Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Tank: Chapter Seven, Part One

Notes: We're about to lift-off! It'll be a short but very bumpy trip to Paris, so hold on tight ;)

Title: The Tank: Chapter Seven, Part One

***


Chapter Seven, Part One



“Oh my goodness,” Caroline exclaimed under her breath as she caught sight of the silver dirigible flying their way, already canting itself down for a landing. “How can such a thing be possible?”

It was a good question, and one Anton would have given a limb to have answered. Airships in and of themselves were nothing new—hot air balloons had been introduced to the skies almost a century ago, first as little more than curiosities, gradually becoming something that could be used for surveying, emergency transport, or in the case of nearly every government on the continent, a weapon of war. They were too slow to be truly effective as more than a lookout, though, and too vulnerable to puncture. Modern airships were faster, better armored and light enough that they had a bit more utility, but they were still better in theory than practice. At least, that had been the case, before Anton had cast his eyes on this.

The airship descended until it was within twenty feet of the ground, then threw out a line. A young man—probably still a lad, given his slightness—shimmied down it effortlessly, took something out of his pocket and stuck it through the loop on the end of the line, then jammed that into the ground. The connection point glowed white for a moment.

“We’re stuck tight!” the boy shouted up toward the cabin of the airship—which was another point of amazement to Anton. The entire device was miraculously quiet. Where was the flame? Did it run on electricity in some way? Even if the French had somehow perfected the art of lightning capture and storage, there would still be a hum about the entire business. But it was almost silent.

“Good work!” a voice called in reply. The ship sank the rest of the way to the ground, coming to rest exactly on top of the anchor holding it into place. It should have wobbled—there was no real basket, no struts to catch it, just a smooth, curving ship-like belly—but instead it stuck like a tongue in a groove. As soon as it was settled, a handsome, dark-haired man in an Imperial army uniform, with a silver airship medal on his chest, lowered a walkway and stepped briskly over to them. He saluted Camille.

“We came up as swift as we could, milord.”

“Excellent, Captain, thank you for your diligence,” Camille said, sounding every bit as haughty as Anton knew he could be, and yet…there was something warm lurking beneath the surface of his voice. “I hope I didn’t send you and your shipmate too far out of your way.”

The man smiled. “Not at all, milord. Nowhere’s out of the way for our beauty, ‘specially not for you.” He glanced over Camille’s shoulder and winced sympathetically. “Should we load your cargo, then? People should wait for the last moment, I reckon—it won’t be a comfortable ride, not at this time of night.”

“That would be acceptable.” Camille waited for the captain and the lad who evidently worked with him on the airship to begin grabbing the luggage Anton had so painstakingly assembled before he turned back to the party. “Sirs and lady,” he said formally. “The rest of our trip to Paris will be facilitated by the latest in Imperial airship design, the Fleur D’Argent. We should be there before midnight tonight.”

“Before midnight?”

“So soon?”

“That seems impossible.”

“What’s the catch?” Dr. Grable asked with a grunt, silencing the amazement of their fellows with his stern tones. “If it was that easy, nobles would be demanding rides all over the continent, not subjecting themselves to trains.”

“Indeed,” Camille agreed. “This ship is one of only three of its kind, a proof-of-concept prototype created by the Institute. One of the side-effects of its use is the fact that, to be most effective, it must be used in a lighter atmosphere. This means that it goes very high, and the ship itself becomes quite cold.”

“Warming spells can take care of that.”

Camille shook his head. “Not in this case. The…” He cast a glance in Caroline’s direction, and folded his hands behind his back. “The thaumaturgical equivalencies at work are, from what I understand, quite delicate. The device which powers the ship is quite fragile, and a random spell at the wrong time could cause fluctuations in its magical matrix.”

Dr. Grable shook his head. “Not ideal for a weapon.”

“No,” Camille agreed. “But it still could be an effective transport, once the other issues are worked out.”

“Issues?” Monsieur Deschamps asked, looking ill.

“Turbulence. Occasionally monumental turbulence. You shall all have to be strapped in rather tight. Even you, sir,” he added with a regretful look at Dr. Grable’s leg.

“Dignity goes before death, I s’pose.” Dr. Grable sighed, then held out an arm to Anton. “Come on, then, help me up and in there.”

Anton went to him at once, pleased to have a task that would take him out from under Camille’s gaze. He resolutely didn’t check in on Caroline, just gritted his teeth as Dr. Grable leaned his considerable weight onto Anton’s shoulder as he stood. “Bloody God-damn hell,” the older man gritted out through clenched teeth. He kept his leg—splinted now—airborne, and making it up the ramp was a painfully slow process.

“This way, sirs!” the lad called out, appearing beside them once they reached the top of the ramp like a Jack-In-The-Box. He led them over the smooth wooden flooring to a little passenger’s berth, one set of stairs down from the captain’s station. “There’s room for six,” the boy pointed out, rather proud. “Good thing you lost a few, eh? The bodies’ll go in the hold below. They’ll be right safe there,” he added, crossing himself for good measure. “Promise.”

“Thank you,” Anton said. There was something about this boy… “Can you show me how to work the harness?”

“Oh, right!”

The contraption designed to hold them in place was labyrinthine in design, built to withstand forces coming at you from all directions. Once Dr. Grable was strapped in tight, the boy began adding blankets and padding. “You’re close to the engine down here, so it gets even colder than it do outside,” he said apologetically.

What sort of engine gets cold when it’s working, instead of hot? Admittedly, Anton was no sort of engineer, but from the little he knew of the contraptions, that seemed counter-intuitive to him. He’d have to see if he could glean anything once they touched down in Paris and circumstances were less urgent.

“Let me give you a hand, sir,” the boy said, leaning in to help Anton adjust the straps around his torso. As he buckled Anton’s shoulder in, he said, “Don’t remember me then, sir?”

“Remember you…oh!” Oh, of course! It was the boy from the train, Bert, whose father had been killed in the Devoué plot and who had helped save the day in the end. “My word, Bert, you’ve grown so much I hardly recognized you! How on earth did you come into this position?”

Bert leaned back a bit, pleased. “Lord Lumière got me into the corps as a powder monkey,” he murmured. “He said he’d find a place for me, an’ he did. Boats was fine and all, but when a chance to fly in one of these came along, I wanted it. He came to visit, I told him, and—poof!” He snapped his fingers. “Look at me now!”

“Look at you indeed,” Anton said. “I’m so pleased for you, Bert, you’ve no idea.”

The young man blushed. “Thanks. If I had to lose my dad, at least I got this out of it, right? A word for you, sir, for your kindness.” He leaned in. “It’ll hurt, but keep your eyes open a little it you can during the flight. Sometimes residue from the Nothing seeps out, and it’s right beautiful.” He was upright before Anton could ask for clarification, clapping a wool-lined leather cap down onto his head. “Tie it tight over your ears, sir,” he said with a grin. “And don’t forget the top flap to cover your face.” He bounded away, leaving Anton to stare after him, wondering what the hell kind of residue nothing could leave behind.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Tank: Chapter Six, Part Two

Notes: A clue, a dash of gentleness, and the introduction of...not the tank of the title, but something just as cool!

Title: The Tank: Chapter Six, Part Two

***


Chapter Six, Part Two



This was the second time Anton had seen Camille march into a perilous situation and take it over completely, and to say the man had a knack for it would be ludicrously minimalist. He presented himself to Anton’s party—Dr. Grable, at least, had met him during the incident at the university and therefore didn’t put up the fuss he otherwise might have—and showed them all his credentials. “While my presence among you is purely coincidental, I was aware of your group’s presence on the train and have already taken the liberty of supplying a new mode of transportation that should be here within the hour,” he continued, looking at everyone but Anton. “I understand you’re headed for L’Institut D’Ingénierie Technologique.”

“How did you come to understand that, young man?” Cardinal Proulx asked, his voice somehow thunderous and mild at the same time.

“Your Eminence, I am a lumière working under the aegis of the emperor himself,” Camille replied dryly. “There is very little that goes on in this Empire that I do not understand.”

“This is a nightmare,” Monsieur Deschamps whimpered, one hand clutching the amulet around his neck as he stared at Camille. “It must be a nightmare. I’ve fallen into a dream I can’t wake up from.”

“You should consider yourself lucky to have convinced the late Lord Voclain that you were qualified for whatever if was he asked of you.” Anton had never heard that particular tone from Camille before, something so cold and contemptuous it made him want to shiver secondhand. “I suggest you take the time between now and our vessel’s arrival to quiet your nerves.

“Dr. Grable,” he continued, dismissing Monsieur Deschamps entirely, “the rest of this journey is going to be somewhat trying for a man with a broken leg. Would you prefer to be carried to the nearest village with the rest of the train’s passengers and continue after you’ve recovered a bit?”

“Whatever happens next can’t be more trying than an ambush by a lot of ruddy cowards in the middle of the mountains,” Dr. Grable replied with a grimace. “I’ll manage.”

“Very well. I suggest you have your assistant—” and even now he didn’t look at Anton, just spoke of him in the third person as though he were an abstract concept instead of a living being “—retrieve your belongings and place them to the side of that clearing over there. When our transport does arrive, speed will be of the essence.” Now he did glance over, but it was the same look he might have given any porter. “Perhaps you can do the same for the rest of your party as well, since you seem to be the only hale young man of the bunch.”

It felt like a dismissal—hell, it was a dismissal, but that didn’t mean that Camille wasn’t correct. Between Caroline and the now-deceased Voclain alone, there was probably half a ton of baggage. The Vicomte hadn’t believed in traveling light. “Of course,” Anton said, feeling quite subdued, and walked toward their overturned car in a bit of a daze.

It was getting colder by the minute. Thankfully, a relief crew had arrived a few minutes earlier, and the survivors were either walking toward the closest village or being carried there by hardy volunteers. The dead were left behind, held inside one of the overturned cars. It was cold enough that they would last the night, at least.

Anton was grateful to have something to do that kept his hands busy and his brain occupied, however briefly. It kept him from thinking too much about Camille. He had made a mistake, voicing his half-formed concerns the way he had, but was it really too much to ask for a hint of understanding? He’d just been thrown from a train car and nearly shot by a man in black—a bit of rattled thinking was a clear and unavoidable consequence of that. But now his lover was giving him the cold shoulder, it was more important than ever that Caroline keep her distance from him, and his mentor—and, indeed, his direct employer—Dr. Grable had a broken leg. What would that mean for their work in Paris? Would Anton be expected to step in and demonstrate combat spells in the doctor’s place? The only outcome of that would be utter disaster.

He lifted, stepped, and stacked, over and over again, ignoring the pain in his ribs and the occasional furtive glances from the rest of the company in his direction as he moved every case, trunk and carton to the clearing some yards apart from the wreck. By the time he was nearly done inside the train car, where there were fortunately no bodies to deal with thanks to the Cardinal’s efforts to get them blessed and removed, Anton felt nearly incapable of thought, much less speech. The whole of his world had narrowed down to basic movements, and it was only the silvery glint of the buttons on the leather strap of the tiny holster that led him to notice it at all. He crawled toward the gleam, reached around the seat that nearly obscured it, and pulled out the holster.

What kind of gun goes into this? It was tiny—whatever weapon it held could not hold more than five shots, at best. The leather holster had delicate silver scrollwork on it, in addition to the brilliance of the buttons. Anton lifted it to his nose and sniffed—fresh oil, and a hint of gunpowder. This was no ornamental keepsake, then.

Could it be… Such a holster was dainty enough to hold a gun that would perfectly fit a lady’s hand. Had Caroline or her companion been the ones to carry it? If so, where was the gun? And could it possibly have been the gun that fired the fatal round into the vicomte’s chest?

Oh, God. More clues, more secrets, more things that Anton wanted nothing to do with and yet was dragged headlong into regardless. He stiffly placed the supple little thing inside his vest and sat there, his mind whirring even as his body broke out in shivers that Anton barely felt. What the hell was Caroline playing at? Or was this even hers? A gun this small could easily be stored inside a set of robes as ornate as the cardinal’s, for example.

Oh, don’t be an idiot. Why would a man of the church turn to murder? Then again, why did anyone turn to murder? Anton ought to give the holster directly to Camille, but… now it was even more imperative that he do his utmost to guard Caroline against additional scrutiny from the Lord Lumière. Camille was devilishly insightful, he didn’t need any more ammunition than he already had.

But then Anton was potentially obstructing an official, Imperial investigation. If he was found to be withholding evidence, if—

 “Anton.” A quiet voice in his ear pulled him out of his daze. He turned blearily to see Camille, down on his knees in the wreckage beside him. Anton was shaking so hard he could barely stay upright.

“God, look at you.” Camille pinched the bridge of his nose as he closed his eyes for a moment. “You’re but a minute away from shock. What did you injure in the crash?”

“Nothing,” Anton protested numbly. “Nothing serious.”

Nothing serious, he says.” Camille shook his head. “You’re done in here,” he declared. “I’ll have Deschamps gather the rest, I need a respite from his bellyaching. Come outside and sit down. Our transport should nearly be here.”

“You must know him,” Anton said, turning awkwardly on his knees in preparation to crawl out of the car again. Oh, ouch—perhaps the tree he’d hit had done a little more damage than he’d thought.

“Know who?” Camille reached a hand out to steady him but didn’t quite make contact.

“Monsieur Deschamps. You’d never speak of him so—” contemptuously “—familiarly if you didn’t.”

“I have the dubious honor of a prior knowledge of the man, yes.”

“God, I hope he wasn’t a friend before you decided to hate him.” It fell out of Anton’s mouth before he could take it back. Camille looked at him sharply.

“He wasn’t,” he said, quiet but firm. “And nothing about Deschamps can compare in any way at all to our own situation. Now.” He finally extended his hand. “You need to get up and get ready. Our new transport has arrived.”

Anton took Camille’s hand and let him pull him up to his feet, then forced himself to let go as he looked around outside. “Where? I don’t see any horses, or…”

“Not on the ground,” Camille corrected. “Look up.”

Anton did so, and saw a silver speck growing larger and larger as it sailed through the sky at breakneck speed over the nearest mountain range. “What is that?” he asked, gaping.

Camille looked pleased. “Our ride.”

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The Tank: Chapter Six, Part One

Notes: This is a little on the short side today, but my time has been at a premium lately (my honey's on a work trip, so the kidlet's all mine right now). Still, have some h/c followed by some angst!

Title: The Tank, Chapter Six, Part One

***


Chapter Six, Part One



The chaos that ensued was almost ferocious in its subtlety.

Questions were asked—too many questions. Had anyone noticed when the Vicomte was shot? Had they detected any other shots, or was it just the one? How had the bullet hit so accurately? Was it merely luck? Had the original target been someone else, or anyone at all? What had really happened inside the car just after the explosion rocked it off its tracks?

Anton could have answered some of these questions, but his offer to cast a spell on Voclain’s body and discover when exactly he’d died was met from his party with cries of, “It’s useless, all you’ll see is a bullet strike him in the chest!” and “I would rather not watch my gentlewoman break her neck, thank you,” and a particularly pitiful one from Deschamps that was mostly the word “no” repeated over and over, interspersed with “I cannot bear such a thing again.”

The other thing Anton knew that these others didn’t, and that he had no intention of bringing up with anyone, including Dr. Grable, was the fact that there was a spell out there that could give bullets this kind of accuracy in only one shot. Anton didn’t know how far the magic in the palimpsest had been spread, but he wasn’t going to be party to informing previously ignorant parties of it if he didn’t have to. The fewer people who knew about that spell, the better.

It was late, and getting quite cold in the mountains. People from some of the other cars, men better accustomed to the environment, set out walking in both directions to bring help and warn incoming trains that the track was unusable. People took shelter in the ruin, and those with a modicum of a talent for easing pain worked among them, setting a bone here, bandaging a wound there, and hunting down enough laudanum to dull the intense discomfort of those who were damaged inside. There wasn’t enough of it, though. Not nearly.

The train had been carrying a hundred and fifty-seven passengers. Only a hundred and twenty-two of them had survived the initial roll, and every hour seemed to bring a new moment of tragedy.

Citing a bit of experience with healing—although Anton had no good spells for serving the living, only the dead—he left his august party and headed for the common section of the train. He did what he could, which wasn’t enough, not nearly enough. Still, his bag at least came in useful—one of the travelers was a priest and thaumaturge, whose skillset revolved around the relief of suffering in body, mind, and spirit. Anton gladly handed over his stores of silver shavings, iron pellets, gold dust and powdered sulfur so that another person managed to avoid the horrible, all-consuming agony of lying awake through the experience of their own death.

He resolutely didn’t think about Camille. It was therefore a complete and utter surprise when he actually found the man.

“Anton.”

The hand on his shoulder made Anton spin around where he knelt, awkwardly attempting to shield the priest’s thurible from the wind as he doused the latest sufferer in incense. When he saw who it was, his mouth went dry and his feet fell out from under him.

“Camille…” Anton could barely speak his name. He really was here, he was alive. After everything that had happened over the past hour, it hardly seemed possible.

“Feel free to take your rest, my son,” the priest murmured, his rosary now clasped between his hands. He was hardly older than Anton, but he had the same calm aura about him that Cardinal Proulx did. “I’ll be engaged here for some time yet. Comméndo te omnipoténti Deo, caríssime frater, et ei, cuius es creatúra, commítto…

Camille helped him off the ground, and a moment later Anton was in his arms. He closed his eyes and held on tight, pressing his face to the crook of Camille’s neck and just breathing, breathing. He felt the rush of his lover’s blood beneath his sensitive lips, heard the strong beat of his heart, and for a moment, just a moment, he let himself be weak. Thank god you’re here. “Why are you here?” he asked once he had enough control of his vocal chords to do so.

“Because I need to get back to Paris,” he said. “And because you were on this train, and I preferred to remain as close to you as possible for as long as I could.”

The sense of well-being he felt from hearing that was almost enough to melt the shard of question that suddenly speared Anton’s mind like shrapnel.

“Do you know the members of my party?” he asked quietly, pulling back a bit so he could look at Camille’s face.

Camille nodded. “I know of them all, although I’ve only met two of them in person.” He grimaced. “I’m afraid I’ll have to make myself known to them at this point, although I greatly prefer not to.”

“Why is that?”

“Revealing myself to those who have some influence around the Imperial Court is something I try to avoid if at all possible. The less they know of me, the less they’ll be able to presume they can control me if I end up having to investigate them.”

Anton took a bracing breath. “Is one of the men you knew Vicomte Voclain?”

Camille looked a bit puzzled. “I did, very informally. Why?”

“Because…he’s dead.”

Camille stilled. “Is he now.”

“He was shot.”

Anton didn’t have to say anything else. Camille was clever, much cleverer than he, better at putting the pieces of a criminal puzzle together. That such a shot was, in all likelihood, magically assisted, and that of everyone on the train, the only two people who had come into contact with such weapons that Anton knew of were himself and Camille. That Camille had no qualms about killing, if he needed to, and indeed that he had been prepared to do so to another member of the aristocracy. That in the confusion of an event like this, it would have been possible to fire without being seen.

Camille took a step away from him. “I would never allow that—” he pointed at the man the priest was speaking prayers over “—to result from a mandate or investigation of mine. Nor any of these pointless deaths.”

Anton had hurt him. How deeply, he didn’t know, but he already regretted it. Of course Camille wouldn’t let innocents be hurt if he could help it, much less ally himself with the Dévoué  in anything. “I know that, I do, I’m so—” he began, but Camille shook his head stiffly.

“Let us return to your party,” he said, his voice as cold as the rising wind. “For I have several things of which to inform them.”