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‘To ask for help. And I told him the same thing I told you. I’m out of it.’
‘Why would you want to help him and not the rival royalist faction?’
‘Because it’s my sister who’s been helping the gill-necks, Tull. Gemma Dark, captain of the fleet-in-exile now and war leader of the Star Chamber.’
Sweet Circle. The underwater nation, the Advocacy. It was true then. The head’s paranoid rantings. But which side had Symons been serving?
Dick felt the lines of his greying moustache. ‘And how do you feel about that?’
‘Well, there’s a blessed good question. It makes no sense to me. The gill-necks had no time for us surface-dwellers when I skippered for the cause. The Advocacy called us pirates too, hunted our u-boats as keenly as Parliament’s fleet ever did. As for helping the cause overthrow Parliament, why should we trust the gill-necks? Why should they trust us? Symons felt the same way. So did a lot of rebels. Helping the Advocacy fight the Kingdom felt a might too close to treachery to him. My sister and her new allies purged the royalist dissenters, and now they’re on the run from her, you, and the gill-necks both!’
‘What about your sister? Why would you—’
‘Didn’t they let you read my file, Tull? Gemma’s a hardliner. When Parliament broke the back of the fleet-in-exile at Porto Principe, I fled for my life. As far as my sister’s concerned, I’m a traitor and a coward. And that was before I got her son killed on some fool adventure and the board started blackmailing me. I’m never going to be on the same side as Gemma again. Not unless it’s planted in a grave four feet beneath her boots.’
Dick supped greedily at the rich wine. ‘That’s quite a story.’
‘It’s the blessed truth.’
‘I know it is,’ said Dick.
‘Ah, poor little Rufus. I remember him as a lad on Porto Principe, always running around the corridors of the u-boat pens, always firing a thousand questions at us. How long did he last with the interrogation section?’
‘I know it’s the truth,’ continued Dick, ‘because you’ve got nothing left to lie for. You’re dying, aren’t you?’
Commodore Black coughed and refilled his glass, a tired expression crossing his face. ‘Rufus didn’t tell you that … I never told the lad I was sick.’
‘I watched my mother die of black rot in her lungs. I know that cough.’ And you’re just like her, aren’t you? You haven’t told anyone, not your friends or your family. You were planning to drag yourself away one night like a wounded animal and die alone. Exactly like she did. That’s why your housemates are in the colonies and you’re finishing your cellar off alone here. Just like ma did to me. They don’t know about you, you old sod, do they? ‘But you’ve got the coins to pay for a good doctor?’
‘Lying rascals with their hands in my pocket,’ said the commodore. ‘There’s nothing the likes of them can do for me. I’ve seen a lot of sailors with black rot. If you spend long enough under the seas, the dust from a boat’s air scrubbers always clogs you up in the end.’ The old u-boat man raised his glass in a mocking toast to Dick. ‘I’m due a grand long rest, and that’s why the board’s threat of tossing my poor bones in jail doesn’t hold any water with old Blacky anymore. Because you give it a year, and bones are all you’ll have left of me.’
‘Any more of your old rebel friends show up, you send for me,’ ordered Dick. ‘The board can help them. You don’t want the gill-neck fleet and your sister bombarding our harbour towns do you?’
‘Fight my sister without me,’ coughed the commodore. ‘I’m not going to be around to save your skins anymore.’
Maybe not, but you’ve saved mine, you old sod, you and your breakaway royalist friends. This intelligence is going to salvage my career and give me a pension worth more than half a penny to leave with.
Dick glanced back at the illuminated clock face at the top of the tower as he walked away through the grounds of the house, steam venting into the cold air from grilles around the building’s basement level. All that money it costs to heat a tower that large. Lucky, wine-warmed bastard. He’s passing away in comfort. More comfort than old ma had. More than I will.
Corporal Cloake watched from the shadows of the trees as Dick Tull emerged from the tower opposite the house’s orchard; the corporal noting the silhouette of Commodore Black at the open door spilling heat into the cold winter air. What had they discussed? Well, it really didn’t matter. Another one who would have to die, along with the snitch back in that cheap slop-house of an eatery that the corporal had been watching. But that was the nice thing about being employed by the board. They had a special section that specialized in disposing of rubbish.
It was time to call in the dustmen.
Boxiron cradled the volumes in his iron hands, the books of forbidden knowledge that Jethro had asked for shaking slightly as he navigated his way across their apartment’s worn red carpet. There were so many ironies here. Once he had been a proud warrior, a steamman knight of the order militant. But that body had long since been destroyed, only his skull and his soul-board salvaged by the human scavengers who arrived like crows at the aftermath of a battle. Stripping the dead steammen for parts that could be sold to the devilish human tinkers in artificial life, their Loa-cursed mechomancers. What had been left of Boxiron’s body had been amateurishly joined to the defunct body of a treasured family servant, the warrior’s memories suppressed and left to haunt the human-milled body like a ghost. But ghosts had a way of coming back to haunt their owners, and so it was with Boxiron, the first true memories of his reawakening returning as he stood in an inferno, his hands clutched around a can of lamp oil, the widow Aumerle’s grand house burning down around his metal frame. The screams of its owner upstairs, crying for help from the ageing mechanical she had grown up with from a girl. The only thing she had truly loved in her barren, childless life. The mechanical she had spent a small fortune reanimating with stolen steamman body parts.
Boxiron had stood there in the grounds, watching her crazed silhouette flapping at the window against a backdrop of flames. Is this hell, he had wondered, is this the dark realm of Radius Patternkeeper, Lord of the Ravenous Fire? Hell had yet to find him, although he had come close to purgatory wandering the streets of Middlesteel, turned away from the temples of the people of the metal, outraged that this desecration, this walking corpse, should come to them begging succour. This metal zombie who should have deactivated himself rather than violate the perfection of the design blessed upon him by King Steam and the Hall of Architects. Was it any wonder he had drifted into the clutches of the only society who would accept him – the human capital’s underworld? The flash mob, only too glad to allow their mechomancers to soup up his ill-fitting frame. Giving Boxiron power enough to break the arms and legs and skulls of those who would not pay protection money. Giving him the skill to crack locks, both physical and those rolling on the calculation drums of the race of man’s primitive steam-driven thinking machines.
Oh yes, the irony. Once a proud warrior of the people of the metal and now barely able to navigate a true course across a drawing room without spilling what he carried or upending the table where Jethro Daunt was working. It was the eccentric ex-parson who had saved Boxiron from the life he’d fallen into. Allowed the soldier to reclaim some sliver of honour. It was the challenges of the cases that they undertook together that allowed Boxiron to feel a vestige of the thrill of the battlefield that had been the purpose of his old existence. That gave him direction enough to keep on going, rather than taking the path of honourable deactivation that the people of the metal’s code demanded of a desecration.
Increasingly, however, Boxiron found this was not enough. His mind clear, his body so wrecked and inferior. The juxtaposition grew heavier with each year. Much how a young softbody might feel, once fit, gazing upon withered limbs made sick by a wasting disease. He hated his shaking fingers, so slow and brutish. He loathed his pistoning legs, so heavy and so inelegant. He hated his weak boiler heart, puny and pitiful and so incapable of supplying a strong, regular flow of power. He hated the way he would direct his body to action only to have it respond milliseconds too slow to react to a threat, lurching and reeling from foot to foot. Why did it have to be like this? Why couldn’t that incoming shell have destroyed my mind and left my body intact for the scavengers.Why must I be imprisoned inside this pitching, stumbling corpse? Would dying be so bad? I’m hard to kill, but not that hard. I could climb to the top of one of the city’s pneumatic towers, so high that the shadow of the airships darken the air vents, leap from the roof. The impact would kill me, surely? My skull smashed. My mind at peace. My ancestors have forsaken me. My people wouldn’t miss me, only—
Daunt looked up from the table and smiled, pushing aside the volume from the inquisition’s forbidden library that he was browsing. Here was another irony. The human’s Circlist religion, the church that denied all gods, with all the knowledge and lore of their old ways, their superstitions, wrapped up and concealed in these goat-leather bound tomes. Devils and demons and monsters and legends. Some real, some legends. It was wise of the Inquisition to conceal them, for it was only the power of belief that could animate gods, and the distinction between what existed in truth and myth was often blurred. You couldn’t always predict what people would believe in.
‘These are the last of the books,’ said Boxiron.
‘Thank you, old steamer. The longer I look at them, the more I feel the answers we seek are elsewhere.’
‘Are there any superstitions and irrationalities of your people that the Inquisition have not secreted away inside their pages?’
‘What those poor possessed girls are screaming at night has its roots in history, I am convinced of it.’
‘The hysteria sweeping the city grows worse,’ said Boxiron. ‘Our landlady took great delight in describing how a local mob chased a dog to his death under the wheels of an omnibus. It was a vampire apparently, a shape-switcher changed form, and the crowd swore they heard it beg for mercy as they beat the piteous, wounded animal.’
‘Poor fools.’ Daunt took his reading glasses off and rubbed his tired eyes. ‘What are the vicars of their parishes doing? They should be calling the people to meditation, balancing their souls. Healing their minds.’
‘There is an old saying in the Steamman Free State,’ said Boxiron. ‘When you cease to believe in the ancestors and the Loa, you do not believe in nothing. You believe in anything.’
‘We don’t believe in nothing, old steamer. We believe in each other, and we believe in rationality and our own power to make things better. It is always a hard thing to ask a person, to climb the mountain alone with empty hands.’
Boxiron shrugged. ‘Yet, it is not steammen who are chasing hounds through the streets with clubs and pitchforks.’
Daunt smiled kindly. ‘You have no blood to suck, old friend. Maybe a little oil, but I doubt there is much sustenance in that.’
‘There will be little left in you, either, Jethro softbody. If you sit there hour after hour staring at tales of garden sprites and witches’ spells.’
Daunt nodded and shut the book, collecting up the notes he’d made from the possessed sisters’ ramblings. ‘I have to agree. I believe it time to seek help from an expert in antiquarian matters.’
‘Do you wish me to return these books to the Inquisition?’
‘Not yet,’ said Daunt. ‘I have another task in mind for you, old steamer. One a little more suited to your … unique talents.’
Charlotte glanced around Damson Robinson’s pie shop to make sure that there were no customers left inside. Then she turned the sign hanging on the door to read ‘closed’ and locked it shut. On the other side of the sawdust-strewn floor, Mister Twist laid out an architect’s blueprint for the ground floor of the House of Guardians, all of Parliament’s lintels, lunettes, elevations and eaves laid out on the ageing parchment.
‘You have not explained the details of how you expect to obtain King Jude’s sceptre for us?’ said Twist. He looked over in annoyance at the old female proprietor of the pie shop hovering nearby. ‘It would be better if you weren’t here.’
‘I am sure it would, dearie,’ replied Damson Robinson. ‘But seeing as it is the Cat-gibbon who procured Charlotte’s services for you, the flash mob would like to make sure there’s no business between the two of you going on under the counter.’ She tapped her worktop and pushed a large chopping board out of the way.
Twist shrugged and lifted up a battered red leather case, the kind clerks and civil servants used to lug paperwork across the city. Laying it on top of the counter, Twist undid the clasp and revealed a velvet-lined interior filled with neat cord-tied columns of gold sovereigns.
Damson Robinson sighed in gentle satisfaction. ‘There’s a sight to warm an old bird’s heart.’
Charlotte had to agree. The money always helped.
Twist closed the case and placed it between his boots. ‘You’ll take your share of it when I have the sceptre.’ He tapped the plans, impatiently.
‘Only I ever know the details of my jobs,’ said Charlotte. ‘A girl has to keep her secrets.’
And we wouldn’t want you copying my plan and deciding to execute it without me, would we?
‘Results are what count, Mister Twist,’ said the shop owner. ‘We don’t ask, you don’t ask. That way there’s no recriminations about who knew what, should any detectives from Ham Yard come calling at a later stage.’
‘Professional tradecraft,’ said Charlotte. ‘Just like I haven’t asked where your friend Mister Cloake is tonight.’
‘Mister Cloake and my associates will be waiting here to take possession of the sceptre when you get back,’ said Twist. ‘I have other business to attend to.’
How many rebels are there swarming over the city?Well, I don’t need to know. Just so long as that case full of money is still here when I return.
Damson Robinson came over to give Charlotte a little hug. ‘You be careful, dearie. I stepped out with a sergeant major from the house guards regiment when I wasn’t much older than you. They’re tough old buggers. You won’t find any of them sleeping at Parliament’s gate.’
‘You keep my share of that money safe,’ said Charlotte. ‘I’ll keep my soul well enough out there.’
Charlotte stepped out into the street, her mind preoccupied with all of the dangers of the night ahead of her, the floor plans she had memorized, the challenges she would face. So immersed in her own world that she didn’t notice the figure slinking back into the shadows of the alleyway on the opposite side of the road.
This was just as well, for if she had, Parliament was the last place Charlotte Shades would have visited.
Damson Robinson sighed, watching Charlotte depart with her housebreaking equipment. Then the old woman locked the door again and made them safe. All my pigeons have flown and left. But let this one come back, come back safe with a valuable little gee-jaw stuck between her talons.
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