Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Tank: Chapter Three, Part One

Notes: Finally, we meet someone we actually want to! Because I can't not bring in the second half of my dynamic duo once I start with these stories.

Title: The Tank, Chapter Three, Part One

***


Chapter Three, Part One



Oh God, what had he done?

It was a despicable quirk of nature than Anton was able to recriminate himself even as he ran for his life. It would have been a kindness for him to fill with panic as he fled, unable to think on the situation he’d left behind and what he might have just done to the man who had so recently menaced him.

It didn’t help much that the man had been menacing him either, as it might have if Anton were a little less inclined to overthink things. He’d been threatened with rape, but he’d retaliated with forcing the man to relive a hideously brutal death. Anton swore at himself as his feet began to slow—he shouldn’t go back, he absolutely shouldn’t go back, there was nothing he could do now but let it play out.

On the other hand, the only other person he’d ever worked this spell on was himself. One data point was hardly enough for Anton to draw any sort of conclusions from. Perhaps he could watch from a distance to ascertain the man’s condition, see if he’d come through all right, and if not…well, then, perhaps Anton could—

A hand suddenly gripped his dangling left wrist and jerked him sideways, pulling him into the shadow of a deep doorway. Anton squawked and lashed out with his elbow, riding the surge of adrenaline to help him fight back. He’d been followed, someone had caught him, they were going to try to—

“Anton!” Another hand caught his elbow and pressed it down and out of the way, but nothing about it hurt. Even the grip around his wrist was only tight enough to restrain, not to injure or bruise. “It’s all right,” his gentle captor said. “It’s just me.”

“Camille!” Anton felt like he should have seen this coming, after the day he’d had—unexpected visitors seemed to be in fashion. On the other hand, he’d learned better than to expect what he wanted to happen to actually occur, and he had wanted Camille for months now.

Yet it was Camille. He looked haggard, even more so than the last time he’d visited, and there were a few worrying strands of gray that hadn’t been there before in his moustache, but it was him. There was nothing but warmth and concern on his face.

“I’m sorry I had to—” That was as far as Camille got before Anton pressed in against him, his arms still trapped but not even caring about that, turning his face into the side of Camille’s neck and just breathing. “Anton,” Camille said again, softly this time. He let go of Anton’s arms and wrapped him in an embrace, which Anton was pleased to be able to return. “It’s all right,” he murmured. “You escaped.”

“You saw?” Anton mumbled. “You saw what I did?”

“And what he almost did to you, don’t forget. Not that I would have let him. I’d caught up to you a block earlier, but I didn’t want to approach you in that part of town if I could help it—it would give people the wrong impression.”

“I wouldn’t have cared.” The whole world could have thought Anton a catamite and he would have endured it, if it meant meeting up with Camille a moment sooner.

“I know, so I had to care for you.” Camille paused, then said, “I’ve never seen a death miasma resurrect like that before.”

“It’s not a—well, it’s a…” Anton sighed. “I would love nothing more than to tell you all about it, but I can’t right now, I just can’t—the words are right there on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t speak them. I just—I might have killed that man. I could have killed myself the first time around, and I was only experiencing a suicide, not a—” His voice cut off as Camille’s grip became brutally tight for a moment. “Can’t…breathe…” he squeaked out.

“Damn, I’m sorry.” Camille pulled him arms away all at once, leaving Anton with nothing to hold him up but his own shaking legs. “But what do you mean, you experienced a suicide?” He looked slightly manic around the eyes. “You were suicidal?”

“No—no, I wasn’t at all!” Anton insisted. He could see now how what he’d said might have been misinterpreted, and lord, wasn’t he just going a wonderful job at cocking everything up today? “The first time I cast the spell, it was actually an accident—I was trying out ingredients that would result in a rising, yes, but nothing so powerfully formed. I meant it to be a spell that could be used to help investigate older cases, but I dropped the wrong thing at the right time and got a bit of mercury mixed in that shouldn’t have been in there, not to mention the—well, regardless, it ended up producing much what you saw back there.”

He exhaled slowly. “Only in my case, the dead man had been in the act of committing suicide, hanging himself from the rafter of my laboratory. He didn’t die easily. He suffocated, and the whole time I felt what he felt, and he was so filled with regret, and he wanted to reach the chair he’d just kicked away, wanted to stop what he’d put into motion, but there was no way out. It took him nearly three minutes to die, and I lived the entire thing with him. I…lost most of that afternoon to disassociation, honestly.”

“That sounds hideous,” Camille said, his skin taking on a bit of a ghostly pallor.

“Oh, it was utterly incapacitating,” Anton agreed. “But so interesting too, don’t you think? I knew I was onto something, so I kept working at the spell in my spare time. I filled the wooden ball up with all the right ingredients some time ago, but I confess I was too afraid to drop it for the longest time. I’ve been carrying it around for over a month now, trying to find an area to set it off where I was least likely to be debilitated.”

Camille held up a hand between them, the other one squeezing the bridge of his nose. “Stop. Just…don’t speak, for a moment.”

Anton stopped. He felt a bit sick to his stomach, all the impulse to fight or flee fully drained from his body, leaving him tired and a bit desperate feeling. “I’m sorry,” he offered after what he hoped was an acceptable interpretation of a “moment.” “I’m not sure what I said that upset you, but I wish I hadn’t.”

“It’s not you,” Camille assured him, lowering his hands. “It’s simply that…I’ve been hoping, for quite some time now, that you were safe here. I have not been particularly safe myself, and one of the few things that gave me any sense of comfort was the idea that you were perfectly well and taking care of yourself. And now I find out that you’ve invented a spell that can force a person to relive whatever violent deaths may have occurred in the vicinity it is cast, and in doing so leave them as helpless as babes. It’s a mental contradiction, and it’s taking me a moment to come to terms with it.”

“Oh.” Anton felt very small, but also oddly warm as well. “I really am very careful,” he said. “Please tell me you know that. I wouldn’t deliberately put myself in danger.”

“I know,” Camille agreed. “And I respect your expertise. I just…” He blew out a breath. “Will you stay with me tonight? I have a room not far from here, and I know that you’ve just graduated and you probably have parties to attend and people to see, but—"

“Absolutely,” Anton said before Camille could finish talking about silly things like Anton possibly preferring someone else’s company. “Let’s go there now.”

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Tank: Chapter Two, Part Two

Notes: Time for some action! Not a long chapter, but an interesting one, I think :)

Title: The Tank: Chapter Two, Part Two

***


Chapter Two, Part Two



Anton headed back toward the university by way of the river, which truthfully wasn’t a detour so much as pure diversion. He felt like the ground beneath his feet had shifted in a slight yet nevertheless dramatic way, and he couldn’t quite get his balance now. Every rock he’d established in his life, every person and relationship upon whom his foundation of wellbeing was supported, was wavering. His mother was ill, Caroline was working as a spy, and he hadn’t seen Camille in months. He had no serious job prospects yet, and if something didn’t come along fast, he was going to be out of a place to live. Dr. Grable had been surprisingly generous ever since the battle on school grounds with Montgomery, but there was a limit to everyone’s charity, and Anton had no interest in testing Dr. Grable’s.

Even if he got a position as a teaching assistant, he would have to live off campus and give up his laboratory to a new graduate student, and he’d just gotten everything organized to his satisfaction, and his latest experiment was showing so much promise, it seemed a shame to have to take it all down. And if he moved, how would Camille find him again?

Then again, Camille seemed to manage just about everything he tried his hand at with remarkable dexterity, especially considering his disadvantage.

Anton ambled along, not paying much attention to where exactly he was going as he churned everything over in his head. Why bother fretting about his path; it wasn’t as though it was easy to get lost this close to the university. Its tallest tower, the one that held his own lab, was visible for almost a mile in any direction. As long as he could still see it, he didn’t care precisely where he was.

That turned out to be an oversight of some significance, because as he wandered distractedly into the less savory portions of the red-light district and the sun began to set, the tenor of the cat-calls lobbed his way turned from good-natured exhortations to fuck to a darker, more menacing variety of interview.

“Lost, are you lad?”

“Should know better than to wander in these streets this time of night.”

“You’ve a decent pair of shoes there, boy. I want them.”

It wasn’t until a heavy hand descended on his shoulder and spun him around that Anton realized his translation device, a thaumaturgical wonder of his father’s invention consisting of an earring and a mouthpiece, had been translating threats. Bugger me, he thought resignedly.

The man holding onto his shoulder was taller than Anton by half a head, wearing a long leather coat over a grimy maroon vest and brown shirt. He had a grey-speckled beard, and a hunting knife in his free hand. The light from the torches in front of the nearest brothel made the curved edge gleam.

Anton, very atypically for him, didn’t immediately begin to well with worry and fear. It seemed that he had hit his limit for what he could take in one day with Caroline, and staring now into the face of a man who was clearly ready to do him harm, he felt mostly irritation at letting himself ramble into a place so deliberately unsafe.

Such a thought would have felt liberating if he wasn’t secretly concerned about his sanity.

“I would be happy to give you my shoes, sir,” Anton said levelly, holding his hands still at his sides. “Just give me a moment to get them off without waving that knife in my face, please.”

The big man shook his head. “Ah, that’s not how this works, boy. You hand over what I ask for and you do it however I make you. Maybe I’ll make you bend over while this knife rests at your throat, eh?” His eyes gleamed a little in the wavering light. “Or maybe I’ll make you bend over in that alley over there, and we can deal with the shoes once I’m done.”

Well, then. That was it. He’d have to give his newest device a try. Anton was actually a bit excited—in a place such as this, he was bound to activate a residual miasma. “I’ve plenty of money on me, sir,” he said, now reaching slowly for his inner jacket pocket. “You can afford to buy someone to sport with, not waste your time on me.”

His attacker grimaced and shook Anton roughly. “I’m getting mighty tired of you telling me how to—" Before he could finish, Anton pulled a little wooden globe from his pocket. He twisted it, to break the bond in the center and begin the chemical heating reaction that would set the whole thing on fire, then threw it to the ground just to the right of them. Alchemical symbols etched in silver along the wood flared momentarily, before the whole thing expanded and then crumbled into ash in a vague circular pattern. The scent of burnt herbs and hot metal wafted into the air, along with an undertone of something darker. Not just hot metal—iron. Blood.

For a moment, nothing happened, and Anton bunched his shoulders and prepared to fight, because he’d be damned if he was going along with this without a battle. But then…

It started as nearly indistinguishable from the smoke, seeping up from the cobblestones themselves, the face of a beautiful, wailing woman. As she rose and resolved, Anton could make out the rope around her neck. She wasn’t hanging, though. Someone had bound her, and was pulling her roughly along.

His attacker was startled into letting go, and Anton instantly drew back out of range of the spirit’s miasma. The last time he’d stayed within one of these, it had left him sobbing for half an hour.

“That’s Gaily Gertrude,” one of the men nearby exclaimed. “That’s—ah, no—” The ghost was suddenly ripped off her feet onto the ground, right through Anton’s attacker’s legs. She tugged desperately on the rope, trying to stop the pulling, or perhaps pull herself to her feet, but a moment later her head exploded in a mess of blood and brain matter as something rolled right over it.

“Her man shoulda dropped the rope, not left her lying in the street like that,” someone said.

“He never shoulda been allowed to rope her up in the first place! It’s the madame’s fault, she—”

All conversation came to an abrupt halt as Anton’s attacker suddenly dropped his knife, raised his hands to his head, and began to scream. His voice was pitched high, almost as high as a woman’s, and even as the miasma had dissolved he kept screaming and screaming. If the man hadn’t just threatened to rape him, Anton almost might have felt guilty.

Instead, he ran.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Tank: Chapter Two, Part One

Notes: Unexpected news, and the beginning of a whole new pile of trouble for Anton. Because he attracts it so readily, the poor darlin.

Title: Chapter Two, Part One

***


Chapter Two, Part One



They stopped at one of Anton’s favorite little restaurants, in the bottom level of a nearby inn. It wasn’t that the food was more spectacular here, or even particularly cheaper than other places, but he had some very fond memories of the rooms above, and it was close to the university.

“Why didn’t you let me know you were coming?” Anton asked once they were seated in a quiet corner, a pot of tea steeping between them on the table. “I would have done more to be ready for you.”

“I did send a letter,” Caroline said tartly. “Several, in fact. I don’t know if you’ve kept up to date with the doings back at home, but we’ve lost several ferries traveling back and forth to the continent to revolutionary activity, and numerous merchantmen as well. The navy has increased its patrols of the Channel, but the pace of communications has been slowed dramatically. I daresay you’ll get my letters in a few weeks.”

“Revolutionaries? Are you referring to the Dévoué?” Anton was startled when Caroline nodded. “I had no idea they’d made such an impact on Britain.”

Caroline slowly poured some milk into her cup, her expression thoughtful. “They might not be out in force among the populace, but they are an ever-present fear. I think the powers that be are quite pleased to have a scapegoat on which they can heap their blame now, actually,” she said with a sigh. “Everything from the high price of cheese to the monitoring and censorship of some of London’s most noteworthy newspapers is thanks to the Dévoué. It’s getting more restrictive by the day back home, and I for one am getting sick of it. Part of the reason the Order sent me here, actually, is to form an assessment of the empire’s thaumaturgical response to the increased challenges of aiding a population whose own ruler doesn’t trust it. Britain’s thaumaturgical society is carefully considering what it wants its own position to be as we batten down our hatches and try to ride out the storm here.”

Anton was startled. “The Order sent you in an official capacity?”

“What, do you think I can’t be official simply because I’m a woman?” she asked tartly.

“No, not at all, just…I had no idea you had risen so highly in their ranks.”

“Mmm. I’ve avoided writing about it, because you never know who will read such things, but yes, I’ve managed some very interesting bits of thaumaturgy over the past several years.” Caroline dimpled a smile at him. “I’ll tell you more about it later, perhaps. For now, my mind is full of the problem at hand: what Britain’s response should be to the coming continental unrest.”

“While the idea is appealing, this might not be the sort of conflict that one simply sits through,” Anton said. “The queen might not have any love of Napoleon, but she must love the revolutionaries even less.”

“And you?” Caroline asked, sipping her tea genteelly. “How do you feel about revolutionaries?”

“I dislike their penchant for indiscriminate violence,” Anton replied. “I dislike that they’re willing to use great thaumaturgical inventions and advancements as a means of killing those who get in their way.”

“You must be particularly sensitive to that, after what happened here at the school.”

Oh, if only she knew the heart of it. Anton had told Caroline that he’d been targeted by Montgomery in a case of mistaken identity, but he hadn’t told her that he was, in fact, the former owner of the palimpsest that Montgomery had been after in the first place. “It was an unfortunate time,” he managed after a moment.

“Unfortunate indeed. I feel that the continent hasn’t been as kind to you as you deserve.” She paused, rubbing absently at the corner of her napkin before clearing her throat. “I wasn’t entirely honest with you earlier, Anton. I gave you the impression that I wasn’t going to offer you a job.”

“Wait…are you—”

She held up her hand. “One moment. This place looks secure enough, but I cannot take any risks.” She reached into the little purse at her side and pulled out a piece of thick gray chalk. She moved the teapot out of the way and drew a circle in the middle of the wooden table, marking out a triangle filled with three more circles within it. If the slow way she moved it was any indication, the chalk was abnormally heavy.

After a moment she put it away, then pulled out a box of matches. She lit one, waited for the flame to settle, then touched it to the symbol. It burst into flame and blew out just as fast, filling the air with particles of acrid smoke. “A new little spell of mine,” she explained. “The smoke will swallow the soundwaves beyond a few feet until the particles are too heavy with our words to stay aloft.”

“Brilliant,” Anton breathed.

Caroline smiled. “Thank you. The effect won’t last forever, though, so let me come to the point. I can’t offer you a job that directly associates you with Britain’s Order of Thaumaturgy. It’s beyond the scope of the responsibilities they’ve allotted me. But—” She held up a finger. “If you were to acquire a position on the continent that offered you access to the inner workings of the Empire’s dealings with the Dévoué, and if you were then to pass some of that information along to me—in a very quiet way—the Order would pay you for the privilege. It would go a long way toward reassuring them of the scope of your loyalties as well.”

Anton couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. “Caroline, are you asking me to become a spy for you?”

“Not for me,” she said quickly. “With me. I would never ask you to do something that I was unwilling to do myself, Anton, you know that.”

“And you’re willing to work as a spy? If you’re discovered, it’s a hanging offense, you know that!” Despite her spell, Anton kept his voice down. The surge of fear in his veins felt very close to anger. “Britain and the French Empire are not enemies, but they are not precisely allies either! You here as an invited observer is one thing, but you know damn well it won’t include access to their most powerful projects.”

“Which is where you come in! I don’t want to steal spells from the empire, Anton. We have our own very brilliant thaumaturges for spellwork. My mandate is simply to assess whether or not they’re going to be doing enough to keep their house in order, or whether Britain should be preparing more rigorously for potential conflict.”

“You just said you were getting sick of the restrictions put in place back home!” Anton pointed out. The cloud between them fell into ash faster and faster. “Preparations for war could only increase them!”

“There is no reason to assume war is forthcoming!”

“You’re an idiot if you believe that.”

Caroline drew back, her earnest expression gone stony. “I am no idiot. I and those like me are perhaps all that is standing between our country and war, and I’ll do everything in my power to prevent that escalation. Everything, Anton. Do you understand me?”

“Including committing acts that could get you killed by the state,” he said bitterly. “No, I’m afraid your logic truly escapes me this time.”

“Rich words from a man who commits acts that could get him executed every time he meets with his lover.”

Anton froze. Everything from his breath to his blood seemed to go completely still for a moment, grappling with hearing something so awful from someone he cared for so much. Caroline, who seemed to see that she’d gone too far, abandoned her coldness. “Anton, I’m sorry.” She reached out and put one of her hands on his. “I did not mean to use your love as a bludgeon against you, that was wrong of me. I simply…this is important, do you see that? For all of Britain, for its future and its children’s futures. If Napoleon falls, we must know why. We must understand what we can do better to keep such travails from affecting us as well. Do you see?”

“I do.”

Caroline huffed. “Say something else, something more than just that. Tell me that you forgive me.”

“I forgive you.” He did, for that at least.

“And tell me you will at least think on my offer. Please?”

Anton sighed. “I will think on it, but don’t hold your breath.”

Caroline hesitated, then let go of him and brushed the symbol on the table away with her palm. The rest of the smoke evaporated. “I suppose that will have to do.” She glanced at the menu. “What do you recommend for dinner?”

It was a heavy-handed way of resetting, but Anton allowed it. They dined together, keeping their topics light, and he never let a word of Camille cross his lips. After a while, Caroline stopped asking after him.

“I have a meeting with your Dr. Grable tomorrow,” Caroline said as they strolled together toward her hotel. It was cool out now, the sun already set over the mountains that surrounded Zürich, and she walked close enough that their shoulders  brushed. “Do you have any advice for me?”

Anton thought about it. Regardless of how he felt about Caroline’s mission, he didn’t want to actively obstruct her. “He is a straightforward man who sees more than most. Do not try to dissemble with him. Be as honest as you can.”

“Always good advice, I think.” They stopped outside her hotel, one of the nicer ones in town, and she leaned in and kissed his cheek. “I’d love to see you again tomorrow as well. Just as friends, Anton. No complications.”

“I’ll send a message to you if I have time.”

Her smile was a bit sad. “I understand. Have a good evening, then.” She greeted the doorman as she entered the hotel, and a moment later he lost sight of her.

It was the first time Anton could ever remember being relieved to watch her go.