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‘Time,’ sighed Twist. ‘I think we have waited long enough, don’t you? Better it looks like a robbery. No questions asked about how the thief got so close to the sceptre. Nothing to implicate us and our friends until it is too late for events to be stopped.’
‘And if she is successful?’
‘Charlotte Shades' trade is a high-risk occupation. It wouldn’t do for her to be captured and coerced into telling others who she sold the sceptre to. If she succeeds, it will be time for her to retire, Mister Cloake.’
The bruiser licked his lips as he pocketed his pistol. Retiring people like her always provided such good amusement.
In Greenhall, the heart of the Jackelian civil-service, you could always hear the beat of government – even here on the top floor of the jumble of buildings that sprawled for miles, the throb of the transaction-engines housed in the underground chambers could be felt underfoot. Unlike the great towers of the capital’s business district, the natural order of the placement of offices was inverted here. Those government departments with the most pull and political capital got the rooms closest to the eternally warm underground chambers housing the house-sized thinking machines. Those with the least got the unheated rooms near the top of the civil service’s spread out complex. It was not by accident that the State Protection Board occupied the unheated rooms under the great glass palace that formed the roof.
Dick Tull looked out of the crystal panels as he waited for his meeting with the head of the service, playing with the edges of his greying moustache. If he looked carefully through the forest of chimneys venting steam, he could just make out the network of canals running between the Greenhall buildings, navvies with axes chipping away at the ice. Even now, in the depths of winter, the great engines of government needed to be cooled with water.
Miserable, cheapskate jiggers, those engine men are. Sweating in comfort down in their echoing caverns, shovelling coal into their furnaces while they let me freeze up here. They get paid more than me too, closed shop with guild exams to get in. Sods. That’s why they give out regimental ranks in the board, so they don’t have to pay me civilian civil service rates.
And here, walking down the corridor, was a prime example of the board’s officer class. Another one of the chinless wonders who had joined after him, then unfairly risen so far above Dick’s position in life: Walsingham. He stopped before Dick, scratching his dark sideburns, his neat moustache twitching as if it had a life of its own. Walsingham’s face was so vague and nondescript that in his absence you could usually only recall him by his fussy manners and over-neat clothes, every fold tucked, every crease ironed to tight angles. Never what he looked like. A little walking blank passing through life unremembered.
‘Last night,’ said Walsingham. ‘The surveillance at Lord Chant’s residence. It was badly done.’
‘Were you drinking?’
Had that young sod Billy-boy ratted Dick out about his hip flask too?
‘Of course not, sir. Is Beresford not coming in with me to see the head?’
‘He’s been reassigned, Tull. To someone who can tutor to him in more than the art of skiving.’
Of course he has, conniving young sod. Already William Beresford was being pushed onto a trajectory that would carry him far beyond Dick.
‘I’ll try to manage without him, major.’
‘Better you had. Watch what you say in front of the head, he’s feeling a little … withdrawn, today.’
Circle’s teeth, not another one of the old steamer’s funny turns?
Dick tapped the side of his nose. ‘See all, sir – say nothing.’
We wouldn’t want to confuse the head with details, would we? Not when you’ve got your ambitious little gaze set on his position. That would suit you, wouldn’t it, making sure you get the glory for bagging the royalists? Another success to bolster your section, to polish your already well-honed reputation. Well, the transaction-engine chambers will run cold below your feet before I help you inflate your pension any more, you supercilious old bugger.
‘Best you had Tull, and when you’re finished in there, I’ll introduce you to your new partner. Someone to make sure you don’t get into any more mischief behind my back.’
‘You can rely on me, sir.’ Just as sure as I can rely on you.
When the clerk outside the head’s office bid Dick enter, he found Algo Monoshaft bent down on the floor, the gas lamps in the room turned down low, allowing the natural light of the glass architecture to spill across hundreds of pieces of paper connected by thin crimson yarns. Daguerreotype images of faces, newspaper cuttings and scraps of paper scrawled with the steamman’s own iron hands littered the floor. Algo Monoshaft had started off in the board’s cipher section – no finer mind for cracking enemy codes. But that had been centuries ago, and now the steamman was well past his best years. The single stack rising from his spine trembled as his boiler heart struggled to fully power the creature of the metal’s ageing systems. Where once the single steel sphere mounted to his traction unit had spun smoothly, now the unit matched Algo’s state of mind, lurching and catching his falls and stumbles as he rummaged through the papers spread out before him.
‘It’s here,’ said the head of the board. ‘Can you see it?’
‘I’m not sure, sir.’
‘Sergeant Tull,’ said Monoshaft, glancing up, the flicker of recognition on his metal skull’s vision plate. ‘You must be able to see it?’
‘Treason, sergeant. Treasonists, all around us. All connected, all of them in the pattern down there, if only I could see the devils clearly enough.’
Oh Circle, one of his funny turns all right. Why me? Why couldn’t it be Billy-boy in here, having to humour the old fool? ‘See everything, sir.’
‘We see nothing, Sergeant Tull. Nothing!’
‘Well, we did see one of the royalists on the watch list, sir. Carl Redlin. Making contact with someone at the residence of Lord Chant.’
‘I’ve read the report you sent in. The rebel helped murder Lady Florence.’
‘That was a mistake, sir. My mistake. Lady Florence is very much alive.’
‘No,’ the steamman’s voicebox trembled with agitation. ‘She is dead, dead for sure and to my mind, Lord Chant is a treasonist, no doubt working in the pay of the rebels.’ He tapped one of the pieces of paper, following the trail of the thread along the oak floor. Dick looked at the document. A clipping from the Illustrated, the bodies found drained of blood near Cripplefield, the work of the so-called vampires. Monoshaft had scrawled “War war war” by the margins.
‘Chant is a pottery magnate, sir. One of the richest buggers in the Kingdom. I doubt that he’s in the pay of anyone.’
‘Oh, the royalists have all the money they need, sergeant,’ said Monoshaft. ‘They are being funded by the gill-necks. I have followed the paper trail and there can be no doubt, the royalist cause is now being embraced by the great underwater nation. The Advocacy mean to use our rebels to fight a proxy war against us.’
‘Our conflict with the Advocacy is at sea, sir. What do the gill-necks care if it is Parliament or a royalist monarch who rules on land? It’s simply a dispute over whose territory is being sailed over. Taxes and trade. Parliament will reach a settlement with the gill-necks.’
Cheaper than funding a war against them, anyway.
Monoshaft bent down, urgently rearranging the papers in a symmetry better pleasing to him. ‘It’s all connected, sergeant, all of it. Haven’t you heard? The Kingdom’s ambassador has just returned from the Advocacy. Never welcome at the best of times, she was expelled by the gill-necks over the heightening tensions between our two nations. There is a pattern here, a code, if we can just crack it. Where is the other agent who was with you, where’s William Beresford?’
‘What? Not by me. Not by me. Don’t trust him, sergeant. If he’s not here with us, he can’t be trusted.’
Now we’re getting somewhere. ‘I don’t trust him, sir. He’s not one to be relied on, definitely not officer material.’
‘Now, your royalist at Lord Chant’s residence, Carl Redlin. See where the yarn runs. Follow his trail back to the gill-necks. We have a war to avert – we have royalists to crush. If only they would help us.’
‘The Court of the Air, sergeant, the Court of the Air.’
‘Ah.’ Bugger this, just how senile is he now? The Court of the Air. The shadowy senior service, set up centuries ago with an endowment from the democratic leader who had emerged victorious after the civil war, Isambard Kirkhill. The Court of the Air. The court absolute, floating in judgement over the land in their high altitude aerial city, wreathed by the constant concealing clouds of their great transaction-engines, modelling – so it was rumoured – the possible futures of the Jackelian nation. What did we use to call them? The wolftakers. Every enemy we faced just disappeared, vanished by the good shepherds protecting their flock.
‘They were destroyed, sir, during the invasion from the north,’ Dick reminded the old steamman. ‘Don’t you remember? We found bits of wreckage from their bloody great airship city scattered for miles. Nobody has heard of one of their agents being active for years.’
‘They look down on me, on us, on the board.’
Dick shrugged. ‘They looked down on everyone, sir.’
The head of the service continued as if he hadn’t registered the sergeant’s quip. ‘They treat us as a joke, badly funded amateurs dabbling in the great game, endangering their position on the board.’
‘The State Protection Board?’
‘The chessboard, the great game,’ the steamman’s voicebox quivered in agitation. Algo Monoshaft started tugging at the threads running through the mess on the floor. ‘And the Court are here again, I can feel them. Just follow the connections, someone else’s tugging at them too.’
‘I think it is obvious that I’m going to need to tread carefully, sir.’
‘You know what they call us down here, you know what the Court of the Air calls the agents of the State Protection Board?’
‘The peculiar gentlemen, sir?’
‘No – no! That’s them out there.’ The steamman’s iron digits stabbed out to the sprawling civil service buildings. Then, as if revealing a great confidence, he pointed up to the crystal panes arcing above their heads, stained glass scenes of civil servants diligently performing their duties at desks, other bureaucrats bustling through the halls of parliament. ‘They call us the glass men. Just like our roof. Poke, poke, and we shatter. Brittle, useless, a liability, sergeant, that’s all we are to the Court of the Air.’
And now we’re on our own. Just the board to safeguard the realm. Well, I’ve always been on my own, it’s all I’ve bloody known anyway. Who else have I got to rely on – you, you mad old steamer? Ambitious chancers like Billy-boy? Self-seeking politicians like Walsingham? Just me. And soon enough, I won’t even be a memory around here. But I want my money before I go.
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