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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