Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Tank: Chapter Five, Part One

Notes: Back to The Tank! Have some introductions, enjoy the wine, prepare for chaos!

Title: The Tank: Chapter Five, Part One

***


Chapter Five, Part One



It was just as well that Anton had packed when he did, because before the sun set he, Grable, the three principle representatives of the emperor and their entourage were on their way to Paris via a private train car. Not an entirely private train, thankfully—Anton didn’t think he could have taken that. The private car was stressful enough, for a variety of reasons.

The men sent by the Emperor to coerce—er, persuade—them to Paris were a disparate lot. One of them was a clergyman, a cardinal in fact, his blood-red robes making him stand out like his avian namesake among the dark, crowlike garb the rest of them wore. He was an older man, with a severe face but a surprisingly approachable demeanor. Anton, who was disinclined toward religion on moral grounds, nevertheless found His Eminence Cardinal Proulx to be a thoughtful, pleasant person who was more curious about his thaumaturgy than condemning. The relationship between God and magic played out in fraught ways at times, both politically and philosophically, but the cardinal was nothing but polite. Anton intended to corner him for a discussion of the church’s position on supporting the empire’s violence against its own indigenous populations when they had a moment.

The thaumaturge that accompanied the party wasn’t much of a conversationalist, to be honest. Monsieur Deschamps appeared to be a ritualist type—“Lit up like a cathedral at Christmas, he’s got so many magical devices on him,” Dr. Grable had remarked—and while that was interesting to Anton, the man didn’t seem very inclined to discuss the craft.

“I prefer not to speak about them,” was all Deschamps said when Anton tried to bring his devices up in conversation once they were settled in their car. “As long as I’m the only one who knows what they are, no one will be able to counter them all.”

Anton had chuckled. “Are you worried about an assassination attempt, then?” he asked.

Deschamps had scowled in return. “You have no idea what I’ve been through,” he declared, gripping the silver triquetra pendant dangling around his neck so hard his knuckles turned white. “I won’t have my protections dismissed by someone who’s never put his life on the line for the greater good before! Good day, sir!” He had retreated, leaving Anton completely nonplussed. Whatever had happened to the man, it had left him rather on edge.

The final imperial representative was a vicomte, because of course he was. There was no escaping the grasp of the aristocracy when the emperor himself had sent the delegation. Vicomte Wilhelm Piotr Swartzman Voclain had an estate outside Strasbourg, hence a very strong motive to keep the empire whole—Strasbourg was technically still in the “heart” of the French Empire, but it would be one of the first to chip away in real unrest, a way for dissenters to strike at Napoleon’s most powerful allies.

Vicomte Voclain was charming, personable, and about as genuine as a fish sporting fur. He was handsome, a bit taller than Anton and broad through the shoulders and chest, very fit, and also very industrious when it came to picking and choosing his company. He had taken one look at Anton and immediately deduced that they had nothing to talk about, and apart from a brief and genteel greeting hadn’t looked his way since. He seemed wary of Dr. Grable, for all that he had been sent to Zurich to persuade the man to his cause, and he was very clearly uninterested in moralizing with the cardinal or putting up with Deschamps’ fluttering nerves. So he’d found another person to keep him company.

“That is too clever!” Caroline exclaimed from the other side of the car, a glass of wine in one hand, the other resting on the vicomte’s arm. Anton glanced her way and grimaced. Her prediction that she could find a way to finagle herself down to the capitol had come true. She had undoubtedly taken one look at Voclain, determined him to be her ideal target, and persuaded him into doing exactly what she wanted in less than an hour.

Her retinue had been dismissed to another car, with the exception of an older woman who was her “travel companion,” sitting back and knitting quietly. The presence of the other lady was meant to encourage chasteness between the married Caroline and the decidedly rakish Voclain, but her presence didn’t seem to be deterring the vicomte a whit.

Voclain smiled a vast white smile. “You would have thought it twice as clever if you could have seen it for yourself, my lady.”

“I have no doubt of that at all. It’s so rare to find a gentlemen such as yourself paying such close attention to the comings and goings of his own estate, sir.”

“I’ve never understood the English need to reduce all important labor to the realm of servants,” Voclain declared. “If I am to be the lord of my manor, then I must know every aspect of its workings. How else will I know if I am squeezing enough blood from my stones, no?”

“How indeed!”

This sort of entitled prig is exactly why the empire is careening toward an uprising, Anton thought uncharitably to himself. If he’d been alone with Caroline, it was the sort of observation he’d have enjoyed sharing with her, but she’d clearly been very careful not to give away their connection. He appreciated that. Having given her a “no,” she was handling it gracefully. He only hoped she wouldn’t get too ambitious with her spy-gathering.

What a joke. That woman only knows how to be ambitious. In that case, he wished her much joy of it, because he wouldn’t be assisting her.

The only bright spot in the entire process so far, apart from having an assured income for a time, was the glimpse Anton had gotten of a man getting onto the public part of the train when he’d boarded earlier—a man who looked, at least from behind, very much like Camille. Was he returning to Paris already? Was he doing it because he wanted to be close to Anton, or because he had already been summoned home by his masters? Or did he have another destination in mind, one that would have him leaving the train well before the three-day journey to Paris was over?

Anton didn’t know, but if he had to be satisfied with so little of Camille, after he had just had so, so much of him, he would do his best.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Second Coming of Chicken Little

Notes: Hey there! So, knife camp was fun, and having my ficwife and her gent around is great, but it hasn't left time for writing. So, today you get something very new, and weird, that I wrote for my MFA. It's got a chicken, animal sacrifice, and minor acts of possession. If any of that bothers you, please stop here.

I'll have more of The Tank for you next week!

Title: The Second Coming of Chicken Little

***

The Second Coming of Chicken Little




The chicken is lying in a bag, hanging from the handlebar of a bicycle. It’s a young chicken, and clearly the lowest in the flock’s pecking order, so to speak—its feathers are patchy and half of its upper beak has been broken off. It’s in a bag, but it’s not tied up. It’s just lying there on its side. No scratching, no fluffing, no clucking. This is a chicken that has accepted its fate. This chicken is one with the universe.
It shits in the bottom of the bag. Take that, universe.
The bag sways back and forth on the handlebars for a long time, and the chicken sways with it. The movement is soothing, despite the heat and the general foulness in the confined space. The chicken’s beady eyes are half-closed, mesmerized by the rhythmic motion. When it stops, the chicken doesn’t even realize it until the bag is shifting, up and down before bump-bump-bumping along in time with the pace of whoever is holding it. The chicken is disgruntled, but it still doesn’t speak. Why bother? It’s going wherever it’s going.
The murky light turns dim and dark, and the air in the bag gets even closer. The end of it opens up, and the chicken stares up at a large, freakish face—no beak, no wattle, and a comb so short it might as well not even be there. The face makes an unintelligible grunting sound, then huge hands descend to pluck the chicken from its plastic nest.
Now the chicken has something to say, and boy does it say it. It curses out the man holding it, all the people sitting in a circle stound them like a bunch of slow, stupid bugs, and the undignified way it’s suddenly dangling head-first over a grimy old clay pot, the edge rimed with a pinkish-gray foam that smells suspiciously like death, and hey wait, what’s that shiny thing coming close to its—
One hand holds it steady while the other one cuts its throat. It flaps, startled by the pain, even more startled by the way it begins to leak. Its head is covered in wet and salt, and its vision goes blurry. It’s shaken a little over the pot, plink plink plink to get the blood in, then turned upright and set on the packed earth floor to the left of the sharp-handed, freak-faced human.
The chicken is dead. It just doesn’t know it yet.
The stupid bug people make stupid noises, pointing and staring at the chicken. The chicken ignores them, because it is not moving, thank you very much. The chicken is happy just to sit here and take stock of its life and impending death and wonder where it all went wrong. The bag, definitely. Leaving the bag is where it all went wrong, the chicken remembers that now.
The human to its right says something new, pours something else into the pot, stirs it all together and throws some of the liquid onto the back of chicken, and then—
Oh. Goodness. How strange. It’s like…like being a weed clinging to the crevice of a rock, only the rock is inside of you and the weed is outside of you, but it tells you what to do and you do it. The chicken knows that the best thing for it is not to move, but it doesn’t feel like it can refuse the weed-voice. It’s clinging to its tiny brain, firing up nerves that have been resignedly shutting down for the past thirty seconds. The chicken, who is still slightly more alive than dead, but definitely more dead than alive, gets to its feet.
It reels to the left first, and runs right into the wall of the hut where this travesty is taking place. It goes right, gets up speed for a few feet, then trips over the desiccated maw of a crocodile who predeceased the chicken by decades in the center of the room, where a pile of bones makes a nest for the pot. The chicken falls onto its back, and is still for a long moment. The human bugs make noises, very loud noises, which wouldn’t bother the chicken except that the weed inside its head is very insistent that it keep moving, because “hand to the ancestors, what are chickens made of these days that they can’t handle a few seconds of post-sacrificial cavorting?”
The chicken kicks once, twice, then manages to flip onto its belly.
There is loud noise again, but it sounds higher this time, happier, in a way. The weed begins to withdraw its tendrils from the chicken’s brain, taking away most of its extra perception as well, which is really for the best considering what happens to it next. The chicken is completely out of it when new hands, tentative hands, pick it up and, with a great deal of prompting, break its wings in their sockets. It barely even feels the vibration run through its body when those same hands break its legs as well, although a final wisp of indignation does manage to float through its tiny brain when the hands have to break its legs again, because they didn’t do it well enough the first time. Honestly, “what are people coming to these days, when they can’t even break the legs of their chicken sacrifices like they’d break the legs of their enemies, swift and sure?”
Wait, what? Never mind, never…never mind…
The chicken is plucked, and cooked, and eaten, and knows no more.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Tank: Chapter Four, Part Two

Notes: I'm kind of impressed I managed to get this done, given all the stuff that's been happening lately. We're about to set off on our adventure--enjoy!

Title: The Tank: Chapter Four, Part Two

***


Chapter Four, Part Two



Dr. Benedict Grable, master of thaumaturgy and feared head of the thaumaturgical department of the university, whose reputation preceded him across three continents, was sitting in the tall-backed chair behind his massive desk when Anton was ushered into his office. With his hands clasped over the front of his black robes and his elbows propped low on the arm rests, he might have looked somewhat relaxed to a casual observer. To Anton, who had never known the man to approach a state of relaxation over his entire two years here, it merited a double-take.

Ah. This was not relaxation. This was a brood.

Dr. Grable, for all his contemporary honors and achievements in thaumaturgical theory and teaching, was most well known for his rare abilities as a practical thaumaturge—not just practical, but battle-tested. He fought for the Empire in the last major conflict, the terrible mess with Russia—fought so hard and so well that after five years of fighting, he achieved the rank of colonel and could have gone higher if he hadn’t declined for a teaching position. His transition had been seen, Anton understood, as a demotion by many of his peers, but Anton thought he knew it for what it really was—an escape.

Dr. Grable had gone on to live as normal a life as a man who had killed hundreds, if not thousands of people with his spellwork could. He married, raised three children, and worked his way up the ladder at the university, which now had a reputation as one of the finest thaumaturgical institutes on the continent. It had been a safe place, a place of pure learning and research…until Gerald Montgomery’s possession of two of his fellow students, at least. What Gerald did to them was arguable worse than what he’d done to Anton. Anton might have died, but at least he hadn’t been forced to murder other people first.

 And it had all gone on under Dr. Grable’s nose.

Montgomery’s actions weren’t Dr. Grable’s fault, any more than they were Anton’s for having the palimpsest Montgomery wanted with him in the first place. It was something of a cold comfort, though. Anton stopped in front of his teacher’s desk and inclined his head.

“Sit.” Dr. Grable pointed at the chair next to Anton, who pulled it out and sat down. The cushion was still warm from its previous occupant.

“Good.” The doctor pulled a bottle of what looked like a thick, syrupy port out of his desk, along with two small blue cups. He poured them each a dram, then pushed Anton’s across the desk. “Now drink.” He grimaced. “Trust me, you’ll need it.”

Anton took a ginger sip, then relaxed a bit as the sweet fire of it hit his tongue. It was a port, but spicier than what he was used to, with a hint of a cinnamon aftertaste. It was exquisite, and probably very expensive.

“My wife died two years ago,” Dr. Grable said out of nowhere. He wasn’t looking at Anton now; he stared sideways out the tall, stained-glass window instead. “A few months before you arrived here. It was a sudden thing, a case of cerebral apoplexy. She died very fast, and the physician told me it was probably relatively painless. It was the way many people would choose to go. Hell, I would choose to go that way. But Leona?” He shook his head. “I have no doubt she blistered Saint Peter with the sharp side of her tongue when she got to the pearly gates, because he had denied her one last chance to fight. If it meant getting to say goodbye to me, to the boys, to our grandchildren…she would have withstood any pain, to get that opportunity. That would be a fight worth having, to her.”

He gestured toward the door. “Those men the emperor sent here? They don’t think like my Leona.” His sneer rearranged the craggy lines of his face, drawing his lips back from his long white teeth. “They want any fight that will let them test their might. Or, in this case, our might.”

Our might?” Anton asked, somewhat redundantly but surely he could be excused, having learned more personal information from his mentor in the last few seconds than he had over the entire course of their previous relationship.

“Thaumaturgical might, that is. The power of magic.” He waved a hand through the air like he was waving a wand. “The last great war was a proving ground for thaumaturgy, a chance to show that it could be an effective weapon in combat. I regret being a part of that,” he said, surprising Anton, “but it’s done, and would have been done with or without my participation. Nowadays, the question isn’t if, so much as how. How much and how many and how often, it all goes on and on. They have plans, those gentlemen. And they want to drag me into them, damn their hides.”

“Well,” Anton offered after a tense moment of silence, “it makes sense for them to want you involved. You said it yourself, sir. You were an integral, and successful, part of the last conflict.”

Dr. Grable shook his head. “They don’t want me to spell their rifle barrels or cannons, Seiber. They want me for my other talent.”

“Your…” It took a moment for Anton to remember it. Dr. Grable was famed not only for his spell construction, but also for his ability to— “They want you to look at the spells that are already being used?” That didn’t make any sense.

“To, as they put it, ‘detect and interpret the thaumaturgical signatures under development and certify that they do as their caster intends.’” Dr. Grable took another drink. “They don’t trust the mages under their command. They want to make sure someone is holding their feet to the fire, which likely means that at least one practitioner’s tried a double-cross already. They mean for me to be their judge and jury. At least they won’t need me for the role of executioner,” he added dryly. “I’ve no doubt there are plenty of competent neck-cutters where we’re going.”

“We, sir?” It wasn’t wholly unexpected, but Anton had also been hoping that Dr. Grable would broach the subject a little differently. Perhaps by starting with a “Congratulations on graduating, you’re going to do great things, and if you like, you can start with this.”

In retrospect, it seemed like a foolish hope given what Anton knew of the man.

“Oh, yes. One man might keep a secret but two never can—the emperor’s people are hedging their bets in case I turn out to be a backstabber or am otherwise disappointing.” Dr. Grable’s expression softened minutely. “It helps that your skillset is perfectly suited to the task. You can make the dead walk again, Seiber, after a fashion. You find truths that other people like to keep hidden, and you’re a survivor. Damn good at that last part,” he added. “And I’m going to need an assistant who can watch both of our backs where we’re going.

“You’ll be paid,” he went on, straightening up a bit. “Double your current teaching stipend, plus expenses for travel and meals and the like. You’ll get a hell of a recommendation out of it at the end, if all goes well. Not the type of thing that will make you friends in Oxford, perhaps, but why would you return to that stuffy, theory-drunk puddle anyhow? I told the representative committee that continuing my work here was nonnegotiable, and so it would only be a three-month term including travel, but a lot can happen in that amount of time.

“What do you say, Seiber?” Dr. Grable arched one thick gray brow. “Care to run off to Paris with me?”

Lord, when he put it that way… Anton down the rest of his port in one long, intoxicating draught. He set the glass down, gasping only a little, and said, “Ready when you are, sir.”