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.


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.”

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