Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Tank: Chapter Nine, Part One

Notes: Story today, yay! We're about to enter the machination phase of the book, so strap your thinking caps on and prepare to sally forth into (gasp) political and interpersonal manipulation! So exciting ;)

Title: The Tank: Chapter Nine, Part One

***


Chapter Nine, Part One



“A…tank?” Anton looked with new interest at the mechanical marvels roaming about outside. Now that he got a better look, he could tell there were in fact only three of them and not an actual herd…group? Battalion? Whatever you called a group of something like that in a military context. “As in a tank of water? A tank of, of fuel? Or are these magical too?”

“In the case of these particular beasts, I believe the engines are powered by petrol.”

“Really?” Anton couldn’t quite picture it. “Isn’t that enormously heavy?”

Dr. Grable shrugged. “The engines provide enough horsepower to overcome the inertia inherent in carrying the fuel, but it’s true, they can’t get very far on it yet. Steam might be more effective, but they’d still have the weight of the coal.”

“Why not magic, then? The way the airship does it?”

“Delicate magic,” Dr. Grable reminded him. “Very delicate, intricate magic acting on a highly unusual flotation system. The equations don’t yet exist that could allow magic to successfully long-term operate a machine like that. They will eventually,” he added with an air of resignation, “but they don’t yet. You must remember, this is a joint research facility. Magic informs science and vice-versa, but they also stand on their own.”

“If they’re already capable of things like this,” Anton began slowly, “what could they possibly need us for?”

“Judging worth. Remember? We’re not here for the quality of our minds, although I have no doubt you could run circles around some of the thaumaturges they have working here,” Dr. Grable said. “There is deep mistrust of their own people within imperial leadership, and for the first time I have to say I’m beginning to see why. Voclain dead, terrorist attacks, experimental airships at the beck and call of a lowly lumière…these are very strange circumstances, to say the least. I’m actually quite pleased to be here, now—we may indeed have the opportunity to thwart an act of sabotage.”

“You might,” Anton said. “I don’t share your ability at evaluating thaumaturgic equivalencies. I’m just here to assist you however I may.” He took in Dr. Grable’s cagey expression. “Aren’t I?”

“Is that woman fetching the wheelchair from the other end of the bloody institute?” Dr. Grable muttered, then patted the bed beside himself. “Sit down for a moment, lad.”

Oh, dear. The doctor was being hospitable. This didn’t bode well. Nevertheless, Anton sat.

“You are certainly here to assist me,” Dr. Grable stated. “To help me with any thaumaturgically heavy lifting, so to speak. But yes, the primary task of evaluating the spells currently in production will fall to me and me alone. However, if my theory that an act of sabotage or falseness has already taken place and been detected, I find it very unlikely that another such act will be discoverable by someone like me. Whoever did it knows that they’re being watched. I could probably scour this place from top to toe and not uncover a whit of imbalanced magic, much less actual sabotage.”

“Then what—”

“Which is where you come in,” Dr. Grable continued, continuing like he’d never paused for breath. “I am a figure who will, because of my reputation, necessarily be a part of a bustling crowd while I am here. This isn’t arrogance, it’s simply fact, and now that my leg is broken I shall have even less freedom than I might have had before. You, on the other hand, are a young man of excellent mind but few means. You will not be approached by people looking to buy your influence, because you have no influence. On the contrary—it would be considered strange for you not to try and ingratiate yourself with some of the resident thaumaturges and scientists, in case one of them might offer you a better path to solvency.”

Anton was dumbfounded. “You want me to…to what, act as a spy for you?” God, was there no escaping that fate?

“Only in a manner of speaking, and a crude one at that. What I want you to do is to look at the people behind the work they’re doing, not simply at the work itself. You’re better than most of the students I’ve had when it comes to understanding the mind as well as the mechanism. Look for someone whose work doesn’t line up with his or her aspirations, someone who professes one thing but secretly desires another.” Dr. Grable sighed, his shoulders slumping a bit. “I hate to put this sort of responsibility on your shoulders, Anton, but the truth of the matter is that neither of us would be here right now if all was well. Something in this beautiful, miraculous place is rotten, and we must discover what it is before the rot spreads. It could mean saving hundreds, thousand of lives in the end.”

“Or costing hundred or thousands of lives,” Anton had to point out. “This is a place that has dedicated itself to the pursuit and improvement of warfare. What if in rooting out a traitor, we’re actually making way for death to become even more efficient?”

“It’s only something to worry about when it’s your side that’s dying,” Dr. Grable replied bluntly. “The emperor hasn’t held his throne for the last fifty years by being a pacifist, but he hasn’t been a tyrant either. I don’t like the thought of integrating myself further into the machine, but I like even less the idea of uprisings and insurgencies springing up in every town and city with a suitably disaffected populace. It doesn’t take much for mild discontent to turn into a soul-lashing fervor, Anton. I’ve seen it happen many times before.”

He nodded his head toward the door. “You’re English by nationality, of course, so it’s not your fight, not yet. If you feel you can’t do this, I understand. Now, this very morning, is probably the last chance you’ll have to convince Lord Jourdain or the lumière to let you go.”

No. No, it was already far too late for that. It had been too late the moment Caroline entered the pictured. Camille had simply sealed Anton’s fate. “I’ll stay,” he said heavily.

“I appreciate that, my lad.”

Just then, Dr. Wictoryn reentered the clinic, a wide black leather wheelchair with silver fittings pushed in front of her. “It took me a while to find one that would suit your width,” she said acidly to Dr. Grable.

“Oh, for the love of God, woman—”

Anton sighed. Probably he could return to his room, cast the stasis spell, and be back before their argument finished. But no—he didn’t have his holdall yet. Perhaps it was in Dr. Grable’s quarters.

“I beg your pardon, let me help you move him,” Anton said at last, breaking into the building argument. He got under Dr. Grable’s arm and was helping him to his feet before Dr. Wictoryn caught her breath and realized she had work to do if she didn’t want her patient to end up on the ground. The transfer to the wheelchair went well enough, and afterward she escorted them out of her clinic with stern orders that culminated in “—ensure that I see him at least once a day, do you understand me?”

“Harridan!”

“Gasbag!” She slammed the door shut, and Dr. Grable chuckled.

“Once a day, eh? Lucky me! Now, let’s find my rooms and then order someone to give us a tour of this place.”

That, at least, was a plan Anton could get behind.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Holy whoa, that's a lot of snow!

Hi darlins! Look at my back porch! And it's still coming down.



First things first--no, I don't have story today, and I apologize. However, I think my current circumstances mitigate that misstep. It's been a morning (and an evening, yesterday) of prepping, shoveling, trudging, dressing and undressing the toddler (which considering all the layers can take a lot of time) and making sure the dog doesn't go stir-crazy, among other fun snow-day events.

I hope wherever you are, you're warm and snug. I'll try to make next week's episode longer to make up for the lack this time around.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Tank: Chapter Eight, Part Two

Notes: Have some cranky, starstruck Dr. Grable and Anton wondering why he got up out of bed for this ;)

Title: The Tank: Chapter Eight, Part Two

***


Chapter Eight, Part Two



Anton woke to feel his bed shaking.

Well, not shaking per say, more of a continual low rumble that caused a light vibration in the exquisite marble flooring that traveled up the metal frame of the bed in such a way that was just enough to break through his unquiet slumber. Anton hadn’t slept well, despite his immense fatigue and the demands of his body, but that wasn’t the bed’s fault.

It was someone’s fault that he was awake right now, though—whoever thought that driving a plow right outside the window of an imperial building was a good bloody idea. How many ­horses—no, wait, this was all new-fangled technology, wasn’t it, it was likely to be something automated. Anton growled under his breath before sliding out from beneath the down comforter—lord, his chest and back had tightened up terribly overnight, he was going to need a long soak in a deep tub to rid himself of that ache—and onto his feet. He limped over to the window and opened the shutters, quite prepared to open the glass next and shout at his tormentors.

He was not expecting to see the thing that rolled by. Anton was struck absolutely dumb by it, his brain as tied up as his tongue seemed to be. He had never seen anything like it before. It was a…no, not a train…and not an automobile, he’d seen pictures, they looked nothing like this. This was like a metal box traveling about on rolling pins, or something quite like them. It was odd and blocky, and would have looked entirely ridiculous if not for the very long, big-bore cannon sticking out one end of the box. That took the contraption from fanciful to fearful in a heartbeat.

What in God’s name was the Empire experimenting with? Not just a cannon, but a mobile one—Anton was willing to bet that those odd conveyances at its base did a decent job on a wide variety of terrains. Presumably there was a person inside the box, perhaps two, one to drive it and another to load balls into the cannon. The box itself was metal—how thick, Anton couldn’t say, but probably dense enough to turn aside most infantry-level firearms. This contraption could turn the tide in an increasingly-frothy battlefield.

He was so engaged in watching it, he almost forgot about his injuries until an injudicious lean forward made his entire back spasm. Good grief, that tree had battered him from tailbone to skull. He couldn’t imagine he had time for a bath now—and no idea how to use or even identify the vaunted “communication system” Cardinal Proulx had mentioned—so that much would have to wait, but he could have another decent shower. The water was surprisingly warm. Then he would find out more about that incredible machine.

Anton was surprised, and a bit perturbed, to find that his personal things had been delivered during the night. He should have remembered that it was far from unusual in a sufficiently elevated household—or whatever this was—for servants to do their work as though the guests weren’t even there, but if he had remembered to set his customary warding spells, it could have been dangerous to someone. Anton would have to ask if he was allowed warding spells here, actually. He’d gotten into the habit of it ever since arriving at university, but here he wasn’t a paying student—he was a guest. At any rate, he found his trunk and his holdall and, after the shower, a covered tray by the bed containing coffee and the flakiest, richest, most delectable croissant Anton had ever eaten in his life. He devoured it with all the care he could muster—it wouldn’t do to get crumbs on his suit—and sipped at the coffee with a feeling of reverence. Tea would have been nice, but on a morning like this, coffee was even better.

Anton made sure his clothes were neat, his tie straight and his jacket as unwrinkled as he could get it before putting his translation plate back in—it never handled pastry well—and heading for the door. He opened it, took one step out of his room and was immediately met by a servant in the same gold and blue regalia he’d seen last night. “Mister Seiber?” the portly man asked in a reserved tone.

“I…yes?” Who else would be stepping out of his room right now?

“I have instructions to direct you to the infirmary so that you may confirm for yourself the status of your employer, Dr. Grable. If you would be so kind as to follow me?”

Wait, he was still in the infirmary? “Is he all right?” Anton asked.

“Apart from the broken leg, I believe he’s quite well, sir.” The man’s dry tone could have evaporated a spring shower. “This way, if you please.” He led Anton down the main hall, took a sharp left halfway to the grand doors Anton had entered through last night, and finally stopped in front of a thick white door in a gilded frame. He knocked, and a moment later the door opened.

“Finally!” the physician—and she had to be a physician in that outfit, as brightly white as the door but elegant enough to stand out in a crown—snapped. “He has been asking for you all morning, this one. It would have been all night as well, if he hadn’t taken a dose of laudanum.”

“Which I wouldn’t have taken if you hadn’t put it into my water, you devil woman!”

Anton relaxed a little at the sound of his mentor’s voice. The physician scowled. “Is he always this irascible?” she asked, dismissing the servant with a wave and closing the door. The infirmary was relatively small, but beautifully well appointed—not a military setup at all. There were only four beds, but the sheer amount and expense of the equipment surrounding them was impressive.

“Only around people who challenge him,” Anton replied honestly.

“She doesn’t challenge me, I am not challenged by a woman who is little better than a woodcutter but with bone—”

“And I am far from cowed by a man whose only claim to being a doctor is lifting himself high up into an ivory tower so that he might piss upon those beneath him,” she snapped back, stalking over to the bed that Dr. Grable was laid out on. He was sitting up, actually, his leg quite expertly cast and a dire look on his already-dour face. “And if you do not continue to lie down, I will have my orderlies tie you to this bed for the next six hours, just see if I don’t!”

“I’ve had better treatment from the enemy!”

“I’ll show you an enemy, you old—”

“Excuse me,” Anton broke in, self-conscious but also increasingly worried about the prospect of bloodshed. “Doctor…” He glanced questioningly at the woman.

“Wictoryn. Dr. Boria Wictoryn.”

“Dr. Wictoryn, if you would give me leave to assist Dr. Grable in one of those moving beds today—”

“I will not be rolled about in a bed like an invalid—”

“Or something like it, I promise I will keep his efforts to an absolute minimum today.” Anton smiled apologetically. “I fear if I don’t, neither of you will get much accomplished today.”

“I have wheelchairs,” she said with a sniff. “I can make one available to you. But I will be relying on you to attend to his every need, is that understood? If he returned to me worse than I left him to you, I will be most displeased with you, young man.”

Anton felt a genuine frisson of fear, oddly coupled with laughter. “I understand completely. Thank you so much.”

“Hmph.” She left the room, and Anton turned back to Grable expecting to be yelled at. Instead, his mentor was grinning at him.

“Hell of a woman, isn’t she?” he asked.

“Uh…”

“Quite a firebrand. And so she should be, otherwise she would be trodden underfoot in a place like this. But enough of that for now, lad. Tell me, did you see them this morning?”

Anton frowned. “See what?”

“The tanks, my boy! The tanks!”

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Tank: Chapter Eight, Part One

Notes: You get a looong chapter today, because...well, just because. Enjoy it! We're about to crank up the intrigue! Also, re: the image, yes, I'm repurposing the Palais Royale. Because I can, darn it.

Title: The Tank: Chapter Eight, Part One

***


Chapter Eight, Part One



The airship had set down in what looked like a cobblestone plaza surrounded on three sides by tall, multi-story buildings made of stark, pale stone. Torches ringed the plaza, and one of the buildings was lit from the inside. The travelers clustered awkwardly at the base of the airship, waiting to be given direction as the captain and Bert stayed aboard and Camille took his time to appear. The air was thick with smoke, too strong and too acrid to come from the nearby fires. Anton wrinkled his nose as he looked around, searching for the source of the scent.

“Petrol,” Dr. Grable muttered. “It’s a new type of fuel, a derivative of tar, I believe.”

Of course the doctor had already known what Anton was just keying into. “I thought the airship ran on magic and…and Nothing,” he whispered back, keeping a weather eye toward the approach. A man in a long, scholarly robe was walking out to meet them, flanked by servants displaying matching imperial regalia.

“There’s far more going on in this place than can be accounted for by an airship, lad,” Dr. Grable replied just as the newcomer reached them.

“Welcome, honored guests, welcome.” He inclined his head. “What a terrible business, these difficulties you’ve faced. I’m quite pleased that most of you have made it to the Institute whole and healthy. I’m Lord Jourdain, and I’ll be responsible for your welfare until tomorrow, when the duke our Chancellor can greet you himself.” Camille finally descended from the airship, and the look on Lord Jourdain’s face tightened slightly.

“You’re as gracious a host as you ever were,” Camille said with perfect, icy politeness. “Has the vicomte’s brother been contacted?”

“It is late,” Lord Jourdain demurred. “Not everyone sits up by their communicators into the night, waiting for trouble to find them. We will speak with him tomorrow. For now, I have been instructed to show you to your rooms and provide any assistance, personal—” he nodded respectfully at Caroline “—or medical.” This time he looked at Dr. Grable, and Anton was surprised at how gracious he seemed. “Indeed, I have procured a litter for you that will bring you to the infirmary, sir.” An odd device Anton had never seen before—certainly not a regular human-borne litter, but a table set on broad wheels that looked more like a rolling bed than a simple, serviceable hospital item—appeared, drawn by a single servant.

“What good is an assistant if I can’t make him carry me around?” Dr. Grable asked, but the tension in him eased as he settled onto the litter.

“He will be escorted to his rooms, sir. I will provide you with the means to summon him as you see fit.” Lord Jourdain made a gesture, and Dr. Grable was taken away. Anton felt an urge to run after him—he was his mentor, after all, and Anton was as much responsible for his well-being as the other way around.

“They’re quite miraculous,” Cardinal Proulx murmured to Anton, perhaps sensing his discomfort. “The Institute’s methods of communication, that is. Don’t worry, you won’t be separated from your master for long.”

Monsieur Deschamps was already stepping up to fill the void of Dr. Grable’s exit. “I just want to leave,” he insisted. “I did what I was sent to do, and nothing about this whole affair went right, not from the beginning. I just want to go back to my home in the city. Will you arrange a coach for me?”

Lord Jourdain’s expression cooled again. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir.”

“Why not?”

“Because two members of your party are dead.” His voice was perfectly implacable—Anton wondered whether he and Camille had been educated by the same people, to end up with such a perfect mimicry of each other. Ridiculous. Camille had been separated from other children due to his state of soullessness, Anton knew that much. The fact that the two men comported themselves so similarly was an issue of court manners, most likely. “One of them a lord. An investigation is called for, and while that investigation is taking place, no one involved in the incident may leave the premises. You have stayed here before, Monsieur, and you are most welcome again. I will take pains to ensure your continued comfort.

“Now, Lady Cuthbert,” he continued, ignoring the stuttering Deschamps as if he wasn’t even there, “if you’ll be so kind as to follow Madame Vernier, she shall tend to your needs while I ensure that your baggage is delivered to the appropriate room.”

“I would be delighted,” Caroline said, ever cordial. “It’s been a rather trying day, and I’m looking forward to a respite from it all.” She seemed to wilt a little for the first time that evening, and Anton bit back a smile. He knew what she was doing—Caroline was adept at playing into the common apprehensions about her sex as a means of getting others to let their guards down around her.

Anton’s urge to smile faded as he realized that the reason she was doing it now was likely in an effort to make it easier to steal secrets. He glanced away, out into the darkness beyond the airship, the one direction that wasn’t blocked with a building. A low rumble seemed to emanate from the gloom—he couldn’t quite see what was making it, but he could hear it clearly, if faintly, and beneath that, the noise of men’s voices calling to one another.

What was going on out there?

“You’ll find out soon enough,” a soft voice spoke from just behind him. Anton barely contained his jump as he turned and faced Camille. “You must be tired, now. Allow me to escort you to your chambers.”

“How do you even know where my chambers are?” Anton challenged him.

“I know where Dr. Granger is to be housed, and your rooms adjoin his.”

Oh. That was…not quite what Anton had expected. He didn’t know what he had been expecting, but it wasn’t that. This is no place to lower your guard, he chided himself. “Thank you. I’d appreciate that.”

“Excellent. Come with me.” Camille swept off down the path without a second glance at Lord Jourdain. Interestingly, his lordship said nothing about the lumière basically absconding with a guest, simply let them pass with a cordial nod to Anton, which he returned in a rush.

They walked into the building ahead of them, which turned out to be something of a dormitory—the bottom floor seemed to mostly consist of common rooms, but at the far south-facing end a spacious suite was situated. Next to it was a much smaller door, which led into a small but well-appointed set of rooms, one for sleeping, one a washroom. A wardrobe showed that some simple clothes had been provided, as well as a tray of food and a steaming hot tin bath in the other room. Anton was glad that he wouldn’t need to brave a communal bath in order to cleanse himself.

Camille shut the door behind them, and it was as though all of the nervous energy that had been keeping Anton on his feel since the train wreck abandoned him at once. He slumped down onto the bed, then straightened up with a hiss as his ribs complained. He touched them gingerly, his fingers running over the bump of the holster inside of his vest.

Then he remembered that Camille was there, and looked up anxiously.

Camille was looking straight back, a worried frown marring his face. “Anton,” he said, quiet but firm, “you must tell me what happened on the train.”

“I didn’t hurt anyone,” Anton insisted, too fatigued to realize what he’d given away until Camille’s expression darkened further.

“Who did hurt someone, then? Who is responsibly for the death of Vicomte Voclain and that poor woman?”

“I…” Anton’s thoughts swam. “I found…but it’s just, it’s too late to be of any use, I wasn’t allowed to cast my spells on the car and now…”

“Anton.” Camille came to him, but instead of looming over him forebodingly, he knelt down on one knee in front of him, reached out and clasped his free hand. “I do not blame you for anything that happened on that train,” he said, slow and distinct. “Anything. But I am a lumière, and I have a crime to solve. Help me to protect the innocent by giving me what I need to discover the guilty.”

How could he refuse such a plea? “I found this,” Anton said, pulling out the holster. He stared at it, running his fingertips over the silver design in the leather. “There was no gun in it, but that could have been disposed of outside. I wanted to test it against the bullet in Voclain’s chest, but I didn’t have time. Still…it’s more likely, isn’t it, that someone shot him during the crash than that someone made an impossible shot from outside the train? The spell in the palimpsest…it can’t have gotten so far so fast, can it?”

Camille stared in silence at the holster for a moment. “Is it too late to cast a spell to discover its owner?”

“In all likelihood,” Anton said morosely. “I doubt I would be able to get anything definitive.”

“Would you put it under stasis anyway? Just in case?”

“A stasis spell?” They weren’t complicated, but they did take some time. “Why?”

“Because I believe I know who this belongs to, and I think I can use it to trap him when the time is right. Which it won’t be for some time, if my suspicions are correct. I need to keep him here, and keep him worried.” Camille snorted. “Not that keeping such a man worried is a challenge.”

“Wait, are you…are you talking about Monsieur Deschamps?” He was the only one Anton could think of who fit the description. “Why would he do such a thing?”

“I don’t know yet. Which is why I need him here, and fretting, so that I may spend more time observing him.” Camille touched the outline of the silver. “A beautiful design—Hungarian, if I’m not mistaken. Quite striking. Thank the good lord for idiot criminals, is all I can say.”

Anton frowned. “Why does it being Hungarian make Monsieur Deschamps an idiot?”

“I’ll tell you tomorrow. You’re done in right now, I’m afraid.” Camille squeezed his hand, then stood up. “Don’t bother with the stasis spell until tomorrow, it’s more for show than anything else at this point.”

“Not to mention, I don’t have my holdall with all my spell components with me.”

“That as well,” Camille agreed. “I’ll bid you good night, then, and see you again in the morning.” There was no kiss, but Anton was all right with that. He felt absolutely foul with sweat and blood, and was going to wash off before climbing into that feather bed if it was the last thing he did.

“Anton…”

He glanced up and saw half-turned at the door, watching him. “Was there anything else you wanted to tell me?”

So much. So very much, but I can’t. “No,” Anton murmured, averting his eyes. “Nothing else. Good night, Camille.”

“Good night, then.”