Archive for July, 2010

July 25, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter II

by Mallard

I stared, and Serah laughed and flushed red. Which only made me stare harder. Serah does not blush. Or perhaps I just never notice it, as her face is ruddy from sunlight and welding, and always covered in a thin layer of grease. Seeing her freshly bathed, with her hair brushed out and flowing down her back, dressed in a midnight blue gown I had never seen before, well, it was like seeing another woman entirely.

“Are you quite finished?” she asked after I had remained silent for some time, frozen outside her door. Her face was a delicate pink up to the tips of her ears.

I coughed and blinked. “Right. Yes.”

She laughed again, a little uncomfortably. “Why, I ought to be upset, Victor. It’s almost as if you don’t normally think of me as a woman.”

“Oh that’s too much!” I sputtered, the moment of surprise broken, but she snickered and stepped forward to hook her arm through mine.

“It’s only fair,” she murmured. “You surprised me, too.”

Which was reasonable. After all, I rather surprised myself.

The suit I wore was a dark charcoal, with a lighter gray waistcoat over a pearl white shirt, finished off with a black satin bow. My hands felt strange in pristine white gloves, doubly so when I laid them on Serah’s, clad in thinner gloves of powder blue. It was strange to find two layers where normally there were none.

I couldn’t really take credit for the suit, though, and said as much. It had been Kristopher who had found the shop, tucked away in some corner where no one could find it. The tailor had been almost embarrassingly glad to see a customer, and had brought out his best work for me, performing in one evening what would have taken a busier or more popular shop several days at the least.

I hadn’t worn a tuxedo in years. Not since my college days, in fact. I just never had the opportunity. During the war, it was the uniform, unless I was traveling incognito–a euphemism we used for spying. And afterward . . . Many of the places I go just don’t lend themselves well to a suit. Imagine me, walking through Kestral’s sewer system in a silk tailcoat and a top hat. It doesn’t work, does it?

The coachman waited silently through our exchange, though the midnight steed in front stamped and puffed in impatience to get moving. It had been raining off and on most of the week, but the puddles around Serah’s warehouse had mostly dried, and we didn’t have to worry about her gown dragging in the mud. I helped her into the carriage and stepped in after, sitting on the opposite bench to face her. The coachman whipped the reins and his horse started into motion, jolting the carriage forward before settling into an even pace that sent us rumbling across the cobblestones.

Dark had fallen by now, and the lamplighters had been about their business so that shadows alternated with glowing orange from without the dark coach. An uneven emerald teardrop hung on a silver chain from Serah’s neck, and the gem caught and played with each bit of passing firelight. She saw the direction of my eye, and smiled fondly.

“It was a gift from my father,” she said. “One of the miners gave him the stone as a thank-you gift last year. It was still rough, so he polished it into this shape, set it on a chain, and gave it to me on my birthday.” She reached up and rubbed the stone fondly with her thumb and forefinger, and I couldn’t help but smile. It fit my memory of the old man perfectly. He had grown up poor, and though he now ran a profitable business repairing mining equipment on-site, he had never grown out of his old habits. Why buy a fancy necklace when he could make something unique and meaningful by hand, paying nothing but his own time? He had a creative and active mind, and it was he who had taught Serah all she knew about machines, instilling in his daughter his own deep love for them.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, and Serah glowed at me.

 * * * * * * * *

Hattie stood by the doorway with her arms crossed over her chest, tapping her foot impatiently as the carriage slowed to a stop in front of the mayoral mansion. She didn’t look happy, but then, she rarely does.

“Specialist,” came her curt greeting, which startled me almost as much as her manner of dress. Her lack of a dress, rather. Despite the evening’s purpose, Hattie Morrison looked every inch the sergeant major, from the tips of her highly polished leather boots, to her brown hair done up in a tight bun that allowed no single strands free will. Medals glittered across her chest, commemorating a dozen recognitions. I hadn’t known she was so decorated, and frankly it surprised me a little. The most I’ve ever seen Hattie do is sit behind her desk and give me orders. The military saber at her waist was the closest I had seen her to a weapon. But she wore it well, as if used to the weight, and that disturbed me more than it should have.

I suppose I knew Hattie had been an active soldier. She hadn’t gotten to be head of the Peace Workers without being someone of note in the army. I had just never thought about it. She had very possibly fought against some of my comrades in battle, and I had no doubt that she had tousled with the Patchwork Folk at least once. Anyone in a uniform during that war, whether of the Republican Guard, or one of the Royal Army’s many divisions–such as the Kestral Armed Forces–had fought against the Patchwork Folk.

“Why are you late?” Hattie asked after I had helped Serah out of the carriage. My superior’s eyes roved over my suit and her mouth turned down in a frown. “And why are you not in uniform?”

I blinked. “It’s a ball, Hattie,” I said. “You don’t wear a uniform to a ball.” I paused. “Well, you do, I guess, but–”

“It’s ‘sir,'” she barked. “Show some respect, Haas.”

I frowned, and felt Serah tense beside me. “What’s going on, Hattie?” I asked slowly. “Have I done something to upset you?”

Her frown remained in place for several seconds, then she sighed and glanced skyward. “I apologize, Victor. I’m a little nervous tonight.”

I didn’t laugh. I truly didn’t. But it was a close call. Hattie Morrison, nervous? Of a fancy ball, of all things? Don’t get me wrong; I was nervous too. But that was largely because I haven’t been to such an event in years, and because I had this beautiful creature on my arm who claimed to be the same Serah Villifree I had led around a machine shop just the other day, but who couldn’t possibly. After all, I’m supposed to feel comfortable around Serah.

Hattie glanced at me sharply. “Is something funny, Victor?” At least she was back to calling me by my first name.

I shook my head quickly. “No, sir.”

“Good.” She paused and fixed me with a stern gaze. “And inside, for the sake of appearances, you should continue to call me sir. Or at least don’t act so damned familiar.”

“Me, familiar with my superior? Never.” I kept my voice as deadpan as possible, but still earned a glare from Hattie.

“Better not be,” Serah muttered by my side, and I blinked in surprise. I’ve never heard Serah express any hint of jealousy or annoyance at my interactions with other women. It was as if the gown, in addition to changing her appearance, was also changing her attitudes. If she started simpering, I would probably have to leave.

Hattie nodded once, turned sharply, and stalked inside, her heavy combat boots striking a loud beat upon the tiled entry hall. A butler in a finer suit than mine greeted us at the door and directed us down a short hallway. It was lit brightly with ornate gas lamps, and richly carpeted in some thick red fabric that I imagined would feel amazing were I barefoot. Several doors led off the hallway, all closed, brass handles shining in the gaslight.

The hall ended in a cross hall, but another butler stood there to direct us past a darkened staircase, around another corner, and through an opened set of teakwood doors, carved into abstract patterns of swoops and swirls. Through the doors, and suddenly we were standing at the top of a short entry staircase to the ballroom, and everything else paled to insignificance.

The ballroom must have taken up most of the rear of the enormous mansion. The ceiling soared to the skies, and I could have thrown a rock and still not hit the far windows. The walls were carved much as the doors had been, some depicting scenes from myth or history, others merely space-filling trifles. Filigreed glass doors lined the far wall, leading out into the garden, lit by further lamps outside. Music filled the air, and I looked to one side to find a string quintet of golems playing on a low stage, mechanical fingers dancing delicately across strings and keys, small puffs of steam escaping in time to the music. I glanced at Serah, certain her eyes would be upon the musicians, but she as staring at the floor with an expression akin to panic. I looked quickly to see the cause of her alarm.

Large as the room was, it seemed almost too small, crowded to the walls with elegantly clad figures. Various shades of gray and black intermingled with brilliant colors and patterns. Gowns sparkled in the bright yellow ambient light, some long with flowing trains, others slim and short. Lace and ribbons, silk bows and feathers adorned every woman in the room, accenting jeweled tiaras and exotic precious stones hanging from chains of gold and silver.

I felt Serah step back in astonishment at the sheer display of wealth and extravagance, and her gloved hand rose to finger her own single emerald. Next to many of the women in the crowd, her dark blue gown looked plain and poor, her necklace cheaply made, and I could well imagine what she was thinking. I said before that Serah does not care about appearances. But it seemed the gown had worked its wiles on her once more.

“How . . . excessive,” she whispered, but I could see her face fall ever so slightly.

I forced myself to laugh heartily, and Serah turned a stricken eye to me. “Absolutely,” I agreed boldly. “Extravagant, excessive . . . and unnecessary. If you had dressed like that, why, I wouldn’t be able to find you amid the perfumes and lace. Besides, you don’t have to worry. I’m the one who will have to deal with every man’s jealousy when he turns his head our way and spies the midnight-clad beauty on my arm.”

Serah rolled her eyes, but she smiled and tightened her grip on my arm, and her eyes lost their frightened cast. Behind us, I heard a gagging sound.

“I thought we were being professional tonight, sir,” I said without turning.

“Yes, well, it’s hard to be professional when you’re pouring sap down my throat, Haas. Now move your bulk out of the doorway; you’re not the only ones trying to get in.”

Serah and I stepped forward and descended the short flight of steps to the dance floor proper. No one was dancing just yet, as the ball had not officially begun. Many were simply milling around, or standing in clusters of friends and acquaintances. I recognized several members of the army, though none were Peace Workers and only a handful bothered with the full uniform like Hattie. There were also several members of the Mayor’s cabinet, though I didn’t know their names, and many of the most influential or wealthy merchants in the city. It wasn’t the sort of crowd I tend to associate with socially, but I could still recognize many of them by sight. The Peace Workers interact with all manner of people, from the beggars on the street to the wealthiest men and women, and I’d spoken with more than a few of the guests at one point or another.

Several of these glanced my way and waved or nodded, but most didn’t acknowledge me. Which suited me fine. Though, there were a few who I would have preferred to leave me in peace.

“Oh dear, surely it isn’t Victor Haas? Please, assure me you are not here to protect the mayor’s home and assets. I fear none of us will survive the evening if that is the case.”

I rolled my eyes and turned. “Evening, Jedediah.”

The dean of KAMA smirked and stuck out a hand, which I took with some trepidation. “And you must be Ms. Villifree,” he said, turning to Serah and holding out his hand once more. She reached for it, but he twisted her wrist deftly and brought the back of her glove to his lips. “A pleasure to meet you,” he murmured. “Your beauty rivals that of the Lady Autumn herself.” The dean is likely old enough to be my grand-sire, but he’s still a charmer.

Serah flushed and I quickly stepped in. “Jedediah, have you met Hattie Morrison? Head of the Peace Workers division of the army.” I gestured and Hattie stepped forward, though she shot an irritated glance my way.

Jedediah nodded and reached for her hand, repeating his previous routine. “A pleasure, Ms. Morrison. I’ve heard quite a lot of your work, and you have my utmost admiration.” He glanced at me and frowned. “Though your boy here causes me no end of headaches.”

“Jedediah Millston,” Hattie said, nodding in recognition. She paused, then her mouth curved up in the tiniest of smiles. “Believe me, your headaches are nothing next to mine.” The two shared a loud laugh at this, and even Serah sniggered quietly in a very unladylike fashion. I rolled my eyes again.

“Truly good to meet you, but I am probably keeping you from the mayor,” Millston continued, to which Hattie nodded. “Then I will bid you a good evening.” He turned and looked me up and down once, then nodded. “It’s good to see you doing better, Victor,” he said, before turning and meandering off. The last time the dean had spoken with me, I had been nearly passed out, covered in soot and smoke, chafed by manacles, and worn out emotionally and physically from having narrowly escaped death in the basements beneath his school. It was nice to know that the old bastard cared, in his own gruff way.

The mayor and his wife were not hard to find, surrounded as they were by a knot of well-wishers and friends, both political and social. His wife hung on his arm, practically glowing with pride and pleasure. Her pregnancy barely showed, pushing out her belly only the slightest bit through the thin fabric of her gown, but it was enough. She stood half a head shorter than her husband, who was on a level with me: a tall thin man dressed in a white suit, with his black hair slicked back behind his head. He was in his middle forties, but could have passed for someone quite a bit younger. His wife was at least a decade his junior, but she held herself regally beside him, her hair flowing in waves down to her waist. One hand rested on her husband’s arm, the other on the tiny bulge in her belly.

Hattie didn’t bother to stand in line to congratulate the mayor, but stepped confidently to the front. The party-goers separated before her, unsettled by her manner and appearance, and Serah and I stepped easily into the gap behind.

“Ms. Hattie Morrison!” the thin man said in a delighted voice, always deeper than I expect from his thin frame. “A pleasant surprise!”

I found that hard to believe, but said nothing. The mayor bent his tall frame over Hattie’s hand and kissed it delicately, as he had no doubt done a hundred times already during the evening. He straightened up and pulled his wife a step forward. “I believe you’ve met my wife before. Rachel, you remember Ms. Morrison, I trust?” The tall woman smiled and greeted Hattie warmly.

“A pleasure, as always,” she said in a soft voice. “I have heard much of your activities from my husband. You are quite the inspiration to the women of this city.”

Hattie smiled thinly. “It pleases me to hear you say that.” She turned back to the mayor and motioned me forward with one hand. “Mayor Downing, I would like to introduce you to Victor Haas. A reformed member of the Republican Guard, as are many Peace Workers, and one of our top agents. He was very recently involved in foiling a plot to destroy our great center of learning in Kestral, as you may recall.” Mayor Downing smiled and nodded, and I stifled a snort. It had not been a Peace Worker mission–as I had been reminded when I had submitted a reimbursement request–but I was not surprised to see Hattie take credit all the same.

I stepped forward, unsure whether I should bow or shake the mayor’s hand. I didn’t particularly want to do either, but he made the choice for me, sticking out his hand and grasping mine with a surprisingly firm grip. He shook my hand vigorously for several seconds, and I withdrew the instant he let me. I wanted to rub my palm on my pants to clean it, but admonished myself not to be so petty. “Victor Haas,” Mayor Downing said. “I have indeed heard much of you, especially after this incident at the university. And this must be the infamous Kristopher the salamander.” At this last, he reached tentatively for Kristopher, but the salamander darted out of the way.

(You do not like this man,) Kristopher observed. I smiled. “He says it is a pleasure to meet you, sir,” I said.

The mayor laughed. “I am glad to hear it. And please, don’t bother with ‘sirs’ and ‘madams’ this evening, Victor. Call me Joel. And please, allow me to introduce you to my wife, Rachel.”

I had nothing against Mrs. Rachel Downing, and my smile was honest as I greeted her and congratulated her on the pregnancy. She took the compliment with the tired smile of one who has heard the same thing a hundred times already, and not for the last time, either.

The mayor opened his mouth to say something further, but nothing came out. His eyes focused on something in the distance over my shoulder and they lost some of their sparkle. “Oh dear,” he sighed, and motioned to the crowd to make way. I turned, unable to help myself, though it was probably poor etiquette. At first I saw nothing out of the ordinary, and was about to turn back when the woman stepped into view, and I wondered how I had not seen her before.

She was dressed as extravagantly as the richest of the women in the room, but it was coordinated well, and suited her perfectly. The lace about her neck was complimentary rather than gaudy, and the pearls of her necklace were of a pleasant sheen and tasteful size.

She was shorter than I by a good foot, but she held her head high, curly blond hair framing a face full of good humor and relentless determination. It was a face I knew very well. All the Peace Workers did. Without it, most of us would not still be alive.

I smiled warmly, as the mayor recovered his own mask.

The woman stepped forward and nodded at him, and though her lips were turned up in a smile, her eyes were cold. “Mayor Downing. A pleasure to see you again.”

“Likewise,” the mayor said, his expression no more genuine than hers. “It is always a pleasant surprise when Mrs. Martha Chorice, the Minister of Internal Affairs, graces my home with her presence.”

* * * * * * * *
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July 18, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter I

by Mallard

“Summer’s luck, how did those bastards make this fit?” A muted grunting came through the slightly open garage door, followed by an exasperated cry and a crash of metal against metal.

I cringed from my position outside and out of sight, and debated the wisdom of walking in now, or waiting a few minutes for Serah to calm down. I listened carefully at the door for a few seconds, but no more noises of anger came from within. Probably safe.

“Hello, the workshop,” I called, tapping lightly on the corrugated iron of the garage door and poking my head around to peer in. The old, rusted outer door rattled noisily, and Serah looked up.

The wrinkles on her brow smoothed as she saw that it wasn’t another customer come to bother her. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that she dislikes customers, exactly. Serah is, as I have said and will say again, a wonderful mechanic. She’ll fix anything, and do it happily…as long as she isn’t absorbed in one of her own projects. Which she all too often is. It was with little surprise that I laid eyes on the remains of the great beetle-like automat I had given her two weeks previous, having lugged it to her place from Annabella’s Fine Corner Bakery and Cafe, where Jedediah Millston had left it.

Serah’s shop and home is a half hour’s brisk walk from my own place above Annabella’s: through a busy market street, across one of the great steel bridges that leaps across the Corrobur, and several blocks deep into one of the many industrial sectors of Kestral.

For the unfamiliar, the Corrobur is the southern of two rivers that flow into Kestral from the east, merging into the Pike, that great river that spills out into the bay. The North Pike is the larger of the two, but the South Pike carries a sizable amount of traffic from the southeast. Down there, they call it the Corrobur, and I suppose that habit has stuck with me from my time away from Kestral. It’s just a more colorful name, is it not?

Serah’s shop, once you get to it, is an old and rusted two-story warehouse in a street full of old and rusted two-story warehouses. The outer doors stick, and rattle something terrible in a storm, and the roof drains poorly, collecting puddles that suddenly empty themselves over hapless passerby. The walls are all corrugated iron siding, stained with rust and bird droppings both ancient and fresh. It does not look like a place any respectable citizen would set foot in.

For as long as I’ve known her, Serah has never been much for appearances. She dresses in oil-stained overalls, roughly patched at the knees by her inexpert hand, with a blackened handkerchief sticking out of one pocket. A scarred leather tool belt, dotted with black fingerprints and laden with the tools of her trade, encircles her waist. She ties her hair back in a rough bun, or hides it under a kerchief, but these methods do little to prevent oil and muck from streaking her already dark blond locks, giving a rather new spin on the color “dirty blonde.” It’s rare that I’ll visit her and see a clean face, or even much of a face at all, often hidden behind dark goggles and a mask while she welds a component in place, or cleans grime-crusted parts with chemicals that could strip the lungs from a man’s chest.

But all that dirt and muck and outward carelessness encases a brilliant and curious mind, and it is this that has earned her something of a reputation in a city that, at times, seems to be drowning in amateur mechanics. The rich and the noble might never set foot in her shop, but among the rest of us, hers is not a name unknown.

Serah’s lodgings emulate her in many respects. From the outside, as I have described, the warehouse is decrepit and looks ready to collapse in the next storm, or to give some poor sap lockjaw if he rubs against a sharp edge. But once one has steeled oneself to pass through the wobbly iron doors, it is an entirely unexpected sight that greets the eyes.

Three wide berths take up the center of the floor, each large enough to cradle a heavy automobile, and adjustable to fit the smaller transportation and automats that make up a fair percentage of Serah’s work. The berths are a nest of steel beams and springs, well-oiled and clearly much newer than the building itself. The floor of the warehouse is smooth concrete, scratched and gouged and permanently stained, but solid and uncracked for all that.

Tool racks line the walls, keeping Serah’s vast collection clean and organized. Hammers small enough to split grains of sand vie for space among sledges that look impossible for Serah and I to lift, working together.

Above the shelves run several gas lines, carefully insulated against the occasional spark. A double ring of lamps hooks into this, shedding bright yellow light from the concrete floors to the high ceilings.

At the rear of the warehouse is a smaller attached room, where Serah keeps spare parts, personal projects, and her more expensive and exotic tools.

The upper loft of the main warehouse is where Serah makes her home. When she first bought the place, the roof leaked all over the loft, the floor had great gaping holes where someone could easily fall to their death, and the whole of it smelled of mildew and bat droppings.

I know this all second hand, of course. I didn’t meet Serah until well some time after she had moved to the warehouse, but looking at the outside, I can believe she is not exaggerating. I don’t know exactly what modifications she made, but ascending to the loft now brings one to a cozy single-room apartment with low ceilings, neatly encompassing a bed, a loveseat, a desk, and even a small gas oven, which taps into the lines for the gas lamps below.

When Serah is working, however, she relaxes somewhat on her usual fastidious habits. The destroyed shell of the beetle-like automat that had nearly brought down KAMA sat in Serah’s middle berth, surrounded by a haphazard array of cogs, springs, flywheels, pistons, and every other manner of mechanical device. It looked as if she had been methodically removing the broken components, and now was attempting to replace them. Which seemed to be a source of distress.

Serah turned a sudden glaring eye at me, and blew a stray strand of hair from out of her face. I quailed despite myself. “You’re not lying to me, are you Victor?” she asked sharply.

I stepped back, astonished. “Um,” came my eloquent reply. Lie to her? I would never!

“When you said this blasted thing worked, I mean,” she sighed and leaned back on her hands, letting her wrench clatter to the concrete floor.

“Ah,” I said, and fought the twin urges to sigh in relief and grit my teeth in annoyance. “Of course I’d not lie to you.” I kept my voice as level as possible. “You know that.” Except for one exception, I never lie. Not any more. I wish I could say absolutely never, but I still cannot bring myself to tell Mother and Father the truth about my years away from Kestral.

Serah glanced up sharply at my tone, and winced. “Oh, I’m sorry, Victor,” she said, shaking her head violently to clear it, then abruptly standing. She reached out to me, then looked at her hands and rubbed them on her overalls. The denim was already coated with grease, and at last she shrugged helplessly and gave it up as a bad job.

“I didn’t mean–”

I sighed. “I know, and I apologize. What are you doing?” I pulled one hand out of my coat pocket and pointed at the automat, both to change the subject and because I honestly was not sure. As I pointed, I realized that I was sweating, though outside it had been Kestral’s normal cool autumn weather. With all the machinery Serah works with, and the heavy insulation she had installed, her shop is usually several degrees warmer than the outside air. I pulled my long coat off and hung it on one of the hooks by the door, next to Serah’s own white trench coat. For a woman who deals with as much grease as she, she wears much lighter colors than one would think wise.

Serah glanced at the automat and pouted slightly, sticking her tongue out at the inert machine. “It came apart easily enough,” she sighed. “But I’ve been trying all morning to put it back together, and I can’t for the life of me figure it out. None of the components are standardized. It’s like trying to put together a puzzle when none of the pieces fit right, or they fit in half a dozen places just as well. I’m beginning to think Summer is laughing at me.”

Kristopher whistled at Serah and she threw a smile his way. “Hiya, Kristopher. Have you been keeping Victor out of trouble?”

“To be fair, Summer laughs at everyone,” I said. Summer was the trickster of the four gods, and friend and enemy alike to gamblers and risk-takers. I could well believe he would be snickering if he saw Serah’s predicament.

Kristopher sang some nonsense to Serah, who smiled appreciatively nonetheless. She can’t understand him, but she likes to listen to him, and he seems to enjoy singing for her.

I stepped closer to the automat. It looked much the same as I remembered: six legs, several of which were broken or severely stressed, held up the sad and battered body. Once, it had stood taller than I, but slumped as it was into Serah’s berth, its top rested below my chin level. From above, it might have looked a little like a deranged flower, armor panels having burst up and out when its boiler exploded. That had been my doing, two weeks previous, when I had been on the search for a little boy named Robert Withers. I hadn’t intended to stop the automat quite so spectacularly, but I wasn’t about to complain. It had worked, and who doesn’t like a good show, after all?

The boy is doing fine, by the way.

In the automat’s shadowed innards, I could see the hole where the boiler had once sat, and radiating out from that, shock waves in the metal components as the extreme pressures in the overstressed boiler had burst, bending cogs like leaves in the wind, unwinding springs, tearing through steel plating as if it were paper. Kristopher darted into the thing’s broken innards and began looping back and forth, touching upon each broken piece. I wondered if he was remembering the machine’s spectacular death, or if perhaps there was some lingering effect of the pains it had been linked to.

I’m no mechanic, but to my eyes, the automat would never take another step. But, on the other hand, I’ve seen nothing short of miracles come out of Serah’s shop. My autobike is a good example. It’s a certified junk heap, bought cheap when I returned to Kestral, and Serah–along with everyone else I know–has told me repeatedly to find a new one. But for all that, she keeps it running when, by all rights, it should have been scrapped years ago. It’s certainly not her fault that the bike spends more time in her shop than parked outside Annabella’s. I’d like to think it isn’t my fault either. I don’t drive it like a madman or a cabbie. Maybe it just doesn’t like me. Or at least, it likes Serah a lot more. And who could blame it, if so?

Still… “Do you really think you’ll get this running again?” I asked Serah skeptically, waving my arm to encompass the menagerie of broken pieces she had removed from the machine.

She rolled her eyes and began to retie her bun, ignoring the grease on her hands as it streaked into her hair. “I’ve told you before: it’s never a matter of if; only of when.” She frowned. “Though, I honestly don’t know what I’ll do with it once it is fixed. It’s only suited for one mission, and it’s already failed at that. And I’d have to scrounge up a new drill bit anyway to fit it out for that again.”

I raised an eyebrow. “If you wanted to bring down the academy, you mean?”

Serah shrugged uncomfortably. “I just like to get things working properly, is all,” she muttered, and I couldn’t help but laugh.

“So, what brings you my way?” Serah asked, her voice muffled as she bent into the automat to begin removing yet another broken piece.

“What, I can’t visit my lady without a reason?” I asked. I frowned. Why had I come again?

Kristopher bounced out of the automat’s innards and whistled in admonishment at me, before Serah called him back in to provide light. I’d protest at her using the salamander like a hand torch, but he seems amiable enough.

Ah yes. I eyed Serah out of the corner of my vision. She was standing again, examining a thin cylinder streaked with soot. I grinned. Her attention wasn’t on me, and before she could turn I was upon her.

“Wha–” she protested as I grabbed her hands in mine, stretching her left out and placing her right upon my shoulder. I pulled her close, then stepped back and spun to the left, and she came with me half willingly, half unsure. Another spin, a dip, and I was leading her around the room, spinning in stately circles and moving my feet just so, keeping them out of the way of her less certain steps. A grin spread across Serah’s face and she leaned back and spun with me, until with a sudden flourish, I let her back, so her head nearly touched the floor, then pulled her into me, holding her tight. She was laughing, and we were both panting with the sudden exertion.

“Victor, when did you learn to dance?” she asked, her pale blue eyes twinkling in the lamplight.

I couldn’t help a pleased smile stealing across my face. It had been years since I’d done that; it was good to know I hadn’t completely lost it.

“There’s a ball this weekend, on Saturday,” I said instead. “A celebration put on by the mayor and his wife. I’m to go as a Peace Workers representative, and I am allowed to bring a date.” I paused a beat. “Do you know anyone who I could ask? A friend of yours, perhaps?”

Serah pulled out of my embrace and hit me in the shoulder. “Yes, thank you, I would love to go, you lunk. And you’ve given me plenty of notice, so I’m sure I can find a gown in time.” She stuck her tongue out at me. It was Wednesday.

I winced. “Ah. Well. This time it’s not entirely my fault; I didn’t find out about this until just yesterday afternoon, myself. I’m not sure why; usually Hattie is much better about giving me notice.”

Serah raised an eyebrow. “She just told all of you yesterday that you need to find a tuxedo and a date by Saturday?”

“Actually, its just me. Well, Hattie and I. None of the other PWs are available for some reason.”

“Oh?” Serah frowned in question, and I briefly ran through what had happened with my superior the day before.

* * * * * * * *

It had been a little odd, really. A message had come by courier to my room at Annabella’s cafe, summoning me to speak with Hattie Morrison that afternoon. When I had arrived, the sergeant major was not looking well. Her skin was pale, her hair unkempt, and the bags under her eyes told loudly that she had not slept well in days.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

She waved a hand to brush away my concern. “Just a lot of work catching up to me. Do you have plans this Saturday, Victor?”

I shook my head. I rarely make plans; I find things tend to work out better if I just let them happen. I spend a lot of time just walking around the city. And, as you might remember, recently I had done just that and ended up nearly meeting my end in fire and rubble. When life goes out of its way to make things exciting, why bother making plans?

“The mayor is hosting a ball to celebrate the news,” Hattie continued. I nodded; the whole city had probably heard by now. The mayor and his wife had been trying for years to have a child, and at last the mayoress was pregnant. Politically, it meant nothing, as the position of mayor was not hereditary, but it was a big deal to the family nonetheless. And as he was both very rich and in a position of influence, he could celebrate however much he wanted. So I had heard rumors of the ball, but no details. Why was Hattie bringing it up now?

“I want you to come with me to the ball, as a representative of the Peace Workers,” she continued.

I blinked in surprise and amusement. Had my superior just asked me to a dance?

Morrison must have seen my thoughts in my features, because her own clouded over and she glared at me. “Not like that, you idiot. We need at least two representatives of the Peace Workers there, and you’re all that’s available. You can bring one guest if you like.”

Well, that one guest was easy enough. Though technically I would be bringing two, but somehow I didn’t think Hattie counted Kristopher. Most people tend not to. I think if he was human, he might feel a bit slighted.

I frowned as the other thing she had said caught up to me. “Why am I the only one available?” I asked. “Where are the others?” The Peace Workers weren’t the largest branch of the army by any count, but nor were we insignificant in number. We had at least two dozen members in Kestral, and I couldn’t imagine that every one of them was unavailable. There couldn’t be that many PW missions going on at once. Had they all taken sick on the same day?

“Never mind that,” Hattie said impatiently. “You’re the only one around, so I need you.”

I shrugged. It wasn’t like I had anything against dancing, after all. “Not a problem, sir.”

Hattie nodded. I couldn’t tell if her eyes were relieved or upset behind the bags. “Good. The ball is this Saturday. I’ll meet you at the mayoral mansion at eight sharp. Good day!”

“Wait, this Saturday? Four days away?”

“I said good day, Victor,” and her secretary opened the door to show me out.

* * * * * * * *

Serah bustled around the shop as I told her the story, putting away tools, stacking the broken parts of the automat in neat piles, cleaning her hands with some strong-smelling abrasive soap. When I finished, she turned to me. “Why do you work for this woman again?” she asked, then banged on a wooden box under one of her many tool racks. The front popped open and out rolled a boxy, dog-sized automat with a vicious arsenal of brushes and sprays adorning its front. At a few prods from Serah, it began to roll methodically up and down the shop, brushing and cleaning the floor of dirt and muck.

“I don’t have much choice,” I reminded Serah as I watched Fido work.

“Hmm,” she said thoughtfully, stepping past me to pull her white trench coat from its hook. She donned it and handed me my own coat. “We’ll have to talk about that some day.”

She pushed me out into the late afternoon sunlight and locked the rusted doors behind her.

“Where are we going, by the way?” I asked, as it finally registered that we were no longer inside. There were still several hours of daylight, and it was well before Serah usually closed shop.

“You are going elsewhere. I am going to find a gown for Saturday’s ball. I suggest you buy a tuxedo, because I am certain I haven’t seen one in your wardrobe.”

I frowned. “You don’t want me to help look for a dress?” I had been somewhat looking forward to watching her try on a number of ball gowns. I don’t dislike the way she dresses normally–usually in work shirts and some sort of denim pants or overalls–but it’s rare that I have the chance to see her in something even slightly womanly.

Serah laughed. “Congratulations, Victor, for being the only man in the city to say those words. But no, I don’t want you seeing me in the dress before Saturday.”

“Why not?” I raised an eyebrow. “It’s not like we’re getting married.”

Serah turned a particularly skeptical and dangerous eye on me, and I coughed and quickly amended “–on Saturday. We’re certainly not getting married on Saturday.”

She laughed again. She seemed in a remarkably good mood for having been cursing the automat not long before, and now having less than three days to have a gown tailored for the ball. But she didn’t relent, and I found myself wandering the streets alone once more, wondering just where I could acquire a tuxedo.

* * * * * * * *
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July 12, 2010

Serah and the Tank

by Mallard

A day late, but here is the bonus I promised!  As you may have suspected, the girl on the cover of Masque Ball is Serah Villifree, briefly seen in Those Who Lose Their Ways.  The ball is a somewhat unnatural scene for Serah, so here’s a look at her in her natural habitat (click on the image for a full-size version).

Background: A few days ago, I was looking for some old drawings from back when I was thinking of doing VCH as a webcomic, and I came across the one below.  It was a pencil sketch, so I scanned it in, inked over it in GIMP, and added shading.  I experimented a little with it, limiting myself to line art and grayscale shading.  Both because I wanted to see how it’d turn out, and because drawing in color takes much more time.

Overall, I like how Serah and the steam came out, but I think the tank could use some more detail.

Serah and the Tank

Also, I’ve started an artwork page as a quick link to any pictures used for The Illusions of Victor C. Haas.  To get there, click on the “Gallery” tab above.  This includes covers and little bonuses like this.  Also, I would be quite thrilled to receive any art from my readers!  If you draw something VCH-themed, send it my way and I’ll post it in the Gallery with your name attached.

Also also: as I’ve said before, I originally wanted to do this as a comic.  I went with a serial format instead, but I still think it’d be fun if it was illustrated a little bit.  I don’t have time to do this, so here’s the deal: you pick a scene from any chapter and draw it, either as a single-panel image like the covers, or as a multi-panel comic.  Send it to me, and I’ll insert it into the appropriate chapter and give you credit.  The only thing I ask is that you stay true to the descriptions and images I put forth.

Unnecessary reminder: Masque Ball begins next Monday, July 19th!

* * * * * * * *
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July 11, 2010

Illusion 2 (cover)

by Mallard

Click on this cover to jump straight to chapter I

Masque Ball (cover)

Here is the cover for the second illusion of Victor C. Haas: Masque Ball.  Actual story starts next Monday, July 19th!

Last time, I promised I would post a little bonus along with the cover.  Unfortunately, time was not on my side and I didn’t get this done.  But I will do my best to have it up by the middle of the week.

* * * * * * * *
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July 4, 2010

An Interlude

by Mallard

Thus ends Illusion 1: Those Who Lose Their Ways!  Thank you very much for reading!

Victor’s next adventure begins on July 19th, with a cover and a small bonus posted on the 12th.  Look forward to it!

In the meantime, I would very much like to hear your opinions!  Whether you like the story, dislike it, have suggestions, or just want to say hello, I would love to hear from you.  You can either leave a comment on the chapters, or send me an email at the Contact Mallard tab above.

Hope you’ve enjoyed the story so far, and I look forward to bringing you more illusions of Victor C. Haas!

* * * * * * * *
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July 4, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter IX

by Mallard

The dean brought himself up short when he saw me, slumped against the far wall. He blinked in surprise and looked around the room for anyone else. When he saw no one, he sighed and relaxed out of his ramrod-straight posture to his more usual slouch.

“Victor,” he said by way of greeting, shoving his hands in his pockets and glaring at me. Jedediah is a short and stocky man, half as wide as he is tall, and nearly bald but for a few stray hairs combed carefully across his pate. He wore slacks and a plaid waistcoat, and had an unlit pipe hanging out of his mouth. He sighed. “What have you done to my university, Victor?”

I snorted. “I saved it, you great lout. Fine show of thanks you give me, too.”

Millston made a great show of turning over his shoulder and examining the misty, damaged storeroom. “Mm, yes. You’ll forgive me if I delay the award ceremony. What did you say you saved it from? The monotony of a quiet and event-less evening?”

That seemed a little rich. “What, are you blind, man? Surely you don’t think I had–”

Millston waved a hand, dismissing my retort. “Of course not.” He started across the room in his usual hasty stalk, always as if in the greatest hurry to get where he is going. He stopped in front of me, staring down at where I was sitting, before dropping to a comfortable squat.

“All right then. Explain. Why did every alarm in the building go off in a gods-awful clatter a few minutes ago, and why did I come down to find one of my storages destroyed, and a machine that looks like the idiot offspring of an army tank and a particularly ugly insect? And how are you involved?” He shook his head. “I wish I could say I am surprised to see you, Victor. But I’m really not.”

Robert stirred next to me, partly roused by Jedediah’s rough voice. The dean glanced over at the child. “And what brain-dead fool entrusted you with a child?”

“That all, then?” I asked, a little frustrated. I wanted to shout at him, but I consoled myself by merely raising an eyebrow. He had every right to be on edge, after all.

“It’ll do for now. So talk.”

I sighed, and talked. I started from the beginning, giving him an abbreviated account of Emelia Withers’s predicament and her request, of my conversation and search with Scott, and of our descent into the sewers. Millston listened quietly for the most part, but when I started describing the kidnappers, he interrupted me several times, making me go back and repeat portions, asking me specific questions about their appearances and attitudes.

“Look, you want to tell this story?” I asked finally. “I’ve told you all I can remember about these people.”

“‘All’ hasn’t been very much. Where’s that famed illusionist memory, Victor?”

“I had a few other things on my mind at the time, beyond what the buggers looked like,” I blew out, exasperated.

Robert stirred again, and Jedediah’s frustrated frown eased slightly. “I guess you did,” he said, and motioned for me to continue.

The rest of the story went fairly quickly. The dean snorted when I described shooting the wrong pipe, then shrugged. “It’ll be hell to fix, but probably better over all. There’s no way that thing will be getting up and walking again any time soon after a shower like that. Couldn’t you have stopped it before it entered my storeroom, though?”

“I’ll keep that in mind for next time.”

Jedediah nodded. “Fair enough.” He fell silent for a moment, frowning in thought. “You know who those men were, do you?”

I shook my head. “Who they were? Just malcontents, as far as I could tell. Obviously war vets, hurt by magic and full of wrath against it.”

He nodded again. “Malcontents, yes, but not ‘just.'” He was silent for a few moments, staring of into space. Robert settled back into a deeper doze. “They started during the wars, after the Patchwork Folk were driven back, and our armies were turned on the Republic. The second war lasted less than a year, but the Republic were fierce fighters, and much more willing and able to employ the arcane arts in battle. More and more of our soldiers were harmed or permanently transfigured by magic. Some of them formed a sort of support group. They called themselves the People for the Abolition of Weaponized Magic.” Jedediah shrugged irritably, his face lined with frown lines as he recalled the events, less than three years previous.

“The group started out tame enough, but their purpose changed over time from peaceful protest to actively opposing magic users. I don’t recognize the descriptions you gave me, but judging by their actions and the rifles, they were likely members of this organization. I thought it had mostly died out after the wars, but it appears I was wrong.”

I didn’t say anything. What would I say? I hadn’t known such a group had ever existed. I couldn’t help but wonder if this group I had encountered were the bulk of the remaining members, or if they were only one small branch of a cancer we could not entirely see.

At the moment though, it didn’t matter.

“Guess that’s one more thing to keep an eye out for, then,” I said and yawned and stretched. I shook Robert lightly, and his eyes fluttered sleepily open. “Come on, kid,” I said, and stood, pulling the boy to his feet. “Time to go.”

I turned to Jedediah. He was standing as well, and now I was the one looking down at him. “I should get the kid back to his mom. You think cleanup can wait until morning?”

Millston snorted. “Of course not. But I hardly need you here. Go home, get out of my university. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you and not had some trouble right before or shortly after.”

“Hey now, that’s not fair,” I started to protest, then thought better of it. I shrugged. “Okay, so maybe it is. I’m sure I’ll see you soon, anyway. Old grouch.”

“Just don’t make it too soon,” he grumbled, and led the way back across the room, through the still-icy grave of the automat, and to the elevator that would take us back to the surface.

 * * * * * * * *

Sergeant Major Hattie Morrison frowned at me for several long moments from the business end of her spartan oak desk. She had a good frown. A deep, commanding frown that took over her face, wrinkling her brow, thinning her eyes, turning her mouth into an upside-down U. Had she worn glasses, she would have been the spitting image of every school-child’s worst nightmare. “What are you playing at, Victor?” she asked at last.

I said nothing.

“Victor,” she sighed. “I can’t authorize payment for this. It’s good work, but we didn’t assign it to you.”

“True,” I said, slowly. I was standing on the other side of the desk, to one side of the proffered chair. I kept my coat close around me, as a sort of barrier between myself and the sergeant major’s discontent. “You would have though, if you’d known about it.”

The sergeant major waved that away. “We don’t deal in ifs here, Victor. You know that. When we assign you a job, we pay you. When we don’t, we don’t.” She picked up the typed list I had handed her a few minutes previous, and scanned through the items. “And what is some of this, anyway? Expenses for a train ride, dry cleaning charges, a single replacement bullet? A single bullet, Victor? Is this a joke to you?”

I fought not to smile. “Not at all, ma’am.”

Hattie put the list on the table and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Gods I hate working with you, sometimes. What are you playing at? I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, because you’re a good worker. You’re probably one of our best, to be honest. So if this is some big joke, then laugh laugh, well played, and get going. But if you have any legitimate reason for this farce, out with it.”

I grimaced. “All right, I’ll level with you. But you’ll hear me out?”

“I just said I would, didn’t I?”

“Okay. You’re right: the Peace Workers didn’t assign this job to me. I did it on my own time, and my own dime, and I’m not strapped for money.”

“You make a compelling case for why we should pay you,” Hattie interjected, sardonically. She was tapping the list with a thick forefinger, a sign of her impatience.

I ignored her. “Have you ever dealt with kidnap victims? Especially ones as young as Robert Withers?”

Hattie frowned at the seeming non-sequitur, and her tapping finger paused. She nodded, slowly. “A few, yes.”

I swallowed, remembering my own experiences. “Well, they aren’t happy kids. Something like that happens to you when you’re nine? It sticks with you for life. With proper care, you can get over it, work around it. But that kind of care costs money. Quite a bit of it. And, well, I don’t think the boy’s mother is hurting, but she shouldn’t have to pay for her son’s therapy, shouldn’t have to worry and struggle to make sure she can manage that and make a living.”

Hattie spoke slowly. “So, this bill…”

I nodded. “I did some checking around. That’ll cover a good chunk of the initial expenses. She doesn’t need to know who it came from. But I think she needs it to come.”

The sergeant major said nothing for a while. I could almost see it in her head: the battle between what her job told her to do, and what her heart said.

“Nine years old, Hattie,” I said quietly.

“You’re a bastard, Victor,” she said. “And you know I’m going to do it.” She tapped the paper with a finger in idle thought. “Officially, this is an advance payment on your next job. You used all your funds on drink and drugs. I’ll make sure the paperwork gets lost somewhere, so you’ll get your next paycheck in full, when the time for that comes.” She suddenly turned the full force of her frown on me again. “This happens only once, Victor. This isn’t going to become a normal thing.”

I nodded, and turned to leave. “I sure hope it isn’t,” I said agreeably. “Thanks, Hattie. I owe you one.”

“You’re damned right you do,” she muttered, but made no more protest as I showed myself out.

 * * * * * * * *

There was an enormous tarpaulin-covered bundle in front of the bakery when I got back. It sat on a wooden pallet easily eight feet to a side, and blocked much of Lowering Way. I could see traffic backed up a good bit as autos and walkers crept by in single file, many directing disgusted looks and rude gestures at the enormous package.

A boy stood on the corner of Lowering and Second, directing customers to Annabella’s bakery around the bundle, as it sat entirely in front of the door, leaving only a narrow alley through which customers could enter and exit.

I saw no labels on the bundle, but there was little doubt in my mind who it was for. I walked up to the bakery a little apprehensively, running through the list of possible culprits, and coming up blank. Who would leave such a large gift–if gift it was–at Annabella’s? Should I be worried about bombs or other dangers?

The boy, I saw as I neared, was none other than Rudolph, who gave me an enthusiastic wave when he spotted me coming through traffic.

“Mr. Haas! Mr. Haas! Package for you!”

I snorted at his childlike understatement. “Thanks, Rudy,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Mind telling me where it came from?”

Rudolph shrugged. “I don’t know! A bunch of men came and dropped it off not half an hour ago. It came on a great big sled pulled by a truck. You going to open it?”

“Yes, please do,” another voice chimed in. I winced as Annabella herself came around the corner, arms folded across a floury, aproned chest, a look of half amusement and half exasperation across her face. “You’ve caused ruckus enough in this neighborhood, Victor, gods know. But I believe this is the first time your mail has made me problems.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “No idea who it’s from, then?” I asked her.

She nodded. “Oh, I know exactly who it’s from. Came with a letter and everything.” She fished around under her apron and pulled out a folded piece of heavy card stock, embossed with an all-too-familiar crest of a tree, sun, and moon.

My laughter died out as I took the card. “Victor,” it started. “This is rightfully yours. Or maybe it isn’t, but I surely don’t need it cluttering my storage room. So have a pleasant birthday, or autumnal equinox, or whichever bloody holiday is near enough to justify a gift. Sincerely, Jedediah Millston.” A series of titles and honorifics followed, only half of which I recognized.

I looked at the bundled automat–for that was what it no doubt was–and silently cursed Millston. What was I going to do with this great big useless machine? I’d have to hire someone just to haul it away, which wouldn’t come cheaply.

“Oh, and Serah sent a message with Rudy here,” Annabella added, as an afterthought. She patted Rudolph on the back. “Go on, son, tell him.”

Rudy beamed at me. “She said your bike is ready, and you owe her dinner.”

I blinked. Then I began to smile. And laugh.

“Oh dear,” Annabella said, and turned with a sigh to return to her shop. “I know that look well enough. Nothing good ever comes of that look.”

 * * * * * * * *

“You have,” Serah Villifree said, staring at the automat. “Very possibly discovered the ugliest machine ever built by mortals or gods.”

“I know,” I said, grinning. “Do you like it?” We were standing in her warehouse, the back room of her shop where she stores spare parts and works on her own projects. The space isn’t very large, and the destroyed automat took up much of the clear floorspace remaining.

It hadn’t been cheap to get it to her shop, but it had been worth the look on her face when I arrived on a great cargo walker in the late afternoon, dragging behind the enormous and ugly shell of the beetle-like automat. Millston had, fortunately, stripped off all the explosives before sending it my way.

“Like it?” she said, walking around the automat. “It’s ugly as sin, and built on the most chaotic school of mechanical engineering I have ever seen. The legs are all wrong, the boiler is far too small, and none of the gear teeth inside mesh properly at all. There is absolutely nothing mechanically or logically sound about this monstrosity. And you say it actually functioned?” I nodded, and she smiled. “I love it.”

I laughed. “I’m glad to hear that.”

“But,” she said, turning away abruptly. The windows to the warehouse were beginning to glow orange, as the late afternoon sun began to slant across the floor. “This can wait. You, I believe, owe me dinner.”

“Well,” I said, and offered her my arm. “I can’t have an outstanding debt on my record, can I?” Serah laughed and hooked her arm through mine as if we were at a fancy ball, though I was dressed in my old and worn coat, and she in oil-stained overalls and heavy leather work boots.

I led my lady out into the waning sunlight, away from the broken shell of the automat, away from the madness and danger of the last day, and back to some small semblance of a normal life.

At least for an evening.

* * * * * * * *
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