” Albion said.

The landing party consisted of four: Albion, Rosa, Hargreaves, and for some reason Blair, as well. It seemed Albion ran a democratic ship; nobody who did not volunteer were asked as to why.

A few minutes later, the four wereslip-sliding down the mountains, using the same cable anchors they used to drop down on unsuspecting freighters. Their boots crunched through deadfalls and over salt rocks, while the ominous shadow ofLa Maereloomedin the near distance. It wasn’t long before they stumbled onto a paved path, and then they were rounding the peak wherethe‘Berrystayed hidden.

Almost immediately, they saw Nessie had not set down in a region of wilderness. The valley showed heavy, old tracks and soot from wheeled engines and steam tractors. The wilderness had simply grown overthe old activity.

In a moment, there rose around them the straight, planned grids of man’s residences in square pits on both sides of the road.

There were signs of older structures, in the worked-over ground, but these had long been dug out and built over. As they approachedLa Maere, these buildings rose in gray, deserted obelisks.

Rosa Marija began to yell, and this time nobody tried to stop her.

“According to the map,” Elric Blair said, inspecting Prissy Jack’s careful handwriting. The apprentice helmsman understandably preferred the run of the ship to trekking through wolf-infested mountains into certain danger.

“This is a small worker’s village for the Salina Praid, a salt mine prized since the Roman times. The majority of the village is below ground.”

“Let me guess… they found aeon stones,” Albion Clemens said, pointing towards an abandoned lorry lying to the side of the road, its wheels rusted, its tires rotted off. The lorry was specially equipped with the isolating cages of aeon working, to prevent the stones from floating off when exposed to steam equipment. Curiously, natural steam did little to aeon stones, but engines made them shoot off into the sky.

“Same old story,” Blair agreed. “Aeon stone dust means easy wealth, and so the place shifted entirely over to mining them. After the place was dry, it was no longer profitable to hire back the old salt workers or rework the equipment.”

“Blood suckers,” Hargreaves said coldly, easily critical of foreigners.

             They continued forward, into the shadow ofLa Maere. Rosa’s profanity-strewn calls echoed off the street ahead, where industrial arclights had been strung in a barely visible glow. Nessie Drake had parked the ship on top of three buildings. Everything surrounding it was overgrown; from the sky, it would have been hard to see her. From below, the massive airship hovered like a monstrous bat.

             “If it were me, I would have stationed snipers there… there… and there,” Hargreaves remarked.

             “She knows we’re here. Maybe she doesn’t have enough crew to host us,” Albion said. He also began to yell, only for Captain Sam, instead.

             “If the fare is lead-flavored, I would rather our host be a little tardy,” Blair agreed.

             For a moment, it seemed as if Nessie Drake was not in residence. Albion expected a hiss of steam, maybe, or some fanciful piston action from a section of umber shadow directly above them. Perhaps a slew of the stalactites forming the keel of the ship would drop down to imposingly receive them. Instead, there came a gravelly voice somewhere to the left.

             “The Countess will see you now,” it said, directing their attention to a tall man in a stovepipe hat. His suit was immaculate, but there was a subtle effect to the fabric, making it gray at the edges. Combined with the pinstripes and his sunken cheeks, the man looked like a walking corpse. He sidestepped between two buildings and vanished.

             “Gothic wanker,” Hargreaves pronounced again, falling into step behind Rosa as the group followed the gaunt gentleman.

             Inside the alley, there seemed no sign of their host, until their eyes adjusted to the gloom. Then, it was readily apparent there was a gaping manhole not two inches from Hargreaves’ boot.

             “Of course! What else would it be?” The Inspector griped aloud once more. “Perhaps there is even a cemetery down there. How about a haunted cathedral, hmm? Sacrificial altars? An ossuary!”

Rosa followed the stovepipe man silently, now her objective of being noticed had been achieved. Blair took a moment while she climbed into the dank hole.

              “What do you have against Goths?” Elric Blair asked, using news nomenclature.

The Goths were inclined towards the morbid styling of a bygone era, under a different Victoria.

In England, Blair’s prowling grounds, the better educated ones would stage elaborate recreations of the aspects they found most bone-chilling: lying six feet under in safety tombs, engaging in conversation with passers-by through a narrow copper breathing tube. Other, less devoted folks simply used the style as an excuse for hosting exclusive parties, complete with blood fountains and black drapes.

Halfway into the hole, Albion stopped to chime in.“Didn’t you hear the story? Nessie’s a Gothic revivalist. You ought to have expected this.”

             “But this… this is bollocks! How do you expect me to take someone seriously who dresses like a Gorey illustration?” Hargreaves protested. Albion looked at her quizzically. Then he climbed out of the hole.

             “I am, at this moment, wearing a buccaneer coat, bandanna, yellowed linen shirt, and a damn cutlass. I would not look out of place climbing a mast and spitting onto the head of Edward Teach. Do you take me seriously?”

             “Not a jot,” Hargreaves answered with a straight face.

             “Fair enough. At least you’re consistent,” Clemens yielded. “Maybe you were bullied by fanged freshmen in secondary. Who knows?”

             “If you must know…” Hargreaves started, and thought better of it. She put her heels onto the ladder and started to climb down. With her eyes level to the street, she stopped, and finished. “I was one in secondary.” Then she slid the rest of the way down, with a little ‘ow!’ as she hit the floor below.

             “Ah,” Blair remarked, peering into the hole. “I must admit, the thought of the Inspector in black fishnets and corset is an attractive prospect.”

Albion was laughing too hard to answer.

Inside the manhole, the group reconvened to discover they were not in some disgusting sewer. Instead of a filthy river of slime, the passage they entered was of clean dirt, stretching absolutely straight as far as they cared to see. The tunnel had been lined with flameless arclight only for a few lengths. Past it, the passage marched on into abysmal darkness.

             “There,” Rosa said shortly, and continued her march down the passageway. Despite the amount of metal she carried, her footsteps made very little sound.

             “Miss Marija seems to be unusually serious,” Blair remarked. “Nessie Drake must be very important to her.”

             “You seem bloody chuffed,” Hargreaves said to Clemens, who had taken to snorting every time he looked at the Inspector.

             “I keep seeing that blonde mop done up in black ribbons,” Albion answered, extracting a huff and a blush. “Blair, what Rosa didn’t say was how old they started. Nessie’s been her on-and-off partner since they were six. They grew up on the streets, city-hopping from place to place.”

             “Orphans?”

             “Not sure. In any case, Nessie Drake is the closest thing to family she’s got.”

             Meanwhile, the group reached a turn in the tunnel, where the passage opened onto a vast chamber. The roof was sloped, like a vaulted church, and the walls had been cut perfectly straight.

A broken cross lay in a corner, just big enough to nail a man.

              “This is too good. Nessie couldn’t have built all this herself,” Albion said, and then began to play with the acoustics in the massive chamber.

             “You are a child,” Inspector Hargreaves huffed. Clemens simply hooted in reply. They were cut off by a high, piercing voice, quiet but perfectly audible in this space.

             “No, of course we did not. The living quarters are nearly unchanged from the aeon miners’, except for my chamber, of course. The Szekler Hungarians built most of this starting in 1562, under special provision, and before that it was the Bulgars and Avars, who laid their tunnels on top of the original Roman excavation. Very likely the salt of Transylvania lay fallow the fields of Gaul…. Fitting, no? TheLovelornwas originally a French vessel.”

             “Nessie!” Rosa Marija cried, turning.

             Atop a sort of stone dais, Nessie Drake sat on a throne of ruin. Whether the Szekler had built it, or if it was some special apparatus for the processing of aeon stones, they could not guess. Rust and neglect had obscured its original purpose. The mass of timber beams and two-foot steel nails reared out of the ground and seemed to flower into the ceiling far above, stretching out its limbs like a nightmarish, blasphemous crucifix.

In the thick of it, a pile of furs had been laid on an arrangement of beams, where Nessie Drake sat, stiff backed, arms laid out straight on two rests. Her dress was suitably Gothic, in layers of matte and filigree black, picked out with infinitesimally small rubies and garnets.

Her face was deathly pale, her eyes and mouth extended into a skeletal grin with some sort of ashen makeup. Her hair was done up to match a halo of ribbed collar, worked in a finger-prickling pattern of lilies.


Page 15

“Well, Countess, you’ve done well for yourself, considering you’ve been warring with Lovelace for half a decade,” Albion commented.

“Thank you, Captain,” answered Nessie gracefully.

She gestured with fingers tipped in viciously sharp, silver talons.Crow-like, real silver, Albion noted, from the shine. In a moment, the stovepipe gentleman reappeared with a tray of crystal goblets, filled with some crimson liquid.

“Wine,” Nessie explained, and everybody but Albion breathed a sigh of relief.

“Nessie, what the blazing fuck?” Rosa Marija interrupted, finally exhausting her store of patience. “Picking a fight with someone who regularly takes down terrorists for the German GSG?”

“I am perfectly safe in this underground lair. Lovelace is used to aerial raids, not a prolonged subterranean siege.”              “Your back is to the wall and you know it.”

“Rose Cottage, please,” Nessie scoffed. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You know I hate that name.”

“You’ve killed enough people to deserve it.”

              There was silence as the two women fumed at each other, one regal and dark, the other a simmering pot of coffee curves. Drake’s crew, if those were the sharp-suited trio of men in the room with them, seemed ill at ease.

Then, Rosa stalked forward, up to the throne, in even, brisk steps. Nessie drew back, stiffening further.

              “Nessie,” Rosa said with tenderness. “I’m not that person anymore.”

Then she reared back and slapped Nessie Drake across her bony mouth, cursing as the sharp chin cut across her palm.

              “Hey!”

             “Just a minute!”

             “Countess!”

             Practically everyone in the room was shouting, but Rosa had struck too fast and without warning. The situation was suddenly dire.

Nessie’s crew began to converge, Albion’s misfits were drawing on them, somewhere a naked man ran across the cavern in wet slaps of bare feet.

              “Stop!” Nessie Drake commanded, cutting everyone off. Her eyes were bared large, and her mouth sensually glittered with a single drop of blood, but Albion could see plainly the emotion hidden behind all the makeup. The face tilting up at Rosa certainly bore a dram of hatred, yes, but also guilt, and warmth. At that moment, for the two very different women on the dais were mirrors of each other.

Suddenly Nessie and Rosa were embracing, the years visibly melting off until the tension was nonexistent.

              “I’ve missed you, you gorgeous girl,” Rosa Marija replied. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

             “I told you, sister, never,” Nessie answered.

             Rosa sighed, seeming to deflate.

Everybody stood around, looking at anything but the dais, except for some reason Hargreaves, who was hiding her face.

             

             Later, Nessie Drake arranged for rooms in her subterranean kingdom for the whole crew, and for theHuckleberryto park below the winged bulk ofLa Maere. There were plenty of Nessie’s crew to help. Some sharp-suited crewman was always nearby lugging around heavy gun barrels to mount in the abandoned buildings. Rosa Marija disappeared into Nessie’s quarters for two hours, during which a lovely dinner of whole roast suckling pig, borscht and potatoes was served to go with everyone’s wine.

In the evening, everyone convened in the throne room again, though of course it was impossible to tell meal times underground.

Someone even retrieved the naked man, who turned out to have brilliantly blue weepy eyes and was called Steve.

             “Basically,” Nessie Drake explained from her throne once everyone was perched somewhere around her. The mass of beams turned out to be a very practical conference location, featuring comfortable seats all around Drake. “The Lovelorn shot us down a little while ago, and we were able to limp our way to my lair here in the Romanian forest.La Maere’sfangs are clipped, and it will take more than a tub full of blood from the Countess Bathory’s own stock to revive her.”

             “The primary screw assembly is melted to slag,” Rosa translated for everyone.

             “So my only option is to bed down and wait for Ada to arrive, whereupon I will put down theLovelornlike a rabid wolf,” Nessie concluded with a straight face.

“Am I missing something here?” Blair asked. “You’re all standing around looking suave, but I know for sodding sure Inspector Hargreaves at least has no idea why we’re all sitting around waiting for an aerial bombardment to arrive.”

Hargreaves scratched her chin, looking anywhere but at him or the naked Steve. Rosa shot him a dark look, but Nessie Drake herself peered between them, like a porcelain caricature of a young girl caught between feuding parents. It was Albion Clemens who stepped into the breach.

“Ada Lovelace is the Captain of the Lovelorn.” Albion said. “She was the one who betrayed Nessie, and the two of them have traded blows ever since.”

“It would be easier if they just sat down and hashed it out, instead of sacrificing good pirates as cannon fodder. Then again, their crews are drawn to the dramatic…” Rosa said flatly.

Nessie whipped around, her face as smooth and varnished as usual, but the eyes were raging like hellfire. She gestured her long, chrome fingernails at the stovepipe men, as if to say they were her willing martyrs, and her servants bowed agreement.

              “You can’t expect us to stay for the carnage,” Rosa Marija said, colder than ice. She looked towards Albion. Nessie raised an eyebrow. “We have a mission of our own.”

Nessienodded, suddenly amiable. “My drones inform me we will come under attack some time tomorrow evening. TheLovelornis accustomed to tracking hidden prey. You may stay as long as you like.”

             “Drones?” Blair inquired, but understood as he caught the amorous glance of Steve. He could certainly appreciate places where young men of the type could be useful in reconnaissance.

             “I’m sorry, Miss Drake,” Inspector Hargreaves interjected.

“Countess!” Steve corrected. In the face of his intense nudity, Hargreaves could only back down.

“Countess. We cannot wait for this… personal matter… to be over, and permit me to say this: no conflict was won from a defensive position. In case something unfortunate were to happen, I would like to get to the point of our visit.” Hargreaves explained about Captain Sam, and about how someone had begun to steal the landmarks of Europe. She finished with an appeal to the Countess Drake’s fondness for a morbid Gothic flair. Apparently, there was a bloody history about to be lost with every landmark, and Hargreaves knew every purple spot.

Blair occasionally agreed, supplying a juicy tidbit such as the exact number of falling deaths involved with building the Eiffel Tower.

“You are extraordinarily gracious, Inspector Hargreaves, and a credit to your nation,” Nessie said, breathing a little harder.

Rosa was rolling her eyes.

“It is unfortunate. Your Captain Sam did visit me not too long ago, just before our last date with Ada Lovelace over the Mediterranean. He seemed intent on continuing to move, as if something were chasing him. He was also guarding a parcel quite intently, and I doubt he noticed I saw it.” She held up her talons, to indicate a package about two and a half feet long and quite narrow. “He also mentioned something very interesting, as he was sleeping. It was difficult to hear. He was quite troubled, but I made out some very distinct words.”

Albion’s eyes shot a mile into the air, but he let the implication hang in favor of the lead.

“He said: The Leviathan won’t come just because you’re looking for a way back.”

“Shit,” Clemens cursed. At once, the pirate Captain spun on his heel and made for the exit, not towards Nessie’s residential quarters but towards the tunnel to take him back to the street, and thence to theHuckleberry.

 

              “We have everything we need. We take off in twenty minutes.”

             Rosa Marija arrived on the bridge of the‘Berryjust in time to hear Albion ordering Prissy Jack about. The helmsman owned vintage copies of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and had been dying to meet Nessie. Now the news of takeoff seemed to take him by surprise. He was scurrying about, harried and unsure.

Albion was being unusually harsh, snapping down the speaker tubes for everyone to come aboard, and taking some of the controls himself.

              “Hey! Albion! Stop! What do you think you’re doing?” Rosa yelled, slamming one booted heel on top of a panel in front of Albion. To her amazement, the Captain simply brushed her foot off and continued to work.

             “Why you little-!” Rosa cried, and reached out to touch him. Albion whirled about and glared, freezing her in her tracks.

             “You heard. The Lovelornintends to be here tomorrow evening. I bet you anything they are actually only twenty minutes away. Lovelace is a mistress of misinformation.”

             “I thought…”

             “I know. I’m worried about Nessie too, but I had to get the information first. Unless we are in the air when theLovelorngets here, we’re sitting ducks.”

             “Does Nessie know?”

             “Of course. She wanted us to stay so we would be involved. You ought to know better, but you love the little Lolita too much to notice.”

             Rosa waited one moment, looking at the busily flitting Albion with naked admiration. He had even taken off the ridiculous coat, exposing the cutlass and Colt, and his sleeves were rolled back. Then she jumped in, tackling the nitty gritty of preparing for battle.

             When Rosa Marija actually thought about it, later, Nessie Drake hadn’t wished the crew of the‘Berryharm. It was simply the pirate way. Nessie knew the Manchu Marauder was a capable Captain. Rosa had chosen to crew with Clemens, not Drake.

Though Nessie had an understanding about it, it was difficult for her to say aloud, and so this was the way she had chosen.

She had offered Albion a choice clothed in a betrayal: stay and help, or abandon Nessie for a reason anybody would understand.

             Nessie had even volunteered the information about Captain Sam without asking for anything in return: something Rosa had never seen any pirate do, let alone one of Countess Drake’s influence.

             For the moment, though, Rosa was bloody pissed. Here she was, worried sick about Nessie, and she had thought of everything. Nessie was lucky Rosa was too busy to take the piss out of her.

             “Right, I want to keepLa Maereover us as long as possible. Let’s take off,” Albion was saying over Rosa’s shoulder now. Rosa nodded emphatically, and nudged the lever nearby.

             The bulbous form of the‘Berrylifted off the blasted wasteland of the Romanian mining town. In the darkness, it was nearly invisible, a darker shadow hidden between the concrete cliffs- exactly what her Captain wanted.

             She nearly didn’t make it. Almost as soon as the keel cleared the neatly ordered streets, the first cannons tore their way through the canvas envelopes ofLa Maere. It was almost beautiful. Iron shot punched holes where starlight filtered through in columns of brilliance. A second later the illusion was broken by the shock and clouds of debris. The cannon was just as destructive after punching through the ship above, pulverizing gothic decks as easily as the wrecked buildings below.

             “What the blazes are we doing?” Hargreaves yelled, appearing from the hatch.

             “I think I screwed up,” Albion noted. “La Maerecan’t shield us, and under her, we can’t see where theLovelornis.”

             “Out from under!” Rosa agreed, pushing theBerrytowards the edge at full steam.

Rumbling architecture fell to the left and right, and a cannonball managed to wing the starboard lateral mast, but the edge came like a slow-moving horizon.

For a second, everybody held on to the fixtures, white-knuckled, expecting a lump of iron to come tearing out of the sky and crush their little ship into ‘Berryjam.


Page 16

Then they were out from under it, and could see theLovelornhanging over them like a curse. She was coffin-shaped, lined with cannons like rivets. Even at the odd angle, to theLovelorn’s lower bow and port, they could make out layers of redundant armor and the central core of pressed helium decks.

Rosa took theBerryto a height roughly equal to theLovelorn,at a safe distance.

“Nessie’s fighting back,” she said, half her face covered by a long-range scope. The tube ran through the ship, bouncing mirrors and lenses off multiple viewing points, all controlled by Rosa with a panel at her elbow.

Nobody needed scopes to know Nessie Drake was returning fire. The daka-daka of gatling guns was unmistakable, even so far away, and the flashes of muzzle fire rivaled the Romanian night sky. There were lighter arms seated in most of the outer buildings, and larger caliber onLa Maereherself. But Nessie Drake’s ship was mostly ribbing and envelope, while Ada Lovelace commanded a flying mausoleum.

“Nessie will never reach.Ada’s keeping the ship out of range. Her cannon benefit from high ground,” Albion said.

“What are we waiting for?” Rosa Marija asked breathlessly.

For a moment, it seemed as if Albion Clemens, Manchu Marauder, was not going to help Nessie Drake, Gothic Pirate Princess.

He even had his goggles down, on the pretext of examining a console. Elric Blair appeared in the moment of silence, as if a witness to the betrayal. His fingers trembled over his familiar notebook.

Finally, Clemens threw his hands into the air.

“Fine!” Albion cried.

“You came this close,” Rosa retorted. Hargreaves went one better, planting a chaste kiss on the Captain’s cheek while nobody was looking.

 

Five minutes later, and theHuckleberrywas in predictably deep shit.

“Four anchors cut!”

“We’re maxing out the pressure on all three port capacitors!”

“The gerbils! The gerbils are out of their cage! Oh dear God!”

Reports were coming in from all over the ship, of the toll taken by the chaos of dirigible combat. Elric Blair was in the engine room, helping Cid Tanner hold the thrust assembly together by the skin of their teeth. Vanessa Hargreaves had joined Cockney Alex at the anchor launchers. Rosa was at helm, while Prissy Jack and Auntie were running back and forth along the ship’s corridors with vices, patching the leaks bursting all along her pipes. Albion was hollering into the tubes, coordinating the efforts like a man playing a frenzied can-can on a church organ.

The‘Berryhad flown in as close as she dared, darting back and forth behind theLovelorn’sconcentration of fire. Most ofLa Maerewas aflame at this point, with a large portion of her guns out of commission.

Ada Lovelace was closing in for the kill when theBerry’s anchors sank their teeth into theLovelorn’scomplex layers of armor like fishhooks.

Then there was only one thing to do: pull, and hope theLovelorn’s guns weren’t mobile enough to swivel round quickly.

That was when theBerrystarted to complain, throwing temper tantrums all over her decks. At least, it was how Rosa chose to see her, like a daughter justifiably complaining of the strain they were putting on her.

“We can’t do this forever!” Rosa screamed into the speaking tubes. She started when Albion burst back into the tilting bridge. He clung for his life as the ship pitched abruptly towards the opposite side.

              “The grappling arms, Rosa!” Albion cried. “We still have enough pressure in the starboard capacitors!”

             Running along both sides of theBerry, taking up one full deck in the midsection of the ship was contained Cid Tanner’s greatest design: two fully articulated, steam-powered metal arms. From the bridge of the ‘Berry, her helmswoman could see the edges of them running along the bulkhead as they pushed out of the surface of the ship.

Further, when a person was seated before the steering column and wheel, she was furnished with a scope and two glove-like, ratcheting controls.

Connected through a network of mirrors, connecting gears and wire, this person could then control the arms as if they were her own, each of three fingers bending enough to handle the grasping of enemy vessels, or waving a finger at the local air patrols. In this case, Albion intended to pry the infuriated Ada Lovelace from her intended target.

             “Detach the anchors- now!”

             With a shuddering thud, theBerrysnapped free from theLovelorn, throwing both ships into a wild spin. TheBerrywas smaller, and this worked to her advantage: she stopped spinning sooner.

Albion jumped into the control seat for the grappling arms. A thundering pop announced the deployment of the grapple arms.

              “Full steam ahead, Captain?” Rosa asked.

             “Ahead full!” Alby agreed enthusiastically.

             With an all-shattering crash, theBerrylaunched into the soft underbelly of theLovelorn.

She did it arms out, like a portly pugilist, swinging her weighted arms in wide arcs. An aeronaut on theLovelornwould not be blamed if he assumed the tiny shape of theBerryintended fully to punch through the other side.

             Nessie Drake managed to escape as theHuckleberrywas tearing apart theLovelorn’s layers of armor, using the heavy plates to smash cannon barrels left and right. There were far too many of them, of course, to fully disable the ship, and there wasn’t much steam left in theHuckleberry’s various capacitors. But theBerrycould be nasty, especially with Albion Clemens behind lefty and righty, and she managed to distract Ada Lovelace enough for both Nessie and Clemens to haul out.

By the time they found the opportunity to escape, with full steam in theLovelorn’sblind spot, Nessie had sailed away in a small launch. The dark arch of her escape trailed due east, toward a sun still below the horizon, but holding the promise of light.

             “I hope that vampire bitch burns,” Rosa Marija cursed warmly, before turning over the helm to Prissy Jack and going below decks to her quarters.

8: Berlin

 

             The Clankers arrived even before the cloud did, marching in to surround the Brandenburg Gate. Squads of hooded men with heavy footsteps spread out in loose lines on either side of the old city gate, enclosing the vast promenade and much of the arboreal decorations. It was as if their employer had given up any pretext of hiding, and no longer cared who connected his elite troops with their master.

             For Clanker Captain James Van Houten, it could mean only one thing: his boss was convinced no soul on Earth could stop their inevitable conquest. The thought put him perversely in mind of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’  Here they were, technological giants with their steam crafts and their heavy artillery, and what they were doing was stealing riches from the little people below. It wasn’t quite this way, of course. The real giant was safe high up on his cloud city. The only ones doing the looting were other little people.

Van Houten was immeasurably glad he was on the winning side.

              “Get on over there, sausage-eater. You stay on that side of the street, there,” he barked in his harsh frontiersman’s English. Van Houten preferred to think of his native tongue as ‘American.’ It saved him being confused for a person with manners. In turn, it made his job a lot easier.

He kicked the last of the stragglers over the invisible line, drawn by his commanding officer to an exact perimeter on a map in Van Houten’s pocket. It wasn’t hard- Van Houten commanded four skilled operatives.

There was Georges, a British commando ready with a razor-sharp garotte and soft, sprung heels. His suit was specially silenced, snake-quick.

Schmidt and Schwartz flanked either side ofVan Houten, each a two-meter tall simian carrying a combination ammunition and gas canister on his back for the massive, triple-barreled repeating rifles at their hips.

Lastly, Jameson took point, as she was wont to do. Beneath a formless robelay belts full of grenades, pipe bombs and other incendiaries clinking against her armor. Each Clanker was well armored by their employer.

The straggler was desperately clawing at his shin now. It was a sensation Van Houten could feel with difficulty through the dense armor plate.

“Please! Who are you? Where are you from? What right have you to do this?”

“Oh, you speak English, do you? Stop, you’re butchering it,” Van Houten patronized, delivering another kick. This time he let loose a little of his suit’s pneumatics, sending his target rolling head over heels back across the perimeter. The Clanker raised his weapon, a long, black elephant gun. Civilians scattered. The perimeter stayed secure.

“Ironic, isn’t it?” Jameson said, coming up to him. The Clanker masks made her look like the others. Each of them had faces of giant arachnids, with flat, segmented visors for eyes and mandibles made of complex breathing filters. He could only tell it was her was from the height, what little figure he could see in the legs and the quatrefoil she had painted on one greave.

“What is?” Van Houten asked, shouldering his massive gun across one shoulder. The others spread out in a loose formation. So long as they held their ground, their job was complete. They weren’t overly trained soldiers, they were mercenaries, and when the job was done, not much hierarchy remained.

“Peace. See the statue up there?” Jameson replied.

From the squad’s vantage point, the top of the Brandenburg Gate was clearly visible. Their reinforcements were arriving atop it. Van Houten recalled dimly the mission briefing, given by the Clanker commander Zahavi. The four horses and the chariot were called the Quadriga, and thegoddess atop it either Victoria or Eirene, depending: Victory, or Peace. Those stupid krauts had known the two were the same, at least.

“Yes,” Van Houten said simply. He consulted a timer, built into a slot in his greave: four hours until operation. The Berlinpolizeiwould more than likely arrive before then. There would be a blood bath, of this Van Houten was sure.

“Napoleon once used this promenade as his parade route,” Jameson was saying. She mimed the famous conqueror, stiffly marching in place. To Van Houten’s perspective, the small Irish mercenary was now punching and kicking at the Gate’s ancient Doric columns with her huge steam-age fists. “It was his way of entering into possession of the city, by penetrating her at her proudest point.”

“Last night was last night. Leave it alone,” Van Houten said. “And don’t move as much. You make me nervous.” He fingered the machinery clipped to his back, the fine pistons and cylinders that provided all the Clankers with inhuman strength. It made him nervous, much more so than Jameson’s bandying.

 

Twenty minutes in, and the first wave of Berlin’s resistance arrived simultaneously at all the perimeter points.

It was silly, really. There was nothing to gain by sending ground troops. What little Van Houten knew of his employer’sinvasion had all the signs of being tactically boring. Nothing could touch the man, afloat on his magic cloud.

Thus, sending in the Clankers was an invitation, a public relations stunt. His employer wanted to show the Germans to feel hopeless and small. 

Armored engines arrived first, swiveling their dense steel bulk into wide swathes of cover. The infantry, or whatever the Germans called them, swarmed out behind long, rectangular shields made of thick, matte sections. Disciplined figures could be seen marching into formation through thin slits in the shields. Everything was efficient, damn efficient. Van Houten hadn’t expected Europe to be so on point. The fairy tale architecture, character of the citizens, everything was neat and stark, just like his favorite childhood stories. The only thing ambiguous seemed to be Van Houten himself- he had signed on as a soldier, but this was going to be a rout.

It was almost a shame the battle had been decided before it began. It waspolizei, after all, not army. The Clankers could carry more armor, they were impervious to anything but mortar, and both Schmidt and Schwartz carried a layer of extra dense alloy on their fronts, effectively making them walking siege weapons. In a pinch, Van Houten carried flares, to signal for Kobold backup. Frankly, it would be like squashing an ant.

“Got to hand it to the Germans, they know their procedure,” Van Houten remarked, before hunkering behind the bulk of Schmidt. There was an immediate hail of gunfire; little stinging wasps zipped past not an inch from Van Houten’s nose. To his annoyance, Jameson had also hidden behind Schmidt, while Georges found a nook in Schwartz’s back.

“You all right, big man?” Van Houten thumped on the dense plate of Schmidt’s back.

“Achtung! Feuren!” Schmidt grunted, and squeezed the grip on his Howitzer.

The triple barrels immediately began their smooth staccato, bullets leaving the muzzles and burying themselves in the armor of Schmidt’s own countrymen. Schwartz did the same, a few yards away.

“Wanker is stone cold,” Jameson remarked, before lobbing her first grenade.

The Howitzers cut through the armored engines like tissue paper. Before the torrent of bullets, riot shields blew away like palm fronds before a hurricane. It was an image Van Houten recalled from his earliest boyhood; there had been no more palm trees, after he had joined his first mercenary band.

As Jameson lobbed bombs, Van Houten picked off the leaders with his elephant gun, watching their efficient thoughts scatter as strawberry jam. As far as Van Houten could tell, they had sent every riot soldier in the Berlin region. Little stars of gunfire could be seen through the trees, lighting up the buildings on all sides of the arch. It wasn’t enough. As thepolizeibegan their retreat, he sent Georges in to mop up the crew.

“What do you want to do after this?” Georges asked as they huddled together afterward, around an impromptu bonfire. There was an hour or so beforetheir employer was scheduled to arrive, but it was already dark.

“First? Take off this getup and get a shower,” Jameson answered, picking at the buckles of the Clanker suit. “Always makes me smell like boy. Don’t you fellows feel odd after wearing it?”

“No, I mean after the life, yea?” Georges insisted, purposefully not taking the hint.

“Keep working. Save up enough to stop working,” answered Van Houten.

He said it just to shut Georges up, the ass, but both Schmidt and Schwartz grunted affirmative. Something about what Jameson said struck him, though. He did feel odd removing the Clanker suit at the end of the day. His joints were stiff, and he was put off his food. Van Houten shook it from mind, washing it down with the flask at his hip.

“You don’t have to be so up front about it,” Jameson said. Looking around, she seemed to take in the beautifully gaslit Quadriga nearby, the shining promenade, the well-manicured trees lining the scene of battle.

She stood up and took off her robe, revealing the body-hugging plates of her suit. Then she started to dance, a writhing, snake-like wobble, with a lot of clicking and clanking. She undid her helmet, letting loose an unruly mop of blonde hair. The clasps of the armor were down the front, which she took time to undo, with little hisses of gas.

“No, don’t,” VanHouten said laconically. There wasn’t any point- whose turn was it tonight, Schmidt? Laying with a comrade was one of the few diversions when one was a Clanker. They had all been wearing the suit for a few months, and already the tedium had been getting to them. Working women were afraid of Clankers. Having Jameson along gave them all some entertainment while on duty- in turn, of course.

It was no use telling her they were in a combat situation, either. Everyone knew thepolizeiwould take at least an hour to regroup, and the GSG were just arriving in zeppelins, grouped around the edges of Berlin. By the time the German forces organized a counterstrike, they would be too busy dealing with the Clankers’ employer to bother with the squadrons.

Jameson’s breasts were out. Van Houten noted it with as much enthusiasm as he could muster; it wouldn’t do for the rest of the squad to know he was getting some out of turn. She had been no innocent red riding hood, Van Houten remembered. She was more like the wolf, preying on the pigs around her and shitting out the bones.

Apparently, it was Schwartz tonight. The big Austrian began to shed the thick layers of his suit.

“What the devil?” Jameson’s squeal vaguely penetrated Van Houten’s reverie. He was busy looking away from the arclights, in case an ambush decided to appear from the dark. It was what he would have done, and what the Red Indians back home liked to do: take advantage of man’s dependency on candles, gas and Nicola Tesla to strike from the unseen. Dimly, Van Houten began to notice the disturbance was now not from the deserted Berlin streets, but lit by the remains of their own bonfire.

“What’s the matter now, Jameson?”

“It’s this codpiece, Jimmy, it won’t come off and Schwartrz won’t stop grabbing my fanny to help.”

“All right, let me see,” answered Van Houten.

Jameson was a hot mess. The Clanker suit was made of three parts, the outer armor, an inner sleeve and a back-mounted ‘pack’ of machinery plugged into the sockets of the plates with mesh cable. The armor connected in chevron shapes over the joints, which was where Jameson had unwisely started to undo the sockets. She had done it lustily, yes, but forced all the pressure away from her chest. Now it was holding her codpiece flush to her hip plates.

“I don’t know what the boss was thinking when he designed these,” Jameson complained.

Van Houten worked at the chrome nuts to release the pressure.

“Just keep still,”he said, trying to ignore Jameson’s suggestive movements and Schwartz’s impatient glare.

They had been trained in how to use the suits, but it was true none of them had ever seen the insides of the Clanker ‘packs.’ It was to their credit none of the packs were easily damaged, but then Berlin had been the first true combat situation, with a discernible enemy. Van Houten’s usualtargets were working stiffs, after all, and could harm a Clanker no more than a dead man.

“Have you got it yet?” Jameson whined, her seduction turned to frustration.

“Yes, I think I have. Here…” And Van Houten undid the last nut, loosening the codpiece from the hips. He backed away quickly, letting Schwartz back into the fray.

“That’s more like it…” Jameson resumed her striptease, pulling off the offending garments once more. She couldn’t do it quickly, but she could do it with gusto, flinging the plates off their chests in turn. It was when she stopped and a plate clattered to the ground that Van Houten realized something was wrong.

“Jameson? Jameson! Bridgette!” Van Houten hollered, but it was too late to stop Bridgette Jameson’s knees falling inert to the ground with a clang. Schwartz caught her head in his big hand, sort of detachedly, like he was wondering if he was still getting some. He was no medic.

“Move!” Georges cut in, still in full hood and cloak. He was.

“Defensive positions,” Van Houten ordered in the meanwhile. If Jameson had been shot, the shooter would likely be… curses! There was no cover anywhere near the Gate!


Page 17

Why hadn’t they shot out Schwartz or Schmidt first?

The big guns would have been Van Houten’s target, or the Captain himself, if the enemy didn’t have anti-tank bullets. 

“Hold,” Georges was saying. There was an apparatus of lenses over the blankness of his faceplate- a medical scope. “There’s no wound.”

“What do you mean?” Van Houten replied. He was still considering shooting a flare at the dark cloud slowly moving over BrandenburgGate, so two gnashing Kobolds could be air-dropped into the promenade. Those metal giants would make short work of any interloper, but it would weaken Van Houten’s command. Nobody wanted a leader who would call for backup at the drop of one Irish bird.

“I mean, she hasn’t been shot,” Georges continued. He showed them Jameson’s exposed stomach, where a bluish-grey discoloring stained her from ribs down. It looked like someone had painted her abdomen to crotch while she was drunk. “This is organ failure. Looks like liver, maybe kidneys, spleen, it’s systemic.”

“Blast Zahavi,” Van Houten cursed. General Zahavi wasn’t a great theater commander, he was a pen pusher; for that matter, it wasn’t a war. Van Houten looked around; every one of them was an employee, killing for a profit. There was no contingency to cover a medical emergency- it was simply assumed the soldier would die. Hence, there was no separately colored flare or signaling method to call for medical assistance. None of them would be satisfied if Van Houten simply left Jameson to die, not like this. He made a command decision.

“Listen up,” Van Houten said loudly. “I hit the flare for a Kobold drop. Schmidt, wait here for the drop in case we have an ambush.Don’t give me that, the position needs defending.”

Georges seemed to be supportive.

“When you see them, haul out and regroup. The rest of us will take Jameson to forward command, where Zahavi has a drop ship.” He said drop ship, but it was more like a gondola, with just enough room for three. It had been intended as a relay to their employer.

His squad clanked their greaves against their helmets. They weren’t army, true, but they were professionals.

Forward Command was in spitting distance, just below the Brandenburg Gate. They could see the drop ship once they got past the first line of trees, a squat lump. From there it was a straight shot over the promenade, which was why Van Houten barked in surprise when Schwartz crumpled over, tumbling Jameson all over the stone as he fell. His ammunition canister rolled away like a barrel of hard little pickles.

“Schwartz!Achtung!” Van Houten tried, but the big man wouldn’t move. They took up positions round him, but when it was clear there weren’t any attackers, Van Houten motioned Georges to take a look.

“He’s heavy!” He said, struggling with the dense armor around Schwartz. Van Houten grunted in frustration, but seeing no other recourse, bent to help undo the clasps and pressure nuts.

“You great big heavy sod!” Georges cursed, when he saw Schmidt’s chest. He had the same discoloration as Jameson.

“Aerosolized vitriol? Some kind of new weapon?” Van Houten guessed.

“No, it would have hurt us faster than Schwartz in his thicker suit,” Georges said. “This is something else, this is…” He looked down, likely thinking what Van Houten himself was thinking.

“The suit itself,” he finished.

There was nothing for it. Georges hefted Jameson, while Van Houten stripped the pack and plates off Schwartz, carrying him in his black Clanker longjohns. The suit could lift that much, at least.

Halfway between where Schmidt collapsed and the drop ship, Van Houten felt a shooting pain in his stomach. He bit his lip, feeling the salt of blood on the tongue. Was it the exertion of moving the heavy Schmidt? Was the suit eating him alive faster, because of the strain? Van Houten was commanding officer, and so hadfewer recourse to use the suit’s capabilities. Perhaps it was why his people were dropping around him like flies while he seemed able to weather the effects.

Van Houten bit down harder, and pulled with all his might. He felt the pain spreading, but the drop ship was right in front of him. It would be yellow, and worse, unprofessional to give in.

Suddenly a thunderous sound tore the sky, and a bright lance of light lit up the Brandenburg Gate’s surroundings like a beacon across the sea.

“He’s early,” Van Houten said, watching the pillar of fire strike into the ground. Schmidt was there, Van Houten recalled dimly, right near the cutting beam. He wondered if Schmidt had collapsed by now.

“Georges, did you hear me? The boss is early.”

Georges was laid out on the ground, and did not move.

“Oh hell no,” Van Houten cursed. He hadn’t even heard Georges fall.

That tore it- Van Houten had to get out of the suit. Any longer and he wouldn’t be able to help anyone. Quickly, his gloved fingers undid the clasps, spinning the pressure nuts as quickly as he could. Careful-do it in the correct order, or you’ll be trapped in the suit just like Jameson.

He contemplated deserting- it was common. He was essentially a freelance soldier. Leaving would simply mean sacrificing wages unpaid. He contemplated the German whores, the good beer and the Grimm stories he had read as a child. He could rent a carriage, maybe a nice Bavarian engine with all the creature comforts, and go to the Black Forests. It was funny, now he thought about it. Working for the wine lords of frontier California with a ragged copy of fairy tales in his grubby overalls, he had vaguely known those dark, monster-filled woods existed somewhere. Now he was a Clanker, with access to a vast fleet of battle-ready dirigibles, and could have visited them or any other fairy home in the world whenever he liked. What irony- he had to become a monster himself to do it.

His elephant gun was giving him trouble, so he did what any mercenary worth his keep would never do. He threw it aside, slapping at clasps and cables as he did so. The plates fell to his left and right, making a racket to wake the dead. It was no surprise when he ripped the inner sleeve open and found the black and blue bruises staining his abdomen.

What surprised him was the sudden blooming of red in the middle, like a dot of crimson in snow. Snow White…. The thought wandered from one ear to the other.

Van Houten groaned, turning. He saw the uniform, all jack boots and precision, before he toppled to the ground. From there, it was hard to miss the GSG dirigible hanging high above, a pressed-helium Lupine-class, and kept seeing it as a bolt of his employer’s wrath tore through its high-speed cowling.

The GSG man who had shot him turned, running from the flaming wreck, but Van Houten couldn’t, of course.

He was resigned even, bleeding a warm pool from his gut. Damn scummy place to shoot a man, Van Houten thought. It would take him forever to die, were it not for the tons and tons of dirigible wreckage about to crush him.

             The witch was always baked in Hansel and Gretel. It was the fate of monsters to be slain.

9: The Urchins of Deadcast

 

“I still don’t understand,” Elric Blair spoke up nearly two hours into the drive. “Why aren’t we taking theHuckleberryto Leyland? What in the bloody blazes are we doing up here in the first place when your Captain Samuel was last seen in the Mediterranean?”

Green English countryside was rolling past at a breakneck clip, but the familiar scenery did nothing to still the rollicking feeling welling up from somewhere in Blair’s midsection. Between the lumpy buckwheat cushions and the rusty suspension on the old commandeered Fjord, Blair’s delicate constitution was staging a coup d’etat, likely to end in smelly revolution. To his admonishment, none of the others seemed to be having a hard time of the bumpy back roads.

“I’ve explained it to you four times,” Clemens said cheerfully from the driver’s seat. At least, his voice was cheerful; behind the dark-tinted driving goggles and the stonewall face, it was hard even for Blair’s investigative noggin to wrap itself around the pirate Captain. The best that could be said, Blair felt, was Clemens seemed to possess no small amount of honor behind his blank façade. He had proved as good as his word, thus far.

“What you’ve done is repeat to me Nessie Drake’s last message to us,” Blair stated accurately. “which means piss-all, frankly.”

He vaguely noticed the dark edge every word seemed to take. The motion sickness was making him cynical, and he hated himself for it.

He was beginning to find writing the adventure very different from living the adventure. For every story he wrangled out of Clemens’ mouth, there were engine mounts to be cleaned, masts to be strung, potatoes to be peeled.

“I would have expected you of all people to have guessed at the meaning of the words,” Inspector Hargreaves quipped casually from her perch at Blair’s right. Her crossed legs, the way her knee-length pea coat betrayed no trace of her firearms, it all rubbed Blair the wrongway. He had known far too many dust-ups at the hands of plainclothes Inspectors. Consciously, he was in awe of Vanessa Hargreaves’ efforts, yet the old instincts cried out for him to run whenever he saw her reach through the slits in her coat.

“Look, it’s not so difficult,” Rosa Marija, seated next to Clemens, spoke up. The carriage wheels struck a small stone, pitching her assetsever so pleasantly. “Nessie Drake gave us everything.”

What was it she had shouted when they jumped into the steam carriage? Shotgun, yes, that was right. Blair suspected the scandalous mocha maiden had spent no insubstantial time in the Americas, perhaps even the Lands Beyond. Her habits and mannerisms exuded a breed of confidence utterly out of his scope. It made him think of the older boys at primary who would, in all earnestness, invite him on their outings, not giving a thought to his patched trousers or rail-thin physique. It made him feel inferior, and he had spent a lifetime trying not to be such.

“I am expected to know the relevance of those terms? It sounds somewhat Hobbesian… are we to track down a socialist coven?” Blair asked somewhat bitterly.

But Rosa Marija and her bombastic attitude brooked no reflection. She was turned completely round in her seat, peering back at the two in the back of the Fjord. She was leaning forward a bit, and Blair felt a blush warm his pasty face at the sight of two celestial bodies spilling out of a very tastefully embroidered bodice.

“Ah, so you don’t know the legend,” Clemens said, as if he were Aristotle in the bath. “Sorry. My fault, most airmen know the what and who of it.”

“Even I am aware of the Leviathan,” Hargreaves mentioned, “though I am at a lost regarding the rest of the message. An old friend once spoke of it, Captain Leeds of theGwain. He seemed to think it some unrealistic romance.”

“Now there’s a gorgeous ship,” Miss Marija said with stars in her eyes. “I’d love to pilot a Balaenopteron some day.”

“The Laputian Leviathan,” Clemens continued, ignoring his star-struck helmswoman, “is straight out of Gulliver’s Travels. Although, where Gulliver reported a floating isle full of egg-headed plutocrats, the Leviathan is purportedly uninhabited. It’s an abandoned fortress in the sky, full of extraordinary steamworks. It might be the remnant of some ancient civilization, perhaps drifted in from the Lands Beyond. Some aeronauts say it’s the summer palace of visitors from beyond the stars.”

“It’s also supposed to contain the secret of lift compound,” Rosa Marija mentioned. “Without which, no dirigible could fly. They say the first balloon jockeys found the Leviathan, and from it plucked the first aeon stones.”

“And others say the Leviathan is hogwash,” Hargreaves said. “Aeon stones are mined all around the world, there could hardly be one almighty source of them.”

“But they’re all found in lakes and circular valleys, as if they were dropped from on high,” Clemens argued. Sensing a bloodbath, Elric Blair hastily changed the subject.

“Right. Well, what does it have to do with a steam worker town in the middle of bloody England?” Blair said.

It was not difficult to say,as the bile had already reached his gullet. As if to spite him, the landscape lurched as they passed some rocky outcroppings. “And why can’t we bloody fly in?”

Albion Clemens harrumphed, returning to his driving, while Hargreaves, robbed of her sparring partner, turned to answer.

“In recent years, the search for the Leviathan has stalled due to a healthy skepticism, and lack of empirical evidence,” Hargreaves explained. “But one eccentric has maintained a personal fleet of ships diligently combing the skies for it. Your field is more… serious… in nature, but if you paid attention to the high society periodicals or dockside classifieds, you would notice the name of Valima Mordemere occurring more often than not.”

“The steamwork magnate?”

“And a damned cheat,” Clemens mumbled audibly. “You’d think a man wealthy enough to own a personal fleet of treasure hunters could compensate us the winnings.”

“He once hired us to run the Monte Carlo race… at least, one of his agents did,” Rosa Marija explained. “We won, but we were disqualified for using Mordemere’s special fuel. I think he was trying to secure some government contract, you know how the Royal Navy has been gearing up for the Ottoman invasion.”

“Any day now,” Blair agreed between lurches. He was all but holding the bile in with his hands, but his fingers scrabbled at pen and paper all the same. He would have to ask Clemens for the details to this race later, if it would ever become a printable story.

“Sounds like he didn’t care whether you won or not,” said Hargreaves with no small amount of snip.

She looked a little taken aback at such a connection between the respectable alchemist and her pirate cohorts. For Blair, such underhanded relations were par the course. It fit his view of the world to a tee.

“Sounded like he was sure of his victory,” Clemens corrected. “Bastard, yes, but the man has an alchemic genius, on top of a shrewd business sense.  Look sharp, we’ll be able to see his atelier in a moment.”

Blair was not in any condition to examine anything, but as he had once heard looking into the far distance could alleviate nausea, he did as bid.

Thankfully, the land had flattened into a level grade, and the road seemed in better repair closer to the industrial center of Leyland.

The scattered clusters of village homes were transformed into an unbroken cliff of warehouses while Blairwas out of commission. Stables bristled with chimneys for all the lorries needing water and hot coals. Blair knew Leyland was the beating industrial heart of Britain, but the meaning of those words seemed to hit him anew as he realized not a single flesh and blood horse could be seen amidst the afternoon activity.

Characteristically, the sky was an unbroken chalk mass, yet it lent an appropriate air to the regular slate surface of the city. At Leyland’s perimeter, the only color to be seen was the varied festival of livery where various airships were docked.

Seeming to crown the place off, Mordemere’s atelier could plainly be seen crouched like a toad over Leyland: a wizard’s fortress. It was low, but imposing for its complexity and sprawling utility.

Piping grew out of vast slabs of metal and sprouted into the various organs of the city, while catwalks connected the workshop with the distant docks as vital arteries in the body of Leyland.

Elric Blair chuckled to himself. It wasn’t a bad description, actually. Even he knew of Valima Mordemere’s vast empire of steamworkings, from the carriages puffing along London’s streets to the very guts of Her Majesty’s Knights of the Round, working night and day to keep her defenders in the air. Mordemere designed and manufactured wonders, much like a coal-fired Wizard from the tales of Baum.

It seemed fitting his city was made not of emerald, but of streaked soot.

“As to why we’re not on theBerry, there you will find an answer,” Clemens was saying rather resentfully. Obediently, Blair took a cue and peered out into a middle distance, where two mounds of metal were slowly approaching like a brace of tin men. Only, instead of charming woodcutters, these three-story tall, bipedal monstrosities looked like they were capable of processing entire forests into pulp.

The one on the right brandished three-foot long chrome claws, while the one on the left possessed a massive cannon strapped to its back, hanging over its slumped iron head like a crucifix. A tangled web of thick India rubber and copper mesh connected the cannon to some elaborate, steaming mass of machinery.

No doubt Albion Clemens was imagining the damage such a weapon might do to his precious ship, for as they passed under the watchful eyes of the drivers, he cursed under his breath.

For yes, the monstrosities were no creatures wrenched out of myth, but were cut with eye-slits across their plate bellies for people to see through.

“Kobolds,” Clemens muttered. “Blasted slag heaps. Because of them, no pirate has the edge on Mordemere’s logistics. His secrets are his alone.”

“A businessman has a right to safeguard his professional secrets,” protested Hargreaves.

“He’s just jealous he doesn’t have one,” Miss Marija supplied, fairly needlessly.

Apparentlythe Kobolds had been instructed to leave the road alone, for Clemens and company passed without incident. There was no time to relax, however, for soon a brace of hooded, cloaked figures approached their bumbling little Fjord. Clemens stopped, rolling down a window.

“What’s your business?”

A rasping voice drifted out from beneath the black hood. The face was obscured by the Fjord’s B-pillar. Strange, Blair thought, by the height and the gait, he would have placed a young man underneath.

“My Fjord needs a few parts. Thought one of your traders might have an old-style fuel rotator assembly, and a couple new caps,” Clemens spoke loudly, so the others gathered by the roadside could hear. Blair could see one more hooded figure, and a uniformed constable nearby. When none of them spoke, Clemens fluttered the throttle in neutral, and the old pressure vessels in the carriage’s bonnet gave an ungodly screech.

“Carry on,” the inquisition yielded, and Captain Clemens drove past. They continued on into the heart of Leyland, where clustered pipelines grew thick and heavily machined aqueducts chased the roads. The Fjord passed over one such structure, a massive series of arches vaulted over a cavernous mine shaft, lined with workshops, shacks and lean-tos, fully a mile across.

“I wasn’t aware Her Majesty allowed the establishment of private police states within the confines of the homeland,” Blair growled a mighty rhetoric once they were firmly out of earshot. Up until thispoint they had been on unfamiliar pirate ground. Here, Blair finally had a handle on things. Suddenly his nausea wasn’t quite so bad.

“It is common knowledge,” informed Hargreaves stiffly. The words had to badger their way past an uncomfortable squirm. “Alchemists like Valima Mordemere have a special permit with the Ministry of the Interior. There are thirty-seven special administrative districts wheredevelopment of the country’s steamworks resources are encouraged to their utmost. The Queen initially championed the development of geartowns like Leyland.” What she did not say was Her Majesty’s discrete withdrawal of her support. The Inspector knew without a doubt the Queen’s presence here, if discovered, warranted a political incident.

“I am aware of these so-called geartowns,” Blair scoffed. “And your official propaganda doesn’t really butter my toast, if you get my meaning. I know what they are: city sized arms laboratories in response to the Ottoman threat. Are you telling me you did not see the bulge off the man’s back? Those are assault rifles, ma’am, or two and three make four. Is this merry England or the untamed Americas? Expect to see many insurgents in the heath?”

“I’m surprised, Elric,” Clemens spoke up before the venom could erupt boiling from Hargreaves. “Didn’t you see the weight of his tread?”

“About fifty pounds heavier than he should, bucko,” Rosa Marija agreed, as if she were waiting for just thisline of conversation. “Or three and a half stone to you. His footsteps left a hole clear through to Imperial China.”

“What are we talking about?” protested Blair, annoyed his tirade had been interrupted.


Page 18

Nobody had complained, but the air had also gradually become thick and burned-tasting, compounding his foul mood.

             “Care to weigh in, Inspector?” Clemens whisked backward, not looking away from the paved road. He was clearly enjoying this far too much.

             “If I’m not mistaken, those would be Mordemere’s famous Clankers,” Hargreaves supplied, quite keen on the subject of peacekeeping. All three of his companions made Elric Blair extremely nervous; he was the only one worth naught in a fight. He had of course heard of Clankers, but he lacked the sense of danger to tell when one was close, no matter how keen his writer’s eyes were.

             “Wankers, if you enjoy the nomenclature,” chuckled Clemens.

             “And my gorgeous enjoys his nomenclature,” Rosa Marija chimed in.

             “You two remind me of a certain criminal clown couple from the pictures,” Blair whinged. “I wasn’t aware there were so many. Where does Mordemere get his Clankers?”

             “Killers, mostly,” Hargreaves explained. Blair thought everyone in the Fjord was getting far too comfortable with each other; everybody seemed adept at cutting off each other’s annoying habits. Maybe it was the air piracy, seeming to pull people together through a mutual desire to commit debauchery and not fall out of the sky.

“Disenfranchised marines, exiles and special operatives lured by high wages and the swagger of pulling a trigger,” Rosa Marija answered.

“Some of them are pirates who’ve run out of places to run. Their wanted posters hold up bars in every way station.”

              Rosa Marija flipped round in her seat, put two hands together, flat, until they were separated by a book cover’s distance. It looked like she was peering out through the slats of a fence. 

             “We found a piece of their greaves, for sale, once, at the Straight Hook. Cid wouldn’t stop pestering us for the funds. Really weird stuff, the Clanker armor, It’s a lightweight sandwich of flexible hexagons. Looked like pencil lead, but didn’t make a mark. We shot it, of course, tried setting it on fire, set a steamthrower on it-“

             “Steamthrower?”

             “High-pressure, high-heat vitriol spray.”

             “Oh. Right.”

             “Anyway,” Rosa Marija went on, “none of it made a mark on the armor itself, but the goods it was supposed to protect tended to be vulnerable to large-caliber firearms. We had to peel bloody bits off it before Cid finally confiscated his toy from us.”

             “Clankers wear heavy chrome gauntlets and greaves,” Clemens said gravely. “They’re pushed around with pressure pistons fueled by a tank on their backs. Not to mention, those hoods and masks don’t let you see the man inside. Who knows if there’s a black belt or a garotte commando behind there?”

             Suddenly everything in the Fjord went a little quiet. Blair knew everyone was pondering the same dilemma.

Though they knew little about the Laputian Leviathan, if Mordemere was the one behind the theft of Europe’s landmarks, at the least it made Inspector Hargreaves his enemy. Captain Samuel was definitely involved in this somehow, which made Albion Clemens inextricable from the situation. Maybe Elric Blair, small-time scribbler for a no-name counterculture press, had no place in a fight between armored mercenaries with rifles and steam-throwing pirates.

              Albion pulled the rickety Fjord up to a stop before the remains of a charming village church.

Its stately square tower had long ago been converted to a convenienttelegraph center, sprouting wires and large Morse lamps for signaling to the distant airship docks. Rusty wire grating covered up places where ornate stained glass once depicted biblical mysteries. No vegetation grew at all.

Gratefully, Blair vaulted out of the vehicle, followed closely by a surprisingly sympathetic Hargreaves, who rubbed the journalist’s back with care close to maternal. Even with his head over a sewer, Blair could make out the thud of Clemens’ heavy boots, and the graceful stride of Rosa Marija’s heels clicking. 

“Riding from shore to shore through thin air, you can handle, but the feel of England’s roads does you in?”

“I apologize, Inspector,” Blair managed.

“From here, we can ask a clerk to pull up records of all the recent activity involving the search for the Leviathan,” Clemens said briskly, ignoring Blair’s plight.

The big Oriental threw his arm around the paler-than-usual Englishman’s shoulders. “This would be a good time for you to assist me, by the way. Put those researching skills to good use.”

             This seemed a little out of character for the dashing pirate, but Blair thought a stint in a cozy reading room poring over periodicals might put his stomach more at ease. Oh, if they had some tea, as well…

             “That sounds simultaneously tiresome and tedious. Do you mind?” Rosa complained, head rested back on arms, the picture of idle apathy.

             “Fine, get a little pissed, Rosa.”

             “I believe I will go with you, Miss Marija,” Vanessa Hargreaves spoke up alarmingly. An interesting series of expressions crossed Rosa’s face, but she settled on bemused intrigue in the end.

She motioned towards a nearby pub, and the ladies set off towards it an unusual duo.

              “Well then. There go the peacock and the crow,” Clemens said, indicating Rosa’s colorful, beribboned hips and the Inspector’s dark silhouette. “Shall we?”

             And so the gentlemen were off to the library, and the ladies to the pub.

 

              “We aren’t really having a pint, are we?” the Inspector mentioned as soon as they were out of earshot. In the distance, their cohorts were winding their way merrily through an ancient lich yard as if they were coming off a six-pub crawl.

             “Damn it Hargreaves, I’ve just come off a long drive in a small cabin with those two. I need something to get the smell off me,” Rosa Marija announced.

“But yes, after a cold one I would like to poke around a bit. Up for a jaunt?”

              “It was my intention, yes,” Hargreaves agreed. “Past the public sphere, very little is known about Mordemere’s little empire up here.”

             “Alby might be a bit dense, but he can play his cards. We should be able to shake loose some information from the locals.”

Hargreaves pulled up the collar on her long, tight coat a little further; Leyland was in Lancashire, as wet and cold as it got in Britain without being in Scotland. Amazingly, Rosa Marija was sauntering about with her shoulders bare and legs in sheer stockings under a knee-length skirt.

              Thankfully, the cold stopped at the door. If they knew anything, the Celts knew how to keep out the damp.

Inside the pub, there was a roaring fire, big squashy armchairs and a ruddy, snow-capped barkeep.

There was already a mid-afternoon congregation, consecrating themselves with the blood of Christ. Hargreaves realized it was a Sunday; she hadn’t been to church since she was a little girl.

             “Oy! Two!” Rosa hollered across the pub, instantly at home. They collected libations, Hargreaves reminded of a certain undercover operation, and parked close to the fire.

Instantly, a crowd of unruly, well-watered dunderheads materialized around the attractive ladies.

Suddenly the air was full of  ‘bonny lass’ this and ‘a buss for a codger!’ that and then ‘ah was just coddlin’ the lady, yer chump!’

             “My dear Inspector, your interrogation begins,” Rosa presented to a knowing Hargreaves, and at once proceeded to charm the nearest handsome fellow. Hargreaves undid her coat, revealing a prim travelling dress that nevertheless showed off her long limbs.

 

Two hours later, the ladies reconvened outside the back door of the pub, breathlessly shooing the patrons back inside with a dab hand.

             “Those… boys… are persistent,” Hargreaves managed. “Shall we compare notes?”

             “Aye,” Rosa Marija replied, adjusting her ribbons. “I believe the tall brown one, Nigel, was the grabby one. Paul might have had a handful while I wasn’t looking, but he knew what he was doing so I’m not too upset about it. Look at you, hoarding the straight and narrow types.”

             “I meant about the city, Miss Marija,” Hargreaves said with some amused ire.

             “Getting to it, Inspector,” Rosa said, straightening up. The two of them exchanged a look, and strode off purposefully- in opposite directions.

             “Where are you going?” Hargreaves demanded.

             “I was about to ask the same of you!”

             “I think we both heard it when-“

             “Nigel said there was a-“

             “But we should head-“

             “Likely as not-“

             Both ladies stopped, glaring at each other through swimming eyes. What rivalry and suspicion they had shed during their stay aboard theBerry, and the subsequent bonding during the Nessie Drake episode, was back in spades.

There was pure frustration beneath a thin veneer of politic. Ale wafted through the pub’s windows.

              “Okay,” Rosa said first. “It doesn’t matter. You go your way, and I go mine.”

             “What is this, a picture house drama? That’s your way, the pirate way. Why can’t we share the information like responsible investigators?” Hargreaves reasoned.

             “Because we’re pirates? If Captain Sam had a shittier relationship with Cid and the others, they would be running away with Albion’s ship.”

             Hargreaves sighed.

             “All right. On three. One… two…”

             “The Cross!” both women shouted.

             “Ah. Well, that would be this way,” Hargreaves added, pointing to a nearby tourist’s sign, well worn and in need of repair.

             “Shit. I’m bloody wasted. Lead on, Inspector.”

 

              As the ladies got to know the locals, Elric Blair was desperately trying to stop a blatant act of vandalism, and possibly blasphemy.

             “Trust me, Captain Clemens, we will find what we want quicker if we let the clerk do his job,” Blair reasoned, taking the axe away from Albion’s loose fingers. The pair backed away from the wooden records door, a thin, fragile plank that used to be a portal between the church proper and a rectory building.

             “He’s been in there a whole hour!” Clemens complained.

             “Sometimes the filing mechanisms get stuck. Even alchemists can’t keep up with all the maintenance. Besides, we’ve asked for some very old records,” Blair advised, placing the axe back atop a special fire brigade rack, alongside a first-aid box and a bottle of laudanum some enterprising employee had squirreled away. Albion appropriated the bottle on sight.

The two backed away from the counter, and into the chapel- a sort of waiting room, empty. No priest flitted before the simple altar.

             “I bet you five quid he’s in there holed up with another bottle. Something nicer, even, like a Scotch.”

             Elric sighed. In close contact, Captain Clemens turned out to resemble more an irreverent child than a swashbuckling adventurer.

             Before Elric had to come up with another appeasement, the door in question opened. The clerk looked around, as if expecting something out of place, but finding nothing, held the door open.

             “All the material you requested is in reading room six. If you require any specific records, please pull the bell rope and I will be with you shortly,” the clerk said curtly.

             Blair and Clemens swept through the door (literally swept, as Clemens’ buccaneer coat brushed both sides of the frame. The clerk raised one eyebrow.)

The room was further back, furnished only with hard wooden chairs and a table heavy with bound volumes and a solid black trunk, about the size of a dispatch case.

              “There’s less here than I thought,” Clemens remarked, picking up a volume and leafing through, only to turn to Blair, stumped by the rows of tiny black squares within.

             “Brilliant! Micro-fiche!” Blair exclaimed.

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