Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Tank: Chapter Eight, Part One

Notes: You get a looong chapter today, because...well, just because. Enjoy it! We're about to crank up the intrigue! Also, re: the image, yes, I'm repurposing the Palais Royale. Because I can, darn it.

Title: The Tank: Chapter Eight, Part One

***


Chapter Eight, Part One



The airship had set down in what looked like a cobblestone plaza surrounded on three sides by tall, multi-story buildings made of stark, pale stone. Torches ringed the plaza, and one of the buildings was lit from the inside. The travelers clustered awkwardly at the base of the airship, waiting to be given direction as the captain and Bert stayed aboard and Camille took his time to appear. The air was thick with smoke, too strong and too acrid to come from the nearby fires. Anton wrinkled his nose as he looked around, searching for the source of the scent.

“Petrol,” Dr. Grable muttered. “It’s a new type of fuel, a derivative of tar, I believe.”

Of course the doctor had already known what Anton was just keying into. “I thought the airship ran on magic and…and Nothing,” he whispered back, keeping a weather eye toward the approach. A man in a long, scholarly robe was walking out to meet them, flanked by servants displaying matching imperial regalia.

“There’s far more going on in this place than can be accounted for by an airship, lad,” Dr. Grable replied just as the newcomer reached them.

“Welcome, honored guests, welcome.” He inclined his head. “What a terrible business, these difficulties you’ve faced. I’m quite pleased that most of you have made it to the Institute whole and healthy. I’m Lord Jourdain, and I’ll be responsible for your welfare until tomorrow, when the duke our Chancellor can greet you himself.” Camille finally descended from the airship, and the look on Lord Jourdain’s face tightened slightly.

“You’re as gracious a host as you ever were,” Camille said with perfect, icy politeness. “Has the vicomte’s brother been contacted?”

“It is late,” Lord Jourdain demurred. “Not everyone sits up by their communicators into the night, waiting for trouble to find them. We will speak with him tomorrow. For now, I have been instructed to show you to your rooms and provide any assistance, personal—” he nodded respectfully at Caroline “—or medical.” This time he looked at Dr. Grable, and Anton was surprised at how gracious he seemed. “Indeed, I have procured a litter for you that will bring you to the infirmary, sir.” An odd device Anton had never seen before—certainly not a regular human-borne litter, but a table set on broad wheels that looked more like a rolling bed than a simple, serviceable hospital item—appeared, drawn by a single servant.

“What good is an assistant if I can’t make him carry me around?” Dr. Grable asked, but the tension in him eased as he settled onto the litter.

“He will be escorted to his rooms, sir. I will provide you with the means to summon him as you see fit.” Lord Jourdain made a gesture, and Dr. Grable was taken away. Anton felt an urge to run after him—he was his mentor, after all, and Anton was as much responsible for his well-being as the other way around.

“They’re quite miraculous,” Cardinal Proulx murmured to Anton, perhaps sensing his discomfort. “The Institute’s methods of communication, that is. Don’t worry, you won’t be separated from your master for long.”

Monsieur Deschamps was already stepping up to fill the void of Dr. Grable’s exit. “I just want to leave,” he insisted. “I did what I was sent to do, and nothing about this whole affair went right, not from the beginning. I just want to go back to my home in the city. Will you arrange a coach for me?”

Lord Jourdain’s expression cooled again. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir.”

“Why not?”

“Because two members of your party are dead.” His voice was perfectly implacable—Anton wondered whether he and Camille had been educated by the same people, to end up with such a perfect mimicry of each other. Ridiculous. Camille had been separated from other children due to his state of soullessness, Anton knew that much. The fact that the two men comported themselves so similarly was an issue of court manners, most likely. “One of them a lord. An investigation is called for, and while that investigation is taking place, no one involved in the incident may leave the premises. You have stayed here before, Monsieur, and you are most welcome again. I will take pains to ensure your continued comfort.

“Now, Lady Cuthbert,” he continued, ignoring the stuttering Deschamps as if he wasn’t even there, “if you’ll be so kind as to follow Madame Vernier, she shall tend to your needs while I ensure that your baggage is delivered to the appropriate room.”

“I would be delighted,” Caroline said, ever cordial. “It’s been a rather trying day, and I’m looking forward to a respite from it all.” She seemed to wilt a little for the first time that evening, and Anton bit back a smile. He knew what she was doing—Caroline was adept at playing into the common apprehensions about her sex as a means of getting others to let their guards down around her.

Anton’s urge to smile faded as he realized that the reason she was doing it now was likely in an effort to make it easier to steal secrets. He glanced away, out into the darkness beyond the airship, the one direction that wasn’t blocked with a building. A low rumble seemed to emanate from the gloom—he couldn’t quite see what was making it, but he could hear it clearly, if faintly, and beneath that, the noise of men’s voices calling to one another.

What was going on out there?

“You’ll find out soon enough,” a soft voice spoke from just behind him. Anton barely contained his jump as he turned and faced Camille. “You must be tired, now. Allow me to escort you to your chambers.”

“How do you even know where my chambers are?” Anton challenged him.

“I know where Dr. Granger is to be housed, and your rooms adjoin his.”

Oh. That was…not quite what Anton had expected. He didn’t know what he had been expecting, but it wasn’t that. This is no place to lower your guard, he chided himself. “Thank you. I’d appreciate that.”

“Excellent. Come with me.” Camille swept off down the path without a second glance at Lord Jourdain. Interestingly, his lordship said nothing about the lumière basically absconding with a guest, simply let them pass with a cordial nod to Anton, which he returned in a rush.

They walked into the building ahead of them, which turned out to be something of a dormitory—the bottom floor seemed to mostly consist of common rooms, but at the far south-facing end a spacious suite was situated. Next to it was a much smaller door, which led into a small but well-appointed set of rooms, one for sleeping, one a washroom. A wardrobe showed that some simple clothes had been provided, as well as a tray of food and a steaming hot tin bath in the other room. Anton was glad that he wouldn’t need to brave a communal bath in order to cleanse himself.

Camille shut the door behind them, and it was as though all of the nervous energy that had been keeping Anton on his feel since the train wreck abandoned him at once. He slumped down onto the bed, then straightened up with a hiss as his ribs complained. He touched them gingerly, his fingers running over the bump of the holster inside of his vest.

Then he remembered that Camille was there, and looked up anxiously.

Camille was looking straight back, a worried frown marring his face. “Anton,” he said, quiet but firm, “you must tell me what happened on the train.”

“I didn’t hurt anyone,” Anton insisted, too fatigued to realize what he’d given away until Camille’s expression darkened further.

“Who did hurt someone, then? Who is responsibly for the death of Vicomte Voclain and that poor woman?”

“I…” Anton’s thoughts swam. “I found…but it’s just, it’s too late to be of any use, I wasn’t allowed to cast my spells on the car and now…”

“Anton.” Camille came to him, but instead of looming over him forebodingly, he knelt down on one knee in front of him, reached out and clasped his free hand. “I do not blame you for anything that happened on that train,” he said, slow and distinct. “Anything. But I am a lumière, and I have a crime to solve. Help me to protect the innocent by giving me what I need to discover the guilty.”

How could he refuse such a plea? “I found this,” Anton said, pulling out the holster. He stared at it, running his fingertips over the silver design in the leather. “There was no gun in it, but that could have been disposed of outside. I wanted to test it against the bullet in Voclain’s chest, but I didn’t have time. Still…it’s more likely, isn’t it, that someone shot him during the crash than that someone made an impossible shot from outside the train? The spell in the palimpsest…it can’t have gotten so far so fast, can it?”

Camille stared in silence at the holster for a moment. “Is it too late to cast a spell to discover its owner?”

“In all likelihood,” Anton said morosely. “I doubt I would be able to get anything definitive.”

“Would you put it under stasis anyway? Just in case?”

“A stasis spell?” They weren’t complicated, but they did take some time. “Why?”

“Because I believe I know who this belongs to, and I think I can use it to trap him when the time is right. Which it won’t be for some time, if my suspicions are correct. I need to keep him here, and keep him worried.” Camille snorted. “Not that keeping such a man worried is a challenge.”

“Wait, are you…are you talking about Monsieur Deschamps?” He was the only one Anton could think of who fit the description. “Why would he do such a thing?”

“I don’t know yet. Which is why I need him here, and fretting, so that I may spend more time observing him.” Camille touched the outline of the silver. “A beautiful design—Hungarian, if I’m not mistaken. Quite striking. Thank the good lord for idiot criminals, is all I can say.”

Anton frowned. “Why does it being Hungarian make Monsieur Deschamps an idiot?”

“I’ll tell you tomorrow. You’re done in right now, I’m afraid.” Camille squeezed his hand, then stood up. “Don’t bother with the stasis spell until tomorrow, it’s more for show than anything else at this point.”

“Not to mention, I don’t have my holdall with all my spell components with me.”

“That as well,” Camille agreed. “I’ll bid you good night, then, and see you again in the morning.” There was no kiss, but Anton was all right with that. He felt absolutely foul with sweat and blood, and was going to wash off before climbing into that feather bed if it was the last thing he did.

“Anton…”

He glanced up and saw half-turned at the door, watching him. “Was there anything else you wanted to tell me?”

So much. So very much, but I can’t. “No,” Anton murmured, averting his eyes. “Nothing else. Good night, Camille.”

“Good night, then.”

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Pitch Wars and a New Release: The Art of Possession!

Hey darlins!

Two big, big things today, one of which I'm rather conflicted about. First, the awesome thing--I succeeded in getting into this year's Pitch Wars! For those who don't know, Pitch Wars is an annual contest where aspiring authors pitch their manuscripts to those a little further along the path in the hopes of getting a hands-on mentorship to prep their novel for an agent showcase in February. It's a big deal, and I'm thrilled to be working with Janet Walden-West and Anne Raven (#TeamSubversive) on my book Magical Hazmat, about a biomagical engineer who wants to introduce more science into the magical messes she cleans up. Over 3500 people applied to be mentees, and there were a little over a hundred spots available. I beat some long odds for this, and I'm utterly and completely thrilled.







Now, for my second piece of news, which...*sigh*. Under normal circumstances I'd be thrilled to have a book coming out, but this one is coming out with Dreamspinner. I finished it at the beginning of the year, before things got as dire with the press as they are now, and was paid an advance for it. Until I earn that advance out, I can't take this book back, because I simply can't afford to.

That said, I love this book, which is called The Art of Possession. It's a modern-day adventure/Indiana Jones story, with more mutual affection and less thieving of priceless cultural artifacts. If that sounds good to you, please consider picking it up.








Blurb: When a treasure-hunting black ops soldier and a disgraced, reckless archeologist team up in search of a priceless artifact, they might get more than they bargained for.

Ever since leaving the Green Berets to work in private security, Alex Tucker has longed for some excitement—and he’s about to get his wish.

Archeologist Malcolm Armstrong needs the chance to prove he isn’t a fraud. Along with Alex, he’s hired to track down and authenticate a valuable scepter, in a hunt that turns deadlier than either of them imagined as they search dangerous locations across three continents and try to stay ahead of the factions who want the treasure for themselves—and Malcolm and Alex dead.

Just as they realize the feelings between them transcend convenience and the thrill of the chase, a rival reemerges, threatening everything.

The Tank: Chapter Seven, Part Two

Notes: Oh my gosh, what a whirlwind week it's been! I've got another post coming up with some BIG announcements in it, but first, let's have some story, shall we?

Title: The Tank: Chapter Seven, Part Two

***


Chapter Seven, Part Two



Anton considered himself to be comprehensively well-versed in the art of thaumaturgy. Yes, his specialty had nothing to do with massive moving contraptions such as this airship, but he’d taken all the basic classes of spellwork and had a decent understanding of both engineering and design, thanks to his father’s abilities as an inventor. He wore a translation device that tuned the ear and the tongue to expertise in seven different languages, for heaven’s sake. This airship, while impressive, didn’t immediately stun him into awe.

What stunned him was the look on Caroline’s face as she was escorted inside and settled down, along with plenty of extra padding, to strap in. She seemed positively rapturous, her eyes darting all over the place, her mouth slightly agape as she took it all in. Caroline was better at pure equational thaumaturgy than Anton by a longshot. She wasn’t the greatest at putting her creations into practice, but as theoreticians went she was one of the best in all of England. The fact that she appeared so intrigued was interesting, and also alarming to Anton. If Camille caught sight of her now, he would know something was going on.

Monsieur Deschamps and Cardinal Proulx were settled in a few minutes later, with Camille completing their sextet on the far end. Anton couldn’t see him from where he was sitting, and he was all right with that—he had more than enough to worry about without staring into the face of his lover and wondering if the man meant to give him the cold shoulder for the rest of their time together. He thought about the bodies in the hold below, Caroline’s poor lady-in-waiting and Voclain, who was a bastard but who still shouldn’t have died that way. He thought of the fine holster tucked inside his own vest, and of the too-numerous possibilities for the true identity of the vicomte’s murderer.

Anton took one self-indulgent minute to close his eyes and wish that he hadn’t accepted Dr. Grable’s invitation to join him in Paris, to try and imagine the arc of his life if he’d refused to go along with it. Poverty. Disgrace. Personal and professional dead ends. Perhaps jumping both feet first into a potential murderous conspiracy was worth avoiding those fates.

A low whirring, starting so faint that for a minute Anton didn’t even realize what he was hearing, finally registered in his ears. The ship wasn’t moving yet, but the engines seemed to be warming up. Somewhere beneath him, a horrendous creak emerged as a disconcerting counterpoint to the whirr.

“What the bloody hell was that?” Deschamps shrieked. Anton was glad someone else had said it, because the same words were on the tip of his tongue.

“Something in the engine room!” Caroline shouted back, looking excited. “Probably linked to their method of lift!” She stared about their little cabin, entranced. “Look at the auras!”

Auras? Aura-viewing was the basest level of thaumaturgy, something even hedge-witches could do. Nevertheless, Anton took a deep breath and centered himself as best he could, ignoring his aches and pains and the horrible noise and clearing his mind of everything but the thought of magic. When he opened his eyes—

“Oh.” Oh. My. God. Spellwork spiraled all around them, equations pounded into the actual fabric of the metal at their backs and beneath their seats. It glowed a bright, silvery blue, and crossed its own path over and over again, a near-infinite loop of powerful symbology made flesh—so to speak—in the ship. “Sir.” Anton turned to Dr. Grable, but the older man had actually managed to fall asleep. It was probably for the best, what with the pain he had to be in, but Anton was disappointed for his sake. This was a wondrous thing to see.

“The beauty of the holy design of the Lord our Father,” Anton heard the cardinal murmur. Despite not being much of a religious man, he had to agree with the sentiment.

The ship was practically in the air before Anton registered it, he was so absorbed in the movement of the spells. The groan got louder, the whirr intensified, and Anton could tell from the way his stomach suddenly swooped into his throat that they had achieved lift. Incredible. They were flying!

I wish I could see it, even though there is nothing to see outside but the dark of night. Flying!

The ship gradually grew colder as they gained altitude. Interestingly, the colder it became, the softer the groan, until by the time Anton could no longer feel his fingers and toes, the only thing making noise was the whirr. That was when he looked beyond the auras of the spells and saw the first hint of the Nothing’s residue seep into the room.

It fell up through the floor and down through the walls in a ghostly shimmer, almost ectoplasmic—not the result of spells, not this. Monsieur Dechamps whimpered and shut his eyes tight, and the cardinal began to speak a simple prayer, but Anton watched the glittering waves pass through the cabin, through them, and knew that by being in this ship, he was living in the mind of a genius. Whoever had invented it was brilliant, perhaps even more brilliant than his father. If France had practitioners of this caliber on their side, then the rest of the world had better be on its guard.

It looked like Caroline might be thinking the same thing, if the thoughtful grimace on her face was any indicator.

Please don’t do anything to risk yourself. Anton could commiserate with her situation, and the fact that she was being flown to the heart of the empire’s intellectual war machine in a cutting-edge piece of thaumaturgy and engineering certainly had to be tempting, but the risks were so high if she was caught.

It wouldn’t be your problem to solve, Anton reminded himself, but even as he thought it he knew it for a lie. Caroline had helped him through some of the darkest times in his life, and he couldn’t abandon her just because she’d chosen country over common sense.

Another lurch in his stomach and throat told him that the airship was changing its angle. They were heading down now—back toward the earth from whatever height they had soared to. Next time—if there ever was a next time—he would ask to be released near the end so he could at least watch as they came in for a landing.

The groan came back with a vengeance, and the strange sheets of plasma vanished as the noise rose. Finally the ship set down, and the auras of the thaumaturgical equations faded into the background until they disappeared completely.

“Here at last,” Camille said from over to the left. “On behalf of his Imperial Majesty Napoleon the Third, welcome to Paris.”