Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Tank: Chapter Two, Part One

Notes: Unexpected news, and the beginning of a whole new pile of trouble for Anton. Because he attracts it so readily, the poor darlin.

Title: Chapter Two, Part One


Chapter Two, Part One

They stopped at one of Anton’s favorite little restaurants, in the bottom level of a nearby inn. It wasn’t that the food was more spectacular here, or even particularly cheaper than other places, but he had some very fond memories of the rooms above, and it was close to the university.

“Why didn’t you let me know you were coming?” Anton asked once they were seated in a quiet corner, a pot of tea steeping between them on the table. “I would have done more to be ready for you.”

“I did send a letter,” Caroline said tartly. “Several, in fact. I don’t know if you’ve kept up to date with the doings back at home, but we’ve lost several ferries traveling back and forth to the continent to revolutionary activity, and numerous merchantmen as well. The navy has increased its patrols of the Channel, but the pace of communications has been slowed dramatically. I daresay you’ll get my letters in a few weeks.”

“Revolutionaries? Are you referring to the Dévoué?” Anton was startled when Caroline nodded. “I had no idea they’d made such an impact on Britain.”

Caroline slowly poured some milk into her cup, her expression thoughtful. “They might not be out in force among the populace, but they are an ever-present fear. I think the powers that be are quite pleased to have a scapegoat on which they can heap their blame now, actually,” she said with a sigh. “Everything from the high price of cheese to the monitoring and censorship of some of London’s most noteworthy newspapers is thanks to the Dévoué. It’s getting more restrictive by the day back home, and I for one am getting sick of it. Part of the reason the Order sent me here, actually, is to form an assessment of the empire’s thaumaturgical response to the increased challenges of aiding a population whose own ruler doesn’t trust it. Britain’s thaumaturgical society is carefully considering what it wants its own position to be as we batten down our hatches and try to ride out the storm here.”

Anton was startled. “The Order sent you in an official capacity?”

“What, do you think I can’t be official simply because I’m a woman?” she asked tartly.

“No, not at all, just…I had no idea you had risen so highly in their ranks.”

“Mmm. I’ve avoided writing about it, because you never know who will read such things, but yes, I’ve managed some very interesting bits of thaumaturgy over the past several years.” Caroline dimpled a smile at him. “I’ll tell you more about it later, perhaps. For now, my mind is full of the problem at hand: what Britain’s response should be to the coming continental unrest.”

“While the idea is appealing, this might not be the sort of conflict that one simply sits through,” Anton said. “The queen might not have any love of Napoleon, but she must love the revolutionaries even less.”

“And you?” Caroline asked, sipping her tea genteelly. “How do you feel about revolutionaries?”

“I dislike their penchant for indiscriminate violence,” Anton replied. “I dislike that they’re willing to use great thaumaturgical inventions and advancements as a means of killing those who get in their way.”

“You must be particularly sensitive to that, after what happened here at the school.”

Oh, if only she knew the heart of it. Anton had told Caroline that he’d been targeted by Montgomery in a case of mistaken identity, but he hadn’t told her that he was, in fact, the former owner of the palimpsest that Montgomery had been after in the first place. “It was an unfortunate time,” he managed after a moment.

“Unfortunate indeed. I feel that the continent hasn’t been as kind to you as you deserve.” She paused, rubbing absently at the corner of her napkin before clearing her throat. “I wasn’t entirely honest with you earlier, Anton. I gave you the impression that I wasn’t going to offer you a job.”

“Wait…are you—”

She held up her hand. “One moment. This place looks secure enough, but I cannot take any risks.” She reached into the little purse at her side and pulled out a piece of thick gray chalk. She moved the teapot out of the way and drew a circle in the middle of the wooden table, marking out a triangle filled with three more circles within it. If the slow way she moved it was any indication, the chalk was abnormally heavy.

After a moment she put it away, then pulled out a box of matches. She lit one, waited for the flame to settle, then touched it to the symbol. It burst into flame and blew out just as fast, filling the air with particles of acrid smoke. “A new little spell of mine,” she explained. “The smoke will swallow the soundwaves beyond a few feet until the particles are too heavy with our words to stay aloft.”

“Brilliant,” Anton breathed.

Caroline smiled. “Thank you. The effect won’t last forever, though, so let me come to the point. I can’t offer you a job that directly associates you with Britain’s Order of Thaumaturgy. It’s beyond the scope of the responsibilities they’ve allotted me. But—” She held up a finger. “If you were to acquire a position on the continent that offered you access to the inner workings of the Empire’s dealings with the Dévoué, and if you were then to pass some of that information along to me—in a very quiet way—the Order would pay you for the privilege. It would go a long way toward reassuring them of the scope of your loyalties as well.”

Anton couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. “Caroline, are you asking me to become a spy for you?”

“Not for me,” she said quickly. “With me. I would never ask you to do something that I was unwilling to do myself, Anton, you know that.”

“And you’re willing to work as a spy? If you’re discovered, it’s a hanging offense, you know that!” Despite her spell, Anton kept his voice down. The surge of fear in his veins felt very close to anger. “Britain and the French Empire are not enemies, but they are not precisely allies either! You here as an invited observer is one thing, but you know damn well it won’t include access to their most powerful projects.”

“Which is where you come in! I don’t want to steal spells from the empire, Anton. We have our own very brilliant thaumaturges for spellwork. My mandate is simply to assess whether or not they’re going to be doing enough to keep their house in order, or whether Britain should be preparing more rigorously for potential conflict.”

“You just said you were getting sick of the restrictions put in place back home!” Anton pointed out. The cloud between them fell into ash faster and faster. “Preparations for war could only increase them!”

“There is no reason to assume war is forthcoming!”

“You’re an idiot if you believe that.”

Caroline drew back, her earnest expression gone stony. “I am no idiot. I and those like me are perhaps all that is standing between our country and war, and I’ll do everything in my power to prevent that escalation. Everything, Anton. Do you understand me?”

“Including committing acts that could get you killed by the state,” he said bitterly. “No, I’m afraid your logic truly escapes me this time.”

“Rich words from a man who commits acts that could get him executed every time he meets with his lover.”

Anton froze. Everything from his breath to his blood seemed to go completely still for a moment, grappling with hearing something so awful from someone he cared for so much. Caroline, who seemed to see that she’d gone too far, abandoned her coldness. “Anton, I’m sorry.” She reached out and put one of her hands on his. “I did not mean to use your love as a bludgeon against you, that was wrong of me. I simply…this is important, do you see that? For all of Britain, for its future and its children’s futures. If Napoleon falls, we must know why. We must understand what we can do better to keep such travails from affecting us as well. Do you see?”

“I do.”

Caroline huffed. “Say something else, something more than just that. Tell me that you forgive me.”

“I forgive you.” He did, for that at least.

“And tell me you will at least think on my offer. Please?”

Anton sighed. “I will think on it, but don’t hold your breath.”

Caroline hesitated, then let go of him and brushed the symbol on the table away with her palm. The rest of the smoke evaporated. “I suppose that will have to do.” She glanced at the menu. “What do you recommend for dinner?”

It was a heavy-handed way of resetting, but Anton allowed it. They dined together, keeping their topics light, and he never let a word of Camille cross his lips. After a while, Caroline stopped asking after him.

“I have a meeting with your Dr. Grable tomorrow,” Caroline said as they strolled together toward her hotel. It was cool out now, the sun already set over the mountains that surrounded Zürich, and she walked close enough that their shoulders  brushed. “Do you have any advice for me?”

Anton thought about it. Regardless of how he felt about Caroline’s mission, he didn’t want to actively obstruct her. “He is a straightforward man who sees more than most. Do not try to dissemble with him. Be as honest as you can.”

“Always good advice, I think.” They stopped outside her hotel, one of the nicer ones in town, and she leaned in and kissed his cheek. “I’d love to see you again tomorrow as well. Just as friends, Anton. No complications.”

“I’ll send a message to you if I have time.”

Her smile was a bit sad. “I understand. Have a good evening, then.” She greeted the doorman as she entered the hotel, and a moment later he lost sight of her.

It was the first time Anton could ever remember being relieved to watch her go.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Tank: Chapter One, Part Two

Notes: Moving on, let's meet a new/old friend! The next chapter will delve more deeply into the socio-political situation of the French Empire, so enjoy a bit more light before we get dark again.

Title: The Tank: Chapter One, Part Two


Chapter One, Part Two

It took a moment for Anton to muster his ability to speak, his surprise was so strong. “Caroline!” He moved toward her without thinking, his body overcome by instinct. She stepped toward him at the same time, and a moment later they were wrapped in each other’s arms.

“Caroline,” he said again, softer, and she hummed and hugged him more tightly. The S-bend corset beneath her blouse dug into his abdomen, but Anton didn’t care. If she could take it for a day, he could take it for a minute.

She looked beautiful, like she always had. A bit older, perhaps, but the time had only served to enhance her allure. Her dark blonde hair peeked out from beneath the brim of her very broad, ornately decorated hat, and her figure was as sleek as ever, despite giving birth to a baby boy only eight months ago. Perhaps the corset has something to do with that. Anton didn’t know, and he didn’t care. In a world of change, a world of ever-increasing political fear and uncertainty, he was so grateful to be with someone whom he could rely on again. He knew Caroline, knew her like he knew himself, and loved her far more than that.

“Anton,” she murmured. “Darling, I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see you again, at last. Two years.” She pulled back and pressed her hands to his face. “Two years! How is it even possible? We haven’t been apart for so long in our entire lives! And in your last letter you didn’t even hint that you were coming back, and that’s just—Anton, I thought you never meant to stay away permanently! London is your home!”

The words hit him like a rain, drenching him in care. It didn’t matter that they weren’t entirely positive—Anton basked in knowing that he was with someone who loved him enough to chide him again. “London will always be special to me, you know that,” he said. “But I can’t live on air, and I can’t support my mother with it either. London is not interested in hiring me for what I am worth.”

Caroline disengaged one of her hands to wipe discreetly her eyes. “No one could pay you what you’re worth, darling, but surely someone there must be able to tempt you to return. Heavens, I would pay you to come and work in my lab if it was possible.” Caroline was spearheading a massive research initiative for the University of Edinburgh—a compendium of arcane ingredients and their various uses across the entire body of work that would utterly revolutionize spell symbology for thaumaturges. The key to her funding, however, was that she employ only those thaumaturges who could get approval from the Board of Masters. Anton was not one of those practitioners, and likely never would be.

Anton shook his head. “It’s all right, truly. I may yet return someday, but for now I’m contemplating several different options here on the continent.”

“Anton…” Caroline looked at him closely. “It isn’t like you to dissemble. When you say ‘options’ do you mean that you have offers in hand, or that you’re going to hunt about for an employer the same way you hunted for a school that would accept you?”

Anton pulled back, stung. “Forgive me for not being born into a class that allowed me to step into any university I wanted and get a position there.” That wasn’t fair—Caroline had fought, and was still fighting, against significant and ingrained social bias against the fairer sex. That she had her own laboratory, her own staff and a project of such magnitude, was a testament to her incredible skill.

“I—” Even as he opened his mouth to apologize, Caroline was already waving it off.

“No, that was my fault, I knew better than to simplify things in such a silly way. Of course you did everything you could to stay, I know that.” She sighed. “It’s just frustrating, not having you nearby. You’re one of the best people in my life, and I hate that you’re so far out of reach.”

Her words both touched and saddened him. “But you’ve got your work, and your husband,” he reminded her. “Not to mention your little Sean. How is he these days?”

Caroline beamed. “He is delightful, thank you. Quite a handful, and probably giving his grandmother fits right now, but I couldn’t be happier with him. It’s a relief to have provided an heir as well, honestly, for both Daniel and myself. He is free to spend his time hunting and riding, and I am free to focus on my work.”

“And that makes you…happy?” Anton ventured. It wasn’t really his place to say anything, but the fact that Caroline was settling for “relieved” with reference to her husband spending little to no time with her or their son was upsetting to him.

“It’s my preference,” she said calmly. “Daniel and I are a better match on paper than we are in person. He is a good man in many respects, and he offers me a degree of independence that many husbands would balk at, so I’ve nothing to complain about there. But we have little in common on an intellectual level. It’s better for both of us that we allow each other our own occupations without reservation.” She tilted her head a bit as she looked at him. “And you? Have you found a good match for yourself?”

Caroline knew Anton’s predilections, and it was only for the sake of their habitual discretion that she refrained from being more blunt. Anton was a bit surprised at himself—had he really kept Camille a secret from his dearest friend for two years now? Not in every respect, but he certainly hadn’t divulged their more intimate connection. “No one to marry, I’m afraid,” he said at last.

“Hmm.” Caroline looped her arm through his, passed him his jacket from where he’d abandoned it earlier, and turned them both toward the door. “I think you should allow me to take you out for a meal, as a graduation gift, and speak to me about someone you would not marry for a while. It might do you some good to share.”

Anton smiled and tipped his top hat onto his head. “I think that sounds perfect.”

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?”