Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Tank: Chapter One, Part One

Notes: Finally! I'm so sorry for the delays, but there was absolutely no way around them. But now, here we are! Enjoy some ruminating Anton and a brief reminder of all that's come before ;)

Title: The Tank: Chapter One, Part One


The Tank

Chapter One, Part One

Anton Seiber disrobed mechanically, working the heavy graduation gown up and over his head before setting it aside on top of his workbench. The hat lay flat on its mortarboard, slightly crushed beneath the thick blue and white sash that indicated Anton’s new status as a graduated Master of Thaumaturgy. The sight ought to have filled him with joy—two years ago, this accomplishment had been all he’d ever wanted.

Now it barely lapped at the edges of his dreams.

Anton knew better than to indulge in flights of fancy at this stage in his life. As a young man, he had been overconfident, assured of his place and purpose, and the abrupt drop in prestige and fortune that followed his father’s death had felt like getting his lungs ripped from his chest. He had survived it—there had been no choice—and recovered his mental equilibrium, but he’d never quite reached those heights of hopefulness again.

Getting to the Universität Zürich to begin his graduate training had been a whole new lesson in expecting the worst—he’d been robbed, beaten, missed his train, and ended up involved in the murder investigation of a member of Napoleon III’s family, led by a mysterious, calculating, and surprisingly dashing lumière. Anton looked back on that incident with a sense of…appreciation. It had been hideous in many ways, and he’d nearly been killed several times, but he would never regret meeting Camille.

Even contemplating such a thing felt impossible to him.

Things got better at the university for a while, before becoming much, much worse—a fellow English student aligned himself with the Dévoué, local nationalists bent on rising up against the French Empire. He murdered four other Englishmen in Zürich in his quest to find a magical palimpsest that contained a dangerous spell he wanted to acquire. It just so happened that Anton was the one who had the palimpsest, something he’d taken possession of during his romp on the train, and a puzzle that he’d promised Camille he would find the solution to.

Gerald Montgomery took it from Anton, nearly killing him in the process, and it was only by the skin of his teeth and Camille’s fortuitous appearance that Anton hadn’t ended as a stain on the university’s cobblestone grounds over a year ago.

The palimpsest was gone, but Camille hadn’t blamed Anton for it. It had necessitated his departure, though, which Anton regretted with a passion. Over the intervening months, Camille had managed to stop by only twice, and each time only for a night. It was not enough.  Not nearly enough.

Anton sighed as he finally freed himself from the last few trappings of the ceremony he’d just endured. The heavy robe had felt like it was strangling him. Or perhaps he was choking on the realization that, despite his best intentions, he had had a few hopes for his graduation. He’d sent his mother an official invitation along with his last letter home, as well as the money she would need to make the journey from London.

Her response had arrived only three days ago, full of regret that she couldn’t make it—her health wasn’t very good at the moment, and she had an appointment with her solicitor that simply couldn’t be rescheduled. Anton hoped she’d put the money toward a doctor—his mother had neglected herself far too frequently after her husband’s death, doing her utmost to provide for her son while fending off the creditors who seemed to come out of the woodwork like deathwatch beetles.

As cutthroat as any highwaymen, and twice as determined.

As much as he wished to see his mother, there was someone else he wanted to see even more, but there was no way to get Camille a letter. Anton didn’t even know his real last name. As a lumière, Camille was one of the foremost investigators in the entire empire, a man that no one could refuse to cooperate with without bringing down the heavy hand of the emperor himself. He was also in constant demand, searching out those who plotted against the emperor, and there was no shortage of Dévoué these days. The last time he’d stopped by, nearly three months ago, he’d looked utterly exhausted.

Anton closed his eyes, picturing Camille’s face in his mind as easily as he could picture his own. A long, handsome face, interrupted in the middle with a well-groomed moustache. Piercing eyes, dark and somehow glittering, like they held the glare of a dozen candles within them. A surprisingly soft, supple mouth, capable of worship of the most secret, intimate kind…

It does you no good to pine over what you cannot change, Anton reminded himself, forcing his eyes open. He knew he’d never be able to get in touch with Camille—even the latest, groundbreaking thaumaturgical methods wouldn’t work on him. Camille had an intellect with few equals, but he had a great disability as well, one that prevented even the slightest of spells from working on his person. He could observe them as long as he didn’t interfere in any way, but they would dissipate at the barest touch.

Perhaps if Camille had allowed Anton experiment a bit, Anton could have come up with a way that would allow them to speak over a distance, but there simply hadn’t been the time. Camille was practically unique, and it had been more important for Anton to spend the few moments they had together in mutual comfort than anything else.

I miss him. Anton had never missed anyone quite this much. It didn’t help that he had no one else to turn to, not even as a friend. Caroline, his oldest companion and a fellow thaumaturge, was in London with her husband last he heard. The few acquaintances he’d made here at the university had scattered in the aftermath of Montgomery’s reign of terror. He hadn’t seen his own mother in over two years.

All you need is a position. Find a generous position that will give you both time and funds, and you can travel back to London to visit your mother and ensure her comfort, and visit Caroline to boot. As a newly-minted Master of Thaumaturgy, a profession in high demand across both the continent and back in Britain, Anton should have been up to his ears in offers at this point.

He wasn’t. His association with Montgomery, brief though it was, had proved to be poisonous. No one in the Empire wanted to hire him because he was an Englishman, the same as that murderous bastard, and no one back in Britain wanted to hire him because the Montgomeries and everything that they had ever touched was blacklisted. The Dévoué might flourish on the continent, but not in Her Majesty’s realm, not if the royal family had anything to do about it.

Perhaps Professor Grable would allow him to stay on here as a researcher, or an assistant professor. Anton grimaced. Teaching wasn’t his strong suit, but he would do what he had to do in order to support himself. And if he stayed, perhaps it would be easier for Camille to come back to him.

“Stop it,” he told himself firmly. “You’re being utterly moony.”

“Are you really?” a familiar voice asked from behind him. Anton spun around, his mouth hanging agape. What…it couldn’t be. How…when… “Why is that, darling?”

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