Читать онлайн «From the Deep of the Dark»
‘Don’t believe in the gods, good captain. Refuse them.’
‘Too late for that, lad. For the spirit of Queen Elizica believes in me. And now, I fear, she believes in you too!’
Daunt let the calm and the quickening of the sweet’s flavour pass through his head, all the tiredness and cobwebs clearing. They tormented me once, the old gods, Badger-headed Joseph and his kin. But now I am their master. I’ve come too far to swap their tyranny for that of a queen. Even if she is the queen of our land.
‘I shall hold to what is right and rational, and you must do the same.’
Getting up, the commodore returned with a dusty bottle of wine bearing what appeared to be an intricate label written in Cassarabian script. ‘Well, that would be this, then. Let’s drink while we are able. I shall toast my unlucky stars and you may toast your synthetic morality and whatever other inventive teachings the church saw fit to squeeze into your clever noggin before they booted your arse out of the rational orders.’
The two of them sat. And they drank.
There was a chill in Dick’s room when he returned home, the kind that seeped deep into a man’s bones and numbed them from the inside out. Dick Tull might only keep two rooms in the cheap second-storey tenement he rented, but even so, his single fireplace always seemed too small to put out enough heat, no matter how much coal he piled inside it.
Dick left his greatcoat on. Thin walls. Thin floors. Thin ceilings. Cheap windows with as much frost on the inside as outside. I’ll be out of here soon enough. The report I handed into the board. Proof that the royalists and the gill-necks are conniving together. Wait till the head gets to read that. His suspicions confirmed. My promotion in the bag. Able to afford rooms in a respectable district. Not too expensive, of course. That’d be a waste. But somewhere my neighbours aren’t living twenty to a room. Screaming and shitting and crying and fighting. That’ll show that urchin Billy-boy. That’ll show that arrogant sod Walsingham.
Dick walked across to his window. He had made the curtains himself, cheap thick cloth that had come from a pawnshop around the corner. There was a fight spilling out of the tavern opposite, scattering a patrol of the local citizen’s committee. The patrol were waving kitchen knives, a few rusty sabres and one rifle that looked so old it’d be hard pressed to loose a single charge before it needed to be stripped and cleaned. Good hunting, lads. You meet a vampire tonight, you had better hope it dies from a laughing fit.
Dick glanced at his cold fireplace and the rusty quarter-full bucket of coal nestled against the grate, shook his head, then walked into his bedroom to swap his greatcoat for the soft indoor coat he kept hanging on the back of the door’s hook. Fear froze him far colder than the apartment’s chill, and it wasn’t the wintry bedroom that stopped his heart – it was the corpse sprawled across his bed, so much dried blood staining Dick’s cheap grey woollen covers that you’d think the blankets had been dyed brown. William Beresford’s throat had been neatly slit open, and the young agent had been tossed down with a knife stuck in the middle of his chest.
That looks familiar. Dick’s hand reached for the blade sheaf hidden at the back of his belt. Empty! My blade. My lodgings. Sodding hell. Dick had seen enough set-ups – arranged more than a few of his own – to know when he was being hung out to dry. There was no trail of blood across the room, so like as not, the agent had been lured here and murdered in situ. Shit me, Billy-boy, you had to let them stick you here. In the chest too. And you knew the bugger that did it, to let them get that close. My lodgings, you stupid, young—
Dick heard the poorly nailed floorboards of the staircase outside squeaking with the weight of people climbing up the stairs. He’d left the board’s pistol back with the office’s hoary old armourer, which meant he’d have to use his own ammunition tonight. How careful were the jiggers that did this, how well did they search my place?
Not thoroughly enough. Dick pulled at the bedroom’s loose skirting board, eaten away with woodworm, and dipped his hand into the empty space behind the wood, pulling out a short-barrelled blunderbuss from the gap between the bricks. He’d taken it from the carriage of a dead hansom cab driver who had been supplying a little more than rides to the Cassarabian ambassador. It wasn’t a neat gun; whatever you said about it, the weapon could never be described as that. But then, it was designed to be pushed against drunk, flailing, violent passengers in close confines, with most of the assailants’ bulk blown away by the impact of the charge. It was a terror weapon really, no range to speak of. Anyone who didn’t shit themselves just looking at it probably needed to be split in half to be stopped. There was a saying in the Jackelian regiments that it took a man’s weight in lead to stop a charging soldier. Well, here it was, a man’s weight in buckshot loaded into its flared iron barrel, and Dick reached back again for the bandoleer holding ten more charges. He slung the bandoleer over his waistcoat before concealing in under his coat.
‘Tull!’ It was his landlady’s voice. Damson Pegler, the grasping old cow. ‘Coal man’s been. How much of the black stuff are you going to take?’
‘Save it!’ called Dick, using the cover of the bellow to click back the hammer on the blunderbuss’s clockwork firing mechanism. ‘I’ve still got a quarter bucket inside here.’
‘Special price today,’ said the old crone. ‘Half full gets you a second half free.’
Special price. And you’re passing the money onto me, rather than keeping it for yourself, you cheap old cow. Almost as improbable as finding his ex-partner a corpse stretched out across his bed.
Dick raised his voice. ‘All right then, I’m coming.’ The latch on his window snapped open beneath the shout.
‘Get your sodding head down.’
The blunderbuss bucked even as Dick dropped out of the window, sending a cloud of shot through the cheap door and the flimsy walls, the brief satisfaction of hearing yells and screams outside his lodgings by way of reply. Hurling himself at the ladder on the fire escape, he kicked the ladder’s latch out and rode it all the way down to the street outside.
‘Vampires!’ Dick screamed at the patrol of the local citizen’s committee, dozens of heads turning to see where the commotion was originating. He flung his hand towards the entrance hall of his tenement building. ‘Sweet Circle, man, there’s bloody vampires inside the building, they’re slaughtering everyone. It’s a sodding massacre in there.’
Give them that much, there was only a moment of hesitation on the mob’s part, then, as one, they surged towards Damson Pegler’s building, their numbers swelled by the drunk brawlers who’d been fighting outside the alehouse. They were game for it and looking for trouble. Inside, they’d find it. Dick was reloading as a head poked out of his window, a black rubber stench-mask fixed to the face. Sod me, it’s the dustmen.
Dick fired the blunderbuss towards the head, cracking the window’s glass and throwing out a cloud of splinters from the rotting wooden walls of his building. Furious cries sounded from inside the entry corridor. The mob won’t last long against the dustmen, not waving pitchforks and sabres against a cadre of trained assassins.
Cracking open his gun as he sprinted down the street, Dick ejected the spent charge and pushed a fresh one inside before snapping the weapon shut. Bellows sounded behind him, getting louder, people coming down the street blundering out of his way as they noticed the gun in his hands and the wild look on his gasping face. Never get away from them now.
Dick almost slipped as the kettle-black careered around the corner, only just managing to halt short of the massive iron wheels crunching past his boots. He raised his blunderbuss towards the driver’s step at the front and stopped himself from firing as Barnabas Sadly’s rat-like features twitched down towards him. ‘Onto the cart, Mister Tull.’
Dick leapt for the ladder on the side, hauling himself onto the driver’s perch even as the vehicle swung around, the massive boiler and barrel-laden flatbed on the back interspersed between them and the first shots whistling down the street, bullets clanging off the heavy iron of the carriage.
‘Your people came for me, Mister Tull. The dustmen came for me when I was in my cellar, killed the brewery delivery man and two of my customers they did.’
Dick stood on his toes and risked a glance behind the kettle-black’s single stack pumping steam out into the evening air. Three men in dark coats and rubber stench masks were sprinting after them, but falling back as they lost ground to the powerful engines of the cart. And they set me up too. What was it you said, Sadly? Foxes and hounds, mousers and mice, all dancing together.
‘Why, Mister Tull? Lords-a’larkey, what have I ever done against the board? Haven’t I always given you the truth of it, at considerable risk to my own life?’
‘Damned if I know,’ said Dick. And damned for certain if we don’t find out. The dustmen. Sod it. How dead does that make us?
Retirement had finally been forced on Dick, a retirement less comfortable than even he had imagined.
In the tall, cold chambers of the State Protection Board, its head, Algo Monoshaft, whistled in anger and frustration as the steamman tried to find a place for his latest report on the paper-strewn floor of his office.
Corporal Tull’s report that detailed how Dick Tull had been accepting large bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye to the royalist rebels’ activities inside the capital. The report that made clear how the sergeant had murdered his own partner when he had been found out, but only after tossing his royalist contact’s dead body into the river to ensure his treachery remained undiscovered.
Algo Monoshaft maniacally pulled at the crimson threads criss-crossing the paper fragments. Where does this go? WHERE DOES THIS GO?
There were hordes of staff working within Parliament’s walls, cleaners and caterers and the hundreds of personnel who waddled through its warrens wearing antiquated cloaks and powdered wigs. But none climbed so high or worked so cold as the bell-men who tended the intricate clockwork mechanism of Brute Julius, the massive bell tower that emerged like a brick spear from the gothic architecture of the debating chamber.
Once an hour its twenty bells chimed their resounding call across the roofs of the capital, ringing loud and clear over Middlesteel’s towers and warehouses and slums. Walking through the oak-panelled corridor of Parliament, the master of the bell’s boots echoed across the largely empty corridors and staircases, walls hung with political cartoons from the Middlesteel Illustrated Times and its rival newssheets. Strangely, the boots of the master’s apprentice made a great deal less noise, even though she was carrying a heavy toolbox. It took practice to be that stealthy.
The master of the bells pulled out a pocket watch chained to his waistcoat. ‘Nearly time for eleven-chime.’
‘No,’ said the apprentice. ‘They’ve already sounded. It’s time for the nightshift to begin.’
‘Yes,’ said the master. ‘Time to hand over to the nightshift.’
His apprentice passed over the toolbox to the old man. ‘Time to go to the Ship and Shovel for a drink. I’ll see you there.’
‘Time to go to the Ship and Shovel,’ said the master. ‘See you there?’
‘Of course,’ said the apprentice. Charlotte watched the old man walk to the red-coated sentry at the door at the end of the corridor, King Jude’s sceptre concealed inside his long toolbox, along with all the equipment she’d needed to tease open the vaults’ clever locks.
It was quite a piece, that sceptre, symbolic value aside. Discounting the intricately carved solid gold rod that made up most of its three feet of length, King Jude’s sceptre was banded by rubies with large amethysts and an egg-sized sapphire inlaid in its handle. If that wasn’t enough to get any thief salivating, the sceptre’s spear-like head was mounted by seven platinum leaves crafted like a bulb, and contained the largest diamond Charlotte had ever seen – an octahedral-shaped beauty larger than a big man’s fist. It managed to be both beautiful and strangely deadly at the same time, a spear crafted in rare metals for a warrior queen. I can almost see why Twist is willing to pay me so much money for it.
It hadn’t been simple either, getting into the vault. Even with the Master of Bells operating under the misconception that Charlotte had been his apprentice for the last three years, even with the burning weight of the jewel between her breasts to mesmerize all the guards and the attendants. The locks and tumblers set to protect the crown jewels across five vaulted passages hadn’t bent to the Eye of Fate’s hypnotic power. No, those brutes had required every ounce of Charlotte’s proficiency with tumblers and the safe-cracking equipment she was lugging along, they’d taken every drop of sweat she’d shed defusing the poison gas injectors and capture cages concealed in the false ceiling. The traps that most definitely had not been detailed on the floor plans or deactivated by the pass cards supplied by her mysterious patron. Well, if it had been easy, the royalists would have done it themselves.
A momentary sadness struck Charlotte. It would be hard to top this job. All the safes and vault rooms and cunning tripwires and ingenious traps she had faced in her career, they could all be relegated to experience now. Merely the practice she’d needed to hone her craft to the level necessary to break into Parliament and spirit away its most valuable symbol of power. Things wouldn’t be the same in a couple of months, after she’d lain low long enough for the hue and cry the newssheets would raise over this crime to fade away. Where would the fun be in facing down the run-of-the-mill protections guarding a merchant lord’s antiquities after this? It would be like a master painter reduced to setting up an easel opposite the capital’s national gallery and capturing the likeness of tourists in charcoal for thruppence a caricature. Well, at least she would always carry the warmth of her memories of having humbugged every one of the honourable members of the House of Guardians. The outrage of this crime a slap in the face to every one of the smug, superior aristocrats … the gallants who in a rightful world would have been Charlotte’s equal in station.
And she could use the time to lay low to avoid the fate the mad ex-parson Jethro Daunt and his hulking, malfunctioning half-steamman friend seemed to think was lurking around the corner, waiting to befall her. Money would help. Money always did. It was amazing how being rich could cushion you from the worst the world had to throw it to you. Charlotte could speak with authority on that. Her shameful memory of having been so hungry as an abandoned child that she had been reduced to eating grass and leaves. Grubby and crawling on her knees, cramps slicing across her stomach like a hundred knives being plunged into her. Bile rising in her throat as she tried to chew down on coarse grass. Real hunger, not just being ready for dinner. That had been close to the time when she had first found Charlotte, taken pity on her … another stab of shame, more deserved this time. The gypsy woman. The gypsy.
Money? No, money wasn’t a family’s love, but it was as much a comfort as Charlotte required. So much money she’d taken over the years. Then, in a fit of irony, she’d spread it out across all of the capital’s major banks and counting houses, just in case there was a run on one of them and Charlotte lost her savings. Security. With enough money she would have security; she would know peace. If she got ill, she could afford to pay for doctors and medicine. If she got hungry, she could pay for food to still the pain of hunger. If one of the people she cared for ran into hard times, then she could help them to survive too. Charlotte just needed a large enough amount of money and then she would be protected, for now and forever. It was strange, how she could fill her accounts with silver and gold and notes of the realm, the amount on deposit curiously swelling on its own account as interest was applied. But it could never grow larger than the fear of what might happen to a young woman all alone in the world. The fear always expanded faster than the money. Perhaps that was the nature of fear. Or perhaps it was the nature of money. Still, having money always helped. There was no doubt about that.
Charlotte’s reverie was broken by the intrusion of the red-coated sentry as she approached the end of the corridor where the Master of Bells had passed a minute earlier.
‘You, I don’t know,’ said the soldier, a ham-sized fist stretching out to halt her.
‘I’m one of the new grease monkeys working on the Bell Tower,’ said Charlotte.
‘Young for it,’ said the soldier, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. ‘Staff in the tower are mutton, not lamb. Letters after their name, with apprenticeships to their machines and a way with cogs. Now you, you look like lamb to me.’
Charlotte sighed. She was tired. Using the jewel, the Eye of Fate, so frequently in such a short space of time was a terrible drain on her, but it couldn’t be helped. Usually she embraced its touch. She became a different person when she used the jewel on the stage. More confident. The fears and worries of life a distant, fleeting thing. Her jealousies and ambitions and fears of failure and loneliness melting away. But too much use and the jewel grew heavy … ice spreading out across her blood as she shifted her blouse, the soft blue nimbus from the crystal reaching out from her chest and drifting towards the sentry as though the fog were the softest of cigar smokes.
‘Look into the light,’ Charlotte urged. ‘There’s no lambs inside the light, no mutton, no apprenticeships or cogs.’
Blinking furiously, the soldier stumbled back, the light splitting into a forest of fractal branches as it caressed the cheeks around his sideburns
‘You have a brother or a sister with children?’ Charlotte asked, trying not to grimace as the cold spread through her veins, sapping away at her strength.
‘A brother,’ mumbled the soldier, ‘with six little ones.’
‘Then you recognize your niece.’ Charlotte tried to smile, even as the pressure of the jewel pressed down against her lungs. ‘The niece who you’ve been showing around the debating chamber now that Parliament is shut for the night.’
‘Yes,’ the soldier returned her smile without any of the pain that Charlotte felt, ‘I know my niece, my Alice.’
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