Chapter 4-Part 4

He looked hurt.  “Aw, no, come on mate, you just sat down!”

Viska put a hand up.  “No, I really can’t.  But, look, I came over here to repay you for your hospitality that night, right?  Tell me what room you’re in over at The Aegis and I’ll have a bottle of the finest schnapps waiting for you.”  The finest inn in Winghem boasted a turn-down service, only a minimal amount of bodily fluid staining the furniture, and little else in the way of excellence.

“Actually I’m not staying there, we we’re all about to head back to the barge to enjoy a little music and a steam bath.  You have to come, man.  You have to.”  He turned to the rest of the ladies lounged around the room.  “Girls, girls, tell Selnick he’s got to come back to the boat with us, eh?”

Immediately the entourage of tramps began to whimper and pout about his departure.  The one on his lap caressed his cheek and begged him to join the group.  His blood boiled and he imagined steam leaking from his ears and nostrils.  That of course set him to giggling; he rose from his seat with a forlorn smile and grabbed his cane.  “Ok, ok I will talk to my captain.  That’s all I can promise.  You’ll either see me at the dock,” he pointed at David as he stepped through the curtains, “or at least see that schnapps waiting for you.”

“Hey, you tell that son of a bitch that the Family requires your service, eh?” David called after him.

Viska threw up a playful wave and glanced at the little girl with her downturned face for but a moment before walking over to the bar.  The smile was gone now…only the hollow, determined scowl of an angry man who’s decided to do something rash and unthinkable remained.  He slapped a hundred mark down on the oak next to his abandoned plate and left.  He barely heard the bartender’s confused, “Thank you.”

Outside he quickly checked his pocket watch as he strode down the now lamp-lit street towards The Winking Lady.  He wagered he had a little over three hours before departure…plenty of time.  He stopped at a grocer two blocks down and bought the most expensive bottle of pink champagne he saw; the man behind the counter tried to be pleasant but the scowl plastered on Viska’s face only meant trouble.

“How goes it this evening?” he asked with concerned worry in his voice.

“Bugger off.”  He tossed another hundred mark on the counter and moved on. 

It was full dark and the town was hauntingly lit by the streetlamps and glowing window signs up and down the main circle when he finally arrived at The Winking Lady.  The spire was especially beautiful, with a spiral of tiny lights winding up the great staircase and deck lamps dotting some of the swaying airships; soon the fog would make visibility poor, and the brutally cold wind would keep most people indoors next to their boiler vents, but the view was pleasing nonetheless.  Viska quietly slipped around the back of the establishment and spotted the huge boiler humming and churning against the wall.  As he neared, the vents noisily shot steam up into the air to drift away and dissipate.  The pressure gauge showed the needle still dancing around normal levels with an internal temperature far below dangerous.

He could hear laughter inside the building, along with the warble of some working girl singing into an ampliphone.  He couldn’t quite make out the song, but it sounded an awful lot like You’re Past Due.  Glasses clinked; whistles and catcalls were constant.  He opened up the maintenance panel and eyed the dutifully turning gears.  Poor things, they weren’t doing anything wrong. 

He took a look at his cane; it was certainly thin enough to do the trick.  He took aim and rammed it in between the two biggest gears, grunting as he struggled to wriggle it as deep as possible.  The gears immediately halted with a slight squeal.  He started humming along with the tune inside as he closed the front panel; the cane protruded enough to keep it from latching.  He tapped the pressure gauge with his finger as the needle started to move away from the safe zone and the internal temperature began to rise. 

It wouldn’t explode.  No, these newer models were designed to force vent if the gauge read too high–a well-designed safety measure for folks on holiday.  But Viska had better plans for all that pressure…Magnus would answer for his destruction of innocence.

His pace quickened as he made for the dock stairs.  Another look at his watch put his remaining time at just over two hours.  The wind was picking up and the street traffic was sparse.  As he neared the bottom step he felt the distinct tickle of tiny raindrops in his hair.  He climbed his way up past some arriving merchants on their way down and several Cogbots hauling large crates.  He passed the Royal Barge at Dock 6 and wound up, and up, and up to docks 17 and 18.  He peered off the jetty at 17, taking care not to drop the champagne; directly below and a good seventy-five feet down was the Barge’s cream colored envelope swaying in the biting wind.  The lights of Winghem twinkled and were barely visible in the clouds of steam covering the town.  The rain had picked up during his climb, soaking his vest and silk shirt; matting his blond tangles to his forehead and sideburns.  Without any second thoughts he grabbed the end of a spare mooring line tethered to a bollard off the gangplank of the clipper docked there and tossed it over the edge of the pier.  He watched it tumble down, down, down, unwind and finally snap to a stop just above the deck of the Barge.  With all the grace of an acrobat Viska dropped off the side of the pier and nimbly grabbed the soaking wet, thick rope with one hand–clutching the bottle of champagne in the other.

The notion that a mere slip of the fingers could send him plummeting to his death was of no concern.  His heart would stop before he hit the ground anyhow.  Would he even scream?  Or would the whole affair of his life thus far make him erupt into laughter before the end?  None of that mattered.  The boorish David, the brothel owner with a penchant for the untouched, the little girl being violated; those were the forces driving The Mad Jester.

The wind and the icy cold rain battered the rope, and the man dangling from it.  With ease, he wrapped his legs around the line and began a slow, steady slide from Dock 17 to the Barge below.  The friction burned his palm at times, but he hardly noticed the searing pain.  The rain stung his eyes and his vest was soaked and heavy, but the pure, angry disgust never drained from his face.  As he neared the boat, he spotted David’s only guards all the way at the other end of the jetty.  Their backs were to the ship, and both of them huddled together under a small lean-to meant to shelter crates of food or fine silks in stormy weather.  At the very bottom of the rope, Viska started swinging back and forth, trying to build up enough momentum to propel a nice leap onto the deck.  The wind made it difficult, blowing him in every direction like some giant pendulum.  Finally he swung back, forward, and then let go; gracefully somersaulting through the air to land with a near silent thunk on the deck.  He swept his hair out of his eyes, adjusted his vest, and rolled up his sleeves.  Blood stains would only look incriminating and less than fashionable.  He let out a small giggle of utter madness and headed for the stairs leading below.

Chapter 4-Part 3

There were several taverns and dilapidated wine holes to be found in Winghem, all of which served the finest ales and spirits from all over the known world.  For all its grimy, dreary mediocrity, Winghem was first and foremost a town full of merchants, and with merchants came a steady intake of all things exotic and luxurious.  Money flowed through the rocky, pot-holed streets and alleys like a river, yet the tide always led to the pocket of a man or woman with unsavory morals and spending practices.  At its core, Kingdom law held no sway over the inner clockwork of the town.  The Magistrate was on the take with the more criminally minded business owners and Glimmer dealers; the lawmen were typically young, inexperienced and naïve.  As long as Corland received legitimate reports every month detailing that all was well, the Royalty was content to simply leave it at that.

With the increased level of organized illicit activity, however, came the logical increase in public safety.  Murder wasn’t tolerated, neither was robbery.  Anything that might skew those reports or raise eyebrows and invite unwanted visits from Royal bureaucrats was kept strictly to a minimum.  They had a very profitable racket to run, why let someone screw it up?

Viska whistled all the way to the Bolt and Bodkin alehouse.  A place where the vomit was almost never cleaned up and the smell of stale piss drifted from the toilet room day and night.  The special on the menu never changed: slow roasted badland brown potato bathed in honey maple reduction.  The badland browns…some were as big as a cat, but more flavorful at smaller sizes.  The food was well liked but the ale was just weak…weak yellow water, it almost seemed.  Word was the bartender made the mistake of sleeping with the wives of both the merchants who sold all the good drink.  Truth or not, the customers usually stuck to a strong tea instead.

He let out another slight cackle as he stepped through the open double doors.  The large room smelled rancid, as always; though the last time he’d visited there had been more bloodstains on the floor.  The torches around the walls were few, most likely to keep the patrons from getting a good look at the subpar ale.  The piano music was a brisk tune, upbeat and full of good fun.  Viska sidled up onto a barstool and hummed along.  He ordered the finest white ale in the establishment and a small plate of salted root jerky.

After the first bite he realized with a giggle how funny it might be to set fire to the building and help everyone get out safely at the same time–before stabbing them all in the neck, of course.

The silly thoughts turned somber when he suddenly caught sight of someone he hadn’t noticed when he came in.  Behind a slightly parted pair of sheer curtains, back in the private party room, sitting in a plush, cushioned booth surrounded by empty bottles and tiny beakers of Glimmer was a man well known around the Kingdom of Corland.  Viska was certain that the chuckling, fawning women surrounding him on every side knew exactly who he was as well.  He couldn’t quite make out the conversation, but the fellow’s lips moved a bit before he threw back a shot of something and most of his company burst into laughter.  Oh yes…this man was very well known.  He was no stranger to bad press, and worse reputation.  His constant displays of public intoxication were the stuff of legend.  To his own family he was nothing more than a cumbersome thorn in their collective foot.  David, Cousin to King Janus and Princess Lorna; son of their Uncle Mordechai and Nephew to the late King Leorian III.  Viska had wondered why the Royal barge was docked at the spire.

Most of David’s group was enjoying the evening.  Some snorted Glimmer by the tiny spoonful, others kissed his neck or whispered things in his ear that made him grin and take another shot from his bottle of dark liquid.  Most, but not all, seemed to think there was absolutely no better way to spend their night–the young girl on his lap, likely no older than thirteen, didn’t seem to think it was fun at all.  She was blond, with hair done up in short pigtails.  Pale skinned, with nothing but  sad, hollow fear on her face.  David would take a drink and try to kiss her, she would shy away but relent after stern looks from the rest of the group.

Viska took a violent bite of his jerky, chomping down hard on the chewy morsel.  The little girl had grey eyes.  Under normal circumstances he might not have spared a second look at the private room in the back.  Well, that wasn’t entirely true.  Under normal circumstances he probably would’ve already shot the bartender for making food that was simply too damn good before setting the whole place on fire; but, under present circumstances, he would refrain from causing any trouble.  Man, he really liked fire.

She had grey eyes, like him.  That made things a little difficult to tolerate.

The law was loose in The Crevices, but it was simply nonexistent out in the wastes of the badlands of the North.  Farms and small towns were routinely raided by pirates or nomads, the food and money pillaged and the children taken and sold to slavers from the Freeholds, or far to the East, beyond the serenity of Greenhaven.  Most weren’t hurt–being sold to wealthy, albeit infirm, buyers who simply needed a hand tending to the garden or moving furniture.  Many, though, especially the girls…many weren’t so lucky.  Viska knew about all this because he’d seen it happen.  But no…no, no, this was not the time to dwell.  This was not the time to remember.

He had no idea who exactly this little one belonged to–even David wasn’t brazen enough to purchase a slave–but the disgust and resignation in her expression made his blood boil  He downed his ale in several furious, dripping gulps; his eyes never leaving the smug, despicable, spoiled, chubby and pimpled little prick in the back room.

“Yeah, that’s David back there,” the bartender had wandered over, polishing a glass.  Obviously Viska’s heated stare hadn’t gone unnoticed.  “I saw the Barge headed in earlier.  I think we all did.  Got everyone’s knickers all knotted.  Never good for business when Royalty comes ‘round ‘ere.”  Viska didn’t even turn to acknowledge the man.  “’Course that rule don’t apply to the young master over there.  It was smiles all around when we saw his arse comin’ down the stairs.  Drinkin’ all the good wine and eatin’ all the good food and snorting every shiny bottle he sees, eh?”

Viska didn’t avert his gaze, but said, “He’s got a slave in there.”

“I saw that too.”

“She’s a child.  And an orphan.”

“That’s usually how they come, don’t they?  Trust me; I don’t much like it myself.”

“Looking the other way to keep your reputation?”

He put down the glass and threw the towel over his shoulder.  “Lookin’ the other way to keep my place open.  Makin’ waves with the Royal Family ain’t exactly good for your health ‘round these parts, if you catch my meanin’.”

“I do.”

“And I’d think twice before goin’ and tellin’ any lawmen about this if I was you, mate, savvy?”  With that he walked away, off to fill some other fellow’s order and bring fresh pints around the room.  Viska quietly finished his jerky, grabbed his cane and put on his best smile as he walked to the curtains.  The bartender looked confused but made no move to stop him.

He brushed the draperies open and stepped into the room, asking, “David?  Is it really David?”

His entourage, even the little slave, all turned their heads at once to the grinning newcomer.  Laughter died and smiles left.  The Royal drunk himself set down a full shot glass and said with quiet anger, “Woah, mate, woah, what are you doing just barging in here?  This is a private party, couldn’t you tell?”

Viska cackled.  Several of the women cringed at the sound.  “I knew it!  Oh you know you remember me, right?  Gods I can’t believe it’s really you!”

David frowned with his mouth open in deep thought.  He appeared to be racking his memory for the deranged face before him.  “You?  I…I don’t know you.  Please leave.”

Viska sat down in the chair across from him and his little blonde slave, who dared not look at the guest whatsoever.  “You’re still fucking hilarious, mate,” he said.  “It’s Selnick.  I was at the tavern that night you got into the fistfight with the Constable?  That was amazing.”  The story wasn’t hard for anyone living in Corland to recall.  One evening, two years ago, the feckless idiot had gotten completely smashed at a bar in the Leisure District.  The crowd inside did nothing but cheer him on as he bought round after round for the thankful patrons.  The bartender was only too happy to oblige, but mentioned that he would stop serving at midnight.  David slammed the man’s head down on the bar and told him that he would stop serving when the Family was good and ready to let him.  The law got involved, and it all ended rather messily.

“Selnick?” David mumbled, nodding.  Slowly, a half smile grew on his plump lips.  Viska was lying through his teeth, of course; but David was so drunk that night he wouldn’t know any better.  “Yeah.  Yeah, mate I remember.”

“Yeah?” he laughed.  “Yes!  You.  Are.  A.  Legend.  And I never thought I’d get a chance to meet you again and at least maybe…buy you a bloody drink, my friend.  And here you are, in the fucking flesh.”

David raised his shot glass.  “In the fucking flesh, with some fucking flesh, my good man.”  He downed it and slammed the glass on the table.

The group chuckled nervously and began to relax a bit.  One of the ladies even took a seat on Viska’s lap.  It took every ounce of focus to hold his pleasant smile and keep from reaching for his dagger.  The weight of this vile creature, this whore, the feel of her soft blue taffeta dress against his skin made his feelings turn dark, and bloody.  The knowledge that they all clearly condoned the treatment of this little blonde on David’s lap was nearly more than he could handle; their visible disappointment at her refusal to let him have his way with her spoke volumes about their involvement with her “training.”  Viska made a mental note to kill this one first.  “There we are!” he said.  “That’s right everyone, don’t stop your fun because of stupid little me, come on now.”  He wrapped an arm around her waist and poured himself a shot in David’s own glass.  They all relaxed as Viska swallowed his drink–turned out to be the driest, most watered down bourbon he’d ever had.  Conversations resumed.  Giggles and drinks flowed.  One girl even reached for the Glimmer on the table between them.  He looked David in the eyes and saw them swimming in red, wet glaze.  He was good and sloshed, not to mention his heart was most likely racing from all the Glimmer he’d been sucking up his nose.  “So she’s cute,” Viska pointed at the pigtailed innocent, “how exactly did you get her back here?”

“A gift from Old Magnus, down at the Winking Lady,” David slurred.  “About time, too.  Bastard knows I pour more coin into his establishment in one night than most of his clients do in a month.”

“Old Magnus has slaves?  And this young?  I’ve heard of the daily special but he’s been holding out on us, it seems.”

“Nah, mate.  Just this one.  This lot here,” he indicated the women around him, “came in just two days ago from Tesper with her.  This party wasn’t cheap, let me tell you.”  He laughed and slapped the wooden table.  Spittle coated his lips as he calmed down.  “But this little one,” he tried to suckle at her neck, grabbing her throat to hold her still.  “She was a freebie.”

“Big spenders reap what they sow, eh?”  Viska poured another shot and raised his glass.

David laughed again.  “I like you…Selnick, right?”

He put the empty shot down and smiled.  “That’d be me!”  David offered him one of the small, glowing beakers and a tiny spoon.  Viska shook his head.  “Bad heart.  I take pills to keep my chest steady.”

“Rotten luck.”  He dug out a tiny smudge of the glowing stuff and snorted it.  He shook his head violently for a moment, grunting in momentary pain.  “So we met that night?  Back in the city?”

“You were probably way too drunk to remember me.  I held the bartender down while you poured wine all over his head.”

“No, no, man I remember.”  He took yet another shot.  “That got Janus’ arsehole tied up in knots, I can tell you.  My father actually kept me in the bloody dungeon for three days.”

“I’d have kept you down there for a month, with how bad you made them all look.”  They both had a laugh at that.  The whore on Viska’s lap poured him another drink before digging out some Glimmer for herself.  He drank the bourbon and then shook his head.  “I’ve got to be out early tomorrow with a shipment of gears, my friend, that’s it for me.”

Chapter 4-Part 2

Quentin remembered his first conversation with Pratt; remembered asking him who he was before he died, how he died, if he was married…all of that.  Pratt had shrugged and written, “Nobody knew.”  It was commonplace after the first great Awakening for the dead to be casketed with an identification tag if an identity was known.  The instances of a Slender waking up with absolutely no way to know who they had been or not being recognized by someone who knew them were few and very far between.  Pratt didn’t even have a name when he rose; he picked one off the side of a discarded box of lye soap.  It was bad enough to see most of their kind reduced to nothing more than hired help; seeing this poor boy with no past, no reputation and no real opportunities beyond the next bastard willing to throw him a couple of coppers for a swept floor was just depressing. 

Quentin nodded at Milosz.  “This little sprite still treating you ok?” he asked Pratt.

He wrote, “Sure.”  But Quentin could see in his eyes that that might not be the case.

“We need the big box, boy,” Milosz said as he shoved the sack into Pratt’s hands.  “The one up above the brass lifter intakes.”  The dead lad nodded and shuffled out into the yard with Quentin and the Gnome following close behind.

“So everything coming along?” Milosz asked, his leg brace squealing as he limped.

“With what?” Quentin replied sourly.

“The plan.  Griss.  Is he…ready to move?”  They passed by gargantuan, old and rusted durasteel engines choked with weeds.  A newer engine sat on cinderblocks nearby, the casing in pieces on the ground and bolts littered in the dirt.  An open tool chest was its only companion at the moment.  Certain “other” bits of “inventory” were either covered by canvas sheets or locked up tight in big padlocked chests.

“I thought I told you not to bother with the details.”  Quentin glanced up to see more skiffs passing by, and more cargo ships drifting towards the spire.  Steam clouds floated everywhere.  A gust of wind blew through the yard and made him shiver.

“Yes, of course.  I just…should I be getting ready?  Is there anything you…need me to do?”

“First you want out, and now you want to help?” Quentin chuckled.  “This,” he said simply.  “Repair my ship.  Perform repairs for any others who might sail through these parts in The General’s employ.  Keep an eye open and your mouth shut.  That is all we need from you.  That’s what we’re paying you to do.”

“Alright…yes,” the small man looked disappointed.  Whether he was trying to score points with The General or truly desired to simply stay on his good side wasn’t apparent.  Either way, Quentin couldn’t stand the simpering.  There was little time for it, and it meant nothing coming from a man who was most likely treating his undead assistant with very little respect.  “Get a move on, boy!” Milosz shouted.  “This isn’t exactly a standard transaction!  Is that chalkboard weighing you down?”

And suddenly the feeling went from general dislike to outright disgust.

Pratt shuffled a bit faster, his footing suffered slightly from the effort.  Finally they came to a high shelf full of parts up against the back fence.  Quentin had to hand it to Milosz, he was brazen.  The neighboring shop’s upper windows looked right down into the yard.  Anything out of the ordinary being lugged back here could be easily seen and reported if anyone in there felt inclined.  Then again, this was The Crevices.  There was a good chance the neighbors all had their own secrets to keep from the law.  Hell, the law out here had its own secrets to keep.  And the good folks, the ones with a right mind and healthy consciences, few as they were; they learned early on to keep their noses out of anyone else’s dealings.

Pratt gingerly climbed a ladder up to the top shelf where a large, albeit inconspicuous wooden crate sat gathering dust.  He lifted the lid, opened the sack and looked down at Milosz, who read from the list of parts Quentin had outlined.  With all the care of a penitent Holy Man the boy pulled each shiny, lustrous, Infused alloy part out of the crate and gently placed them in the sack before closing the lid and coming back down.

“Thank you, Pratt.  I trust everything is still there?” Quentin asked, sparing a look at Milosz.

“Honestly, why would I even dare?”  The Gnome shook his head, indignant.

Pratt handed Milosz the sack and nodded.  He scribbled, “Yes.  I check every day.”

Quentin smiled again.  “I’m sure that you do.”

“No, boy,” Milosz handed the sack back to Pratt.  “I’m not feeling well enough to make the climb today with all that weight on my back.  You’re carrying it.”

Quentin pursed his lips.  The whole scene wasn’t right.  Milosz was small, and needed help carrying heavy things on occasion, there was no question there.  But the boy was frail, wasted and gangly.  He had no business hauling airship parts around all day.  His arms were apt to fall off, literally.  And the insults…he nearly asked for the bag himself; then thought better of it.  It was bad enough that this kid was dead, mute and without morale; there was no need to make him look weak in front of this officious little shit on top of that.

They all left and headed back to the Fortunate in near silence as dusk slowly settled over Winghem; Pratt obviously struggling with the weight of the sack and Milosz making rude comments about time and wasting it.  Quentin hoped that Viska was staying out of trouble as they crossed the main thoroughfare towards the winding docks.

“I hope you have a lantern,” Milosz said, looking around at the fading light.

As they came upon the first stair Quentin said, “I want to her to be fixed and ready to leave in three hours.  Can you do it?”

“Please,” the Gnome said, starting up the stairs ahead of them.  “I wasn’t given the Royal Merit Award for repair by shoving my thumb up my arse all day.”  Pratt followed him with the sack, and the three of them began the arduous ascent up into the murky twilight.

 

 

*           *           *

 

 

Viska strolled through Winghem whistling a tune and tipping his head gleefully at every person that passed him by.  When he left the ship–sans face paint, of course–he decided against a coat and gloves and instead chose an opulent walking cane with a handle knob fashioned to look like an evil clown’s head; complete with oversized, fanged grin, bulbous honking nose and downturned bushy eyebrows.

Oh how little the masses knew about the demon that sauntered among them.  How ignorant of the thoughts that raced through his head at each scent of perfume and each sight of a well-made suit; thoughts of violation, thoughts of anger; beatings, rape, theft, murder, fruit, fashion and culinary delights.

It was hard to behave, though he knew he must–General’s orders.  He would’ve liked nothing more than to slit that stupid pilot’s throat and be done with him and this foul town.  He was thinking he might just do it anyway, and call it a tragic accident when they got back to base.  But, unfortunately, the little prick was right about needing a good pilot to make it back smoothly.  And the shredded turbine might earn him more than a slight chastising.  He just needed a little air; a brisk jaunt around town.  Not hard considering the main street was one giant circle.  The thought made him giggle a bit as he walked, attracting some strange looks from some equally strange looking people.  Circles were silly shapes.

He looked up into the fog high above the town; the grey, dull light was slowly starting to fade from the day.  No matter, Quentin said before they docked they’d have at least 5 hours to play around.  Not that Viska really wanted to be there that long, but he certainly had time for a little mischief.  But no…no mischief…he was going to behave; maybe just a drink or two, and then right back to the boat.

Chapter 4-Part 1

The filthy town of Winghem was built around the base of a massive spire of stone.  At the bottom it was nearly three hundred feet wide, at the top it was no bigger than a dinner plate.  From the air it looked like a huge fang jutting out of the fog.  On a clear day many more of these teeth could be seen dotting the range for miles to the North and South, but none as tall as Winghem’s.  A great spiral staircase had been carved out of the very rock, starting at the ground and winding nearly all the way to the sharp peak; wooden docks jutted from the stairs every hundred feet to accommodate the many tourists, wayfarers, merchants and various important people passing through The Crevices; some on their way to Corland, others East and over the border into Greenhaven.

            It was harvest season, and that of course brought with it the deep, piercing chill that would only get worse as winter approached.  Merchants and traders traveling the rocky roads that snaked their way through the barren dales, rivulets and dreary dead valleys pulled their coats and cloaks tight around them; the fashionable coachman’s hats and leather caps favored by the commoner replaced with thick scarves and woolen caps that covered the ears and cheap copper goggles to keep the eyes protected in a harsh wind.  Airship crews from warmer climes donned their thickest clothing as they disembarked and yet often still found themselves in a seedy tailor shop hours later buying another layer of gloves at twice the average price.

            The Fortunate was docked as low as Quentin could get her.  Well below the near constant layer of fog that haunted The Crevices in colder months, but high enough from the town to not be noticed by any Kingdom lawmen that might have gotten word of an old clipper with a strange looking exhaust port on the run from dragon riders. 

As soon as Dolovitch rigged the mooring line and dropped the gangplank, a local customs official in a faded Royal uniform came trudging up the pier breathlessly, asking about their business and lading papers.  After showing him their well written and convincing fake manifest and identifications, he was on his way back to the stairs to climb towards several other arrivals drifting in to dock.  His labored panting could be heard even as he disappeared into the fog.  First order of business was to tell Dolovitch where the Doctor’s office was.  After watching the giant of a man shuffle away down the stone steps, he ducked below deck.

Viska’s cabin door was closed, as usual.  Music could barely be heard inside; soft, dulcet piano notes and sad, lengthy violin cries.  He must have been listening to his record player.

Quentin gave several knocks.  “Viska,” he said.  “I’m going to see Milosz soon.  If you’re headed out, I suggest warm clothes and losing the makeup.”  He received a non-committal grunt in return before heading down to the engine room to get a better look at the shredded turbine exhaust.

He emerged twenty minutes later to find the ship empty.  He hoped that Viska had heeded his word.  The last thing they needed was a town in chaos at the sight of an infamous mass killer strolling around.  He went to his spacious cabin, traded his purple captain’s jacket for a layered, soft, thick coat of brown wool, slipped on a matching pair of gloves and headed back up to the deck.

Echoes of merchants and criers peddling their wares in the street or calling out the latest news wafted up the spire and just barely reached his ears.  He leaned over the starboard railing and strained to hear, but didn’t catch anything about fugitives, or suspicious ships or even The Mad Jester.  He breathed a sigh of relief and checked his watch yet again.  They had only been there for nearly an hour, but already Quentin felt the butterflies of unease flitting around his belly. 

Corland was certainly not going to give up the pursuit; doubly so now that his brilliant colleague had murdered one of their best and brightest.  Worse, there was the dragon to think about, a female of that size was a prized thing indeed.  Her death alone was enough to warrant a manhunt to the ends of the planet and beyond.  If he thought about it for more than a few moments the image of Adkins icing over and falling out of the sky filled his vision and made him short of breath.  The man was dead.  Dead.  Quentin knew many more certainly would be once The General started his takeover, but he never intended to actually…be there to watch, or see it all.  He was a pilot, pilots stuck to the sky, where they were needed.

The bite of a sudden gust of wind was enough to make him wince, even with the added layers; but through the chill, the warmth of steam was a constant as nearby ships vented boilers or ballast tanks, sending hot clouds every which way as the wind played its tricks.  He sighed deep and headed down the pier to the stone steps.

The descent was arduous; the wind was fickle, the traffic on the stairs was bothersome, and his paranoia made him see appraising looks in every face that passed him on the way down.  He passed spacious niches carved into the spire to shelter desks or cabinets as well as a few full of crates and barrels.  Other customs officials sat in some scribbling furiously in ledgers or taking inventory.  His hands were shoved deep in his pockets as the air grew colder near the bottom of the spire, his breath puffed out in clouds of steam.  As he neared the ground, he noticed a curious sight at one of the lower jetties: the Royal barge, polished and swaying in the wind with flapping Royal pennants draped over each railing and gunwale.  Her cream colored envelope went with the purple trim of the hull.  Quentin of course took pause.  What was it doing here?  How many of the Family were on it?  Was Janus himself onboard?  Are they looking for us right now?  He realized that the ship had to have left Corland well before the Fortunate did to beat them to Winghem–if, in fact, that was even where it was coming from.  And if the goal was catching murderers, the Royal barge wouldn’t be the ship they took to do it.  He shook off the fear and moved on.

When he finally reached the town proper, he took a good look around at the rabble and cast-offs that made their way up and down the broad cobbled street.  Several men stumbled out of a tavern across the way, drunk and up to no good by the sound of their raucous yelling.  A well-dressed woman criss-crossed the road over and over, nearly bumping into people as they passed; she didn’t think anyone noticed, but Quentin sure did.  She was picking pockets.  She must’ve done four or five before heading up the street and around the spire.  He spotted the Doctor’s office not far off, just down a side street that branched away from the circular thoroughfare, like a spoke on a wheel.  The town was all brick and mortar, some with faded red stone and others with a smudgy grey.  Most of the architecture was reminiscent of Corland, with all the oriel windows and high cantilevered balconies.  There was a bit of Elvish influence to be found around the spire, however; several streets were lined with nothing but the squat, square wooden huts the Greenhaven sylvan tribes were known for.

He took a left from the stairs and set off down the sidewalk.  He passed a group of jugglers on a corner, hooting and hollering as they tossed flaming knives between them.  He passed several brothels, each more disease ridden and unkempt than the last.  Cogbots walked the streets carrying crates on their shoulders and dragging hand wagons full of everything from soap to canvas behind them.  Skiffs darted overhead; no doubt some young thrill seekers off to pull tricks and stunts in the canyons nearby.  The town was alive, and pulsed with energy, albeit infected.  Another crier–or perhaps the same one from before–stood up on a platform outside the parcel delivery station and started reading from a bulletin, in as loud a voice as he could manage, about some outpost raids along the Freehold border.  Nothing new, really; the Conflict was decades gone, but not all the Free Men down South honored the terms of their surrender.  He passed cart vendors doling out fried pickles and candied mint leaves for a few coppers as well as ramshackle restaurants belching smoke from their chimneys; sweet, as well as savory smells spilling out of the windows to drive hungry men mad.  In the throng of street traffic going and coming, he spotted one Orc merchant sitting atop a large wagon being pulled by what had to be the oldest dragon he’d ever seen.

Finally he turned away from the spire down another side street and came to Milosz’s place; another drab, grey brick shop with one notable difference from the rest of the town: the large, fenced-in scrap yard behind it.  Heaps and heaps of old metal airship parts littered the ground back there, from whole steam engines to cogs and gears of every size and caliber imaginable.  Milosz owned the only airship maintenance workshop in Winghem–the only workshop in The Crevices, really–and he was well aware of that fact.  He charged ungodly amounts for minor upkeep and part replacement and almost always fixed problems that didn’t desperately need fixing just to squeeze more out of the unlucky sons of bitches that happened to pop a valve or screw in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He routinely did business with pirates, hiding their stolen goods in exchange for ship parts.  He was a nice enough fellow, to be sure, but definitely not one to be taken lightly.

The small bell above the door jingled as Quentin stepped inside.  The shop itself was very small; taken up by a few armchairs for waiting customers and a rack or two of old books and newspapers with dates stretching back several years.  The back office and storage room took the majority of the ground level.  It was dark, the shades were drawn; the boiler in the storage room made gurgling noises and the few lanterns around the room flickered dimly.  Milosz stood behind the counter, writing numbers in a ledger and reading more from several pages of parchment next to him.  He didn’t bother looking up as he said, “Welcome.  What can I do for you?” in a dull, monotone, bored voice.

“Yes, sir,” he replied pleasantly.  “I need a big wooden box, probably about,” he held up his hands to show dimension, “yay wide and two feet tall at the most.”  Milosz stopped writing and raised his head slowly.  The look on his face was not amused.  Quentin peered over the counter.  “Oh perfect, you’re standing on one, I’ll take it.”

“You’re not…funny,” Milosz shoved the parchment into the ledger and closed it forcefully.  Most Gnomes didn’t mind a jibe here and there at their expense, but Milosz was about as humorless as a garbage can.

“Yes but I’m clearly your favorite customer, eh?”

“Truly.”

Quentin leaned on the counter.  “It’s good to see you again, Milosz.  You’ve grown.”

Absolute silence.

“Ah, well, you’re not in the mood for jokes, I can see.”

“What do you want, Quentin?”

He straightened up, all business, and knocked on the counter.  “The new turbine.  We had an issue on the way back from Corland.”

Now he had Milosz’ interest.  The Gnome took his tiny spectacles off and set them next to the ledger.  “An issue?  Like a busted valve issue?  Or a get-across-the-border-as-quickly-as-possible issue?  I’m not about to have riders or lawmen busting down my door, am I?”

“Don’t trouble yourself about the details, man.  Why so jumpy?  You’re safe.  For now.”

“What does that even mean?”  His eyes spoke of irritation and fear.  “You know, when I agreed to do this kind of work for you and your–”

“When you agreed to do this kind of work, you were promised a fortune.  I remember the way your eyes lit up when I set the deposit on the counter.  You couldn’t wait to get started.  And when I came through here two weeks ago, you jumped at the opportunity to actually do the job we asked for.”

“Yes, but these days–”

“We were told you weren’t afraid to get your hands messy.  Were we mistaken?  I mean come on; you hide Glimmer for Wenright Blackhull under a damned sheet out there.”  He pointed to the open door that led into the scrap yard.  Milosz blinked, stunned and speechless; Quentin felt a twinge of joy from this muted reaction and had to stifle a grin.  “Yeah, we know about all of that.  So, listen; I don’t want to be in town any longer than I have to be.  My employer doesn’t appreciate delays.  I need a couple of bits for the exhaust fan.”  He pulled a small notepad from his coat, tore out a blank page and pushed it across the counter to Milosz.  “Write this down, friend: two A-61 blades.  A new filter belt,” the gnome started scribbling; a bead of sweat ran down his cheek, Quentin saw, “and I’d say maybe five heavy fastener bolts.  There is a rather large hole in the deck as well, but I have enough spare planks in the hold to make a suitable patch.”

“Alright,” Milosz said, “that it?”

“That’ll be enough to get the turbine up and running.  Not indefinite, of course, but enough to get back to base.  I’m hoping everything I left here is still available?”

He put his pen down and slipped the paper into his shirt pocket.  “Implying that I might’ve attempted to sell some of it?”

That was exactly what Quentin was implying.  “Of course not, my dear man.  Accidents happen, that’s all.”  Anyone who dealt with Blackhull was lying half the time, and bending the truth the rest.  “Inventory gets mixed up…something falls into the wrong box…”

“I value my life,” he hopped down from his box with a grunt; the top of his bald head was now barely visible above the counter.  “I’m not daft.”  He reached up, snatched the ledger off the countertop and took it to a small safe in the back office.  He limped the whole way on a prosthetic copper leg; the gears around the bracing making funny sounds as they struggled to do their job.  After shoving the book in the safe he reached down, spitting curses, and tightened a loose bolt near his calf.

 “You’ve got a funny way of showing it, knowing some of the people who come through here.”  Quentin stepped around the counter, absently glancing over some of the various framed licenses and excellence awards tacked to the dingy, peeling walls.

He grabbed a cloth sack from a pile near the back door.  “Eh, even the scum I deal with can’t come close to a Royal assassin.  Once they get the order, it doesn’t matter where you hide.  Dealin’ with you lot’s going to get me killed, I swear.”

“Dealing with us is going to get you rich.  I do hate repeating myself.”

            Milosz turned from the door to yell, “PRATT!  Got an order here!”

            There came an immediate shuffling of footsteps upstairs followed by the distinct clunk of heavy boots descending the staircase.  Quentin had wondered where Pratt was, assuming he was pursuing his own ends at the market or perhaps taking a brisk stroll around the spire. 

A corpse shambled into view from the hallway–male, young but not quite a youth.  His eyes were bright, but glazed and sickly looking; his coveralls were three sizes too big for his skeletal form.  His skin, rotten and black in places, was a ghostly shade of ice blue and his hair was a tangled brown mess.  His mouth and lower jaw in general were covered by a happy looking kerchief complete with a vivid floral pattern and yellow sunbursts; this, of course, was to distract the outside world from noticing that he had no mouth…or jaw.  He wore a small chalkboard on a rope around his neck, complete with a tiny piece of chalk dangling by a string.  Instead of waving, or giving a simple nod of the head, Pratt grabbed the board and wrote, “Hello Quentin!” on it in near perfect script.

Quentin smiled warmly.  He might have had little love for Milosz and his ilk, but Pratt was different.  Like a curious, kind little boy lost and stumbling amidst a sea of bad circumstances and evil men.  “Hello Pratt,” he said, holding a hand out to the Slender lad, who shook it with a grip as strong and cold as Freehold winter.  “You’re looking well.  Not a day over seventeen.”

His shoulders heaved and a slight wheezing laugh came from his kerchief.  More scratching of chalk, “Likewise,” he wrote.

Chapter 3-Part 7

“A dragon rider?” Tick asked skeptically.  “Might it be a little conspicuous flying around the countryside with a damned dragon rider?”  True, she hadn’t really given much thought to how it might look to the average bystander.  Zephora’s size alone might draw unwanted attention.

“Perhaps; with any luck, this ship will be carrying our two assailants and this Quentin fellow.  Then we may finally have something substantial to go on.”

“So we wait?” Frobert said, nonplussed.

“Well it’s not as if we would have left this evening anyhow.”

“And why not?”

As if in answer there was another knock at the doors.  Lorna expected to see Adkins standing outside, or maybe even Griff with more news from the docks.  What she saw instead as RG swung them open, was her brother.  “That’s why,” she mumbled under her breath.

RG turned from the door to address the group, “His Royal Majesty, Janus IV of the Noble House of Corland.  King of the realm and–“

“Please, please, Zero Zero,” Janus said in his deep, pleasant voice.  He patted the Cogbot on the back and stepped into the room.  “Save the formalities for court.”

Out of those seated at the table, only Elpha rose to put a fist over her chest and offer a bow of the head to the King as he entered.  “My dear Shadow, please don’t get up,” he said, clasping her shoulder and gesturing to her chair with his disarming smile.  She bowed her head again and sat back down.

Lorna sighed quietly and crossed her arms.  He told her that morning that he was planning a party for the team.  Not so much a party but a farewell dinner.  She had crossly told him the gesture was a bad idea.  They bickered over breakfast; he in his condescending way and her in typical blunt fashion.  Uncle Mordechai as always sided with Janus, saying it might be the last feast any of them ever had.  She countered that it might not be prudent to remind them of that.  Since Uncle Willam was still abed, she lost the debate fairly quickly.

The small crown on his head reflected the lantern light in a majestic manner as he stepped around the table to her side–it was a wreath of brass gears, shiny and nearly silver.  As he moved the illusion of their motion was trickery to the eye.  Court had ended hours ago, and his attire reflected relaxation; or perhaps it reflected apathy, she knew he was very aware that he might be dead in two weeks so it was hard to tell.  His cream colored shirt was open halfway down his chest, the sleeves rolled up to the elbow; his slacks were handsomely tailored and were the deep, dark purple of Corland’s colors; the fine silk shimmered in the low light as he walked.  His frame was thin, as was hers, despite his love of ale and gubba melon salad.

“I am, of course, pleased to see you all here,” he said, absently scratching one long, brown sideburn.  “If my sister failed to say it enough, I will repeat a gracious thank you for your efforts.  I did, however,” he turned to Lorna in confusion, “hear you say five would be here.  Was I mistaken?”

She said, “Adkins will be along shortly.  Duty called.”

“Ah,” he clasped his hands together.  “Well, I’m here to say thank you, as I did, and to invite you all to dinner this evening.  I’m sure you must have many questions for me, and I of course want to answer them for you.  Permit me, at least, to do so after a meal and a glass of whiskey.”  He chuckled.  His eyes seemed a bit bleary; red-rimmed and glossy.  Clearly he had taken a glass of wine or two…or four, with lunch.

“I’ve got a question for you,” Frobert said.  Janus turned to him, all smiles and raised brows.  “How many Janus’s does it take to screw in a boiler fuse?”

Lorna quickly shoved her brother aside saying, “Ok, well I think we should all get settled and regroup this evening.  Frobert, we have arranged quarters for you, RG will be happy to escort you.  Tick, I assume you will be staying aboard your boat?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Very well.  Thank you all for your attention.  We’ll meet again at sundown in the great hall.  RG, could you please send for Griff once you’ve finished getting our User settled?”

Chairs scraped and gears clicked and clanked as they all made to leave; all except Frobert.  RG stood waiting for him just outside the door.  Janus said, “Oh, and I’m sure it’s already been said, but it would be preferable if you all stayed within the Keep and its grounds while you linger here.”

“You don’t trust us, bucko?” Tick said, grinning.

Janus laughed, “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean there aren’t people trying to kill me.”

He nodded.  “Good to see you again, you old bastard,” he said as he left the room.

Janus called after him, “Likewise, you little white pixie.”

Elpha waved Lorna over to her near the door.  Clearly she didn’t want Janus overhearing what she had to say.  “I’ll be home for dinner, child.  But right now I’m going to do what I should have been doing as soon as that message flew through the window.”

Lorna considered her words a moment before shaking her head, “Mozer, just stay here, there’s no need.  I’ve been over this whole thing a thousand times.  Really, there’s nothing to find.”

She smiled; the light twinkling devilishly in her eyes.  “Little one, I taught you everything I know.  But that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a thing or two since you left me.” 

Lorna couldn’t help but smile back.  Of course the old woman was right.  She wanted nothing more than to nod, grab her hand and tell her godspeed.  Although…“It is dangerous out there,” she said.  “Frobert was nearly killed just hours ago.  I can’t bear the thought of the same thing happening to you.  Plus, you heard the King.”

“Please, Janus couldn’t stop me any more than you can.  And do you really think I don’t know how to deal with danger?  Or are you simply saying an old woman like me has no chance in a tussle?”

Lorna lowered her head, slightly ashamed.  This woman had been her mentor and she deserved a chance to help in whatever way she saw fit.  “You’ll be back for dinner?” she asked.

“Have some faith, child.”  She gripped Lorna’s hand briefly before slipping out the door without making a sound.

“What was that about?” Janus asked as he strolled over to her.

“She…” she thought of a lie quickly, “needed undergarments for the evening.  She wanted to know if I had any to spare.”

“Oh,” he shuffled his feet awkwardly.  “I hope I didn’t interrupt your meeting…”

“No.  No we were just about to discuss night arrangements.  It was good of you to come.”  That enough was true.  He insisted that he’d already planned to be at the briefing when she mentioned the message it might send to the group if he wasn’t.  Up close and face to face, she could see he really did look like hell.  She knew how badly all of this mess was affecting him; having heard from Dr. Everett that he was now suffering nightmares and headaches only served to worry her more.  She looked him in the eyes and asked, “Are you feeling alright?”

He took the crown off, ran his fingers through his hair and sighed.  “I’ll be much better once this is over, Lorn.  I really will.”  He looked over at the table; at Frobert still sitting on his lid.  He lowered his voice, saying, “Is he going to be a problem?  He’s the User, right?”

Lorna made another mental note to remind her brother at some point that most Gnomes hated his guts.  She thought about how much fun she was sure to have trying to convince him to let them on the council.  “Yes, and no, he won’t be a problem.  Just…try not to do much talking with him, eh?”

He nodded.  Frobert had taken a photograph of a little girl out of his vest pocket; he caressed the innocent face smiling out at him.  Janus set the crown back on his head and said, “I’ve got to go help prepare.  I’ll be in the kitchens if you need me.”

“We need to leave first thing tomorrow.  For all our sakes, don’t tap 7 casks of Ferrus Red and insist that everyone ‘keep the party going’, ok?” 

“That was only one time.  One time.”

“The answer,” Frobert said suddenly.  He pushed the chair away from the table and slid down from his perch, “is one–when he’s in charge everything is screwed.”  He didn’t even look for a reaction or wait for an answer; he simply donned his hat and left with RG clanking along close behind.

Janus furled his brow as his eyes followed the tiny man out the door.  “What the hell is his problem?”

How could she accurately describe Frobert’s singular and lasting hate towards him?  How could she put into words the misery and loathing he felt towards their family every day of his life and somehow make a convincing argument for Morvus’ invitation and acceptance into the Council of Unity?  Lorna put an arm around her brother’s shoulder.  “I suggest we take a walk.  Come on then.”  She led him out of the room.  “I need to have a talk with you about the Council.”

 

 

End of Chapter

Chapter 3-Part 6

“So you just…pushed the angry snake outta the house and now he’s come back with some friends,” Tick said.

            “So to speak,” Lorna replied.  “He clearly had no intention of keeping our agreement.  One can only assume what he’s managed to perfect, or put together in the past six years, with what he knows.  The formulas were so complex; the alloy painstakingly difficult to produce even in the base form he and my brother were able to scrape together.”

            Elpha said, “It begs the question of how?  How was he able to not only recreate but perfect the technique without a scrap of notes in only six years?  And where exactly was he getting Bolide samples?”

            “Something must’ve gotten out with him, a tiny bit of parchment maybe,” Lorna said, then shaking her head, “It’s not important.  Not long after he was sent away, there was a breakout at Gorman Island.  Grissimo’s two mad convicts found a way out through the catacombs under the prison.  The guards found the body of one, brutally stabbed to death high on a cliff.  The other was nowhere to be seen.”

            “I personally combed over every inch of land he might’ve stepped on if he’d swam for it,” Elpha added with a wag of her finger.  “Nothing.  Not a footprint, not even a wet blade of grass.  He either drowned, or somehow swam the bay north and around the City.”

            “Or someone with a boat plucked him up outta the water,” Tick said.

            “Water craft are exceedingly rare these days, even at night someone would’ve noticed a boat in the water so far away from the docks.”

            Lorna had their attention, but she was wasting time.  “The name listed as missing was a false one, thanks to us.  And the original death certificates Grissimo had forged for his experiments were lost.  We didn’t even have a name to go on, just the knowledge that he was very dangerous.”

            “Then I’d assume he found his way back to his maker somehow,” Tick said.        

Lorna’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment momentarily as she dug around in another pocket.  She pulled out a faded photograph of a gentleman in full Air Corps dress and laid it on the table next to the other pages. 

The eyes peering out from the picture were heavy and full of wisdom; the long uniform jacket of deep purple resplendent with medals of every shape and size.  One hand was neatly tucked into a pocket while the other held a simple tobacco pipe near his shaven face.  The wide matching hat was standard for any brass in the Corps, yet looked unusually regal and somehow overtly striking on his head.  He was, in every sense of the word, exactly what one would expect the best of the best to look like in Corland’s military leadership.

“Normally,” she struggled to find the next words.  “Normally in briefings like this…the walls would be covered in maps, pictures, various documents related to the matter at hand.”  She lowered her head.  “I have none of these things, save this photograph, and a whole mess of wasted time back in my quarters.  This is the man threatening us.  This is the man intent on breaking down our gates and laying waste to our peace, our livelihood and our very way of life.”  She lifted her head and met their eyes, even turning to nod at RG.  “I don’t know where he is.  I don’t know where he’ll be coming from.  I don’t even know what weapons he’ll be armed with.  I have but two short weeks to stop him, and I need your help.  All of you.  He didn’t outright say it, but he’ll kill the Royalty.  He’ll kill my brother; he’ll kill the rest of my family.  And when he’s finally taken the throne for himself he’ll force the injections on everyone–men, women and children, and rule the maddened husks left over.  I’m sorry I couldn’t have been clearer with my requests to meet, but obviously my brother wishes to avoid a panic if possible.”

“Rubbish, girl,” Elpha said with a hurt look.  “Why didn’t you come to me on day one?”

“My brother expressly forbade–“

“To hell with Janus, little one.  You were my ward, once.  I’ve always considered us friends.  I could’ve helped in some way.”

“Fewer coats on the job…” Lorna said, more than a bit shamefully.  Elpha had every right to feel hurt.  She was the epitome of a master spy.  Whatever stones Lorna had turned, doubtless the Shadow would’ve found even more.  She felt a stinging anger toward her brother; his paranoia might’ve cost the Kingdom valuable time, if not lives.

“I know, dear, I know; fewer coats on the job…fewer turncoats.  Trust no one and what have you.  I taught you that.  You know I don’t blame you.  Just tell us what we need to do.”

Lorna nodded.  She was determined not to let her resolve falter.  “Tick, you have the fastest ship in the world.  Whatever we plan on doing, or wherever we plan on going, we’ll need to get there quickly.  You owe my brother a favor, and I’m calling it in.”  She hoped the dash of flattery was enough to persuade the cocky bastard.

Tick wasted no time in giving her a slow, deliberate nod.  “Your family and mine have a bit of history.  Who am I to shit on that?”  The history between his father and hers was apparently not enough to keep him from trying to smuggle two hundred pounds of Glimmer into the city, but quibbling over the past was pointless.

“Elpha,” she continued, “we are both skilled in the deadly arts, but you will always stand above me.  An extra pair of stealthy hands and your…talents for camouflage can only help.”

“My boys will miss my cooking, I’m sure.”  After her semi-retirement from the intelligence game, she refused the lands and titles offered to her, and instead chose a modest suite in the Keep’s barracks, right above the bunkhouse for new recruits.  Shadow’s bean and parsley stew became the envy of even the most seasoned of veterans stationed elsewhere.  She also washed uniforms, made beds, straightened gig lines and mended shirts; truly a mother for them that were orphans before enlistment.

“Frobert,” Lorna turned to the Gnome seated atop his wooden lid, who still wore a skeptical look, “my brother was right in saying we needed a User.  This whole thing began over magic; magic may just be the key to ending it.  Needless to say your expertise in the arcane is absolutely necessary.”

Frobert’s mouth opened slightly, his lips began to form a word before he closed them and exhaled heavily.  His hand went into his vest pocket and didn’t come back out.  “I’ll do what I can,” he said finally.

She turned to RG with a profound feeling of awe at the notion of addressing him as simply part of the team and not a device with a purpose.  “And RG,” she smiled at him and gave a slight tilt of the head.  The Cogbot hisssed and took a step away from the wall.  “Yesterday you were Unit Zero Zero, this afternoon you chose your own name.  You’re truly a wonder, a curiosity in the best way possible.  I know my brother already made it clear to you that you were to assist us in this task, but after hearing you voice your own opinions–as well as your own wants–I’m inclined to ask you myself.”  She walked over to him and looked right into his shiny, bulb eyes.  “You’re not a servile piece of equipment, and you deserve to be given a choice.  What say you?”

RG’s sturdy, solid head rotated nearly backwards, then snapped back around.  Clicks and hums and another venting made their noises before he finally said with a degree of confidence, “My programming dictates that His Majesty’s wishes are to be carried out without question or hesitation.  And yet…I…desire?”  He took a long pause.  “I desire…I want…to help.  I want to help everyone.  I want everyone to be safe.”

“You’re a better man than half the assholes I’ve ever known,” Tick said.

“I am unsure if that is meant to be taken as a compliment, Mr. Lundrin.”

The table burst into laughter.

Lorna got up on tiptoe and gave the metal man a quaint but loving kiss on what could be considered his cheek.  “You’ve served His Majesty well, and have always been a humble, kind spirit to the entire Family.  Thank you,” she said to him.  She made a mental note to have a long conversation with both her brother and the engineers in charge of RG’s assembly; the desire to know how they managed to come up with such advanced programming was bordering on disturbing.

Turning back to the table, she said to the rest, “It goes without saying, but you all need to know that we may not come home from this; that we may succeed, but at the cost of one or all of our lives.  Do you all accept this?”

Almost in unison they nodded, even RG.  The pride she felt at that moment was overwhelming.  She smiled before going on, “As I said, I have no idea where to begin.  The borders have all been quiet, neighboring cities, kingdoms, tribes…all with nothing to report.  It seems almost like fate’s intervention that Frobert showed up here today beaten and bruised.  Grissimo apparently has eyes all over the city.  Two of his vermin tried to recruit him this afternoon.  He refused and they nearly killed him.” 

“Little man, big balls.”  Tick gave him another small salute.

“One does not need a bigger than average manhood to know his own worth pales in comparison to a Kingdom full of people,” Frobert said.  Despite his obsessive loathing towards the Royalty, Lorna found she had a massive amount of respect for the small man.

“Thanks to this brush with the gods, we now have two names to mull over,” Lorna said.  “If you wouldn’t mind, Frobert, could you give us a description of your attackers and the names you heard?”

He shrugged, obviously unsure if he could contribute anything substantial.  “One was a blond man, most likely past his thirtieth year.  Crazy, wild eyes.  Grey eyes.”

“A badlands fella,” Tick nodded, pointing to his own pair.

Frobert nodded in return while continuing, “Hair was messy, unwashed; he had long, thick sideburns.  He was impeccably dressed though, they both were.  Unusually red lips…and not wearing lipstick.  I never got his name.  The other man, however.”  He paused, then shook his head.  “The other bloke was huge.  I don’t mean huge like you are all huge to me.  I mean massive.  He had a Freehold accent and looked old enough to be in the Conflict.  Fists like hairy, pink boulders.  Bowler hat.  Went by the name Dolovitch.  When the crazy fellow left he mentioned someone named Quentin.  Quentin, I think, was their ride out of the city.”

“I know this Dolovitch,” Elpha said.  “It’s a bit hard for someone like me to miss him.  I’ve seen him all over the city.  His face looks like it’s been carved out of mossy rock?”

Frobert laughed softly.  “That’s certainly a fine metaphor.  He was ugly; had lots of stubble.”

“Yes…yes.  It seems lousy to say it now, but I could tell there was something off about him.”

“That does seem lousy.”

Lorna said, “Tick, anything ring a bell?  You run in…certain circles.”

“If you’re implying that just because I engage in somewhat illicit acts of smuggling or thievery that I should somehow have connections with Corland’s seedy unmentionables…you’re absolutely right.  But I don’t know these guys.  And there’re at least seven Quentins involved in shady dealins from here to the Orc Nation.”

“Damn,” she mumbled.  “Though, hiring crime lords and criminals does seem beneath Grissimo’s ego.”  The General in the photograph gave a clear picture of his sense of honor.  The pose, the uniform, even the pipe spoke volumes about the value he placed on reputation.

“Then what’s our first move?” Frobert asked.

“As pressed for time as we are, I still believe it prudent to wait for our sixth member as well as any further reports regarding this assault before going any further.”

Tick asked, “Well where is he?  Or is it a she?  It’s a she, isn’t it?”  If eyes could smile, his would have been grinning.

“Wing Admiral Nelson Adkins.  He is, at the moment, in pursuit of an airship.  And if he mounted up, that ship must be very important indeed.”  Lorna remembered the first time she laid eyes on Adkins’ dragon; a massive, titan of a female.  She could out-fly, out-flame and out-eat every other mount in the stable.  Zephora, he’d named her, after the goddess…and when she flew, the whole city looked up in awe.

Chapter 3-Part 5

Tick nodded and stared at the table.  Silence reigned the room for several moments before Elpha said, “Well, you are a pirate, lad.”

            Tick smiled.  “Somehow it’s a kindness comin’ from you, y’old crone.”  The old woman pinched his cheek with a grin.

            “Now, back to the matter at hand,” Lorna continued.  “Infusion.  It’s a technique my brother and The General developed during their time spent researching The Bolide years ago; after Grissimo’s retirement from the Corps. They were able to liquefy shards of it.  Concentrate it.  Smelt it with molten copper.  The result was an alloy that might’ve changed the world forever.”  She looked over at RG.  “His Majesty built Unit Zero Zero with it.”  Frobert was staring at the Cogbot with obvious interest now.  “Had planned to build more; but it simply wasn’t perfected.  Mass production was a long way off…a long way and a great many coins.”

            “Hold on a minute, you’re tellin’ me Bolide shards have been in this city for years?” Tick asked with more than a slight twinge of anger in his voice.

            “In small quantities the shards pose no threat.  Janus makes sure to only keep a set amount in the laboratory at any given time.  Nobody in the Keep has suffered any ill effects, and as far as we know the city remains unaffected as well.”

            “As far as you know,” Frobert said.  “When were you planning on sharing this with the people?”

            “The scholars assured us that everything was fine,” she said with finality.  “My brother would never have kept up his studies if he knew it would hurt someone.”

            Elpha cut in, “We’re a bit late to the party to start the nitpicking, boys.  I see no green skin…no tusks on either of you, no great excess of moles or warts–let the woman speak.”

            Lorna continued, “The alloy…depending on the strength of the Bolide concentrate used to smelt it, was completely impervious to arcane manipulation.”

            “It can’t be burned…it can’t be frozen…and it never levitates,” Frobert said.  Clearly, he was putting the pieces together.  “Is that why you told me I couldn’t melt you, RG?”

            The Cogbot, who had been standing silent this whole time, vented his boiler and turned his head to the group with loud clicks in his joints.  “Correct.  It would have been pointless.”

            “Likewise,” Lorna said, “if one was to use a weaker concentration, the metal was found to actually retain power directed at it.  Frozen ingots remained blocks of ice for days.  If heated they were smoldering red even when doused with water.  When made to float…” she trailed off, letting imagination run rampant.

            “They stayed in the air,” Tick finished, looking lost in momentary wonderment.  “You’re right, that would’ve changed everything.”

            “Again…imperfect; the effects were temporary, and sometimes erratic.  Research was becoming costly and the Orcs were finding it harder to mine shard samples for us.”

            “But you think The General has figured it all out,” Elpha said simply.  For all her talent and history in deception and subtlety, the worry on her face was plain and stark.

            “He’s had six years and all the grandiose delusions in the world to finish what he started.”  Lorna cleared her throat.  “You see he began to wonder just how all this could be applied to people.”

“I’m starting to see where this is headed,” Frobert said.

            “These dilutions…these varying strengths of liquid Bolide, he wanted to know what it might do to a person.  My brother of course told him that we already knew what the Bolide did to people when they were exposed to it.  Grissimo told him the Orcs were a special case living so close to the impact sites.  He kept insisting that a direct injection of the solution into the body of a living creature might produce arcane ability where none was present before.”

            “Ho-ly shit…” Tick nearly whispered.  “You mean he–“

            “My brother said absolutely not.  But that didn’t stop him.  After a heated argument with Janus he had all his materials and equipment moved into his quarters.  He told the scholars that all his findings would still be public and available for logging.  Then he started conducting experiments in secret…after hours.”

            “Gods…” Frobert breathed.

            “The gods had nothing to do with his work,” Elpha said.

            “He started with animals,” Lorna continued wearily.  “Lizards, small young dragons, cats.  Given how many little carcasses we found in that grave he dug near his farmhouse, he must’ve killed close to 70 of them before he moved on to something bigger.”  She took another deep breath and let it out slowly.

            Elpha filled the silence, saying, “I found his log after he was arrested.  Not the log he was showing to the scholars, his personal log.  So many different strains of solution, so many formulas…not one amounted to much more than a dead animal or a lead on a more promising dosage, resulting in another dead animal.”

            “He knew soon enough that he’d have to take it to the next level,” Lorna said.  “And that’s what the press never told you.  They never told you that he did.”  Of course the Corland Daily came knocking with pen and paper in hand, waiting eagerly for some kind of clarification on just what had been going on in the bowels of the Keep to have such a highly regarded war hero arrested.  As soon as Grissimo had been cuffed and taken away, the Family held a meeting to discuss what would and would not be said about the affair.

            Tick said, “I was a might young to be interested in papers and news and such.  But it was hard not to hear folks talk about the psychopath torturin’ animals in his lab.  You’re sayin’ he…tried this on people too?”

            “Why in the hell would you people lie about that?” Frobert added angrily, looking at Elpha and Lorna both.

            Lorna sounded slightly desperate.  “You have to understand, he did what he did with people for nearly a week before anyone took notice of the screams.  The Royal Guard?  The Keep staff?  My brother?  They had no clue.  Do you have any idea how that would’ve made the Family look?  And not only that, but how many questions people would’ve asked about what it was he was trying to accomplish; or where this research all started?”

            “How the hell did he get people in there without bein’ noticed for a week?” Tick asked.

            “One night he took a ferry to Gorman Island, used his rank to stroll right past the guards into the prison and take two men from the condemned section.  Said he needed subjects to test a new serum on.  He flashed a smile at the warden and swore he’d have them back by the next morning.  He came back here, disguised them both in Royal colors and took them down to his lab without so much as a questioning look from anyone at the airdock.”

            Elpha said, “The next day the warden received a message signed by Grissimo informing him that the two men had died during the testing.  Two death certificates were included for city records—all official and stamped with the Royal seal–but the condemned men had no family to speak of that might miss them or care enough to ask what happened.”

            Frobert shook his head.  “So you hid this from us all; the gruesome tests, the fact that Bolide shards have been in our collective laps for years…because you were afraid you would look bad?”

            “Some things are simply better left unsaid and forgotten,” Elpha said to him.  “What I wouldn’t give to forget some of the things I know, including this.  It was evil, nothing but pure insanity.”

            Tick scoffed.  “You go playin’ gods, one of ‘em is apt to get a bit pissed.  His Royal Highness and Grissimo should’ve thought twice before crackin’ open that box in the first place.”

            “That’s beside the point, Tick,” Lorna said.

            “Oh it surely is not, m’lady.  Man gave us the machine; the gods gave us the magic.”  He shook his head.  “You don’t fuck with that rock.  It doesn’t belong to us.”

            “I know what the Holy Men say,” Lorna spoke with patience.

            “Well your brother should’ve listened.  Now two men and all those animals are dead, a crazy bastard wants to wipe this whole city out and it still sounds like you don’t get the idea.”

            Lorna looked down, biting her lip.  “They didn’t die.”

            “Pardon?”

            She looked right into his blazing grey eyes; the hardened look on his face and the mean scar compelling the truth from her.  “The two prisoners…they didn’t die.”

            Silence from all three.  Elpha was of course familiar with the story yet had nothing to add, it seemed.  Tick and Frobert simply sat with jaws agape, blinking furiously.

            “So it worked then?” Frobert said.

            “No.  He kept them in a large closet, fed them, did his best to make them comfortable.  Each day that passed was a victory for him, given that he would always wake to find them alive and hungry each morning.  Given what he recorded, the screaming must’ve started midweek.”

            Elpha cut in, almost sadly, “That’s when the concentrations became exceedingly strong.”

            “And yet he was seeing very little results to indicate his theory was correct.  By week’s end he was getting despondent.  They possessed absolutely no more arcane ability then they did when he pulled them out of Gorman’s.  The morning of the day they were found their minds had…broke…from the pain.”

            “They had gone mad,” Elpha said.  That was a far better way to describe it.

            “Yes.  Their muffled shrieks were finally heard by someone on the cleaning staff.  And the rest is known.”  She knew that wasn’t the truth, and it gnawed at her the moment those words crossed her lips.  Frobert had been right in saying that secrecy was no way to start a team effort.  Guilt would be worse.  “Well…I guess not all of it.”

            “Again with the half-truths,” Frobert said, giving her a dismissive gesture and folding his arms.

            “He was caught, and your brother had him banished,” Tick said.  “What else don’t we know?”

            “We…I mean the Family…we offered him banishment instead of outright execution in exchange for indefinite secrecy.  We burned all of his notes, all of his formulas, anything and everything he’d worked on concerning Infusion.  We sent the two prisoners back to Gorman’s–under different names and charges of course–and we took the General to the Northern border.  We had hoped that would be the end of it.”

            Frobert pointed at RG.  “Clearly not every set of notes was destroyed,” he said.

            “I said we burned his work.  Not Janus’.”

            Frobert chuckled.  “So this wasn’t about safety or the best interest of the people, it was about not letting a madman take any credit for the invention.”

            “I wouldn’t phrase it like that, but yes.”

            “This just keeps getting better and better,” he said sarcastically.

            “Judge all you like, but I think the people would feel better about the alloy if they didn’t know such a monster helped birth it.”

            Another venting from RG as he turned to them again.  “In fairness, the design for my body existed long before The General’s expulsion,” he said.  “Production on prototypes of my head had already begun when all this unpleasantness occurred.”

            “Our taxes at work,” Frobert mused.

Chapter 3-Part 4

“Like I said, princess,” he said.  “I didn’t come here for you.  All those people out there?” he gestured to the wall.  “Corland?  That’s free of charge.  You, though.  The Royalty.  You want me to be here for you…that’s going to cost you.”

Lorna spoke from the heart, from the deep pits and grooves where sadness lived; from understanding and from sympathy.  With a voice full of sorrow she asked, “What do you want?”

Frobert leaned back with a sigh, crossing his arms over his chest.  “Twenty years go by.  Twenty years I’ve been aching to hear one of you ask me that.”  He grinned again.  “I want my people represented on the Council.  Morvus, or whomever he deems capable.  You give me that; you’ll get my full cooperation.  No complaints, no back biting, no rude comments.  Well…maybe some rude comments…but I’ll work on it.”

The Council of Unity was formed shortly after her father’s death, a scant year before the Vallshot incident.  The Family thought that the appearance of cohesion and cooperation was paramount during those dismal times of public scrutiny.  “Our strength lies in our diversity,” was how Janus had proclaimed it.  Didn’t matter if it was true or not the people loved it.  What started as a brilliant publicity move, turned out to be much smarter than anyone could’ve known.  One by one the races of the Kingdom joined in earnest, with the Gnomes deciding to wait until their next Speaker was elected before making any commitments.  One ferry crash and a boycott later, Janus quietly rescinded the invitation.  The other members of the Council weren’t happy about the decision, but a lack of public outcry stayed their hands from further action.  After several years the matter was simply dropped on both sides, with Janus refusing to extend another invite and Morvus refusing to ask for one.

            Lorna made a move to speak, and then stopped, shaking her head.

            “What?  I know respectfulness doesn’t come easy to you lot here in your hidey hole but if you want some you’ve got to give some for once.”

            “It’s just…” she paused.  “You know every time the Council meets I tell my brother that his treatment of your people will only end in a bad way.  You can think anything you like about my family, but don’t assume that everyone agrees with Janus on every resolution he’s ever made.”

            “Then make it happen.”

            “It’s not that simple.”

            “Then make it simple,” Frobert snapped.

            Lorna’s eyes suddenly darted to the double doors.  Her brow creased only a moment before she rose to open them.

            “What’s wrong?” Frobert asked, suddenly dropping the anger for caution.

            She gave a little smile.  He hadn’t heard the sound–she doubted if anyone could have–but she did.  Thirty years of SFID experience made it easy. There was no describing it; she just knew it was there.  “The team needed someone with a knack for disguise, so I called in an old friend.”

            She swept open one of the oak doors to reveal a rather wizened old woman in a dark pea coat and lengthy black skirt.  She was a head shorter than Lorna, but her tangled shocks of white hair more than made up the difference.  Her eyes seemed too sharp for a face so obviously aged; bright blue and wide open.  She looked up into Lorna’s face and smiled big.

            “Gods, could you try to keep it down out here, you old hag?” Lorna groaned.  “All this noise is distracting.”

            “Took you long enough to hear it you daft little git,” replied the old woman.  Her voice was clear, pleasant and vibrant.  “I was about to assume I had the wrong room.”

            The two women burst into giggles and threw their arms around eachother.  Frobert, needless to say, looked confused. 

“It’s been far too long, dear woman.”  Lorna clapped her on the shoulder and waved her into the room, closing the door behind her.

“You should invite me over more often then, dear girl.”  The elder woman took the chair next to Frobert with a brisk stride and range of motion.  “You have no time for friendship these days.”

Lorna sat back down, saying, “You have no idea.”

“Nevertheless, you called, and I’m here, child.  So, tell me why you’ve pulled me away from my boys and my whetstone.” 

No nonsense and straight to the point.  Some things never changed.  “Introductions, firstly.  Frobert, this is Elpha Mozer.”

Frobert turned to the old woman and offered his hand.  “A pleasure, my lady– you’ll forgive me if I don’t stand; this wooden lid is a bit of a climb.”  Elpha tilted her head in a gentle bow and gripped his hand firmly.

“I know who you are, little man.  I’ve seen you perform more times than I care to count,” she said.

“Curious.  I usually remember my regulars.  Your face escapes me.”

Elpha laughed; sonorous and full of vigor.  “A clever way of saying I’m too ancient-looking to forget.  I’m good at what I do; I make sure my face escapes everyone.”

Lorna said, “I’ve known her for over 30 years and she still has me wondering if I truly know what she looks like.”

“You’re certainly good at what you do yourself, Mr. Frobert.  I saw you at the amphitheater.  You set 5 barstools on fire and juggled them with nothing more than your thoughts,” Elpha said.

“The amphitheater!” he said, smiling.  “That was nearly sixteen years ago.  A sharp mind you’ve got.”

“It’s a gift.”

“I’m expecting two more, plus the Cogbot,” Lorna said.  “With that we’ll make six.”

“Six for what exactly, girl?”

Suddenly there came a very rhythmic, uniform knock at the doors; a faint hissing sound followed.  “You’re about to find out.”  RG and a rather gaunt but handsome gentleman stood outside.  She was puzzled as she let them in.  “Did you forget someone, RG?” she asked. 

The lean fellow was young, not even near his 25th year.  His bright white hair was thick, and went down to his neck in neat, straight curtains.  He wore a dark and weathered duster over a black vest and trousers; and though his face was indeed pretty, the scar that ran in an even line from his left brow to just under his eye spoke volumes about his ability to live amongst the ugly.  He sat next to Elpha, and the two exchanged warm pleasantries.

“I am incapable of forgetting information unless I am asked to delete it, princess,” RG said.  “Wing Admiral Adkins was unavailable.  I was told that he and several other riders left suddenly in pursuit of an airship.”

“What?” Lorna spoke in a hushed, apprehensive tone.  She glanced over at Frobert.  “Well…I suppose we shall have to continue without him.  Maybe we’ll have even more answers when he returns.”

She leaned over the table and said, “Ok.  Thank you all for coming.”  The light chatter around the table ceased.  “Most of you know why I’ve asked you here; Elpha you’re devilishly hard to get a hold of these days or more information would’ve been given in advance.”  The old woman gave a nod.  “I had hoped that another might join us, but he is apparently indisposed at the moment.  Regardless, I thank you all for simply showing up.” 

She took a moment to look at all the eyes at the table fixed on her.  She felt each and every iris waiting to see just what they were doing there and what they were about to hear.  Elpha’s eyes had such warmth beyond their inherent strength that she couldn’t help but feel that she was about to disappoint her…all of them, really.  She took a deep breath and continued, “Two weeks ago, this message,” she reached into the pocket of her brocade coat and pulled out the weathered parchment, “came into our aerie on a pigeon that refused to return to its sender.”  She unfolded the delicate pages and laid them flat on the table.  Frobert tried to reach for them but came up short.  Elpha slid them into his hands, smiling.

“Please trust that I’ve had every scholar at my disposal analyze every aspect of this message to determine its origins.  We’ve come up with absolutely nothing.”  Frobert passed the pages to Elpha, who held the paper close to her eyes, tasted one corner, watched how it bent.  “In short, it is a request from one General Lawrence Grissimo, addressed to His Majesty.”  Elpha passed them to the white haired newcomer who spared each page a quick indifferent look before tossing the lot back onto the table.  “He asks that Janus give up his crown and with it all rights to the city of Corland.  He asks that the Royal Family step aside to be replaced with a new Empire promising freedom, fairness, safety and prosperity to those who would but only pledge allegiance.”

The young man spoke up, “This Grissimo bein’ the same Grissimo what got himself in a spot of trouble for performin’ those nasty experiments?”  Janus had said he was from the badlands; she had no idea his accent was so thick.

“Yes.”  Lorna swallowed hard.  The truth about those experiments had been…bent slightly by the SFID when the papers came knocking for a story.

“I said it.  I said banishment was too easy for a sick sumbitch like that.  So, you kicked him out and now he’s a might harsh about it?”

“Not exactly,” she said.  “He fancies himself a savior.  One who will lead us all into a future where magic is simply a given.  Where arcane ability is on tap, and available to everyone.”

“You think he’s perfected the technique?” Elpha asked, leaning forward.

“We don’t know.  But we have to accept the reality that it’s very likely.”

“You lost me,” the lad frowned.  “Technique?  Arcane ability for everyone?”

“I’m just as lost as he is,” Frobert said, pointing to him.  “And who are you, anyway?”

“Tick Lundrin,” he gave a small salute.  “Pleasure.”

“I’ve seen your face somewhere before.”

“Well I’m a very famous treasure hunter, my tiny friend.”

“You’re a pirate my dear boy,” Elpha said.

“Technicalities.  You wound me, Shadow.  In my heart.”

Lorna said to Frobert, “Mr. Lundrin here owns the fastest airship on the planet, to hear my brother speak of it.”

“And he’s a pirate,” Frobert replied with a measure of reluctance.

“She is in fact the fastest, best believe,” Tick said.

“And you’re…a pirate,” Frobert repeated.

Tick dropped any pretense of joviality and gave Frobert a hard look.  “That is not my preferred nomenclature there, little man.  If we were to get a bit technical with the semantics I’d prefer ‘smuggler’.  Is there a problem?”

“I have a problem with the idea of cavorting around with rapists, thieves and cutthroats as a means to an end…no matter how honorable the intent.”

“Hey, hey, hey now!”  Tick stood up.  “What did you just call me, squeak?”  Then, to Lorna, “I offer my services to the Family and this is the shit I get welcomed with?”

Lorna raised hands at the both of them, “Ok, gentlemen.  Please, please let’s not get ahead of ourselves here; the racial and social slurs are unnecessary.”

Tick sat back down, a scowl aimed square at Frobert.  “I ain’t ever raped anyone.  Anyone.  You get that?  You wanna call me a thief I say damn right; but don’t ever call me a rapist, or a cutthroat.  I’ve got honor, just like my father and his father…anyone I kill deserved it good and plenty.”

Lorna didn’t leave room for a retort, leaning in Frobert’s direction she said, “His exploits certainly never reached a level of rape or cold blooded murder but in so far as legal definitions are concerned, yes, he is…a pirate.”

“Call it whatever you want, but I don’t hurt people,” Tick said.

She lowered her voice to a whisper.  “Look, you don’t like his lifestyle that’s fine.  But right now we need speed.  And Tick Lundrin has speed.  If you need him to prove his character then by all means be an ass, but for gods’ sake stop doing your best to start conflict.”  She sighed.  “I will…make sure Morvus has a place on the Council before we leave…if you’re in, be in.”  It would take no small measure of convincing her brother, she knew that; but she needed everyone to work together, without question.  Cohesion could either make or break success. 

For a moment the look on the Gnome’s face was nothing but smoldering hate.  She half expected him to slide down off the chair and leave.  Finally, he said to Tick, softly, “That ship of yours had better be fast.”

Chapter 3-Part 3

“I suppose it wouldn’t,” he admitted as Dr. Everett finally strolled in.

The bespectacled bearded man in his white lab coat quickly took to prodding and pressing at certain spots all around the rude, dreadful bruise.  Gauging where it hurt the most proved difficult, as Frobert spat curses with every poke.  As he worked, the Doctor would give curious grunts and knowing hums.  Finally he stood up, nodded and went to a small locked cabinet against the wall.

“So, how did it happen?” he asked.

Frobert answered, “Well you see doc, when a man and a woman love eachother–“

“It was that damned ferry pilot,” Lorna interjected.  “Started pulling up the gangplank before he was all the way off.  Didn’t quite make that last step, did you?  Smacked his chest right on the pier.”

“Again with the pilot?  That’s a real problem.”

“We’ve got Marben on his way to give the bot a once-over as we speak.”

“Well, you’re lucky, my friend,” Everett said to Frobert.  He took a keyring out of his coat and went about unlocking the cabinet.  “You’ve got a severely bruised rib.  But it’s not broken.”

“I was inches away from prescribed bed rest.  How exactly am I lucky?”

“Ha!  I like him, princess.  Is he staying?”

“For the moment,” she said.

Everett grunted his approval and opened the cabinet.  He pulled out a small beaker of glowing green liquid.  It brightened the examination room and set a dim emerald hue on everyone’s faces.

“Down the hatch, my small friend,” Everett said, handing Frobert the bottle.  “Should be a fine dose for someone your size.  It’s not going to make the bruise go away, but you won’t be feeling it for the next several days.  Though, that’s no reason to be reckless, ok?”

Frobert pulled the stopper and waved the beaker under his nose.  “Panacide…with a hint of apple…and that nice piss undertone.  Well, I’m alive to drink it, that’s a plus.”  He downed the whole vial and handed it back to the doctor.

“Alright, if that’s all,” Everett said, “princess, a word?”  He stepped out into the hall with Lorna just behind him.

“News?” she asked quietly.

“Nothing worth much of your time, my lady.  Your niece finally lost that tooth.  Willam’s eyes are getting worse.  David, always the lady-killer, has that awful rash down there again.  And your brother is suffering from headaches and fitful dreams.”

She’d been having various members of the Keep’s staff keep tabs on the rest of the Family since her father’s death.  It wasn’t so much out of suspicion but more out of need to see as much of the whole picture at all times as was possible.  She had no doubt others in the Family were doing the same; in a strange way that actually comforted her even more.  “Thank you Doctor.  For everything,” she said.

He smiled and gently patted her shoulder as he walked off down the hall towards his office.  She ducked back inside to see Frobert slipping his vest back on.

“Right then,” she said, rubbing her hands together.  “I trust you’re feeling better?”

“Aside from the aftertaste, yes.  If I find myself spewing glowing vomit later, you’ll be hearing from me.”

“Then it’s time.  RG, send for them.  Tell them to meet us in the briefing room immediately.”

“Yes, princess.”

They departed the infirmary quickly; RG headed for the emergency lift booth situated near the exit while Frobert and Lorna made their way back up the winding stairs.  The small man had no shortage of complaints, but displayed little evidence of pain as they climbed back past the airdock and into the Great Hall.

“This room hasn’t changed much.  Still stinks of anger,” his voice echoed as they crossed the marble floor.  Lorna glanced at him over her shoulder but said nothing.

Several halls and another small flight of stairs brought them to a set of opulent oak doors.  She opened one and waved Frobert in before her.  Within was a room built solely for discussion.  Plain, unadorned stone walls; a simple, inexpensive chandelier hung low over a large round table of polished birch wood.  Several lanterns were mounted around the room and a thriving plant stood hearty in a large pot off in one corner.

Lorna knew the room well.  During the Freehold Conflict the Royal Guard and certain members of the SFID would meet here to discuss matters of Keep security.  Family meetings were a regular occurrence around the simple table.  Some nights, when she couldn’t sleep, Lorna would order something from the kitchens and slip in quietly to find Janus furiously gulping down a bowl of fruit or a glass of wine.  This of course would lead to an entire night spent drinking and giggling over gossip and their childhood.  Inevitably one or both of them would begin to sob over the loss of mother and father and either stumble back to bed or pass out on the table.

Frobert found a seat and hauled himself into it.  “My lady…” he said quietly.  Lorna looked over to see him in the chair, his head just barely above the surface of the table.

“Oh, my apologies.  Of course.  Just…one moment.”  She ducked out of the room and re-emerged with a wooden crate lid.  She handed it to the small man who promptly placed it beneath him without a thank you or even a mumbled acknowledgement.  He was able to rest his arms on the tabletop, yet still had all the air of a child waiting for supper.

She took the chair directly opposite from him and nervously looked around the room.  She was about to set the pieces in motion that would either save the Kingdom or fail, costing the lives of not only the team of would-be heroes but countless citizens as well.  Corland was counting on her, and yet had no idea.  Her brother was counting on her, yet had as little confidence as she did.  Still, she knew if it came to a last stand, he would defend their home and their land down to his dying choke.  Her right hand began to tremble, and she set to running her fingers through her brown hair to hide it.

“You have no idea what you’re doing do you?”  Frobert said.  A half smile was on his face as he took off his top hat and set it on the table.

“What do you mean?”

“Look at you; you’re shaking like a leaf.  Why?”

“This is an important mission, Frobert.  It’s not ignorance, its anticipation.”

He laughed.  A mocking, almost forced laugh.  “Anticipation?” he chuckled.  “I’ve performed for packed houses princess.  I’ve peered through the curtain and seen the hungry eyes of hundreds.  Hundreds with wringing hands, restless children, and wonder so very evident on their faces.”  He leaned forward as best he could; lowering his voice, “I’ve stood in front of footlights, in the middle of bars, at the top of staircases in public squares…just to show those anxious people out there a simple bit,” he snapped his fingers, leaving a small flame floating in front of him, “of magic.  I know what anticipation is, my lady, and you are just plain scared.”  He blew out the tiny fire and shook his head.

“Frobert,” she said.  “I get it.  I do.  I know you look at me, and my brother and the rest of us and you think that we are all somehow responsible for the Vallshot…that we all killed your family.  I might just feel the same way if it were me sitting where you are.  But I do need your help.  We need your help.  Yes…I have no clue what I’m doing.  The story you just told me back there?  That was the first scrap of intelligence we’ve gotten on the matter since the warning flew in the window.  I have no idea where we’re going; I have no idea where to even begin.”  She rubbed one eye wearily.  “So…if you want to hate us after all is said and done I welcome it.  It’s more or less deserved.  But right now, we’ve got bigger to deal with and you know that.  Help me.  Don’t hate me.”

“Do you know where I was that day, princess?  I’m sure you’ve got a decent sized file on me but I doubt your people could dig that far back.”  Lorna raised her eyebrows, saying nothing.  He continued, “It was election day, of course.  Morvus would become Speaker after the dust settled.  Granted, it’s not a requirement that we attend the event, but every Gnome should do their best to go.  My wife lived in Ferrus during her youth, so she was lucky enough to witness one.  I attended one as a boy and another as a fanciful young man looking to throw some fire around the crowd and make a little coin.”

Lorna bore a look of exasperation, but nevertheless hung on every word.

“We thought it only fitting,” he said, “that our daughter see the process while she was still young.  There was no telling how old she’d be when another came along, you know?  We planned the trip for weeks.  Packed a couple of bags, checked and double checked the departure schedule.  The Vallshot was the best ship the Election Committee could afford to send to Corland.”  Frobert looked down at the shiny tabletop, staring beyond the wood and back in time.  “She had that old durasteel plating…outdated and hard to maintain.  Engines were damn near nonexistent…I probably could’ve blown the damn thing up with a hard sneeze, I can only imagine how easy it was for the Portus to…”  He slowly shook his head, whispering, “I should’ve been with them.”

“I’m so sorry, Frobert.  You don’t realize…I am sorry,” Lorna said meekly.

            His head whipped up; his eyes focused back on the present, and directly on her.  “I should’ve been with them.  But do you know where I was instead?  I was here.  I was at the Keep, in a crowd of nearly 3 dozen, trying to get an interview for the Master of Ceremonies position.”  Lorna vaguely remembered the bulletin.  Janus needed someone to keep the Family’s public image light, to make announcements, to entertain guests, diplomats and other important people; Users preferable.  “Mayla, she…we both agreed that it was just too good of a shot not to take, but that Elly shouldn’t miss out on the trip.  I kissed them both, apologized in good humor while I watched them board that rickety old boat, and came directly here to show your brother and the rest of the Family that I could do a decent job as your dancing, singing, shouting, fire juggling fool.”

            Lorna had no words.  Nothing to say that could’ve possibly salved Frobert’s wounds.  She could relate.  Some hurts simply had no cure.  He didn’t let up, “I didn’t get the job, obviously.  I also lost my wife, and my little girl.  I…should have been with them.  Should’ve…held them as tight as I could as the hull burst into pieces.  Should’ve told them I loved them before everything went black…but I was singing and dancing for you people.”

            Lorna felt sadness then; a sadness she hadn’t felt since the news of her father’s death rudely greeted her that cold winter morning just over two decades ago.  Frobert was right.  He was angry; he was full of spite and hate. 

And he was right.

Chapter 3-Part 2

She nodded as the ferry crossed over the bars of the portcullis, finally able to make out the small frame of the well-dressed Gnome leaning against the deck rail.

“He’s grasping his side,” she said.  “He’s hurt.”

“Shall I alert the medical staff?”

“No.  Let’s make sure it’s not a simple cramp.”

The ferry slowly drifted to a stop at the jetty, just as the clock nearby gave a loud chime.  The Cogbot pilot stepped out of the cabin and hit the button to extend the metal gangplank.  “Thank you f-f-f-for your patron-n-n-nage,” it stuttered.  “Now b-b-boarding for Corland City docks.”

Frobert descended the ramp, grimacing with every other step and clutching one side.  Lorna considered lending him an arm, but figured his stature would prove a difficulty.  His top hat sat askew on his head and his black hair messily blotted his forehead from underneath.  His grey bowtie dangled from his shirt collar, the skin of his neck was red and irritated.  He looked very much like a child bullied at school on graduation day.

“Oh don’t all make a move at once,” he said sarcastically.  “It’s just a broken rib.  Can’t you see I’m fine?”

“Gods be damned,” Lorna said.  She elbowed RG’s body with a clunk.  “Let’s get him to the infirmary.”

“Princess Lorna,” Frobert said, grimacing, “a pleasure to meet you.  As striking in person as any photograph or poster leads us all to believe.”  He took a step back from the approaching Cogbot, saying, “No…no, I’m fine, its ok,” then after several coughs and groans, “Ok.  Yep.  Give us a hand.”

She smiled as RG lifted the tiny man into his arms and carried him down to the jetty.  She barely suppressed a giggle at the hilarity of the scene; a bouquet of roses, a ring and a veil were the only things missing.  “You are too kind, Mr. Frobert.  Your reputation precedes you.”

“And RG, my shiny friend,” he said, throwing an arm around RG’s metal neck.  “Might I also say it’s good to see you again, and a hearty thank you for dragging me into this.  Today has been a monumental pleasure from the start.”

RG hissed and vented again, his guts clicking and grinding.  “I am estimating that your comment was laden with sarcasm.  That is funny.”  The gangplank retracted, the faithful Cogbot pilot ducked back into the cabin and the ferry departed in a cloud of steam.

            “Not at all.  I love being beaten, nearly killed and smashed against a brick wall.”

            With haste they departed the airdock for the winding stairs; Lorna’s head swam with questions and worry.  They descended several flights before exiting through an archway into the warm, well-lit medical wing.  Another archway to the left led into the infirmary; to the right, a similar path into the surgical units.  Torches lit the halls throughout, and more royal tapestries lined the walls.  There were fine oil paintings depicting serene beaches, dogs at play; men and women abed–smiling and on the mend, of course–as loved ones surrounded them.  A nurse in white behind a desk sprang to her feet as they entered, waving them down the left hallway and assuring them the Doctor would be on his way immediately.

            RG ducked into a small examination room at the end of the hall and placed his small burden on the flat, steel table at its center.

            “Thank you, RG,” Frobert said breathlessly.

            “So what the hell happened?” Lorna asked from the doorway.  “Beaten?  Nearly killed?  I-I-I don’t…should I summon the City Guard?  Who did this?”

            Frobert went about painfully easing off his vest.  His face scrunched in agony as he pulled off his bowtie.  He threw the latter aside and chuckled.

            Lorna was in no mood for jokes.  “What’s funny?  What exactly is funny about this?”  Her voice sounded near hysterics.  They were short on time and had yet to get the group fully assembled.  If ever there was a time for laughing this was not it.

            “It’s just…I had a notion that you were the source of all my problems today, princess.”  More laughter.  “On the ferry ride here…I had plenty of time to think about it.”

            “Why do you say that?”

            “Well, when I got tired of thinking about my dead wife and daughter, I started wondering who was calling the shots when it came to this plan.”  He started undoing the brass buttons on his shirt one by one.  “It wasn’t hard to figure out, really.  Experimental Cogbot; obviously Royal property,” he nodded at RG, “top secret directives, all this ‘need-to-know basis’ bullocks…Security and Foreign Intelligence was the logical answer.”  He gently pulled off one sleeve with his teeth clenched.  Lorna gasped when she saw the dark, ugly, purple bruise around the left side of his ribcage.  She felt panic begin to rise in her gut.  If her only User couldn’t pull off the focus he needed to harness his power…

            “Is it awesome?”  Frobert tried his best to look down at it.  “Impressive?  You should see the other guy.”

            Lorna was very used to seeing injuries, she’d even treated them on occasion in the field; this one was truly disturbing.  He looked too much like a child with his build.

            “WHAT HAPPENED?” she demanded.

            “Ugh…with the yelling,” he groaned.  “I’m getting there…today has been taxing, my lady.  Don’t be rude.”

            “Don’t be rude?  DON’T BE RUDE?” she stepped towards him.  “Who are you to talk to me like that?  I’m trying–“

            “Hey you asked me to come here and help you.  Or should I say, you sent your bloody pet,” he pointed to RG, “to ask me for help.  I so much as mention to a bartender that the Family needs my help against a madman and I’m slammed up against a brick wall, about to be–“

            “You did what!?  You told people about this!?  What kind of an idiot–“

            “I’m an entertainer by trade, princess!  Everyone in that room thought it was just some new story I was working on.  All of them except the two bastards what did this to me.”  He waved a hand over his scuffs and inuries.

            “That’s exactly why you should never go running your mouth about classified information in a damned bar!”

            “How was I supposed to know that two–“

            RG put a cold, copper hand over both of their mouths.  “I believe it is in our shared interests to discuss relevant information only,” he said calmly.  “The door is wide open and your voices carry.  Doctor Everett will be here any moment.  If we have anything to discuss here, let us embrace brevity and keep it short.”

            Frobert cleared his throat and stared hard at Lorna.  She felt the contempt in his otherwise soft, smooth, sad, child-like eyes.  She lowered her head, like a mother too ashamed to meet the tearful gaze of her son after a spanking.

            The silence was eventually broken by the low, rumbling hum of the Keep’s boiler vents opening up deep under their feet.  Lorna, for no particular reason, thought briefly of times spent on her balcony as a little girl; before the spying, before the blood, before the career deception, watching the great warm clouds of steam billow up from the pipes in the outer walls.  She’d see them during her study time, and again as she drifted off to sleep at night.  They brought with them comfort; at times spreading out over the city, to fade quietly and with a calm assurance that all was well…that all was collected, and not rushed.  Sometimes, as she lay nearly dreaming, she swore she heard her mother’s voice in the whispered hissss of the pipes, and she closed her eyes knowing that the people of Corland need fear no evil while the lingering spirit of their loving queen blanketed them in slow warmth.  Of course, that was before the world took hold of her, showed her the ugly side of everything, jaded her, and hardened her…before her father was murdered in his sleep.  After that…the steam only reminded her of power; power, and the ease at which it’s lost, or floats away and vanishes.

            “These two men,” Frobert said finally, “from the bar…they cornered me near the docks, in an alley.  I was taking a shortcut.”  He sighed heavily, rubbing a hand over the purple bruise.  “Told me they were working for someone called The General.”

            “General.  Lawrence.  Grissimo,” Lorna said, carefully pronouncing each word.

            Frobert’s brow creased in thought.  “Grissimo,” he mumbled.  “Grissimo?  The scholar?  Discharged for misuse of assets?  He was in the papers a few years back?”

            “The same,” Lorna said.  “And it’s been more like six years.  Though in truth the trouble started long before that.”

            “As I recall, he and Janus–“

            “His Majesty,” RG corrected.

            “…Right.  They were researching The Bolide together, yes?”

            Lorna sighed, “Yes.  Shards of it, anyway.  Commonplace study now, but quite a breakthrough 10 years ago.  My brother was always one with an aptitude for science.”

            “An aptitude?  The Kingdom went broke because of his endeavors.  The Gnomish boycotts were a result of his own carelessness.”

            “Yes, he was quite open handed with hiring new scholars and making risky investments in…unheard of experiments.  You’ll get no argument from me there.”

            “I should hope not.”

            Lorna cast her eyes down again.  She knew about his family; about the Vallshot.  She knew that if it had been her wearing the crown Frobert would’ve had justice on day one.

            “So he’s the one behind all of this?  Grissimo?” Frobert asked.

            Lorna peeked into the hallway.  The good Doctor was still nowhere to be seen.  She considered taking Frobert to the surgical unit.  It was unnecessary but he’d certainly get more prompt attention from Doctor Sohota.  “You’ll get all the answers at the briefing,” she said.  “What happened next?”

            He shook his head, saying, “It’s all become a bit of a blur, my lady.”

            “Did they mention anything about their plans?  Strategy?”

            “No.  No, nothing so revealing.  He–this blond fellow…he showed me a piece of copper.  Had a very strange sheen to it.  Wouldn’t melt, or freeze, or even float, no matter how hard I focused.”

            “Son of a bitch…” Lorna muttered.

            “You sound as if you know what I’m talking about.”

            She thumped a fist down on the metal countertop.  “He did it.  He actually did it.”

            “Did what?  Am I missing something here?”

            She took a deep, lingering breath.  “Have you ever heard of Infusion, Frobert?”

            His brow furled again in deep thought.

            “It’s ok, not many people have,” she peeked through the door again.  “We’ll discuss it at the briefing.”

            “I hope that you do.  You know secrets don’t make friends.  It would be nice to know exactly what I endured a thrashing for.”

            “Yes, the thrashing.  He showed you the alloy and then?”

            Frobert chuckled, shaking his head.  “Yeah.  After the alloy he told me that The General needed Users with experience to make any real use out of it.  I suppose you won’t explain that to me either?”

            “I’m guessing they asked you the join them next?”

            “Doesn’t take a career in the SFID to figure that out.”

            “And you refused.”

            His eyebrows rose.  “Did I?”

            “Be serious, man.  We need your help.”

            A playful grin spread slowly across his face.  “I do love hearing that.  Say it again.”

            RG hissssed and blew steam, saying, “Our chances of success without you would drop an estimated–“

            “Yes, yes 30 percent or whatever,” Frobert said.  “Of course I refused, look at me.  You think The General has all his new recruits beaten for giggles?”

            “41 percent,” said the Cogbot.

            Lorna patted RG’s shoulder.  “Frobert, I’m sorry this happened because of us.  Believe me, if we make it through this you’ll see–“

            “Oh don’t think for a second that I was nearly killed for you.  Any of you,” he said.  “As far as I’m concerned the Royalty has had this coming.  I came here for everyone else.  I came here for the people who won’t just lie down for the invasion, and even for the people who will.  For the people who would grab arms and fight so Janus–“

            “His Majesty,” RG corrected again.

            “Ok that’s going to have to stop.  I showed up, I’m going to call him whatever the hell I please.”

            “Alright, Frobert.  Alright,” Lorna placated.  None of his disdain for her and her Family was unexpected, of course, and she took it as a given, with no malice in return.  She’d certainly let worse roll right off of her in nearly 30 years of undercover activities.  “How exactly did you escape?  Did you at least find a Constable?”

            “I’m coming to it.  See, the arse who did all the talking, he left.  Told his friend, a big fellow… Dolovitch was his name…to make an end of me.  He would’ve done it too…until that beautiful boy in black showed up.  Constable Bellick.  Remember that name, RG.  He saved my life and he deserves a bloody medal.”

RG’s head swiveled to the side slightly before snapping back into place.  “Data noted.”

“This kid distracted the big guy long enough for me to break loose.  I jumped on his back, tried to burn his face off.  He slammed me into a brick wall,” he gestured to the bruise, “then went after the kid; damn near throttled the poor boy to death.  I found a broken pipe and beat the big fellow in the head until he fell over.”

“Gods…is he dead?” Lorna asked.

“Don’t know.  I told Bellick to go get his superior.  Before he left the other chatty bastard mentioned someone named Quentin.  Told Dolovitch to hurry it up because Quentin hated leaving late.”

“Griff is the Watch Commander in The Coppers,” she mused aloud.  “Good man.  Sharp.  I’m sure he has the situation in hand.”  She turned to RG, “After the briefing send for him.  I’d like to know what he discovers, if anything.”

“Of course, my lady,” said RG.

“Was that all?” she asked Frobert.

“Yes.  That was the way of it,” he said.  “If I were you I’d send the Royal Guard down there immediately.  Keep a sharp eye on the gates.  Start combing the docks with the daily manifest.”

“I’m certain Griff has already put Constables to task.  We’ll have them before long.    If they try to run for it the Riders will make it a short trip.”

Frobert shook his head.  “Princess…”

“What?  This briefing is a priority.  Our 30 days are coming to a close.  I trust the City Guard to do its job.”

“The blond.  He also mentioned…that he and Dolovitch were not The General’s only eyes and ears in the city.  I don’t think sitting back and simply waiting for the good word is going to end the way you’d like it.”

“And how would sending the Royal Guard end any differently?”  Admittedly, Lorna was more than a little excited.  Weeks without even a hint of where Grissimo might be doing business, and now a Gnome shows up with a solid lead and at least two names?  She was half tempted to make the trip to the docks herself, but no; it was time to assemble the team, to get the pieces in motion.