Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Tower: Chapter One, Part Two

Notes: On to Part Two! I hope you enjoy it, I'm having a great time wrestling with this mystery. The plot thickens...

Title: The Tower: Chapter One, Part Two

***

Chapter One, Part Two



“Englishmen?” Anton was taken aback. “Whatever for?” There might be a fair number of his fellow citizens scattered across Zürich, but they were still a tiny minority in such a large city. Most of them were merchants, or students like himself. “Do you suspect the Dévoué?” The Dévoué were a sect of rabid nationalists, intent on breaking apart Napoleon III’s empire and reestablishing separate, sovereign kingdoms.

It was a member of the Dévoué who had been responsible for the death of Viscount Bonaparte, and in charge of the train on which Anton himself had nearly been killed more than once. It was a member of that sect that had composed a magical palimpsest that Anton was still working on translating, which contained a spell that would imbue weapons with the ability to ensure death once they were wielded.

He still had nightmares about those weapons—the gun that never missed, the knife that once unsheathed would not be put away until it had killed. Anton—and Camille—had been the targets of both of them, and it was only through sheer luck that they had survived. Such a spell would obviously be brutally dangerous in the wrong hands, and Anton had been more than ready to give the palimpsest up to Camille, but the lumière had entrusted it to his keeping instead. In deciphering the spell, they might learn how to defeat it. Or such was Anton’s hope, at least.

“It is possible,” Camille allowed, a frown creasing his brow and drawing down the edges of his moustache. Anton tried to watch him a bit less raptly, but it was hard. Camille had been a constant presence in his mind ever since Anton’s arrival in Zürich, the first man—first person, really—to get his attention and hold it, and one of the few men to openly praise his thaumaturgical skills. That he was tall, broad-shouldered and appealingly attractive were other marks in his favor. It would not be a lie to say that Anton drove himself to distraction with his work, in part, because it was better than fruitless pining.

“Possible, but if so, it is a very targeted attack,” Camille continued. “The English are no allies to Napoleon, despite the truce between our empires. Probably the only reason your leaders haven’t come out in open favor of the Dévoué is fear that such rebellion would spread to your own colonies. That does not mean that there aren’t covert actions being taken to strengthen dissent and weaken the hold of the crown.”

Anton was confused. “So then, it is spies who are being targeted? Could the killer be one of your fellow lumières?”

Camille shook his head. “Not that I know of. And as for who is being targeted, well, that is very odd. Four men have died so far, each of them relatively new to the city. They are largely solitary individuals, not members of established groups, and all of them have shown varying levels of talent in thaumaturgy.”

Now it was Anton’s turn to frown. “What do you mean by that? Are you speaking of formal masters or priests, or students, or is it street magic?” Street magic was what those who were born with more ability than most to effect thaumaturgy but without the means for a proper education, resorted to in order to hone their skills. Street magic was an unpredictable mirror of formal thaumaturgy, cut with poor ingredients and improper alchemical equations. Street magic could be immensely powerful when done by the right practitioner, but more than half who tried anything more complicated than a simple locator or resonance spell ended up hurting themselves, or even dying, from backlash.

“A combination of all, actually. One man was a journeyman thaumaturgical locksmith, employed by one of the banks. He was quite proficient within his own sphere, but knew little beyond it. Another was a priest, again a young man, stopping here to continue his study of religious architecture. The final two were street mages, one specializing in keeping away vermin, the other a finder.”

“A finder?” That was a rare skill to develop, especially for someone with an inferior education. “He must have been in high demand.”

“And he took the longest to die,” Camille said grimly. “All four of these men were killed over the past two weeks, all four of them tortured before having their throats slit. Whatever their murderer was looking for, it seems that he or she hasn’t discovered it yet.”

“How has none of this appeared in the papers? Why haven’t I heard of it before now?”

“The margrave of this canton has taken pains to conceal the deaths, putting the bodies in holding as they appeared. He requested a lumière to look into the matter, and thus, here I am.”

“You said you would allow no other to take it up.” Anton felt his face heat, and was grateful for the dim light in his laboratory. “But you haven’t yet said why, other than the fact that these men share my origin.”

“It is more than that. All young men, all arriving three months ago, all thaumaturges to some degree, all tortured to death. Do you not see the common thread?”

Anton frowned. “Other than what you’ve already laid out?”

“In addition to it, perhaps. Anton,” now Camille laid his hands on Anton’s shoulders and looked him straight in the eyes, “they are all of them quite similar to you. I kept your true identity hidden after the debacle on the train, but not everything could be concealed, including the truth that you were not, in fact, Consul Hasler, once the discovery of his body had breached the gap from Paris to Zürich.

“Puzzle pieces were put together, pieces I should have tried harder to eradicate, but there was so little time. It became known that you were English, that you had training in magic, and that you were also in possession of something very valuable. Something that a member of the Dévoué, or an unscrupulous lumière, or even an enterprising freelance spy or assassin would gladly kill to obtain.”

Anton felt the blood drain from his head. “The palimpsest.”

“Indeed. The ability of those weapons used on the train was not easily covered up, and with the revelation of Consul Hasler’s own skillset, well.” He shook his head. “It would be quite a prize.”

“Do you think it’s a lumière?”

“No,” Camille replied swiftly, which was something of a relief. “I know most if not all of my fellows, and while all of us are dedicated to justice in the name of the emperor, we are no less dedicated to finding the truth in ways that result in little collateral damage. Whoever the murderer is, they don’t care about leaving a trail of bodies to get what they want. There was another death.” He sighed. “The landlady of the locksmith was found in her front room, her throat slit before she had a chance to cry out. Her body, unfortunately, could not be held. She has already been buried.”

Anton felt dizzy. He gripped Camille’s forearms in an effort to keep himself upright. “What…what shall I…what do I…”

“Stay calm,” Camille advised. “Here, sit down now.” He led Anton over to his bench and knelt in front of him, chafing his arms and shoulders gently. “Breathe in slowly, there you go. I should perhaps have gone about telling you a bit more diplomatically,” he added, his voice rueful.

Anton chuckled weakly. “It would be hard to couch this in truly diplomatic terms, I think. Someone is murdering innocent people in an effort to kill me.”

“Indeed.”

“I wish we had burned that bloody book.”

“It would not have mattered,” Camille said quietly. “Someone would have come looking anyway. I’m sorry I involved you so greatly in the matter on the train, Anton.”

Anton met Camille’s concerned gaze. “I’m not.” He exhaled, some of his tension finally draining from his limbs. Unfortunately, the loss left him feeling sluggish, but such fatigue would tell one way or another. “So, what happens next? I haven’t finished translating the palimpsest, although I am more than halfway through it.”

“Any interesting discoveries?”

“A lot of threads that make no sense independently, but a tapestry is beginning to emerge. Once it is completely unraveled, I shall make a full study of it.”

“And where is the book now?”

Anton smiled. “It’s safe.”

Camille paused, then nodded. “Better that you don’t tell me, just in case.”

In case you are captured and tortured and…and… Anton shook his head in an effort to clear it. “How else can I help you?”

“I am not asking you for your help,” Camille said at once. “I am not well known in this city, and most never see me at all, but if I were discovered as a lumière and you were with me, it would throw suspicion onto you. The last thing you need is to be set apart in such a way.”

“I cannot sit idly by while you work on this case!” Anton objected. “People are dying, people who have the bad luck to share a few things in common with me. I am a forensic thaumaturge, and you have access to their bodies. You must at least let me help you to see their death miasmas.”

“It still puts you in harm’s way.”

“Camille.” Anton patted his shoulder. “You tell me I am already in harm’s way. Hastening the speed of your investigation shall only lead to a quicker resolution. Besides, there are some tricks I can employ to reduce my own visibility. Let me help you.”

Camille crouched in silence for a long moment before abruptly getting to his feet. “You have the devil’s own ability at persuasion,” he said. “Fine. But only if you take those precautions, and only if, when I tell you to leave me, you go without hesitation. I would never willingly risk your safety.”

“But you would risk your own.”

Camille shrugged. “Such is the life of a lumière.”

Well then. Neither of them were perfectly happy, but at least Anton was not entirely shut out. He pushed to his feet and was relieved to find himself steady. “When do we start?”

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Tower: Chapter One, Part One

Notes: On to our new story at last! This is the sequel to The Train, and will make more sense if you've read that one. If not, then know this: this is alt history, magic-wielding, pre-WWI craziness. The continent remained conquered by Napoleon, and is now ruled by his grandson Napoleon III. Our hero is Anton Seiber, a young thaumaturge--a magical scientist, basically--from England who traveled to Zurich to continue his education. Getting there was really difficult, and he became friends--and maybe more--with an imperial investigator who is immune to magic.

This starts three months after they part. Enjoy!

Title: The Tower: Chapter One, Part One

***

The Tower

Chapter One, Part One



“Seiber!” A meaty hand clapped Anton on the shoulder before he could escape it. “Where are you lurking off to now? Not going to crawl back into your dusty lab and burn the midnight oil on one of your projects for the dead, are you?” Without giving Anton a chance to reply, his captor spun him around.

Face to face, Gerald Montgomery was even less appealing to Anton than he’d been from behind. Montgomery was the unofficial head of the surprisingly large contingent of students at the Universität Zürich who hailed from the British Isles. He was as loud, brash, and universally disliked by most of Anton’s fellow master’s students as any of his ilk had been at Cambridge. And like at Cambridge, he was not only tolerated, but by and large, encouraged—Gerald Montgomery was in line to become a marquess when his father died, and it was never a bad idea to ingratiate yourself with a member of the peerage. Anton had to remind himself of that as Gerald’s hand on his shoulder tightened to the point of pain.

“Alas, I have spells in situ that simply cannot wait.” Finally, Montgomery let go of his shoulder, but Anton’s relief was short-lived as the man immediately threw his arm around Anton’s neck. It felt—unsurprisingly—rather like being yoked as though he were a beast of burden.

“Seiber, Seiber, Seiber.” Montgomery shook his head. “You will waste the best years of your youth if you spend them all on the edification of the mind to the exclusion of the body. Mens sana in corpore sano, as the Romans say. Come with us to the pub, have a few drinks, relax for a while! The Langstrasse area is an easy walk from there, and I daresay we could find an easy woman who might tempt even your virtue.”

Oh, yes. Lovely. Just what Anton wanted after a long day of taking and teaching classes, handling both eager and recalcitrant students and pining for his own hard-earned space—a trip to the whorehouses of Zürich with a group of drunk, loud, and largely ridiculous fellow thaumaturges. Perhaps one of them would get creative with his spellwork and set off a stink bomb, or turn someone’s skin purple. Fortunately, Anton had a trump card to play.

“Have pity on a poor student,” Anton said smoothly, patting Montgomery on the forearm before casually ducking out from under his grasp. “Some of us are here on scholarship, you know. My work output is all that keeps me in my studies, and I cannot afford to falter.” Under normal circumstances, he would never advertise his own relative poverty, but on this early evening Anton was more than willing to paint himself as a sad sap in exchange for liberty.

Montgomery frowned. “You always say that. But I will spot you the coin tonight, free you from your workaday shackles.” Clearly the idea of being seen as a patron to his peers appealed to him. Anton wondered, for perhaps the hundredth time, why this privileged son of the aristocracy had come all the way to Zürich to pursue a degree he seemed to have little interest in, when he would have been accepted with open arms and grasping pocketbooks by the finest universities in England.

It wasn’t that Gerald Montgomery was unskilled at thaumaturgy—he was rather irritatingly efficient at casting spells, in fact, although his basic preparations left much to be desired and were more often assembled by his cadre of admirers. It was simply that he seemed to have little interest in doing more than the basics, spending the rest of his time in personal and rather frivolous pursuits. At a research institution like this one, it made no sense. The man wouldn’t even have to rely on his thaumaturgy skill to earn a living one day—he was nobility, he was guaranteed an income.

“Not this time,” Anton said. “My spells simply won’t wait.”

“Then later this weekend,” Montgomery insisted. “You cannot have every minute of every day planned, and if you do, then change it.”

Change your life to suit my smallest whim, Seiber. Anton kept his calm smile on his face with a great deal of effort. “I will endeavor to, I assure you.”

“Gerry!” Another one of their British fellows called to Montgomery from the lecture hall’s side stone egress. “Hurry, before we lose our chance at a good place in the pub! Ella’s section always fills the fastest!”

“Shut your flapping lips, Percy, I’ll be there in a moment!” He turned back to Anton with a bit of mischief still in his face. “Are you sure? Percy can’t hold his liquor to save himself, and he’s hilarious when he’s blotto.”

“Next time,” Anton said, and finally, finally, the other man shrugged and turned away. Once he finally vanished into his throng of admirers, Anton let out a slow, relieved breath. There was one obstacle down, at least.

Fortunately, he had no students waiting for his time this evening. As soon as the university’s Head of Thaumaturgy, Doctor Grable, had ascertained that Anton possessed a Device that allowed him to speak seven different languages—Doctor Grable was renowned for his ability to detect and interpret thaumaturgical signatures of all kinds, and Anton had had no chance of denying his father’s Device’s existence—he had made Anton the go-to graduate student for students who struggled with English and German. He’d spent many hours he would have rather been researching helping those students interpret thaumaturgical equations and simplifying high-level magic as best he could.

It was useful work, and he didn’t begrudge his professor the right to give him responsibilities, but Anton was desperate for time alone. He had far too much to be getting on with to waste time on people like Gerald Montgomery. Anton shook his head to help clear the day from it, then gathered his paraphernalia into his holdall and headed for the Tower.

The Universität Zürich had different branches scattered throughout the city, but the sciences were housed in and around the main building, an imposingly large gray stone edifice lightened by patches of lawn and sky-high cupolas. Just behind the main building was the Tower of Thaumaturgy, where the founders of the school had wisely set apart their most volatile researchers. It was less of a tower than a dark, veiny square block that rose without grace into the air, buttressed by thick stonework and fewer windows than the rest of the university monuments. It was often described as “ugly, a blight, more like a prison than a university.” It was heavily spelled to maintain a neutral magical space, and securing a place for research in it was the source of much cutthroat negotiating between graduate students.

Anton had such a place, a small laboratory on the thirteenth floor, the highest in the tower. It was a long walk up, especially after an exhaustive day of teaching. Happily, that very inconvenience made it even more worthwhile for Anton, because few people found their way up there, which meant less botheration by his peers. On top of that, his lab was thaumaturgically secured by a series of locks that Anton had been improving ever since he settled in, three months ago now. It was as inviolable as he could possibly make it, which made the sight of his door standing open rather shocking to him.

“Oh no,” he murmured, hastening along the hall toward his tiny chamber, silver wand held high to project his simple charm for illumination down the stone corridor. Rather than bolting inside as soon as he got there, though, he bent down and surveyed the door itself. The spells were still there, they had simply been rendered—inert, for lack of a better word. They would need to be recharged, but that was easier than reconstructing them completely. Only a truly exceptional master would be able to get through his defenses without setting off an alarm. There were no signs of scuff marks around the edge of the lock or handle itself, so if it was a thief, then they were very good at picking locks.

But if they were so good, why had they left the door open? There were only two logical options for who could have entered so smoothly and obviously, and one of them would never make the hike to the thirteenth floor when he had an expansive laboratory of his own on the first.

Anton’s hand trembled slightly on the handle as he pushed the door the rest of the way open. Inside, the last rays of the sunset were barely enough to combat the encroaching grayness, but Anton could make out the familiar silhouette of a tall man in a top hat standing along the far wall.

He's here! But Anton had to be sure. “Camille?”

The figure turned, and Anton’s heart leapt in his chest when he verified the identity of his mysterious visitor. “Anton.” Lord Lumière, special investigator for his majesty Napoleon III, solver of the convoluted murder of the Viscount Bonaparte on the train to Lucerne, and one of a secret class of people who were immune to magic—some said because they were soulless, damned at birth by God—inclined his head in a show of perfect politeness. The smile on his face, however, was far more welcoming. “It is astonishingly good to see you again.”

That was all the welcome Anton needed to cross the room in six long steps and throw himself into Camille’s embrace. It was precipitous of him, probably even ridiculous, but he couldn’t help himself. He had experienced no truly welcome touch since their kiss farewell, three long months ago. Anton barely knew Camille, really, but he felt far closer to him than their stressful, exciting train trip together had merited. From the way Camille’s arms closed around his waist like they belonged there, pulling him closer and warming him from head to toe, perhaps Anton’s feelings weren’t entirely foolish or one-sided.

Nevertheless, he remembered his own abandoned dignity eventually and pulled away with a faint cough. “I—I wasn’t expecting you.” He winced, because what had he expected, that the lumière would tell him he was coming? That was the opposite of covert, and Camille was an expert at being covert.

“Forgive me for not contacting you in advance,” Camille replied, surprising Anton. “I was actually on my way to another part of the country when the emperor redirected me here.”

Oh. So it was mere chance that had led Camille this way again, rather than…something else. Anton nodded and put a little more space between them. “I see.” Of course he did, and he could be professional about it. “What is it that brought you to Zürich, then?”

“A murder, of course.” Of course. “Several, in fact. And when I ascertained the targets of these murders, I would allow no other lumière to take on the task.”

“Oh? Who is being murdered?”


“Englishmen.” The word dropped between them like a boulder, heavy with unspoken implication. “People like you, Anton.”

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

One last delay!

I'm going on maternity leave soon, and I've got to prep for my replacements, so...one more delay! I'm so effing sorry, but I need another twelve hours in the day to get everything done.



Which...HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!! This is going to be my life once I'm a mom! I need to get used to it now! My time management will get better, I swear to god.