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‘Roll your plan of Parliament up from the counter, young man. It’s going to be a long evening and I have an order of eight pies to complete for morning’s opening.’
‘Disgusting,’ said Twist, concealing the map beneath his frock coat.
‘They’re meaty enough, if you bone the partridges properly before you boil them,’ said Damson Robinson.
‘The way you consume food, it disgusts me, eating like cattle. Crumbs and juices pouring out of your mouths, the disgusting slurping sound you make as you crunch away at the flesh and the baked seed flowers. The foul stench as you defecate your waste back out again.’
‘What are you—’ Damson Robinson turned to see Twist removing a tuning fork-shaped object from under his coat, the thing shaped out of glittering crystal ruby. ‘Is that a tuning fork? I don’t have a piano here, dearie. Not in my shop.’
Then a strange thing happened, although the queerness of it was lost on the proprietor of the shop. The client who had commissioned tonight’s pilferage disappeared, replaced by a beau from her past, young George. She was so glad to see him; it had been so many years. They had set up the shop together before he died of a bowel abscess. Passed away from her far too young. She stretched her arms out to greet him.
‘Yes, a song,’ said Twist, upon the old lady in two long striding steps, plunging the crystal prongs into her neck. Damson Robinson stumbled back, blood fountaining out across the counter, her greeting for George muffled by Twist’s hand clamped over her face. ‘A song of blood and flesh! The Mass must feed.’
Thankfully for the shop owner, the pain that should have accompanied the sight of the spinning room as her heart gave up was absent; the pressure of her rapidly vanishing blood more than her seventy-year-old body could stand. She didn’t hear even Twist’s last words as the blackness flowed over her. She was too busy kissing George.
‘No taste, you filthy old crone. Not like the girl, she’ll taste sweet for Mister Cloake, she’ll taste—’
Jethro Daunt let go of the lion-shaped handle of the bell-pull, listening to the echo of the chimes inside. The ex-parson-turned-consulting-detective smiled at the sound. It put him in mind of the bells in his old parish, back in the small northern town of Hundred Locks. The locals who complained the church’s campanologists set to ringing their bells with too much gusto, whatever the occasion – be it funerals, weddings, or Circle Day services. Before I was defrocked, before …
The door swung open and the bushy eyebrows of the bear-like man who’d answered rose in surprise. ‘Ah now, it seems to be my week for receiving old faces back into my life.’
‘I do trust I am not intruding?’
‘Far happier to see your face than the last fellow, and that is the truth of it,’ said the commodore, leaning forward conspiratorially. ‘A government officer, full of guile and treachery he was. Where is your old steamer, that great metal lug Boxiron? Is he not working with you still?’
‘He is,’ smiled Daunt as Commodore Black ushered him into the great open hall of Tock House. Daunt glanced with interest around the space, noting the bulky walls that held the front door and the huge blast door hidden above, ready to smash down if the house’s owner decided to trigger it. ‘Even as we speak, in fact. He might turn up here later. And speaking of old friends, I suppose it is too much to hope that Professor Amelia Harsh is presently in residence within your house?’
‘You have missed her by three weeks, lad,’ said the commodore. ‘She’s off to the colonies with the rest of my friends. The miners out in Concorzia have found some rusting old ruin of a city out there, and so away my housemates have flown to poke about for relics and lost history.’
‘The professor’s favourite kind, as I recall,’ said Daunt. He bit back his curiosity and restrained himself from asking why the commodore had not transported them to the distant shores of the colonies in his own u-boat. After all, it had been on just such a mission to the dark Isle of Jago where Daunt and the old submariner had made their acquaintance. There was, Daunt sensed, something amiss in the old sea dog’s presence here all alone in the great tower.
‘I turned up at the university seeking the professor’s wisdom,’ explained Daunt. ‘They pointed me in the direction of Tock House.’
‘If it is wisdom you want, you may find a blessed library full of it upstairs,’ said the commodore. ‘The professor and my crystal-domed steamman friend Coppertracks were inside the house plotting and planning for near a month before the expedition sailed. We have half the tomes from the school of archaeology at St. Vines here, and don’t you think that Coppertracks didn’t have our shelves close to bursting with all his books before the professor turned up with a line of students carrying a mortal stationers’ worth of volumes for her.’
‘You can never have too much knowledge,’ said Daunt. ‘I would take it as a kindness if I might peruse her books inside your unusual home.’
‘Unusual is it?’ said the commodore. ‘I’ve missed that canny mind of yours, Jethro Daunt. Filled with all the cleverness of the church and honed like a sabre on a whetstone on your laws of synthetic morality. What strikes you as unusual about Tock House?’
Daunt pointed up to the hall’s second landing as they climbed the stairs. ‘All those Gothic rose windows visible outside, illuminated with stained glass. But inside your hall, the only natural light is coming from above. The windows are fake, set in your walls’ outer layer – walls made of fibre-reinforced concrete set ten feet thick. Your home was built to resemble a rich man’s folly, but in fact, it is better fortified than a civil war pillbox. Kirkhill-period, constructed by a rich merchant after the unrest following Parliament’s victory over the king.’
‘Aye, you’ve the bones of it,’ admitted the commodore. ‘The windows from the fourth storey and above are real enough, and there is a courtyard in the centre of the tower that admits the sun. A weak spot if your foe climbs well enough.’ A dark thought seemed to furrow the commodore’s brow. ‘What wicked business brings you here today? The Inquisition has not engaged you again? As I recall, I barely escaped from that blasted hell-island of Jago the last time I became mixed up in your business.’
‘Thankfully, the patrons covering the expenses of my present case are a little more prosaic,’ said Daunt. ‘The burghers of the Middlesteel city council. You have, I trust, been following the hysteria outside … the upheavals in the city accompanying the vampire killings?’
‘That foolery?’ coughed the commodore, slowing on the stairs. ‘Bloodsuckers don’t leave drained bodies discarded like chicken bones outside food stalls at a winter’s fair. They’re clever and subtle and secretive. They come from the shadows to steal your body, and if your family is blessed lucky, you’re never seen again, for they turn their victims into their own kind. What I have heard reported in the papers is not vampires’ work, it’s common slaughter, bodies butchered desert-style with all their life drained by some maniacs.’
‘Slaughter perhaps, commodore, but the real force behind the murders is, I fear, far removed from the mundanity of broken minds with sharp blades and a depraved taste for blood.’
‘You don’t believe the papers’ fool nonsense do you?’ Leading them down a corridor with a polished wooden floor and oak-panelled walls, the commodore walked Daunt to a spiral staircase. ‘I had you for a sharper fellow.’
‘I have three sisters in the care of the church, talking in tongues, who suggest I would be wise to believe otherwise.’ Daunt pulled a notepad full of jottings out of his frock coat. ‘A set of triplets ranting in ancient languages, Jackelian dialects that predate the age of ice and the devastation of the cold-time.’
‘Myth and the dust of forgotten ages,’ sighed the commodore, leading him up the stairs and onto the next storey. ‘You are in luck then. That’s the professor’s passion, and my friend Coppertracks has a taste for it too. Some of the old steamer’s books are from the mountains of the Steamman Free State and as old as any I’ve seen.’
Accompanying Daunt to the library entrance, the commodore unlocked a double pair of doors, pushing them open to reveal an extensive chamber split across two levels. Shelves lined the walls, a second-tier with hanging ladders to access the thousands of tomes racked above the room’s expensive hand-woven rugs. Like the rest of the tower, the library felt comfortably warm. Daunt took off his coat and tossed it onto the back of one of the dozens of leather armchairs scattered across the room.
The commodore indicated the reading tables, still covered with papers, books and notes, as if the expedition to the colonies had only just left. ‘Make yourself at home, lad. This is all the professor’s on the table, as well as the books piled in the corner. Not that I have been reading any of them. My taste in printed matter bends more towards the penny-dreadfuls and rousing tales of adventure and skulduggery.’
‘Yes,’ said Daunt. ‘Well, I believe we both had our fill of that out beyond the Fire Sea. Without the professor to help me in my translations I may need to work late here.’
‘As late as you like, lad. You’ve got your pick of guest bedrooms on the next floor. I will be taking a roast chicken out of the range in an hour or two, and it’s a shame to open good red wine without honest company to honour it.’
Jethro Daunt had, he realized, lost all sense of time in the library. He looked over to the one wall that wasn’t filled with shelves. A polished bronze wall clock was mounted there above an old royalist-era oil painting, an ornamental fireplace below. There was a dumbwaiter hatch to the left of the fireplace, and judging by the enticing smell of roasting meat emanating from it, the drop no doubt went all the way down to the kitchen in the keep-disguised-as-folly. The scene in the painting was of a boar-hunting party, the hunters unsportingly larking around in the brush wearing gas masks as their lance-carrying retainers waded through the undergrowth, eyes watering above water-soaked kerchiefs tied around their faces. In the corner of a painting, a boar slyly watched the party blundering about a mist of evil-looking yellow mustard gas, unsuccessfully trying to flush it out. Better to be the boar than the hunter, sometimes.
Daunt stared worriedly at the clock.No sign of Boxiron yet. Daunt had told the steamman to seek him out at Tock House if he wasn’t to be found at their apartment. Yet Boxiron hadn’t turned up. Does that mean things have gone well, or badly?
It was late, and Daunt’s progress in translating the possessed ramblings of the sisters Lammeter had been as slow as he had feared it would be without Professor Harsh’s assistance. He was trying to match his phonetic shorthand against actual words in languages that had been largely lost to the modern world. It hadn’t helped that the languages of the patchwork of tribal kingdoms that had preceded the long, dark centuries of the ice-age bore little relation to each other. He had to parse them through the descendent language of River Tongue, a trading language merchants and travellers used as a lingua franca across the continent. Surprisingly, Daunt found it easier to reference the older languages using the strange antiquarian books that the commodore’s eminent scientist friend, Coppertracks, had carried down with him from the mountains of the Steamman Free State. The steamman’s tomes sported engraved metal covers and pages made out of some composite material that felt like a mix of rubber and glass – as hard to tear as steel, yet as thin as tissue paper. But as peculiar as the books’ form might be, the standardization of the people of the metal’s writing across the ages made their treatises on pre-cold time civilisations far more accessible than humanity’s volumes. The race of man’s books that survived into the modern age were copies of copies of copies, changed and mutated with the progressive errors of each new generation. In contrast – much like the steamman race – the metal creatures’ tomes were methodical, steady and full of a humble cleverness. The only grating thing for Daunt was their authors’ continual tendency to attribute events to their ancestral spirits, the Steamo Loa. If they weren’t thanking their gods, they were busy blaming, praising or censuring them. It was almost as if they had written their texts in such a way as to annoy a parson of the atheist, humanist Circlist church. Ex-parson, Daunt reminded himself. But some habits die harder than others.
Yawning, Daunt gathered up his notes and went in search of the tower’s owner. He found the old submariner in the house’s kitchen, a grand scullery with a door latched ajar onto the tower’s central courtyard, the warmth of the range evenly matched against the freezing evening breeze blowing outside. Ducking under a wooden frame dangling with dozens of pots, pans and pitchers, Daunt dropped his work down on a rectangular table in the kitchen’s centre, enough chairs to seat twelve heads at a single sitting.
‘Your cook has the night off?’ Daunt said to the commodore’s back as the large man drained a pot of steaming vegetables.
Without turning, the commodore pointed to one of the goblin-sized metal figures standing inert against the wall. ‘The month off, lad. Coppertracks’ drones will be as still as statues until he returns from the colonies.’
‘I fear I would never let Boxiron cook for me. His idea of a fine meal is a tenth of a coal box shovelled into his furnace injector.’
‘Ah, but Coppertracks is a rare genius,’ said the commodore. ‘Clever enough to have read Damson Beaton’s Household Economies and Recipes for Sustenance and passed it onto his little metal puppets here. Did you find any of the revelations you were looking for upstairs?’
‘Along with a measure of frustration, good captain. I have a little of the meaning of what the sisters have been saying, but meaning without context.’
‘A map without bearings,’ said the commodore opening the range and removing a tray of covered clay pots. ‘Blessed hard to plot a course against that.’
‘Much of what I have uncovered seems to concern a monarch who was said to have unified the tribes into the first Kingdom of Jackals before the age of ice swept the continent.’
At Daunt’s words, the commodore seemed to stumble, almost spilling the pot’s contents. ‘That would be Queen Elizica of the Jackeni.’
‘Indeed,’ said Daunt. ‘It is as if the Sisters Lammeter are possessed by her spirit, relaying her words from beyond the grave.’
‘Elizica’s whispers have been heard in our world before, lad. She took it in her wicked mind to speak through my daughter, once. Nothing good comes from possession by the spirit of the land. Elizica’s like an albatross fleeing the storm front. If it’s her mutterings that your poor lassies are babbling about, you had best close the storm shutters and start stacking sacks full of flood sand outside your door.’
‘I don’t believe in unquiet spirits,’ said Daunt. ‘And the only gods with us in the world are the ones we create in our mind.’
‘Save your Circlist cant for the archbishop,’ said the commodore. ‘I know what I’m talking about, right enough. She’s the voice of the bones of the land. Jackals itself. The Kingdom soaked with the souls and blood of a thousand generations of our ancestors before us.’
Daunt shrugged. ‘A voice that talks in riddles … of a war within a war. And riddles that point back to an ancient conflict between the tribes and the underwater people. A time when gill-necks waded up our beaches and attempted to conquer the mainland.’
‘I know a little of the legends of that time,’ said the commodore. ‘Though I wish I didn’t.’
‘The professor wrote a book on it,’ said Daunt. ‘The Fall of the Stag-lords. She hypothesized that the magma fields of the Fire Sea were expanding during that age, driving the peoples of the underwater nations onto our shores. During the confusion of that period, the hold of the druids over the land was weakened, the invaders repelled and the tribes unified under the first queen.’
The commodore looked as though this was news he did not want to hear. ‘Let it stay in the professor’s history texts, lad. Wicked times, let them stay lost and forgotten, that is where they belong!’
‘The tongues that the sisters Lammeter are speaking in would have it otherwise,’ said Daunt lifting up his notes and translations. ‘The meaning is obtuse, but they seem to suggest that those times are repeating, that the war we now face with the Advocacy is merely the turning of the circle. They warn of ancient prophecy.’
The commodore moaned and abandoned his range. He collapsed at one of the table’s chairs. ‘Damn her, damn her wicked tricks.’
‘Elizica, lad, the bloody ancient queen. Is there so little royal blood left running in our land that she must come tormenting me, sending visitors to my door until she drives me out of my peaceful rest? First poor Rufus, then that black-hearted secret policeman Dick Tull, and now you. Where was she when the royalist fleet-in-exile was broken at Porto Principe by Parliament’s airships? Where was she when my wife died, when my daughter was killed? Where was she when we stood together, Jethro Daunt, on that terrible land of Jago and faced down the army of the ursine and the terrors of that terrible singing tomb and its fearful weapon fit for dark gods? But now, ah, there’s trouble with the people of the underwater nation and poor old Blacky is meant to abandon his nice warm house and put his neck on the line again! And for what? A parliament that turned my noble ancestors out of their land and hunted me for most of my damned life. Where is the justice in that, where is the fairness in that?’
Daunt had never seen the commodore so agitated. He raised his hands placatingly. ‘Peace, good captain. Please, it is Boxiron and I who’ve been engaged on this case by the capital’s aldermen. I appreciate the hospitality of your library, but I certainly wouldn’t ask you to share whatever dangers might present themselves while resolving this case.’
‘You won’t have to, lad.’ The commodore shook his head as Daunt extended out his bag of Bunter and Benger’s aniseed drops. ‘She’ll do for me, just you wait and see. There’s never a choice with her. She’s the land, and if you wait long enough the land will take everything from you, even the dust of your bones when you’ve sacrificed all that you have to give. It is my family’s fate, and I’ve run from a lot of things, but fate is one beast you can never outpace.’
‘We chart our own way on the Circle’s turn. There are no gods worth believing in. No fate save that which we will into being.’
‘I hear the parson left in you talking,’ said Commodore Black. ‘But you will see. She’ll have her way.’
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